Thursday, May 11, 2017

the new Tsar

Reading Bob Archambeau's little memoir of Ron Ellingson and Chicago's Aspidistra Bookstore in Bob's latest collection, Inventions of a Barbarous Age, I'm reminded of various bookstores in which I've spent time over the years. There have been many—Blacksburg's Softcovers, Ithaca's Blue Fox, Boca's BookWise, and any number of places in Washington DC and New York City. I haven't often struck up relationships with booksellers, alas, though when I have—Dave Wulf of BookWise, Sean Norton of Reston's Book Alcove—I've valued them. For a long time I've written my name in books, along with date and place of acquisition. Not usually the precise bookshop—but I can usually remember that, oddly enough, just by handling the book.

Reading Martin Gilbert's very long and not particularly good history of the First World War, I've gotten to the overthrow of the Tsar Nicholas and the Bolshevik revolution. Which reminded me, as it always does, of an incident in a bookshop in Alexandria, Virginia, a little over twenty years ago.

It was an odd place—in a kind of anonymous office space, as I remember it: not really a retail center at all, but a unit of office space that was being used as a bookshop. Well-organized; much of the stock seemed to consist of Library of Congress extra copies, or so they were stamped. I came up to the counter with five books: Terence Irwin's Aristotle's First Principles, three volumes of Mallarm√©'s letters in the big French paperbacks, and a nice hardcover Grove Press de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom.

The proprietor was an old man, heavily overweight, bald on the crown though long-haired otherwise, speaking with a thick eastern European accent. He chuckled at the de Sade: "You better not let your girlfriend see that!" As I paid for my books, he rambled on about how long he'd been in America. Then, apropos of nothing in particular, he started telling me about his childhood in Russia, how he'd grown up in St. Petersburg. "One day, my mother takes me out to the street. She holds me up, and there is a big car passing by, and a man in it with a uniform and a crew-cut. 'Look,' she says, 'it is the new Tsar!'"

He pauses. "It was Kerensky."

[Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky (1881-1970), for something less than four months leader of the Russian provisional government after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II; went into exile after being forced from power in the Bolshevik October Revolution of 1917]

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

many Morrises

Yes, that's the Cambridge Library Edition of William Morris — a nicely-produced, print-on-demand reprint of the twenty-four volume Collected Works his daughter May Morris edited early in the last century.

I will admit that I was hoping for something rather more sumptuous in this edition; something more like the Ruskin Library Edition, with its endlessly informative introductions and its scrupulous footnotes. May Morris contents herself with reprinting the final versions of each of her father's texts, making note of some (but by no means all) of the variants in her intros. There are no footnotes, no illustrations to speak of. The typography is gorgeous, it's true, but this is a reading edition, not a state-of-the-art scholarly edition — as the Ruskin, over a hundred years after its publication, still remains.

It's taken me a long time to come around to reading Morris, I'll admit, and I wonder why. He's always been there in the background of my consciousness. Maybe, I reflect, it's because there are so many Morrises — a different William Morris for every interest.

•For those of us with radical tendencies, there's Morris the socialist. I'm also reading EP Thompson's biography of WM, in its second, revised 1977 edition. Thompson notes that he's ratcheted down the Marxism of the first 1950s edition, and has shortened the book, cutting out some of the details of Morris's socialist activities. But it's still over 800 pages long, jam-packed with analyses of Morris's readings of Marx, of how his work with the "anti-scrape" preservation society dovetails with his reading of Ruskin's socially-inflected work, etc. Morris is a foundational figure in English leftism, and there's no getting around that.

•Morris the socialist bleeds into Morris the proto-alternative-history novelist, author of News from Nowhere, the one text of his that remains in print in the most editions. This one I happened to have read a few years back, with some enjoyment, though it's a book that's frankly rather devoid of tension or incident.

•For readers of Architectural Digest, "Morris" means a kind of chair, or a family of wallpaper and fabric patterns — Morris the designer. That's probably the most widely known Morris. His design firm, founded in part to put into practice the craft-oriented principles of Ruskin's "The Nature of Gothic," ended up producing a kind of ubiquitous late-Victorian environmental decor.

•There's Morris the rather interesting poet: the poems of The Defence of Guenevere, his first book, are quite excellent, tense exercises in Victorian medievalism. He's no Tennyson in music, and no Browning in psychological penetration, but there are some really wonderful moments throughout these poems. The longer narrative things — I've just embarked on Jason, volume 2 of the set — are far more languid, so far as I can tell, but still highly readable.

•And then there's Morris the fantasist. My friends in the fantasy scholarship world recognize this Morris first and foremost: the guy who wrote these long prose romances like The Waters of the Wondrous Isle and The Wood Beyond the World. Thompson spends about six pages on these books, which take up several volumes in the Cambridge edition, but which loom far larger in the imagination of fantasy buffs (thanks largely I think to JRR Tolkien's enthusiasm for them).

•Morris the translator: When he wasn't writing epic poems or vast prose romances, or designing furniture or weaving tapestries, Morris translated the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and a stack of Icelandic sagas — in the process introducing the sagas to the English-speaking world. The classical translations are no better than okay (LZ cites some in A Test of Poetry), but the sagas are quite impressive.

In short, at least 6 overlapping Morrises, one it seems for almost any audience. I've known about each of them for ages, but they've never quite coalesced in my imagination into a single figure. Now they're beginning to, and I'm becoming more and more impressed with the man's energy and breadth.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

the letter I sent to Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee)

Dear Senator Alexander,

One of the proudest mementos of my adolescence is a photograph taken of me as a high school senior (public school) from Clarksville, being congratulated by you in the governor's office in Nashville for having been awarded a national merit scholarship. That picture must have been taken in 1981 or 1982, and I treasure it. I have followed your career with some interest since, and while we diverge on many political issues, I have always believed that you have a strong and abiding commitment to public education.

I beg you to reconsider your support for the administration's nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She has spent her life attempting to undermine public education in the United States, to reshape it according to profit-driven free market model that will in the long run benefit only rich districts and rich parents. And she is patently unqualified for the position, as her testimony before the Senate committee amply demonstrated. Not merely has she never attended a public school or worked in the field of education, but she has no grasp of, or evident interest in the real issues confronting public education in this new century, only an ideologically-driven agenda.

You have forged an impressive legacy in public service, and have repeatedly demonstrated your commitment to our schools and our children. Please don't destroy that legacy and betray that commitment by voting for Ms DeVos.

Yours truly,
Mark Scroggins

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Trump and Style

There's a video turning up frequently in my Facebook feed of the president praising Frederick Douglass in terms of astonishing banality: "Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed."

Okay, so he probably has no idea who Frederick Douglass was, or what he represents. He's been told this is a person who's important to some other people, and so the president is mechanically praising him, in the only vocabulary—impoverished, grade-school, business-oriented—he has at his command. And our response (rightly) is disbelief and ridicule.

We—writers, academics, intellectuals—are for better or worse appalled at Trump's style. We hate his hairdo, his suits, his general demeanor. We find his gold-plated apartment a kind of over-the-top parody of what a 7-year-old imagines it's like to be rich. Many of us prefer Bernie Sanders's style-less, rumpled "style." (A prime manifestation of Castiligone's sprezzatura, a style achieved precisely without any of the effort that usually goes into achieving a "look.")

There a kind of snobbishness here, as I'm nowhere near the first to point out. Whatever we don't have, we like to think we have style—if not sartorially (most poets and academics, myself included, are fashion disasters), then verbally. If we had the president's money, our apartments would be models of arts & crafts coziness, or coolly impressive midcentury modernist spaces. But barring wealth, we know language, and we bristle when we hear the repetitive, aggressive, and intellectually flattened bits of rhetoric that make up Trump's speech.

But in order to resist this new regime, we've got to do our best to ignore the stylistic flourishes of its figurehead. Every moment we spend decrying the new gold drapes in the Oval Office, the president's too-long necktie (held together with scotch tape), the Rube Goldberg haystack of his bouffant, the ghastly spectacle of his Manhattan apartment, or the rather remarkable shallowness of his vocabulary, is a moment in which our attention has lapsed from the plans, policies, and appointees that are issuing from the White House.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017


I haven't been to the annual Modern Language Association conference for maybe six or seven years, but I'll be in Philadelphia later this week. It'll be my first visit in a long time that hasn't been overshadowed by job-market responsibilities and their attendant angst; and of course it'll be my first visit as a recovering academic—though I suppose, since I'm giving a paper at an academic conference, that sort of makes me an academic anyway.

At any rate, I'll be talking about Peter O'Leary's dazzling poem The Sampo. The talk's called "The 'twilight machine': Nonhuman Poetics in Peter O'Leary's The Sampo." Come hear me Thursday afternoon. Here's the first couple of paragraphs:

Peter O’Leary—a devout but profoundly syncretic (perhaps even heterodox) Roman Catholic poet—has long been devoted to investigating the nonhuman. His first three collections, written very much under the influence of his mentor the visionary late modernist poet Ronald Johnson, are explorations of a deity conceived in emphatically non-anthropomorphic terms, if mediated through centuries of religious tradition. In his fourth book, Phosphorescence of Thought (2013), O’Leary brings his poetics to focus as much on the natural world as as the supernatural: this long poem, modeled to some degree on Whitman’s Song of Myself, envisions the processual whole of nature, from the minute details of the poet’s hikes along the Des Plaines river (birds, the movement of water), to the chemical processes of life itself, to the neural transactions by which human beings strive to make sense of their environment, all as a manifestation of deity.
            This ecopoetical shift in O’Leary’s work has ramified in interesting directions in his latest publication, the 2016 narrative poem The Sampo, which adapts passages from the Finnish national epic the Kalevala. This poem marks a number of shifts in O’Leary’s writing. Perhaps most notably, while his earlier poetry takes the lyrical, ruminative, and paratactic forms characteristic of such (broadly speaking) modernist poets as Johnson, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, and Wallace Stevens, The Sampo is a narrative poem: and a fantasy narrative, no less, a story that might even be categorized among the much-reviled “sword and sorcery” subgenre of fantasy. 

And it gets better from there...