Monday, December 24, 2012

year's end

Yes, as I always say, I hate year-end "best of" lists, whether of books or records or movies or whatever. Especially of books. On the one hand, there's the implicit "check out how much I read factor." Now I read a lot, but I'm not particularly proud of it. Indeed, I feel there's something slightly pathological about how much I read. I get something close to a panic attack when I realize I'm going to be somewhere where I might have a couple of hours on my hands, and I don't have something to read.

And then there's the whole "cool kid" quotient. Astonishingly enough, I was not one of the cool kids back in high school, and things really haven't improved. So no, I probably haven't gotten around to reading the latest super-snazzy book of poetry or theory or whatever. But I feel bad about not having done so every time I see that title pop up on the year-end "best of" lists.

Any way, here's some highlights from this year's reading, sorted roughly by genre. Stuff that's stuck in my mind enough to note or recommend:

Odi Barbare, by Geoffrey Hill, is a bit of a return to form after the disappointments of Oracles/Oraclau and Clavics; he's still writing too much in the home stretch, if you ask me.
•With Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger, Susan Gevirtz continues to demonstrate that she's one of the poets you really ought to read, even if you haven't.
Terra Lucida, by Joseph Donahue and Gnostic Frequencies, by Patrick Pritchett, are two very different explorations in the fascinating province of "new gnosticism."
•John Peck's I Came, I Saw: Eight Poems is typical Peck – and by "typical" I mean dense, musical, and impactedly beautiful.
•I'd read Jill Magi's earlier books, but with SLOT she seems to really be coming into her own as an important contemporary voice; solid, moving.
•Jena Osman's Public Figures continues her exploration of "documentary" poetics; this outing revolves around statues & monuments in Philadelphia.
Gravesend, by Cole Swensen, does nifty things with ghosts, graves, and the town of Gravesend in England; I like it because it's so obviously about something, and because Swensen has a really dead-on lyric ear.
•I contributed a blurb sight unseen to Alan Halsey's Even if only out of, saying nice things about his work as a whole; this one doesn't disappoint, either; epigrams like Martial on speed and shrooms.
•Matthew Cooperman's Still: Of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move initially impressed me as yet another "here's the unremitting barrage of data we're subjected to every day" books, but as it progressed, it moved me more and more, until it became almost overwhelming.
•Stacy Doris's Knot: Doris was one of the poets we lost recently, and I bitterly regret not getting to know her work, which plays wonderful games with tenses and verbs, earlier.
•Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: ouch.

•China MiĆ©ville, The City and the City: deserved every prize it got – tho for my taste, it went a little genre-y at the end (noir, rather than sf, though)

•And of course, maybe the high point of the year's reading, the umpteenth read-thru of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse; I love that book!
•Joan Evans's 1950s John Ruskin is very good indeed; a good deal less carefully rendered detail than Derrick Leon's magnificent 1949 John Ruskin, The Great Victorian, but perhaps more smartly judgmental. Peter Quennell's John Ruskin: The Portrait of a Prophet was published the same year as Leon's biography, which is unfortunate, as the density of Leon's research overshadows the liveliness and grace of Quennell's style.
•Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde: yes, it took me a long time to get around to this one, so long that I suppose it's been largely superseded (but when was I ever up to date?); but it was worth the wait. 
•Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, which I've already written about a bit; an important book.
Sui generis:
•Keith Tuma, On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes: what's to say? great anecdotes, wonderful theorizing about the genre of the anecdotes, and a tremendous emotional wallop to the whole.
I read some really splendid books of criticism and correspondence, but most of them were on Ruskin, & I think I'll save a bit of that for my big long-awaited (by me) post on finishing the Library Edition. Which I did, this year, and which puts me in an exclusive club of about 200 members, I'd guess. Almost like winning the shit-eating contest.

Friday, December 14, 2012

hobby time

I meant to paint some soldiers this evening, but time got away; I ended up varnishing some already painted soldiers and gluing them (with rubber cement, so they're easily removable) to bases.

So this is what I'm up to:

They're on the stove-top, so you can get some idea of scale (note burner control to right). At a nominal 1:72 scale, they stand around an inch high. These particular sets aren't great, as these types of soldiers go. On the left are a couple of bases' worth of Romans, from the much-maligned Airfix "Romans" sets; most of the swords didn't survive the injection-molding process, & the sculptor seemed to have no idea of how a pilum (short lance) was actually carried. I must have bought these back in the 1970s sometime; I had to scrape my adolescent self's very bad paint jobs off of some of them. (Luckily, since I was too dumb to varnish back then, much of the paint had already flaked off.)

On the right are Airfix's "Ancient Britons," one of the first sets I bought back in the day, but a set that's still available – this particular formation is from a new box. Eventually I'll get around to repainting my old ones as well. I have in mind a huge diorama of the siege of Alesia, or something like that. I'm looking forward to incorporating some of the newer, far more realistic and dynamically sculpted Gallic Warriors from Italeri:

Here's a few more or less in progress.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

jarnot's duncan

Ben asks me to expand a bit on my praise of Lisa Jarnot's Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography. Maybe the word "footwork" wasn't the best; maybe I should have said "spadework," or "ground-work." Any way –

What's evident thruout her book is a massive organizational effort, one which I can sympathize with & understand, having done something similar (or parallel) with the LZ biography. When you begin a book like this – that is, a first comprehensive biography of someone about whom much is known, but whose life has never been told at length – there's an enormous amount of sorting and filing to be done. I'll speak to my own methods, since I don't really know precisely what road Jarnot took, but I began by constructing chronological databases, based more or less on what sources were out there (Dictionary of Literary Biography articles, biographical sketches, etc.): one database of writings, sorted first by composition date (when known) and then by publication date; then another database of events (education, jobs, addresses, meetings with important people, readings, illnesses, etc.). Those databases constituted a kind of skeleton for everything – the girders beneath the fabric of the narrative, as it were.

Then the real work began: reading everything possible by, about, and around the subject. Of course LZ's works – I had already read everything several times, but was constantly re-reading. (When it actually came down to writing a given chapter, I'd re-read everything LZ had written during that period, just to have it fresh in my mind.) Perhaps as importantly, from a biographical standpoint, was correspondence: I tried to read every extant letter LZ had written, and every letter he'd received. Contemporaneous letters are the gold standard for biographical evidence, so far as I'm concerned, and I tried to back up every statement of "fact" with a letter written as near as possible the actual event. As I read letters, I entered the gist of their contents into the "events" database, often altering the orders and dates of events as better evidence emerged.

Interviews as well got sifted into the mix; they proved more useful for human "impressions" of events than for actual hard data, it became rapidly clear – people have great memories for their own first impressions of someone, but their memories for dates and places are far less reliable.

At any event, I ended up with several thousands of pages of photocopies and notes before I even began the actual writing of the thing, which was a wholly different challenge: how to pour as much of this material as possible into a readable narrative, one that wouldn't be clogged or overburdened with detail, yet would convey the shape of LZ's life and writing career. Looking back, I think I achieved maybe 60% of what I hoped to do.

Jarnot, I suspect, had a much larger mass of material to work with – after all, Duncan spent a large proportion of his later years on the road doing readings and visiting teaching gigs, and he seemed to be in more or less constant correspondence with Jess during that period: a lot of letters to take account of, a lot of quotidian data. She's had a hell of a lot of stuff to sort through and make into a book, and she's done a very solid job of it indeed.

Monday, December 10, 2012


I turned in my grades last night, just under the wire as usual. I'd tried something new in my undergraduate course: sick to death of taking roll and trying to enforce attendance policies (please, Professor S, I had to miss class because my car broke down...), I built a huge quiz component into the final grade. I  told them I was giving at least 10 quizzes over the course of the semester; that the quizzes would be more or less mindlessly easy if they'd done the reading for the class; that the quiz would always happen first thing, so they needed to be on time; that I would end up dropping at least one or two of the lowest grades; and that this would constitute 20% of their final grade.

I got generous; I ended up giving not 10 or 11, but 12 quizzes – and averaged them all in, even though that gave them the possibility of getting extra points. I gave quizzes that had more than the normal number questions, but averaged them in as if they were the regular. And some of the students still ended up losing a sold 10 or 11 points off the top of their grades.
The graduate seminar papers were far more pleasant to read than the undergrad grades had been to calculate. I learned some things, as one is supposed to do in a graduate seminar. I miss my seminar already: what will I do with my Wednesday nights, now there's no-one to talk Ruskin to?
Going back and forth between Joan Evans's splendid 1954 biography John Ruskin and Lisa Jarnot's splendid (in very different ways) Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus (2012). Jarnot has done her footwork in ways that I suspect only another biographer can fully appreciate.

Saturday, December 08, 2012


Alone in the house today; everybody's else's off at of all things a Swedish Xmas fest, Santa Lucia and a bazaar and so forth. I had a hankering to go myself, but I'm deeply sunk in the slough of finishing up grading. Just read and marked the last of the Ruskin seminar papers (the last on hand, that is – still waiting for a couple of laggards), and am about to plunge into crunching the numbers for my undergraduate "Intro to Literary Studies" course. Looking back at my syllabus, I realize that I've come up with an insanely complex algorithm for determining final grades. This may take hours.
Yes, I've finished. Consummatum est. That is, the other day I finished the last substantive volume of the Ruskin Library edition, Vol. 37, part two of the Letters. Right now I'm working my way through the Bibliography volume, which has its own anal-retentive pleasures. Expect a longish blog post on the experience of reading thru all of Ruskin over a two-and-a-half-year stretch. And then another on the wonders of the apparatus volumes (the bibliography, the general index) of this edition.
My next few weeks are pretty clearly laid out for me, & it looks busy indeed. A major essay to be given a huge overhaul before Christmas; the holiday; then a jaunt north to NYC for a few days, then to Boston for the MLA (thankfully, my major task will be child care; and there's an enormous hobby shop in the Boston area I have my eye on for visiting); back to Boca just in time to start teaching.
Teaching: this Spring there's an undergraduate American modernism course, which I could probably teach in my sleep, but which I'm rather excited about. We're doing Pound, Eliot, WCW, Stein, Barnes, and Faulkner. And then there's a graduate poetry workshop, for which I just got around to ordering the books the other day:
LZ, Selected Poems
Basil Bunting, Complete Poems
JH Prynne, Pearls that Were and Triodes
Michael Palmer, Thread
Jill Magi, SLOT
Cole Swensen, Gravesend
Jena Osman, Public Figures