Saturday, November 29, 2008

Carolyn Forché: Gathering the Tribes

Gathering the Tribes, Carolyn Forché (Yale UP, 1976)

I've read most of Forché, backwards – 1st The Angel of History (1994) a year or 2 after it came out, then The Country Between Us (1981) maybe 3 years ago, & only now her 1st book, Gathering the Tribes. (Haven't seen the most recent – 2003 – Blue Hour.) I've found them of diminishing interest, I guess, tho I can't really muster much enthusiasm even for Angel. Gathering is very assured, intelligent writing, however: very, very good, of its kind. Stanley Kunitz's foreword leers embarrassingly, even for 1976 ("the outstanding Sapphic poem of an era").

Of course, whenever I read a book that I can sense is well-written, deeply-felt, etc. etc. by a poet from another aesthetic tradition & find myself unable to work up any sort of enthusiasm, I get all worried that I'm falling into the manicheanism that Don Share excoriates so nicely in his "little everyday fascisms" post*, referring transparently yet coyly to Ron Silliman's response to the reams of reviewery devoted to the Lowell/Bishop letters. Don makes the case rather nicely for a kind of "big tent" response to poetry, or what Eliot Weinberger calls somewhere "exogamous reading": "I know of no bookshelf," sez Don, "that can't simultaneously contain Lowell, Bishop, and the other poets mentioned above [Zukofsky, Oppen, Olson], along with Niedecker, Bunting, Pound, Eliot, Ashbery, the recently canonized Jack Spicer and dozens more."

I wonder if in my case it isn't a matter of breadth & intensity of attention, whether the enquiring faculties of my poor limited brain aren't simply scrambling for the RAM necessary to keep up a real attention to what's really consuming me at the moment (broadly defined): the five or six poets I'm supposed to be reviewing or writing essays about right now as I blog, the French Revolution, Beckett, garden history & theory, neoclassical architecture, the English Revolution, Hegel, Panofsky, etc.

Or maybe I'm just a dilettante. Hey, that's it! Any way, about 10 years ago I gave up chucking books because they didn't fit into the moment's aesthetic configuration; it always turned out that there would come a moment when I wanted just that volume, & it was gone. So until the shelves are double-full & can hold no more, or the house collapses Umberto Ecoishly, my poetry section is by default a big tent.
Hey, did I mention that I have a podcast up at the Poetry Foundation?

*Tho I find it ironical that one of his commenters sees fit to paraphrase a conversation with August Kleinzahler, perhaps the only person on earth I consider a true enemy – tho I've still got his books on my shelf.

Friday, November 28, 2008


I don't care for major holidays, for the most part. This year's Thanksgiving was okay, in large part because we went to a friend's house & I didn't have to do kitchen-y things (aside from fixing a ham, making some gravy, carving the turkey, helping with the cleanup, etc.). All pleasantly lubricated with a range of potables.

When one of the young lasses at the kids' table – not one of mine, mind you – suggested we all go around & say what we were most thankful for – things were getting really quite moving, lemme tell ya; "oohs" & "ahs" & "hear, hears," eyes being wiped, & so forth – I found myself muttering some words about family & friends & then, Leopold Bloomishly, staring at my bottle & saying, "I'm thankful Arthur Guinness began brewing at the St. James's Gate Brewery in 1759." And I am. And for lots of other things.
Like, for instance, my lovely podcast on the Poetry Foundation website, if you haven't checked it out yet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Scroggins at the Poetry Foundation!

Got a spare hour? Listen to my lecture on Louis Zukofsky, from Spertus in Chicago earlier this year, now rendered in sparkling podcast audio from the fine folks at the Poetry Foundation. Let me know what you think! (Me, I'm chuffed, tho I hate my reedy voice.)

John Zorn: Bladerunner Project

I wanna know what brand of coffee Jonathan Mayhew's drinking – I need that kind of energy. Not merely does he write books that get published by great university presses, but he's who knows how far into blogging 100 books of fiction, he's gotten thru 170-odd books of poetry in his "9000 books of poetry" project, and now he's started a project of blogging 300 of his favorite jazz albums of all time. I'm guessing he'll be thru this one by April or so.

Me, I continue crawling along at my own petty pace, trying to listen thru the "unplayed" smart playlist on my iPod. But here's something worth a listen: the Bladerunner Project, a John Zorn outfit from back in 2000, including the godlike talents of Zorn, bassist Bill Laswell, guitarist Fred Frith, and heavy metal drummer Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Fantômas, etc.). Pretty standard Zorn stuff – mostly funky, largely improvised, lots of sheer noise – but with some way cool wailing from Frith (an unfortunately rare thing) and lots of flashy funkification from Laswell. So far as I know, the lineup's never made a formal recording, but there are lots of videos on YouTube, and you can download a high-quality recording of their 5 July 2000 Paris concert here, which includes a scrappy version of "A Love Supreme" and a very cool cover of "Prelude (Part 2)" from Miles's Agharta (yes, I confess, my favorite Miles album).

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Despite a recent resolution to be a trifle more regular about maintaining the blog, I've been swamped, & it's fallen a bit by the wayside. Lordy, I've been busy. The recruitment thing, for one thing, has been a massive time-eater. So many lovely people to choose from, & so well-published, to be applying for an entry-level assistant professor position. I'm just glad I'm not fresh out of grad school myself; I'd be eaten alive, the way things are these days.
Next month of course is the MLA  – the monster that ate my holidays, & that'll ruin a perfectly good trip to San Francisco. I'll leave it to the newspapers to make fun of the more recondite paper & panel titles – hey, I want to hear about Jane Austen and masturbating girls! – but I'm always amused by leafing thru the monstrously large program, looking for things that I won't get to see because I'm in a hotel room interviewing nervous young people. I don't mind reconditeness, or bad puns, or even the ubiquitous colonified things ("The X of Y: Adjective Z in the early A of B"), but what really breaks my heart is my colleagues' lame-ass attempts at hipness, usually signaled by punning on some pop song in their paper titles: "What's Habermas Got To Do With It?" or "Watching the (Scottish) Detectives" (the latter about Scottish detective fiction, of course, the former about – oh, I can't be bothered to look it up). Friends, "Watching the Detectives" is now thirty-one years old, and "What's Love Got To Do With It" was a hit in nineteen-eighty-four, a few years before most of our undergrads were born. These are golden oldies, not markers of your with-it-ness. Like, get out the study and buy some records (sorry, I mean download some records).
Thinking about gardening these days, having finally picked the splinters out of my hand from ridding a planting of unwanted ferns. What's your favorite garden poems? Yes, Marvell – but other than Marvell?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New specs!

Well, maybe not all that new – ordered in NYC before our trip to Sweden, picked up on the way back to Florida. Dutch. My protest against the ubiquitous clunky square frames that would probably look better on my Karl Rove-ishly round features.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lisa Jarnot: Black Dog Songs

Black Dog Songs, Lisa Jarnot (Flood Editions, 2003)

Given the Steinian provenance of much of her language, & her penchant for rollicking dactylic meters, it's no surprise that the tone of much of Jarnot's Black Dog Songs is very precisely whimsy. But she wears her whimsy with a difference – it's underlaid with melancholy, with constant reminders of the carnivorous nature of the doggies she so dotes upon, of the dark depression or even madness that can manifest itself in sing-song melodies. The sequence "My Terrorist Notebook" makes a wonderful, light-touched attack on post-9/11 American policy, while the prose poems (& one sestina) of "They" proffer an anthropology of the loves & likings of some unspecified race – "they" – which turns out to look very much like us. I still cherish a great attraction to the overwritten opacities of Jarnot's first volume, Some Other Kind of Mission, but I like Jarnot's whimsy more than anything this side of Stein herself, or Edward Lear.

Well, the battery-recharging aspects of last week's vacation wore off pretty damned quickly, I must say, & I'm back in my habitual glums: not merely is there the final gruelling weeks of the teaching semester, along with the various wee writing assignments I've been postponing, but the faculty recruitment committee I'm chairing – an always onerous job, but one with its advantages: finding out what's going on in the discipline, what the bright young things are writing about, what kind of letters of recommendation my friends tend to write, etc. – has been swamped – nay, tsunami'd – with applications for our modest position. Oh my!, as Archie Ammons used to say. I estimate that it will take at least twelve to fourteen hours of steady reading just to do a preliminary triage of the vast sea of letters & dossiers. Keep me in your prayers or meditations, so I don't entirely crack up between now & the MLA.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wittgenstein & biography

One of the many misses in my long ongoing uneducation was my failure to really connect with James Klagge when he joined the philosophy department at Virginia Tech my senior year. Not his fault, really – I was at that stupid stage of intellectual growth where I actually thought I knew something, or at least that I knew what I wanted to know, & the class of JK's I was enrolled in – Ethics, I think – just didn't dovetail with my interests at the time. If I'd known he was going to turn out to be a bigtime Wittgenstein scholar, I'd have thought differently, because I was already deeply into Wittgenstein, thanks to a seminar taught by the brilliant and Matthew Arnold-bewhiskered Peter Barker.

Come to think of it, doing a philosophy degree at Tech was one of the smartest things I ever blundered into. I read ancient Greek philosophy – painstakingly, slowly – with Nick Smith, who probably knows more about  Sokrates than anyone alive; I read Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, and bunches of medieval cosmology with Roger Ariew; I read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason – in the old-fashioned manner, a chapter or two at a time, turning in a precis of what I'd read on a weekly basis – with a now-deceased professor with the resonant name of Bill Williams.

I was on the Tech campus again late last week as part of our annual get-out-of-south-Florida-and-see-the-leaves vacation, and spent an extraordinarily pleasant couple of hours strolling the drillfield and the streets of Blacksburg with Tom Gardner, the man I consider my mentor in this business (greyer and perhaps a trifle balder, but otherwise absolutely unchanged from – well, we won't say how many years ago). And then a couple of days later, in the Barnes & Noble in Williamsburg, I came upon a collection edited by James Klagge, Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy (Cambridge, 2001).

Most of the  essays in the book treat particular topics in Wittgenstein's life or particular cruxes in a biographical reading of LW's philosophy. The opening two pieces, however, struck me as especially fascinating: Ray Monk's "Philosophical Biography: The Very Idea" and James Conant's "Philosophy and Biography." I'm interested in them because biographies of philosophers are if anything even more marginalized within academic departments of philosophy than biographies of poets are within English departments, & there's a concomitant dearth of writing about the significance of biographical writing within the study of philosophy. (I admit that there's been a decent number of books about literary biography, but I'd argue that the really good ones can be counted on the fingers of one mangled hand.)

Monk is of course the author of the widely hailed Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (and a more controversial biography of Bertrand Russell), one of the few biographies of a philosopher I've read that made the figure come luminously alive for me. He draws wonderful parallels in his brief "Philosophical Biography" essay between the mode of biography – "showing" rather than "explaining" – and what Wittgenstein saw the task of philosophy to be. "The insights [biography] has to offer have to be shown rather than stated."
I was once taken to task for being "too lenient" with Wittgenstein by not criticizing his appalling treatment of the young children he taught at elementary school. Yet, it seemed to me, and still seems to me, that, if you describe someone beating a schoolgirl until she bleeds because she is unable to grasp logic, it adds nothing to the description to follow it with a comment such as, "That wasn't very nice, was it?"
Ultimately, he argues, the use of philosophical biography lies less in the elucidating of particular cruxes in a thinker's thought than in the illustration or presentation of the overall "tone" of the thinker's intellectual achievement.

Conant, in a much more wordy (call it overtly "analytical") essay, says much the same thing:
If there is an important relationship between what philosophical biography shows and how it shows it, then we should not be surprised to learn that the sorts of change of aspect that philosophical biography permits to dawn in our perception of a philosopher's work are not ones easily brought into view by an alternative genre of writing. In particular, the sort of change of aspect in question will not admit expression via a mode of exposition of a philosopher's thought proper to the exposition of features of his thought graspable independently of their relationship to the character of his thought as a whole.
Conant is especially interested in thinking about the union of thought and life characteristic of early Greek philosophy (think Socrates, for instance), a union whose demise is lamented in Nietzsche & Kierkegaard (not to mention Thoreau) and which is oddly revived in Wittgenstein. (Is there, I wonder, a way of "living" poetry? Did, say, Jack Spicer make more of a "poem" of his life than Louis Zukofsky did?)

Both Monk and Conant quote a delicious anecdote from Stanley Cavell's autobiographical A Pitch of Philosophy, recalling his music theory class with Ernst Bloch at Berkeley:
[Bloch] would play something simple, at the piano, for instance a Bach four-part chorale, with one note altered by a half step from Bach's rendering; then he would play the Bach unaltered. Perhaps he would turn to us, fix us with a stare, then turn back to the piano and repeat, as if for himself, the two versions. The drama mounted, then broke open with a monologue which I reconstruct along these lines: "You hear that? You hear the difference?"...He went on: "My version is perfectly correct; but the Bach, the Bach is perfect; late sunlight burning the edges of a cloud. Of course I do not say you must hear this. Not at all. No. But." The head lowered a little, the eyes looked up at us, the tempo slowed ominously: "If you do not hear, do not say to yourself that you are a musician. There are many honorable trades. Shoemaking, for example."

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Craig Watson: True News

True News, Craig Watson (Instance Press, 2002)

Three serial pieces – "Spectacle Studies," "Where/As," & "Home Guard" – that circle around geopolitical themes – interpreted as broadly as possible – "the personal is the political," politics colonizes/conditions consciousness, etc. A deft touch thruout, smart & lively. The 4 sections of "Where/As" are place-specific (Venice, South Africa, China, Ecuador), & bend their essentially similar forms to accomodate a vivid impression of each locale. Most exciting are the quatrain poems of "Spectacle Studies," which touch on stereotypically "big," abstract – even philosophical – questions with a sure hand & a clear sense of when the abstract becomes particular & vice-versa. Nice work; not as lyrical as the 3-4 Watson books I've read before.

Last night's election returns more than gratifying – I feel that I can sleep well, at least for a space. Put me in mind of watching other world-historical events – inevitably, on the television: the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989, in a dingy apartment in Ithaca, New York; Boris Yeltsin's tanks surrounding the Russian Parliament, its windows alight with fires, in October 1993, on a hanging set in room in Walter Reed Military Hospital where my father was awaiting surgery for cancer; the collapse of the World Trade Center, in our own house here in Florida, where the three of us (I, J., & a dear colleague of ours now in deep-blue Seattle) practically clung together with shock. Last night's viewing was – for the nonce – far more happy-making.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Grand Piano, Pt. 3

Bob Perelman hits the proverbial nail on its proverbial head (yes, cliché) in the 3rd installment:
We're all writing discursive sentences here, and isn't that odd?

To say the obvious: all of this, these attempts at presenting our parts, go against an earlier don't that some of us promulgated: critiques of narrative by Ron and others (Bruce Andrews, Steve McCaffery). That don't has reverberated for decades, especially in the reception of Language writing: don't try to construct novelizing, technicolored picture windows, which open onto ideologically fixed theme parks. I promulgated this don't myself in an MLA talk, but I wasn't terrifically enthusiastic about what I was saying. I had more fun quoting Stendhal and Mozart's letters.
The pianists seem to have loosened up here in the 3rd set: there's almost a jazz feel of collective improvisation, as each writer plays around not a single "head" ("love," "city") but the question each previous one has left hanging.

What the hell was this "group," this "movement," this "moment"? several of them seem to ask. And, more winningly, was I really a part of it, or a fellow-traveller allowed into the inner sanctum on sufferance?

Is Barrett Watten, as he reports Robert Glück implying, the André Breton of Language writing? It's a joke, of course, but one feels the chilly touch of judgment a bit later when BW throws out – straightfacedly – an old Jonsonian term:
But the turn to language is not merely an act of self-denial; it has a historical dimension the poetasters do not normally comprehend. [my emphasis]
A scene from the Revelation of St. John the Divine: BW as halo'd Terminator/Christ, purified poets on his right hand, benighted goatish poetasters on his left.

Gentle reader, where stand you?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Barbara Guest: The Red Gaze

The Red Gaze, Barbara Guest (Wesleyan UP, 2005)


A truism – by now, a cliché even – to speak of Guest's poems as "painterly." But they are, after all – poems acting & reenacting the "gaze" of the title, the act of seeing (the viewer's art) & the act of placing colors upon a field (the painter's). Spare poems, like a painter's spare palette, a canvas marked with only a few gestures of color – red, as the title (again) indicates, is prominent, tho never saturating. Perhaps the most purely aesthetic poems I've encountered in some time: that is, poems grounded in the satisfactions of the senses, shutting out the social, the political, the historical even – or setting them far to one side to pursue the immediate gratification of the eyes.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Grand Piano, Pt. 2

I've only in the last month or so gotten around to subscribing to the The Grand Piano project, & Mr or Ms USPS poked a big stack of the things – #2 thru #7 – into my mailbox Friday, just in time to derail me from any number of other things I should be reading. At least this way (belated as usual, that is), I won't have John Latta's close & compelling & sometimes snarky readings of the successive issues blurring my own responses.
The endnote to this second installment of the Language Poets' "experiment in collective autobiography" announces that the original plan of each writer's following whatever "prompt" the first-up batter of a given volume supplies has begun to fall by the wayside, as bits of the project are being written out of order. The 1st volume hewed pretty closely to Bob Perelman's keynote pages on "love," each writing taking some approach to that oldest of poetic topoi. In Part 2, Barrett Watten provides the keynote – "city," one might call it, or "San Francisco" as place, as site – and while most of the other 9 writers do indeed the address the city, there's also some discernable "drift."

What strikes me the most about this second volume of "collective" autobiography is how little sense of collectivity comes thru in this round of writing, despite Lyn Hejinian's rather impassioned insistence that the group was a polis. (How many uses of that word in alt-poetry can be traced to Olson's "polis is eyes"?) Figures cross paths, reappear from one poet's account to the next, couple & decouple, but this time around there's little sense of a shared aesthetic or political endeavour – only a shared milieu, a San Francisco that – unsurprisingly – looks radically different to different member of this gang of ten.

But The Grand Piano 2 contains some lovely writing – I think Kit Robinson's anaphoric "I remember" section takes the prize here – and some fascinating accounts of writers' formations: Bob Perelman's and Tom Mandel's are the standouts. What they amount to, however, is some dandily-written traditional autobiography (tho there's some interesting genre-jumping in Perelman's piece) of the individual sort. This polis is, after all, a bunch of I's. It'll take more than Watten's collectivist invocation to make this "collective" – at least so far. On to Part 3.
Y'know, these memoirs by writers between 15 & 20 years older than me, remembering the events of a historical moment when they were at least a decade younger than I am now, are (alas) an occasion for readerly melancholy, for my own sense (oh Jesus there he goes again) of impending age, of mortality, of missed opportunity.

The avant-garde – that is no country for old men.