Sunday, June 26, 2011

vacation reading

(If you can think of a more anodyne title for this post, by all means forward it my way.)

So we're a good deal into our summer vacation, at the moment squatting in some friends' apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, and having spent a week on Fire Island. I didn't bring many books. I didn't want to look at anything resembling "work," to be frank. But I read a couple of excellent volumes of contemporary poetry (Devin King and a forthcoming Elizabeth Robinson, as well as Don Revell's forthcoming translations of Laforgue – all of which might be blogged sometime); I finished the Carcanet Selected Poems of Swinburne, some 13 years after buying it for 5000 lire in Florence, of all places; I took immense pleasure from Dickens's Hard Times.

On a visit to the one shop in our corner of the island where they sell actual books, I impulsively plunked down $5.99 for a Bantam Classics edition of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty & Utilitarianism. What the hell, I thought. I've always wanted to read these works, & here they are in a handy – if not "scholarly" edition. If I ever have cause to quote Mill, I can check him against the Penguin I have at home.

I've finished On Liberty – tho I must have read it sometime in the past, it all felt so familiar – and am a bit into Utilitarianism. Two things strike me: 1) Whatever the grammar nazis of our own day might say, JSM has no compunctions about using the pronoun "they" to refer to a singular antecedent, and 2) JSM got the term "utilitarianism" from some passage in John Galt's Annals of the Parish (1821) – one of my favorite romantic-era novels, a lovely, genial work that everybody should know.

Of course, there were a couple of irritants to this reading experience, as well. One, which I'll pass over entirely, is the fact that the volume sports an intensely banal, self-serving, & at times deeply misguided introduction by that prize jackass Alan Dershowitz, who writes as tho he's pleased that Bantam Books at least have finally admitted that he and John Stuart Mill are in the same intellectual league. The second came towards the end of On Liberty, in a passage in which Mill is enumerating dispositions that constitute "moral vices":
the love of domineering over others; the desire to engross more than one's share of advantages (the [greek] of the Greeks.
Huh? Happily, as I read this passage late one night in the chilly late-Spring air, the sound of the breakers in one ear and the buzz of the mosquitoes in the other, I could pluck up my smart phone and google the words of the passage as a whole. What Mill wrote, of course, was "(the pleonexia of the Greeks)" (tho Mill used Greek characters for my italics).

Proofreading, at least for "classic" texts, seems to be a long-lost business, an obligation more honored in the [greek]* than in the [greek]**.

What I didn't bring along was my copy of Middlemarch, which I'm now finishing up on the Kindle that the girls gave me for Father's Day. Let's not get into an argument over whether I should have gotten a Nook, or a Slate, or Ba'al help us an iPad. I wanted something minimal; I wanted something easy; I got a Kindle. First impressions:
•Yes, it's easy, and the reading experience is just fine.

•It's clearly designed, and will probably be used by me, for reading novels and "light" nonfiction. It seems fairly hopeless for poetry (line breaks, long lines, etc.), and certainly serious scholarship is out of the question.

•Yes, one can load it with PDFs – but with mixed results. I'm reading one friend's massive ms-in-progress, and a student's MFA thesis, and they're working out just fine. Some of the scholarly articles I've loaded on it read well; others (double-columned PMLA things, for instance), are a pain in the arse. The bootlegged PDF of LZ's "A" that was all over the internets year before last is pretty unreadable. That's okay; I seem to have a copy or two of that book around the house. I anticipate its being pretty useful when it comes to carrying bundles of papers on the road, tho. We've been requiring job candidates to submit their materials in PDF form lately, & I recall the last time I chaired a search & had to haul a dozen candidates' files across the country to the MLA conference in my briefcase. Being able to load all that on a Kindle would certainly relieve me of that backache.
Ultimately, I suspected I'll mostly use this slate-gray wonder by loading it up with big public-domain Victorian novels. The scans aren't great, but they're quite okay. I've only caught a couple of "Balstrode"s for "Bulstrode" in the 100 pages or so of Middlemarch, and I'm quite able to shrug off the clearly non-Eliotian paragraph breaks that dot the text. Okay, so the chapter epigraphs often get altered from lineated verse to prose, but I can live with that. In short, it's not going to relieve much shelf-space at home, but it'll make travel reading – and beach reading, for that matter – a good deal easier.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nelle Walker Scroggins, 1927-2011

Even in some outlandishly manipulated Florida outdoor environment – dig the lights strung around the palm trees – my mother is able to maintain a wry detachment. I am in this place, whatever this place is, but I am not of it.

My father died in early 1998, after suffering for several years from a cancer so rare there really haven't been enough studies to indicate what a useful treatment – beyond good old-fashioned surgical removal – might be. (At Bethesda Naval Hospital, they offered to make him a guinea pig for a chemotherapy they were developing. Have you tried this on his cancer?, I asked. Well, no, they admitted. Is there any reason you think it might work? Not really...) His death was drawn-out, painful. It was hard to be there.

What killed my mother – Alzheimer's – was rather more garden-variety, the sort of thing that will eventually touch everyone you know, at some remove or another: your parent may have it, your partner may have it, your best friend may have it, you may have it yourself – someone you know will have it. Susan's mother, around whom she's woven the haunting trails of her Dementia Blog, has just died from its effects.

The hardest part of the past three weeks has been the constant effort to remember my mother as she was before the disease took her away: not killed her, but sapped her short- and then long-term memory, stripped away the markers of her personality. In some ways, I've been mourning my mother for over a year now, as she rapidly slipped away into the final stages of her illness.

What I found most heartening at the funeral ceremony was not the religious trimmings, nor the canned a capella hymns, nor even the poems my daughters wrote for the occasion. It was when first my cousin T--- and then the minister read poems my mother had written: a poem she'd written in high school on the demise of the old family farm, the replacement of the icebox by a "new Frigidaire," the banjo and fiddle by a "newfangled radio"; a shout-out to the "angels of mercy" who worked at her assisted living facility; a poem about an army wife awaiting her husband's return from the First Gulf War. She loved to write poems, I remind myself. She loved language itself, sharp-edged phrases, slightly smutty verbalisms she'd only share with some of the friends in her Ladies' Bible Class.

My mother's closest sister, like her a lifelong school teacher, is also suffering from dementia. She sits there and does the multiplication tables aloud, my cousin tells me. She sings church songs – every single verse – and she corrects the nurses' grammar. Mom wouldn't correct anyone's grammar – to their face; but she wouldn't hesitate to tell me or my father if someone didn't know the difference between "lie" and "lay." Once a particularly gruff and opinionated in-law of mine volunteered to her, apropos of nothing much in the conversation, Well, I'm an atheist myself. She said nothing at the time. But later: So he thinks he's smarter than God?

That's how I'm trying to remember my mother.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Day's. Best. News. (really)

[Professor Scroggins, preparing to begin his lecture]

The scab dropped off today. Which means I don't have skin cancer. Probably.

No, seriously – this is the sort of thing I obsess about. As I am – let's say – follically challenged, the tippy-top of my head is a particularly sensitive and vulnerable region. At some point this Spring I dinged myself hard on something (probably a bookshelf), and took ages for the little wound to scab over satisfactorily. Didn't help that I tend to rub the top of my head absently while reading, or that I prematurely de-scabbed myself several times thru overenthusiastic post-shower towelling.

But by May, I was beginning to worry that this thing was never going away, googling "scabs that won't go away" and "scalp melanoma" & other dire things. Didn't help that on a flight back from Tennessee a bit less than two weeks ago I whacked myself mightily on the overhead baggage compartment when standing up to deplane, so mightily that I found myself pressing a bloody napkin to my pate as I hauled down my suitcase.

Skin cancer is of course an occupational hazard in South Florida, particularly for us less well-furred types. One bald colleague went insouciantly about his business quite hatless for the first decade I was here, only to abruptly get the baseball cap religion one summer, I suspect after a scary visit to the dermatologist. Me, I'm not the baseball cap type, but I have taken to piratical bandanas, quaint middle- and far-eastern embroidered caps, and an obligatory spray of sunscreen on my head before venturing out. (At our last visit to Orlando & Universal's Harry Potter wonderland, the only thing that restrained me from buying a Dumbledore tassled cap was my worry that it was just a trifle too tight. Otherwise, I'd wear it in a minute.)

But today, just as I was gingerly fingering the thing & contemplating an appointment with the dermatologist, I realized that the scab had actually come off in my fingers, leaving nothing behind but healthy pinkish newly-healed skin. This has got to be a good omen of some sort.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Victorian copiousness

We buried my mother two weeks ago today. It’s not something I’m really prepared to write about, but it does I hope go some way towards explaining the silence of the blog over the past few weeks.

So I’ve been back in the steam of South Florida for about a week and a half now, surrounded by a sift of books on – what else? – Victorian literature and culture. The one I’ve gotten most intimate with of late is Jerome Buckley’s third edition revision & expansion of Benjamin Woods’s Poetry of the Victorian Period (Scott, Foresman, 1965). My own copy of this intimidating red doorstopper indicates that I bought it two & a half decades ago for Alison Sulloway’s class on Victorian Poetry. I’m bemused that she thought we needed such a comprehensive text, as her syllabus (still folded into the book in all its purple-ditto’d glory) indicates that we only read Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, and Hopkins. But I’m grateful that she assigned it.

This is an anthology from the days when “men” were “men” and anthologies were anthologies indeed. Buckley tells us in the intro that the editors’ intention was to present the “dozen or fifteen” leading poets as thoroughly as possible: that means the reader gets what for a contemporary anthologist, constantly confronted by page limits and price barriers, is an incomprehensibly large amount of text: 165 large-format, double-columned pages (averaging out around 100 lines a page) of Tennyson (that’s every major poem – all of Maud and In Memoriam, about a quarter of Idylls of the King); 200 pages of Browning, 70 of Arnold, 80 of Swinburne, etc. (Women poets are sadly, but not entirely, underrepresented, which is the greatest shortcoming of this relic of another era. All of “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” but none of Aurora Leigh, for instance.)

Yes, I’ve been on an anthology kick lately, as I mentioned some weeks ago. I realized a while back that the clock had definitely run out on my emulating Pound’s ambition (to know more about poetry by the age of 30 than “any man living”). But I thought to myself, maybe if I trim that ambition a bit – perhaps by 50 (and I still have a few years before then) I can know the canon of English poetry as well as any of my peers?

Now a long time back I realized (see multiple blog posts, by me and practically anyone) that it’s impossible to keep up with contemporary poetry. Anyone who claims he or she “knows” what’s out there is bluffing at best; there’s just too much, and the territory hasn’t been mapped at all adequately. It’s a rare month that I don’t pull down a few books from my “unread” shelf and discover poets whose works excites the heck out of me. (For the record: the latest run of exciting discoveries has included Camille Martin, Jill Magi, and Rachel Zolf.) But I’m always dogged by the sense that I don’t know enough about pre-20th-century poetry.

So I began by reading straight thru Christopher Ricks’s Oxford Book of English Verse, and then (more topically) John Dixon Hunt’s Oxford Book of Garden Verse. Now I’m reading, two poems at a sitting, Roger Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse. Why the Buckley/Woods Poetry of the Victorian Period? Well, as I plunge deeper into Ruskin, I grow more and more conscious of my own ignorance of the period as a whole. Sure, I’ve read a handful of Victorian novels, and took a couple of courses on Victorian poetry along the way – and suspect I know the period about as well as most scholars of 20th-c. American poetry – but I want to get into it more deeply, more thoroughly.

Tennyson, whom I’ve been living with for the past week, was for a long time a byword for Victorian otioseness & sententiousness. Yup, there’s plenty of that. But I’m reminded, rereading him in bulk, that the guy was also possessed of a fantastic lyrical ear, certainly the best of the generation after Keats. There’s no gainsaying the psychological drama of Maud, certainly, and I’m definitely down with those who see In Memoriam as a kind of model for all manner of twentieth-century experiments in the long personal poem. (I wouldn’t recommend reading it after a recent bereavement, however.) When Tennyson is good, he’s very good indeed. The problem, of course, is extracting those moments of shiny lyricism or exquisitely turned psychological insight from the great masses of water-treading verse in which they’re often embedded.

The Victorians wrote a lot. They probably wrote too much. Gertrude Himmelfarb, whose books I have been turning over (to little profit & frequent irritation) remarks in an essay on Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father):

There cannot have been too many writers like Anthony Trollope, who kept a schedule and a watch in front of him to make sure that he turned out his 250 words every quarter of an hour for a minimum of three hours. But the sense of writing as a regular occupation, not beholden to inspiration, was and still is typical among English intellectuals. Stephen himself was no more productive than many others; he averaged three or four 8000-word articles a week (each at one sitting, it is, incredibly, reported), apart from incidental writing tasks. This was the sportsmanlike way of writing: no fuss, no anguish, the game played at the appointed time, so many minutes to the period, so many periods to the event.
I like that – “a regular occupation, not beholden to inspiration.”