Saturday, September 29, 2007


John Kinsella was fierce and funny when he came to read for us at Lake Forest this past Tuesday. Having traveled for more than thirty hours, functioning on what he said was about two hours sleep, the man indefatigably talked, read, and I believe wrote ("This morning I went outside and got my poem," he said) for his entire time with us. Perhaps he allowed himself four hours sleep before getting on a plane early Wednesday to fly to New York, whence he's bound for LA and London and Gambier, Ohio before finally returning to Australia. My students are still talking about the reading, a tremendous performance by turns outraged, humorous, and lyrical. John's forcefully expressed opinions have brought him a lot of trouble—he's been subjected to death threats and shot at twice for his political views and radical environmentalism—but in person he manages to balance the competing claims suggested by his self-description as "a vegan anarchist pacifist." While outspoken and quick to condemn bad behavior, he seems sincere about living his anarchism as a personal ethic by which he refuses to tell other people what to do—which came as something of a relief for this unreconstructed carnivore who couldn't resist ordering chicken on his Greek salad at the after-reading dinner.

The reading has sent me back to his poetry: I learned that The New Arcadia (which I reviewed for Verse a while back) is actually third in a trilogy whose preceding volumes, The Silo and The Hunt made a big splash in Australia but have not been published in this country (the Norton-published New Arcadia doesn't even mention that these other books exist). I'd like to track them down, particularly The Silo, which is apparently based structurally on the five movements of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony—they might both become texts for the pastoral seminar I'll be teaching in the spring. I've also picked up Peripheral Light: New and Selected Poems, a book I resisted getting at first because I'm somewhat allergic to the imprimatur of Harold Bloom—but some of the most gorgeous and stirring stuff Kinsella read came out of this book, so I had to have it. In his life and work he presents a formidable model for the modern engaged poet; I was inspired by him, and I think my students were too, though they also thought him a bit nutty. (At one point during the reading he said that he'd been hit by lightning twice when he was a boy, "which maybe explains a few things.")

Tonight's my own reading , of course, alongside Robyn Schiff, Krista Franklin, and Philip Jenks. I'm planning on taking this opportunity to begin to explore literary Chicago a bit more—I want to hit at least one of the great bookstores today (Seminary Co-Op, 57th Street Books, Myopic Books, Powells), geography permitting. I'm also told that the Evanston Public Library is having a book sale today, so I may check that out as well. Not that I have time to read anything but Emerson's essays, a chunk of which I'm teaching next week for my American Lit class.

But I did finally pick up some Roberto Bolano, namely his book of short stories, Last Evenings on Earth, and found myself strangely persuaded by the first few stories in it. As Benjamin Kunkel remarks in his review, Bolano's is a curiously anti-literary style—it really does more resemble oral history, with none of the forced resistance to verbal cliche that most authors put up (on the first page of the first story Bolano's narrator uses the phrase "poor as a church mouse"). Yet his concerns are hyperliterary, insofar as his heroes and interlocutors are, to a man (I haven't yet encountered a woman writer in his pages, but I'm only a few stories in) poets, for whom poetry is always already a condition of exile. This has a real political basis for a Chilean writer, of course. I've remarked in the past that the current cult for Bolano reminds me of that enjoyed by W.G. Sebald when he first appeared in translation in this country (and from the same publisher, no less); now I find there's a similarity too in their stance of political melancholy. But it's early days yet: more to read, and I await the moment I can get my hands on The Savage Detectives (not to mention some of Bolano's poetry, which is of course much harder to find than his fiction, though he thought of himself as a poet) so that I can explore further the fascination of Bolano's downright ontological conception of the "poet [who] can survive anything."

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