Thursday, November 29, 2007

random/erotica (midweek fatigue edition)

So by now my colleagues, my few remaining friends, even my longsuffering students are pretty sick of seeing me walk around with my shiny mylar-protected copy of The Poem of a Life tucked under my arm: "Yes, Mark / Professor Scroggins / Irritating Jerkwater, it looks really nice, and yes, you already showed me..."
The weather apparently was mercifully dry thru the holiday weekend, so all the student watching the house had to worry about was reshelving the books in the right places and avoiding attacks from the neighbor's chihuahua. But this evening there've been torrential rains, & did I mention we have multiple roof leaks? One of them sprang in the den right over an enormous tottering stack of holiday catalogues that J has been saving over my objections (given my druthers, they'd go straight into recycling): oops, your catalogues got wet; my heart is broken.
A cute & curious bit of academic erotica (?!) at University Diaries this morning. Uh, but I have a little problem conjoining "sex" & "Philip Roth" in the same sentence, my own dreams along those lines running in far less literary channels.
Speaking of the genre of the big "E" –– It's already been established that I'm entirely out of the loop in contemporary Pound studies & Eliot criticism, but it's also embarassing the habit I've fallen into of buying CDs and then letting them gather dust for months before actually listening to them. Tonight I put on for the first time what I'd nominate as the sexiest album of the decade: Björk's Vespertine. (Did I mention that I have a major sick crush on the elfin Icelander (along with Mina Loy, Sarah Bernhardt, and all of the women in Gustav Klimt's paintings)?) Hoo boy! It's kind of like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, & Cassandra Wilson filtered through a Scandinavian dissonance machine: very, very cold, but very, very hot at the same time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Eliot's typewriter

Once upon a time, I'm told, publishers hired something known as "press clipping services," folks who'd read all the relevant venues & look out for reviews of newly released books. Well, that was once upon a time. I found out that The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (now shipping!) had been reviewed in the TLS from a friend in Cork, not from my publisher. (When I asked my editor if she'd seen the review a couple of weeks later, she said, "Oh yes, we saw that – very positive, no?" Thanks for letting me know...)

Anyway, in the interests of prolonging the euphoria of publication as long as possible, I'd love to hear from any of my seven readers out there if they happen upon any reviews of the book – in print, on the blogosphere, on the walls of the loo – in the next few weeks or months. And if you happen to be one of the four people who've pre-ordered from amazon or the evil B&N, I'd love to hear from you when the book arrives, & get your feedback on't. Feel free to email at mw - dot - scroggins - at - gmail - dot - com. I'll try to avoid turning Culture Industry into a full-time book promotional outlet – but allow me to indulge myself for a while: after all, this has been a very long haul, & there are college funds involved.
Back in the old days – "good" or otherwise – there was a standard procedure for academically tackling Pound's Cantos: one procured a copy of one of the "guides" to the poem (Peter Makin's Pound's Cantos is still my favorite) to explain the overall architecture, & one of the volumes of annotations – Carroll F. Terrell's 2-volume Companion was industry standard, but William Cookson's Guide would do at a pinch – to elucidate foreign phrases & recondite allusions. I worked my way thru the Cantos (not the first time around, however) this way, & I suspect generations of undergrads & grad students have done so as well – & scores of books on Pound bear the marks of a Terrell-supported trawl thru the text.

All that changed for me in 1992, when I picked up (at the much-missed Blue Fox, one of the loveliest of Ithaca's many used bookstores) a copy of Lawrence Rainey's 1st book, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos (Yale UP, 1991). That book was my first exposure to the "new modernist studies," now I guess almost 2 decades old. In re-reading the Malatesta Cantos, Rainey destroyed the notion that EP was drawing upon some homogeneous archive of "history" in writing about Sigismundo Malatesta – an impression the student reader easily arrives at relying on Terrell's or Cookson's laconic annotation. Instead, LR showed that Pound's Malatesta was a profoundly romanticized figure, drawn as much from 19th-c. potboiler novels as from the historical record – & moreover, that EP's quotations from archival sources – as we already knew, but sometimes were apt to forget – were highly selective & sometimes considerably retouched, yielding a Malatesta that met the ideological needs of the poet in his own historical moment, but by no means an "objective" portrait of the 15th-c. figure.

The "new modernist studies" to which Rainey's book introduced me have revitalized modernism as an academic field. (Indeed, Rainey has been so prominent in that revitalization that he has become the target of younger scholar's potshots, as I learned at a modernism conference at Cornell a few years ago.) More & more attention has been paid to the ways in which modernist texts were produced, disseminated, & received, & to their social and political contexts. Far more attention has been given to the works of women, gay & lesbian writers, & writers of color. Modernism, from being a heroic revolution of a handful of white men – "the men of 1914," in (I think) Wyndham Lewis's phrase – has become a whole international congeries of overlapping "movements" & individual initiatives, firmly embedded in a very particular set of social, political, & economic circumstances.

But even as salutary attention has turned to the works of HD, Langston Hughes, Mina Loy, & the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, scholars have continued to read & re-read the "men of 1914" – Joyce, Pound, Eliot, & (too rarely) Lewis. Rainey's most recent book, Revisiting the Waste Land (Yale UP, 2005), which I picked up at The Strand this past weekend, looks at the single most canonically secure work of "high" modernism (besides of course Ulysses), the poem WC Williams complained had dropped an "atom bomb" amid a burgeoning nativist American modernism.*

Rainey's book is made up of 3 chapters & about 50 pages of "synoptic bibliographical" description of Eliot's letters & manuscripts (the sort of thing that I, anal animal that I am, dote upon). The chapters essentially follow the Jerome McGann-sanctioned triad of examining a text according to the stages of its production, publication (dissemination), & reception. I was a trifle disappointed to find that the middle chapter was "The Price of Modernism: Publishing The Waste Land," a ground-breaking & eye-opening essay that's old enough to be a "classic" (Rainey has already published it in at least three venues), but the logic of including it is pretty much inescapable.

And its familiarity is more than made up for by the chapters which bookend it. The last, "IMMENSE. MAGNIFICENT. TERRIBLE.: Reading The Waste Land," does a fine job of dispelling some of the myths surrounding the immediate reception of the poem. It shows that the tension between reading TWL as expression of the Zeitgeist & reading it as TSE's "personal grouse" was there from the very beginning, & how TSE's subsequent writings & career worked to enforce a kind of coherence & "classicism" on the poem which was by no means evident to its first readers.

But it's the 1st, mammoth chapter – "With Automatic Hand: Writing The Waste Land" – that's the real wonder here. Ever since Valerie Eliot published the draft materials for TWL back in 1971, scholars such as Hugh Kenner, Lyndall Gordon, Grover Smith, & others have advanced often conflicting theories about precisely how the poem was composed, in what order the various bits were written & woven together. Rainey unravels the entire mystery, to my eyes quite convincingly, using the most basic bibliographic methods: He compares typewriter scripts – LR shows when TSE stopped using one typewriter & began using another – and he looks at the watermarks on the various papers used. Since TSE apparently bought paper only in small batches, & used the same paper for drafting & typing poems & writing letters, it becomes a fairly straightforward (if highly technical & tediously painstaking) matter to date each fragment of the poem – to a particular place, sometimes to within a matter of days.

Rainey ends the chapter with a meditation, fittingly enough, on the typist in "The Fire Sermon," a forlorn figure who exemplifies both the social pressures of the early 1920s & the process of composing the poem in which she appears. Revisiting the Waste Land is a solid & illuminating piece of scholarship (Rainey strives hard, sometimes with limited success, to make the more technical aspects of his research accessible & exciting): like all too few books of literary criticism I read, it makes me a little proud to be in this business.

*The good doctor, in retrospect, protested too much: after all, at least 3 of the greatest works in American modernist poetry – Spring and All, The Bridge, & "Poem beginning 'The'" – were written in explicit or implicit reaction to The Waste Land.

Monday, November 26, 2007

back; biographical anonymity

Well, we're back to warmer climes. New York was wonderful as usual, pulsing with life. Cultural tourism (apart from a fruitful but sweaty visit to The Strand) was confined to the Macy's Parade (this year's highlight – according to the tastemakers – a giant inflatable balloon version of Jeff Koons's "Rabbit" – not a patch on the flower-covered two-stories-high "Puppy" at Rockefeller Center some years back) and to a wonderful Lincoln Center production of Cymbeline. I've always had a soft spot for the late Shakespeare tragicomedies they used to call "romances," but Cymbeline has been my least favorite of the four. Okay, it's still not up to the mark of The Tempest or Winter's Tale (& my own partiality for Pericles Prince of Tyre is perhaps perverse Zukofskyana), but this production made Cymbeline come alive for me (& made it make sense – I always lose track of the characters when reading early modern dramas about 2 acts in, & wander befuddled thru much of the most important action) in ways that I hadn't anticipated. I gather the show is actually still yet to officially open, but if you're in NYC over the holidays, I'd highly recommend it.
Well, my comments the other day on Andrew Motion's Guardian review of A. David Moody's Ezra Pound, Poet: The Young Genius got me a righteous smacking down from a blogger named Eshuneutics, both in my comments box & on his own rather interesting blog. Yes, I suppose I was over the top a bit there in attacking Motion & wondering about what Moody's biography – as yet unread by me – would amount to. I suppose Culture Industry leans a bit too much towards the pugilistic at times, & I think I ought to give my own splenetic tendencies a rest: to try for a bit more celebration & thoughtful speculation, a bit less simple grousing.

But Motion's review made me think about a grad student who dropped by my office hours the other day to discuss my upcoming biography seminar, & who shared his response to a review of the latest Hunter Thompson biography: "The guy begins, 'The only time I met Hunter S. Thompson...,' then spends several paragraphs talking about Thompson's career, life, & eccentricities, & only at the end does he say 'Oh yeah, this is a pretty good biography.'"

That, I'm beginning to think, is about the best the biographer can expect from the average reviewer.* This makes reviewing biography potentially a rather cushy task, as opposed to reviewing a new book of, say, poetry, philosophy, or political economy. One needs take only the most cursory note of the shortcomings or strengths of the biographer's actual text: instead, one can fill up all that dreaded white space with a potted summary (garnished with anecdotes) of the subject's life. This isn't at all inevitable – there're lots of reviews of biographies that focus sharply on the actual dynamics of the text – but one finds, frustratingly, the "6 paragraphs of life-summary plus 2 paragraphs of actual reviewing" all the time, from the Guardian to the TLS to the Miami Herald.

Sometimes I think biography is the anonymous art, the art in which the biographer, if she has done her work well, vanishes from the reader's attention, which is wholly drawn into the reconstructed narrative of the subject's life. There are of course wonderfully intrusive biographers: Boswell, for instance, continually poking his presence into the camera shots of Johnson's conversation, or Peter Ackroyd, inventing dialogues between himself and the long-dead Dickens. More often, however, we have to be cunningly alert for the biographer's presence in the text, for those moments when the biographical "might have" shades into a "would have" & then into a "did"; or when a subtle turn of adjective performs the work of interpretation that by rights ought to be left to the reader alone.
Huzzah! Amen! Selah! The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky, according to, & according to the stack of complimentary copies I found waiting by the doorstep earlier today, is now shipping!

*Motion goes a little beyond that in assessing Moody's book, & in praising Moody's objectivity and energy, but his review spends far too much time providing an abbreviated account of Pound's career, pitched it seems for an audience who knows next to nothing about one of the 20th century's central poets.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Culture Industry takes to the air tomorrow, on the single worst travel day of the year, bound to NYC for the holiday (including a possible viewing of what some New Yorkers insist on calling the "Macy's Day Parade"). The blog may or may not be dark over the next few days. In the briefcase:
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
the Oxford Authors Samuel Johnson
The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky
It's true, I and the latter book have rarely been more than five feet apart over the last few days.* And while the rarely cynical Peter O'Leary reminds me that the "initial bask" of such things fades rather rapidly, I'm doing my best – like a pensioner on his last excursion to Nighttown – to prolong the ecstasy.

*I do, however, leave it elsewhere when I take lavatory breaks – tho after I joked to my department chair, as he was flipping thru the book, that I took it to the potty with me, he laughed nervously & started rubbing that scented antiseptic stuff into his hands.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Guess what the postperson brought...

Yes, that's right – a printers' advance copy of Daddy's new book. We're happy!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

laureates in space

Who'd've thought it – an English Poet Laureate entirely out of it? I'm shocked, shocked. (Until, that is, I consider John Betjeman & John Masefield, & a whole parade of mummified relics who've occupied the office: the list is of course considerably shorter than the American one only because the English post is a lifetime one.) But then I read current PL Andrew Motion's review in the Guardian of the first volume of A. David Moody's biography of Pound, Ezra Pound: Poet. Vol 1: The Young Genius 1885-1920.

Motion begins by lamenting "the blur near the centre of 20th-century literary biography: lives of the two greatest modernists are missing." Of course, he means modernist poets – heaven knows there are lives of Joyce, arguably greater than either Eliot or Pound, the "two greatest" he's referring to. Motion continues:
Peter Ackroyd and others have done their best to get round the prohibitions of the Eliot estate, but we still lack a properly detailed, intimate account. Problems of a different kind have delayed a full and scholarly biography of Pound, despite the best efforts of Humphrey Carpenter and others. Pound's life is so vast in its energies, so richly international in its reach and so bedevilled by controversies that it has taken more than 30 years - since Pound's death in 1972 - for A David Moody's book to arrive on the scene. The first volume of this grand opus is a significant event.
I'm flummoxed by this paragraph. In the first place, while the Eliot estate did indeed make problems for Ackroyd in his writing TS Eliot: A Life, it's still a pretty damned good biography, and Lyndall Gordon's TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life is even better. I can imagine more detailed, more revelatory biographies – & heaven knows we'll get them in 15 years' time, when crucial caches of TSE's letters are unsealed – but I have no idea what Motion wants in a "properly detailed, intimate account": details of Eliot's cock size, as we get in Lew Ellingham & Kevin Killian's life of Jack Spicer?

And this notion that we lack a "full and scholarly biography of Pound" has me rather puzzled. There's no shortage of Pound biographies out there: full-length treatments include Charles Norman's (1960), Noel Stock's (1970), Humphrey Carpenter's (1988) and JJ Wilhelm's (in three volumes, 1985, 1990, 1994); shorter & more specialized books include Ackroyd's illustrated Ezra Pound and His World (1980), Jacob Korg's book on EP & HD (2003), C David Heymann's Ezra Pound: The Last Rower, A Political Profile (1976), Anne Conover's book on EP & Olga Rudge (2001), John Tytell's Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano (1987), Ira Nadel's recent volume for Palgrave's Literary Lives series, & probably a few others shelved in my office at work right now, where I can't lay hands on them.

All of these books have shortcomings, some of them more dire than others. Norman's book is a breezy celebrity bio, notable mostly (to me at least) for his use of Zukofsky as a resource. Stock's is the life as told by a somewhat repentant former disciple. Wilhelm simply can't write, & has no sense of discrimination among his materials.

Humphrey Carpenter's big (1000+ pp.) work, then, is probably the biography of record, unfortunately: while he conveys an admirable density of facts & dates, his work is hampered by the fact that he's utterly unsympathetic to, & mostly uncomprehending of, Pound's mature poetic project. (What possessed the author of lives of Auden & JRR Tolkien to devote this much energy to Pound of all people? Aesthetically, it's rather like me polishing off the LZ biography & setting out to write the life of Billy Collins.) I'll consult Carpenter for a date; but for a sense of Pound's poetry or for a clear idea of what his political or economic thought at any particular stage, I look elsewhere.

For all of Motion's boosterism on behalf of Moody's new biography (or at least its 1st volume – which, let's be frank, covers Pound the young man and Pound the impresario, & doesn't quite get to the Pound of the Cantos, which is where the real interest lies), he doesn't really say anything to persuade me that this book's any better than its predecessors: according to Motion, Moody's
prose is more obviously driven by the need to get the facts straight and to grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of the poems, than by curiosity about psychological motives and personal characteristics. It means the book has an air of slightly detached efficiency - which is no bad thing, except that it makes Pound himself seem a touch remote. We see the blaze of his firebrand energy; we marvel at his generosity to writers of whom he approves; we admire his astonishing powers of self-driving; but we rarely feel these things on our pulses.
And that's all he has to say about the book itself; the rest of the review is, as the manner of anglo-reviewers on biography, a summary of the biographee's career (as if readers of the Guardian had never heard of EP).

Which leads me to a tentative conclusion: A David Moody's is not merely the best Pound biography Andrew Motion's ever read, but it's the first. And what makes it better than all the rest (which he seems not to have dipped into) is the mere fact that it's been published by Oxford University Press – a grand step towards making Pound safe for British palates.

[Final note: I'll read Moody's book, of course, & its sequel, tho there's nothing about Moody's criticism – mostly on Eliot – that persuades me he'll have much perceptive to say about Pound's poetry. The Pound biography I'm waiting for, of course, is the one in progress by Tim Redman, author of the excellent Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism.]


I'll have more to say about recent movements on the happily reappeared Say Something Wonderful & my own comments box, but for the nonce, I'm watching the numbers as the days count down to the release of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky. I have little idea what those "sales ranking" numbers on actually mean – I recall someone saying that if you buy a single copy, you can get your book to jump a few thousand spaces – but it's worth noting that Poem of a Life has made its category's bestsellers list. Here's what the top few books in the sub-sub-sub-sub-category "Books > Literature & Fiction > History & Criticism > United States > Poetry" look like as of about 10.45 this morning:
1) Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic

2) Garrison Keillor, Good Poems

3) Robert Hass, Now and Then: The Poet's Choice Columns, 1997-2000 [another Shoemaker & Hoard book, mark you]

4) Mary Karr, The Liar's Club: A Memoir

5) TS Eliot, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, Illustrated Edition

6) Louise Glück, Averno: Poems

7) Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

8) Yr humble blogger, The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky
That's what I call a pleasant Saturday morning surprise.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Prynne & pleasure; incoming

What with J. away in Phoenix for a drama conference, I'm one day into a four-day stint of single parenting, & am thus far just plain exhausted. Not necessarily in a bad way – some of the day's events have been very pleasant indeed, & the weather at least is cooperating by not being godawfully hot (which in South Florida is still more than possible in mid-November).
Among the great stacks of unsifted mail I find the latest Chicago Review (53:2/3), which I'd opened and briefly glanced at. Too briefly, it turns out, for I find to my delight that this issue publishes the hitherto unpublished Book V of Ronald Johnson's Radi os, as edited by Johnson's executor the estimable Peter O'Leary. I can't wait to read it – but it'll have to wait till tomorrow, when I'm a bit less bleary.
Tonight in the graduate poetry workshop I pretend to lead (moderate? ride herd on?) a student did a stunning presentation on JH Prynne's Furtherance, turning up all sorts of riches that I hadn't yet uncovered in my own readings of the book. That in itself was delightful, especially in contrast to what I'd been reading lately myself (in addition to the big Bloodaxe Prynne Poems), NH Reeve & Richard Kerridge's Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of JH Prynne (Liverpool UP, 1995).

This, I will admit, is my 3rd assault on the book – the 3rd time I've started to read it; the previous two attempts have petered out somewhere in the second chapter. It's by no means a stupid book – quite the contrary – nor is it poorly written: indeed, it's marked by a refreshing lucidity. But once again I'm reminded of why I've started and abandoned the book twice now, & am unsure whether I'll get thru it this time. R&K, that is, pay far too little attention to the phenomenology of reading Prynne; while they give an obligatory nod to the notion that JHP is notoriously "difficult," they entirely ignore the reaction that the average reader – & even the average reader of modernist & late modernist poetry – has to work of such obduracy: a reaction, that is, of boredom, of resentment, of grudging labor, ultimately perhaps of abandonment. In short, they spend precisely no time exploring or discussing what sorts of pleasure Prynne's poetry might offer.

I for one value Prynne's work very highly indeed. While I came to it relatively late – I think I bought my first Prynne book, a little second-hand copy of High Pink on Chrome, around 1992 or so – I've always taken a particular pleasure (perhaps in part masochistic) in the dense & shifting textures of his poetry. And I know a lot of people who do likewise.

But Reeve & Kerridge, in their intelligent but profoundly dispassionate analysis of Prynne, fail utterly to present any reasons, apart from the intellectual unpacking of the verse*, why anyone who isn't already committed to the poet would want to read JHP's work. It's true, one doesn't have to make such an argument for Pound, or Joyce, or perhaps even Zukofsky – at least not now – but in the first book devoted to a "notoriously difficult" writer, the failure to make any sort of partisan appeal to pleasure strikes me as a significant misstep. Maybe that appeal's just yet to come, somewhere in chapter 3 or 4. But that'll be too late for non-Prynnites, I'm afraid.

*R & K's actual readings of Prynne's poems, so far as I've read, too rarely go beyond the "let's see what kind of sense can be made of these lines" move – ie, let's see how we can try to translate them into something resembling a coherent line of discourse. Sorry, gentlemen, but I can do that sort of work on my own – & end up liking my naturalizations better than yours.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

placeholder/reading list

One book leads to another – or rather, the ignorance revealed in reading one book leads to a desire for remediation – ie, another book. After finishing Strachey's Queen Victoria & Eminent Victorians, & spending the usual amounts of time in class discussing how modernism is a reaction to Victorian culture in general, I found myself reminded how butt-ignorant of Victorian literature in general I am. Okay, so I've read at least one book by all of the "major" novelists & a smattering of poetry by most of the poets (lots & lots of Tennyson, Hopkins, Barrett Browning, & Browning, truth to tell) – and of course more Ruskin than is good for anyone – but it's kind of embarassing that I've probably read more Wilkie Collins novels than Hardies, Eliots, & Dickenses put together. And I can never keep straight which parties Disraeli, Gladstone, & the rest belonged to, much less remember what they stood for.

Solution? Crutches: Jerome Buckley's The Victorian Temper & Richard Altick's Victorian People and Ideas (the former one of my dad's books – he was a largely autodidact Dickens scholar – the latter some sort of hangover from my undergrad days). Yes, very old, very one-sided surveys. But much of it is news to me. Thus far my favorite (in theory) new discovery: The "Spasmodic School" of poets. The work looks godawful, but who can resist the name? Bill Keckler, I hereby invite you to join me in a new grouping of "innovative" poets: THE NEW SPASMODICS.

Monday, November 12, 2007

placeholder/reading list

So I had this dream last night – no, not that kind of dream, tho it was very pleasant indeed – & when I got up this morning, I dashed off an email to my managing editor: "Dear R–––: While ordinarily I don't share my dreams, I had a lovely dream last night that I'd gotten an advance copy of The Poem of a Life; any chance this one's going to come true?" Of course I'd forgotten that today is the day after Veterans Day (or Veterans' Day, or Armistice Day, etc.) & therefore a holiday for most white-collar types. "Professor Fidget," Paul Naylor calls me; he doesn't know the half of it. I expect, once I get the book in my hands and the first 2-day euphoria has passed, to be (in Samuel Beckett's words) "a sad animal indeed."
I am incapable of sustained intellectual effort in blogging these days (& yes, I know there are many who would have me strike "these days" from that sentence), but I've been reading:
•Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians: as readable & as acid as the day it fell from the hands of the "neurasthenic" (thanks, WB, for that moniker)

•JH Prynne, Furtherance: 4 chapbooks, two of which are every bit as stonily impenetrable to me as the first time I read them three years ago

•Jennifer Bloomer, Architecture and the Text: The (S)crypts of Joyce and Piranesi: okay, I'm a sucker for any book that manages to wind in Joyce, Piranesi, Ruskin, Zukofsky, & Guy Davenport, & while I'm only a few pages into this one, I can tell it's going to be a doozey

•Joseph Brooker, Joyce's Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture: I'm a sucker for reception histories – Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare, for all of Taylor's sometimes flamboyant silliness, is one of the landmark pieces of litcrit for me – and what's not to love about a book whose central chapter is titled "The Men of 1946: Tales Told of Dick and Hugh"? (that's Dick Ellmann & Hugh Kenner)

•Andrew Taylor, God's Fugitive: The Life of CM Doughty: modernist scholars know Doughty, if they know him at all, as the subject of a line in the Pisan Cantos, in which Pound recalls reading his epic poem The Dawn in Britain to Yeats back at Stone Cottage. Arabists know him as the most important traveller in the middle east between Burton & TE Lawrence, & the author of the quirky but brilliant Travels in Arabia Deserta. Taylor writes his life as the life of a traveller more than a writer, but the character of this God-besotted eminent Victorian – he brings Strachey's General Gordon to mind occasionally – is absolutely rivetting
And of course about a page & a half of The Phenomenology of Spirit daily. It keeps me from feeling intelligent.

Friday, November 09, 2007

biographical anxiety

[Left: The Worrier, London statue]

So I spent an hour and a half in my office at Our Fair University today, putting together my book orders for the spring term & letting myself be distracted by jocular & very pleasant conversations with colleagues, students, & various persons of interest. And I got those little buggers in to the bookstore, & for once well in advance of the deadline. I had one pretty scary moment, though (and those who know me well know that behind my blustering Archambaldian exterior I'm really a mass of fears & neuroses), when I showed a colleague I like & admire very much my booklist for the biography grad seminar & asked "If you were one of our grads, would you take this class?"

"Sure, it looks great," he immediately replied. "But I can see why you're worried about the class making." ("Making" the enrollment threshold, that is – and I hadn't been worried before he said that, but by God I was now...) "After all, they think of literature & theory, but they don't really think of biography as... you know... serious."

I cited Daniel Green at The Reading Experience and Richard Prouty at One-Way Street the other day as having written "interesting" things about biography. Probably more accurate to say "troubling" things, so far as my own investment in the genre goes. Green writes
only through biography do some critics reach an audience at all and do some writers receive any public attention at all. Biographies are the closest thing to long-form criticism published by most presses, and the closest most readers of newspaper and magazine reviews ever get to extended consideration of even the most famous writers. But if most biographies wind up having only "scant bearing on the literature," it's hard to see why we need them. Successive biographies of the same usual suspects, each claiming to be the new "standard life" are hardly a good substitute for real criticism.
Prouty is a deal harsher:
Biographies are interruptions in my normal reading. I prefer the fiction to the author most every time. If a writer's biography is more interesting than his or her works, I get suspicious. Even well-written, engaging biographies have limited readerly appeal. They tend to be really long with highly predictable plot structures: birth, early discovery of genius, development of first great work, big personal crisis, development of first not so great work, another personal crisis, second great work, a period of cruising on their reputation, health crisis, bitter and useless old age, death.... Biography is considered kind of a low skill in literary studies, primarily because they can sometimes read like they're a research notes dump rather than a thoughtful examination of a life and its work.
It's that last sentence, particularly the "low skill in literary studies" bit, that hurts. It sets off all kinds of career-oriented alarm bells in my little head – have I committed academic suicide by devoting almost a decade to this damned book? Will they laugh at me behind my back at the MLA & the MSA: "Heh, heh, while I was building an immense edifice of intellectual history tracing the rise & decline of the notion of aesthetic autonomy from Shaftesbury to Silliman, & while you were teasing out how Slavoj Zizek's Lacanian Hegelianism works to revise Laclau & Mouffe, that poor schmuck was writing a storybook!"?

So while I was getting into an epic 3-way comments-box pissing match over at Incertus yesterday over the academic & aesthetic status of the emerging genre of "Creative Nonfiction," my inner shlimazl was moaning (or kvetching maybe, but I don't know from Yiddish) "Oh, but who's being marginalized more? When's the last time you saw a job in the MLA Joblist for a 'biographer or scholar of biography'? I'll never get any respect now..."

But there's no help for it at this point. At least you, gentle readers & ungentle, could salve the ignominy of my intellectual self-immolation by purchasing some gift copies of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (guaranteed tastily readable, tho possibly intellectual quite-low-calory) for Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, & Saturnalia. I have a PDF of the dust jacket, & it would look quite nice on a coffee table in a room with a rust & teal color scheme.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


[painting by Miriam Laufer, EBB's grandmother]

Okay, go right now & check out one of the coolest, most thoughtful blogs I've encountered recently: GIRLdrive, the ongoing photographic & verbal documentary record of two young women on the road, interviewing "young women across the country, asking them what they think and feel about feminism." The duo's credentials & backgrounds are impressive: Nona Willis Aronowitz is a scholar of 1970s pornographic movies & the daughter of feminist scholar Ellen Willis & sociologist/activist Stanley Aronowitz, & writes very well indeed. Emma Bee Bernstein, daughter of artist Susan Bee and Language poet Charles Bernstein, is a fine photographer (and loves her little brother Felix).

J. wants Pippa & Daphne to grow up to archaeologists or war correspondents; I'd always leaned towards painters or musicians, but I think I'd be more than happy if they decided to be cross-country documentary bloggers.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

another green world

I guess I've been obsessed ever since grad school with the notion of one day having an outdoor or semi-outdoor study. The landlord of the house I spent several years in in Ithaca was a genial, curly-haired Swiss architect who had converted a shed in his backyard into a glass-walled, book-lined sanctum; every year I & my apartmentmates would linger over glasses of sherry after signing the next year's lease, and I would gaze covetously over the neat piles of papers on his tables and desk.

Then there was that special issue of Le Magazine Littéraire on Jacques Derrida that came out sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, in which I could not merely admire the deconstructeur's Euro fashion sense (which frankly was a good deal more dodgy when I came to see him in person), but could lust after the huge glassed-in workspace behind his seemingly modest house in suburban Paris, where piles of books & papers competed for table space with a brand new Macintosh and various snazzy ashtrays.

One of the few good things about living in Florida, frankly, is that one can have a year-round outdoor study without having to worry about heating it. (That is, if you don't mind shivering for maybe two weeks of the year.) Most of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (see link at right for ordering information – the holidays are coming!) was written at a table right outside the back door of our house, a pleasant but not ideal location. After all, that table was intended to be a dining table, to use for dinner parties and pleasantly temperate evening suppers, a function utterly vitiated when the thing was covered with books & paper, pens & notebooks, etc. And a workspace several rooms away from my study, where most of my books & papers live, meant that things tended to pile up alarmingly in the vicinity of my outdoor table – think huge tottering stacks of books leaning against the French doors.

So finally at long last I have moved the last of my stuff to a new location: an awning-shaded 12' X 12' space at the very corner of the side yard, right outside the door to my office. It's a modest setting, perfectly appropriate for a modest intellectual & aesthetic agenda. I feel like I'm in the midst of the jungle out there with overgrown ficus & palms pressing down upon me, but have crystal-clear wireless internet, good light, and fresh air. The books, papers, guitars and other stringed instruments are only a step away, & all the papers & ephemera can be whisked into the study in a moment at the first warning of an approaching hurricane. And now... and now I need to figure out something else to write. The Divine Oscar wanted to live up to his china; I need to live up to my outdoor study.

[The view from inside]

work in progress

[more work in progress, not as fun as last time's:]

Dawn, New & Improved

Turn the sun rising into
a new genre, dubbed for want
of better words solar apotheosis.
Slug down the coin slot,
night down for blurred metal
racket, cat calling for her
husbands. Reach across her back
for the door lock, gear box
frozen and matted. As authoritative
as he may appear, suddenly
the sky cracks with motion –
women and men running, backpacks
purses briefcases scattered heedless before
the sun of a new
trademark. Logos as logo, descending
dove whose feathered breast touches
your lips for one aching
moment before the darkness falls
and endless credits scroll. I
am in a box somewhere,
beyond the rumblings and gurglings
of the tongueless dialectic, flicking
a lighter to make out
the cramped curves of my
own limbs, sapless. Someone planned
it all, brought us to
this sorry pass. Waves pink
far as the eye sees
under the tumid, bristling
orb – and a blanket crusted
with sand, rimed with salt.
You are in a box
somewhere, as Spirit unfolds itself
in the patter of dirt
and the thud of clods
drizzling down over your head.

Monday, November 05, 2007

end-of-weekend various

Busy weekend; reading lots of things, going lots of places. We took the girls down to Ft. Lauderdale today to go to the science museum & walk along the "Riverwalk" (which I suspect is actually man-made canals), & found ourselves in the middle of a multi-venued "jazz brunch." I'm not too crazy about what passes for jazz at these things – let's just say it warms the hearts of the over-70s in the crowd – but it was very fine to be in the midst of crowds that weren't Boca Raton crowds (ie swarms of tourists, snowbirds, Eurosleaze etc.). Ft. L. is so many of the things I'd rather be living among: more class-diverse, gayer, more pet-friendly; more an approximation of the urban I hanker for.
Collecting bad words for biographers. James Joyce: "biografiend." Joyce Carol Oates: "pathographer." "Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography" – Oscar Wilde.
(I hope none of the potential students of my biography seminar are reading Culture Industry these days, since I'm giving away most of the few ideas I have about the subject.) Catherine Parke, in Biography: Writing Lives, justifies the fact that all of her exemplary texts are literary biographies:
Over the past 200 years, professional writers have surpassed the former leading candidates of biographical interest in Western culture: royalty, saints, and military heroes. Writers, beginning in the late seventeenth century, became the new heroes of modern print culture and expanding literacy. Their lives also became templates for post-Renaissance notions of the relation between public and private self, the Western invention of individual identity, and the foundational concept of the reality of a psychological life.
Well, ain't that convenient? I'm a literary scholar, teaching the works of poets, fiction writers, dramatists & essayists, & have gotten interested in biography; & by golly, there seem to be more biographies about the people I'm already invested in than anybody else! So I (MS) must hie me off to Barnes & Noble & do some grubby quantitative analysis. First I go thru the "Biography" section counting heads; then I'm off to the places Parke isn't looking – "Music," to count how many lives of Frank Black, Morrissey, & Madonna there are, & "Film," where lives of Rock Hudson & Marilyn Monroe outsell the latest Ezra Pound any day of the week.

Aside from the self-aggrandizing nature of Parke's claim, there's something to be said for examining specifically literary biography (& yes, most of the biographees this spring will be writers), not least the hurdle of making interesting lives whose most significant moments are spent in solitary desk-labor; & of course the mise-en-abyme of the writer confronting the writer, trying to capture one set of words in another.
Obviously I haven't written much about poetry per se in ages. But I'm feeling nostalgic for the days when blogospheric compatriats like Josh Corey would actually post work in progress. Here's a fragment of my own w-i-p, maybe a bit of an aria from a post-android opera:
bend down you fabled aviatrix
mistress of struts fuselage
and yellow busy wasps
beneath your canopy I acquaint
me with sea-surge the moan
of dark and underwater
caves swim through the air
on pinioned and tense wings
lights dim and pattering rain
& John Latta's been posting some very gnarly new lines on his gnarly Dumpster Island.
Eric posted this clip a few weeks back on Say Something Wonderful, but it's too good not to disseminate, particularly since I've had the song ringing thru my mind for days now.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

end-of-week various

Some interesting thinking about biography taking place on One-Way Street and The Reading Experience. My own Road to Damascus moment came during a light-headed, tingly drive home last night, when I realized that I should stop sweating the upcoming class, stop trying to be Professor Effing Know-It-All, & let the syllabus take its own scrappy, partial, & opinionated route.

It doesn't help matters that Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman & Richard Holmes's Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage – two of my money texts – are now out of print. But I think I've found the decent overview book: Catherine Parke's Biography: Writing Lives (Routledge 2002). Yes, I was put off by the fact that the book was originally published by Twayne, but then I reflected that after all, some of those Twayne volumes are pretty decent (& there's nothing worse than press-based snobbery – after all, why wasn't I put off by its being published by Routledge, which has published some of the most high-octane vapid theoretical silliness in recent years?). And on examination, Parke turns out to be pretty good – it probably helps that she doesn't seen to be a biographer herself, therefore doesn't have her weenie in any particular argumentative campfires.
I am officially in love with Jane Austen. & inclined to agree with Scott Mackenzie, who all those years ago, at a table in Eugene, Oregon, several pitchers into the pub's stock of some nice local microbrew, opined that it just didn't get any better than Emma.
And like Bilbo Baggins, feeling spread too thin, like butter over too much toast, at least in the writing department. Too many notebooks – the little Moleskines for poetry drafts and general observations, the big green commonplace book, the new large-format Moleskine that's filling up with thoughts & quotations on biographical matters, the very private personal journals – and of course Culture Industry, which believe it or not takes up more time than it takes to type.
A colleague passed me a brace of CDs containing the MP3s of what looks like the entire Bruce Springsteen corpus. Me a Springsteen fan? Well, not really, tho I can listen & appreciate when I manage to tune out the general cultish cultural static, the deification of the man. But I'm reminded of why I didn't buy The River when it first came out: the title song must be among the saddest five or ten lyrics I've ever heard. (Right up there with "Donna, Donna" or "The Poor Boy Is Taken Away," if you know what I mean.) Almost more than my tender sentimental heart can stand, tho I've listened to it a half dozen times over the last two days.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Sincerity & Ajectification

Last time around I was speculating on the possible usefulness of Nigel Hamilton's Biography: A Brief History (Harvard UP, 2007) for my upcoming (much-dreaded) seminar in Biography: Theory & Practice, & worrying about its "breeziness & occasional flyspecks." Well, I've finished the book (it's almost 300 pages, but they're teeny tiny pages with big margins & lots of pictures), & can confidently pronounce upon it: As the painter (Hugh Grant) in the film of Rose Tremain's Restoration tells Robert Downey Jr., on being shown the latter's amateurish canvas, "It is an excrescence." As Bart Simpson would say: "Craptacular."

While bad reviews are deliciously fun to write, some books are so painfully ill-conceived & superficially thought thru that criticizing them in detail feels like a species of cruelty to slow animals. What's worst is that Biography is a really great idea – sfarz I know there is, as Hamilton points out over & over again, no short summary history of the field – and seems to spring from a congeries of good intentions: to introduce & critique the history of biography; to pronounce upon its present state & future prospects; to give the field some of the respect that it's been lacking in the academy.

(Note to M. Hamilton: A conceptually sloppy, excrementally copy-edited, inadequately referenced "pop" overview of biography – even if it does have pretty pictures – is unlikely to help establish biography among the academic disciplines. But I sympathize with its marginalization – a marginalization even more extreme than that which proponents of "creative nonfiction" have been vigorously fighting against for however long. For my take on the subject of biography & literary/cultural studies, see this paper from half a decade ago.)

Part of the problem is Hamilton's desire to write for a popular audience, which is a laudable one – something which I attempted in The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (tho my publisher let drop at one point that the book still has a "scholarly tone" – but you're welcome to buy it anyway & decide for yourself). But as Janet Malcolm shows in The Silent Woman, her book on Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, & the politics of posthumous biographical reputation, you don't have to dumb down to achieve readability. Hamilton rightly recognizes Samuel Johnson & James Boswell as terrifically important figures in the history of biography; but he spends as much time on the racy anecdote of Boswell getting it on with Rousseau's mistress (13 times!) as he does on the structure and method of Johnson's Lives of the English Poets, & makes almost no mention of Boswell's own methods in writing Johnson's Life.

I guess I'd call that "breeziness" – passing over the meat of the argument to linger over the not particularly nourishing garnishes. What's more troubling is the number of times Hamilton simply gets things wrong.
•He claims that the main reason Sir Walter Raleigh was executed was some unflattering implications about contemporary monarchs in The History of the World, thereby making SWR the "first martyr to biography." Well, he's already stretching terminology past the place where I'll follow when he lumps Raleigh's History in the field of biography, but any student of early modern history & culture can tell you the reasons for Raleigh's execution were far more complex than that (& really had little to do with his writing).

•Carlyle gets name-checked & quoted once or twice, but his seminal biographical writings – in Heroes & Hero-Worship, the life of Frederick the Great, & his edition of Cromwell – get nary a mention, which is sort of like writing about Victorian poetry without noticing Tennyson.

•Hamilton makes the interesting argument that during the period of the huge, reputation-whitewashing, Victorian mausoleum biographies, life-writing energies got drawn off into fiction. This works pretty well for Jane Eyre & David Copperfield, but why in God's name does he adduce Moby-Dick & Heart of Darkness, two utterly unbiographical novels?

•In a fantastically distorted account of structuralist & post-structuralist thought (which could have been written by a Bill O'Reilly scriptwriter), Hamilton blames it all on Mikhail Bakhtin – adducing tons of illustrative quotations, not from Bakhtin's authenticated works, but from Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language: yes, theory-heads still slaver over the possibility that Bakhtin used V.'s name in some early writings, but the weight of scholarly opinion is that Voloshinov should be acknowledged as the author of the work bearing his name. Hamilton, fighting the theory-wars of the '80s, doesn't seem to have noticed. (Indeed, he seems entirely innocent of theoretical developments since about 1979.)
This is just the tip – here goes the cliché – of the proverbial iceberg, a vast chilly density of flippant verbiage, misremembered facts, & high-sounding puffery. But what should I have expected, I guess, from a biographer who issued a revised edition of his biography of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery under the clever title The Full Monty. (For a suitably scathing review – I love the word "twaddle" – see here.)
Last time around, I quoted Oscar Wilde "All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling" – which prompted a useful comment from Don Share: "I'm not sure if genuine feeling is the same as sentimentality, but of the latter, Richard Hugo said: 'Our reaction against the sentimentality embodied in Victorian and post-Victorian writing was so resolute writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake.'" That's a good observation, & deserves as follow-up a bit more of the context of Wilde's remark (which gets quoted as if it were a free-standing aphorism, rather than a line from Gilbert in "The Critic as Artist"):
the real artist is he who proceeds, not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion. He does not first conceive an idea, and then say to himself, 'I will put my idea into a complex metre of fourteen lines,' but, realising the beauty of the sonnet-scheme, he conceives certain modes of music and methods of rhyme, and the mere form suggests what is to fill it and make it intellectually and emotionally complete. From time to time the world cries out against some charming artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has 'nothing to say.' But if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. It is just because he has no new message, that he can do beautiful work. He gains his inspiration from form, and from form purely, as an artist should. A real passion would ruin him. Whatever actually occurs is spoiled for art. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.
To which Ernest replies: "I wonder do you really believe what you say?" A good question – one might argue, I suppose, that by this point in the dialogue Gilbert has become rather shall we say "carried away" by his own rhetoric on behalf of a formalist insincerity, a method for the artist to "multiply his personalities."

The simplest thing to say is that "genuine feeling" – "sincerity" – is not enough to make good poetry (tho it's great for voyeuristically interesting blogs), but that poetry can be a way of embodying such genuine feeling in form – a sincere regard for which (& here I follow Zukofsky, & suspect the Divine Oscar would agree) is a necessity for successful verse.