2017-02-11T10:43:47.303-06:00Left to right: Michael Donaghy, Richard Pettengill, Robert Archambeau, at Donaghy's last American reading, 2004Talk to anyone about the late poet Michael Donaghy and you realize something immediately: everybody loved him. Whether they knew him well, or met him briefly, the sentiment is the same. His charisma was supernatural. I loved him, too, and it broke me up when he died. I read his poem "The Classics" to a small gathering of people, and it shook them all to the core. Now, years after his death, I've written an appreciation of him for The Hopkins Review. It begins like this.*The beginning of “The Classics,” a poem by Michael Donaghy, has stayed with me for a long time:I remember it like it was last night,Chicago, the back room of Flanagan’sMalignant with accordions and cigarettes,Joe Cooley bent above his Paolo Soprani,Its asthmatic bellows pumping as if to reviveThe half-corpse strapped about it.It’s five a.m. Everyone’s packed up.His brother Seamus grabs Joe’s elbow mid-arpeggio.“Wake up, man. We have to catch a train.”His eyelids fluttering, opening. The astonishment . . .It’s quintessential Donaghy, invoking as it does his great theme, memory, and his love of performances of all kinds—especially those involving Irish music in dingy bars. It brings the two things together in that image of a hunched Joe Cooley, still playing his accordion even as he nods off, the music so thoroughly internalized that he needn’t be fully awake to play it. The true performer, Donaghy implies, gets lost in the performance—something that can only happen when the music has been so completely absorbed into the musician that it becomes his second nature.Donaghy was famous for reciting his own poems from memory at readings that were fully realized performances in a way too few poetry readings are. At a Donaghy reading there was never any of the mumbling, [End Page 33] page-flipping, or nervous self-explanation with which poetry audiences are all too familiar. He was entirely present to the poem and to the audience, not hovering a little above himself, wondering just how he ought to manifest. Once, when Yeats’s famous question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” came up, Donaghy gave an answer that underlined his commitment to losing himself in performance: “Who cares?” Better for the two to be so intermingled they can’t be torn asunder.“The Classics” ends like this:I saw this happen. Or heard it told so wellI’ve staged the whole drunk memory:What does it matter now? It’s ancient history.Who can name them? Where lie their bones and armor?Perhaps, given Donaghy’s fascination with memory (accurate or otherwise), there’s a small irony in how the version of this poem I’ve carried in my head for years turns out to be a bit distorted. When I came back to the poem on the page recently, I was surprised to find it ending with the question “Where lie their bones and armor?” For ages I’d been saying “Where lie their swords and armor?”—an inferior ending, to be sure. But I want to keep my distorted version, for now, and use it as a way to talk about Donaghy’s poetry because his poems—or perhaps I should say his performed poems—were both his swords and his armor.*The rest is in the current issue of The Hopkins Review. Online access for those with access to Project Muse is here. Open access forthcoming.[...]
There are several issues embedded in my title, I suppose, not only when Buffalo, the private University (after 1962 the State University of New York at Buffalo), became Buffalo but how and why Buffalo became a center, perhaps the center, of American poetry. For me, “when” is easy. Buffalo became Buffalo on August 5, 1963. That afternoon, the poet David Posner, then the Director of the Lockwood Library Poetry Collection, gave a party in his apartment on Main Street, just across from the old campus, one floor above the Chicken Delight take-out shop, for the incoming chair of the Buffalo English Department, Albert S. Cook. Posner was a collector, and his shotgun-style apartment, with windows on Main Street at one end and above the rear alley at the other, was a dense clutter of camelback couches, old, velvet-seated chairs and a soft, forest-floor matting of oriental rugs. The effect was a kind of worn luridness, aged Persian reds and Victorian blues. Books were stuffed into glass-fronted oak cases, and there were paintings and prints, mostly 19th century English landscapes, though above the weighty dining room table, there was a small Derain, nude dancers in a circle.
I don’t remember everyone at the party. Al Cook was there, of course, so were Mac Hammond, who had followed Cook from Western Reserve in Cleveland, Aaron Rosen, who had been on the Buffalo English faculty for some time, the poet Saul Touster, who taught in the law school, Charles Doria, Irving Feldman perhaps, and towering above everyone, Charles Olson. Al introduced me. “Michael is writing on William Carlos Williams.” Charles took my hand, pulled me toward him and draped his left arm over my shoulder. “Bill Williams,” he said in what started out and ended as a rumbling kind of laugh. “He got us part way there. We’ll manage the rest.” Us. We’ll. A part of Olson’s genius was pure politics, LBJ or Tip O’Neill rounding up votes.
Another review of The Kafka Sutra, by Piotr Gwiazda's in the Chicago Review is here.
And if that's still not enough for you, here's Stu Watson's review in Queen Mob's Teahouse.
2017-02-01T10:24:26.695-06:00The age of "alternative facts" demands an alternative approach to the humanities. Or so I argue in a short essay called "With Trump, a New Case foe Why the Humanities Still Matter," now up at The Walrus. Here's how it starts:Back in 1990, when I began pursuing a doctorate in English, I and my fellow graduate students spent an inordinate amount of time hunched over our dim, monochrome computer screens reading the newsgroups devoted to then-hot strains of thought called postmodernism, postcolonialism, and poststructuralism.“Theory,” as we called it, was still a fresh enough arrival on the shores of English departments to inspire a backlash. To speak the dialect of theory was to risk the ire of the tenured faculty, many of whom would gladly have seen all of the theories deported back across the Atlantic to the lands from whence they’d come. That the departmental elders wrote and read in a manner informed by theory rarely seemed to cross their minds, as their theory—New Criticism—had long become naturalized and so ceased to register as theory—at least until those meddling Frenchies, Deleuze and Foucault and Derrida, came along, forcing one to reconsider assumptions one could once have taken for granted. Much of what mattered about theory, back then, was the way it suddenly made everyone self-conscious and self-questioning.Department lounges are today rather less troubled by the presence of theory. Instead, as the current topics of so many faculty discussions indicate, we seem to be entering a period of professional crisis when we will be asked—by provosts, deans, and presidents, and behind them our funders, both state and private—to justify what we do and why we’re taking up valuable space off the campus quadrangle. When a bastion of the liberal arts such as Colby-Sawyer College eliminates its English department, as it recently announced was its plan, the writing is there on the ivied walls.The rest can be read here. [...]
2017-01-23T10:26:00.678-06:00Rejoice! There's a new collection of essays just now out on that great Canadian poet, novelist, and raconteur Robert Kroetsch. A founder of boundary 2, a disruptor of established forms, a godfather to a literary movement in the Canadian west—he's a figure you'd love to get to know, and Nicole Markotic's book is a good way to get to know him. I've contributed a little something, and not just because Kroetsch and I tipped a glass or two together in my student days. Here's a bit of what I had to say:*There’s another reason to think of Kroetsch as a postmodern poet, rather than a modern one, a reason having to do with tone. While the generalization I’m about to make has the flaw of all generalizations (i.e., that it is full of holes and therefore untrue), I’m still making it: modernism is more serious and less funny than postmodernism. I grant all your objections regarding specific texts, and yet I return to the generalization. Wry as he can be, T.S. Eliot is more grave and less funny than Frank O’Hara. While he’s not above jokes, Ezra Pound is more often dead serious than is John Ashbery. And when Robert Kroetsch is meditating on the perspectival nature of truth, he’s less sublime, and funnier, than Wallace Stevens when Stevens does something similar. I’m sure the model for Kroetsch’s “Sketches of a Lemon” is Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but the tone is entirely different. Here’s Stevens’ opening stanza:Among twenty snowy mountains,The only moving thingIs the eye of a blackbird. (58)This is straight-up Kantian sublimity: the little living eye comprehends the huge, rugged world that so exceeds it in scale and in grandeur that it renders the bird’s eye insignificant—except for the fact that the little eye comprehends the vastness. Here, by contrast, is the opening of Kroetsch’s series of lemon sketches:A lemon is almost round.Some lemons are almost round.A lemon is not round.So much for that. (76)There’s a skepticism about our ability to intellectually frame the world here—it’s The Stone Hammer Poems again, or The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge—but there’s also a kind of philosophical pratfall. The poem is full of this sort of thing: it's a self-deflating comic text that also has something serious to say about how intellectual frames fail, or about how narratives and descriptions end up mutating into something other than what they were initially meant to be. Something like that happens in the following passage (“Smaro” is the name of the poet’s wife):Sketches, I reminded myself,not of a pear,nor of an apple,nor of a peach,nor of a banana(though the colourraises questions)nor of a nectarine,nor, for that matter,of a pomegranate,nor of three cherries,their stems joined,nor of a plum,nor of an apricot,nor of the usualbunch of grapes,fresh from the vine,just harvested,glistening with dew—Smaro, I called,I’m hungry. (76)What began as a kind of attempt at negative definition, doomed to a seemingly infinite series of specifications, suddenly warps, and we see that all along, without our knowledge, the list or catalog had been functioning in ways we hadn’t suspected, inciting the appetites rather than providing definition. A hidden subordinate function unexpectedly becomes the dominant function of the list, and the sentence lurches jarringly in a new direction. I remember reading this poem to the woman who would become my wife, and how much she liked it. But it wasn’t her favorite section of the poem. This was:poem for a child who has just bit intoa halved lemon that has just been squeezedsee, what did I tell you, see,what did I tell you, see, whatdid I tell you, see, what didI tell you, see, what did Itell you, see, what did I tellyou, see, what did I tell you,see, what did I tell you, see,what did I t[...]
For a decade and a half I have worked more or less contentedly as a rare book dealer, roughly half the number of years I’ve devoted to being a poet, an equally eccentric pursuit. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of placing quite a number of extraordinary first editions of poetry into my clients’ collections. I am often asked what precisely makes a book “rare.” Why, for instance will one volume of poetry sell for $5 (a used copy of a recent title, something I would buy for myself), $50 (a first edition of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 Discrepencies and Apparitions signed by her along with a drawing in her hand), $500 (poet and translator Richmond Lattimore’s copy of the 1955 first edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s second book Poems: North & South and A Cold Spring), $5,000 (an inscribed 1926 first edition of Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues), while another might sell for $50,000 (a 1633 first edition of John Donne’s Poems by J.D. with Elegies on the Author’s Death), and yet another for well over $500,000 (Edgar Allan Poe’s impossibly rare 1827 first book of poetry, Tamerlane, authored by “A Bostonian,” which hammered at $662,500 at a 2009 Christie’s sale, a tattered and rather stained copy at that, but one of only 12 thought to remain from a print run of 50). While no easy answer concerning this sort of marketplace value will fully suffice, there are a few measures upon which one may fairly rely.The rest is online here. Check it out!
2017-01-04T08:51:46.847-06:00Remember that guy in the big London scene in Wordsworth’s Prelude—the battered old veteran begging on the streets, holding a sign that tells his story? His image haunted Wordsworth for many years, mostly because unlike us (and oh, this speaks terribly of what we have become) he didn’t see this sort of thing all the time. It shocked Wordsworth to see that, among all those people, there was so little community that no one knew this man’s name, let alone his journey, his struggle, and his pain. It shocked him that the man couldn’t count on the community to know him—in the ever-growing metropolis, the man who needed his story told was reduced to holding it on a sheet before him, hoping someone would pause.I thought of that guy when, some years ago, I stood at a train platform outside Chicago. An older man walked by, wearing that mix of odd bits of cammo and discarded workout clothing that we’ve come to associate with homeless veterans. His war would have been Vietnam, and he walked back and forth in an exaggeratedly slow pace, looking at the ground, speaking to himself. Or, rather, not to himself, but to—well, I was the only other one around. But it wasn’t an address to me, either—it was something I was meant to overhear. He spoke in an affected voice, as if he were trying to sound like a voice-over announcer in a documentary, commenting on footage. And the footage was of a protest rally of some kind. “Students and veterans alike gathered,” he said, to some imagined television audience, “and when the man on the platform said how the president lied the crowd shouted I actually understand this” he continued, “it was in Carbondale, a cold fall day…” he continued this way, and I began to see that here, in a dirty army cap, was Wordsworth’s veteran—telling the story he needed to tell, but at such a terrible distance, so far from being able to connect. One sensed he had been alone a long time. One sensed he had been sent to war young, and that he had never really come back.I mention this today because I have known many veterans of that war. I’ve worked with them, or lived near them, or found them in my family. These are the lucky ones, the ones who came home. And I don’t know a single one of them who hadn’t, like the man at the train station, left some part of himself back there. And today we find out, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Richard Nixon, after he’d won the election but before he took office, worked behind the scenes to scuttle the peace talks between north and south Vietnam. He didn’t want the Democrats to take credit for peace. And so the war continued for years. One could look up the dates and count the number of people who died for Nixon’s vanity, but those numbers always lie. Those numbers always leave out the dead or half-dead who came home and walked like ghosts in the streets. But this isn’t about Nixon, for whose sake one wishes Dante’s Hell were real. This is about the danger of having a president so mad with the thirst for adulation that nothing will be enough, not even the presidency itself. This is about any reckless and fragile president who talks tough, encourages violence, and cares nothing about breaking the lives of others on the anvil of his own vanity. This is about where we are now, and what we’re going to do about it.There are inauguration day protests scheduled throughout the country. Find yours.[...]
2016-12-02T13:50:31.029-06:00Rejoice! This troubled world has been blessed with two new lights in the darkness—the latest issues of The Battersea Review and Plume.The sixth issue of The Battersea Review (proud Associate Editor: me) is a special Spanish number, edited by Mario Murgia and Flamminia Ocampo. The contents are almost too substantial for the internet to bear:POETRY "Introduction" by Mario Murgia and Flaminia Ocampo"Three Poems" by Héctor Abad, translated by Zachary Bos"Poems in Translation" by Samuel Beckett, translated by Juan Carlos Calvillo"Six Poems" by León Felipe, translated by Walter Smelt"Five Poems" by Andrés García Cerdán, translated by Jorge Rodríguez-Miralles"Three Poems" by David Huerta, translated by Mario Murgia"En Tren (“By Train”)" by Antonio Machado, translated by Walter Smelt"Three Poems" by Fernando Noy, translated by Geoffrey O’BrienCRITICAL PROSE "Spain on the Horizon: Some Notes on Astronomy and Medieval England" by Raúl Ariza-Barile"Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s Two Phases" by Horacio Armani"Clarice: Woman, Body, and Voice" by Gabriella Burnham"Ferdinand’s Renunciation" (from The Constant Prince) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Geoffrey O’Brien"An Appreciation of Pedro Páramo" by Nicholas Christopher"Milton in Puebla, Mexico" by Angelica Duran"Xavier Icaza’s Untimely Avant-Garde" by Christian Gerzso"Writing and Translation" by Alejandro Manara"Remembering Alejandra Pizarnik" by Flaminia Ocampo"The Goddess Coatlicue: Environmental Renewal and Femicide in Homero Aridjis’ La leyenda de los soles" by Adela Ramos"Polyphony and Portable Identities: The niuyorriqueña poetry of Tato Laviera" by Salvador San Juan"The Slingshot (A Parable)" by Luisa Valenzuela, translated by Geoffrey O'Brien"When Borges was Director of the National Library" by María Esther Vázquez"Erotica in the Rio Grande: Thoughts on Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman" by Gwendolyn Díaz-Ridgeway"Pilgrim Tales: Luisa Josefina Hernández’s Medieval Fiction" by Ana Elena González-Treviño"Cernuda" by Gabriel Linares"Survey: Fifteen Favorite Latin American Writers" by Flaminia Ocampo"Black Surrealism and Rooting in the Literature of the Antilles" by Salvador San Juan"From the Feather to the Poncho: A New Yorker Vicuña" by Lila ZemborainIn the "Essays and Comments" section I edit for Plume, you'll find "Confessions of a Contest Junkie," in which Amish Trivedi takes us through his travails and triumphs as a recidivist participant in the world of poetry contests. It begins like this: If you have any vice or addiction in your life – and we all have something – you probably already know that what you are hooked on is bad for you. You already know how you justify your fix. You know how you feed your high. And yet, you cling to your degeneracy, denying it is a problem. Your enablers support your actions and claims. My vice? Poetry contests. And the system itself is my enabler— a system which has encouraged me and so many others through the hope that maybe something will work In the poetry contest system there are winners. Judges whittle submissions down to a select few, a single one of whom sees a poem, a chapbook, or an entire book lauded. The winners add another publication to thei[...]
2016-11-21T18:18:35.266-06:00The good people at Spuyten Duyvil are putting together a collection of poems to coincide with the inauguration of the man chosen by a minority of American voters as our next president. I'm contributing. You might want to get on board too.
2016-11-16T08:50:09.452-06:00If you're like me, you're probably thinking that this is not a good year to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, that it'd be in everybody's best interest to step back from what threatens to be a relationship damaging political confrontation. Me, I'm stepping all the way back to the eighteenth century, which has stood me in good stead as a haven in times of crisis. It was, the savage indignation of Jonathan Swift notwithstanding, a literary century of great urbanity and exemplary civility. But Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of my usual safe havens, failed me this time around—accounts of the destruction of a once great polity by human folly turned out to cut a little too close to the bone. My emergency back-up plan—to read Addison and Steele's Coverley Papers from The Spectator—seemed like a sure cure, but when I came upon passages about Whigs and Tories refusing to dine together, and footnotes about the violent hatred between these parties, I had to set the book aside. So I turned, at last, to the pages of The Mirror, a lesser-known imitator of The Spectator from the other end of the century. Here, in an essay on Hamlet, I ran across the following words:No author, perhaps ever existed, of whom opinion has been so various as Shakespeare. Endowed with all the sublimity and subject to all the irregularities of genius, his advocates have room for unbounded praise, and their opponents for frequent blame. His departure from all common rules which criticism, somewhat arbitrarily, perhaps, has imposed, leaves no legal code by which the decision can be regulated, and in the feelings of different readers, the same passage may appear simple or mean, natural or preposterous, may execute admiration, or create disgust.This is fascinating. Right away, we see that the late eighteenth century was a period with a richer variety of opinion regarding Shakespeare than is our own, in which no figure in all of English literature, and few in all of world literature, receives such a universal praise as does Shakespeare. Indeed, Shakespeare's name and image have become shorthand for the idea of literary greatness, the broad collar and high dome of the Droeshout portrait of him from the First Folio becoming for literature what Einstein's crazed white mop of hair has become for science: a universal signifier of genius.It is precisely the status of genius that matters in understanding the difference between our era's estimate of Shakespeare and his rating under the late eighteenth century's regime of taste. "Genius," in our common parlance, is an unmitigated term of praise. But when the article on Hamlet appeared in The Mirror in 1781, "genius" was still very much a descriptive term, rather than a purely laudatory one. The article on genius from Diderot's Encyclopédie describes works of genius not simply as works of excellence, but as works of a particular kind, whose virtues did not include beauty:For something to be beautiful in accordance with the rules of taste, that thing must be elegant and polished, highly finished but with the appearance of effortlessness. But to be a work of genius it should seem careless, appear irregular, rough, and wild. Sublimity and genius flash in Shakespeare like lightening at night, but Racine is always beautiful: Homer is filled with genius, while Virgil is filled with elegance. The Mirror, then, speaks from the consensus position of its time, in which rule-breaking genius wasn't necessarily a sign of greatness, but a matter of trading off one sort of excellence for another. The excellence of Shakespeare[...]
2016-10-11T10:10:45.899-05:00Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme—my latest book of essays—has just rolled hot off the presses at MadHat Press. What's it all about? Well, the jacket copy gives you an overview (and a few complimentary blurbs):What is the community for poetry? What is its fate, its future? Poet and critic Robert Archambeau begins Inventions of a Barbarous Age with these questions before ranging over the ridges and valleys of the contemporary poetry scene, pausing on the way to investigate mystic and Gnostic poetry, the norms of criticism, and the poetics of camp and the sublime. Taking in poets from W. H. Auden to Kenneth Goldsmith, and topics from poetic comedy to poetic tribalism, Archambeau is one of poetry’s great omnivores, and numbers among the leading poetry critics of his generation. ~ Robert Archambeau is fascinated by the place poets stake out for their art, the claims they make about the relationship of poetry and power; and he is (sometimes uncomfortably) shrewd in ferreting out the motivations for such claims. His essays have the advantage of the best occasional writing—immediacy, a sense of responsiveness, conversationality—but Archambeau is also a “big ideas” critic, spinning his momentary interpretations of texts into penetrating insights about the place of poetry in the world.—Mark Scroggins Archambeau writes prose that’s consistently welcoming, curious, and free of the anxiety that marks so much criticism.—Jonathan Farmer, Slate MagazineA notable poet/critic, Archambeau’s a perfect example of how one person can take on both roles.—Barry Schwabsky, The NationArchambeau is one of our smartest poetic sociologists, and he tackles the biggest problems facing poetry in our time.—Norman Finkelstein, Contemporary LiteratureIf you want to see someone having fun while thinking provocatively about contemporary poetry, try Archambeau. I always do.—Stephen Burt Archambeau has perfect pitch.—Marjorie Perloff If you really want to know about the book, though, here's the table of contents, along with a few notes on each essay:I. The Future, The Present You Will Object: Four Futures for Poetry Poetry as ubiquitous, as commodified, as self-obsessed, as community-building. You don’t like one future? Try another! Who is a Contemporary Poet? In which I continue an old argument with Kenneth Goldsmith about what counts as contemporary. The fight is called off when Giorgia Agamben clobbers us both. The Future of Genius Does the old category of ‘genius’ have a future? The origin and destination of a category of literary analysis, with reference to Brooklyn hipsters in Warby Parker glasses. Invitation to the Voyage: Notes on the Trajectory of the Poetic Image How the literary image changed from Dante to Baudelaire, and what that says about where it has been and may be heading. Charmless and Interesting: The Conceptual Moment in Poetry [...]
The whole thing is online here.1. OBSCURITYOne of the shortest and most provocative pieces in Paul Valéry’s “A Poet’s Notebook” reads in its entirety:STUPIDITY AND POETRY. There are subtle relations between these two categories. The category of stupidity and that of poetry.I can’t recall when I first read this, but I remember thinking it was true. Also funny. Also like some zen koan designed to knock me on the head. Was it true because it was so obviously untrue? Or because it seemed to provide no way to ascertain its truth? Or perhaps I just believed it because I didn’t want to feel stupid.That Valéry’s equation didn’t appear to make sense was a plus for me. Did it even want to make sense? A little further down the same page, I found:OBSCURITY, A PRODUCT OF TWO FACTORS. If my mind is richer, more rapid, freer, more disciplined than yours, neither you nor I can do anything about it.This was spikier, more aggressively funny. Or maybe not funny at all. And obscurity, unlike ambiguity, somehow seemed connected to stupidity—how dumb you felt when you didn’t get the joke.
2016-09-07T07:55:10.760-05:00Here's the cover of my next book, Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme. I'll post something about the contents soon, but I'm not here to talk about the contents today, I'm here to talk about the cover. Because it represents the first time I have presented myself as spiffily as Mark Scroggins, whose The Mathematical Sublime: Writing About Poetry will appear from the same publisher at the same time.Mark, you see, is a snappy dresser. Here he is in his ordinary togs. If you wish to imagine me on the same day, think rumpled cargo shorts (summer) or rumpled Brooks Brothers (winter). Either way, Mark wins:But compare our book covers:Twinsies! In fact, the resemblance is so strong that MadHat will be offering the books in a special, bundled deal for a reduced price. Go nuts![...]
2016-09-02T07:50:56.217-05:00The barbarians are here! They've breached the walls of the fortress! The city lies in ruins! Poetry is at their mercy!Well, it's all a bit more complicated and not so grim. Find out more in the first monthly installment of the new "Essays and Comment" feature at Plume. I will be editing, and sometimes writing, the feature. I wrote the first one, "The Barbarian Invasion of Poetry (Hurrah!)" and it begins like this:This just in: the Empire of Poetry has fallen to the barbarians. The fall was not sudden—it took place over the course of the last seventy years or so, and even before then alarmed sentries spoke of shaggy hordes moving in the dark forests beyond the far-flung border outposts, clutching their axes and the icons of their strange, compelling gods. Let me begin by making clear that I, bred within the confines of the old and dying Empire, welcome the barbarians as friends, and as a force to invigorate our aging and insular imperium. When I speak of barbarians, I speak of them as the Italian novelist and essayist Alessandro Baricco does in his study The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture, a book largely unknown in America, despite having been serialized in one of the most prominent Italian newspapers, giving rise there to a nationwide discussion of the changing nature of cultural production and consumption. For Barrico, the barbarians are a group on the rise, and not just in Italy, or even Europe, but worldwide. Ever more visible, they cause great distress among the more hidebound Catos committed to the old and dying virtues of the Empire—not, it is important to note, a distress that Barrico shares. Barrico sees the barbarians everywhere, marked not so much by their different culture as by the different way they think about culture, be it musical culture, literature, cuisine—even wine and soccer (Barrico is, after all, Italian). The old ways of the Empire are deeply traditional, rooted in an appreciation of the specific history of whatever cultural form is under consideration. But the barbarians see things differently. They are eclectic, these nomads from beyond the borders, and less attached to the traditions of the imperial past.It goes on to talk about Frank O'Hara, Claudia Rankine, Michael Robbins, C. Russell Price, and others, with some notes on how to drink wine and listen to music. You can find it here.[...]
2016-08-15T21:02:03.761-05:00I like just about everything about Sweden, even the weather. I like their intellectuals, too, mostly for being both meticulous and down-to-earth—at least by the standards of intellectuals. But when I think about the position of intellectuals in Swedish culture, I always think about a moment from the late 90s. I was at a party in the medieval Swedish university town of Lund—a quieter, less touristed version of England’s Cambridge. The man who’d hired me to give some lectures had kindly invited me to his house to a gathering of all his friends, including one of his oldest and dearest. The two had known each other since childhood, growing up in a small town and dreaming of Brecht’s Berlin theater and Picasso walking with Gertrude Stein left bank. My host had become an established professor in a fine old Swedish university, a man who spoke a refined English and (though it was hard for me to judge) a beautiful version of his native tongue. He wrote gracefully about culture for the main Swedish newspapers, translated poetry, and had authored a study of Renaissance sonnet sequences. His old friend, though, was the real success—and like so many truly ambitious citizens of small countries, had left to make his mark on a bigger stage. He held a chair at the Sorbonne, was the world expert on certain elements of classical civilization, was a member of the Swedish Academy, voting on the Nobel prizes. At the party he took me aside, punched me lightly on the arm, and said “You want to know about Swedish culture? Look at him…” he made a graceful, Gallic gesture at the host, laughing gently at someone’s witticism across the room. “In Sweden, there are 2,000 like him. The rest have snowmobiles.”Make of it what you will.[...]