Friday, December 26, 2008

en route; Zukofsky online

I'd intended a meaty post assessing the big Pogues box set that turned up under the tree yesterday, but I'm catching a flight for San Francisco & the dreaded MLA at the crack of dawn & I still have a few paragraphs to write on my paper, so any real blogging will have to wait until after the academic circus is over & I'm back. I will leave MLA-blogging to those who actually have the luxury of attending papers & panels. My warmest wishes & profoundest sympathies to the job-seekers out there.
In the interim, some new spots of interest on the net:

•It's been already heralded in several venues, but I'd be remiss not to point folks to the wonderful PennSound Louis Zukofsky page, which seems to make available every recorded reading of the thin one. Some lovely extras: the famous Grand Piano performance of "A"-24, Charles Bernstein reading "A Foin Lass Bodders," & Guy Davenport reading the Cats in both Latin & English.

•Jeff Twitchell-Waas's extraordinary resource site for Zukofsky readers & scholars, "Z-Site," has moved to here. (Yes, the old URL has a redirect page; I'm just amazed at how quickly these things change – the address I printed in the notes to The Poem of a Life has already been rendered obsolete.)

•Steven Fama has quietly and craftily started a blog, devoted mostly it seems to reviewery. Latest post is his list of top 20 poetry books of the year. Some good stuff there, things that had passed my radar.
In my briefcase: Rae Armantrout, Versed; John Taggart, There Are Birds; Peter Gizzi, Periplum and Other Poems; whatever else I can't leave behind at the last minute.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

more Beckett

Some time ago I wrote about Grove Press's sumptuous four-volume collected Beckett, the "Grove Centenary Edition" released two years ago to coincide with SB's 100th birthday. I've been enjoying it, savoring it, for almost two years now – and I've almost read my way thru every last page.

Of course, the Centenary Edition wasn't all that Grove did to celebrate their author's 100th birthday. Mr UPS brought this around the other day: Beckett's most famous play, Waiting for Godot, in a handsome, unjacketed hardcover whose dimensions are uniform with those of the GCE and whose design is close enough (without being identical) to make it clear that this volume is also part of the centenary celebrations. Best of all, this is a bilingual edition, with the original French text on the left page & Beckett's English translation on the right; no more flipping from one's English text to one's tattered old Minuit paperback.

The cynic in me, I fear, smells marketing here. Why only Godot? Why not Godot and Endgame, Beckett's other dramatic masterpiece originally written in French? (And for that matter, since Beckett's English-t0-French translations are as much creative acts as his French-to-English efforts, why not throw in Happy Days and Krapp's Last Tape?) There's certainly space here: the 2006 Grove bilingual Waiting for / En attendant Godot clocks in at 357 pages; that in comparison to only 509 pages in the complete Dramatic Works of the GCE.

I guess it's a matter, in terms of typography, of feast or famine. In the GCE, Waiting for Godot occupies only 87 pages, but they're rather packed pages: fairly narrow margins, stage directions pressed right up against speeches, speakers' names hived off into the left margin. Turning to the 2006 Godot (where the English text takes up 174 pages) is like going from the cramped Oxford World's Classics edition of the King James Bible to a big, airy presentation volume. Margins are vast; speakers' names (in all caps) rest atop speeches; stage directions have paragraphs all to themselves. Really, I can't help feeling, there's too much space. Even as I revel Ronald Johnsonianly or Susan Howeishly in the tracts of white space, I gotta suspect that Grove is stretching things out to make a substantial volume of this.

And as welcome as the bilingual edition is, I'm also a trifle exasperated with what I've called (in reference to the GCE) the "'black box' nature of the textual editing." The 2006 Godot has a teasing introduction by Beckett scholar & textual editor S. E. Gontarski that makes much of the text of this new issue, without ever really showing what's been changed. Gontarski goes over the play's textual history from the first Grove edition of 1954; he spends a good deal of time excoriating Faber & Faber for publishing a "mutilated" version of the play in 1956, and reprinting that text (censored at the behest of the Lord Chamberlain) in 1986, even tho they had access to a 1965 Grove edition that Beckett considered "definitive"; & he draws attention to 2 further revised versions of 1975 and 1955. 

In the 2006 Godot, Gontarski, gloats somewhat anticlimactically, "Grove Press has not only reunited the long separated fraternal twins, the English and French Godot, but has brought British and American texts closer to harmony." Er –– meaning what precisely? Show me the textual notes, guys. You've got over 350 pages to play with here; 15 or 20 pages of texual notes and variants at the end would have been far more welcome than a lot of that beautiful white space in which Didi & Gogo's back-&-forthings echo like Laurel & Hardy in the Sahara. No Shakespeare editor could get away with this.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sunday, December 21, 2008

[not of general interest]

The holidays, as they have a habit of doing, have snuck up on me this year. Maybe something to do with the fact that it's hard to feel winter-holidayish when you're still going outside in the middle of the night in shorts & a t-shirt, running the a/c in the car, etc. But trees & wreaths & menorahs are up, presents are stacked ready for wrapping.

J. & P. are in NYC this weekend playing in the snow, so I'm running solo with Daphne, who I guess is a pretty easy job as 4-year-olds go. Anyway, she seems to be relishing the "quality father-daughter time," as she calls it. Still, the place feels empty & lonely. (Tho I'm trying not to be "cranky and bummed out," as Don Share puts it, sweetly.)

A weird twinge of sentimentality last night: on the back porch, on my laptop, into the wee hours, I watched Citizen Kane, courtesy of Netflix; & as I was putting the disk back in the little envelope (you know, the wax-papery inner one with the brief misleading movie description & runtime) I noticed, written lightly in pencil, neatly but in an unfamiliar hand, the message "I love you." 

Who wrote it? Not a member of the household, certainly; maybe one of the guests & friends who've been thru over the last week? (Obviously, we're among the I suspect majority of Netflixers who turn over our movies a lot slower than we thought we would.) 

But then I realized that I'd only broken the seal on the envelope a couple hours before, after putting Daphne to bed. It was the last Netflixer, I guess, who'd decided to trace those archetypal 3 words on an envelope that was about to head out to someone – who precisely, she or he could have no idea. A message in a bottle? (Cynically, the "God Loves You" one finds occasionally on a dollar bill?) It says something about the phenomenology of reading, or maybe about my own state of mind, that I would feel personally interpellated by this anonymous, anonymously-directed scribble; that I would feel struck, alone in the middle of the night, by a touch of human affection.

A figure for the poem. Paul Celan: "I see no essential difference between a poem & a handshake."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jennifer Moxley: The Line

The Line, Jennifer Moxley (Post-Apollo Press, 2007)

The "line" between sleep and waking, at least in part; between intellection & emotion? The line as something followed, something toed. "I Walk the Line." The language "of the heart," an attempt to use the old tropes of consciousness, of affect, seriously again, without irony. Twenty-first Century Romanticism? The prose poem, but not the New Sentence: the unit of composition is the poem itself (1 or 2 pages), often telling a narrative or a fragment thereof. A kind of clear-eyed "shimmer" to these pieces, a muted awkward grace that has them gnawing into the corner of one's readerly eye as one picks up the next book.


Joshua Clover: The Totality for Kids

The Totality for Kids, Joshua Clover (U of California P, 2006)

To be read with a French dictionary at one's side, along with the latest guide to cultural theory. Honeycombed with referentiality, like a postmodern Rock-Drill, tho always glad to stumble over Warren Zevon & Roxy Music (oddly enough, the latter not indexed). The disturbing thought that dissent itself, at least in its poetic embodiment, may have reached the stage where only the face is left floating above the acid pit of self-dissolving irony, like the worker in the James Kelman story. Very French indeed; kept repressing the impulse to put on a beret, buy a pack of Gauloises, & find a café where I could order a carafe of wine as I read – or to climb a barricade, turn over a Peugeot, throw a cobblestone at something – if I could determine what my target might be.



Reading the Iliad is like travelling through a Country uninhabited, where the Fancy is entertained with a thousand Savage Prospects of vast Desarts, wide uncultivated Marshes, huge Forests, mis-shapen Rocks and Precipices. On the contrary, the Aeneid is like a well ordered Garden, where it is impossible to find out any Part unadorned, or to cast our Eyes upon a single Spot, that does not produce some beautiful Plant or Flower. But when we are in the Metamophosis, we are walking on enchanted Ground, and see nothing but Scenes of Magick lying round us.
–Joseph Addison, Spectator 417 (2 June 1712)
Reading "A" is like passing a season in an unfamiliar principality where the landscape is so variegated, the prospects so ample and diverse, that one is always encountering a new neighborhood, an undiscovered village, a previously unremarked vista or grotto.
–MS, The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (2007)
[To my knowledge, I never read Spectator 417 before happening on this passage yesterday in John Dixon Hunt's The Figure in the Landscape: Poetry, Painting, and Gardening During the Eighteenth Century.]

The horse sees he is repeating
All known cultures 
And suspects repeating
Others unknown to him...
–LZ, "A"-12

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Zukofsky in Sussex!

Those of you who are Britons, Europeans in general, or just spending January in sunny Brighton, might be interested in the following:
“A”-24: A Louis Zukofsky Seminar and Performance

The Centre for Modernist Studies at the University of Sussex presents the British premiere of Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s “A”-24, performed by Sean Bonney, Ken Edwards, Daniel Kane and Francesca Beasley with harpsichord by Kerry Yong.

Sarah-Jane Barnes plays violin pieces by Janequin and Bach

The seminar will include papers by Harry Gilonis, Jeff Hilson, Mark Scroggins, Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas and Tim Woods.

£10/£5. Places are limited, to reserve a place email Richard Parker at

13.00, 23 January 2009
The Meeting House
University of Sussex
Falmer, East Sussex

Saturday, December 13, 2008

the year's reads: selected & notable

So Bob Archambeau's beaten me to the punch, for what it's worth, with a list of things he's read this year; & it's a long one & an impressive one. I'll confine my own to things, like last year, that really struck me or stuck with me:
Atmosphere Conditions Ed Roberson
The Church – The School – The Beer chris cheek
Watchword William Fuller
The Tenor on Horseback Christopher Middleton
Slowly Lyn Hejinian
The Outernationale Peter Gizzi
Next Life Rae Armantrout 
AAB Tyrone Williams
Platform Rodrigo Toscano
Music’s Mask and Measure Jay Wright
Not Everything Remotely: Selected Poems 1978-2005 Alan Halsey
Sick Heart River John Buchan
The Captive Marcel Proust
King Rat China Miéville
Hegel: A Biography Terry Pinkard
Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage Richard Holmes 
Ezra Pound: Poet, A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume I, The Young Genius 1885-1920 A. David Moody
Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist Anthony Cronin
Criticism, Philosophy, et cetera
The Field of Cultural Production Pierre Bourdieu
Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Archive Fever Jacques Derrida
George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism Peter Nicholls
The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening Horace Walpole

Friday, December 12, 2008

Isabelle Baladine Howald: Secret of Breath

I think that last post, & its comment stream, demonstrate why I don't really do much teaching-related blogging. It's true I talk about syllabi a fair amount, and course texts, & kvetch about grading, & so forth, but generally speaking my life as a teacher is something that doesn't feature too prominently here. There're obvious reasons for that: perhaps most obviously, I am indeed an employee of Our Fair University, and generally speaking what goes on in the classroom is both a transaction among me, the students, & the course texts and a kind of service rendered by me as a hash slinger in the employ of Our Fair State. More importantly, there's a relationship of trust the one builds up with one's students, an interchange that can be so mutually rewarding & mutually revealing that I'm reluctant to feature it very much on this very public, rather disembodied blogspace. I'm not in the business of denigrating my students – I like them very much, & respect the ways their minds work, & sometimes lament their misplaced priorities or the choices their over-busy lives force upon them: but I'm not going to talk about it here.

On the other hand, when someone pulls a bozo stunt like the one recounted in that last post, it's just plain fair game.
Secret of Breath, Isabelle Baladine Howald, trans. from the French by Eléna Rivera (Burning Deck, 2008)

Vast stretches of white space, one voice in roman type, in dialogue or counterpoint to another in italic. War, displacement; the state of the refugee, which is the common state of 20th-century Europe. War, snow, movement, & the inevitability of a death, which lends an existentialist cast to everything that goes down. Not Celan but Trakl; not so much Bonnefoy as St.-John Perse. (But contemporary French poetry is one of my vast ignorances.)


Thursday, December 11, 2008


[found in a stack of three-year-old e-mails:]

Dear Professor Scroogins [sic],

You probably do not remember me, but I was in [one of your classes] over a year ago. If you do remember, I missed the final because of a mixup of dates and you therefore gave me a D as my final grade. I was supposed to schedule a makeup exam with you, but because my schedule is so crazy I haven't been able to. Being that it is now over a year later I was wondering if you might just call it even and change my D to at least a C. According to the last time I spoke to you my grade was a high B in the class without the final.

[oddly enough, I never got around to replying...]
Update: One commenter, choosing a convenient anonymity, asks "Provided that this student email is authentic, what would your employer, Florida Atlantic, think of you openly mocking students online?" What can I say? I can pretty easily imagine "mocking" this e-mail (just as I can imagine someone's mocking various communications of mine); but is it mockery simply to reproduce it verbatim?

(Call me crusty, but I look back in fondness on the days when the university was considered an association of faculty banded together for teaching & research – this was sometime in the late middle ages, I believe – rather than a corporation in which "instructional personnel" nest somewhere between grounds maintenance people and promotional memo writers in the grand hierarchy.)

Bradley comments, rather more helpfully, "You should reply to that email this weekend. 'Being that it's now been three years since you took the class, I'm ready to schedule that makeup exam. Let's do it today.'" In point of fact, I tried to schedule a makeup exam with student in question one more than one occasion in the months following the course, but it just never worked out with student's schedule. 

–which addresses the next (anonymous) comment, "Come on man you could've given him an incomplete. Scary passive-aggressive dude: just not responding." Around here, I fear, you can't just "give" an incomplete – there's a longish, rather complicated paperwork process. If memory serves, I offered to go thru said process with said student, & student opined that it would be better to take the grade earned sans final, then make up the exam as soon as possible. Hey, I reserve my passive-aggression for personal relationships and editors: I'm Mr Upfront with students.

But the only point was to point out cheekiness (something, frankly, which I rather admire): Note how student doesn't suggest "hey, it's time for me to take that exam," but "hey, time's passed; let's just split the difference." I wish I had the chutzpah.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Elizabeth Arnold: The Reef

The Reef, Elizabeth Arnold (U of Chicago P, 1999)

Where Civilization wrestles with a father's dementia, The Reef deals with the poet's own bouts with (I take it) Hodgkin's lymphoma. Harrowing reading, tho beautiful as well. I admire the ambition that leads her to release, as a 1st book, a single long sequence of poems. Much of what makes Civilization so compelling – for me – is only in embryo here.

I'm down with these; working on #5, "got prose?" these days.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

William Fuller: Sadly

Sadly, William Fuller (Flood Editions, 2003)

If anything, even more disorienting that Watchword, & at the same time a trifle more laconic. Still, tremendous stuff. Fuller indulges his lyrical gifts rather less in this one. The last poem, "I Now Think I Was Wrong," is Wallace Stevens without all illusions, stripped of all gaiety:
Returning to the spring, we see green on the surface
of the water. This is not the earth. Stand still, monkey,
do not run. None of us was ever here before.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Ron Silliman: The Age of Huts (compleat)

The Age of Huts (compleat), Ron Silliman (U of California P, 2007)

There's something about Silliman's work that has always been just there for me – an element of the landscape, a big looming presence of possibility. I like the "compleat" Age of Huts better than the old Roof edition – as LZ says somewhere, "more of a good thing." Tho I don't think Ron would appreciate the comparison, I'm put in mind of the "fractal" character of Eno's ambient stuff – ie, the experience of hearing the 61-minute Thursday Afternoon, in details, isn't different from hearing a 6-minute extract: it just that the former is longer. (That longer, however, is a pretty crucial difference.) A poetry which not only (in Auden's phrase) "makes nothing happen," but in which nothing happens. Or rather, nothing big, dramatic happens, only a constant flow of small-scale events. "A poem without development, without events, without end" ("2197"). Every time I read RS I start covering notebook pages with diagrams & numbers for some large-scale recombinative project which I never end up writing.


The Grand Piano, Part 4

Part 4 is in some ways the most compelling installment to date. But the various entries, some of them revolving around the term "utopia," others providing hard & fast contextual information about such events as the "Talks" series held at Bob Perelman & Francie Shaw's loft, or the 1978 Duncan-Watten dustup following the screening of the NET Louis Zukofsky film outtakes. (Wish I'd had this while drafting the Afterword to Poem of a Life.) All of the pieces, however, suddenly fade into ruminative insignificance when Rae Armantrout announces that she's been diagnosed with cancer – in the real time of Grand Piano's composing, that is, rather than the 1975-1980 era The Grand Piano remembers.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Hey, I'm giving an exam right now, so I'm technically working...

Y'know, every time I think of throwing over my day job in the academy & becoming a free-lance critic/writer type – well, actually every time I think of that a bill comes in the mail, & I'm reminded of how useful an actual income is – I think about the very few folks out there who actually have the big magazine-mass audience-public intellectual gigs. I think about James Wood, whose writing puts me to sleep faster than three double martinis with a quaalude chaser. 

Or I think about Adam Kirsch, who's somehow unaccountably convinced people that he knows something about contemporary poetry. If you care to get mildly or grandly irritated, check out Kirsch's latest in the New Republic on Slavoj Zizek, the malign genius who – if we're to believe Kirsch – "is engaged in the rehabilitation of many of the most evil ideas of the last century." An astonishing farrago of out-of-context quotations, superficial misreadings, and ad hominem attacks. Kirsch makes David Lehman on Paul de Man seem subtle.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On the edge...

of the end of the semester. A storm of papers will arrive later today, to be followed later this week by a stack of final exams. And then I can get to work on what I ought to be writing. But for now a brief breather.
Snatching some time to read in the interstices: Ron Silliman's The Age of Huts (compleat); I've known Age for yonks, thru the old yellow Roof edition. "Sunset Debris" and "The Chinese Notebook" are old friends. And I've become very fond of "Ketjak" now. (The recursive structure assures it that by the time you finish the poem, you're either very fond of it, or driven to active loathing.) I have the typically anal project of working thru Ron's big poem Ketjak (not the short "Ketjak"), as outlined in the preface to Age of Huts, in order of its parts: Age of Huts, then Tjanting, then The Alphabet. That's what, maybe 1500 pages of elegantly processed quotidianity? Should keep me off the streets for awhile.

Mostly thru Beckett's How It Is. One of those books that when you lay it down, you can't pick it up again, if you know what I mean. Oh, it's brilliant all right – I wouldn't want at all to sell the thing short of brilliance. But it's frankly the  single most painful read I've ever essayed. The unpunctuated paragraphs are one thing, forcing you to read at pretty much speaking pace, pausing to internally punctuate & repunctuate at every turn, looking for where the pauses ought to (or might) fall. But while that's a painstaking process (a painful process?) not unfamiliar to the reader of contemporary poetry, it's the bleakness of the "action" that really does it for (to?) me. In a few words: Conveyance: standard Beckett blind mud-crawling; Diet: canned good of dubious provenance & sell-by date; Communication media: fingernails in back, digit in arsehole, can-opener to buttocks, sharp knocks to the skull. And other nastinesses, not least of which is the intrusion of "Love" into this hellish scenario. Kathy Acker, by comparison, is sunshine & lollipops.
Observations on the state of modernist studies, having read thru almost 200 job applications:
•James Joyce stock remaining high, with no perceptible dips; still King of Hill

•historicism the order of the day; even the crustiest formalists apt to swath their readings in a decent chiton of historical context or anecdote

•William Faulkner holding steady – who woulda thought?

•Langdon Hammer of Yale the busiest dissertation director in the land; how does he find time to chair the department and write James Merrill's biography?

•the Edwin Rolfe renaissance still failing to materialize, despite all of Cary Nelson's best efforts

•poetry, alas, the big loser: by my admittedly unscientific estimate (ie, I don't have the notes in front of me), something like 15% of dissertations

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Carolyn Forché: Gathering the Tribes

Gathering the Tribes, Carolyn Forché (Yale UP, 1976)

I've read most of Forché, backwards – 1st The Angel of History (1994) a year or 2 after it came out, then The Country Between Us (1981) maybe 3 years ago, & only now her 1st book, Gathering the Tribes. (Haven't seen the most recent – 2003 – Blue Hour.) I've found them of diminishing interest, I guess, tho I can't really muster much enthusiasm even for Angel. Gathering is very assured, intelligent writing, however: very, very good, of its kind. Stanley Kunitz's foreword leers embarrassingly, even for 1976 ("the outstanding Sapphic poem of an era").

Of course, whenever I read a book that I can sense is well-written, deeply-felt, etc. etc. by a poet from another aesthetic tradition & find myself unable to work up any sort of enthusiasm, I get all worried that I'm falling into the manicheanism that Don Share excoriates so nicely in his "little everyday fascisms" post*, referring transparently yet coyly to Ron Silliman's response to the reams of reviewery devoted to the Lowell/Bishop letters. Don makes the case rather nicely for a kind of "big tent" response to poetry, or what Eliot Weinberger calls somewhere "exogamous reading": "I know of no bookshelf," sez Don, "that can't simultaneously contain Lowell, Bishop, and the other poets mentioned above [Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson], along with Niedecker, Bunting, Pound, Eliot, Ashbery, the recently canonized Jack Spicer and dozens more."

I wonder if in my case it isn't a matter of breadth & intensity of attention, whether the enquiring faculties of my poor limited brain aren't simply scrambling for the RAM necessary to keep up a real attention to what's really consuming me at the moment (broadly defined): the five or six poets I'm supposed to be reviewing or writing essays about right now as I blog, the French Revolution, Beckett, garden history & theory, neoclassical architecture, the English Revolution, Hegel, Panofsky, etc.

Or maybe I'm just a dilettante. Hey, that's it! Any way, about 10 years ago I gave up chucking books because they didn't fit into the moment's aesthetic configuration; it always turned out that there would come a moment when I wanted just that volume, & it was gone. So until the shelves are double-full & can hold no more, or the house collapses Umberto Ecoishly, my poetry section is by default a big tent.
Hey, did I mention that I have a podcast up at the Poetry Foundation?

*Tho I find it ironical that one of his commenters sees fit to paraphrase a conversation with August Kleinzahler, perhaps the only person on earth I consider a true enemy – tho I've still got his books on my shelf.

Friday, November 28, 2008


I don't care for major holidays, for the most part. This year's Thanksgiving was okay, in large part because we went to a friend's house & I didn't have to do kitchen-y things (aside from fixing a ham, making some gravy, carving the turkey, helping with the cleanup, etc.). All pleasantly lubricated with a range of potables.

When one of the young lasses at the kids' table – not one of mine, mind you – suggested we all go around & say what we were most thankful for – things were getting really quite moving, lemme tell ya; "oohs" & "ahs" & "hear, hears," eyes being wiped, & so forth – I found myself muttering some words about family & friends & then, Leopold Bloomishly, staring at my bottle & saying, "I'm thankful Arthur Guinness began brewing at the St. James's Gate Brewery in 1759." And I am. And for lots of other things.
Like, for instance, my lovely podcast on the Poetry Foundation website, if you haven't checked it out yet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Scroggins at the Poetry Foundation!

Got a spare hour? Listen to my lecture on Louis Zukofsky, from Spertus in Chicago earlier this year, now rendered in sparkling podcast audio from the fine folks at the Poetry Foundation. Let me know what you think! (Me, I'm chuffed, tho I hate my reedy voice.)

John Zorn: Bladerunner Project

I wanna know what brand of coffee Jonathan Mayhew's drinking – I need that kind of energy. Not merely does he write books that get published by great university presses, but he's who knows how far into blogging 100 books of fiction, he's gotten thru 170-odd books of poetry in his "9000 books of poetry" project, and now he's started a project of blogging 300 of his favorite jazz albums of all time. I'm guessing he'll be thru this one by April or so.

Me, I continue crawling along at my own petty pace, trying to listen thru the "unplayed" smart playlist on my iPod. But here's something worth a listen: the Bladerunner Project, a John Zorn outfit from back in 2000, including the godlike talents of Zorn, bassist Bill Laswell, guitarist Fred Frith, and heavy metal drummer Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Fantômas, etc.). Pretty standard Zorn stuff – mostly funky, largely improvised, lots of sheer noise – but with some way cool wailing from Frith (an unfortunately rare thing) and lots of flashy funkification from Laswell. So far as I know, the lineup's never made a formal recording, but there are lots of videos on YouTube, and you can download a high-quality recording of their 5 July 2000 Paris concert here, which includes a scrappy version of "A Love Supreme" and a very cool cover of "Prelude (Part 2)" from Miles's Agharta (yes, I confess, my favorite Miles album).

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Despite a recent resolution to be a trifle more regular about maintaining the blog, I've been swamped, & it's fallen a bit by the wayside. Lordy, I've been busy. The recruitment thing, for one thing, has been a massive time-eater. So many lovely people to choose from, & so well-published, to be applying for an entry-level assistant professor position. I'm just glad I'm not fresh out of grad school myself; I'd be eaten alive, the way things are these days.
Next month of course is the MLA  – the monster that ate my holidays, & that'll ruin a perfectly good trip to San Francisco. I'll leave it to the newspapers to make fun of the more recondite paper & panel titles – hey, I want to hear about Jane Austen and masturbating girls! – but I'm always amused by leafing thru the monstrously large program, looking for things that I won't get to see because I'm in a hotel room interviewing nervous young people. I don't mind reconditeness, or bad puns, or even the ubiquitous colonified things ("The X of Y: Adjective Z in the early A of B"), but what really breaks my heart is my colleagues' lame-ass attempts at hipness, usually signaled by punning on some pop song in their paper titles: "What's Habermas Got To Do With It?" or "Watching the (Scottish) Detectives" (the latter about Scottish detective fiction, of course, the former about – oh, I can't be bothered to look it up). Friends, "Watching the Detectives" is now thirty-one years old, and "What's Love Got To Do With It" was a hit in nineteen-eighty-four, a few years before most of our undergrads were born. These are golden oldies, not markers of your with-it-ness. Like, get out the study and buy some records (sorry, I mean download some records).
Thinking about gardening these days, having finally picked the splinters out of my hand from ridding a planting of unwanted ferns. What's your favorite garden poems? Yes, Marvell – but other than Marvell?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New specs!

Well, maybe not all that new – ordered in NYC before our trip to Sweden, picked up on the way back to Florida. Dutch. My protest against the ubiquitous clunky square frames that would probably look better on my Karl Rove-ishly round features.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lisa Jarnot: Black Dog Songs

Black Dog Songs, Lisa Jarnot (Flood Editions, 2003)

Given the Steinian provenance of much of her language, & her penchant for rollicking dactylic meters, it's no surprise that the tone of much of Jarnot's Black Dog Songs is very precisely whimsy. But she wears her whimsy with a difference – it's underlaid with melancholy, with constant reminders of the carnivorous nature of the doggies she so dotes upon, of the dark depression or even madness that can manifest itself in sing-song melodies. The sequence "My Terrorist Notebook" makes a wonderful, light-touched attack on post-9/11 American policy, while the prose poems (& one sestina) of "They" proffer an anthropology of the loves & likings of some unspecified race – "they" – which turns out to look very much like us. I still cherish a great attraction to the overwritten opacities of Jarnot's first volume, Some Other Kind of Mission, but I like Jarnot's whimsy more than anything this side of Stein herself, or Edward Lear.

Well, the battery-recharging aspects of last week's vacation wore off pretty damned quickly, I must say, & I'm back in my habitual glums: not merely is there the final gruelling weeks of the teaching semester, along with the various wee writing assignments I've been postponing, but the faculty recruitment committee I'm chairing – an always onerous job, but one with its advantages: finding out what's going on in the discipline, what the bright young things are writing about, what kind of letters of recommendation my friends tend to write, etc. – has been swamped – nay, tsunami'd – with applications for our modest position. Oh my!, as Archie Ammons used to say. I estimate that it will take at least twelve to fourteen hours of steady reading just to do a preliminary triage of the vast sea of letters & dossiers. Keep me in your prayers or meditations, so I don't entirely crack up between now & the MLA.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wittgenstein & biography

One of the many misses in my long ongoing uneducation was my failure to really connect with James Klagge when he joined the philosophy department at Virginia Tech my senior year. Not his fault, really – I was at that stupid stage of intellectual growth where I actually thought I knew something, or at least that I knew what I wanted to know, & the class of JK's I was enrolled in – Ethics, I think – just didn't dovetail with my interests at the time. If I'd known he was going to turn out to be a bigtime Wittgenstein scholar, I'd have thought differently, because I was already deeply into Wittgenstein, thanks to a seminar taught by the brilliant and Matthew Arnold-bewhiskered Peter Barker.

Come to think of it, doing a philosophy degree at Tech was one of the smartest things I ever blundered into. I read ancient Greek philosophy – painstakingly, slowly – with Nick Smith, who probably knows more about  Sokrates than anyone alive; I read Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, and bunches of medieval cosmology with Roger Ariew; I read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason – in the old-fashioned manner, a chapter or two at a time, turning in a precis of what I'd read on a weekly basis – with a now-deceased professor with the resonant name of Bill Williams.

I was on the Tech campus again late last week as part of our annual get-out-of-south-Florida-and-see-the-leaves vacation, and spent an extraordinarily pleasant couple of hours strolling the drillfield and the streets of Blacksburg with Tom Gardner, the man I consider my mentor in this business (greyer and perhaps a trifle balder, but otherwise absolutely unchanged from – well, we won't say how many years ago). And then a couple of days later, in the Barnes & Noble in Williamsburg, I came upon a collection edited by James Klagge, Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy (Cambridge, 2001).

Most of the  essays in the book treat particular topics in Wittgenstein's life or particular cruxes in a biographical reading of LW's philosophy. The opening two pieces, however, struck me as especially fascinating: Ray Monk's "Philosophical Biography: The Very Idea" and James Conant's "Philosophy and Biography." I'm interested in them because biographies of philosophers are if anything even more marginalized within academic departments of philosophy than biographies of poets are within English departments, & there's a concomitant dearth of writing about the significance of biographical writing within the study of philosophy. (I admit that there's been a decent number of books about literary biography, but I'd argue that the really good ones can be counted on the fingers of one mangled hand.)

Monk is of course the author of the widely hailed Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (and a more controversial biography of Bertrand Russell), one of the few biographies of a philosopher I've read that made the figure come luminously alive for me. He draws wonderful parallels in his brief "Philosophical Biography" essay between the mode of biography – "showing" rather than "explaining" – and what Wittgenstein saw the task of philosophy to be. "The insights [biography] has to offer have to be shown rather than stated."
I was once taken to task for being "too lenient" with Wittgenstein by not criticizing his appalling treatment of the young children he taught at elementary school. Yet, it seemed to me, and still seems to me, that, if you describe someone beating a schoolgirl until she bleeds because she is unable to grasp logic, it adds nothing to the description to follow it with a comment such as, "That wasn't very nice, was it?"
Ultimately, he argues, the use of philosophical biography lies less in the elucidating of particular cruxes in a thinker's thought than in the illustration or presentation of the overall "tone" of the thinker's intellectual achievement.

Conant, in a much more wordy (call it overtly "analytical") essay, says much the same thing:
If there is an important relationship between what philosophical biography shows and how it shows it, then we should not be surprised to learn that the sorts of change of aspect that philosophical biography permits to dawn in our perception of a philosopher's work are not ones easily brought into view by an alternative genre of writing. In particular, the sort of change of aspect in question will not admit expression via a mode of exposition of a philosopher's thought proper to the exposition of features of his thought graspable independently of their relationship to the character of his thought as a whole.
Conant is especially interested in thinking about the union of thought and life characteristic of early Greek philosophy (think Socrates, for instance), a union whose demise is lamented in Nietzsche & Kierkegaard (not to mention Thoreau) and which is oddly revived in Wittgenstein. (Is there, I wonder, a way of "living" poetry? Did, say, Jack Spicer make more of a "poem" of his life than Louis Zukofsky did?)

Both Monk and Conant quote a delicious anecdote from Stanley Cavell's autobiographical A Pitch of Philosophy, recalling his music theory class with Ernst Bloch at Berkeley:
[Bloch] would play something simple, at the piano, for instance a Bach four-part chorale, with one note altered by a half step from Bach's rendering; then he would play the Bach unaltered. Perhaps he would turn to us, fix us with a stare, then turn back to the piano and repeat, as if for himself, the two versions. The drama mounted, then broke open with a monologue which I reconstruct along these lines: "You hear that? You hear the difference?"...He went on: "My version is perfectly correct; but the Bach, the Bach is perfect; late sunlight burning the edges of a cloud. Of course I do not say you must hear this. Not at all. No. But." The head lowered a little, the eyes looked up at us, the tempo slowed ominously: "If you do not hear, do not say to yourself that you are a musician. There are many honorable trades. Shoemaking, for example."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Craig Watson: True News

True News, Craig Watson (Instance Press, 2002)

Three serial pieces – "Spectacle Studies," "Where/As," & "Home Guard" – that circle around geopolitical themes – interpreted as broadly as possible – "the personal is the political," politics colonizes/conditions consciousness, etc. A deft touch thruout, smart & lively. The 4 sections of "Where/As" are place-specific (Venice, South Africa, China, Ecuador), & bend their essentially similar forms to accomodate a vivid impression of each locale. Most exciting are the quatrain poems of "Spectacle Studies," which touch on stereotypically "big," abstract – even philosophical – questions with a sure hand & a clear sense of when the abstract becomes particular & vice-versa. Nice work; not as lyrical as the 3-4 Watson books I've read before.

Last night's election returns more than gratifying – I feel that I can sleep well, at least for a space. Put me in mind of watching other world-historical events – inevitably, on the television: the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, in a dingy apartment in Ithaca, New York; Boris Yeltsin's tanks surrounding the Russian Parliament, its windows alight with fires, in October 1993, on a hanging set in room in Walter Reed Military Hospital where my father was awaiting surgery for cancer; the collapse of the World Trade Center, in our own house here in Florida, where the three of us (I, J., & a dear colleague of ours now in deep-blue Seattle) practically clung together with shock. Last night's viewing was – for the nonce – far more happy-making.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Grand Piano, Pt. 3

Bob Perelman hits the proverbial nail on its proverbial head (yes, cliché) in the 3rd installment:
We're all writing discursive sentences here, and isn't that odd?

To say the obvious: all of this, these attempts at presenting our parts, go against an earlier don't that some of us promulgated: critiques of narrative by Ron and others (Bruce Andrews, Steve McCaffery). That don't has reverberated for decades, especially in the reception of Language writing: don't try to construct novelizing, technicolored picture windows, which open onto ideologically fixed theme parks. I promulgated this don't myself in an MLA talk, but I wasn't terrifically enthusiastic about what I was saying. I had more fun quoting Stendhal and Mozart's letters.
The pianists seem to have loosened up here in the 3rd set: there's almost a jazz feel of collective improvisation, as each writer plays around not a single "head" ("love," "city") but the question each previous one has left hanging.

What the hell was this "group," this "movement," this "moment"? several of them seem to ask. And, more winningly, was I really a part of it, or a fellow-traveller allowed into the inner sanctum on sufferance?

Is Barrett Watten, as he reports Robert Glück implying, the André Breton of Language writing? It's a joke, of course, but one feels the chilly touch of judgment a bit later when BW throws out – straightfacedly – an old Jonsonian term:
But the turn to language is not merely an act of self-denial; it has a historical dimension the poetasters do not normally comprehend. [my emphasis]
A scene from the Revelation of St. John the Divine: BW as halo'd Terminator/Christ, purified poets on his right hand, benighted goatish poetasters on his left.

Gentle reader, where stand you?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Barbara Guest: The Red Gaze

The Red Gaze, Barbara Guest (Wesleyan UP, 2005)


A truism – by now, a cliché even – to speak of Guest's poems as "painterly." But they are, after all – poems acting & reenacting the "gaze" of the title, the act of seeing (the viewer's art) & the act of placing colors upon a field (the painter's). Spare poems, like a painter's spare palette, a canvas marked with only a few gestures of color – red, as the title (again) indicates, is prominent, tho never saturating. Perhaps the most purely aesthetic poems I've encountered in some time: that is, poems grounded in the satisfactions of the senses, shutting out the social, the political, the historical even – or setting them far to one side to pursue the immediate gratification of the eyes.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Grand Piano, Pt. 2

I've only in the last month or so gotten around to subscribing to the The Grand Piano project, & Mr or Ms USPS poked a big stack of the things – #2 thru #7 – into my mailbox Friday, just in time to derail me from any number of other things I should be reading. At least this way (belated as usual, that is), I won't have John Latta's close & compelling & sometimes snarky readings of the successive issues blurring my own responses.
The endnote to this second installment of the Language Poets' "experiment in collective autobiography" announces that the original plan of each writer's following whatever "prompt" the first-up batter of a given volume supplies has begun to fall by the wayside, as bits of the project are being written out of order. The 1st volume hewed pretty closely to Bob Perelman's keynote pages on "love," each writing taking some approach to that oldest of poetic topoi. In Part 2, Barrett Watten provides the keynote – "city," one might call it, or "San Francisco" as place, as site – and while most of the other 9 writers do indeed the address the city, there's also some discernable "drift."

What strikes me the most about this second volume of "collective" autobiography is how little sense of collectivity comes thru in this round of writing, despite Lyn Hejinian's rather impassioned insistence that the group was a polis. (How many uses of that word in alt-poetry can be traced to Olson's "polis is eyes"?) Figures cross paths, reappear from one poet's account to the next, couple & decouple, but this time around there's little sense of a shared aesthetic or political endeavour – only a shared milieu, a San Francisco that – unsurprisingly – looks radically different to different member of this gang of ten.

But The Grand Piano 2 contains some lovely writing – I think Kit Robinson's anaphoric "I remember" section takes the prize here – and some fascinating accounts of writers' formations: Bob Perelman's and Tom Mandel's are the standouts. What they amount to, however, is some dandily-written traditional autobiography (tho there's some interesting genre-jumping in Perelman's piece) of the individual sort. This polis is, after all, a bunch of I's. It'll take more than Watten's collectivist invocation to make this "collective" – at least so far. On to Part 3.
Y'know, these memoirs by writers between 15 & 20 years older than me, remembering the events of a historical moment when they were at least a decade younger than I am now, are (alas) an occasion for readerly melancholy, for my own sense (oh Jesus there he goes again) of impending age, of mortality, of missed opportunity.

The avant-garde – that is no country for old men.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"weft" settled (for jg)

A few weeks back I was kvetching in my tedious way about classroom editions of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (more specifically, about editions of the 1798 "Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"), with especial scorn meted out to Paul Fry's 1999 Bedford/St. Martin's "Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism" edition, in which Fry managed in his introduction to misremember practically all the details of a famous anecdote that is quoted in full in one of the essays, & to introduce a bunch of revised lines into the text of the poem as additions, thereby throwing off the line numbering.

And I mused on competing annotations for "weft" in the stanza
The Sun came up upon the right,
Out of the sea came he;
And broad as a weft upon the left
Went down into the sea.

Fry writes, "weft: Threads carried by a shuttle across the warp," while Richey & Robinson [of the New Riverside Editions Lyrical Ballads] give us "weft: a large flag used on ships for signaling distress."
I gave this one to Fry, with the proviso that I didn't have my copy of John Livingston Lowes's The Road to Xanadu on hand. Well – I guess I wrote too soon. (Still haven't found either of my copies of Road, by the way; one of the girls must have eaten them. The library copy, heaven knows, is half-eaten.) Lowes, whose book (published in 1927, mind you) tracks down the source of practically every word in the "Rime" & "Kubla Khan," has no fewer than nine pages on "weft," & makes it abundantly clear that the word, which STC could have come upon from any number of sources in any variety of forms (waffe, weffe, waif, waift, whiff, whift, wheft, wave, waft, weft), must be taken in the nautical distress sense.

So the next question: how did Paul Fry (William Lampson Professor of English and Master of Ezra Stiles College at Yale University) manage to so howlingly mis-gloss the word, when he had a voluminous commentary at hand in one of the foundational texts of Coleridge criticism? Let's face it, "Threads carried by a shuttle across the warp," which reads like the first definition of "weft" in a standard college dictionary, just doesn't cut it when you're annotating an 18th-century poem.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jay Wright: Music's Mask and Measure

Music's Mask and Measure, Jay Wright (Flood Editions, 2007)


I remember listening to the Zero Mostelish Harold Bloom pontificate away on some DC-area talk radio show (Diane Rehm?) a million years ago – it must have been in support of The Western Canon, perhaps his last book to show any trace of critical intellect. Even then, of course, he was deep into his Stanislavskian imitation of Samuel Johnson & was heading full speed into his current mode of "quote-and-dote" (Terry Eagleton's term) "criticism." But as he launched into a bitter (& frankly tired) assault on the "schools of resentment," I had one of those stopped-clock-tells-the-right-time-at-least-twice-a-day moments: yes, I found myself agreeing, Jay Wright is an incredibly good poet, and there aren't nearly enough people saying so.

Music's Mask and Measure is perhaps the most spare book of Wright's I've read. A series of short – mostly 5- and 6-line pieces disposed over 5 "equations," largely bare of proper names or specifiable reference. It's clear these are poems about music, and poems about dance: the "mask" is both a carnivalesque concealment & a stately entertainment. The "equations," tho the drawings that head each section gesture towards African petroglyphs, would seem to refer back to Pythagorean number/musical lore. But what's the use? – I can't honestly say precisely what these poems are "about" (other than their own stately, nimble music), or what they "say" (other than their own stately, nimble music). Their syntax is simple, straightforward, their vocabulary precise & only occasionally recondite; but their reference is so oblique, so attenuated, that this bear of very little brain finds himself much at sea. Which is ultimately quite alright: it's the careful, sturdy, & surprising music that carries these poems past the point of mystery into a place of restrained & refined jouissance, or the moment just before, prolonged thru 50-odd pages of measured lyricism.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ashbery/Brainard: The Vermont Notebook

The Vermont Notebook, John Ashbery with Joe Brainard (1975; in Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956-1987, Library of America, 2008)


One of the grand old hold-outs, the Library of America has finally shifted over to a matte finish for their dust jackets; now only the author's name ("Calligraphy by Gun Larson") and the tricolor band remain in the traditional high-gloss finish. End of an era; oh well, I thought that when they started using full-color author portraits, as well. Nice to have 30+ years of Ashbery in one brick volume (happy birthday to me – thanks, Stephanie), tho something just feels wrong about his making it into the series before Dickinson, Moore, WCW, Oppen – well, we won't go on with names, will we? Wouldn't mind a Joel Barlow volume, either.

I don't know the back story on The Vermont Notebook. It feels like a vacation fancy, a fun collaboration between the poet (JA) & the illustrator (Joe Brainard), setting Brainard's sketchy monochrome copies of photos in counterpoint to all manner of Ashbery ramblings: lists of products, shops, proper names, elements of the townscape; Steinian exercises in repetitive prose; reproduced magazine copy; even a real live poem or two. Pleasantly diverting, all in all – tho I'm sure I'm not the only one to bemoan the LOA's bible paper in this case: even tho the Brainard drawings are reproduced (well) in gray, they glare thru the recto of every bloody page.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Alan Halsey: Not Everything Remotely

Not Everything Remotely: Selected Poems 1978-2005, Alan Halsey (Salt, 2006)


One I confess I've been lingering over for a long time, reading slowly & recursively, dipping in & about, alternately fascinated, baffled, seized with hilarity, always delighted. Stevens: "poetry is the scholar's art"; Coleridge's figure of himself (taken up by Susan Howe) as a "library-cormorant." Halsey, "specialist bookseller," deep scholar of the Romantics, editor of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, revises the terms: poetry is the bookman's art. Not Everything Remotely is a core sample (coeur simple?) of 27 years' worth of little and big collections from one of the 5 or 6 poets whose work I'll buy immediately on sight, no questions asked, without bothering to open the book or read the blurbs. Halsey's poems – & they come in such variety, from very straightforward, personal-voice addresses to the most recondite word salads – are like a dense portable anthology from a rich & complex literary canon that simultaneous overlaps with but is fundamentally shifted or twisted from the recognizable "canon" – from Linear B to JH Prynne. A marvelous "fake book" – fake errata sheets, fake pre-Sokratic fragments, fake emblems, fake dictionary entries – all at once wryly high-spirited, revelling in in-jokes & outrageous japes, & serious as a heart attack (a hart, a tack). The bones of English culture sea-changed into "something [Bridget Jones writes] v. v. rich, v. v. strange."And of course the unavoidable, undeniable question: "Who doesn't sometimes / need an hour when there's no / evading Swinburne?"

Saturday, October 11, 2008

new poems in Marsh Hawk Review

The rather excellent Marsh Hawk Press collective has launched a new webjournal, under the revolving editorship of its various members. The inaugural issue is now up, featuring new work by 19 fine poets – among whose names I won't pick & choose, since they're all so cool – one of whom is yr humble blogger. Three pieces from the last half-decade: "Arena," "Mystic Seaport," and "Oliver Cromwell." Do read.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wordsworth on biography

Poetry is the image of man and nature. The obstacles which stand in the way of the fidelity of the Biographer and Historian, and of their consequent utility, are incalculably greater than those which are to be encountered by the Poet, who has an adequate notion of the dignity of his art. The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, that of the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer or a natural philosopher, but as a Man. Except this one restriction, there is no object standing between the Poet and the image of things; between this, and the Biographer and Historian there are a thousand.

Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802
Rereading William Fuller's Watchword; wondering if Fuller isn't the closest US poetry has to JH Prynne. Fuller's poems aren't as dense, as impactedly curious as Prynne's – not by a long shot – but they have a kind of crosscutting of lexis & range of reference that reminds me very much at times of JHP's. A sort of "ventilated" Prynne, opened up to rhetorical gestures & lyricisms that are far more foreshortened in JHP's own work?
How much of the current success of the Obama/Biden ticket can one put down to canny marketing? That big "O" logo, for instance (as I'm reminded by Daily Kos), is a brilliant piece of design. Check out the witty variations on the O tailored for 23 – count 'em, twenty-three – different subgroups of potential Obama supporters.
The most surprising birthday present last week was an appearance in the "Issue 1" anthology, along with 1499 other poets, non-poets, & bits of nominal internet gibberish. Here's "my" poem (p. 1135), which I rather like, & will be adopting (or at least cannibalizing):
Like white hints
Like honest phrases
Like right years

There he might be a method even
though he thumbs like a phrase
In early spring
he scrawls her
This current may lose and glance, but
it is bitterly white
He is white
Because of everything that
is luminous
Seeing like a cover
the clean writings, lost by
a fair note,

Monday, October 06, 2008

editors asleep etc.

Wearying minutiae – I continue reading "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (or "Ancyent Marinere") a book in each hand: in one, my course text, William Richey & Daniel Robinson's New Riverside Edition of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads (Houghton Mifflin 2002), in the other, Paul H. Fry's Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (Bedford/St. Martin's 1999). Noting with amusement divergent editorial glosses. Of
The Sun came up upon the right,
Out of the sea came he;
And broad as a weft upon the left
Went down into the sea
Fry writes, "weft: Threads carried by a shuttle across the warp," while Richey & Robinson give us "weft: a large flag used on ships for signaling distress." 

On balance, I'd have to hand this to Fry: while "weft" in the nautical sense is indeed archaic, STC's language in the 1798 "Marinere" is studded with archaisms; but while the 11th Brittanica confirms "weft" as a distress flag, there's nothing about it necessarily being "large" – indeed, what makes a flag a "weft" is that it's knotted in the middle. So the weaving image seems more probable to me. (Obviously, my copy of The Road to Xanadu, which probably clears all this up, is in the office.)

But here's something truly irritating: in a edition like these – intended for undergraduate classroom use, obviously – the poem texts ought to be as reliable  & straightforward as possible, & their provenance (their "copy texts") ought to clearly signalled. Richey & Robinson are pretty good at this: in keeping with their goal of providing student with a straightforward reading text of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, they give us the 1798 Bristol "Rime of the Ancyent Marinere," & in an appendix they give us the 1817 Sybilline Leaves "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Fry's a little more ambitious: while he doesn't go so far as Martin Wallen's Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner." An Experimental Edition of Texts and Revisions 1798-1828 (Station Hill, 1993), a multi-tiered edition indebted to Jerome McGann's editorial theory, Fry gives us facing page texts of the 1798 "Marinere" & the 1817 "Mariner," which is handy indeed for thinking about the differences the added marginal glosses & the de-archaicized language make in Coleridge's poem.

But as I trundled thru the poem, comparing the editorial glosses of Richey/Robinson's 1798 text to Fry's 1798, I suddenly realized that the line numbers were out of sync: Fry had somewhere added 14 lines to the poem, so that his 1798 text ends at line 672, while R/R's ends at line 658. Here's the difference: in Part III of Fry, one finds this:

Are those her naked ribs, which fleck'd
The sun that did behind them peer?
And are those two all, all the crew,
That woman and her fleshless Pheere?
And those her ribs, which fleck'd the Sun,
Like the bars of a dungeon grate?
And are these two all, all the crew
That woman and her Mate?

This Ship, it was a plankless Thing,
A rare Anatomy!
A plankless Spectre – and it mov'd
Like a Being of the Sea!
The Woman and a fleshless Man
Therein sate merrily.
His bones were black with many a crack (etc.)

Fry gives no indication of where he got that first indented (Fry's indentation) stanza (tho it's obviously a revision of the stanza it follows); the latter 6-line stanza is footnoted thus: "Lines 185-90 were first published in 1912, but Coleridge had wanted them inserted in LB 1800." (The remaining 4 of Fry's additional 14 lines are found towards the end of Part VI, where he inserts – as an additional stanza – a revision that STC had pencilled into a copy of the 1798 LB.)

All I can say, frankly, is WTF?? If you're giving us – us being undergraduates – a "clean" text of the 1798 "Marinere," why in the world are you dithering with post-1798 revisions? More specifically, why are you inserting them into the text of the poem, rather than noting them in footnotes? And why are you letting them bollox up the line numbering, so that the Bedford/St. Martin's line numbers of the 1798 "Rime" now differ from every other edition of the poem on the market?

And where does it stop, short of a variorum? Jack Stillinger claims that STC produced no fewer than 18 different versions of the poem. Why not just settle on 2 – the 1798 & the 1817 – present them cleanly, & draw attention to your favorite revisions & variations in the footnotes?
All this line-grubbing an indication of just what a sad funless bastard I am these days. J. & the kids off this afternoon to wave posters & shout at passing motorists while Sarah Cheney – er, Palin – visits Boca today to raise money for McBush.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

editors asleep at the wheel, pt. 437

Paul H. Fry is William Lampson Professor of English at Yale, & author of at least 4 books on English poetry & criticism. He's also editor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999). I'm not teaching from this text this semester (for the record, I'm using William Richey & Daniel Robinson's New Riverside Edition of Lyrical Ballads), but I was casting my eyes over the various essays & introductions over the weekend, only to be arrested by this from Fry's opening chapter on "Biographical and Historical Contexts":
Anna Letitia Barbauld, in a famous exchange recorded in Coleridge's Table Talk, complained that the "Rime" "has no moral".... Coleridge's snappy response to Mrs. Barbauld was that there was too much moral, and then he compared the poem unfavorably in this respect with the tale from the Arabian Nights in which a merchant is subjected to an excruciating penance for having thrown a date pit over a wall and accidentally killed the son of a genie. (22-3)
So Fry's an old hand at Romantic poetry, & this is indeed a famous anecdote – so famous that even I've heard it. But there comes  a point when paraphrasing from memory is tantamount to just plain faking it. For god's sake, Fry could at least have re-read the Frances Ferguson essay he includes in his own collection, which quotes the actual anedote:
Mrs. Barbauld once told me that she admired the Ancient Mariner very much, but that there were two faults in it, – it was improbable, and had no moral. As for the probability, I owned that that might admit some question; but as to the want of a moral, I told her that in my own judgment the poem had too much; and that the only or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. It ought to have had no more moral the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a geni starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date-shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the geni's son.
Exercise: correlate the two accounts & add up Fry's misremembered details. [FOUR, by my count, in a single sentence.] Pronounce on the fitness to carry out editorial work – on an edition intended for undergraduate students of literature & theory – of an editor who commits so many easily corrected gaffes in his opening summary.

I will spare the rant – who edits these things? where was Ross Murfin (series editor) when this thing went thru proofs? who's at the wheel of these ubiquitous "teaching editions"??
Fry does point me towards a sentence by my critical darling William Empson, who sums up the poem's ostensible "moral" in his inimitably pithy way: "don't pull poor pussy's tail."

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

literary history: probably not possible

I've lost track of precisely how far we're into the semester; I just know that I'm generally overwhelmed & sleep-deprived & behind on just about everything. Blogging, obviously, has almost entirely fallen by the wayside.
Saddened to learn of the death of Hayden Carruth. I didn't know his poetry well, tho there were some of his mid-length narrative things that I found rather moving, but I remember his giving a reading in the chapel at Ithaca College some twenty years ago which began with an astonishingly sensitive rendition of Pound's "The Return," a reading which made the poem come literally alive. It seemed a wonderfully generous gesture.
Some excellent comments on that last "literary history" post, however. People pointing me towards books I hadn't thought about, or had forgotten I'd read: Michael Davidson on the San Francisco Renaissance, Alan Golding on the formation of the postmodernist "canon," Robert Von Hallberg's really very excellent half of a volume of the Cambridge History of American Literature (I imagine I'm one of maybe four people in the country who actually own that book, given CUP's monstrous prices), Jed Rasula's volumes. 

Johannes Göransson drew attention to the post over at Exoskeleton, where there were a couple of useful comments, including Jordan's: 
A general literary history is at least as desirable as a general anthology, which is to say about a 6 on the hotness scale.

A well-written highly-partisan clearly-bracketed literary history would require no intoxicants, aphrodisiacs, rationalizations, etc.
Perkins's History of Modern Poetry, for all its 1200-page scope, ends up in the "general literary history" category, & for me barely scores a 3 on the "hotness scale." I suppose the problem is comprehensiveness – that Perkins is trying to write about almost everything, in order to present some sort of global history of 20th-c. poetry. He ends up presenting potted career summaries of heaven knows how many poets, but ultimately there's little sense of larger shifts in the art, how one community of poets relates to another. One sentence for Jeremy Prynne (whose biography I will not be writing), shoved up against two sentences on Christopher Middleton (so that the 2 Middleton poems mentioned  – but not quoted – end up being indexed as Prynne's).

But I wouldn't be writing Perkins again; I think I'd definitely shoot for Jordan's "well-written highly-partisan clearly-bracketed literary history," with the emphasis on "well-written" & "highly-partisan." (The only books worth reading, ultimately, are w-w & h-p.) But then I think of Eric's thoughtful comment:
Maybe one reason there's no such book yet lies in the lack of an audience--or, at least, a recognized, institutional audience--for it? [Alex] Ross has a "general reader" in mind; so does Kenner; haven't most publishers given up on that for books on poetry, other than perhaps books on poets?

That leaves poets, profs, and grad students--all of whom might be expected to prefer the more tightly (or restrictively) focused books that do exist. Yes? Or am I looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope?
Sadly enough,  I think Eric's right. (By the way, check out the badass profile photo on his blog – and kid him about it.) Maybe, heaven help me, I should consider reinserting myself into actual academic discourse, & throw over this hopeless pining for more than 50 readers.
So I joined this informal CD "mix" club last year, where everybody contributes a mix every month. And it's showing me precisely how out of touch I am (not that I need reminding of advancing age, given the grim date approaching this Friday [my birthday, that is]). But here's the mix:
The Damage Manual: Sunset Gun
Naked City: Piledriver
Mekons: I'm Not Here (1967)
Naked City: Thrash Jazz Assassin
New Model Army: Here Comes the War
John Zorn: The Violent Death of Dutch Schultz
Bill Laswell: Upright Man
Painkiller: Warhead
Mekons: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem
Eliza Carthy: Blind Fiddler
Gang of Four: Damaged Goods
Bruce Springsteen: O Mary Don't You Weep
Oysterband: Jam Tomorrow
Painkiller: Skinned
Motörhead: Orgasmatron
Naked City: Perfume of a Critic's Burning Flesh
Public Image Ltd.: Rise
Last Exit: Last Call
Art Bears: FREEDOM
Naked City: Jazz Snob Eat Shit
Naked City: Pigfucker
John Zorn: White Zombie
Oysterband: The World Turned Upside Down
Music to take to the polls.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Literary History: is it possible?

So I've been thinking about literary history – not the history of literature itself (which I'm thinking about all the time, really), but the genre of literary history: you know, those kinds of books nobody seems to write anymore, the "Story of English Literature" or the "Panorama of American Letters." Just finished David Perkins's Is Literary History Possible? (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992). Perkins's conclusion is that LH is simultaneously impossible and necessary: impossible to write with anything like historical fidelity and interpretive/explanatory power, yet necessary for us to make any sense whatsoever of past writings – any sense beyond immediate subjective reactions or ideological appropriations.

This of course after Perkins had just finished his massive (I mean big – maybe 1300 pages) 2-volume History of Modern Poetry, which I'm also winding up, after reading maybe 20 pages at a stretch over the last 15 years. So there's a sense of post-praxis theoretical summing-up in Is Literary History Possible?, that the guy's just finished devoting heaven knows how many years to his big project, & is now figuring out the balance sheets on his effort. (I feel a similar brief volume on literary biography urping around Alien-like in my guts, & wonder whether I should just write the damned thing or go in for surgery.)

And I'm also reading Andrew Duncan's rich, convoluted, & often infuriating The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003), and dipping guiltily into Humphrey Carpenter's Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. And in the background is this year's probably most pleasant read: Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, a dazzling & compulsively readable anecdotal history of twentieth-century "serious" music.

Now I'm young enough & saturated enough in post-structuralism & natively cynical enough to assent to Perkins's various laments about the oversimplifications, foreshortenings, & downright shortcuttages involved in literary history (& most of them apply to biography as well, mark you). But I'm also professionally foolish enough to wonder why there aren't more folks deeply invested in twentieth-century poetry studies who want to write lively, readable, compelling histories of the genre's fortunes over the past 100 or 50 years. Am I missing something? There've been a number of quite readable accounts of modernism (the one that sticks in my mind is Julian Symons's Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912-1939), but no-one's done anything similar for postwar poetry, except David Lehman's The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (which I haven't read, alas).

I'm leaving aside such scholarly studies as ML Rosenthal's The New Poets, & other thematic studies that do a bit of literary history along the way, like Paul Breslin's The Psycho-Political Muse. But why isn't someone doing for postwar avant-garde poetry what Alex Ross does for 20th-c. "classical" music?

Yes, having written a massive foray into the institutional radioactive zone of biography, now I'm casting about for a next project (or maybe an after-the-next-project project). But I'd love input: What books have you found useful as baseline histories of postwar American & British poetry? Is Lehman any good? Are you writing this book right now, so I can stop wondering & sleep better? 

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rodrigo Toscano: Platform

Been having my doubts lately about this "100 poem-books" thing. Not sure, that is, what the use-value of the project is. Notes, obviously, too short to serve as serious "reviews," always in danger of falling into mere blurb-copy, the sort of stuff the TLS editors have an ongoing column feature devoted to making fun of. The fact is, I reflect drearily, that I'm too scattered to have much of substance to say about what I'm reading. Perhaps, as a bear whose very little brain is ill-fitted for pomo multi-tasking, I should spend less time watching poll sites, listening to 5 tracks apiece from 4 different albums, reading blogs, dipping into 7 different books of lit crit, scanning a chapter of Ruskin, playing the same song 5 times in a row on 2 different guitars, checking my e-mail – you get the picture – & buckle down to the serious business of mastering contemporary poetry. (We don't have cable, by the way, because we recognize it would mean the absolute end of my intellectual life, already under siege from a stack of DVDs.) What's the good of putting up a public snapshot of my futile efforts to get with it? I.e., to work my way through what was the hottest book among the cognoscenti – four years ago?

Any way:
Platform, Rodrigo Toscano (Atelos, 2003)


A biggish book of very exciting poems. RT reinvents, revitalizes the hortatory political poem in post-Langpo idiom. That is, these rousing & very funny poems are every bit as committed to a hard-Left politics as any of the soapbox-stompers from the 1930s that Cary Nelson's written about, but Toscano's a political poet who's read & absorbed his Brecht, his Gramsci, his Frankfurt School, his Hardt & Negri. Terry Eagleton's been arguing for a decade now that "postmodernism" – & what he means by the term is so broad it's almost risible, a branch to beat whatever thinker he's dissatisfied with at the moment – is politically a failure, that the multiple ironies & cynicisms of post-70s critical discourse render their users unable to gain the firm purchase of the "real" that's necessary for meaningful political interventions. (Similar attacks have been levelled at the LangPos themselves.) RT shows that it's possible to forge a new, every exciting, & very alive political poetry precisely out of the ironies & cynicisms that have become the lingua franca of the dissolving present.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the man's a brilliant satirist, in the best Jonathan Swift-Monty Python-South Park tradition. Nobody – ardent humorless working Leftists, quietist poets, armchair academic Marxists, the whole post-avant literary establishment, & of course the phalanx of ghoulist plutocrats who run our government & economy – comes out of Platform unscathed. But it's not a self-dissolving, foundationless satire, either, but one that forces a reader to think thru her/his own position, leaves a reader uncomfortable in the best Brechtian manner.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lyn Hejinian: The Beginner

The Beginner, Lyn Hejinian (Tuumba Press, 2002)


Like the roughly contemporaneous Slowly, The Beginner is a short book from LH's own Tuumba Press. I like this one very much indeed. An extended meditation on how we start things out: how a piece of writing gets begun & evolves into itself, how children "begin" to be human beings thru various acts of "play," how we figure out where and what we are in the world. Passages of deep beauty.
There's no escape from these repeating units of incipience, these figs and catapulting confidences divulged by a world, one whose beginnings are arrayed all around and side by side.

I stand by the window, look out, and my "self" occurs, a manifestation of the world as that for which I yearn.

To be a self is simply to be something in the world and yet yearning for it.
Does this remind any else – as it does me, oddly, weirdly – of Ronald Johnson? 
I've gotten way out of sequence with this "100 poem-books" business; lots of things to dip back into the reading notebooks & catch up with.
So what's with this new SiteMeter? Anyone else out there who finds the new "improved" interface totally Martian & utterly user-unfriendly?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

John Matthias: Kedging: New Poems

Kedging: New Poems, John Matthias (Salt, 2007)


Matthias is one of the last true-blue high modernists, along with a handful of others, including Christopher Middleton & John Peck. And he's the most quotational, referential, & paratactic of the lot – in short, the most Poundian (or David Jonesian). Happily, he long ago cured himself of the Poundian-Olsonian urge to Make the World a Better Place Thru Poetry, & can turn the machinery of association to the ends of instruction (we learn lots of stuff in these poems, about lots of sometimes arcane matters) and delight – and they're lots of fun, the big "Laundry Lists and Manifestoes" & "Kedging in Time," poems that form the core of this new collection. High spirits abound, but shot thru with moments of piercing melancholia.

[A shorter note on Matthias than I'd prefer, but my full-length review of Kedging will be in the next Chicago Review.]