I used to post a year’s-end list of books I’d read and been impressed by; 2016, however, has been such a eventual year that it seems appropriate to get a bit more garrulous.
Yes, this has been a strange year—in many ways, an awful year. I don’t really want to get into the central event casting its shadow backward over everything that came before: the election. Is it enough to say that I’m sad, and fearful, and sick at heart? I have friends from most parts of the political spectrum, and no one I know—even the dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, even those who hated Obama, and who loathed Clinton—is particularly happy about Trump’s victory. I know there are Americans out there who are delighted about the Trump win—but I’m afraid holding that opinion is a deal-breaker for me: I want to know more about you, but I don’t really want to know you.
And then there were the celebrity deaths. It’s an actuarial matter, of course. The generation born after World War II, those who make up the vast majority of the stars of the pop music of the 60s and 70s, are getting to be that age. Some of them are dying early, as some members of every generation die. That doesn’t change the fact that we’re moved at the unexpected passing of people whom we’ve never actually met, but whose works and whose public personae have had a huge impact on our own formation.
I can’t really overstate what David Bowie’s music meant to me when I was young. The Berlin “trilogy” of albums, especially—Low, “Heroes” , and Lodger—were central to how I conceived of music, and art-making in general, in my late teens. I hadn’t listened to his later work much when I downloaded Blackstar, and found myself flattened by the power and subtlety of which Bowie was still capable.
I was unexpectedly moved by the news of George Michael’s death. I can’t say I was a huge George Michael fan—I don’t know that I ever bought one one of his records. But I listened quite attentively and with much pleasure whenever his songs were played, and I watched the videos on MTV (back when they played music videos) over and over again. Watching them again, I realize how much those music videos—Michael’s, but also Madonna’s, Howard Jones’s, Cyndi Lauper’s, and a host of others’—provided a generation of viewers, me among them, not merely with a fashion sense, but with a whole vocabulary of sexuality and interpersonal emotion.
In the literary world, the passing that most moved me was that of Geoffrey Hill. I’d begun my exploration of his poetry some 25 years ago with a kind of detachment—this isn’t really the sort of thing that I’m into, but it’s definitely worth thinking about, and so forth. Over the years, as Hill branched out in new directions, and as I did a bit of maturing myself, his work became more and more important to me. I suppose at the beginning of 2016 I’d have had to admit that no living poet’s work meant more to me than his.
But enough of deaths for the moment. My life has changed over the past year. I suppose I’ve accomplished things, though as is the way with publications, it’s rather more a matter of things I’ve accomplished some time ago finally hitting print. I’m still kind of gobsmacked to have had three books published over a twelve-month period: Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries from U of Alabama in late 2015, Michael Moorcock: Fantasy, Fiction and the World’s Pain from McFarland a few months later, and The Mathematical Sublime: Writing About Poetry from MadHat just a few weeks ago. Still pinching myself. Predictably, the Moorcock book is the one that’s got the most reviews, on the blogosphere and the reading group websites and the SF/fantasy world; Intricate Thicket seems to have sunk without a trace; I hope Mathematical Sublime finds a few more readers.
More importantly: we have thrown over our positions at Our Fair University, and moved to divide our time between Manhattan and New Jersey. For better or worse, no more moaning about Florida weather, Florida drivers, and (the lack of) Florida culture. I am trying to retool myself as a New Yorker these days, with mixed success. I don’t miss grading papers at all; I occasionally find myself missing teaching students, but most of all I miss the colleagues I have come to value and love, and I miss the proximity of the friends I’ve made over the last two decades, though I hope to maintain the friendships.
Moving twenty years worth of books, papers, and musical instruments has been a profoundly disruptive experience. Most of my books (including cartons and cartons of unread poetry) have yet to be unpacked, and my usual pace of reading has been much retarded. So finally, not a “best of 2016” list, but a list of some of the books of poetry (not all of them first published this past year) that’ve impressed themselves on me over the year:
Eva Hooker, Godwit
Geneva Chao, One of Us Is Wave One of Us Is Shore
Norman Finkelstein, The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New and Selected Poems
John Matthias, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro and Other Poems
Peter O’Leary, The Sampo
John Peck, Cantilena
J. H. Prynne, The White Stones
Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came
Ken Taylor, Self-Portrait as Joseph Cornell
Elizabeth Robinson, Counterpart