J’ai fait de plus loin que moi un voyage abracadabrant
il y a longtemps que je ne m’étais pas revu
me voici en moi comme un homme dans une maison
qui s’est faite en son absence
je te salue, silence
je ne suis pas revenu pour revenir
je suis arrivé à ce qui commence
“L’homme Rapaillé: Liminaire,” Gaston Miron
I do read a little contemporary literature, but for a year-end list the more interesting thing in my opinion is always to focus on what’s obscure, the chance discovery, the forgotten tome. So here goes…
Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions (1594) – Thomas Nashe
You will not find another author so madcap entertaining as Thomas Nashe. No, it’s not easy to read. When I read Nashe it feels I’m looking through a glass darkly to a time when the conventions of written English were in radical flux, coming into formation. I tried to read Pierce Penniless but my attention felt worn out after about 15 pages. It (and The Unfortunate Traveler and Lenten Stuff) await my attention another moon. From Terrors of the Night:
“As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins. The night is the devil’s black book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. Even as when a condemned man is put into a dark dungeon, secluded from all comfort of light or company, he doth nothing but despairfully call to mind his graceless former life, and the brutish outrages and misdemeanours that have thrown him into that desolate horror, so when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences; no sense but surrenders to our memory a true bill of parcels of his detestable impieties. The table of our heart is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us.” (full text)
Because I Was Flesh (1961) – Edward Dahlberg
Rainer Hanshe recommended Dahlberg to me as being up my alley, and that was after I’d read Paul Metcalf’s high praise of Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh in From Quarry Road. So I knew it was time. Well, an American who lived and breathed in the twentieth-century went and wrote a whole book about himself and his mother in soundly Elizabethan language. Sounds risky, but the mad codger flew high. Some will spurn it for its reconditeness, others will smear it for what they perceive as its misogyny, but I revel in its relentlessly rhetorical turns and its abstruse diction. But a small taste:
“Only a man cankered by his own zeal would crimp Scripture in order to call a lady barber a disorderly Magdala. When the time came she would be a steadfast wife and provide a husband who cherished her with a jolly, bawdy bed and fat gammons. She would look just as legal and righteous as any other female householder. Love restores the blind, the palsied and the virgin, and even if a lady barber smeared her bridal sheet with Heinz ketchup, no bridegroom should be so foolish as to examine it. A man who scrutinizes everything that he does–or someone else does to him–will die swearing or live to run mad in the streets with no cover for his nude soul but a syllogism. Besides, a woman is a marvelous chameleon creature, for she can cheat, lie and copulate, and still be the tenderest pullet.” (p. 25 in the New Directions edition)
Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996) – Susan Howe
“On Monday, massacre, burning, and pillage
On Tuesday, gifts, and visits among friends”
(from Chanting at the Crystal Sea, strophe 20; link to blog post on Howe)
Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong
Tiny but crucial, Orality and Literacy maps out some of the differences between speech and writing, between what Ong calls “primary oral cultures” and societies governed by writing. This is very stimulating for anyone curious about the history of literature, the cognitive dynamics of language, and much much more. A nice reminder of what we are almost wired to forget:
“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”
Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization (1994) – Roger G. Kennedy
I became interested in the extinct mound-building civilizations of the eastern United States (many mounds of which may still be visited today) this year. I had visited several mounds throughout my adoloscence but what is there really to be seen or to know beneath the imposingness of a monumental heap of dirt? I’m plagued and perplexed by my partial knowledge still, and no matter how much I read about the mounds they remain impenetrable to me. Kudos to the archaeologists and paleontologists whose efforts have increased our understanding of these early inhabitants of North America, and to such historians as Roger Kennedy who in this book aims for a synthetic understanding of what those civilizations must have been like. It might it help to mitigate a little bit of that amnesia from which Americans always seem to be suffering.
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) – Stephen Jay Gould
I found this book at the library’s annual used sale quite on a lark; I headed for the science and nature section with a yen to redress my ignorance in matters of geology. Well, I’m still little more than an ignoramus when it comes to the deep time of the earth, but my eyes were opened to the mind-boggling difference of such alien arthropod life forms as Anomalocaris, Marrella and Opabinia. Gould’s book is a tour de force, illuminating not just the radical contingency of history, but the ways institutions and ideologies shape the way scientists look at history. This was the first book I had read of Gould’s, and it is Cambrian natural history written with the clip and ease of an airport thriller, what a rare thing.
Etudes de silhouettes (2010) – Pierre Senges
A good swath of this book (about 6,000 words) will be published in my translation next spring in the newish London-based journal Hotel. The book consists of short texts (ranging from half a page to 5 pages or so) composed from Kafka’s unfinished beginnings found in his notebooks. That probably sounds odd and not too inviting, but what makes this book so extraordinary is the humor, the undreamt of flights of fancy which Senges schemes up time and time again. I hope I can find a publisher who wants to publish the full book in English. I will keep trying. For now, there is The Major Refutation.
America’s frontier is endless, just as any other aspect of our past, our history, is endless, and endlessly available to us. – Paul Metcalf
Certain books enthrall us, set us on a quest to discover more — not just the author’s complete bibliography, but the author’s influences and acknowledged peers. I think of them as gateway writers. — W.G. Sebald was one for me; because of my total admiration for his books I sought out I don’t know how many authors he mentioned in their pages or in interviews – Jean Améry, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Bernhard (did I already know Bernhard?), Adelbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller… Later there was Joseph McElroy, whose essays and interviews opened the door to truly dozens of books I might not have discovered until much later, or ever: Nicholas Mosley, Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas, A.R. Ammons, Michel Butor’s Mobile and Degrees, Harold Brodkey, Galway Kinnell’s terrible Book of Nightmares, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, and last but certainly not least, PAUL METCALF.
In turn, the work of Metcalf came to occupy the same central place in my thoughts as Sebald’s & McElroy’s before, and Metcalf became a gateway author for me.
Why Metcalf? Metcalf’s work plunges us headlong into the history of the Americas in all its manifest plurality. Using sophisticated montage techniques and synthesizing reams of material, always with a poet’s ear, Metcalf constructs versions of the historical record that resound into the continuous present. (The past is not even past, to paraphrase Faulkner; indeed, Metcalf’s achievement is in part to have captured that immediacy.)
Metcalf’s landmark works include :
-Genoa, 1965. Metcalf’s early novel, written after he had systematically read through the entirety of Herman Melville’s work (Melville was in fact an ancestor of his), explores themes of teratology (monstruousness, and anatomical pathologies), genetics, seafaring, and the elusiveness of identity (in particular, those of Melville and Christopher Columbus).
-Patagoni, 1971. Part travelogue, part meditation on mobility across the American continent, via Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the native mythologies of Peru, this is as weird and wild as anything Metcalf published. It is segmented into three discontinuous sections. Beautifully published by The Jargon Society — see picture above.
-Apalache, 1976. A kaleidoscopic exploration of the geological and human history of eastern North America, Apalache might be the pinnacle of Metcalf’s œuvre. The book’s epic scope and its inventive visual prosody are unsurpassable, in my opinion.
-Waters of Potowmack, 1982. A documentary history of the Potomac River watershed, from its discovery and settlement on up to the 1960s, Waters of Potowmack eschews the irregular prosody so characteristic of much of Metcalf’s work, in favor of simple blocks of prose. What we have here is a chronological compendium of a place. In a similar vein is Mountaineers Are Always Free! (1991), Metcalf’s short history of West Virginia (recommended).
-Those are the big ones. But there are also a great many shorter works not to be missed, including Firebird, U.S. Dept. of Interior, Golden Delicious, and Both. And there are probably a dozen other short ones, in addition to The Middle Passage and I-57. More on these another time, perhaps.
Paul Metcalf as photographed by Jonathan Williams.
From the jacket of Metcalf’s Araminta and the Coyotes (Jargon Society, 1991).
Metcalf was never fashionable, come to think of it, although he did elicit the admiration of many of his peers, from Genoa (1965) onwards. I will be writing more about Metcalf, as I am writing an encyclopedia entry about his life & work. It’s going to take some time.
For those whose curiosity is piqued, here are some good links of freely available Metcalf. Anything I can to do to promote this man’s adventurous view of history, I will do. You’ll find some video footage of him jaunting about in Ohio, visiting Alex Gildzen, as well as a brief recording of him reading from Patagoni and Apalache.
One last word to the wise: Metcalf’s works can be found from used sellers in the U.S.A., often very cheap, sometimes in elegant first editions (see in particular Patagoni and Both, published by The Jargon Society), or very cheap indeed in the 3-volume Collected Works published by Coffee House Press in 1996-1997 ($8 for all 3 volumes + shipping, last time I looked). Also, a few of his books (The Middle Passage, Both, Araminta and the Coyotes) are available in 1st ed. new and sold by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, who act now as the custodian of The Jargon Society’s remaining stock. (As for The Jargon Society, that’s a whole nother story.)
– Audio & images –
A selection of items from the Paul Metcalf archive, now in the possession of the New York Public Library. Some typewritten letters, photos, + lots more.
A four-minute video by Alex Gildzen, a friend & admirer of Metcalf’s, with home movie footage showing Metcalf gallivanting about in various locations over the years.
A recording of Paul Metcalf reading some of his work at a public reading in 1975. At about the 1 hr. mark, Metcalf reads “Darlington, South Carolina,” the opening section of his book Patagoni (1971); “Sable Island,” a section from Apalache (1976); and a very short poem called “Moby’s Brothel.”
– Interviews –
A long, in-depth 1981 interview with Metcalf by John O’Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive.
1983 interview with George Myers, Jr. at Gargoyle Magazine.
– Miscellaneous –
Various bits about Metcalf, with some excerpts from From Quarry Road, over at Dan Visel’s blog, with hidden noise.
Various Metcalf discussion at John Latta’s blog, Isola di Rifiuti.
Metcalf’s obituary in the New York Times, after his death from a heart attack buying apples at a farmer’s market in 1999.
A 1999 eulogy of Metcalf and note on meeting Metcalf, by Allan Kornblum, founder of Coffee House Press, who published Metcalf’s complete works in 3 volumes.
A 1999 eulogy by Lucia Berlin, discussing a book project to which Metcalf contributed, Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate.
A review by David McCooey of Metcalf’s 3-volume Collected Works.
My latest revelation has been the works of Susan Howe, an American poet and essayist. Since the 1970s, Howe has been fashioning original works from early American historical narratives, including those that document the violent encounter of New England colonists with Native Americans. It contains many other aspects, too, I’m sure, but for now this is what seems most present and palpable in her work — taking inspiration from historical and documentary texts, and the period of early American colonial conflict.
I was referred to her work by a Twitter acquaintance some time ago after mentioning in conjunction two other authors (Paul Metcalf and W.G. Sebald) whose work plunges us headlong into the past, and I have since read several of her books: That This (2010), The Birth-Mark (1993), Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996), and Singularities (1990).
My enjoyment of her work I think stems from the disorientation and awe I feel on a first reading. These are texts that demand a second reading if we are to truly get at them. And those second readings, too, are limited in what they reveal. It would be very hard to succinctly say what she’s up to, in fact it’s quite varied among the works I refer to above; but as a general observation, her work seems to be constructed on principles of quotation, lexical borrowing and combination, unusual typographical arrangements. What’s really extraordinary, though, is the way her work confronts, sometimes obliquely, sometimes very directly, the power and violence that are implicit in conquest and (historical) interpretation.
In The Birth-Mark, for instance, in the context of an essay about Emily Dickinson (“These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values”), Howe underlines the fact that
It is over a hundred years after her death; if I am writing a book and I quote from one of her letters or poems and use either the Johnson or Franklin edition of her texts, I must obtain permission from and pay a fee to
The President and Fellows of Harvard College / and the Trustees of Amherst College.
Indeed, that is outrageous. (It’s not hard, in light of this travesty of liberalism, to see why Howe titled another of her books My Emily Dickinson.) How can institutions like Harvard and Amherst claim to be advocates of scholarly inquiry, while controlling the dissemination of and access to Dickinson’s work in that way? For an institution of higher learning, this is rank hypocrisy.
As I read through Howe’s poems lately (what generalizations I’m making here refer mostly to Frame Structures and Singularities, her two books freshest in my mind), I am lost much of the time, as if in the American wilderness that forms the scenic background of the poems. I move along understanding only a fraction of what I read, grasping for bits and pieces that make me feel less lost. A fragment hoves into view for a moment, crystallizing the understanding —
infinite miscalculation of history (in Articulations of Sound Forms in Time, published in Singularities, p. 17)
and is gone. I have the sense the effect is itself calculated — not a sign of the poet’s failure to communicate or achieve coherence or cogency, but intentional. We are meant to be lost, phenomenologically, lexically. As we are lost in history, or in this present. We salvage what shards we can.
More on Howe later, maybe. I’m captivated. For now, I invite you to listen to any number of recordings of her reading from and discussing her work at PennSound.
Seen in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson.
I thought of Aimé Césaire’s Solar Throat Slashed for some reason – how I love these lines:
As for me should they grab my leg
I vomit up a forest of lianas
Should they hang me by my fingernails
I piss a camel bearing a pope […]
(Lines taken from “Preliminary Question,” in Solar Throat Slashed: The Unexpurgated 1948 Edition by Aimé Césaire. Trans. A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman. Wesleyan University Press.)
Some of Mallarmé’s personal library was being auctioned off at Sotheby’s, and I took this screenshot of one of the more expensive items, a manuscript version of Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard.
It was sold recently for 963,000 Euros.
C’est beau, n’est-ce pas? Here’s an interesting passage:
There are a few other typographically interesting pieces appearing in the same volume, starting with the stunning cover:
And here is a rather beautiful page from M. Kitchell’s Dark Topographies:
(The typo escaped my awareness for a good long while as I admired it. That is a typo right?)
And here is a rather overwhelming shot of an excerpt from Chaulky White’s SSES SSES SSEY:
Anton Ivanov and Jared Fagen did a good job putting this together, needless to say.
I’m hoping to see more print publications like this. Print rules.
Two recent online articles draw attention to the situation of Québecois literature in translation. These two articles have a lot of overlap, and they both share the position that Québecois and/or Francophone Canadian literature are too often ignored, due to either the language/culture barrier, lack of interest from publishers and readers, and/or the resulting paucity of English translations. I’m glad these articles are out there and bringing attention to the issue, but if an outsider reads them, one might, I think, get the wrong impression.
Let’s start with the article which was published first, “Too Different and Too Familiar: The Challenge of French-Canadian Literature” by Pasha Malla, in The New Yorker. It is partly a review of Raymond Bock’s Atavisms, translated by Pablo Strauss for Dalkey Archive Press. This is a book that, when it was published in 2010, earned its author a reputation for being one of the most promising young authors in Quebec literature.
Malla remarks that, “Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America […] is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French.”
I’m not sure what few Canadians is meant to imply here, but the overall numbers are considerable. For example, according to Statistics Canada, in 2011, about 1.1 million people outside Quebec in Canada reported French as their mother tongue in Canada. And nearly 2.6 million people reported being fluent enough to conduct a conversation in French — 11% of Canada’s population outside Quebec (source). Furthermore, 2011 at least 81,085 Albertans speak French as their first language, giving Alberta the fourth largest francophone population in Canada (source). One should also note that the French language appears to be slowly rising in Alberta and British Columbia (source).
If I’m touchy about this, it’s because Malla does a disservice to French-Canadians, and I would even say to francophones in Canada generally — including me, whose first language is not French. He appears to be ignorant of Canada’s formidable Franco-Albertan demographic. (Nor am I Franco-Albertan.)
Let’s move on to “Why the Book I’m About to Publish Will Be Ignored” by Carmine Starnino, an accomplished poet and editor. This is a good article, discussing the state of Quebec poetry in translation in particular; but it seems either to demand that the reader of the article be fluent in French, or to insist on the principle of untranslatability. Why else would you cite French verses without interpreting them for an audience that, by default, one must assume reads only English?
[Pierre Nepveu] is a master of the perfect opening, of lines that seem electric and inevitable (“rien ne tient lieu de retour, / tout est étrange comme si c’était hier”). Craft aside, an almost primal awe for mortality holds together his most memorable passages (“Les verbes majeurs nous obsèdent,” he writes, “naître, grandir, aimer, / penser, croire, mourir”). At his best, he belongs in the company of masters like Gaston Miron. And he’s as good as anyone English Canada has produced.
For an article about French literature in translation, why not at least tell us what’s at stake? Again:
What impressed me most was how their poems never seemed static, tidy, or vapid. Saint-Denys Garneau’s line has always stayed with me: “Je ne suis pas bien du tout assis sur cette chaise.” He loathed being stuck in one place. […] His hope was to find “l’équilibre impondérable entre les deux” because “C’est là sans appui que je me repose.”
I’m certainly glad that attention is being brought to the literature of Québec by these two essayists, but my gripes stand. Who wants to fight? Just kidding.
Now a boar’s pissing in your stream?
What life were you trying to escape?
We’ve almost all heard of Virgil (70BC – 19BC), the Roman poet most famous for having been born in a ditch, written The Aeneid and having shown an Italian poet around Hell and Purgatory (in precisely that order), but I suspect that few of us have a first-hand — or second-hand, admitting the deficiency of our Latin — acquaintance with his work. Nate Klug’s translation of choice excerpts from The Eclogues, also known as The Bucolics, is most welcome then. Available from the Song Cave, it’s titled Rude Woods: Passages from Virgil’s Eclogues.
Far from the city, by the tinkling brook, under the rustling leaves, on the damp, cool earth, in the halcyon sunlight, away from the bustling marketplace, the shouting vendors and streaming crowds, you lie on the hillside, singing tunes, drowsing and chatting with your friends, shepherds you are perhaps, maybe drinking wine. That’s what the phrase pastoral means to me, and probably most of us — although it would be remiss not to mention here William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), where he posits that its constitutive feature is something else altogether.
But what this collection illuminates, and what I did not know before, is the extent to which the pastoral genre is staked less on the unitary, rustic ideal of country life, but rather on a dynamic tension between worldly cares and earthy joy, “a constant dialectic of fear and grief with joy and hope,” to quote W.R. Johnson. As Johnson underlines in the foreword to this volume, these poems were written during the last of Rome’s civil wars. (A link, perhaps to our bellicose, American contemporaneity — perpetual war, the chagrin ever upon our meddling nation like a laurel of leaves.) Accordingly are Virgil’s shepherds “torn between sorrow and hope. Some of them have lost their land and flocks, and those who have not have no reason to feel secure.”
It’s this subdued but dark undercurrent running through Rude Woods that surprised me when I read it, and that I now find most fecund and profound.
This pastoral life can’t cure my madness
or teach the god of Love softer manners.
Another joy is the directness and confidence of Klug’s translation. Shepherds speaking as intimates don’t demur, or hold back; they speak in colorful language, jibing one another. The language sounds natural, and modern.
If you’ve got any valentines for Phyllis,
or praise for Alcon, or shit to say to Codrus,
go right ahead and sing it, Mopsus;
Tityrus can watch your grazing kids.
Only in translations of Catullus’s poems, Virgil’s contemporary, do I remember hearing such a tone. There are other pleasures here, the bliss of grapes and sex and song, but it’s the unexpected ones which I savor the most.
Much thanks is due to the Song Cave for providing me with a copy of this book. And I would be remiss were I not to mention, in closing, that Klug’s own book of poetry, Anyone, was published last month by University of Chicago Press. It looks well worth a read, and perhaps informed by his work on ancient pastoral traditions.
Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés n’abolira jamais le hasard (c. 1898) is often referenced as if it were the mother of all neglected and obscure works. This may have been true in decades or centuries past, but in the 2010s it’s a claim that no longer holds water. Witness the following:
Mark Amerika’s CRAPSHOOT, which went live in 2015, a a generative, interactive hypertextual remix that mimics the form of Mallarmé’s poem.
Published in 2015 by Wave Books, Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno’s translation of the poem, supplemented by photographic images. They discuss their work on the translation and presentation here, at PoetrySociety.org. (At Amazon, a portion of the book is available for preview.)
My own 2015 translation of the poem and its preface, soon to be published in Vestiges, the print publication of Black Sun Lit.
At a Center for the Art of Translation event in 2012, Richard Howard read his translation of “Afternoon of a Fawn” and discussed why he declined — even for +$20,000 — to translate Un Coup de dés.
Lastly, though, if you really want to understand this work’s full significance, look to Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren (originally published by Fayard, 2011; brilliantly — and I don’t mean that lightly — translated by Robin Mackay, 2012, available from Urbanomic). Text from the publisher’s website:
Un Coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page, the typographical play borrowed from the poster form, the multiplication of interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger, always resistant to full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be ‘unique’ and which ‘can be no other’.
The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child’s game. All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but one sole condition: that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de dés like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of that siren, emerging for a lightning-flash amongst the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.
Lastly, and somewhat unrelatedly, but why the hell not, an ocean of links to drown in (– shipwreck that –)
Earlier this year (2015, magic year, magic number), soprano Marisol Montalvo sang Pierre Boulez’s “Pli selon pli” live with L’Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Matthias Pintscher. (“Pli selon Pli” is a set of five songs based on poems by Stéphane Mallarmé.)
— Black Sun Lit (@BlackSunLit) February 5, 2015
But did we really need another translation of that typographically radical turn-of-the-century experiment in verse? Pourquoi pas, right? For now, check out CRAPSHOOT, Mark Amerika’s “generative remix that mimics the form of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous 1897 poem,” which recently went live at the website of the ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art (coded by Will Luers). It’s radical, alright. If you’re an absolute maniac like myself, also obtain a copy of Quentin Meillasoux’s The Number and the Siren: a Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Dés (trans. Robin Mackay, from Urbanomic, 2011). Don’t forget to sleep, every now and then.
I’m quite proud of a long essay I wrote on Aimé Césaire’s poetry (specifically, the collection Solar Throat Slashed (1948) and the long poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (1939, 1947, 1956)).
The essay is featured in Issue 36 of The Quarterly Conversation, alongside writing by Laura Sims, Steve Donoghue, Scott Esposito, Daniel Green and several others. Check it out. Free as the breeze.
Tendency, counter-tendency: list-mania, list-aversion. They’re both out there, all over my RSS feed.
Listening to audio of Douglas Glover’s interview of Gordon Lish from 1994, I was surprised as all hell to hear Lish saying this kind of thing. Granted, I perhaps ought not to be surprised, given Lish’s reputation for having an inflexible and uncompromising personality… but, my god, a falling out over a few differences in one’s personal canon?!
“Bloom and I had been great, good pals for a number of years; and that friendship came to a very abrupt end, not without relation to a list of writers he proposed special attention be accorded, and given that that list included on it rather robustly non-Bardic poets of the order of Rita Dove, and failed to cite Jack Gilbert for example, I found a breach of judgment of an unforgivable kind. Such a breach was one of not a few of same, and I didn’t feel I could maintain relations with Bloom with honor. […] I could not let myself keep myself in a friendly relation to him subsequent to the list that he, for whatever reasons that he was persuaded to publish it, did publish.” (Lish’s remarks, around the 8:00 mark in part 1 of the audio)
There’s boldness for you. Whether Lish’s coldness towards Bloom is a kind of literary snobbism, or an honorable attempt to live by his rigorous standards, I don’t know. Snobbism mostly, it strikes me. What do you think?
I threw the question out on Twitter, “is Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) the greatest single work of literary criticism ever written?” I think it probably is, but I was hoping some other readers might contradict me or suggest some other worthy candidates for the distinction. Then I thought about it some more. So here’s some whoppers of literary criticism; I’ve read only a handful of these, and I’m sure as hell missing a lot in the few years between 335 B.C. and 1930 A.D. So, as always, comments are welcome and encouraged, below or on Twitter (@jsief).
* * *
Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) – Erich Auerbach
History of English Prose Rhythm (1912) – George Saintsbury
Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong
Anatomy of Criticism (1957) – Northrop Frye (suggested by @bswbarootes)
The Novel: An Alternative History, 2 vols. (2010) – Steven Moore
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1989) – Roberto Calasso (trans. Tim Parks)
Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) – William Empson (suggested by @JustinPfefferle)
The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) – Cleanth Brooks (suggested by @bswbarootes)
The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and Critical Tradition (1953) – M.H. Abrams
Biographia Literaria (1817) – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) – Wayne C. Booth
The Sense of an Ending (1967) – Frank Kermode
The Counterfeiters, The Stoic Comedians, The Mechanic Muse (1968-1987) – Hugh Kenner
The Banquet Years (1955) – Roger Shattuck
Classical English Rhetoric (2010) – Ward Farnsworth
Although I didn’t know it at the time, in 2007 I was writing flarf poetry. Flarf exemplifies the random, heterogeneous, often absurd character of spam e-mails and of other information available on the web, appropriated and blended into a discontinuous (non-sequiturs rule) mesh of colorful language. It’s striking for its aforementioned absurdity, sudden shifts of subject, its non-hanging-togetherness. If there is meaning in flarf, generally speaking, that meaning consists in the flarf poet’s attempt to mirror (or simply record, curate, edit) special instances of digitally-mediated language, almost always removed from — what? everything? — context, human relationships, an immediate setting which would give the totally of the poem its traditional meaning.
An unpublished work of mine; not however, flarf.
Seeing months ago via Rod Smith’s Facebook feed that two Mel Nichols videos were featured on the Huffington Post set off a train of thought that led me here, to bibliomanic, to speak of flarf. In the mid-aughts, I used to see these two poets, Rod Smith and Mel Nichols, when I attended the regime of regular Thursday night pub-crawls that they and Dan Gutstein (my then poetry teacher, at George Washington U) followed.
Most of my flarf was a long poem without any line breaks I wrote on a typewriter in drafts and in numerous revisions on a computer: ‘Starving revelation tooth factory’. The title (a riddle, the answer of which is something like the human body in frenzy, pleases me, but the poem is unsatisfactory to me today, with the rest of my so-called “juvenilia” (in fact, this was the name of a collection I put together when I was about fifteen), it’s a little embarrassing. “Starving revelation tooth factory” is a narcissistically jagged long poem. Contains some flarf elements, much autobiographical incident, a heaping bucketful of discontinuous imagery, flibbertigibbet and other what-have-you, “kerflaffle-fla-flam,” and even the following (which I can still admire the beauty of):
thrombic lycocoptyopenic purpura
gnitirw erutuf sdrawkcab
meop ni esrever
That’s not flarf. And neither is Charles Bernstein. My attitude towards flarf poetry is ambivalent, but I don’t like it. On Wikipedia on the ‘Flarf’ page I read:
‘I love a movement that’s willing to describe its texts as ‘a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness.’ – Joyelle McSweeney
Ugh. Flarf surrenders to the sometimes-vacuity of the digital infoscape. And for me, it seems rooted in the first eight years of the new millenium, standing opposite George W. Bush’s empty rhetoric, littered with mistakes and itself hollow, void of meaning, like the image flarf attempts to project of language as existing in a weird vacuum of truth and human intimacy or even intelligence.
I don’t think that art or literature or poetry needs to be engagé to be meaningful, but poetic language should not be complicit with the prevailing inane discourses that they have the power to counteract.
In my devotion to McElroy’s projects I went far, to obsession some would say. But who can say what’s normal, insane? I read all the interviews and essays I found referenced. In these interviews, I found myself crossing numerous references to texts and authors that were totally unknown to me. I had to know more, had to read more. Tom LeClair’s interview with McElroy and the essay ‘Neural Neighborhoods…’ are both rife with mentions of marginal works, which I chronicle here. The list appears below, the source key follows.
Avid readers of McElroy will find the following a handy resource for tracking the literary background against which McElroy sees himself. Where I can, I provide a few notes about the work in question.
NN=“Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts” (1974 essay by McElroy)
JC=Joshua Cohen’s audio conversation with McElroy for a Triple Canopy event
SS=”Socrates on the Shore” (2002 essay by McElroy in Substances, Revue Francaise d’Études Américaines 93: 7-20.)
ACH=Tom LeClair’s interview (in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists; This book includes interviews with Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Don Delillo, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, etc.)
BM=Bradford Morrow’s interview in Conjunctions (1987)
MC=Marc Chénetier, Flore Chevaililer, and Antoine Cazé’s 2001 interview, “Some Bridge of Meaning,” in Sources, fall 2001
Bill Wilson, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka (1977; 133 ps.)
This collection of stories, written using language and viewpoints partly medical and scientific in nature, shows certain similarities to J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), at least in its concern with pathological and modified human bodies. Accordingly, Wilson’s prose’s register of bio/medical terminology reflects his concern with pathology: entelechy; neoteny; seriatim; naevus; pelagic; tunicates; enuresis; cortisone; hypospadias; pemmican; adrenergics; sigmoidoscopy; saprozoic. These are not stories for everyone. They are brutal and detached from human intimacy, incisive as a surgeon’s scalpel’s cuts. Think, if you have read it, of J.M. Coetzee’s short fiction The Vietnam Project, comprising the first half of Dusklands (1974).
Charles Newman, New Axis: or the ‘Little Ed’ Stories (1966; 175 ps.) (NN)
Tales from a small MidWestern community that interlock, intertwine, interlace. Each story conveys the experience and POV of a single character who is glimpsed obliquely by others in other stories. This ‘interlocking points-of-view’ technique, while it forms an integral part of many, many novels, stands out particularly in The Sound and the Fury (1929) by Faulkner, Impossible Object by Mosley, and in A Smuggler’s Bible by McElroy. Charles Newman was the founding editor of TriQuarterly where some of William S. Wilson’s and Joseph McElroy’s short work first appeared.
Nicolas Mosley, Impossible Object (1968; 219 ps.) (NN)
‘One of the most fascinating novels of the last generation,’ according to McElroy. No brief summary could do this book, which consists of eight short stories alternating with intensely bewildering three-page intercalary chapters, justice, successfully characterize the paradoxical wager at the heart of the book. ‘Words were a vulgarity. One’s duty was to love those whom one loves’ (175).
If you don’t know Mosley at all but are curious, you might find this website of John Banks, with interviews with Mosley, to be a useful resource.
After Impossible Object I quickly read Catastrophe Practice (1979), itself a triumph of hope and positivity, despite its ‘theatre of the absurd’ qualities which exist alongside Mosley’s incisive critical essays describing his vision and ambitions; and alongside a novella which concludes the book. American literature scholar Tom LeClair: ‘N. Mosley is a throwback, a modernist mastodon whose project for fiction surpasses in grandiosity that of any American writer I know.’ Dalkey has a large selection of Mosley’s books in print; recommended to explore them a little here.
Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas (1811) (NN) (free text here)
Thrilling, fantastic, and awesome. A two-hundred-year-old text that is just as modern and entertaining now as ever. It’s about one upright citizen’s insistence on justice in the face of corrupt officials. I’ve heard that for Ragtime (1974) E.L. Doctorow borrowed some situational elements from this short novella.
Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (1853) (JC) (free e-book)
If you’ve read this story, you know how unforgettable, eloquent, and bewildering it is–among the best stories ever written. If you are unfamiliar with this story, read or listen to it this week. Free audio version available from Librivox.
Michel Butor, Degrees (1960) (NN; 351 ps.)
This nouveau roman centers on a Paris school teacher who devises a project to meticulously record the totality of what happens to certain of his colleagues and pupils. Because his project attempts totality, it fails and he loses his psychic stability. Apparently an inspiration for A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), McElroy’s first novel.
Michel Butor, Mobile (1962; 319 ps.)
Not your typical travel book! Highly idiosyncratic and elliptical in its form, Mobile represents Butor’s experience of traveling in the U.S.A. when Eisenhower’s highway project was not yet old. This book makes extreme demands on the attention of the reader and provides singular rewards.
Knut Hamsun, Mysteries (1892; 340 ps.) (ACH)
Early modernist, experimental text that was praised early on by Henry Miller. About a man named Nagel who turns up one day in a small Norwegian village and stirs things up a bit.
Mailer is a somewhat neglected author today, but he was a public intellectual and a strong voice in the time of his celebrity. But what of Mailer ought one read?; not all Mailer is good Mailer, there is too much Mailer. Why Are We in Vietnam?, Of a Fire on the Moon, and parts of An American Dream are written with an incandescence that very few writers can equal. ‘The Man Who Studied Yoga?’ is a very good short story (in Advertisements for Myself).
William H. Gass, ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’ (c. 1960, 1964 ?) (NN)
Gass said once that he self-consciously composed this story on the structure of a musical composition. It attempts to convey the monotony of living in a small MidWestern town through repetitions, the very lack of action, lack of plot. Sound interesting? Gass’s language makes this, and the short story collection of which it is a part, a masterpiece of American literature.
Paul Metcalf, Patagoni (1971)
In ‘Neural Neighborhoods’ McElroy describes Patagoni as ‘a short history of North American Henry Ford and River Rouge… coupled with a rambling trip into South America under a weird metaphor of brain and body.’ The Jargon Press publication is an unusually beautiful, and somewhat rare, book-object. Coffee House’s 3 volume Collected Works of Metcalf has it, of course, in the 1st volume. (Note from 2016: I have since read nearly all of Metcalf’s work, and found it truly awesome. Here are some more posts tagging or discussing Metcalf.)
The story ‘State of Grace,’ Brodkey’s first published story, available in the collection First Love and Other Sorrows, is beautiful, eloquent, and touching; it even involves some plausible time travel, a real kick-in-the-pants. I have not read any of Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, but this beautiful appreciation of Brodkey surely makes me want to.
Jerome Charyn, A Child’s History of the Bronx (NN)
An excerpt from this unpublished novel was published in Statements 1, edited by Ronald Suzenick, of the Fiction Collective. From what I can tell it’s a playful, ribald colonial historiography (17th, 18th century) of Manhattan. Not something I recommend going the extra mile to consult.
Italo Calvino, “Priscilla,” from t zero
Imagine a cell thinking through how it feels to divide into or to combine with another cell, as in meiosis and mitosis. Calvino has done just that.
D.H. Lawrence, Selected Stories: (BM)
‘The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter’; ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’; ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’; ‘The Prussian Officer’
Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down (1966) (NN)
Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper and Suttree
Uwe Johnson, The Third Book about Achim (NN)
Von Dodderer, The Demons (ACH)
Henry James, What Maisie Knew (free here)
Henry Miller, Colossus of Maroussi (1958)(ACH)
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962) (ACH)
Dow Mossman, The Stones of Summer (1973)
Mark Smith, The Death of the Detective (1973)
Günter Grass, Dog Years (ACH)
William Golding, The Inheritors (ACH)
J.G. Ballard, Crash (NN)
Hortense Callisher (NN)
Leonard Michaels (NN)
Donald Barthelme (numerous)
Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (1971; 75 ps.) (ACH)
Dedicated to the children of the author (‘Maud and Fergus’), this collection of ten poems deploys an inventiveness of language and evokes an intensity of pathos that are rarely attained by even the best poets. The first printing by Houghton Mifflin includes amazing illustrations as frontispieces to each of the poems. This tiny book might be said to constitute some of the finest American poetry from the latter half of the 20th century.
Gary Snyder, “Good Things That Can Be Said for the Iron Age” (1970) (NN)
Retrieved from the vast Internet, here, the poem itself:
A ringing tire iron dropped on the pavement
Whang of a saw brusht on limbs
the taste of rust
A.R. Ammons, Collected Poems (ACH)
Philosophy and other
John Custance, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly (1952)
This book is referenced numerous times in McElroy’s first novel A Smuggler’s Bible. It’s a first-person account of madness and delusional revelations, and of a hospital stay. The book is really quite extraordinary, and also hard to find.
James Henry Breasted, Ancient History (1916)
A titular precedent for McElroy’s novel of the same name. The narrator, Cy, frequently digresses on ancient history (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylon, etc.) during the course of his book-length monologue. Ancient History is his school textbook, it seems.
E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) (ACH)
An awesome book written with strong and pragmatic convictions. As an economist Schumacher worked with Britain’s National Coal Board for twenty years. On the one hand, Schumacher’s book is a vehement critique of econometrics, and on the other it’s a re-definition of what economists and human beings ought to use to evaluate, understand, and (from a policy perspective) guide behavior. Schumacher’s assertion that ‘We must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units’ (80) informed the writing of Women and Men. Perhaps this is the only book I know whose back cover identifies its proper classification as ‘Economics / New Age.’
John Ruskin (ACH)
J.M. Keynes (ACH)
Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968)
Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Thinking, Dwelling’ (1950 or ’54; mentioned on KCRW’s Bookworm)
Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape (ACH)
Paul Kammerer, The Law of Seriality (ACH)
Paul Valéry, Eupalinos, or the Architect (SS)
Stanley Crawford, Mayordomo
The following books provided a research basis in the development of Plus, as acknowledged on the book’s copyright page:
Lehninger, Bioenergetics: The Molecular Basis of Energy Transformations (1973, 2nd ed.)
Noback, The Human Nervous System (1967)
Weiss, Principles of Development (1969)
All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.
I’m no fan of Charles Bukowski, the notoriously, riotously inebriated California beat poet, let there be no mistake, but perhaps in a former life I once was. That’s why the apparition of this graffiti during my family’s drive through a back alley, along with the joy of kite-flying, made my Sunday.
Click below for the amazing mural…
In honor of June 24 and of my five years in Montréal, here’s a calligram I made while I was living in Westmoreland County in, Virgina and planning my escape to la belle province:
au Québec je vais bientôt vivre
tabernacle de merde l’an dix-sept-cent-soixante-three
faut que je m’équippe des mocassins
pour toi, chère nation non-choisie
comment ça va mes bons copains
de vous connaître je suis ravi
Kateri, Daphné, Ghislain