Gardening: We’ve been having alternating days of sun and rain, which has been good for the stuff growing in the yard — both the stuff we want growing there and the stuff we don’t — but I’ve been finding the cool rainy weather a little depressing as I begin to recover from the Upper Respiratory Infection, i.e., cold, From Hell. But today it’s sun and I’m feelin alright, as the old Joe Cocker song has it. Yesterday during a break in the rain I hauled all the bonsai and indoor plants outside and put them in their summer quarters. Today I ought to pull weeds and put a few herbs I bought last week into pots.
Reading: I read The Idiot in Hanoi and I’m trying to write an essay about it that works with the idea of being beside one’s self. When I got home and had the bad cold, I plunged into the last three novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubury-Maturin series, which I’ve now completed over the last three summers, though I think maybe I missed one volume somewhere in the middle. I’ll probably read through the series again at some point, but not for a while. I read O’Brian’s books the way Carole watches certain kinds of HBO shows, because they are respectable, intelligent entertainment that still don’t demand complete concentration. Then — and this is weird — last night — without even realizing that today would be Bloomsday — I picked up Ulysses and began to read it for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. I’ve never gotten more than 100 pages into it, but I think this time I’ve caught the music. Stephen’s symbol for Irish art, “the cracked looking glass of a servent,” strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for modernist art in general, including Dostoevsky’s novel. The image in the glass is doubled and displaced; that it belongs to a servent might at first seem to devalue it, but we know that servents are often more free of illusion that their masters.
Update: There was a good short essay by Colum McCann about Ulysses in yesterday’s NY Times.
Ron Silliman has been doing top-twenty lists, like this one from Javier Huerta of “top twenty books that made you fall in love with poetry.” Here is my list. I’ve intentionally limited myself to books from the first twenty years or so of my writing life. Maybe I’ll do the latter-day books in a subsequent post. I’d love to see others’ lists, either in comments or via a link.
- The Waste Land and other Poems — T.S. Eliot. [Especially the ironies of “Prufrock.”]
- Highway 61 Revisited — Bob Dylan [Not a book of poems, but “Desolation Row” remains one of the great poems of Late Modernism.]
- From Confucius to Cummings — Ezra Pound, editor
- The Mentor book of Major American Poets — Oscar Williams
- 50 Poems — e.e. cummings
- The Stranger — Albert Camus [Not a book of poems, obviously, but very important to me in high school when I was breaking away from my parents’ religion.]
- Ariel — Sylvia Plath
- Leaves of Grass — Walt Whitman [More as symbol than as substance until I was in my 30s. I carried around an edition bound in cheap and crumbling red leather that I bought in high school, until I finally read the thing fifteen years later.]
- Selected Poems — W.H. Auden [This was an early Faber volume I no longer have.]
- A Coney Island of the Mind — Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- How Does a Poem Mean? — John Ciardi [I first found a few of the Child Ballads in this book. I also got my basic understanding of poetic devices here.]
- Words for the Wind — Theodore Roethke
- Howl — Allen Ginsberg
- The Fall of America — Allen Ginsberg [Recommended by Ronald Johnson when he was briefly my teacher at the UW.]
- Selected Poems — William Carlos Williams [Especially “To Daphne and Virginia” and “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower,” and “Burning the Christmas Greens.”]
- Life Studies — Robert Lowell
- 77 Dream Songs — John Berryman
- Astral Weeks — Van Morrison
- Two Citizens — James Wright [From what I’ve heard, Wright’s least favorite of his books.]
- Selected Poems (Ecco 1980) — Czeslaw Milosz [Maybe just one poem, “Ars Poetica.] ABC of Reading — Ezra Pound
As noted in a couple of previous posts, I have been participating in a discussion of poetics initiated by Henry Gould at a new blog, The Plumbline School, cross-posting a few of my comments here as well when they seemed detachable from their Plumbline context. There are, at last count, four participants in the project, which has generated a good deal of useful discussion in a short time, I think, though necessarily much of the talk at this point is range-finding and terminological in nature. The original idea, which has been undergoing a few modifications, was to initiate a discussion that would seek to find a new kind of center for poetic practice, and for the poem in this historical moment. (Or perhaps the intention was / is to rediscover an old center now obscured.)
The Plumbline was pulled out of the old tool box, frankly, in reaction to a number of current trends that seem out of kilter, so there is an element of the polemical in our discussions, though they are secondary to our main purposes. Henry has explicitly named Flarf as one thing he’s reacting against; my own frustration with current practice stems from the cultural configuration that sponsors an all-or-nothing divide between the so called “School of Quietude” and the so called “Post Avant.” I’m already on record as preferring something like Seth Abramson’s ecology as a starting point. On of the things that attracts me to this effort, as I’ve said, is that the polemical intent is subordinated to an exploratory, tentative approach to poetic practice and theorizing about poetry – our own as well as that of others. Speaking for myself, I am more interested in charting my own practice, which has grown stale, than in convincing others to join a movement.
Thus, the Plumbline: An attempt to chart what is actually going on in current poetry and to develop a terminology more descriptive than the one we have got with which to discuss the cultural landscape and the poetic practice located in that landscape. And, yes, an attempt to promote a particular sort of poetry, or poetry based on a particular set of (broadly defined) principles that orbit around the idea of the middle voice. A still point, an unwobbling pivot, amidst the static and random noises of current American literary culture. Or that’s how I read — and continue to read — the intentions of the Plumbline. If there are poets out there who would like to join the conversation, email me or follow the How to Join link at the Plumbline blog.
Frequent Sharp Sand commenter Peter Rennick has a new blog that looks to be composed entirely of his wonderful brief poems — the sort he posts here in comments. Given Peter’s sensibility, it’s lovely that he debuts Valentine’s Day. Make a note.
I guess I could have begun counting from the final day of classes last semester, but today is the first day I would have gone into the classroom had I been teaching, so this feels like the first official day of my sabbatical. Have I said that I am wildly grateful for such a luxury? If I haven’t, I am. At a time when many of my fellow citizens are losing their jobs, don’t have health insurance, lack adequate housing, etc., to be paid to sit home & think feels almost immoral. Perhaps that’s an old streak of Protestantism coming to the surface; if so, it’s a reminder that Protestantism was originally about social justice and individual dignity / responsibility. The best way I can see to redeem — don’t you love how the religious vocabulary emerges? — my time is to make effective use of it. So far, this has been a pretty lazy winter break: I’ve done a lot of reading, but dropped studying Vietnamese; I wrote a couple of stories, but haven’t looked at any of my poems in weeks; I’ve shoveled a good deal of snow, but I have been very lazy in the kitchen, falling into auto-cook mode most of the time.
I’m going to try to blog regularly during the sabbatical, mostly as a form of self-discipline & self-reflection. I’m not oing to make any foolhardy commitments to post something every day, but that will be my goal, even if it’s just a squib or a report on local bird life or what I cooked for dinner. With luck, there will also be more substantial bits as well. Anyway, it’s cold & snowy this morning & I probably won’t go farther afield today than the post office (though Carole is heading off to work in a few minutes), so the weather is cooperating: no excuse but to get some real work done.
Strangely compelling online game in which you use the mouse to rotate the picture space until the seemingly random elements coalesce into the icon at the upper right. There may be a deep metaphor here . . . or not. [Via Work / Space, where there is also a link to a discussion of plagiarism in online environments (by Chris Nelson) that should be of interest not only to journalists, but to writing teachers as well.]