Tuesday, June 23, 2009

NEH Musings; Finkelstein on Mackey

Yesterday I wrote this:

Shirts to the laundry today? Move the long-sleeves downstairs, and the short-sleeves up. Purge NJ's closet: he's grown out of half his clothes. Stacks of trash & old boxes from the basement storage out to the alley. (Water damage--perfect opportunity to clean things up and out.) Lots of things to do.

Of course, today should really be all about the NEH seminar: emails to participants, gathering handouts, planning the first week, etc. And it will be--but as I listen to the Giggle Twins play foosball downstairs (my daughter & her sleepover friend) before camp, I find myself thinking, oddly enough, of an essay by Norman Finkelstein: "Nathaniel Mackey and the Unity of All Rites," Contemporary Literature XLIX, 1, 2008.

Here's how the essay begins:

Casual readers perusing the 2006 winner of the National Book Award
for poetry probably got quite a surprise when they opened Nathaniel
Mackey’s Splay Anthem. Their first shock would have come from the
eight-page preface, an unapologetic declaration and exposition of the
obsessive seriality that has possessed Mackey’s poetry since he began
publishing it more than twenty years ago. Bristling with neologisms
and arcane references, the preface presents Mackey’s entwin(n)ed
sequences as a practice akin to the poetics of the Kaluli of New
Guinea, a poetics that “posits poetry and music as quintessentially
elegiac but also restorative, not only lamenting violated connection
but aiming to reestablish connection, as if the entropy that gives rise
to them is never to be given the last word” (Splay Anthem xvi).

After quoting nine lines of the poem, Norman ends the paragraph this way:

The eccentric lineation and spacing, the enjambment making for a
continuous but still unsettling syncopation, the free-floating pronouns,
and above all, the disquieting physical intimacy that seems to
be part of some strange act, part performance, part ritual—this
“croaking / song / to end all song” (3) might be more than enough to
dissuade our hypothetical poetry-shelf browsers from turning the
page, National Book Award or no. For despite divisions into individually
numbered poems (some enigmatically composed beneath lines
across the page) and sections, the book proceeds relentlessly through
such strange enactments for the next 125 pages. In short, Mackey’s
poems cannot be read casually; they may not be readable as individual
poems at all.

What strikes me, nags at me, in this opening is the figure it invokes of the "casual reader" and "poetry-shelf browser" who would pick up a book based on its status as an award-winning text, only to find him or herself "dissuaded" from turning the page, precisely because this poet's work "cannot be read casually." Why does this figure haunt me so?


Then I stopped and got busy.


Procrastinating last night I sketched a new draft table of contents for my romance book. Still not done with that, but at least I opened the file and played around a little.

More NEH work today, and some urgent emails about Brisbane. If I can, I'll get back to musing on Mackey, though. His piece has some relationship to this NEH seminar, and I want to figure out what that relationship is. More on that later today, I hope.

Monday, June 22, 2009

So, For My Next Big Number?

Shouldn't be thinking about this now--too many other things on my plate--but I've been mulling over some possibilities for my next Parnassus review.

From my chats with Herb, I gather that there are a bunch of Collecteds as yet unclaimed: Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, Thom Gunn. A few more that I know of, both Collecteds and new Selecteds: Helen Adam, for example, and Judy Grahn has a Reader coming out soon. (I've always loved the Common Woman poems, & had the chance to teach a few from the Nelson anthology last spring, to good effect.)

Who else have I thought about doing? Eamon Grennan, whom I read last fall. Reznikoff. Oppen. Zukofsky. (I'm probably too close to you, Mark, to get the nod for that.) Harvey Shapiro. Mike Heller. William Bronk. Some combo of these--i.e., Henry Weinfield did a book on Bronk and Oppen, so that's a threesome that could be considered. Nate Mackey, whose prose I know better than his poetry. I'd love to write about Norman Finkelstein again, but don't know whether Herb would bite, except perhaps in an omnibus of some kind. (On poetry & the sacred? Joy Ladin did such a bang-up job on that a few years ago, I doubt its time has come again. And Norman, you and I go back a ways, which is an issue chez Parnassus, as it should be.)

Some of the poets I'd love to spend time with--Duncan, Eluard--have been written about recently, so they're out of the running. Some that I've touched on in the past--Sherman Alexie, say--have new work out, but I'm not keen on turning back to old projects, even if the opening to that Alexie piece was one of my best gambits. (It went sharply downhill from there.) I'd love to do something on the books by Larry Joseph that didn't make it into my symposium piece, Into It and Lawyerland, but he and I have known one another a very long time, so the rule above applies. A pity: that's a project I'd like to build on.

International poets? Translations? (I don't have any languages to speak of, anymore.) Who have I missed? Maybe Agha Shahid Ali? What would y'all suggest?

Five-Week Drill

Five weeks ago I posted a "six-week drill": a list of fourteen things I needed to do before my fourth NEH Summer Seminar kicks off at the end of June. Well, the end of June is fast approaching--I have one week left in that drill, which hasn't exactly worked out as planned. Let's see how I did, and what's left.

What do I need to write & do by then, or to get there?
  • Wrap up logistics for the NEH seminar. Books, readings, housing, stipends, festivities, etc.
Ordered the books, arranged the housing and stipends, set up the opening festivity. Still need to copy the readings, and gather anything I don't have in the files. Also need to buy binders, etc., to put them in. Budget cuts meant no student assistant for this, so I need to get on it.
  • Do reading for the NEH seminar--not just the assigned stuff, but a general refresher course, to shift back into poetry-teaching mode.
Did some of this, and need to do more. Pleased at how much I've been enjoying the poetry criticism / intro to poetry textbook / poetry itself that I've been reading recently--the year off from teaching 220 (Reading Poetry) was maddening by the end, but it's clearly
  • Choose the poets / texts for my Modern Poetry survey next fall. Something new, but not too new. Sick of the huge sweeping survey, but if I only did, say, 6 or 8 poets, who would they be? (British, Irish, American, as I please.)
Worked on this, and came to a tentative decision: use volume 1 of the Rothenberg / Joris Poems for the Millennium anthology, supplemented by some more canonical readings in link, pdf, or handout form. This morning, another array came to me: Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Hughes, Auden, Loy, Millay, H.D., de Burgos. But if I can spend an hour or two brainstorming what the supplementary list would look like, I still think the R/J might be the way to go.
  • Prep and teach another four weeks of classes. Ahem. Which means something like four more novels. (I miss teaching poems. Four more poems I could handle.)
This took more of my time than I anticipated. But it's done, and the classes are graded, and you just can't argue with that.
  • Revise the introduction to the New Approaches book.
The file's been opened, but I haven't done this yet.
  • Revise my own essay for the New Approaches book.
  • Edit four more essays, maybe five, for NA.
There were four, and three of them are done. One to go.
  • Write and distribute the Call for Papers for JPRS, the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, of which I am the Executive Editor.
Wrote it, got feedback--as soon as I get the final thumbs-up from my Managing Editor and the president of IASPR, we'll be ready for distribution.
  • Assorted work for IASPR, the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.
Did some assorted work for IASPR, although I think that most of it was associated with the next bullet point:
  • Do more fundraising and planning for the Brisbane Conference (AKA "Popular Romance Studies: an International Conference")
That took a lot of my time in the past few weeks, but in the final talley we have 24 talks from a half-dozen countries: Australia, India, Indonesia, Korea, New Zealand, and the US. I've wrangled them into panels, too.
  • Decide on the topic for my own Brisbane paper. Can write it in July? While teaching NEH seminar? Hmmm...
This also took a lot of time. As you know from earlier posts, my original thought was to speak about Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the Clapton album with the Nizami subtext. Watching a recent Bollywood film, Rab ne Bana di Jodi, inspired me to speak about watching Bollywood as an non-Indian American, or maybe to look comparatively at the topos of "redemption through love" in RNBDJ and the romance novel Redeeming Love (a classic of Christian inspirational romance by Francine Rivers, which I've been meaning to consider for classroom use).

In the end, though, I just don't think I have enough time to work up that talk before the conference, so I've decided to focus on something I know as much about as anyone these days: popular romance pedagogy. With a nod to my series of NEH poetry workshops for middle-school teachers, I'm calling the talk "How to Teach a Romance (and Learn from One, Too)." The other, comparative piece I'll save for next year's PCA, maybe.
  • Take care of final logistics for Brisbane: hotels, publicity, contact with local authors and writers' groups, etc.
Did a lot of that, and once we have the final thumbs up from everyone about the schedule, with a website up and so forth, I'll do a bit more.
  • Revise my monograph proposal on romance fiction (including Byatt? Many decisions to be made for this, still.)
This, no work on at all. Which bothers me, but there's simply too much urgent work that needs to be done, displacing thought about this. I can live without it a while longer, if need be.
  • Learn (on trumpet) the music I'll be performing with my son's junior high school band.
Did it, and had fun playing with him. Wish I could spend more time on music again.
  • Learn (on guitar) the parts for five more Alte Rockers songs. (Have I told y'all about the Alte Rockers? Remind me to do so, if not.)
Did it, with great anxiety. I haven't had to play lead before, & was unprepared to start. As an unexpected plus, my son took up the rhythm parts on about half of the songs. Good times, that, and a long-term plan brought to fulfillment.

In addition to the work I listed, there was a fair amount of unexpected work to be done: committee work, for example. And there's still a lot of work to do before next Sunday, when the NEH seminar starts, and even more before I leave for Australia. Nervous about both of those.

In short, I could use to pick up the pace a bit. But not an unproductive period, either.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reading Weinfield

Reading Henry Weinfield's The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk, published by Iowa earlier this year.

Near the start, this passage leaps out at me: "...the book as a whole is not really driven by any particular thesis. I believe that Oppen and Bronk created great and enduring poetry, and I have simply wanted to articulate what it is in their work that I find so valuable and distinctive" (3-4).

How rare, how sweet, that project seems. The luxury of it, even.

More passages, more thoughts, in the days to come.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Just learned (just checked) that my local public library has the new third volume of the Rothenberg / Joris Poems for the Millennium anthology, this the one that focuses on international romanticism.

Will go check it out, in every sense of the word.

Inclining, today, to order vol. 1 in that series and supplement it with handouts, pdf files, links, and the like. It's more relentlessly avant-garde than I'd ordinarily teach, but that means the other material won't be hard to locate. And so far, anyway, I haven't found anything remotely like it for the first half of the 20th century.


Spent the morning working on NEH and Brisbane business. Oops! Just thought of two emails to send about Brisbane...be right back...

OK, they're sent. Basically making sure that the funding we have is in place, even as I decide whether to put any more of my own funds on the line to bring scholars to Australia. How much am I in for so far? About $250. Maybe another $250, if that gets some folks from India to come?

(Wish I had the check from my last Parnassus piece in hand, to help me figure out my budget. A teaser from the lastest piece, on various Palestinian poets, over here at the Big Jewish Blog. Scroll down until you reach the inset quote, to find it.)


Spent last evening guilty, heartsick. My daughter had come home crying from school, for a variety of reasons, one of which had to do with a teacher. Sent an angry email to the teacher, who had no idea that she'd caused my girl such grief. She's been a beloved teacher of both my kids for many years now, and felt ill-used, even betrayed. But when Meg's crying for 90 minutes, thinking her favorite teacher had sent her packing on the last day she'd be at the school...well, 'nuff said.

They've since patched things up, and I've written to apologize, but the damage is done. Now I'll spend a day looking at my email, hoping for an 'apology accepted' and wishing I'd kept my temper in check.


A nice note from D-- about my PromotionFail(tm):
I'm shocked! Parnassus is the most distinguished place to publish on contemporary poetry. I would kill to get a piece there! And it is obvious that you are doing more significant service -- to the entire Chicago area -- than any lit teacher on the planet. The NEH programs by themselves are world class service to the profession. In all honesty, at [UNIVERSITY] you would have been promoted years ago."
Thanks, D! Per my chair's advice, I've printed the email and stashed it away for next time. Keep those cards & letters coming, as they used to say.


A Facebook "tag" the other day got me thinking about books that stay with me. My slightly inebriated list of 15, per the request, looked like this:
1. Andre Norton, Witch World
2. Frank Herbert, Dune
3. Robert Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
4. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces
5. A. S. Byatt, Possession: a Romance
6. Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me
7. Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Avatar
8. Jerome Rothenberg, A Big Jewish Book
9. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
10. Philip K. Dick, VALIS
11. Ronald Johnson, ARK
12. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era
13. Frank O'Hara, Selected Poems
14. Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
15. Laura Kinsale, Midsummer Moon
Somehow I missed Lord of the Rings, which I've read and re-read since childhood, and Earth House Hold, the book of essays and journals by Gary Snyder that's been calming me down since that whole email thing last night. And a host of others. But an interesting exercise, and one I may try with my students someday.


Perking myself up with this song, this morning (it's Wednesday now, about 9:30 my time). Some bad news about Brisbane--a couple of speakers unable to come--but by gum, I'll be there, and it'll be grand.

(I find the embedded quotation from Bob Marley in the chorus oddly moving--the ripples of culture that spread from the Hebrew Bible to the African diaspora to world pop to indigenous rock, counterpointing the genetic distance between any & all of these groups. Something to be done with that--but for now, just watch & think of me.)

Monday, June 08, 2009

This morning, at least...

This morning, at least, I find myself aware of two different impulses at work in my syllabus musings.

On the one hand, there's the simple desire to get a syllabus together, order books, and gear up for next year.

On the other, there's the desire to rethink my own sense of modern and contemporary poetry--to figure out what, now, really moves me, as a reader and teacher and scholar.

I've wanted to let the latter determine the former. That is, I've wanted to choose the books and poets for the class so that they'll let me do the reading and research I want, concentrate on poets I love, and so forth.

The trouble is, the categories of "poets I love and want to investigate" and "poets I feel one really ought to teach in a Modern Poetry survey" may overlap in less-than-optimal ways. My inclinations these days draw me to re-read American poets of the '50s and after, but my sense of pedagogical duty leads me to assign an earlier group of poets, and one that spans national boundaries.

As a result, I spin my wheels.

Maybe the thing to do is re-run last year's double-Norton survey, trimming a few poems from it and polishing the lectures, to simplify task #1. And, meanwhile, force myself to read more independently, following my curiosity, until a clearer array of books, authors, texts, comes to mind? Postpone the sexy new Modern Poetry course until I know what to do with it?


Here's the mix I taught a few years back, with a week on each:
T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land and Other Poems

HD: Collected Poems, 1912-1944

William Carlos Williams: Collected Poems, 1909-1939

Muriel Rukeyser: Out of Silence: Selected Poems

W. H. Auden: Collected Poems

Elizabeth Bishop: Complete Poems

Robert Hayden: Collected Poems

Stevie Smith: New Selected Poems

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems

Wendy Cope: Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis
Of these, who would I do again, and who would I cut?

Bishop is a cut. Rukeyser's a maybe. Larkin and Cope I'd put on the block. That leaves five: Eliot, H.D., Williams, Hayden, and Smith. Three men, two women. Could add four more and be done. But who?

Every choice seems bad this morning, which suggests a survey would be best.


Faith, Doubt, Myth

Who'd I do last time?

On the Big Survey Syllabus: Dickinson, Hardy, Hopkins, Yeats, Frost, Pound, H.D., Eliot,Graves, Smith, Kavanagh, Auden, Oppen, Bishop, Duncan, Larkin, Merrill, Ali. All as individual lyrics or short excerpts (in H.D.'s case) from longer texts.

Of those, a few get taught in other courses or have been taught, by me, too many times: Hopkins, Frost, Bishop, Larkin. Kavanagh was there for a single poem; I don't know the work all that well.

Not in that list, but right for the topic: Snyder, Ginsberg, Grahn, Howe, Mackey, Ostriker, Johnson, Schwerner. Many of those, I note, in long poems, rather than individual lyrics. Larry Joseph, whom I've now written about at length. Joy Ladin. Norman Finkelstein.

Nine classes, though--that's all I've got.

Hmmm... Who sounds like fun to me, now?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


Models I'm mulling over for 366 (Modern Poetry):
  1. Books about modern poetry: The Pound Era, maybe some biographies & critical materials. A few suggestions came in--see the comments for my last post--but I could certainly use some more. Rachel Blau du Plessis' The Pink Guitar? Who writes well, readably well, about modern poetry outside the US?
  2. Poets and their Prose: choose some modern poets whose essays and / or letters are available, and build a course around them
  3. Another big survey, with one or two anthologies. Maybe pair Poems for the Millennium with a volume of the Norton, or pair the two Oxford anthologies (Nelson's & Tuma's).
  4. A thematically-chosen group of modernist poets, focused on one or another of the topics that went really well last time, like "Think Globally, Write Locally" (modern poets of various peripheries-become-central and / or poets with a particularly international purview) or "Faith & Doubt" (modern poets of religion, religious crisis, revisionist religion, mythology, etc.) or even "Modern Love," although I wonder whether the students from my Love Poetry course would be sick of that by now.
  5. Looking at option 4 here, I could simply reprise my two-volume-Norton survey from last time, dropping the units that didn't go so well and so forth. Tweak the old, rather than leave it behind.
Any thoughts about which books / poets might fit well in options 1, 2, or 4 here?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Best Books on Modern(ist) Poets?

So here's the question.

I've been mulling over the syllabus for next year's Modern Poetry course. Ten weeks, meets once a week (nights), undergraduates. Last fall I taught a crazy, sweeping survey, organized by topic, built around the two-volume Norton Anthology of Modern / Contemporary Poetry. The assignment for a week's reading looked something like this:
Faith, Doubt, Myth: In Vol 1, read Dickinson, “Brain is Wider” 38; Hardy, “Hap” (44); Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” “As Kingfishers,” “Spring,” “The Windhover"; Yeast, “Hosting of the Sidhe,” “The Magi,” “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Frost, “Design,” “Directive,” Stevens, “Sunday Morning,” from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” (on-line; Google it); Pound, “The Return,” HD, “from The Walls Do Not Fall” and “From Tribute to the Angels,” Eliot, “Preludes,” “The Waste Land,” “Journey of the Magi,” “Little Gidding,” Graves, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” Smith, “Our Bog is Dood,” “God the Eater,” Kavanagh, “Canal Bank Walk,” Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “In Praise of Limestone,” Oppen, “Psalm,” “from Of Being Numerous.” In Vol. 2, read Bishop, “At the Fishhouses,” “Over 2000 Illustrations…,” Duncan, “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,” Larkin, “Water,” “Church Going,” “Faith Healing,” “High Windows,” Kumin, “In the Absence of Bliss,” Merrill, “b o d y,” Ali, “Ghazal.”

Needless to say, I sometimes had some doubts as to whether all the reading was done. Needless to say, my students felt a bit overwhelmed--frustrated, too, that they'd read vastly more for any given class than we could discuss at length or in depth. On the other hand, this had the advantage of letting those students who had a taste for Yeats find Yeats, Oppen find Oppen, Smith find Smith, and the like.

I'm up in the air as to whether I should teach the course the same way again next fall, with some sort of minor tweaking--a different anthology, say, or pair of them for contrast--or whether I should (as I usually do) try something quite different.

One "quite different" model I've mulled over for several years now would build the course around books about modern poets and modern poetry. Earlier this evening I paged through Frank Lentricchia's Modernist Quartet, for example, and was struck by how much knowledge students would gain from it about not only the work of the four poets he discusses (Frost, Stevens, Pound, & Eliot) but about their lives, their times, their contacts, and so forth. Of course, these are all American poets--Eliot switch-hits, but is treated here as American--, all of them are white, and all of them are men. I won't teach a class like that, even if I do like the associated video:

But if I were to build my course around some books about modern poetry, in English or even more comparatively, what are the best texts out there to choose from? Not textbooky texts, but books designed to be read for pleasure, however erudite. Biographies, cultural histories, that sort of thing.

Alternatively, if you had to pick 9 essential "modern poets"--not exclusively American--who would they be? Anglophone only lists are good, but I'm open to teaching folks in translation, also, if good translations are out there.

Suggestions, anyone?

The Other Night in the Chat Room

Yo Eric! When do you go to the land down under?


Unless you're making a dirty joke (to which the answer is, "how soon have you got?"), it's not until July 26. First comes the NEH seminar: 4 weeks, M-F, 3 hrs a day!


Ah, I thought you looking more immediately for reading material for that long flight.


No, not yet--although I will be sooner than I think. I may do something on love & popular music for this conference; we're branching out, in the Association, from just romance fiction into romance in other media.


Branching out sounds like a good idea. But how would you keep it related to "romance" as in the sort of novels you currently study?


We call it "representations of romantic love in popular media," so we get some parameters from "romantic" (as opposed to agape love, say) and "popular," but in practice these are going to get a bit blurry, I suspect.


Popular media--I see. Presumably contemporary popular media. I was wondering about Renaissance love poetry and so on.


Actually, once you get "popular" into the mix, you have a wide open field. Sir Walter Scott, Byron, both bestsellers, so they'd be in the mix; in the Renaissance, I wonder if the opposite of "popular" might be "court," but I'm not entirely sure...


Scott, Byron...this broadens things considerably. At a certain point, I wonder if it doesn't simply become "representations of romantic love in literature and culture." But by then, you've drifted pretty far from your original interests.


Well, yes and no. MY original interest is the broad one (lit and culture), but if you think about it, we'll have defined a field from the popular on up, rather than from the literary down, so the question of whether this or that is "worth studying" won't come up. (As it does, now, with the romance novels--many of which are actually in some interesting dialogue w/ Scott, Byron, Milton, Shakespeare, etc.) Me, I'm thinking of doing something on "Layla" for Brisbane: Clapton's & Nizami's.


Gotcha. But plugged or unplugged?


Oh, plugged! I'd love to do a reading of the whole album--it's presented as Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, so how the blues about money, etc., fit in will be fun to think through--also the male comradeship & rivalry as enacted by Clapton's & Duane Allman's guitar duels, the mix of voices--could be a very fun project, I think.


For sure--especially since you would go beyond the lyrics to deal with matters of musical form. And you can't beat that extended piano solo.


Yes--and figuring out how to "read" it, musically (and as a commentary on the lyrics, AND as a lead-in to "Thorn Tree in the Garden") will be a treat. Can you think of any pop music criticism that does anything like this? Damned if I can, off the top of my head.


Maybe Anthony DeCurtis; he's about the most sophisticated pop music critic I know (we hung out at Emory; he had a temporary gig there while I was finishing. He had written a dissertation on contemporary fiction, but eventually dumped academia and became editor of Rolling Stone.)


Hey, sounds promising! Thanks!