Monday, December 31, 2007

year-end lists

I too dislike them, especially when they insist on appearing in tens, as if the evolutionary accident of our 10 fingers & 10 toes had something to do with the pace of useful/interesting cultural production over an annual cycle which has, after all – 12 months, 365 days – nothing whatsoever to do with a decimal system.

But here are a few lists, notable perhaps for showing precisely how far I've gotten from being up to date: books I've read or re-read this year & found particularly compelling. Lists in no particular order, nor in ten-ishes:

Stephen Rodefer, Mon Canard
Benjamin Friedlander, The Missing Occasion of Saying Yes
Martha Ronk, In a Landscape of Having to Repeat
Melanie Neilson, Civil Noir
Geoffrey Hill, Scenes from Comus
Geoffrey Hill, A Treatise of Civil Power
Kate Greenstreet, case sensitive
Carla Harryman, Baby
Rosmarie Waldrop, Curves to the Apple
Myung Mi Kim, Commons
Paul Naylor, Arranging Nature
Norman Finkelstein, Passing Over
Peter Riley, Alstonefield: A Poem


Samuel R. Delany, Phallos
A. S. Byatt, Angels & Insects
Paul Auster, Oracle Night
Jane Austen, Emma
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon
Geraldine McCaughrean, Peter Pan in Scarlet
Peter Ackroyd, The Plato Papers


Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria
Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
Lyndall Gordon, Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life
Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
Lorenz Jäger, Adorno: A Political Biography
Elzbieta Ettinger, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger

Other (criticism, philosophy, usw.)

Lawrence Rainey, Revisiting the Waste Land
Geoffrey O’Brien, The Browser’s Ecstacy: A Meditation on Reading
Theodor W. Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies
Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment
Garry Wills, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth
L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson
Joseph Brooker, Joyce’s Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture
Rosmarie Waldrop, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès
James Fairhall, James Joyce and the Question of History
Robert Sheppard, Far Language: Poetics and Linguistically Innovative Poetry 1978-1997
As usual, hoping for better in the new year.

Friday, December 28, 2007

laser rot; Shane MacGowan's teeth; year's end

I'm an unabashed Pogues fan, have been thru thick & thin since maybe 1986. One of my stocking stuffers this year was the band's latest "best of" compilation, The Ultimate Collection – probably not really a necessity, since I already own The Best of the Pogues, The Rest of the Best of the Pogues, & The Essential Pogues. But this one contains, as a second-disk lagniappe, "Live at the Brixton Academy," a recording of one of the gigs from the band's 2001 reunion tour. Judging by the Brixton disk & by the various concert videos up there on YouTube, the band is frankly better than ever – faster, sharper, more melodic. And even Shane MacGowan, the man of many words & few teeth, seems to be slurring his vocals a bit less than he was on such latter-era Pogues releases as Peace and Love & Hell's Ditch.

So I set to ripping the rest of my Pogues collection to iTunes, & discovered that laser rot has affected not merely Shane's teeth but my CDs as well. Turns out that Waiting for Herb (1993), the band's first post-MacGowan release, simply won't play at all. This is not a huge loss, mind you: the Pogues minus Shane MacGowan is kind of like non-alcoholic beer, or a gin & tonic without the gin. But there were some pretty decent tracks on that disk, I seem to recall, & I'm irritated to think that I'll be tempted in the days to come to actually purchase a second copy of that anemic record, just so I can satisfy my inner anal completist.

[Oddly enough, it turns out that the band's 1996 release, Pogue Mahone – also without Shane, & without my hero Terry Woods & two other core members of the group – is actually a pretty potent piece of celtic punkery, or so the first listen in maybe 8 or 9 years reveals.]
There's an eloquent post today on Eric Selinger's Say Something Wonderful; Eric, humblingly, takes the publication of The Poem of a Life as occasion for asking what he should be doing next. Eric's done the academic writing-about-poetry thing, in a tenure-panel's worth of peer-reviewed essays & in the form of his lovely first book, What Is It Then Between Us?: Traditions of Love in American Poetry; he's spent years training secondary school teachers to teach poetry in his NEH seminars; he's published – what? – 8 or 9 perceptive and lively omnibus reviews of books of poetry in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, writing for whose editor Herb Leibowitz makes writing for PMLA seem like falling off a log; and he barely mentions it, but he's co-edited two big & important critical collections, Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections (with Jonathan N. Barron) & the forthcoming & eagerly awaited Ronald Johnson: Life and Works (with Joel Bettridge).

Eric & I have been friends a long time now – at least 15 years or so – & there's nobody's critical opinion I value more highly. To be frank, Eric's always made me feel like an also-ran: his prose makes mine seem lumpish & academic, his critical eye cuts to the quick of the matter while mine is still lingering over the surface, & his wit runs circles around mine. I've always felt like Jack Lemmon to his Tony Curtis. So it's odd now to find that both of us are in something of the same boat: for I, too, am wondering what to do next.

I've been in Zukofsky-land for a long time now, ever since I started my dissertation at Cornell almost two decades ago. That dissertation morphed into a handful of articles & the book Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (1998), & the biography, which I started work on while LZPK was in production, seemed a natural outgrowth of that project. Along the way, there were some ancillary jobs – the essay collection Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky (1997) & the "additional prose" section of LZ's Prepositions+: The Collected Critical Essays. And of course I was writing other things: conference papers, essays, lots & lots of book reviews (the best of them, like Eric's, for Herb L's Parnassus). But this major, panoptic Zukofsky-project was always the great looming presence in my intellectual & writing life.

And now my Zukofsky affair has come, if not to an end, then to an appropriate pausing point, or at least a fermata. And I, like Eric, am wondering what the hell to do next. I have a bunch of ideas:
•first & foremost, it's time to find a publisher for another collection of poetry; goldfinches, maybe 120 pages of carefully cull'd post-post- poetry, has been shamefully gathering dust in a drawer of my hard drive

•and then there's the notion, which I might have aired on the blog some months back, of a brief & popularly-pitched book on the relevance of biography for reading modernist & late-modernist literary texts; this isn't a wholly serious intellectual project, but I've been reading the books middling biographers have been publishing lately on their art & have concluded that I could do just as well, if not better

•and there's all those book reviews and occasional essays – maybe 3-400 pages' worth, tho I haven't counted lately; but I'm not Helen Vendler or Marjorie Perloff or Dominick LaCapra – it would be a mad press indeed that would take on a collection of Scroggins odds 'n' sods

•what about another biography? ask readers who have little idea of the effort & agony that went into The Poem of a Life; truth to tell, I'm deeply tempted by a second biographical venture, but I have no idea who the lucky biographee might be

•a book on contemporary British avant-garde poetry, focusing particularly on those poets' relationship to the English language, to history, to place

•a book on the poetics of gardens, and the poetry of gardening – from Marvell thru Pope all the way to Ian Hamilton Finlay – indeed, such a book would probably end up being a book on Finlay with a very long historical preamble; but Lordy, the research it would take, & what I'd have to learn!
It comes down I suppose to a question of obsession, for I've found that I can't really write deeply or memorably at length about a given subject unless I'm to a certain degree obsessed with it. And while I'm pretty interested in all of the above subjects (the poetry collection, of course, is something else altogether), I'm not – yet – quite obsessed with any of them. (Now a book on contemporary avant-garde erotic poetry, that's got me interested at the moment...)

I suspect it's the time to lie fallow for a while, to let the next thing grab me from behind, unexpectedly. It's no great sin to stand and wait awhile, to see whether this past decade's labor will turn out to be a grand Roman candle or a damp squib. In the meantime, I'm entertaining and & all suggestions as to where my energies ought to be applied.

My worst fear, tho, is that my own Oblomovian tendencies will get the better of me – that 20 years hence, as I shuffle onto the dais to receive the gold-tinted, Chinese-made wristwatch Our Fair University hands out to career retirees, the young poets publishing four-dimensional poems on the ultra-internets & the young turks at the MLA will vaguely recall my name as "that guy who wrote some stuff on Zukofsky back in the day."

Deaths; Stephen Rodefer: Mon Canard

I'm not sure I'm ready to get back to semi-regular blogging, despite the fact that (most of) the holidays are over & I've survived them. There seems to be a haze of melancholy, due to a string of deaths: Benazir Bhutto, of course – & I, like everybody who's been watching affairs in Pakistan with any sort of interest lately, am rather in a state of shock – but also, in the closer-to-home world of poetry, the Gloucester poet Vincent Ferrini, who was so much more than "that guy Olson attacked in Maximus"*; and Sylvester Pollet, a genial & familiar presence at poetry conferences in Orono, Maine, & the publisher of the lovely & modest Backwoods Broadsides series: one of the few men who could wear a late-Basil Bunting beard & hairdo, & get away with it.
But the year winds itself down. No, thank heavens, I'm not going to be at MLA this year, much as I'd like to hang with my friends in Chicago & get away from the surreally warm weather down here. Instead, I'm girding my loins for the coming semester's courses & finishing up a few books. The tip of the week is Stephen Rodefer's Mon Canard (The Figures, 2000). All six of the poems in this collection are first-rate, but the real tour de force is the title poem, some sixty-odd fourteen-line stanzas that seem to marry Zukofsky's Catullus "translations," Finnegans Wake, and a snazzy trans-dictional, translingual crosscutting into a wonderfully erotic cassoulet (which, as a fine violinist once showed me, must always be eaten with vinegar). It begins
Julie my duck, mama's lute, chouchou in lieu of amore
of our loo, butte of my butte, beate of your butt
mont rue, my verity former not HERE, not her
mob spent of row, flowers in rue Lappe, pet asinine pot
my lovely cinder, mine ashen heart, onliest wit
ness to my witness, jump in Seine, berth, ankeberry
every thin necklace nested, sturdiest hysteria, white
patent leather policefemme, unreading gaoler, op
pen opera, princess mon amie electuary Jew, petit rat burg
er, my choo choo, coughdrop of my esophaguy, my lu
dens, by my mitten, minion of my invisible cake, liz
ard die of my destiny, mutt, cuff, flycast, gal
oshes, SMITTEN GLOVES, smith of my smith bull
's blood drawn in sleepy smiles....
And on and beautifully on. Hot stuff.

*I was astonished some years back, in conversation with someone or other, to learn that my interlocutor regarded Edward Dahlberg primarily as "that guy Olson wrote letters to & had a falling-out with": Because I Was Flesh, after all, is something like a benchmark in American memoir-writing.

Monday, December 24, 2007

holiday weirdness

So I shan't blog at length from the bosom of family etc. & the depths of the usual holiday depression, except to wish everyone out there a peaceful time. I mean, so far as Christmas goes, I can do without the crap holiday music, I can do without the annual battle over the presence/absence of the Baby Jaysus, I can do without Santa Effing Claus & his effing elves & all the godawfully tacky electric lights festooning all the houses in the neighborhood, I can certainly do without the rampant consumerist stampedes & the peer-pressure anxiety over whether I've gotten the right/enough gifts – I can even, at a pinch, do without some of the lovely carols, which I've often thought would be much nicer listened to sometime in March or April. The only thing about the holiday that I appreciate is that it's the one time of the year that people at least pay lip service to the concept of peace. And lip service, however superficial, is better than never mentioning it at all.
But did I mention identity theft? Here's the very weird story: I have a checking account in my name, a distant descendent thru a score of moves & bank consolidations of the same checking account I opened when I was 16 years old. It's lain moribund for maybe 5 years or so – in fact, the only checks I have for it are printed with the name of a bank that got swallowed up by my present bank some years ago; I keep a very little bit of money in it to buy things on eBay, but that's it.

Anyway, I had the opportunity to deposit a fairly substantial windfall into this account the other day, maybe the first real deposit I'd made in three or four years. And then a couple of days later I went & did some holiday shopping. Lo & behold, waiting for me at home, when I returned from the mall with my new yellow shoes (which yes, Bill, I am wearing), there was a package waiting for me, mailed from Miami Beach: inside, a bottle of emu oil-fortified facial cleanser. It had been ordered with my checkcard; the invoice had my address, my phone number (which I don't really give out very often), & a hotmail e-mail address that bore no resemblance to mine.

Going online to check the account, I discovered a whole series of unauthorized purchases, including online audio books & something from a company called "Boca Java Coffee." Of course I immediately got on the phone with the bank & got those purchases refunded & my card cancelled. Only today did Boca Java's box of two pounds of premium coffee – the first installment of a monthly subscription – turn up in the mail. Another receipt with my home address & an e-mail address (different from the first) bearing no resemblance to mine.

How very strange: someone somehow filches my card number – I have no earthly idea how, since the damn thing never leaves my wallet – & then uses it to order stuff to be shipped to my home address. It's as tho I have a secret admirer (probably a first for me) who's determined to get me stuff I like or need (yes, I dig coffee, & yes, my complexion could probably use some emu oil) – but who doesn't want to pay for it themselves.

At least the weirdness of this is distracting me from the annual glums. Have a good holiday, everyone.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

[for academics only...]

I've been neurotically searching the web for news of The Poem of a Life [Amazon & publisher's links to the right, as always] – what, me neurotic?? – & have noted with disquiet that only a single score of libraries, according to Worldcat, which is supposed to be the authority on these things, have acquired copies thus far. (Okay, so the book's only been out about 4 weeks, but it's been available for preorder forever...)

I'm worried, that is, that having been published by a trade house rather than a university press, the Zukofsky bio might end up falling thru one crucial crack: the academic library market. In the long long run, while it'd be nice if the book sold as many copies as Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!), it's probably more important that academic libraries have it on their shelves. So it'd be a wonderful holiday gesture if those of you with university connections, however tenuous, would suggest to your librarians that they ought to acquire this book.

new shoes!; good guitar

Damn the hiatus; I feel like blogging. Ed Baker kindly suggests that the malaise implied in my last post is the result of – you got it – the holidays themselves: "all holidays are too divisive and are cause of your current sicknesses/angst... they are all about buying things and murdering "them infidels" or about celebrating some invented 'happenstance' (phantasy)." To which I can only reply, yeah, I think you're right.

We were – horrors – in the local hi-tone mall the other night, & the spectacle of massed consumerism was rather like the shark-feeding scene in Moby-Dick; me, I turned into the shark who gets so enthusiastic that he starts swallowing his own entrails. In short, I bought new shoes [see above]. Pretty boss, no? A pair of New Balance trainers whose design – according to the press release –
pays homage to 70’s Grindhouse Cinema through a hard-hitting collage of the era’s slickest iconography. From the streets of Harlem to the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, [Sean] D’Anconia’s fusion of 70’s funk, yakuza and kung-fu imagery brings his unique pop-fusion universe to life in this limited-edition New Balance Creation.
I dunno. I just think they're cool. I'd draw your attention to the fact that the very hip gentleman on the inside of each shoe [see image to the right] has an actual crushed velvet afro.
Last week I wrote about bad guitar playing (ie, my own). This week I've been thinking about good guitar playing. It's time of course for that dreaded year-end phenomenon, people's lists of "best books of 2007," "best albums of 2007," etc. [The Poem of a Life, it seems, was released too late in the year to make anyone's list, tho it does happily appear on Pierre Joris's year-end list of "books I should have sent in to Steve Evans's Attention Span project," where he's kind enough to comment, "Still in the process of reading it, and so far completely delighted. A must for anyone interested in the most secret of the great American poets of the past century." And Su, bless her heart, says nice things here.]

Any way, while I can't claim to have anything like an encyclopedic knowledge – or even a cursory knowledge – of the records released over the past year, I'd hasten to put in a plug for my old flame Richard Thompson's latest electric release, Sweet Warrior. Every time RT comes out with a new band album, I'm inclined to think "this is the best thing since Rumour & Sigh" (1991) – & then, after listening for a couple months, decide that it's a good album but perhaps not quite up to R&S, which is after all pretty close to a perfect record. But Sweet Warrior (which I'll blog at length sometime soon, perhaps) is the real thing.

But I'm struck at the moment by a little note on the front page of RT's spiffy official website, letting us know that oor man made the top 20 of Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the "100 greatest guitarists of all time" (number 19, in fact). I'm abnormally fascinated by such lists, which seem to mime the process of classic literary canon formation. Unfortunately, RS doesn't provide any information on how they came up with their pantheon of guitar heroes: did they just throw out names around the office? is it the result of an online or print readers' poll (as I suspect)?

And what makes a "great guitarist"? Here, for your perusal, are the top 20:
1 Jimi Hendrix
2 Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band
3 B.B. King
4 Eric Clapton
5 Robert Johnson
6 Chuck Berry
7 Stevie Ray Vaughan
8 Ry Cooder
9 Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin
10 Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
11Kirk Hammett of Metallica
12 Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
13 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead
14 Jeff Beck
15 Carlos Santana
16 Johnny Ramone of the Ramones
17 Jack White of the White Stripes
18 John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
19 Richard Thompson
20 James Burton
It's pretty hard to argue with some of these: Hendrix, B. B. King, Duane Allmann, James Burton, Robert Johnson are all pioneers of their idioms, breakers of new ground (as Pound might have it); Santana, Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, & Kirk Hammett are very very fine players, impeccable technicians as it were. But what does Stevie Ray Vaughan have to offer that isn't already in Hendrix? And what in the world are Jack White & Kurt Cobain – iconic figures, & decent players but no more – doing in this top 20, many strata above such marvelous musicians as Ali Farka Toure (#76), Tom Verlaine (#56), & Vernon Reid (#66)? Are the rudimentary stylings of Lou Reed (#52) & Ron Asheton (of the Stooges, #29) really "greater" than the impeccable madness of Lightin' Hopkins (#71) & Robert Quine (#80)?

Rock music, however, has always been about more than just music itself, which goes some way towards explaining why Jimmy Page outscores the late, great, & much lamented Robert Quine by 71 positions. After all, who wouldn't vote for the romantically hairy, bare-chested Page, who in the eyes of his fellow guitarists wore the bloody guitar too low to bang out a decent solo in concert (ever wondered why the solos are so much better on Led Zeppelin's studio albums than on their live releases? wonder no more), over the bald, bespectacled Quine – Mr. Magoo with an electric guitar?

I'm an unabashed fan: I love all his work, from his stuff on Lou Reed's best albums of the 1980s to his solos on Matthew Sweet's records to his work on various John Zorn & Tom Waits releases. But if I had the choice of which tour bus I get to ride along on, I'm pretty certain that I'd choose Zeppelin's floating orgy over whatever studious accomodations the ex-legal student Quine might have to offer.

Out-on-a-limb statement of the day: Eric Clapton is the single most overrated popular musician of the last quarter of the 20th century.

[Robert Quine, 1942-2004]

Friday, December 21, 2007


As if my blogging of late hadn't become spotty enough, I suspect it's time for Culture Industry to take a week or two's hiatus. The holiday season's always been a dreary & desultory time of year for me, & I see little reason to inflict my own spleen on my 7 readers out there. Not to mention the fact that I seem to be headed into vacation with a full-fledged bug of some sort, which has me shuffling & sniffling & just generally grumpy.

I do hope to get some reading done. In addition to the bales of course texts that need to be read, reviewed, & set in order, I have new 2nd-hand copies of AS Byatt's Babel Tower & Angels & Insects (60 pages in, this one's absolutely engrossing), Michel Houellebecq's Platform, & Houellebecq's weird little HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. On the poetry side of the boardwalk, I've just finished Lisa Jarnot's Ring of Fire (fab) & Paul Muldoon's Quoof (not-quite-so-fab), & am in the midst of Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day & Stephen Rodefer's Mon Canard.

Alas, not many sightings of The Poem of a Life on the horizon, tho if you want a very brief preview, Al Filreis has posted a recording of himself reading a page or two on his 1960 blog.

Most pressingly, there are letters to write: several letters of recommendation (as usual), but as well stacks of long & thoughtful emails that deserve long & thoughtful replies. After all, one has no business pining over an empty In-box when one owes as many messages as I do.

So I hope everyone's having a pleasant Solstice & Saturnalia, & wish you all a peaceful & fulfilling Yule. You'll hear from me sooner or later, like it or not.

Monday, December 17, 2007

limbo; bad guitar playing

In a state of "inbetween"-ness, as one friend used to spell it (Canadianly?). The book is out, tho I have little idea of how it's "doing" – commercially, that is, it being far too early for sales statements from my publisher; on the other hand, a few very gratifying emails from readers out there – mostly friends – and a scattering of blogosphere responses. Don Share, God bless him, is at least halfway thru, & thus far has said nothing but nice things: "spellbinding"... "a book so good I'm anxious about what the heck I'm going to read when I finish it!" Blurb fodder, on the off chance this thing makes it into paperback.
I've largely recovered from the hangover attendant on Saturday night's book release party – for me, a drunken, rather melancholy affair, as these years I find most parties, even the ones I'm hosting. Too many people I wanted to see not in attendance, too much mother-hen-like worrying over whether everyone's having a "good time." Many musical instruments about, to little avail: the sad truth is that for my part I can't remember more than half a verse of any given song once I've gotten a couple drinks into me, & my fingers turn into fumbling bratwursts on the fretboard. The detached space reggae of the Mekons' "I'm Not There (1967)" ringing in my head all weekend:
A velvet glove strokes a hairy thigh
Day is breaking against the sky
My mind is purple...
Like the bubbles on your lips
Ooh baby I groove the way
You move your hips...
A colleague's 15-year-old son, enticed by the promise of music-making, had brought his gear along, & we tried to see if we had any common musical ground. Alas, apart from the inevitable 15 minutes of 12-bar blues in A, such was not to be found. Few things make me feel older than being in company of a "shredder," as these young folks refer to a player who's able to rip thru the Metallica catalogue with fleet fingers.

Hazy as I was, I recognized that our guitar-Bildungs (Guitarrebildungen?) were fundamentally different, that there's been a sea change in the way one learns to play rock guitar in the past couple decades. I learned chords, open & barre, & only then progressed to scales & riffs. (One could probably fake 80% of the corpus of pre-1980 pop music if one knew the old I-IV-V-VIm progression.) Alan, on the other hand, thinks in terms of lines, of melodic patterns, of the dit-dit-diddle-dit-dits that underpin the fast metal he listens to. I can't wrap my head, or my fingers, around it – & won't ever be able, I'm afraid, to play "Master of Puppets" or Tool's "Schism."

(But then again, as one friend remarks, a 15-year-old brings an intensity of practice time to these things that isn't really available to those of us with jobs & such. I do have every intention of blocking out some time over the break to draw and paint, pursuits which don't plunge me into quite the despair that music-making usually does.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

ad interim: saucy swinburne

So I finished my latest trawl thru The Cantos the other day – from soup to nuts over six months, Odysseus in Hades to all those lyrical, fragmentary regrets. A grand read, tho a trifle tiring in the final stretches. And then I pulled down Richard Sieburth's Library of America edition of Pound's Poems and Translations, wondering if I would see more in the early stretches than I had before.

Well, this time around I saw – or rather, heard – quite a lot of Celtic Twilight-era Yeats. Certain verbal tics, like Pound's repeated use of the adjective "dim" to describe the hair of whatever beloved his persona happens to be addressing. But I also heard a good deal of Swinburne, which sent me back to the Swinburne I'd been reading last spring (in, of all places, Orlando), a nice fat Carcanet Selected Poems that I seem to have bought in Florence for 5000 lire some years ago.

Now like everybody else I'd heard lots about Swinburne's S&M propensities, but I'd only seen flashes of them in the poetry. Not so this time around. I won't even start on "Dolores," a 440-line hymn to "Our Lady of Pain," a phantasmagoric tour thru a sensual underworld that makes Eyes Wide Shut seem rather tame (no, wait, Eyes Wide Shut was rather tame...). Instead, I'll fasten on a single unforgettable stanza from a little love ditty entitled "A Match." It begins tamely, innocently:
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like a leaf,
Our lives would grow together
In sad or singing weather,
Blown fields or flowerful closes,
Green pleasure or grey grief;
If love were what the rose is,
And I were like the leaf.
The poem gets progressively weirder from there, contrasting "life" & "death," "sorrow" & "joy," but settling down in the penultimate stanza to a chaste "If you were April's lady, / And I were lord in May..." But then there's the final stanza, which plunges it all into a scene that ought to be illustrated by Félicien Rops, or acted out by Bettie Page:
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain,
We'd hunt down love together,
Pluck out his flying-feather,
And teach his feet a measure,
And find his mouth a rein;
If you were queen of pleasure,
And I were king of pain.
Am I the only one who finds this irresistably kinky?

Thursday, December 13, 2007


In between drifts of paper – final portfolios, final student essays, bills to be paid, great sifts of mail & other paperage to clean up. But noted some lovely words on The Poem of a Life (still time to get your gift copies before Christmas!) on Don Share's excellent blog, Squandermania & Other Foibles. The money phrase: "a gratifyingly large volume."

Lovely contrast to the gormless grad student of a few years back: I was covering the first day of a colleague's Dickens seminar, holding up the assigned texts & pretending to know something about 'em. "Wow, those are big books," quoth she, apparently never having picked up a Dickens novel (apart probably from A Christmas Carol) before.

Back to the mill, grinding slowly but one hopes small.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Having a little bit of a breather, before the final papers & portfolios descend upon me like a swarm of locusts tomorrow. The dental situation seems to be mostly under control: I had a temporary crown break during Thanksgiving dinner, then entirely fall out last week; the dentist replaced it today gratis, & only put a moderate amount of guilt on me for not coming in sooner. (He knows there's a handsome chunk of cash coming his way when he installs the permanent crown next week.) Nice to be able to chew on both sides of one's mouth again.
Trying to tuck away a few books before the break begins, & the holidays make sustained intellectual labor impossible. AS Byatt's strange little novel The Biographer's Tale, for one, which begins with the narrator sitting in a post-structuralist theory seminar & realizing that he's tired of post-structuralist theory:
I went on looking at the filthy window above his head, and I thought, I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing.
So Phineas G. Nanson – yes, that's his name – sets out to become a biographer. (Fool! Fool!) To write the biography, no less, of another biographer, Scholes Destry-Scholes, author of a magisterial multi-volume life of Sir Elmer Bole. Nanson spends much of the novel trying to uncover traces of the enigmatic Scholes, & reading the copious notes he's left in what might or might not be preparation for 3 further biographies, of Carl Linnaeas, Henrik Ibsen, and the Victorian eugenicist Francis Galton.

Like most novels on biography, this one's about the impossibility of recovering the subject's life – really, after all, a post-structuralist theme – but it's great fun, & enlivened with the emotional & erotic complications of Nanson's simultaneous affairs with Scholes Destry-Scholes petite niece, an artistically inclined radiologist, and Fulla Biefeld, a great Scandinavian Valkyrie of an ecological entymologist.
On the other hand, I'm still revelling in Joseph Brooker's Joyce's Critics: Transitions in Reading and Culture (U Wisconsin, 2005), a book far more diverting than its clunky subtitle. Struck by some paragraphs on Richard Ellmann's still-dominant doorstop* biography of Joyce:
As Bernard McGinley remarks, the phrase "it's in Ellmann" has come to serve a kind of guarantee of authenticity – "epistemologically final, the last word" – for all kinds of claims about the writer. This reflects not only Ellmann's biographical skill, but the cultural and academic significance of the genre in which he did his most extensive and admired work. The status that his name carries could only have been attained by a biographer; the plainly entitled James Joyce retains its centrality amid a welter of identically titled books partly because of its generic difference from works of literary criticism. A literary biography is more likely than a critical work to be seen as achieving a kind of identity with its subject, a fit correspondence between text and individual.
All this, Brooker forcefully points out, in spite of the epistemological destabilization of the biographical genre carried out by such modernist writers as Strachey & Woolf.
The contemporary quickening of interest in biography may partly stem from a public desire for the linearity and coherence that twentieth-century fiction has put in question, which the record of a life can still hope to achieve. When the biographical subject is an artist-innovator like Joyce, an ironic disparity can result, with the modernist being reclaimed by the kind of "transparent" language and chronological narrative against which he had set himself. Through biography, the most radical avant-garde and antilinear figure can be reclaimed for sequential time and the consolations of storytelling.
Indeed. Next time: Colin MacCabe and English post-structuralist Joyce; or, Language Poetry avant la lettre. And a tenure battle
Kevin Killian's review seems to have pleased 3 readers, & kept The Poem of a Life in the teens of its sub-sub-sub-category. But I've resolved to stop watching the sales rankings there, since they seem to jump 50,000 points or so with every copy sold – & thereby mean almost nothing. I never did this with my university press books, but just waited around for that bi-yearly royalty statement: gosh, 143 copies this year! Woo-hoo!

But I love finding things like this. (Thanks, Daniel.)

*I am told that since The Poem of a Life clocks in at a bit under 600 pages (take heart, potential readers – only 450 or so are actual text), it's not technically a doorstop book, & therefore nobody is allowed to complain about its length.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Poem of a Life: Responses

[Now that The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky has actually hit the shelves, I'll be doing my best to track responses to the book in the "conventional" reviewing outlets & on the blogosphere. All in the service, of course, of pure, naked promotion. So go buy it already.]

The first reader review, by the prolific & always delightful Kevin Killian, novelist, poet, playwright, & co-author of the excellent biography Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance, is up, pushing Poem of a Life back into the teens of its sub-sub-sub-category. Kevin begins, magnificently,
Avant-garde poet Louis Zukofsky is the subject of a splendid new biography, one I scurried through, with barely a moment's pause for rest or water, over the past four and a half hours, and you shut the book exhilarated wanting nothing but more, more of this wonderful blend of exposition, narrative drive, and critical analysis all hand in hand like the heroic girls striding the battlefield in Henry Darger's painting.
Hard to beat that – am considering it for my tombstone.
A. Papatya Bucak blogs The Poem of a Life here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

reading (at stool)

I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.
–Max Reger

Evening hours, girls in grey gauze. Night hours then: black with daggers and eyemasks. Poetical idea: pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still, true to life also. Day: then the night.

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.
–James Joyce,
We all do it. Read in the bathroom – the washroom, the loo, the bog, the "smallest room of the house," what have you. We all snatch those few or many moments of enforced inaction as the opportunity to scroll thru just a bit more text.

The phenomenology of bathroom reading has always interested me. Everyone, even the inhabitants of the most appallingly book-free homes, seems to have some stash of reading material in the bathroom, whether it's a stack of fashion magazines, children's books, Reader's Digests, or (god help us) motivational business books. (I suppose this is in default of having yet another television in the bathroom, tho I know one local restaurant which has miniature screens in every urinal stall of the men's room.)

The key element of the phenomenology of bathroom reading is of course brevity: even the very costive reader is unlikely to pull down a copy of In Search of Lost Time or Absalom, Absalom!, with their endless chapters & vertiginously unwinding sentences, for what will be at most 10 or 15 minutes of reading. (There's an old copy of Doctor Faustus beside the upstairs watercloset, but it hasn't seen much reading.) This is why there's a niche market for bathroom books, consisting mostly of collections of jokes & brief anecdotes. And it's why Leopold Bloom's choice of morning reading, the prize-winning but brief "Matcham's Masterstroke," a short story published in the newspaper, is exemplary. (I have never resorted to Bloom's or Max Reger's method of disposing of their reading material, tho I've been sorely tempted by some of the pages of John Betjeman's collected poems.)

We recently installed a handsome set of bookshelves in the downstairs bathroom, which rapidly filled (as bookshelves around here magically do). Some of these books are simply overflow, things I haven't yet found a permanent home for. Others – perhaps the majority – are things I've pulled from other bookshelves to leaf thru briefly, but not yet to seriously tackle: heaven knows the collected letters of Walter Benjamin & Theodor Adorno, or Hegel's Philosophy of History, or Jürgen Habermas's The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, deserve better than the modular, slightly abstracted reading the toilet allows for.

On the other hand, there are books which seem to be best taken in once or twice daily 5 minute doses. For some weeks, I enjoyed in that manner Geoffrey O'Brien's The Browser's Ecstacy: A Meditation on Reading, only hauling it out of the loo when I came to the final chapters, in which his little angular parables abruptly expanded into a larger scope. He was replaced by Flann O'Brian's The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, not a book about famous English poets but a collection of elaborate & sometimes very very funny shaggy dog stories.

Currently I'm trawling in 3- to 4-page swoops thru Michael Bérubé's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education. I suspect this is a book that some readers will want to give the full monty, serious reading treatment – comfy chair, beer at one's side, pen in hand, etc. Mostly the conservative readers who're out to skewer MB, & are looking for juicy quotes. But I was a pretty much religious reader of Bérubé's late much lamented blog for a couple of years, & I've heard most of the arguments of What's Liberal before – they're for the most part good arguments, but I need no more than a wee occasional dram of them anymore; heaven knows there's enough to be depressed about in academia without being reminded of the bile the David Horowitz Right is directing at liberal arts departments around the country. It's enough to give you – pardon my French – les merdes.


Okay, enough of this personal revelation jazz – who wants to know about my crappy dental work, my frustrated musical ambitions, or my obsessions with various Scandinavian-Viking types? Instead, enquiring minds want to know – Lattaesquely – what have you been reading, Mark?

Oddly enough, not much poetry at the moment, save for a breathless dash thru the later Cantos; covering maybe 50 pages a day, reading my own annotations but not pausing to look up unfamiliarities; finding more in Thrones & less in Rock-Drill than I had remembered, but letting the poem/s stir up all sorts of questions: the pace of reading in the long poem, as opposed to the standard contemp. slim vol. of lyrics; in Pound's case particularly, the question of truth-value – bluntly put, how does one factor into one's judgment of the poem – personal, aesthetic – the question of whether or not Pound's whole rhetorical/formal structure stands in support of an ideology that's an unpleasant sack of shit?

Johnson's Life of Richard Savage.

Jennifer Ashton's From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge UP, 2005) & Kevin Pask's The Emergence of the English Author: Scripting the Life of the Poet in Early Modern England (Cambridge UP, 1996).

Today's hasty & desultory stroll past the stalls fetched up, for a mere two bits, a faded copy of William H. Pritchard's Lives of the Modern Poets (Oxford UP, 1980). What an anomolous book: WP name-checks Barthes & Derrida & the whole poststructuralist crew, even quoting Foucault on the death of the author, but still persists in writing a genial series of biographical-critical studies of the 9 guys (yes, guys – that if anything dates the book the most) he sees as the most important of the "moderns": Hardy, Yeats, Robinson, Frost, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Crane, & Williams. Entirely unstupid criticism, woven much more closely with life-stories than Dr Johnson's model text, in which brief biography was followed by character sketch which was followed by critical analysis.

I have a pipe-and-brandy-snifter fondness for this sort of book, criticism leavened with narrative, with what used to be called (& still is, in New Yorker circles) "human interest." I'll send a bright but iggerant undergraduate (tho not a grad student) who wants to know something about modernism to Julian Symons's Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature, 1912-1939 before I'll send her to Peter Nicholls's Modernisms: A Literary Guide. God help me, I even entertain fantasies of someday writing such a book on the second generation of American modernist poets, & their late/post-modernist offspring.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


I'd like to say I don't do memes, but the truth of the matter is I almost never get tagged for them. And being by nature a rather passionately (anally?) self-contained person, I have a really ambivalent relation to self-revelatory memes – which means that most of my answers simply go to underline my self-containment & anality. Anyway, this one comes courtesy of Dance at Prone to Laughter:
1) The first time I ever saw an opera – Wozzeck in Florence, with Zubin Mehta conducting (Italian supertitles & a libretto in front of me in German & French, so I could figure out what was being said about 85% of the time) – I spent the entire hour & 1/2 with a goofy grin of absolute ecstacy on my face; I'm sure the folks in the neighboring seats, given the grimness of the subject matter, thought the shabbily dressed American tourist was just plain nuts.

2) Most of my youthful dental work – & I had dreadful dental hygiene as an adolescent – was done courtesy of the US Army, so I seem to have a filling dropping out every six months or so.

3) This November marks a solid 20 years that I have kept track of every single book I've finished reading. (Okay, I didn't count Harry Potter and various other "young people's" books, but I'm regretting that now.)

4) Along those lines (should be 3a?), I'm becoming more & more constitutionally unable to "browse" books. (This is a serious problem, by the way, for someone who claims to be a scholar...) I don't start with the chapter that interests me: I start with the Preface & the Acknowledgments, & I usually end up reading all the way thru the Bibliography.

5) Whenever I read a poem in ballad meter, I sing it to myself to the tune of Joan Baez's version of "Mary Hamilton."

6) Altho I'm about as unbelieving an unbeliever as you'd want to meet, I own at least 9 Bibles, in one of which are still interleaved copies of little communion homilies I delivered at church at 16 or so.

7) I often wish I'd had the guts & obsessiveness & sheer silly determination to pursue music. I'm at least as good a guitarist as Lou Reed was in 1970. (Which isn't saying much...)

7+1 [lagniappe]) I often get the sense that I'm faking it & it's all a dream.
So there. The meme itself? Of course, it's the old "7 random and/or weird facts about yourself." And since the rule is that I'm to pass this on to 7 others, I'll name all four of the Incerti – Amy, Brian, Emily, Bradley (unless they've already done this) – Bob at Samizdat Blog, Michael Peverett (unless he has better things to do), & Su at V's Blabbateria (who may already have been hit with this...).
At least 2 Amazonian copies of The Poem of a Life have reached their new owners.
The font, by the way, is Skia.