Friday, December 31, 2010

year's end iii

We arrived back from NYC last night, after a purgatorial trip – endless security lines at LaGuardia with our two small children, numerous carryons, two violins, etc., an overcrowded airplane sitting on the tarmac for ages, and to top it all off the car we'd reserved to carry us home from the airport simply didn't show up. But we're back, weary & unpacking.

And the year's almost over. Not a bad year, on the whole. Much work accomplished, many books read & thought about. I was tempted to list them all, but it's a long, long list this time around. Instead, in the spirit of last year's round-up, a selection of a few of the things that arrested me the most this past year. Some of these I've blogged, others I've alluded to; a couple I've actually taught. As is obvious, I'm totally hopeless at "keeping up" with what's just come out, & indeed spend a good deal of my reading time going back over things I've read ages ago.

As to fiction, it's been rather thin on the ground this year, & for some reason seems to tend towards fantasy & science fiction; I'm embarassed to be reading some of these for the first time. So sue me:
Kindred Octavia E. Butler
Babel-17 Samuel R. Delany
A Wizard of Earthsea Ursula K. LeGuin
The Scar China Miéville
There were many good biographies on my desk this year, but three stand out, Clausen's for its density & thoughtfulness (you certainly wouldn't go to it for chronological facts), Delblanco's for its lovely prose, and Campbell/Corn's for its general easy comprehensiveness:
Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius Detlev Claussen
Melville: His World and Work Andrew Delbanco
John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns
Not a great deal of criticism & philosophy this time around, which just goes to support my growing suspicion that I don't belong in the academy; some picking up of things written ages ago (Rosenberg, Empson) that still remain green; the real delightful discovery the Finlay letters:
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Diogenes Laertius
Guy Debord Anselm Jappe
The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius John D. Rosenberg
A Model of Order: Selected Letters on Poetry and Making Ian Hamilton Finlay
Milton’s God William Empson
The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age E. P. Thompson
The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin George P. Landow
And then there's poetry. This listlet represents maybe 1/7 of what I read this year, & I know I've overlooked things I value. But here's some of the things that set me afire, & that you ought to read too:
Blade Pitch Control Unit Sean Bonney
Luminous Epinoia, Peter O'Leary
Three-Toed Gull: Selected Poems Jesper Svenbro
My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer Jack Spicer
Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2008 Norma Cole
Complete Twentieth Century Blues Robert Sheppard
If Not Metamorphic Brenda Iijima
Swallows Martin Corless-Smith
Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip Lisa Robertson
Looking Up Zach Barocas
Mirth Linda Russo
Pen Chants or nth or 12 spirit-like impermanences Lissa Wolsak
Sub Songs J. H. Prynne
How to Do Things with Tears Allen Grossman
Continental Harmony
Michael Gizzi
New Depths of Deadpan
Michael Gizzi
Those two last are from one of the poets we lost this year; and I had no idea, until I'd read these two wry, deliciously funny collections, what a loss Gizzi was.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

year's end ii

Tomorrow P. & I leave for the northeast, & we'll be there almost thru the end of the year, so I don't imagine I'll be doing any significant blogging (huh? you snort – when'd'you ever do any significant blogging, Scroggins?) between now & then. I leave with my head abuzz with theories of Romanticism, & with a whole bunch of contemporary poetry echoing in my ears. Over the last few days, I've read chapbooks by Alan Halsey & Joe Donahue, books by Lissa Wolsak, Dan Featherston, William Bronk, and Prageeta Sharma; I've re-read Geoffrey Hill's Oraclau | Oracles, hoping to be set afire this time around – hasn't happened yet; there's a delicate music there, & a good deal of familiar Hillian significant grumbling, but I've yet to catch the scent of the spiritual agonistics that so energize Scenes from Comus or The Triumph of Love. Probably I should give it time – I've found that Hill, like lots of other poets, needs some time to "sink in."

I returned the page proofs for the big Parnassus piece yesterday, & I suppose am taking a deep breath before tackling the big essay I've (foolishly?) promised to turn it at the beginning of February. The "finishing touches" on the other two pieces floating in submitted & accepted limbo will have to wait for their editors' gentle or not-so-gentle prodding.

This is not the first time I've felt that I'd prefer to be spending the holiday at home; but I'm not terribly broken up to be traveling, either. Most of the dither of packing & printing out maps & reservations & boarding passes has been taken care of, & I'm actually looking forward to giving my cold-weather gear its annual workout. So for all of those out there journeying this season, I wish you safe & pleasant travels. And no, I'm not going to MLA – hahahahahahahaha!

Friday, December 17, 2010

more romanticism...

I love a post like that last one, or at least the reactions to it – here, read this, read the other... It's like having a real, you know, community, people to talk to & get ideas from, brains to pick, and so forth.

Kent's comment bears pretty directly on one source of my recent Romanticism interest – I've been dipping into Simon Jarvis's Wordsworth's Philosophic Song, a product very much of that Cambridge nexus. (Prynne's own Field Notes, a longish essay on "The Solitary Reaper," is on the shelf waiting to be read.) I'm not ready to full-on tackle Jarvis's book quite yet, but his discussion of the critical issues surrounding Wordsworth got me thinking about my own deficiencies in the Romanticism department. So I've been looking at Abrams's Mirror & the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism (which I seem to have read much of at some point, as I'm finding quotations that I pillaged for some of the poems in Anarchy), leafing thru some of the essays in Stuart Curran's Cambridge Companion to English Romanticism, & reading pretty closely in Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Revolution.

Aside from Bob A's enthusiastic endorsement of Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre's Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity, I'm struck by how many recommendations are of biographies, single or group. (I'm also struck by how many biographies of these chaps I've already read – Holme's 2 volumes of STC [his Shelley, a wedding gift of all things, sits on the shelf waiting to be read], Ackroyd's Blake, Gill's Wordsworth, Gittings's Keats. Thanks to you, Norman, I picked up a copy of Hay's Young Romantics last night.) That is, while many of us in this conversation are scholars of one stripe or another, I think we tend to primarily identify as poets, & find a kind of immediate access thru biography, rather than thru more austerely critical works – at least I didn't hear anyone recommending Paul de Man. Would it be self-interested of me to say that I find this investment in the biographical to be a very heartening thing?

The Cambridge "school" & Wordsworth – now that's an interesting conjunction that bears thinking about on a kind of meta-critical level. We – at least we alt-poets in the US – tend I think to regard Wordsworth as the most canonical of the canonical, a sort of zero-degree of institutional verse, utterly impervious to the sorts of recovery operations carried out so successfully on Whitman, Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, even Shelley (I recall one memorable MLA talk on PBS by Michael Palmer some years back). He simply can't, that is, be recuperated for the avant-garde. He has no place in the lineage of the modernist revolution, except as a baseline to be reacted against.

But what if one were to read Wordsworth, as I think Prynne & Jarvis do, as a magnificent, deeply subtle, & deeply strange poet; and furthermore, to read one's own work, not as a reaction against a canonical "mainstream," but as the simple furtherance of tendencies already present within a poet like Wordsworth? (A version of what Bunting is doing – thanks, Bill – ie placing his own work within a tradition in which Wordsworth is a magisterial exemplar.) I suspect that something like this is at play in Prynne's & Jarvis's critical work on WW (including the Chicago Review essay Kent cites, which I haven't read but have heard, at least if it's the same talk he gave at U Chicago a few years back).

In the end, it's hard to resist quoting J. K. Stephen's Wordsworth sonnet (the source, I suspect, of all of Pound's dismissals of WW as a "bleating sheep"):
Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times--good Lord! I'd rather be
Quite unacquainted with the ABC
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

my romanticism problem

I am not, alas, a romantic, in any sense of the word. I have some friends who are true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool romantics (like Eric) in the "passionate love" manner; and I have some who are deeply versed in Romantic poetry; I even have some (like Norman) who are both. But I've always been a rather tight-assed product of my Protestant upbringing, shrinking away from the loss of self-control involved in passion, & wincing a bit at its expression in poetry. While I deeply admire the music of their verse, I've always found something a bit, well, embarrassing about Keats & Shelley.

At any rate, the semester's over; I don't leave town for holiday travels until Monday, so rather than tackling the beginnings of the next big essay that's due in oh, 6 weeks' time, for some reason I've been thinking about Romanticism – & how little I know about the whole period, the whole movement. I posted a squib to that effect on my Facebook page, & lo & behold a number of friends have chimed in with a whole year's worth of weighty reading.

My education in Romanticism has been spotty. As an undergraduate at Beloved Alma Mater, I must have taken a survey course that covered the Romantics, but I don't remember a moment of it. And I was feeling the lack when I came up to grad school at Campus on the Hill. CotH's PhD program, however, was not the best place to fill in holes in one's undergrad education. The grand old men of Wordsworth studies could still be seen walking the halls (MH Abrams would have coffee every morning with Archie Ammons downstairs, & I was even a TA for one Stephen Parrish's undergrad courses – Victorian novel, I think), but they generally weren't teaching graduate seminars anymore. So I enrolled in a "Romantic Poetry" seminar with Professor Fearsome DeManean, & found myself largely at sea for 14 weeks, reading poems I hadn't read before – enjoying them, for the most part – & then every week sitting stupidly around the seminar table as my fearsomely theory-savvy colleagues argued the fine points of (mostly) Paul De Man, with very occasional reference to Keats, Wordsworth, or Shelley.

I already had a well-developed taste for Blake, & somehow managed to develop a taste for Wordsworth as well. I put stacks of Byron on my comprehensives lists, and dutifully read them (with nothing less than constant enjoyment). And since then I've read around a great deal – most of Keats's poetry and letters, lots and lots of Coleridge, bits and pieces of Shelley. I worked up Keats in general for a "lifelong learning" lecture series I did a few years back, & had the great satisfaction of reducing a roomful of elderly women to tears with a pathos-ridden performance of "Ode to a Nightingale." I've taught Lyrical Ballads several times, & know The Prelude pretty darned well.

It's a matter of improving what Jonathan Mayhew calls one's "scholarly base." Now, I know I'll never be a scholar of Romanticism (tho I wouldn't mind teaching an undergraduate course on Romantic poetry someday), so the "scholary" isn't quite applicable; but as so often, I've gotten the urge to know more, to fill out or round off the vast blank or roughly sketched areas in my own mental map of what everything means. (I got a similar urge in re/ Marx & the Frankfurt School about a decade ago, Milton sometime before that, Hegel about five years ago, Victorian thought at the same time – all ongoing projects.)

It feels oddly like a counter-productive impulse, so far as one's academic career goes. The classic model is that you establish yourself in one limited sub-discipline, then branch out in subsequent work to adjacent or occasionally more distant fields. I don't know any model, offhand, for this kind of intellectual back-filling. Maybe I'm trying to retool myself as a classic "generalist" – a term I deeply distrust, & which is of course the kiss of death in academia these days. Or maybe I'm just trying to get myself to where I can take more pleasure in Keats & Shelley.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

year's end

No, it's not Santa Claus, but Geoffrey Hill, as pictured in this Oxford Today feature on his entry as Oxford Professor of Poetry. Not much in the way of news here, but some nice stanzas from a work in progress.

I'm feeling the usual semester's-end weariness; the last grades were turned in this morning after a frantic few days of grading & number-teasing, & now I face the horrors of our department's moving to a new building over the holiday break. My office is probably 60% packed; another day's cursing and throwing books in the general direction of cartons should do it. But whether the new office has enough space for the old office's books, now that's another issue altogether.

To celebrate the end of semester, and to take my mind off of Milton final exams, I went thru a splurge of poetry-reading over the last few days. Quite a number of books, in fact, in no particular order. First, a run of Keith Waldrop chapbooks from all over the last 40 years:
my nodebook for december (Burning Deck, 1971)
Intervals (Awede, 1981)
Water Marks (Underwhich, 1987)
Two-Part Invention (Meeting Eyes Bindery/Poetry New York, 1999)
I've always been fond of Waldrop's work, which has struck me as falling usually into the category of the spare and precise, a sort of post-Objectivist work that I associate with Cid Corman (most prolifically); but KW is inevitably a far more careful and thoughtful craftsperson – and his work has a muted sense of humor that I enjoy immensely.

Then Phyllis Rosenzweig's more substantial (page-wise) chapbook Reasonable Accomodation (Potes & Poets, 1998). I knew PR glancingly when I was a lurker on the fringes of the DC scene a couple of decades ago, but had never really read her work. It's quite good: disjunctive on the order of much Language writing, name-dropping in the best New York School manner (tho the names dropped are usually of DC folks I know), & showing a sometimes surprising sense of closure – ie the poems actually end, rather than simply trail off.

Kenneth Fearing's Selected Poems (Library of America, 2004) isn't as good as its editor Robert Polito would like you to believe. That is, Fearing really isn't the great American hard-boiled poet, the fellow who actually marries the grittiness of James Cain to the social conscience of Muriel Rukeyser. Rather, he's a kind of lefty Whitman which a strong dash of second-hand surrealism. A congenial combination, to be sure, but the catalogues & the socio-political hectoring get old after awhile.

Donald Wellman's A North Atlantic Wall (Dos Madres, 2010) is a welcome new piece from a poet who's more than content to work in the footsteps of Pound and Olson – a "late modernist," that it. Wellman's deep in the culture of contemporary and historical Spain here, drawing from the works of medieval thru contemporary Spanish poets and writers, musing over the ruins both concrete and metaphysical of the Third Reich's "Fortress Europe."

Two from Laura Sims, Practice, Restraint (Fence, 2005) and Stranger (Fence, 2009), exemplify contemporary "elliptical" poetry in its purest form. I'm enraptured by the spareness of Sims's writing, and she has a wonderful lyric ear. I wonder, however, whether the poems' very evanescence won't have them floating off the page entirely at some point. (Even as I write that, I find myself admitting that Stranger, an extended elegy to Sims's mother, has a kind of emotional gravitas that keep the wee stanzas pretty well anchored indeed.)

The great discovery, however, is Linda Russo's Mirth (Chax, 2007). Of all of these books, Mirth is the one I most wish I'd written – and the one I find myself most admitting is beyond my abilities. A first section of excellent, cutting political poems – then extended fantasias on Ovid (among others) exploring, in a theoretically sophisticated & often deeply funny manner, what it means to be a politically engaged female poet in what alas is still too often a man's man's man's world. By the time you're thru with Mirth, however, you've forgotten that the dour Mr Hill is arbiter of poetry & morals at Oxford, & are enthusiastically following Russo into the twenty-first century.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Peter O'Leary: Luminous Epinoia

[Peter O'Leary, February 2008]
We were talking at the pub last night about the sensation of reaching a certain age – a certain point at one's life – where one can see the overall "curve" of the careers of one's culture-heroes – musicians, writers, etc. As usual, I took it as an opportunity to lament impending senility etc. But truth to tell, I don't feel particularly old, or even particularly middle-aged. In some senses, I feel that my poetry has only within the past 5 years or so emerged into what I think of as a "mature" voice; & suspect that a decade from now I might dismiss what I'm writing right now as juvenilia.

I'm comfortable watching poets a few years older than me, folks like my friend Norman Finkelstein, emerge from being pretty damned good poets to being really breathtaking,
big poets – poets I'd mention in the same breath as the great poets of the 1920s or 1930s generation – as Norman's done with his last two books, Scribe (blogged here) and Inside the Ghost Factory.

It's a little more unsettling – but simultaneously exhilarating – when I see one of my coevals breaking forth into something like "major" status. I've known Peter O'Leary for something over a decade. I suspect we hooked up by means of Ronald Johnson's work: I've been writing on Johnson as long as I can remember, and Peter, after corresponding with him for several years, was named Johnson's literary executor upon his death in 1998. (Since then he's lovingly shepherded thru the press a number of Johnson projects:
The Shrubberies, To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems, and a reissue of Radi Os.

I've followed O'Leary's poetry, both in his first two full-length collections,
Watchfulness (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001) and Depth Theology (2006), his chapbooks, and his periodical appearances. I was even, I'm proud to say, a press reviewer for his excellent critical study Gnostic Contagion: Robert Duncan and the Poetry of Illness. But nothing has prepared me for the impact of his brand new collection from the Cultural Society, Luminous Epinoia.

I haven't even tried to reproduce the cover, as I've yet to see a photo that does justice to this book's visual presentation. It's a Quemadura (Jeff Clark) design, but bears no resemblance to Quemadura's typical combination of slurred visuals and hard-edged, sans-serif lettering. Instead, the book's a jacketless hardcover in blinding silver, etched white repeated designs (snakes, crosses, & stars) surrounding a Gothic "L. E." (The insides, equally scrumptuous, are more recognizably Quemaduran: sans-serif running heads, Gothic epigraphs.) It's a book to be immediately struck by – but the real beauties are inside.

I'll admit that I fall back on comparisons when my critical/descriptive skills falter. What's this book like? Well, imagine a poet whose worldview, and whose visionary tendencies, are akin to those of Dante (in the
Paradiso) or Henry Vaughan; whose vocabulary is as ornate (tho nowhere near as pretentious) as Edward Dahlberg's; and whose sense of form, of diction, and of general poetic movement is near kin to Charles Olson, Ronald Johnson, and Nathaniel Mackey. Throw in a generous dash of Freud (& even Jung), an outraged political sensibility, & a kind of deep, radiant, tender humanitas, & you have something like Peter O'Leary.

Not being a believer, I do not write religious poetry. But I do appreciate religious poetry (if I didn't, let's face it, this past semester teaching Milton would have been more than unpleasant), and so far as Christian poetry goes I find a clear distinction between Protestant and Roman Catholic poetics. Milton is the great Protestant poet; Geoffrey Hill is the best Protestant poet writing now. Dante is of course the preëminent Roman Catholic poet. (Oddly enough, I read Hopkins, despite his holy orders, as more Protestant than Catholic in his poetics.) Raised as I was in fundamentalist, text-based Protestantism, I relish the wrestle with the law's letter, with the philosophical paradoxes of faith; but I find myself more often than not left cold by the literary manifestations of ecstatic, mystical religious states.

Or rather, I find it hard to mix the religious & the aesthetic. I love visiting ornate churches & cathedrals; but I find myself bulldoggishly resistant to the "beauties" of the service or the mass. I am as low church as low church can be.

But O'Leary's work moves me, and moves me deeply – so deeply I'm puzzled. He is, yes, a Roman Catholic poet, one whose work is redolent of incense and wine, is shot thru with the light of both stained glass windows and the sun; his poems are almost a series of icons, dense with human detail but alight with hammered gold. Like his mentor Johnson, he relishes science's untangling of the physical and chemical bases of our existence – and he finds in them powerful metaphors for the relationship of God to humanity, even – at some head-spinning moments –
explanations of that relationship.

These poems are more personal in many ways than O'Leary's earlier books, including a longish "Spiritual Autobiography" towards the end. It is something of a
Vita Nuova crossed with The Interpretation of Dreams, embedded within the Paradiso of exploration and praise that is the book as a whole. Luminous Epinoia may be one of the stranger titles you're likely to encounter – roughly speaking, it refers to one's creativity, conceived I take it as an emanation or a reflection of the divine creativity – but it shouldn't put off even faithless readers (like this one). It's a terrific, rich, mysterious & moving book. I'm almost moved to devotion; but alas, am quite certainly moved to envy.


the fénéon book

A couple years back, my most delicious internet reading was the blog Faits Divers de la Poésie Américaine et Brittanique, a series of for the most part brutally funny satirical squibs directed at the poetry "scene" in general, & emanating from the anonymous fénéon collective. Hoo boy did the fénéon folks stir up ire on all sides of American poetry (except perhaps for the trade-press-entrenched hyper-establishment, which doesn't really traffic in internet communication). Eventually, after pissing off just about everyone who is anyone in alt-poetry, the blog's contents disappeared.

I won't go into the history of the "collective," which is laid out in loving detail in "Anonyme"'s introduction to the recently released Works and Days of the fénéon collective (Skanky Possum/Effing Press) (hard to come by at the moment, but you might look here). Suffice it to say they take their name from the art critic and anarchist Félix Fénéon, and are inspired by his Nouvelles in trois lignes, cryptic and anonymous squibs which appeared in the Paris Newspaper Le Matin in 1906. Fénéon's "novels" are capsulized and crystallized social commentary:
A dozen hawkers who had been announcing news of a nonexistent anarchist bombing at the Madeleine have been arrested.

Reverend Andrieux, of Roannes, near Aurillac, whom a pitiless husband perforated Wednesday with two rifle shots, died last night.

Too poor to raise him, Triquet, of Théligny, Sarthe, smothered his son, aged 1 month.
The 232 "faits divers" of the "fénéon collective" are rather more loquacious, and focus their commentary on the angst- and ambition-riddled microcosm of contemporary poetry. The humor is for the most part broad. We encounter the perpetually needy denizens of MFA programs:
The MFA students of Iowa are on strike! Marching towards the Capitol, post-avant and School of Quietude as one, they brandished cans of Spam, the only aliment they can afford.

In the midst of economic crisis, things proceeded as normal at the AWP: bailouts, bonus packages, back-room deals, aimless loitering of the unemployed.
Conceptual poetry makes an appearance:
"Ouch!" cried the cunning oyster-eater, M. Goldsmith. "A pearl!" Someone at the next table bought it for 100 francs. It had cost 10 centimes at the dime store.
Time and time again, poets whose surnames assiduous followers of the "scene" will recognize collide head-on in the street.

The collective's primary targets are on the one hand the tired rhetoric of outsiderhood among post-avant poets –
Assistant Professor M. Devaney, of Penn, read a paper at the MLA, attacking Official Verse Culture. Now that it is printed in the Writer's Chronicle and collected in a prize-winning anthology from Wesleyan, the Literary Industry has been dealt another penetrating blow by the avant-garde.
– and on the other the failure of real world political engagement among poets who are otherwise assiduous at trumpeting their own heartfelt political beliefs:
Let's protest the war, poets, said M. Hamill! 15,000 did. Messrs. Bernstein, Silliman, and Watten gave speeches, protesting the poets who protested. Irony.

Well, Guernica's come and go... As Gaza burned, Mlle Dark, the self-appointed U.S. poetry medium of Badiou, devoted her blog to a personal "Top-40 Countdown" of pop music hits in 2008.

Yes, and as Gaza burned, the avant with 2,000,000 hits, former editor of the Socialist Review, devoted his blog today to an anecdotal homage for the '70s sitcom hit, Starsky and Hutch.
This sort of thing will certainly not do (as Samuel Johnson might say). The fénéon collective's squibs are nasty, mean-spirited, and not at all constructive. They are also for the most part wickedly funny & often very pointed indeed. The very anger they aroused on their first publication is an index of how close to the bone some of their satire strikes.

There is something here for everyone to be offended by, and likewise there is something to solace every resentment. My own favorite:
There is no god even for drunkards. The pugilist-poet M. Kleinzahler, of St. Germain, who had mistaken the window for the door, has left this world.