Monday, December 24, 2012

year's end

Yes, as I always say, I hate year-end "best of" lists, whether of books or records or movies or whatever. Especially of books. On the one hand, there's the implicit "check out how much I read factor." Now I read a lot, but I'm not particularly proud of it. Indeed, I feel there's something slightly pathological about how much I read. I get something close to a panic attack when I realize I'm going to be somewhere where I might have a couple of hours on my hands, and I don't have something to read.

And then there's the whole "cool kid" quotient. Astonishingly enough, I was not one of the cool kids back in high school, and things really haven't improved. So no, I probably haven't gotten around to reading the latest super-snazzy book of poetry or theory or whatever. But I feel bad about not having done so every time I see that title pop up on the year-end "best of" lists.

Any way, here's some highlights from this year's reading, sorted roughly by genre. Stuff that's stuck in my mind enough to note or recommend:

Odi Barbare, by Geoffrey Hill, is a bit of a return to form after the disappointments of Oracles/Oraclau and Clavics; he's still writing too much in the home stretch, if you ask me.
•With Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger, Susan Gevirtz continues to demonstrate that she's one of the poets you really ought to read, even if you haven't.
Terra Lucida, by Joseph Donahue and Gnostic Frequencies, by Patrick Pritchett, are two very different explorations in the fascinating province of "new gnosticism."
•John Peck's I Came, I Saw: Eight Poems is typical Peck – and by "typical" I mean dense, musical, and impactedly beautiful.
•I'd read Jill Magi's earlier books, but with SLOT she seems to really be coming into her own as an important contemporary voice; solid, moving.
•Jena Osman's Public Figures continues her exploration of "documentary" poetics; this outing revolves around statues & monuments in Philadelphia.
Gravesend, by Cole Swensen, does nifty things with ghosts, graves, and the town of Gravesend in England; I like it because it's so obviously about something, and because Swensen has a really dead-on lyric ear.
•I contributed a blurb sight unseen to Alan Halsey's Even if only out of, saying nice things about his work as a whole; this one doesn't disappoint, either; epigrams like Martial on speed and shrooms.
•Matthew Cooperman's Still: Of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move initially impressed me as yet another "here's the unremitting barrage of data we're subjected to every day" books, but as it progressed, it moved me more and more, until it became almost overwhelming.
•Stacy Doris's Knot: Doris was one of the poets we lost recently, and I bitterly regret not getting to know her work, which plays wonderful games with tenses and verbs, earlier.
•Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: ouch.

•China Miéville, The City and the City: deserved every prize it got – tho for my taste, it went a little genre-y at the end (noir, rather than sf, though)

•And of course, maybe the high point of the year's reading, the umpteenth read-thru of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse; I love that book!
•Joan Evans's 1950s John Ruskin is very good indeed; a good deal less carefully rendered detail than Derrick Leon's magnificent 1949 John Ruskin, The Great Victorian, but perhaps more smartly judgmental. Peter Quennell's John Ruskin: The Portrait of a Prophet was published the same year as Leon's biography, which is unfortunate, as the density of Leon's research overshadows the liveliness and grace of Quennell's style.
•Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde: yes, it took me a long time to get around to this one, so long that I suppose it's been largely superseded (but when was I ever up to date?); but it was worth the wait. 
•Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus, which I've already written about a bit; an important book.
Sui generis:
•Keith Tuma, On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes: what's to say? great anecdotes, wonderful theorizing about the genre of the anecdotes, and a tremendous emotional wallop to the whole.
I read some really splendid books of criticism and correspondence, but most of them were on Ruskin, & I think I'll save a bit of that for my big long-awaited (by me) post on finishing the Library Edition. Which I did, this year, and which puts me in an exclusive club of about 200 members, I'd guess. Almost like winning the shit-eating contest.

Friday, December 14, 2012

hobby time

I meant to paint some soldiers this evening, but time got away; I ended up varnishing some already painted soldiers and gluing them (with rubber cement, so they're easily removable) to bases.

So this is what I'm up to:

They're on the stove-top, so you can get some idea of scale (note burner control to right). At a nominal 1:72 scale, they stand around an inch high. These particular sets aren't great, as these types of soldiers go. On the left are a couple of bases' worth of Romans, from the much-maligned Airfix "Romans" sets; most of the swords didn't survive the injection-molding process, & the sculptor seemed to have no idea of how a pilum (short lance) was actually carried. I must have bought these back in the 1970s sometime; I had to scrape my adolescent self's very bad paint jobs off of some of them. (Luckily, since I was too dumb to varnish back then, much of the paint had already flaked off.)

On the right are Airfix's "Ancient Britons," one of the first sets I bought back in the day, but a set that's still available – this particular formation is from a new box. Eventually I'll get around to repainting my old ones as well. I have in mind a huge diorama of the siege of Alesia, or something like that. I'm looking forward to incorporating some of the newer, far more realistic and dynamically sculpted Gallic Warriors from Italeri:

Here's a few more or less in progress.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

jarnot's duncan

Ben asks me to expand a bit on my praise of Lisa Jarnot's Robert Duncan, The Ambassador from Venus: A Biography. Maybe the word "footwork" wasn't the best; maybe I should have said "spadework," or "ground-work." Any way –

What's evident thruout her book is a massive organizational effort, one which I can sympathize with & understand, having done something similar (or parallel) with the LZ biography. When you begin a book like this – that is, a first comprehensive biography of someone about whom much is known, but whose life has never been told at length – there's an enormous amount of sorting and filing to be done. I'll speak to my own methods, since I don't really know precisely what road Jarnot took, but I began by constructing chronological databases, based more or less on what sources were out there (Dictionary of Literary Biography articles, biographical sketches, etc.): one database of writings, sorted first by composition date (when known) and then by publication date; then another database of events (education, jobs, addresses, meetings with important people, readings, illnesses, etc.). Those databases constituted a kind of skeleton for everything – the girders beneath the fabric of the narrative, as it were.

Then the real work began: reading everything possible by, about, and around the subject. Of course LZ's works – I had already read everything several times, but was constantly re-reading. (When it actually came down to writing a given chapter, I'd re-read everything LZ had written during that period, just to have it fresh in my mind.) Perhaps as importantly, from a biographical standpoint, was correspondence: I tried to read every extant letter LZ had written, and every letter he'd received. Contemporaneous letters are the gold standard for biographical evidence, so far as I'm concerned, and I tried to back up every statement of "fact" with a letter written as near as possible the actual event. As I read letters, I entered the gist of their contents into the "events" database, often altering the orders and dates of events as better evidence emerged.

Interviews as well got sifted into the mix; they proved more useful for human "impressions" of events than for actual hard data, it became rapidly clear – people have great memories for their own first impressions of someone, but their memories for dates and places are far less reliable.

At any event, I ended up with several thousands of pages of photocopies and notes before I even began the actual writing of the thing, which was a wholly different challenge: how to pour as much of this material as possible into a readable narrative, one that wouldn't be clogged or overburdened with detail, yet would convey the shape of LZ's life and writing career. Looking back, I think I achieved maybe 60% of what I hoped to do.

Jarnot, I suspect, had a much larger mass of material to work with – after all, Duncan spent a large proportion of his later years on the road doing readings and visiting teaching gigs, and he seemed to be in more or less constant correspondence with Jess during that period: a lot of letters to take account of, a lot of quotidian data. She's had a hell of a lot of stuff to sort through and make into a book, and she's done a very solid job of it indeed.

Monday, December 10, 2012


I turned in my grades last night, just under the wire as usual. I'd tried something new in my undergraduate course: sick to death of taking roll and trying to enforce attendance policies (please, Professor S, I had to miss class because my car broke down...), I built a huge quiz component into the final grade. I  told them I was giving at least 10 quizzes over the course of the semester; that the quizzes would be more or less mindlessly easy if they'd done the reading for the class; that the quiz would always happen first thing, so they needed to be on time; that I would end up dropping at least one or two of the lowest grades; and that this would constitute 20% of their final grade.

I got generous; I ended up giving not 10 or 11, but 12 quizzes – and averaged them all in, even though that gave them the possibility of getting extra points. I gave quizzes that had more than the normal number questions, but averaged them in as if they were the regular. And some of the students still ended up losing a sold 10 or 11 points off the top of their grades.
The graduate seminar papers were far more pleasant to read than the undergrad grades had been to calculate. I learned some things, as one is supposed to do in a graduate seminar. I miss my seminar already: what will I do with my Wednesday nights, now there's no-one to talk Ruskin to?
Going back and forth between Joan Evans's splendid 1954 biography John Ruskin and Lisa Jarnot's splendid (in very different ways) Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus (2012). Jarnot has done her footwork in ways that I suspect only another biographer can fully appreciate.

Saturday, December 08, 2012


Alone in the house today; everybody's else's off at of all things a Swedish Xmas fest, Santa Lucia and a bazaar and so forth. I had a hankering to go myself, but I'm deeply sunk in the slough of finishing up grading. Just read and marked the last of the Ruskin seminar papers (the last on hand, that is – still waiting for a couple of laggards), and am about to plunge into crunching the numbers for my undergraduate "Intro to Literary Studies" course. Looking back at my syllabus, I realize that I've come up with an insanely complex algorithm for determining final grades. This may take hours.
Yes, I've finished. Consummatum est. That is, the other day I finished the last substantive volume of the Ruskin Library edition, Vol. 37, part two of the Letters. Right now I'm working my way through the Bibliography volume, which has its own anal-retentive pleasures. Expect a longish blog post on the experience of reading thru all of Ruskin over a two-and-a-half-year stretch. And then another on the wonders of the apparatus volumes (the bibliography, the general index) of this edition.
My next few weeks are pretty clearly laid out for me, & it looks busy indeed. A major essay to be given a huge overhaul before Christmas; the holiday; then a jaunt north to NYC for a few days, then to Boston for the MLA (thankfully, my major task will be child care; and there's an enormous hobby shop in the Boston area I have my eye on for visiting); back to Boca just in time to start teaching.
Teaching: this Spring there's an undergraduate American modernism course, which I could probably teach in my sleep, but which I'm rather excited about. We're doing Pound, Eliot, WCW, Stein, Barnes, and Faulkner. And then there's a graduate poetry workshop, for which I just got around to ordering the books the other day:
LZ, Selected Poems
Basil Bunting, Complete Poems
JH Prynne, Pearls that Were and Triodes
Michael Palmer, Thread
Jill Magi, SLOT
Cole Swensen, Gravesend
Jena Osman, Public Figures

Friday, November 30, 2012


I was going to start blogging again, wasn't I? Well, that worked out well...

At any rate, the semester is almost over. I have taught my last undergraduate class (tho precious little "teaching" takes place that last week, I'm afraid), and the Ruskin seminar is largely wound up; we had our last official meeting Wednesday night. We'll meet again next week, but mostly for comestibles and potables, a free-wheeling discussion of Wilde's "Decay of Lying," and perhaps an episode of the sexed-up and hilariously inaccurate Desperate Romantics.

At the moment I'm in that wee breathing space between finishing teaching and having to dive into a sea of final grading. An odd place, where I want to get lots of things done – I've a big Black Mountain essay that needs major revision, for instance – but instead have been just nosing about among my books, happily learning things. I finished The Divine Comedy for the whateverth time the other day (Mandelbaum translation this time around), & feeling a little at sea without a "big" book on the burner, began The Cantos again: five cantos a day the current pace, tho that'll slow down when I hit the long ones.

One of the interesting aspects of the Ruskin seminar was the degree to which it ended up being an exercise in literary and intellectual biography. Looking back over my talking points (by the end, some 30,000 words, maybe 60 pages), I realize there's a pretty thorough short biography all written up in there. Mind you, I absurdly over-prepare for graduate seminars – probably only a third or so of that mass of mostly well-turned prose ever got talked thru. But something should be done with all that; I have a perverse hankering to start proposing a Ruskin life to some of the "brief lives" series out there.

But what about those hobbies, the piquant chutneys of life? Well, I've haven't laid a single brush to a single figurine over the past two weeks (tho I have gazed longingly on many a set reviewed in the Plastic Soldier Review site). But I have been thrashing away on the bouzouki or guitar for about half an hour every day, and even sat down the other day with the hurdy-gurdy, a pair of pliers, rosin, and cotton wool (it's complicated), and tried to coax some semi-musical sounds out of it. Better yet, Pippa and I spent an hour playing hell-for-leather versions of Irish dance tunes one afternoon last week, and started getting together a neat take on Richard Thompson's "The Angels Took My Racehorse Away." At 10, she's ten times the musician I'll ever be; but it's delightful being her accompanist.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

hobby time

The semester is winding down, & it's been a doozy. I've cooked up two conference proposals, done three tenure reviews, written a letter of support for a sabbatical, and given a reading in Ohio. I've lived thru the 2012 presidential campaign. The worst of course is yet to come: applications for our MA program are sitting in the file cabinet, waiting to be read and decided on; one more sabbatical letter remains to be written, and several letters of recommendation; and I'm part of the evaluation committee for one of the college's "eminent scholars." Not to mention the usual end-of-term grading and so forth. No wonder I haven't gotten my book orders for the spring in yet.

I've been thinking about "hobbies," those ancillary pursuits we put so much of our hearts into, lately. I'm lucky: if I were working at an insurance agency, I'd probably be trying to snatch waking moments to read and think about poetry; as it is, I get paid (sorta) to think and talk and write about literature (or at least that's part of my job description). When I read Adorno's essay "Free Time" some years ago – the one where he says I have no hobbies; I write and read and think and make music and think about music; hobbies are capital's way of colonizing the little free time left to workers – I felt all virtuous and Frankfurt-schooly.

But more recently I've come to feel that it's good, for me at least, to spend significant time doing thing with my hands and eyes and ears that have nothing to do with the "serious" work I'm committed to. I've made peace with my own trivial pursuits. I haven't bought a new guitar in a couple of years now, and have no plans to buy any more instruments anytime soon: but I do intend to spend a good deal more time making bad music. And yes, I've resurrected my teenaged hobby of collecting and painting toy soldiers ("military miniatures," that is). So look for lots of pictures of 30 Years' War battle formations, and a vast diorama of the Battle of the Teutonberg Wald, or the Battle of Maldon.

And maybe some poems along the way. That, after all, isn't a hobby.

Thursday, November 08, 2012


Yes, back to blogging, with no fanfare, no trumpets, no FB announcements (maybe). With a welcome cold front, and an even more welcome end to the endless election season, the time seems right to resume posting occasional reminders (perhaps only to myself) of my existence.

Reading, as always. Very near the end of another trundle thru JH Prynne's huge Poems; re-reading Red D Gypsum (1998), Pearls That Were (1999), and Triodes (1999), found myself shocked by how much they had shaped my own idiom in both Torture Garden and in Red Arcadia. Never too old to be influenced, I guess, or too weak-minded.

Much Ruskin. As for the Library Edition, it's all over but the letters, specifically the last half of the second volume of letters. Along the way, as I continue to accumulate ancillary JR materials, I read a book or two a week of criticism or ephemera. J. H. Whitehouse's edition of The Solitary Warrior: New Letters by Ruskin (Houghton Mifflin, 1930) is definitely among the latter. 179 small pages, large type, huge margins – numerous blank pages between sections; I'd guess there's a 50-page ordinary book lurking in here. Perhaps there are a half-dozen letters of real (but only mild) interest in the volume – discussions of JR's relationship with Rose La Touche, socio-political speculations, early intimations of the Guild of St. George. The rest are invitations to tea, apologies for not writing, "staying in touch" notes. One marvels, by the end, that a major publisher bothered to bring this out at all. An index, I suppose of how precious any scrap of Ruskin's writing seemed at one time.

Frans G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships (Röde Orm) is the bomb. My Swedish friend Göran gave me a British (HarperCollins) paperback a year or two ago, but I only started it the other day. Delicious, even guiltily delicious, reading. Flashman meets Dumas meets the Icelandic sagas.

Friday, September 14, 2012

shameless self-promotion

[Stephen Burt, channeling Brian Eno ca. 1975]

There's a big piece in the New York Times today on Stephen Burt, calling him "Poetry's Cross-Dressing Kingmaker." Well, the cross-dressing was news to me – rather endearing news – but the degree to which Burt's become the go-to voice on contemporary poetry (reviewing for the Boston Review, the London Review, the TLS, and seemingly everywhere) is pretty well-established.

So I'm delighted at Burt took the better part of eight minutes last month to discuss Red Arcadia, which he reads sharply and seems to rather like, on the latest edition of "The Latest," the podcast he does for the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard. Nifty stuff – you can hear it here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

bran mak morn & the race of the picts

[Bran Mak Morn, as painted by Jeffery Jones – the cover of Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard ]

It's a long story, the windings of my mind lately. When we were in Tennessee, I sought out and found a couple of sets of model soldiers I'd messed about with in my childhood – Airfix ancient Britons, a lovely set including two chariots and a chieftain with a wonderfully winged helmet, and Airfix Romans, a set every bit as poorly sculpted and anachronistically detailed as the review on Plastic Soldier Review (a site where I've been spending way too much time) makes it out to be.

I had determined that I was going to "finish" these soldiers – ie to paint them in realistic colors, and to use them for some sort of diorama (I have the Battle of the Teutonberg Forest in mind, in case you're interested, but it's a while down the road). I'd always been fascinated with ancient military history, & excelled in the "history" category at the Latin Club competitions back in the day. And I have indeed painted a couple dozen of the Romans, and some of the Britons, and a handful of ancient Germans and Picts that I've picked (pict – get it?) up over the past few months.

But while I was home, I also rummaged thru my books, and came away with among many other things a complete set of Robert E. Howard's Bran Mak Morn stories – not merely his own stories, collected in Bran Mak Morn and Worms of the Earth, but a couple of pastiches by other authors. (Karl Edward Wagner's Legion from the Shadows, I seem to recall, is actually far superior to Howard's own Bran stories.) This is all pulp trash, of course, the sort of thing a pimply 15-year-old reads avidly, but it's interesting trash.

Unlike Conan the Cimmerian, Howard's most famous creation, Bran lives in a recognizable historical period – 3rd century Britain, where he's the king of the Picts in northern Scotland, and endlessly engaged in fighting off the encroaching Romans, not to mention the Gaels, the Northmen (Vikings), the Cymrians (Welsh?), and various other tribes who are all sharply differentiated in terms of physical appearance, fighting tactics, weapons, and clothing. The Picts themselves are described as dwarfish, olive-skinned, and vaguely neanderthalish. Bran himself, however, has retained the high forehead and upright stature of his ancient, pre-Atlantean Pictish ancestors (ie, he may be dark-skinned, but he looks white). His people have intermarried with the debased Teutons of north Britain, and thereby lost their handsomeness.

Bran is a typical Howard hero. He's a barbarian, so he hasn't been affected by the softness and effeminacy of civilized life. He's smart and cunning, but brave and straightforward as well. He fights for the honor & the survival of his people, though he knows they've become debased over the centuries. Indeed, decadence of one sort or another is a pretty constant theme in these stories, & in that they're very much akin to Lovecraft (with whom I spent some time this summer). In Lovecraft, half the time the horror of the story involves some kind of racial mixing or evolutionary debasement, as in "The Shadow over Innsmouth," where the villagers intermarry with creepy immortal sea-creatures, or in "The Lurking Fear," where the descendents of the reclusive Jan Martens eventually become dwarfish, apelike killers who nonetheless retain their ancestral mark of differently colored eyes. Both Howard and Lovecraft are one variety or other of racists (lump Edgar Rice Burroughs in there, as well), who see various races as being higher or lower on the evolutionary scale, and moreover are constantly worried about the possibility of decadence or atavism, of retreating back down that scale.

What's this got to do with my toy soldiers, or my fascination with ancient history? Well, when I was studying Roman history, I whizzed thru those various chronicles of Rome's struggles with other cultures – the Carthaginians, the Gauls, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, etc. – thinking of them largely in Howardian terms: ie, that a given foreign nation must have not merely a given culture, but a given racial identity as well. It never occurred to me – frankly because I haven't even thought of such issues for decades – until I spent some time recently with a big Osprey compilation, Rome and Her Enemies, that most of the armies Rome fought were every bit as multicultural and multiracial as the contemporary US Army. Take the Carthaginians, for instance – there's a core in Hannibal's army of "Carthaginians" – read Semites – but up to 80% of his army consisted of Celts, Iberians, Numidians, and other allied and mercenary groups.

Howard's notion of the conquering Roman army, commanded by "hawk-faced" Italians and consisting mostly of Italians and Teutonic recruits, facing down monoracial enemies, is clearly modeled on an early 20th-century American mythology of the Wild West, in which white cowboys and bluecoated soldiers battle it out with  monoracial Native Americans. (And Howard's sympathies, interestingly enough, are always with the noble "barbarian" group.) What's even more interesting to me is the extent to which Howard, in a strikingly Herderesque move, pretty much equates race with culture. That is, to be a Viking may be to wear a horned helmet, to fight behind a shield wall, to carry a particular sword or axe, but it's always to be big and blonde or red-haired. (Similarly, in Conan's Hyborian Age the Stygians are all dark-skinned, the Kushites are black, the Cimmerians are pale but dark-haired...) And Howard's Picts are the purest example of this equation. Reading thru all the Bran stories, we learn almost nothing about the Picts' social organization, their folkways, their clothing, their traditions; even the distinguishing feature that gave them their Latin name – "pictus," painted – their tattooing or painting themselves with woad – is pretty much elided. Instead, we learn that they're olive-skinned, small of stature, and gnarled, almost apish. The racial degeneration of the Picts, in Howard's account, trumps anything else that might define their culture; because for Howard, race equals culture.

Alas, it's a pretty familiar theme, if you've read much Victorian adventure fiction. And ashes on my head that nothing about this rank boys'-own mix set off any alarm bells in my own adolescent head, when I was reading reams of this stuff back in Tennessee.

Friday, August 17, 2012

the other blog

I should have posted a link here already, since I mentioned it last week: the new Ruskin-related blog, The Ruskin Seminar, is up and running now. Just posted the syllabus for this fall's graduate seminar, which masochists are welcome to follow along with.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I spent one of the latter weeks of July in my parents' home in Tennessee, grimly sifting thru papers & boxes, drawers, shelves full of things they accumulated during their decades together. I never thought of my folks as hoarders, as pack-rats even, but I was amazed at what they had managed to keep.

My father didn't retire from the military until 1974, I think. He had done tours in Austria, the Philippines, Germany (three times), California, upstate New York, and I imagine places I don't know of. The house is full of furniture and tchotchkes from Germany; many of them I'll want to keep, I suppose, others will go.

I finally gritted my teeth and loaded the trunk of the rental car with Dad's beloved wardrobe-full of tweed blazers. He loved nothing so much as buying a new blazer, and must have rewarded himself at least twice a year. (I'm not sure if I've bought a dress jacket in the last decade.) I saved one suit:  a nice woolen job in charcoal grey, a German suit from the mid-1960s. It fits me pretty well, and has a great Austin Powers vibe. The ties – scores and scores of them, all too conservative for my taste – went with the blazers to Goodwill.

In exploring the attic, which I'd thought was simply the resting place of every toy I ever accumulated in my childhood (more on that later, perhaps), I found box after box after box, each of them full of old copies of The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books. Imagine that! – at least ten years' worth of newsprint, hundreds of pounds' worth, most of which he had carted around with him from house to house, from post to post (for many of them dated from well before his retirement).

I thumbed thru a few copies, looked longingly on the covers of a few TLSes – look, Terry Eagleton back when he had hair!, a new essay from Susan Sontag! – and proceeded to organize a carrier brigade: I would carry armfuls of magazines out of the attic; Daphne would carry them down the stairs; Pippa would dump them into the trunk of the car.

I don't know how many trips Daphne made up and down the stairs to the attic – she didn't complain much – but it took two trips to the recycling center to dispose of the whole mass. It's given me pause: do I want to inflict this paper scourge on my own children? And we've still barely begun dealing with his books.

Monday, August 13, 2012

slavoj zizek on writing

I'm totally behind the curve on most things, so it's not surprising that I only got around to watching the Zizek! documentary the other day. It wasn't great; it was okay, diverting. I like Zizek – more for his shambly self-presentation than anything else. But I very much like what he has to say about the perennial torture of writing:
It's psychologically impossible for me to sit down [and write]... So I trick myself. I put down ideas, in a relatively sophisticated form, a line of thought, full sentences and so on. So up to a certain point, I'm telling myself, "no, I'm not yet writing, I'm just putting down ideas." Then at a certain point, I tell myself, "everything is already there – I just have to edit it." So that's it – I split it into two: I put down notes, I edit it. "Writing" disappears.

Friday, August 10, 2012

summer reading

Things of interest I've read this summer:

I downloaded from the internet someone's coding (for the Kindle) of the Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, and finished reading the entire corpus (!) over this past summer. I'd read almost everything, mind you, by the time I was 12, and spent many hours in wide-eyed terror at night, worrying over colours from space and multiply-tentacles elder demons. I must have revisited Lovecraft a decade ago or so, & found him unreadable – the prose too purple, the horrors too "eldritch." This time around, however, surprisingly compelling. Even a few shivers, and glances over my shoulder to make sure nothing was behind me in the darkness.

China Miéville's The City and the City, which won every SF and fantasy award available, it seems, pretty much deserved them, if you ask me. Somebody describes it as Raymond Chandler meets Kafka meets Borges, which is about right; but I suspect Miéville's been reading Eyal Weizman (Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation), which describes how the IDF makes use of Deleuzian theory in their carving up of the West Bank. (This is probably already a commonplace of Miéville criticism; if it isn't, let me know – there's an article to be written.)

Much, too much perhaps, of Ruskin & Ruskin-criticism. It's hard not to tip a hat to Bernard Shaw's blistering Ruskin's Politics, however.

Christopher Benfey's Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is about pottery and clay, mostly, but it's also about art-making and family (his mother is related to Anni Albers, whose husband Josef headed Black Mountain College for most of its existence). Written in that spare, laid-back manner that characterizes lots of the nonfiction I encounter these days (few New Yorker adjectival flourishes, thank God); lyrical nonetheless.

The winner of the books of contemporary poetry – which have in truth been rather thin on the ground since I burned through over two dozen back in April, and well-nigh burned myself out on the genre – is – by a mile – John Peck's I Came, I Saw: Eight Poems. Is it enough to say that Peck is at once the most learned and the most lyrical of contemporary American poets? Is that a hyperbolic enough claim to make you buy the book and read it for yourself? Do it anyway, even if you don't believe me. Peck is an extraordinary poet.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

last ruskin

Once again I've reached a crossroads point in my Ruskin reading, & it's time to take a deep breath. I have, for all intents & purposes, finished the Library Edition. That is, I've finished the first 34 volumes. All that remains are Vol. 35, Praeterita and Dilecta (which I've already read a few times in other editions), vols. 36 & 37, which are a small sample (but hefty in themselves – well over 1000 pages) of Ruskin's letters, and vols. 38 & 39, a bibliography and index. Maybe in days to come I'll post a few notes on the last few volumes I've read (but not here – see note at end of post); right now I'm wondering about Praeterita.

You see, I'm teaching a graduate seminar devoted to JR this fall (beginning in a bit over two weeks – eek!), and of course Praeterita is on the reading list. And this summer I read well into the book in the edition I'll be using, a nice Oxford World's Classics edited by Francis O'Gorman. It's gotten pretty marked up, as any teaching text should be. But I'm wondering: I've got just about enough time, given the various projects on my desk – a major essay to finish by next week, a couple of tenure review files, the usual beginning-of-semester mishugas – to reread the book before classes begin. Should I a) forge ahead in O'Gorman, leaving the Library Edition volume untouched, or b) begin again with the Library Edition, and then read the rest of O'Gorman along with my students over the course of the semester (which, truth to tell, I'd do anyway), or c) do a "parallel" reading, working mainly in (and marking) O'Gorman, while consulting each page of the LE for useful footnotes and snazzy illustrations?

This "quandary," I'm afraid, does little more than illustrate my mild OCD, which gets more & more obvious as the years go by.

Cook & Wedderburn's introduction to this volume, however, is quite interesting. As usual (every volume in the LE has an introduction that clocks in somewhere over 50 pages), they give a narrative of Ruskin's life during the years in question, then a compositional history of the works contained in the volume proper. Here, there's very much a valedictory feel to the whole thing. They know it's really the last volume, so they provide a touching but not over-thorough account of Ruskin's last years, along with a summary of all the memorials given him. The latest, they point out, is this very edition: "Last among the memorials to Ruskin comes the present edition of his Life, Letters, and Works."

I'm struck by this formulation, how much it sets the LE within a very Victorian context (think Strachey's preface to Eminent Victorians, where he slams the Victorian commemorative biography:  
Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead – who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshop style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortége of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism. One is tempted to suppose, of some of them, that they were composed by that functionary, as the final item of his job.
Cook would later digest the biographical portions of his volume introductions into a single two-volume biography of JR.) The LE, unlike most modern editions of an author – think the Oxford Shakespeare, or the Oxford Middleton, or the California Duncan – aims to give us the whole of Ruskin. Not just the works, but the life, the letters, every possible interesting scrap. In the volume I've just finished (#33), there's a substantial section of "Ruskiniana," which consists of descriptions of Ruskin's writing habits, his thoughts on typography, reported conversations with him, etc. etc. ("Ruskin on Cats in Heaven," for instance.) 

As I recall, Auden is the most recent author for which we have a volume devoted wholly to "table talk." I can't say I wouldn't welcome such collections for any number of contemporaries. But then, I'm turning into a Victorian as I speak.
For those of my 7 readers who've borne patiently with my Ruskin-obsession over the past few years – you'll be glad to know that I'm farming off further Ruskin commentary onto another blog, which will run parallel with the Ruskin seminar I'm teaching this fall semester. So Culture Industry will be devoted, as I always meant it to be, to poetry & music & other matters of kulchural interest, & this irritating Ruskiniana will be thankfully sequestered to its own little space on the blogosphere. But I'll let you know when that's up & running, in case you're interested.

Friday, May 25, 2012

like that anymore

[Sir Philip Sidney, an 18th-century copy of a 1578 original]

I realize that my blogging has been largely Ruskin-related for a while now, which is more than apt to put off some readers (like the old friend from grad school I've reconnected with on Facebook, whose most printable names for JR are a "pompous asshole" and "neurotic pedophile").  But one has to follow one's obsessions.

So I'm well into Bibliotheca Pastorum, Ruskin's "shepherd's library" for the home. The first volume was a translation of Xenophon's Economist, which mostly proved to me that (a) there's a reason we read Plato's Socratic dialogues, and not Xenophon's, and (b) if I want classical agricultural instruction, I'll go to Hesiod or Virgil, thank you very much. Volume 2 is titled (by Ruskin) "Rock Honeycomb," and consists of an edited version of Sir Philip Sidney's translations of the Psalms. (Mostly Sir Philip's – many of the latter, and better, specimens are by his sister, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

Ruskin's edited these poems, not because he feels the KJV Psalms are somehow inadequate, but because he feels the various metrical psalters available are inadequate. The Psalms are after all songs, meant to be sung, and therefore should be presented in a form fit for musical setting. The Sidneys' Psalms are in Ruskin's account both fine poetry, accurate translation, and eminently singable. I dunno – as translations, they seem to be as full of verbal padding and syntactic inversion as any metrical psalter I've met. But they are, many of them, exquisite examples of Elizabethan verse, and very interesting and varied metrically. If I must have my Psalms in meter, however, I think I'll stick with Milton. ("Milt does more than Philip can / To justify God's ways to man...")
It's way too often that I find myself reading a book of criticism or biography from 60 or 70 years ago & thinking to myself, they just don't produce them like this anymore. And of course there's writers out there who do, whether it's a matter of "big picture" reconceptualization or painstaking close reading. But two very old Ruskin books have been striking me repeatedly with their smarts. One is Derek Leon's posthumously published Ruskin: The Great Victorian (RKP,  1949). While Tim Hilton's big two-volume Yale life is going to be the biography of record for decades to come, and while I can't count the number of Ruskin biographies I've read up to this point, several of them very good indeed, nobody comes close to Leon's package of graceful writing, psychological insight, and abundant, incisive detail. A tremendous read, even if in its pacing it sometimes feels a bit Victorian itself.

Real Ruskin criticism didn't really get off the ground, despite a continuous flow of books, articles and monographs from the the 1880s thru the 1920s, until R. H. Wilenski's John Ruskin: An Introduction to Further Study of His Life and Work (Faber, 1933). Most of those earlier works were pieces of explanation or hagiography (or hagiographical biography), and despite some valiant efforts like Frederic Harrison's little book in the English Men of Letters series, no-one had made the full-scale effort of untangling what had become the Ruskin "myth," sorting out the bullshit from the brilliance, and figuring out how the one was related to the other. Wilenski was an art historian of some note; he explains in his preface how he'd gotten a copy of the Library Edition at some point, & was in the habit of turning its pages over regularly, wondering at how a single man could say such penetrating and silly things from book to book.

Wilenski's premise is simple but powerful: One must key any statement of Ruskin's to its personal and historical context; once one plots out the details and overall curve of JR's emotional, intellectual, and social life, the imagery and ideas of the books and lectures become entirely explicable. As I say, it's a powerful premise, and the first half of Wilenski's book is devoted to an admittedly amateur, but entirely persuasive, critical psychobiography of Ruskin, one which makes sense of his shifts of attention, his changing obsessions, and his varying voices. (I've just plunged into the second half of the book, which is marked "critical" – I'll keep you posted on how persuasive this part is.)

Perhaps most fascinating is Wilenski's relentless deflation of the Ruskin myths. Ruskin, he shows, learned everything he knew about art more or less before he was 30, and spent the rest of his life either refining those lessons or turning away from art altogether – but most definitely not making any new discoveries, or revising earlier positions. The "overwork" Ruskin so complained of in later years? Mostly imaginary – he had armies of secretaries and copyists to deal with piddling correspondence and to make the artistic "records" he had once pursued himself; Ruskin was plagued, not by overwork, but by his own inability to focus on one thing at a time. And most importantly – Wilenski shows to my mind unanswerably that Ruskin's public reputation in the 1850s and '60s was actually rather circumscribed, that very few people outside of art circles (where he was widely hated) had ever heard his name. It was only with his assumption of the Oxford Professorship in 1870 that Ruskin began his ascent to Victorian sagedom. (Helped along by the earlier publication of a "selection" of purple passages from Modern Painters, which became a bestseller, and Sesame and Lilies, which for some reason became the prize book of choice for girls' schools.)

The view of Ruskin as an "art-dictator" in the '50s and '60s, ruling the aesthetic world from the bastion of Modern Painters, Seven Lamps of Architecture, and Stones of Venice, is sheerest myth (sorry, fans of the BBC's Desperate Romantics, a wonderful romp but about as historically accurate as Shakespeare in Love), a myth produced by Ruskinians and Ruskin-readers of the 1880s, '90s, and first decades of the 20th century, reading Ruskin's later Fors-era prominence back into his past. That insight alone is worth the price of admission, whatever the value of the stretches of Wilenski I've yet to read.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

reading Ruskin: endgame

In his luminous autobiography, Praeterita, Ruskin recalls how he read the Bible with his mother, from the time he was able to make out the words to the time he went up to Oxford. They went thru 2 to 3 chapters a day, each one reading alternate verses aloud: "she began with the first verse of Genesis, and went straight through, to the last verse of the Apocalypse; hard names, numbers, Levitical law, and all; and began again at Genesis the next day." Margaret Ruskin corrected her son's pronunciation and intonation, quizzed him on the meaning of hard passages, and set him verses to memorize each day. Unsurprisingly, he came out of it with an unparalleled familiarity with the language and ideas of the King James Bible. (Apparently, they made a brief foray into learning Hebrew as well, which didn't stick; in later years Ruskin would correct habitually correct KJV renderings with his own translations from the Vulgate or the Septuagint, but never from the Hebrew text.)

I feel a bit like the child Ruskin with my own Ruskin reading. Every morning, after getting the girls off to school (or driving them myself), I settle down with my coffee and a volume of the Library Edition for an hour or so. Typically, I've been covering around 50 pages a day, reading at a moderate pace, marking passages (in pencil, Tom!), making notes. When I finish a volume, I immediately pull out the next and begin the Editors' Introduction.

This sort of wholesale & roughly chronological reading, as I found when working my way thru LZ, is essential to getting a firm grasp of the shape & details of an author's career. But it's also dreadfully wearing. I've already mentioned how trying Deucalion, Ruskin's mineralogical "treatise" was. His books on ornithology and botany (Love's Meinie and Proserpina) were similarly tough trudges, for different reasons. Indeed, the Library Edition is so complete that there're whole volumes of what amount to laundry lists – Vol. XIII on Turner, for instance, is largely composed of Ruskin's catalogues of Turner drawings, and Vol. XXI, The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford, enumerates all of the specimen works he donated for his drawing school, in hundreds of pages. I confess to doing a bit of skimming when I come across a page which consists of nothing but the numbered names of drawings I've never seen, & whose subjects I can't imagine – but there's not a page I haven't cast my eye over carefully, looking for some interesting passage of description or commentary.

The day before yesterday – my mother's yahrzeit, a melancholy (and rainy) day – I finished the last letters (and appendices) of Fors Clavigera (Vol. XXIX) and a volume I'd been reading concurrently, The Guild and Museum of St. George (XXX), a collection mostly of notes, statements, correspondence, and catalogues relating to Ruskin's quixotic project to reclaim waste agricultural land in Britain and set up model cooperative (but rigidly hierarchical) farm communities, and to stock a museum for the edification of the workers. I fear from now on it's all downhill, however. The last two volumes of the Library Edition are a bibliography and an index. Volumes XXXVI and XXXVII are letters, which I intend to read, but at my own pace, piecemeal. And Volume XXXV is Praeterita itself, which I've already been thru several times.

Which leaves the odds & sods of Volumes XXXI thru XXXIV: a couple of volumes of other people's writing which Ruskin edited for the use of the Guild of St. George (right now I'm in the midst of XXXI, Biblioteca Pastorum, the beginnings of a kind of eccentric "household library" for Guild members); a number of very late Oxford lectures; a collection of public letters on various subjects; and various & sundry other sweepings (presented by the editors under the title "Ruskiniana"). I'm sure there will be some jewels – or at least some interesting bits – here. I do indeed look forward to The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, Ruskin's own version of Silent Spring, and to Fiction Fair and Foul, his assessment of the English novel. But I'm pretty sure that nothing's going to measure up to the work of the '60s and '70s, from Unto this Last thru the fiery middle letters of Fors.

To put it simply: After his first major mental breakdown in early 1878, Ruskin never really gets his mojo back. It makes for sad reading, to say the least. The last nine numbers of Fors, written after his convalescence, are wan imitations of the earlier ones. Where the best letters of Fors read like muscular, proto-modernist ideograms of juxtaposed materials, iced off at the end with scrappy chunks of correspondence (think Paterson, in prose), the late ones feel like Ruskin desperately trying to focus his attention, trying time and again to sum up what's he's been about over the past 20 years. And he can't stop thinking about Rose La Touche, the Irish girl he fell in love with when she was 9 or 10, who died insane (at 27) in 1875, and whose name and specter (as St. Ursula) keep haunting all his writings. Praeterita manages to be his last masterpiece because it's an exercise in autobiography as therapy, Ruskin looking back at all the things in his life that make him happy, scrupulously avoiding everything that would upset him or send him back over the edge.

Reading the last run of Fors in conjunction with a few other Ruskin-related items – his correspondence with Thomas Carlyle, his letters to Lady Mount-Temple (his great confidant on the Rose La Touche affair), a little monograph by Van Akin Burd on JR's flirtation with the spiritualists (yes, Rose communicated with him from the other world), JL Bradley's Ruskin chronology (what, you don't read chronologies?) – has given me a deeper sense of Ruskin's longstanding mental problems, the degree to which he struggled with depression for pretty much his whole life. But it's sad to see the man succumbing in the end, sad to watch the five-volume extinguishing of the lamp. Of all of the literary careers I've worked my way thru, Ruskin's is the most precipitous in its dropping-off. Well, maybe there's one comparable – from Praeterita, again:
The series of Waverley novels, then drawing towards its close, was still the chief source of delight in all households caring for literature; and I can no more recollect the time when I did not know them than when I did not know the Bible; but I still have a vivid remembrance of my father's intense expression of sorrow mixed with scorn, as he threw down Count Robert of Paris, after reading three or four pages; and knew that the life of Scott was ended: the scorn being a very complex and bitter feeling in him, – partly, indeed, of the book itself, but chiefly of the wretches who were tormenting and selling the wrecked intellect, and not a little, deep down, of the subtle dishonour which had essentially caused the ruin. My father never could forgive Scott his concealment of the Ballantyne partnership.*
*Scott was a silent partner in the firm of his publisher, James Ballantyne; when Ballantyne went belly-up in the banking crisis of 1826, Scott refused to declare himself bankrupt, & determined to write his way out of his enormous debts. Over the next six years he essentially ruined his health and his mind by overwork, producing some seven volumes of fiction, a six-volume life of Napoleon, a two-volume history of Scotland, and various other books.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

april's postmortem

Happy May Day, y'all.

April – sweet showers, the cruelest month, etc. National Poetry Month, whatever that means. For a bunch of people, it means NaPoWriMo, a chance to tackle different "prompt" (when did prompt become a noun?) every day, & produce 30 new poems. God bless 'em. It's not something I can do. I decided this year that I'd make my own little NaPoReMo & work thru some of the stacks of slim volumes of unread poetry on the shelves: a book a day.

Frankly, it was not as stupid an idea as I feared it was. I read an awful lot of poetry, some of it very good indeed, some of it very moving – some of it passing as rapidly thru my brain as one of my lectures passes thru the attention of my undergraduates. I got a new sense of the variety of what's out there, or at least the variety of what's on my shelves. I got a list of things I want to reread, perhaps even teach.

But at the same time I was reminded that "bulk" is not the mode in which to consume poetry. At any rate, here's the list of what I trundled thru, with maybe a couple of notes on the books along the way: 
•I Was There for Your Somniloquy, Kelli Anne Noftle (Omnidawn, 2011) [You gotta love a book that includes a sequence on sea slugs!]
Nomadic Foundations, Sandra Meek (Elixir, 2002)

Isles of the Signatories, Marjorie Welish (Coffee House, 2008)

Odi Barbare, Geoffrey Hill (Clutag, 2012) [I'm sure I'll put myself on the outs with the GH enthusiasts when I say that I find this latest run of "Daybooks" (this being the 3rd volume in as many years) rather disappointing...]

Muse & Drudge, Harryette Mullen (Singing Horse, 1995) [For the umpteenth time, as teaching text; but always pleasurable.]

The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, Noah Eli Gordon (Ahsahta, 2004)

Gallowglass, Susan Tichy (Ahsahta, 2010)

Saving the Appearances, Liz Waldner (Ahsahta, 2004)

Knot, Stacy Doris (U of Georgia P, 2006) [Dense, long lines; a "chewy" book, in the best sense.]

The Bone Folders, T. A. Noonan (Sundress, 2011) [Strong sophomore effort from someone who survived Our Fair University's MFA mill...]

The Presentable Art of Reading Absence, Jay Wright (Dalkey Archive, 2008) [Maybe one of the only things Harold Bloom & I agree on is that JW is about the best poet alive...]

Black Life, Dorothea Lasky (Wave, 2010)

The Method, Sasha Steensen (Fence, 2008)
Jammed Transmissions, Paul Naylor (Tinfish, 2009) [Like Wright's, this is a book of "spiritual practice," a business that deeply secular I have trouble wrapping my sensibility around; but like Wright's, its precision of language is exemplary.]

Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems (Carcanet, 2010) [I'd read all these poems in various American venues, but rereading Raworth is always a pleasure.]

S*PeRM*RK*T, Harryette Mullen (Singing Horse, 1993) [Twice; I was disappointed when this came out on the heels of Trimmings; this time thru, I've decided it's actually a stronger collection.]

Gone, Fanny Howe (U of California P, 2003)
My Mohave, Donald Revell (Alice James, 2003) [Revell just keeps getting weirder and more touching as he progresses.]
She's My Best Friend, Jim Behrle (Pressed Wafer, 2006)

Response, Juliana Spahr (Sun & Moon, 1996) [Read this book. Period.]

Pleasure, Brian Teare (Ahsahta, 2010) [Perhaps the most astonishingly moving text of the lot. Heartrending, precise.]

Dance Dance Revolution, Cathy Park Hong (Norton, 2007) [Sigh. Norton's idea of the "adventurous"; not to be classed with Kamau Brathwaite or Jessica Hagedorn, the obvious models emulated.]
Gnostic Frequencies, Patrick Pritchett (Spuyten Duyvil, 2012) [A tasty gnostic stew simmered in the tradition of Duncan, Gershom Scholem, and high modernist parataxis.]
The Escape (Jo Ann Wasserman (Futurepoem, 2003)

Because It Is, Kenneth Patchen (New Directions, 1960) [Finally – a book I can give the girls with an good conscience! tho the drawings are better than the poems...]
Ceteris Paribus, Gale Nelson (Burning Deck, 2000)
This Is What Happens When Talk Ends, Gale Nelson (Burning Deck, 2011) [The Waldrops would be national treasures if they never did anything but publish GN, if you ask me... ]
Aerodrome Orion & Starry Messenger, Susan Gevirtz (Kelsey St., 2010) [Two lovely, sparse poems on – get this – air travel.]
Erat, Tom Mandel (Burning Deck, 1981) [And to bring it all back home, a splendid chapbook from one of the original Language folks.]

Phew! This might happen again next year, but I wouldn't put my money on it. One thing I can say for sure: the "lyric I" is back in fashion, & with a vengeance.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

the fate of books

I was arrested by Kenny Goldsmith's post early this week on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's blog. He was browsing a flea market near his New York apartment and came upon a stall which was selling what seemed like the bulk of poet Jackson Mac Low's library: "the entire history of New York's underground" in chapbooks, records, and ephemera seemed to be there, Goldsmith notes. The books weren't cheap – the dealer had arrived at his prices by checking the internet. It reminded Kenny G. of the moment, a few years back, when word went out that novelist David Markson's books had been sold to The Strand.*

I know that feeling of happening upon a book that's been owned by someone you know or respect, though in my case it's usually books by obscure academics or poets that have been owned by other obscure academics or poets. I have a few books on Ruskin that were owned by John D. Rosenberg, author of the ground-breaking The Darkening Glass; I have a copy of a colleague's TS Eliot study that was sent by the publisher to Denis Donohue, then promptly disposed of at The Strand (DD left the letter from the Press's editor folded in its pages); I have a number of poetry collections presented by one poet to another.

But what Goldsmith's post really made me think about was the fate of my own books. I've been accumulating books pretty seriously for almost three decades now, to the point where the shelves are full and groaning, and the stacks on the floor just won't go away. Back at my mother's house in Tennessee, there are several hundred of my dad's books – many of which I want to keep, some for sentimental value, some for research – and probably a couple hundred of my own paperbacks from my adolescence, many of which I can't bear parting with. While there are a few feet of shelf space still available in my university office, there are at least a thousand or 1200 books there.

I'm not for the moment concerned about the borderline hoarding behavior this manifests (I've probably worried about that in this space at other times...), but rather, what will become of those books when I'm no longer around to cherish them? I'm no James Joyce or Northrop Frye, that a library would want to take my books as a collection. I'm not even a Jackson Mac Low, whose books a dealer would be anxious to sift thru for whatever treasures might be there. I'm just a lowly minor poet & academic, who's accumulated several thousand volumes – most of them, frankly, worthless – over the past decades. Do I want to stick my daughters with the task of liquidating this stack? The local used bookstore has some 75-odd cartons of books from a deceased academic; they've been gradually working thru them for some 5 years now.

I think the solution is a gradual letting-go, as I've seen others do. One cousin-in-law retired from her film studies job and simply gave away all of her research library; she'd rather paint and study herbalism. A colleague in French moved to Paris; I now have the bulk of her Beckett library. LZ trimmed his library down to a few hundred volumes (mostly Loebs, I sometimes think) in his last years.

I think that's the solution. I'm not ready for it yet. I'm still in the accumulative mode. Come around in a couple decades, if you're still interested in that defunct technology, the book, & I'll be able to set you up with a few hundred.

*Goldsmith was pretty upset, & takes the opportunity to lament research libraries' having passed over Mac Low's personal library; but on a happier note, word has it from the UK Poetry Listserv that Mac Low's actual archive went to UCSD, & that a dealer expert in such matters culled the books of lasting scholarly interest. But still.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

late Ruskin, on the rocks

Reading late Ruskin can be a disspiriting affair. There is a heady charm to the digressiveness of Fors Clavigera, a wonderful sense that one never quite knows what's coming next, and that very surprise is part of the power and – one might venture – innovation of the ongoing text (though Ruskin does indeed at one point in Deucalion refer to it as a "book"). But when it comes to the more straightforward "books" of his later years, the incompletion and digressiveness seem less charming or exciting than simply depressing, as though one were witnessing the slow-motion disintegration of a great mind. The effect is not unlike that produced by the later Cantos, I fear, where Pound's shored fragments no longer hold any luminosity in and of themselves, but simply function as shirt-cuff notes, shorthand indices to intellectual complexes that he can no longer be bothered to spell out or to explore in any detail.

Ruskin is of course always more discursive than Pound at even Pound's most voluble, but that very discursiveness, in the later books, is too often directed towards arcane polemics (as in the arguments with geologists in Deucalion) or, when he's lecturing, in puerile whimsy. The other week I finished the twenty-fifth volume of the Library Edition, that containing Love's Meinie (lectures on birds and bird-lore, mostly delivered at Oxford) and Proserpina (essays on flowers and floral classification, intended for various educative purposes). I'll admit I don't know much, and alas don't really care much, about either ornithology or botany. That may be one of my own failings. But neither did I learn much from either of Ruskin's books, and more than anything else found myself frustrated by their incompletion and air of general thrown-togetherness.

The twenty-sixth volume, containing Deucalion and various other writings on geology and mineralogy, is even more frustrating. It begins with a couple of articles on mineralogical subjects frankly too arcane for me to even begin to follow. The volume Deucalion itself, issued like so many of Ruskin's later works in serial installments, is a self-admitted ragbag. Ruskin begins the book proper by lamenting how many projects he has worked himself up for, how many books he could write, had he the proper time and his connected wits about him. But in the meantime, he concedes, he will throw together what notes he has accumulated on various subjects into books, and in Deucalion he will collect materials on his first and longest-lasting intellectual passion, geology. (More or less concurrently, Ruskin is also selecting passages – or overseeing the selection of passages – from earlier works such as Modern Painters to be reissued in various "Ruskin on ____" collections, all of which will be given typically arcane Latin titles.)

Despite all the passion as Ruskin invested in mineralogy, what's collected in Deucalion falls far short of gripping reading. There are several chapters on the "denudation" of landscape, which seem to grapple with the implications of Lyell's geological theories – that most aspects of currently observable geology can be explained by the action of forces we can observe every day (erosion by wind or water, most notably), only extrapolated over an enormous period of time. Ruskin is no young-earth creationist (though he takes many ill-directed jabs at Thomas Huxley along the way), but his arguments with the long-span incrementalists seem remarkably naive and obtuse. He wants there to be a shaping hand in the landscape, but he can't quite bring himself to throw out Lyell for Genesis; he just can't see, or can't stretch his time-vistas long enough to comprehend, how a small river can wear out a deep canyon.

Even more depressing are the several chapters devoted to explaining the movement of glaciers. It's not worth going into the details here, as much of this material is devoted to picking fights with one previous geologist, and promoting the work of another. Suffice it to say that Ruskin is convinced that a glacier cannot carve out a valley or a lakebed – any more, he explains, than honey is able to carve out a runnel in his teaspoon. He takes great delight in describing his glacial experiments in the kitchen of his friend Lady Mount-Temple, in which various cooking-pots and folded napkins play the role of mountains, while great quantities of ice cream represent glaciers.

The first volume of Deucalion ends with a discussion of the stratification and folds of mountains, in which Ruskin demonstrates his own counter-experiments to observations of other geologists by careful drawings of dyed and squashed folds of uncooked pie-crust. The second volume begins with of all things a lecture on the movement of snakes. It is frankly one of Ruskin's most embarrassing performances, all the more so because of the deep fascination he had with serpents (played out at great length in his discussion of Apollo and Python in the final volume of Modern Painters). "Living Waves" is a jumble-sale of drawings of snakes, first-hand observation of them at the zoological gardens, snake-lore from England to India, and some mildly interesting discussion of serpentine iconography in medieval art. It's most interesting when Ruskin takes on Huxley's evolutionary discussion of how the snake is related to the lizard; Ruskin prefers a moral, functional conception, in which the snake is midway between the trout and the bird.

It's hard to imagine what a live audience made of this performance. Ruskin notes at the outset of the lecture text that he had been cautioned that the lecture was somewhat discontinuous, so he provides a his reader with a thumbnail outline – which frankly does nothing more than underline its discontinuity. The brief chapter which follows, however, almost makes Deucalion worth the reading. "Revision" is in essence a reassertion of the whole of Ruskin's writings on nature and natural science, and on the representation of nature in art. It recapitulates and reasserts his faith that all observation and representation of natural form has the effect of giving the human observer access to knowledge of the divine hand that has made everything. Natural religion, Ruskin explicitly notes here, has always underlain his own commitment to nature itself.

Following this rather moving reassertion of Ruskin's life-work, there is a brief chapter on stellar shapes in minerals which trails off (abruptly and unconvincingly) into a piece of classical iconography. And then Deucalion, mercifully, is over. Well, almost – for like all of Ruskin's other late books, the text proper is followed by a score of pages of notes, drafts, and fragments for its continuation.

I have suffered for my Ruskin-obsession. Someday, if I ever get around to writing and publishing this book, you'll have the same opportunity.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

illustrated living

A couple of years ago in this space I reported on "brief lives" of Ruskin, offering capsule reviews of capsule biographies by Quentin Bell, George Landow, Robert Hewison, and Francis O'Gorman. I won't take back anything I said there – the recommendations still stand – but I've got to admit that, so far as the possibly mythical "general reader" goes, Kevin Jackson's The Worlds of John Ruskin (Pallas Athene & the Ruskin Foundation, 2010) is the brand-new, shiny and beautiful state-of-the-art vade mecum.

Last time I mentioned the role which biographical series played in the production of those earlier books: Bell's Ruskin was written for the Hogarth Press's "Writers and Critics" series; Landow's for Oxford UP's "Past Masters"; Hewison's for the grandparent of all English capsule biography series, the Dictionary of National Biography (then republished in OUP's "Very Interesting People" series). One series I didn't mention, and one book I didn't note, was Frederic Harrison's John Ruskin (Macmillan, 1902), published in the "English Men of Letters" series, edited by John Morley. That series, which Morley took on in 1877, seems to have attained almost Cliff's Note status for British students. As John Gross notes in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters,
No comparable series has ever come so close to attaining the rank of a traditional British institution. In [Harold Nicolson's] Some People, the unlovable J. D. Marstock keeps a complete set on his mantelpiece while cramming for the Foreign Office examination, a long row of thin yellow Men of Letters and square red ones: '"My tutor," Marstock would say, "told me that the examiners expect one to have read the E.M. of L.S."'
Be that as it may, Harrison's is a really delightful little book. Harrison was an erstwhile disciple of Ruskin's who found his true spiritual home with the religion of Positivism, but who retained his deep love and respect for Ruskin's thought. He writes very well indeed; his remarks on Ruskin's celebrated "purple" style are matched only by Chesterton's.

But flashing forward a century, were I asked to put a single book on Ruskin in the hands of a neophyte, right now it would be Jackson's Worlds of John Ruskin. Jackson isn't so much a critic or scholar of Ruskin (as are Hewison, O'Gorman, and Landow) as he is a deeply invested advocate. Jackson is a literary journalist who writes on all manner of subjects for the Independent; he's scripted two comic book adaptations of Ruskin's thought, How To See and How to Be Rich; he apparently has a big illustrated history of high modernism in the works. He writes very well, in the manner of intelligent British journalists. And he's immersed himself in Ruskin to an impressive degree to produce The Worlds of John Ruskin.

This large-format book is not at all in the category of the handy pocket Men of Letters or Past Masters series; it reminds me more of Thames & Hudson's illustrated "Literary Lives" series (Peter Ackroyd on Pound, Chester Anderson on Joyce, etc.). But it's larger & longer than the T&H books, and the typeface is more compact. In the course of his 140 pages, Jackson presents a judicious life of Ruskin – he doesn't pass over any of the weird bits (the messed-up marriage to Effie Gray, the obsession with Rose La Touche, the icky fascination with young girls) – and a thumbnail overview of the works, highlighting what's ground-breaking and not passing over what's problematic (JR's inability in his later years to stick to a point for more than 5 pages, for instance).

So far so good, but Jackson's text is still outclassed at least by Bell, Hewison, and Landow. What's really the selling point in The Worlds of John Ruskin, however, is the illustrations, 165 of them, all beautifully reproduced (if occasionally too small) and lovingly captioned in detail. It's always nice to know what the subject of a biography looks like, & the picture inserts in most big biographies enable us to put faces to the subject & (with luck) many of the other major players. Here we've got plenty of pictures of JR, along with Effie, Millais, Rossetti, William Morris, Rose La Touche, and so forth. But we've also got 111 of Ruskin's own drawings and watercolors, ranging from architectural details, to self-portraits (cf. the cover), to fully-realized landscapes.

Ruskin's writings are peppered with bilious little complaints: while he's got to explain something in prose, he's got to write this lecture or book, he's got somehow to save the world through this piece of writing – but he'd rather be looking at flowers or stones, he'd much rather be drawing. The book manages, as no other biography of Ruskin I've encountered, to keep us in touch with Ruskin's eye, the sense that is at the center of all of his aesthetic and cultural thought.

[John Ruskin, Study of Gneiss Rock at Glenfinlas, 1853]

Friday, March 30, 2012

Hillary Gravendyk: Harm

Harm, Hillary Gravendyk (Omnidawn, 2011)

One feels old. The letter carrier today brought Michael Heller's huge and beautifully designed This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (Nightboat), and all I could think was, this isn't right – Mike's a guy with a handful of exquisite collections, not a brick of a book like this. But then I realized, I was stuck in the late 1980s, when Heller published In the Builded Place; and he's been publishing a new, strong collection every few years since; and before you know it, yes all those slim volumes add up to an almost 600-page volume. Need I add that I can't wait to dive into This Constellation, to re-meet all those old acquaintances among his poems, & savor the new work?
I suppose we've been witnessing the full-blown return of the lyric "I" for the last 2 decades or so – and some of course would say it's never gone away. Hillary Gravendyk's Harm is an almost unbearably personal sequence of poems, written in the wake of the author's double lung transplant. "Harm" – the harm of her decade-long pulmonary disorder, the harm of the unimaginably invasive medical procedure that she's undergone, the psychological harm of living with one's face to a fundamentally uncertain future – harm is here fused intricately and inextricably with healing, so that the process of healing itself becomes a kind of torture, the hive of bee-stings with every breath taken in.

Gravendyk intersperses densely metaphorical prose poems with sparser, still metaphorized, verse. In the end it's the sure-footed lyricism of the book, the impressive music of the lines that carries the reader onward thru the at times nightmarish hospital landscape, where the body becomes interpenetrated, even fused with the digital mechanisms our century deploys to prolong, sustain, and jump-start life.
Shore curved like an instep against the soft fray of water
but all the litter of other lives
and minus shells, minus salt glass
begins a poem on a "Sleep Chart": see how "lives" and "like," "litter" and "water" bind the second line to the first, how the 2nd and 3rd lines play variations on the "l" sound, how the delicate spondee of "salt glass" (delicate on account of its short vowels) touches a faint rhyme with "lives."

I want to use the words "lovely" and "moving" for this book – they feel like boilerplate. Suffice it to say that Gravendyk's collection kept me, rivetted, in the rooms & neighborhood of a hospital – my least favorite place on earth – for eighty rapt pages.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

£ian economics, & where not to learn about them

Like most people who've read & worked on Ezra Pound, I've always found the economic side of his writings pretty tough going. Sure, I can understand and sympathize with his outrage at how capitalism was working itself out in the first part of the century. And needless to say, I've always found the "Jewish-banker-&-financier-conspiracy" place he arrived at in his later thought to be just plain obscene. But in between Ruskinian outrage and anti-Semitic madness, there's Social Credit, the economic scheme hatched by Major Clifford H. Douglas in the early part of the century, passed on to Pound by AR Orage, and ominipresent in Pound's thought and correspondence form the mid-30s on; and I've always found Social Credit a hard business to understand, even in the relatively lucid exposition Hugh Kenner offers in The Pound Era.

So I was mightily pleased when I discovered, a year or so back, that Meghnad Desai, former LSE professor of economics & the author of Marx's Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (Verso 2002) had written a book on Pound's economics. Desai (that's Baron Desai to you commoners) is, in the words of one reviewer, a "mild sort of heretic himself who has written sympathetically about Karl Marx, but who, whether he admits it or not, is now a mainstream economist." That's certainly my impression of Marx's Revenge; not at all a Marxist text (despite coming from Verso), but one of the most lucid and impressive histories of economic analysis I've encountered. I had high hopes that the Baron would be able to untangle and usefully contextualize Social Credit, Silvio Gesell, and all those other economic "heresies" that figure so largely in the mature Pound's thought.

The Route of All Evil: The Political Economy of Ezra Pound (Faber 2006) is not an easy book to come by, and I finally got my hands on a copy, thanks to the magic of internet shopping, early last week. It proves to be quite the disappointment. I don't mind that Desai doesn't really address the poetry; it's not his bailiwick, after all. And I suppose I don't really mind that he doesn't even attempt to tackle the mountain of Pound secondary literature. I do mind, however, that the secondary material he tackles feels like what happened to be on his shelves at the moment: we get The Pound Era, we get Paul Morrison's and Peter Nicholls's books on Pound's politics. But for biographical reference, we get Noel Stock's ancient (1970) biography (he's "Nigel" stock on the first page of the Preface, a clue to how well copy-edited this book is) and John Tytell's 1987 rehash of Stock (not to mention E. Fuller Torrey's psychological slash-job The Roots of Treason). Where, pray tell, is Humphrey Carpenter's huge and (for better or worse) state-of-the-art 1988 A Serious Character?

And why, if Desai's proposing to write on Pound's political economy, hasn't he dipped into some of the more recent excellent studies: Alec Marsh's prize-winning Money and Modernity: Pound, Williams, and The Spirit of Jefferson (University of Alabama Press 1998), or Tim Redman's Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism (Cambridge 1991), or Leon Surette's Pound in Purgatory (Indiana 2003)? Desai doesn't even cite Earle Davis's Vision Fugitive: Ezra Pound and Economics (Kansas 1968), which flawed as it is is far more careful and thoughtful than The Route of All Evil.

The problems of Desai's book go beyond the copy-editing blips of misremembered names, dropped commas, and multiple outright repetitions. Events are given as taking place at one date on one page, a different date on the next. Paragraphs veer off course into name-dropping digressions. Sentences metastasize into ungainly, well-nigh ungrammatical blobs. Explications of abstruse economic theory take us out to the deep end of the terminological pool (and this in a book explicitly pitched for the general reader) then, just as they seem to be nearing climax, abruptly break off into biographical notes.

This is in short one of the most ill-edited, ill-written books I've encountered in ages. It's not merely a work "of the left hand," as Milton famously called his own prose tracts, but it seems to have been written in snatches, dashed off in airport lounges between flights, or scribbled at in the twenty minutes before lights-out that we call "story-time" around here. Desai claims that his book will elucidate the roots of Pound's economic theory, situate it within the context of other "money cranks," and show that Pound's ideas have relevance to the age of globalism. Score: #1, C-; #2, D; #3, F (I count maybe three sentences in the book that assert – not demonstrate – the relevance of EP's economics to the contemporary).

What does The Route of All Evil offer the Pound scholar? nothing. What does it offer the general reader? nothing she or he can't get more lucidly, and more elegantly, from a half-hour's nosing around in The Pound Era. So why, for the love of Pete, did Faber of all people publish this thing? There's a clue in the Preface, where Baron Desai recalls an evening in "House of Lords in the Peers' Guest Room (the only bar where peers can entertain guests," and a conversation with his friends (Baron) Robert Skidelsky, Keynes's biographer, and Matthew Evans, Baron Evans of Temple Guiting, in which the topic of Pound's politics came up. Yes, that Matthew Evans – managing director of Faber, who of course encouraged Desai to put up a proposal & write the book. And they say small press publishing is an insider's game.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

the tangible thing

Reading Wells's Tono-Bungay on the iPad, after reading stacks of his science fiction things on my (pre-Touch) Kindle over this past summer. The iPad reading experience is, at least to these aging eyes, rather more pleasant than the Kindle experience. I appreciate the Kindle's lightness, its slip-in-pocket-of-your-cargo-shorts go-anywhereness; I like its seemingly infinite battery life; but I'm not sold on the "digital ink" display, nor do I like any of the typefaces available. That's okay: it delivers the text, and it's been more than good enough for engrossed readings of Verne, Wells, Gaskell, and a bit of George Eliot.

Tono-Bungay? From the first fifth of the thing, I can say that it's quite well written indeed. Rather moving, in fact. Hard to see in what direction the story's going to head – I'd picked it up after reading a description of it (in John Gross's Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters) as a kind of ripping satire of Victorian commercialism, but thus far it's shaping up as a rather intimate Bildungsroman. Wells is better than Gaskell here (at least the Gaskell I've read), but he's no George Eliot.

I had the occasion to revisit the other Eliot (T. Stearns) the other week, in the form of the bulky HBJ hardcover of his Complete Poems and Play 1909-1950 – the one where the cover is dominated by the aged eagle staring purse-lipped from behind his round spectacles. The binding of that particular book is in a parlous state, I'm afraid; a couple of signatures are on the verge of falling out. And that's not to mention the rather shocking degree of underlining & marginalia pretty much throughout. (Okay, not quite throughout – I haven't really marked Practical Cats much at all, nor the weaker of the plays.)

I bought the book in my second year of graduate school, ostensibly for Joel Porte's course on American Modernism, but really because I wanted an Eliot. My own copies of his poems – if you're of a certain age you know the editions, those thin little HBJ mass-market paperbacks, The Waste Land and Other Poems in grey, Four Quartets in yellow – had gotten soaked one undergraduate year when the pipes in the apartment above me had frozen. I kept the books, swollen and curled as they were, for a few years, unwilling to part with the familiar typeface, the now-blurred ballpoint notes, but eventually the mold drove me to throw them away & replace them with the Complete Poems and Plays, itself now foxed and beginning to disintegrate, the corners of the leaves of the first hundred pages or so almost entirely worn into finger-friendly curves.

No, I have nothing really new to add to the proliferating conversation on the merits and demerits of digital, screen reading. I'm by no means an early adopter, but I'm happy with the Kindle and the iPad, happy to be able to carry around bookcases'-worths of Victorian and Edwardian novels, never having to worry about eventually shelving them. But I wonder if I'll ever make of any of those books my own in the same tangible way that I did those Eliot volumes, or that copy of To the Lighthouse I read to tatters, or the creased and multiply-read Princess of Mars back in my mother's house? Tono-Bungay remains oddly intangible to me, and even when I digitally "underline" passages, or fill the digital "margin" with typed notes, I can't feel myself interacting with the page in that same way.

Monday, March 05, 2012


As of 3.00 pm Friday, I've been on Spring Break. Which means of course beer bongs, foam raves, and general non-stop partying. Not really. Indeed, I'm wondering whether I've forgotten how to relax. Even reading novels, rather than recondite slim volumes of contemporary poetry or gnarly, ill-written works of literary & cultural criticism, makes me feel guilty, as tho I'm stealing time away from what I ought to be doing. You can take the boy out of the fundamentalist, guilt-ridden, work-ethical protestant church, I guess, but you can't take the protestant, fundamentalist, guilt-ridden work ethic out of the boy...

At least there's a tenuous Ruskin connection in Forster's Howards End (1910), which I finished re-reading last night, in a kind of ecstasy of wonder at the man's prose and the complex balancing of thought and emotion in his characters. The ill-fated Leonard Bast, that is, when we first meet him is making his way thru Stones of Venice. That reading marks him in our eyes, and in the eyes of Schlegel sisters, who're hip enough to be concerned mostly with far more current movements in art & literature, with Wedekind and Augustus John. Bast, in contrast, falls into precisely the group Stuart Eagles (After Ruskin: The Social and Political Legacies of a Victorian Prophet, 1870-1920, OUP 2011) defines as "upper-working-class and lower-middle-class autodidacts who often worked as clerks..." So that's good for at least a sentence or two, I guess, contrasting JR's readership in the 1st decade of the century with what the cool kids were reading.

On the other hand, there's really no excuse for re-reading Michael Moorcock's spectacularly hastily and sloppily written Elric novel, The Vanishing Tower (or The Sleeping Sorceress – choose your own overheated title). Maybe someday I'll put the thousands of hours of my youth (and the scores of hours of my recent middle age) I've devoted to Moorcock to some kind of use. Maybe there's a biography there to be written...

Sunday, March 04, 2012


My resolution to jump right back blogging seems to have gone awry. Any way –

No, I didn't go to AWP this year. I know I should've gone. All the cool kids went, and after all I've got two newish books I ought to be flogging more assiduously. Sometime I'll go, I think, but till then I'll forgo writing about it from the outside. I'm not sure I could handle all that many poets in one place at one time.

Where I did go (last weekend) was the Louisville Conference, of which Bob Archambeau gives a pretty decent précis here. I had a good time, saw some friends, ate some good food, bought a few books. More importantly, it gave my thinking life a shot of monkey glands like I hadn't had in ages.

That is to say, this has so far – and it's over half done – a particularly gnarly semester. The administrative position, combined with an uncongenial teaching schedule, has left me months and months behind on all sorts of writing obligations. And along with that, the planning & blocking out of the new "big" project has gotten entirely sidelined. But I was on a panel with Bob – whose own "big" project I've been watching take shape for a couple years now – and Vince Sherry, one of the people I consider among the true shining lights of modernist scholarship, and the mere proximity to those folks, not to mention hearing their work-in-progress, got me back to thinking about Ruskin. Not just Ruskin – because not an hour goes by in which I don't think about Ruskin (call me obsessed) – but Ruskin in larger contexts, Ruskin as proto-modern, Ruskin as a vast unacknowledged influence on the century that follows him.

The problem of writing & arguing this, of course, in much larger than that of being able to spin it out in cocktail conversation. I find myself with at least three directions to pursue, three "leads" to follow in linking JR to the "high" modernist conversation. None of them amounts to a kind of "field theory" of Ruskinian modernism, but taken together, they make a compelling if disjointed argument. Right now what I'm trying to untangle is precisely what is Ruskin & what is Ruskin & a bunch of other guys (Carlyle, Pugin, etc.). That is, I'm trying to separate out the specifically Ruskinian from a whole phalanx of aesthetic and social theory. It means reading a lot of stuff on the Victorians (as I've already been doing), & thinking a good deal about the social situation of what John Holloway called the "Victorian Sage" (and what Stefan Collini calls the "public moralist").

Today however has been mostly a non-work day. A few hours at the Florida Renaissance Festival (after Thursday's mind-bending gumbo and last night's Thai, I had my doubts as to whether my kilt would still fit), then a lazy afternoon of tinkering at my latest infantile time-waster: model ships. It's all new to me; I built tons of plastic models as a kid, but it never occurred to me to actually paint them. Now I realize, surfing around the web and being astonished at the jobs various folks have done on models I own, that the finish is really the heart of the enterprise.