Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reading, 2009

For the second year in a row, I’m inspired by Mark Scroggins and Steve Evans to list the books I've read over the past twelve months. It was a weird year for reading. I was on leave in the spring semester, but I was also being the chief baby-looking-after officer in the Archambeau household, so I read a lot, but in a kind of sleepless, not-finishing-the-book sort of way. Then, in June, I was in a bike-vs-car accident, and ended up in the hospital, too out of it on painkillers to read much of anything.

So what makes the list? The sole criterion of inclusion is that I only list books I actually read all the way through. Most of what I taught isn’t included, since it either comes out of anthologies (which I don’t list, unless I read the thing cover-to-cover), or is something I’ve read before and only skimmed this year. Most of the poetry I read isn’t included either, since I tend to read poetry in journals or online, or in manuscript. Most poetry I read in book form I don’t end up finishing, either. Sometimes that’s a judgment on the content, more often it’s a matter of simply setting the book aside and never getting back to it. Some of my most athletic readerly achievements don’t make the list — getting through much of Truth and Method and Being and Time took a lot of time and concentration, but I skipped huge chunks of both books. I also left out books I read to Lila, and baby-care guides, though I highly recommend Baby 411 for any 40 year old first time parent. It gets you right to the topic about which you’re freaking, and tells you not to worry.

Anyway, here's the list, in no particular order.


T.W. Heyck, The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England

This is the best book on the mind of nineteenth century in England I’ve ever read. Heyck traces the movement from the world of the generalist men of letters to the rise of specialization and professionalism. Why did things change? A bunch of reasons: the challenge to literary authority by science, the growth of scientific specialization (and then of all professional specialization), the reform of the universities to support research and to divide work by field (and the migrating of intellectuals to the universities), the intellectual discrediting of Christianity (which drove a wedge between writer and reader, who no longer shared a common culture), and the rise of a mass, semi-literate audience (which made literary writing relatively unprofitable). If you want to know how the discursive conditions we as writers face today came into being, there’s no better book to read.

Stephan Collini, Public Moralists

I like Collini, probably because he’s a better literary critic than he is a historian, though I’m sure he’d object to that characterization. Anyway, he can read the hell out of a short passage of nonfiction prose, as if he were pressing the juice out of a sonnet in a classroom. He’s also got a strong argument here about why Victorian writers held public roles denied to later generations of literary people.

Biography, Autobiography, Memoir

W.B. Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil

I think this must have been cobbled together from various essays. Either that, or Yeats isn’t as careful with his prose as he is with his poetry. Anyway, you get a good sense of milieu here, and catch Yeats at the weird intersection of art-for-art’s-sake and literary nationalism. I mean, those are some deep cross-currents, people. Gotta write something about that in my next book.

Richard Wright, Black Boy

It’s like getting punched in the face, reading this. I mean, it hurts. I think this book is as much of an accomplishment as Native Son, and it doesn’t bog down the way that one does in the second half. If you want to know the psychological torture box into which America put the black man at midcentury, read the scenes where Wright is working for an optical supply company and trying to read Mencken on the sly.

Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge

You want a one-volume Coleridge bio? Stop your shopping around. This’ll work. Bate gets at Coleridge’s fundamental insecurity, which explains the genuflection to Wordsworth, as well as the opium addiction (it was bad: Coleridge would tell servants to keep him from buying more of the stuff, then sneak out and score anyway).

John Kinsella, Auto

John Kinsella’s early life can only be described as harrowing. This is a memoir of violence, mostly of violence being done to the author.

Mim Scala, Diary of a Teddy Boy

Okay, so this is a memoir, not a diary, and Scala was only a Teddy Boy for a few exhilarating, intermittently terrifying months. It’s really a book about the long sixties, which happened to Scala pretty profoundly. The music industry, the dope-smoking, the trekking around north Africa and Sri Lanka, the acid tripping, the indigenous-artifact collecting, and the epic quest for the perfect mystical third-world music fusion groove. As an added bonus, I kept running across people who were about two degrees of separation from me. Small world.

Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

Homegrown dada. For real.

Penelope Rosemont, Dreams and Everyday Life

This is a strangely rambling memoir, and I’m glad of that. It gives disproportionate attention to the months Penelope and Franklin Rosemont spent hanging out with the Surrealists in Paris in the sixties (a sign of how formative those months were), but it also shows us the Rosemonts discovering the remnants of Wobbly culture, and being right in the thick of it when the Chicago cops rioted in 1968.

Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, Memoirs, (vol. 3)

Prince von Metternich kept the European establishment together against all those pesky people demanding republics and social reform. It’s easy to dislike him, but then again it’s easy to dislike anyone different from oneself. Reading his memoirs gives you the flavor of an utterly alien world — the ancien régime in its final act.

Christopher Ricks, Tennyson

The criticism of Tennyson’s poetry here is so good you forgive Ricks for making this more of an analysis of the poetry than it is a biography. Unless you’re Mark Scroggins, in which case your standards for critical biography are so high you’ll wander the earth forever, thirsting for you know not what.


Lennart Nyberg, A Different Practice

This is about a decade old, and reads a lot like the American elliptical poetry that was going around. He writes in series, and has a fine meditative mind. I wrote about this for Boston Review.

Lars Gustafsson, A Time in Xanadu

This is the kind of poetry we think of when we think of Swedish poetry: quiet, thoughtful, existential. But I think Gustafsson is off his best game here. I wrote about this for Boston Review in the same article I link to above.

Samuel Johnson, The Vanity of Human Wishes

You've got to read this every now and then, and believe it. It helps counterbalance Byron. And it'll keep you (or mostly keep you) from wanting dumb shit like fame, recognition, promotion, preferment, money you don't need, and all that jive.

John Davidson, John Davidson: A Selection of his Poems

How the hell did I miss this guy? He’s a late Victorian with a deeply materialist outlook on things. I’m sure D.H. Lawrence must have read and admired him: he’s got that buzzing sense of the life force at work in the world. But he can get grim, too. I don’t know why nobody reads him anymore.

Kent Johnson, Homage to the Last Avant-Garde

Kent Johnson is a rare thing: an actual avant-gardist. I mean, this book refuses to be at ease with the institutions and conventions surrounding and supporting poetry. The longish poem on the New York school is merciless in exposing the political hypocrisy of much experimentalist poetry — while still loving such poetry. I can see why a lot of people get ticked off at Kent. I admire this book immensely.

Nicanor Parra, Poems and Anti-Poems

Much of the force of these poems probably came out of their rejection of the hothouse conventions of so much Latin American poetry. They’re hard and cold and space, and disillusioned. I can see why Roberto Bolaño liked them so much.

Norman Finkelstein, Scribe

I reviewed this for the first issue of The Offending Adam, which should be out next year.

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

I read a big Byron poem every year. I think I read this one last year, too, but what the hell. You can’t have too much self-obsessed narcissistic weirdness, right? (Here I anticipate groans from all who have to put up with my own self-obsessed jive).

Garin Cycholl, Hostile Witness

If Charles Olson had written Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it would be a bit like this.

John Matthias, Working Progress, Working Title

I went back to this for an essay I wrote for The Salt Companion to John Matthias. Matthias really has reinvented himself late in his career, becoming a kind of rhizomatic writer without losing any of those qualities (playfulness, the historical sense) I love about his work.

John Matthias, Turns

This is another one I went back to for The Salt Companion to John Matthias. I’d written about most of Matthias’ major poems, but never really had my say about his “Double Derivation, Association, and Cliché: from The Great Tournament Roll of Westminster.” I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Charles Simic, White

It’s like what he’s writing now, but better. That cryptic-tailor’s-dummy-in-the-window-of-a-shop-that’s-been-abandoned-for-years kind of surrealism.

R.S. Gwynn, No Word of Farewell

I blogged about Gwynn a while back, saying he wrote the kind of poetry I couldn’t get into. He sent me an email saying he was going to kick my ass. We had a good correspondence and traded books. I got into an Augustan mode and really enjoyed “The Narcissiad,” which is worthy of Alexander Pope.

Michael Gizzi, New Depths in Deadpan

Not his best effort. I don’t know why. Maybe the same old game has become too easy.

Ken Smith, Tender to the Queen of Spain

Smith does a kind of Britsy ashcan-realism, and he does it very well, but just when you think you’ve got him pegged he hits you with bits of the sublime, of a sort of beauty opening up to the infinite. The opening and closing poems taken together should make the point, if you want to see what I mean. I should write something about him sometime. He was a good man. May he rest in peace.

George Oppen, Discrete Series

Sincere, restrained, austere. Anxious, too. I mean, William Carlos Williams is suffused with eros, everywhere – everything with him is the sap rising in the trees, and Penelope returning from the underworld bringing spring. But Oppen, who was attracted to the same kinds of scenes and wrote in a not-dissimilar vein, has none of that Williams exuberance. I think he worried a lot about whether he was doing the right thing. On a good day, he earns his “St. George” reputation. On a bad day, it feels like hang-wringing.

George Oppen, The Materials

Still sincere, restrained, and austere.

George Oppen, Of Being Numerous

Sincere, restrained, and austere meets a kind of E.M. Forster-ish injunction to “only connect.” The ending inserts a devastating new line break into Whitman’s Specimen Days, making Whitmanic patriotism problematic. I can see why so many people have been drawn to him lately.

Rachel Loden, Dick of the Dead

You want a book of freaky poems about Nixon? Rachel Loden’s got you covered. (Not all the poems are about Nixon, but my favorites are).

Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, The Rattle Bag

This is a big, catch-all anthology of poetry: some canonical, some not, some folkloric, some in translation, and presented in unconventional order. I spent a good chunk of the spring memorizing swaths of it while reading (later reciting) poems from this book to Lila, my daughter, who was born this February. She seems to like Blake most of all.

Arthur Rimbaud, Une Saison en Enfer

When I was in my teens I liked Rimbaud, but part of me sort of suspected I’d grow out of him, the way you grow out of Vonnegut or Kerouac (don’t hate me, Vonnegut and Kerouac fans — maybe I’m just missing what you’re getting). But I didn’t grow out of him. Every time I come back I’m more blown away by the audacity of the thing.

Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Compete

What can you say about Rimbaud? I suppose I could say I like Wyatt Mason’s translation. And I liked reading all of Rimbaud in the same book. The very early poems were a revelation: Rimbaud was a sharp-tongued critic of the bourgeoisie from the get-go.

Galway Kinnell, Body Rags

I know I read this recently, but honestly nothing much stays in mind, except that this was the looser Kinnell, not the super-tight work of the Kinnell who read Hopkins and tried to write like him.

Louis Scutenaire, Mes Inscriptions

Scutenaire was a Belgian Surrealist, which is the best kind of Surrealist outside of the Spanish-speaking world. This collection is just what it sounds like: a collection of his philosophical maxims, short (say, 5 line) dialogues, and slogans. Scutenaire’s the guy who said “It’s regrettable, for the education of the young, that memoirs of war are always written by people the war did not kill.” Also my favorite: “An angry cop: the usual, only more so.” I don’t know why American writers don’t often make books like these. The French have been at it for centuries. I translated a bunch of these this year, just for the hell of it.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Selected Poems

Despite the title, this book is huge. Cinderblock huge. And while there are Tennyson poems I will always love and admire — “The Lady of Shallot,” say, or “The Lotos-Eaters” — these are atypical of his work. In fact, most of the current anthology pieces aren’t like the main corpus of Tennyson’s work. We’ve selected the pieces that suit our taste, and edited out the melodramatic, moralizing, longwinded poems — Maud, Enoch Arden— that are most typical of his work. It’s hard to like them, but they were unbelievably popular in his lifetime. I’ve been working a little on an explanation of why our tastes are so different from those of the Victorians. (We’re actually closer to the Romantics in how we see the poet — on the outside of society, being critical — than we are to the Victorian mode).

Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems

The woman had range. And a real power of compassion. I think she made a particular effort to put herself in the psychological space of the kind of people who would have hated her. And I mean people who would have hated her for reasons of race, class, and politics. The world needs more of this: half the poets I know refuse to put themselves in the psychological space of people with whom they have stylistic differences.

Roberto Bolaño, Trés

Thank god for his minimalist, stripped-down style: it’s all my Spanish can handle. The book consists of three longish poems, with the usual Bolaño obsessions: dislocation, vague disappointment, urges toward some unspecifiable better life, poetry as doomed escape pod from some general disaster, etc. I’ve got to write a proper essay about this guy sometime.

Roberto Bolaño, The Romantic Dogs

It’s the same deal here as in Trés, except the poems are shorter and translated into English.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market

I try to read this every now and then. I mean, it’s got everything you want when you look into nineteenth century femininity: anxieties about consumerism, addiction, sexuality, sister- and mother-hood, etc. And the moral at the end of the story is as out of whack with the story itself as is the ending of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.


Seamus Perry, Alfred Tennyson

This is quite good on the music of Tennyson’s poetry, which is, after all, the main attraction. But I’ve been trying to think through the discursive situation Tennyson found himself in — you know, the weird moment in literary history where a poet could score big with the bourgeoisie. So I wanted an apple and Perry was serving oranges.

Jean Daive, Walks with Paul Celan

This is sort of a poem, sort of a memoir, and sort of a work of criticism. I loved it, and said why in this post.

Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries

I try to re-read this from time to time. Butler is very sharp regarding the social, political, and literary situation in which the Romantics found themselves.

Andrei Codresci, The Posthuman Dada Guide

Some people would say there are too many made-up anecdotes in this book for it to count as criticism, but that’s just a failure of imagination on their part. Anyway: Codrescu the critic is my favorite Codrescu, edging out the poet, the anecdotalist, the novelist, the editor, and even the media personality. Despite its formal differences, this book reminds me of Codrescu’s The Disappearance of the Outside, which had a great, very personal, history of Surrealism in it. Here, it’s Dada, set against political power. If you ever take the time to go over to the Internet Archive and download an audiofile of Codrescu’s Naropa lectures on Surrealism, you won’t regret it. I wish all critics wrote with this kind of verve.

Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology

I return to this from time to time. It’s the book that first made clear to me how deeply we’re still inscribed within the books the Romantics wrote. McGann wants us to get out. I’m not sure that’s possible, except incrementally.

William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure

I love these old British Pelican books from the forties, with “Not for Sale in the USA” printed on the covers. And they hold up well, too, since they’re smythe-sewn and not perfect bound with glue. Anyway, Gaunt writes a wonderfully embroidered and purplish prose. He’s light on explanatory power, but if you want a vivid, anecdotael history of the Aesthetic Movement in art and literature in France and England, Gaunt’s the guy.

Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle

Not everyone likes Wilson’s treatment of the symbolist movement in the closing chapters, but I do. A lot.

Jerome Hamilton Buckley, The Victorian Temper

This is an odd book from the midcentury. At the time, Victorianism was on the outs with literary types. A New Critical version of modernism made formalism out to be the big thing, and the Victorians were moralists, through and through (and pretty establishment moralists, too). Buckley was their apologist. I disagree with damn near everything he says here, but he’s a worthy opponent. He occupied a lonely position, too, and I admire that.

Elton Smith, The Two Voices: A Tennyson Study

Wow, this guy’s sharp. His survey of the state of Tennyson criticism at the start of the book is out of date now, but he sees through everyone. He understands not just what the critics believed about Tennyson, but why — usually better than those critics did themselves.

Justin Quinn, The Cambridge Introduction to Irish Poetry, 1800-2000

This is how you write a theoretically-informed book of lit-crit. The whole project if deeply Foucauldian: an analysis not just of Irish poetry, but of the discourse of Irish poetry, with its powers of classification, inclusion, and exclusion. But Quinn never so much as drops a critical name, nor does he drop in a lot of quotation from the theoretical masters. He just executes the project, with confidence and clarity. I wrote about this for Contemporary Literature.

Elmer Kennedy-Andrews, Writing Home: Poetry and Place in Northern Ireland, 1968-2008

A big, rangy book, kind of rough around the edges. But Kennedy-Andrews knows the territory as well as anyone. Way better than I do. I wrote about this for Contemporary Literature.

John Holloway, The Victorian Sage

I had hoped this would help me understand something about the difference between us and the Victorians. The introduction did. After that, it was all kind of familiar. Maybe his insights have been absorbed into the general culture of Victorian studies over the decades since the book appeared.

E.D.H. Johnson, The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry

This is the best book on the conundrums of Victorian poets ever written. Johnson really understands the cross-currents they faced: pulled in the direction of l’art pour l’art but also tempted by the chance of public honor, fame, and riches should they serve as moralists for the establishment (of which they were junior-members, mostly).

John Keats, Letters

I’m classifying these as lit-crit. I know it’s counterfactual, but I think if Keats had lived he’d have taken something like the Coleridge route to old-age Romanticism and become more of a critic. I mean, half his poems are about other poets, and he’s the most literary of the Romantics. Also, that aestheticism of his could get confining after a few more years. Then again, Keats lacked Coleridge’s philosophical background, so he probably didn’t have the chops to really develop his ideas with a whole lot of depth. Maybe he’d have ended up as a kind of Hazlitt.

David Lodge, The Art of Fiction

Lodge wrote these essays on various literary topics for a newspaper audience, and they have all of the journalistic virtues: brevity, clarity, coherence. I particularly like it when he mentions his own novels, but he's too English to do that as often as I'd like.

A.C. Bradley, The Reaction Against Tennyson

Bradley wrote this in 1917, and it tells you as much about the taste of that era as it tells you about Tennyson. Nice.

Alan Sinfield, Alfred Tennyson

This is a first stab at a kind of poststructuralist/Marxian reading of Tennyson. Much of the book actually consists of a patient explaining of the premises of such a form of criticism, presumably for an audience that wasn’t already up to speed. I’m pretty sympathetic to the endeavor.


Roberto Bolano The Savage Detectives

I blogged about this when I read it last year. I had to come back to it. Those short sections are like pretzels or wasabi nuts. You just keep going.

Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

This should probably be called a prose poem, not a work of fiction. Montage seems to be the structuring principle. It’s got that weird I-hate-my-loser-city/I-love-my-authentic-city Chicago thing going on.

Anthony Powell, The Acceptance World

Powell is not my normal thing. His ethos is so different: in the big cast of characters that recur throughout his linked novels, the good guys are always the reserved gentlemen, not the guys who seem to want to, you know, accomplish something. I suppose it’s too pseudo-aristocratic for me. I shouldn’t let this bother me as much as it does.

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

I had to wait until the Bush years were over to bring myself to read this book about how fascism could come to America. It’s chilling how plausible it seems. When it comes here, it’ll look folksy and friendly and be media savvy and hook into the people’s resentment, patriotism, and anti-intellectualism, says Lewis. I believe him. I miss some of the fantastically painful imitations of banal American speech Lewis gave us un Babbitt and Main Street, though we get flashes of all that here and there.

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

Weirdly, I’d never made it all the way through this before. It gets that naturalist thing down — showing how economic forces determine so many aspects of our existence. But I don’t think the man’s really got an ear for language.

Samuel Beckett, Fizzles

Short little prose pieces, rhythmic, and emblematic of a despair just barely held in check by the darkest humor. You expected something different?

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

I hate to think Pynchon might be fried out. Please, Tom, come back with something good next time out.

Thornton Wilder, The Cabala

I read a very sharp-seeming essay on Wilder’s early novels in The Believer and rushed out to grab a copy of this, his debut novel. It clanks. It clunks. I like the idea (the past stays with us, etc.). But you can get that from Faulkner and not have to feel like you’re reading a goddamn phone book.

Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varinasi

There are two options here. Either this is a dreadfully bad novel, which was praised highly in the British press only because Dyer is a journalist and he’s hooked up with all the appropriate writers and editors — or it’s not so bad, but my experience of it was effected by the conditions under which I read it (gooned on oxycontin in the hospital after a bike accident).

Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de Bohême

I don’t know why so much French prose of the mid-nineteenth century reads like it wants to be a play. This, of course, became more famous on the stage than it ever did between hard covers.

Bram Stoker, Dracula

It had been a while since I read this. It’s bourgeois as all hell. I mean, you leave modern England and head east, and you’re not just moving through space, you’re moving through time, into the primitive, irrational past — like in Heart of Darkness but without all of the self-reflexiveness you get in Conrad. And then there’s the nature of the threat: Dracula as the remnant of a traditional aristocratic society, who must be destroyed by a coalition of bourgeois professional men, with the help of technology. Franco Moretti’s reading is a bit different, though: he says that while Stoker thought of Dracula as a hold-over aristocratic threat to the middle class order, Dracula actually represents a capitalist threat to the middle class. He runs a socially-unsettling Ponzi scheme, and it’s the professional classes, not the business classes, who bring him to heel. Worth a look (Moretti, I mean. And Stoker, too).

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Gotta read this every year. Can’t do without it.

Philosophy and Critical Theory

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre de d'Alembert

The really good part of this comes at the end, with Rousseau’s famous argument against the establishment of a theater in Geneva. Theater may be harmless for the degenerates of monarchial France, says Rousseau, but in a republic like Geneva it can only do harm. It’ll reduce the population to a silent, isolated audience. What’s needed are participatory folk festivals, where the group dissolves into a Dionysian whole. It all sounds a bit North Korean to me.

St. Augustine, Confessions

If you make a conscious effort to transpose the Christian thinking into a language with less baggage attached to it, there’s much here about the nature of being that still speaks to us. And the bits where Augustine is truly culturally alien to us are fascinating, too, for the difference. Also, the satirical barbs aimed at the Manichees are still fun, even though no one’s needed to satirize a pompous Manichee for 1500 years.

Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II

I read this last year, and came back to it again this year. The piece on Anglo-American literature is fantastic.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature

I consumed this while riding the Septa trains between Bucks County and Philadelphia. The notion of minor literature — of a kind of writing that, instead of articulating the values of a civilization, messes with said values — is very much with us. In fact, I think it’s our (that is, we literary type people’s) embrace of minor lit over major lit that makes it so hard to like the main run of Tennyson’s work. Or, for that matter, makes us skeptical of Whitman’s patriotism. We no longer think of ourselves as a cultured minority leading the nation — we’re a minority culture, griping from the margins. You know, like in highschool.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, On the Line

This is a slick little semiotext(e) edition of some classic stuff, including the essay on rhizome.

Auguste Comte, Plan de Travaux Scientifiques Nécessaires pour Réorganiser la Société

One of my favorites of all the books I read this year. I mean, everybody talks about positivism, but people in English departments only seem to do so in order to sneer at it dismissively. So I went to see for myself what it was all about, and lo, Comte turns out to be a serious intellect. The division of history into theological, metaphysical, and positive phases, and the working out of the meaning of both the French and the (then incipient) industrial revolutions are fascinating. And Comte had a true historical imagination before most intellectuals did (okay, most still don’t). Anyway, I blogged a bit about some of his ideas in another context.

John Stuart Mill, Mill on Bentham and Coleridge

Mill’s an interesting guy, in that he’s a representative of Utilitarianism who nevertheless takes the German metaphysical tradition seriously. I don’t know if there’s a comparable figure in Germany, though maybe we could argue for Marx as the union of Hegel and British political economy, which would be sort of analogous.

Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution

I keep coming back to Williams, despite his flaws. I suppose it’s because he really does see the continuity of literature with the wider world.

Gherasin Luca, Dialectique de la Dialectique

I was turned on to this by Andrei Codrescu, who talks it up in The Posthuman Dada Guide. It’s an eccentric piece of work, more erotic-surrealist than Hegelian.

Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy, A Very Short Introduction

Critchley’s the man who explained the gist of Heidegger’s Being and Time in a half-dozen articles in The Guardian, and did a pretty solid job of it, too, considering the limitations. This book’s really written for a reader different from me: Critchely seems to assume the reader is a fan of Anglo-American analytic philosophy who needs to be talked into the continental tradition. Me, I’m the other way around.

Milovan Djelas, The New Class

Djelas explains the different kind of social evolution the Eastern Bloc underwent compared to the west, and does a good job of it. Long story short, the bourgoisie in Russia were too weak and too beholden to Western powers to form a power capable of modernizing the country and pushing for political reform. A new class of ideological technocrats had to be conjured for that. He got thrown in jail for his views.


Lorainne Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

The first African-American play to be produced on Broadway. It’s got a lot going for it: deep insight into the different psychological needs of different generations of African-Americans, a sense of the way real social constraints shape even the most intimate details of our lives, but in the end I think it’s just a bit too issue-y, a bit too talking-heads-ish to be a real favorite of mine.

David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross

Recently a colleague told me he thought the play was less elaborate than the movie. I checked it out. He's right.

Graphic Novels

David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp

I didn't read many graphic novels this year, which is unusual for me. This one's good: the artwork is incredible, the story fine until the end, the meditations on the nature of creativity aren’t bad.

Gilbert Shelton, The Complete Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (vol. 1)

When I was a kid I would sometimes find some of Shelton's underground comics lying around in the art students' lounge at the University of Manitoba, where my dad taught. Reading Shelton's crazy-ass hippie comics again proves that, by and large, they hold up pretty well. I wish the long-projected Freak Bros. movie, Grass Roots, would get finished, but I'm starting to think it's not going to happen.

Gilbert Shelton, The Complete Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (vol. 2)

Volume one collected all of the black and white Freak Bros. comics, this one gives you the full-color ones.


Adolph Reed, Jr., Class Notes

The essay on “Posing as Politics” more or less demolishes as ineffective pretention a lot of the left’s multiculturalism. That Reed does this demolishing from the left of the people he attacks may surprise some people.

Franklin Rosemont, An Open Invitation to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers

Like the title says, it’s a book about dialing and receiving wrong numbers. In accord with the great tradition of Surrealism, Rosemont looked on chance and error as a kind of poetry and as possibilities for micro-revolutions in consciousness. Rosemont died this year, a real loss. His edition of Breton is still the best one in English.

Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods

A book about the state of India, which does away with the lingering Orientalist trope of India as a land of spirituality not materiality. There’s some fascinating stuff on the odd way India is going about modernization. The classic order is industry, then middle class, then democracy. In India, the order’s been democracy, then the middle class, with industry left out. Luce tells you why.

Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand On

After I broke my leg, a friend suggested I read this account of Sack’s own leg injury. I enjoyed the book, but really it should have been an essay. It came right after Sacks’ big hit with Awakenings, and I’m pretty sure his publishers found the right buttons to push to make Sacks think it would be a good idea to take a small amount of material and make a (very marketable) book out of it.

Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism

Tanenhaus is half-right about things. If you want to know why, and don’t mind me going on for too long about Comte, Metternich, and Sarah Palin, you could check out this post.


I think that averages out to a bit under two titles a week, not including whatever books I read between now and the end of the year. I think, though, I'll be settling down to about three months worth of unread copies of the TLS before I crack open another paperback.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Something the French Do, Something the Irish Did: Notes on the Audience for Philosophy and Poetry

A few years ago I found myself running late for dinner with my wife, parents, and friends in Paris. As I came careening gracelessly around a corner of the Place du Panthéon, I came damn close to knocking over a glamorous looking guy who was being interviewed by a small television crew. I muttered my "Je regrette" and "désolé," and then it struck me: the man was none other than Bernard-Henri Lévy, France's best-known philosopher. I gawked a bit, irking the television crew even more than I'd already done, before pulling myself together and huffing and puffing along on my way to the (now vanished) Table D'Aude, home of the finest cassoulet ever to clog Parisian arteries.

The scene I'd interrupted — an animated philosopher discoursing about pubic policy for a t.v. camera, against the background of the dome of the Panthéon — couldn't have been more French if it were carrying a baguette, smoking a Gauloise, and carrying pornography home in the basket of a scooter. I mean, one can hardly imagine an American equivalent, a scene in which NBC asked, say, T. M. Scanlon for a few casual comments on the events of the day. Philosophy simply has a bigger public presence in France than it has in the United States: philosophy is taught in French schools, French philosophers write regularly for the popular press, and guys like Bernard-Henri Lévy are recognizable media presences (everyone knows what the initials BHL stand for, and everyone knows the man by his trademark open-collar white shirts. No one in America knows or cares what T.M. Scanlon wears, and if asked what TMS stood for, most people would assume it's a new cable channel).

So what's the deal? I mean, it's not as if American intellectuals don't yearn for some space in the public eye. Barrels of ink have been spilled on the topic of public intellectuals in America, most of it having gone either to lament the lack of such public intellectuals, elegize the (real or imagined) decline of such figures, or to plot and scheme about how intellectuals can gain a greater presence in American public life. A decade ago, Florida Atlantic University actually started a doctoral program intended to produce public intellectuals (due to budget cuts it suspended admissions this fall). Clearly there are intellectuals in America who aspire to a public role, but it just isn't happening for them the way it's been happening for the French. Why?

I stumbled into an answer of sorts the other day when, unable to spend another minute reading galley proofs for a piece I'd written about recent scholarship in Irish poetry, I staggered out of my office and down the hall to see Dave Park, a colleague from Lake Forest's Communications Department. Parksie set aside his pile of end-of-semester grading, blinked wearily as I heaved myself down on his office couch, and asked me what I'd been working on. Always ready to inflict my obsessions on anyone who gives me an opening, I pulled the proofs for my article out of my bag and asked him what he thought of a paragraph where I discussed the critic Elmer Kennedy-Andews' treatment of the Irish poet John Montague. Montague was a somewhat lonely apostle of modernism in Irish poetry, and Kennedy-Andrews, I'd written, had done a good job of made a point of

tracing the influence of American poets like Hart Crane, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan on Montague’s poetry, and he does well to draw attention to Montague’s 1974 essay “In the Irish Grain,” which he sees as a call for a more expansive, experimental poetry than was offered by British models at the time. Likewise, Kennedy-Andrews writes insightfully about Montague’s attitude to place and nation, calling him a “global regionalist"—that is, a figure concerned with the intersections of local life and the kind of international culture and history that so fascinated poets like Pound and Eliot. It’s unfortunate, though, that Kennedy-Andrews didn’t go further in exploring the connections between Montague’s interest in American experimental poetics and his aversion to the role traditionally offered to the Irish poet as the voice of the nation. After all, the American tradition that interested Montague developed in a country that offered poetry very little by way of a public role, and that therefore placed a low premium on the ability of the poet to communicate to the common reader. In choosing a formally experimental tradition, Montague was implicitly rejecting the idea of the poet as someone who spoke to a broad national audience. All the elements for an argument along this line exist in Writing Home, but the argument itself never quite emerges.

[This is from a piece called "Postnational Ireland," which will be coming out soon in Contemporary Literature]

Irish poets, I explained to the indulgent Park, enjoyed a wide national audience and a high status unknown to their American peers, but this came with a price. To retain this status, they had to conform to a certain kind of reader-friendly discourse and, more importantly, they had to write as Irish poets — that is, as representatives of national identity. Since Irish decolonization in the late nineteenth century found cultural expression (especially literary expression) before it could find meaningful political expression, there was a tradition of seeing the poet as connected to national identity. If you wrote as a nationalist, you'd have an audience and status — but the essential part of the nationalist poet, as far as the audience was concerned, was nationalism, not poetry. When Montague went in other directions, he soon found that the people weren't really all that interested in poetry per se, and wrote his way into a kind of obscurity. Not that that's bad. I mean, obscurity (in terms of visibility, and sometimes in terms of lucidity) is the place where almost all American poetry lives.

When I'd finished, Park gave me another blink, then said "Oh. Like in France." Seeing that I was slow on the uptake, he explained. Apparently, it's like this: France has made a public place for philosophy for reasons similar to those the Irish used in making a public place for poetry. That is, it became connected to national identity. It's not that philosophy was important in itself, it's that it became an expression of what it meant to be French.

One way to date the origins for this is to look at French television in the 1950s. The French were deep into a crisis of national identity, confronting their eclipse as a world power, feeling with trepidation their weakening grip on their colonies, recovering from the humiliation of the occupation and the shame of the Vichy regime, all in the shadow of a growing Anglo-American cultural hegemony. What to put on television? How to reassure themselves of the greatness of their national tradition? How to distinguish themselves from the relentlessly anti-intellectual onslaught of American pop culture? What to turn to in answer to the question "what makes us French, anyway?" Ah! Philosophy! Philosophy makes us French! We have that. We have Sartre, we have Camus, we have Voltaire and Diderot and all the rest! And so a place was made in French media culture for the public intellectual, especially the philosopher.

Of course there had to be some existing tradition that identified philosophy with Frenchness, otherwise the gesture would have been hollow and as doomed to failure as Florida Atlantic University's embarrassingly ill-conceived program for the creation of public intellectuals. The French Revolution, though, had created a strong bond between the idea of Frenchness and the idea of philosophy. There have, after all, been few moments when philosophical thinkers took such a prominent role in the creation of a new vision of a nation-state. So there was a useable past available: the French had long identified philosophy with the nation, and now it could be made into part of an ongoing media spectacle that would assure the French public that they were special, had a great tradition, and weren't just a province of the emerging postwar American hegemony.

My favorite moment in this story actually involves the rejection of a French philosopher by a French nationalist. Charles DeGaulle is reported to have said of Sartre "he is not French." I suppose this was a right-wing politician's attempt to discredit a left-wing philosopher, a gesture sort of akin to the McCarthy-era charge that political lefties were somehow un-American. But what this really shows us is just how important philosophers had become as national figures in France. I mean, George W. Bush never even had to acknowledge the existence of Richard Rorty, much less try to discredit him as a figure of national identity.

So it's not that the Irish love poetry more than we do, or that the French love philosophy more than we do. Or at any rate it's not as simple as that. I suppose the best analogy to what happened in France and Ireland would be something like sexual fetishism. I mean, nation-states need to cultivate the idea of nationalism, and the public in a nation state wants assurance of its national identity. In France, this became associated with philosophy, and in Ireland, with poetry — much as sexual attraction can become associated with something other than the body. The movement of attraction from, say, the body of a woman to something associated with that body (high-heeled boots, to use a common enough example) is much like the movement from nationalism to philosophy or poetry we see in France and Ireland. Of course, once the association comes into being, it'll become the primary thing for some people — so just as there are high-heeled boot fetishists in greater numbers in cultures where people wear such boots than in those where they don't, there are going to be more philosophy-geeks and poetry-nerds in France and Ireland, respectively, than there are in most countries. But in both cases nationalism was the primary force, and philosophy and poetry came to prominence by (often subtle) association with the idea of national identity.

It's all started to change in Ireland, though. There are still poets, often excellent poets, peddling Irish identity — one thinks of Heaney, Boland, or Paul Muldoon in his way. But I think it's important that these are ex-patriot poets, and not young. The younger poets in Ireland don't seem that animated by the nationalist tradition any more, a sign that the old association of nationalism and poetry is coming to an end. The Irish poet Vona Groarke gets at all this when asked by an interviewer about what makes for an Irish poem:

It's easy to say what has been an Irish poem, but now that glass has been shattered, and there are so many parts of it. It used to be a rural poem, but it's not anymore. Now it's equally likely to be urban as it is to be rural... I find it quite difficult to define what an Irish poem is now, and I think that's a healthy.

I imagine it is healthy for what we might call the biodiversity of poetry in Ireland. There will be less pressure to write in a particular way. Then again, I expect we'll hear, a generation hence, a fair bit of bitching and moaning from Irish poets about their lack of a place in the public eye. It will sound, one imagines, a lot like what one hears from American poets and intellectuals now.


In other news, my next book will be out soon. It's called Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry. You can read about it at the publisher's site or pre-order it on


In still other news, Louis Armand's out-of-print Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde Under Post- Conditions is now archived online. You can read the entire book, including my contribution, "The Death of the Critic: The Critic-Pasticheur as Postmodern Avant-Gardist" at the archive site.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Black Dog's Bedside Manner

The Sunday Poetry Series, run by Okla Eliiott, is predicated on a good idea: re-presenting poems that have already been published. And I'm not just saying that because this week Okla made a terrible lapse and republished "Black Dog's Bedside Manner," a poem of mine that originally appeared in ACM.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Speed Kant

This guy's good. It takes me 80 minutes to do this in my theory of literature seminar.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Modern Jacobins: What Elite? What People?

“The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than the American Revolution.”
       —Sam Tanenhaus, The Death of Conservatism

We’ve become used to it, over the past year, this spectacle of The People Enraged. Red-faced or tear-streaked, they shouted down their elected representatives in town hall meetings across the nation. Flags and homemade banners waving, they stomped angrily through D.C., denouncing the treachery not only of the government but of the very media that exaggerated the protesters’ numbers and kept them at the center of public debate. It isn’t just the current political administration and the government apparatus that The People Enraged denounce, either: they consign government and media elites to the same circle of hell where they would hurl academic elites, scientific elites, and experts of all kinds. The spectacle in front of us is one in which the outraged populace rebels against the legitimacy of authority. That their most beloved representative, Sarah Palin, is reviled by these elites for her ignorance, her lack of curiosity, her inattention to rigor in thought or fact in argument, merely increases the fervor of their support. Palin’s legitimacy comes not from the respect of these elites: it comes from embodying, or seeming to embody, the ethos of The People Enraged.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review as well as that paper’s “Week in Review” section, certainly qualifies as a card-carrying member of the media elite, and it is small wonder that, in his book The Death of Conservatism, he looks with some alarm on the spectacle of public outrage. While the enragés tend to wrap themselves in the trappings of conservatism and American patriotism, Tanenhaus sees their true ancestors elsewhere, in French radicalism. For him, The People Enraged are modern Jacobins. There is a profound sense in which he is entirely correct: like the Jacobins, The People Enraged seek to delegitimate powerful elites in the name of the people. But there is another sense in which Tanenhaus’ claim is misleading. When we look at just what is being challenged in the name of the people, and just who invokes the idea of the people to make the challenge, we find we are dealing not with Jacobins but with something else entirely.

The wave of radicalism that washed over Europe in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century drenched the continent in a rhetoric of popular legitimacy. The radicals of the time looked on the old regime, with its privileges reserved for heads that wore crowns or bishop’s mitres, and scoffed at the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the old versions of authority. Against the supposedly divine source of the sovereign rights of popes, emperors, bishops, and kings, the radicals invoked a new source of legitimacy: the people themselves. And just who were the people? The English man of letters William Hazlitt gives a sense of what his fellow Jacobin-inspired radicals meant in the opening paragraph of his 1818 essay “What is The People?”:

And who are you that ask the question? One of the people. And yet you would be something! Then you would not have the People nothing. For what is the People? Millions of men, like you, with hearts beating in the bosoms, with thoughts stirring in their minds, with the blood circulating in their veins, with wants and appetites, and passions and anxious cares, and busy purposes and affections for others and a respect for themselves and a desire for happiness, and a right to freedom, and a will to be free. And yet you would tear out this mighty heart of a nation, and lay it bare and bleeding at the foot of despotism: you would stay the mind of a country to fill up the dreary aching void with the old, obscene, driveling prejudices of superstition and tyranny: you would tread out the eye of Liberty (the light of nations) like ‘a vile jelly,’ that mankind may be led about darkling to its endless drudgery, like the Hebrew Sampson (shorn of his strength and blind), by his insulting taskmasters: you would make the throne everything, and the people nothing, to be yourself a very slave, a reptile, a creeping, cringing sycophant, a court favorite, a pander to Legitimacy…

We have met The People, and they are us. And what opposes us? Entrenched privilege, hereditary despotism, and the mindset that grants unwarranted legitimacy to a hierarchical system of traditional authority. The choice in the great political struggles of the era seemed clear enough, to the radicals: we, the people, against the intellectually and morally bankrupt representatives of traditional elitism and their sycophantic lackeys.

The radical notion that sovereignty lay with the people, and equally radical notion that the intellectuals who read writers like Hazlitt were one with the people, did not go unchallenged. Consider the words of one of the master-statesman of nineteenth century European counter-revolution, the Austrian Prince von Metternich in a secret memorandum sent to Russia’s Czar Alexander in 1820. “Kings have to calculate the chances of their very existence in the immediate future,” wrote Metternich, for “passions are let loose, and league together to overthrow everything which society respects as the basis of its existence; religion, public morality, laws, customs, rights, and duties — all are attacked, confounded, overthrown, or called in question.” Metternich, though, is quick to add that revolution is not inevitable, as the great mass of the people remain indifferent to politics, and yearn only for “a repose which exists no longer, and of which even the first elements seem to be lost.”

If not the people, who, then, sought to undermine the old order? “The presumptuous man,” said Metternich, the man who would question long-established traditions of “religion, morality, legislation, economy, politics, [and] administration.” “Faith is nothing to him,” Metternich snarls, for the presumptuous new man “substitutes for it a pretended individual conviction.” For Metternich, the easy identification of intellectuals and populace united against privilege — the identification assumed by writers like Hazlitt — is a fiction. The people, far from being sovereign, are an indifferent mass, wanting only to be left alone. Agitation comes from an emerging intellectual elite that is rootless, arrogant, and without respect for the stabilizing influence of tradition.

August Comte was one of the relatively few political thinkers who transcended the debate between radicals like Hazlitt and the Jacobins, on the one side, and defenders of the old order like Metternich, on the other. Hazlitt and Metternich merely articulated political positions: Comte, the founder of Positivism and the grandfather of modern sociology, envisioned the evolving history in which these positions played a part. In doing so he saw further into the idea of “the people” and their position vis-à-vis elites than either Hazlitt or Metternich could.

Looking around at the aftermath of the French Revolution and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Comte came to the conclusion that society was in the process of evolving. In his 1822 Plan of the Scientific Operations Necessary for Reorganizing Society, Comte argued that society had emerged from what he called a Theological Phase, in which legitimacy had been based on a notion of God, and on authority — such as the divine right of kings or the apostolic succession that underwrote the power of the Papacy — based on notions of the divine. It had accomplished this emergence by entering what Comte called the Metaphysical Phase: the philosophical phase of revolutionary thinking in which old forms of authority were made to seem illegitimate by the idea that the people themselves, not god-sanctioned kings, were sovereign. The difference between Comte and a thinker like Hazlitt is that Comte saw the idea of the people as an abstraction, not as a reality. You can’t, after all, meet with the people, nor is it possible to reduce such a heterogeneous bunch to a single entity with a single opinion. In many ways, the idea of “the people” is an illusion. But they are a powerful illusion, capable of stripping away the aura of legitimacy surrounding the old order.

For Comte, such a stripping-away is really all that the Metaphysical Phase, with its belief in the people, can accomplish. Appeals to “the people” can tear down old authority, but aren’t a practical way to establish new authority. Even if we could assemble the people, we would still face the problem of competence in the various areas of government. “Let the mass of men become as highly instructed as possible,” says Comte, and we still have problems, because “it is evident that the greater part of the general conceptions currently received can only be accepted by them on trust and not as the result of demonstration.” The people cannot govern directly, nor can public opinion (if, in fact, it can be accurately measured) guide us in the highly technical issues of a modern, complex society. For that, we need experts: experts in economics, in the sciences, in the management of large organizations, in the administration of the law. Such people were, for Comte, the heroes of the emerging phase of civilization, the Positive Phase, in which the theological and populist forms of legitimacy are to be replaced by the legitimacy of expert knowledge. With Comte, the idea of the modern technocratic state was born.

So the Jacobins, and generations of radicals they inspired, were against traditional authority and inherited privilege of elites who grounded their authority, ultimately, in notions of god. But what of the new popular anger? Tanenhaus is right in calling them Jacobins in that they present themselves as representing the anger of the people at elites. But his analysis is inexact, because the kind of authority, and the kind of elite, to which the modern populists object is entirely different from the theologically-sanctioned authority and traditionally-established elite to which the Jacobins objected. What the modern populists object to, really, are the elites and modes of authority Comte saw as belonging to the Positive Phase of society: it is the elites of expertise that are under attack.

It is not, of course, the case that we are ruled by an elite entirely composed of experts in the various fields of human endeavor. Most power in our society resides in the hands of those who control capital: if, for example, the energy industry were controlled by experts on energy policy, we’d be working a lot harder and a lot faster at getting ourselves off the diminishing supply of environmentally unsafe fossil fuels. Clearly, vested capital interests are the most powerful faction in our elites. But there is another faction of the elite, composed of what sociologist Alvin Gouldner called “the new class”: people whose power derives not from capital but from expertise. These are the people who staff government agencies, who fill the universities, who work with nonprofit organizations, who form the ranks of the professions and, sometimes, find their way into high-level positions in some political administrations. They are often at odds with the elites of capital, seeking to curb or regulate (though not to eliminate) the otherwise unbridled power of capital. When the new populists line up behind Sarah Palin to attack the elite, it is this particular branch of the elite they have in mind. The other branch of the elite — the elite of capital, rather than the elite of expertise — is not just exempt from much of movement conservatism’s populist outrage: often, it sponsors that very outrage.

So, in the end, we do not have a new Jacobinism in which an entrenched elite is undermined by a popular movement. Rather, we have a pseudo-populism, in which resentment against one part of the elite is harnessed by a competing part of the elite. This is a far cry from Jacobin radicalism. It may well look, to paraphrase Metternich, like passions have been let loose, and league together to overthrow everything you and I (yes, fellow junior members of the elite of expertise, I’m talking about us) respect as the basis of social existence — science, tolerance, economic regulations, civil rights, and intellectual diligence. But in the end, The People Enraged who are so relentlessly pushed into our consciousness by the right-wing media are more spectacle than grassroots force. And they are as much instruments of the capital-owning elites (insurance companies, say) as they are manifestations of any program that could conceivably benefit the population at large. Which does not, of course, mean they aren't dangerous. It just means they aren't what they seem to be.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Being, Becoming, and Fatherhood

[Warning: this post is much more about me and my life than my usual posts are. I don't blame you if you want to go read something else.]

Back when I was in grad school, I used to carpool from Chicago to my teaching gig at Notre Dame with a lanky guy who got his news from Fox, his opinions from Rush, and his general outlook from a hybrid of Nietzsche and Pentecostalism. It made for some interesting rides, as we argued our way through the post-industrial wasteland of northern Indiana, especially since he had little patience for the commute and an uncanny ability to talk his way out of speeding tickets, drawling long, slow explanations to the cops from behind his aviator shades. He was in his thirties, about a decade older than I was, and, when we would reach a particularly impassible point of fundamental disagreement, he'd sigh, lower those shades, look over at me from behind a speedometer that hovered up near the triple digits, and say "Well, Archambeau, you're young. You'll see it my way when that women is fool enough to marry you and you have kids." I've had to wait a long time to see for myself whether his dire prediction would come to pass, but nine months into this fatherhood gig I'm willing to crawl out on a limb and say he was just fucking wrong.

Generally, I've found the predictions about fatherhood to be kind of off-base. It hasn't been as hard as some people told me it would be. One colleague — a man predisposed by my bitching and moaning visits to his office to see of me as rather thin-skinned, or as something of a delicate orchid — was particularly stern in his warnings about the implications of having a child. "Look," he said, "right now you live in a pleasure dome, a palace of pleasant breezes, but when the little one comes, all that will change," here he would sigh, and look out the window in the general direction of his dilapidated Victorian house, his three kids, and a wife best described as "difficult." "When the little one comes," he'd continue, "the pleasure dome will be forever destroyed, and life becomes a desperate holding action, carried on against superior force." He wrote a lot about the literature of the Vietnam war, and I think it crept into his metaphors. Anyway, fatherhood hasn't felt that way for me, maybe because I'm now at a point when Valerie and I can afford to have some help raising the kid, and maybe because we got very, very lucky in the nanny-hiring lottery.

Other predictions have proven false, too. Apparently you can still go out to the movies, and you can still discover new music while doing the parent thing. Again, this may have something to do with not being a penniless twenty-something itinerant poetry teacher at this point in my life.

But there is one significant way that fatherhood has changed things for me. It's not just that I've had different experiences (a closer acquaintance with baby feces than had heretofore been the case, say, or a different relation to sleep, or a constant astonishment at the stream of firsts — waves, smiles, rollings-across-the-floor, etc.). I think there's a different orientation to experience. I don't mean that this is better or worse than my non-kid-having orientation to experience —I hate the smugness of some parents I've met, who seem to think that the only path to complete humanity lies through the raising of urchins. I thought that was wrong during my long childless period, and I think it's wrong now. But I do think that, at least for me, there's a different relation to the world now.

Maybe I've spent too much time reading Hegel (in fact, scratch the "maybe" there) but I think the best way to get at the nature of this different way of experiencing the world is through the contrast between the idea of being and the idea of becoming. Here's the deal: by the time my daughter was born this past February, I'd pretty much reached a point of stability in my life. I mean, I'd finished grad school, landed a teaching job, made tenure, and been promoted to full professor. I'd found the one woman on earth capable of dealing with my bullshit in a loving and affirming way, married her, and we'd been together in wedded bliss for sixteen years. We were settled into a house, into our sets of friends, and our careers (she's the one with the Big Deal job, by the way). I'd had a book or two published, and felt about as professionally established as I'd care to feel. All that was done, and didn't loom before me with the kind of urgency I feel when I get emails from former students hungering for the dream job, the back yard, the right guy, or whatever. It didn't feel like a rut — it felt a lot like fulfillment. And there was always something new happening in terms of whatever I was intellectually engaged with. But I was more or less who I was going to become, and the texture of life from one season to the next, one year to the next, was sort of the same. It was easy, too, which is both good and bad, I suppose.

All this was a matter of being, not becoming. Think about it: the protagonists of folklore or mythology don't change: they are what they are, they have the traits they're going to have. They have new adventures, but they don't experience fundamental changes. It's true for modern folklore, too: whenever I try to explain this stuff to students, I say that James Bond is the a creature of pure being, rather than becoming. Sure, we often see him doing some training exercise at the beginning of the movies, but he's not striving to become something he's not: he's maintaining his general awesomeness. He is what he is: a hyper-resourceful adventurer and ladies' man. He couldn't be more different from, say, the protagonist of the nineteenth-century bildungsroman. The lead characters in those books are all about change and growth. The reason so many of those novels are named after the protagonist (Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, etc.) is that the protagonist is where the action is: he or she will grow, evolve, and learn. By contrast, Bond movies are often named after villains (Dr. No) or love interests (Octopussy) or whatever. In the world of becoming, you don't have a stable, ordinary world that you venture out from to have your adventures (the way 007 had headquarters with M and Moneypenny, or the way pre-kid-havin' Archambeau had the comfortable little bubble from which he'd make forays into weird books of poetry and obscure works of theory). In the world of becoming, you don't have a stable place or a stable identity: you're on the road, in motion, and evolving all the time.

The thing about having a kid (and I imagine many of you know this better than I do) is that it throws you straight into the whirlwind of becoming. I mean, a kid is all change, all becoming, all the time: it seems Little Lila has a new paradigm of behavior and a new set of skills every week, a new emotional climate every two weeks, and a new wardrobe every month. And she's plugged directly into my life, so I'm always adapting to this, and becoming different along with her. I mean, take something as simple and straightforward as the way the house is arranged. Before Lila came along, the only real changes in the house came about for aesthetic purposes ("let's re-arrange the ceramics on the mantlepiece, or find a place for the new thingy we scored while antiquing, or let's figure a way to get that pile of books off the floor," that sort of thing). Now, the house is in a constant flux: bassinets and baby swings came and went, followed by bouncy-chairs and play-pens, which were followed in turn by a wholesale revamping of the sunroom into a colorful, rubber-tiled, toy-strewn Zone du Kid. It's not a house in a state of being, it's a house in a state of becoming. And that's just the surface: the three-character dynamic of mom, dad, and kid is in constant flux to accommodate Lila's ongoing miraculous transformations. It's different from the old two-character act, which we had down, people, down. Now it's more like improv comedy. All becoming, all the time.

But that doesn't catch everything about the nature of the change in how one relates to experience. There's something different, which we might be able to get at with Nietzsche rather than Hegel. Remember Wim Wenders' wonderful movie Wings of Desire? I always thought it had a lot to do with Nietzche's ideas of Apollonian and Dionysian experience. In the beginning, we follow some angels through Berlin: they look like regular people, but drift unseen through the city, standing near people and hearing their thoughts. There's a great scene where the angels do this in a library, walking past readers and hearing their reflections on what they're reading. The angels feel deeply, and understand, but have no other connection to the world or the people they see. They're distant, understanding and appreciating the world but not really being engaged with it. They have nothing at stake in the struggles of the world, no self-interest or group-interest to protect. This is Apollonian stuff, all self-possession and aesthetic distance. I think of my pre-Lila life like this. But when she was born, I felt like the angel in the Wenders film who chooses to become human, to enter the world of time and change and to lose the distance of the Apollonian, angelic perspective. Suddenly, the angel finds himself a part of what he had observed, with something at stake, with things to protect and with the urgent need to shelter those for whom he cared most. The collapse of Apollonian distance was complete, and he'd been absorbed into the world — a good portion of the Dionysian experience, really.

I don't mean to place one mode of experience above the other (Wenders doesn't, nor does Nietzsche, though Nietzsche did seem to think that the fusion of the two modes of experience in Greek tragedy was a higher form of experience). But I do think there's a sense of engagement that comes with having a kid that's different from the generally aesthetic, semi-disinterested way of experiencing things I had going on before. Maybe it was an awareness of this that made my old carpool partner think I'd change my politics when I became a father. Though how you could get from the world of becoming and the anti-Apollonian stance to Rush Limbaugh is as much beyond me as is the secret of making cops back off when they nab you for speeding.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Letter to Andrea Brady

Andrea Brady has left a string of comments by way of response to my article “Public Faces in Private Places: Messianic Privacy in Cambridge Poetry.” There’s much of interest in them, including this statement about what it felt like to be in Cambridge in the late 90s, around the Prynne circle:

Throughout the time I did spend in Cambridge I felt distinctly female and distinctly American. I guess it was no accident that I ended up writing a chapter of my thesis on the way that 17th century literary coteries preserved the authority of patriarchal poets through agonistic self-definition and fantasies of all-male reproduction. But I didn’t see the resemblance at the time.

That says a lot, really. I wish I’d been able to incorporate it into the article! Anyway, Andrea’s comments merit a proper response. In lieu of that, I’ve written this. It probably belongs down in the comments stream of the post announcing the publication of the article, but it’s bulky, so it’s here instead.

Hey Andrea,

Thanks for the long, thoughtful response to the essay. I’ve written about a pretty wide range of poets over the years, and one of the things I like most about poets from the more experimental end of things is that they so often write back after one writes about their work. Most of the more formally conservative people don’t seem to want that sort of back-and-forth, though I did have a great exchange with R.S. Gwynn after I wrote about one of his sonnets a while ago.

Anyway. I understand your wariness about the term “Cambridge Poetry,” even when it comes with a string of disclaimers attached. I mean, it was the same way back when people started talking about Language Poetry — lots of people objected to it, and some felt oppressed by it. I remember Steve Evans talking about this back in the late 90s at a conference in Belgium. Here’s what I noted about it in a post-conference wrap-up report for Jacket:

Steve Evans made some good points afterward about the way poets have reacted to being labeled with the 'L= word' — nobody thinks it is quite right for them, but then again they see some parallels, and in the discourse about avant-garde poetry, one seems to be either a language poet or not to count at all, so poets seem to ultimately accept the label, albeit with reservations.

There were, and are, all sorts of problems with the term “Language Poetry,” which (as your local schoolmarm will tell you) started life as “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry,” referencing the journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (I remember Jeff Derkson giving a paper called “Where have all the equals signs gone” around the time people gave up on typing them out). I suppose the two main reasons people stopped typing all those equals signs were 1. It was tedious as all hell, and 2. Whether a poem had been published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or not became incidental: the movement or tendency had become larger than that.

When you write that you’re “forever being labelled ‘Cambridge School’, even though I’ve lived in London for nearly twice as long as I was a gownie,” and when you ask “would we say that Dell Olsen is now Cambridge School, because she lives in the episcopacy,” I suppose you’re objecting to the geographic nature of the term. I get it. But I suppose what’s happened is that geography has become incidental, just as publication in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E became incidental to what was meant by Language Poetry. I use the term because that’s the term that seems to be coming into use.

One might — one should, I suppose — ask whether the term is, in the end, a good thing. I’m inclined to think that, like most words, it both reveals and conceals. Everything you say about differences between individual poets is true, and everything you say about periodization sounds right, too. I mean, I your idea of that the period “between the years of the publications of the English Intelligencer and A Various Art” may constitute a distinct moment — but even making this distinction would probably bring down a rain of bile on your head if you made it loudly enough. Someone would come along and quite rightly insist on the variety of poetic activity in the Cambridge orbit at that time. Still and all, I don’t think all generalization is always bad. If any of us really thought that, we’d be left with nothing to say but proper names, if those. And I do think there are a cluster of techniques, ideas, publication and reading venues, influences, and the like that we can speak of as related phenomena. I, too, don’t think Prynne is the only center of gravity in the constellation (Peter Riley was very keen on making sure I didn’t make that mistake, back when I first started taking an interest in things Cambridge). I suppose one could imagine a series of partially overlapping Venn Diagrams, or a cluster of vectors, many of which converge for a time, but each of which follows its own line of flight away from the moments of convergence. Anyway. I suppose I’m interested, for now, in what the term can reveal; while you seem more concerned with what it conceals.

The other thing I take from your response, beyond the questioning of the term “Cambridge Poetry,” is the question of the political claims made for the poetry, and the relationship between public presence and political ambition. My contention in the article was that the large political claims made for the poetry seemed out of whack with the actual potential effect of the poetry. And some of the claims really have been large.

The claims I cited included one from David Shepard, who described a Prynne poem as an attempt to “recombine a language fragmented into technical jargons,” incorporating the vocabulary of specialized discourses into his poetry and thereby “return[ing] this knowledge to the public sphere from its sequestration in the ivory tower.” This would be a hell of a feat, and hugely politically important. The logistics of it, though, would require a huge effort at outreach, at actually bringing alienating kinds of language into public discourse. Shepherd either didn’t quite mean what he said, or, like a lot of us, he substituted a political wish for a political reality — which would be a kind of sentimentality, really.

Another claim I mentioned came from N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge (whose book Nearly Too Much is, I think, essential stuff for anyone wanting to get started on reading Prynne). According to Reeve and Kerridge, the kind of poetry they discuss can “collide with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture" with the effect of "smashing them into pieces.” Poetry can certainly depict such a smashing. But the gulf between depiction and actuality gets glossed over here. The instruments of power continue on their way, despite the poets’ interventions (I think Bob Perelman’s poem “The Game” is about as good an examination of this situation as I’ve seen — anyway, it’s worth a look, if you haven’t seen it).

John Wilkinson makes some big claims, too — I know you found it a bit objectionable that I wrote more about his claims than about particular poems, but what I was interested in was the gulf between the large claims made for the poems and the actuality of the extent of their presence in the culture. Anyway, he has a high opinion of your work, and of Keston Sutherland’s. So do I, but not for the same reason Wilkinson presents — he says that you and Keston are writing at “a point of historical convergence” where your poetry might exercise “political potency.” Either Wilkinson’s sense of what political potency looks like is very different from mine, or he’s making claims that are quite unlikely to be supported by events.

I’m actually much more inclined to agree with your own sense of the political reach of poetry (or at least the political reach of poetry at this point, and in the first world), when you write that you “see a problem with any poetry’s (‘messianic’) claim to change the world, to smash instrumental reason to bits with the hammer of détournement.” And I’m in sympathy with you when you say you are:

…perfectly aware that my poetry isn’t going to change the world because it is ‘far from a mass movement’, as I wrote somewhere: it’s not part of the class struggle, energized by direction action or likely to inspire it. I can carry on writing it simply by thinking it will go down in history for future readers as a record of a peculiar dissidence…. At my most optimistic, I hope it encourages its readers – who, as readers seeking out this kind of work, aren’t likely to require encouragement – to think critically about politics, or perhaps to be inspired by such thinking to participate in collective efforts to overcome the tyrannies of capitalism.

This isn’t the sort of claim I was taking issue with in the article. The type of claim I took issue with was the type that implied that the poetry was smashing the discourses of power, and returning specialist discourses to the public.

The tack I took in the article was to focus on the gulf between these big public claims and the relatively limited reach of the poetry. I found it particularly ironic that so many of these claims centered on Prynne, who really has turned his back on opportunities to have a wider public presence (not that he’s wrong to have done so).

I think you’re right to say that my article implies a “rather crude equation between publication in the larger academic and commercial presses and the authenticity of a poetry’s claims to political efficacy.” Some of this implication comes from the way I framed the article — between the words “public” and “private.” I suppose it’s no excuse to point to the original context of the article, as a paper at a conference on “The Public/Private Divide in British Poetry” at the Sorbonne. Anyway, I’m not at all convinced that publication and readership on the scale reached, and to the constituencies served by, any contemporary Western poetry press would lead to political change on a large scale.

Did you get a chance to know Reginald Shepherd? He died not too long ago, a terrible loss. In addition to being a fine poet, he was a clear-eyed thinker about poetry, and I learned a lot from our correspondence (not least because he’d mastered the Frankfurt school better than I). As a gay black man from the Bronx, he knew a thing or two about the need for political change. Here’s something he wrote about politics and poetry:

Those who wish to change society might better turn their energies toward society itself, to the real areas of oppression and suffering, economic, political, racial, and sexual. (Identity politics can be a useful organizing tool of social activism, though it can also lend itself to a group solipsism that blinds people to structural, systemic issues.) To blame literature, or culture as a whole, for social, economic, and political woes (or even to see it as central to their perpetuation) is evasive at best, dishonest at worst, a kind of posing as politics, in social commentator Adolph Reed’s trenchant phrase. But such posturing is much easier than doing the hard work of trying to change the world. “Cultural activism” is a poor substitute for real political activity, although we live in an era in which cultural matters are up for debate while fundamental economic and political questions are not, except on the often loud but frequently incoherent and usually ignored fringes.

George Oppen gave up writing poetry for several years in favor of political activism, because he believed neither that poetry could change society nor that it should be subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s words, “If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Several years ago, I was asked by someone I had just met whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant by that term, and he said, “You know, dedicated to the liberation of black people everywhere.” My only answer was, “I don’t think that poems can do that.”

I found that convincing when he wrote it. I find it convincing now.

Thanks, by the way, for adding this, at the end of your comments:

I don’t mean any of this to sound like an attack. I hope you don’t feel it is. This poetry does need intelligent readers and critics; I’d even go so far as to say that it is written in expectation of them. I’ve seen critics from beyond the Trumpington perimeter stick their heads above the parapet, only to be shouted down by the incredibly entrenched defence forces – and so decide to stop caring. I don’t want you or anyone who reads this to stop caring.

I really don’t think of anything you’ve said as an attack — and I’ve found the response to the article so far to be generally positive, or to be critical in interesting and enlightening ways. I do wonder if people who have invested themselves in the poetry I discussed see the article as an attack. I don’t think it is, though I suppose it is an attempt to deflate some of the more inflated political claims made on behalf of the poetry. I doubt I’ll stop being interested — I also doubt I’ll ever be convinced by the kinds of claims I discussed, nor do I think it likely that I’ll ever be convinced that, because this kind of poetry is interesting and important, other kinds are not (this isn’t a claim you make at all, but Keston seems to take something of that Manichean view, setting the saved of Cambridge against the evils of the Culture Industry).

All best,


Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Blogger on Blogging

Oh, sure. I understand: you've had it with my blogging. Who hasn't! And you'd like something new. Well, how about my opinions about blogging? They're up in a short interview conducted by Steve Halle for the creative writing course he teaches at Illinois State University. Behold the blogger as he navel-gazes.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Its Chief Weapon is Excess": Chris Hamilton-Emery on Cambridge Poetry

Many a keyboard has been tapped, and many an email sent zipping across the Atlantic, inspired by the recent one-two punch combo of the Cambridge Literary Review's special feature on Cambridge Poetry and Kent Johnson's post on the "New British School" over at Digital Emunction (a site directed by Bobby Baird and others affiliated with the Chicago Review, the American journal most closely associated with experimental British poetry from the Cambridge-connected crowd).

One of the more interesting and informed comments I've seen comes from Chris Hamilton-Emery who, as the head of Salt publishing, has been well-positioned to watch developments in this kind of poetry, especially over the past couple of decades. His comment, from a discussion list I don't normally follow, came to my attention via Kent Johnson, and Chris was kind enough to let me reproduce it here. I've wedged my own comments in here and there. Here's Chris:

I think there is a need for a more general assessment of the poetries emerging from the British avant-​garde scene. I’ve published a great deal of course, and there’s certainly enough evidence for a reassesment of what was going on Cambridge in the 90s. It’s too highly coloured with Divisionist ideology to get a clear picture from outside.

I'm not quite sure how to feel about this.

Chris is certainly right that the time has come to try to get a handle on just what has been happening. The British experimental crowd for whom Cambridge serves as a center of gravity has been one of the most vital and interesting things going on in the U.K. for some time, and it hasn't really had much of an assessment. Even the degree to which it is correct to call it Cambridge Poetry hasn't been determined, although I've got a feeling the name will stick, despite how unhappy everyone is going to be with it. I mean, that's what happened with Language Poetry, and with New Criticism, and with Dada, and with just about everything: the borders of the movement, the essential features or debates, the list of who's who — these things are never defined to anyone's satisfaction, but the alternative ("let us not speak of this, lest we exclude someone or misrepresent the truth") seems unsatisfactory, too. I, for one, am going to stick with the monicker unless and until something better emerges, though I'm cognizant that there are people connected to the aesthetic and community in question who have no Cambridge affiliation (to the town or to the gown), and that there are several overlapping kinds of poetry involved. Anyway, to reiterate: I'm sure Chris is right: now is a good time to try to assess just what it is that's been happening.

I'm not entirely sure Chris is right about the place from which a clear picture is going to emerge, though. When Cambridge poetry has been described, it's usually been from either a position of hostility, or from a position of advocacy, with the advocacy emerging from inside the movement (actually, some of the hostility has come from within, too). People on the inside have the advantage of knowing the terrain intimately, but often there is something like a kind of true-believer's apologetics at work in their descriptions. I suppose I'm not speaking without a little apologetic of my own here: I'm very much outside the Cambridge scene, and I've tried to describe and understand it as neither an enemy nor an advocate. So maybe my sense that what's needed is an attempt at disinterest or objectivity (perspectives never entirely obtainable, but approachable by degrees) is itself self-interested. But I do hope for a better critic than I to step in from outside and survey the terrain as dispassionately and comprehensively as possible. Which would probably just tick off some people, who would find such a survey either insufficiently for, or insufficiently against, the poetry in question. Anyway, back to Chris:

It [the poetry] is properly underground but has really very striking uptake with US universities, certainly Buffalo, Miami (OH), UPenn, but much much wider than this.

Very true! A few key personalities are important at the institutions Chris mentions (Steve McCaffery and others at Buffalo, Keith Tuma at Miami of Ohio, Al Filreis at Penn). I'd add the University of Chicago to the list, primarily because of the graduate students who run the Chicago Review (Bobby Baird, Josh Kotin, others). But in the end I don't think it's just a matter of personal interests: the same logic that brought Language Poetry into the American academy seem to be at play: the poetry demands the kind of interpretive effort academe encourages, and the poetry has affinities with poststructural and Frankfurt School cultural theory — things that have found an American home in the university English departments. It's also good dissertation fodder: you can prove your sophistication by digging into the arcane and the difficult. Also, the poetry often has a kind of anti-marketplace ideology (Chris will mention this soon), an ideology flattering to the penniless graduate student learning the unmarketable skills of literary analysis. I mean, it's all very affirming to the kind of person you'll find studying poetry and theory in a literature department. Which is neither here nor there, in terms of the importance of the work. Once again, back to Chris:

But those US allegiances are misleading as I think the British avant-​garde have to be read from the peculiar social and cultural framework of the British 60s. We never had a 1968 moment. The political content of much 90s British avant-​garde writing has its origins in a liberation from post-​War thrift and limitation, it derives its thrust from a cultural exuberance not a political fracture or civil rights revolution. It’s politics are received. You can’t of course have a politics with out a polity.

This is the part of Chris' post I find most confusing. I mean, I do think it would make sense for exuberance to emerge after a climate of scarcity — but the fuse on this exuberance bomb seems too long. Can we really see the developments of the 90s as a delayed reaction to the scarcity of the British 50s? Or perhaps I'm misreading Chris. Perhaps he means that the work by Jeremy Prynne and Tom Raworth and others back in the 60s came about as part of the liberation from postwar scarcity, and that this work inspired what was done in the 90s. I can get behind that.

I find the final sentence intriguing — "You can't of course have a politics without a polity." This raises the issue that has most fascinated me about some strands of Cambridge Poetry: the question of political ambition and lack of political effect. But Chris touches on all this soon, so I'll shut up and let him get on with things:

There are two aspects I find fascinating, the first is nostalgia. A great deal of British avant-​garde writing is deeply nostalgic and utopian, and that’s partly I suspect a feature that it has yet to be properly assessed, digested, positioned, it’s been locked out of cultural debate and a history of poetics in the UK due in part to the Poetry Wars and their legacy. It’s almost as if we can imagine a poetry purgatory, not Dante’s but a kind of limbo where much of this writing has not been assimilated into a wider history of British poetry. It’s stuck but not of its own accord.

I, too, am waiting for someone to lay out the exact nature of the nostalgia and utopianism at work in the poetry, though I suspect it's a kind of negative utopia, like Adorno's, one that can't be named, or that would disintigrate if named (a kind of "if you see the Buddha in the road, kill him" ideal, in which the utopian can't be embodied without being desecrated, but in which the utopian aspiration must nevertheless be maintained).

With regard to Chris' second point above, that the poetry has been left outside of the wider history of British poetry against its will, I'm ambivalent. There sure are editors, scholars, and academics who want nothing to do with the stuff, don't like it, and suspect that it's all a matter of the emperor's new clothes (as some small percentage of it surely is). But I think there's been a reciprocal rejection: just as the many have decided to ignore this kind of writing, there has been a rejection of mainstream publication and even critical attention by some people inside the movement. The history of Prynne's publishing career is the most prominent example: he deliberately left major presses behind, and chose not to accept offers of prominent journal publication (Peter Barry's study Poetry Wars documents some of this). I suppose much of this is a matter of Prynne's very private personality, and some of it is a matter of anti-market ideology, which Chris is about to describe:

And the second thing I find fascinating is what I call Liberation Poetics, the idea that poetry has been enslaved in some consumerist conspiracy, and that leads to a kind of messianic quality in some work, and, as I’ve remarked before, a lot in Keston [Sutherland]’s. This kind of poetry needs to be outside, needs to be oppressed and needs to be secret. It can’t accommodate or mediate as it relies on an extreme position and in many respects requires converts and acolytes, neophytes and indeed some Grand Masters. It’s religious in effect. One has to believe. Though a key feature of the dogma is to express doubt, uncertainty and incompleteness, just as it embraces process over product, openness over closure and radicalism over restraint. Its chief weapon is excess. And of course it is oppositional.

All of this makes for a fascinating landscape. But it’s one that can feel like entering a sect, even for an afternoon of mysterious indoctrination. It is however, filled with great and yes, serious, art.

I'd hate to reduce the Cambridge phenomenon, in all its diversity, to a cult. But there is something of that about it: Prynne, like F.R. Leavis, (or, at the other end of the poetic spectrum, like Yvor Winters) does seem to have a taste for disciples, a weakness that should not reduce our sense of his achievement. And we shouldn't ignore this, nor the role it has played in Cambridge poetry's status as a poetic counter-culture, rather than a position in more open engagement with the broader poetic culture. Of course it'd be nice if more critics who took Seamus Heaney seriously also took Tom Raworth seriously. Such figures seem in particularly short supply.