Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Life? Or Blogging?

There's probably no more tiresome sort of blog post than the apology for not blogging, but that's what circumstances have reduced me to. These days, I find teaching and family life absorb nearly all of my energy, and what little is left over goes either toward other projects (writing reviews, talks I'm giving at Lake Forest in the coming weeks) or leisure reading (last week's spare moments were consumed by a copy of Woodward and Bernstein's The Final Days that I found in a box on the street—anticipatory schadenfreude on my part). Current literary events, like the sad and sudden passing of David Foster Wallace, are passing me by. I'm not even reading blogs much anymore, a new trend as disturbing as it might be healthy.

If I did have time to blog, I'd blog about the Modern Poetry course I'm teaching, which has been a very exciting adventure. I have some very bright students in that class (including Brother Tom, who's auditing) who have never before encountered the likes of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, or William Carlos Williams (the story so far). One beneficial effect for me has been to reread these writers as a clever undergraduate might—I find myself concerned with what these poets might mean, whereas normally when I read poetry I just permit myself to be ravished by surface effects and sociohistoric echoes. So I have to construct a narrative for each poet's work to guide the class, while letting the range and scope of it suggest to the students the necessary provisionality of such a narrative.

I'd also probably blog—it's a mercy I do not—about the presidential campaign. Despite his being by any world measure a center-right candidate, despite the likelihood of his turning into neoliberalism with a (multicultural) human face, I badly want Obama to win, and to win big. I have a daughter—have her while she is mine—and that puts me a lot closer to Polonius and his desire to keep the ship of state afloat than it does to Hamlet's revolution. If McCain and Palin get in—satyrs to Obama's Hyperion?—I will fear not for the decline of the American empire (that would be just fine, I long to live in a "normal country"), but its convulsive self-destruction. Which is to say, my little family will likely be stumping for Obama in Kenosha, Wis., this weekend. And I'll be checking the latest polls every spare second between now and November 4, hoping for current financial crisis-driven trends to continue to boost the guy who does indeed offer hope, however slender a reed that might be.

Going back underground, for a time.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I emerge from start-of-semester-induced silence blinking into the bloglight. I've got an enviable Tuesday-Thursday teaching schedule this semester, with Wednesday devoted to grading and committees, giving me a four-day weekend to spend with wife and daughter and do my own work (and, okay, a bunch of grading). But my abbreviated workweek is extraordinarily intense, and that combined with the vagaries of a seven-month-old's sleep schedule has left me with little or no extra energy that isn't being consumed by class preparation, futzing with my Olson article, reshuffling manuscripts, and fretting about the election.

Saddening news of the passing of Reginald Shepherd yesterday. We never met, but I had a stimulating and occasionally contentious online relationship with him for years. His apparent esteem for my work and opinions did a lot to help me feel that I had something valuable to contribute to the discourse surrounding American poetry, for which I'll always be grateful. He unfailingly addressed me as "Joshua" no matter how often I signed my e-mails "Josh," and I came to welcome the grace notes of his formality. I'll miss hearing what I imagined his voice sounded like: a bass-baritone with a rare glinting laugh attached.

Over at Exoskeleton, in between posting about his own election anxieties, Johannes Göransson has been taking issue with some of my blogpinions. I seem to be something of a bête noir of his, for manifesting insufficient political sensitivities. Now I read his blog with some regularity, but I still want to say: Johannes, by all means pick bones with me, but link to the posts you argue with, eh? Otherwise I may not find out you've been criticizing me until weeks after the fact.

Most recently, Johannes expressed irritation with the "tribes" model that Scott McCloud adapted for talking about comics, and which I've found useful for thinking about poetry—my own most of all. He objects, if I read him aright, to what he sees as my belief that political poetry (i.e., iconoclasm) is less artistic than the other kinds (such as formalism). For Johannes, all poetry, indeed I'd say all artistic production, is political, a point that any longtime reader of this blog knows I agree with. But he seems to think that when I describe a certain kind of political poetry as "angry" or "feces-throwing" that I'm denigrating its artistic value. Far from it! He seems entirely to have missed my genuine sense of envy when confronted by the work of poets and writers whose self-identification, if offered McCloud's model, would certainly fall heavily on the Iconoclast/Animist side of the street—the real shit-stirrers, people like Kent Johnson and caconrad and some of the Flarfists and some of the "gurlesque" writers (and Johannes himself). Hurling feces is entirely appropriate behavior from an artist who feels him or herself to be in a cage, and the art of attracting spectators in that situation, who risk being themselves beshitted but are nonetheless drawn to that implicating spectacle, is a very fine art indeed.

As I'd want to make use of it, the four tribes model is in no way prescriptive, but descriptive, and of less use in categorizing art than in assisting in an artist's own fuller self-perception and positioning. It's a means of situating oneself in the field, and of assessing one's own inclinations and fears. It's true that, unlike Silliman's quietude/post-avant bifurcation, it's not a historicizing model, which may be a weakness. But I'd argue that a model that can be used historically (to talk about what Iconoclasm might have meant to the second-gen New York School poets, for example) is more useful than a model that purports to do all the critical work for you, so that nothing remains to you but sorting the poets you encounter into this category or that.

Finally, the question was raised as to whether I read comics. Yes I do, but much less than I used to, because they're so darned expensive and because comic book store owners, in my experience, are paranoid about people lingering over their wares, insisting that you buy something if you spend more than a couple of minutes with any one title. This forces me into the arms of Barnes & Noble, where you can sit and read for hours, but the selection is much more limited. It's true I've mostly read Anglo-American comics, and my favorites aren't particularly outré—Harvey Pekar, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, more recently Alison Bechdel. But I do enjoy the work of Jason (I got a big kick out of his book The Left Bank Gang, which reimagines the American expatriate writers of the 1920s—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, etc.—as both comic book artists and criminals), I watched a lot of anime in college, and I also used to read Heavy Metal which introduced me to French artists like Moebius. So I been around.

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