Saturday, October 31, 2009

month's end

Okay, to wind up a month of desultory blogging, here's some Halloween cheer. The girls, in all their costumed splendor, a study in contrasts:

First Pippa, 7, as Wednesday Addams. (Alas, all too many neighbors didn't get the joke. "What a cute little pilgrim girl!," they'd burble, as P. maintained the grim iciness I'd assured her was Wednesday's proper demeanor.)
And then Daphne, 5, as the Candy Corn Fairy. What's a candy corn fairy? Search me – she saw the costume, & it had to be hers. The fluffy white wings are an add-on, as are the Dora the Explorer shoes. (And for that matter, the blue stamp on her forehead, which isn't intended to be an ├╝ber-early Ash Wednesday reminder.)

Many houses were visited, much candy collected. Everybody's exhausted. Thank Ba'al for an extra hour's sleep tonight!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

new poems in Cultural Society!

To leaven a disastrous week – up to the eyeballs in work, the car in the shop (yet again – yes, half an hour after I retrieved it from the shop this morning, after five days, the "check engine" lights lit up again), the heat still not broken – Zach Barocas's excellent Cultural Society has updated, including new work by Peter O'Leary, Norman Finkelstein, Tyrone Williams, & a pa'cel of others, including yr. v. h. blogger: two poems, each of them entitled "Untitled."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

back (?)

Almost a two-week hiatus there, almost unheard of. Jeepers. My only excuse – well, there are several:

•General work-related busyness: a flock of papers to grade, a set of midterms ditto, novels to teach that I've never taught before & am unsure I have anything interesting to say about.

•Pedal-to-metal work on a longish essay on of all things gardening poetics: LZ, Ronald Johnson, Cole Swensen, Ian Hamilton Finlay. Great fun, tho harder work than anything I've tackled in some time. This one is by no means put to bed, since I'm sure there'll be at least a couple rounds of revisions, but at least it's drafted & sent off to the editor.

•We adopted a kitten. Not exactly adopted – rather found, lonely & mewling, in the back yard. The vet identifies her (a grayish tabby, very very fuzzy – I can see pulling cat hair out of my mouth for years to come, & Ba'al knows this is the end of dropping my black jeans onto the floor & expecting them to be wearable next morning – & of course very cute) as about 5 weeks old. Still generally feral, but beginning to warm up to the idea of being in a people house.

But mostly work-related busyness. The task at hand is rereading The Portrait of Lady, & coming up with something interesting to say about it for next week. And of course gearing up for the next essay deadline, this one perhaps the most challenging of all the 5 or 6 things I've foolishly committed myself to this fall. I will try to get back to blogging more or less regularly, but no promises: there are certainly enough books of poetry I want to write about, not least the sumptuous new Bloodaxe Briggflatts, which should be on everyone's stocking-stuffer list this Hanukah.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Joel Bettridge: Presocratic Blues

Presocratic Blues, Joel Bettridge (Chax, 2009)

One of my favorite college assignments of all time was a take-home midterm in Nick Smith's "History of Philosophy" ("part I: Presocratics thru Plato") course back at Tech. Nick handed out an unidentified presocratic fragment (he'd written it himself, of course), & our assignment was to identify its "author" on the basis of doctrine, style, or whatever logical clues we could follow. (Hint: It's not by Pythagoras, who left no extant writings.)

I think I got an "A" on that one, & have remained more than mildly fascinated by the presocratics ever since. (My copy of Kirk & Raven is on the verge of disintegrating.) I love it that some of them wrote their philosophy in verse – which is part of what gives Joel Bettridge's project, a mash-up of presocratic philosophy & classic American blues, a kind of air of inevitability (why didn't I think of that?) even as it comes as a complete surprise.

Nifty poems these, constantly surprising and amusing, divided into "Testamonia" – poems about various presocratics overlaid with various blues figures ("Diogenes and Stagolee in a Punch-Up," "At cards Hippocrates and Blind Willie Johnson...") and "Hollers," poems attributed to various presocratics, in which the mysterious totalities of their philosophies are juxtaposed with the affective immediacies & repetitive structures of classic blues. It's got a great beat & you can dance to it, and (to quote is it Spinal Tap?) it makes you think.


Friday, October 09, 2009

green thoughts/green shade

What do you want to do on your day? was the question last week, & after thinking a bit, I realized that I wanted to do something that would combine pleasure with work. (I have a lot of sympathy with Adorno, reflecting on how the "illustrated weeklies" always report on famous people's "hobbies":
I have no hobby. Not that I am the kind of workaholic, who is incapable of doing anything with his time but applying himself industriously to the required task. But, as far as my activities beyond the bounds of my recognized profession are concerned, I take them all, without except, very seriously. So much so, that I should be horrified by the very idea that they had anything to do with hobbies – preoccupations with which I had become mindlessly infatuated merely in order to kill the time – had I not become hardened by experience to such examples of this now widespread, barbarous mentality. Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them.)
So I said, "let's go to Vizcaya."

Villa Vizcaya, down Miami-way, is an Italianate villa built by zillionaire industrialist James Deering early in the last century as a winter home. The house itself is a rather splendid affair, chock-full of 400-years'-worth of fine & decorative artworks Deering had plundered from Europe. My own interest, however centered on the gardens. Vizcaya's extensive formal gardens, designed by Colombian landscape architect Diego Suarez, are probably the finest example in the United States of a garden in the 16th-century Italian formal style.

I wandered thru the grottoes, along the curvilinear parterres, past the statuary and fountains, snapping literally hundreds of photographs, trying to take in the garden not merely as pretty thing but as experience, as aesthetic whole. It's not that I hadn't been there before – I've visited probably 3 times in the past, & I've been to many of the important bits of landscape architecture along the east coast: the gardens of Williamsburg (& of course all of the gardens adjoining most of the historic mansions in the Virginia/Carolina region), Longwood Gardens, Winterthur, Biltmore, Dumbarton Oaks, etc. (Not to mention a handful of the more important northern Italian gardens, Butchart Gardens in Victoria, & of course Central Park.) But I'm trying to begin to make sense of the garden experience, to conceptualize what goes into garden design & what experience a design aims to provoke in the garden's visitor.

All of which signals that my longtime interest in garden poetics, which first poked its head out of the ground in a 1996 Toronto paper on 80 Flowers (still unpublished, & for good reason), is beginning to become a central research occupation. It gives me a chance to correct the errors of & update my Ian Hamilton Finlay essay (oddly enough, perhaps my single most cited piece of "scholarly" writing). And it gives me an excuse to spend lots of time with books that have large, beautiful photographs.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

author functions

The Kent Johnson/Kenneth Goldsmith Day business has gotten me thinking about authorship issues – that, & the fact that I'm in the middle of grading papers, where I have to be on constant guard for some bleeding chunk of internet-derived prose somehow sneaking in under the name of one of my students. And lo & behold! what should emerge from the tomb but the Bill Ayers-Barack Obama authorship "scandal."

For those of you who don't follow the nail-biting hijinks of American political "discourse," here's the short version: William Ayers was a 1960s radical, a founder of the leftist anti-war group the Weather Underground; he spent a number of years as a fugitive. After coming in from the cold – charges against him for a number of bombings had to be dropped, as the FBI had used illegal tactics in gathering evidence – he became an academic. He's now a highly-regarded professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. And a longtime acquaintance – a bosom buddy, an ideological soul-mate, some on the right say – of Barack Obama.

In 2001 Ayers published Fugitive Days, a memoir of his time with the Weather Underground. Astonishingly enough, in 1995 Obama had published his own memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Intelligence. Something was fishy there, it seemed to those on the right, among them the conservative journalist Jack Cashill, who was convinced that Obama couldn't have written that book (a best-seller, & by all accounts a hell of an absorbing read) on his own. But who was the ghost-writer?

Bill Ayers was the obvious culprit. After all, he was the figure who most clearly linked Obama to a radical anti-government socialist agenda; and he'd written a book, which was also a memoir. And both of them misspelled Frantz Fanon's first name – in the same way! and referred to eyebrows, 6 times in Ayers's book, seven in Obama's! And they each use the terms "baleful" and "bill of particulars"!

This silliness persisted for some time, reaching a particular height right before last year's election, when a right-wing moneybags named Robert Fox offered Peter Millican, an Oxford don & expert on stylometric analysis, $10,000 to "prove" by computer comparison that Ayers had written Obama's book. Millican looked over the two books & quite sensibly opined that they looked very much as if they'd been written by, well, William Ayers & Barack Obama, respectively. For $10k he'd run the analysis, sure, but only if he were free to publicly announce his conclusions. Fox backed down & withdrew the offer.

One would have thought the issue was dead, at least as dead as the argument that Christopher Marlowe had faked his own death, went into hiding, & went on to write all of Shakespeare's plays – a comparable bit of silliness. Until the other day, when conservative blogger Anne Leary ran into Ayers at a Starbucks at Reagan National Airport. And you know what? He confessed:
Then, unprompted he said--I wrote Dreams From My Father. I said, oh, so you admit it. He said--Michelle asked me to. I looked at him. He seemed eager. He's about my height, short. He went on to say--and if you can prove it, we can split the royalties. So I said, stop pulling my leg. Horrible thought. But he came again--I really wrote it, the wording was similar. I said I believe you probably heavily edited it. He said--I wrote it. I said--why would I believe you, you're a liar.
I know what you're thinking: he's indeed pulling her leg. He's had it up to here with this authorship bullshit, & he's talking to this blogging head who's forced herself on him, in a voice dripping with irony ("if you can prove it, we can split the royalties"). Even Leary seems to recognize this, for a brief moment – until she falls back into the far-right's more typical loony conspiratorialism:
But the question remains--is Barack Obama a fraud? Is his myth-making creation and only major accomplishment a product of Bill Ayers' imagination? (or his own) Is our President Barack Obama's biography written by an unrepentant domestic terrorist?
And what's even more astonishing (amusing?) is that the right-wing blogosphere is now alight with crowing exultation over Bill Ayers's "confession." Even Jonah Goldberg of the National Review (remember William F. Buckley? would he have wasted time on this?) finds himself "forced to revise" his "earlier pooh-poohing" of the Cashill story.

What they all seemed to have missed was a National Journal piece over the weekend, recounting a meeting with Ayers at a book signing:
When he finished speaking, we put the authorship question right to him. For a split second, Ayers was nonplussed. Then an Abbie Hoffmanish, steal-this-book-sort-of-smile lit up his face. He gently took National Journal by the arm. “Here’s what I’m going to say. This is my quote. Be sure to write it down: ‘Yes, I wrote Dreams From My Father. I ghostwrote the whole thing. I met with the president three or four times, and then I wrote the entire book.’” He released National Journal’s arm, and beamed in Marxist triumph. “And now I would like the royalties.”
What's missing on the right here, I guess, is any sense of irony. In their frantic quest to find anything with which to smear Obama, they're running with the most obviously sarcastic "confessions" on Ayers's part as to the authorship of a book which I'm sure he'd've been all too glad to have had a hand in, if only to help out with the mortgage. (In all fairness, Goldberg goes on to admit that Ayers seems to be "pulling some chains" – including JG's own.)

The operative assumption here, I suppose, is that politicians aren't talented enough (or don't have the time, or whatever) to write their own books, even their own life-stories. And generally speaking, that's true, if you look at the author-lines on "autobiographies" by most of the major figures of the past few decades. Even the word-peddlers on the right don't seem to write their own books, more often than not: Glenn Beck's books are co-authored with Kevin Balfe, Rush Limbaugh has used a succession of hacks to turn his tirades into linear prose. How then could Obama actually write his own life story?

What they're missing, obviously, is that Obama is a highly educated man – an academic, in fact, having taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years. And one of the main things that academics do is write. That's how we communicate within our disciplines, that's how we argue the issues we care about. I'm not surprised that Obama & Ayers were able to write compelling memoirs – they had compelling stories to tell, & by their very professions they had a certain mastery of language. What would be more surprising would be if they had written downright boring or incoherent books.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009


I'm moved by, & sympathetic to, Josh Corey's post on the difficulties of blogging – what with, you know, parenthood, teaching, trying to do real writing – & his simultaneous reluctance to jettison the blog. I hope he doesn't, because I've found much food for thought in his Cahiers.
The glumness displayed in my last post has dissipated a bit, largely because I've just made the decision to forego a bit of travel that had been weighing heavily on my mind: neither an academic nor a personal trip, but something rather in between, which would have been kinda fun & kinda useful, but a pain to the tush schedule-wise & something of a financial burden. Hard to pass up, in the end, but deciding to pass on it actually makes me happy.
In the midst of teaching Uncle Tom's Cabin, which I'm finding surprisingly engrossing. I confess – for once I'm not rereading the book along with the class (tho I did read it just a few weeks ago); the texture of Stowe's prose is just too icky for me; but as I'm turning thru the book, I keep finding more & more for us to talk about. It's really a fantastically rich (& of course problematic) novel, in terms of rhetoric & argument, of ideology, even of narrative structure. Maybe not in the end a good book, but a vastly teachable one.
I suspect much of the discussion time in my graduate workshop this evening will be devoted to Kent Johnson's Day, his "retread" of Kenneth Goldsmith's Day, the dogged typing-up in 836 pages of every word of a single issue of the New York Times. In an upping of the conceptual ante, Kent & the folks at BlazeVox Books have simply slapped new stickers on existing copies of Goldsmith's book, announcing the work as Johnson's & adding BlazeVox to the publishers' credits. (You can watch BlazeVox's Geoffrey Gatza actually doing this, interspersed with hits – er, "puffs" – on a handsome little pipe, on a video here.)

I've known Kent for maybe 15 years now; he contributed an excellent essay to the Upper Limit Music LZ collection – that was back around the time the Yasusada business was in the works – but we've been in only intermittent touch since. I admire gadflies, & Kent is the best gadfly contemporary American poetry has. (I don't count William Logan, whose brand of nay-saying has little to do with Carlyle & lots in common with the teabaggers – & is light-years away from Johnson's Wildeanism.)
Trying to get something done on my own poems. The long sequence of Zorn-inspired shorts, "Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles," moves rather slowly, but lately I've been turning out somewhat longer things under the repeated title "Hope and Change." Hard to miss the irony there, but I suspect utopian flashes linger in the interstices.

Monday, October 05, 2009


I wonder if my own desultory blogging is just a reflection of overwork & overcommitment, or somehow a symptom of the general online Zeitgeist. Facebook seems to have drawn off most of my "social networking" energies – that is, my impulses to post hasty updates about what I'm having for lunch, or whether I'm happy – and the micro-bursts of Twitter seem to enraptured any number of folks who've in the past devoted themselves to more lengthy ruminations. The upshot of it all for the denizen of this particular desk chair is that my energies seem even more scattered than usual, my attention-span shorter & shorter. I have to make a particular & sustained effort to bolt myself down to write a paragraph or two here, & the effort is commensurately greater for writing the half-dozen lengthy & serious pieces I've committed myself to over the next few months.

I worry of course about aging & the mind. Not a class meeting goes by these days but I have some fleeting attack of aphasia, inability to remember the word "commensurate" or "ambidextrous" or "syllabus." (My GP told me my vitamin B12 levels were a bit on the low side, by the way, so I've been trying to pop a supplement occasionally – or trying to remember to...) One of those milestone birthdays rolled around this past weekend, which brought it all home: I realized that only if I'm extremely lucky in the decades to come can I look back on this year as "nel mezzo" etc. I'm definitely on the downward slope.

What does that mean? If, as I think Hayden White argues, the essence of narrative lies in an act of retrospective judgment, then I suppose I'm worried about the final judgment on this particular life-story. What have I done? A handful of decent essays; an overlong & painfully mannered scholarly monograph, read with care by the 200 other people in the world interested in its subject; a not-bad literary biography, reviewed with enthusiasm in some quarters & vile disdain in at least one; a slim volume of poems, almost all of which I look back upon as sheerest juvenilia; a stack of newer poems – much better to my eyes, but still painfully limited – awaiting some seismic shift in my acedia for me to try hawking them about to a publisher.

A fire, I fear, needs to be lit under me.
At any rate, in true bourgeois fashion let me turn away from such bleak ruminations & focus on what in our late capitalist society really makes life worthwhile – consumption: the stuff I got for my birthday! The Library of America Elizabeth Bishop was a welcome addition to the collection, as was the DVD of John Adams's Doctor Atomic. And I was much moved to look over the new Bloodaxe edition of Bunting's Briggflatts, a poem which has rarely been out of my mind over the last two decades. This edition is just plain splendid, luminous, with lots of photos, introductions & afterwords by both Bunting & his editors, a fascinating note on the poem's textual state & composition by Don Share, & best of all, both a CD of BB reading the poem and the DVD of a very fine 37-minute documentary produced by Peter Bell in 1982, two years before Bunting's death. The poet is old, halt, & ruminative, but his voice is as rich & sharp as ever.

Best of all, perhaps – in terms of literal consumption, & in terms of eco-consciousness – was the seltzer maker from the SodaStream folks. Now as a true son of the South, my beverage of choice has always been iced tea: "unsweet" tea, as opposed to the sweet variety. (Yes, Yankee illiterates, that's "unsweet," not "unsweetened.") But at the time of my 2-years'-past kidney stone bout, my urologist, as he told me to radically up my fluid intake, also warned me off tea & coffee – not the caffeine, but the vegetable solids, which he said had been shown to lead to stone formation.

Well, I can't do anything about the coffee: like many of my other vices, it's simply a physiological necessity. But the tea was entirely replaced with seltzer. Soon enough, Daphne decided that she too likes "fizzy water," & we have gotten to the point of going thru maybe 3 gallons of the stuff a week, which means shlepping a lot of two-liter bottles from the grocery, & throwing a lot of them out in the recycling. The SodaStream setup – which isn't particularly cheap, tho I suspect it'll pay for itself sooner rather than later – changes all that. More or less instant seltzer, direct from tap water (or from the Brita bottle).

Oh yes, & in a rare venture to the only decent 2nd-hand bookstore in South Florida outside of the excellent Bookwise in Boca, I found a copy of the rare & elusive The Studio, a 1979 paperback introducing the "fine art" (ie, non comic book art) work of Jeffrey Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith, William Michael Kaluta, & Bernie Wrightson. Seriously good stuff.
Update: Today's letter carrier brought in the last few outriders among promised gifts: the Library of America Hart Crane; Ian Brinton's collection of essays, A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne (this one I'll have to put on a high shelf & promise myself as a reward for finishing the stack of papers due in tomorrow); & a shiny new release from Verso, Gopal Balakrishnan's Antagonistics: Capitalism and Power in an Age of War. (Did I briefly, distantly, know GB back in the day at Cornell?)