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.


Laura Vivanco said...

As a casual reader, I managed to read only a few words of each of those paragraphs by Norman Finkelstein before feeling very persuaded that I wanted to scroll down. I did make myself read them, though.

I want to know more about your romance book!

Laura Vivanco said...

And being such a casual reader, I also forgot to tick the box to get follow-up comments emailed to me, so now I've had to post another comment.

E. M. Selinger said...

Well, that's the issue, isn't it? Norman's essay replicates, in a very small way, the bifurcation of readers he's talking about: casual readers vs. initiates, essentially. I suspect that there's a kind of "initiation" that goes on in poetry instruction, or at least in the experience of certain kinds of poetry readers, which may not be all that different from other kinds of "initiation" (into the mysteries of a particular sport, for example), but tends to be discussed in loftier or more mystical terms.

Not, though, what I want to happen in my romance book! More on which later this morning, I promise.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Checking in after a few days, I find myself invoked in your last two posts, and am duly flattered. The opening of the Mackey essay was meant as a provocation, and the figure of the casual reader is just that, of course: a figure, a trope. I'm not sure whether the essay (indeed, the whole book it comes from) replicates the bifurcation of readers I posit there, but of one thing I am certain: reading poetry involves initiation, and has for a long time, and in that regard, the paradigm of a mystery religion is the one to consider--in the classroom or (to use the charming 18th-century expression) in the privacy of one's closet. And if becoming a reader of poetry involves this process, it is all the more the case in becoming a writer. If this sounds perilously Bloomian, so be it. Of course, nobody needs to be initiated into my own poetry. I'm as generous and open as ole Walt himself. (heh heh heh).

E. M. Selinger said...

Hi, Norman! I was hoping you'd check in. Your piece has really been haunting me--I'm not through with it yet. Good work, that.

As long as you're here, let me pose you a question. You said just now that "reading poetry involves initiation, and has for a long time, and in that regard, the paradigm of a mystery religion is the one to consider--in the classroom or (to use the charming 18th-century expression) in the privacy of one's closet." How long is that "long time," would you say? Are we talking "since the Romantics," or is it true in the Renaissance, for example, too? When you mentioned the 18th century this question came to mind--that, and the fact that I was reading Keats, Burns, and Wordsworth this morning. ("For me, an aim I never fash, / I rhyme for fun.")

Norman Finkelstein said...

I don't think of myself as a literary historian, Eric, but my sense is that the phenomenon I'm pointing out does indeed develop sometime in the 18th century, though it probably has its beginnings earlier. It has to do with the spread of print culture and literacy, the rise of the novel, and the way literary and cultural work that was once done by poetry gets done more and more by prose. Wordsworth turns the poem decisively inward, which is related in turn to changing notions of spirituality and the functions of religion. By the time you get to Arnold, who thinks the best aspects of religion are to be found in poetry (I can find you the quote), then the need for what amounts to an initiation into the experience of poetry has become a reality. Forgive all these generalities. And I've only had one beer.

E. M. Selinger said...

Yes, I thought as much. The history, not the beer. Will post more on this tomorrow, sober (albeit caffinated).

Laura, here's the latest rough outline for the romance book. I'm posting it here in the comments, sotto voce, but would love your thoughts--especially as I'm trying to choose 1-3 novels to focus on in each chapter, which is always hard for me.

1. Introduction: “Why should Aphrodite look insipid?” (Question from Mary Bly / Eloisa James’s Duchess in Love.) My book isn’t about the politics of romance, or its reception by readers, and it’s not a defense of the genre as a whole; rather, it’s about the artistry and intelligence of some romance novels that I both enjoy and admire, a chance for me to illuminate the various ways that they appeal to the mind, as well as the heart. Where is that spark, that excellence, found in this novel—that’s the question that I will ask.

2. Romance and literary history. A chapter on the deep history of romance (back to Eros tradition and Greek romance, chivalric romance, Renaissance romance, debates between romance and the novel, romance and realism, and so forth) and how certain popular romance novels respond to portions of that history, bringing it to life. This chapter will discuss the mixed genealogy of today’s romance fiction, which derives at once from highbrow and lowbrow traditions, from romance as “love story” and from romance as a term for idealistic, unrealistic stories, tales of adventure, and more. This chapter will also address the more recent history (and reflexivity) of romance, as books from the 1990s reflect on the genre’s recent history and critical reception.

3. The Aesthetics of Romance A chapter on the way that romance novels stop to identify and discuss their own aesthetics, or more broadly the aesthetics of the genre itself, acting as apologies for / defenses of romance fiction as an art. This chapter might discuss how romance authors use other genres and art forms as a way to reflect on what they are up to in their particular novels, or what the genre does more generally.

4. Romance and Eros A chapter on the various kinds of eros and eroticism (sexual, intellectual, etc.) in romance, with attention (as everywhere) to 1-3 particular novels. Issues of sexual education via romance; attention to the way particular novels explore eroticism, and to the shames that seem to be sparked by eroticism in romance fiction.

5. Redeeming Love. A chapter on romance and religion, but not one that’s limited to Inspirational Romance as a subgenre. Rather, a chapter on issues of erotic faith and the relationships between sacred and secular love in particular traditions and texts. Romance as, itself, a sort of religion, a “secular scripture” (Frye).

6. Toward a Definition of Marriage A chapter on 1-3 romance novels that explore the idea or nature of marriage, or that thematize marriage in some interesting way. Fit conversation as a topic and a trope. Bad marriages made right again. Marriage as paradigm of right relations between men and women; romance fiction and the marriage equality movement. Romance fiction as marital advice literature, perhaps, depending on the novels I choose.

7. Life Skills: Romance and Happiness A chapter on the didactic impulse (mixing instruction with delight) in 1-3 romance novels that set about teaching their readers something worth knowing, especially something about optimism, emotional resilience, and happiness.

8. Personal Conclusion: my own history as a romance reader, or how I fell in love with popular romance. A chance to think about romance fiction and poetry as genres, to think about romance in literary culture, to think about what I’ve learned by being a romance scholar, teacher, & reader.