Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Things He Packed

Image apropos of nothing in particular: it’s just that every once in a while I get the urge to dabble in the visual arts, & this is the latest product. I call it “Patti Smith Icon,” perhaps the first of a series (Adorno Icon, Johnny Cash Icon…).
In the middle of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, a pretty intense reading experience. More than anything else, it enforces an admiration for the sf reading community, a bunch of folks who don’t get a lot of respect in the “literary” community at large. The typical sf fan, that is, is caricatured as either a 15-year-old boy or a guy emotionally arrested at 15, fascinated by snazzy imaginary technologies & deathly afraid of adult relationships.

Dhalgren, an 800-page high modernist tour-de-force, puts paid to all that. Like Finnegans Wake, it’s a recursive novel, whose end fits into its beginning like the snake swallowing its own tail. Its narrative voice shifts from the third to the first person in jarring, not at all normalizable ways. Towards the end it dissolves into multivocal notebook entries. In short, it’s more formally challenging than any best-selling American novel of the last 40 years, Gravity’s Rainbow excepted.

Not, one would think, the sort of thing those Spock-eared carbuncular young men would go in for. Wrong. Dhalgren was kept in print, in pocket-sized mass market paperbacks, for twenty years before Wesleyan put it out in a big trade edition in 1996. And it sold over a million copies.
I’m off to Bellona – er, New York City – at the crack of dawn tomorrow. I’ll be checking email and maybe even blogging from there a bit. If anybody wants to get together – or better yet, wants to arrange a family-friendly lunch or a preschooler play-date – do drop me a line. See you at the Strand!

I’m not overly fond of travelling (which doesn’t mean that if you wanted to invite me to your institution to read or talk about poetry, I wouldn’t be delighted to take you up on it); perhaps the worst part for me is deciding what to pack. Other than the necessities (clothes, toiletries, the portable environments the girls seem to need), the big question right now is books. What I’ve decided on:
Ronald Johnson, ARK
---, To Do As Adam Did: Selected Poems
John Wilkinson, Contrivances
---, Proud Flesh
---, Lake Shore Drive (his latest, and I think best yet)
Something by Christopher Middleton – maybe Tankard Cat, maybe The Word Pavilion
Since Dhalgren is too much of a brick to haul around, I’ve decided on Heimito von Doderer, Every Man a Murderer. All this will almost certainly be vastly augmented by purchases before I get on the plane home; we’ll see if I get around to reading any of it.

The iPod’s staying home for a much-needed rest.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

& while we're talking self-publicity,

I've updated the links with some poems – the two "goldfinches," the "Richard Kern" epyllion, & the very old "weather division." Go read 'em.

My Life in Publishing ii

[continued from last time:] What's notable about Diaeresis's 7-chapbook list is that 6 of the total were from poets we knew and solicited (including one by my co-editor). We started with a "seed" group of 3 by 2 middling well-known poets (Hank Lazer & Cecil Giscombe) & one old friend of mine (EA Miller). But by the time the first 3 had been copied & bound, we were simply overwhelmed with manuscript submissions.

I'll be honest: I read a pretty decent amount of poetry – something like 2 or 3 slim volumes & chapbooks a week – but there're an awful lot of other things I read, as well. (I do teach things, after all, & feel an obligation to re-read before I get up & pose as some sort of expert; & I have a fairly lively fiction-, philosophy-, & theory-reading life.) And I'm simply not that great at ploughing thru manuscripts & recognizing greatness. In the event, Eric Baus's Space Between Magnets was the only ms we published that had come in over the transom, & by the time we'd finished producing Meredith Quartermain's chapbook both of us were simply overwhelmed by the volume of submissions & the demands of being "publishers."

Like everyone else, I feel some compulsion to write poems, & of course I enjoy being published – the work getting out there for someone else in the world to read. But I discovered that I didn't like being a publisher. I didn't like answering mail, sorting ms into various stacks, figuring out who'd been contacted & who hadn't, addressing envelopes & packages. And I didn't have enough of an aesthetic flair to produce a series of chapbooks that I was really proud of: I know what I like in a book, but I don't know how to achieve it on my own.

And I was reluctant to do a chapbook of my own. I wasn't sure about precisely what I'd include in such a chap, for one thing – I'd been accumulating poems for a decade and a half, & everything had a little place in my heart – & I'd internalized pobiz's market-based distaste for self-publishing (see last post) to a certain, at the time fatal, extent. I've gotten over that pretty entirely, but I've realized that at least as far as full-fledged books go, I'd rather have somebody else do it for me than do it myself. (Did I mention that I'm incurably lazy?)

So I look back at Diaeresis as a moment of education (much as my editorial work at Epoch back in the day had been), a moment that was useful and marginally productive, but that's over.*

(If I were to do it over again, I think I'd dispense with cover art & aim to produce extremely minimal, text-only packages like the various chapbooks JH Prynne has done with Equipage & Barque. In fact, I'm pretty tempted to do just that – but only with my own work: a series of "dispatches" or "visiting cards," in 12-page packets.)
Legitimacy: as per the comments to the last post, that's what it all comes down to. The legitimacy supposedly granted by external publication, and the ways in which we've internalized – especially those of us in the academic poetry industry – the legitimation procedures of the hegemonic fields in which we're forced to move.
Eric is back! And he's become a romance novel critic!?! Well. I always knew you had romance on your mind, old friend. My own temptation these days is science fiction, tho I suspect that the critical community there is a deal less welcoming than in romance fiction. Heaven knows the crap ratio in the product itself is just as high or higher. Peter O'Leary claimed once that Dune was by far the greatest sf novel ever written (dunno about that, I don't do horse races etc...); right now, probably 25 years after reading the first 4 Dune books, I'm reading the 5th, Heretics of Dune, & finding it surprisingly gripping.

*If you're reading this now & I've got your manuscript, stop holding your breath. I won't publish it. But I do apologize profusely for keeping you on tenterhooks. Drop me a line.

Friday, June 23, 2006

My Life in Publishing i

My Philip K. Dick-writing grad student, who’s doing what I’m convinced is groundbreaking work untangling the various uses & misuses of the concept of entropy in 1960s science fiction (she has the advantage of actually being a scientist, & knowing what she’s talking about) gave me a copy of Thomas M. Disch’s Camp Concentration. Very good book – Disch writes well, and thickly seeds his work with literary references. (It helps that he’s himself a poet, & his narrator – “Louis Sacchetti,” a name that strikes me as a cross between LZ and Sacco & Vanzetti – is a poet as well.) The novel, to put it vulgarly, is a cross between Mann’s Dr. Faustus & Flowers for Algernon – but much better than that sounds. I will have to ruminate a while before I decide how I feel about the snatched-out-of-the-fire-in-the-last-3-pages “happy” ending.
Jessica has posted one of the most level-headed & straightforward defenses of self-publishing that I’ve read in ages. I hope it’s read by thousands of young poets, & taken to heart.

There’s one problem, however, which I think can be summed up in that single nasty word “professionalism.” (And here I speak only of the somewhat weird & self-contradictory professionalism of the academy, & its perhaps most zany wing the creative writing industry.) It is indisputable that almost every notable ground-breaking, innovative poet in the last 2 centuries at some point availed her- or himself of some combination of self-publication, paid publication, or coterie publication. And just to remind everyone, since we keep forgetting that very few poetic career paths resemble those of Elizabeth Bishop or Robert Lowell:
William Blake
Edgar A. Poe
Walt Whitman
Emily Dickinson (what were the fascicles but the ultimate in author-controlled self-publication?)
William Carlos Williams
Gertrude Stein
Ezra Pound
TS Eliot
Louis Zukofsky
Lorine Niedecker
George Oppen
Charles Reznikoff
Lyn Hejinian
Charles Bernstein
James Merrill
WH Auden
–need one go on? A list like this, however, carries precisely zero weight in the assesssment procedures – fellowships, grants, hirings, tenure – of the academic poetry industry. The implied logic goes something like this:
Sure, William Blake & Walt Whitman & Gertrude Stein published themselves, but that was back in the bad old days, before Poetry & Prairie Schooner & Fence arrived, journals which are so in touch with what is truly alive in contemporary letters that their editors are able – largely unerringly – to select the grain from the chaff, & thereby to confer professional legitimacy upon the poems they choose to publish. & the same goes for the small presses & university presses & trade publishers who collect said poems into new slim volumes of verse & publish them at their own expense.
It's hard not to see the holes in this logic – that "their own expense" these days often amounts to "the take from the thousands of $25-a-pop contest entries"; that for most of its history since Tottel's Miscellany, poetry book publication has been largely a matter of the poet's knowing the editor or underwriting her or his own book; that basing an assessment of poetry, even implicitly, by its success in a "marketplace" (of ideas, of aesthetics, of whatever) is to buy in wholesale to a market logic that poetry implicitly and explicitly rejects.

But the illogic doesn't matter: so far as I can see, this is still the majoritarian logic within the academic poetry industry, & it accounts for much of the hand-wringing about self-publication & its variations that I see among my own MFA students & in the poetry world in general. I'm tempted to say, as Jessica does in several thousand words, "get over it, girl/boyfriend!, get out there and put your stuff into the world!" But I know that the rewards of self-publishing depend on the work itself, & the self-assurance of the self-publishing poet; it won't get you a job, & it won't get you tenure. (This assuming, of course, that you've got your heart set on settling down in academia on the basis of your poetry, rather than something else. Student from a few years back, on learning that Geoffrey Hill didn't teach poetry writing: "But what else does a poet do in the university?")
But what I meant to write about was my own short-lived venture into being a publisher, something called Diaeresis Press. Some six or seven years ago, a non-academic friend & I decided to launch a chapbook series, which we called "diaeresis," what turned out to be a wonderfully suggestive name the my friend Bill picked up from a bunch of printer-output garbage one day.

This was total DIY, samizdat-style chapbook-making. We did our own desktop typesetting, our own xeroxing (which involved lots of cutting & taping & many trips to Kinko's), and our own mailing. Publicity consisted mostly of posts to the Buffalo poetics listserv & word of mouth.

Over the course of two years, we published 7 chapbooks. For your bibliographies:
1: Hank Lazer, As It Is (1999)
2: E.A. Miller, The Underbrush of Abundance (1999)
3: C.S. Giscombe, Two Sections from Practical Geography (1999)
4: Bill Burmeister, The Gunner’s Daughter (1999)
5: Norman Finkelstein, Hineni (TRACK, continued) (2001)
6: Eric Baus, The Space Between Magnets (2001)
7: Meredith Quartermain, Spatial Relations (2001)
In retrospect I'm very proud of the press's output. Norman's Hineni was later incorporated into Powers (Spuyten Duyvil) and Eric's Space Between Magnets turned up as half of his wonderful The To Sound (Verse).
[to be continued]

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

torpid, part ii

Still few signs of life. Got a nice comment from Steve Shoemaker, who has begun his own blog, Laguna Lacuna. Check it out for, among other things, a chillingly accurate account of what it's like to be on vacation with preschoolers – how much depends on getting that naptime in, how one's restaurant evaluations begin to be based, not on how extensive their wine cellar is or how fresh the halibut is, but whether they have crayons & kids' menus that can be colored, how days start getting rated on the basis of how many diversions one found to fill up the time between wakeup and lullaby... Kids are great; vacations are great; but during a certain stretch of childhood, the two can sometimes seem like mutually exclusive terms. (I write this on the verge of our trip to NYC – we'll be there from the 28th thru the 9th; anybody want to hook up, just drop me a line.)
My parents were both from Western Kentucky, & I did a good deal of growing up there, enough to know that the current state administration – led by Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher – is, in its good-old-boy corruption, really nothing new for the bluegrass state. Turns out one of the sites doing the most to rake the muck of the Fletcher organization (something like 15 indictments at last count) is BluegrassReport.org, who were quoted in a front page New York Times article yesterday. Today, the State of Kentucky has blocked access to BluegrassReport.org on all state-owned computers, & as a tidal wave of indignation has spread across the left blogosphere, they've begun blocking other sites as well (Atrios, etc. – but not Fox News, or various right-wing blogs). Pretty sad.
A few curious readers inquire: what's that "big [Ronald] Johnson piece" of which you speak? Well, it's an omnibus review for Parnassus: Poetry in Review, of RJ's last three volumes: To Do As Adam Did, the selected poems, The Shrubberies, and the new Flood edition of Radi Os. Now that's a lot of stuff to cover, and I'm even going to stretch it a bit: since Parnassus hasn't run an RJ review since William Harmon reviewed ARK: The Foundations over 20 years ago, I see no reason why I shouldn't also cover the complete ARK (Living Batch, 1996). So really a career overview of all of RJ's work. In some ways it feels like the big RJ essay I've been building up to over the last 2 decades-plus of reading his work, & it's gonna be good.

A premium at Parnassus on the snappy and telling sentence, so while I'm at work on one of these things I tend to lie awake at night and craft zingers. A couple of fumbles theretoward:
It's unfortunate, given Johnson's twinned mythological obsessions, that Orpheus and Theseus were not a single myth: the poet-magician Orpheus, rather than descending into Hell to retrieve Eurydice in an awkwardly Jungian search for his own anima, should have navigated the treacherous labyrinth, a task instead parcelled out by the ancients to the bully-boy warrior Theseus.

Often Johnson seems like a precocious, wide-eyed, goofy teenager, pushing his tape-mended glasses up on his nose so he can seize you by the arm and make you admire the latest set of Mars photos beamed back by some NASA probe. Or a twelve-year old who's just discovered the mechanics of sex, and can't resist making smutty little jokes about the the baguette and dozen eggs you've brought in from the grocery.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Pretty apathetic days. Father's Day – yesterday – was alright – I tend to have a tough time with holidays which are supposed to be centered on me, & this was no exception. We didn't do one of these big Bérubé mini-golf-and-water-park extravaganzas, & didn't even go out to eat, but had a nice evening at a friend's "Father's Day Party," where P. & D. were the token kids, along with our friends' little boy.
It's two days before it's official, but Summer is already here in force; it's pretty much unbearable to be outside anytime before 1.00 AM, with the humidity crowding your lungs and the heat pressing down like a big hand (or like the Monty Python 16-ton weight or Foot Of God). Hard to think. The house needs painting.
Josh jogged my memory, & I've started rereading a book I bought about 20 years ago in Ithaca: Elizabeth Sewell's The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History. Not the sort of thing I'd be reading on my own, for better or worse, but it was terrifically important to Ronald Johnson in his early years (and, I sense, thruout his career), & I've got a big Johnson piece to crank out over the summer. (Where's Compostition Marble? I thought I had a subscription? Everybody's raving over the chap, & I feel like the one kid who didn't get invited to the birthday party...)
Daphne (aet. 2) gave me the new album by this Austin band The Gourds, Heavy Ornamentals (I suspect her mother had a hand in that...). Pretty cool – really deep twang, the Blasters meet Exile on Main Street meet the Derailleurs. Great band motto: "Music for the Unwashed and Well Read."
Evals for Spring semester came back. Surprisingly positive: I must be doing something wrong; way too many people commend me for a sense of humor that I'm not sure I actually possess.
Basta. More later.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Bloomsday, I suppose

Did precisely nothing to celebrate Bloomsday today, except buy a copy of yet another book of Joyce criticism. Jessica suggests that we ought to rather be reading Mrs Dalloway, which is “obviously the superior modernist work.” Oh, I’m not into horse races or weight-lifting contests. I find Mrs D a trifle too neat, too closely worked and archly written (tho I adore Woolf’s prose) – and not nearly as consistently funny as Ulysses. I guess I’m with the “Eric” Jessica quotes:
"what kind of ____ do you like?":
Madame Bovary.
Read another book?
Read Madame Bovary again.
Other people can like other books
I like one.
Madame Bovary.
Me, I like Ulysses. And Moby-Dick. And a half-dozen others. And whatever the 40 other things I’m reading at any given time. And Ulysses.
On ACTA’s “How Many Ward Churchills?” report, there’s a wonderful in-depth series of discussions on Tim Burke’s blog Easily Distracted (scroll down, and don’t miss the exhaustive comment pages). A lot of meaty thinking going on on this blog.
I appear to have overstated, or was working from years-old knowledge, when I wrote about the state of Ulysses editions; Amazon shows that Yale UP will release a Ulysses edited by the ubiquitous Lawrence Rainey later this year, and it looks like there’re between a half-dozen and a dozen editions for sale that aren’t the standard Gabler & pre-Gabler Vintage.
The weather has gone too hot & humid down here for real thinking. Makes you think, particularly since J. & I went to see An Inconvenient Truth tonight. Two movies in one week, both on ecological themes (took Pippa to see Over the Hedge Monday).
Random 10 (but be sure & check out Tony Tost’s offhanded top 25 C&W songs of all time, & Jane Dark’s dozen):

1) “Showtime, Valentine,” Gang of Four, Shrinkwrapped
2) “The Cocktail Party,” Mark Ribot, Rootless Cosmopolitans
3) “Lod,” Elliott Sharp, Nots
4) “Velouria,” Pixies, Bossanova
5) “Taking Islands in Africa,” Japan, Gentlemen Take Polaroids
6) “Barzel (Iron Fist),” John Zorn, Kristallnacht
7) “Lathe of God,” Painkiller, Guts of a Virgin
8) “The Bitter and the Sweet,” Naked City, Radio
9) “Ship of Fools,” John Cale, Fear
10) “Understand U,” New Model Army, The Love of Hopeless Causes

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Ange Mlinko has a rousing appreciation of Christopher Middleton’s Tankard Cat on Bachelardette; it’s one of the books that’s been glaring down from my shelves (“Read Me! Read Me!”) since the last time I was in New York, & I’m even more fired up about it now.
In the New Yorker, a longish profile of Joyce grandson & Literary Estate Stephen James Joyce & his relationship with the Joyce scholarly industry.* (LZ makes a cameo appearance near the middle of the piece.) It seems that finally Joyce scholars, led by among others the Joyce-scholar-turned-copyright-lawyer Bob Spoo, are challenging the Estate’s grip on JJ material. Surprisingly for me, the epicenter of the case is Carol Schloss’s 2003 FSG book, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake.

SJJ, it is reported, pressured Schloss to remove some of the material relating to Lucia Joyce, JJ’s troubled daughter – much of which SJJ did not hold the copyright for – from her book by threatening to withold permissions to quote JJ’s writings. Schloss went ahead and published a truncated version of her study (which got roundly wallopped in the reviews I read); but she’s followed it up by posting all of the deleted material on a supplemental (and not yet publically accessible) website. The Estate’s attorney’s have made threatening noises. Schloss’s attorney’s, among them Spoo, have responded by filing a lawsuit asserting the right to scholarly fair use. Some fun.

I say this is “surprising” to me, for while I had been expecting a major Joyce Estate-related piece of litigation to hit the fan any day now, I’d expected it to center on the copyright status of Ulysses itself, rather than on the even more difficult & complicated issue of scholarly use of unpublished JJ material. When the Hans Walter Gabler edition of Ulysses came out in 1986, rumor had it that one of the motivations for the Estate finally allowing a new edition was in order to revitalize their soon-to-expire copyrights. At any rate, now that the EU Berne Convention and the Sonny Bono (“Mickey Mouse”) US copyright extension have slammed a “death + 70 years” lifespan onto copyrights, the big question on this side of the Atlantic – and it’s a big question indeed – is whether the clock started ticking for Ulysses in 1922, when it was published in Paris (but when Joyce failed to secure US copyright) or in 1934, when the Ulysses “ban” was lifted in the US and the book was published over here. If it’s the latter, then Ulysses is still under copyright until 2012; if the former, then Ulysses is public domain like The Waste Land, which has come out in a half-dozen different editions – Norton Critical, a new Yale UP annotated, Dover Thrift, even a pretty decent Barnes & Noble version – over the last few years.

The Estate is fighting tooth & nail to assert that the book’s still copyrighted, which is why the various scholarly editions that would provide an alternative to the controversial (& mostly misunderstood) Gabler edition haven’t appeared. (A Norton was underway, as was a ground-breaking hypertext version; all are on ice for the nonce.) Spoo himself, in an article in the Yale Law Review, argued the case for Ulysses never having secured US copyright, in essence throwing down the gauntlet & laying down the legal groundwork for any enterprising publisher who wants to undertake a new edition & thereby take on the litigational wrath of the Estate. Nobody’s bitten, so far as I know.**

A true mare’s nest: but it’ll be interesting to watch how the least popular man in Joyce circles reacts over the next few years.

*I suspect that the New Yorker will be receiving more than one letter in the next few days remarking that D.T. Max, the article’s editor, has gone a bit far in asserting that Joyce “drank and smoked himself to death.” JJ died of an untreated perforated ulcer – perhaps a side effect of drink and cigarettes, but just as much an effect of avoiding medical attention.
**A couple of little presses, however, have gone ahead with facsimile editions of the 1922 Shakespeare & Company edition.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Tony Tost: Invisible Bride

Hurricane – I mean, Tropical Storm – Alberto passed us by leaving only a couple of days of heavy rains & some gusty winds. At this point, it looks like last month’s roofing job is going to prove watertight. Keeping my fingers crossed. It’s awfully early to be worrying about hurricanes. Ora pro nobis.

Ugly thing:
Everybody in the blogosphere involved in the American academy ought to read this report, “How Many Ward Churchills?” promulgated by something called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The report’s seemingly dispassionate tone can’t hide that what it amounts to is a set of “evidences” to support the vile David Horowitz’s nefarious “Academic Bill of Rights.” Of course, the ACTA entirely ducks out of presenting any solid alternative to the entire body of critical thinking that it attacks – leaving Horowitz to seize the role of knight-on-white-horse.

Pretty thing:
I’ve only known Tony Tost from a few emails, from his always thoughtful blog, & from his editing of the excellent Fascicle. I was very pleased, then to get ahold the other day of his excellent first book, Invisible Bride (LSU, 2004). The book reminds me intensely of Eric Baus’s similarly excellent The To Sound (Verse, 2004). Invisible Bride consists of prose poems in a personal, conversational voice that is at the same time distanced, historicized – the speaker reflects on the events of a life as if he were Robert Lowell or Adrienne Rich recalling his childhood & personal circumstances, but the events & impressions recalled are surreal, aestheticized: seemingly random, incoherent tho cohering at a larger scale. A dream-like logic operates from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

There are moments of wonderful mathematical obsessiveness (see Beckett’s Watt), like “Unawares,” in which “Tony” contemplates the best method of measuring the average distance between plums on a plum-tree, & speculates on how one might measure the distances between letters in the alphabet & work out the relationship between their sounds & their positions.
Some folks are unable to talk on the phone in a noisy office or airport while others can make a call from anywhere. Some folks break the phone because they are afraid it will ring. My father feared the ferry-boat that took us to our summer vacation home; when the horn blew he would throw himself on an imaginary sword. During my lifetime, I’ve made at least 200, 000 observations. for example, clouds often just disappear.
The preferred mode is the observational, the statement of “fact”; preferred verb tenses are the present and the simple past. This lends the book an air of great calmness, of deceptive lucidity – the straight-faced recitation of a grade-school primer, rather than the balanced subordinations of a Samuel Johnson or Sir Thomas Browne. I think of the “ambient” poetry which Adalaide Morris theorized in her talk at Louisville back in February, a poetry of an even, calm surface whose individual bits of mosaic – the sentences, the paragraphs – pulse with differentiation, pull themselves in gently opposed & eyebrow-raisingly surprising directions.
What I hear are the somnambulists coming down the hall. About eight of them. They’re quick. Right now everything smells like buttermilk, but the world is still distant to me, like a cloud to its shadow. I’m the shadow. Of something bigger. I think. Like the memo says: the world is merely a path made visible and we are allotted only so much time to be strangled by it. So my advice is to go out there and raise some hell. Like the somnambulists. The fat one dreams he’s cutting a dangerous path through Arkansas back before anyone even bothered calling it Arkansas, when everyone stayed up all night smoking and worrying about the new shit popping up on the maps, when a disease could spread across a city like coffee spilled on a map. This fat one moves quickly because in his dream there’s less history to drag around. I find this genuinely moving. [….]

I love trivia.

Did you know that Rick James and Neil Young played together in a band called The Mynah Birds? Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was once given a 1,235-pound hunk of cheese, giving us the term “the big cheese”? That sleepwalkers are not allowed int eh armed services because of the threat they pose when they have access to dangerous equipment and are unaware of what they are doing? I have razors hidden throughout my room, so I’m curious as to what will happen when all the somnambulists get in here.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Week’s End

Some of this week’s errata:

•John Matthias’s Twenty-Three Modern British Poets was published, not by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press, but by the Swallow Press of Chicago, editor Michael Anania. (What’s with animals and presses? – Penguins, Puffins, Peregrines, Borzois, Wolfhounds, etc.)

•Ruskin’s Modern Painters is not in 7 volumes, but in 5 (with a 6th of indices). Plenty long enough.
Why Young Poets Ought To Read Ruskin, according to Quentin Bell:
Ruskin, early decorated, luxuriant Ruskin, complete with crockets and crenellations is I am convinced, a model which all those of us who are learning to write should study, imitate and learn to love. I say this despite the fact that in doing so I shall find that, amongst teachers of English eyebrows will be raised, lips will probably be pursed and a variety of clucking noises will be clearly audible. ‘What’, you will say: ‘is that gold and purple prose that cloying sweetness of language to be considered wholesome fare for the young? We live in the late Twentieth Century and what style could possibly be less appropriate for us than that of the eighteen forties? The suggestion is absurd, it is as though some girder-bending, concrete-mixing, polyvinylurinated art student were told to copy Bernini.’

This of course is just what such an art student ought to do (and in saying this I am looking straight at you Jane Doe and at you, Richard Roe, both of you now majoring in creative writing at the University of Labrador). Ruskin can help you, he cannot harm you. The authors who can do you a mischief are those whom you would naturally admire, those whose writings ‘make sense’ within the context of your own age, those who are still new and smart and popular and ‘relevant’. These you copy at your peril for they are saying the kind of things that you want to say, in using their phrases you may be cozened into believing that they are your own, their style is so close to yours that yours may become infected by theirs. Then indeed you may grow into a sedulous ape, a wind bag blown tight with the stale phrases of other people and then indeed you will be damned.

But the modern student who will never celebrate the glorious agonies of St Teresa, who will never be bothered by the question: how best are we to construct sheepfolds? will soon learn to look beyond those Ruskinian exclamations which at first may fill his timid twentieth century soul with confusion and alarm and he will find in the utterances of one who at first sight seems so alien, a science and a strength well worth his study. He will learn what amazing things may be done by the English Language when it is manipulated by strong and skilful hands.
Random 10:

1) “Sex Goddess,” Jon Hassell and Bluescreen, Dressing for Pleasure
2) “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” Pogues, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash
3) “Death of a Train,” Daniel Lanois, For the Beauty of Wynona
4) “Act 5, Scene 1,” Chris Cutler & Fred Frith, 2 Gentlemen in Verona
5) “The Tree,” John Zorn & Fred Frith, The Art of Memory
6) “Peppermint Rock,” French Frith Kaiser Thompson, Invisible Means
7) “Poseidon,” Judith Owens & Richard Thompson, RT Box Set
8) “When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down,” Oysterband, Holy Bandits
9) “Hazor,” Masada, Live in Sevilla
10) “Wilson Joliet,” John Cale, Helen of Troy

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Ruskin v. Beowulf

So Jessica’s decided to drop this fall’s Ruskin seminar in favor of an Old English course. Now how, if I were inclined to argue with what after all is totally her decision, would I argue between the two? First off, I’d say good on you for taking the Old English; I never did – the medievalists were pretty hardcore at Cornell (tho they also had more fun than anyone else) & I was intimidated – & I’ve regretted it ever since. But how often does one get to read Ruskin in a formal setting? (I’m of course discounting J’s prof’s zany requirement that everyone read Tim Hilton’s 900+ page biography of Ruskin over the summer – it’s a grand book, but that’s overkill; read John Batchelor or John Dixon Hunt.)

Some of the blog’s 8 readers know I have a thing for Ruskin, and perhaps I’m just being totally jealous that Jessica’s having this educational opportunity that I never had. But I am fascinated by Ruskin, & if I had to put the case for him in five points or less, it’d go something like this:
•Some of the very best, perhaps the best, English prose of the 19th century. Call it occasionally “purple,” call it overwrought, it’s still magnificent.

•Wonderfully perceptive and thought-thru art criticism; you may think he’s dead wrong about what he values and what he disses, but you can’t dismiss his discussions.

•Along with Karl Marx, the most biting social critic of the 19th century (yes, he takes it in a totally different direction than Marx, but he recognizes the cash nexus and alienated labor as the main problems in contemporary society, & he writes about them more eloquently than anyone else).

•The beginnings of cultural criticism as we know it: someone’s got to write the book that links Ruskin to Pound (who called JR a “goose,” but who owed him pretty much everything), to Benjamin, and to the rest of the Frankfurt School.

•The crucial link between Victorianism and Modernism (which I gather is the theme of the course, & which I’d give my eye-teeth to be sitting in on – can I get a syllabus when Fall comes around, Jessica?).
And of course I’m leaving aside the sheer weirdness of the guy: begins his career writing a book on Turner that morphs into a 7-volume celebration of Venetian Renaissance painting; becomes promoter-in-chief for the pre-Raphaelites; after his wife walks out of their (unconsummated, because of some hangup he had with female anatomy) marriage, becomes a confirmed (but never active) pedophile; invents, with Fors Clavigera, the weblog (only about 120 years before the internet) in between bouts of sheer barking madness.

Now doesn't that sound like more fun than the Battle of Malden and The Owl and the Nightingale?

Eaten by Media

So I spent much of yesterday building shelf-things for the big closet in my study – that is, there’re already shelves there, some of them built-ins and some of them ancient Ikeas, but I was building little supports so I could shelve two rows of CDs on the deep shelves, and thereby restore some sort of order to my life. It’s not like I buy a lot of music (consciously), but somehow I’d accumulated about 9 feet of stacked CDs all over the study (and all over the house). Anyway, after a couple hours of sawing and nailing and cursing when I hammered my thumb, then several more hours of alphabetizing and categorizing (obsessive-compulsive? moi?) I have the whole collection in order. Next comes the books, then the files.
Been reading Peter Middleton’s Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (U of Alabama P, 2005). Smart guy; I’m not so compelled by his account of the phenemenon of the poetry reading – where’s an analysis of the sheer socialized boredom of the thing? – but I’m taken with his opening chapter on “proleptic” reading. The classic literary critic, he explains, is like Jesus in the Gospel According to Luke, who reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, then explains that the prophecy has been fulfilled in his own person. In other words (Susan Noake’s, to be precise), Jesus “affirms in the present that he is the future to which the (past) text looked forward,” while the other (assumedly more Talmudic) reader “looks to the (past) text in hopes of understanding it at some moment in the future.” Middleton:
The contrast between these two types of reading illuminates the limitations of most contemporary interpretations of literary modes, because the standard model of literary interpretation similarly assumes that it can transcend the distance between itself and the inception of the text in a fulfillment of the meaning of the text. The other type of reading represented in Luke’s narrative (by the ordinary disputants) corresponds to what I shall call “distant reading,” an interpretation that acknowledges that it is only one moment of the text’s future, and only one of many “interpretants”…

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


A few things waiting for me when we got back from up North/down South: Paul Edwards’s monumental Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer (Yale UP, 2000), nifty new items from Johns Matthias and Wilkinson, and a not-so-new Matthias production, courtesy of eBay – a copy of his 1971 anthology 23 Modern British Poets (Sparrow). I’m always interested in yesteryear’s anthologies, an interest which often amounts to wondering how successful a gambler the anthologist has been: how many of the book’s picks are still current property, how many of these poets have turned out to be “winners”? Matthias’s choices, given his stated intention to chart contemporary British poets writing in a modernist tradition, might seem a trifle on the tame side to some of the alt-poetry crew – there’s Ted Hughes, Charles Tomlinson, George MacBeth, D. M. Thomas – but he lays an exceedingly solid foundation by starting out with the elder modernist trio of MacDiarmid, Bunting, and David Jones, and there’s a startlingly high proportion of “hits” in the remainder of the book. Who else on this side of the Atlantic, in 1971, was promoting Gael Turnbull, Roy Fisher, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Christopher Logue, Anselm Hollo, Lee Harwood, Nathaniel Tarn, and Tom Raworth?*

*Yes, there’s no Prynne, but Matthias notes that JHP was doing a pretty good job of “making himself invisible” back then.

Monday, June 05, 2006

G-d's Country

We got back from God’s Country earlier this evening, all wrung out & exhausted. A weird week, alternating between great fun & pretty deep depression. The weather at least was nice: tho it started out with South Florida-style basting heat, after a long rainy day midweek it turned perfect – cool nights and mornings, moderately warm & clear days. We may a few forays into the world, notably to the excellent Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and the self-consciously pomo Opryland Hotel, which aims to simulate various outdoor environments under its vast glass domes (there’s a “Delta” room which wants to be something like a micro-New Orleans), all the while revelling in the artificiality of the process. Nothing like walking through a rainforest in air-conditioned comfort.

“Opryland,” of course, is a name that evokes the Grand Ole Opry, the locus classicus of Nashville’s country music. For a long time – at least thru my own youth – there was a real Opryland, a country-music based theme park in Northwest Nashville. I must have visited it a dozen times growing up: it had all the usual ferris wheels, flume rides, and roller coasters, but it also had a half-dozen theaters, where variously-themed country music shows (not to mention soft pop and jazz) were more or less constantly being presented.

The Opryland Hotel was established in synergy with the theme park and with the Grand Ole Opry (which had relocated from the classic Ryman auditorium to a venue between the two), but eventually outgrew the relationship; the Hotel, that is, is the largest non-casino hotel in the country, while Opryland itself was but a modest amusement park. Perhaps more crucially, the Hotel was what passes in the South – and pretty much everywhere else – as a catholically interesting place to visit or to stay (you can marvel at it as the Victorians did the Crystal Palace or you can spend your time analyzing its postmodern cultural significance), while to really enjoy Opryland you had to either be 13 years old or really dig country music.

Opryland (the park) shut down about a decade ago; the site is now occupied by Opry Mills, one of the ubiquitous giant mall-things (cf. Potomac Mills in Northern Virginia, or Sawgrass Mills a few miles from Culture Industry Headquarters). The only evident connection to the Opry tradition in the mall – which is mostly populated by the familiar gothic mall-rats and tired tourist shoppers – is that one of the major “anchor” stores is a fantastically large Gibson guitar showroom.
Read a lot in the cool evenings: some poetry (mostly very good) – Liz Waldner’s wonderfully playful A Point Is That Which Has No Part, Lance Phillips’s exceedingly oblique Cur aliquid vidi, and Tom Raworth’s Clean & Well Lit: Selected Poems 1987-1995; am I alone in becoming more and more convinced that Raworth’s unit of composition is the line, and that his lines are as percussive as those of any poet working?

I also dipped into the ancient science fiction on my shelves, much of it inherited from my father. I have no idea why I never got around to reading Walter E. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz before now: an excellent book. A. E. Van Vogt’s Slan, which is universally hailed as one of the classics of old school SF, left me cold. The first half struck me as a fascinating allegory of pre-war European anti-Semitism; the second half fell swiftly into a Tom Swiftian mode of fantastic technology – unbreakable steel, disintegrating beams, etc.

Two Gerald Kersh paperbacks from the 1950s drew me, tho it was evident as soon as I’d covered a few pages that their American marketing as science fiction was a hoax: the man was a cold-blooded English thriller writer, no more or less. The stories in On an Odd Note are reminiscent of Wilkie Collins, Chesterton, & RLS, & never less than readable, even when eminently disposable. The Secret Masters (UK title The Great Wash), on the other hand, is a compulsively readable thriller in the mode of John Buchan, and pretty much as good as any of the 15 or 20 Buchan novels I’ve read. Hard to know why Kersh isn’t better known.

A weird moment: turning over the last page of the brittle, yellowed 1958 Ballantine paperback of On an Odd Note, I find in blue fountain pen, in my father’s youthful handwriting, “Read 6/19/58.” Almost half a century ago.