Saturday, May 31, 2008

Christopher Middleton: Tankard Cat

Off at the crack of dawn for Chicago, to talk to Spertus about Louis Zukofsky. Looks to be a good time, tho much of the academic community has breezed out of town; there're still be enough poets & old friends to make this a fine & dandy outing.
Tankard Cat, Christopher Middleton (Sheep Meadow, 2004)


Anthony Cronin subtitles his Beckett biography "the last modernist" (a phrase I savagely wanted for the LZ book), but of course neither LZ nor SB is the "last" in the modernist tradition. Me, I have a deep fondness for poets still working in the knotty, poly-referential, full-blown hi-octane modernist tradition. Not all of them are named "John," but John Matthias and John Peck are 2 of the best. And Christopher Middleton, who must have recently turned 80, just keeps getting better & better. The poems of Tankard Cat range from simple & pellucid to mid-strength dense, but they're all shot thru with the same musicality & sharpness of eye, nose, & palate, & informed by the same keen intelligence. Cosmopolitan – "world citizen" – poetry at its best.


Coming to the end of a biography is always a sad prospect, given that one is fairly confident of how the narrative will conclude. We each of us come into the world in much the same way, & while there are lots of different manners in which a life can conclude, conclusion itself is pretty much inevitable.

The last 20 pages or so of Anthony Cronin's Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist make melancholy reading, but Cronin does a delicate job of balancing between presenting Beckett's last days – mostly debilitated, in a spartan nursing home, most of the friends & companions of his youth & middle years dead – as the grim endgame of perhaps the majority of us in the post-industrial west – in short, a commonplace scenario, remarkable here only for the artistic identity of the protagonist – &, on the other hand, as a kind of blackly ironical playing-out of the plots of so many of Beckett's writings: Molloy, Malone Dies, the ashbin parents of Endgame, the buried Winnie of Happy Days

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Chicagolanders take note! I'll be in town next weekend to give a talk at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies (that's their fantastic new ultramodern building in the photo, at 620 S. Michigan Avenue).

The talk – "Louis Zukofsky: The Modernist Poet as Jew" – will take place at 2 pm on Sunday June 1st. I'm assured there'll be books for sale, and of course I'll be on hand to sign them (in case you want to destroy their resale value).

I'll be around for much of the Saturday beforehand, as well, so backchannel me if you'd like to arrange some sort of gettogether. Looking forward – oh how I'm looking forward – to getting out of the oppressive heat for a while.
Flying solo with the girls this Memorial Day, as J. is out of town. Aside from the unearthly hours at which preschoolers seem to wake up – haven't they ever heard of the snooze button? – it's been going pretty well so far. Nobody's sick, nobody's damaged themselves irreparably.
The Kleinzahler LRB review has begun to assume the aspect of a mere ugly memory, rather than an immediate anguish. It seems to have in part prompted Nicholas Manning (who wrote that fab, perspicacious review in Jacket) to reflect a bit on the ethos of book reviewing in general, & bad reviews in particular. His term for Kleinzahler's piece – a "knee-capping job" – seems about right to me. And Jonathan Jones over at Belgianwaffle puts his finger on how hilariously vague & inaccurate The K's version of Language Poetry is.

Hey, but we're the London Review & August Kleinzahler; we can't be bothered to get the equals signs into "L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E," or to get the capitalization right on "Poem beginning 'The,'" or even to spell "A" correctly. (Bitter, me? maybe a little...)

Friday, May 23, 2008


Dreary, clammy, rainy day – pouring down in buckets, sheets, all sorts of domestic animals. Poking at books: Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction (having just finished The Field of Cultural Production), Detlev Claussen's Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (full, jam-pack'd, bursting with interesting sociological, historical connections, but absolutely, aridly devoid of any narrative drive), Beckett's Murphy (whose 1st line definitely makes the top ten of such things: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new."). Feeling myself a kind of Murphyan intertia, the desire to do nothing – or perhaps the desire simply not to do anything.
Familial pressure, now that P. (aet. 6) has begun to show a real aptitude for the violin (yesterday's grand expotition, thru sheeting thunderstorms, purgatorial traffic, to acquire her a new quarter-sized fiddle), to take up a string'd instrument – in anticipation of turn-of-the-last-century style domestic quartets. And the pressing question: viola or 'cello? Viola pros: lovely moody sound, portability, always seats in the local community orchestra, John Cale. 'Cello pros: lovely moody sound, getting to sit down (cf. incipient middle-age back problems). Suggestions, votes?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Burton Raffel: Pure Pagan

Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, trans. Burton Raffel (Modern Library, 2004)


I seem to be on a classics/translations track lately. Nothing offensive, but very little memorable either about these version of classical Greek lyric. Indeed, there seems to be a strong scent of "sweepings," which is perhaps explained by Raffel's professed desire to avoid redoing poems more strikingly translated by Dudley Fitts, Guy Davenport, Mary Barnard – in other words, to try to find some decent leavings in an already pretty well-glean'd field. Drinking, death, bravery – not nearly enough sex. Guy D. contributes a scattered introduction, a fair specimen of his late, unfortunate essay style – all over the place but very occasionally to the point. Heart not in it.

Seamus Heaney: Beowulf

Beowulf, Seamus Heaney (FSG, 2000)


I think I read chunks of Beowulf in high school; I'm sure I read a least a graphic novel adaptation of it (or "comic book," as we used to say), & as well John Gardner's novel Grendel, narrated from the monster's point of view (tho I remember nothing of that but the cover art). I recall learning about kennings & ring-givers, but – laboring under the disadvantage of being an American – I never had a go at the Old English itself, even in college, where I read the thing thru at some point (not for a course) in Burton Raffel's translation.

Seamus Heaney's version of the poem won prizes & praises, & I gather is now the text for the Norton Critical Edition. I'm sure he needs the money. Its sounds pretty Heaneyesque to me thruout, which moves me neither one way nor the other. I'd forgotten what a wonderful subject-jumper the Beowulf-poet is, how much trouble he has keeping his attention on the matter at hand. Guy Davenport did Old English with Tolkien at Oxford, which he would later recall in nightmares. Haven't seen the movie yet.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"No such thing as bad publicity,"

I keep telling myself, stiff-upper-lippishly. But that doesn't mean receiving a 3500-word panning – nay, spanking – nay, drubbing – from August Kleinzahler (now known as "stinky-feet Augie" to two small girls in my household) in the 22 May London Review of Books doesn't hurt. Man, it does.

(And no, I'm not giving you the link. Look it up your own bad self.)

Casting my mind back to the K├╝bler-Ross "5 Stages of Grief at a Bad Review," I suspect I'm somewhere on the "depression" side of the passage from "depression" to "acceptance," having passed thru the stages of "denial" (surely they sent him the wrong book?), "anger" (cf. Franz Wright, passim), & "bargaining" (but even a bad review in the LRB will surely sell some books to masochistic types?). But the sting is still too real & immediate for me to say much coherent about what's wrong with Kleinzahler's take on the book, and what might be right about it.

Suffice it to say, for those of you who might be taking up pens & cudgels on my behalf, that Kleinzahler's version of Language Poetry makes Tom Clark's (remember "Stalin as Linguist"?) look sophisticated, & that while he spends the better part of a paragraph excoriating my final appendix, he seems to have entirely misread it. Man, I have so many other nasty things I want to say that I've just gotta close now.

Expressions of sympathy – flowers, bonbons, bottles of booze – entirely welcome.

glutton for punishment

Google Alerts alerts me that August Kleinzahler has reviewed The Poem of a Life in the London Review of Books; but hey, I don't subscribe, so I can't access the piece online; & while I get the sense that this isn't a good review by any means – one anonymous commenter to Culture Industry calls it "mean-spirited" – I still wanna read it. Anybody able to backchannel me the text? (mw dot scroggins at gmail dot com)
UPDATE: Many thanks, Jonathan. So now I've read it, & am smarting all over. More later. Ouch!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

So buy my guitar, okay?

A bit of spring cleaning, including weeding out the string'd instrument collection (okay, partially so I can justify the next impulse guitar purchase). Nothin' special – an Epiphone (that's the downmarket brand of Gibson) Les Paul with the nifty tremolo arm that one doesn't encounter too often these days on Les Pauls. I bought it in a fit of Neil Young-worship, then realized that getting the Crazy Horse sound has less to do with having a guitar that looks like Neil's than it does with the single-coil pickups & just the whole amplifier/effects stack. But this one's way cool, & is going for a song: "fit & finish," as they say, are to my eyes comparable to the Gibsons. And mention Culture Industry if you win the auction & I'll give you a break on the shipping.
After many back-&-forth e-mails, my department chair has finally lined up external reviewers for the promotion process. Three real doozies, I must say – all I can do is fall on my knees like Wayne & Garth & moan, "I'm not worthy!" (Tagline from my days of obsessive Sir Walter Scott-reading: "Party on, Gurth! Party on, Wamba!")
Reading, desultorily. Malcolm Bowie on Lacan; Jacques Derrida on the Freud archive (which I thought I ought to have read before teaching the biography seminar, but have decided I didn't need to); Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, which makes me wonder why nobody writes middlebrow literary history anymore – it would be great fun to do for 20th-century poetry what he does for 20th-c. music; a half-dozen books of poetry; Dashiell Hammett, who might just be God; & Bourdieu, who is.
This is Culture Industry's 500th post. Golly. Long strange trip etc...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Radiohead; Sophocles/Tipton: Ajax

Okay, I'm feeling a bit rough today, the aftereffects of a few Newcastle Browns & standing on a concrete surface for two hours bopping along to the opening show of Radiohead's American In Rainbows tour last night. I can't say I've been to many arena rock concerts in the last decade or two – most of the acts I like these days are hard-pressed to fill a large club space or medium theater – but Radiohead's show reminded me of just how exhilarating a large-scale pop music show can be.

I'll admit to being a big Radiohead fan; the band seems to me to have filled the space in popular culture that the circa-1969 Beatles did: an outfit of really fine melodic sensibilities (read: "catchy pop songs"), but pushing the envelope with innovative arrangements, oblique approaches, & really hard-to-get-on-the-1st-few-listens songs – dragging a mass audience along with them to new places.

Nifty pictures & a complete set list here. If there're tickets available for a show in your neighborhood, by all means don't miss.
Ajax, Sophocles, trans. John Tipton (Flood Editions, 2008)


I haven't read my way thru the corpus of Greek tragedy, & Ajax was new to me before picking up John Tipton's energetic, precise new version of the play. Tipton's lodestars here are Christopher Logue's wonderful, anachronism-laden versions of the Iliad (tho Tipton has the advantage over Logue of actually knowing Greek), Louis & Celia Zukofsky's "homophonic" translation of Catullus, & (tho Tipton oddly doesn't mention it in his afterword) Zukofsky's five-word-per-line version of Plautus' Rudens ("A"-21). Tipton renders the Greek hexameters into six-word lines (except of course for the choruses, whose various meters he shifts into other word-counts): there's not the slightest hint of translatorese here, just a muscular, sensitive contemporary American English that packs an emotional impact I've only rarely encountered in translations of classical drama (one gets flashes of it in Pound's Sophocles versions). The story itself – which opens with Ajax, possessed of a divine madness, having slaughtered a herd of domestic animals, proceeds to his offing himself midway thru the play, then ends with a debate over his burial – is weird enough to be compelling in the most prosaic rendering. Tipton's late-modernist idiom makes it oddly magnificent.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

new sticker

I got a bunch of these boss stickers here, & now they're going on the car, the computer, the guitars, the kids, wherever.
C'mon folks, let's get those library orders rolling! Seriously, tho – a plea specifically addressed to blogreaders who have access to academic or public libraries, inside or outwith of the US: Somehow The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky got passed over by the library-directed review magazines (Choice, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, etc.), & it's not getting picked up by libraries the way it ought to be. Tell your librarian to buy the book! Request it at the front desk! Ask why they don't already have it!
Is it my imagination, or is my iBook running about 2/3 faster now that I cleaned – in a half-hour devoted to avoiding grading – something like 85 items off of the desktop?
Grading 2/3 done: only the hardest bits yet to go.
Go read Craig Bryant's boss new blog devoted to his read-thru of the new Oxford Thomas Middleton.