Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kit Robinson, Ice Cubes

Ice Cubes, Kit Robinson (Roof, 1987)

Continuing my trundle thru The Grand Piano (just finished #5), I took down a couple of Kit Robinson's books. Of all the Grand Pianists, he & Steve Benson are the ones with whose work I'm probably least familiar. Ice Cubes is in 3 sections: "Up Early," a run of 12-line poems (composed in early morning? limbering-up exercises? – at any rate, spare, tense, & intelligent); "Oleo," a series of longer-lined, 5-lined stanza'd pieces, rather denser and more witty – I'm way keen on "Nesting of Layer Protocols":
Theory has it the word came first. But you always
have to take somebody's word for it. That word,
built up over time with letters from various
alphabets, edges polished by the erosion of speech,
is itself a result.
– and the 50 or so pages of "Ice Cubes," poems in 4-line stanzas, one word per line. A neat trick, the form placing equal emphasis on each word, forcing Robinson to make lexical choice "count." For the most part (as in the earlier sections) straightforward syntax, casual tone, but a light effect very unlike the sometimes ponderous Orientalism of Zukofsky's 1-word-per-line passages.


Tho Louisville isn't really a "book town," I managed to add a fair stack to the "unread" poetry shelf. Tell me what to read next:
Collected Poems, Paul Auster
Terra Lucida, Joseph Donahue
Crown of Weeds, Amy Gerstler
Ghost Girl, Amy Gerstler
Inventions of Necessity, Jonathan Greene
Teth, Sheila E. Murphy
Unrecounted, W. G. Sebald
Ours, Cole Swensen
Mental Ground, Esther Tellermann

Monday, February 23, 2009


I've become aware over the past few months that I probably labor under a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder; not that I'm particularly concerned with cleanliness or germs, or even tidiness – but that I've deeply enamored of lists, of keeping my stuff ranged in orderly ranks. (The stuff, that is, that isn't festering in huge piles on the floor or on top of my desk.)

Lately I've been wondering about how I organize music on my iPod. Yes, I've still got a nice mid-range stereo system in the study, and there are various boomboxes around the house that I'll drop a CD into once in a while, but the iPod's become my primary music delivery device of late, & I haven't come close to filling the 80 gigs of space on the iPod Classic some holiday brought me year before last.

The built-in organizational devices on the iPod are very powerful: you can search by song title, by composer, by artist, and by album. But early on in my iPodding, I started constructing playlists which were primarily just dumping grounds for single artists. That rather goes against the intended logic of playlists, which I think are meant to be groups of disparate songs intended for various occasions & moods: dance tracks for this weekend's party, songs I like to listen to when I'm happy/down/bouncy, songs that feature great tabla playing, and so forth. Instead, I have like a "Radiohead" playlist which contains basically all of their albums in chronological order, plus a couple of bootlegged concerts.

This gets pretty unwieldy when I have a more or less comprehensive collection of a single artist – say, every single Richard Thompson album (plus all the Richard & Linda records, and a half-dozen live albums & a handful of "unauthorized" things) – what good is a playlist with 250-odd songs? With some artists of whom I own a truly embarassing number of albums, I end up making subsidiary playlists in order to get ahold of the sprawl: for John Zorn (760 songs total) I have subsidiary playlists of Naked City, Painkiller, Masada & Masada-related stuff, chamber music, etc.

And then there's the problem of someone like Bill Laswell, who's known as much for production & for collaborative work as for records under his own name. If I simply relied on the iPod's "artist" search, I wouldn't find Praxis, or Material, or Massacre, or Axiom, or Last Exit, or any number of his other projects. So I end up with a vast "Laswell" playlist that includes all of those monikers, & thru which I have to wade interminably in order to find a given thing.

It's really, in little, the same problem I'm increasingly having with my bookshelves, which have gone from micro-division (contemporary American poetry divided from 19th-century & colonial, English Welsh & Scottish poetry all having their own divisions, Language Poets separated out from SOQ, etc.) to broader alphabetical bunging. All my American poetry is now in one run, along with Canadian (so it's technically "North American" poetry, tho specifically Anglophone – Francophone Canadian goes in with the French). I'm on the point – it'll be a big & painful job – of incorporating all the British Isles stuff into a single run.
Obviously, I'm avoiding prepping courses & grading papers right now; the conference (Louisville) this weekend was great fun, & even intellectually enlivening. I'll say a few words about it soon, I think. Right now I've got to get back to putting the page numbers from the old Nightwood into the new, reset edition (damn you, New Directions – but yes, it's much more readable) so that my (of course scrupulously revised & updated) lecture notes make sense.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

conference papers: a poetics (for academics only)

Fritz Senn, the grand deity of Joyce scholars, has been going on for years about how dreary & intellectually vacuous the typical literary studies conference is, where people get up & read prepared papers, & other people, who've listened to the paper & gotten it, or who've listened & haven't gotten it, or who've half-listened & half gotten it, or who've dozed thru it but don't like the presenters' shoes, get to attack them with questions. 

It's not like that in the hard sciences, where everybody's already read the paper & checked the equations & the time's devoted a real, substantive discussion. Senn proposes two solutions:

1) Literary scholars meet to discuss papers they've already read & thought about. A good model, & one that they've been pursuing in the "seminar"-style sessions at the Shakespeare Association forever, & which the Modernist Studies Association has been following for some time. Drawback: it means that you have to have your paper written well in advance of the conference (if you call that a drawback).

2) Scholars just get up & talk, maybe from brief notes, maybe just "cold," so that we're treated to the spectacle of the mind in action. Drawback: this can be pretty exhilarating if the scholar in question is Fritz Senn, or Hugh Kenner in his prime; but I've seen younger Joyce scholars trying this out, and I've seen exceedingly well-established academics who thought they could bluff their way thru 45 minutes of airspace, & they haven't been pretty sights.

But given the way things usually are at academic conferences, from the MLA on down to – well, the conference I'm off to later this week, how precisely do we go about preparing the 20-minute papers we typically deliver? Seems to me there are 3 primary models, the first two of which put one uncomfortably in mind of the Bed of Procrustes:

1) Scholar has biggish MS on hand (a book project, a dissertation chapter, an essay-in-progress), hacks 10-page bleeding chunk out of it and deftly or clumsily sutures up the loose ends. Potential awkwardnesses are obvious: all those moments of "at this point I've cut out a 15-page passage on Alain Badiou, which I'll summarize in 2 sentences, so keep it in mind" or "I'm skipping all the close readings here, so you'll just have to take my grand assertions on faith"; sometimes this works very handily, I'll admit – I spun off quite a few conference papers from books-in-progress over the years – but there're few things more irritating than sitting thru an absurdly truncated slice of an extended argument.

2) Scholar has 250-word abstract written for the conference, and frantically fills it out, zipping four new sentences between every sentence of the abstract, pasting in quotations where appropriate: the paint-by-numbers, or connect-the-dots school of paper-writing. Potential problem: sometimes you get a paint-by-number Sistine Chapel; sometimes you get the get the intellectual equivalent of the "Garfield" (the cat) movie (ie a good 30-second joke stretched out over 90 excruciating minutes).

3) Scholar sits down & thoughtfully constructs a 10-page argument, one that is neither foreshortened nor padded out – like Baby Bear's bed, it's just right for the space allotted; it has a beginning (preferably with a joke), a developmental section, and a clear-cut conclusion. The complex bits are tackled slowly, since even the brightest audience is apt to be tired or hung over in a conference setting, transitions are clearly telegraphed, and the overall level of discourse is just a notch down from what it would be on paper (since even the brightest audience etc.). Drawbacks & problems: none, aside from the fact that you've made your arguments so pellucidly that clever jerks in the audience can actually see the holes in them and call you on 'em during the Q&A.

While I've done a fair number of category (1) papers, & even confess to a few category (2)s, I'd like to think that most of the papers I've presented over the years fall into category (3). The conference paper, after all – & here I'm addressing some imaginary grad student – is not a published essay, nor is it a bloody slice of work in progress, to be admired for its potential & pardoned its rough edges. Rather, it's a very specific performance, a piece of writing that's meant to be read aloud & received & assessed in viva voce. Ignore this at your peril. 

Anyway, I've got to get back to writing – er, polishing – a conference paper.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

pineapple (REVISED: grapefruit)

LATE REVISION: Harry Gilonis (polumetis) nudges me: wasn't the fruit in question a grapefruit, rather than a pineapple? And – note my bum-covering "sieve-like memory" reference below – I think he's probably right.* So, another go-round**:
Oh yes, the Louis Zukofsky / Whittaker Chambers / Pinchos Zukofsky / Pineapple Grapefruit story – since you so kindly asked. (Among those nudging me, I note, is Chambers's grandson...)

This by way of Guy Davenport, who had it verbatim from LZ. HOWEVER – as many of his interlocutors have probably noted over the years, Guy had a habit of embroidering anecdotes with repeated telling; and conversely, I have a lamentably sieve-like memory for these things. (Frankly, that's probably a good thing for a biographer, since it forces me to rely on documentary evidence.) So I can vouch for neither the accuracy nor the completeness of the story; but it goes something like this:

The young LZ, attending Columbia ca. 1920 or '21, tells his immigrant family that he's bringing his goyish buddy Whittaker Chambers over on an upcoming evening. While LZ & WC are en route from Morningside Heights, a scene worthy of Buster Keaton unfolds in the family tenement apartment. The new icebox, it turns out, makes the kitchen too small for a guest to sit down in; Pinchos Z., having learned something of the lore of hospitality, has purchased a pineapple grapefruit, but has nowhere to put it. The icebox is shoved into a closet. Chambers & LZ arrive; Pinchos – who, remember, has probably somewhat fewer words of English than I do of Yiddish – greets him enthusiastically, opens enigmatically the kitchen closet, and dramatically offers up the pineapple grapefruit: "Welcome – MR. SHEIM-BERG!!"

For what it's worth.

*I seem to have closely-after-the-visit notes from several conversations with Guy, detailing all of the juicy anecdotage (sorry, folks – we're dealing with still-living people, for the most part), but not from the conversation in which Pinchos & the fruit came up.
**Harry also points out that the word "like--?" plays a role in the anecdote, but this bit of 3rd-hand lore's gotten too complicated already.

Wm. Shaxpar's 25 random thinges

Even tho everyone's sick to death of the "25 random things" Facebook meme, here's the First Folio version of William Shakespeare's list, as it appears on Mike McPhaden's MySpace blog (hat tip to Don Share):

Wm. Shakespeare's Five and Twenty Random Things Abovt Me

1 Sometimes I Feele so trapp’d by iambic pentameter... Does that make me a Freake?

2 I haue been Knowne to cry at Bear-baiting.

3 I am not uery ticklish. I am Not. So prithee, do not euen try. Waste. Of. Time.

4 I cannot keep Lice, and know not why.

5 Sometimes I thinke plays are all Talke, Talke Talke, and wish for a cart-chase scene. I tried one in The Merry Wives, but it looked like Shitte, so I cut it. The men playing the horses were so Pissed at me.

6 I once threw vp on a man's head, from a high Windowe. I was so fvcking Sicke that Daye.

7 I hate to wear a Ruff, for I haue such a pleasing Necke.

8 As a player, I am painful-slow to learn my part. Once whilst playing Edward I, I used the prompter so ouermuch that a groundling yell’d ~Stop interrupting, Will! And it was my Dadde. (Kydding!)

9 Sometimes when I am Stvck for a rhyme, I new-mint a Worde because I jvst want to get the Damned script ovt the fvcking doore.

10 I play the Flute yet poorly, but I can make any crumhorn beg for Mercy.

11 When I am happy I call Anne my Kicky-wicky. When I am cross I call her “Olde Fun Killer Hag-Ass.”

12 I keepe my Stashe hidden in our seconde best bedde. Shhh. Don’t tell the Fyve-Oh.

13 The people that loue my Wordes the best are always the most disappointed vpon meeting me. Is thisse List ouer yet?

14 On the topic of dating, my daughter Susanna loues to remind me: ~Jvliet was only thirteen! And I remind her that i) she was Italian, an impulsive race ii), she was actually played by a middle-aged Eunuch named Ned, and iii) she died. That always shvts her right vp.

15 I deteste it when the Low-Comedians improuise the scenes I writ them… becavse they always make them so mvch fvnnier.

16 I haue, on occasion, thovght abovt hiring a Boy to fixe my Latin.

17 When I was sixe, my Goode-Friend Charles brovght to Schoole a wood-cut of his mother, qvite naked. After that we called him Charles Nudie-Mummy, whiche did make him Crye.

18 I take my eggs ouer-medium. If I get them O’er-Easily, I tell my Porter, ~You may thinke this is what I ordered, but it’s snot. I thinke that one is a real Slap-A-Th’Knee.

19 I work ovt my calues thrice weekly, usvally three pyramid sets of Calf-Rises whilst holding a flagon of Meade. I knowe I should stretch afterwards, but it Bores me so I do it not.

20 As a boy in my Bed, I would shriek i’the night that Witches wovld come to eat me. My Mother (bless her) wovld smooth my Hair and whispr ~ Be not afear’d, the Witches onlie eat the Jews.

21 Whitsuntide has become so commercial.

22 Nobody euer forgets where they were the moment they heard that Thomas Kyd died. I was shopping for codpieces in West Cheape. I came ovt of the Change-room and the proprietress was i’tears. I said ~What is it, now?~Kyd is dead. There was a melancholy qviet, and then she said ~And that Piece is a mite too small on ye.

23 Euery time we do the Taming of the Shrew, some pvnter wants his Money backe, because we don’t actually show a shrew getting tamed.

24 I do not vnderstand all the Fvss over Currants. Sure, they are both sweet and Small, but must they bee added to EUERY FVCKING MEAL these days? Yestermonth, found I currants in a Tarte of Spinnedge. I meane come on, People. Seriovsly.

25 When I am feeling Melancholic, I console myselfe with the Knowledge that, aboue all else, I will be remembered for my Musick.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems

The Complete Poems, Andrew Marvell, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Don't quite know how to blog, in a series that's usually fleeting comments on newish contemporary things, a "classic." Marvell pour les enfants: the bridge (to my ears) between the Metaphysicals & Dryden's couplet wit; co-worker with Milton, & author of a tremendous introductory poem to Paradise Lost, in which Marvell lavishly praises Milton's blank verse, even if he can't let go of rhyme himself; ardent Republican; later ardent suck-up (at least in print) to Charles II; author of a couple of endless topical satires, mostly incomprehensible to contemporary readers (Calvin Trillin to readers in 2350 CE); one of the greatest political poets in English, not least because of his painful grasp of the ambiguities of power. By far the greatest garden poet before Finlay.

A handy edition, this Penguin; quite as good, if not as complete, as the Oxford Authors; high points for no-nonsense, non-condescending annotations. And a dandy cover illustration of "King Charles II being presented with a Pineapple by Mr Rose the Royal Gardener" (Thomas Hewart). Remind me to tell you the one about Louis Zukofsky's father, Whittaker Chambers, and the pineapple.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

David Shapiro: To An Idea

To An Idea: A Book of Poems, David Shapiro (Overlook, 1983)

I picked this up because I figured that anyone Jonathan Mayhew admires so extravagantly must have something going for him. So what kind of poet would JM admire?, I thought as I opened it up: intelligent, of course; with a deep sense of literary tradition, maybe a massive rooting in Mallarmé; unendingly fresh verbal gifts, surprising the reader in almost every line; & with a great sense of humor, because I don't see Jonathan stomaching large repeated doses of one of those long-range gloomy types. And guess what? That's exactly how Shapiro turns out to be. I've gotta spend more time with this 2nd-generation New York School stuff Рit puts a spark in my step that's been sadly missing lately.


Friday, February 06, 2009


No, I'm not dead – I just feel that way, or that I'd be getting more rest if I were deceased. A houseful of sick people, including me, including the cat; job candidates flying in for the last few weeks, eating up the few days I like to devote to non-teaching work; two essays to write, & a conference paper staring me down like a fast-approaching train. Oh yes, & I chose this week to teach both Molloy & The Sound and the Fury. (NB: I am one of those dullards, alas, who has to reread a book before I can muster the courage to go in front of a class & talk about it, even if it's a book I've read a half-dozen times. So heavy reading.)

Soldiering on. Books to be added to the "100 poem-books" thread pile up in my notebooks.

Last night perhaps the coldest on record in South Florida. Yes, that's a heat wave to folks in Ithaca or South Bend, but it's got me huddling under the comforters & quilts & turning up the heat.