Sunday, December 18, 2011

year's end lists

So I read the lists of "year's best" whatevers this time of year, & inevitably feel out of it, behind the times, fuddy-duddyesque, etc. And I read the excellent Steve Evans's "attention span" feature on his Third Factory, where he solicits people to name their current notable reading, and I inevitably feel out of it, behind the times, etc. But for what it's worth, here's some notables that I've read over 2011 – not a year, I'm afraid, that I'm in any hurry to revisit.

While I revisited a lot of biography in the Spring teaching a biography seminar (Claire Tomalin's Pepys, Ray Monk's Wittgenstein, James Miller's Foucault, etc.), I haven't read many memorable biographies this past year; standouts were I suppose Ian Hamilton A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold and Ralph Maud's cranky Charles Olson at the Harbor, something of an anti-biography – more specifically, an anti-Tom Clark biography.

History/intellectual history and philosophy were heavy on the ground, much of it on the Victorians: TW Heyck's The Transformation of Victorian Intellectual Life was eye-opening, & AN Wilson's The Victorians was great fun, and beautifully written. David Cooper's A Philosophy of Gardens, if a trifle dry, was well worth the slog.

I'm purposefully leaving out the bales of Ruskin criticism I've read this year, & singling out some titles of non-Ruskinian interest:
Ross Hair, Ronald Johnson’s Modernist Collage Poetry
Geoffrey Hill, Collected Critical Writings
Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity
A. D. Nuttall, Dead from the Waist Down: Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination
(The Nuttall book officially counts as an intellectual romp; from the Casaubon of Middlemarch to Mark Pattison, his supposed model, to Pattison's own scholarly interest, the early modern humanist Isaac Casaubon.)

I read more fiction than usual, for whatever reasons – comfort food, I suppose. Much of it was ephemeral in the worst sense: reread trashy science fiction & fantasy from my junior high years; stacks of HG Wells and Jules Verne. I did read Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands, which I highly recommend. And after being prodded to read Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower by more than one poet friend, I finally buckled down and did so, only to find it transcendently beautiful & deeply moving. So of course I read four more Fitzgerald books: each one different, each one perfect of its kind: Offshore, The Bookshop, The Gate of Angels, and The Golden Child.

And then there's poetry. This was the year of the anthologies, two of which I read straight thru – Christopher's Ricks's Oxford Book of English Verse and John Dixon Hunt's Oxford Book of Garden Verse – and several others I'm at various stages of. But these were a few of the outstanding titles – but only a few – among the maybe 80 or 90 collections of poetry I read for the first time this year:
Rae Armantrout, Money Shot
Dan Beachy-Quick, This Nest, Swift Passerine
Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English
Sean Bonney, The Commons
Cyrus Console, The Odicy
Chris Glomski, The Nineteenth Century and Other Poems
Geoffrey Hill, Clavics
Joseph Lease, Testify
John Matthias, Trigons
Lisa Robertson, R’s Boat
Jay Wright, Polynomials and Pollen: Parables, Proverbs, Paradigms, and Praise for Lois
Astonishingly enough, I seem to have read thru ten volumes of the Library Edition of Ruskin this year. But for some inexplicable reason, that fact doesn't do much to lift me out of my current slough of despond.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

shameless (but virtuous) self-promotion

The excellent Brent Cunningham, big cheese at Small Press Distribution out the Bay Area way (god, I remember ordering from that catalogue from my dorm room at Virginia Tech – first editions of Radi Os and The Years as Catches, strange chapbooks & oversized, ill-printed treasures by poets whose names I had heard only as strange, talismanic sounds), has posted a link on his FB page to this Publishers Weekly article, which details some of the competitive nastiness that seems to be encouraging in its bid to drive independent bookselling into the ditch. Among the latest: "customers regularly scan books with their smart phones and then order discounted copies directly from Amazon, or even use the bookstore’s free Wi-Fi to download Kindle e-books to their devices."

Well, John Ruskin had the remedy for that, and came up with it as far back as the 1870s: the Net Book Agreement, by which the publisher set the price the retailer would charge for the book, & would no longer supply books to a retailer who sold them below that price. While the NBA didn't come into general practice until 1900 in Great Britain, Ruskin had sold his own books under such a system since the early 1870s. This is the book: it's a half-guinea without plates, a guinea with; that's what you sell it for. You want to sell it for 10 shillings? – too bad; you won't be getting copies.

It's the dissolution of the NBA since the mid-90s, among other things, that has been the downfall of British independent bookselling. If there's no set price at which a book must be sold, then Barnes & Noble and Amazon, with their tremendous volume, will sell it at a discount, and will drive out of business the small concerns that can't afford to cut their prices. Think of it as the Wal-Martization of the book industry.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying: I have a new book out – I haven't mentioned it in this space for a full month, so I think it's time to mention again. It's called Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles. It's forty-two short but nasty poems, packed with nutty goodness. It will change your life harder than a naked torso of Apollo. And it makes an equally fine present for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or that moment when you're thinking "I need to give my sweetie something that'll make him/her say Gosh! that's just what I wanted!"

You can buy it directly from the publisher, The Cultural Society, by using this link, and everything over production cost will be ploughed directly back into Zach Barocas's master project of flooding the world with fine poetry. Or you can buy it from Brent Cunningham and the excellent human beings at Small Press Distribution, who will apply their rather nominal percentage of the take to their master project of making small press literature available to the masses. I think both options are equally virtuous.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

my robert creeley

One of the earliest posts on Culture Industry was a rumination on Robert Creeley after his death in late March 2005. I know he is still mourned, and I – who was never close to him – miss him still. As I said there, it's hard for me to remember a time when his writings weren't central to my idea of what poetry is. This past semester, I realized how central his poems are to my teaching of poetry, as well. In the course of an undergraduate Contemporary American Poetry class, we went through maybe 30 pages of Creeley – probably as much as any other single poet – and I think my students found him more interesting & sympathetic than almost anyone else. (Tho I'm in the midst of reading some kick-ass final papers on Susan Howe, Ronald Johnson, and John Taggart, as well.)

It's been a rare semester when some poem of Creeley's hasn't landed on a syllabus of mine, or hasn't been handed out on a xerox or flashed onto the screen from Google Docs. What Creeley is good for pedagogically – and this can be separated out, at least theoretically, from the intrinsic value of his verse – is teaching line breaks (the music of enjambment and end-stopping), pointing up minute shifts of diction, and thinking about the construction of longer sequences out of short poetic units. Needless to say, I know the anthology pieces pretty damned well after all these years.

But I've been reading Creeley more or less steadily since I got those copies of Words and For Love in the Blacksburg used bookstore lo those many years ago. But it's only over this Fall that I started tackling him in bulk, straight thru. And I've found him defeating me: that is, I've had the first volume of his Collected Poems (1945-1975) down from the shelf for weeks & weeks, taking it up and then falling back overwhelmed. Not in the sense that I'm overwhelmed when I read John Peck or Susan Howe in bulk – that overwhelming involves never wanting to read another poem again, much less to pick up a pen: the same defeat I feel when reading Nabokov or Woolf, the sense of a writerly mastery so great that it makes further effort nugatory. Creeley, rather, seems to involve me in a never-ending forest of poems, some of whose value is radically undetermined: I stumble from one to the next, unsure whether to take seriously what I've just read – is this part of the sad lumber that sometimes overbalances the valuable ore in a poet's early collections?

What I need, Ba'al help me, is a Selected. I know, that makes me a kind of critical weakling, an ingenue, an toddler crying out for pabulum when it's time to tackle the grown-ups' dishes. But it worked for Olson and Duncan. Before I made my full-scale assaults on their collected works, I spent serious hours reading selected editions, seeing how their editors had mapped out the territory, what the editorial Baedekers recommended as the to-see spots. Then, when I dived into, say, Olson's full Maximus Poems and Collected Poems (excluding Maximus) I had a baseline picture against which I could measure the poet's full achievement.

I haven't yet laid hands on Ben Friedlander's selected Creeley (U California, 2008), but the other day I happened upon an earlier Selected Poems (U California P, 1991), this one chosen by the poet who perhaps knew Creeley's work better than anyone else – Creeley himself. And yes, by halfway thru it's been revelatory, showing me the contours of the work better than the randomly ordered reading I've done over the years, and better than the page-1-thru-page-600 slog I had set myself for Creeley's Collected. That latter slog will come soon enough, & no doubt will involve an implicit revision on my part of Creeley's assessment of his own achievement. But I've begun, and a solid beginning is half the struggle, in my experience.

Monday, December 05, 2011

ruskin crossroads (revised)

Shortly after I posted that last post, I launched into Fors Clavigera, Volume I, 1 January 1871. And it was grand to revisit the texts of those early letters. I had to rein myself in, & allowed myself no more than 3 letters a day. But earlier today I found myself reading the Christmas 1871 letter, getting depressed by the actual vicinity of the holidays, & realizing that if I kept up this pace I would entirely lose the chronological thread of my Ruskin reading, here in this most crucial decade.

So I've revised my plan: Instead of reading a Library Edition volume of Fors, then returning to his concurrent writings & lectures, I'll read a year's worth of Fors (Library Edition vol. 27 contains Fors for 1871-1873) and then that same year's lectures & miscellaneous writings. It will be a wobbly, back-n-forth process, but I think it'll give me a clearer picture of the man's intellectual movements than otherwise. So now that I've read Fors for 1871, I've turned back to Volume 22 of the Library Edition, & will read roughly the first half – Lectures on Landscape, delivered at Oxford in the Lent 1871 term, and "The Relationship of Michael Angelo and Tintoret," delivered later that year. (He didn't seem to give any lectures in the Fall of 1871.)

One of the advantages of this plan is that the introductions to the lecture volumes – roughly 20 through 24 – are not merely overviews of the texts contained in each volume, but contain a more or less complete running biography of Ruskin. (Indeed, E. T. Cook, who wrote the introductions, would later combine their biographical narrative material into an excellent and straightforward two-volume biography.)

All this would be easier, of course, if I had at hand at decent chronology of Ruskin. The internets (specifically, the eBay) yielded up a copy of JL Bradley's A Ruskin Chronology (Macmillan, 1997) the other week, and I'm in total agreement with the general editor's preface to the series ("Author Chronologies") to which that volume belongs:
Most biographies are ill adapted to serve as works of reference... There are times... when anyone reading for business or pleasure needs to check a point quickly or obtain a rapid overview of part of an author's life or career; and at such moments turning over the pages of a biography can be a time-consuming and frustrating occupation.
Alas, I will refrain from commenting on the job Bradley's done of it; suffice it to say that he's vague when I want him to be precise, and precise when couldn't care less. (And I'm thinking that maybe I ought to publish the detailed chronologies and databases I generated when I was working on the LZ biography.)

One of the minor irritants is the fact that Bradley is that most unreliable of chroniclers – a profound partisan. He's a Ruskinian thru and thru. When it comes to 1854 – the year in which Effie Ruskin finally fled her husband and filed suit to annul the marriage – his partisanship becomes unmistakeable. Effie found a friend and councilor in Lady Eastlake, who mounted something of a drawing-room publicity campaign on her behalf after she had left Ruskin; after all, anyone who's read more than a couple Victorian novels knows what an act of desperate courage it would be for a woman to leave her husband in 1854. Bradley's summation: "May: In the aftermath of the scandal Lady Eastlake continues to revel in spreading information."

His July 15 entry is priceless: "A judge, sitting for 'A Hearing of the Cause', declares 'the pretended marriage of [John Ruskin] and [Euphemia Gray] a nullity' and ECGR 'free from all bonds of matrimony'. In the verbal jungle of the case the 'incurable impotency' of JR is alleged." Well, I've read that judgment. It's remarkably clear and straightforward; no jungle about it, more a kind of Saharan simplicity, if indeed couched in legalese. What depths of sympathy have driven Bradley, normally a level editorial scholar, to such contortions? Say it straight, man: "The judge annulled the marriage on the grounds of JR's 'incurable impotency.'" Period.

Of course, one has to retain the scare quotes around "incurable impotency," for Ruskin, in an affadavit to his own lawyers, had strenuously insisted on his own potency, offering to demonstrate if so desired (!): it was just Effie for whom he couldn't – or wouldn't – perform the conjugal obligations. Needless to say, this is an issue around which an older generation of passionate Ruskinians have danced many elaborate dances.

On the other hand, reading Cook's beautifully written, deeply sympathetic, and critically aware biographical introductions to the Library Edition, one is often brought up short as well. Of Ruskin's illness and emotional strife in 1871, Cook comments "The pain to which he referred was suffered in the region of the affections, for this year was a dark one in the chequered story of his romance." Got that? And that's all you'll get, at least from Cook.

The "affection" in question was for Rose La Touche, the Irish girl with whom Ruskin had fallen in love perhaps a decade before – when she was still in her middle teens. The story of Ruskin's passion for Rose, who was fanatically evangelical, perhaps anorexic, and in the end mentally ill, has been largely omitted in the Library Edition – though Ruskin showed his overwhelming cathexis for this troubled young woman by embroidering images of roses through all of his later works. He had written Sesame and Lilies with her in mind; he would come to identify her with St. Ursula, as painted by Carpaccio, and with the tomb statue of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia (in Lucca); after her death in 1875, she would become his Beatrice.

But Edward Cook was writing his introductions under the watchful eye of Ruskin's heir, Joan Severn (née Agnew), Ruskin's cousin, who had married the artist Arthur Severn. (Severn's father Joseph had tended Keats in his final illness in Rome.) Joan had nursed Ruskin through his bouts of madness, and through the long twilight decline of his last years. On some level she probably blamed his breakdowns on Rose La Touche's rejection of his proposals of marriage. And she was not at all interested in having the story of Ruskin's painful and awkward pursuit of this Irish girl told – no more than J. L. Bradley is interested in presenting a balanced account of Ruskin's ridiculous – and for Effie, nearly tragic – wedding night.

Friday, December 02, 2011

ruskin crossroads

So I've reached a crossroads in my Ruskin reading. After he accepts the Slade Professorship of Art at Oxford in 1870, our man becomes unconscionably busy – as I think I've mentioned, his attention becomes divided in at least 3 directions: his Oxford duties, which include both his lecture series (most of which get revised into books) and his direction of a drawing school (for which he sets out detailed sets of exercises and organizes a hefty collection of specimen artworks); his pedagogical interests, directed mostly at the girls of the Winnington School, and which result in a series of extraordinarily eccentric "textbooks" – Love's Meinie (on birds), Deucalion (on geology), and Proserpina (on flowers); and his series of monthly "letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Fors Clavigera, which begin in January 1871.*

If I read thru the Library Edition in numerical order – and I've just finished volumes 20 and 21 (the former containing the first year of Ruskin's Oxford lectures, the latter his catalogues and instructions for the Art School) – I'll be reading several more volumes of Oxford lectures, then a couple volumes of the textbooks, before I hit Fors, the 600,000 words of which are contained in volumes 27 thru 29. And I've decided I can't wait.

To some degree Fors is the text to which my whole reading of Ruskin has been tending, the keystone work connecting the early Ruskin of Modern Painters I – as late-Romantic, early-Victorian a production as one can imagine, outside of Carlyle – to the high modernists. Guy Davenport called it "a Victorian prose Cantos." I'm not the first person to see it as a proto-blog; indeed, I had Fors in mind as a kind of model when I began Culture Industry the better part of 7 years ago (let's not mention how poorly I've managed to emulate Ruskin, okay?).

I finished a first reading of Fors two summers ago on a penthouse terrace on Manhattan's West Side, reflecting ironically, as I baked unprotected in the sun, on Ruskin's all-too-wet view from Brantwood in the Lake District, & his increasing despair as the "storm-cloud" of industrial pollution blackened British skies. I'm ready to read it again, letter by letter, allowing myself no more than three letters at a sitting. (There're 96 in all.) But I don't want to stray too far off the track of my roughly chronological trawl thru Ruskin's life-work. So I'll read the first Library Edition volume of Fors, then return to Volume 22 and read thru the rest of his Oxford lectures. Then I'll allow myself a second volume of Fors, after which I'll read his textbooks and guidebooks. And only then will I read the third and final volume of Fors.

Of course, after Fors is done, there still remain 6 more volume of miscellaneous Ruskiniana – his environmental lectures, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, his literary criticism, Fiction Fair and Foul, his luminous autobiography Praeterita, and various other stuff; and then two volumes of collected letters. (The very last two volumes of the 39-volume Library Edition are a bibliography and an index.) I'm not too worried about the letters, or at least the letters collected in the LE seem rather less "canonical" than the other volumes, as I seem to have accumulated almost a dozen other volumes of Ruskin letters along the way, which will eventually want reading.

I think this can be done. Quentin Bell recalls reading thru the Library Edition in a year; but then again, he admits that he wasn't reading anything else. I'll count myself lucky if I finish the maroon wall (as I think of the 3+ shelves of JR that loom over my left shoulder when I sit at my desk) by the end of next year. Assuming the Mayans were wrong.

*That's leaving out his incessant letters to the press and the various European guidebooks he was cranking out with his left hand; at one point in the 1870s Ruskin had seven books at once at some stage of publication.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

being edited

So I read two books the other day. One of them was Ian Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (Basic Books, 2000), a solid, straightforward, occasionally graceful account of Arnold's life up thru his abandonment of poetry. It reads in part, inescapably, like the first half of a biography (Hamilton himself speaks in the preface of abandoning his plans for a full-scale Arnold book), but it is, so far as it goes, quite a satisfying read. A book for generalists, indeed, but one from which even Victorian scholars are likely to glean more than a few useful insights.

I read the Hamilton in blocks as relief from another book – a recent study of modernism and the FBI, what I'll call simply "The Academic Book." The Academic Book was published by a fairly solid scholarly press; its author is a Full Professor somewhere, who's published several other scholarly works; and TAB, as I recall when it was released, was promoted pretty intensely both to scholarly and general markets as a ground-breaking study that would appeal both to members of the Modernism Industry and to readers who were interested in J. Edgar Hoover & his multifarious, nefarious interventions in American culture.

And it's so depressingly awful. Page after page of flat-footed, lumpish prose; factoids and anecdotes repeated verbatim from page to page; a general conceptual squishiness, a kind of blob-think that overwhelms any insights that might attempt to rise up from the page. And I couldn't help thinking, who the hell was responsible for editing this thing?

And my answer was, of course: it's an academic book; nobody edited it. It got two reader's reports, each of which suggested some changes. The author made those changes (or didn't make them); then it got sent out to a freelance copy-editor, who checked the punctuation and usage against hir copy of the Chicago Manual; and then they printed it and sent it out – like a brand new Ferrari that happens to be missing its clutch, its left front wheel, and the whole of its suspension – to hit the road.

Ian Hamilton, I suspect, is a pretty solid writer from the get-go; but I also suspect he's got good editors, & the grace and smarts to let them have their way with his prose. This recent blog post on the Chronicle made me think over the whole business, in which an Editor-at-Large at a major magazine recounts hir experience with young wannabe editors: "The students were stunned into silence as their copy was returned, with questions, comments, and lots of red marks (instructors were still permitted to use red pens then, however much they highlighted students’ errors). ‘But it’s no longer mine,’ said one of them, whose copy in fact bore fewer rather than more marks."

My heart bleeds for that poor snowflake, beginning the long process of realizing that putting one's prose before the world in a readable form is almost always a collaborative undertaking. I make no great claims for my prose. But I do know that much of the best prose I've written looked pretty damned weak in comparison to what some fine and ruthless (magazine) editors made of it; and that the pieces I'm proudest of are ones that got Rolfed, Alexander-Techniqued, and sliced-n-diced all over the operating theater at the hands of those editors.* It's a shame that the economics of academic publishing – and this is true all the way from bottom-feeder Toadspittle Bend-in-the-Road University Press up to intellectual powerhouses like Cambridge and Harvard – have made real live editors so scarce in the world of academic publishing.

*E.g., Herb Leibowitz, Ben Downing...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which means that the whole dreary spectacle of the end-of-year holidays is upon us. The holidays depress me; they make me sad, misanthropic, despairing. No, I don't want to talk about it. Go away.
Blurbs are a unique genre, part advertising copy and part prose poem. In the case of slim volumes of contemporary verse, mostly prose poem, and often with only a tenuous apparent relation to what's inside the book. Back when I took the TLS, I used to enjoy the feature where the anonymous editor "JC" would skewer nonsensical back cover copy, usually for interesting volumes of contemporary American poetry. With forthright English commonsensicality, he would emit hoots of derision at some tangled and impossibly abstract mare's-nest of praise, which typically gave a reader no idea whatsoever of what they might expect from the book itself. Alas, I saw any number of my friends and colleagues fall under JC's derisive gaze.

But then again, one doesn't read a blurb to learn about what's inside the book. The blurb is rather a stamp of certification: "The book by aspirant poet X has been read by established poet Z, who by taking the time to produce this blurb – 30 minutes reading the book, 5 minutes on the blurb itself – signals that you ought to read it too." After all, it's not what the blurb says that we pay attention to: it's the very fact that Poet Z has written it.

(Note, gentle reader, how misanthropic and cynical this very post grows... it must be the holiday season.)

Blurbs come in two general types: solicited blurbs and "mined" blurbs. The former are descriptive or promotional statements that the publisher has asked a blurbist to write especially for this book; the latter are bits of language yanked out of other contexts and refunctioned to serve as jacket copy, much as the movie ads quote bits of reviews (generally, the good bits; tho the editing is sometimes unintentionally funny: I recall a poster for Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, a highly unsexy but visually dazzling fantasia on The Tempest, which quoted Playboy magazine: "More nudity than any film this season," or something of the sort.) Academic publishers generally mine at least some of their blurbs from the readers' reports that persuaded them to publish the book in the first place. That's how I've ended up "writing" blurbs for a few scholarly books. Occasionally, poetry publishers will extract a few sentences out of a previously published review for jacket copy. (The cheeky New Directions quoted me on the back of one of Will Alexander's book, without even telling me; fine, but it would have been nice to send me a copy.)

Anyway, this week's mail brought me two new books that I'm mighty awful proud to have contributed blurbs to, and you can tell me whether they meet the JC test for incomprehensible meaninglessness. I shan't blog these books, but needless to say, I think they're both great; you should buy them right away:
John Peck, Contradance (U of Chicago)

John Peck is unique among contemporary American poets for the burnished, intricate density of his thought and the rugged, even gnarled lyricism of his lines. The ghosts of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Avedon, Rainer Maria Rilke, Herman Melville, and a host of others stalk gravely through the steps of Peck’s Contradance, their spectral presences a ghostly counterpoint to the poet’s preternatural awareness of the buzzy, blooming confusion of the present moment: "Life is not a thing / that we have, it is being seeking employment."

Alan Halsey, Even if only out of

One of the 5 or 6 poets whose work I'll buy immediately on sight, no questions asked, without bothering to open the book or read the blurbs. Halsey's poems – and they come in such variety, from very straightforward, personal-voice addresses to the most recondite word salads – are like a dense portable anthology from a rich & complex literary canon that simultaneously overlaps with but is fundamentally shifted or twisted from the recognizable "canon."

Friday, November 11, 2011

my military

In the Commonwealth, it's Remembrance Day; in France and Belgium, Armistice Day. For some of us, it's Nigel Tufnel Day, remembering the Spinal Tap guitarist whose amp famously "goes to 11." Here in the United States, it's Veterans Day.

I have a conflicted relationship with the military. My father's family had no military connections I'm aware of; my mother's elder brother Hollis (known the nieces & nephews as Bubba) had been in the Navy in the Second World War, serving on the heavy cruiser Minneapolis, the "Minnie." I never heard him tell stories about it, but when he died, my aunt gave me his pea jacket ("Hollis Walker" stitched into its lining) and his copy of the official history of the ship's wartime operations. Hair-raising reading. The Minnie took a Japanese torpedo right in the bow at one point; there's one memorable photograph of the temporary repairs – a bulkhead of palm trunks lashed across the ship's front.

My father was drafted into the Army in the last year of that war, snatched out of high school before he could graduate. By the time he'd finished basic training, the War in Europe was over, & he had the relatively cushy service of serving as part of the occupying army in Austria. It must have been grand, I like to think, for an 18-year-old from Paducah, Kentucky – an all-expense-paid trip to the Land of Mozart & Klimt, where he could gawk at buildings, sketch, & take photographs to his heart's content.

The military was my father's ticket out of his poverty-stricken western Kentucky roots. When he got back from Europe, he went to college on the GI Bill: first as an art major, then a history major. When the money ran out, he enlisted again, finishing his degree in Manila; the University of the Philippines, I'm surprised to say, issues the most sumptuous diplomas I've ever seen. But he could never quite find a niche in society with his bent for the liberal arts. He took a few more years off, marrying my mother and pursuing graduate work first at Vanderbilt then at Duke, along the way serving a term in the Air Force. (The chronology of all this, by the way, is very hazy to me; one day I'll sit down with the papers and work it all out.) By the time I came along, he had once again enlisted, for the duration, in the Army, and was stationed in West Germany. That's how I managed to be born in Frankfurt; I like to imagine Adorno giving a lecture across town during my mother's labor.

So I grew up as a military brat, living (in two-year intervals) in Syracuse, NY (where he was attending a language institute), West Germany, Carmel, CA (another language institute), West Germany again, and finally a dreary stretch in San Angelo, TX, a hellish posting my father assumed was punishment for his decision not to re-enlist at the end of his next term. When he finally retired – still in his late 40s – we moved first to Murray, Kentucky (near his family, and right where my mother's family lived), where he worked on yet another liberal arts degree.

Growing up on military bases, I never reflected that I was living a strange fishbowl existence. Our world was the post, the commissary, the PX, the post movie theater; it extended to the other military bases within driving distance (my mother knew where all the best PXs in the BRD were located). Germany itself, the larger polity within which we were a foreign enclave, was a kind of vast blank, visited only on exotic occasion. I was always aware, however, that I lived in one of the most class-stratified societies possible. The Army was something like 17th-century England, with its rigid social distinctions between enlisted men (commoners), non-commissioned officers (the rising bourgeoisie), and officers (the gentry and nobility): the ranks simply did not mix, especially not socially. Even in school, the second- and third-graders were all fully aware of their fathers' rank, and where that placed them in relation to the other kids.

Dad was a liberal early and late, despite his professional involvement in the ultimate instrument of American imperial power. He found the war in Vietnam a monumental, tragic folly, though I'm sure he didn't tell his superiors so. He spent years on a mountaintop near the East German border, transcribing and translating Soviet military transmissions, but I don't think he took the threat of invasion nearly as seriously as the average American on the street did. He was grateful for what the Army had given him – an education, health care for himself and his family, the chance to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the original, the opportunity to visit the seats of the Western Culture in which he was so assiduously trying to school himself – but he had no patience with the reams of paperwork that characterized the smallest military decision, or with the labyrinths of entrenched bureaucracy that constituted the institution's heart's-blood.

There were pluses and minuses to a military upbringing: on the plus side came a certain cosmopolitanism, an absence of regionalism. I never really picked up a southern accent (tho my parents' accents were quite strong), because I always lived among people from all parts of the US; I never found it strange when someone's parents came from different countries, because half my friends had mothers from Korea, or Japan, or Germany. On the minus side was a painful lack of a sense of place, of belonging, side effect in part of moving every two years, tearing loose from whatever friends I'd made & starting all over. (Somehow, we managed to make that move, every time, over the Christmas holidays, so every other year I got to start at a new school mid-year. It was like the first scene of Madame Bovary, over and over again.)

When Dad finished that last degree, we moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, in large part to be near a military base. As a retiree, Dad would have lifelong access to military health care, to the PX, and to the commissary. Mom saw these things, in the days before ubiquitous dirt-cheap Wal-Marts, as prime selling points for an otherwise nondescript southern city. I did much of my growing up in Clarksville, then – on the north side, dominated by soldiers and military retirees.

Fort Campbell, the home of the 101st Airborne ("Screaming Eagles"), was in the late 1970s not a place to give one a positive impression of the military. In the wake of Vietnam, the Army had become a volunteer force – at some times, it seemed to be a repository for the sweepings of society. As I waited at the hospital for brutal (but free) dental care – I had my wisdom teeth cut out & extracted under local anaesthetic, the dentist removing every bloody fragment right before my horrified eyes – I would be surrounded by GIs who seemed unable to form a single grammatical sentence, who talked about nothing but partying, whose every third word was "fucking." The highway leading to the base was for miles and miles a non-stop carpet of pawnshops, bars, and strip clubs.

It never occurred to me for a moment to join the military after high school. Even if my father had had anything good to say about his own service, I'd seen enough of who was in there, & how things worked. Whatever I did, I knew, I wanted to be in some social niche in which there was room for eccentricity, for the intellectual & the aesthetic; and God knows I didn't see that space anywhere in the military. Let's be frank, as well: I was pretty damned sure I wouldn't be able to handle the discipline, or put up with the bullshit.

A bunch of my friends went into the military. For many of them, it was their only choice; they'd screwed up so badly in high school they couldn't get into college, or they needed to start earning money right away. Some of the brightest guys I knew in high school wound up enlisting, for one reason or another. I don't blame their choice; but I don't envy them either, or particularly admire them for it.

When Veterans Day comes around, when the flags get trotted out and the tear-jerking videos get played, I get all uncomfortable. I hate what the last administration did thru its lies to the 4000+ soldiers who died in Iraq, and to the uncounted thousands of others who've come home maimed & damaged, physically, mentally, & spiritually. I hate that this was done in my name, to "protect" me. And I hate the rhetoric of "service" and the high-flown cant of "sacrifice," which all too often is a tool to drag patriotic young people into a job in which they will never be adequately compensated for the risks they run on behalf of cowardly & calculating politicians. But on Veterans Day, I can't help recalling Ruskin's words, in Unto This Last, on the moral distinction between soldiers and merchants:
Philosophically, it does not, at first, sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavoured to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honour than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier.

And this is right.

For the soldier's trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo's trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be – fond of pleasure or of adventure – all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact – of which we are well assured – that put him behind a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that his choice may be put to him at any moment – and has beforehand taken his part – virtually takes such part continually – does, in reality, die daily.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


So I'm slated to teach Our Fair Department's undergraduate "Intro to Literary Studies" course next year. It's got a bunch of formal requirements – introduce the students to the analysis of 3 different genres, expose them to 3 different schools of literary interpretation, etc. – but I keep thinking, what they really need is some basic study skills: Read the book. Read all of it. Read it as slowly as you need to. Write in your book. Make notes, outline chapters. Look up unfamiliar words. You know, all that shit you're supposed to pick up at least by grad school. Me, I've been turning over bales of Ruskin books & essays I read last summer, gisting articles into little abstracts, copying down useful quotations; stuff, ideally, I should have been doing as or immediately after I read 'em, when they were still fresh in my mind.

It's all tangled up with a bit of professional identity crisis, I must admit. Am I a critic?, I ask myself, looking over the pieces I've written for Parnassus & all the other belletristic reviews I've churned out over the years, or am I a scholar? For I do see those as rather different roles (not that they don't often overlap). Jerome McGann is a scholar who also does a fair bit of smart criticism, as was William Empson; Susan Sontag was mostly critic, but approached scholarhood in the way she worked up some of her essays; James Wood is nothing but critic.

And I've got this rather medieval, uncomfortably rigorous notion of what the scholar does (which someday I'll write up in a kind of list format): Read the book. Read all of it. Know what's in it, and what isn't. Read everything by the author at hand. Read who the author's read, and what his immediate contemporaries said about him, etc. (Followed of course by Know the important secondary texts on your author. Know all the secondary texts dealing with your immediate subject...)

I'm still deep in the process of trying to make myself a quasi-Victorian scholar-type, and it's not easy. The four courses on Victorian lit I took back in the day are gradually coming back to me, admittedly, but there's a tremendous amount of catch-up ball to be played here. Of course, anyone sensible would have tackled a more manageable figure than Ruskin. I'm maybe 3/5 thru the corpus, all 9 million words of it. And I've read a healthy stack of books on Ruskin. And around Ruskin. And about the Victorians.

But one thing's always leading to another. Arnold, at the moment. He's the key counter-Ruskin for much of JR's career. I've read bunches of the poems, most of the important essays, and Culture and Anarchy. But now I'm feeling the need to read more – to achieve a comfortable global knowledge of Arnold. And then there's Pater and Wilde, each of whom I'm deep into. Sigh – Morris and Rossetti still await, and after them no doubt there will be others.

The happy side of all this is that I've actually started writing, however tentatively. Maybe I'll have something ready for the centenary of the big man's birth – after all, it's 8 years away.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

shameless self-promotion: torture garden

About fourteen months ago, I rejoiced on this blog at reaching the halfway point of a long-term project, a series of short poems that shortly before I had decided would be called Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles. And then, six months later, I rejoiced again at finishing them. Now I'm rejoicing at finally pulling back the curtain and unveiling the redoubtable Zach Barocas's cover design for the finished book. The book is in the final stages of production and will be in print in a bit under two weeks. It's now available for pre-order from The Cultural Society's website.

I've already given out a couple of teasers for Torture Garden in the above links, and there's some descriptive prose on The Cultural Society website. Here's a bit more detail:
The hardcore “miniatures” of John Zorn’s “Naked City” ensemble – Zorn on alto, Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith on bass, Joey Baron on drums, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and Yamatsuka Eye (sometimes) on vocals – as assembled in the Torture Garden collection (Shimmy Disc, 1989) provided a model for these pastorelles: short, tightly controlled, aggressive, free of all padding and discursive structure.

The form of the pastorelles is an “emaciated” sonnet: seven lines to the sonnet’s fourteen, five words to the sonnet’s ten iambs. The poems make great and entirely unsystematic use of found language, usually from whatever I was reading at the moment, though often from what I was (half) listening to: at least one derives from the simultaneously earnest, enraging, and inane discourse of a department meeting. There are a run of pastorelles “dedicated” to various people whose talks and readings I've attended, or with whose books I’ve been engaged: these dedications are not necessarily gestures of admiration or affection but acknowledgment of language appropriated.

The pastorelles’ titles are directly borrowed from those of the forty-two tracks of Naked City’s Torture Garden, but the poems are by no means direct adaptations of the musical pieces; rather, there is a continuously varying relationship between the titles, the musical tracks, and the poems. Not the “condition of music,” but the music of conditions.
What are you waiting for? These are dandy poems, if a bit lacking in etiquette, gentility, & a sense of what's appropriate around the kids. Order here!
I'd be remiss, of course, if I didn't give a shout out to Zach and The Cultural Society.

It was early in January 2002 – golly, almost a decade ago – when Peter O’Leary, whom I knew as a poet but mostly I guess as the executor of Ronald Johnson’s estate, asked me to join him and a few others – his brother Michael, Devin Johnston, Joel Bettridge, John Tipton, and my old friend Eric Selinger – to read Ronald Johnson’s newly released posthumous book The Shrubberies at the Chicago Public Library under the auspices of the Poetry Project. It was a grand event, capped by an absolutely sybaritic dinner at Tipton’s apartment and a more than pleasant informal “house reading” afterwards.

When I got back to the steam, I wove some details of the weekend into a poem, called (duh) “Chicago,” which I sent off to Peter & a few others. Peter, in turn, zipped it to a friend of his who had recently started a poetry website with the ponderous name “The Cultural Society.” And that friend, Zach Barocas, liked “Chicago” so much that he had it up and beautiful in a matter of a couple of weeks.

It’s been almost a decade since, and the Cultural Society has become central to my imagination of contemporary poetry. Zach has published a number of my poems, he’s done a rambly essay on poetics I wrote a long time ago, and which still oddly enough comports pretty well with the way I write & think about writing. More importantly, he published, & continues publishing, a whole community of new & established poets that I find continually enriching – Peter, Norman Finkelstein, Pam Rehm, Mike Heller, Joel Felix, Janet Holmes, Dan Beachy-Quick, Bob Archambeau, Sandra Simonds, Stacy Szymaszek, Bronwen Tate, etc. etc.

Exactly a month ago was the formal celebration of CultSoc’s (pronounced Kult-Sosh) 10th anniversary, & I must say that Zach definitely knows how to throw a party. A reading at Poet’s House in Manhattan – a group reading where, amazingly enough, nobody went way over their allotted time or lost themselves in showboating. Electric new poems from Norman F. and Mike H. A culminatory performance by Peter that practically had me throwing my shorts at the podium. I re-met poets I’d met before – Chris Glomski, Jon Curley; I spent time with poets I’d known for years and years.

It wasn’t just that the poems were great, and the audience receptive; it was a kind of vibratory sense of common purpose, of sheer community, that’s really so hard to come by in this world. The celebration was really a kind of personalized intensification of the community and ethos set up on the tight, spare, precise website. Zach does not do things large – he's more Charlie Watts than Neal Peart, more John Lee Hooker than John McLaughlin – but what he does he does with a clean, beautiful style, and he does right.

He's done right by Torture Garden, as he has with the other snazzy books & recordings available on the website there. Have a look, give a listen (video of some fine readings there, and links to some excellent music), stick around & buy a few things.

Monday, November 07, 2011

ruskin's powerpoint

My odyssey thru the Library Edition of Ruskin continues. Yesterday I finished volume XIX, The Cestus of Aglaia and The Queen of the Air, with Other Papers and Lectures on Art and Literature, 1860-1870. The obvious course (which I'm taking) is to power on into volume XX (Lectures on Art and Aratra Pentelici, with Lectures and Notes on Greek Art and Mythology, 1870). But really one's confronted with a kind of triune fork in the road of Ruskin's career here, for from 1870 his activities become multiple, & it's no longer possible to maintain anything like strict chronological progression in collecting his work.

In 1870, Ruskin was appointed the first Slade Professor in Art at the University of Oxford, and for several years (until 1878, the date of his first major crack-up) one of his major activities would be be composing the lectures he delivers there. That's usually two series of six or seven lectures each year, which Ruskin took "infinite" pains with, & usually went back and revised for book publication; he published 9 books out of this first stint at the Oxford Professorship.

But at the same time, he was also working on other books and articles, which he published more or less concurrently with his lecture volumes (including no fewer than three travellers' guidebooks to various sites). And he was writing the series of monthly "Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Fors Clavigera, which is in some ways the acknowledged telos of my whole reading of Ruskin.

So three major activities at any given time: Oxford duties (which include, besides the lectures, establishing a drawing school and a major collection of specimen works for students); miscellaneous writing (including an incessant series of letters to the press, and a personal correspondence as copious as one would expect from a Victorian writer); and Fors. No wonder the guy broke under the strain.

Ruskin took lecturing very, very seriously. Over the past decade and a half, lectures had become one of his primary means of getting his ideas across to a wide audience, at a variety of venues. And the Victorians were good audiences: they were prepared to attend carefully to what our undergraduates would consider unconscionably long discourses; public lectures were transcribed by reporters and printed in newspapers with remarkable completeness and fidelity.

Ruskin's style of lecturing was memorable. He spoke from a written text – he once told an audience that he had planned to deliver his lecture extemporaneously, but that it was too much trouble to write out what he had to say and memorize it, so they would have to be content with his reading a text – but he would very often depart from his notes, following the thread of whatever idea caught his imagination at the moment. By all accounts he captivated his listeners entirely, tho some confessed themselves entirely unable to remember afterwards what he'd said.

But how, one wonders, does one deliver lectures on art and art history in the pre-PowerPoint, even pre-slide projector era? My own antipathy to PowerPoint runs pretty deep, and having to sit thru two PP presentations earlier this semester has only confirmed it. But I'm pretty willing to believe that it's made the tasks of lecturers in art and architecture far easier; I have just as bad memories of upside-down and reversed slides in my undergraduate art history classes.

Ruskin's own visual aids consisted it seems of lots of sketches and paintings, to which he would point during the lecture, & which would remain on display afterwards for interested students to examine. More useful no doubt were the enlargements of artworks and details of artworks (some of them 250cm X 100cm, which is pretty big), which he had assistants uncover & hold up at crucial moments in his lectures. There were still mishaps: at one point, a sketch from Tintoretto's "Paradise" was displayed upside down; the students laughed. "Ah, well," said the Professor, himself laughing; "what does it matter? for in Tintoret's 'Paradise' you have heaven all round you."

And then there's that moment when Ruskin seems to anticipate all the fancy effects that PP offers: He was bitching about the degradation of modernity, and beside him on an easel was (framed under glass) a Turner watercolor of Leicester.
"The old stone bridge is picturesque," he said, "isn't it? But of course you want something more 'imposing' nowadays. So you shall have it." And taking his paint-box and brush he rapidly sketched in on the glass what is known in modern specifications as "a handsome iron structure." "Then," he continued, "you will want, of course, some tall factory chimneys, and I will give them to you galore." Which he proceeded to do in like fashion. "The blue sky of heaven was pretty, but you cannot have everything, you know." And he painted clouds of black smoke over Turner's sky. "Your 'improvements,'" he went on, are marvellous 'triumphs of modern industry,' I know; but somehow they do not seem to produce nobler men and women, and no modern town is complete, you will admit, without a gaol and a lunatic asylum to crown it. So here they are for you." By which time not an inch of the Turner drawing was left visible under the "improvements" painted upon the glass. "But for my part," said Ruskin, taking his sponge, and with one pass of his hand wiping away those modern improvements against which he has inveighed in so many printed volumes – "for my part, I prefer the old."

Saturday, November 05, 2011

languishing | original practice

[The Staunton Blackfriars Playhouse]

I wonder if the blog hasn't been languishing lately. Certainly there hasn't been much spare time on my hands to write it, but I'm still unwilling to give it up...
Week before last – the week before Halloween, that is – we headed north to the wilds of Virginia, to Staunton (that STAN-ton), where we attended the biennial Blackfriars Conference at the American Shakespeare Center. Yes, there in a small college town, midway between nowhere and nowhere else (actually, a pleasant half-hour to Charlottesville, & a rather longer drive to Blacksburg), is a full-time professional Shakespeare troupe, performing in a picture-perfect reconstruction of the indoor theater that Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, used from 1609.

We had a welcome surprise in a snowstorm on Friday; those of you who live in Chicago, Ithaca, or other sane climes, will be puzzled by the pleasure Floridians take in these things. It was a bit odd, however, combining family vacation with conference-going. There was pleasure enough – snowmen, snowball fights, a trip to the apple orchard atop Carter Mountain near Monticello, a serious book-shopping venture into Charlottesville (okay, maybe that was pleasure for me). But there was also always the serious undercurrent of conference-going; am I missing something good by spending time with the kids? Who's talking to whom back there at the cash bar? Should we go to the banquet or order pizza at the hotel?

My own paper was part of a colloquy on performance practices, & doesn't really bear deep discussion. But I was struck thruout the discussions by a kind of base-line acceptance – and only occasional questioning – of the Theater's guiding principle: that of "original practices." Plays produced in the Blackfriars Playhouse (as you can see from the photo above) are performed with the lights on; in Shakespeare's day, there was no easy way to extinguish all the candles in the candelabra. Lucky audience members get to sit on stools on either side of the stage, as Jacobean dandies would have. Before the performance, and during the interval, the members of the acting troupe play music (unamplified) from the balcony (cf. the cover of Jethro Tull's Minstrel in the Gallery:)

The troupe is rather small, maybe 10 actors tops, and roles are doubled thruout the productions, just as they would have been in Shakespeare's day. (Odd to see the Ghost doubling as Osric, I must say...) The stage is undecorated; there are only minimal props, whisked out not by stagehands but by the actors themselves.

(The only two radical anachronisms in the productions: 1) female roles played by women – & I can definitely live with that; and 2) what's the use of dandyishly sitting on the side of the stage if you can't ostentatiously smoke?)

I can only say that we saw some first-rate theater. Excellent productions of The Tempest and Marlowe's Tamburlaine Part I, and the first live Hamlet I've ever seen that didn't feel radically tedious. This "original practices" stuff works, at least in a small theater that makes a kind of selling point of it.

On the other hand, I couldn't help feeling that some of the academics & theater types present at the conference – for this is a conference that seems to attract at least as many directors, playwrights, and actors as it does English-department-Shakespeare-types – were busily making a fetish out of original practices, much as some in the musical community – some the Early Music Revival types, with their emphasis on "period instruments" and "period performance" – have done. It made me think of Adorno's essay "Bach Defended Against His Devotees," which attacks (I take it) mid-century notions of "authentic" performance. "Even had Bach been in fact satisfied with the organs and harpsichords of the epoch, with their thin choruses and orchestras," Adorno writes, "this would in no way prove their adequacy for the intrinsic substance of his music."
The only adequate interpretation of the dynamic objectivity embedded in his work is one which realizes it. True interpretation is an x-ray of the work; its task is to illuminate in the sensuous phenomenon the totality of all the characteristics and interrelations which have been recognized through intensive study of the score.... Objectivity is not left over after the subject is subtracted. The musical score is never identical with the work; devotion to the text means the constant effort to grasp that which it hides. Without such a dialectic, devotion becomes betrayal; an interpretation which does not bother about the music's meaning on the assumption that it will reveal itself of its own accord will inevitably be false since it fails to see that the meaning is always constituting itself anew.
"Authentic" performance on "period" instruments, and "original practices" Shakespeare, can give us a kind of shock of defamiliarization, can make a familiar text new by making it old; they can teach us about the aesthetic experience of the period in which the text or score was produced. But they cannot, by themselves, "realize" the Bachean or Shakespearean work: that is part of the labor of interpretation, which involves going beyond the surface of the text, interpreting and realizing it through the deepest labor of analysis and loving synthesis.

Or to put it another way: Bach (Adorno implies) wanted a pianoforte badly; it just hadn't been invented yet. The inner structures of the works he wrote for keyboard transcend the keyboard technology of his own day. Just as, one might argue, Shakespeare's playscripts call out for real women to play the female roles; or maybe they call out for elaborate lighting and sophisticated sound effects; maybe they even want to be realized in video and digital formats.

But I'm a great fan of "period performance" early music; I'd rather hear Bach by the English Concert than in one of Bruckner's arrangements any day. And I'm glad that the American Shakespare Center is doing Shakespeare the old-fashioned way; clearly, their directors and players are at an entirely higher level of interpretation than 95% of the theater I've seen in the last decade (and yes, that includes a fair number of Broadway productions of "serious" plays); and they seem in no way fetishistically devoted to their "original practices," but rather use them as jumping-off points for fresh and exciting interpretation.
The unofficial motto of the Blackfriars Conference is from The Winter's Tale: "exit, pursued by a bear." Panel chairs keep a close eye on their watches. If a panelist goes over her or his allotted time, some dude in a bear suit stalks into the room and chases them out. I'm told it's quite embarrassing. I think something similar – perhaps with real bears – should be instituted at the MLA.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

in process | Ruskinian erotica

The 750 Words stairmaster has had good effects; for the past week & a half, I've turned out well over 750 words a day. Now whether those words are useful words is another matter; it's clear that this isn't the ideal tool for scholarly writing, with its constant recursiveness. When I write essays, papers, or books, at least two-thirds of the time I'm ostensibly writing I'm actually paging back thru what I've written before, revising and tinkering with it, or turning over books, looking for quotes or thinking about precisely what I'm meaning to say. That doesn't work well with 750 Words's ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes format, where you can't revise what you've already written, and indeed can't easily look at it while you're writing the next day's entry. Solution of course is to download my daily work into a Word file and tinker with it there; but then if I get carried away & start writing new stuff, it doesn't count towards the daily tally. Oh well. I'll work it out. At least I'm writing.

What I'm writing is, as I say, something else altogether. I began writing bits of the next scholarly book; then I ran out of things to say (for the moment) and spent a few days putting down autobiographical fragments (not that anybody will ever want to read that – I'm just laying in some stuff that I can read when my memory starts to go). At the moment, however, I'm more or less on fire, doing some big conceptual stuff paired with some close textual analysis. It feels good, whether or not it really is; I know it'll fit in the big jigsaw puzzle of the next book somewhere.
The letter carrier delivered a new biography of Effie Ruskin the other day, Suzanne Fagence Cooper's sublimely potboilerly-titled Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais. By my count, this is the sixth or seventh book I've accumulated on Ruskin's ill-fated marriage. My own brief take on the disastrous wedding night – or at least some of the speculation thereupon – is here. (Cooper has her own theory, which I won't spoil by revealing.

Unsurprisingly, while Ruskin is capable of incredibly sexy language – the so-called "purple" passages of the early books especially, which make word-lovers like me positively swoon – there isn't much in the way of actual erotica in his massive (9 million words, I read somewhere) corpus. But then, reading thru The Cestus of Aglaia (1865-6) the other day, I came upon (re-read, really) this often discussed passage, where Ruskin recalls
the image of an Italian child, lying, she also, upon a hill of sand, by Eridanus' side; a vision which has never quite left me since I saw it. A girl of ten or twelve, it might be; one of the children to whom there has never been anyother lesson taught than that of patience: – patience of famine and thirst; patience of heat and cold; patience of fierce word and sullen blow; patience of changeless fate and giftless time. She was lying with her arms thrown back over her head, all languid and lax, on an earth-heap by the river side (the softness of the dust being the only softness she had ever known), in the southern suburb of Turin, one golden afternoon in August, years ago. She had been at play, in her fashion, with other patient children, and had thrown herself down to rest, full in the sun, like a lizard. The sand was mixed with the draggled locks of her black hair, and some of it sprinkled over her face and body, in an "ashes to ashes" kind of way; a few black rags about her loins, but her limbs nearly bare, and her little breasts, scarce dimpled yet, – white, – marble-like – but, as wasted marble, thin with the scorching and the rains of Time. So she lay, motionless; black and white by the shore in the sun; the yellow light flickering back upon her from the passing eddies of the river, and burning down on her from the west. So she lay, like a dead Niobid: it seemed as if the Sun-God, as he sank towards grey Viso (who stood play in the south-west, and pyramidal as a tomb), had been wroth with Italy for numbering her children too carefully, and slain this little one. Black and white she lay, all breathless, in a sufficiently pictorial manner: the gardens of the Villa Regina gleamed beyond, graceful with laurel-grove and labyrinthine terrace; and folds of purple mountain were drawn afar, for curtains round her little dusty bed.
Par for the course in overall ickiness, I guess. Not merely is the erotic energy of his prose directed at a prepubescent girl (as his emotional energies were at the time directed at Rose La Touche, who was 9 when Ruskin met her, 16 or 17 at the time of this writing), but she, the incarnation for the nonce of "patience," will jump to serpentine life at her playmate's approach – "she rose with a single spring, like a snake" – & scream at her in Alecto's own shrill shriek. Ruskin, I fear, keeps pushing me towards what I've been resisting for years: a systematic reading of Freud.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Like everyone else, I've been reading Jeff Nunokawa's "notes" – brief essays, really – on Facebook, & with much enjoyment. It's cool, so many years on, to see that someone I remember as one of the nicest people around Campus on the Hill remains as nice as ever. And such a good writer. One of the articles on him, dwelling much on how ridiculously in-shape the man is, quotes a student claiming that Jeff "does an hour on the StairMaster every day at a level that’s just ridiculous." Dunno, he certainly looks buff enough in the FB photos.

Me, I'm still struggling thru the early weeks of the 100 Pushups regimen; I'm a long way from looking like Fabio (or Jeff Nunokawa, for that matter), but making progress. More importantly, perhaps, Undine of Not of General Interest has put me onto what she calls her Stairmaster for writing: 750 Words, a stripped-down, no-frills website whose whole goal is to get you putting those goddamned words down in order. I've only been using it a few days, but it's been working wonders towards disciplining me – getting me to put down the books and write down my thoughts. Give it a shot; looks as tho it works as well for fiction writers as for academic scribblers.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

too much?

I'm in the process – have been for a year or so now, I guess – of extending/expanding my "scholarly base," of stretching out from being a modernist/20th-century person to having more than a nodding familiarity with Victorian literature & culture. This year alone I've probably read about 30 books this year in the field, bunches of articles, etc. I've done a couple of related conference papers now; I wrote a review of a new Ruskin book a few months ago.

So when do I start actually writing this big book? My own inclination is to keep reading until I know enough to do it right, but there's always something more to read. I suspect that if I wait until I feel totally ready to tackle the next thing, that I'll die of old age before I ever put fingers to keyboard.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Dan Beachy-Quick: Mulberry and This Nest, Swift Passerine

Mulberry (Tupelo P, 2006) and This Nest, Swift Passerine (Tupelo P, 2009), Dan Beachy-Quick

The silkworm, the larval form of Bombyx mori, feeds on mulberry leaves almost exclusively, transmuting them into the 1000 to 3000 feet of silken thread that forms its cocoon – and which later, boiled, unraveled, cleaned, woven, & dyed, make scarves tunics & Wall Street traders' shirts. In Dan Beachy-Quick's Mulberry, the worm's process becomes a figure for the poet's transmutation of his own reading & his experience from the wild disorderly to the woven texture of the poem. Lordy, you say, another poem about poem-making! Haven't the centuries of makars inflicted the tortuous accounts of their own compositional processes on us long enough?

But Mulberry, like Wordworth's Prelude, is only in part a poem about the formation of the poet's mind – or rather, the formation of the poet's mind, the movement of his restless sensibility as he devours texts & experience, is synechdoche for the formation of the human mind in general. Mulberry exemplifies how the poet takes in the outside – books, nature, the lived life – and transmutes it into intricately woven iridescence; but it also exemplifies the constant interchange of outside & inside & outside again that is the human life, however buried those processes may be.

Beachy-Quick's extraordinary lyricism was evident from his first book, North True South Bright (Alice James Books, 2003); if anything his ear has grown more delicate in Mulberry and This Nest, Swift Passerine. "Passerine" is a bird – the name derives from Latin passer, sparrow – a "perching" bird, a "songbird." Where Mulberry figures the poet as humble caterpillar, munching leaves and metamorphosing them into silk, This Nest – a far bolder, wide-ranging, book – melds the traditional figure of the poet as transient songbird with an eco-centric conception of the poet's task as the building of a variegated and beautiful – not to mention liveable – nest, a nest formed out of the bits & pieces of experience, of previous texts, of philosophies & traditional wisdoms.

I hear a great deal of Ronald Johnson in This Nest; at times, indeed, the book reads like a 21st-century version of Johnson's The Book of the Green Man (1967). Johnson & Beachy-Quick share many points of reference: Thoreau, William & Dorothy Wordsworth, the general milieu of British nature-romanticism. But the ambition of This Nest pushes well beyond the careful naturalism and (sometimes 2nd-hand) nature mysticism of Green Man: Beachy-Quick is out to weave an encompassing tapesterial picture of the sparrow-poet in nature, something more akin to the mind-blowing cosmological stew of Johnson's ARK (which Beachy-Quick indeed cites). This Nest enfolds not merely the naturalism and Naturphilosophie of Thoreau & the Wordsworths, but swatches of Martin Buber, bits of Heidegger, Emerson, Weil, Traherne, usw. All is a kind of beautiful winding-together of fragments, bound & woven with Beachy-Quick's own precise verbal music, to form a lyrical, musical dwelling-place.

Ovid's Echo & Narcissus, the disembodied voice & the self-enraptured observer, play constant counterpoint, a Wordsworth-like questioning of whether our enraptured staring into nature is anything more than a self-obsession. As Wordsworth & Johnson would answer, & as Beachy-Quick assents, we do indeed see ourselves when we look into nature – but we see ourselves precisely as part and parcel of the nature's interlinked processes. Yes, natura naturata, LZ would say (echoing his blessed Spinoza), but natura naturans at the same time.

[116, 117]

Friday, September 30, 2011


Tangles of administrative stuff these days. Once upon a time – well, maybe until 5 or 6 years ago – because I am indeed a slow, slow learner* – I believed that somewhere up there, somewhere among the tenured faculty, somewhere in upper echelons of administration (& by implication, somewhere in the government, somewhere among the well-established poets), there were actual grown-ups: you know, people who knew what they were doing, who did it well, and who did their best to make the whole ungainly machine move forward & work smoothly for everyone involved.

I still believe in grown-ups in high places; but I've just realized that they're a hell of a lot scarcer than I once thought. I won't go into the details of my current irritations with Our Fair University; I'm sure irritations like them're shared by a great number of colleagues in higher education – probably the vast majority. Let's just say I've learned a few things about the difference between administrators & classroom instructors/researchers: or, for that matter, between those who do the actual day-to-day work in an organization – "labor" – & those who think of themselves as "management":
•The vast majority of administrator/managers are possessed with a remarkable absence of imagination (and hereafter "The vast majority" should be understood – not everybody, just most...)

•Administrator/managers are therefore highly rule-bound individuals; the substance of work that passes under their eyes is of less importance than whether or not it follows the minutiae of form

•Administrator/managers are highly territorial, & are constantly striving to define the boundaries of what they hold sway – oversight – over

•Administrator/managers are as well imperial: their territories are never quite broad enough, and need constant expansion; more and more of the everyday work of the labor force gets codified, formalized, & quantified

•Which implies, clearly enough, that administration/management are rather wonderfully pure examples of "instrumental reason" – and indeed, they understand no other kind of rationality
Colleagues at Our Fair University probably have sussed that I'm talking about The Graduate College, an administrative body whose purpose I don't understand – tho I do know that they seem to be able to hire highly-paid after highly-paid person, even as the academic departments keep getting the poor mouth from higher administration – but whose tentacular reach has been creeping into more and more of our everyday activities. I wish they'd go away, and let me and my colleagues do our jobs – which we do, on the whole rather well.

*And I'm not kidding about that; I really am a slow learner. It takes an ungodly number of times thru a book or a concept before I can get the hang of anything.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

comfort zone

So there's this dream I used to have: I'm at this concert, some band I'm totally into – Hüsker Dü, or Mekons, or Oysterband, whatever – and for some reason one of the band members singles me out, and hauls me up on stage. And they hand me a guitar – a nice one, a vintage Strat or an ES 295 – & invite me to play along. And I play along, really well: I seem to know the songs, & after a number or two they invite me to take a solo, & it's really hot – you know, Bill Frisell hot, or Marc Ribot hot. Somehow I can hear the music in my head & translate it to my fingers. You know, like a real musician.

Then there's this other dream: Same as the first, up thru the "And I play along" bit. But I don't play well – I play badly; I'm always a half-beat behind, I forget what key we're in, I'm lost on the bridges, I can't even – for god's sake – remember how to play an E-minor chord. You know, pretty much the way I play every day, but now in front of a whole bunch of people, & under the withering glare of musicians I idolize. I'm humiliated.

It's that latter dream I'm worried about playing out at the Shakespeare conference I'm off to next month. Right now I'm finishing up a paper on pomo British adaptations of The Tempest – Peter Greenaway, Michael Nyman – & pretty much soiling my pants worrying about how the real Shakespeare scholars are going to receive me.

Don't get me wrong: I know my Shakespeare pretty damned well, & I know The Tempest about as well as any of his plays. I've read it maybe 20-25 times, I've taught it a few times, I've read stacks of the criticism. But I've never written about it, much less presented in front of people who've made a vocation out of early modern drama. The range of imaginable and unimaginable gaffes I may be setting myself up to perpetrate is broader than I want to consider at the moment.

It's all very well for the B-school types and self-help gurus to talk about stepping outside of your "comfort zone" and so forth; all that's at stake there is money, or a date, or the chance of a raise. Here there's the potential for serious professional humiliation.

On the other hand, my apprehension here is probably just a subset of my larger professional self-image apprehension, as I find myself shifting from a focus on modernist/contemporary poetry to a large side-interest in Victorian literature & culture. This's happened before, I have to keep telling myself: When I wrote the LZ biography, & worried myself to death about how the real biographers were going to receive it. And that turned out okay – maybe this will as well.

Monday, September 19, 2011

off stride

I'm off my stride, in all sorts of ways. Here we are four weeks into the semester, & I haven't really settled into my classes, nor have I settled into the rhythm of the school week. (This time around it's front-loaded; my long day is Monday, which means there's a kind of anticipatory nervousness through the whole weekend.) The girls are just settling into their own extracurricular activities, which means backing-&-forthing all round. Dance classes, acting classes, violin lessons, orchestra... Even on the weekend, the four of us pile into the car & drive up to West Palm Beach for art classes. (I'm learning some of the basics of oil painting I never took the trouble to learn back in the day – back, well, three decades ago.)

Plus, this whole business of department administration weighs heavily. It's not like it's a job that takes hours upon hours every day. Rather, it's a job where there are always a half-dozen emails to give attention to, & where there's always a deadline looming in the middle distance to revise some document or prepare for some change of affairs. Just enough to keep me nervous.

What's suffered? Well, my writing has suffered, for one thing. I still have a handful of book reviews owed various people (if you're checking in, editor-types, I apologize). I haven't set pen to paper on the biography book I hoped to crank out this summer; that will have to wait for another year, I suspect, at the very least. Right now, I'm desperately at work on a conference paper, for next month's Blackfriars Shakespeare do up in the Virginia hills. And after that some reviews get written. Poems happen – or bits of poems happen – in the interstices.

I am trying, however, as the above indicates (and as my latest little entry in the "poem-books" noting series indicates), to get back into the swing of blogging, if at shorter length than before perhaps. Bear with me.

Cole Swensen: Greensward

Greensward, Cole Swensen (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

A sumptuous, beautifully designed & illustrated volume with which I'll have to come to terms if I ever actually get around to writing my gardening poetry book. While Swensen's last collection, Ours, focused on the gardens of Versailles, their designer André de Nôtre, and the theory of 17th-century formal gardening, Greensward moves into the 18th century, to the new "English," "natural" gardens of Humphrey Repton and Lancelot "Capability" Brown. (I can think of worse nicknames than "Capability"...) It also moves from an exclusive focus on the interaction of the human being with the landscape to a consideration of the role animals play in landscape gardening – perfectly logically, as the English country estates for which Repton & Brown designed landscapes were working farms & game preserves, with large populations of sheep, cattle, & deer. Where Swensen breaks new & surprising ground is in her exploration of aesthetics & the non-human. An epigraph quotes Dr. Linda Kaplan: "Mainstream science has yet to be convinced that animals have an aesthetic sense." Swensen's poem begins with the observation that, yes, animals do enhance a landscape to its human observers; and proceeds to wonder whether a landscape's manufactured order & beauty might not be perceived as such by animals as well.


Monday, September 12, 2011

in print | cultural society

A few recent publications, just for the aitch-ee-double-toothpicks of keeping the CV up to date:
•a review of Marjorie Perloff's Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century, in BookForum

•"One Last Modernist: Guy Davenport," a big-ass, much sweat-&-tears career-overview essay on the man's poetry, translations, fiction, essays, and overall self, in the latest Parnassus: Poetry in Review

•an essay in Joe Francis Doerr's brand spanking new, excellent Salt Campanion to John Matthias: "One Briggflatts After Another: John Matthias and the Pocket Epic"

•two poems, "Flâneur" and "Captain Modernism" in the latest Notre Dame Review (the first time I've had poems in actual golly-ink-on-paper "print" in a while)
Biggish publication news in the offing; stay tuned.

In the meantime, by all means if you're in New York City on October 8, make plans to come round to the Cultural Society's 10th anniversary celebration, which will feature a fantastic group reading in the afternoon at Poet's House (Brooklyn Copeland, Jon Curley, Sally Delehant, Norman Finkelstein, Chris Glomski, Michael Heller, Eric Hoffman, Philip Jenks, Peter O’Leary, Chuck Stebelton, and Shannon Tharp), then a musical evening (David Grubbs, Drew O’Doherty, J. Robbins, and BELLS≥ [Robbins and BELLS≥ will both be joined by Gordon Withers on cello]) at Bruar Falls in Brooklyn.

It's hard to believe Zach Barocas has been running Cultural Society for a whole decade now, keeping up an amazing standard of clean & attractive web design and scrupulous poetry editing (except of course for the unguarded moments when he's published your humble blogger) that puts most online journals to shame. And his new band Bells≥ really is the bomb; worth a trip to the City just to catch them in concert.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

study habits

So I was bemoaning my lack of narrative memory to another academic friend, bitching about how I can't remember plots & characters from one year to the next. "Every time I teach a novel," I said, "I have to re-read it. And the first time I read it, just to get a handle on it, I end up jotting down lists of characters & their relationships to one another on the flyleaf, & in the back I even write chapter-by-chapter summaries."

"Oh," she said. "You're studying. Shame our students haven't learned to do that."

Perhaps the best bit of advice I got during grad school was from John Taggart, who said simply, "Keep a reading journal." It was good advice, tho I didn't pursue it in any systematic way. Of course, I mark my books pretty heavily, and often I gist good quotations and overall arguments into various notebooks. But not really systematically, which is what I suspect he meant.

Over this past year, as I've been trying to expand my scholarly base into the "dark backward & abysm" of the Victorian era (concerning which expansion I mean to blog sometime soon), I've knuckled down and started doing this seriously. The last few batch of scholarly books I've read, I've marked them as usual, but I've also taken a few minutes at the end of each chapter (or each few chapters) to type up a thumbnail summary of the arguments. It's amazing how much better I seem to retain the books when I've taken the trouble to do this, even when I don't consult the notes.

Maybe this is just one of those expedients one is forced to when one doesn't have the steel-trap memory one did at 25 or 30. (Maybe I'll start posting notes to myself as to where I've left my keys and wallet.*) But I suspect it's pretty good operating practice for scholars in general, as well as students. I blush at how long it's taken me to start developing good study habits.

*When I was last in Tennessee, I spent a melancholy time in my mother's house, tearing down some of the last evidences of her failing memory before she went into the assisted living facility – the little "operating notes" she'd posted to herself around the house: how to work the microwave, how to set the thermostat, how to operate the garage door.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

John Davidson, for Labor Day (early)

from "The Testament of a Man Forbid"

This Beauty, this Divinity, this Thought,
This hallowed bower and harvest of delight
Whose roots ethereal seemed to clutch the stars,
Whose amaranths perfumed eternity,
Is fixed in earthly soil enriched with bones
Of used-up workers; fattened with the blood
Of prostitutes, the prime manure; and dressed
With brains of madmen and the broken hearts
Of children. Understand it, you at least
Who toil all day and writhe and groan all night
With roots of luxury, a cancer struck
In every muscle: out of you it is
Cathedrals rise and Heaven blossoms fair;
You are the hidden putrefying source
Of beauty and delight, of leisured hours,
Of passionate loves and high imaginings;
You are the dung that keeps the roses sweet.
I say, uproot it; plough the land; and let
A summer-fallow sweeten all the World.

–John Davidson (1857-1909)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

"Do I have to buy the book?"

[Slide #1: The Turbot]

We talk of food for the mind, as of food for the body: now a good book contains such food inexhaustibly; it is a provision for life, and for the best part of us; yet how long most people would look at the best book before they would give the price of a large turbot for it?

[I remember, fondly, the bookstore in Washington, DC which had that last phrase printed on its shopping bags and bookmarks]

the very cheapness of literature is making even wise people forget that if a book is worth reading, it is worth buying. No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again; and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it, as a soldier can seize the weapon he needs in an armoury, or a housewife bring the spice she needs from her store.

–Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies (Library Edition, Vol. XVIII, p. 85)
I re-read these lines today from my own copy of the Library Edition, which cost me many hours of shopping and a large number of dollars. I find that this is the latest of the Edition's 39 volumes of which Lancaster University's Ruskin Library and Research Centre has placed extraordinarily careful, clean, and readable PDF scans online. I could, I suppose, have downloaded these books more or less for free, just as this morning I downloaded texts by Rossetti, Robert Buchanan, and Swinburne, and last week I downloaded (courtesy of Google Books) a PDF of Allen Upwards The New Word.

I say "more or less for free," because nothing is got for nothing, after all: I paid for my computer, & I pay for internet access. Someone paid for those books, poems, & articles to be scanned or transcribed & uploaded to the internet; someone is paying the broadband bills for Jerry McGann's extraordinary Rossetti Archive, just as someone is paying the bills for Lancaster U's Ruskin treasures. But psychologically speaking, there's an immense difference between one's shelling out $65 for a first edition of Upward's New Word (or $10 for a print-on-demand paperback) and downloading the text for "free."

I have long ago realized that I'm far too old (chronologically, psychologically) to count myself among those for whom the experience of consuming texts is primarily a matter of interacting with a screen of some sort. That's okay: the transition from the physical page, which the futurists ten years ago were predicting would be complete sometime last decade, will probably take several generations. It's not something that worries me, or even occupies me much. But I am struck by the implications of Ruskin's economizing – the turbot and the book. (I don't often buy whole fish, but I know that I would think twice, hard, before spending on a book what we spent last night feeding the family at a mediocre restaurant.)

Suppose that the interface with the electronic text were improved so that it no longer irritated me; suppose that I could interact with it as I do with a "real" book – scribble in its margins with a stylus rather than a keyboard, circle and underline passages at will. Suppose that my students could do this, and we spent our class time crouching over Nooks & Kindles & iPads, rather than tatty, dog-eared books and internet printouts (yes, I insist) as we do now?

Perhaps the experience would be more or less the same. But one crucial element would have changed: the immediate investment in the book-object. It's been displaced. No longer does one have to go to the campus store (or BookSmart across the street, or for that matter Amazon or, search out the object, and pay for it. Instead, one clicks & it's downloaded – ideally, for free. But the investment has only been shifted, not obliterated. We're no longer aware of the economic networks that have produced the book, from the long-expired royalty payments to the now-dead author, to the labor expended on editing, to the scanning or transcribing and html coding. The payment for the book becomes a society-wide one, rather than a personal one – and as we've seen in its most extreme form with the Tea Party movement, in America at least we're liable to consider any social obligations to be arrant left-wing fantasies. (As Americans, we owe nothing but personally incurred debts.)

On the most basic level, I feel more investment in a book-object in which I have invested actual money. I feel obligated to read it, at the very least. Call me a coelacanth; or some fossilized turbot.