Monday, September 27, 2010

alma mater

It was a kind of gnarly weekend. Yesterday (Sunday) I cooked up a pretty excellent dinner for some guests – palak paneer, chicken korma, basmati rice – which was washed down with approximately 1.3 bottles of wine for each of us; I’m still feeling the effects, I fear, after a long day of work. The madness of having a dinner party only sank in as we were doing the grocery shopping in the afternoon: I’d gotten up at 5 AM to catch a flight back to South Florida, having spent Friday and Saturday at my old alma mater, a large, engineering-technology-and-hard-science-oriented southern land grant university.

I was visiting – and a fine visit it was – as a member of the English Department’s “Distinguished Alumni Board.” I don’t feel very distinguished, I confess, tho visiting campus at length for the first time in two decades or so made me feel quite valetudinarian. That was what was striking. Old Alma Mater’s campus (see above the English Department’s former home building, where I spent hundreds of hours of classes) is incomparably prettier than Our Fair University where I now labor, and it’s been expanded remarkably: lots of new buildings, all more or less attractive, all more or less constructed in harmony with the dozens of university Gothic edifices already in place. So it hasn’t really changed much. I walked around on the paths I walked at 19 or 20, I visited the campus bookstore to find that they still specialized pretty much in t-shirts and hoodies rather than books, even the hotel where I was staying seemed to be hosting the same crowds of drunken students in their nightclub. (It’s now a Holiday Inn, tho it was a Marriott back then.)

And amid the clouds of garden-variety nostalgia, I found myself remembering not merely the good things – the great courses, the late-night sessions of reading and talking, the dancing, the girlfriends, the house parties with their student bands – but the frequent loneliness, the grinding boredom of so much of the time: the desperate need to find something to do when the books got just too oppressive. And I felt really, deeply old – even tho by any objective standard I’m still roughly middle-aged. It’s that sense (& I have no intention of dwelling on such a clichéd topic) of one’s youth as a time of endless opportunities, of open-ended choices and options. Hey, I’m more than happy with the path I’ve taken, & wouldn’t swap it for anything; but there’s something about being a 20-year-old with only vague ideas of the future that, at least in retrospect, is very exhilarating.

The “Distinguished Alumni Board” held a series of business meetings, and then served as hosts for a series of career workshops for English majors – résumé critiques, mock interviews, little round-table discussions of what these young people wanted to do with their lives. I fear I might have scared a handful of young folks away from graduate school in English (the terms “Ponzi scheme” and “astronomical odds” figured in my conversation). I was, you see, the academic “ringer” of the board – the one person who’d gone on the grad school in literature & actually made a success of it. And heaven knows, given the restructuring of the academy and the pyramid scheme of the academic labor force these days, I’m not recommending that path to anyone else.

The other alumni present were to a person personable, successful, and very nice, and almost without exception quite well to do. I suppose what stuck in my craw, more violently as the weekend proceeded, was the continual invocation of the “real world” – you know, that thing you enter once you graduate from college. By the final event, I found myself wincing every time I heard the phrase uttered, especially when it was coupled with a hopeful evocation of how well-prepared these young English majors were to “use” their “language skills” to get ahead in this “real world.” I’m a slow study with words, so I didn’t get around to formulating the thoughts swirling in my head until late Saturday night, but here’s what I would have said if I’d had Wilfrid Laurier’s famed silver tongue:
This weekend the other members of the Distinguished Alumni Board, all successful, generous, and remarkably nice people, have given you a good deal of very sound advice about making your way in the “real world” – the world after graduation. I wouldn’t subtract a word from any of the useful things they said. But I’d just like you to take a moment for a thought experiment: What if the world you’re living in now – the world of the English major, where the most important things are beautiful, well-crafted, exploratory monuments of language; where you expose yourselves to and participate in wonderful intensities of emotional depth, of social critique, of aesthetic experience; where you devote yourself, singly and in conjunction with your colleagues, to open-ended, sensibility-expanding intellectual exploration – what if that world’s just as “real” as the world in which your command of language all too often becomes a tool for selling things – yourself included? What if it’s realer? What if this is the real world, and the “real world” of “getting and spending” is just the Matrix?

Just a thought experiment – maybe. But if you value the kind of intellectual labor, emotional intensity, and aesthetic joy you find in the work you’ve done in the Department of English, and if you find the “real world” failing to live up to the possibilities of the “utopia” you’ve inhabited over the last few years, then don’t be afraid to try to change that “real” world, to make its reality something closer to the possibilities you’ve seen here.
That was my last word – and I wish I'd actually said it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

bring on the noise

My musical life tends to be a one-track thing. For the past week or more I've been doggedly (but with delight) listening thru the entire corpus of the Mekons, chronologically, as a single playlist on my iPod. I'm maybe 250 tracks into the total 370. I've passed thru the "punk" Mark I Mekons, the country & western Mark II Mekons, the delightfully experimental mid-period Mekons, & am now into the turn-of-the-millennium "retrospective" Mekons (ie, 2 volumes of odds 'n' sods, before they come roaring back in full force with Journey to the End of Night).

Instrumental rock isn't a genre I've given a lot of thought to, tho I'll blushingly admit to owning way too many King Crimson records, and even having once upon a time been able to play "Red" (badly) on the guitar. If you're still inclined to think of the genre in terms of surf rock (The Ventures, Dick Dale) or of noodly jazz improvs, you need to buy the above EP, There Are Crashes. It's by the Bells≥, a new Brooklyn-based band whose drummer – the only reason I know about this group – is the redoubtable Zach Barocas, whom I know as the proprietor of the excellent Cultural Society website. Zach's an excellent editor, a smart & sensitive poet, and a powerful & expressive whaler of the skins. This is muscular & exciting music, continually reaching out for, & then foreswearing, the "big" gesture. It reminds me of nothing so much as Mission of Burma in their prime. A lovely noise.

Hie thee to Bandcamp (for fancy formats) or the iTunes Store.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

reading Lycidas

Thinking about Lycidas over the past few days, rereading the poem again & again. Thinking about Emerson in 1833, on his first transatlantic crossing, the ship caught in a gale & no-one on board knowing whether they were going to be alive or dead an hour hence, fishing the poem out of his memory: "I remembered up nearly the whole of Lycidas, clause by clause, here a verse & there a word, as Isis in the fable the broken body of Osiris."

Edward King, "a learned friend, unfortunately drowned in his passage from Chester on the Irish Seas, 1637." "Who would not sing for Lycidas?" And who would sing for Milton, were he to drop dead at 28, author of a handful of minor poems? "So may some gentle muse / With lucky words favor my destined urn..." And who would sing for the 30-year-old Emerson, all his works yet to be written?

Ruskin, in Sesame and Lilies, seizes upon Lycidas – "a book perfectly known to you all" – & gives it an early & still unsurpassed "close reading":
Now go on: –

'Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers' feast.
Blind mouths –'

I pause again, for this is a strange expression; a broken metaphor, one might think, careless and unscholarly.

Not so: its very audacity and pithiness are intended to make us look close at the phrase and remember it. Those two monosyllables express the precisely accurate contraries of right character, int he two great offices of the Church – those of bishop and pastor.

A 'Bishop' means 'a person who sees.'

A 'Pastor' means 'a person who feeds.'

The most unbishoply character a man can have is therefore to be Blind.

The most unpastoral is, instead of feeding, to want to be fed, – to be a Mouth.
In both instances, an immediate laying hands on a text familiar from childhood. (A nineteenth-century phenomenon, this easy assuming of familiarity with Milton's minor poems?) I didn't read Lycidas, I suspect, until I was in my mid-twenties. My students are encountering it, for the most part, for the first time – unless they've read it in another college course. What's lost in the university teaching of canonical poems when students (& for that matter their instructors) don't have that from-childhood familarity with the text? (More importantly, since there's no turning back the cultural clock, what's gained?)

Samuel Johnson hated Lycidas. One of the best "bad review" lines ever: "Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author."

For Johnson, the poem suffered in the first place from being a pastoral, "easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting." (Keeping in mind that "vulgar" and "disgusting" meant something rather different in 1779 than they do now.) Its pastoral frame, its allegory, its "inherent improbability" – its lack of shall we say realism – mean that the poem "will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour." And Lycidas's "grosser fault" lies precisely in Milton's Renaissance humanism: its mingling of the "awful and sacred truths" of Christian religion with the "trifling fictions" of the classical pastoral. If Lycidas is praised, Johnson concludes, it is because the "blaze" of "reputation justly acquired" "drives the eye away from nice examination."

We could say, I think, that Lycidas just isn't the sort of poem Johnson likes; (and – moreover?) that it violates his criteria of aesthetic valuation, criteria which include a certain "smoothness" of texture, a certain realism, and above all an ironclad decorum: one simply oughtn't higglety-pigglety mix together classical nymphs & singing shepherds with Christian pastors, regardless of the etymology of "pastor" itself.

(Discuss, perhaps, in relation to Michael Thurston's "review" of Black Life?)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

bad. review.

Ruskin did more than write big books critiquing Renaissance art & architecture; he was a pretty busy critic of his contemporaries, as well, issuing a number of volumes of “Academy Notes” which assessed each year’s offerings from the Royal Academy. And he became quite an influential critic, more than fond of puncturing established reputations. Punch ran a brief bit of doggerel as a “pathetic lament of an Academician”:
I paints and paints,
Hears no complaints
And sells before I'm dry,
Till savage Ruskin sticks his tusk in,
Then nobody will buy.
Me, I’m kind of envious. The critic calls the work as she or he sees it, consequences – both to the critic and to his subject – be damned. Ruskin doesn’t give a rat’s ass if half the painters in England hate him, as long as the good ones know he’s on their side; and he doesn’t give a rat’s ass if he destroys the market for someone’s second-rate work – that just means someone should be working harder & painting better.

There’s precious little of that out there in the poetry reviewing world right now (aside of course from the perennially bilious William Logan). And in the poetry blogosphere, bad reviews are very hard to find indeed. Reviews seem to come in three varieties: more or less enthusiastic recommendations; expressions of doubt about the direction a poet’s taken, cushioned by mounds of respectful praise for her or his previous work and overall “project”; and attacks on established figures, mounted more or less on the basis of the labyrinthine socio-political-aesthetic politics of the “scene.”

Here’s an example of a bad review – indeed, an über-bad review, titled “Worst. Book. Ever.” It’s by a blogger who calls himself “MT,” and it’s of a collection called Black Life, by Dorothea Lasky. Up front: I do not know either MT or Dorothea Lasky. They are not my “friends” on Facebook, nor have we exchanged books, addresses, or offprints. This is really the first time I’ve ever heard of her poetry; yes, I don’t get out much. (I have it turns out heard MT’s real name, & at some point I may have read an essay of his, but more on him later.)

It’s a savage review, which reads like the sort of thing I’m tempted to write at 2 in the morning after I’ve had a few dog’s noses (gin & bitter) & am feeling particularly rejected by the world. Read the thing yourself; it’s not as beautifully crafted as one of Logan’s hatchet jobs, or as unbalanced as one of Franz Wright’s tirades, tho it has some nice moments of saevo indignatio. But note: MT feels, for whatever reason, that he needs to keep his bile (his “crankiness,” as he calls it in the blog description) anonymous.

What I’m really interested in are the comments, however. One sympathetic soul asks, if you hate the book so much, why bother reading it? To which MT replies:
i was reading/hearing about the book, there were poems in it that had been published in some high-profile and reputable places, so i picked it up and gave it a try. then the motivation was intellectual curiosity. as you know, like you, i think about this stuff for a living. so i wanted to understand how, why, by what definition, these were good poems. i'll admit failure on that score: i could not find a way to find them good.
The negative comments were rather interesting, however. One read simply “you really really just don't get it. Sad for you. Oh well.” Another:
It's kind of entertaining how clueless this review is. I'm just trying to figure out what's more pathetic—your nonsensical fundamentalism regarding "correct" grammar and punctuation, your lack of a sense of humor, your lack of a sense of poetry, or your malicious, tedious, and baseless attacks on the author's character.
But the final response really takes the cake. It's by someone I'll call "T"; I've met him once or twice, we are indeed friends on FB, he's always struck me as an intelligent, personable young poet-critic. T begins by emphatically "outing" MT, revealing his real name & his academic position:
It is especially sad to me that this person (Associate Professor of English ------------- for anyone who may not have cared to figure out the abbreviation "MT") teaches young women at ----------, and may in fact be a tenured professor, since the arguments he's making and his criteria for judgment are both paternalistic, if not misogynistic, racist, and very possibly anti-Semitic. In terms of the charge of misogyny, women's writing in particular has often been accused of being sentimental, effete, ill-formed, and naive (or in this case "faux-naif"). It is one of our unfortunate Victorian inheritances, and one that ---- proves has not gone away despite the efforts of countless artists, intellectuals, and writers in the 20th century. In terms of the charge of racism (which also obviously applies to the first), to assume that there is a standard or normative English (i.e., "well-written prose") reinforces a power structure that maintains its hegemony by policing certain forms of language use and marginalizing the language use of various “others.” Given that much of Pound's writing could hardly be considered normative (now or then), it is not just a little ironic that ----- holds up Pound as a model of normative English grammar. I'm not sure what ----- means by "Chagallery," but I also find it curious that the one example of "ugliness" he holds up, other than Lasky's poetry that is, happens to be a Russian Jew who survived pogrom and drew on Russian-Jewish folk traditions for his art.
(For the record, I can't abide Chagall's nostalgic surrealism-and-water. Does that make me anti-Semitic? Ask my Jewish daughters or my Jewish in-laws or my Jewish friends. And if we're going for full disclosure, perhaps T should have been more up front about the fact that he himself happens to be married to Dorothea Lasky.)

All this is rather beside the point. MT is an intelligent reader, generally well-disposed (as his blog demonstrates) to a pretty wide range of contemporary aesthetic modes. His review of Black Life is an ill-disposed savaging, but at the same time he's clearly trying to make sense of what sort of aesthetic criteria within which Lasky is operating. And none of his commentators are the least bit interested in helping him out. As MT puts it,
maybe it's a failure of critical imagination. maybe i got punk'd and this book was really a brilliant, flarfy critique of precisely the slackly vapid bid for a gig at a fifth-rate, low-res mfa program that it pretended to be. if so, when ashton kucher and camera crew show up, i'll sheepishly accept my punking.
If post-Romantic literary history has taught us anything, it's that when a writer is retooling the terms by which poetry is to be received – refunctioning what has been stigmatized as "weakness" into contemporary strengths, reshuffling what is to be taken as "bad" and "good" – she or he, & those who value her or his work, need to work double hard in making explicit the terms of those revaluations. Just ask Wordsworth, Whitman, Stein, etc. Just ask the Flarfistes. I don't know Lasky's work (tho I'm interested enough now to seek it out), but the bits that MT presents don't seem to conform to most definitions of "good" poetry: so show me, those of you in the know, what new definitions are being advanced.

Friday, September 17, 2010

2 latest reasons to love Hollywood

1) Sacha Baron Cohen, he of Brüno, Borat, & Ali G. fame, is set to star in a biopic of the Queen lead singer Freddy Mercury, according to Variety.

2) In other high culture news, Alex Proyas, the director of The Crow and I, Robot has signed on to film Paradise Lost as an "epic war in heaven between archangels Michael and Lucifer." It "will be crafted as an action vehicle that will include aerial warfare, possibly shot in 3D." I dunno about you, but I'm pretty damned anxious to see this.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

annals of academic publishing, part 437

Back in February 2008 I got a nice email from a journal editor (henceforward we'll call him "JE"), asking me to write a brief review of Maeera Shreiber's Singing in a Strange Land: A Jewish American Poetics (Stanford 2007) for his journal (henceforward "Journal"). So I had 82 other things to do that semester & over the coming summer; so I was swamped as usual; so of course I said "sure, send me the book!"

Well, true to my word, I got my review in by the end of July (2008, remember). And a nice thank-you from JE. "We'll be in touch if it needs anything." And then I forgot all about, confident that Maeera's work was going to receive its due in Journal.

Flash-forward to February 2010. I get an email from another journal who's lost my mailing address; they want to send me offprints of a review I wrote for them over the summer of 2009. And my memory is jogged about that Shreiber review. So I dash off an email:

Just got an email from another journal, tracking me down for offprints of something of mine they published last year & forgot to tell me about, and it reminded me of this review of Maeera Shreiber's Singing in a Strange Land written for [Your Journal] year before last. Was it ever published? Did it somehow go astray?

The response?:
Dear Prof. Scroggins,
I am the new editor of [Our Journal] -- [JE] is no longer with the journal -- and as I look through our files, I see that the review was scheduled to be published in issue 40.3 but somehow was not. I'll reschedule its publication for our next issue, which will be 41.3
With many apologies,
[New Editor]
Ah, gotta love that "somehow." A vague way of saying "oops, lost in the files." And earlier this week – a solid two years after I submitted the piece – I received contributor's copies & offprints of the review.

I don't think they do it this way at the New Yorker. Anyway, if you're interested in reading what I have to say about Maeera Shreiber's excellent (but no-longer-so-new) book on American Jewish poetry, backchannel me & I'll give you the actual citation for my laggard publisher.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

half-way point

It's been a very long time since I've posted any original poetry on Culture Industry, but perhaps reaching the half-way mark on a long-term project calls for a bit of celebration. Over the past couple of years I've been working on a longish project in the mode of what Ted Pearson once called (describing his own work) "a long poem with very few words."

The title of the sequence as a whole is "Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles." I've shamelessly borrowed the designator pastorelle – "pastoral song" – from John Taggart's brilliant 2004 Flood Editions collection. The poems take their titles from the tunes of the 1989 Torture Garden collection (itself titled after Octave Mirbeau's 1899 Les jardin des supplices), by John Zorn's hardcore thrash jazz ensemble Naked City (Zorn sax, Fred Frith bass, Bill Frisell guitar, Wayne Horvitz keyboards, Joey Baron drums, Yamatsuka Eye vocals). Torture Garden collects 9 "miniature" pieces from Naked City's first eponymous album (1989), adding 33 more that would appear on its second record, Grand Guignol (1992). Its 42 tracks make an extraordinarily intense 25 minutes of music, a speedcore roller coaster comparable to Hüsker Dü's Land Speed Record (1982) or Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime (1984).

Each poem is what I think of as a "half sonnet": seven lines, each line an LZ-esque five words. Almost all of the actual language of the poems is appropriated, borrowed from books, the conversation around me, the songs running thru my head.

And now I'm halfway thru. Here's the twenty-first, with smatterings of Hegel, L'Allegro, an old familiar hymn, & the chatter of yesterday's department meeting:
21. Sack of Shit

Another question couched at hand
is this intellectual labor is
this does it produce does
virtue wash it all pure
spent grace fully trusting washed
absolute freedom mountain nymph sweet
terror soiled so tainted question.

Friday, September 10, 2010

books, bonfires, lawyers

The Milton course this semester will be reading what I guess is a substantial chunk of his controversial prose – more than they’d like to, I imagine. “Controversial,” by the way, means “involved in controversies that aren’t particularly relevant to most of my students’ lives” – like who cares about the structure of church government anymore? or who among my 20- to 25-year-olds believes that divorce should only be allowed in cases of adultery, whatever Jesus said about it?

But there’s one hoary old text that never fails the “contemporary relevance” test: Areopagitica, the “freedom of the press” pamphlet Milton published in 1644, which was much on the mind of the Framers when they put that 1st Amendment into the Constitution, & which gets cited at every turn whenever someone wants to defend someone’s right to publish something.

As never fails to get pointed out, Areopagitica isn’t a clarion call against censorship in general (Milton does believe works of “tolerated popery and open superstition” should not be allowed): it’s a call specifically against pre-publication censorship, books being entirely blocked from publication. Books, Milton argues, ought to be published with the names of their authors & publishers attached, and only then assessed. If an anonymously issued book is found to be “mischievous and libelous,” then it should be burned by the hangman; one assumes that name-bearing books would be liable to the same treatment, & their authors and publishers liable for whatever bads they promulgate. This isn’t so very different from contemporary American law: though attempts to criminalize “seditious” writing tend to peter out, libel remains a powerful legal stick wielded by corporations and individuals against writers and publishers.

Three things of course made me think forward on my syllabus towards Areogpagitica, & the whole discourse of the ills that books might do: First, someone’s reminiscence of this Houston loony, who back in 2006 wanted to remove Fahrenheit 451 from the school’s curriculum because of its “cussing” (his daughter’s description) and “using God’s name in vain,” and because of its descriptions of Bible burning. All taking place, beautifully, during Banned Books Week. (The irony of course is overwhelming.) Which of course led me to think about this whole business in Gainesville with the publicity-seeking “pastor” who’s hit upon Koran-burning as his last-ditch fundraiser for his on-life-support Pentecostal congregation. (No links there – you’ve already heard more than enough about this guy.)

And finally, Kent Johnson – the premier gadfly of American poetry. His latest work, A Question Mark Above the Sun: Documents on the Mystery Surrounding a Famous Poem “By” Frank O’Hara, in press at the moment, is something of a thought experiment: what if “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” a poem found among O’Hara’s posthumous papers by his friend Kenneth Koch, were not by O’Hara at all, but by Koch? Edmond Caldwell lays out the matter well in this post, as well as revealing the next, eye-popping development: a stern letter to Johnson’s publisher from the Kenneth Koch literary estate, strongly threatening legal action should A Question Mark be actually published.

Richard Allen addresses the legalities of the matter here, along with raising some questions about the letter’s authenticity, given Kent’s history of involvement with things – the Araki Yasusada business – that have gotten labelled “hoaxes” in some quarters. I don’t think KJ’s bluffing here; and I’d like to register outrage at the Koch people’s attempt to roll back the clock to the time before we all read Areopagitica. Hey, whatever you think of Yasusada or Kent Johnson in general, this is the moment to drop $20 for A Question Mark, if only to let Bertelsmann Inc. know that some American writing & thought is still taking place outside their umbrella of Mordor.

Saturday, September 04, 2010


I've been revisiting Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces lately, & thinking about one of my fantasy jobs – music journalism. Fantasy, that is, because aside from all the logistical business of swapping one career for another, it's pretty damned difficult to intellectually retool oneself at my advanced age. Once upon a time – back when I was in high school & an undergraduate, I'd have dropped everything for a gig reviewing records and concerts. Now, I'm not so sure that even if such an opportunity offered itself I'd take it.

For one thing, I don't think I have the kind of concentrated listening attention span I used to. I probably listen to more or less as much music as I did back in the day, but I'm not sure I listen to it as closely as I once did, or respond to it as deeply. I'm still capable of hearing a song or composition that I want to listen to over & over, & proceeding to play it repeatedly. But I have much less patience with the pieces that don't somehow catch my attention in the 1st or 2nd hearing. Maybe that means my tastes are more refined – that I'm able more immediately to separate the wheat from the chaff. Maybe it means that my musical palate is somewhat more blunted than it once was, so that it takes more & more stimulation to rouse it (make the vindaloo hotter & hotter, please).

But heaven knows music writing out there could use some help, if the books I've been dipping in are any indication. Lipstick Traces remains spirited & exciting, but I really have very little patience for what happens when Marcus starts writing about particular songs or particular musical moments: instead of describing or analyzing in any systematic manner what's going on in a given song, he spirals off in fugues of free association, essentially telling us what chains of thought the song is giving rise to in his head.

Jon Savage's England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, which I've also picked up, is the kind of day-by-day history only an obsessive-compulsive fan & archivist could write – and only an obsessive-compulsive fan & archivist could really enjoy. It's nice that what every member of the first lineup of the Pistols were up to any given week has been recorded, but it's not exactly enjoyable reading for the non-completist. (Hey, maybe that's it! – I'm just not a completist anymore.)

Simon Reynolds's Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 is the closest to what I'd see myself as writing: a roughly chronologically organized history of the second generation of punk music, with some decent descriptions & analysis of the music itself, profiles of crucial players (many of them far from famous), and a solid sense of how aesthetic form was influenced by social and political forces. Thus far, alas, it's a bit on the bland side, and (like Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise) rather too broad in its scope to pay enough attention to any given moment. I guess that's the drawback of writing broad-stroke history – even if 400 pages for 5 years isn't exactly a thumbnail sketch. Most irritating moment: looking for bibliography/discography/reference notes at the end of the book (they weren't there), only to be told that I could find them by shlepping over to Reynolds's website ( I expected better from you, Penguin Books.
update: is now one of those "you could own this site" sites; the notes are here, however, on one of Reynolds's rather interesting blogs.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Pound, selected

When Ezra Pound died in 1972, I was – well, I was alive, but I wasn't old enough to be reading him. I grew up on Pound in those tatty New Directions paperbacks, some of them handsome, some of them – like the Selected Poems that came out in 1948, & kept getting reissued, year after year – you know the one, with the profile snap surrounded by black space – among the ugliest books in my library. I read the selections – the Selected Poems, and then the Selected Cantos – and then turned to the full monty: Personae, the Collected Earlier Poems ("stale cream-puffs," he called them in an author's note), The Cantos (in a thick, brick-like rust-jacketed hardcover).

I was turning over a small pile of recent issues of Paideuma (used to be the Pound journal, now a more generally modernist poetry-oriented thing) and came across a review of Pound's Early Writings: Poetry and Prose, edited by Ira B. Nadel, published five years ago by Penguin. I picked up a copy of the book earlier this year at the ALA in San Francisco; it's been off & on lunchtime reading – mostly just to kind of remind me of how good Pound can be, since it's been a couple of years since I've read him intensely.

There's some problems with the collection. Yes indeed, as Paideuma's reviewer notes, the introduction could have used some serious copy editing: the editor actually uses the Rastafarianism "prophesized" at one point (something I spend at least 15 minutes banning from my students' vocabularies when I teach Bible). And there's the delicious typo (?) where he describes Pound's "logopoeia" (you know, "the dance of the intellect among words") as "the dance of the intellect upon words."

And the notes, while perfectly copious & for the most part very useful, have some odd lacunae. It's good to know that "And the great domed head, con gli occhi onesti e tardi / Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion, / Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things..." is quoting Purgatorio VI & Inferno IV, but it would be even nicer for a student reader to know that Pound's describing Henry James as he knew him in London before the Great War.

But overall it's a very solid collection, which manages to get in practically everything, prose & poetry, that the ordinary reader would want to tackle of Pound's productions up thru 1922. But I'm still not used to seeing Pound in that banded, combination matte/gloss standard issue Penguin cover. It's even more unsettling than seeing him in the Library of America (as welcome as that was). What the Penguin edition means (as did the Dover Thrift Edition a few years back) is that Pound is chunk by chunk going out of copyright, and his works are being thrown open to every promotional hand that speculates a buck can be made – and of course, every editorial hand who feels s/he can do a better job of presenting the work than's been done earlier.

The more the merrier, my readerly/scholarly side sez. But there's part of me – death-bound subjectivity, as I explained to my Milton class yesterday – that's regretting the editions of yesteryear (les neiges d'antan), Pound in those black & white paperbacks sporting their "New Directions Paperbook" numbers and the number of their printing, Wallace Stevens in that powder blue Knopf dust jacket, Beckett behind those horrid Grove Press cover designs. "They used to call it An-tig-you-ah," snarled the elderly Robert Frost when Guy Davenport mentioned that Archibald MacLeish was in Antigua; "they've changed everything."

Thursday, September 02, 2010


For the most part I can't listen to pop music while writing or reading intently; the words being sung simply interfere with the words I'm trying to write or read. Even when I was writing the poems of "Anarchy for the U.K.," I couldn't set the iPod on Sex Pistols or Gang of Four or PiL; I'd listen intently, scribbling notes, then I'd switch off and tinker with the evolving collages of the poems. When I read an interview with Jerzy Kosinski where he talked about always listening to rock music at high volumes while writing, I thought to myself, that explains a lot about his his prose style (which I loathed).

I can on the other hand listen to classical or jazz, or really anything without words, & maintain a pretty decent level of concentration on the language before me. Not happy about this, tho – it makes me feel as tho I'm using music which demands & rewards full attention as something little better than sonic wallpaper. Like the listeners to the dire local NPR classical station – all warhorses, all the time – do. "It's nice music to have on in the background." Me, I think Webern's nice music to have on in the background – but I'm sure Anton himself would be pretty pissed off to be so used.

(The most radical refunctioning of the late 20th century: the intensely autonomous "high" art music of the late 19th c. – Brahms, Wagner – retrofitted to the social function of the baroque era's background sound.)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

as ever

Milton's 7th sonnet, "How soon hath Time," bemoaning the passing of his 23rd year & the fact that he has as yet little in the way of accomplishment to show, and even lacks "inward ripeness," ends with this enigmatic sentence:
All is, if I have grace to use it so,
As ever in my great task Masters eye.
(I quote Roy Flannagan's original-spelling version). Already, in the sonnet's sestet, Milton has shifted from bewailing to acceptance; whatever his pace of maturation/production, it will be "in strictest measure eev'n / To that same lot, however mean, or high, / Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav'n."

The gist of the final lines is clear, restating the sentiments of the four lines before. But how precisely do we parse them? The annotators take a range of stabs at it:

Merritt Hughes cites Lewis Campbell, Pindar, Kester Svendsen, and Donald Dorian, and ends with Dorian's paraphrase:
All time is, if I have grace to use it so, as eternity in God's sight.
John Shawcross offers his own paraphase:
All things are, as they have always been, foreseen by God, my great task-master, just as long as I have the grace to use my inward ripeness as He wishes.
Flannagan quotes Svendsen:
All that matters is whether I have grace to use my ripeness in accordance with the will of God as one ever in His sight.
And Kerrigan/Rumrich/Fallon (this semester's set text) offer this:
All that I do in time is as though done in eternity, provided that I have the grace to act in accord with God's will.
Flannagan/Svendsen makes the most prose "sense" of the passage, tho he's clearly going well beyond the letter of the text ("All that matters"?). Kerrigan et al. would seem to be mildly expanding Hughes/Dorian. Shawcross is as usual pertinent (tho one has to ask whether the speaker's failure to "use his inward grace" would somehow invalidate God's foreknowledge, as Shawcross's syntax implies).

What do these glosses add up to, with all their minor variances & restatements of earlier authorities? They add up to one of those passages, so common in Milton, in which the overall import is fairly clear, but the specific semantic relations among the words are far less so.
LZ, 1963, in I's (pronounced eyes) will refunction Milton into a link between the transcendent, unreachable "blue sky" of Mallarmé and the debased orthography of contemporary advertisement:
as ever
adz aver