Wednesday, April 20, 2011

home stretch

There's only about a week & a half of classes left; my bag is full of papers to grade, however, & there are a thousand little administrative things hovering over my head, so I'm trying not even to think in terms of lights at ends of tunnels.
I fear I'm not doing the Aeneid justice; it deserves at least a week's more attention than I'm able to give it right now, and as we wind our way thru the second half of the poem, I'm feeling more & more daunted by the complexity and beauty of Virgil's narrative design & historical vision. A few years back my acquaintance the classicist David Wray, at the University of Chicago, team-taught a course on the Aeneid in translation – various translations, from Gavin Douglas thru Dryden down to the present – with Robert Von Hallberg. Now that must have been an epic course.
We spent last week in the graduate seminar sparring over James Miller's The Passion of Michel Foucault. This week we'll do more sparring, & then venture into Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. I have my problems with Greenblatt's book: it's at once too conventional – so much more the standard speculative Shax life than one would have expected from a scholar who led a revolution in early modern studies; it could, one can't help feeling, have been written anytime in the last half century – and too "out there." It brings to a fine pitch, however, the central issue of specifically literary biography: how does one articulate, negotiate, theorize the relationship between life & works? Greenblatt's answer is that we work out the governing obsessions of Shakespeare's writings, then we locate them in what little we know of his life – at times, we invent whole tracts of his life for which we have no evidence, in order to account for something that dominates the writing.

Okay. But what's the payoff? Why pursue this exercise? Why not just fall back on a New Critical stance, and reject biographical connections entirely? Greenblatt's implicit argument is that Shakespeare's work shows the playwright to be a transcendent genius (I won't argue with him there), and that we naturally want to know more about the life-experience of such a guy. I don't think I'd argue with him there, either, tho it's also clear to me that the sort of knowledge displayed in Will in the World – even the best-attested stuff – doesn't really add anything to our reading of the Shax corpus.

But what then is the justification for a biography of a less than transcendently gifted author? If a writerly life issues only in handful of pretty good works, is there a specifically literary reason for pursuing (writing or reading) the biography of such an also-ran?

I fear I'm cutting the conceptual points a bit too close here. For the most part, we read biography, even literary biography, for reasons that have little to do with literary commentary, criticism, or even appreciation. We read a life of Whittier or Longfellow not to get insights into their poetry, but because they were interesting people, and we're naturally inclined to want to learn about the lives of interesting people. (How banal, how bourgeois. How hopelessly pre-theoretical.)

I wonder if there are 300 people in the world who would buy a biography of Ronald Johnson?


J. A. Giardini said...

"I wonder if there are 300 people in the world who would buy a biography of Ronald Johnson?"

Well, I'm at least one, though I have to fess up to having read scarcely any of his poetry; only two slender volumes in the university library, and I'm unable to justify the expense of buying books online at this point. I wonder, though, what group-biography of that generation of Jargon press published poets might look like, if it would have any coherency (or narrative drive) at all.

Jeff Wild said...

Make that two of us!

I listened to a couple talks by Johnson on Pennsound and loved him. I then bought "The Shrubberies" and "Radi Os" -- seems like ARK is out of print. I find the poetry extremely difficult, but his sense of bringing everything into his poems fascinates me. I think it would be a treat to learn more about him.

Someone should suggest it to Peter O'Leary.

Tom Quale said...

Three. I keep one eye on Flood Editions at all times, just in case they make good on some comments made years ago about bringing together some uncollected later work of his.

Anonymous said...

Alas, I don't imagine there are 300 souls out there who would read that RJ bio; I fear far fewer would consider purchasing a copy. That said, I'd be the fourth reader (and purchaser)...
Now that school is almost over I hope you're in the advanced planning stages of your family's summer in NYC. Lemme know?
Tom W.
PS Know anyone who wants to buy a painting, of paintings, by Elizabeth Bishop?

Peter O'Leary said...

If, as I take it Mark, you are wondering whether it would be intellectually, to say nothing of creatively, worthwhile to write a biography of Ronald Johnson, may I greenlight that impulse, please? It would be tremendous. Who better to limn LZ's influence on RJ, or to understand the connection to/validation of Guy Davenport?

(I can't do it myself; I'm too implicated in the story. But if not you, maybe Ross Hair could be coaxed...)

ARK will soon be republished in a corrected edition by Flood. (By this I mean the project is already underway, though without a definitive publication date.) The reason for republishing ARK instead of an earlier promised volume of later poems is that ARK had gone out of print, it is RJ's masterpiece, and copies of the book are being sold at exorbitant prices on the internet.

A volume of later poems (which will include The Shrubberies) will be published sometime after ARK appears.

Cheered, as ever, by any interest in RJ!

J. A. Giardini said...

Wonderful to hear the news about ARK (and the later poems), Peter. The McGill University library has The Foundations, and reading through that has made me anxious to find the rest, but, as you've said, prices are exorbitant, especially for a student.

On that note though, I suppose the approach of graduation should make a good excuse to finally buy Radi Os.

Vance Maverick said...

Naively, I'd think that the potential literary light to be shed depends on a combination of the literary value of the work and the kinds of things that are known about the life. So if there's little light to be shed this way on Shakespeare, that's because the few specific things known are not somehow even the right, illuminating sort of particulars. But for another author -- even a Longfellow, of small but nonzero literary interest today -- we may know not only more but better.

Also, would you apply the 300-reader test to a poem?

Jeff Wild said...

I see that Flood Editions takes donations. Peter -- do you know if one can make donations that could be earmarked directly for the ARK project? Is money one of the things holding up the project or are there other issues?

Jonathan said...

I'd read a biography of Ronald Johnson for sure. I'd recommend that it be 350 pages, not 800. I like biographies that give you the essential information, not everything the biographer learned in the course of research. So we only need to find another 290 readers...