Sunday, March 30, 2008

Saturday, March 29, 2008


I have a limited stock of anecdotes, so I've probably already told the one about my undergraduate philosophy professor, newly arrived in southwest Virginia & dating a local girl, introducing himself to her backcountry farmer father: "I'm a philosopher." To which the father responded – beautifully – "Ain't that somethin'? What er some o' yer sayins?" & thereafter Nick would tell folks that he was a "professor of philosophy." Or as Thoreau writes in Walden, "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers."

My colleague Richard Shusterman has explored in some detail how between antiquity and modernity the conception of the philosopher shifts from one who leads a life of integrated thought & practice to one the conduct of whose life is incidental to the power of her or his thought. Thoreau expresses the ideal of the pre-Sokratic philosopher, or of Sokrates himself –
Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a nobler race of men.
– and along the way he manages to denigrate our own anemic generation of mere "scholars & thinkers."

It's I suppose even a further shift to go from Thoreau's armchair thinkers to contemporary professors of philosophy, many of whom spend their careers writing commentaries on earlier thinkers, never venturing to produce anything that might be mistaken for a "new" thought. I had a semi-savage argument with my father-in-law over this some years ago: He held that one who merely writes on earlier thinkers shouldn't be called a philosopher at all; I argued that commentary & assessment of previous systems of thought was one of the basic modes in which philosophy gets done. Was I playing devil's advocate, or was I simply besotted with Derrida on Rousseau, Deleuze on Spinoza, Cavell on Emerson?

At any rate, one of the lovely threads in the vast shaggy tapestry of Walter Kaufmann's Hegel book was a series of quotations from Hegel's latish letters addressing the issue of studying philosophy. I won't actually quote, but simply render the gist: Hegel argues, repeatedly, that if one truly studies philosophy – not just absorbing potted summaries (like Kaufmann & Peter Singer) but actually working one's way thru the primary texts with all the sweat, tears, & blood that sometimes requires – one isn't merely studying thought: one is actually doing thought, is repeating the process by which the world-soul becomes conscious of itself. Original, new thought is highly overrated, & far rarer than one supposes; almost as rare is the spectacle of a student of philosophy transforming herself, by submission to the great works of earlier philosophers, by thinking alongside and through them, from a student into a thinker herself.

Excuse me; now I'll get back to another reading of the Preface to the Phenomenology.
On the earbuds: John Zorn/Naked City, Torture Garden

Friday, March 28, 2008

holding pattern

A momentary lull, before the next round of assignments due & department meetings. I have vague hopes of trying to wrest my study into some sort of order, or to get down to actually writing a mid-length poetry project I have planned out – but I suspect the best I'll do is to reply to perhaps 2/3 of the score emails that need to be answered.
Finished Walter Kaufmann's Hegel: A Reinterpretation (Anchor, 1966). Not sure who I'd recommend this to – dedicated Hegelians won't need or want it, neophytes are better off with Peter Singer's OUP introduction – but I enjoyed it immensely in a rather perverse way. Kaufmann trawls thru the entire body of Hegel's career & works, providing one of the most perverse running commentaries I've ever encountered. It's almost like the t-shirt: "I don't have an attention problem – hey, look! a chicken!" He'll start talking about the Logic or the Preface to the Phenomenology, then tack off on a two-section tangent about how Royce misread Hegel, & how Wm: James's essay on Hegel is really an essay on Royce, then wander into a discussion of how poorly the various posthumous editions of something have been edited. An endless session of foreplay, it seems at times. Let's discuss the Encyclopedia: but before we can actually talk about the contents, we need to lay out the detailed contents pages of the 3 volumes; oh, look – Hegel changed some of the contents between editions, & he combined some sections – how fascinating! 20 pages later, the patient reader gets 3 pages, not summarizing, but pronouncing on the significance of the Encyclopedia.

Long discursuses on how Goethe didn't influence the Phenomenology, how Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Schleiermacher, & Kierkegaard got it wrong. And a lovely packet of letters & reminiscences at the end, including this jewel from Heinrich Heine:
One beautiful starry-skied evening, we two stood next to each other at a window, and I, a young man of twenty-two who had just eaten well and had good coffee, enthused about the stars and called them the abode of the blessed. But the master grumbled to himself: "The stars, hum! hum! the stars are only a gleaming leprosy in the sky." For God's sake, I shouted, then there is no happy locality up there to reward virtue after death? But he, staring at me with his pale eyes, said cuttingly: "So you want to get a tip for having nursed your sick mother and for not having poisoned your dear brother?" – Saying that, he looked around anxiously, but he immediately seemed reassured when he saw that it was only Heinrich Beer, who had approached to invite him to play whist...
On the earbuds: Gavin Bryars, Cadman Requiem; Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Third Decade; Praxis, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis)

Friday, March 21, 2008


If this blog has retained any regular readers, they will no doubt have noticed the paucity of any sustained discussion of – well, anything serious lately. It's just been a really snowed-under moment of the academic year, a feeling of continually treading water merely to keep up with one's responsibilities. I can barely say I'm staying abreast of the reading for my own classes (tho I have managed to make dents in Mansfield Park and Edmund Gosse's Father and Son lately, both "pleasure" reads, & the sinuously weird divagations of Walter Kaufmann's big Hegel book keep me returning to that volume, rather like the Solitaire game on my iPod keeps distracting).
The last of this spring's thesis defenses is tomorrow afternoon – well, later today, that is. The defendant in question has opted to schedule for 1.00 pm on Good Friday, which I can only read as a severely inauspicious time-slot. One of the committee members should bring the nails, another the hammer; I'll pack the crown of thorns. (Or as Shane MacGowan says, "They're gonna crucify me / in those old cotton fields back home...")
Bob Arnold runs Longhouse Poetry, a bookshop & poetry press in Vermont; I only have one or two of their publications, but am impressed by their attention to detail & clean design. Arnold seems to be the primary torch-bearer of the Cid Corman legacy – he has a stack of Corman titles in print, & in fact has been at the helm of a sixth series of Origin, the groundbreaking poetry journal that Corman edited for so many years, & which was so instrumental in the careers of Olson, Zukofsky, Niedecker, Bronk, & others.

So I was pleased to see The Poem of a Life receiving sustained and generous attention in the 2008 edition of Arnold's "Woodburners We Recommend" (scroll down about halfway): the money phrase this time around? – "Leon Edel caliber scholarship."

And whoever writes copy for the Strand bookshop in Manhattan has called the book "compelling" and "very readable."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Jonathan Williams, 1929 – 2008

Education is a rhizomatic affair – or at least mine has been, a matter of following leads in all directions, running down stray references & following intriguing names. I can date one of my own most important introductions to 20th-century writing to around 1985 or '86, when Tom Gardner handed me his copy of Guy Davenport's The Geography of the Imagination, knowing I was interested in Pound, & said "I think you'll enjoy some of these essays." To say the least. I think I've followed up maybe two-thirds of the scores of leads Guy proffered in that collection: one of them, Louis Zukofsky, has proved personally & professionally absorbing; another, the poet, publisher, photographer, & all-round cultural cheerleader Jonathan Williams, turned out to be almost a fruitful as Davenport himself.

I was lucky, reading Guy's essay on this latter-day backwoods North Carolina Catullus, to be at Virginia Tech. One of the art professors there, Ray Kass, was a member of the foundation of the Jargon Society, Jonathan's exquisite publishing outfit (does one need to run thru the names he published?: Zukofsky, Olson, Ronald Johnson, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, Paul Metcalf, among many others), & Jonathan was wont to make Blacksburg a stop on whatever promotional tour he was pursuing, whether he was showing slides he'd made of British poets' gravesites or curating shows of wacko-spiritualist-outsider artists. (He knew Howard Finster before R.E.M. & the Talking Heads had ever heard of him.) I was walking downtown one day when I almost ran into the tall figure I recognized from the jacket photo of Rues & Bluets/Blues & Roots. "You're Jonathan Williams," I said; "Why yes I am, young man," he replied, "And do you know where I can buy a cigar?" A year or two later my then girlfriend bought a copy of his Portrait Photographs, where I first saw the stunning portrait of Zukofsky that I sometimes imagined might one day appear on a book of mine. (That particular imagining came true – tho Shoemaker & Hoard, quite rightly, opted to put the rather benign full-face photo on the front cover of The Poem of a Life, reserving my own favorite – the mantis-like profile – for the back cover and frontispiece.)

I bought practically every Jargon book I could find, & have collected JW's own books for over two decades. (My copy of Get Hot or Get Out was purchased in a Memphis boutique called "Men of Leather," & was probably the only volume of poetry on display among the chaps, codpieces, & motorcycle boots.) His recent career-spanning Copper Canyon volume, Jubilant Thicket, is a treasury of well-wrought, funny, & sometimes spectacularly indecent poems, a book that just gets better & better as one reads & rereads.

I had known Jonathan was in declining health (tho his letters to me in re/ the LZ biography-in-progress were models of Williamsesque jauntiness), but I was surprised & deeply saddened to learn – from a comment by Don Share to, & then a last-minute revision of, Ron Silliman's post today on the essay collection Blackbird Dust – that Jonathan had died. It is of course a great loss to American poetry. It feels like a personal loss to me, a severing of the last link between my own experience of poetry & that generation of heroic post-war modernists (LZ, Olson, etc.). My father's generation is dying around me: Guy Davenport, Robert Creeley, & now Jonathan Williams.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Parnassus; August Kleinzahler: The Strange Hours Travelers Keep

It's been a bleary last few days. J's been out of town at the Shakespeare Association conference in Dallas, so I've been flying mostly solo with the girls, running thru the usual hit & miss of menu choices (palak paneer: Daphne yes, Pippa no; gumbo: D. no, P. yes; mac & cheese: both yes), trying to get to bed a trifle earlier than usual to anticipate the 7 AM wake-up visits, & in general struggling to keep the whole complex machinery of the household from falling apart. But now we're once more a foursome, & J & I can play divide & conquer when things get touchy.
My old friend Eric¡Hola, viejo! – reminds me that I ought to draw attention to the just-released 30th anniversary issue of Parnassus: Poetry in Review. Check out their website for a list of some of the goodies in this almost 700-page behemoth, including "Marrow-Bones and Turkish Delight," my own biggish career overview of Ronald Johnson's work – an essay I've been imagining my way thru for a decade or so now. Not that it turned out nearly as good as I'd like, but the beginning's pretty snappy:
While my own native greens-and-ham-hock southern cuisine is a hard sell to my friends with more sophisticated palates, my mother’s pecan pie recipe has always been well received. A simple concoction: in a single bottom piecrust (home-made or store-bought) you set out a layer of halved pecans, then pour over them an inch or so of beaten eggs and heavy corn syrup. In the oven, the pecans rise to the top to be crisped in the heat, while the syrup-egg mixture congeals into a hard gel. Crunchy pecans, flaky crust, and a center of unadulterated, primordial sugar: what’s not to love (if you aren’t a diabetic, that is)?

The poet Ronald Johnson (1935-1998), who worked as a chef and caterer and who made most of what little money writing brought him from his excellent cookbooks, offers a variation of the traditional southern pecan pie in The American Table (1984). (My own copy has reached the stage of broken-spined, gravy-spattered dilapidation that marks a personal classic in the genre.) Instead of “the usual bottled dark ‘Karo,’” Johnson’s pie is based on a syrup made of sugar, orange juice, and the thinly sliced peels of two oranges. It’s still a pecan pie, the saccharine nemesis of dieters everywhere, but a pecan pie with a sophisticated twist, the orange peel adding a sour, slightly bitter zest like the tang of remorse.
I go on to talk about poetry, by the way, not just cooking.
The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, August Kleinzahler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003)


This one won the 2004 Griffin Prize, the big Canadian jackpot. And good for August K., I say. I've been reading him – never religiously, always with pleasure – for over 20 years now, since Guy Davenport told me (on a blurb to Storm Over Hackensack) that his poems were "structures as cunningly built as kites and canoes." I suppose some of my friends would toss Kleinzahler into whatever oubliette of their imagination corresponds to Ron Silliman's "school of quietude" – & it's true that K's working in a sturdy, straightforward idiom that's essentially similar to what WC Williams forged 85 years ago. But his ear for music is so strong, his diction is so aggressively varied, & he never lingers too much on himself: the world outside – its sights, noises, smells, songs, minute particulars – is so interesting that the last thing Kleinzahler wants to do is lamnet his own fuckups or celebrate his own sensitivity. A lot of travel poems here, & some of them it's true come perilously close to the "I'm lonely on a reading tour" subgenre. But Kleinzahler's scorn for the prima donna aesthete stance is so acidly evident that even a poem about the yearly shutting-down of an artists' colony – "The Art Farm" – reads like a savage indictment, without a single explicit word. A nature poet, but his nature's urban.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Poem of a Life: Review

No sooner am I back in south Florida than I find myself in the midst of thesis-defense season – MFA theses, that is, the sort of documents that you can't really contest on the grounds of argumentation or density of citation, but have to find real live aesthetic critiques to make about. One down today (Monday), another scheduled for Wednesday, & I believe a couple (I'll have to check my datebook) coming up next week.

Our defenses are technically open affairs, which means that one or two friends and family members of the defendant show up and nod along with the proceedings; I sometimes hanker after the old-style European system, where one would have to defend in a big auditorium, in full academic regalia. None of this lounging around the seminar table and chatting friendly-like.
On a more depressing note, the benighted Florida legislature seems on the verge of castrating the Board of Governors, the body that runs the state university system, & reshaping it as a rump group with no more than "advisory" powers: in short, doing away with the only body in the state capital that has a clear idea of what a university actually is & opening the state universities to direct political control from Tallahassee. This will be a nightmare, something far worse than the periodic budget crises we suffer (we're in the midst of a doozy right now). If the legislators get their way (& I suspect they will) I predict a wholesale exodus of active research faculty from the state. I imagine a lot of folks are polishing up their vitas even as I write this.
While I was delighted that Marjorie Perloff reviewed The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (link to on the right, if you haven't yet ordered your copy) in the TLS ("incisive") & that Dan Chiasson called it "terrific" in the New York Times Book Review, I'm majorly pleased to learn that Nicholas Manning, who edits the excellent Cosmopolitan Review and maintains the blog The Newer Metaphysicals, has written about the book – at length – in a forthcoming issue of John Tranter's Jacket.

It's not merely that Jacket allows reviewers a rather more expansive space in which to examine books, but that Manning – addressing an audience who already knows something about Zukofsky, and who doesn't need to have the salient facts of his career repeated to them – has paid close attention to the form, the rhetoric, & the procedures of the biography, & has made some really lovely points about them. It's a nice review, & I'd consider it nice even if it weren't as positive about the book as it is.

(The money word this time around: "extraordinary.")

Saturday, March 08, 2008


I suppose a plurality of the folks who've moved to south Florida for the more-or-less constant warmth would consider us masochists, but we like to take in a little real winter once in a while. Got back yesterday from a rather frigid New York to be greeted by some of Florida's weirder weather – torrential rains & high winds last night, followed by a blissfully sunny (but rather humid) day today with the prospect of what they call a "cold front" moving in tomorrow.

The 4 of us squatted for 5 days in an apartment that could fit into the master bedroom closet of many of the macmansions down here, tripping over toys & books & small children at every turn. It would have been claustrophobic if it weren't New York, where there's something to do & somewhere to go all the time – & even then, it got pretty claustrophobic. The only bit of real culture – the one family outing to the Metropolitan Museum was J. & P., leaving me to take D. to the Children's Museum for the 3rd bloody time – was an evening at City Opera, where we caught Mark Morris's adaptation (reduction?) of Purcell's King Arthur. A splendidly silly early baroque musical really, with text by Dryden & really luminous music. (Michael Nyman has spun about 8 hours of music out of the "frost" scene, last time I counted.) Morris – he's more a dance guy than a conventional opera guy, I gather – opted to cut a few things: all the (spoken) dialogue, the characters, & the plot, leaving King Arthur as something of a dance revue, where dancers performed in whimsical modern costumes to beautifully performed Purcell "numbers." Great fun – for a while. But after a couple of acts, it began to feel like postmodernism lite, & I found myself hankering for the different kind of silliness that Dryden & Purcell themselves had cooked up – fairies & goblins & Saxons & all.

Stuck in an apartment full of an educated New Yorker's books, my own bag bulging with recent dense volumes of criticism I'm supposed to be reviewing, of course I ended up hauling down a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring & trawling thru it in something less than 4 days.

I snuck away one evening to The Strand, where I came away with the usual ragbag of slim volumes of poetry, volumes of criticism, & thises & thats. The real find was a recent translation of Flemish philosopher Arnold Geulincx's Ethics. Geulincx was a Cartesian & a close contemporary of Spinoza's, tho nowhere near as interesting as Zukofsky's "blessed" one. I suspect the only reason this rather weird tome got itself translated into English is the influence Geulincx had on Samuel Beckett, who found the philosopher's most famous quotations – Ita est, ergo ita sit ("it exists, therefore it is so") & Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis (roughly, "Where you are worth nothing, there you should want nothing") – very congenial to his own grumpy pessimism. Cf. Murphy.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

John Godfrey: Midnight on Your Left

Midnight on Your Left, John Godfrey (The Figures, 1988)


Zap! Pow! Biff! I need an occasional shaking, like this volume of John Godfrey's, to remind me that poetry isn't all the serious exploration of historical antinomian impulse, of subterranean currents of occluded counter-speech, of the ever-deferred wanderings of nomadic cultural impulse. Sometimes it's sloppy (but precise), urbane (and oh so urban, even gritty), super-sexy, funny, & just plain fun. Godfrey's got a great ear, evident especially in his short-lined lyrics, & he's got a keen (if sometimes scopophilic) eye & analytic mind. So who's to gainsay him if the poems of Midnight on Your Left spend more time in the region of the crotch than the rafters of philosophical analysis? At any rate, I'm chalking this one down for possible inclusion in the "postmodern eroticism" project that I might get around to one of these years. The flâneur as cruiser: the poetry of (carnal) knowledge.
Golly how time flies! It turns out, as the clock at the corner of the desktop rolled over from Thursday to Friday, that Culture Industry has been on the web for exactly 3 years now. Thanks for dropping by.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

there & back; Susan Howe: Souls of the Labadie Tract

No sooner home than away again: or so one hopes. The tickets for "spring break" in NYC are ready for tomorrow, but P. abruptly manifested a 104-degree fever this afternoon, & is as limp as a rag doll, pale as Helena Bonham-Carter in her Sweeney Todd makeup. Alarming indeed. So travels might be modified, depending on what the pediatrician has to say in the morning.

A dreary department meeting this afternoon, working over the figures of what the regular bi-yearly state budget crisis will do to the university.
Dear E –
Oh yes, the times have changed, & to be called the "leading" anything makes one's beard go greyer on hearing. "Jokerman" may have been the last really first-rate Dylan song, & one of my favorite music videos of all time. If you scroll thru the "related" videos in the YouTube crawl beneath that one, you'll find Bobby Z performing it on Letterman with a black-clad bunch of punkish 20-somethings; they belt thru 2 or 3 verses, then the band vamps thru the rest of the song as Dylan futzes around looking for a harmonica in the effing right key.

I want my conversion kit, & soon. Let's get down to business, bay – by.

Dear N –
A post soon on "My Paul Auster Problem." Those last two – The Brooklyn Follies & Travels in the Scriptorium – make me despair of our boy. But there's a first-rate joke in the latter (actually clean) which makes it worth the (remaindered) admission.
Souls of the Labadie Tract, Susan Howe (New Directions, 2007)


Vintage Howe, in many ways: to my ears, less impressive than The Midnight but more moving than Pierce-Arrow. The method is of a piece with her earlier works, the evocation or reanimation of angular or marginalized voices form the past, whether the 18th-century Utopian Quietist (note to ND blurb-writer: not "Quietest") Labadists, or the insurance lawyer & executive (& sometime poet) Wallace Stevens. For Howe the truly obscured voices – tho I haven't lived with this book long enough to assert this with any assurance – are female: Stevens's wife Elsie (model for the Liberty dime), the women Labadists, Jonathan Edwards's wife Sarah Pierpont, a fragment of whose wedding dress the exceedingly fragmentary textual scraps of the final poem – "Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards" – circle around.

The proportion of prose to verse is lower than in Howe's earlier books, the paratexts framing the poetry proper less extensive & developed. In earlier writings such as the long poems collected in The Nonconformist's Memorial (my own favorite), the "explanatory" prose sections & the more oblique verse sections had been more closely interwoven, what might be regarded as the prosaic "frames" interrupting & even impinging upon the exceedingly dense "poetic" sections. In Souls, in contrast, the proses lay the scene for each poem – the Utopian community of the Labadie Tract, Wallace Stevens's home at 118 Westerly Terrace, Hartford – then retreat before the poems proper. It is as if Howe were drawing back from the generic cross-cutting of her earlier poems, reforming her poetics – like some 21st-century Puritan – into a purer, simpler, more nakedly scriptural generic mode.