Sunday, December 18, 2011

year's end lists

So I read the lists of "year's best" whatevers this time of year, & inevitably feel out of it, behind the times, fuddy-duddyesque, etc. And I read the excellent Steve Evans's "attention span" feature on his Third Factory, where he solicits people to name their current notable reading, and I inevitably feel out of it, behind the times, etc. But for what it's worth, here's some notables that I've read over 2011 – not a year, I'm afraid, that I'm in any hurry to revisit.

While I revisited a lot of biography in the Spring teaching a biography seminar (Claire Tomalin's Pepys, Ray Monk's Wittgenstein, James Miller's Foucault, etc.), I haven't read many memorable biographies this past year; standouts were I suppose Ian Hamilton A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold and Ralph Maud's cranky Charles Olson at the Harbor, something of an anti-biography – more specifically, an anti-Tom Clark biography.

History/intellectual history and philosophy were heavy on the ground, much of it on the Victorians: TW Heyck's The Transformation of Victorian Intellectual Life was eye-opening, & AN Wilson's The Victorians was great fun, and beautifully written. David Cooper's A Philosophy of Gardens, if a trifle dry, was well worth the slog.

I'm purposefully leaving out the bales of Ruskin criticism I've read this year, & singling out some titles of non-Ruskinian interest:
Ross Hair, Ronald Johnson’s Modernist Collage Poetry
Geoffrey Hill, Collected Critical Writings
Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity
A. D. Nuttall, Dead from the Waist Down: Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination
(The Nuttall book officially counts as an intellectual romp; from the Casaubon of Middlemarch to Mark Pattison, his supposed model, to Pattison's own scholarly interest, the early modern humanist Isaac Casaubon.)

I read more fiction than usual, for whatever reasons – comfort food, I suppose. Much of it was ephemeral in the worst sense: reread trashy science fiction & fantasy from my junior high years; stacks of HG Wells and Jules Verne. I did read Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands, which I highly recommend. And after being prodded to read Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower by more than one poet friend, I finally buckled down and did so, only to find it transcendently beautiful & deeply moving. So of course I read four more Fitzgerald books: each one different, each one perfect of its kind: Offshore, The Bookshop, The Gate of Angels, and The Golden Child.

And then there's poetry. This was the year of the anthologies, two of which I read straight thru – Christopher's Ricks's Oxford Book of English Verse and John Dixon Hunt's Oxford Book of Garden Verse – and several others I'm at various stages of. But these were a few of the outstanding titles – but only a few – among the maybe 80 or 90 collections of poetry I read for the first time this year:
Rae Armantrout, Money Shot
Dan Beachy-Quick, This Nest, Swift Passerine
Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English
Sean Bonney, The Commons
Cyrus Console, The Odicy
Chris Glomski, The Nineteenth Century and Other Poems
Geoffrey Hill, Clavics
Joseph Lease, Testify
John Matthias, Trigons
Lisa Robertson, R’s Boat
Jay Wright, Polynomials and Pollen: Parables, Proverbs, Paradigms, and Praise for Lois
Astonishingly enough, I seem to have read thru ten volumes of the Library Edition of Ruskin this year. But for some inexplicable reason, that fact doesn't do much to lift me out of my current slough of despond.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

shameless (but virtuous) self-promotion

The excellent Brent Cunningham, big cheese at Small Press Distribution out the Bay Area way (god, I remember ordering from that catalogue from my dorm room at Virginia Tech – first editions of Radi Os and The Years as Catches, strange chapbooks & oversized, ill-printed treasures by poets whose names I had heard only as strange, talismanic sounds), has posted a link on his FB page to this Publishers Weekly article, which details some of the competitive nastiness that seems to be encouraging in its bid to drive independent bookselling into the ditch. Among the latest: "customers regularly scan books with their smart phones and then order discounted copies directly from Amazon, or even use the bookstore’s free Wi-Fi to download Kindle e-books to their devices."

Well, John Ruskin had the remedy for that, and came up with it as far back as the 1870s: the Net Book Agreement, by which the publisher set the price the retailer would charge for the book, & would no longer supply books to a retailer who sold them below that price. While the NBA didn't come into general practice until 1900 in Great Britain, Ruskin had sold his own books under such a system since the early 1870s. This is the book: it's a half-guinea without plates, a guinea with; that's what you sell it for. You want to sell it for 10 shillings? – too bad; you won't be getting copies.

It's the dissolution of the NBA since the mid-90s, among other things, that has been the downfall of British independent bookselling. If there's no set price at which a book must be sold, then Barnes & Noble and Amazon, with their tremendous volume, will sell it at a discount, and will drive out of business the small concerns that can't afford to cut their prices. Think of it as the Wal-Martization of the book industry.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying: I have a new book out – I haven't mentioned it in this space for a full month, so I think it's time to mention again. It's called Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles. It's forty-two short but nasty poems, packed with nutty goodness. It will change your life harder than a naked torso of Apollo. And it makes an equally fine present for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or that moment when you're thinking "I need to give my sweetie something that'll make him/her say Gosh! that's just what I wanted!"

You can buy it directly from the publisher, The Cultural Society, by using this link, and everything over production cost will be ploughed directly back into Zach Barocas's master project of flooding the world with fine poetry. Or you can buy it from Brent Cunningham and the excellent human beings at Small Press Distribution, who will apply their rather nominal percentage of the take to their master project of making small press literature available to the masses. I think both options are equally virtuous.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

my robert creeley

One of the earliest posts on Culture Industry was a rumination on Robert Creeley after his death in late March 2005. I know he is still mourned, and I – who was never close to him – miss him still. As I said there, it's hard for me to remember a time when his writings weren't central to my idea of what poetry is. This past semester, I realized how central his poems are to my teaching of poetry, as well. In the course of an undergraduate Contemporary American Poetry class, we went through maybe 30 pages of Creeley – probably as much as any other single poet – and I think my students found him more interesting & sympathetic than almost anyone else. (Tho I'm in the midst of reading some kick-ass final papers on Susan Howe, Ronald Johnson, and John Taggart, as well.)

It's been a rare semester when some poem of Creeley's hasn't landed on a syllabus of mine, or hasn't been handed out on a xerox or flashed onto the screen from Google Docs. What Creeley is good for pedagogically – and this can be separated out, at least theoretically, from the intrinsic value of his verse – is teaching line breaks (the music of enjambment and end-stopping), pointing up minute shifts of diction, and thinking about the construction of longer sequences out of short poetic units. Needless to say, I know the anthology pieces pretty damned well after all these years.

But I've been reading Creeley more or less steadily since I got those copies of Words and For Love in the Blacksburg used bookstore lo those many years ago. But it's only over this Fall that I started tackling him in bulk, straight thru. And I've found him defeating me: that is, I've had the first volume of his Collected Poems (1945-1975) down from the shelf for weeks & weeks, taking it up and then falling back overwhelmed. Not in the sense that I'm overwhelmed when I read John Peck or Susan Howe in bulk – that overwhelming involves never wanting to read another poem again, much less to pick up a pen: the same defeat I feel when reading Nabokov or Woolf, the sense of a writerly mastery so great that it makes further effort nugatory. Creeley, rather, seems to involve me in a never-ending forest of poems, some of whose value is radically undetermined: I stumble from one to the next, unsure whether to take seriously what I've just read – is this part of the sad lumber that sometimes overbalances the valuable ore in a poet's early collections?

What I need, Ba'al help me, is a Selected. I know, that makes me a kind of critical weakling, an ingenue, an toddler crying out for pabulum when it's time to tackle the grown-ups' dishes. But it worked for Olson and Duncan. Before I made my full-scale assaults on their collected works, I spent serious hours reading selected editions, seeing how their editors had mapped out the territory, what the editorial Baedekers recommended as the to-see spots. Then, when I dived into, say, Olson's full Maximus Poems and Collected Poems (excluding Maximus) I had a baseline picture against which I could measure the poet's full achievement.

I haven't yet laid hands on Ben Friedlander's selected Creeley (U California, 2008), but the other day I happened upon an earlier Selected Poems (U California P, 1991), this one chosen by the poet who perhaps knew Creeley's work better than anyone else – Creeley himself. And yes, by halfway thru it's been revelatory, showing me the contours of the work better than the randomly ordered reading I've done over the years, and better than the page-1-thru-page-600 slog I had set myself for Creeley's Collected. That latter slog will come soon enough, & no doubt will involve an implicit revision on my part of Creeley's assessment of his own achievement. But I've begun, and a solid beginning is half the struggle, in my experience.

Monday, December 05, 2011

ruskin crossroads (revised)

Shortly after I posted that last post, I launched into Fors Clavigera, Volume I, 1 January 1871. And it was grand to revisit the texts of those early letters. I had to rein myself in, & allowed myself no more than 3 letters a day. But earlier today I found myself reading the Christmas 1871 letter, getting depressed by the actual vicinity of the holidays, & realizing that if I kept up this pace I would entirely lose the chronological thread of my Ruskin reading, here in this most crucial decade.

So I've revised my plan: Instead of reading a Library Edition volume of Fors, then returning to his concurrent writings & lectures, I'll read a year's worth of Fors (Library Edition vol. 27 contains Fors for 1871-1873) and then that same year's lectures & miscellaneous writings. It will be a wobbly, back-n-forth process, but I think it'll give me a clearer picture of the man's intellectual movements than otherwise. So now that I've read Fors for 1871, I've turned back to Volume 22 of the Library Edition, & will read roughly the first half – Lectures on Landscape, delivered at Oxford in the Lent 1871 term, and "The Relationship of Michael Angelo and Tintoret," delivered later that year. (He didn't seem to give any lectures in the Fall of 1871.)

One of the advantages of this plan is that the introductions to the lecture volumes – roughly 20 through 24 – are not merely overviews of the texts contained in each volume, but contain a more or less complete running biography of Ruskin. (Indeed, E. T. Cook, who wrote the introductions, would later combine their biographical narrative material into an excellent and straightforward two-volume biography.)

All this would be easier, of course, if I had at hand at decent chronology of Ruskin. The internets (specifically, the eBay) yielded up a copy of JL Bradley's A Ruskin Chronology (Macmillan, 1997) the other week, and I'm in total agreement with the general editor's preface to the series ("Author Chronologies") to which that volume belongs:
Most biographies are ill adapted to serve as works of reference... There are times... when anyone reading for business or pleasure needs to check a point quickly or obtain a rapid overview of part of an author's life or career; and at such moments turning over the pages of a biography can be a time-consuming and frustrating occupation.
Alas, I will refrain from commenting on the job Bradley's done of it; suffice it to say that he's vague when I want him to be precise, and precise when couldn't care less. (And I'm thinking that maybe I ought to publish the detailed chronologies and databases I generated when I was working on the LZ biography.)

One of the minor irritants is the fact that Bradley is that most unreliable of chroniclers – a profound partisan. He's a Ruskinian thru and thru. When it comes to 1854 – the year in which Effie Ruskin finally fled her husband and filed suit to annul the marriage – his partisanship becomes unmistakeable. Effie found a friend and councilor in Lady Eastlake, who mounted something of a drawing-room publicity campaign on her behalf after she had left Ruskin; after all, anyone who's read more than a couple Victorian novels knows what an act of desperate courage it would be for a woman to leave her husband in 1854. Bradley's summation: "May: In the aftermath of the scandal Lady Eastlake continues to revel in spreading information."

His July 15 entry is priceless: "A judge, sitting for 'A Hearing of the Cause', declares 'the pretended marriage of [John Ruskin] and [Euphemia Gray] a nullity' and ECGR 'free from all bonds of matrimony'. In the verbal jungle of the case the 'incurable impotency' of JR is alleged." Well, I've read that judgment. It's remarkably clear and straightforward; no jungle about it, more a kind of Saharan simplicity, if indeed couched in legalese. What depths of sympathy have driven Bradley, normally a level editorial scholar, to such contortions? Say it straight, man: "The judge annulled the marriage on the grounds of JR's 'incurable impotency.'" Period.

Of course, one has to retain the scare quotes around "incurable impotency," for Ruskin, in an affadavit to his own lawyers, had strenuously insisted on his own potency, offering to demonstrate if so desired (!): it was just Effie for whom he couldn't – or wouldn't – perform the conjugal obligations. Needless to say, this is an issue around which an older generation of passionate Ruskinians have danced many elaborate dances.

On the other hand, reading Cook's beautifully written, deeply sympathetic, and critically aware biographical introductions to the Library Edition, one is often brought up short as well. Of Ruskin's illness and emotional strife in 1871, Cook comments "The pain to which he referred was suffered in the region of the affections, for this year was a dark one in the chequered story of his romance." Got that? And that's all you'll get, at least from Cook.

The "affection" in question was for Rose La Touche, the Irish girl with whom Ruskin had fallen in love perhaps a decade before – when she was still in her middle teens. The story of Ruskin's passion for Rose, who was fanatically evangelical, perhaps anorexic, and in the end mentally ill, has been largely omitted in the Library Edition – though Ruskin showed his overwhelming cathexis for this troubled young woman by embroidering images of roses through all of his later works. He had written Sesame and Lilies with her in mind; he would come to identify her with St. Ursula, as painted by Carpaccio, and with the tomb statue of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia (in Lucca); after her death in 1875, she would become his Beatrice.

But Edward Cook was writing his introductions under the watchful eye of Ruskin's heir, Joan Severn (née Agnew), Ruskin's cousin, who had married the artist Arthur Severn. (Severn's father Joseph had tended Keats in his final illness in Rome.) Joan had nursed Ruskin through his bouts of madness, and through the long twilight decline of his last years. On some level she probably blamed his breakdowns on Rose La Touche's rejection of his proposals of marriage. And she was not at all interested in having the story of Ruskin's painful and awkward pursuit of this Irish girl told – no more than J. L. Bradley is interested in presenting a balanced account of Ruskin's ridiculous – and for Effie, nearly tragic – wedding night.

Friday, December 02, 2011

ruskin crossroads

So I've reached a crossroads in my Ruskin reading. After he accepts the Slade Professorship of Art at Oxford in 1870, our man becomes unconscionably busy – as I think I've mentioned, his attention becomes divided in at least 3 directions: his Oxford duties, which include both his lecture series (most of which get revised into books) and his direction of a drawing school (for which he sets out detailed sets of exercises and organizes a hefty collection of specimen artworks); his pedagogical interests, directed mostly at the girls of the Winnington School, and which result in a series of extraordinarily eccentric "textbooks" – Love's Meinie (on birds), Deucalion (on geology), and Proserpina (on flowers); and his series of monthly "letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Fors Clavigera, which begin in January 1871.*

If I read thru the Library Edition in numerical order – and I've just finished volumes 20 and 21 (the former containing the first year of Ruskin's Oxford lectures, the latter his catalogues and instructions for the Art School) – I'll be reading several more volumes of Oxford lectures, then a couple volumes of the textbooks, before I hit Fors, the 600,000 words of which are contained in volumes 27 thru 29. And I've decided I can't wait.

To some degree Fors is the text to which my whole reading of Ruskin has been tending, the keystone work connecting the early Ruskin of Modern Painters I – as late-Romantic, early-Victorian a production as one can imagine, outside of Carlyle – to the high modernists. Guy Davenport called it "a Victorian prose Cantos." I'm not the first person to see it as a proto-blog; indeed, I had Fors in mind as a kind of model when I began Culture Industry the better part of 7 years ago (let's not mention how poorly I've managed to emulate Ruskin, okay?).

I finished a first reading of Fors two summers ago on a penthouse terrace on Manhattan's West Side, reflecting ironically, as I baked unprotected in the sun, on Ruskin's all-too-wet view from Brantwood in the Lake District, & his increasing despair as the "storm-cloud" of industrial pollution blackened British skies. I'm ready to read it again, letter by letter, allowing myself no more than three letters at a sitting. (There're 96 in all.) But I don't want to stray too far off the track of my roughly chronological trawl thru Ruskin's life-work. So I'll read the first Library Edition volume of Fors, then return to Volume 22 and read thru the rest of his Oxford lectures. Then I'll allow myself a second volume of Fors, after which I'll read his textbooks and guidebooks. And only then will I read the third and final volume of Fors.

Of course, after Fors is done, there still remain 6 more volume of miscellaneous Ruskiniana – his environmental lectures, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, his literary criticism, Fiction Fair and Foul, his luminous autobiography Praeterita, and various other stuff; and then two volumes of collected letters. (The very last two volumes of the 39-volume Library Edition are a bibliography and an index.) I'm not too worried about the letters, or at least the letters collected in the LE seem rather less "canonical" than the other volumes, as I seem to have accumulated almost a dozen other volumes of Ruskin letters along the way, which will eventually want reading.

I think this can be done. Quentin Bell recalls reading thru the Library Edition in a year; but then again, he admits that he wasn't reading anything else. I'll count myself lucky if I finish the maroon wall (as I think of the 3+ shelves of JR that loom over my left shoulder when I sit at my desk) by the end of next year. Assuming the Mayans were wrong.

*That's leaving out his incessant letters to the press and the various European guidebooks he was cranking out with his left hand; at one point in the 1870s Ruskin had seven books at once at some stage of publication.