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![...]
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.[...]
2016-07-20T14:28:57.181-05:00You're probably yearning for a 2400 word reading of John Ashbery's "The Skaters," aren't you? Well, you're in luck! I've just edited this out of the manuscript of Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself. Sadly, the one footnote in the passage is a bit uncooperative as to format, so I've just included it in parentheses in the main text. Have at it!The Snowflake or the Storm? John Ashbery's long poem “The Skaters,” like his earlier poem “Europe,” has its origins in an old book purchased from a Parisian book stall—in this case Three Hundred Things a Bright Boy Can Do, in which Ashbery found the passage “some sounds, of course, it is almost impossible to reduce to writing, as for example, the hollow scam and murmur produced by a multitude of skaters…” This, along with the book’s similarity to the “Things to Make and Do” sections of his childhood Book of Knowledge, overwhelmed Ashbery with nostalgia for his childhood in upstate New York (Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde, 122). The poem’s sense of loss and loneliness reflects not only this moment of nostalgia, but Ashbery’s circumstances. Begun in 1963, it reflects a period when Ashbery, still reeling from the reception of The Tennis Court Oath, felt particularly “bewildered, defeated, and alone” (Shapiro “Interview”). Out of this solitude and nostalgia came one of the earlier sustained achievements in what would become the dominant mode of the longer poems Ashbery’s mature period—what we might call, not the long narrative poem, but the long anti-narrative poem. The anti-narrative poem has many qualities of the narrative poem: scale, a variety of incidents, and, unlike most of “Europe,” a discursive, talky, reflective narrator. What it lacks, though, is a sense of orderly progression, a sense that the parts can all be linked into a coherent totality. It is not only anti-totalization: it is anti-teleological, in that the parts serve no single end. The critic Brian McHale describes the anti-narrative nature of “The Skaters,” and the ways in which it is commonly read, with admirable concision:Unlike the more obviously disjunctive poems of Ashbery’s Tennis Court Oath period, “The Skaters” often appears to make sense locally, inviting the reader to expect to make global sense of the poem. Instead, one encounters an intractable flux of verbal “found objects,” shifting styles and registers, teasing literary allusions and echoes, fragmentary narrative episodes and descriptive scenes. How is one to negotiate or manage such flux? Critics tend to select “key” lines or passages, treating these as interpretative centers or “nodes” around which to organize the heterogeneous materials of the poem. Other materials come to be subordinated in various ways (explicitly or, more often, implicitly) to these “key” passages or are simply passed over in silence, so that the poem is reduced to a skeletal structure of points that yield most readily to a particular interpretative orientation. (591)“The Skaters” embodies this “intractable flux” at the level of form, with its digressiveness and its non-sequiturs. It also thematizes its own non-totalizability and anti-teleology, and links them to both Ashbery’s isolation from utilitarian society and his homosexuality. The first of the four sections of “The Skaters” opens with an image of a group of skaters on a frozen pond:These decibelsAre a kind of flagellation, an entity of soundInto which being enters, and is apart.Their colors on a warm February dayMake for masses of inertia, and hipsProd out of the violet-seeming into a new kindOf demand that stumps the absolute because not newIn the sense of the next one i[...]
2016-07-19T16:30:04.773-05:00So I've been editing down the manuscript of my book-in-progress Making Nothing Happen: Poetry in Society, Poetry for Itself, and have decided to remove this passage—not because I have a problem with it on its own terms, but because it is redundant in the context of the chapter. Consider it the litcrit equivalent of one of those music tracks that shows up on a bootleg album of the sort completists used to hunt down in grimy subterranean record shops...Calculated Oddities In his famously lukewarm foreword to Ashbery’s Some Trees, W.H. Auden tells the reader that poets like Ashbery have succumbed to the temptation “to manufacture calculated oddities.” One way in which the diagnosis holds true is in Ashbery’s drawing attention away from denotative meaning and toward form—a foregrounding of the art of the poem over its statement every bit as indicative of Ashbery’s aestheticism as his prioritizing of imagination over the utilitarian world of work. Ashbery’s inventiveness is such that this foregrounding occurs in a staggering variety of ways, some involving the intensification of old poetic devices, and others involving a subversion of those devices.One example of the foregrounding of form through the intensification of traditional poetic form comes in “Canzone.” The traditional Provençal canzone was a poem of 5-7 stanzas of some 7-20 hendecasyllabic lines each, with the same rhyme scheme occurring in each stanza—a challenging enough form in its own right. In “Canzone,” though, which consists of five 12 line stanzas plus a five line envoi, Ashbery has given himself a more challenging task. Instead of rhyming, he concludes lines with repeated words, in the manner of a sestina. He then uses the same words, in different places, in succeeding stanzas. The first stanza gives the general idea:Until the first chillNo door sat on the clay.When Billy brought on the chillHe began to chill. No hand canPoint to the chillIt brought. Where a chillWas, the grass grows.See how it grows.Acts punish the chillShowing summers in the grass.The acts are grass.The lines of the second stanza ends in the same set of words, and follows the same pattern of rhyme, but with the line-ending words repositioned so that they come in this order: grass/chill/grass/grass/clay/grass/can/can/grass/grows/grows. The third, fourth, and fifth stanzas similarly re-use the words in shifting positions, still following the pattern ABAACAADDAEE, with the shorter envoi also using the five repeated words. The brevity of the lines as compared to the traditional hendecasyllabics, combined with the substitution for the traditional rhyme, of repleted of words within and between stanzas, combine to highlight the formal qualities of the poem. What is more, the abstract and elliptical nature of the narrative downplays any sense of statement or extra-musical meaning. Traditional form is ramped up, even as content is pushed to the margin. When John Yau wrote that “Ashbery is an heir to Walter Pater, who proposed that ‘all art aspires to the condition of music,’“ he could well have had this poem in mind.“A Snowball in Hell” takes a different approach in emphasizing form over content. Consider the opening stanza:In the beginning there are those who don’t quite fit inBut are somehow okay. And then some morningThere are places that suddenly seem wonderful:Weather and the water seem wonderful,And the peaceful night sky that arrivesIn time to protect us, like a swordCutting the blue cloak of a prince.There is a recognizable narrative here, to be sure: indeed, it seems almost like a group biography for Ashbery and his circle of poet-friends. Misfits whose lives are difficult but not tragic find a kind of haven where they can flourish. But what are we to make of the simile for the arrival of night? We’re given both parts of what could have been a per[...]
2016-07-16T20:12:44.160-05:00Rejoice! The latest issue of the Journal of Poetics Research, John Tranter's latest creation (you may remember him for running the original version of Jacket, now run out of the University of Pennsylvania as Jacket2). This time out the JPR includes "Three Mistakes," a little something I wrote about Becoming the Sound of Bees, the latest book of poems by the enigmatic Anglo-Swiss poet and onetime businessman Marc Mincenz, who has arrived on our shores via China, Iceland, and other exotic locales. It begins like this:Around the time I sat down to read Becoming the Sound of Bees, Marc Vincenz’s strange, intense book of poems from Ampersand Books, I ran across a news article about the discovery of a tiny, well-camouflaged hut concealed in a vast tract of forest in northern California. It was deep in the wilds of a large state park, and so well concealed that a skilled forest ranger almost had to collide with the thing to discover it. Inside were the necessities for a Spartan life: jars of seeds and dried beans, a rough bed and table, a small wood stove. On a shelf were a few books: an old dictionary, a guide to plants and herbs — and a well-thumbed copy of Public Secrets, a collection of the radical thinker and counter-culture veteran Ken Knabb’s essays and memoirs.The forest ranger, interviewed about this find, seemed reluctant to have had to post an eviction notice: the area surrounding the shelter was pristine, without so much as a footpath or broken branch to indicate human habitation. The hermit living there clearly cared for the planet, and wanted nothing more than to live in peace and think through the fate of the civilization from which he’d fled. When the ranger returned days later, the cabin and its contents were gone without a trace, except for a cryptic symbol on the ground, spelled out in the ashes from the now-missing hut’s wood stove.Coming across news of the radical hermit’s cabin felt like a particularly fortuitous coincidence. The hermit, after all, seemed like a fit analogue for the protagonist of Vincenz’s poems. Vincenz is the sort of poet who likes to work at scale while remaining within the lyric format: in Becoming the Sound of Bees he writes individual poems, but keeps them spinning around a few common settings and themes, and returns again and again to a recurring character, Ivan. The series has been compared to Ted Hughes’ Crow, and I can see why: we’re at least as much in a mythic or visionary world as we are in a quotidian one, and we’re living in the after-effects of terrible devastation. Unlike Hughes, though, Vincenz isn’t dealing with the devastation of personal life. His apocalypse isn’t psychological so much as it is environmental, and possibly social or political: we catch enigmatic glimpses, throughout the poems of Becoming the Sound of Bees, of despoiled seas, birdless skies, and landscapes composed of nothing but desert and despoilation.The rest can be found at the Journal of Poetics Research site. [...]
2016-07-25T10:52:13.395-05:00W.H. Auden—what's not to love? And I don't just love Auden's writing, I love the enormous body of writing about him—memoirs, critical analyses, scholarly exegesis, scandalous gossip, the lot. That's why I was very happy to write something about Auden at Work—a book of essays edited by Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin—for Essays in Criticism. It's called "Never Finished, Only Abandoned." Here's how it starts:A browser among library shelves, glimpsing the title Auden at Work pressed between the spines of other volumes, might well pull it down with the hope of discovering anecdotes about Auden’s writing process written by those who knew him well. These, after all, can be quite enlightening. What reader of Auden wouldn’t be grateful to come across something like Christopher Isherwood’s observation about the young Auden at work?When Auden was younger, he was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he could keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way, whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of favorite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of Auden’s celebrated obscurity.Even glimpses of the poet’s immediate writing environment can be revealing, if perhaps more of the man than of the works. Auden’s one-time American student Charles H. Miller puts us squarely in the scene of creation when he describes Auden’s New York apartment as ‘a cave’ filled with clutter, with manuscripts jumbled among books and bits of clothing, all topped by an ashtray with ‘a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano’. The whole ‘Auden-scape’, Miller continues, reeked of ‘stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe-jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit’.Intimate reminiscences were not, however, what Bonnie Costello and Rachel Galvin were after when they sat down to edit Auden at Work. Their introduction places heavy emphasis on the idea of genetic literary criticism, a form of analysis that treats the text as an ongoing compositional process, rather than as the fixed result of the author’s intention. Following Paul Valéry, Costello and Galvin envision composition ‘as a dance, as fencing, as the construction of acts and expectations’, and the published text as ‘the footprints on the ground after the dance is over’. Auden, whose revisions to such poems as ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ are among the most famous, or infamous, in the history of English poetry, is certainly a prime candidate for genetic criticism.The rest is available in print, or online (starting at the bottom of page 356 in the pdf version).[...]
James Joyce was born in Omaha in 1939. His first book, Dubliners, contained the poem sequence “Stops Along the Western Bank of the Missouri River,” which treated his native Nebraska with the intense realism that could only come about under conditions of voluntary exile. Nostalgia and critical distance combined to make the linked-yet-disparate pieces of the sequence so precise that the river could, if necessary, be reconstructed bend by bend from the pages of the poems. A later and much more complex work, Ulysses, treated the same Nebraskan territory with equal detail. Its central poetic sequence, though, the ten part “Riversongs of Arion,” combined realism with a concern for myth, finding in the quotidian world echoes of a heroic past. The result was a truly modernist synthesis of past and present, the construction of an eternal now along the lines of work being produced by Joyce’s modernist peers Pound, Eliot and David Jones.
Okay, you got me, put down your copy of Ellmann’s Joyce biography. I know Joyce was born in Ireland. The two points I’d like to make about Michael Anania’s river sequences, though, are made most clearly through an analogy with Joyce...
2016-05-31T17:21:35.887-05:00What is a critic supposed to do? If I know anything about critics, you could put a dozen of them around a café table and at the end of the evening have at least two dozen opinions, and as many excuses for not picking up the tab for all those bottles of Pinot Gris that disappeared in the interim. So let’s skip the big gathering, and go straight to Barry Schwabsky, who not too terribly long ago wrote a piece called “A Critic’s Job of Work” for The Nation, where he raises a tremendously important question about the role of the critic, and the very idea of critical distance.Schwabsky begins by saying how much he’s always admired Marcel Duchamp’s dictum about the viewer completing the work of art—“the creative act is not performed by the artist alone,” declared Duchamp, “the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” It merits attention, this notion of the audience participating in, rather than passively receiving, the creative act. For one thing, it sets art apart from something like science. There are, Schwabsky points out, no science critics. There’s peer review, of course—that’s central to the whole scientific enterprise. But scientists review each other’s work as fellow practitioners. Although some art critics are also art makers, the relation of the two activities is accidental, rather than of the essence. The art critic, in his or her role as critic, doesn’t identify as a fellow art maker, but keeps a certain distance, and identifies as a spectator. Indeed, the critic is, according to Schwabsky, “the self-appointed representative of the audience.” And despite the audience’s creative role, this means being something other than being an artist.Schwabsky points to how, back in the 1960s, Allan Kaprow (godfather of the “happening” as artform) called for an art that had only participants, and no passive observers—he wanted what he called “the elimination of the audience,” if what was meant by the audience were people whose involvement with the artwork was to be nothing more than “empathic response.” Everyone involved in a Kaprow happening was to be a co-creator, and the distance between artist and audience was to be collapsed entirely. This is not where Schwabsky wants to be. If Kaprow wants to recruit the spectator as a fellow artist, Schwabsky envisions the critical spectator as someone who isn’t caught in the binary of creative artist/passive spectator. Instead, the critic maintains a degree of distance, but from this perspective adds something new to the work, in part by virtue of maintaining that sense of distance. “I still prefer Duchamp’s model of the spectator who, through his or her distance from the artist’s creative act, nonetheless makes an independent contribution to it,” says Schwabsky, “and my experience tells me that a great deal of art is still being made with this kind of viewer in mind.” One could make an analogy to a good relationship between a baseball catcher and a pitcher—it’s not that they’re both pitchers, but it’s not that the catcher is entirely passive, either. He watches what’s going on and makes a real, if largely invisible and certainly unglamourous, contribution to the team, largely through analysis of what he sees. He needs a bit of distance to do this—he’s not preparing a pitch, he’s watching the batter and the pitcher interact, and communicating what he sees.I found Schwabsky’s article fascinating because it enters into a very long conversation about the nature and [...]
2016-05-27T10:00:37.842-05:00I'm quite convinced this photograph of Robert Duncan touches on something central to the man and his poetics. Two things, actually. When Michael Anania showed me the photo, taken by David Lenfest when Duncan was reading to Anania’s students at the University of Illinois—Chicago, he described the movements of Duncan’s arms, which made Duncan appear almost as if he were in flight. “One hand played the rhythmic beat,” said Anania, “the other kept the longer cadence.” And here, already, is the first fact of interest: the fact that Duncan was not only a strongly rhythmic poet, but that he thought of his poems in polyrhythmic terms, so much so that he enacted those rhythms for his audiences.Just as interesting as the figure of Duncan ‘conducting’ his own reading, though, is the contrast of the figure with its ground. The background does not, at first, seem particularly promising, and from a visual standpoint, it isn’t striking, although those two long blackboards do provide a nice dark field against which Duncan’s light shirt can pop. What’s interesting about the background are less the visuals than what they represent—if we taken them as metonymic, as parts representing a larger whole. What are blackboards, after all, but nearly universally recognized signs of the educational system of which they are instruments? They show us that this is a university, an event sponsored by an English department, by the rationally organized, administered, modern institution that has become the major venue for American poetry’s reception and, increasingly, its creation. Many poets and lovers of poetry cringe a little at the word “academic,” even though (or perhaps because) so many of them bear advanced academic credentials, and have, at the end of their email addresses, the letters “edu.”Duncan, too, was uneasy with the academic institution as a venue for poetry—and, indeed, with the much broader cultural and historical movement of which the university is but one minor emanation. He was uneasy with—no, that doesn’t go far enough—he waged war against modernity itself, inasmuch as modernity can be defined as the triumph of the rational over the irrational, the positivist over the mystical, and the disenchanted over the magical. The university lecture hall hardly seems a fitting place the broad, dramatic gestures caught in Lenfest’s photograph of Duncan. Don’t they belong elsewhere? Perhaps in a sacred grove, a temple, or a catacomb where the members of a sect have gathered for their rites.Duncan’s mysticism and irrationalism are, of course, in his blood: his adoptive parents were Theosophists, believers in the occult, who selected him as their child based on astrological projections. He was raised with a deep respect for the mystical, and we find this background very much alive in his conception of the poet as magus, as the sorcerer-priest of a heterodox spiritual tradition. "There is a natural mystery in poetry," wrote Duncan in one of his notebooks, "a poem, mine or another's, is an occult document." Metaphors matter: any reader of poetry knows that. And Duncan's metaphor is a far cry from, say, William Carlos Williams' when he writes that a poem is a machine made out of words. Come to think of it, though, Duncan doesn't intend this notion of the occult document as a metaphor. He means it, earnestly, seriously, literally.Duncan’s war with modernity was deadly serious, a matter of passion, even rage. In one of the many documents collected as The H.D. Book, Duncan tells us of his own incipient attachment to poetry, first to the Romantic poe[...]
2016-05-19T08:09:21.710-05:00This afternoon the latest issue of The Hudson Review landed in my mailbox with the satisfying thump of old-school print media, and it's a fine issue, with writing by Alfred Corn, William H. Pritchard, Dean Flower on Nabokov's letters, Carol T. Christ on Jeanette Winterson, and much else, including my own essay, "John Crowe Ransom's Quarrel With Himself." It starts like this: Once, in the waning days of the nineteenth century, a southern preacher’s son quarreled with his father about the place of human happiness in God’s plan. He pointed defiantly to the world’s disorder as proof that God cared little for our desires, but he was too much his father’s son not to doubt his own position, not to wonder if benevolent Providence could be real. He carried his doubts with him when, years later, he sat down to write. That preacher’s son was John Crowe Ransom, and the quarrel with the father became a quarrel with himself, from which sprang his poetry. Later, his doubts resolved, he took up quarrels with the world and modernity. From this sprang prose and, eventually, disciples both political and literary. The poetry of the old inner quarrel was never quite abandoned, though the font of inspiration ran close to dry. Instead, the poems were rewritten, ironed smooth, the self-division suppressed, chastened, or ironized. What remained was assured, refined, supple—but somehow confined. One thinks of Rilke’s panther in its cage. During Ransom’s lifetime, many thought that what he’d wrought in poetry was great, and numbered him among the storied names. Robert Lowell, speaking of the generation of American poets born in the 1870s and 80s, listed Frost, Williams, Pound, Moore, Eliot, and Ransom as the masters, sure of lasting fame, adding only “who outranks whom will be disputed.” Randall Jarrell said Ransom’s poems would “outlive Mother Goose.” And at the height of his own fame Robert Frost told a fawning audience at Kenyon to redirect their enthusiasm, because the greatest living poet was their own Professor Ransom. From certain perspectives, Ransom’s legacy may count for more than that of more enduringly famous poets. The rest is available in the Spring 2016 issue of the magazine, available now![...]
Comedy is a funny kind of art: much loved, but rarely held in the highest esteem. Aristotle ranked it lower than tragedy, and the last unambiguously genre-specific comedy to win the Oscar for best picture was Annie Hall, in 1977. Comic poetry suffers a similar fate: it is under-represented in anthologies and rarely given systematic critical consideration. But do we even know what comic poetry is? Well, it’s poetry, for starters, although the worms that spill out of the can when we ask what constitutes poetry are too numerous to count. As for what constitutes comedy, the theories are a bit more manageable, and fall into three main categories: incongruity theory; relief theory; and superiority theory. All of these are encompassed, implicitly or otherwise, by Henri Bergson’s treatise Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, which forms the basis of Aaron Belz’s theoretical speculations on comedy. If I’m not mistaken, though, Belz warps Bergson’s theory in interesting ways, ways that help us understand the very serious intent—and rather dark view of the world—of the comic poetry in Belz’s book Glitter Bomb.
Theories of comedy are no more comic in themselves than theories of sexuality are sexy. Immanuel Kant, for example, is no one’s idea of a comic writer, but he is the great promulgator of the incongruity theory of humor.The whole essay can be found in the latest installment of the journal At Length.
To understand the possible death of the genius we need first to go back to the circumstances of his birth.
Geniuses like Freud and Marx have a fecund posterity, inspiring not only imitators but the original genius of others.
Along with its inborn quality, its rule-breaking, and its inspiring of future originality, genius has another element: autonomy vis-a-vis the needs of its immediate audience.
Why, we may ask, was our particular notion of the genius born in the eighteenth century, and why didn’t it die there?
The very notion of copyright was invented with reference to the idea of a genius’ unique style making his writings more than a mere restatement of commonly known facts.
The important thing to remember, when asking about the future of genius, is that the authority of genius is charismatic: it derives from an individual’s exemplary status, his or her ethos, rather than any external force.
The literary genius may be languishing among the academics, but he still breathes in non-institutional contexts.The essay also has a thing or two to say about Chuck Taylor sneakers and Warby Parker glasses.
2016-02-17T10:18:50.978-06:00Look out! The fifth issue of Lute and Drum just hit the internet, and it's heavy with goodness. It has new work by D.A. Powell, Monifa Love Asante, Norman Finkelstein, Mary-Jane Holmes, and Patrick Pritchett, and the cover page includes a short film by Max Wilde. There's also an odd little abecedarian essay of mine called "An ABC of Gertrude Stein." It begins like this:A is for Alice, or Artist’s Wife. When I began to learn about Alice B. Toklas, I knew I’d seen her kind before. I grew up as an art school brat in the 1970s, and back in those days when male egos swaggered and feminist consciousness had permeated less thoroughly through the cultural sphere, it was common enough to see, in the shadow of each male would-be genius in paint-spattered denim, a quiet figure, attending to all the banalities of life and the social obligations, a self-abnegating figure who had nevertheless made herself so essential to the artist’s ability to function that he would fall apart if he left her, as he sometimes did. Alice never walked out on Gertrude, but if Ernest Hemingway is to be believed, she made it perfectly clear that she could and she would, and it made Gertrude tremble (see P, below).B is for Bile, or Biting Remark. Gertrude Stein was tremendously jealous of the success of other writers, especially if they were of her generation, or if they had once sat at her feet at her salons, and she knew just what to say to hurt them. Sinclair Lewis only sold so many books because he “is the typical newspaperman and everything he says is newspaper,” she’d remark. Or “Hemingway,” (see H) she’d say, after his books began to sell, “after all you are ninety percent Rotarian.”C is for Cézanne. No one cared about Cézanne until 1906, when a posthumous exhibition of his work was held in Paris. Or almost no one, except for Stein and her brother Leo. Leo in particular saw that Cézanne had set about solving the problem of composition as no one else had; absorbing what the impressionists had taught about color but looking for a way to re-introduce order to the visual plane. He did it by distorting the objects he represented, and using inconsistent perspective. That is: by almost inventing Cubism. Stein hung Cézannes in her salon, and wrote Three Lives while staring at one of them. Picasso came by and liked them too.D is for Deterritorialization. Gilles Deleuze speaks of deterritorialization as the moving out from a defined sphere, and Stein certainly did that when she broke with mimesis as a principle of writing. But she was also deterritorialized in a more down-to-earth sense: until she arrived in Paris, she belonged nowhere. She’d lived in hotels and boarding houses and with relatives, and in a big house in Oakland isolated from everyone else, and among people with whom her affluent, cosmopolitan family had nothing in common. When her parents died she connected with no one and nothing except her books and one brother, who confesses that he and Gertrude knew nothing of each other’s inner lives. But bohemian Paris was a special territory, inhabited by refugees from all sort of backgrounds, all united by some concern with art. It was a territory for the deterritorialized, and if there was a home for Stein, it was there that the there would be. The whole thing is available at Lute and Drum. If for some obscure reason you feel the need to read more of what I've written about Stein, you might try this little piece in Partisan, "The Meeting that[...]
2016-02-15T12:34:45.890-06:00The jets are waiting on the runways, the engines of the motorcade hum in readiness: the Kafka Sutra world tour, 2016 edition, is about to begin!The first stop: Louisville, Kentucky where, by popular request (okay, by arrangement with the conference organizers) I won't be reading from The Kafka Sutra, but delivering a paper called "Ransom Revised: John Crowe Ransom's Journey from Dialogism to Dogma." YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO BE THERE! It's at the University of Louisville, Humanities 108, at 2:45 on Saturday, February 20th. Also on the bill: Mark Scroggins, talking about Geoffrey Hill, and Sally Connolly, discussing elegies written for Ezra Pound.Then the tour loops back home to Chicago, Illinois, where I'll be reading from The Kafka Sutra side by side with Larry Sawyer and Nathan Hoks, who will read from their new work. This will be at the Uptown Arts Center (941 West Lawrence Avenue), Friday, February 26, at 8 pm. If you are one of those deeply hip sorts who only navigates with reference to legendary jazz hangouts, that's a block east of the Green Mill.Next, the traveling circus heads to Concord, New Hampshire, for a Poetry Month spectacular reading on April 4th at NHTI (details to follow). Those who attend all three events will be given a hug of sympathy and a quizzical look.[...]
2016-02-06T18:47:12.963-06:00The Western bourgeoisie has long known its rôle in art is to be abused by the avant-garde; however, groups outside this tradition or class don’t easily see why they or their culture should be insulted or patronized by relatively privileged people. It very often seems to members of such groups to be merely a continuance of abusive patterns rooted deep in society.That's from a new essay called "To Witness," on poetry's responsibilities, by Ian Duhig. It's a wide-ranging and thoughtful piece, looking back to Caroline Forché and the poetry of witness, and to contemporary controversy involving the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and Claudia Rankine. Along the way he takes a look at some skeptical statements of my own about the political claims of experimental poetry. Anything Duhig writes is worth reading on its own merits—but this is particularly notable for our own moment. Another piece of writing with intrinsic merit, and with particular relevance to our moment, also came out today: Timothy Yu's book of poems 100 Chinese Silences, which, like Duhig's essay, looks to the intersection of poetics, identity, and politics. Here's what I wrote for the book jacket:I can’t remember when I last read a book as necessary, and as wickedly fun, as Timothy Yu’s 100 Chinese Silences. Yu responds to, rewrites, and reforms a whole poetic tradition of Western representations of China and the Chinese, from Ezra Pound to Gary Snyder to Billy Collins. Yu wears his learning lightly, and his various parodies, pastiches, and campy retakes on the poetic tradition balance a love of the poetry he’s spent a career studying with a necessary critical edge. Our age demands a re-assessment of old representations of the “mysterious east,” and Timothy Yu has come through with exactly what we need. 100 Chinese Silences has “breakthrough book” written all over it.Ordering information is available at Les Figues. And in other news, my own essay on Charles Simic, trauma, and the Cold War is now online as well as in the Boston Review. [...]
2016-01-29T22:16:37.400-06:00If, like me, you can’t pass a used bookshop without going in, to emerge at least an hour later with as many titles as you can carry shoved into your bag and your jacket pockets, then you’ll know that such establishments come in two kinds: the carefully curated variety, with titles categorized precisely and books wrapped neatly in protective mylar; and the other kind, where you wander among heaped mountains of books, ready at any time to be stunned by either a rare first edition or an avalanche. Chicago’s Aspidistra Bookshop, which held down a spot on Clark Street for close to thirty years before closing in 1998, fell into the second category. And I should know: I had the honor of working there for a couple of years while I finished writing my doctoral dissertation. The place had two owners—Darrell Simmons, who only stopped in from time to time and who knew more about Yeats than anyone I’ve ever met (and I’ve met several Yeats scholars), and Ron Ellingson, with whom I worked. Yesterday I attended Ron’s funeral, and I’ve been thinking about him and his bookshop all day.A lot of people who came into Aspidistra asked about the name (on one occasion a woman told me she liked it so much she planned to name her daughter Aspidistra). The Aspidistra is a plant, but not just any plant: it’s a plant you can abuse or ignore, but not kill. You can put your cigarette butts out in its soil and it will keep growing. You can put it in a coat closet for a month with no light and no water and it’ll laugh the experience off. For Ron, it was an apt symbol not just for his bookshop, but for literary culture as a whole. Ron was also a big fan of George Orwell, whose Keep the Aspidistra Flying cast a hard, cynical gaze on the entire literary system, especially the world of bookshops. Only once did a customer come in and ask if Orwell had inspired the name—and Ron dropped the copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Bookhe was putting into a locked glass case, strode around the counter, and kissed the man on both cheeks.Ron grew up in Decatur where, as his wife Kathleen said at the funeral, no one wanted to talk about anything interesting except Ron, who was always reading and always wanted to talk about what he read. She married him and they talked for decades, and had a troop of children who talked books too, when they weren’t hauling crates of them around Ron’s Lincoln Park store, or to the second shop he briefly opened in Uptown, or to one of the many weird little attic or cellar book caches he had around Chicago. Like too many young men of his generation, Ron was sent off to Vietnam. A clerk in the Marine Corps, he never saw combat, but he had the unenviable task of shipping a great many dead bodies back to the U.S. “I like what they’ve done with the Vietnam memorial in D.C.,” he once told me, “but there’s no way I’m ever going—I’d cry until my eyes bled.” He took an attitude toward authority that I’ve seen in a lot of veterans: it could go and fuck itself, in all its forms. That may be why his lawyer, a strange little guy who looked for all the world like Ron Jeremy in a cheap suit, was always coming by the shop with something to sign or be faxed. I don’t think Ron and the tax system always played well together. Another time I remember an old-school Chicago ward politician coming by and telling (not asking)[...]
2016-02-02T08:04:16.522-06:00Hot news! Two of my favorite journals, the eminently respectable Boston Review and the eminently raffish Toad Suck Review have new issues out. Both include things I've written (that's not why they number among my favorite journals, and I'm no longer sure where I fall on the scale leading from raffishness to respectability).There are two pieces of mine available in the Boston Review, the first, "A Strange and Quiet Fullness," is about Charles Simic's poetry and prose, and begins like this:Shop windows empty except for a dusty mannequin or a boy's suit long out of style; abandoned city streets; a seedy magician doing his threadbare act in an unpopular theater; a fat fly in a matchbox clutched by a lunatic—Charles Simic has been the primary purveyor of images like these in American poetry for close to half a century, importing them from some mysterious region rumored to lie somewhere between the former Yugoslavia and the monstrous mountain passes of Simic's private dream kingdom. A specialist in the uncanny, in objects removed from explanatory contexts, in stories gestured at but left untold, Simic describes his orientation as cosmic rather than historical or natural. He distrusts the tribalism inherent in history, with its chains of "begats" and its stockpiles of grievances, and he sees a direct link between the Romantic idealization of nature and a dangerously naive utopianism. He would rather reach beyond history and nature to deep enigmas of the cosmos itself—"the brain-chilling infinities and silences of modern astronomy and Pascalian thought." He finds unsettling enigmas not just in the vastness of space, but in the scenes and objects nearest to hand. When Simic looks at it, even a dog heading up the walk with the newspaper in his mouth becomes eerie and touches on an aspect of infinity. The irony is that this turning away from history to the cosmic is itself the product of history, of the collision of Simic's life with some of the most brutal events of the past century. A child of war-ravaged Belgrade, Simic tells us "I've seen tanks, piles of corpses, and people strung from lampposts with my own eyes." Although they could not have known it, Hitler and Stalin were, according to Simic, "hatching an elaborate plot to make me an American poet." There is a truth to this, and not just a truth about Simic as an immigrant to the United States: Simic's commitment to lyric poetry has everything to do with a skepticism about the certainties of ideologies, whether of the right or the left; and his orientation toward the cosmic and the uncanny comes, too, from his traumatic childhood...At the moment it's available only in the print edition, but will be online soon. UPDATE: HERE IT IS ONLINE.The other piece is up now on the Boston Review website. It's called "Meditations on Embodiment," and discusses the work of Swedish artist and writer Karl Larsson, whose Form/Force I listed as my "book of the year" for Partisan magazine. It begins like this:A Mexican man sewn into a car seat to confound American border guards; the published prison memoirs of leftist German revolutionaries; the destruction of ancient statues in Iraq: what do these things have in common? What about the nine tracks of a Joy Division concert recording, the rubble where two great statues of the Buddha once stood in Afghanistan, and Andy Warhol’s interminable experimental film Sleep? They all pro[...]
I’m not really convinced there’s such a thing as a “best book” of 2015 or any other year—some are good for one thing, some for another. But my favorite book of the year is Karl Larsson’sForm/Force , translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida, who, along with Johannes Göransson, has the distinction of being the main conduit bringing Swedish experimental writing to the Anglophone world. Larsson’s book is presented as poetry, but it’s hard to know what to call it, really. It’s a collage, a writing-through, a meditation in found text about embodiment, borders, and the power of ideology over the body. It takes us from a man sewn into a car seat in an attempt to cross the U.S./Mexican border, through the prison writings of the Baader-Meinhof terror faction, to the destroyed Afghan Buddhas of Bamiyan via bootlegs of New Order records, finding in each instance a way to think about how power works its way over the spaces we share. Best book of 2015? Well, pick it up and I’ll guarantee it will be the best book of Swedish trans-generic experimental writing you’ve read in some time.