Wednesday, June 30, 2010

les vacances

So we're leaving early next morning for our French-style long vacation. Six weeks this time, to be divided between (mostly) New York, Tennessee, and a jaunt into Ohio. It's true, I can't deny it – I'm a homebody, hating to be separated from my stuff. But I've cleared my (virtual) desktop of most of the projects that have been hanging around on it, & have assigned myself an entirely doable set of things for the next few weeks: write one essay that's still hanging albatross-like around my neck; figure out what texts I'm going to assign for this fall's graduate poetry workshop; and have some fun. (Of course I'll read a bunch – I mailed off a carton of slim volumes of contemporary poetry, various Ruskin things, and my big new Milton yesterday – but that goes with the territory of "having fun" – I'm strange that way.)

The house is in the capable hands of one of our more dependable undergraduates. The roof leaks I hope are under control, & the upstairs air conditioning should be repaired by the end of the week. So he won't be living in too desperate squalor.

I'm very psyched to see the Brion Gysin retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and I hope to get down to the East Village to visit John Zorn's club The Stone: hey, kids under 12 are free, & it's time Pippa graduated from opera & classic drama to hear some stuff that makes your ears hurt. If anyone else is mad enough to be hanging around the city for the dog days of July, I'd love to get together; drop me a line

Sunday, June 27, 2010

books & their enemies

My relationship with texts is deeply, inextricably mediated by my relationship with the codices in which they are represented. I suspect it's the same with many of my generation. I've been reading Pound's Cantos for a quarter-century now, & my experience of the poem always on some level involves the rust-jacketed hardcover I got for Christmas in 1986. My relationship with Ulysses is to some degree a relationship with the Random House Gabler edition; and that's not just the result of 15 years of successive palimpsestic marginalia in my father's 1986 hardcover, but involves the very typography, page layout, & pagination.

In short, sadly enough I'm as much a book accumulator – and caressor, & savorer – as I am a scholar. I'm sure I have friends who'd be delighted if they could load their entire libraries onto a Kindle (or Nook), but I have a wholly retrograde, deeply old-fashioned investment in paper pages and cloth (or paper) bindings.

We live in a region of extreme weather – extreme heat, big hurricanes, and (during the rainy season) daily torrential rains. And since there are bookcases in almost every room of the house, book are the coal-mine-canaries for leaks. I first discovered our upstairs bathroom had a problem when I took down a book from the top shelf of the built-ins in my study and found it was practically dripping. Alas, the Library of America, from Sinclair Lewis thru Vladimir Nabokov, had sustained severe damage.

While I was in San Francisco, another upstairs bathroom precipitated a flood into the kitchen. I came home to find the pantry newly cleaned out & reordered, & a great deal of junk on the window seat entirely removed, but it was only yesterday, taking down a cookbook to check the proportions for a dill aioli (which turned out beautifully, by the way – yes, I'm proud), that I discovered the water had gotten into the cookbook shelf. Not drastically, mind you – the only volume that can't be salvaged is a 2006 Miami Zagat's – and cookbooks so far as I'm concerned are meant to get beaten up.

Today, as we sat watching an episode of Slings & Arrows, my eye wandered from the TV screen to the adjacent bookcase, & I noticed an odd wrinkling to the dust jacket spine of John Sutherland's biography of Sir Walter Scott. Taking it down, I realized that at some point the book had been badly mishandled: the spine was split at the top. But I saw no water damage, & I'd been pretty paranoid about that particular case, as we've been struggling against a roof leak right over those books for some time now. But then I started exploring other volumes on the same shelf, & immediately got the sick feeling a book-lover gets when he feels books sticking to one another & to the shelf itself.

Short version: Somehow this shelf – the fourth down – and one other shelf – the bottom– had gotten wet sometime in the recent past. Scottish fiction & criticism, from maybe midway thru the Scott criticism thru Muriel Spark & the beginning of the Stevenson primary texts. I suppose you would say mild to moderate damage: water an inch or two up from the base of the books, some better, some largely entouched. Well-established mildew blights on maybe half-dozen books. Only two books, I think, are unsalvageable: a selection of Stevenson essays (heavily annotated, alas) and a nice illustrated volume that collects The Amateur Emigrant and The Silverado Squatters (the shiny paper tends to glue itself together when it gets wet). The rest have been opened & lysol'd and are ready to spend a little time in the sun tomorrow.

I remember how distraught I was when I came back to Blacksburg my sophomore year after the holidays & discovered the upstairs pipes had burst, ruining my copies of Eliot's The Waste Land and Selected Poems. These days I don't get awfully upset at water-damaged books, perhaps in part because I just plain have so many more books than I did back then. I'm sorry that Alexander Welsh's The Hero of the Waverley Novels is crinkly, but how often have I consulted it lately?

With many possessions, the Thoreauvians out there will say, come many worries. Which is true enough. But if I drop Old Mortality into the swimming pool, I can lay it in the sun & in a few hours it will be a wrinkled, puffy, but wholly readable artifact. I dare you to do that with your Kindle.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

the great English songbook

[Richard Thompson, with an unspeakably cool guitar]

Nothing to blog about, and blogging it:

It is officially summer, tho summer weather set in here weeks & weeks ago. Terrifically muggy, sticky, generally uncomfortable. The air conditioner in my little Cabrio died the other week (this is the second time it's done this over the car's lifetime), so getting from place to place is an exercise in temporary sauna-immersion. I'd take the top down, but the sun is unbearably oppressive, & the daytime weather here is terrifically unpredictable: if you leave for the office on a cloudless morning, there's decent chance of getting caught in a cloudburst before you get to the parking lot.

We leave for New York next week, to be away for something like 6 weeks. Am I looking forward to the trip? Well, as much as I usually do – I'm frankly a homebody, deeply inertial. I like being among my books, my guitars, my stuff. But I'll manage. I'll get things read, and get things written. I've already gotten a few little things done since the end of the semester (tho that six weeks has felt more like a week & a half).

Father's Day was nice; I'd spent much of the week before visiting my mother in God's Country (middle Tennessee), a deeply depressing, sad experience, so it was nice to come home to the girls. They gifted me with something I'd been anticipating for years: the big set of 3 Richard Thompson songbooks. Now anyone who knows me well knows that I've had a well-nigh obsessive relationship with RT's music for maybe 30 years now. Yes, I've got all the albums; yes, I know all the words (or most of them).

The songbooks were at first, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. RT's website has been anticipating them for several years now. They'd hired the Fairport Convention guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Maartin Alcock to do the transcribing, & apparently (former descriptions have vanished from the site) the plan was to present the entire RT song corpus – every single song – in detailed tablature. [Tablature, for those non-guitarist-geeks out there, is a kind of pidgin musical notation that shows the guitarist which fret & string a note should fall on: for real musicians who read music, it's a supplement, showing unusual fingerings and tunings; for musical idiots like me, who can read music about as well as I read Greek, it's a wonderful bridge to actually being able to play something.]

At any rate, the 3 volumes of the RT songbook as published don't by any means include all of his songs. It's true, the 150-odd songs here are practically everything one would want to know, but anal-compulsive completists like me are bound to miss a few things. And the promised tablature is only there for maybe 30 or 40 of the songs. Like, it's great to have the tabs for "1952 Black Vincent," but let's face it, I'll never have the technique to play that song anyway; I'd much rather have the tabs for the psychotic guitar solos on "Gethsemene" or "Dad's Gonna Kill Me."

On the plus side? (and truth to tell, the pluses far outweigh the disappointments of this set): The books are spiral-bound, so they lie flat on a table or music stand when you're trying to learn a piece. And even more importantly, while way too many of the songs have nothing more than a vocal melody line & a set of chord symbols, this is very much a guitarist's collection, in sharp contrast to the mass-produced music books of the 1970s or 80s, where the transcribers would figure out chords & then automatically punch in standard chord symbols. Here the transcriber (Alcock's still got a credit in the books, but his contribution has been massively downplayed on the website – what gives?) has scrupulously noted which tunings Richard uses on each song (lots of dropped-D, a good deal of DADGAD), what chord shapes RT plays (some of them exceedingly strange at first glance, but always eventually logical), & whether a given song is capoed. It makes all the difference in the world. Call me slow, but songs I'd worked out in standard tuning in E, & found unplayably difficult, suddenly become cool & luminous when played in dropped-D with the capo at 2.

So it seems suddenly tough to have to leave all guitars behind for the rest of the summer. And – did I mention this? – the newish acquisition. Yes, I broke down & bought a shiny black Turkish baglama (or "saz," the more generic term for stringed instrument) the other month. It's a strange piece of work, a combination of high-tech (pickups, control dials, etc.) & the primitive (the single-piece neck & headstock, the maddeningly inaccurate friction tuning pegs). It makes a lovely sound. I have its three courses tuned in "buzuk" tuning – D-G-A – so I can muddle thru with much of what I've learned on the mandolin & bouzouki. But it's still hard to get used to 18 frets to the octave, & figure out what to do with all of those extra notes. "Kashmir" sounds great, as do the Mekons' "Old Trip to Jerusalem" and PiL's "This Is Not a Love Song."

[is "baglamist" a word? yr humble blogger, flipped courtesy of Photobooth]

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ruskin, polygonally

A couple of recent posts on Bob Archambeau's blog have brought Ruskin's Stones of Venice – specifically, the classic "The Nature of Gothic" chapter of volume II – to bear on of all things Anish Kapoor's Chicago sculpture "Cloud Gate" & David Shields's Reality Hunger. Which just goes to show, after all, that Ruskin's work is always appropriate. And of course it renewed my belief in synchronicity, since I'm reading Stones of Venice II right now.

When the Library Edition first arrived, & when I'd finally carved out shelf space for it, I had to decide how I was going to tackle the thing. And what I've come to, after a few waffles and several digressions, is that I'm reading it thru in more or less chronological order. So I've read the first four volumes – the juvenilia (ick), the poetry (argh), and the first 2 volumes of Modern Painters; then I skipped forward to volume 8, The 7 Lamps of Architecture, & thence into Stones of Venice. One of the drawbacks – or potential rewards – of this process – is that for the last 2000 pages or so I've been re-reading things I read several years ago. Modern Painters 2 (the aesthetic theory) was much better this time around; Stones of Venice 1, however, remains a colossal snore. The volume's subtitled "The Foundations," & it's more or less a 500-page detailed primer in architectural terminology (with sumptuous illustrations). There's only so much this limited neural hard drive can absorb about the relative shapes of cornices, window apertures, roof gables, etc.

Volume 2, I'm happy to report, is much better. Here Ruskin settles down to the task of describing, illustrating, & analyzing the history of Venetian architecture, & painstaking (but again sumptuously illustrated) architectural detail is leavened with lots of wonderful theorizing about the tendencies of various stylistic schools. And then of course there's the blockbuster "Nature of Gothic," in which Ruskin starts out describing the spiritual tendencies of the architecture he loves so much & then veers (as is his way) into a full-throated attack on the division of labor & modern manufacturing society. It's the first blast of the trumpet that gets fully unmuted in Unto This Last. William Morris, who read it as an undergraduate along with his friend Edward Burne-Jones, loved the thing. He arranged for its separate publication as an affordable pamphlet – a key text, he believed, in both what would be called the Arts & Crafts movement and more immediately in the socialist struggle – and later reprinted it again as one of the first productions of his Kelmscott Press.

And Archambeau's right: it's one of those rare mid-Victorian pieces that still speaks directly to us.
Proust on Ruskin (1904):
...Ruskin never wholly ceased to commit the sin of idolatry. At the very moment he was preaching sincerity, he lacked it. The doctrines he professed were moral, not aesthetic, yet he chose them for their beauty. And because he did not want to present them formally as things of beauty, but as statements of truth, he was forced to lie to himself about the reasons that had led him to adopt them.
Discuss, paying special attention to Proust's nascent psychoanalytical impulse, & to how much his own post-decadent, aesthetic moment, might blind him to the unity of the moral & the beautiful in JR.
Ruskin, lecturing (channeling Whitman?):
Perhaps some of my hearers this evening may have occasionally heard it stated of me that I am rather apt to contradict myself. I hope I am exceedingly apt to do so. I never met a question yet, of any importance, which did not need, for the right solution of it, at least one positive and one negative answer, like an equation of the second degree. Mostly, matters of any consequence are three-sided, or four-sided, or polygonal; and the trotting round a polygon is some work for people in any way stiff in their opinions. For myself, I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times.
Ruskin, a footnote to Stones of Venice 2 (having just quoted Henry Francis Cary's Paradiso):
It is generally better to read ten lines of any poet in the original language, however painfully, than ten cantos of a translation. But an exception must be made in favour of Cary's Dante. If no poet ever was liable to lose more in translation, none was ever so carefully translated; and I hardly know whether most to admire the rigid fidelity, or the sweet and solemn harmony, of Cary's verse.... It is true that the conciseness and rivulet-like melody of Dante must continually be lost; but if I could only read English, and had to choose, for a library narrowed by poverty, between Cary's Dante and our own original Milton, I should choose Cary without an instant's pause.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

annotating Milton

It arrived today, my desk copy of John Milton's Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, ed. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, & Stephen M. Fallon (Modern Library 2007), & I think it's going to be just the ticket for this fall's Milton course. It's got all the texts I want to teach in a highly readable typeface, the texts themselves seem quite sound (if modernized), the introductions are concise and thoughtful, & the annotations seem to be pitched much more realistically at my students than the unholy quagmire of Flannagan's Riverside Milton or the unrealistic erudition of Hughes's warhorse 1957 Complete Poems and Major Prose.

Hughes is of course the obvious standard of comparison, & it's the text I used last time around for Milton. Kerrigan & co. (from now on I'll just call the book "ML" for short, ie Modern Library) includes obviously the same poems as Hughes, though the translations of Latin, Italian, & Greek texts are rather more elegant and idiomatic. It has almost as much of the prose, but with the infinite advantage of printing it in single columns, rather than the crunky double-columned layout of Hughes. And while Hughes opts not to annotate Christian Doctrine at all, & reprints the funky 1825 Bishop Sumner translation, ML presents almost as copious selections, with full annotation, in the far more readable Yale Milton version.

The test of a teaching text, however, is in its annotations. Take the famous simile of Paradise Lost I.300-4, where Satan calls upon his fallen angels (I quote from ML):
he stood and called
His legions, angel forms, who lay entranced
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
in Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High overarched embow'r...
Here's how Merritt Hughes annotates the passage:
302-304. Perhaps a memory of Dante's spirits numberless as autumn leaves (Inf. III, 112-14) or of the image as C. M. Bowra notes it (in From Virgil to Milton, 240-41) in Homer, Bacchylides, Virgil and Tasso. Milton may have visited the shady valley, Vallombrosa, during his stay in Florence.
And here's ML:
302: autumnal leaves: Comparison of the dead to fallen leaves is commonplace; cp. Homer, Il. 6.146; Vergil, Aen. 6.309-10; Dante, Inf. 3.112-15. Milton's description is distinctly echoed in Dryden's 1697 translation of Vergil: "thick as the leaves in autumn strow the woods" (Aen. 6.428).

303: Milton likely visited the heavily wooded valley of Vallombrosa in the fall of 1638. The Italian place name literally means "shady valley." Note its somber aural combination with autumnal, strow, brooks, and embow'r. Etruria: classical name for the Tuscan region. Shades is a metonymy for trees as well as a name for spirits of the dead.
(I'm amused by the ML editors' odd preference for Vergil, even as they otherwise pursue an aggressive Americanizing ["somber" rather than "sombre"].) Note how ML gets across the same information in a less telegraphed, more undergrad-friendly manner. They lose the reference to Bowra, but give us hard & fast line references for Homer & Virgil. And they help out my students who have no frackin' idea what "Etruria" means, or why JM uses that odd word "shades" for trees.

But there's a couple of odd notes: The proleptic reference to how Dryden will use the passage – why's that there? And it's nice close reading to point out "somber aural combinations," but that's stealing my talking points, gentlemen.

And the bit that makes the biographer in me groan: "Milton likely visited the heavily wooded valley of Vallombrosa in the fall of 1638." Where's the evidence for that particular sight-seeing side-trip of his Grand Tour? Barbara K. Lewalski, The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography (Blackwell, 2000): "It is possible though not very likely that Milton visited the Abbey of Vallombrosa, a beauty spot about 18 miles from Florence" (94).

Thomas M. Corns & Gordon Campbell in John Milton: Life, Work, and Thought (Oxford, 2008), are rather more pointed:
The mention of Vallombrosa in Paradise Lost was the sandy foundation of a belief that while in Florence Milton made an excursion to the remote monastery of Vallombrosa, and that recollection of this visit eventually re-emerged as the image of the fallen angels who lay 'thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks | In Vallombrosa, where the Etrurian shades | High overarched imbower'. There is not a shred of evidence for this visit, which was not on the itinerary of seventeenth-century travellers, but the absence of evidence did not dampen the enthusiasm of nineteenth-century travellers such as Wordsworth (1837), Mary Shelley (1842), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1847). Mrs [sic] Browning, accompanied by dog Flush and husband Robert, was hauled up to the monastery in a wine basket mounted on a sledge pulled by four white oxen, only to be told on arrival that the monastery could not accommodate women (especially, one suspects, women who announced their intention of staying for three months to escape the heat of Florence). (115)
The legend, however sandy its foundations, lives on in the notes to the Kerrigan/Rumrich/Fallon Milton.