Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Laynie Browne: Rebecca Letters


Rebecca Letters, Laynie Browne (Kelsey St. Press, 1997)

Three longish sequences, mostly – tho not strictly – prose poetry. A comfortable word order & syntax; these are for the most part standard sentences, save for the sorts of fragments one familiarly encounters in semi-formal writing ("The story of the ghost. The story of Rebecca."). The title sequence, "Rebecca Letters," is the longest & most striking, hovering around the Rebecca Browne (the poet's great-grandmother?) whose 1898 photograph appears on the cover. A dream of an "other history," a dream of language in which undefined "he"s, "you"s, & "she"s move on the fringes of consciousness. The shock of strangeness in the individual lexical choices ("curling circlets of rain") and in the movement from sentence to sentence, sometimes accretive, logical, sometimes sharply disjunctive. "A Sliding ontology." A dream of recovering the past, recovering memory, "a web to be reunited": "Is there a dependable urn into which I might deposit the results of all that has been burned?" An insinuative art too subtle to be summarized.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ed Roberson: Atmosphere Conditions


Atmosphere Conditions, Ed Roberson (Sun & Moon, 2000)

I've got a small stack of Roberson I've been meaning to dive into, but this is the first of his "mature" volumes I've read. A lovely, very moving book. The delicate, energetic tracing of thought – tentative & recursive – social & political anomie, sensual longing, the complexities of musical & cultural lineages: all played out in precise, thoughtful, flexible forms. Begins with Olsonian meanderings, perhaps too tentative to "grab" overtly, but grows more & more powerful as it proceeds, until you close the thing wanting immediately to start all over again.

This is the first of my "100 poem-books" posts; hopefully it won't descend into mere blurb-writing. If you want your book or your friend's book to appear in the series, feel free to zap me a copy.

Monday, January 28, 2008


The political blogosphere is so huge & vibrant that I don't usually care to get much involved, unlike my colleagues over at Incertus. But a brief appeal to "local" – read Florida – readers: get out tomorrow & vote. If you're a Republican, of course you'll be out there. But even registered Democrats & left-leaning Independents ought to be at the polling stations.

It's true that the national Democratic Party is still asserting that Florida delegates won't count at the national convention, since the (Republican-controlled) state legislature moved the state's primary up without party permission. So a vote for Obama or Clinton or Edwards might or might not end up "counting" (whether a vote in Florida ends up counting anyway is an open question, at least since 2000.)

But a proximately more important item on the ballot is Constitutional Amendment 1, a beginning at property tax reform. Now it's true that the revenue situation in Florida is deeply screwed up, & property owners & potential buyers bear a disproportionate tax burden. But this amendment is nothing more than a political band-aid whose immediate effects will be to worsen the never-ending fiscal crisis in the state's public sector – most notably, in public education and in public higher education (chronically underfunded, & spectacularly hamstrung by legislative micromanagement). For a stark, if somewhat overwrought, assessment of the whole business, see this editorial from Erin Belieu, a poet and member of the English faculty at Florida State. (Believe me, things are worse at Our Fair University.)

So get out & vote: whether or not you bother to pick a presidential candidate, vote "no" on Amendment 1.

monkey glands

So who's my intellectual hero, now that Guy Davenport's dead? Gotta be Jonathan Mayhew. I get a jittery shot of monkey glands every time I read Bemsha Swing, or at least get inspired to do something new. Right now Jonathan's kick-starting his novel-reading by blogging 100 novels – no particular list, no particular order, just whatever direction his nose takes him. So I'm going to play junior copy-cat, & see how long it takes me to blog 100 books of poetry. (Tag: 100 poem-books.) Like Jonathan, no rules, no lists, just whatever hits me; re-reads count, as do books I've been working at for months. It'll help clear out some of the vast "unread" shelves, at least.
Congratulations of the new-parental category to Tony Tost and Josh Corey. And a teeny bit of Schadenfreude: these poetically-prolific young sprouts'll never know what hit 'em.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

choice item

The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky makes the "Editors' Choice" list in today's New York Times Book Review.

Strachey on Johnson / Johnson on Milton

My biography seminar, which I had at first conceived as a wide-ranging, omnivorous kind of course that would seize and devour all sorts of texts, from Plutarch to Kitty Kelly, has ended up pivoting around a couple of historical moments: the Samuel Johnson/James Boswell nexus of the 18th century, & the Lytton Strachey/Virginia Woolf revolution of the 20th. And of course the fallout from those two moments.

Not that we'll be short of things to talk about. On the contrary, as I've been rereading Johnson & Boswell, I've gotten more & more tempted by the idea of a Johnson seminar one of these years. I'm simply fascinated by the guy – fascinated & repelled, of course: in order to find so many wrong-headed notions stuck in one genius brain you have to go to someone like Milton, or Pound, or – well – Shakespeare. I find Joyce & Zukofsky obsessively fascinating and intellectually congenial; Johnson, like the folks in the last sentence, I find obsessively fascinating & simultaneously repellent.

The 26-year-old Lytton Strachey reviewed a new edition of Lives of the Poets in 1906, & as always managed to get off a few zingers, like this one:
That the Lives continue to be read, admired, and edited, is in itself a high proof of the eminence of Johnson's intellect; because, as serious criticism, they can hardly appear to the modern reader to be very far removed from the futile. Johnson's aesthetic judgmenst are almost invariably subtle, or solid, or bold; they have always some good quality to recommend them – except one: they are never right. That is an unfortunate deficiency; but no one can doubt that Johnson has made up for it, and that his wit has saved all. He has managed to be wrong so cleverly, that nobody minds.
Strachey, in proto-Eliotian fashion, chalks this all down to changes in literary fashion, or in "the mind of Europe": "Our judgments differ from his, not only because our tastes are different, but because our whole method of judging has changed."

A test case, then: Johnson's life of Milton. It's clear that the Doctor hates Milton with a fervent hatred. (I'm reminded of a particularly bitchy passage from Eliot's 1936 essay on Milton: "As a man, he is antipathetic. Either from the moralist's point of view, or from the theologian's point of view, or from the psychologist's point of view, or from that of the political philosopher, or judging by the ordinary standards of likeableness in human beings, Milton is unsatisfactory.") Johnson dislikes the fact that Milton belonged to no church; he complains that he treated the women in his life as "a Turk"; he loathes his Parliamentary politics, his "acrimonious and surly" republicanism. But what does Johnson have to say about the poetry? Is he truly "never right," or is Strachey just tossing off one of his inimitable generalizations?

It's a mixed score. Johnson is wrong to offhandedly dismiss all of the sonnets (he calls the heartbreaking "Methought I saw my late espouséd saint" a "poor sonnet"). To my mind, he's totally off his gourd in savaging "Lycidas" as "a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting." He gives Samson Agonistes much too short shrift, along with all the other brief poems.

But Johnson knew whereupon Milton's reputation would rest, & he knew that Paradise Lost was too grand an achievement ultimately to be undermined by any reservations he had about Milton's politics or personal life. And in the 18 pages he devotes to that epic, there aren't more than a couple of strictly aesthetic judgments with which I don't find myself agreeing. A few Johnsonian zingers:
The characteristick quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but hsi natural port is gigantick loftiness. He can please when pleasure is required; but is his peculiar power to astonish.

The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.

The confusion of spirit and matter which pervades the whole narration of the war in heaven fills it with incongruity; and the book, in which it is related, is, I believe, the favourite of children...
Observations such as these – and there are many more – pace Strachey, haven't aged in the last 230 years. What has gotten a bit stale, however, is the early 20th-century apotropaic reaction against Milton and the entire "grand" tradition in English verse. That moment has passed, along with TS Eliot & all his hegemonic house, in literary-critical circles; but far too many contemporary American poets still seem convinced that even a knowledge of Milton smacks too strongly of some kind of suspicious Anglophilia.

Heaven knows I don't want young poets to start writing like Milton (tho young critics could stand to learn a few things about sentence structure and rhetoric from Johnson); but I do hanker for a bit more of the elevated style in contemporary verse.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Burt Hatlen, 1936–2008

[The "Tributes to Zukofsky" panel, Orono, summer 2004; L-R: Theodore Enslin, Robert Creeley, Barrett Watten, Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Burt Hatlen]

The girls, tho 2 years apart, are – as Pippa likes to say – "half-twins," in that they share a birthday. There was a point when I was happy with this: think of all the energy & money we'd save on birthday parties! But that was not to be: they're 2 years apart, after all, & have different friends, different interests & likings, different obsessions. So instead, we're facing the annual discombobulation of two preschool birthday parties on successive weekends. Priez pour nous.
The weather is beautiful – warm during the day, chilly at night, little humidity; but a sad, gray time nonetheless. For me the week's been darkened by news of the death Monday of Burton Hatlen – as the obituaries point out, Professor of English at the University of Maine and Director of the National Poetry Foundation. It feels to me – and I know it feels likewise to many of my friends and colleagues – a particularly personal loss.

It's true that when Burt was a newly-minted English professor (he came to Orono, Maine in 1967) he encouraged, even was a mentor to, a wayward undergraduate named Stephen King; that fact's gotten him mentioned in every book about King I've turned over (there's even a photo of Burt in at least one of them). One could do worse, I suppose, than go down in literary history as a prime influence on one of the century's most commercially successful novelists.

But Burt was one of the quiet firesources of American poetry scholarship, particularly of modernist and late (or post-) modernist poetry – what I sometimes call "alt-poetry." Carroll F. Terrell had founded the National Poetry Foundation at U Maine in 1971, largely to disseminate Pound scholarship (NPF would launch Paideuma, its Pound journal, the next year). With Hatlen on board, the Foundation expanded its activities past the high-modernist figures it initially focused on – Pound, Eliot, Yeats – to become a first-choice outlet for scholarship on a wide range of twentieth-century poets. Every Zukofsky scholar knows the indispensible Terrell-edited volume Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet (1979), & NPF followed that one up with a whole series of "Man/Woman and Poet" collections: George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, Hugh MacDiarmid, Mina Loy, David Jones, etc. etc. The journal Sagetrieb was something of a "sequel" to Paideuma, publishing work on poets of a second modernist generation (like the Objectivists) & postwar, "postmodern" figures.

NPF was also printing valuable primary texts: Rakosi's collected prose and poetry; Jonathan Griffin's poems; Ron Silliman's big, eye-opening & (for many of us) mind-blowing In the American Tree (1986). (They're still at it, by the way – in recent years they've published important collections by Theodore Enslin, Armand Schwerner, Helen Adam, Joanne Kyger, & Kenneth Fearing.)

And then there were the conferences, every three or four summers. I gather they began as celebrations of particular poets – Pound, Yeats, etc. – but by the time I started visiting Orono they were decade-themed (poetry of the 1930s, of the 1940s, & so forth). It was like a kind of wonderful poetry summer camp – a three- or four-day conference in isolated campus setting, where every panel was on poetry, where everywhere you turned you were running into someone you actually wanted to talk to. (Think of it as the anti-MLA.) So many fantastic intellectual exchanges, so many grand and moving readings.

By the time I started going to Orono, Terry Terrell had handed the directorship of the NPF over the Burt, & Burt was the moving force behind the Foundation's publications and the summer conferences. (I suspect that there was a good deal of Stephen King's money being funneled into the organization, as well: King has always been outspoken about his debt to Burt for early encouragement.) Somehow Burt managed – on whatever shoestring of a budget – to keep this three-ring circus of journals, book series, and conferences going, & made Orono the hottest ticket in contemporary poetry studies. At the same time, he managed to keep up a steady stream of his own scholarship, an essay or two every year, always lucid, intelligent, & fundamentally solid work. I don't know whether he ever thought to collect those essays – I learn to my astonishment he published over a hundred – but he never came out with a book. Perhaps he was just too busy fostering others' scholarship, promoting poetry, & learning from others to give much thought to promoting his own work.

I met Burt at the Louisville 20th-century literature conference in 1992. I felt very much a kid – I was still in my 20s, I was delivering my first conference paper ever (on LZ and Stevens), & out there in the (admittedly sparse) audience were two scholars I admired just this side of idolatry: Jerome McGann and Peter Quartermain. Sitting with them was a hulking, Johnsonian figure. I invoke Dr Johnson, frankly, out of affection, for there was something of Johnson's imposing bulk, his awkwardness & tics, & his fundamental seriousness about Burt (yes, it was he), who came up to me after the panel and asked "Can I have your paper for Sagetrieb?"

Over the years I learned that Burt had performed similar acts of professional kindness to any number of young scholars (see here for Norman's experience). He published my Stevens/Zukofsky paper in Sagetrieb, & published several book reviews subsequently. He was enormously supportive when I was editing Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky, a collection that mostly drew upon papers delivered at a 1993 Orono conference. And over the 16 years I knew him, I was always astonished to find that he was following my work and my career with a touching avuncular interest. Indeed, even as I write this, I realize that Burt is one of the few people in the academy that I've looked to over the years as a mentor. He will be much missed. I will miss him very much.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

14.5 minutes & counting

The heady excitement of appearing in the Times Book Review is slowly abating. I sense that I'm in the last half-minute or so of my Warholian 15 minutes. Not that it made much difference in the way we conducted our weekend, save for the Sunday morning trip to the supermarket, where I took P. to the newspaper stand & subtly but ostentatiously bought a pile of Sunday Timeses, flipping thru & saying loudly, "look, honey, there's Daddy's book." As yet, there's been no phone call to join the staff of Poetry or The New Yorker, tho a couple of nice reviewing assignments have dropped into my lap.

Many – many – thanks to everybody who left their congratulations in the comments box (or who backchanneled). It really does mean a lot to me. The inevitable comment, however, was that Dan Chiasson's generous piece had quite a lot to say about Louis Zukofsky but not a hell of a lot to say about The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (still available from – link at left – tho most of the really cheap "new & used" copies have disappeared – but still a steal at $19.80). I of course am not complaining: he said the book was "terrific," & that's an adjective I can live with (right up there with "definitive," "brilliant," "indispensible" etc. – future reviewers take note).

But that's the way of the world for reviews of biographies, isn't it? In the first pages of Reflections on Biography (OUP 1999, still one of the very few semi-rigorous studies of the form), Paula Backscheider recalls her disappointment at reading review after review of her Daniel Defoe: His Life that "narrate[d] pieces of Defoe's exciting life" without commenting on how Backscheider had opted to present that life, the principles of research, selection, and presentation that made the biography what it was.

It's inevitable that this will be especially the case in reviewing the biography of a figure like Zukofsky, whom the average NYTBR reader probably knows only by name (as late as 1992 or so, one of the most prominent American studies people at Harvard, in conversation with me over dinner, revealed that he didn't really know the difference between LZ & Charles Bukowski – "he's really big in Germany, isn't he?") or by reputation, as Mr. Über-obscurity of modernist poetry.

And that's where I think Chiasson's review really shines: he acknowledges the "difficulty" for which LZ's work is famous, starting out by quoting Hugh Kenner on "A" as "The most hermetic poem in English,” a “long intent eccentric unread game.” But then he turns that on its head, & makes an argument for LZ as of all things an intensely personal poet, a poet who ought to be of interest to readers of Henry Adams, Henry James, perhaps even of Robert Lowell. I think it's a canny move indeed, particularly pitched for a particular readership – but a very large readership indeed.

And it's not a false move: despite Chiasson's move (a move that will no doubt irritate some) to wrest LZ away from the baleful clutches of the Language Poets – remember, some of the few American readers who could spell his name correctly thru most of the 1970s & 80s – the "personal" LZ Chiasson describes does not falsify or reduce Zukofsky, but presents one of his several faces – the one most likely to appeal to NYTBR readers.

In this, it's a fruitful contrast to William Logan's mean-spirited review (in the same issue) of Geoffrey Hill's magnificent A Treatise of Civil Power, which castigates Hill for his "difficulty," and complains that "without explication, a poem like Hill’s is hardly a poem, just language at war with itself."* Logan seems to want an immediately accessible poetry of sensitive description: anything beyond that – probings into history, philosophy, etymology – is pretention and kerfluffle. Chiasson acknowledges that Zukofsky is more complex, more challenging than the books the Pitt Poetry Series was publishing thru the 1980s: but then he invites, encourages, nay bids readers to plunge in and find the "human values" in the man's work. And that's fine with me.

And I still like that word "terrific."

*And of course Logan can't resist getting some parting shots in at what for my money are still Hill's finest two collections, The Triumph of Love and Speech! Speech!, which he dismisses as "caterwauling," the products of Hill's "course of antidepressants"; clearly he prefers his poets unmedicatedly depressed.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

New York Times Delivers!

at least for me. Go here to read Dan Chiasson's (full-page) review of The Poem of a Life in this coming Sunday's New York Times Book Review. The money phrase: "The Poem of a Life, Mark Scroggins’s terrific new biography."

"Terrific." I like that adjective...

Monday, January 14, 2008

13 lbs. of canonical intervention

Just before we left town for the weekend, Mr UPS dropped off a box from Oxford University Press that weighted a trifle more than both of the girls, combined, at birth (13 pounds, according to the label). Yes, it was the final installment – the big present – of the holidays: The long-awaited (we've been hearing about this book for a decade now), brand-spankin' new two-volume set of Thomas Middleton, The Collected Works (ed. Gary Taylor, John Lavagnino & a cast of thousands) and Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture: A Companion to The Collected Works.

I hasten to add, lest this be thought an extravagance only slightly less outrageous than, say, a sharkskin tuxedo or a new Vespa, that 1) the thing was on considerable sale from OUP before the end of of last year, & as we all know university press books just don't get cheaper over time, and 2) since J. is after all a scholar of early modern drama, this monster both feeds my dilettantish Middleton-mania & serves as a necessary piece of equipment for her own scholarship, and 3) it's a lot cheaper than another new guitar I can't play, & takes up less space.

First impressions: •BIG. The Collected Works clock in at 2016 pages, rather longer than the Riverside Shakespeare. I imagined I knew Middleton about as well as anyone in my position – ie, contemporary poet, scholar of contemporary & modernist poetry – having read maybe 10 of the plays; but even a cursory glance over the table of contents (or the tables of contents – there're 3, chronological, alphabetical, & by genre) makes me realized I've only scratched the Middletonian surface.

•User-friendly – up to a point. Gary Taylor's last career-making project, his OUP edition of Shakespeare (with Stanley Wells) was an editorially adventurous book, but its handsome single-volume edition wasn't going to replace anyone's Riverside: no notes, either explanatory or textural. The Middleton CW includes same-page explanatory notes for almost all of the works included (except for Macbeth – "Macbeth?!?" you blurt – more anon on that). The annotations, however, have been prepared not by the general editors, but by the (cast of thousands) editors of the individual works – sometimes even by a different scholar from the person who's done the editing. I'm all for division of labor, I suppose (the heroic days of Havelock Ellis editing the entire corpus of early modern drama are long gone), but I'm willing to bet, even before spot-checking thru the 2000 pages, that the explanatory notes vary pretty widely in quality & utility. That's just how it is: some people write good notes; others, equally bright & talented, don't.

But here, in the notage category, is where I get irritated: the textual notes have all been farmed off into the "companion volume," Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture, a 1200-page book which consists of "The Culture" – a collection of 11 essays by various hands, a 330-page book in itself that probably should have been published separately – "The Author," three essential essays on the Middleton canon, justifying the editors' decisions to include & exclude various works, and "The Texts," 700 pages of textual notes. Hmmmm. I smell a rat, or at least an editorial decision I don't like at all.

Textual notes, that is, need to be in proximity to texts. Not mixed up with explanatory notes, as in the misbegotten Riverside Milton, but somewhere close, so they can be consulted – ideally, as in the New Mermaids editions, under a ruled line beneath the explanatory notes at the foot of the page – or at the very least at the end of the play, as in the Riverside Shakespeare. Here's what I suspect: Gary Taylor & his cohorts, desperately jonesing to insert Middleton into the canon in a very big way, were loath to issue a complete Middleton in two big volumes (my guess is that if they'd scrunched up the textual notes just a trifle more, they could have gotten the whole corpus into two 1300-pagers). So they farmed off the notes into a separate volume (as Taylor/Wells did with the OUP Shakespeare) & padded the thing out with 300+ pages of for all I know quite rivetting background essays.

[Purchasers' warning: OUP clearly regards the Companion as something of a white elephant: they're charging $200 for the volume on its own, a price that only gets paid by well-endowed libraries with librarians so absent-minded that they forgot to order the thing the first time around. So if you got the Middleton jones, by all means order the set.]

•Weird. I'll only briefly mention the running heads, which are only a skoshe away from being just plain confusing. In order to emphasize the textual instability & multiple titling of TM's works, the running heads are deliberately inconsistent. Hengist King of Kent; or, The Mayor of Quinborough gets headed as "Hengist King of Kent," "The Maior of Quinburough," and "Maior of Quinborough," all in early modern hand-script. Other heads are generous with long "s"s and blackletter. It's all very Steve McCafferyesque, but rather unsettling when you're coming from a more conventional edition.

What Gary & company will get the most attention for, of course, is including in the edition a number of rather familiar plays that he argues Middleton had a hand in writing, editing, or revising: Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens. My sense is that the knee-jerk reaction against the notion of Shax as a collaborative playwright has largely died down, but I also suspect that many readers will see the move of including these plays in their entirety, rather than just an account of Middleton's hand in them, for what it is: part of Taylor's two+ decades'-long push to establish Middleton on a level with Shax & Ben Jonson. (Among the more amusing documents of this push: a recent Time magazine article on the edition, in which we're told that Middleton writes a lot about sex, & Gary tells us that TM's "a great writer, who reaches out from the past and punches you in the stomach." And lower.)

I'm all for the push (I guess I've been doing the same for Zukofsky these last 15 years), & I'm looking forward to trawling my way thru vast unread tracts of Middleton over the next few months (if I can find a comfortable way to hold this bloody huge book). Now where, for God's sake, is that long-awaited & slightly less overdue Cambridge Ben Jonson?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

holding pattern; hanging on; whoredom in Boca

The first meetings of the semester's classes have passed, a biennial agony that I grow to dread more & more each year. I'm not a comfortable public speaker; so, painfully self-conscious, I overcompensate with wisecracks & gimcracks & bales & acres of rambling verbiage. (I grow to loathe the twanging of my own voice more every year...)
John Latta continues to assiduously read/blog his way thru The Poem of a Life; I'm too blushingly pleased by the care with which he ponders the book, & pursues its byways, to link him just now. (You can find him on the blogroll, if so interested.)
I took the plunge into full-fledged prostitution last night in my Biography: Theory & Practice seminar. I had left a hole in the syllabus for a "Contemporary Biography To Be Determined," & offered up three biographies for them to choose among. Voting was closely divided, but broke 6 to 5 in favor of reading The Poem of a Life rather than Lyndall Gordon's Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life (with one outrider – a Ron Paulist? – casting her/his vote for Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World). Mixed feelings on my side: of course, a bit of satisfied amour-propre, but also regret – my LZ book really isn't a patch on Gordon's luminous Woolf, & I'm not sure whatever 1st-hand author's tales I can tell abt. writing TPL will be as pedagogically useful as dissecting the weird turns of Greenblatt's Shax.

But mainly: I've never assigned a book of my own in a class before, & am none too comfortable doing so now. Perhaps I've heard far too many horror stories of the management & education professors who've supplemented their own incomes by assigning their own lame textbooks to their massive lecture courses. Or perhaps it's personal experience. In my undergrad days, I recall only a handful of philosophy courses that used professor-authored texts – & entirely appropriately. But when I came to The Campus on the Hill for doctoral studies, it seemed one couldn't swing a cat without knocking down a faculty member scurrying to the bookstore with a book order for his/her own book.

Okay when the class was a Theory seminar, & Jonathan Culler was assigning his own On Deconstruction; it no doubt saved us all a lot of note-taking. But other instances were less helpful: one seminar in particular, involving the grandest of modernist monumental texts, also subjected us to perhaps the least useful, most tediously-written commentary on Ulysses ever published – not coincidentally written by the professor. (Its only selling point was that it was the first book published whose references were keyed to the new [at the time] Gabler edition. Hooray.)

So call me a whore. At least, when Our Fair University's ethics committee comes knocking on my office door, I can explain that my "profits" – royalties – from the half-dozen or so copies of the book this will sell (half the class seems to have it already, mirabile dictu) will fall rather short of buying the class a round of drinks – which I'll do anyway. Call me a $10 whore.
I'd be interested in hearing from those academics among Culture Industry's six readers as to their own experiences – positive or otherwise – with professor-authored course texts.

Monday, January 07, 2008

proleptic Carlyle

So I was reading Thomas Carlyle's wonderful, endless review of Croker's edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, and was arrested by the following passage (describing the penurious conditions under which the 18th-century writer often lived):

This was the epoch when an Otway could still die of hunger; not to speak of your innumerable Scrogginses, whom "the Muse found stretched beneath a rug," with "rusty grate unconscious of a fire," stocking-nightcap, sanded floor, and all the other escutcheons of the craft, time out of mind the heirlooms of Authorship. Scroggins, however, seems to have been but an idler...
Good Lord, thought I – how did Carlyle know, in 1831ish no less, what a lazybones I would turn out to be?

I was using a lovely, highly readable old Everyman edition, lamentably lacking any notes, so I had no immediate clue as to who this desperate ancestor of mine might be. A half-hour's Googling turned up nothing, save numerous references to the old ballad of "Giles Scroggins's Ghost." So in desperation I sent a message to the Scottish Language and Literature listserv, & within a day I had three separate answers.

Sly Carlyle, it turns out, is paraphrasing and quoting Oliver Goldsmith, an early, unfinished poem entitled (according to the Chadwick-Healey database) "Description of an Author's Bedchamber":
Where the Red Lion flaring o'er the way
Invites each passing stranger that can pay;
Where Calvert's butt and Parsons' black champagne
Regale the drabs and bloods of Drury-Lane;
There in a lonely room, from bailiffs snug,
The Muse found Scroggen stretched beneath a rug;
A window patched with paper lent a ray,
That dimly showed the state in which he lay;
The sanded floor that grits beneath the tread;
The humid wall with paltry pictures spread:
The royal game of goose was there in view,
And the twelve rules the royal martyr drew;
The Seasons framed with listing found a place,
And brave Prince William showed his lamp-black face:
The morn was cold, he views with keen desire
The rusty grate unconscious of a fire;
With beer and milk arrears the frieze was scored,
And five cracked teacups dressed the chimney board.
A nightcap decked his brows instead of bay,
A cap by night---a stocking all the day!
Washington Irving, in his Life of Oliver Goldsmith, quotes the passage as being from "Scroggin, A Mock-Heroic Poem" – note the crucial vowel shift from e to i. And how Irving's "Scroggin" becomes a proleptically defamatory "Scroggins" – well, only Thomas Carlyle's prophetic soul knows.
The second installment of John Latta's trawl thru The Poem of a Life is here. What, you don't have your own copy already, so that you can read along?

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Copies of The Poem of a Life turning up in various quarters: coastal California, even Edinburgh. While I wait for the possible silence of the print reviewers – no news is not good news – one of the readings that really matters begins to materialize: that of John Latta, marooned on the always lively Dumpster Island.
As I scramble to paste & staple together syllabi for next week's classes, I've been listening to a range of Passions: Heinrich Schütz's St. Matthew, Alessandro Scarlatti's & Arvo Pärt's St. John (of the former, LZ writes – or rather, quotes Debussy, "Whose choruses seem to be written in pale gold / Like halos, primitive frescoes"), & of course Bach's St. Matthew Passion, which poor WCW was unable to hear with Zukofsky at Carnegie Hall on April 5, 1928 ("I'd give my shirt to hear the Mattaus Passion this week," he wrote, but couldn't).

That's the performance that kicks off "A"-1, with an almost perfect 200-year span between premiere & poet's audition: "The Passion According to Matthew, / Composed seventeen twenty-nine, / Rendered at Carnegie Hall, / Nineteen twenty-eight, / Thursday evening, the fifth of April." Recent scholarship suggests a 1727 first performance for the piece, but LZ had no way of knowing that.

Neither did Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, when he mounted a performance of the Passion in Berlin in 1829, to celebrate both the composition's centenary & his grandfather – the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn – 's birth in 1729. A rousing success, helped along by the performance of the popular young singer Eduard Devrier. At the celebratory dinner afterwards, Devrier's wife Therese found herself squeezed in between Mendelssohn-Bartholdy & a rather pushy elderly stranger: she recalled,
Felix was in an effervescent mood, we chatted and laughed, so that I didn't notice the servant offering me things. The man on my left bid me to let him do it. Afterward, he continuously tried to talk me into drinking some more wine and to fill my glass, which I declined until it was proposed that we toast to the health of the artist, from which, he rather affectedly whispered, I could not exclude myself, to which he then festively clinked glasses with me. He unrelentingly gripped my furthermost lace sleeve 'in order to protect it!', as he put it when he occasionally turned to me. In short, he so annoyed me with his gallantries that I turned to Felix and asked, 'Tell me who this dumb goofball is beside me.' Felix held his handkerchief over his mouth for a moment and then whispered, 'The dumb goofball there beside you is the famous philosopher, Hegel.'
(And where, God help me, have I heard this anecdote before?)