Friday, December 30, 2016

year's end

I used to post a year’s-end list of books I’d read and been impressed by; 2016, however, has been such a eventual year that it seems appropriate to get a bit more garrulous.

Yes, this has been a strange year—in many ways, an awful year. I don’t really want to get into the central event casting its shadow backward over everything that came before: the election. Is it enough to say that I’m sad, and fearful, and sick at heart? I have friends from most parts of the political spectrum, and no one I know—even the dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, even those who hated Obama, and who loathed Clinton—is particularly happy about Trump’s victory. I know there are Americans out there who are delighted about the Trump win—but I’m afraid holding that opinion is a deal-breaker for me: I want to know more about you, but I don’t really want to know you.

And then there were the celebrity deaths. It’s an actuarial matter, of course. The generation born after World War II, those who make up the vast majority of the stars of the pop music of the 60s and 70s, are getting to be that age. Some of them are dying early, as some members of every generation die. That doesn’t change the fact that we’re moved at the unexpected passing of people whom we’ve never actually met, but whose works and whose public personae have had a huge impact on our own formation.

I can’t really overstate what David Bowie’s music meant to me when I was young. The Berlin “trilogy” of albums, especially—Low, “Heroes” , and Lodger—were central to how I conceived of music, and art-making in general, in my late teens. I hadn’t listened to his later work much when I downloaded Blackstar, and found myself flattened by the power and subtlety of which Bowie was still capable.

I was unexpectedly moved by the news of George Michael’s death. I can’t say I was a huge George Michael fan—I don’t know that I ever bought one one of his records. But I listened quite attentively and with much pleasure whenever his songs were played, and I watched the videos on MTV (back when they played music videos) over and over again. Watching them again, I realize how much those music videos—Michael’s, but also Madonna’s, Howard Jones’s, Cyndi Lauper’s, and a host of others’—provided a generation of viewers, me among them, not merely with a fashion sense, but with a whole vocabulary of sexuality and interpersonal emotion.

In the literary world, the passing that most moved me was that of Geoffrey Hill. I’d begun my exploration of his poetry some 25 years ago with a kind of detachment—this isn’t really the sort of thing that I’m into, but it’s definitely worth thinking about, and so forth. Over the years, as Hill branched out in new directions, and as I did a bit of maturing myself, his work became more and more important to me. I suppose at the beginning of 2016 I’d have had to admit that no living poet’s work meant more to me than his.
But enough of deaths for the moment. My life has changed over the past year. I suppose I’ve accomplished things, though as is the way with publications, it’s rather more a matter of things I’ve accomplished some time ago finally hitting print. I’m still kind of gobsmacked to have had three books published over a twelve-month period: Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries from U of Alabama in late 2015, Michael Moorcock: Fantasy, Fiction and the World’s Pain from McFarland a few months later, and The Mathematical Sublime: Writing About Poetry from MadHat just a few weeks ago. Still pinching myself. Predictably, the Moorcock book is the one that’s got the most reviews, on the blogosphere and the reading group websites and the SF/fantasy world; Intricate Thicket seems to have sunk without a trace; I hope Mathematical Sublime finds a few more readers.

More importantly: we have thrown over our positions at Our Fair University, and moved to divide our time between Manhattan and New Jersey. For better or worse, no more moaning about Florida weather, Florida drivers, and (the lack of) Florida culture. I am trying to retool myself as a New Yorker these days, with mixed success. I don’t miss grading papers at all; I occasionally find myself missing teaching students, but most of all I miss the colleagues I have come to value and love, and I miss the proximity of the friends I’ve made over the last two decades, though I hope to maintain the friendships.
Moving twenty years worth of books, papers, and musical instruments has been a profoundly disruptive experience. Most of my books (including cartons and cartons of unread poetry) have yet to be unpacked, and my usual pace of reading has been much retarded. So finally, not a “best of 2016” list, but a list of some of the books of poetry (not all of them first published this past year) that’ve impressed themselves on me over the year:

Eva Hooker, Godwit
Geneva Chao, One of Us Is Wave One of Us Is Shore
Norman Finkelstein, The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New and Selected Poems
John Matthias, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro and Other Poems
Peter O’Leary, The Sampo
John Peck, Cantilena
J. H. Prynne, The White Stones
Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came
Ken Taylor, Self-Portrait as Joseph Cornell
Elizabeth Robinson, Counterpart

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

poem draft, dated 11/4/16-11/9/16

And then there was that time—he’s telling
someone, years hence—he hopes to be—when we all
            ran a raging fever, when we slewed
            from the gas range to the icebox, when nothing,
not even the voice of our parents, could calm
us down. You hated me, she says, and I
            hated everything you said. We barely remembered
            the commons, the playground, the vacant
                        lot, even as a concept. Something was hiding
                        in a corner of the basement, misshapen and
            scary, and it got out, made skittering hoof-clicks
            in the dark across the polished hall floor, left
a funny metallic taste in the bottom of the water-
cups. It’s not that something happened, but that
                        something had been happening all
                        along, growing up beside us
                        like an unnoticed sibling or
                        a spectral husband. Corner-
                        of-the-eye stuff, you know?
            The colder air braces you against
            the fall, when it finally comes.
There’s a rabbit in the backyard, nosing
around among the leaves you haven’t
            raked. Mail stacked in the hall, a dozen
            files cluttering the desktop. You shift
and putter, neaten up and put away.
This is no time for pretending everything’s
            changed or everything’s alright, that the gears
            have somehow slipped or the shiny machinery’s
broken.This is how it’s supposed to work, this
is where your day-in-day-out has brought you.
                        The fever broke, he tells the child
                        on his knee, just nodding off
                        in sleepiness or boredom, and the sky
                        was clear and pure and clean.
                        We could count the fingers before
                        us, put one foot in front
                        of the other. We knew our right
            hand from our left, and our neighbors
            from our enemies. Who we were allowed
to love, and who was off limits. The rabbit
is gone, and all the little squabbling sparrows.
            The brilliant yellow leaves are mostly fallen,
            crunch damply under our waffled
boot-heels, or mutely let themselves
be gathered in. And down the street, the engine
            is still running, solid and remorseless.
            O David Kaufmann, sage and bewildered
lodestar of these marginal notes, pray for us now
and at the hour of our waking, pray for us
            before the Law and beyond the door
            through which we passed unknowing.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

It's Alive! The Mathematic Sublime: Writing About Poetry

My new collection of essays and reviews is out now: The Mathematical Sublime: Writing About Poetry. (Those of you who are scared of math—count me as one—shouldn't be put off by the title: I guarantee, no equations!)

What's in it, you ask? Well, taking a leaf from Bob Archambeau's book (or rather, his blog, in which he describes his new book—published under the same imprint as The Mathematical Sublime, and featuring a shocking similar cover design—what I like to call "MadHat/Clarendon"), here's a rundown of the contents, so that you can find out what I have to say about your favorite poet or poetry critic:
[In which I explain how I came to poetry and to the various poets I write about, and what the whole "mathematical sublime business is about]

            1. Reviews

The Condition of Hebrew: Geoffrey Hill, Speech! Speech!
[In which Hill is compared to Bruce Andrews, but then I take that back.]
A Tinkertoy Poetics: Charles Bernstein, All the Whiskey in Heaven
[Holy smoke! FSG has published a selected Charles Bernstein that isn't particularly user-friendly for typical FSG types!]
Kedging in Time: John Matthias, Kedging
[John Matthias continues being one of the most important late modernist American poets.]
The New Colossus, Revisited: Jonathan Barron and Eric Selinger, Jewish American Poetry
[Jewish American poetry has been slighted; Barron and Selinger gives us a gigantic gumbo of evidence that it oughtn't be.]
Passionate, Eccentric Reading: Norman Finkelstein, Not One of Them in Place
[Finkelstein offers a more focused genealogy of Jewish American poetry: can you say "Post-Objectivist"?]
By the Rivers of Babylon: Maeera Shreiber, Singing in a Strange Land
[Shreiber gives Jewish American poetry yet another look, this time with a focus on the religious element.]
Zuk and Ole Bill: The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky
[These letters are too important not to have been published already; shame WCW didn't save LZ's letters to him more often.]
A Poetics of Being: Peter Nicholls, George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism
[In this massively important book, we learn that Oppen never really read Hegel, but that he didn't need to.]
Scars and Fascination: John Wilkinson, Proud Flesh and Lake Shore Drive
[Wilkinson's poetry—even twenty years between these two collections—remains harsh, repellant, and fascinating.]
Resignation and Independence: Robert Archambeau, The Poet Resigns
[A smorgasbord of critical forays; the close readings are more convincing than the broad generalizations, but it's nice someone is making the latter.]
Twilight Gardening: Ronald Johnson, The Shrubberies
[Old men tend their gardens; old poets writing garden poetry.]
Postmodern Poetry’s Blue Period: Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Blue Studios
[DuPlessis makes the essay new; and thinks eloquently about what's at stake in doing that.]
Innovation’s Explainer: Peter Quartermain, Stubborn Poetries
[Nobody writes about weird poetry better than Quartermain, but can't we have a little fun?]
The Book of Oz: Ronald Johnson, ARK
[New edition of ARK! and why that's a very good thing.]

            2. Essays

Susan Howe’s Hauntologies
[Susan Howe, Shakespeare, Jacques Derrida, Ghost Box records, Harry Smith's Anthology—whole lotta hauntin' goin' on.]
The “half-fabulous field-ditcher”: Ruskin, Pound, Geoffrey Hill
[Yes, Pound was a Ruskinian (without knowing it), but Geoffrey Hill knows it; gratuitous swipes at Cesare Pavese along the way.]
The “net / (k)not – work(s)” of Robert Sheppard’s Twentieth Century Blues
[Sheppard writes a book which wants to be a hypertext, or maybe a labyrinth.]
“I am not an occultist”: Robert Duncan’s H. D. Book
[No, Virginia, modernism was not a sweeping of the decks of late-Victorian fustian, a hygiene of language; it was a bunch of occultism and a big carnival of table-rapping seances. So sez RD.]
The Master of Speech and Speech Itself: Nathaniel Mackey’s “Septet for the End of Time”
[An early essay on an early Mackey chapbook; still very fond of this piece.]

            3. 100 Poem-Books

[From the pages of Culture Industry itself, 100 micro- (and sometimes a bit longer) reviews of poetry books. Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" must have been somewhere in my mind writing these, but I don't assign letter grades. Mostly I don't write about what I don't like, though a few have crept in. Your book is probably noted here.]


Right now I'm working on a large essay-review, an attempt at coming to terms with a long and very complicated recent book of poetry. And it's a very, very difficult book, maybe one of the hardest I've ever read. So part of my essay is going to be an extended thinking-through of the issue of difficulty in poetry.

I wrote a few sentences on it this afternoon, and looked up a few things, and then I realized, I've been writing this passage, this essay, ever since I started my dissertation a million years ago! And God help me, I'm still writing it. I found quotations and passages I can still stand by in a discarded early chapter of the dissertation (on Mallarmé); I found useful materials in the dissertation itself (which became my first real book).

Zukofsky says somewhere that every writer writes a single work her or his entire life, plays variations on a tiny number of themes. I suppose that's true on some level. And I can think of all kinds of smart critics whose work can be not so much summed up as exemplified in one or two concepts: Empson = ambiguity; Ricks = allusion; Bloom = Oedipal struggle. That's not fair, I know, but it's not particularly inaccurate, either.

I'd always hoped to be not a hedgehog but a fox, darting from subject to subject, concept to concept. But I seem to be aging into a one-note calliope; or perhaps I'm just aging to the point where I recognize the themes my thinking has been circling around all along.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

reading notes: Wyndham Lewis biographies

Why am I reading Wyndham Lewis?, you ask. Well, he represents a major hole in my knowledge of modernism. (Or perhaps, more fairly, one of the many major holes...) I think I admire his paintings and drawings more than those of any other English artist of the first half of the twentieth century, but I haven't ever really gotten a grip on his vast written corpus. I've read The Apes of God, Blasting & Bombardiering, Tarr, and quite a number of stray shorter things, but I've never systematically tackled his works and his career. So I'm starting that, and a fortuitous copy of Paul O'Keeffe's big biographyhailed by Laurence Rainey on the jacketwas one entrée.

I've finished the six-hundred-odd pages of O'Keeffe now, and feel a bit more warmly toward it then I did in my last post. It sent me back to Tarr (which I'm in the middle of) and oddly enough, it sent me back to Jeffrey Meyers's 1980 The Enemy, the first full-length biography of Lewis, and until O'Keeffe, the biography of record. O'Keeffe clearly despises Meyers's book; as I work my way through Meyers's account of events O'Keeffe also describes, I recognize how much energy in Some Sort of Genius has been devoted to setting the record straight, to making clear that Meyers has gotten this or that sequence of events or exchange of letters wrong.

It's a perfectly understandable impulse, even pardonable, but someone who comes to O'Keeffe first, with no knowledge of Meyers, is apt to wonder why so many pages are devoted to excruciatingly detailed sorting out of dates and meetings and so forth. The reasonoccasionally revealed in an endnote, less often in an outright textual referenceis that O'Keeffe is striving to write a definitive biography, to basically blow his only competitor out of the water so far as the facts of the matter go. Sometimes O'Keeffe is fascinating and richly detailed on very interesting matters indeed; at other times, he goes on at spectacular length on quite trivial matters.

I haven't read all the way through Meyers's The Enemy yet, so comparisons must be provisional. But here's a few anyway:  

O'Keeffe is a more graceful and subtle writer than Meyers by far; sometimes his style rises to real pitches of musicality that I enjoy very much. But Meyers is far more forceful and straightforward, and cuts to the chase when he needs to: there's a lot to be said for that.

Which leads to the very obvious fact that O'Keeffe could have used some grim and relentless editing. Some Sort of Genius is a biography that is weighed down, at times almost sunk, by the accumulation of detail. It's good to know that Lewis was expelled from The Sladea fact which O'Keeffe has feretted out, but Meyers is completely innocent of. It's less fascinating to be given the term-by-term numbers of how many times Lewis signed in for his classes, and how many times he had a friend forge his signature. (That, I'm afraid, is the biographer showing off his research.)

The paper trail of Lewis's early life is distressingly scanty. Meyers passes breezily over everything until his public emergence in his mid-twenties in London; O'Keeffe shows us every scrap he has accumulated, alas not particularly to any illuminating effect. When the paper trail gets better established, then both biographers begin expanding. But Meyers has the edge here, for his attention is more firmly fixed on the writing, the painting, the work in short. Neither biographer provides the kind of rich examination of the works that one gets in Edgar Johnson's life of Sir Walter Scott, for instance, or A. David Moody's recently completed (and triumphant) life of Pound, but Meyers provides a somewhat better sense of what's going on in each book, and why each new canvas is important. (On the other hand, O'Keeffe will let you know what sort of advance Lewis received for each book, and how long he kept the publisher waiting, and so fortheven if sometimes it's not quite clear whether the book is a novel or a set of essays or whatever.)

Meyers is frankly a lot better at setting Lewis in the context of modernism as a movement and as a congeries of disparate talents. He's better at managing his cast of characters, showing them as important writers/painters/artists in their own right, rather than as walk-ons in the drama of Wyndham Lewis's life (as they appear in O'Keeffe).

Ultimately I'm not really happy with either of these biographies. I'll take Meyers as a solidly-reading, well-contextualized life, which gives a clear sense of Lewis's role among the "men of 1914" and why we ought to take Lewis seriously. But if I want to check a fact or a date, or untangle the intricacies of a particular imbroglio, I'll turn to O'Keeffe. His book is, after all, now the biography of record. But it's a long way from the biography Lewis deserves, I think.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

reading notes: Paul O'Keeffe on Wyndham Lewis

Paul O’Keeffe, Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis (2000; London: Pimlico, 2001)

I started and abandoned The Enemy, Jeffrey Meyers’s 1980 biography of Wyndham Lewis, a couple of times, though I’m not quite sure why. O’Keeffe is certainly a more graceful writer, but in the long run I don't know whether he has the interpretive edge over Meyers—though he certainly has amassed far more data, and has gone over the documentary record far, far more closely.

(A bit irritating, indeed, how O’Keeffe lets his reader know how he has gone through years of sign-in records for the National Gallery or the Slade School, or through tax records, or whatever, in his own text.)

I commented on Facebook how Lewis comes across in this text as a “colossal jerk,” at least in his early years; now I’m into his late thirties, and he shows no signs of turning into a likeable figure. Clearly, O’Keeffe has not gone to any exculpatory pains with Lewis, often singling out a particularly jerkish action and letting it stand at the end of a chapter or a section of a chapter like a ghoulish punctuation mark. Judged just on those actions—the string of cast-off mistresses and illegitimate children, the constant receptions of financial largesse responded to with surly incivility—Lewis comes across as someone who is certainly “some sort of genius,” but not someone with whom one might want to hang out. (Indeed, given the number of people who precisely did want to hang out with Lewis—lovers, painters, writers—it’s got to be counted against O’Keeffe that he isn’t able or willing to convey precisely what people found so magnetic and interesting about the man. And that, I’d venture to say, might be one of the biography’s ultimate failures.)

O’Keeffe fails to convey a convincing portrait of Lewis’s interiority, which I think is what a reader most hankers for in a biography, especially a biography of a writer. I’ve gotten to Lewis’s late thirties now; we’ve already passed through the Vorticist period, Blast, Tarr, and a great deal of his most vital visual art. (I’d guess all of his most vital visual art, since now he’s at the point where he’s mostly doing portraits.) And I still don’t have a very clear picture of what makes Lewis “tick,” as it were. I suspect—indeed, I’m convinced—that this is because of a paucity of documentary evidence. There simply isn’t very much from Lewis’s own pen in his early years about himself, or at least if there is O’Keeffe hasn’t quoted or paraphrased it.

O’Keeffe is not very good, it must be said, on the visual art. He can describe a picture adequately, but there’s no sense whatsoever of what place Lewis’s art has within art history as a whole—where he comes by his style, what makes his style vital and interesting, "new." We get an adequate account of his break with the Omega Workshop/Bloomsbury (Fry, Grant, Bell), but it’s told more in terms of a personal break with Bloomsbury than as a matter of artistic principle. We get almost nothing about what Lewis’s own principles of art might be, aside from some fleeting, anecdotal business distinguishing his own work from the Italian Futurists. The whole very interesting business of Vorticism is passed over painfully rapidly.

One would hope for more from O’Keeffe’s treatment of Lewis’s writing, given that he’s edited Tarr for the Black Sparrow Lewis edition. Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing. Aside from some occasional comments, and a good deal of detailed description of the business of publishing Lewis’s work, O’Keeffe gives us almost no sense of what’s interesting or striking about Lewis’s writing, or what distinguishes it (say) from Joyce’s Portrait, which is presented as proceeding in tandem (at least in terms of publication) with Tarr.

So in the end we have this enormously detailed, rather fat volume chronicling the life of a major painter and writer which is very good indeed on the details of his movements, his lodgings, his financial arrangements, his amorous entanglements, and his business dealings; but which is very sketchy on the work that prompts our interest in the writer, and which doesn’t really in the end convey a convincing picture of what makes this alternately energetic and otiose figure tick, what motivates him.

But I’m only 2/5 through the book; I’m hoping things will pick up in the latter portions, when Lewis’s paper trail becomes more concrete.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

12 april 2016

Hannah Sullivan's book The Work of Revision (did I mention how generally excellent it is?) captured a long-held desire of mine to think about and perhaps theorize the process of revision. I'm certainly planning on mining its bibliography.

But thinking about revision sent me to an alas as-yet-not-properly examined shopping bag of books I picked up over the New Year's holiday in Sarasota and Sanibel, and digging out a collection edited by Judith Kennedy, Victorian Authors and Their Works: Revision Motivations and Modes (Ohio University Press, 1991). It has essays—unfortunately brief ones—on a variety of important writers of the period, from Carlyle to Conrad. So I read Kennedy's introduction, and a couple of the essays.

Or I should say Kennedy's "Preface," for it's not really long enough or searching enough to be a proper introduction. She nods towards what she calls a "recent surge of interest" in textual scholarship, then gives a too-hasty overview of the shift from Greg-Bowers methodology to the "social text" thought of McGann and Shillingsburg. It's way too hasty—undigested even—and pales beside the careful, scrupulous, and inventive way Sullivan dovetails an account of that same shift with a description of attitudes towards revision in her own first chapter.

Only two chapters of Kennedy's collection actually read. Susan Shatto provides a quick-n-nasty overview of how Tennyson composed Maud (desultorily, for himself, then finishing when there was the prospect of a publication contract and money). Fred Kaplan tells again the story of John Stuart Mill's maid accidentally burning the manuscript of Part I of Carlyle's French Revolution, and of Carlyle having to compose the whole thing over again. What's striking is that a very few scraps (all burnt around the edges) of that first manuscript have survived, and their words seems to be pretty much precisely duplicated in the book as Carlyle actually (re)wrote it. Did he treasure up those scraps of prose, incorporating them into his new text when he got to the right place? Or Carlyle (as Kaplan tends to think) simply have such a retentive and capacious memory that he was able to largely reconstruct the whole book as he originally wrote it?


Peter O'Leary's The Sampo, now read (slowly, with feeling), is magnificent. It makes me wonder if there isn't (or shouldn't be) some movement back towards outright narrative among the few poets I follow and value.

Monday, April 11, 2016

11 april 2016

It's been ages; no excuses, though this has been a wearying semester, punctuated with some fine conference visits and some good music. I've resolved to begin writing in this space again.

First, a bit of self-promotion:

Mentioned earlier on this blog, but as yet unlinked (I think), I have two recently published books:

Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries is out from the University of Alabama Press; it collects essays and long-form reviews that I've written over the past 15 years or more. I'm rather proud of many of the pieces here.

Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World's Pain is out from McFarland; it's a rather lighter affair, falling somewhere between fanboy-enthusiasm and real live criticism. But it is frankly the most comprehensive book on Moorcock out there, so if you're a fan you really ought to buy it.


What I've been reading lately, and what I'm reading:

Just finished a third go-through of Geoffrey Hill's Selected Poems (Yale, 2006). I've been forcing my graduate creative writing students to work through this one over the course of the semester, just to give them a taste of late high modernism and high formalism (and frankly, because I love Hill's work). It's weird to work with a selection, rather than the single volumes I usually teach out of; I'm always trying to lay my finger on a particular poem or section of a longer thing, only to find that it hasn't been included. And I note how the volume tapers off towards the end—Scenes from Comus and Without Title are only very scantily represented—as if to catch breath before the grand explosion of work that Hill's released over the past decade—the last 1/3 or so of Broken Hierarchies, the vast 2013 collected poems.

The Kalevala, in its 1907 Kirby translation, despite the Hiawatha-meter into which the translator has predictably cast it, is highly readable indeed. I'm not sure whether the book wouldn't have moldered indefinitely on my shelves if I hadn't taken it down to gear up for a serious plunge into Peter O'Leary's fantastic recasting of portions, now available from the Cultural Society as The Sampo. This one is not to be missed: all of O'Leary's characteristic energy and verbal invention, in the service of high fantasy. Or—to call it what it is—sword and sorcery!

Hannah Sullivan's The Work of Revision (Harvard, 2013) is a pretty splendid piece of criticism. I confess to reading fewer books of criticism these days than I did, say, two decades ago. But I was pleasantly surprised over the summer by books by Brian Reed, Chris Nealon, and Gordon Teskey, and since have found myself reacquiring the taste. (Part of it, I think, is getting my own two books out the door, and being able as it were to take a breath.) Sullivan's book is for the most part gracefully written and more importantly just generally smart. She takes all that we already knew about writers' revisionary processes (both pre- and post-publication) and sorts it into a general theory of the cultural importance of revising, reaching a kind of apotheosis in the Creative Writing Industry's making revision a kind of index of "real" writing. Which is, as she points out, an inheritance of high modernism, a way of thinking that would have been utterly alien to the Romantics. Her book is chock full of insights in particular authors, and does a really fine job of taxonomizing various types of revision.

As usual, I'm dipping into and digging into various slim volumes of contemporary verse. I hope to begin noting them in depth—as I hope to be updating the blog at rather more decent intervals.