Tuesday, September 29, 2009


[Some bits of Alexander Pope's table-talk, from Joseph Spence's Anecdotes, Observations and Characters of Books and Men:]

If I am a good poet? (for in truth I do not know whether I am or not.) But if I should be a good poet, there is one thing I value myself upon, and which can scarce be said of any of our good poets: and that is, "that I have never flattered any man, nor ever received any thing of any man for my verses."

Middling poets are no poets at all. There is always a great number of such in each age, that are almost totally forgotten in the next. A few curious inquirers may know that there were such men, and that they wrote such and such things; but to the world they are as if they had never been.

[Pope's sister, Mrs. Racket:] When my brother's faithful dog, and companion in these walks, died; he had some thoughts of burying him in the garden, and putting a piece of marble over his grave, with the epitaph; O RARE BOUNCE! and he would have done it, I believe, had not he apprehended that some people might take it to have been meant as a ridicule of Ben Jonson.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


[Last night our department's graduate program held a "faculty juvenilia" reading, in which faculty members were invited to read specimens of the embarrassing things they'd written in very early youth & by the way to proffer "words of wisdom to our graduate students. I was unable to unearth any of the atrocities of my childhood or high school years – hopefully they've mouldered to dust in a closet of my mother's house – but I was able to turn up my file of undergraduate poems, opening which felt rather like cleaning out the fridge after two months' absence – ie many stomach-turning science experiments to be disposed of.]

Introducer: Mark Scroggins, after 4 years of geekish isolation in high school (most notable achievement: Latin club, for god's sake) & uncountable years of geekish, isolated intellectual humiliation in college & grad school, is now circling the drain of his middle years, exposing his ignorance at every turn to colleagues & unfortunate students. He 'teaches' modernist & postmodernist poetry & culture, though he doesn't believe in postmodernism anymore, & leads poetry writing workshops, though he suspects that poetry writing can't really be 'taught.'*

MS: This poem, which I wrote when I was an undergraduate – & which, as you can see, was actually typed on an actual typewriter [holds up sheet of onionskin] – doesn't seem to have a title. One of the few things I knew that still proves true is that titles are important, and hard. But if I had titled it, it would have been called "The Fish." I will read it in my best William Shatner voice, so you know it's poetry:
When I was a child, I love to play
at fishing in the shallow pond behind
my grandfather's house in Alma, Texas,
dropping strings and pebbles into the water,
roiling the bottom mud in watery dust-clouds,
chasing the tiny fish that crept along the slime.
The water of the pool was clear, the fish
as sharp and shiny as minted coins;
I could see them move from left to right,
but when I tried to touch them with a stick,
they were not there.
The mind is a fish,
and moves in a medium, turning around
barriers and nosing muddy depths,
darting and circling until it returns
to chase the self it cannot catch, to find
the pond dried up, and with it the frogs
and minnows;
and my grandparents moved away.
I had forgotten it all, but for the clearness
of the water, the way the scales, refracted,
flashed the sunlight to my grasping eye.
So what "words of wisdom" can be derived from that calcified but still slightly smelly turd? I wrote it for a professor who endlessly drilled into us that the iambic meter was the true genius of English verse – so it's roughly iambic, at times intrusively so. He told us to write about things we knew & cared about – so I wrote about my childhood & my grandparents' pond. He told us to let the specific experience open up to a larger insight – so I cooked up some crap about "the mind" and memory.

In sum: while I agree wholeheartedly with the smart & even inspiring things my colleagues have just told you – don't believe a thing we say.

*Yes, I composed that intro myself.

Friday, September 25, 2009

John Wilkinson: Down to Earth

Down to Earth, John Wilkinson (Salt, 2008)

I'm very keen on John Wilkinson's work, tho I'm sensible as well of the possible criticism that JW – now a professor at Notre Dame but before that (to his credit) a career non-academic, working for the UK mental health service for some 30 years – & yes, I suppose, a "Cambridge poet" – represents one of the purest examples of JH Prynne's influence on contemporary English poetry. But hey, I adore Prynne just short of idolatry, & am happy to read Prynne-werk of any sort, whether by JHP or not.

At any rate, I don't think that's a fair assessment of Wilkinson's work, anyway. The early books, certainly, show many Prynnian (Prynnesque?) marks – an extreme sentence by sentence disjunctiveness, a prickly & often esoteric, technical vocabulary, the continual subversion of semantic sense within the framework of conventional (if often attenuated) syntax. But Wilkinson's last few books, particularly the two he's produced since landing on this side of the Atlantic – Lake Shore Drive & Down to Earth – show him moving in a far more – er – down to earth direction. The freshness of language is still there, along with the often arresting shifts of register & a kind of agonized intellectual & emotional intensity, but they're integrated quite explicitly with a deep engagement with the contemporary – with geopolitics & American politics, with the fracturing of the environment, with the banal & marvelous American scene in general. If anything, in Down to Earth I'm struck by the precise formality of Wilkinson's syntax: at times I'm wondering if I'm reading the works of a Donald Davie late-converted to the avant-garde. He might take that as an insult; I mean it as nothing but compliment.

I've turned off the comment moderation, at least for newish posts; I get too much email already.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ruskin's ad copy

We've all seen it happen: the reviewer pronounces the new movie "an astonishing waste of time – banal beyond belief." Then the full-page ad comes out in the Times: "Leonard Maltin: 'astonishing...beyond belief.'"

In an March 1867 letter in Time and Tide, Ruskin commented on an edition of Balzac's Contes Drôlatiques with illustrations by Gustave Doré:
Both text and illustrations are as powerful as it is ever in the nature of evil things to be – (there is no final strength but in rightness). Nothing more witty, nor more inventively horrible, has yet been produced in the evil literature, or by the evil art, of man: nor can I conceive it possible to go beyond either in their specialities of corruption.... of all the 425 [illustrations], there is not one, which does not violate every instinct of decency and law of virtue or life, written in the human soul.
Seven years later, Chatto & Windus (the firm Beckett referred to as "Shatupon & Windup") issued an English edition of the Balzac with its Doré illustrations; their catalogue copy read as follows:
"The illustrations to the Contes Drôlatiques are full of power and inventiveness.... Nothing more witty, nor more inventively horrible, has yet been produced." John Ruskin in Time and Tide by Weare and Tyne.
Ruskin was not amused.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ruskin on the arts budget

In February 1867, in a letter published in Time and Tide (something of a run-up to Fors Clavigera, a series of letters to Thomas Dixon, a cork-cutter), Ruskin notes a parliamentarian objecting to government spending on the arts in language with which we are familiar:
in the debate on the grant for the Blacas collection [of classical & early Christian antiquities, which was being acquired for the British museum], "Mr. Bernal Osborne got an assenting cheer, when he said that 'whenever science and art were mentioned it was a sign to look after the national pockets.'"
Ruskin goes on to quote from the same issue of the Pall Mall Gazette, summarizing military expenditures:
(1) The total sum asked for in the army estimates, published this morning, is £14,752,200, being an increase of £412,000 over the previous year."

(2) "Yesterday the annual account of the navy receipts and expenditure for the year ending 31st March, 1866, was issued from Admiralty. The expenditure was £10,268,115, 7s."

Omitting the seven shillings, and even the odd hundred-thousands of pounds, the net annual expenditure for army and navy appears to be twenty-four millions.

....the grant which the House of Commons feels to be indicative of general danger to the national pockets – is, as above stated, £164,000. Now, I believe the three additional ciphers which turn thousands into millions produce on the intelligent English mind usually the effect of – three ciphers. But calculate the proportion of these two sums, and then imagine to yourself the beautiful state of rationality of any private gentleman, who, having regretfully spent £164 on pictures for his walls, paid willingly £24,000 annually to the policeman who looked after his shutters! Your practical English! – will you ever unbar the shutters of your brains, and hang a picture or two in those state-chambers?
United States National Endowment for the Arts budget, FY 2009: $155,000,000 ($155 million)
Estimated United States Department of Defence budget, FY 2009: $651,163,000,000 ($651,163 million)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reading Ruskin (doggedly)

Just made my way, in the interstices of the various course books & things, thru Ruskin's Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy (1872). Not an inspiring read, I'm afraid; rather an amphibious book, a series of essays written (& published in periodical form) in the wake of Unto This Last (1862), then later collected & revised as JR was ramping up work on Fors Clavigera, all excited over the moonshine medieval utopianism of his Guild of St. George. Unto This Last, which I'm in the process of reading once again, is nervous & exciting writing, a sharp angry counterblast to Victorian capitalism & the whole discourse of political economy. It's easy to understand how UTL became such an influential book (some credit it with the early rise of the Labour Party; Gandhi translated it) – in some ways, it's the Victorian Walden, shaved down by three-quarters & with all its polemics sharpened.

Munera Pulveris ("gifts of the dust"), on the other hand, is its theoretical counter-statement, Ruskin trying desperately to get his conceptual ducks in a row. The ideas are all there, I suppose, but the intensity is lacking.

I wonder sometimes, as I pass the bookcase where I've finally made space for the three yards of the Library Edition, whether I'm not simply too old to take on this business of mastering Ruskin. Somewhere the elderly Johnson tells Boswell that he doesn't really read that much anymore; in his youth, he says, he "read hard" & laid in a stock of things that would sustain him into maturity. I too read hard in my salad days. I read all of Melville, all of Sir Walter Scott; there's probably not a single work of Zukofsky's I haven't read thru at least 3 times. But I sometimes fear that that power of concentration is no longer mine to command.

Or perhaps it's just the sheer size of the Ruskin project. John Dixon Hunt, in the intro to The Ruskin Polygon, comments that one never encounters a set of the Library Edition without at least some of its pages still uncut (which is the case with mine, despite the fact that it was once a library copy – I suspect, in fact, that the bulk of the cutting in my edition was done, not by readers, but automatically, by a librarian: the last half-inch towards the spine, in about 35% of the pages, seems to have been neglected, the mark of someone doggedly working thru the volumes with a paper-knife rather than of a reader attentively cutting each page as she proceeds). There are after all 39 volumes (the last two bibliography & index), which makes for 37 X [approx.] 500 pp. = 18500 pp. of Ruskin & Ruskiniana, very little of it enlivened by the events, characters & conversations one finds in, say, Balzac or Scott. ("'And what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?'" – lots of fine, fine illustrations, tho.)

I had thought, when I first shelved these things, that I would assault them in order, reading from the beginning of Volume I ("early prose writings") thru the end of Volume XXXVII ("letters"). Quentin Bell says it took him a solid year, reading nothing but Ruskin: I'd give myself half a decade. But I seem to have stalled out on that notion somewhere in the midst of the 5 volumes of Modern Painters (Volumes III thru VIII), & have been casting forward into Fors, into the writings on political economy, & into various by-ways. And I suspect that's how it'll be. Perhaps, to satisfy my OCD (or as Vance puts it, my "Swiss" sense of order), I should generate a chronological list of the works & check off each thing as I read it.
Steve Evans has begun posting his annual "Attention Span" surveys of what folks have been reading. I'm happy to see Stephen Cope's nice words on The Poem of a Life:
Scroggins’s approach is novel, as he mixes narrative with criticism in alternating chapters. Biographies rarely capture my attention the way that this one did, and I found myself repeatedly returning to the poems to find resonance and resource where before I encountered only the opacity of technique. An absolutely necessary book.
Which I will tuck away with Tim Conley's
Illuminating and exemplary. To those writers I know who cannot even imagine why one would read a “literary” biography, I say: read this and see.
– and Ben Friedlander's
Sometimes, all you need is a firm grip from a friend to make it across slippery ground. With Zukofsky, Scroggins is that friend.
– from last year. DIY blurb-building.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tony Lopez: Covers

Covers, Tony Lopez (Salt Publishing, 2007)

Covers, the dust jacket tells us, is a "deeply derivative" work – derivative, not in the sense of being imitative of other poets, but of drawing its language – the whole of its language, "unencumbered by any poeticizing feedback," Bob Perelman says in a blurb – from outside sources. One can recognize bits & pieces of other poems, newspaper reports & copy, various types of journalese & essayese, even a series of fragments from papers delivered at a Pound conference. It's all, oddly enough, concatenated in a very traditional manner, at least to these ears. Lopez is neither a Flarfiste, mining his sources for outrageousness & the shock of the hyper-banal, nor a conceptualist, hewing closely to a method – though there are traces of both of these approaches in Covers. The poems here have clear shapes (is this no more than a readerly impression?), & for the most part clear, even emphatic, closure. Even in a hyper-late-modernist mode of radical collage, Lopez preserves the ancient functions of delight & instruction – or at least laus et vituperatio.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Sigh. After a spate of weird comments – all computer-generated, all in ideograms, linked apparently to a malware site – first from someone named "Kevin" & then from just plain "anonymous," I've just turned on the "comment moderation" thingy. Somehow the "word verification" thingy wasn't keeping Kevin out.

You can still comment anonymously, if you have anything nasty to say; I'll pass on any comment that's come from a real human being.

My mildish OCD has me threshing thru the archives removing the malware comments, but I suspect there's several score of them still out there. Just don't click on any ideograms, okay?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

the poet's role

Interviewer: What is the role of the poet in our world?

Geoffrey Hill: He has none. In London, when a taxi driver who loves to talk with his passengers, asks me what I do, I tell him I am a retired university professor. It is best to leave that I am a poet to the last. The driver would collapse with total laughter while driving and that would be dangerous. The great poet has no social function. The mediocre, yes, he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public. The true poet is completely isolated.

[NB: The uncharacteristic gracelessness of the prose above, I take it, is due to the fact that it is excerpted from a interview conducted in English, published in French translation, then retranslated back into English. Just saying.]

Thursday, September 03, 2009


reading Iain Sinclair's White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, a kind of dark delirium of late Victorian London, counterpointed against the sordid adventures of contemporary rare book dealers: Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Jekyll & Hyde, all as imagined by Blake or Beddoes. Has anyone written a continuous study of postwar English "psychogeographies" (Sinclair's term, no?) of London – Sinclair's various books, fiction & non-, Moorcock's Mother London, Peter Ackroyd, Allen Fisher's Place, etc.?* Something I'd love to do; but I've only been in London twice in my life, & I suspect it's one of those places one can exhaust a lifetime learning.

*I'm convinced one should add China Miéville's Perdido Street Station as well, as dystopic fantasy reimagining of London.

ad interim

Into the 2nd week of the semester. I've decided House of the Seven Gables is actually a very good book. Not really a patch on Moby-Dick, tho, which I'm deep into in anticipation of the next item on the syllabus. Also reading thru Deborah Meadows's lively Itinerant Men, a "writing thru" of Moby-Dick; will report shortly. And dipping around in Huizinga's Homo Ludens & Meghnad Desai's Marx's Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism & the Death of Statist Socialism. (This last is an odd fish, advertised in one of its jacket blurbs as arguing "Globalism is good, because it brings the end of capitalism nearer"; er, yes, so far as I can tell from reading ahead – but then again, Desai seems to predict the end of capitalism sometime in the next half-millennium or so, rather than just around the corner. Oddly enough, the publisher – Verso, usually staunchly leftist – have omitted identifying him as "Baron Desai.")

There's a pattern here, of course: I'm reading books in order to avoid writing, just as Danny Kaye in The Inspector General dances in order to avoid talking. But I've managed, with blood beading my forehead, to squeeze out a few lines of poetry along the way, & I keep telling myself that nothing one reads is ever really wasted. (Except of course Philip Roth's The Breast: I want that hour of my life back, Roth!)
So I went & bought a bicycle. Somewhere in the carport is a Motobecane racing bike I bought used maybe a decade ago. It got some use – but only some, since I realized after not too long that my back wouldn't stand for long periods of being hunched over the handlebars. So early this week I invested (not much) in what they call a "hybrid" bike: lots of different speeds, but upright handlebars. And it's a nice silvery-grey. Not that one uses gears too often down here; one of the few pluses for Florida bike riders is the fact that we don't really have hills. (The nearest thing to a real mountain here is the landfill down in Ft. Lauderdale, which I don't think one is allowed to bike on.)

I guess one starts thinking about safety at a certain age: every time I climb on this thing I think of Bob Archambeau & his recent – well, not so recent anymore – crack-up; and I have a colleague who flew off his mountain bike at one of the local parks maybe 8 or 9 years ago, & still hasn't fully regained the use of one of his arms. If south Florida streets are beautifully flat, they're also overpopulated with frantically texting, phoning, makeup-applying, & otherwise distracted SUV drivers, for whom one lone chubby professor on a bicycle would prove little more annoying than a MacDonald's drive-thru speedbump. But I'm wearing a helmet (unlike most motorcylists in this proudly libertarian state*), & I'm ramping myself up to put in at least 8 or 10 miles a day.

It all comes back to that pesky mortality business, which has preyed on my mind ever since my tangle with that kidney stone just this time two years ago. Yes, it's high time I did something about getting myself into shape, or at least trying to approximate the shape I was poured into back in those salad days of long afternoon runs & hours on the racketball court back in Blacksburg. And after all, if I don't do something about my body's Reich-like demands for ever-increasing Lebensraum, how will I ever, ever achieve the coveted "chili pepper" on Rate My Professors.com? To hell with this "brilliant," "learned," "demanding" stuff – I want the "HOT."

Or if not the "hot," at least I think I'd like to live long enough to see the girls thru college.

*I rather approve, on Darwinian grounds, of Florida's lack of helmet laws – self-purifying gene pools & all that.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

brevity & guilt

[A recent snap of Geoffrey Hill, channelling the elderly Ruskin]

Once in a while a blog post comes along that "convicts" me, as they used to say in my church's youth group – that both convinces & personally accuses: thou art the man (as the prophet says to David). Don Share's Dr Johnson-illustrated post on long books & brief meanderings did it last week, & practically disabled me from blogging for the time being. I can concur wholeheartedly with Don's
I'm increasingly tired of reading and trying to get anything out of all the spurts and blurts and mini-reflections I take in, online in general and in contemporary poems in particular that I look at. Worse, I'm definitely & unapologetically a big book guy.
So I've pretty much stopped tweeting for the time being: a genre – at least for the nonce, in my eyes – more to be followed than participated in. And I'm rethinking "100 poem-books," at least for its last stretch, which seems to have descended into blurbage, precisely what I was hoping to avoid when I kicked it off.

In general, it seems to me there's little sense, particularly for a bear of little brain such as I who continually struggles to connect one thought to another, in issuing wee disconnected thoughts on a daily or weekly basis. It bespeaks the sort of solipsism that the impatient, long winded-world is continually accusing Twitter of.* I don't want Culture Industry to become a collection of tweets: its inspiration, after all, was Adorno's Minima Moralia, in which the form of the micro-essay becomes the concentrated isotopic bearer of incredible density of reflection.
And then those long books: I too love them. This summer I finally finished Fors Clavigera; I hastened through David Copperfield in a single ecstatic week; and I read, in 10- or 12-canto hauls, Alan Mandelbaum's version of the Divine Comedy. Right now I'm well on my into yet another reading of Moby-Dick. When I'm reading Moby-Dick I'm convinced that the entire world is arranged – 19th-c. American lit courses & all – so that I can guiltlessly immerse myself in Melville every year or two.

When I'd read Don's post, tho, I realized a hankering for a big book of deep substance, of real density – a steep mountain, not the easy Fuji-walk of Melville's narrative. So I hauled down a 700-odd page volume that had taken pride of place on the shelf since Amazon delivered it, but which had only been cursorily leafed thru: Geoffrey Hill's Collected Critical Writings. I'd long since read the first three books included here – The Lords of Limit, The Enemy's Country, & Style and Faith – so at the moment I'm finishing up the penultimate of two uncollected collections, "Inventions of Value."

What strikes me immediately, if peripherally, is what one might call the "Guide to Kulchur-" or the "Bottom: on Shakespeare-effect" – that the critical writings act as an immediate gloss on the poetry, so that the oblique references of Hill's poems can very often be glossed by the subjects & references he treats in the prose in a rather more straightforward manner. (There is simmering, somewhere among the multiple stovetops of my attention, an essay on Ruskin & Hill...)

Not that the "rather more straightforward manner"of Hill's critical prose amounts to anything like reader-friendliness, on the level, say, of Terry Eagleton. Hill's prose bristles with circumlocution, is burnished with a kind of density of reflection that reminds me of how a job candidate here once described the experience of reading Hegel: "You read each sentence twice before going on to the next, then at the end of each paragraph you stop & try to figure out if you know what's going on; more often than not, you don't, so you start over."

I'm happy to report that by the point of "Inventions of Value" (lectures delivered mostly around 2000), Hill's prose is rather more straightforward than in his 1st 2 collections. And his overall arguments, tho developed in an enormously subtle manner, are both graspable by a bear o. v. l. b. & immediately relevant to the making of poems – and to civic discourse in general. I think the problem most academic readers will have here is the vast shift of perspective necessary to sympathize with Hill's dour & uncompromising analysis of language, probity, and "inherent value." For Hill, that is, most fashionable contemporary discourse of relativism (linguistic, cultural, etc.) is so much cant, frittering away the attention that ought to be devoted to a close analysis of the relationship of morality and language. For Hill, the definitions of "intrinsic value" (or "inhaerent value") found in Hobbes, Locke, Ruskin, & Newman (i. a.) are not historical fossils, but prisms by which the contemporary poet must judge his own work.

It's dense stuff, but exhilarating with a kind of moral authority that one doesn't encounter very often in contemporary criticism. A taste of Hill at his grouchiest (is he writing here of Basil Bunting, a poet for whom – alas – he has zero sympathy?):
One is put in mind [when comparing Locke & Ruskin on, roughly, "intrinsic value" and a "labour theory" of value] of the fate of certain elderly authors who, rescued from oblivion by côteries and the editors of small-circulation journals, are invariably described as having been hitherto 'strangely' or 'unaccountably' neglected. The 'neglect' by some kind of imaginative fiat is simultaneously held to be both their 'documentary claim' to present notice and an intrinsic part of the 'neglected' author's newly proclaimed value. A vicarious solipsism is also a demeaning charity.
Oh yeah – momentarily forgetting Bob Archambeau's recent tragic encounter with the car door (how's that wheelchair working out, Bob?), I went out & bought a new bicycle. Look for me around the streets of south Florida (or perhaps in the emergency rooms).

*There are too many exceptions out there not to note at least one: Nick Piombino, for instance, who seems to be seriously thinking thru the formal implications of the 140-character constraints.