Monday, December 16, 2013

the book meme

There’s a book meme going around Facebook these days, which I’ve followed with a bit of interest, but haven’t yet chimed in on: something like “name 10 books that have stuck with you [which means a lot of folks have listed things they’ve read in their childhood]; don’t give it too much thought [an attempt to try to stem second-guessing – is this book highbrow enough, does this one make me look like an idiot?]; tag 10 people [no way I’m doing that].”

Anyway, I’ve seen responses to the meme enough times that I can’t fulfill the “don’t give it too much thought” requirement; yes, I’ve thought a bit about what books made (or twisted) me into who I am. And I’ve tried to separate out things that I’ve read over and over and over, but which didn’t really sink in on the first reading (Ulysses, for instance, which I didn’t really “get” when I read it at 16, but by god have gotten in the dozen or more readings since), and things which I’ve come to over the last 20 years or so.

So here, in no particular order:

William Shakespeare, Macbeth  – and a lot of other plays, which I must have started reading in 3rd grade or so, first the Classics Illustrated redactions, then the whole plays, following along with Old Vic recordings. Only now, thinking back, do I realize how much Shakespeare opened up the possibilities of the language to me.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience – probably the first books of poetry I ever read on my own, after Dr. Seuss.

L. Du Garde Peach, Oliver Cromwell (A Ladybird Book) – my parents bought me this wee hardback, sumptuously illustrated in alternate color pages, on a trip to London when I was maybe 9. I blame it for my 4-decades'-long obsession with the English Revolution and all things Puritan. (Rereading it for the first time in many years, I'm surprised to find it a pretty balanced overview – no whitewashing Drogheda, for instance.)

TS Eliot, The Waste Land – I read this sometime in high school, after a teacher described it as "incomprehensible"; yes, I was that kind of cocksure, jackass hs student, who wanted to comprehend the incomprehensible; suffice it to say that no, I didn't understand the poem; but by god it stuck.

Michael Moorcock, The Cornelius Chronicles – I had already read bales of MM's trashy sword & sorcery novels when I bought the fat Avon paperback of his 4 Cornelius novels, but they sure didn't prepare me for the radical narrative disjunctions of the last 2 of those books, The English Assassin and The Condition of Muzak. But MM's narrative techniques primed me for disjunction in modernist poetry and postwar prose more than anything else I read in my teens.

JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings – okay, I didn't actually read these the first time through: my dad read them to me. That is, until about 3 chapters into Return of the King, when he had to forgo bedtime reading sessions for a stretch; I couldn't wait, so I soldiered thru the worst of Tolkien's high-falutin Maloryisms to finish the book myself. And it stuck.

Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time – who knows how many times I read this book? It taught me that it was okay to think, okay not to be cool, okay to be a "geek."

HP Lovecraft, The Lurking Fear and Other Stories – I can't say this one "influenced" me in any way besides depriving me of a lot of sleep, shivering in anxiety at every ambient noise.

Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination – now we're getting into college; Tom Gardner lent me this one. For better or worse, it's probably shaped my life. At the very least, it taught me that expository prose could be a pleasure, rather than just an instrument.

Ronald Johnson, The Book of the Green Man – of course I came to Johnson by way of Davenport; everybody does, right? And if my student poems sounded like a cross between Johnson and Davenport's Flowers & Leaves – well, one can do a lot worse for beginners' models.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


In case you're wondering, the tentative (well, not really, but am still doing a wee bit of tinkering) table of contents for the book:

Intricate Thicket: Some Late Modernist Poetries


Longer Views

Coming Down from Black Mountain (Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley)
Z-Sited Path: Late Zukofsky and his tradition
The Palace of Wisdom and the Six-Minute Poem (Theodore Enslin)
Truth, Beauty, and the Remote Control (Anne Carson)
Still Diving the Mauberley Trench (John Matthias)
Dark Matters (Peter Gizzi and Rae Armantrout)
Ronald Johnson: Four Takes
1. Turkish Delight and Marrow-Bones
2. Notes and Numbers
3. Johnson’s American England
4. A Note on Johnson’s Anagram
The Piety of Terror (Ian Hamilton Finlay)
One Last Modernist: Guy Davenport

Shorter Takes

Mules and Drugs and R&B (Harryette Mullen)
Norman Finkelstein, Track
A New Negative Capability (Michael Heller)
“The Lighthouses” (George Oppen)
Sound and Vision (John Taggart)


Queen Victoria’s Birthday Present (on writing biography)
A Fragmentary Poetics (on writing poems)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013


It's been altogether too long.

The big news – I just sent off a signed contract for a 100,000 word manuscript, Intricate Thicket: Some Late Modernist Poetries, to be published by the University of Alabama Press in their super-cool "Modern and Contemporary Poetics" series, edited by Hank Lazer and Charles Bernstein. It's a sweet moment for me; Alabama published my first real book, Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge back in 1998, as one of the inaugural volumes of that same series.

At the time I thought, "okay, a new series for newbie scholars, let's hope it lasts a few years." But in the 15 years since, M&CP has become a real powerhouse – they've done books by Marjorie Perloff, Jerome McGann, Harryette Mullen, Rosmarie Waldrop, Nathaniel Mackey, Ron Silliman, Steve McCaffery, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and stacks and stacks of the best critics of my own and other generations.

The manuscript is pretty much done – it's clean & well-lighted. Both of the press readers had suggestions for possible (minor) revisions, but they were just that – suggestions to consider, rather than conditions for publication. So I'm in that wonderful penultimate phase of doing last-minute clean-ups: a final read-thru, and the infinitely painful process of inserting real-live scholarly-muster-passing citations into very long, rangy essays that quoted from all over the map with nary a thought of pointing readers back to the page numbers of those quotations. (Yes, the heart of the book is a series of big essays I wrote for Parnassus: Poetry in Review, whose editors don't really have much truck with stuffy academic convention.)

I've just spent an hour and a half with one essay, zipping in what seems like two score parenthetical citations, and hauling down about a linear foot and a half of books from my bookcases. By the time I get thru this entire manuscript, I expect my study will be about three feet deep in unshelved books.

Where the hell is Jeeves when you need him?

Monday, September 02, 2013

J. G. Ballard, The Wind from Nowhere

I always find reading great writers' juvenilia instructive. I revisited Eliot's Poems Written in Early Youth the other week, and found them remarkably unremarkable. I read straight thru Yeats's early books a while back, & found them strangely comforting – some lovely lyrics, but an awful lot of flatness and decorative imagery – the engine running, but the gears disengaged. It's good to know even the greats started out not so great.

I'd read a fair amount of '70s Ballard lately, so was pleased to come upon a copy (in a book club edition) of his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (bound with The Drowned World, his second and "breakthrough" book). Ballard later pretty much disavowed Wind, calling it a piece of "hack-work" done simply to break into the paperback market (previously he'd only published short stories). Apparently he had just turned 30, had a family to support, and felt that he'd never get out of his desk job unless he produced something novel-length. With a fortnight's holiday on his hands, he determined to crank out a 60,000-word novel in ten days of writing.

And he did – and boy does it show: paper-thin characters, reams and reams of far-fetched action sequences, and a basic plot mover (that the entire earth has been gripped by a high-speed wind that just keeps getting more & more devastating) that never even begins to get explained. It's a decent two hours' read, but one can't say anything more.

But then maybe I'm dismissing it too quickly, and out of hindsight: after all, it reads like a movie – like 2012, or The Towering Inferno, or The Day After Tomorrow, or any number of big-time disaster movies. And when it's compared to one of them – a team of scriptwriters, a zillion-dollar budget, etc. – it actually seems like a more than decent ten days' work.

Of course it's merely a dry run for Ballard's far more sociologically and psychologically interesting "disaster" novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World, etc.). In those books he realized what he knows only in flashes in The Wind from Nowhere: that the big explosions and topographical changes of the disaster aren't nearly as interesting as the ways that characters react to them.


Friday, August 23, 2013

returning to Neal Stephenson

I read The Diamond Age (19950 and enjoyed it, then promptly forgot most of it. I read Snow Crash (1992) and enjoyed it very much indeed, and even retained a bit of it. And then I read the Baroque Cycle – Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World (2003-4) – and was blown away by Stephenson's crazy recreation of the 17th century, this crazy pivotal moment when alchemy turns into chemistry, when all of our modernity is a-borning. Not that the Cycle isn't too long; like everything Stephenson writes, it's immensely detailed, full of a – well – baroque proliferation of details & factoids. But it sprawls in quite an agreeable manner, or at least its sprawl somehow agrees with me.

I picked up a copy of NS's next novel, Anathem (2008), not too long after the paperback was released (& the hardcover remaindered). And it defeated me, at least twice. The novum, that differentium that set the novel's work apart from our "mundane" world, was just to hard to wrap my mind around. So I made a couple of starts, got maybe 75 pages in, and laid the brick-like volume aside.

And then the other week I happened on a copy of Stephenson's latest novel, Reamde (2011). And on a lark bought it. And started reading it, almost absently, only to find myself drawn head over heels into one of those "gripping" "action" stories. Yes, it's too long, by maybe 300 pages; sure, there's too much loving detail; and ultimately, there isn't enough of the conceptual quirkiness that I like about NS. But boy Reamde is a readable book. And what's not to love? A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game that has found a way to actually harness and monetize gold farmers; a Chinese virus that ("REAMDE") that preys on players; Jihadist terrorists; Russian mafiosi; strangely likeable Christian survivalists; a cast of thousands.

At any rate, it sent me back to Anathem, and this time I stuck it out. By the time I was 150 pages in, I was loving it. By the time I'd slogged thru the entire 900+ volume, however, I was feeling pretty ambivalent. Ben – my Stephenson-reading buddy, with whom I talk thru the books on occasion – felt that there was too much philosophical talking over the course of the book. Indeed, the book's action (which takes its own sweet time getting off the ground) is repeatedly broken by long philosophical discussions, modeled quite obviously on Plato's Dialogues. (In fact, Stephenson includes as an appendix three "Calcas," or dialogic, graphed calculations, one of which is pinched directly from the Meno.) Now the philosophical discussions do indeed bear upon the convoluted plot of the novel, so they're not entirely extraneous: but they do indeed go on...

But my ambivalence wasn't quite that there was too much jaw and not enough event in Anathem. The amount of event, of actual action, in the end seemed about right. And while I was initially impatient with the philosophical disquisitions, by the end I found I was wishing for more of them, and at greater length. Stephenson seemed to rein himself in all too often – right when his characters were at the point where a discussion of Platonic Forms or something similar was about to break into something altogether profound, he'd break off the dialogue, and the next chapter would be something else altogether. One of two (or both of two) things was happening: 1) NS, a marvelous storyteller with a penchant for sidetracks, was consciously reining himself in before his readers went to sleep, jerking them back to some actual eventage; or 2) NS, very excited about philosophy but not a trained philosopher, was breaking off his dialogues before he got in over his head and embarrassed himself.

So I guess my disappointment in Anathem – which is still a pretty excellent book, better than Reamde or Diamond Age, not quite as great as the Baroque Cycle – is that the dialogues don't go on long or far enough, and that their ideas aren't quite as integrated into the conceptual structure of the novel as much as they should be.


Thursday, August 01, 2013

shameless self-promotion

So even while I was away, the wheels of publication were slowly grinding. I have two new bits of writing out online:

•A review of Mike Heller's splendid collected poems, This Constellation Is a Name in Colorado Review

•A shortish poem, "Post-Tropical," in a relatively new online journal, Cloud Rodeo

Check 'em out.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

annotation and its discontents, part 793

Yes, it's that time of year when I'm reading towards the upcoming teaching semester, & start posting fiddly harumphs about how various editors have annotated things in the books I've assigned. This time around it's (again) Eliot's Waste Land. I should just throw in the towel and tell the students to read the effing thing wherever they can find it, rather than go to the trouble of ordering bound copies – but after using (yet again) Frank Kermode's Penguin The Waste Land and Other Poems last spring, and dithering about with finding links to supplementary materials online, I jumped at the publisher's description of Broadview Press's recent (2011) The Waste Land and Other Poems; this one includes all the poems in the Penguin (ie all the canonical material up thru The Waste Land itself, as well as "Tradition and the Individual Talent," "The Metaphysical Poets," and a bunch of supplementary things – poems by Pound, HD, Loy, Hulme, Imagist essays, contemporaneous reviews etc. It looked pretty good online.

I'm not generally dissatisfied with the volume. The texts seem accurate enough, and the annotations are for the most part okay. But here's my major kvetch: The poems are annotated Norton-style – that is, single-word glosses in the margin, longer notes as footnotes to each page. I can live with that; indeed, it beats the hell out of notes all at the end, as in the Penguin or in Oxford World's Classics volumes (ever try to read an early modern play in World's Classics, flipping back & forth constantly?). But what's at issue for me is not so much the editors' (there are so many that I won't recount the names) own annotations as their decision to stick all of Eliot's own notes to The Waste Land in with their notes at the foot of the page. (This is something Norton does in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, as well.)

Most of Eliot's notes are signalled by "[Eliot's note]," which is okay I guess. Many of them – all those bare "Cf.s" – are paraphrased ("Eliot refers us here to..."). A few are dropped entirely (I'm not sure how many – sorry, I'm not OCD enough to have collated the whole shebang). The problem, however, is bunging them in with the editorial notes, which entirely obliterates the possibility of coming to terms with Eliot's notes as an authorized paratext, simultaneously integral to the experience of the poem and supplementary. I often give students, as an assignment, the task of sorting some of Eliot's notes – which are simply acknowledgments of sources, which are substantive commentary, which are seemingly padding? So much for that assignment, unless I xerox up some pages of nothing but the notes alone (which it seems to me makes sense).

And here's the howler: Lines 115-116, in which the passive-aggressive speaker responds (silently?) to the neuraesthenic woman: "I think we are in rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones. " Eliot annotates that first line thus:
"Cf. Part III, l. 195." 
The Broadview editors annotate it thus:
"[Eliot's note] Cf. part 3, line 195 [of Metamophoses 6]."
 HUH? say I. I guess I can live with changing the Roman numeral to Arabic (after all, I had a grad student a few years back who at the mature age of 35 couldn't read Roman numerals, and I guess there are many many more undergrads in that boat). But what the hell's going on with the Metamorphoses?

Clearly, this is a moment in which Eliot's annotations are simply pointing out cross-references in his own poem. Line 195 of The Waste Land, in Part III ("The Fire Sermon"), reads "Rattled by the rat's foot only, year to year." (This, by the way, is a category of TSE's annotation I haven't given enough thought to – why cross-reference, and why cross-reference only selected moments?) But the Broadview editors are stuck on the slightly earlier note in which Eliot, speaking of the story of Tereus and Philomela, directs us to Ovid's Metamorphoses 6 (or "VI," as Eliot has it). So without it seems going to the bloody trouble of turning over two leaves of their own text and seeing that the "Cf. Part III, l. 195" note is no more than a reference to another "rat" passage – and obviously without consulting a copy of Ovid (Ovid has books, but no "parts," as their note implies) they assume that this mysterious note must have something to do with the Metamorphoses. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy, folks.

Oh yeah, and once again they get the title of Middleton's A Game at Chess wrong – "at," not "of."

Saturday, June 29, 2013

vacation reading ii

So for the last 2 weeks, save for a couple days in the City at the outset and a single foray into Queens for a friend's birthday party, we've been in some folks' definition of paradise – Fire Island. It's peaceful, even with several friends coming by to stay for whatever length of time. No cars, very little light pollution; the kids bike down the boardwalks on their way to & from the beach, & I swag back in my Adirondack and read.

Yes, some Ruskin – I'm made a big dent in The Lamp of Beauty, & finished WG Collingwood's very old – well, it was after all the first – life of JR. And some Wyndham Lewis, tho not as much as I'd expected. A bit of contemporary poetry (newish collections by Laura Wetherington and Martha Ronk), a run of master's theses that need final comments and suggestions before they go thru their ranks of signatures. But it's vacation, and I'm reading novels: two steampunk things by James P. Blaylock; Tom McCarthy's Remainder, which I've meant to read ever since Simon Critchley gave an infuriating keynote at Louisville a couple years back (it was supposed to be about something else, but then he punted on writing a new paper & delivered a prepackaged thing he'd written on his bud McCarthy – infuriating, yes, but it made me want to read TM); and Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, one of those books I'd never have gotten around to reading if I hadn't seen it on the beach-house shelf, but surprisingly moving and of course beautifully written.

And then I'm re-reading "A", not perhaps for the uptillionth time, as one friend puts it – but let's say it's got the familiarity of a very old friend.

Friday, June 14, 2013

vacation (reading)

So Saturday we're leaving town for six weeks – to be divided roughly between the NYC area & Europe. Usually I load up with books before the summer "vacation," anticipating a big writing project that'll be ploughed thru. This time I've determined to pack lightly. Two small, mass-market paperback-sized Ruskin anthologies (one of Essays and Selections from the 1930s, the other a recent reprint of the Phaidon Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art printed on bible paper – really a lovely little thing), and an old paperback selection of Wyndham Lewis. Why WL? I guess he's someone I've meant to tackle seriously for a long time; I've read Tarr, and The Apes of God, and another anthology, but hope this one will tilt me into the beginning of a seriously read-thru.

The difference between this journey and others, I guess, is that I've finally gotten acclimated to reading on-screen. I have the bulk of the Ruskin Library Edition both on my laptop & on my iPad; a King James Bible on the iPad and the phone, in case I get all holy; and stacks and stacks of articles on PDF in case I get the hankering to do some actual academic reading. I have a samizdat PDF of LZ's "A", which I think I might re-read, just for auld lang syne, over the summer. Even the girls are used to the notion that if they want to read something that's fat & will take up lots of suitcase space, it's going to end up on the Kindle.

There's one fat novel I'm regretting not carrying. It's not Michael Moorcock's The Dreamthief's Daughter (2001, just reissued by Gollanz as Daughter of Dreams), which I just finished re-reading. It's John Crowley's incredible Little, Big – perhaps the most beautiful and strange piece of fiction I've picked up in years. I understand Harold Bloom is nuts about Crowley, but I'm willing to overlook that: the guy's a genius. But it's a fat, ungainly volume, and I think I'll end up taking a 6-week pause at the end of the next chapter, only to savor the second half even more when I get back to it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Well, it doesn't yet quite feel like summer break. I spent last week and the week before thrashing out that essay whose progress I alluded to so cryptically in the last few posts. I finished a draft – what feels like a good draft – and have set it aside for a while. This week was to be devoted to a book review. I've done half the work, I guess: I read the book, and even made some notes.

We're leaving for summer travels this Saturday: a couple of weeks divided between Fire Island and NYC, then a jaunt to Paris and Switzerland. It'll be my first time ever in Paris – blush – and the first time in Switzerland since 2000. I'm looking forward to travelling, I guess. As I realize more and more as I grow older, I've inherited all of my mother's worry-genes.

Anyway, what was meant to be a week of casual preparations, with the the girls in their respective camps (D in ballet camp, P in drama camp) turned nasty Sunday night when I blundered into the closet to check on whether or not I had a windbreaker for the trip. The light had burned out, so I started pawing through the jackets hanging on my side of the closet in the dark, seizing a likely candidate; its hanger hung on the crappy wire-frame closet insert (you know the kind), and when I tugged it loose, the entire insert came down, with approximately 250 lbs. of clothes of various shapes, sizes and vintages.

All of today has been devoted to repair work: a whole new set of supports and hooks and binders and other doodads to hang this bad boy back in place, and make sure it doesn't come down again. The best part of the whole thing has been the necessity of actually going thru my wardrobe, piece by piece, as I hung things back up. I estimate I'm throwing out about 30% of the total – things I don't wear anymore, things I don't fit anymore, things I've been hanging onto out of sheer sentimentality. (I have my dad's old Army field jacket, with "Scroggins" on the front and all of his unit insignia; I don't need a collection of khaki shirts with epaulettes, or a windbreaker – damn that windbreaker!)

Tomorrow is a trip to the Goodwill.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

(still) writing

Last I posted, I felt I was hitting a pace. I managed to sustain than, even with an inevitable weekend break, & with all the crazy intensification of activities that comes with the girls' end of school. I began with a printout of my "base material" – lecture notes – and a legal pad, and started rewriting away. A couple of days in, I hit a bit of an impasse on one section; I couldn't find a quotation I needed, I seemed to have lost the thread of my argument, etc. So I stopped that bit and jumped forward to a later section, which breezed along quite satisfactorily. Eventually, I returned to section one and blocked it out to my (at least for now) satisfaction.

All this, mind you, on paper, pen & ink. I'd keyed in the first couple days' work, but hadn't printed it out. This morning I keyed in everything I've done so far – something over 5000 words – and just now I've printed it all out. I'll edit & mark up the printout, and continue writing towards the end of the essay on paper. I figure by this coming weekend I should have a full draft ready for the multiple revisions.

I know it all sounds arcane, but at the moment it's working.

Friday, May 24, 2013


So I'm writing again. I don't really count the other week, when I pumped out a 1000-word book review; not a bad book review, either, but not the sort of sustained argumentation/examination that feels like real writing.

I'd been avoiding this particular project – the one I'm embarked on – for some time. It's build around the armature of an opening talk I gave to a seminar, so I already have about 2500 words of sketchy prose, and a general direction of my arguments (tho those arguments get sketchier and more suggestive as it goes on). But for whatever reason I didn't feel comfortable directly revising the seminar file. The writing, for one thing, is terrible – it's mostly a matter of "here's what to say, make it eloquent as you talk – you can do that, you know..." And there's bales of stuff missing: most of the telling details (which I could count on myself to remember as I talked it thru) and all of the references to previous texts.

So rather than dive right into my seminar file and give it a massive makeover, I printed it out and settled down with a legal pad and my stacks of books, PDFs, and computer files. Then I began to entirely rewrite, line by line. It actually feels good. Yesterday I produced 1700 words (I typed them up this morning). I've hit my working pace, and with luck I should have two-thirds of this thing done before the summer's travels descend upon us.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

benjamin friedlander: one hundred etudes

One Hundred Etudes, Benjamin Friedlander (Edge Books, 2012)

The overall form is simple. As the book's opening page notes, the etudes pay homage to LZ's word-count prosody. Each page has three 3-lined stanzas, each line of 3 words. The etudes' numbers (eg "Thirty-seven") and titles (eg "DICTATION") count as well, tho an etude may begin or end anywhere with a three-word line. The poems are of variable length, but the book is exactly 300 pages long – so an average of 3 pages to an etude. (All those threes – I can't help thinking of course of Dante, and beyond him of Ron Johnson...)

The form enforces constant enjambment, & Friedlander is one of the most canny players of the line-break around. The etudes themselves are by turns hilarious, slyly witty, guilelessly frank, and transparently beautiful. The form tends, it's true, towards the epigrammatic, the gnomic – and that's fine, because I'd as lief have Friedlander's epigrams as anyone's since Martial – but they also open up into longer, more expansive structures. An amusing, moving, really splendid book, whose depths belie its unassuming title.


more – yes – Ruskin

It's become abundantly clear to me that one could make a life's work, not on Ruskin, but on secondary Ruskin materials alone. That's a bit of an exaggeration, I guess – one could probably read thru the whole corpus in a couple of years, if one didn't do anything else – but there is an awful lot out there. One of the great attractions of doing LZ in graduate school was that I could master the secondary literature in no more than a few weeks' time; and the really good secondary literature probably in a single week. Not so with Ruskin; of course, there's been a century more for the critical and biographical studies to accumulate.

Over this spring semester I've worked my way thru a few things, notably most of the editions Van Akin Burd has edited – Ruskin's letters to the girls at the Winnington School, Rose La Touche's diaries, and a strange book entitled Christmas Story, which is essentially a series of letters from JR recounting his paranormal experiences in Venice in 1876-7. Burd's MO in each of these latter two volumes is the same: under the guise of editing a fairly short text, he presents a behemoth introduction which in itself amounts to a monograph, then crushes the text itself under a mountain of annotation & commentary. This is okay for the La Touche texts; Burd's edition is the most complete account of Ruskin's late love affair. It's rather more tiresome for the "Xmas Story," whose introduction goes very far afield indeed in exploring the most tenuous connections JR had with the spiritualist community.

I've also been working thru Helen Gill Viljoen's editions of JR. I read her Ruskin's Scottish Heritage, and now I'm mired in her edition of JR's Brantwood Diaries. I may take a break – aside from the passages leading up to his breakdown, it's pretty dreary reading – and read her edition of his correspondence with Froude.
At any rate, most recently I tackled JR's letters to a longtime friend, Lady Pauline Trevelyan, as edited by Virginia Surtees. And realized before getting very far that I was reading another "Effie" book – that PT was one of his confidants in the wake of the breakup of his marriage in 1854. Now I'd already read some of the canonical texts on that event – Admiral William James's (Effie's grandson's) The Order of Release, and the rather weird response by JH Whitehouse, Vindication of Ruskin (one of the most astonishing books I know – Whitehouse reprints JR's note to his solicitors as if it were a "vindication," seemingly unaware that the note's major effect is to make Ruskin look like the biggest dick on the planet) – and I'd even read Suzanne Fagence Cooper's potboiler of a biography. But I'd never tackled the primary source on the business: Mary Lutyens's Millais and the Ruskins, the second of a trilogy of books (the first was Effie in Venice, covering their first married years, the third The Ruskins and the Grays, covering their courtship) on the Effie-John marriage.

Millais and the Ruskins is actually quite excellent: scrupulously edited, very well-written indeed, and seemingly quite balanced. Lutyens is careful to give JR credit wherever it's due, and to draw attention to any lapses on Effie's part. Her sympathy – quite rightly – is with Effie (as history's has been – Emma Thompson's film version, with Dakota Fanning as Effie, should be out any day now), but she's doing her best to present a narrative – or really an interlinked series of documents (letters, etc.) with commentary – that gives a fair deal to everyone involved. So it was quite a jolt, after breezing thru Lutyens in a couple of enthralled days, to return to Surtees's edition of the Trevelyan correspondence (under the anodyne title Reflections of a Friendship) and find a full-throated defense of Ruskin every bit as sniffy as Whitehouse's back in the 1940s. Sigh.

Ruskin was a creep in so many ways; he was also incredibly generous. He was a genius, but he was also, in many ways, an idiot. I find myself liking him more and more, the more I read, and at the same time disliking him. I try to hold the two emotions in balance, at once, rather than swinging back & forth in the manner Edel describes in his Principia Biographia. But it's never boring – tho god knows some of the letters these editors feel compelled to print are so trivial that they would have been better tossed into a Jamesian bonfire.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

civil war imaginations

So among the books I dip into at night has been this, By the Sword Divided: Eyewitness Accounts of the English Civil War (1983, this edition Wrens Park Publishing 2001), a richly illustrated thing I picked up at a sale table at the Vanderbilt University campus bookstore a bit less than a decade ago. The author – or editor, since probably 60% of the book consists precisely of edited firsthand accounts – is John Adair of the University of Exeter, formerly of the Royal Military Academy. It's a nifty book for one interested in the human side of the Civil War, and more especially one interested in the war's visual representations.

A coffee-table book, to some extent – pictures on practically every two-page spread. There are a few maps, and a few of the detailed battlefield diagrams I used to moon over when I was 16, but most of the pictures are contemporaneous: crude woodcuts from the various newsheets of the day, formal portrait paintings of central figures of the conflict. There are relatively few battle scenes on canvas, either from the period of the War (the 1640s), the remainder of the 17th century, or the 18th century. This in contrast to the continental Thirty Years War (1618-1648), of which one can find any number of relatively contemporaneous large-scale canvases depicting various battles.

The Civil War doesn't really open up as a subject for narrative painting until the 19th century, and when it does, it does so with a vengeance. The Victorians loved historical genre painting; depictions of Balaklava were on the easels even before the veterans got home from the Crimea, it seems, and one of the charming anomalies of Adair's book is its wealth of Victorian narrative paintings of the Civil War. I'm particularly interested in the painting whose detail is on Adair's cover: William Shakespeare Burton's Wounded Cavalier (1856).

It's to my eye a rather affecting picture. The pale red-haired cavalier – so young! he has the beard of a 19-year-old – lies dying, blood soaking through his lace collar from a wound in his throat. He staunches the flow (unconscious already?) with the help of a young Puritan woman. Her face is not as close to his as it initially seems – but close enough – but her gaze is unfocused, thoughtful. The detail is an emblem of the human cost of war; perhaps, in a better world, these two attractive young people would be lovers, would be married, would be depicted with their children.

It's worth looking at the entire painting:
There has been a fight here; the cavalier's sword, caught in the tree, has broken off at the hilt; his documents have been sifted thru (there are some playing cards scattered about in the right foreground) – he was a courier, one assumes, ambushed or otherwise confronted by Parliamentary forces. As he now lies dying in the arms of the young Puritan woman, her companion – her boyfriend? fiancé? brother? – stands, an enormous Bible in his hand. His expression is to my eyes unreadable (tho a number of commentators read it as disapproving, "sour").

Burton (1824-1916) was at the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; this painting is his only full-blown excursion into PRB-style detail. (Compare Millais's The Order of Release for a similar example of detail put to historical usage, his Ophelia for similarly painstaking natural detail.) As Tim Hilton comments on Burton, "One cannot but feel a certain kind of admiration for an artist who, for the closer observation of flowers and grasses, dug a deep hole for himself and his easel, so that the daisies, as he painted them, would be only inches away from his penetrating gaze."

The Wounded Cavalier was hung on the line at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1856. (Originally, it had been overlooked by the hanging committee, but the academician CW Cope – who also painted a number of Civil War scenes – insisted it be hung in place of one of his own canvases.) Burton's painting was next to Holman Hunt's Scapegoat, a signal Pre-Raphaelite work. Ruskin devoted several pages of his "Academy Notes" – a kind of omnibus review of the annual exhibition – to Hunt's painting; of Burton's, he comments the its subject is "not very intelligible," tho its painter's work is "masterly, at all events, and he seems capable of great things."

The contrast between the Royalist cavalier and the plainly dressed Puritan is echoed in any number of Victorian Civil War canvases. Perhaps the most famous is William Frederick Yeames's 1878 And When Did You Last See Your Father?
The child in blue is being questioned by Parliamentary functionaries of some sort. The soldier with his hand – not unkindly – comforting the little girl in pink is dressed in the New Model Army's proverbial red coat (ancestor of the British military uniform for the next 150 years – Captain Hook wears a NMA red coat, which popular legend has as the standard dress of Caribbean pirates, since so many of them were Cromwellian veterans fleeing the Restoration). The children wear bright colored silks; their elder sisters? (governesses?) to the left wear fine lace and velvet; their questioners, in contrast, wear the drab, plain civilian clothes associated with Puritanism. They could be characters in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Their hair is – for the 17th century – very short indeed, befitting "Roundheads."

The iconographical distinction between Royalist and Parliamentarian, then, is firmly in place by the Victorian era. It has of course little basis in historical fact. Most Parliamentarians wore their hair long, and if they could afford them, wore clothes every bit as colorful as the Royalist opposite numbers. Common soldiers of either army were indistinguishable (at least before the New Model Army instituted the rather striking innovation of an army-wide uniform). But the iconographical differentiation between the two groups was crucial to the Victorians's own self-mythology.

For the Victorians, England was a land in which the two impulses represented by Puritanism – piety, restraint, thriftiness, self-control – and by Royalism – elegance, self-display, loyalty to the monarch – had been most signally reconciled in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Before that event – the central moment of the Whig Interpretation of history – had been the bad old times, when Puritan godliness had been pitted against Cavalier excess. Burton's Wounded Cavalier, then, is an allegory of a Victorian England in which the Puritan impulse – most signally represented in Burton's own day by the Evangelicals – can look with regret and pity upon a misguided, excessive aestheticism (there is a butterfly on the blade of Cavalier's broken sword). There is too great a divide in 1644 (say) for the young woman and the dying horseman to ever share that kiss to which they are so close; but in Burton's painting, as in so much of Pre-Raphaelite art, the aesthetic and the godly can finally find common ground.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

institutional memory

Our Fair University's president just resigned, after a perfectly dreadful semester of one public relations blunder after another. She had swept into office on a wave of high hopes among the faculty – here at last we had a president who was an actual academic, rather than a political appointee, someone who knew something about how a university worked & might be able to make things better. She found herself immediately caught up in a succession of budgetary apocalypses (thank you, Governor Rick Scott).

Matters weren't helped for those of us on the shop floor by the fact that in short order she fired most of the standing administrators (those who knew what they were doing) & replaced them with hand-picked yes-people. The run up to last semester's accreditation ordeal was a painful exercise in anal-retentive bean-counting, arbitrary & draconian decisions, & astonishingly increased paperwork. This past semester brought all the administration's shortcomings into the open. There were a series of of "crises" – public relations crises, not "real" events – each of which the president fumbled: a faculty member's blog posts, propounding ludicrous conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook shootings, got picked up by the media & went viral; another faculty member's "consciousness-raising" class exercise ("Stomp On Jesus") became a right-wing cause célèbre; the administration sold stadium naming rights to a private prison company, & then was astonished that students & faculty protested; the president clipped a protesting student with her Lexus in the parking lot, drove off in a huff & later demanded the student apologize to her.

I had been expecting this resignation announcement for weeks, but I'm not surprised she waited until after the Spring semester had ended to formally hand it in. I wish her the best in her "return" to the faculty (not that she's ever actually had the experience of teaching here). Once again, the Peter Principle is demonstrated.
At the end of this year, I will have been at Our Fair U for eighteen years. Wow. I've lost count of short-term interim presidents, but during my time here we've had three long-standing, permanent appointees: the Napoleon-complex architect, who sought to heighten his unfortunately wee stature thru risers in his dress shoes and an impressive white quiff, & whose money-laundered $42,000 parting gift was a red Corvette (what taste!); the former Lieutenant Governor with the Howdy Doody smile, wholly innocent of higher education, whose incoming gesture was to announce that he'd like to make unannounced visits to our classrooms (yes, he used to be a high school principal) because he'd really like to learn what went on in college classes; and the recently resigned academic with the U Mass PhD in botany, & with the impressive academic credentials (posts at LSU, USF, and Cleveland State).

Of the three, it's safe to say that the last has been by far the worst. Go figure.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


The semester is over, the dust has finally settled. Earlier today I sent off a short book review of a very long book of poems—a review I enjoyed writing very much indeed. (Bonus: the magazine style sheet taught me how—finally—to make a proper em-dash!) The recipe for a review, so far as I know it, is pretty simple: find the passages of the book you like, or find telling, & mark them; then figure out your overall impression of the book (which can include things like repeated motifs & themes, overall atmosphere, interesting writerly techniques); then try to put it all down in as lively writing as you can manage. It's a recipe rather like that for an omelette, and about as hard to go wrong with.

Longer pieces, like the big Black Mountain thing that should be seeing the light of day any moment now, are rather more complicated, and involve all sorts of architectural decisions, which are always made more complicated by the constant imperative to keep the prose, if not lively, than at least readable. (But of course I'm always shooting for the lively.) Over the past few years I've found it easier to write conference papers than things meant to be published, because when I'm writing a conference paper I'm always thinking about its delivery, about how to pace my arguments, my funny bits, my decisive pauses, etc.

I've had the opportunity lately to go back over pretty much everything I've published over the past 15 years, outside of books. I'm not unhappy with what's there. I do notice, however, that there's a pretty radical difference between what I've written for a "general" audience—essays for Parnassus, reviews for Chicago Review and Talisman, literary-historical pieces for various Oxford & Cambridge volumes—and the reviews of academic books I've done for more academically "reputable" venues. The latter are deathly dull, for the most part. Why is that? They do what academic reviews are supposed to do: that is, they summarize the main points of the book(s) at hand, and pronounce some sort of summary judgment. Do I feel constrained by the more rigid, tweedy atmosphere of the academic journal? Or am I simply less than interested in what I'm writing about?

My god—have I become a belletrist?

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

shameless self-promotion

Okay, the latest issue of Lou Rowan's excellent Golden Handcuffs Review hasn't got its picture online quite, but if you go to the website & PayPal'd them some money they'll send it your way pronto. (Better yet, subscribe!) It's got new poetry, prose, & reviews from a whole bunch of cool people: David Antin, Louis Armand, Andrea Augé, John Baldessari, Kenneth Bernard, Amanda Berenguer, Joshua Cohen, Rikki Ducornet, Kristin Dykstra, Ken Edwards, Andrew Ervin, Paul Griffiths, Hank Lazer, Stacey Levine, Brian Marley, David Miller, Paul Naylor, Paul Perry, Joe Ashby Porter, Peter Quartermain, Marthine Satris, Kyle Schlesinger, Maurice Scully, Keith Waldrop, & Rosmarie Waldrop.

And I have a piece too, on the anagram in Ronald Johnson. It begins like this:
1] The anagram – a “name or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of another” – although a feat of undeniable ingenuity, has gotten little respect over the history of English poetry. In The Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham dismissed the anagram as “a thing if it be done for pastime and exercise of the wit without superstition commendable inough and mete study for Ladies, neither bringing them any great gayne nor any great losse unlesse it be of idle time…” The anagram’s “pleasure” lies in the “grateful newes or matter” that can be wrung from the transposition of the letters of one phrase into another: Pilate’s question "Quid est veritas?" (What is truth?) can be answered "Est vir qui adest" (It is the man who is here); Puttenham’s own happy anagrammatizing finds in “Elissabet Anglorum Regina” “Multa regnabis ense gloria” (By thy sword shalt thou raigne in great renowne) and “Multa regnabis sene gloria” (Aged and in much glorie shall ye raigne). “[B]icause there is much difficulty in it, and altogether standeth upon hap hazard,” Puttenham concedes, the anagram “is compted for a courtly conceit no lesse than” the emblem. A “courtly conceit,” but something less than true poetry: Puttenham’s discussions of both the emblem and the anagram were cancelled from most copies of The Arte of English Poesie.
It goes on, thru Dryden's Mac Flecknoe and Addison on true & false wit, and ends up in Johnson's interstellar spaces. Check it out.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

John Clute: Appleseed

Appleseed, John Clute (2001; Tor Books, 2003)

John Clute's known as perhaps the most learned and intelligent critic of SF/fantasy alive; he's sorta like Northrop Frye with a passionate love of the space opera form, an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire speculative canon, and a prose style that sometimes rivals RP Blackmur's for knotty insight. So you perhaps can imagine what Appleseed, his second venture into actually writing SF, is like. Or maybe not – the vision of the future here, the sheer technological and social otherness of Clute's world is so fantastically imagined that it's hard for a reader to get a grip of anything like the whole. I'm used to being off-balance for the obligatory opening 50-75 pages of an SF novel, getting used to its novum (or nova); Clute keeps you off-balance for pretty much all of this medium-sized book, not least in his astonishingly various prose, which shimmies from the technologically gritty to the lyrically visionary to the weirdest yee-haw vernacular, often in the course of a single sentence.

Appleseed, alas, is way short on fully realized characters – it's really a kind of verbally and conceptually souped-up space opera, after all – but its mind-blowing imagination of a future of cybernetically "augmented" human beings, shimmering artificial intelligences, and vast metaphysical / theological forces almost makes up for that. At the very least, it's worth reading just for the relentless baroque energy of its dialogue & descriptive prose.


Jena Osman: Public Figures

Public Figures, Jena Osman (Wesleyan UP, 2012)

Is it an essay? (even a "lyric" essay?) or is it a longish poem? Who cares; it's writing, smart and engaging, impassioned. Public Figures begins as a conceptual-art kinda thang – check out the statues in the public spaces of Philadelphia, rig up a camera to snap images of precisely what their stoney/bronzey eyes are gazing upon, then meditate upon those gazes. So far so good: there's lots to think about there – the tradition of memorial statuary in the New World and the Old, urban development growth and decay, the ironies of history. But something else emerges over the course of this meditation. The poem-essay-commentary, which begins in a plainspoken this is what my idea was and this is how I started doing it register, shifts into the ultra-contemporary now, as transcribed drone observations – from the Iraq theater of operations, one assumes – start running along the bottom of the page like the "crawl" on the CNN screen; and the poem becomes not just a meditation on statuary (paging Dr. Ozymandias) but a larger consideration of the decline of the "heroic" "ideal" in the age of remote-controlled war.


Monday, March 25, 2013

michael moorcock: the chinese agent

Michael Moorcock, The Chinese Agent (1970; Mayflower, 1979)

I must've read this one about 30 years ago, probably in a library copy, because I didn't own a copy until I found one in a 2nd-hand shop a few months back. An enjoyable two or three hours, given that MM probably devoted all of a couple weeks to writing it. There are some passages of pretty evocative description – devoted mostly to the more sordid districts of London, to the old Notting Hill and Portobello Road – and gratifying few of the terrifically sloppy passages one finds in so much of his work of the 60s and 70s.

This is non-fantasy, non-SF Moorcock – a clear precursor of the "serious" city books of later years, Mother London (1988) and King of the City (2000). Gosh he loves London, and that affection suffuses the passages of urban description. Plotwise it's nominally a spy thriller – well, actually a spy farce, the sort of thing that got filmed so delightfully in all those Peter Sellers movies of the day. The protagonist is Jerry Cornell, who is a kind of down-at-the-heels, bourgeois version of Jerry Cornelius; he's working, improbably, for the British secret service. The novel has him revisiting the bosom of his disgusting Cockney family (rather more outrageously gross than the other Jerry C's), falling into bed with a shy receptionist and a Mata Hari-like femme fatale, and blundering his way thru a highly improbable comedy of mistaken identities, stolen secret documents, and time-bombs.

A bit of literary popcorn, in the final analysis – but it never aspires to be anything higher than light entertainment, and that's sometimes refreshing from a writer who can get all too "heavy" when he furrows his brow and becomes serious.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

expanding the base

So I've been thinking about my own "knowledge base," a concept I've borrowed & modified from Jonathan Mayhew's very useful idea of the "scholarly base." There's this stack of poets whose work I know very well indeed, whom I've studied and studied hard, whose work I've read pretty much from one end to the other: LZ, Ronald Johnson, Milton, Niedecker, WCW, John Matthias, etc. And there's a somewhat larger group of poets whose work I've read in its entirely, but of whom I have a somewhat more casual grasp: John Peck, Michael Palmer, Moore, Prynne, Geoffrey Hill, Susan Howe, Creeley, etc.

And then there's the contemporaries. There are probably a half dozen poets whose every work I'll buy; and there are probably twenty or thirty poets whose book I'll pick up in the second-hand shop on the strength of their name alone. I've got lots of books of poetry waiting to be read: every year I seem to discover between twenty and forty new poets.

I've got a hankering, however, to get to grips with some contemporaries on a deeper level. To that end, I posted on Facebook this morning the following: "Looking for a new focus: who's the one poet -- between 30 & 50 -- besides yourself -- whom you think I ought to immerse myself in?" I got a bunch of responses, and here's the list:
Noah Eli Gordon
Graham Foust
Michael Cross
Elizabeth Treadwell
Jena Osman
Stacy Kidd
Peter O'Leary
Joshua Harmon
Gabrielle Calvocoressi
GC Waldrep
Harold Schweizer
Andrea Brady
Keston Sutherland
Dan Beachy-Quick
Joanna Klink
Nate Klug
Austin Smith
Michael Robbins
Ange Mlinko
Kevin Prufer
Laura Kasischke
Sean Bonney
Rory Waterman
Buck Downs
Andrew Zawacki
Julie Carr
Julie Doxsee
Juliana Leslie
Joshua Corey

(Points off, Mike Theune, for not reading instructions – one poet.) 29 poets in all – with Kevin Prufer recommended twice. If nothing else, the list shows me that I'm perhaps not as out of touch as I'd feared: only maybe four of these names are entirely new to me, and I've read books by about half of them. (I seem to have actually met about 2/5 of them – which means it's a small world.) Indeed, a few of them fall into my "know pretty well" category. I think the "pick up whatever looks interesting, then read other books by the good ones" method is working out alright.

What I decided this afternoon, however, was that I would indeed work to expand my "knowledge base," but not necessarily by changing my consumption/study of 30-50-year-olds. Instead, I'd focus on a few slightly older – boomer generation, really – poets who've written both poetry and essays, and whose work has always compelled me even if I haven't given it quite the time it deserves. So one of my ancillary reading projects over the next few months will be an in-depth reading of Rachel Blau DuPlessis (whose Drafts I've followed since they started appearing, but which I've never given the kind of concentrated reading they deserve); Norma Cole, every word of whose I've read I've been compelled by, but whom I've never quite been able to see whole; and Marjorie Welish, whose work – or at least the four or five books I've read – has both sensuality and really dazzling conceptual rigor.

That should keep me off the streets for a while.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"I have wasted my life"

It's one of those lines that echo in my mind, even if I have to resort to Google to make sure that I remember its source – James Wright's "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," a poem about which I remember nothing else. (I rather prefer Lorine Niedecker's "I've spent my life on nothing," from a poem which begins "What horror to awake at night.")

It's a feeling I get around this time every year, after I've turned in what Our Fair University calls the "Annual Report," in which I gather up all the things I've done over the previous year – the theses directed & served on, the classes taught along with their student evaluations, the committees reluctantly served on, and – most ominously – the things published. I always do just fine on these things: a few poems here and there (last year was a banner year – two collections of poems published, but that won't happen for another decade), a book review, a couple of essays.

But what does it add up to? I'll admit to being unhealthily obsessed with looking over the bibliographies of scholars-critics-poets, counting how many things they'd published by the time they were my age, calculating their rate of production – mostly of books. And boy mine doesn't look very impressing next to Terry E., or Marjorie P., or Norman F., or any number of others.

Over the last few, I find, my (prose) energies have gone in three directions (this is leaving aside all the work that went into The Poem of a Life, which I realize [gulp] was published a full SIX years ago): book reviews and short pieces that usually began as conference papers; large-scale literary-historical articles for Cambridge Companions and suchlike volumes; and rangy multiple-book-topic review essays for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. Now things in the first category obviously are publications, but they aren't publications that add up to much. Things in the second category, as useful as they may be – and some of the things I've done for such volumes are to my mind quite good indeed – can't really be reused for my own books because of copyright restraints: Cambridge, Oxford, Blackwell, etc. make you sign away your reprint rights.

Then there's the Parnassus pieces. I'm terrifically proud of them: I've written on everyone from Guy Davenport to Anne Carson to Ron Johnson and Rae Armantrout, and in every case Herb Leibowitz and Ben Downing's ferocious line-editing has pulled my prose to levels of smartness and readability that I didn't know I could attain. The problem is that the resulting pieces are rather in-betwixt-and-between: they're all on fairly hipster poets, but they're written for a "general audience," whoever that might be – not a scholarly readership, or a band of ferocious partisans. Clearly, this probably isn't a book that an academic press is going to snap up. But on the other hand, the very obscurity of most of the folks I write about (when have you ever seen anything about Ted Enslin in a journal of more than 750 copies circulation?) is likely to make this collection a losing proposition for an independent.

So I've got 95,000 words of essays, reviews, and essay-reviews on my hands (mind you, that's only about half of what I culled thru), a title, and the beginnings of a lively introduction. All I need (sigh, and that's what we all need) is a publisher.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


So I'm feeling a bit more sanguine about the fantasy/sf conference, which is coming up next week. I finished (a draft of) my paper, and managed somehow to steer myself into something I know pretty well – high modernism, that is – by the end. The thing is probably short on theory – lamentably short on theory – the only really theoretical moment is some ideas lifted from one of Samuel Delany's essays from ages & ages ago – but I'm hoping it's ballasted enough with careful close readings & bibliographical observations that that doesn't really matter. And I've talked to some colleagues who are pretty deeply into this scene in a professional way, & they tell me it's a good conference: plenty of intellectual rigor if you look for it, but the old pros aren't totally sadistic assholes to us newbies. I might be singing a different tune in a week's time; we'll see.

I'm continuing to read Ruskin, or at least around Ruskin. A hole seems to have formed in my life since I finished the Library Edition some weeks ago, and I've been trying to block it by reading ancillary texts, some of the many volumes of Ruskin letters I've accumulated. Fascinating stuff, for the most part, tho lots of thank-you notes and scheduling dithering as well. 

We exhausted ourselves last weekend by taking the girls to Orlando & doing a pair of Disney parks. The less said about that perhaps the better.

Tonight I went to see Salome at the Palm Beach Opera. A decent performance, but no better than decent. The orchestra at least was excellent, which made up for many deficiencies; I'm very fond of Strauss, and this is one of my favorite operas. The magnificent Denyse Graves, playing Herodias, had some hip emergency right before the opening; she sang her part in full costume in a wheelchair downstage right, while an actress in a very modern sheath dress mimed her part among the other actors. It was one of the strangest things I've ever seen. Erika Sunnegardh  played Salome as a perverse 14-year-old, which makes a certain amount of sense; she's the only Salome I've seen who could dance a lick.

Alas, the audience.... Opening night, but the hall was only half full. It's odd to sit among such well-heeled folks, shelling out real money for tickets, who seemed so innocent of the classical repertoire. Murmurs around me: Is she really going to take off her clothes? Will she kiss him? And afterward: "Well, I didn't expect that!" "That was a strange one, wasn't it?"

I shouldn't rag on the poor snowbirds. They want their culture, after all. And the funniest such moment I can remember was actually on Broadway, at the end of Janet McTeer's stunning rendention of Nora in Doll's House maybe 12 or 13 years ago. Nora has left her husband, has gone "downstairs"; Thorvald is brooding alone on stage, hoping she'll return. And then, as the play's final moment, you hear a resounding door-slam. From in front of me, a quavering voice wonders, "What happened? Did she shoot herself?"

Friday, March 08, 2013

comfort zone

[MS at the Florida Renaissance Festival, photo by Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald]

Okay, perhaps you wonder whether the fellow in the photo above is ever outside of his comfort zone. You'd be surprised – this was taken at the Renaissance Festival, where it's perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to put on a top hat, a figured waistcoat, and a set of home made goggles and to get one's steampunk on. When it comes to intellectual pursuits, however, I'm acutely aware when I've ventured beyond my areas of "expertise," or at least the places where I'm comfortable.

Two short narratives about what I'm getting at: 1) Last year I went to the Blackfriars Conference, which mainly centers around Shakespeare and performance. I'd submitted a paper on The Tempest as adapted by Peter Greenaway (Prospero's Books) and Michael Nyman (Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs). My basic thesis was that as much as I enjoyed Greenaway's film & Nyman's composition (opera? oratorio?), they were both in one sense failures in that their effect was to empty Shax's play of agency, of character, & recast a polyvocal original into a particular sort of British postmodern monologue. In the commenting process of the conference, I got my butt kicked in a particularly stinging manner, mostly over my general ineptitude when talking about music. I'd overlooked a number of details about Nyman's soundtrack for the Prospero's Books, and I was deploying a lamentably impoverished vocabulary for musical commentary. When I wrote the paper, I felt I was venturing outside of my comfort zone, & I ended up regretting it.

2) Last month at the Louisville conference on 20th- & 21st-c. culture, I attended a two-person panel in which the clear star attraction was Full Professor X, an old chum of mine delivering another delightful installment of his ongoing commentary on Obscure Avant-Gardist Y. A splendid talk, veering between close reading, textual history, and sociological locating. The other guy Professor X's was Professor Z, whose only bespoke audience (alas) was his partner; everyone else was there to hear X. Z talked about his subject – let's call it "an American poetic genre" – in terms that showed he was entirely ignorant of what the modernists had done with that genre, and what the Language Poets had done, and what any number of interesting contemporaries had done. I'm happy to say that no-one handed him his teeth in the q&a session, but there were any number of cutting comments passed back & forth in the hall afterward. Me, I sat squirming with discomfort for the poor gent.

All of this is by way of saying that I'm off in two weeks time for ICFA – that's the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts – in Orlando, to deliver my very first paper on a science fiction/fantasy subject. This is a BIG conference – hundreds and hundreds of papers; very big names in the field, both in terms of writers and of scholars; people in from all corners of the globe. And I'm scared stiff.

Sure, I've been reading fantasy and SF as long as I've been reading, and I think I've been reading it fairly critically & carefully over the last few years. But this is my first venture into talking about it in an academic context, & I'm acutely aware of how little I really know about this field and its critical discourse. No way I can pull this off by putting on a steampunk hat and showing what an enthusiastic fanboy I can be.

It's probably a good thing to begin making steps outside of one's comfort zone, early or late. I'll let you know when I'm on the verge of attempting my first Victorianist conference.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The letter carrier – well, the UPS person, I guess – brought a package from Cambridge University Press the other day, & after I scratched my head a moment (what in world did I order?), I opened it, only to find groovy pristine author's copies of the brand spanking new Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945, edited by Jennifer Ashton. My own essay bears the unwieldy title of "From the Late Modernism of the 'Objectivists' to the Proto-postmodernism of 'Projective Verse.'" (No, not my title, I'm afraid.) The book's chock full of nutty goodness:
1. Periodizing American poetry since 1945 Jennifer Ashton
2. From the late modernism of the objectivists to the proto-postmodernism of 'Projective Verse' Mark Scroggins
3. Confessional poetry Deborah Nelson
4. Surrealism as a living modernism: what the New York poets learned from two generations of New York painting Charles Altieri
5. The San Francisco renaissance Michael Davidson
6. Three generations of Beat poetics Ronna C. Johnson
7. The poetics of chant and inner/outer space: the Black Arts movement Margo Natalie Crawford
8. Feminist poetries Lisa Sewell
9. Ecopoetries in America Nick Selby
10. Language writing Steve McCaffery
11. Post-1945 American poetry and its institutions Hank Lazer
12. The contemporary 'mainstream' lyric Christina Pugh
13. Poems in and out of school: Allen Grossman and Susan Howe Oren Izenberg
14. Rap, hip-hop, spoken word Michael W. Clune
15. Poetry of the twenty-first century: the first decade Jennifer Ashton
So as you can see, it's packed full of great contributors, among whom I feel kind of slight. And it's also more or less affordable – if you don't want a copy for yourself, see if you can't persuade your institutional library to buy one!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

scroggins world tour dates, spring 2013

The Grateful Dead had Deadheads; Jimmy Buffet has Parrot-heads. Thank Ba'al I don't have any hardcore fan-followers, because heaven knows what sort of "heads" they'd be saddled with as a name. Anyway, I poke my head out from the great sift of papers (real and virtual) to announce upcoming appearances:

•Tuesday, 19 February, Richard Greene of the University of Toronto, award-bedecked poet and biographer of Edith Sitwell, editor of a selection of Graham Greene's letters, will be at Our Fair University; we'll be having a free-form "conversation on literary biography." (7.00 PM, CU 321, for locals.) It'll be great fun.

•The very next day (phew!) I'm sitting on a panel with some of my esteemed departmental colleagues, trying to impart some wisdom (?) to undergraduates about how to go about applying to grad school. Flyer here.

•Friday, 22 February, at the annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, I'll be on one of two whiz-bang panels on "The New Gnostics: Vectors in Postmodern Poetry." I'll be talking about Robert Duncan – paper title "'I am not an occultist': Esotericism, Literary History, and Autobiography in The H.D. Book."

•Then, after a few weeks to catch my breath, I'm off to Orlando to the annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. This is I gather a rather big deal for those involved in science fiction & fantasy studies. It's my first time around, so I'm kinda scared and unsure of myself – what if I mistake a book by Ursula K. LeGuin for something by Joanna Russ? What if I miss an obvious reference to a Celtic fertility ceremony? What if I forget my snazzy steampunk-modified-goggles-&-top-hat combination? The paper I'll be delivering is called "Recalculating the Apocalypse: Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme and Adaptation."

Hope to see some of you at one or more of these things.

Friday, January 25, 2013


So I've reached a top-ish rung in the academy – I'm full professor; there's nowhere to go, as someone said, but to the grave. (Or to a named chair somewhere, as if that'll happen...) According to popular wisdom, this is the point at which I start recycling my lecture notes and pretty much switch off my scholarship. And I've seen it happen, several times. Usually it happens a bit earlier: someone scrapes together the book or the requisite articles to get tenure, and then we don't see them in print ever again.

Now I'd hasten to assure my conservative friends that this isn't by any means the norm; in fact, when I say I've seen it happen "several times," what I mean is that I see it happen perhaps 10% of the time among my colleagues across the departments; the vast majority of us keep on publishing after getting tenured, even after getting promoted to Full.

Lately, however, I've been feeling a bit adrift. I have all sorts of vague outlines of the next "big" (ie, book-length) project in mind, but nothing that I'm particularly enthusiastic about pursuing. I know I could just sit down and start writing – I've done quite a bit of that – but I feel the pull of the books: I'd rather, quite frankly, just keep reading, making notes, trying to scribble down connections.

I've been feeling guilty about that – the production schedule seems to have broken down. Why aren't I writing? why aren't I producing, like a healthy cog?

This week has been one of reassurance, tho. A few days ago I got the latest copy-edited version of my next Parnassus essay (on Black Mountain); the cuts have been brutal, and will need to be sorted thru and fought over, but this should see print by summer. Today I just got the final copy-edited version of a book chapter that might be out by the end of the year, and I realize that sometime before Christmas, I read proof for another that should be out sometime this spring. And yet another book chapter, I noted as I sifted thru e-mails today, is in the hopper.

And when I look over my commitments calendar, I realize I'm committed to two non-onerous (read: pleasurable) reviews this spring, and yet another book chapter. And editors will be reading this summer my first full-length essay on Ruskin, mirabile dictu (no, it's not written, but it's all there in my talking points for last fall's graduate seminar, waiting to be quarried out).

So maybe I'm not lying quite as fallow as I sometimes fear. Indeed, I wonder if perhaps I'm not doing too much.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

ye olde modernes

There's one advantage to electing Democrats to the White House; at least every four years they give you something to talk about in a poetry workshop, in the form of an inaugural poem. Richard Blanco's effort yesterday is interesting: not interesting enough to be good poetry, but interesting enough to talk about. It feels as though he were given a list of topics to touch upon, a handful of themes to treat, & was left to make the best of them – in a wholly un-ironical manner. Maybe it's the utter absence of irony that's unsettling.
Teaching the modernists this semester. This week it's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," a poem which I've been reading for a quarter-century or more, I'd guess. So I re-read it again a half dozen times over the past few days. I suspect it will be a hard sell – so much of it depends on modulations of tone, evocations of cultural landscapes all these young people born in the 1990s can't even imagine. It was hard for me to imagine them when I first read the poem, as well, but then I've been more or less professionally thinking about it & poems like it for years & years now.

Distance. "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley," or for that matter "The Waste Land," is as far away from us in 2013 as those poems were from Keats and Shelley's major works. I have trouble wrapping my mind around that.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


[James Spates]

One of the few treasures in my Ruskin collection – and it's a working library, not a collector's treasure-trove – is a little vanity-press production from 1966, The Ruskin-Froude Friendship as Represented Through Letters. I picked it up in The Strand the year before last, along with a bunch of other Ruskiniana. It's inscribed by its author/editor, Helen Gill Viljoen "To Dr. Rosenberg – With kind regard and best wishes." Of course, that's John D. Rosenberg, author of The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin's Genius (1961), the book that's widely regarded as having kicked off contemporary Ruskin criticism, & a book which would start Rosenberg's career as a distinguished Victorianist. In 1966, Rosenberg was a young scholar; he had joined the Columbia faculty four years earlier; Viljoen was 67, & had retired from Queens College the year before. Since 1929, she had been working on Dark Star, a revolutionary biography of John Ruskin.

I'm most of the way thru James L. Spates's very strange and very absorbing The Imperfect Round: Helen Gill Viljoen's Life of Ruskin. I'll be frank: this is a weird book. It's a smart book, if a bit eccentric. Spates is a professor of sociology, not a literary scholar, and he's sometimes a bit wobbly on the norms of the discipline – how to insert comments and emendations into quoted letters, how to cite cross-references in footnotes, and so forth. And he's not a critic or theorist of biography. Nonetheless, this is one of the most compelling pieces of writing about biography I've encountered in a very long time.

Helen Gill Viljoen (pronounced "Fil-yoon," if you were wondering) was an American Ruskin scholar. She's remembered for three books: a massive and incredibly detailed edition of Ruskin's late Brantwood Diary (Yale UP, 1971); a little book on Ruskin's friendship with Froude (Pageant, 1966); and Ruskin's Scottish Heritage (U of Illinois P, 1956), a large-scale "prelude" to a full-scale biography of Ruskin that she never wrote, or never brought to the point of publication.

Viljoen visited Brantwood in 1929, when Ruskin's library and papers were still in the house, pretty much in the state Ruskin had left them. Well, in the state Cook and Wedderburn had left them, after going thru everything in the course of preparing their 39-volume Library Edition of his works. She wasn't planning on doing much research; she had just finished her PhD at Wisconsin (on Modern Painters) and thought perhaps to follow up on some of her hunches about Ruskin's reading. But in the course of going thru the bookcases, she discovered Ruskin's diaries (which had never been published), and in reading thru them – and pretty much transcribing them whole over the next few weeks – she came to the conclusion that the Library Edition editors had systematically distorted the record of Ruskin's life – repressing the story of his obsession with Rose La Touche, airbrushing out the terrific tension in his relationship with his parents.

What she had in the diaries, Viljoen decided, was the basis for a new, revisionary life of Ruskin, one that would completely eclipse the "standard" lives of WG Collingwood and ET Cook, and would sweep away the handful of Stracheyan productions written in the first decades of the century. So for the rest of her life she was laboring towards a massive, multi-volume biography that would capture the true essence of Ruskin, that would set straight the mistaken record that almost all Ruskin scholars were relying on.

Viljoen's career, as Spates presents it, is a tragedy of an over-scrupulous scholar who could never stop researching, could never sit down and just write the book that she had been working her entire adult life to make real. Decade after decade, Viljoen accumulates more and more notes for her Ruskin biography, comes upon new caches of letters and stacks of documents. Time and again, she gets sidetracked: Before she writes the biography proper, she needs to transcribe and edit all of the sermon notebooks Ruskin kept as a teenager; and then she has to account for all of his ancestors, and remove various myths surrounding his parents' background; and then, disgusted with the way most of his diaries have been edited and published, she has to do her own massive job on his "Brantwood" diary, appending full biographical sketches of every person mentioned, annotating every single reference in his maddening allusive text (that last project seems to have eaten up around a decade of her working life).

Every job takes longer than she's planned; every ancillary project ends up sidetracking her from writing the biography proper. It's almost heartbreaking, really. Part of me admires Viljoen unreservedly: in her desire from absolute accuracy, and complete thoroughness, she's kind of a patron saint of scholars. But even scholarship has to stop somewhere. There's no such thing as total knowledge, & the desire for total knowledge can keep one from offering any of one's knowledge to the world in print.

Spates clearly reads Viljoen as kind of an unsung hero of Ruskin studies, and I'm inclined to agree. But my admiration for her is rather less whole-hearted than his. Yes, she probably knew more about Ruskin than anyone else alive – maybe more than anyone else ever will know. But the inability to know when to stop, to call a more or less temporary halt to the quest for information & to set down what one already knows, is at least as important a faculty of the scholar as the drive for continued research.

And frankly, I'm less than convinced that Viljoen's critical acumen is all that Spates makes it out to be. As he narrates in The Imperfect Round, Viljoen spent a number of years pursuing an allegorical reading of Ruskin's work, in which almost all of his writings, from the early Poetry of Architecture thru Praeterita (& even including his private diaries) are coded allegories of his own family, & later of his pursuit of Rose La Touche. Viljoen never published any of this work – she told everyone she knew about it, and received scant encouragement from the scholarly community – but apparently she clung to this reading to the very end. It distracted her from working on Ruskin's life for a number of years, and heaven knows how it would have affected the biography she never really wrote. The very notion of an extended allegory, running thru and structuring all of Ruskin's works, strikes me as incredibly unlikely; it goes against everything I know about how Ruskin wrote and thought, every intuition I've had about his work over the past decade of reading him. He's simply not that kind of writer. Alas, there's something all too Casaubon-like in this bit of Viljoen's intellectual history.

So I have reservations, both about Helen Gill Viljoen's work and about James Spates's full-throated praise of that work. But The Imperfect Round is a book every Ruskinian needs to own, and indeed every biographer ought to read. It's the most absorbing cautionary tale about the art of life-writing I've encountered, and gives us in scrupulous detail the moving human tragedy of a gifted writer's encounter with, and ultimate absorption in, the endless vortex of the record of the past.