Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pound in the marketplace; Susan Stewart: Columbarium

When we first got into the city, I headed down to Union Square & the Strand to pick up a stack of Ruskin books I’d bought online. I didn’t really spend a lot of time there that evening; there were a lot of things I wanted to read thru on hand already, & I didn’t want to disperse my always tenuous attention. Anyway, t'other night I finally made the big pilgrimage & did some serious shopping, filling a bag (mostly) with slim volumes of contemporary poetry.

Do I need to say that decent poetry bookshops in South Florida are pretty much nonexistent? Well, there aren’t many anywhere, for that matter. I don’t know the midwest or the west coast, but on the east coast & south the only good new poetry bookshops I know are Bridge Street in DC, Talking Leaves in Buffalo, & St. Mark’s in NYC. And places that have consistently interesting used stock are even rarer – Rust Belt in Buffalo is the only one that springs to mind. But the Strand’s poetry section is so damned large, & I get up here so rarely, that there’re always at least a dozen things I end up buying. Indeed, semiannual trips to the city & the Strand seem to be the primary way recent works of poetry enter the house anymore. (But yes, I bought your book new, straight from the publisher.)

One of the few non-poetry books I picked up, however, was Gregory Barnhisel’s James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound (U Massachusetts P, 2005). A very solid piece of scholarship. It’s weird to think of our distance from the modernists, which these days is approximately that of the modernists themselves from the late romantics. And it’s only now that we’re beginning to get histories of modernist writing that aren’t in the “heroic” mode of Hugh Kenner et al. What they called the “new historicism” in early modern studies when it hit modernism became the “new modernist studies,” & it’s not so much a “new” historicism as the first round of a real live critical history-writing.

At any rate, Barnhisel’s is one of those books whose thesis is so simple & unified & compelling that you wonder why the hell this book wasn’t written decades ago. After a very interesting examination of Pound’s publication history thru the 1930s, veering between trade publishers & small press coterie editions, Barnhisel traces how James Laughlin & ND published & promoted him in the postwar years – when Pound was a political pariah; Pound wanted to be Ruskin, the commentator on culture & society: ND promoted him as Pater, a mostly apolitical aesthete. Or rather, they promoted his poetry & his literary essays & downplayed precisely the public persona he most valued, that of political & economic gadfly.

In the process they implicitly supported & underwrote New Critical apoliticism, & a notion of aesthetic autonomy that went far beyond Pound’s own; for Pound, the poet was both the technician of a purified language and the prophet of corrected social structure: that latter role disappears in his public face, as presented in ND books, between 1946 & 1973 (the year of the Cookson-edited Selected Prose, which finally made many of his economic writings available).

I wish Barnhisel’s prose were a trifle more elegant, & I’d like to see a bit more Bourdieu brought to bear on these issues, but on the whole this is a very useful book indeed. (Not least, he confirms that at least one other reader has conceived the 1930s American publishing scene in much the same way I did in Poem of a Life.)
Columbarium, Susan Stewart (U of Chicago P, 2003)

A book of “first things” – between the bookends of four longish poems on the 4 Empedoclean elements – air, fire, water, earth – a series of shorter poems on various themes, arranged from A to Z. The elements of which we are made & among which we live, & the 26 glyphs by which we comprehend & express them. A curious blending of the pre-Sokratic & the high classical (Virgil’s Georgics one touchstone). As always in Stewart’s work, an almost obsessive, loving regard for the evidence of the senses. An impressive range of forms in the alphabetic section, most of them ad hoc & gracefully realized.



Archambeau said...

"Pound wanted to be Ruskin, the commentator on culture & society: ND promoted him as Pater, a mostly apolitical aesthete." That, is why we read Mark Scroggins!

Don Share said...

It's often forgot that the right-wing Regnery Publishing put EP's writings on politics into circulation in the US; see Henry Regnery's memoirs:

& more generally -

Mark Scroggins said...

But not by me, who've got a copy of the first edition of Pound's Regnery collection of nuttiness, Impact -- nor by Barnhisel, who reproduces a snazzy ad for the book. But Laughlin wouldn't touch the stuff.

Archambeau said...

Wow. I knew (Chicago's own) Regnery was out there, but I didn't know he was Ezra-level out there.

I used Creative Chicago a book not just published, but written, by Regnery once, in a course on Chicago's cultural institutions. It wasn't bad, but anything after 1960 was clearly a fall from grace, as far as he was concerned.

plainwater said...

Two more great poetry bookstores in NYC: Bookculture (formerly Labyrinth) on 112th; and believe it or not (and I didn't until I noticed) Barnes and Noble on 17th St. That's right, a B&N. It has, I kid you not, David Antin, Armantrout, both Waldrops, Silliman, pretty much anyone you can imagine plus Mackey's jazz letters novels and much more. It's the weirdest sensation being in that store.

ratherripped said...

And Serendipity Books in Berkeley is still a maze of books, and outstanding poetry to stumble upon.

Mark Scroggins said...

Plainwater -- yes, I guess I'm so used to thinking of Book Culture as a grand *academic* bookstore that I don't really pay enough attention to their poetry sections (which I oughta, given that last time I was there they had both of my LZ books on the shelf). I'll check out the B&N.

But what I really love are the second-hand places -- which means I'm fundamentally a tightwad, I guess.

I'm afraid if I ever went on a serious bookshopping spree in the Bay Area I'd end up having to hitchhike back to Florida.

plainwater said...

I just remembered: if you do check out the B&N, don't go the one on 5th ave around 18th (embarrassing poetry section for a store that bills itself as the biggest in the world or whatever). I'm talking about the one on the north side of Union Square.

I can't think of any second-hand stores with great poetry sections, unfortunately.

Don Share said...

Heh, I've got a copy of Impact, too. Might be interesting to see Al Filreis write up something about it!

Ray Davis said...

I traveled to Cambridge, MA, on business a few weeks ago and was delightedly shocked to see that the Grolier still existed. (And was sadly unsurprised that it wasn't open when I could browse there.) Back in the day -- that being my day, of course, the long day of 1989-1991 -- Grolier was where I first encountered micropress contemporary poetry since the bookstores which would stock them couldn't afford the rents in mid-1980s Manhattan from whence I'd come. Did the cranky proprietor finally ban all she didn't enjoy, or was the store always not open on your visits?