Monday, April 25, 2011


Steve Burt laments, on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog, that there's just too much happening in the wide world of poesy, that he can't keep up anymore, what with the distractions of a job, a family, a real life, etc. Once upon a time, when we were 25, we could feel reasonably au courant with poetry – in my case, I read Poetics Journal & Temblor & Acts and got all the new books from The Figures and Roof & browsed thru Poetry magazine and a bunch of the big-circulation journals every issue, & hung out with some cool people who told me things to read. And I felt reasonably up on things.

But now it's all different. As Steve puts it,
Every week, every day, I get email and Facebook notices and for that matter word of mouth about the latest debate or commentary or controversy or metapoetic metaconversation (sometimes it’s even attached to actual poems) on one of three dozen fine websites and active blogs and web-only or web-mostly mostly-poetry magazines...
Man do I sympathize. With the expansion of the internet as the primary medium of poetry, & of the endless chatter of poetry-promotion & poetry-discussion – of pobiz, in short – it feels like there's been an exponential explosion of poetic activity out there, so much being written & published & written about that no-one, but no-one, is able to grasp more than a tiny fraction of it. Ron Silliman, in various blog-posts, has celebrated the explosion of poetic activity; lots of curmudgeonly types have grumbled that the poetic world's going to hell in a handbasket, now that everybody's gotten into the game (paging Dr. Pope – an outbreak of Duncitis...).

My own sense is that something real is indeed happening, if not in terms of the proportion of the body politic writing poetry or maybe the raw numbers of poets active, but certainly in terms of the increased availability of poetry & the discourse surrounding it. There's clearly more out there to be read. But perhaps more importantly, the internet, & such devices as a poet-heavy Facebook friends list, work to give one the momentary illusion that if one had the time & energy, one could somehow get a handle on it all. One could, like Milton, read all the books that matter.

But that's never really been the case, at least not in our lifetimes. Every year, I discover poets who by rights I ought to have been reading back in the late '80s. When I'm reduced to madras shorts and a white patent leather belt (the local octagenarian uniform), I hope to be discovering poets of the 2000s & 2010s I'd somehow missed. And that's part of the process of one's reading life, I keep saying to myself, trying to muster a zen-like equanimity about my own absymal out-of-it-ness. The internet wants me to believe that I can have it all, right now. But the state of not being able to have it all, of having to pick and choose & have things picked & chosen for one, is in the end the human condition. Or at least my human condition.
On t'other hand, the irrepressible gadfly Kenneth Goldsmith would taunt us – or at least taunts Steve B. – with the prospect of a veritable tsunami of recycled, reframed, & regurgitated preexisting texts, repackaged & put on display by a new generation of "language hoarders" who have no interest in outmoded ideas of "originality" or "expression." "This ain’t E-poetry or Net Art: this is all about a basic change in the ways in which we use language," Kenny G. tells us with glee: "We will never write the same way again."

Don't get me wrong: I'm fascinated by projects like those of KG, or Vanessa Place, or Craig Dworkin, etc. I've screened "Sucking on Words," the Goldsmith documentary, for a half-dozen poetry classes, & have seen the best minds of my last undergraduate generation promptly set to work cannibalizing their Facebook feeds and text messages to reframe them as poetry. It's a little too early, however, to put to rest a several-millennia-long habit of making poems out of the air, stringing words together in combinations that strike one as new. The internet will probably have as deep an impact on human verbal sensibilities as the printing press or the codex did, but I suspect one impact it won't have is to wipe out the human tendency towards verbal creation, in favor of varieties of repackaging preexisting word-strings.

And anyway, it's too early to tell, innit? Part of me sees Kenny G's flood-tide of digital verbiage as a kind of cottage industry version of what late capitalism is already doing with language; part of me strives desperately to see some kind of subversive potential in the new conceptualism. But my hunch is that it's always going to be in coexistence with more or less old-fashioned compositional impulses.
My own gesture towards temporarily reefing sails in the face of the hurricane of poetry – as I think I've mentioned – has been, for the better part of the dire "National Poetry Month," instead of reading as I usually do a dozen or so newish slim volumes of contemporary verse, to read straight thru Christopher Ricks's Oxford Book of English Verse. Not the best anthology around, but by no means a bad one, & at the moment the handiest. Just finished it this morning; more on that later.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

home stretch

There's only about a week & a half of classes left; my bag is full of papers to grade, however, & there are a thousand little administrative things hovering over my head, so I'm trying not even to think in terms of lights at ends of tunnels.
I fear I'm not doing the Aeneid justice; it deserves at least a week's more attention than I'm able to give it right now, and as we wind our way thru the second half of the poem, I'm feeling more & more daunted by the complexity and beauty of Virgil's narrative design & historical vision. A few years back my acquaintance the classicist David Wray, at the University of Chicago, team-taught a course on the Aeneid in translation – various translations, from Gavin Douglas thru Dryden down to the present – with Robert Von Hallberg. Now that must have been an epic course.
We spent last week in the graduate seminar sparring over James Miller's The Passion of Michel Foucault. This week we'll do more sparring, & then venture into Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. I have my problems with Greenblatt's book: it's at once too conventional – so much more the standard speculative Shax life than one would have expected from a scholar who led a revolution in early modern studies; it could, one can't help feeling, have been written anytime in the last half century – and too "out there." It brings to a fine pitch, however, the central issue of specifically literary biography: how does one articulate, negotiate, theorize the relationship between life & works? Greenblatt's answer is that we work out the governing obsessions of Shakespeare's writings, then we locate them in what little we know of his life – at times, we invent whole tracts of his life for which we have no evidence, in order to account for something that dominates the writing.

Okay. But what's the payoff? Why pursue this exercise? Why not just fall back on a New Critical stance, and reject biographical connections entirely? Greenblatt's implicit argument is that Shakespeare's work shows the playwright to be a transcendent genius (I won't argue with him there), and that we naturally want to know more about the life-experience of such a guy. I don't think I'd argue with him there, either, tho it's also clear to me that the sort of knowledge displayed in Will in the World – even the best-attested stuff – doesn't really add anything to our reading of the Shax corpus.

But what then is the justification for a biography of a less than transcendently gifted author? If a writerly life issues only in handful of pretty good works, is there a specifically literary reason for pursuing (writing or reading) the biography of such an also-ran?

I fear I'm cutting the conceptual points a bit too close here. For the most part, we read biography, even literary biography, for reasons that have little to do with literary commentary, criticism, or even appreciation. We read a life of Whittier or Longfellow not to get insights into their poetry, but because they were interesting people, and we're naturally inclined to want to learn about the lives of interesting people. (How banal, how bourgeois. How hopelessly pre-theoretical.)

I wonder if there are 300 people in the world who would buy a biography of Ronald Johnson?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

the seductions of lecturing

I went to listen to this spring's visiting writer Thursday night. Even tho I was simmering with resentment – the department's reading series has been scheduled right opposite my graduate seminar, so I've lost several hours of class time over the course of the semester – I found myself enjoying the performance. Very much, in fact. He was a fiction writer; he had dashingly long silver hair, dressed sharply with just the right touch of eccentricity (a bow tie, no less), "worked" the audience like a seasoned entertainer. Much laughter; quiet breath-holding at all the right moments. Everyone left, I think, with the sense that they'd gotten their money's worth, or at least that they hadn't wasted their hour.

Of course, it was all a matter of the performative Рwhich is quite appropriate in the case of a public reading, which is more than anything else a performance. There are few things more dispiriting than a poorly delivered reading of poetry; recondite or "difficult" poetry, especially, needs to be delivered with a certain aggressive élan, I think Рif you can't "get" work without living with it on the page before you, reading it repeatedly and thoughtfully, what's the point of having it read to you in a lifeless manner?

I think I'm a pretty decent performer of my own poetry, and a pretty good performer of others'. But how does this translate to the classroom? Lately, I've been thinking about the seductions of the lecture. I've had good lecturers as an undergraduate; when I was a grad student at University on the Hill, I was a TA for a professor who'd begun life as a child preacher, & was a truly spellbinding lecturer – there were audible gasps across the 200-seat auditorium sometimes when he read an affecting passage from Faulkner.

But the papers his students turned in – the ones I had to grade – were for the most part lousy. The kids were amazed, & entertained, but I wasn't at all sure they were learning. Yesterday I came across this lovely statement of teaching philosophy by my old professor Tom Gardner (click on "Minds in the Act of Finding" on the right), & was reminded of the excitement of his classes, where he would patiently and precisely draw points out of us in conversation, showing us time and again that we knew more than we thought we did, making us, thru a careful Socratic prodding, connect the dots in ways that we wouldn't have thought to.

That kind of teaching is terrifically hard, especially when you're dealing with undergrads like many of the ones who sat in classes with me in Blacksburg all those years ago, or who sit in my classes now at Our Fair University – kids who're tired from working full-time jobs, kids who're underprepared for a given class, kids who don't really have the academic background they need for an upper-division course, kids who simply don't want to be there. (I won't even go into "media-saturated," "attention-deficit-plagued," etc.). I don't mean to put down my students – they're for the most part great; but sometimes it's awfully easy to fall into the performer mode, even the entertainer mode. I start out typing up some talking/discussion points; I end up writing a week's worth of lectures.

Talking goes over well; the students laugh at the jokes. They don't fall asleep, for the most part. I get good evaluations; better evaluations, I sometimes think, than if I'd forced them to think & talk their way thru the class. But for every lecture I deliver in the classroom, I end up feeling just a little bit queasy: I've short-changed them on some level, & I've short-changed the texts I'm teaching.

Resolution for the Fall semester: no more than a half-hour's prepared talking per class period. They may find me duller at first, & I'm sure I'll find it a good deal more work, but we'll both get more out of it in the long run.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hegel's 'do

We have no portraits of Hegel in his first Jena years, only a silhouette showing him (in Terry Pinkard's words) "sporting the very fashionable 'Titus' haircut (probably best known as Napoleon’s haircut), a style identified with 'modernity' (and sometimes with the Revolution), which he was to keep all his life." I try to imagine this, as I only know Hegel's 'do from later portraits, in which his forelocks are notably thinning:

How about:
Yeah, that works.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

progress report

Well, I'm sure you don't remember this post from about 5 months ago, in which I mused on harnessing my OCD for something useful – no, nothing as ambitious as actually writing something, but the more mundane task of trying to shed a few pounds.

There's a grand old tradition of portly scholars & poets. I think of the portly Wallace Stevens, the grandly massive Amy Lowell & Gertrude Stein. I think of Cornell's own Robert Kaske, one of the grand old men of medieval studies, a veritable pyramid of flesh and Gandalfian curtains of hair & beard. And then I think of the rueful Ben Jonson, in his "My Picture Left in Scotland" –
Oh, but my conscious fears,
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs,
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waist, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rock face,
As all these, through her eyes, have stopt her ears.
Yep, I've got those "hundreds of gray hairs" (& lots of simply missing hair), & while I've never caught up with Jonson's "twenty stone within two pound" (more or less 280 lbs!), I've gotten more & more conscious of my own "mountain belly" over the years.

So five months ago I decided to go full-on & tackle the problem. Strategy #1: the standing lectern (homemade division):I've been working standing up for maybe 3-4 hours a day, shifting restlessly from foot to foot, lifting a set of dumbbells as I read now & again. I have no idea whether standing up really burns calories, as lots of websites tell me it does; I know it makes my back feel better.

I've been taking the stairs rather than the elevator; I've been getting out on my bike; I've been parking further away from the entrance.

Most of all, I've stopped eating the savory, salty things that have been my between-meals companions for so many years. It hasn't been easy, of course: but it helps not to buy the things in the first place. When I'm dying for some oral gratification, I'll heat up a Punjabi-style papadam in the toaster oven – almost no oil to the thing, very few calories, & enough potent spices (go asafoetida!) to satisfy my urges for a good long while.

So what's the result? Well, since that post back in October, I seem to have shed somewhere between 20 and 25 pounds. I'm still no sylph, but I'm on my way to something more closely approximating a normal human shape.

NB: Weight loss blogging is perhaps the most irritating genre on the internets, I know. But golly, I'm pleased with this, & gotta share somehow.

NB2: Neither shedding a stone & a half nor a standup lectern makes grading papers any easier.

Friday, April 08, 2011

anthologizing ii

So Ron S. really seems to have shuttered the shop, at least as a venue for actually writing about poetry. Not sure how I feel about it; like everybody else, for a while I was checking his blog every day, hoping for that fleeting "bump" by being linked, following (with some distaste) the snarky flame wars in his comments box. Kenny Goldsmith has a harshly worded but on the whole fair assessment of the passing of the Age of the Sillimanian Blogosphere here.
I realized the other day, as I reopened Christopher Ricks's Oxford Book of English Verse – some 25 -30 poems a day, for a bit over a week now – that I was doing something for National Poetry Month, as silly an event as that is. Am I cynical? Maybe, but somehow it seems better for the soul to spend the month reading poems rather than churning them out.

I'm at the mid-17th-century now. I've found myself reminded of a great number of poems I'd entirely forgotten, & have been introduced to more than a few I hadn't read before. Connections get made: I'm reminded of how much LZ's short lyrics owe to the Cavalier poets – far more, in some ways, than they owe to WC Williams or anyone in his immediate vicinity. I'm amused by how Ricks seems to set his anthology up as a background guide for high modernism: while the only bit of The Waste Land anthologized is the lyric "Death by Water" (part IV), we're given the passage from Webster's White Devil quoted in "The Burial of the Dead" ("But keepe the wolfe far thence..."); no Pound, of course, but we do have Waller's "Go Lovely Rose" (cf. the "Envoi" to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley); and while there's no Lennon/McCartney, we have the lyric from Dekker's Patient Grissell that became "Golden Slumbers."

And I'm reminded that Bishop King's "Exequy" is really one of the loveliest, saddest poems of all:
My last Good-night! Thou wilt not wake
Till I Thy Fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sicknes must
Marry my Body to that Dust
It so much loves; and fill the roome
My heart keepes empty in Thy Tomb.
Stay for mee there; I will not faile
To meet Thee in that hollow Vale.

Saturday, April 02, 2011


"Well, nobody actually reads anthologies – you teach out of them. You find the one that fits your own pedagogical predispositions most closely, then you supplement it with online texts & handouts & so forth. But you can't be thinking of reading the things."

That's my inner behavior-censor, calling me down the other day when I took down Christopher Ricks's Oxford Book of English Poetry (1999) & started reading straight thru it – started at page 1, "Sumer is icumen in" (anonymous) & now in the middle of Sir Walter Ralegh (1554(?)-1618). I hope to finish (page 662, Seamus Heaney's "The Pitchfork") sometime in the next couple of months.

I guess, strangely enough, I'm feeling a bit burned out on contemporary poetry. I've read quite a bit lately – indeed, I've been on something of a bender reading slim volumes of contemporary verse for maybe a decade or so, between two and four a week on average. It's not that I don't admire much of what I'm reading – some of it is stupendous – but I'm feeling the need to reconnect with the "tradition," to work my way back thru the whole historical development of poetry in English. I'm guessing I've probably read 85% of what Ricks anthologizes in the Oxford Book, at least up thru the beginning of the 20th century (where our tastes pretty radically diverge). But much of it I read decades ago, back in my own college & grad school days, where as Samuel Johnson says I "read hard" – very hard. I want to get the feel of 17th- & 18th-century poetry back in my head; I want to revisit some of the minor Victorians.

Ricks is a solid place to begin. His taste is staunchly canonical, so there aren't many "major" poems that fall thru the cracks entirely, and there are a good number of "minor" figures who make it into his net. And I've always found the Oxford Books of X Verse, as a series, to be rather wonderfully readable – pleasant typography, very little unnecessary academic apparatus. Of course, anthologizing is never a neutral activity: without commenting on the way the entire post- or late-modernist tradition gets passed over in Ricks's choice, I'm struck by how much of the poetry in the first stretch of the book emphasizes mutability, decay, the imminence of death. Perhaps that's what poets from the 13th thru the late 15th century were obsessed with. Or maybe it's Ricks's own preoccupation; after all, he was in his mid-sixties when compiling this collection.

I do like the idea of having an anthology going at any given moment. After this one, I suspect I'll tackle either John Dixon Hunt's Oxford Book of Garden Verse or Alastair Fowler's Oxford Book of Seventeenth-Century Verse. Or maybe one or more of the nifty collections of contemporary poetry hanging around the shelves.