Sunday, September 21, 2008

Literary History: is it possible?

So I've been thinking about literary history – not the history of literature itself (which I'm thinking about all the time, really), but the genre of literary history: you know, those kinds of books nobody seems to write anymore, the "Story of English Literature" or the "Panorama of American Letters." Just finished David Perkins's Is Literary History Possible? (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992). Perkins's conclusion is that LH is simultaneously impossible and necessary: impossible to write with anything like historical fidelity and interpretive/explanatory power, yet necessary for us to make any sense whatsoever of past writings – any sense beyond immediate subjective reactions or ideological appropriations.

This of course after Perkins had just finished his massive (I mean big – maybe 1300 pages) 2-volume History of Modern Poetry, which I'm also winding up, after reading maybe 20 pages at a stretch over the last 15 years. So there's a sense of post-praxis theoretical summing-up in Is Literary History Possible?, that the guy's just finished devoting heaven knows how many years to his big project, & is now figuring out the balance sheets on his effort. (I feel a similar brief volume on literary biography urping around Alien-like in my guts, & wonder whether I should just write the damned thing or go in for surgery.)

And I'm also reading Andrew Duncan's rich, convoluted, & often infuriating The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003), and dipping guiltily into Humphrey Carpenter's Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. And in the background is this year's probably most pleasant read: Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, a dazzling & compulsively readable anecdotal history of twentieth-century "serious" music.

Now I'm young enough & saturated enough in post-structuralism & natively cynical enough to assent to Perkins's various laments about the oversimplifications, foreshortenings, & downright shortcuttages involved in literary history (& most of them apply to biography as well, mark you). But I'm also professionally foolish enough to wonder why there aren't more folks deeply invested in twentieth-century poetry studies who want to write lively, readable, compelling histories of the genre's fortunes over the past 100 or 50 years. Am I missing something? There've been a number of quite readable accounts of modernism (the one that sticks in my mind is Julian Symons's Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature 1912-1939), but no-one's done anything similar for postwar poetry, except David Lehman's The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (which I haven't read, alas).

I'm leaving aside such scholarly studies as ML Rosenthal's The New Poets, & other thematic studies that do a bit of literary history along the way, like Paul Breslin's The Psycho-Political Muse. But why isn't someone doing for postwar avant-garde poetry what Alex Ross does for 20th-c. "classical" music?

Yes, having written a massive foray into the institutional radioactive zone of biography, now I'm casting about for a next project (or maybe an after-the-next-project project). But I'd love input: What books have you found useful as baseline histories of postwar American & British poetry? Is Lehman any good? Are you writing this book right now, so I can stop wondering & sleep better? 

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rodrigo Toscano: Platform

Been having my doubts lately about this "100 poem-books" thing. Not sure, that is, what the use-value of the project is. Notes, obviously, too short to serve as serious "reviews," always in danger of falling into mere blurb-copy, the sort of stuff the TLS editors have an ongoing column feature devoted to making fun of. The fact is, I reflect drearily, that I'm too scattered to have much of substance to say about what I'm reading. Perhaps, as a bear whose very little brain is ill-fitted for pomo multi-tasking, I should spend less time watching poll sites, listening to 5 tracks apiece from 4 different albums, reading blogs, dipping into 7 different books of lit crit, scanning a chapter of Ruskin, playing the same song 5 times in a row on 2 different guitars, checking my e-mail – you get the picture – & buckle down to the serious business of mastering contemporary poetry. (We don't have cable, by the way, because we recognize it would mean the absolute end of my intellectual life, already under siege from a stack of DVDs.) What's the good of putting up a public snapshot of my futile efforts to get with it? I.e., to work my way through what was the hottest book among the cognoscenti – four years ago?

Any way:
Platform, Rodrigo Toscano (Atelos, 2003)


A biggish book of very exciting poems. RT reinvents, revitalizes the hortatory political poem in post-Langpo idiom. That is, these rousing & very funny poems are every bit as committed to a hard-Left politics as any of the soapbox-stompers from the 1930s that Cary Nelson's written about, but Toscano's a political poet who's read & absorbed his Brecht, his Gramsci, his Frankfurt School, his Hardt & Negri. Terry Eagleton's been arguing for a decade now that "postmodernism" – & what he means by the term is so broad it's almost risible, a branch to beat whatever thinker he's dissatisfied with at the moment – is politically a failure, that the multiple ironies & cynicisms of post-70s critical discourse render their users unable to gain the firm purchase of the "real" that's necessary for meaningful political interventions. (Similar attacks have been levelled at the LangPos themselves.) RT shows that it's possible to forge a new, every exciting, & very alive political poetry precisely out of the ironies & cynicisms that have become the lingua franca of the dissolving present.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the man's a brilliant satirist, in the best Jonathan Swift-Monty Python-South Park tradition. Nobody – ardent humorless working Leftists, quietist poets, armchair academic Marxists, the whole post-avant literary establishment, & of course the phalanx of ghoulist plutocrats who run our government & economy – comes out of Platform unscathed. But it's not a self-dissolving, foundationless satire, either, but one that forces a reader to think thru her/his own position, leaves a reader uncomfortable in the best Brechtian manner.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lyn Hejinian: The Beginner

The Beginner, Lyn Hejinian (Tuumba Press, 2002)


Like the roughly contemporaneous Slowly, The Beginner is a short book from LH's own Tuumba Press. I like this one very much indeed. An extended meditation on how we start things out: how a piece of writing gets begun & evolves into itself, how children "begin" to be human beings thru various acts of "play," how we figure out where and what we are in the world. Passages of deep beauty.
There's no escape from these repeating units of incipience, these figs and catapulting confidences divulged by a world, one whose beginnings are arrayed all around and side by side.

I stand by the window, look out, and my "self" occurs, a manifestation of the world as that for which I yearn.

To be a self is simply to be something in the world and yet yearning for it.
Does this remind any else – as it does me, oddly, weirdly – of Ronald Johnson? 
I've gotten way out of sequence with this "100 poem-books" business; lots of things to dip back into the reading notebooks & catch up with.
So what's with this new SiteMeter? Anyone else out there who finds the new "improved" interface totally Martian & utterly user-unfriendly?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

John Matthias: Kedging: New Poems

Kedging: New Poems, John Matthias (Salt, 2007)


Matthias is one of the last true-blue high modernists, along with a handful of others, including Christopher Middleton & John Peck. And he's the most quotational, referential, & paratactic of the lot – in short, the most Poundian (or David Jonesian). Happily, he long ago cured himself of the Poundian-Olsonian urge to Make the World a Better Place Thru Poetry, & can turn the machinery of association to the ends of instruction (we learn lots of stuff in these poems, about lots of sometimes arcane matters) and delight – and they're lots of fun, the big "Laundry Lists and Manifestoes" & "Kedging in Time," poems that form the core of this new collection. High spirits abound, but shot thru with moments of piercing melancholia.

[A shorter note on Matthias than I'd prefer, but my full-length review of Kedging will be in the next Chicago Review.]

Joanne Kyger: Not Veracruz

Not Veracruz, Joanne Kyger (Libellum, 2007)


Three months' worth (January–March 2006) of journal poems in this slim, generously designed book. I like Kyger's laid-back, sometimes cynical California-Buddhist sensibility, her ability to pull a joyful haiku-ish exclamation out of the clearing up of a clogged septic tank. Overheard language ("the world's sole remaindered superpower"), the static surrounding everyday life, all of it shadowed & bordered by the "war on terror" & other, more concrete wars.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I have courses to teach; I have essays & reviews to write; I have poems that cry "neglect"; I have dozens of emails & letters to answer (yes, Liz, I got yours); I have 2 daughters to raise. I cannot afford to slip back & forth into glumness deeper & sharper than my usual melancholia.

In short: I've gotta stop spending hours daily watching polls & reading editorials. There are still – what? – 8 weeks of this roller-coaster to go.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

quote of the day (Orwellian version)

From a story in today's Washington Post, "As Campaign Heats Up, Untruths Can Become Facts Before They're Undone":
John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said the campaign is entering a stage in which skirmishes over the facts are less important than the dominant themes that are forming voters' opinions of the candidates.

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent," Feehery said. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."
Remember, children: "little facts" don't matter; "big truths" do.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Peter Gizzi: The Outernationale

The Outernationale, Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan UP, 2007)


Still rife with image & sound, but sparer, more tentative than Gizzi's previous volume. Notes of love, of celebration, yes, but more notes of disquiet, even despair. The syntax halts, takes a step beyond previous simplicity, not into a heightened Prynneian complexity or a Zukofskyan indeterminacy, but into incompletion, or truism. The Watts Towers, triumphant emblems of the homegrown bricoleur – focussed in their glory on the cover of Ronald Johnson's ARK – appear on Gizzi's cover at a precarious angle, brought down to earth in their scrubby context: a pickup truck, a panel van, an electrical pole, prefab buildings.
And check out Rodney Koeneke's thoughtful pokes at my last Gizzi post.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

republican demographics

Last week I watched Michelle Obama's, Hillary Clinton's, and Barack Obama's speeches at the Democratic Convention. Life is too short to spend much time with the GOP, but I just took a 10-minute break from lecture notes to catch a bit of Sarah Palin's red meat address to the Republicans. She'll make a great student body president, folks. What struck me, however, in light of contemporary American demographics, which are abundantly evident in my own classes – the Census Bureau assesses the overall American population at 68% non-Hispanic white, 15% Hispanic, 12% African American, and 5% Asian American, and projects that the non-Hispanic white population will be only 46% of the total by 2050 – is that over the 10 minutes I wasted on Palin, during 6 1/2 of which the camera trawled over the rapt and slavering faces in the packed convention hall, I saw only one African American.

Why, 5 1/2 years after we invaded that country, are so many people still unable to pronounce Iraq? Whatever the proper pronunciation may be, it's not "EYE-rack," Governor Palin.
Update: And it's not just my cynical eye, either: this morning's Washington Post has a precise count – out of 2380 delegates at the Republican Convention, a whopping 36 are African American.

Peter Gizzi: Some Values of Landscape and Weather

Some Values of Landscape and Weather, Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan UP, 2003)


A splendid extravagance of language, a brilliant eye for colors & for details, the objects/detritus/treasured things of the visible. Yes, the reinvention of the "lyric," whatever that means – or a loving caress of the body of the sensual world. A splendid extravagance of forms, as well, from reinventions of the cante jondo to love songs built on syntactic games. A far better elegy for Gregory Corso than one would expect – or than he perhaps deserves. (Yeah, go to it, Ed.)
Obviously, I've got a lot of catching up to do in this "100 poem-books" game, a lot of scattered notes from the past month or so. Entries will no doubt become shorter, as my attention finds itself diverted by, you know, classes to teach, actual assignments to write, job searches to run, etc.
So we seem to have missed the brunt of Fay, Gustav, & Hanna, tho heaven knows what Ike is up to out there. We have it's true been spared a direct hit for some years now, since Wilma in in 2005, and I'd forgotten, over the months since the last hurricane season, the whole fingernail-biting business of watching the National Hurricane Center website, trying to gauge whether or not (and when) to put up the shutters, making sure the flashlights are batteried up & the pantry is full of bottled water. An evolutionary adaptation, the ability to forget perfectly valid reasons that human beings shouldn't settled in particular parts of the world. And I'd forgotten, hoofing it all over Manhattan & Stockholm thru July and August, how dreadfully difficult it is to walk anywhere in South Florida without soaking one's clothes with sweat.