Sunday, October 23, 2005

dispatch from the Sunshine State

About two-thirds thru putting up the shutters, and I've got to take a break. It's a warm, all-too-sunny day, and our house has all too many windows. Your standard Florida hurricane shutters are corrugated aluminum, cut to fit over windows. You heft them out of whatever hidey-hole they've been stored in and lay them over preset bolts, then fasten with wingnuts. A wingnut driver on the power drill is a necessity. My right hand is still vibrating.

Another reason (aside from the hurricanes) that I love Florida.

En Attendant...

Recently read:

Damon Krukowski, 5000 Musical Terms (chapbook, Burning Deck, 1995). Damon Krukowski’s a cult-level rock star (drummer for Galaxie 500 and half of Damon and Naomi, with Naomi Yang). He’s also a pretty darned good poet. (Entirely irrelevantly, I gather he was as well a high school classmate of my wife’s.) 5000 Music Terms gathers 17 mostly long-lined, low-keyed poems that make wonderful use of found language and previous texts, and that maintain a scrupulous impersonality. An impersonal late Ashbery, perhaps. Or the poems remind me – this might be far-fetched – of Ronald Johnson’s prose pieces (why doesn’t someone collect them?), minus the endearing flights.

John Latta, Breeze (U of Notre Dame P, 2003). Those who follow John Latta’s Rue Hazard (and followed his Hotel Point) will not be surprised by the voice of the poems in Breeze: intelligent; whimsical; intoxicated with the sounds and shapes of words (one of the most fascinating formal devices here is sheer lexical repetition, the same word or phrase reappearing from two, three, or twenty lines before); given to rumination in the best sense, where the cud brought up from the second or fifteenth stomach has become something shiningly different from the window-scene ingested at the poem’s head. Like Krukowski, Latta refuses to abandon or undermine syntax. At all times, these poems’ sentences have the stately pseudo-logic of Stevens’s great mediations; at their best, they weave laceworks like Mallarmé sonnets.
“Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”
Moby-Dick, Chapter 17: The Ramadan

“He was but shabbily apparelled in faded jacket and patched trowsers; a rag of a black handkerchief investing his neck. A confluent small-pox had in all directions flowed over his face, and left it like the complicated ribbed bed of a torrent, when the rushing waters have been dried up.”
–Chapter 19: The Prophet

Spending inordinate amounts of time with the National Hurricane Center’s and the Weather Channel’s websites, though I find it hard to take a storm named “Wilma” seriously enough. (Seen on the web, a signboard: “Go Back to Bedrock!”) The shutters, a half-ton of corrugated aluminum, go up tomorrow afternoon. I have fantasies of being the sole Palm Beach County casualty of the storm, the fellow who clipped off a brace of toes installing his storm shutters…

Friday, October 21, 2005

Bad Writing in High Places

I suppose everybody's already read David Brooks's excoriation of Harriet Miers's prose style in the Times,* but it's hard to resist quoting those sentences, wonderful clouds of meaningless abstraction and ham-fisted nominalization, once again:
More and more, the intractable problems in our society have one answer: broad-based intolerance of unacceptable conditions and a commitment by many to fix problems.

We must end collective acceptance of inappropriate conduct and increase education in professionalism.

When consensus of diverse leadership can be achieved on issues of importance, the greatest impact can be achieved.

An organization must also implement programs to fulfill strategies established through its goals and mission. Methods for evaluation of these strategies are a necessity. With the framework of mission, goals, strategies, programs, and methods for evaluation in place, a meaningful budgeting process can begin.

We have to understand and appreciate that achieving justice for all is in jeopardy before a call to arms to assist in obtaining support for the justice system will be effective. Achieving the necessary understanding and appreciation of why the challenge is so important, we can then turn to the task of providing the much needed support.
Two thoughts:
1) Miers never studied Latin.
2) I've seen more energetic prose in education textbooks – & that's scary.

*I'm linking a reprint, since the Times has recently started charging for all their best editorials.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Peri Bathous

or, the Art of Sinking in Poetry (part i of an endless series). Sometimes you happen upon a poem whose basic metaphorical premise is just so badly misjudged that it's almost unbelievable. Case in point: "Hands," by Donald Finkel (not to be confused with Norman Finkelstein):
The poem makes truth a little more disturbing,
like a good bra, lifts it and holds it out
in both hands. (In some of the flashier stores
there's a model with the hands stitched on, in red or black.)

Lately the world you wed, for want of such hands,
sags in the bed beside you like a tired wife.
For want of such hands, the face of the moon is bored,
the tree does not stretch and yearn, nor the groin tighten.

Devious or frank, in any case,
the poem is calculated to arouse.
Lean back and let its hands play freely on you:
there comes a moment, lifted and aroused,
when the two of you are equally beautiful.

Oh, That Again: Exogamous Reading

Jonathan Mayhew, a bit over a week ago, put up a handy-dandy quiz (in response to a perfectly reasonable request by Laurel Snyder) that, much like that quiz-thingies you can post to fill up dead space on your blog (“Which Medieval Saint Are YOU?”), can tell you instantly whether you’re School Of Quietude or Post-Avant. It’s pretty simple: Do you prefer
Norman Dubie, C.K. Williams, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Sandra Gilbert, James Dickey, Howard Moss, Robert Pinsky, Norman Finkelstein, Charles Wright, Charles Simic...


Clark Coolidge, Susan Howe, Tony Towle, Bernadette Mayer, Ronald Johnson, Jess Mynes, Nada Gordon, Lisa Jarnot...

Would you rather inherit a complete set of Sulfur or Ploughshares ?

(My friend Norman Finkelstein, champion of the Olson-Duncan-Johnson line, would have a cow… or maybe Jonathan meant the other Norman F?) By this quiz, I guess I fall into the “post-avant” crowd; but I can see tweaking the first list ever so slightly (how about James Merrill, Anthony Hecht, Harvey Shapiro, Allen Grossman, Jackie Kay, Amy Gerstler, etc.) so that I’d become a full-fledged “eclectic.”

Now, it’s easy enough to poke holes in Jonathan’s quiz – lots of his commentators did, & he himself seems to have had some 2nd thoughts. & I have a lot of sympathy with Kevin André Elliott’s sharp little comment in “Trying to Build a Poetics,” where he puts “The School of Quietude vs. the Avant-Garde (as well as all of the various permutations of this dichotomy--it's so tired)” numero uno among the things he’d like to see vanish from poetry and poetics discussions.

But the dichotomy keeps coming back in one form or another, and not just on Ron Silliman’s consistently anti-quietudinous blog. It’s the latest form of the hoary old “avant-garde / mainstream” distinction that kept Poe, Pound, Williams etc. fuelled with creative energy and self-righteousness. And of course its real genealogy goes all the way back to John Calvin (and Romans), with the whole notion of the “elect” and the “reprobate” who may be sitting together in the same kirk today, but whom the Lord will separate once and for all come the Day of Judgement.

For a moment, let’s set aside both literary politics, the whole business of prizes and publishing series and university appointments and so forth; and let’s also set aside the very real aesthetic differences among poets. I take it as axiomatic that Mina Loy ≠ Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louis Zukofsky ≠ Stanley Kunitz, Brad Leithauser ≠ Charles Bernstein, etc., and that those not-equal-signs are significant. But even if they weren’t, I suspect one factor working within the dichotomizing of the field within our reading is the sheer volume of poetry out there, even within a single aesthetic stance. Whether you say, “I’ll only read formally regular, readily comprehensible verse that appeals to a middle-class, fairly well educated but complacent sensibility” or “I’ll only read absolutely opaque work that mounts implicit critiques against late capitalism” or “I’ll only read poems that include images of water,” you still have more poems and collections of poems being published every year than can possibly be read (by one person, holding a job – much less with a family etc.). So divisions like SoQ/PA are enormously useful for the rather commonplace reason that they reduce the time one needs to spend shopping – er, reading – in order to “keep up.”

For my own part I try to read at least one, sometimes two or more, newish books of poetry every week, but in no way do I feel that I’m managing to keep my finger on the pulse of contemporary writing, especially given the pace at which new work emerges.* (I won’t dwell on the economics of this, save to say that given the absolute lack of decent library facilities down here, if I weren’t a really shameless consumer I wouldn’t be able to do nearly as much as I do – when’s that “gift economy” going to kick in?) And that’s only considering writing in modes that I find most immediately congenial. In a note Eliot Weinberger published in Sulfur back in 1981 (collected in a book which turns out to be, of course, inevitably, stacked under a dozen other books and about 40 CDs), he laments “the elimination of exogamous reading. It has become so hectic in one’s own longhouse that one rarely has the time or stamina for visits to the other clans.” Amen. I suspect most of my comrades in the alt-poetry world couldn’t tell James Wright from Franz Wright, Stanley Moss from Stanley Kunitz, Louise Glück from Louis Simpson.

But like Weinberger, I think it’s important that one devote some moiety of one’s reading time to poets one doesn’t find immediately congenial: not so much to “know the enemy” or to embody some kind of rare “eclecticism,” as to remain open to pleasures that one might not otherwise suspect. I know no-one writing in the various P-A modes today who can graph ethical and spiritual ambiguity as accurately as Geoffrey Hill, and however tiresome the heirs of Celan and Oppen might find her chattiness (I know I do very often), there’s occasionally something wonderfully bracing and refreshing about Jacqueline Osherow’s conjuncture of formal traditionalism and casual banter. Try them; maybe something will click with you as well.

*Some wonderful reflections on this by both Steve Evans and Nathaniel Tarn, recounted by Evans in The Poker 6, recently (gratefully) received.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Guy Davenport says somewhere that one of the pleasures of being an academic is getting to reread good books lots of times. Just finished The Sound and the Fury for maybe the half-dozenth or eighth time. A book so good it makes me feel dirty just to talk about it sometimes.
I could hear Queenie’s feet and the bright shapes went smooth and steady on both sides, the shadows of them flowing across Queenie’s back. They went on like the bright tops of wheels. Then those on one side stopped at the tall white post where the soldier was. But on the other side they went on smooth and steady, but a little slower.
The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.

But Faulkner (that’s Fawk-nuh, not Faullk-nurr, you damned carpetbaggers!) maybe tries too hard with that ending, wants to pull his whole chaos of idiocy, incest, despair, cruelty and freedom into too neat & shapely a well-wrought urn. Or is it the order of entropy, the nothingness into which all of the pain of the Compsons has finally settled?
I assigned the same Vintage edition I’ve taught from for 10 years now – perhaps too lazy to transfer my notes and markings – and then felt guilty that I hadn’t given them the Norton Critical Edition. But by golly, the Norton for all its interpretive essays and background documents has almost no notes to the actual text. Doesn’t even tell you what a Bluegum is, or who “Agnes Mabel Becky” are. (“Bluegum” = a black conjurer with a fatal bite; “Agnes Mabel Becky” = the “merry widows” pictured on the containers for Merry Widow brand condoms.)
Yul Brynner (with hair) played brother Jason in the movie, which I remember only vaguely from a single late-night tv viewing long ago.
A week in the sun and my gills are still faintly bluish.
Appendix to the Pinter poem, which sparked some spirited discussion on Say Something Wonderful: “But Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find. Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds good.” –Tolkien, Appendix F to Lord of the Rings

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Between 3.50 and 4.30 this afternoon I got a cluster of spam* e-mails – more precisely, the same spam e-mail, from fifteen different addresses. Not particularly a banner event, but I remain amused at the names generated for the senders, most of them contenders for the Rufus T. Firefly Award for Absurd Nomenclature. Dig:
Bart S. Admitting
Methanol H. Bulgiest
Forerunner V. Latency
Dragonfly F. Courier
Toilets C. Deluge
Rumors K. Forsaking
Lockheed S. Outlasts
Fowl S. Mizzen
Containers D. Guerra
Marsha G. Braking
Viennese F. Ocarina
Baal K. Councils
Discontinue I. Perceive
Linguistics U. Genaro
Mollification U. Selvage

*The closer I look, the odder they seem. Each email claims, on behalf of the Kavkaz Center (which calls itself a news agency serving Chechnya, the Caucausus, and the Islamic world, but which actually seems to be a Chechyn separatist mouthpiece), that Russian special services are sending out spam under Kavkaz's name: an odd, Borgesian spam message, no?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Notes & Noted

For Eric, in re/ annotating: Fritz Senn, finest Joyce critic alive, writes in an 15-page (!)essay on the epigraph to Portrait:
Commentaries are designed to provide welcome remedies. They tend to dispel ignorance with concise strokes, and with the attendant danger of wholesale skipping. To approach Joyce we may all need notes, at some stage. Notes (by the way, the exact opposite of "ignotas") unfortunately have to parcel out instant information which, when in print, can be taken for relevant truth. By their nature, notes are goal- and object-oriented, not toward the inquisitive endeavor (it's their aim to shortcut this). In our comprehensive wisdom we may underrate the motive force of ignorance (of the Socratic kind). If Odysseus had set out from Troy with a copy of The Mediterranean on Five Drachmas a Day he would have saved himself enormous trouble, but the Odyssey would have become a much more tedious epic or, more likely, none at all. Commentators also like to think that a final, clinching gloss supersedes all the previous trials and errors when the best glosses, actually, can hardly be anything else.
On the other hand, in re/ your Harold Pinter comment: No, of course Pinter's "American Football" was probably not a big "hit" in Kuwait, nor in Washington, Tel Aviv, or the Royal Court of Saud. Spenser, I suppose, whom Simon Shepherd calls "a penpusher in the service of imperialism," could have written a victory ode that would have gone down better at the courts and Hilton lobbies of the "liberators" and liberated. And I imagine you & I agree that the best political poems – not necessarily the most stirring – are deeply shot thru with ambiguities and misgivings: my own favorite is Marvell's "Horatian Ode" to Oliver Cromwell. Which was not a big hit for the Drogheda survivors, either. But one does not have to concur with Pinter's politics – his opposition to NATO's Kossovo intervention is a notorious example – even with his stance on the (first) Gulf War, to see that what he assaults so energetically in "American Football" – American triumphalism, American arrogance, the American cult of physicality and violence, the combination of sexuality and physical aggression that too often defines American masculinity, etc. – richly deserves energetic assault.
Recently read:

Katy Lederer, Music, No Staves (Potes & Poets, 1998): A very spare, very beautiful, & quite affecting chapbook; its poetic is announced midway thru: "MONK MONK / MONK MONK" – Thelonious Monk, I take it, his awkward elegant stutters & repetitions, above all the speaking silences of his music, reproduced in the pregnant & echoing blank space of Lederer's pages. Cf. John Taggart's "Monk" in Loop (Sun & Moon, 1991).

Jena Osman, An Essay in Asterisks (Roof, 2005): 12 or 13 years ago a friend fingered Osman to me as one of the major "players" of her generation. She was then, and she is even moreso now. A magnificent, dense, complex, playful book. Osman seems determined to writng every bit of torque possible out of a menagerie of source texts, pressing language that ranges from the lyrical (Dickinson) to the flatly prosaic (Supreme Court documents, the natterings of Rumsfeld & co.) through machines of unlikely transformation, until there emerges something indeed rich & strange.

Pascal Quignard, Sarx (trans. Keith Waldrop, Burning Deck, 1997): A poetic essay, brutal and learned, on sarcasm: "The Greek verb sarkazein: 'to bite into the flesh.' / From sarx, flesh. Sarkasmos, sarcasmus: to bit into the flesh." In a chilly & calculated modernist idiom, Quignard marshalls formidable classical chops (including a truly stomach-turning passage from Herodotus) to a meditation on violence & language.
Maybe this should be The Season of The Chapbook, ie the season I read through some of the masses that have gone unread on my shelves (but not yours, no not yours...).

Harold Pinter, "American Football"

Interesting right-wing backlash to the Pinter Nobel, as detailed here. I don't care much for his poetry, but I like this:

American Football

(A Reflection upon the Gulf War)

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.

We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.

It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
They suffocated in their own shit!

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew them into fucking shit.
They are eating it.

Praise the Lord for all good things.

We blew their balls into shards of dust,
Into shards of fucking dust.

We did it.

Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Annotation and Its Discontents ii

(unfortunately pedagogical)
Do I trust Google? Up in Tuscaloosa Jeremy Hawkins has been pondering the relationship of readers’ googling (verb in lower-case) knotty places in the poems they read, & more conventional forms of print annotation. (Interestingly, Jeff Twitchell-Waas’s notes that much of the work for “sourcing” Zukofsky displayed so fruitfully on his Z-Site – tell all your friends, ring the bells, etc. – involved no more than googling phrases.) I suppose I’m of many minds, & the direction in which my thinking leans has much to do with which of my hats I’m wearing at any given moment – the professor’s mortarboard, the poet’s fedora, the scholar-biographer’s skullcap, the critic’s big paper dunce-cap, etc. And all of this is tangled up with the issue of annotation I skated by the other day, & the notion of “contingency” that Bob Archambeau has been learnedly worrying. (And even, I guess, questions of “difficulty” & accessibility that were kicked around months ago, but which seem to reappear in the first 4 weeks of every semester I teach.)

•I do not encourage my students to rely on Google as a research tool; they rely on it anyway, because it is easy, and because they – like their teacher – are often over-programmed, overburdened, or simply lazy.

•Searching Google for a piece of information is rather like trying to find the one right book in a poorly-organized but massive second-hand bookstore, where if you’re looking for something on (say) Kaballah, you’re more likely to find a brochure from the Kaballah Centre™ than one of Gershom Scholem’s magisterial studies.

•Annotations of any sort are indeed often a hindrance to a 1st reading of a poem. I tackled Maximus years ago with Butterick’s Guide open on the table beside it – & ended up shutting Butterick after 20 or 30 pages: it was simply too great an impediment to a continuous experience of the poem.

•There are moments, however, when my reading experience – even a first reading – is simply stopped dead by an unexplained but clearly crucial reference. (Happens about 5 times per page with recent Geoffrey Hill.) In those case, when I need just enough to get on with it, Google is usually a fair substitute for editorial annotation.

•The web as searched by Google, however, is a randomly organized, wildly repetitive mass of data whose reliability varies from the rock-solid to entirely nil. The advantage of editorial annotation, whether at the foot of the page in a Norton Anthology or in a self-contained volume like Butterick on Olson or Terrell on Pound, lies in the fact that the author has compiled her or his annotations with that particular poem in mind. Annotating on the fly with Google is often the Forsterian “Only connect” gone mad, metastasized.

•Which doesn’t mean that “scholarly” annotations are particularly trustworthy, either. (I’ve found at least two errors/inaccuracies in the notes Frank Kermode provides for the Penguin Waste Land, and this from a scholar the latch of whose sandals I’m not worthy to do up.) One of the dazzlements of Lawrence Rainey’s Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos (U Chicago, 1991) is that it shows precisely how unreliable – in certain ideologically crucial ways – Terrell’s Companion to the Cantos is. Terrell presents the historical referents behind Pound’s references as tho they were absolute and immutable historical fact, rather than controversial events and figures, mediated repeatedly by 1) the often highly biased sources upon which Pound relied and 2) Pound’s own often highly biased presentation of them. So what Terrell gives us, in the guise of the bedrock, real-life backstory to the poem, is often actually no more or less than Pound’s own construction of that backstory.

•When it comes to real scholarship – and that kind of work is still being done, and still deserves doing – and, for that matter, when it comes to a true, intimate knowledge of a poet’s work, there is ultimately no substitute for making one’s way thru the same things that the poet her- or himself read. Note: I am not speaking of useful criticism, or of a useful working knowledge of a poet’s techniques. What I’m speaking of, sadly enough, is a kind of knowledge – something like the anthropologist’s “thick description” – that it’s probably only possible to acquire of a handful of poets over a lifetime. At some point in one’s life, one has to decide whether one is – in Isaiah Berlin’s terms – a “hedgehog” or a “fox.”
Oh but isn’t that depressing. I’ve shaved – entirely, cleanly – for the first time in maybe half a decade. It gives me a decided non-rakish look, all the sexual magnetism of middle-aged Adorno – or perhaps Elmer Fudd.
“…I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” –J. R. R. Tolkien, Foreword to 2nd ed. of Lord of the Rings

Thursday, October 13, 2005


A slow time for blogging, mostly for reasons similar to what Eric (briefly poking his head up) details here.
A very readable new interview with Ron S., in which doesn't quite manage to avoid that John Housman tone... But Ron, please – "Alexander Pope, who may deploy all the exoskeletal features of verse, but whose tongue is prose indeed..." You are channelling T. S. Eliot here, rather than reading Pope.
RS: "The key figure in the evolution of the Bay Area scene proved to be Kenneth Rexroth, in large part because he actively sought out that role. Before he arrived, the Bay Area literary community had consisted of the likes of Ina Coolbrith, George Sterling – who I think passed away the week Rexroth arrived – and Witter Bynner, who had the first creative writing professorship at Berkeley, but had already left for the Southwest. By the time the scene began to expand at the end of the Second World War, it was Rexroth’s venue." Another reminder that I gotta read Rexroth one of these days.
John Latta in a new guise: reviewer of poetry readings. And in this case (Jeff Clark & Andrew Joron), JL's polished ironies work splendidly.
The real Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Harold Pinter. Literature Nobels for me come in two flavors: You've Gotta Be Kidding, & I Guess I Can Live With That. This one is the latter, though I'm still waiting for Susan Howe's trip to Stockholm.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Annotation and Its Discontents

Much of this weekend has been taken up marking a set of student papers from an American modernism course, a goodly number of them grappling with the question of whether it’s possible to get anything out of The Waste Land reading the poem “cold” – ie, without the aid of TSE’s notes (or the notes Frank Kermode added to the edition we’re using). Consensus among my undergrads seems to be “no,” tho I suspect that has as much to do with their own anxiety about their educations, which gets translated understandably into a kind of white-knuckled resentment against TSE’s “elitism,” as it does with the poem itself. Interestingly, many of them concede that they can follow the “mood” and general gist of the poem without “getting” the references, but can’t muster up enough negative capability to let it stand at that. Maybe they’re afraid I’m going to ask them about Wagner’s Parsifal or the precise composition of the Tarot deck on the mid-term Thursday.

Was the Dunciad the first English poem to include its own annotations? Dunno. Annotating someone else’s poem is a dicy thing, and is usually a collective endeavor. George Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, is an exception – ie, mostly GB’s own work – but far more representative is Carroll Terrell’s Companion to the Cantos, which organizes and ploughs in decades of glosses published in Paideuma and elsewhere. Here’s what I said about Louis Zukofsky and annotation exactly a year ago at the Columbia/Barnard centenary celebration:
…the extent to which Zukofsky’s poetry relies on allusion and quotation – is indeed largely constituted of quotations – makes obvious the need for a guide to “A” along the lines of Carroll F. Terrell’s Companion to the Cantos, George Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems – or the various sets of annotations available for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A very large number of “A”’s quotations and allusions have already been noted and “sourced,” but they have been done so in widely scattered books, articles, and notes. Someone with a deep knowledge of the poem and its secondary literature needs to produce a central gathering place for such annotations, so that younger commentators will not find themselves over and again repeating the work of those who have come before them. Such a “companion to ‘A’” could be web-based rather than printed, flexible and accretive, open to ongoing contributions from those working on the poem. This kind of annotation will not read the poem for us, any more than Terrell’s compilation reads The Cantos for us, but it would I believe open the poem to more fruitful and (especially) more informed commentary, from a variety of theoretical and poetic stances. We read “A” as in a glass, darkly; to see it in relation to the sources from which Zukofsky quarried much of its verbal material will only make it clearer in its fructive complexity.
I still think that’s fair. And my call has been answered (as I had no right to expect, being myself the laziest creature this side of Oblomov): Jeff Twitchell-Waas, the Singapore-based scholar of Prynne, Zukofsky, and other obliquities, has assembled a dazzling database of LZ annotations. (This, you dissertation-laborers out there, is what you’ve been waiting for!) Jeff’s “Z-site” is more than just a line-by-line guide to “A” and other poems, but includes complete bibliographies both of LZ’s own works and of the secondary literature. There’s something here, I think, for every serious LZ reader. The opening of a new era in Zukofsky scholarship. In person the Zuk would have shuddered and professed disgust, I think, but I’m convinced his shade is smiling.
A note in Robert Baker’s The Extravagant: Crossings of Modern Poetry and Modern Philosophy (U Notre Dame P, 2005) gets it right, if rather wordily:
In the United States, during the first few decades after World War II, Beat, Black Mountain, and New York School poets continued to explore a wide range of elliptical practices developed through the modernist and avantgardist period. From the mid-seventies on, Language Movement poets and others, drawing on these writers as well as earlier writers who had been marginal even within the modernist and avantgardist field (including, among others, Stein, Zukofsky, and Khlebnikov), radicalized these sorts of practices into a polemical art of the indeterminate and dispersive. In turn, and perhaps surprisingly, these practices have in recent years been loosely assimilated by many poets working in more traditional modes and only occasionally sharing the concerns – themselves extremely diverse – of these earlier modernist and avantgardist formations. Many contemporary poets, that is, appear to have adopted a similar distrust inherited modes of narrative and thematic patterning, though less commonly a distrust of expressive voice, and a sort of programmatic disjunction (or a parodic inversion of the old modernist imperative “Only connect”) now appears to be taught in writing workshops around the country. It is true that these currents develop alongside what remains the dominant poetic in this country, namely, an attenuated neoromantic poetic that, as Altieri and others have noted, seems ultimately to derive from Coleridge’s “conversation” poems: a modest, sensitive, usually elegaic art of self-expression detached from a more sweeping art of exploratory vision. Yet the poetic of indeterminate play has spread widely in the field of turn-of-the-century U.S. poetry.

Friday, October 07, 2005

And the winner is...

The 2005 Ig-Nobel Prize in Literature goes to
The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories , thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters -- General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha , Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others -- each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.

I heartily concur. Heavens, but I seem to spend most of my e-mail time following these thrilling stories. For a full list of this year's Ig-Nobel prize winners (the Prize in Medicine goes to the fellow who invented "Neuticles" – artificial replacement testicles for dogs), and for previous years' winners, go here.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Where's that Book?

Attention much divided lately: writing projects coming due, a set of student papers waiting in my bag to be marked, lots of things I want to read (as usual). Ploughing my way thru Philip K. Dick’s VALIS trilogy. I suppose I got over my bad reaction to the prose by about halfway thru VALIS, when the main characters attend the film and the whole novel shifts into this kind of paranoiac mode that always appeals to me – Crying of Lot 49, Foucault’s Pendulum. The comments on my first Dick post several days ago were instructive: I can’t help quoting Ben Friedlander’s at length:
Dick's style is not a matter of beautiful sentences but concentration and speed. [Yes, but isn’t that true of Hemingway or James M. Cain?] With other writers, there are whole novels one could summarize in a single paragraph; in Dick, there are single paragraphs one could use an entire novel to explain. This is part of the rhetoric of science fiction: the story is situated in a fully realized world, though that world is never entirely explored or explained. But Dick was one of the first writers to deploy this rhetoric for purely aesthetic ends--and he did so by taking one of the most disparaged writers in the field as his muse, A. E. Van Vogt. It's no surprise, then, that Dick's stylistic originality often looks like "bad" writing; nor that his particular innovation would appeal to Jameson. (In Marxism and Form Jameson says that style is what replaces rhetoric in middle-class culture.) To be sure, Dick's books often bear the scars of their commercial origin, but the best among them--my own favorite of the ten or so I've read is Dr. Bloodmoney--have a stylistic appeal perfectly suited to their origin. Quotation gets at some of this appeal, but description often gets at more. So I don't believe that Jameson is merely slumming when he draws on Dick's "outrageous" scenarios and premises for his own "beautifully convoluted theorization," though it may be true that Dick serves for him as A. E. Van Vogt served for Dick himself.

Well, I never said that Jameson was “slumming” when he reads Dick; but I think Ben and I might be talking past each other when we talk about "style." I’m perfectly willing to allow PKD his innovations – and now that I’m thru The Divine Invasion and itching to read the whole corpus, I think I may well be hooked as I haven’t been with a SF writer for a long time – but when I say “style,” I mean no more or less than “prose style.” And even in the matter of “concentration and speed,” I can think of a half-dozen writers who do it less sloppily than Dick.
Kenneth Cox, many of whose sentences I would trade for most critics' whole books: "One of the few to have possessed the secret of melodious English Joyce is of all writers the most Mozartian. He made the life that originally filled him with such horror appear in verbal recollection lovely and such fun. The difficulty with his writing is simply the limit set by human nature to the accumulation of aesthetic pleasure."
I took a pass on the Scorcese Dylan documentary that has so many folks so exercised lately; I’ll probably rent it sometime. I confess that I’ve never felt any real adulation for Dylan, tho I probably have twenty or so of his CDs, and a few of the songs pretty much imprinted on my mind. I guess I just don’t find him that compelling. As a songwriter, he’s “on” only about 30% of the time, and there’s hardly a song out there that doesn’t have some awkward spot that could have been brilliant with a bit more revision. As a poet – well, everything I’ve read about BD as a poet (and that includes the big book by the current Oxford Chair in Poetry, Christopher Ricks) reads like special pleading. So shoot me. For the nonce I’m watching Richard Thompson Live from Austin, TX: now there’s a songwriter whose work would reward some close readings.
Josh Corey sends a quote from Andreas Huyssens’s After the Great Divide as a birthday offering. I go to reread the essay & look for the book, only to find it near the bottom on the “handy” stack next to the back door, near the table on the porch where I do most of heavy reading. It’s there on the bottom left, between Terry Eagleton’s Heathcliff and the Great Hunger and the second volume of Tim Hilton’s life of Ruskin. I gotta get more shelves, and soon.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Felix Dies Natalis

Happy birthday, Josh!
His party photos remind me of delightful autumn days in Ithaca, when having a party outside is still possible – the afternoon temperate, the evening invigoratingly chilly. Down here it cools off a bit by around one in the morning. (Roger in a goatee – as Yul Brynner says in The King and I, "is a puzzlement"!)

Today, it turns out, is my own birthday, and it’s been a weekend of low-key but very satisfying celebration: dinner out with friends Friday, another set over last night, a diet-busting lunch today at the local New York-style deli. Among a plethora of wonderful and much-needed gifts (a Monty Python and the Holy Grail Black Knight action figure with detachable limbs – “It’s only a flesh wound!” – and finally my own copy of This Is Spinal Tap) are a lucious stack of new books, some of them now out of their shrink-wrap:
Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments
ditto, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres
The Struggle for Liberty: Seventeenth-Century English Political Tracts, in two volumes
Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, in two volumes
ditto, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion

All of these volumes – well-edited and quite beautifully produced – are publications of the Liberty Fund, a “conservative” in the old sense (libertarian and free-market based, rather than kleptocratic, theocratic, and anti-intellectual) foundation based in Indianapolis, and funded for I guess perpetuity by the fortune of one Pierre Goodrich (and after him, his widow’s). They have more money than Poetry magazine, by a long shot.

And so far as book lovers are concerned, they spend that money well.* The Fund has published a paperback edition of the U of Edinburgh P’s wonderful complete Adam Smith, Hume’s collected essays and his six-volume History of England (beats the hell out of Simon Schama for readability), and are in the process of putting out a 40+ volume series of “Natural Law and Enlightenment Classics” (from which the Kames volumes above come), which will include Hutcheson, Pufendorf, Grotius, and practically every other Enlightenment philosopher who isn’t already available in easily obtained editions. The books are a delight to hold and read, and they’re (best of all) CHEAP. ($12 is the going rate for a well-bound paperback – compare that to the average university press book, which runs around $20-25 these days.)

Goodrich, the “angel” of the foundation, was apparently a demon for “great books” approaches to attaining one’s culture, but Liberty Fund’s list goes somewhat beyond what one would expect for a “classics” publisher, and well beyond what the neocons would like us to read. Let’s face it: Hume was no firebrand of revolution, but what he had to say about established religion, and faith in general, would give Antonin Scalia a conniption fit. If one has a zillion dollars sitting around and no-one to leave it to, I can think of a lot worse ways to have disposed of one’s fortune than to establish the LF.
Birthdays are always a time of stock-taking for me, and for the last few years have been a time of mild depression and drowsy dumps. This time around has been okay: I’m hoping for the best.
And how could I forget: the heartiest of congratulations to the expanded household of Msgr. Peter O’Leary as they welcome a new addition, young master Lucian, born 30 September!

*I can’t comment on the constant seminars and discussion groups the foundation runs; while they seem to have attracted some suspicious press on the left, in general the seminars seem to be more or less conceptual think-tank gatherings devoted to promoting economic knowledge and free markets. More a soft Ayn Rand than Ralph Reed.