Monday, February 25, 2008

post-conference; Nathaniel Mackey: Splay Anthem

[The panelists: L–R, Eric Murphy Selinger, Yr Humble Blogger, Peter O'Leary, Joel Bettridge]

Returned yesterday from the Louisville Conference on Literature & Culture since 1900, anxious a little to be back in south Florida's warmth, more than a little weary after 2 1/2 days of nonstop socializing, polite listening, & – well, partying: in short, conferencing. The Ronald Johnson panel organized by old friend & co-conspirator Eric Selinger went off well: Joel Bettridge presented an overview of the forthcoming Bettridge/Selinger-edited Ronald Johnson: Life and Works; Peter O'Leary read a goodly and riveting portion of his memoir of being mentored by Ron in the art of poetry; Eric gave a lovely account of his quarter-long experiment of guiding a class of students thru the implications of a two-line Johnson poem, something between collaborative "thick description" and Holmesian sleuthing; & I tossed out some piffle about anagrams. (Ask me why "love" is like a "vole" sometime.)

The picture above captures the panel in full glory: Peter in characteristic towering handsomeness; Joel doing a imitation of Lou Reed imitating Brad Pitt; Eric with an intimidating growth of Absalomian curls; me – er, I suppose every 4-piece ensemble needs the homely drummer to make the front men look better. Anyway, it was fun.

There was much more on offer: formal presentations by a range of smart & diverting people – Kristen Prevallet, Tom Orange, Robert Zamsky, Norman ("not that NF") Finkelstein, among many others – and a keynote address by Aldon Nielsen which featured video of Nathaniel Mackey accepting his National Book Award & Jacques Derrida visiting Nelson Mandela's cell & photos of Derrida dueting with Ornette Coleman. Deconstruction, whether adumbrated by M. Derrida or the fantastic African American poet Russell Atkins, may never be the same.
[The Poets: L-R, Nathaniel Mackey, Joseph Donohue, Tyrone Williams]

The main attraction poetry-wise was a reading by Nathaniel Mackey Friday afternoon: as usual, a riveting event, tho marred by the facts that a) Nate's presentational style is a very definitely low-key affair – ie, he does not project, nor does he try to, and b) for some reason, the auditorium did not have a microphone that could reliably pick up his voice, which would have been okay but that c) the damned heating system in the room kept cutting on and drowning out the low subtle bits for the folks in the back rows. But as usually for Mackey, an excellent reading.

Reprised in part at a Saturday night party at Alan Golding & Lisa Shapiro's, where Nate read another section from Bass Cathedral, among a cloud of other poets (too many to name). A great party, followed by a night of carousing in good company (which of course followed two other nights of the same). (Needless to say, I slept on the plane home, when I wasn't reading Paul Auster's – possibly sleep-inducing – The Brooklyn Follies.)

A definite recharging of the batteries, both intellectually & socially. I haven't been to a conference in some time where there was such a concentration of alt-poetry scholarship & talent. But Nate Mackey – that reminds me:
Splay Anthem, Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions, 2006)


I've been following the nomadic wanderings of Nathaniel Mackey's sequences "Mu" and Song of the Andoumboulou for a couple of decades now, thru his first three volumes of poetry – Eroding Witness, School of Udhra, & Whatsaid Serif – watching as they've circled around one another, coiled, braided, & finally, in this magnificent latest volume, virtually merged. I'll admit I've put off reading Splay Anthem for some months, for wholly selfish reasons: Mackey's simply so good, the dense and tasty music of his verse so entrancing, his play with pun & anagram so fertile, that whenever I spend time with one of his books I find myself irresistibly drawn to slavish (& mawkishly inferior) imitation. Like School of Udhra & Whatsaid Serif, much of the early part of Splay Anthem follows its speaker(s) thru a dreamlike, surreal, cross-cultural pilgrimage, always surprising, always lively. It's grand & lovely & consistently unexpected – rather like being astonished by what Don Cherry & Ed Blackwell will come up with next on the Mu albums that are one of "Mu"'s referents. The real surprise in Splay Anthem, however, is the horrid spiritual & geopolitical stasis of the final section, "Nub" – "the imperial, flailing republic of Nub the United States has become," Mackey writes – one of the most impressive & horrifying visions of George Bush's American one could imagine.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Leaving at the crack of dawn for the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 – a mouthful that; a mark of my own age that I remember when it was merely the "Twentieth-Century Literature Conference" – to talk about Ronald Johnson and anagrams, & to spend some time in deep discussion with old friends & new. I quite frankly love conferences (except for MLA – everybody hates MLA): staying in a posh hotel, eating foods one wouldn't normally allow oneself, drinking & smoking way too much.

Best of all is the sense one sometimes gets of a kind of concentrated attention being paid to the things one cares about, one's "discipline." It happens in flashes in the department halls of Our Fair University, but all too rarely. Sadly enough, one finds one shifting from graduate school – a non-stop carnival of intellectual stimulation, of new books & ideas & movies & so forth (along with a great deal of angst, of course) – to a situation in which talking about poetry has become a job, & conversations with your colleagues seem to be about 50% bourgeoise housekeeping (the state of one's home, the progress of one's kids, which restaurants one should visit), 20% teaching "shop talk," 20% full-bore office politics & administrative kvetching, & a bare 10% ideas. At the best conferences, it's ideas most of the time.

"I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes," said Thoreau. But I've disregarded Walden & togged myself out in some new pants & couple of new sweaters, in eager anticipation of the sub-freezing weather predicted for points north. (My Chicago friends will snort derisively to learn that our current "cold front" has temperatures down to 66 at night.)

So here's to getting airborne!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Robert Duncan: Roots and Branches


Roots and Branches, Robert Duncan (1964; New Directions, 1967)

Looking back at my poems a couple years ago, I was astonished at how deeply my own modes & formal conceptions had been shaped by an early reading of Duncan's late work – from Bending the Bow forward, especially the sequence "Passages." Surprising then it's taken me so long to make my way – after many abortive starts, much reading here & there – completely thru Roots and Branches. So much that puts me – reticent, Protestant, skeptical, puritanical (?) – off: the operatic emotionalism, the wide-eyed mysticism, the persistent play with theosophical themes. All of which, to other eyes, could be seen as among the very glories of RD's poetry. I'm still divided, but find it impossible to gainsay the vatic power of the verse, the continual sense of a keen mind striving at questions on the very verge of knowledge, the exquisite modulations of a Romantic lyric voice almost unsurpassed in the 20th century.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Bouts of drenching rain the past few days – nice for the plants ("Florida, venereal soil" – Stevens) but nail-biting for us, as the roof's a sieve of yet-to-be-repaired holes. After a weekend of epic scribbling, I have a draft of this week's conference paper. Terrified to look at it & realize what a farrago of half-digested thises & thats it might be: a bit of Cratylus, leg of Saussure, dashes of Puttenham Dryden & Addison, smidgens of JH Prynne & RW Emerson – that sort of paper.

Now back to the "real" world, where quotidian responsibilities have piled up over my dizzy head: 31 chapters of 1 Samuel to read, stacks of student sonnets to address, mid-terms in a blue-book'd stack on the bar ("mark me, mark me!" they cry, like the marks in Blake's "London"), & off in the not-so-distant future, a half-dozen pieces I've committed to write over the next half-year. And I need to get a haircut in some interstice of time over the next three days, & buy some new clothes so that I don't slouch the corridors of conference-land in the same drab & awful uniform I've worn for the last decade.

(Unhelpful that we've been having the floor in the "spare" bedroom – formerly D.'s bedroom, now officially the playroom – redone, so that every corner of the upstairs is cramm'd with toys & furniture & stacks of children's reading material. My toes black with late night stubs.)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Is It Still Cool To Like Radiohead?

Who cares? Me, I'm stoked – yesterday I managed to get advance sale tickets to the first show of their 2008 tour, just up the road in West Palm Beach.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I replaced the snazzy Skia typeface of the blog with Hoefler Text, which is rather more traditionally "bookish," with all the serifs & little paradiddles that supposedly make a typeface more readable. I may go back to Skia, which I like very much.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Trimming Boswell

It was only at the last minute that I decided the Biography seminar ought to be actually reading Boswell, rather than just talking around him – a biography course without Boswell like a modern poetry course without Pound (oh yeah, like the one Wyatt Prunty taught when I was an undergrad). But golly, he's so long: the RW Chapman Oxford World's Classics I have clocks in a bit over 1500 pages. After much mousing around, I discovered that the only complete Boswell on the internet had only been scanned thru about 1773, with great chunks still to go.

So, with about a week & a half to spare before the beginning of the semester, I put in an order for the most readily available Penguin abridgment, edited by Christopher Hibbert. I have a constitutional antipathy to assigning abridged texts, but this one isn't bad: Hibbert trims the loquacious Scot down to about 350 pages, in large part by savagely cutting all of the letters Boswell includes. There's also a lively introduction & some (not enough) explanatory notes at the end.

Examining the two books side by side, I'm struck by the judiciousness of Hibbert's abridging: he's not just cutting pages & paragraphs, but even extraneous sentences within paragraphs. Makes for a much tighter read – even gives it something approaching biographical form.

But then again, we don't read Boswell for form, do we? We don't even really read him for story. After all, the Great Cham (or as I call him in my more bilious moments, the Fat Bastard) got born at the beginning, & is going to die at the end. If we want Johnson's life as a psychological progression, we read Walter Jackson Bate; if we want a judicious assessment of his literary career & importance, we read Robert DeMaria. We read Boswell, first & last, for the anecdotes & the conversation. And it pains me find some of my faves missing from Hibbert's Boswell. The abridged Boswell – any abridged Boswell – is like ordering your favorite stiff drink & finding the bartender's shorted you on the liquor.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rae Armantrout: Next Life


Next Life, Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan UP, 2007)

Poems so spare & taut one is afraid at first glance they'll evaporate from the page. but then, as one finds oneself caught in the double imperative to read onward, to find out what comes next, and at the same time to read more & more slowly, so achingly slowly that the lines might as it were slow down & run backwards, the incredible strength & cunning of Armantrouts's work becomes evident: the unfailing keen eye for the quotidian detail, the steel architecture of dizzyingly precise syntax. The poems are all bones, sinews, & corded muscle, spare machines of observation & groping, musical thought.

talk angst

I'm off to a conference week after next – Louisville, in case you're interested; say hi, let's have a drink, etc. – & am going thru my usual "conference-in-12-days & I-haven't-written-the-paper" meltdown. Some people can talk from notes or an outline; some people, heroic adventurers, can improvise something worthwhile on the spot. Not me: I need a full-blown script. If I have a script, I can ad-lib a bit, I can insert the odd joke or dance move – but without a script, I'm dead meat.

I may have been scarified by a performance I witnessed many MLAs ago, when a guy my age, one of the most brilliant scholars of contemporary poetry I know, absolutely melted down into a puddle of embarrassed incoherence as he tried to improvise a talk from a handful of pages of notes. (Yes, Hugh Kenner I'm told regularly used to improvise his talks from notecards, but that falls in the "don't try this at home, kids" category.) Or I've been disgusted by big-name, big-bucks academic speakers who thought that they could bullshit their way thru their 40 minutes, take the check & go home, as if every disconnected observation that fell from their lips would somehow turn into gold before it hit our ears. So me, I stick to the script.

There're problems with the paper-delivery model of academic gatherings, I know. And I applaud meetings like the Shakespeare Association of America & the Modernist Studies Association, in which most of the meetings are gatherings to discuss papers that have already been shared among the participants – something more along the lines of what the hard scientists do, I believe. And I even have some admiration for the notion that Fritz Senn, the grand old man of Joyce criticism, has been promulgating for some time: that there's no point in hearing something we could read: instead, we need to see scholars thinking on their feet, improvising. Problem is, when I've heard Joyceans take up Senn's gauntlet & improvise their talks, most of the time the results are pretty incoherent, unimpressive.

I could probably fly up to Kentucky with the pages & pages of notes I have & talk thru something that my 4 auditors would find interesting, I guess. Or I could make a jackass of myself, as I tend to do whenever I don't have enough notes for my classes. Maybe I'm just feeling discouraged because of the general tepidness of my courses this semester. Getting tired of the sound of my own voice.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

time wasters

So I got addicted to LibraryThing some months ago – addicted enough to be maybe halfway thru cataloging my entire book collection. It's a lovely website, & seemed to answer all my desires for an application that would help me sort out & assess all those shelves of (mostly unread) books. I was only mildly interested in its social applications – the fact that you can be "friends" with other LibraryThingers & exchange comments & queries & so forth.

But then that delightful madman Bill Keckler sucked me into GoodReads, which is something else altogether: Facebook or MySpace for book-heads. Here the emphasis is very heartily & heavily on the social aspects of bookreading & collecting. It's all fascinating, & great fun. I'm collecting "friends" like a south Florida yenta at the Swap Shop! Now maybe I should make a stab at actually reading some books...

Halsey & Mac Cormack: Fit to Print


Fit to Print, Alan Halsey & Karen Mac Cormack (Coach House / West House, 1998)

A transatlantic collaboration between an English (AH) & an Anglo-Canadian (KM) poet, Fit to Print takes the newspaper – its squished columns, its typos, its sometimes hilarious juxtapositions – as formal inspiration. All great fun, particularly in tracking Halsey & Mac Cormack's thefts & plunderings from the daily repository of pathos & inanity, tho the 2-columned form in which the book is set (appropriately enough) sometimes makes my eyes wuzz. I give the edge to Halsey's contributions, if only because I find his whimsy a trifle more congenial than what sometimes seems too earnest in Mac Cormack's pages, but I respect her keen eye for the economic & political implications of the Globe & Mail's quotidian cubist epic.

Friday, February 01, 2008

I begin to worry

Only four weeks or so in to the semester, & for some reason the classes are already showing signs of mid-semester fatigue. Me too, maybe. The Biography seminar last night – Johnson's life of Milton, Rambler #60, Idler #84 – left me weary: I had things to say (rarely at a loss for words, even if they don't happen to be relevant ones); the guy presenting on Johnson had lots to say; everybody else was in a thoughtful listening mode. Which I'm hard put to interpret: we haven't done the reading? we've done the reading but found it boring as hell? where's the beef?

But a bit of fun: visited a colleague's class as show 'n' tell display: Actual Living Poet – read his pomes & ask him questions about 'em. My fave the old chestnut, "Do you write with a pencil or a pen or on a word processor?" No, I write with my hearrrrt.