Monday, February 26, 2007

How Was Louisville?

Very nice, thank you. I spent a good deal of time over the weekend with some old friends and acquaintances, talking, eating & drinking, catching up – and there were even some intellectual moments, as well. A few highlights:

Panel-wise –
•a panel on Jewish-American modernism, with old pal Norman Finkelstein delivering a highly poised essay on Reznikoff & prophecy, Dan Morris speculating on the links between Marjorie Perloff’s assimilated-Jewish Vienna upbringing (as told in her memoir, The Vienna Paradox) & her propensity for writing on avant-garde texts, and Merle Bachmann reading a highly informative chunk of her forthcoming book on early 20th-c. Yiddish literary culture
•a panel on poetry & performance, where Phil Metres’s very intelligent but subdued paper on Lev Rubinstein had to compete with Michael Magee’s screening of various Flarf performances (via YouTube, on the overhead projector)
•my own fellow panelist, one Cynthia Hall, delivering a paper arguing Dylan’s “Desolation Row” as a thorough rewriting of The Waste Land (I was convinced) in a Kentucky accent that made me feel as though I were back in my Aunt Charlene’s dining room for Sunday dinner once again

Lecture-wise –
Well, I missed the big reading, & gather I didn’t miss much – Sherman Alexie delivering 45 minutes, not of poetry or of prose, but of mediocre stand-up comedy (someone sourly suggested, “why don’t we just get Chris Rock next year?) – but I made it the big closing “theoretical” lectures by Mladen Dolar & Alenka Zupancic, both of the U of Ljubljana. I suppose that institutional link, as well as the fact that Matthew Biberman invoked Slavoj Zizek in introducing both of them, led me to assume they’d be Zizek-lings of the worst sort, but I was pleasantly surprised by Dolar’s talk on “voice” and “stone” from Hegel to Beckett (starting with the Temple of Memnon in Hegel going down thru the rock at the beginning of Sartre’s Nausea to Molloy’s sucking stones). The fact that Dolar delivered the entire lecture in one of the most soporific tones I’ve ever encountered (to an audience nodding off from 3 days of conferencing) probably lessened the impact of his funniest line: “Not surprisingly, Molloy finds de stones haff no taste, provide no flavor. De stones suck.” I myself found attention wandering during Zupancic’s talk on comedy & evil, which dealt with various treatments of the Third Reich in comic cinema (To Be or Not to Be, The Great Dictator, Mein Hitler); the best moment her closing strictures on the “culture of happiness” in American society.

Social-wise –
•a truly sybaritic multi-course dinner with Alan Golding & his wife Lisa Shapiro, Dee Morris, Lynn Keller, Norman Finkelstein, Barrett Watten, & Carla Harryman, topped off with a pint of micro-brewed stout that had been aged in bourbon casks: something like sweet alcoholic espresso.
•the annual Golding/Shapiro Party. This year Alan worked a poetry reading into the festivities, so one could hear Norman reading some of the astounding, delicate new things the Martians have been giving him; Bill and Lisa Howe ripping through an in-progress new visual text; yours truly stumbling his way breathlesssly through one of the newish things on the latest Fascicle; and Lisa S. revealing a previously unknown talent for rather beautiful sound-poems (the first sounding a bit Polynesian, the last arrestingly cantorish). Later on, trying in vain to follow (with maybe one too many drinks aboard) Matthew B’s exposition of how one can use a Rodechenko-like Vincent motorcycle gear to explain Lacan’s perennial triad.
•Lovely conversations with various previously-met and/or fallen out of touch with people – the Howes, Kristin Prevallet, the Oppen scholar Stephen Cope, Mark Cantrell, etc.
•And Norman & Alice’s Maltese Tchotchke was there!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Packing my books

After a pretty hellaciously busy half-week, I’m packing to leave for Louisville tomorrow afternoon. The paper I’ll be delivering is as done as it’s gonna get, save for those last-minute-airplane-scribbled deletions and revisions, & now I’m pondering what books to pack. Ulysses has to come, of course, tho I’m starting to worry about the binding of my 1986 Random House copy (so far as I can tell, a first printing of the Gabler edition, rendered of course worthless by two decades of marginalia): handfuls of pages are beginning to fall out as I turn them. I wonder if there’s any truth to the rumor that the UK edition of the same text (Bodley Head, is it?) has a much sturdier binding?

Of course I’ll be bringing a handful of Robert Sheppard books, since I’ll probably need to hold them up to prove the subject of my talk actually exists, contemporary British poetry has such a weak toe-hold on this side of the Atlantic. And then the other inevitable slim volumes of contemporary poesy:
Rosmarie Waldrop, Blindsight
Peter Riley, Alstonefield: a poem
Andrea Brady, Vacation of a Lifetime

And one more very exciting recent arrival: Stephen Collis’s Through Words of Others: Susan Howe and Anarcho-Scholasticism (ELS Editions). I’ve written briefly about Steve’s poetry on one or two occasions here, & what I’ve seen of his scholarship is first rate. This ought to be a good read.
Thinking about paper in Joyce.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Three new poems

by yer 'umble blogger on the latest issue of Tony Tost's excellent Fascicle: "Captain Modernism," "John Milton Blues," & "World Culture." (Between you & me, JMB is the best of the lot, but you have to go thru "Captain M." to get to it, & "WC" is short, so you might as well read 'em all.) I'm continually amazed by the seemingly infinite parameters of this internets-thing for publishing: Tost has put together for the 3rd issue of his magazine a collection of poems, essays, & translations that feels like a year's worth of Conjunctions linked to one page (or about a decade & a half of Poetry). Anyway, go & check it out. Tell me if you like the verses; I'm dying for conversation.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


This is one of those weekends – one of those “J’s away at a family event in New York & I’ve got solo charge of the girls, even as I’m either recovering from something very minor or in the early stages of something major & working frantically on a conference paper & having conscience-attacks about various sets of page proofs that ought to be read & returned” weekends. I’m surviving, tho just barely. It doesn’t help that the East Coast cold front has reached us down here in St. Peter’s Waiting Room: it was down in the 40s last night, & I for one was shivering. (Derisive laughter from readers in Ann Arbor, Chicago, & Ithaca.)

My Milton class is in the process of completing the foreplay & getting down to the real business: after a midterm next week it’s Paradise Lost. Joyce is launching into the Bloom section of Ulysses. It’s embarassing to admit, but I “teach” Joyce in a kind of delirium of admiration & wonder, & only intermittently remember to pretend to raise various “critical” & “theoretical” issues. Or maybe I’m too harsh – maybe they’re already getting raised, but I’m having too much fun to experience them with the appropriate sourness.

Next week I’m off to Louisville for the Conference Formerly Known as the Twentieth Century Literature Conference (now the “Conference on Literature & Culture Since 1900,” or something like that?). This used to be the hottest ticket in town back in the day, back when I was a young buck with a skoshe more hair & no gray in my beard; it’s turned a bit more staid since, but still seems to attract a decent number of people doing interesting work. In the 1990s, one would go there and it seemed like half of the Buffalo poetics program had taken up residence, as well as most of the interesting scholars of modernism. These days Louisville’s lost a lot of its clientele to the MSA, & Buffalo is, well, frankly a shadow of its former self.

I’m going to be talking about the English poet Robert Sheppard, whose Twentieth Century Blues is one of the most exciting serial poems I’ve read in the past decade. Sheppard himself is something of a mover & shaker on the British blog scene, tho I’m disappointed to see that his blog Pages has gone into something like hibernation. Anyway, if you’re reading this & planning to be in Louisville & want to get together for a drink, by all means phone me at the Seelbach – my calendar is entirely open.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Burgess channels Joyce

There was a period in my life – roughly from 14 to 17 – when I read everything by the English novelist Anthony Burgess I could lay my hands on, probably a couple dozen novels or more. I followed his career more sporatically after I went to college, reading maybe 3 or 4 of the novels of the 1980s and ‘90s, buying remainders & leaving them unread. I reread his Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun, a few years ago, & found myself surprisingly entertained.

(I only spoke to him once, when I was a caller to and he was a guest on the Dianne Rehm radio show (at the time a local DC area program, not yet in national distribution). He was flogging a Mozart book in connection with some bicentenary or other, and I opened my call by telling Burgess that I had always regarded him something of a verbal Mozart. “Well, I suppose that’s true,” he replied, “if by that you mean that I’ve written far too much, & have done it mostly for money.”)

It’s been a while since I’ve read Burgess’s Re/Joyce, tho I still recall it with affection as one of the best short career-spanning introductions to Joyce’s work. I’ve only now gotten around to reading his Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce, and I’m not at all surprised by how intelligent and beautifully written it is. I am a bit surprised by how closely Burgess knows the work – he claims to have written the book without recourse to any secondary literature at all – and the sophistication of the linguistic analyses he brings to bear on Joyce’s words. Chapter 5, “The Joyce Sentence,” is about as good as descriptive, dissective criticism gets.

There are two bravura passages worth noting: the opening pages of the book, where Burgess rewrites the beginning of Ulysses in the style of what he calls a “Class 1” novelist (Irvings Stone & Wallace are his examples), one of those meat & potatoes writers who are out to tell a story and style be damned; and the end of chapter 5, where Burgess rewrites a paragraph from Arthur Hailey’s bestseller Hotel in the style of Ulysses:
‘Doctor,’ Christine said, ‘just this moment…’

The newcomer nodded and from a leather bag, which he put down on the bed, swiftly produced a stethescope. Without wasting time he reached inside the patient’s flannel nightshirt and listened briefly to the chest and back. Then, returning to the bag, in a series of efficient movements he took out a syringe, assembled it, and snapped off the neck of a small glass vial. When he had drawn the fluid from the vial into the syringe, he leaned over the bed and pushed a sleeve of the nightshirt upward, twisting it into a rough tourniquet. He instructed Christine, ‘Keep that in place; hold it tightly.’
–Doctor, Christine said, just this moment–

He placed with grace on the bed, nodding, his leather bag and snaked out swiftly a stethescope. Hirudo medicinalis, a leech for a leech. With grace of speed he nuzzled the cold steel snout in under the flannel nightshirt, cocking a perked ear to back and chest and back again. Back at his bag, he assembled a syringe from glass tubes and a glancing needle and smartly cracked the neck of a vial. With care he watched the fluid follow the track of the retracting plunger then, leaning over the bed, pushtwisted up a nightshirtsleeve into a rough tourniquet. He said to Christine:

–Keep that in place. Hold it tight.
“Something like that,” says Burgess, “only much much better.”

Thursday, February 08, 2007


My blogging has been so spotty of late that I feel I owe my 7 real readers – the readers, that is, aside from the hundreds who surf by to see what I have to say about Fernando Botero – an apology, or at least an explanation. But oh how I hate tiresome personal blogging… Which doesn’t mean I won’t indulge.

An aerial bombardment of stuff: 1) the wind-down of our departmental jobsearches; 2) a pair of pre-schooler birthday parties, the first (weekend before last) at home & relatively small & manageable, the second (this past weekend) horrifyingly large & nerve-wracking (will the rain stop?? when will the pizza arrive??); in town was J.’s oldest friend with her own 6-year old, who was clearly coming down with something more or less serious, which led to 3) J.’s coming down with strep this week, necessitating yr. humble blogger’s trotting to his GP for a throat swab (negative, thank you) & hauling the girls to their pediatrician for the same (no news is good news); 4) a late-night popcorn binge seems the proximate cause of the painless but irritating crumbling of a long-ago filled molar, which of course meant an inconvenient hour in the dentist’s chair… And so forth: the travails of bourgeois suburban life, I guess.

After the first reading in maybe 12 years of Joyce’s rather awful play Exiles, I’m pondering the old issues of “aesthetic distance/irony” in Portrait of the Artist. How seriously are we to take Stephen D? Is it possible for us to set aside our knowledge of what becomes of him in Ulysses, of how he is depicted there, & read his apotheosis at the end of Portrait (sky-aspiring, conscience-forging, net-avoiding, etc.) as perfectly serious, not at all ironical? Exiles, tho not much of a play (esp. if you’ve been dipping about in volume III of the big Grove Beckett, Dramatic Works), is a fascinating bridge between Portrait & Ulysses: “Portrait of the Artist as a Mature Man Returned to Ireland in 1912.”

Also reading thru Joyce’s letters, one of the more procedurally irritating “scholarly” things I’ve attempted lately. Volume I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, is a chronological adulthood-spanning selection. Volumes II & III (ed. by Richard Ellmann) are more comprehensive collections covering the same years. Ideally, one would read Volume I & II/III concurrently, darting back & forth in chronological order. I didn’t do that, but read Vol. I first; now I’m mostly thru Vol. II (irritatingly without an index), hampered only by the fact that I’ve been flipping back to the Selected Letters in order to get the full texts of the v. v. “naughty” letter JJ wrote Nora in 1909, when they were apart for several months and needed – erm, ahem – “stimulating” reading material.

Also working thru Herbert Gorman’s “authorized” 1939 biography of Joyce, interesting mostly as a ventriloquizing of Joyce’s own self-mythology as a writer.

And: Rosmarie Waldrop, Blindsight; Stéphane Mallarmé, Mallarmé in Prose; Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon; Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (this one a radiant eye-opener; anybody got a copy of Lineages of the Absolutist State they want to sell me?).

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (1940-2007)

I was saddened to learn of the death last weekend of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and interested to find Bob Archambeau remembering him today on the Samizdat Blog. Especially, that is, in connection with a reading of late Celan, which reminded me of working my way thru Poetry as Experience with a graduate seminar last spring, & working thru some knotty questions of poetry, interpretation, & biography. (Somewhere among last spring’s Culture Industry posts, I think, is a meditation on what I see as Lacoue-Labarthe’s misreading of “Todtnauberg.”)
As someone who’s rather invested in biography, I guess I’m perennially fascinated by how biographical “knowledge” – or hearsay – can torque our reading of literary & philosophical texts. (What, for instance, does the biographical record show us Celan really thought about his meeting with Heidegger during the period he was composing “Todtnauberg”?) I think the listserv post Bob quotes from Clifford Duffy in re/ the roots of Celan’s late, dense style is a example of spectacularly sloppy biographical thinking (I’ll quote in Bob’s edited version; the full text is here):
In the early 50's Paul Celan published his poem ** Death Fugue ** . This poem became very widely read and universally accepted as a powerful statement 'about' the death camps of Europe. The poem is exacting, intense entrancing, and excruciating. It pushes to an extreme an emotional response that the reader undergoes while reading it…. Sadly by the early 60's the poem became so widely antholgized in Germany and had become a standard part of the learning of German children in Western German education. I say sadly because of this. The poem by sheer dint of repetition had lost some of its intensity and had (through the abuse it has been subjected to, and as the biographer of Celan infers, Guilt on the part of the generation of teachers and educators 'teaching ' this poem to their children) had become a standard' tool of analysis. …. It got to the point where school children in Germany used it to analyze metrics effectively undermining its meaning and its impact. …It has its place. -- But the Poem was diverted from its path...When ** Death Fugue** was published Adorno read it and said in a written statement. This is too beautiful One cannot write Beautiful poems about the Holocaust. One can only be silent in the face of what happened there. …. The effect on Paul Celan from what I have read was very strong, if not close to devastating.
It's hard to know what to do with a string of statements like this, except to untangle what's accurate or plausible from what's misremembered or simply wrong. The business about the readerly success & the the school adoption of Celan's "Todesfuge" is pretty much right, & for me was one of the real revelations of John Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew.

On the other hand, Adorno never made any such pronouncement ("This is too beautiful") about "Death Fugue." I suspect Duffy is thinking about the statement from Adorno's 1949 essay "Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft," "After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric." It's unclear whether Adorno knew "Death Fugue" when he wrote this (Felstiner thinks he probably didn't; Adorno biographer Lorenz Jäger thinks he "may not have"). But Celan did indeed read this statement, & responded to it in a manner that showed a pretty keen grasp of what Adorno was up to in a note around the time of Atemwende (1967):
No poem after Auschwitz (Adorno): what sort of an idea of a "poem" is being implied here? The arrogance of the man who hypothetically and speculatively has the audacity to observe or report on Auschwitz from the perspective of nightingales and song thrushes. (quoted in Jäger, Adorno: A Political Biography 187)
Duffy's reading of the curve of Celan's career authorizes a simple shortcut, an explaining (away?) of Celan's late hermeticism as an apotropaic reaction to Adorno's attack on the "lyricism" of "Todesfuge."

If there were any evidence that Adorno had "Todesfuge" in mind when he wrote about poetry after Auschwitz – if there were any evidence that Celan was "devastated" by Adorno's statement – then I'd be inclined to take this biographical thesis seriously. As the evidence now stands, I think one is forced to pursue a more purely Adornian road: to try to analyze the increasing density of the Celanian text as a development of the immanent logic of his poetics. A parallel argument can be made with the hermeticism of late Zukofsky, which some have tried to explain (away) as an effect of his public isolation.

Bob, you gotta open up the comment box!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Circular Annotation

In the first chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we meet the Dedalus family friend Mr Casey, whose hand is cramped from a spell in prison picking oakum:
And when [Stephen] had tried to open Mr Casey’s hand to see if the purse of silver was hidden there he had seen that the fingers could not be straightened out: and Mr Casey had told him that he had got those three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria.
My edition of the novel (Viking Critical Library, ed. Chester G. Anderson, 1968) annotates the passage thusly:
“Kelly was in prison several times for Land League agitation, and John Joyce regularly invited him to recuperate from imprisonment…at the house in Bray. In jail three fingers of his left hand had become permanently cramped from picking oakum, and he would tell the children that they had become so while he was making a birthday present for Queen Victoria.” (Ellmann, pp. 23f.)
That’s Richard Ellmann, of course, from his authoritative biography James Joyce (1959, rev. ed. 1982) And where does Ellmann get the story of Queen Vic’s birthday present? The only footnote to this passage in James Joyce refers us to Stanislaus Joyce’s memoir My Brother’s Keeper: “The fingers of [John Kelly’s] left hand were premanently cramped from making sacks and picking oakum in jail” (p.13). To which the editor of My Brother’s Keeper – Richard Ellmann – adds the helpful footnote: “‘…and Mr Casey had told him that he had got those three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria.’ A Portrait of the Artist, p. 27.”

So at least two details in Ellmann’s biography – the “birthday present” quip and the fact that it was three fingers that were cramped – have no other source than A Portrait of the Artist itself. How much Joyce annotation that relies on Ellmann is similary circular – especially given the fact that the memories of so many of his informants – Stanislaus in particular – had been influenced precisely by Joyce’s fictive presentations of his autobiography?