Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Harness your OCD!

I'm still reading Geoffrey Hill's Oraclau | Oracles, savoring. I'll report when I'm done. Actually, as usual I'm reading it in tandem with a stack of other things, among them Modern Painters Vol. 3, Robert Fagles's translation of the Iliad, and Allen Mandelbaum's version of the Divine Comedy. Just finished that last, in fact – and as usual, everything else under the sun seems to pale in the light of those last few blinding cantos.
The Milton class got their midterms back today, & for some reason it seemed as tho a sudden cloud had blotted out the sky as they filed out of the classroom, muttering grimly. Not my fault if they can't tell a quote from Lycidas from a quotation from Areopagitica.
I'm gearing up for some serious writing/revising over the next few days, & actually looking forward to it. My lodestar on matters of how to get academic writing done, for the past months, has been Jonathan Mayhew's wonderful blog Stupid Motivational Tricks. (Given the rampant tenure-bashing one's been hearing the past couple years, it's worthwhile scrolling down to read his beautifully concise & wholly accurate post from Sunday, "Why Do Research After Tenure?") Mayhew's a more than solid scholar – 4 books to his credit – & by all indications an all-round nice guy. If one finds his scholarly output pretty intimidating at first glance, he has a knack of breaking down the tasks of writing articles & books into doable chunks, so that even I feel I might get something cranked out in the mid-future.

Most of the "stupid motivational tricks" are just that – gimmicky but effective ways to channel wasted time & mental energy into productive labor, or handy ways of focusing your scattered energies in useful directions. But I suspect that even if I were to put all of those tricks to use, I wouldn't be able to match Mayhew, because the guy also seems to be operating with a fairly high level of OCD – a kind of wonderful over-organization that I couldn't begin to match, given the general slovenliness of my mental & physical life.

On the other hand, I reflect, I too have a certain level of perhaps useful OCD. I like organizing things, and making lists: I'm cataloguing all my books on LibraryThing, and the ones that I have shelf space for are for the most part pretty rigorously organized; I keep track of everything I've read, & actually pay attention to the "play counts" on my iPod, so that I can make sure I listen to every song thereon before I add another album or two. (I'm behind – there're about 400 unlistened-to songs – but that's out of maybe 13,000 total, so I'm doing okay.) I keep track of how many liters of seltzer I make out of every Soda Stream charger. And so forth.

So why don't I channel this low-level OCD into something useful – like losing weight? I've decided it's no fun being the fat man of the department, and my lower back and calves have begun to feel the strain, as I trundle down the long winding slope of middle age. I've looked at any number of diets & exercise regimens, & all of them come out to the same thing: eat less, move around more. I can do the moving around more bit. I own a bicycle, & I enoy riding it. I climb the stairs at work rather than take the elevator. I've been doing much of my reading & writing at a standup desk, which I'm told in itself burns more than a few calories.

But there's the "eat less" thing. It's true – I love food. Indeed, I'm a desperately oral creature. I like searing hot sauces, crunchy, savory snacks, oily things of all descriptions. I like to snack, and I tend to overeat. But there's a well-sculpted me, somewhere within these adipose waves, struggling to get out. Heaven knows, at least I can get myself looking as good as Morrissey – once the epitome of skinny hotness – does these days.

Perhaps, somehow, I can harness my own obsessiveness to an aesthetic of renunciation: of not eating that handful of cashews, just because they're there, or those malted milk balls P. brought home from her youth orchestra party. We're coming up on Halloween, I know, which may be the stiffest test of this recent experiment of mine. If I come thru without gaining a pound or two, I'll let you know. If my own OCD fails me when I need it most – well, you won't hear about it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ruskin v. Benjamin

It's hard not to like a blog like The Leeds Arcades Project, which seems to be obsessed on the one hand with Walter Benjamin and the other with John Ruskin. Party on!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Geoffrey Hill's production pace

[Geoffrey Hill on the left, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams center – try imagining Ron Silliman with Pat Robertson – oh, never mind.]

Someone should write a book on poets' rate of production. I once began a Parnassus essay on Ted Enslin with the following snarky anecdote:
Two friends of mine were waiting at the maître d's desk in a posh New York restaurant, when one of them whispered urgently, "Look over at that table – there's Joyce Carol Oates! She's having dinner with a guy – and he's holding her hand. He must be telling her he loves her." "Naw," the other said, "he's just trying to keep her from writing during the meal."
I went on to compare Enslin – who's published a veritable blizzard of books over his long and immensely prolific career – with Cid Corman & Robert Kelly, & gave some thought (& rather too much snark) to the effects of overpublication, overproduction.

I think I had in mind, as counterexample, a poet like Basil Bunting, who popped off at 85, leaving behind – what? – 250 pages of work, only a handful of lines of which I'd be willing to sacrifice on that desert island. Or Geoffrey Hill, whose slim volumes – at least thru the mid-90s – emerged with such irregularity and constipated, impacted grace that one couldn't imagine His Giant Dourness becoming a publishing machine like John Ashbery or T. C. Boyle.

Well, there's a new Geoffrey Hill book out: Oraclau | Oracles, just published by Clutag Press in Thame, Oxfordshire. As it comes closely on the heels of A Treatise of Civil Power (Penguin, 2007 – an earlier chapbook version by Clutag in 2005), it's worth casting an eye over Hill's publishing pace, as he nears 80.

I met Hill once in I think it was 1987, at Campus on the Hill, where I was impressed by his savage comb-over (he'd just gotten what seems a very bad haircut, so the combed-over portion failed to meet the hair on the other side of his bald spot, as tho he'd been imperfectly scalped), limp handshake, & implacable seriousness. I was already deeply impressed by his poems – I had his first Collected Poems (Oxford UP, 1986; Penguin, 1985), which brought together 5 books & one longish poem published over 25 years:
For the Unfallen (1959)
King Log (1968)
Mercian Hymns (1971)
Tenebrae (1978)
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983)
Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres (1984)
For those who're counting, that's something like a book every 4 years. There was a lapse between the Collected Poems & Hill's next volume, but when that one came out, it was as if someone had turned on a spigot:
Canaan (1997)
The Triumph of Love (1998)
Speech! Speech! (2000)
The Orchards of Syon (2002)
Scenes from Comus (2005)
Without Title (2006)
A Treatise of Civil Power (2005/2007)
Oraclau | Oracles (2010)
What's more, the jacket copy for Oraclau | Oracles announces that this book is actually only one of five collections Hill has completed since A Treatise, one of which will appear in 2012, and all five of which will constitute the "final section" of Hill's Collected Poems 1952-2012, "scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2013."

My word. 12 collections, then, in 16 years. The man has picked up the pace a bit. What's most surprising is that Hill's post-1990 work is to my mind his best, retaining the gnarly intensity of the early work but transposing it to a decorous (& sometimes flippant) vernacular, plumbing the moral issues with which he's always been obsessed more deeply than ever. I haven't read Oraclau | Oracles yet, but I'm itching to; at this point in Hill's career, more collections are just more of a good thing.

Maybe I should reconsider that Joyce Carol Oates joke. Or maybe read some more of her books. Naw.


Reading – mostly re-reading – Ezra Pound's early criticism, most of it from before the First World War, in Ira B. Nadel's Penguin Early Writings: Poems and Prose. An odd freshness to the reading, out of the aged New Directions typefaces and into the "canonical" Penguin fonts – and perhaps simply the lapse of a couple of years since revisiting the texts.

Pound was 28 when the Great War broke out; me, I'm – well – rather older than that now. When I was 28, I was living in Northern Virginia, finishing my dissertation. It would be another three years or so before I landed my first (and still only) academic position. Where I am now Full Professor, aged, grey-bearded, balding, making up for the sclerosis of my thinking with a kind of awkward Pythonesque classroom showmanship.

The cusp of 30 is a good age, a vigorous age: I read Pound's always energetic prose, his boundless ambitions, & envy:
I resolved that at thirty I would know more about poetry than any man living, that I would know the dynamic content from the shell, that I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was 'indestructible,' what part could not be lost by translation, and – scarcely less important what effects were obtainable in one language only and were utterly incapable of being translated. ("How I Began")
There is no waffle, no "on the other hand" or "but" or "one might concede." Positions are staked militarily, with no concessions, no "I am staking out a position" – the poet-critic speaks, & presents what he says as self-evident truth:
Ibycus and Liu Ch'e presented the "Image." Dante is a great poet by reason of this faculty, and Milton is a wind-bag because of his lack of it. ("Vorticism")

No good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from books, convention and cliché, and not from life... ("A Retrospect")
This is the writing of youth – or the writing of sublime self-assurance – or the writing, some would cavil, of monstrous arrogance. I wish I could write like this. I wonder, is my constant weighing of alternatives a mark of my fundamentalist upbringing, my deeply-ingrained diffidence (a Uriah Heepish humility – my mother always pronounced "humble" without the aitch)? or has a quarter-century in the academy so socialized me in the discourse of the "yes, but" that I'm unable, without considerable strain & self-analytical unease, to say what I think?

Note to self: a course in arrogance, in the sublime self-assurance that makes Milton (fuck you, Ezra Pound) just as great a poet as Dante, and just as scrappy.
all criticism should be professedly personal criticism. In the end the critic can only say 'I like it', or 'I am moved', or something of that sort. When he has shown us himself we are able to understand him. ("The Serious Artist")

All that the critic can do for the reader or audience or spectator is to focus his gaze or audition. ("A Retrospect")

Monday, October 18, 2010

Seth Abramson responds

Seth Abramson posted a reasoned & nicely-toned response to my little recent bellyache about the professionalization of poetry; my first impulse was to respond in the comments box, but I think he deserves to be heard above the fold:

I think it's important to remember--as I always say, in nearly every article I write on the MFA degree--that the MFA is a "largely-unmarketable, non-professional art school degree." Consequently, the purpose of the rankings is to encourage programs to fund students (and do other things that applicants care about, like emphasizing studio work and a three-year flexible curriculum) not to help anyone get a job because (say) they went to the #11 program instead of the #42 program. That's really beside the point -- the rankings are intended for applicants only, i.e. to help them understand which programs are best at offering applicants what applicants report they care about, not for the benefit of professors, employers, &c. I realize everything in life has contained within it the possibility for its misuse and misunderstanding, but that doesn't change the fact that the rankings are not conceived of, nor designed as, the sort of cultural artifact you seem to presume they are.

And here's how I'd respond:


all your points are well taken, & I'm totally supportive of the extent to which your lists really are designed to help applicants find a program that will give them what they need, without saddling them with lifetime debts.

And I'm not presuming anything about how the rankings are "conceived of" or "designed." Alas, in this sublunary world of Consumer Reports and the US News college rankings, your lists will inevitably taken as something other than what you've conceived or designed them for. As many times as we repeat that the MFA is, in your apt words, a "largely-unmarketable, non-professional art school degree," prospective MFAs will continue to imagine that they are the lucky few who will win the brass ring: much of it has to do with simple modeling, their wholly reasonable observation that poets & writers who teach in MFA programs, especially those who've managed to hook up with the "visiting writer" and contest judge circuits, have a pretty good life of it.

And as I implied in that previous post, while the MFA ideally would be an "art school" degree, the vocational training that comes with the program – teaching undergraduate courses, working on a magazine or a book series – is directed either towards a career teaching in the academy or a more vaguely defined "being a professional writer" within the various networks that make up the biz.

In the end I suspect it's a bit of a catch-22: despite the listing's laudable intentions, & its very real orientation towards applicants rather than institutions – as opposed to the program lists Lingua Franca used to run, ranking PhDs in various sub-disciplines – it's inevitably being taken in ways you didn't intend. And its very existence, as a kind of Rough Guide for those who are about to insert themselves into the MFA & all it entails, is a mark of this "art school" degree's sliding into professionalization.

Thanks for responding so thoughtfully,

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


No, I'm not packing quite yet, but we're leaving at the crack of dawn for a long weekend in Williamsburg, VA, which has become one of our semi-habitual autumn haunts. It's good to get away to where one can really feel the chill in the air, where the trees actually turn. We also like 18th-century architecture, & the smell of woodsmoke, & people pretending to be 18th-century folks. If I lived in England, I suspect I'd be a (English) Civil War reenactor (Parliamentary side, of course).

I've decided on course texts for this spring's "Epic" class. Yes, it'll be Robert Fagles for the Iliad and the Odyssey; Stanley Lombardo tempted me, but Bernard Knox's introductions and notes for the Fagles volumes are just so very good, & the translation is so generally solid (if occasionally "chatty," as one scholar notes) that I'm not sure they're losing much. For the Aeneid, I'm leaping into the dark & using Sarah Ruden's new Yale translation. I'll let you know how it works out.

This afternoon I will attempt to make students excited about Milton's Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. I'll let you know how that works out, unless it's such a fiasco that I end up resigning my professorship and crawling into a hole somewhere. Go figure – I love teaching Milton. I just want to jump up & down & say, See, see, can't you see? He's so BRILLIANT! & he's such a PSYCHO! But that of course is beneath my dignity, so I try to do in balanced, periodic sentences.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

My MFA problem

That last post set me thinking – or maybe this weekend I'd think about anything to avoid marking papers – about the entire institution of the MFA, which has become a topic of internet pissing & moaning as ubiquitous these days as Madonna was in 1985. Bob Archambeau, in the comments section of a recent, typically learned, post about "wit" in contemporary poetry on his own blog, lays out a list of a list of "ways to talk about the professionalization of poetry," from most to least boring:
1. Most boring: ranking MFA programs
2. Second most boring: complaining about the ranking of MFA programs.
3. Semi-boring: complaining about the prevalence of MFA programs
4. Sort of exciting: looking into the causes and effects of the rise of MFA programs from as disinterested and historically-informed a perspective as possible.
5. Exciting: seeing how the MFA programs fit into several long histories: of the universities, of the social role of the poet, of professionalism.
6. Totally exciting: linking the histories mentioned in 5, above, to aesthetic effects.
Hmmm. My own thoughts probably fall somewhere off the scale on the "boring" side, I fear. Let us say
0. Eminently pass-overable: personal ruminations on the MFA.
At any rate, I find the whole Seth Abramson-MFA ranking phenomenon actually rather interesting, at least as an index of how much things have shifted between my own far-off days as a young poet in an MFA program & my present as a portly, grey-bearded full prof who teaches in a young "dark horse" program. (Which, in case you're interested, includes exciting faculty with expertise in Creative Nonfiction, Literary Translation, and even – dare I say it? – Biography!)

Some things never change: there's the endless mantra, repeated by almost everyone, that "writing can't be taught"; a program can only do something else – give one time & breathing space in which to write, provide a interested company of similarly-minded young poets, perhaps (if one's really lucky) even drop one into a mentorship relationship with an older poet.

But certain things have clearly changed. The very existence of Seth Abramson's list, for instance. Now of course people back in the day used to talk about what the "best" programs were – where the "hot" poets were teaching, & where there were generous fellowships and cushy assistantships. That all this scuttlebutt has been qualitatively analyzed and put into a list, however, is an index of just how professionalized the MFA industry has become. I hear it in the corridors, & see it when I visit other institutions; MFAs are talking about poetry like they always have, but they're talking about pobiz (the prizes, the publications, the fellowships, the various ways to "make it") more than they ever have.

Indeed, the whole business of being a poet associated with academe has become much more rigorous and codified than it was. Publications – sure; journals are good, but a book is even better (which of course necessitates the endless round of $25 reading fees – a boring grouse in itself). A web presence is a must. Five years ago, you had to have a blog; now you have to be on Facebook, and friend everybody who might possibly help you get ahead. Attending AWP is a must – not so much to go to panels or readings, but to rub shoulders with possible publishers and useful connections. (And let's not kid ourselves – the off-site readings, both at MLA & AWP, are less a counter to the onsite events than they are their hipster simulacrum: if AWP is the mall, then the offsite events are the black market – but they're both commercial gatherings.)

I have rather ghastly misgivings whenever I lurch back and think about the MFA as a professional program. Here's where I'm coming from: I spent 6 or 7 years at a top-ranked PhD program where we as grad students were being explicitly groomed to do precisely what our professors/mentors did: to take up tenure-track positions teaching some variety of literature/theory/cultural studies. I don't have precise figures on the fortunes of my cohort at Campus on the Hill, but I suspect that we may be the last generation to have a better-than-even chance of grabbing that brass ring. The bottom dropped out of the academic "job market" around the time we matriculated, and it's been dropping steadily downward ever since. And as the jobs have dried up, the bar for grabbing one of those vanishing tenure-track jobs has climbed steadily higher. Once upon a time you could get a starting tenure-track position at Our Fair University with an ABD and a promising scholarly project; these days you won't even make the first cut of the applicant pool unless you've published at least a couple of articles. (In another 10 years, we might just as well put "book published or under contract" in the job description.)

Things are even tougher for MFA grad students who hope to get jobs like those of their MFA professors – you know, secure tenure-track university positions with livable teaching loads. The lucky ones will end up with instructorships or tenure-track positions at community colleges or teaching-intensive institutions; they'll be teaching 4 or 5 courses a semester, wondering where all the time for writing went. More will end up trying to piece a living together out of adjunct gigs, and maybe eventually drop out of the academy altogether. Only an exceptionally lucky few will end up doing what they were professionalized to do.

But, some argue, we're not training MFAs to be professors – we're training them to be poets. Well, so far as any real vocational training they get in the MFA goes, it's to to the things a professor does – it's certainly not to be an accountant or a dental hygienist or a geologist. And what many MFA programs seem to be doing, besides initiating young people into an increasingly dead-end profession, is professionalizing them as poets – is teaching them to work the circuits of publication, prize contests, post-graduate fellowships, etc.

My problem – aside from a general, gnawing sense of bad faith in participating in the graduate side of higher education at all – is that I don't have a clue as to how to help anyone get ahead as a poet. I can look at your poems & tell you what's exciting & unexciting about them to me; I can show you a bunch of tricks I've learned over the years; I can point you to any number of poets you might not have looked at otherwise. But I know about as much as your cat does about how to become a famous and successful poet-person.

I gave up staying awake nights trying to figure out how to be a famous & successful poet-person a long time ago. I've settled for trying to figure out how to write the poems I want to write, and to write them as well as I can. I think I might be able to help you with your poetry, if you want help with your poetry. Getting you published, hooking you up with the right contests, helping you into a job? I won't say you're on your own there, because there's thousands upon thousands out there right now trying to grab just those brass rings. But it's like those lovely subdisciplines of Middle English or colonial American lit: there are some regions of this profession I know a bit about, but don't claim to "do."

I'm not ashamed to call myself a professional academic; I'm a professional teacher, a professional scholar, to some degree even a professional writer. But I'm not a professional poet, & the moment a graduate program falls into the trap of thinking it can professionalize a creative praxis (even if it does so unconsciously), that's the moment it becomes a betrayal of that very praxis.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

dark horses

Seth Abramson, with his annual Poets & Writers rankings of the top creative writing programs in the country, has become something of a kingmaker in the whole CW industry. Some people, like the folks who rush out to buy the US News college rankings every year, actually take these things seriously. My old undergrad alma mater, bless her, has been touting their program's breaking the top 40 of the rankings at the head of every e-mail and brochure I've seen over the past year.

Imagine my surprise then when I came upon Abramson's piece on the Huffington Post, something of an appendix to his latest rankings (see 'em here), on "The Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs," and found, by the magic of alphabetization, the MFA program I attended –
Hard to imagine an underrated Ivy, but Campus on the Hill's MFA struggles to stay in the top 10 nationally despite boasting the third-best funding scheme in America -- even if you don't consider the fully-funded one-year lectureship virtually all graduates receive. The American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) rates College Town at the Foot of the Hill the top college town in America. Plus, the student-to-faculty ratio is jaw-droppingly good
– cheek by jowl with the program in which I now teach at Our Fair University, described with beautiful concision as "A dark horse among dark horses."

I have no idea what the hell that means, but having studied hard in the long schoolroom of poststructuralist logodaedaly, I'm convinced that it can be made to mean something good. Very good.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

reading notes

A veritable maelstrom of work lately, in the wake of an epic birthday party this past weekend. (The recycling bins are full of beer and wine bottles; I hazily remember – with wincing embarassment – that the guitars came out sometime after midnight.) In the intervals of grading (or thinking about grading), reading for classes, taking care of the girls, & other pursuits, I've turned over a few books of poems.

John Taggart's Crosses: Poems 1992-1998 (Stop Press 2005) was the great unfindable book (not) in my library. John & I had been frequent correspondents for a long while, had spent quality time with each other over the years, not least in the DC book and record stores, but had to some extent fallen out of touch after I moved to Florida & became immersed in the LZ biography. We reconnected at the 2004 LZ centenary conference at Barnard/Columbia in 2004, and since then I've deeply enjoyed his Flood Editions books, Pastorelles and There Are Birds – splendid collections both, exploring a newly compressed, rhythmically various idiom. To my delight, the postman the other day brought his brand-new, enormous selected poems, Is Music (Copper Canyon), edited by Peter O'Leary.

But Crosses: after searching futilely for the book online for years (having missed its initial publication announcement entirely), I'd entirely given up on finding the book, only to happen upon a pristine volume in City Lights in SF this past spring. For me, there was an odd kind of time-lag in reading this in 2010, for Crosses is really echt mid-period Taggart, its poetics deeply congruent with the repetition-with-variation of Loop (Sun & Moon, 1991), Standing Wave (Lost Roads, 1993), and When the Saints (Talisman House, 1999), rather than the suppler, more demotic poems of Pastorelles & There Are Birds. These are, however, as with the best of Taggart's work, strange, darkly luminous poems. He writes about music, musicians, and philosophers; he even writes, however obliquely, about film – I note an immersion in The Last Temptation of Christ. But there's no sense of the shallowly ekphrastic or adventitiously occasional here: a painting or a performance or even a movie are for Taggart the levers with which to pry his way into the deep & uncomfortable moral mysteries of life. There's a profound & bloody, quite probably heretical, Christian imagination at work in Taggart's poetry, along with a relentless, merciless musicality.

Turning from Crosses to Robert Creeley's late Life & Death (New Directions, 1998) is like switching from all-Schnittke radio station to a late-night noir jazz program. The idiom is far more comfortable – Creeley's familiar, clipped idiolect, the brief lines & occasionally memorable turns that have been familiar to our ears since For Love – but it's all in a darker, albeit simpler register. I've heard much complaint of the long falling-off of Creeley's work after its peak some 40 years ago (and yes, my favorite of his books remains Pieces), but most of the poems in Life & Death, tho they may not measure up to the bravura experimentation of the early books, are beautifully turned, even graceful. What makes the book hard reading is not the occasional slackness, the moments in which Creeley repeats well-worn moves from his playbook, or even the intentionally awkward rhyming bits, when Creeley betrays his affection for the Fireside Poets he read in his childhood – but the poet's growing obsession with aging and death, the sense that each poem might well be his final valediction.