Sunday, June 29, 2008

In the city

We arrived yesterday afternoon, & have more or less settled in. It's grand to be back in New York, where it's not yet too hot (at least in the mornings & in the evenings). The whole urban experience – the constant traffic noise, a hum that underlies everything; the constant stream of human beings; the occasional (strangely comforting) sour stench of garbage.

The carton of books won't arrive for several more days, so I'm reduced to Wuthering Heights; one could do a heck of a lot worse.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hurrah for Euphony!

Among the busyness of getting ready to leave, & the inevitable quandariness of deciding what books to carry & which to leave, a lovely package comes thru the transom: The big-ass collection Ronald Johnson: Life and Works, edited by Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger and published by the Orono-conference-sponsoring National Poetry Foundation.

This is it, all you Johnsonians out there: almost 700 pages of tasty criticism, memoir (Peter O'Leary recalls his "apprenticeship" to RJ), interviews, and bibliography (at long last, a full primary & secondary bibliography of Johnson's works). The list of contributors is almost a who's-who of coolness: Patrick Pritchett, Norman Finkelstein, Ed Foster, Donald Revell, Barbara Cole, Susan M. Schultz, Mike Basinski, Marjorie Perloff, jena Osman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jonathan Skinner, Gregg Biglieri, Graham Foust, Paul Naylor, & a bunch of others just as hip & intelligent.

And need I mention that there are two articles by your humble blogger?: "Notes and Numbers (Johnson, Ives, Zukofsky)" and "The Book of the Green Man: Ronald Johnson's American England." You can order the whole thing here.

(I'm posting in part because I imagine my old chum Eric S. is out of internet range, since he's spending several weeks strumming his mandolin & getting drunk on fine Irish whiskey in Killarney. Alas – some people have it hard.)

Richard Howard: Without Saying

Without Saying, Richard Howard (Turtle Island, 2008)


Richard Howard writes dramatic monologues, sturdy & subtle, historical or literary characters telling little stories. It's not work I seek out, or linger over; I always read his poems with pleasure, but am rarely moved. Sometimes I find myself comparing them, to their detriment, with Guy Davenport's stories: I'll take Guy's "Aeroplanes at Brescia" (Kafka almost meets Wittgenstein) over Howard's "Only Different" (Henry James almost meets L. Frank Baum) any day. The best piece is "Pederasty," a leering little sonnet after Proust.

Geraldine Monk: She Kept Birds

She Kept Birds, Geraldine Monk (Slack Buddha Press/La Purruque Editions, 2004)


A dandy little chapbook from one of the most reconditely interesting contemporary English poets, She Kept Birds is something of an avian 80 Flowers. Each of these 21 short-lined (often one word per line) poems is titled with the Linnaean binomial for a particular bird, & the text that follows is culled in various ways – I take it – from a birding handbook. It's wonderful how Monk plays registers & derivations off one another, giving the reader – in a remarkably spare text – a sense of the history & vernacular weight that these birds carry in the British Isles. English as birdsong.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Editor Strikes Back!

As I've said, August Kleinzahler's kneecapping of The Poem of a Life in the London Review of Books some weeks back has become little more than an ugly memory (as one friend puts it, "who cares what a grumpy old poet thinks about a cranky old poet?"). Still, it's nice to see Charles Bernstein weighing in in the letters column of the latest LRB:
Is the ‘L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E’ to which August Kleinzahler refers in his piece on Louis Zukofsky (LRB, 22 May) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine Bruce Andrews and I edited from 1978 to 1981? Probably not, since his description of our work and relation to Zukofsky does not fit. And is it ‘A’, Zukofsky’s best-known work, that Kleinzahler has in mind when he refers to A? Probably not, since his review misses the delight it provides to ear, eye and intellect. In the 165 small-format pages allotted for the Library of America edition of Zukofsky’s Selected Poems, I endeavoured to present all aspects of the poet’s work. I wonder why Kleinzahler feels Zukofsky’s work would be better served by someone who, like himself, appreciates only a small part of it? Isn’t that the kind of appropriation for which he scolds me?
You go, Charles! 

I guess it only makes sense: if you assign a biography to a reviewer who just plain doesn't like the work of the poet under discussion (and, I'd guess, the poet himself), & who's got a whole buttload of grudges against his contemporaries who value said biographical subject, then that reviewer's unlikely to produce a very well-balanced assessment of the book in front of him.

(Thanks to Vance for drawing my attention to this, away from the endless annotated promotion tables & charts...)

Daniel Bouchard: Sound Swarms & Other Poems

I feel a bit like a condemned man at the moment; at the end of the week, we're leaving town for a full seven weeks. It's not that I don't like to travel, it's just that I don't like to leave home. I can bitch a blue streak about south Florida's cultural wasteland, unbearable heat, horrible traffic, oafish inhabitants, etc. – but when it comes right down to it I'm awfully reluctant to leave my books & CDs & musical instruments behind for more than a few days. Home is where your stuff is. We'll be in New York for pretty much all of July (any New Yorkers want to hook up, I've got time on my hands...), during which time I'll manage to plan my fall courses & finish the last of the dithery paperwork associated with this promotion business. And write a few things I've promised to various editors. (I've pretty much given up the plan for knocking out a 6-week brief book on "Biography: Theory and Practice" over the summer.)
Sound Swarms & Other Poems, Daniel Bouchard (Slack Buddha Press/La Perruque Editions, 2004)


What sticks in my mind from the poems in this chapbook of Daniel Bouchard's is a kind of wonderful serene thoughtfulness that places in lyric suspension the minute particulars of nature – some very keenly observed birds here, & a good deal of weather – & the human environment of roads, houses, & familial relationships. The last 3 poems – "Some Mountains Removed," "Sound Swarms," & "The Fancy Memory" (walk-ons by William Blake – "get your damn feet off the sofa" – FDR, & Abraham Lincoln) propose, in a quietly surrealist idiom, an entire theory of the relations between vision (poetic, political) & power. "I asked Lincoln how he felt about being called 'Captain.'"

Sunday, June 22, 2008

introducing literary studies

I've a decent amount of trepidation about the "Intro to Lit Studies" course I mentioned in the last post. It's a fairly new course, so there's not a particularly deep history within the department of how to teach it, what to do & what its aims are. The course description in the catalogue is a committee-composed camel: all it specifies is that we're to introduce 'em to the 3 genres (which of course leaves out the whole range of nonfiction – including its crown jewel, biography – tho one of my colleagues, bless her heart, is doing nonfiction anyway) & throw at least 2 or 3 "critical methods" at them.

Well, my goodness, as Archie Ammons used to say. That's more than just a little to cover, & of course there's massive overlap with what other courses in our major are doing. I don't think – though I'm not sure of this – that it's possible to get thru our English major without doing at least two of the big three genres; & our students are already required to take a "critical theory" course in which they get a guided tour of postwar literary theories. I'd rather not give them another potted summary of theory (tho there's no harm in getting them used to at least the names of various critical approaches), especially when what's most sorely needed, so far as I can tell, is an acquaintance with the expectations of various genres, a knowledge of the "textual condition" of literature in general, & the beginnings of the ability to historically contextualize texts from other eras.

So – with no small degree of fear & trembling – I've opted for the minimal approach: three "primary" texts, & three texts only. Wuthering Heights, Macbeth, & Lyrical Ballads. Ultracanonical works; nice, heavily annotated, massively contextualized editions (Norton, Bedford, New Riverside); probably some sort of secondary text giving an overview of critical approaches (Bennett & Royle's Introduction to Literature, Criticism & Theory on my desk at the moment, tho I welcome other suggestions); & a slow dogged, recursive working-thru of each book, letting the critical / textual / historical issues emerge more or less "organically."

We'll see what happens come the fall. This space may become a regular arena for anguished howls of frustration.

Wordsworth & Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads

Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New Riverside Editions, 2002)


I've almost certainly read all the poems in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, some of them many times indeed, but this is the first time I've read them straight thru in the order of their first, anonymous collection, as presented in this handy New Riverside Edition edited by William Richey & Daniel Robinson (it also includes about 300 pages of background materials & contemporary critical reactions). I think I'll be using this book for an "Introduction to Literary Studies" course this fall, so expect ongoing comments on the editing, its strengths & shortcomings. For the nonce, however, I get a "Tintern Abbey"-like sensation of pleasurable homecoming at returning to these poems. Consider me a wholly uncloseted Wordsworth fan, as much for the (mawkish?) ballads as for the personal, pseudo-philosophical blank verse things.

Joel Felix: Monaural

Monaural, Joel Felix (Answer Tag Home Press, 2007)


This chapbook of poem & drawings (very fine ones, by Wallace Whitney), out of the Chicago-based Answer Tag Home Press,* is in what I believe is known as an "accordion" binding, where a couple of sheets of paper are folded again & again to make successive pages. It's a thing of beauty to hold, & look at. And, one might add, to read & re-read. "Monaural" is, as JF explains, "a single output from multiple inputs," & I'm impressed & amused by the sensibility that will splice together ancient Roman epitaphs, the results of a children's questionnaire on the afterlife, & the Blues Brothers (of all things). Expansive but lapidary.

*Obviously, judging by the number of books I'm reading from such presses as Answer Tag Home & Flood Editions, I'm still living on things fallen in my lap from last month's visit to Spertus in Chicago. (As well as trying to clear the cholesterol from my veins from the cookouts arranged by Los Hermanos O'Leary...) Consider it an extended shout-out to my homies in Chicagoland. 

Saturday, June 21, 2008

John Tipton: Four Fables

Four Fables, John Tipton (Answer Tag Home Press, 2007)


4 poems on ancient themes in this very brief, very beautifully-produced chapbook. "Medea" & "Ajax," sonnets in 7-word lines that update their subjects Christopher Logueishly, bookend. In between are "The Mark," spoken in the voice of Cain, & "Chased," a gripping bit of Herodotus. Tipton's prosody gets sparer & sparer, & his voice more & more resonant.
Reading Tipton's version of Sophocles' Ajax gave me a jones for Greek tragedy, which I haven't read at all seriously since undergraduate days. And eBay furnished me with a mint-condition box of the 4 volumes of the Grene/Lattimore Complete Greek Tragedy. Just read Agamemnon, & can confess only astonishment & creeped-out delight. This might be the side-reading project of the fall semester.

William Bronk: Manifest; And Furthermore

Manifest; And Furthermore, William Bronk (North Point, 1987)


This may be my favorite of the Bronk books I've read so far. Okay, sure, it's still obsessed with the "big" questions of the meaning of life (meaningless), the reality of the world (indeterminable), the place of humanity (an infinitesimal specklet); and he's still given to positing it all in terms of a "we" that I instinctively draw back from (we who?, Mr Bronk, I keep saying). But there's a coy humor & a variety of voice in the poems of Manifest thatseem to fade from WB's later volumes, & even – mirabile dictu – the intimation of other human beings, as if the whole exercise might be part of a dialogue or conversation, rather than heroic & despairing Bronkisms uttered in the face of the unechoing void. In "Manner of Speaking" –
So much of what we say is, as we say,
a way to say it. Those not content with that
may begin to believe what is said. Even, at times,
the speakers do. Better is what they should know.
– one even gets a taste of the inimitable wisdoms of that diminutive Zen master Yoda.
Blogging my way thru 100 poem-books is really a pretty damned arbitrary exercise, no? But it's turning out to be rather more fun that I thought it would be. Trying to avoid obiter dicta & blurbisms (with varying success): perhaps merely reading notes to myself, in the end.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Elizabeth Arnold: Civilization

Civilization, Elizabeth Arnold (Flood Editions, 2006)


The classics are everywhere these days. (In my parents' house, I took down from Dad's shelves CM Bowra's The Greek Experience, consicous again of what a foreign country Greek & Latin culture is to me.) Elizabeth Arnold flirts with the classics – a bit of Archilochos & Apollonius, various archaeological digs & Mediterranean landscapes – & juxtaposes those fragments of a lost world with the crumbling edifice of individual human memory: of a father in a nursing home, sliding down the long, painfully gradual incline into complete amnesia. Civilization itself is really no more than group memory, jealously guarded, fought for & passed down. Memory, individual & collective, what makes us human. Perhaps it's just me – the sadness of these precise, careful poems is almost too much to bear.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stephen Vincent: Walking Theory

Feeling rather old these days, for various reasons. We had something of a going-away dinner for a dear colleague last night, a chap who's off to a rather fantastic job at a highly-ranked Texas university, & the course of conversation revealed that he's a solid four years younger than I am – I who seem mired in a kind of career & intellectual doldrums at the moment. The maddeningly finical business of pulling together paperwork for the promotion process doesn't help matters. Did I actually teach that course? What was I thinking? (No wonder the evaluations are so dreadful!) And looking back over things I wrote 6 or 7 years ago too often gives me the sense that hey, I used to write (& think) pretty well – what the hell happened?

Notables: Michael Heller has just published his collected writings on George Oppen (just in time for the Oppen Centenary) with the excellent Salt Publishing. Speaking the Estranged: Essays on the Work of George Oppen is going to be an indispensable collection on Oppen, John to Zukofsky's Paul (or Paul to Zukofsky's John, hell I don't know – tho I do know who's Ringo) of the Objectivists. Go thou & read.

Jerome Rothenberg, one of the central poets & anthologists of the last century, is still hard at it, now with a blog – Poems and Poetics – that republishes hard-to-find texts of his own, as well as – we're promised – various new works. Tasty stuff up there already.
Walking Theory, Stephen Vincent (Junction Press, 2007)


When I was in Ithaca, & later when I was in suburban Virginia, I used to take seemingly endless, aimless walks – a clearly or focusing of the mind, a leaving-behind of the problems on my desk to immerse myself in the atmosphere of outside, & in a steady physical rhythm. The South Florida heat, a full-time job, & 2 small children have largely put an end to that habit, but Stephen Vincent's Walking Theory makes me hanker to strap on the New Balances & head out in no direction in particular.

The "walk poem" is something of a subgenre all its own, as my old Cornell pal Roger Gilbert explored in his Walks in the World. For a lot of people, AR Ammons's "Corson's Inlet" is the epitome of the species, but I've always thought of Zukofsky's "A"-13, with its stroll along the Brooklyn Promenade, conversation between LZ 7 his son interspersed with all manner of current events, concrete observations, & the general kitchen-sink bolus of cultural materials that Zukofsky brings to bear on the quotidian. Stephen Vincent's walk-poems lean more towards the Zukofskyan than the Ammonsesque end of the spectrum, but they're more rooted in his surroundings, more alive to the immediate impressions around him than the myopic, astygmatic LZ ever was: "site/sight" is a repeated mantra here. Astonishingly how capacious the walk becomes in Vincent's poetics, capable of being the vehicle for celebration, for painful elegy, for painful rumination. Impressively human poetry. Somebody I'd enjoy taking a walk with.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Anthony Barnett: Poem About Music

A couple of things well worth reading: Peter O'Leary's beautifully researched & balanced essay on the making of the "'Objectivists' 1931" issue of Poetry magazine, on the Poetry Foundation's website: this will be the definitive account for some time to come. And for the strangely melancholy occasion that is Father's Day, an essay in The American Scholar by Jim McConkey – an old Cornell acquaintance of mine who carries on the EB White tradition of graceful essayism – on the uncertainties of fatherhood.
Poem About Music, Anthony Barnett (Burning Deck, 1974)


Altho I have a handful of his books, I know little about Anthony Barnett. He seems to have been instrumental in promoting – or introducing – Zukofsky's work to the French poets back in the day (the first page of Poem About Music, I'm convinced, is a nod to LZ); he published Prynne, & the collected poems of Veronica Forrest-Thomson; he's a jazz violin aficionado, & runs a jazz fiddle (& poetry) website which is one of the very few sites that Paul Zukofsky's record label site links to. Poem About Music is a long poem with very few words, sometimes only one word to a page; & many of those words aren't Barnett's but Charles Olson or Charles Montagu Doughty's. The Doughty, at least, gives long stretches of the poem – if one can speak of "long stretches" in a work this delicate & evanescent – a somewhat archaic, "literary" flavor. The whole thing reminds me strongly of early John Taggart or mid-period Theodore Enslin: the pursuit, at all cost, of the poem as literal music.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lisa Jarnot: Night Scenes

Night Scenes, Lisa Jarnot (Flood Editions, 2008)


Ever notice how rare it is these dark days to come upon a book of really happy poems? I get a sense from Night Scenes that Lisa Jarnot is at a really good place in her life, & the poems that have resulted – some of them rhymed, some sonnets, a few oulipian procedural things, an "imitation" or two – make me really happy, make me smile. Her afterword – nodding to three of the best of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Willis, Lee Ann Brown, & Jennifer Moxley – makes it clear that Night Scenes is out to recapture some of that early joy & excitement in poetry that I for one sometimes feel I've lost. And it's a success.
Possibly related moments of recent poetic delight: P. (aet. 6), at J.'s instigation, reciting snatches of Stein's The World Is Round; Peter O'Leary reading – with relish – Ginsberg's autumnal ode to his sphincter.

Christopher Middleton: The Tenor on Horseback

The Tenor on Horseback, Christopher Middleton (Sheep Meadow, 2007)


Everything I said about CM the other day – particularly the part about his just getting better & better – still applies. Tenor is a somewhat less hefty collection than Tankard Cat – considerably shorter, many of the poems more ostensibly "slight" – a number of them almost "found" bits of dialogue, short observations, or anecdotes. But the poem-by-poem density of language & sharpness of thought is very high indeed. The title piece is of all things a meditation on theodicy, the problem of existence & of human suffering; it's an amazing performance, a perfect thing of its kind.

Friday, June 13, 2008

William Fuller: Watchword

Watchword, William Fuller (Flood Editions, 2006)


Damn, William Fuller is one weird, fascinating poet. My own tendency is towards the musical, the lyrical, whether in the complex, baroque musics of Bunting, the bare dissonances of Zukofsky, or the super-lush organ-tones of Ronald Johnson, Swinburne, or Milton. Fuller's poems are so dissonant that I want to call them not just alyrical, but anti-lyrical. Nonetheless, for all their syntactic dead ends, their strange & abrupt shifts of register, their abstractions resting cheek-by-jowl with their vivid images – or perhaps because of all those things – the poems of Watchword are as imperatively readable – that is, they force you to read, & read on, & read again – as anything I've opened in the last year. I find this stuff hard to describe: maybe imagine Thomas Traherne crossed with some 17th-century philosopher, crossed with a particularly eloquent writer of legal briefs – but with an extraordinarily loose sense of syntax, & a keen eye for the visible & invisible worlds.

back; chris cheek: The Church – The School – The Beer

So I'm back from a long week in God's Country, in heat somewhat hotter tho less humid than Florida's, tending to not particularly fun familiar business. As always when I'm staying in the old homeplace, I find myself pawing thru my Dad's shelves & taking things down (& back here). This time around, I found myself engrossed in CM Bowra's The Greek Experience & a crunky 1940s-era biography of Freud. Also reread Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, which I must have gone thru a dozen times in childhood. It still reads well; funny, I didn't remember all the Christianity, which now slaps me across the face. And read thru a bunch of volumes of poetry, which I'll try to blog over the next few days.
The Church – The School – The Beer, chris cheek (Plantarchy, 2007)


The method by which these transcribed talk pieces were produced is almost too complex to go into. chris cheek spent an hour a day walking around downtown Norwich in a nice gray suit, talking into a hand-held CB radio transmitter while listening to various texts piped into his earphones; simultaneously, he was being filmed from across the street, where auditors could listen to his live transmissions & watch a video feed. (There's much more, which I won't even try to describe...) At any rate, the published transcriptions – no doubt a pale shadow of the several-ring media circus this project was – a wonderful mingling of overheard conversation, sociological speculations, immediate observations, & sheer rambling, are a wonderful read. No-one composes on his feet like chris cheek does. Is it "poetry"? Who the hell cares.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tom Pickard: Ballad of Jamie Allan

Ballad of Jamie Allan, Tom Pickard (Flood Editions, 2007)


I've always cherished & respected Tom Pickard as the young chap who jump-started the elderly Basil Bunting's career, but I've always felt that there was an element of special pleading in the Baz's extravagant praise of Pickard's early work. Some of it, it's true, was a wonderful kind of drug-era updating of the Northern ballad tradition; a lot of it just didn't move me. The recent run of Flood Editions Pickard titles – a new & selected poems, The Dark Months of May, & now Ballad of Jamie Allan – have changed my mind: count me in with Bunting's shade as a full-fledged Pickard booster. Jamie Allan is really quite wonderful: the reconstruction of the life of an 18th-century Northumbrian piper, horse-thief, & general ne'er-do-well, told thru a collage of legal documents, newspaper reports, impressionistic 1st-person lyrics, and wonderful ballads. It's a mixture that constantly seems on the verge of falling apart into scrapbookery, but which miraculously hangs together, & rings in the mind afterwards.

Elizabeth Robinson: Apostrophe

So, back from Chicago this afternoon – a lovely time with old friends, a high degree of meat consumption, some very satisfying mandolin-strumming, & even some talk about poetry – just in time to leave tomorrow afternoon for Tennessee (ie, God's Country). There may be a weekish hiatus in the blog, not that anyone's on the edge of their seat.
Apostrophe, Elizabeth Robinson (Apogee, 2006)


Robinson is prolific – I know I've read several of her books & chapbooks, there are at least a half-dozen I've never laid eyes on. I suppose for me one of the most compelling elements in the 2 or 3 generations of poets that have come in the wake of Language Poetry has been the attempt to reinvent the religious poem, the poem addressing the numinous. (Cf. the "Apex of the M" phenomenon, and maybe that's one of the big things at stake somehow in the celebrated Watten/Duncan dustup of 1978.) Robinson does it as compellingly as anyone I know. The poems of Apostrophe seem to breathe a kind of oblique faith, an openness to the divine less Christian or even Buddhist than simply, delicately gnostic. Few big gestures here – an unruffled surface of language chosen with almost obsessive care – but very lovely nonetheless.