Saturday, January 29, 2011

not burning to put pen to paper

The letter carrier & the UPS person have been dropping off a steady stream of books over the past few days. I finally decided to get serious about this book of biography I've been brooding over for the past four years, so I went carefully thru the "works cited" list of Ray Monk's latest brilliant article on biography (Monk is the author of a formidably good biography of Wittgenstein, then a not-so-well-reviewed life of Bertrand Russell, & now he seems to be writing the definitive book on philosophical biography; I can't wait), jotted down every book that seemed significant, and went to the Amazon Marketplace and ordered the lot. I suspect I've perhaps doubled my (already significant) collection of books on biography – but that doesn't mean an awful lot, I'm afraid: the corpus of this critical discussion probably occupies less than a shelf and a half – maybe half the space of my Ruskin set.
A strange, nostalgic feeling lately: working on a largish essay, I found myself painfully blocked. Now I don't believe in writer's block, or at least I've never suffered it significantly. But I found it very difficult to tackle this thing as a Word document. I tried all the old tricks – changed the font, messed with the spacing, etc – but it still remained dumb and obdurate and there, unwilling to be changed or added to. So I printed out the thing and sat down with my books, a yellow legal pad, and a pen, & suddenly found myself writing again.

I've been a late adopter of the direct-to-keyboard writing style. When I was an undergraduate, I would think a bit about a paper assignment the week before it was due; two nights before, I would sit down in the smoking lounge of my dorm with a spiral notebook and write the thing, then I'd go to bed; the night before it was due, I'd type my manuscript (on a typewriter), editing as I went. Then I'd turn it in and await my A, which was usually forthcoming. (Less than A's were for when I got lazy in thinking or analysis – never, to my recollection, for grammar or structure: I always seemed to be able to hear how a sentence or an argument ought to sound.) It was my professor Tom Gardner who put me onto the legal pad – something very attractive about that yellow paper, I always thought when I'd visit him in his office & see his latest article emerging.

And that was my MO for years & years. My guess is that 75 - 80% of The Poem of a Life was drafted on yellow legal pads, footnotes crowded into the left margin. (You wanna see? I still have a two-inch block of yellow drafts stacked somewhere in my closet.)* I'd revise, sometimes heavily, on the keyboard, tho I preferred to mark up printouts and key in revisions. Writing by hand was an extra step, I told myself, and it gave me an ugly pen-rest callous on my middle finger, but it made me write slower than I could type, which meant I was thinking harder as I wrote; and perforce it made me revise at least once, between manuscript and word processing document.

But even as I was finishing that book, I was weaning myself from the legal pad, forcing myself to compose directly to keyboard. Most of the prose I've written since then has been directly keyed in**; and you know, I don't think my writing has suffered from it. I think my adherence for so long to handwriting was in some sense simple superstition or habit, which I've managed finally to break.

But getting back to the legal pad & the pen – a fountain pen, always, so I can savor that really very sexy sensation of the nib moving across the field of the paper, leaving its gleaming trails – has been fun in a way that I think transcends nostalgia. I don't feel like I'm making a call on a rotary dial phone, slumming in some kind of pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-cool-techno-kid wildlife preserve. I feel rather like I've shifted gears for a while; still getting there, just maybe a little more (salubriously?) slowly.

*I believe the SF writer Neal Stephenson, who writes books larger than Boswell, writes this way – fountain pen drafts, marked-up printouts.
** Try as I might, I simply can't compose poetry on a keyboard, either a typewriter or a computer. I kinda envy those who can. Call me coelocanth.

Monday, January 10, 2011

academic genealogies

[Robert von Hallberg, eminent retiree]

The lastest Chicago Review is out, & as usual it's both a beautiful artifact and a fascinating read. Poetry by among others Rae Armantrout, Nathaniel Mackey, John Latta, & Kate Greenstreet; a review of Donald Revell's latest; and a lively mini-essay by Eirik Steinhoff on Marlowe's Ovid, beginning with perhaps the funniest description of sexual dysfunction in English poetry.

The heart of the issue, however, is a stack of essays in honor of Robert von Hallberg's retirement, by folks who were at one time or another his grad students. An impressive bunch: some excellent poets (Devin Johnston, Elizabeth Arnold, Peter O'Leary) and some critics whose work I prize very highly, among them Alan Golding, Lynn Keller, and Keith Tuma. Just the roll call of names makes clear that von Hallberg has left a valuable teaching legacy.

Of course, I've always valued von Hallberg's criticism. While I've differed with him on the evaluation of particular poets, he writes with a grace, clarity, and persuasiveness rarely found in academic criticism these days. Perhaps that's part of the legacy of doing one's PhD at Stanford, where the ferociously lucid Yvor Winters and Donald Davie held sway.

The whole shebang got me thinking about the business of teaching genealogies. The music director at the church I used to attend way back when (well, we called him the "song leader," in a gesture of ferocious iconoclastic Puritan leveling), once let slip that he was a 4th or 5th or some degree teaching descendant of Beethoven's – that is, his piano teacher's piano teacher's piano teacher's (etc.) piano teacher had taken piano lessons from Ludwig van himself. Was there some mysterious mojo that got passed down thru all those generations? And does it work the same way in the academy?

I guess I'm a teaching descendant of von Hallberg myself: my undergraduate mentor, Tom Gardner, did his dissertation at Madison under Lynn Keller, who studied with von Hallberg at Chicago. But it's a grand game – one of my own dissertation committee members worked with John Hollander & Geoffrey Hartman, who no doubt studied with some of the grand old men of their time. Indeed, my dissertation director was one of the last graduate students to work with Perry Miller, the great scholar of Puritanism and early American literature.

I'm afraid precious little of that mojo has come down to me. Or at least during graduate school. I'm afraid my greatest academic influences still remain those of my undergrad years: Tom's hard thinking about poems (was that the second-generation von Hallberg influence?) and Alison Sulloway's ferocious but always encouraging copy editing (she graded with four different colors of pen) of my papers – not to mention her relentless emphasis on the historical and cultural contexts of whatever we were reading.

Update: No, turns out it wasn't 2nd-generation von Hallberg, by way of Tom Gardner, who actually worked not under Lynn Keller but L. S. Dembo – the man who, I've argued elsewhere, had a huge hand in solidifying the "Objectivists" as the quartet LZ-Oppen-Rakosi-Reznikoff. Not sure whether that counts as intellectual "influence" or something more weirdly proleptic.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

the sorrows of bibliophilia

That time of year is upon us: the semester begins next week, & I'm as usual trembling in my boots (well, sandals) at the prospect. I'm teaching a reprise of the biography seminar I did a couple of years back; that should be fun, at least for me if not for the students. And an undergraduate epic course, which has me I confess a bit nervous – but then again I'll just quote, over & over again, whichever scholar it was who said that Homer can't be interpreted, only analyzed. Yeah, that sounds good.
I came back from the holidays in New York – the blizzard was spectacular, & watching the city dig itself out afterwards was great fun – with only a couple dozen books in my luggage (well, actually UPS'd back in a box), a rather conservative number for a more or less inveterate book-buyer. And found about as many waiting for me in cartons at home, things I'd ordered & the payoff for a couple of manuscripts I read last Fall. So I spent some time deliciously unpacking (cf. the Benjamin essay), actually reading a couple of things. (Maybe I'll blog them...) And then came the inevitable question: Where the hell will I shelve these things?

Mind you, it's not like there isn't shelf space in my study. I have three walls that are pretty much nothing but shelves, a huge 7-shelf case by the door, and a walk-in closet that's been crammed with Door Store portables. And the hall closet outside the study has been converted into a three-sided shelving area long since. The problem is that even if I filled up every fugitive half-shelf and 2-inch space in the house, I'd still have a few hundred books without homes. I began by making a stack next to the outside door of things that I was using. That's grown to 4 or 5 stacks (2 to 3-foot stacks, mind you), and I've entirely forgotten what's at the bottom of them.

Now I don't particularly mind disorder. (Any of my students can testify to that.) But book-stacking has gotten out of hand when I can't find something I need. And that's begun to happen all too often.

Our Fair University may have bailed me out, at least for the short run. Over the break, they've moved the department into a new building. No, I'm not particularly keen on the new office; it's okay, but my view – which in the old one was magnificent – sucks: a parking lot. At least I can watch my car, I guess. Initially I was terrifically worried about bookshelf space. In my old office, in addition to a bunch of built-ins and a bigge-asse freestanding case, I'd brought in three of those fold-outs and a couple of nice Ukrainian-made things. I had shelvage to spare, and tended to use the office for home study overflow. Well, needless to say the new office is well-equipped in everything but shelf space. For some reason, they've given us enough file space for a good sized small business, but enough bookshelves for – well, an accounting professor.

But I've somehow managed to cram most of my ancillary shelves in (tho I'm pretty sure I'm violating the fire code in one or two ways), and after several days of unpacking & sorting, I'm beginning to think everything's going to find a home. Indeed, I'm beginning to suspect that I might actually have some extra space here, even. Which means that something from home gets to go to school, & free up space around the study. Right now, I'm thinking it's the Beckett collection. You see, I hate to break up substantial collections – this one is around 100 volumes. Half of it's at home, in the hall closet; but when the French department's Beckett scholar retired last year & offered me her Beckett books, was I going to say no? They're in the office right now, & I think my Beckett books at home might be happier in their company.

Anyway, I've spent a number of hours over the past few days pitchforking thru the study, throwing out stacks & stacks of papers & trying to achieve a bit of order. One side-effect has been that I've moved my desk over by a half-foot, and fitted another wee bookcase on one side. So maybe, with the combined effects of the new office & this new bookcase, I'll be okay for another six months or so.

Chaucer's Clerk, I seem to recall, would've been happy with "Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed."