Monday, October 27, 2008

"weft" settled (for jg)

A few weeks back I was kvetching in my tedious way about classroom editions of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (more specifically, about editions of the 1798 "Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"), with especial scorn meted out to Paul Fry's 1999 Bedford/St. Martin's "Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism" edition, in which Fry managed in his introduction to misremember practically all the details of a famous anecdote that is quoted in full in one of the essays, & to introduce a bunch of revised lines into the text of the poem as additions, thereby throwing off the line numbering.

And I mused on competing annotations for "weft" in the stanza
The Sun came up upon the right,
Out of the sea came he;
And broad as a weft upon the left
Went down into the sea.

Fry writes, "weft: Threads carried by a shuttle across the warp," while Richey & Robinson [of the New Riverside Editions Lyrical Ballads] give us "weft: a large flag used on ships for signaling distress."
I gave this one to Fry, with the proviso that I didn't have my copy of John Livingston Lowes's The Road to Xanadu on hand. Well – I guess I wrote too soon. (Still haven't found either of my copies of Road, by the way; one of the girls must have eaten them. The library copy, heaven knows, is half-eaten.) Lowes, whose book (published in 1927, mind you) tracks down the source of practically every word in the "Rime" & "Kubla Khan," has no fewer than nine pages on "weft," & makes it abundantly clear that the word, which STC could have come upon from any number of sources in any variety of forms (waffe, weffe, waif, waift, whiff, whift, wheft, wave, waft, weft), must be taken in the nautical distress sense.

So the next question: how did Paul Fry (William Lampson Professor of English and Master of Ezra Stiles College at Yale University) manage to so howlingly mis-gloss the word, when he had a voluminous commentary at hand in one of the foundational texts of Coleridge criticism? Let's face it, "Threads carried by a shuttle across the warp," which reads like the first definition of "weft" in a standard college dictionary, just doesn't cut it when you're annotating an 18th-century poem.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jay Wright: Music's Mask and Measure

Music's Mask and Measure, Jay Wright (Flood Editions, 2007)


I remember listening to the Zero Mostelish Harold Bloom pontificate away on some DC-area talk radio show (Diane Rehm?) a million years ago – it must have been in support of The Western Canon, perhaps his last book to show any trace of critical intellect. Even then, of course, he was deep into his Stanislavskian imitation of Samuel Johnson & was heading full speed into his current mode of "quote-and-dote" (Terry Eagleton's term) "criticism." But as he launched into a bitter (& frankly tired) assault on the "schools of resentment," I had one of those stopped-clock-tells-the-right-time-at-least-twice-a-day moments: yes, I found myself agreeing, Jay Wright is an incredibly good poet, and there aren't nearly enough people saying so.

Music's Mask and Measure is perhaps the most spare book of Wright's I've read. A series of short – mostly 5- and 6-line pieces disposed over 5 "equations," largely bare of proper names or specifiable reference. It's clear these are poems about music, and poems about dance: the "mask" is both a carnivalesque concealment & a stately entertainment. The "equations," tho the drawings that head each section gesture towards African petroglyphs, would seem to refer back to Pythagorean number/musical lore. But what's the use? – I can't honestly say precisely what these poems are "about" (other than their own stately, nimble music), or what they "say" (other than their own stately, nimble music). Their syntax is simple, straightforward, their vocabulary precise & only occasionally recondite; but their reference is so oblique, so attenuated, that this bear of very little brain finds himself much at sea. Which is ultimately quite alright: it's the careful, sturdy, & surprising music that carries these poems past the point of mystery into a place of restrained & refined jouissance, or the moment just before, prolonged thru 50-odd pages of measured lyricism.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ashbery/Brainard: The Vermont Notebook

The Vermont Notebook, John Ashbery with Joe Brainard (1975; in Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956-1987, Library of America, 2008)


One of the grand old hold-outs, the Library of America has finally shifted over to a matte finish for their dust jackets; now only the author's name ("Calligraphy by Gun Larson") and the tricolor band remain in the traditional high-gloss finish. End of an era; oh well, I thought that when they started using full-color author portraits, as well. Nice to have 30+ years of Ashbery in one brick volume (happy birthday to me – thanks, Stephanie), tho something just feels wrong about his making it into the series before Dickinson, Moore, WCW, Oppen – well, we won't go on with names, will we? Wouldn't mind a Joel Barlow volume, either.

I don't know the back story on The Vermont Notebook. It feels like a vacation fancy, a fun collaboration between the poet (JA) & the illustrator (Joe Brainard), setting Brainard's sketchy monochrome copies of photos in counterpoint to all manner of Ashbery ramblings: lists of products, shops, proper names, elements of the townscape; Steinian exercises in repetitive prose; reproduced magazine copy; even a real live poem or two. Pleasantly diverting, all in all – tho I'm sure I'm not the only one to bemoan the LOA's bible paper in this case: even tho the Brainard drawings are reproduced (well) in gray, they glare thru the recto of every bloody page.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Alan Halsey: Not Everything Remotely

Not Everything Remotely: Selected Poems 1978-2005, Alan Halsey (Salt, 2006)


One I confess I've been lingering over for a long time, reading slowly & recursively, dipping in & about, alternately fascinated, baffled, seized with hilarity, always delighted. Stevens: "poetry is the scholar's art"; Coleridge's figure of himself (taken up by Susan Howe) as a "library-cormorant." Halsey, "specialist bookseller," deep scholar of the Romantics, editor of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, revises the terms: poetry is the bookman's art. Not Everything Remotely is a core sample (coeur simple?) of 27 years' worth of little and big collections from one of the 5 or 6 poets whose work I'll buy immediately on sight, no questions asked, without bothering to open the book or read the blurbs. Halsey's poems – & they come in such variety, from very straightforward, personal-voice addresses to the most recondite word salads – are like a dense portable anthology from a rich & complex literary canon that simultaneous overlaps with but is fundamentally shifted or twisted from the recognizable "canon" – from Linear B to JH Prynne. A marvelous "fake book" – fake errata sheets, fake pre-Sokratic fragments, fake emblems, fake dictionary entries – all at once wryly high-spirited, revelling in in-jokes & outrageous japes, & serious as a heart attack (a hart, a tack). The bones of English culture sea-changed into "something [Bridget Jones writes] v. v. rich, v. v. strange."And of course the unavoidable, undeniable question: "Who doesn't sometimes / need an hour when there's no / evading Swinburne?"

Saturday, October 11, 2008

new poems in Marsh Hawk Review

The rather excellent Marsh Hawk Press collective has launched a new webjournal, under the revolving editorship of its various members. The inaugural issue is now up, featuring new work by 19 fine poets – among whose names I won't pick & choose, since they're all so cool – one of whom is yr humble blogger. Three pieces from the last half-decade: "Arena," "Mystic Seaport," and "Oliver Cromwell." Do read.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wordsworth on biography

Poetry is the image of man and nature. The obstacles which stand in the way of the fidelity of the Biographer and Historian, and of their consequent utility, are incalculably greater than those which are to be encountered by the Poet, who has an adequate notion of the dignity of his art. The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, that of the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer or a natural philosopher, but as a Man. Except this one restriction, there is no object standing between the Poet and the image of things; between this, and the Biographer and Historian there are a thousand.

Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802
Rereading William Fuller's Watchword; wondering if Fuller isn't the closest US poetry has to JH Prynne. Fuller's poems aren't as dense, as impactedly curious as Prynne's – not by a long shot – but they have a kind of crosscutting of lexis & range of reference that reminds me very much at times of JHP's. A sort of "ventilated" Prynne, opened up to rhetorical gestures & lyricisms that are far more foreshortened in JHP's own work?
How much of the current success of the Obama/Biden ticket can one put down to canny marketing? That big "O" logo, for instance (as I'm reminded by Daily Kos), is a brilliant piece of design. Check out the witty variations on the O tailored for 23 – count 'em, twenty-three – different subgroups of potential Obama supporters.
The most surprising birthday present last week was an appearance in the "Issue 1" anthology, along with 1499 other poets, non-poets, & bits of nominal internet gibberish. Here's "my" poem (p. 1135), which I rather like, & will be adopting (or at least cannibalizing):
Like white hints
Like honest phrases
Like right years

There he might be a method even
though he thumbs like a phrase
In early spring
he scrawls her
This current may lose and glance, but
it is bitterly white
He is white
Because of everything that
is luminous
Seeing like a cover
the clean writings, lost by
a fair note,

Monday, October 06, 2008

editors asleep etc.

Wearying minutiae – I continue reading "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (or "Ancyent Marinere") a book in each hand: in one, my course text, William Richey & Daniel Robinson's New Riverside Edition of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads (Houghton Mifflin 2002), in the other, Paul H. Fry's Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (Bedford/St. Martin's 1999). Noting with amusement divergent editorial glosses. Of
The Sun came up upon the right,
Out of the sea came he;
And broad as a weft upon the left
Went down into the sea
Fry writes, "weft: Threads carried by a shuttle across the warp," while Richey & Robinson give us "weft: a large flag used on ships for signaling distress." 

On balance, I'd have to hand this to Fry: while "weft" in the nautical sense is indeed archaic, STC's language in the 1798 "Marinere" is studded with archaisms; but while the 11th Brittanica confirms "weft" as a distress flag, there's nothing about it necessarily being "large" – indeed, what makes a flag a "weft" is that it's knotted in the middle. So the weaving image seems more probable to me. (Obviously, my copy of The Road to Xanadu, which probably clears all this up, is in the office.)

But here's something truly irritating: in a edition like these – intended for undergraduate classroom use, obviously – the poem texts ought to be as reliable  & straightforward as possible, & their provenance (their "copy texts") ought to clearly signalled. Richey & Robinson are pretty good at this: in keeping with their goal of providing student with a straightforward reading text of the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, they give us the 1798 Bristol "Rime of the Ancyent Marinere," & in an appendix they give us the 1817 Sybilline Leaves "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Fry's a little more ambitious: while he doesn't go so far as Martin Wallen's Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner." An Experimental Edition of Texts and Revisions 1798-1828 (Station Hill, 1993), a multi-tiered edition indebted to Jerome McGann's editorial theory, Fry gives us facing page texts of the 1798 "Marinere" & the 1817 "Mariner," which is handy indeed for thinking about the differences the added marginal glosses & the de-archaicized language make in Coleridge's poem.

But as I trundled thru the poem, comparing the editorial glosses of Richey/Robinson's 1798 text to Fry's 1798, I suddenly realized that the line numbers were out of sync: Fry had somewhere added 14 lines to the poem, so that his 1798 text ends at line 672, while R/R's ends at line 658. Here's the difference: in Part III of Fry, one finds this:

Are those her naked ribs, which fleck'd
The sun that did behind them peer?
And are those two all, all the crew,
That woman and her fleshless Pheere?
And those her ribs, which fleck'd the Sun,
Like the bars of a dungeon grate?
And are these two all, all the crew
That woman and her Mate?

This Ship, it was a plankless Thing,
A rare Anatomy!
A plankless Spectre – and it mov'd
Like a Being of the Sea!
The Woman and a fleshless Man
Therein sate merrily.
His bones were black with many a crack (etc.)

Fry gives no indication of where he got that first indented (Fry's indentation) stanza (tho it's obviously a revision of the stanza it follows); the latter 6-line stanza is footnoted thus: "Lines 185-90 were first published in 1912, but Coleridge had wanted them inserted in LB 1800." (The remaining 4 of Fry's additional 14 lines are found towards the end of Part VI, where he inserts – as an additional stanza – a revision that STC had pencilled into a copy of the 1798 LB.)

All I can say, frankly, is WTF?? If you're giving us – us being undergraduates – a "clean" text of the 1798 "Marinere," why in the world are you dithering with post-1798 revisions? More specifically, why are you inserting them into the text of the poem, rather than noting them in footnotes? And why are you letting them bollox up the line numbering, so that the Bedford/St. Martin's line numbers of the 1798 "Rime" now differ from every other edition of the poem on the market?

And where does it stop, short of a variorum? Jack Stillinger claims that STC produced no fewer than 18 different versions of the poem. Why not just settle on 2 – the 1798 & the 1817 – present them cleanly, & draw attention to your favorite revisions & variations in the footnotes?
All this line-grubbing an indication of just what a sad funless bastard I am these days. J. & the kids off this afternoon to wave posters & shout at passing motorists while Sarah Cheney – er, Palin – visits Boca today to raise money for McBush.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

editors asleep at the wheel, pt. 437

Paul H. Fry is William Lampson Professor of English at Yale, & author of at least 4 books on English poetry & criticism. He's also editor of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999). I'm not teaching from this text this semester (for the record, I'm using William Richey & Daniel Robinson's New Riverside Edition of Lyrical Ballads), but I was casting my eyes over the various essays & introductions over the weekend, only to be arrested by this from Fry's opening chapter on "Biographical and Historical Contexts":
Anna Letitia Barbauld, in a famous exchange recorded in Coleridge's Table Talk, complained that the "Rime" "has no moral".... Coleridge's snappy response to Mrs. Barbauld was that there was too much moral, and then he compared the poem unfavorably in this respect with the tale from the Arabian Nights in which a merchant is subjected to an excruciating penance for having thrown a date pit over a wall and accidentally killed the son of a genie. (22-3)
So Fry's an old hand at Romantic poetry, & this is indeed a famous anecdote – so famous that even I've heard it. But there comes  a point when paraphrasing from memory is tantamount to just plain faking it. For god's sake, Fry could at least have re-read the Frances Ferguson essay he includes in his own collection, which quotes the actual anedote:
Mrs. Barbauld once told me that she admired the Ancient Mariner very much, but that there were two faults in it, – it was improbable, and had no moral. As for the probability, I owned that that might admit some question; but as to the want of a moral, I told her that in my own judgment the poem had too much; and that the only or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. It ought to have had no more moral the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a geni starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date-shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the geni's son.
Exercise: correlate the two accounts & add up Fry's misremembered details. [FOUR, by my count, in a single sentence.] Pronounce on the fitness to carry out editorial work – on an edition intended for undergraduate students of literature & theory – of an editor who commits so many easily corrected gaffes in his opening summary.

I will spare the rant – who edits these things? where was Ross Murfin (series editor) when this thing went thru proofs? who's at the wheel of these ubiquitous "teaching editions"??
Fry does point me towards a sentence by my critical darling William Empson, who sums up the poem's ostensible "moral" in his inimitably pithy way: "don't pull poor pussy's tail."

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

literary history: probably not possible

I've lost track of precisely how far we're into the semester; I just know that I'm generally overwhelmed & sleep-deprived & behind on just about everything. Blogging, obviously, has almost entirely fallen by the wayside.
Saddened to learn of the death of Hayden Carruth. I didn't know his poetry well, tho there were some of his mid-length narrative things that I found rather moving, but I remember his giving a reading in the chapel at Ithaca College some twenty years ago which began with an astonishingly sensitive rendition of Pound's "The Return," a reading which made the poem come literally alive. It seemed a wonderfully generous gesture.
Some excellent comments on that last "literary history" post, however. People pointing me towards books I hadn't thought about, or had forgotten I'd read: Michael Davidson on the San Francisco Renaissance, Alan Golding on the formation of the postmodernist "canon," Robert Von Hallberg's really very excellent half of a volume of the Cambridge History of American Literature (I imagine I'm one of maybe four people in the country who actually own that book, given CUP's monstrous prices), Jed Rasula's volumes. 

Johannes Göransson drew attention to the post over at Exoskeleton, where there were a couple of useful comments, including Jordan's: 
A general literary history is at least as desirable as a general anthology, which is to say about a 6 on the hotness scale.

A well-written highly-partisan clearly-bracketed literary history would require no intoxicants, aphrodisiacs, rationalizations, etc.
Perkins's History of Modern Poetry, for all its 1200-page scope, ends up in the "general literary history" category, & for me barely scores a 3 on the "hotness scale." I suppose the problem is comprehensiveness – that Perkins is trying to write about almost everything, in order to present some sort of global history of 20th-c. poetry. He ends up presenting potted career summaries of heaven knows how many poets, but ultimately there's little sense of larger shifts in the art, how one community of poets relates to another. One sentence for Jeremy Prynne (whose biography I will not be writing), shoved up against two sentences on Christopher Middleton (so that the 2 Middleton poems mentioned  – but not quoted – end up being indexed as Prynne's).

But I wouldn't be writing Perkins again; I think I'd definitely shoot for Jordan's "well-written highly-partisan clearly-bracketed literary history," with the emphasis on "well-written" & "highly-partisan." (The only books worth reading, ultimately, are w-w & h-p.) But then I think of Eric's thoughtful comment:
Maybe one reason there's no such book yet lies in the lack of an audience--or, at least, a recognized, institutional audience--for it? [Alex] Ross has a "general reader" in mind; so does Kenner; haven't most publishers given up on that for books on poetry, other than perhaps books on poets?

That leaves poets, profs, and grad students--all of whom might be expected to prefer the more tightly (or restrictively) focused books that do exist. Yes? Or am I looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope?
Sadly enough,  I think Eric's right. (By the way, check out the badass profile photo on his blog – and kid him about it.) Maybe, heaven help me, I should consider reinserting myself into actual academic discourse, & throw over this hopeless pining for more than 50 readers.
So I joined this informal CD "mix" club last year, where everybody contributes a mix every month. And it's showing me precisely how out of touch I am (not that I need reminding of advancing age, given the grim date approaching this Friday [my birthday, that is]). But here's the mix:
The Damage Manual: Sunset Gun
Naked City: Piledriver
Mekons: I'm Not Here (1967)
Naked City: Thrash Jazz Assassin
New Model Army: Here Comes the War
John Zorn: The Violent Death of Dutch Schultz
Bill Laswell: Upright Man
Painkiller: Warhead
Mekons: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem
Eliza Carthy: Blind Fiddler
Gang of Four: Damaged Goods
Bruce Springsteen: O Mary Don't You Weep
Oysterband: Jam Tomorrow
Painkiller: Skinned
Motörhead: Orgasmatron
Naked City: Perfume of a Critic's Burning Flesh
Public Image Ltd.: Rise
Last Exit: Last Call
Art Bears: FREEDOM
Naked City: Jazz Snob Eat Shit
Naked City: Pigfucker
John Zorn: White Zombie
Oysterband: The World Turned Upside Down
Music to take to the polls.