Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Tuesday, February 16, 2021
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Monday, February 8, 2021
Saturday, February 6, 2021
From Wanking Willie to Soliloquizing Stevens: I read seven more great poems about sex, death and that whole 'life' thing (which, contra Axel of the Wilsonian castle, we shouldn't let our servants do for us)
Here's the last batch (for now) of videos in which I (try to) read great poems: "Love Song" (a self-love song, actually) and "To Elsie" by William Carlos Williams; "Port of Spain" by Derek Walcott (a poem new to me); "No worst, there is none..." by Gerard Manley Hopkins (my favorite Jesuit); "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (near the end there's a bit of crackle when my prophetic trumpet overwhelms my laptop's microphone); "Soonest Mended" by John Ashbery (with a special appearance by Max the Meddling Cat); and "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" by Wallace Stevens.
Friday, February 5, 2021
In these videos from the Mindful Pleasures YouTube channel, I read: "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats; "If It's Ever Spring Again" by Thomas Hardy; "The Broken Tower" by Hart Crane; and "The American Sublime" by Wallace Stevens.
Even more videos from my Mindful Pleasures YouTube channel, in which I read five more of my favorite poems: "Red Riding Hood" by Anne Sexton; "The Sun Rising" and "The Canonization" by John Donne (read, appropriately, from my bed); and "This Be The Verse" and "Aubade" by Philip Larkin.
Here are five more videos from the Mindful Pleasures YouTube channel in which I read: "Among School Children" by William Butler Yeats, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell, "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" by William Wordsworth, and "Punishment" by Seamus Heaney.
Thursday, February 4, 2021
...Yes, I'm having a busy and enjoyable day making hostage video-quality recordings of myself reading some favorite poems. Here's the rest of what I recorded this morning: "Desert Places" by Robert Frost; "In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound (fascist asshole...lovely poem); "Preludes" by T. S. Eliot; "Ariel" by Sylvia Plath; and "Death News" by Allen Ginsberg.
Here are five brief YouTube videos, recorded this morning, in which I read a few favorite poems: "The Haw Lantern" by Seamus Heaney; "Flaubert in Egypt" by Robert Penn Warren; "I cannot live with you..." by Emily Dickinson; "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" by Dylan Thomas; and Emily Dickinson's "After great pain...." Soon, I'm going to write line-by-line close readings of these poems, publish those interpretations here, and use these video readings to supplement those essays--with all the Derridean masturbatory connotations put into play by my use of the word "supplement" (of course)...
Wednesday, February 3, 2021
A very short YouTube video in which I vid-rant about our culture's loss of the distinction between informed and uninformed opinions--and what we as individuals can do about it.
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
I Read the 'Updated and Expanded' second edition of James Wood's HOW FICTION WORKS, so you don't have to...
If any readers of the first edition of James Wood's How Fiction Works are wondering whether to check out the new(er) enlarged revision, I would tell them not to bother. The book has not been noticeably improved by revision. Wood has added a brief, forgettable chapter on 'form,' updated a few references and examples, dropped some passages that I thought interesting and valuable (a long footnote on character names, and the long pastiche of average 20th century English prose, for example), trendied-up other sections with examples from Knausgaard, Ali Smith, and the egregiously overrated David Shields, and toned-down (almost to the point of reversal) the first edition's criticism of David Foster Wallace. None of this greatly impressed me. In fact, I preferred Wood as a harsher critic of DFW, for that stance gave his genuine insights into Wallace's work a penetrating authority missing from his more fanboyish current position, which inevitably resembles bandwagon-jumping.
BTW, I read Wood's most recent novel, Upstate, last summer and found it entirely forgettable. Don't remember a damn thing about it.
William H. Gass's 1958 essay "Gertrude Stein: Her Escape from Protective Language" (reprinted in Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1971) is probably the best--and surely the best-written--aesthetic defense of Stein's style. I must demur from Gass's defense, however, because I have actually read Gertrude Stein. Gass's essay might convince if it were a Borgesian fictional criticism of an imaginary oeuvre, but unfortunately Stein's turgid texts stumble and stammer forth to sabotage all defenses. And even Gass must finally allow that the actual work tends toward unreadability, calling it "some of the dullest, flattest and longest literature perhaps in history"(95). (Even when I disagree with Big Bad Bill, I can still find something to agree with. (Does he contradict himself? So he contradicts himself. He was fat. He contained multitudes.)) In defending Modernist experimentation, stony Mount Stein is not the hill I would choose to die on. Instead, I would prefer to live--in the "doublends jined" of Finnegans Wake, say. Gass makes a valiant effort, but in the end, all aesthetic defenses of Stein are suicide missions.
Unlike Gertrude's dubiously musical medium, Gass's prose is a great tuning fork. Strike it anywhere and it will sensibly sound. It can tune a reader's ear to the music of prose, of Modernist prose, that great post-Paterian synthesis of sense and sound, music and word. Not 'words and music' but word as music--that's Gass's tune.
Monday, February 1, 2021
In his theoretical book The Role of the Reader, Umberto Eco (his very name an intertextual Nabokovian ec(h)o) quotes Mallarme:
Le monde existe pour aboutir a un livre.
"The world exists to end up in a novel." This is an ironic, sardonic aesthete's answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Mallarme's mocking irony points toward the fallacious structure of the question, implicitly presupposing its answer (supernatural causation) by assuming that "why" is meaningful in this case. If the devil's in the details, 'intelligent design' is in the interrogatives. Of course, there's no need to leap like a dead Dane (he of the churchyard name), because those fundamental why's point merely to murkier and murkier material causes--murky not from theological mystery, but because we haven't properly lighted them yet. (See Lawrence M. Krauss's A Universe From Nothing for a scientifically informed discussion of this issue.) A present lack of knowledge is evidence of nothing but itself; it certainly doesn't justify a jump into extramaterial causation.
About Eco's critical theory / scholarly writing I have the same reservations I've expressed toward Toni Morrison's academic work: the dry, passionless, uninteresting, undistinguished prose pales by comparison with the prose artistry of the authors' better-known fictional works. In the light of their artistic accomplishments--in Morrison's case, a blazing light--their scholarly books read almost like unintentional parodies of English Department technocracy--something that deserves a killing intentional parody.
The high points of Fragments of the Artwork, a thin posthumous selection of Jean Genet's writings on art--culled and Englished from the French and padded with a long interview--are the essays on Giacometti and Rembrandt. The lesser-known of the latter two, "Rembrandt's Secret," contains a passage that strikes me with the force of truth. Genet is differentiating between his impressions of Rembrandt's self-portraits and of the other figures in the artist's oeuvre:
His [non self-portrait] figures, all of them, are aware of the existence of a wound, and they are taking refuge from it. Rembrandt [in the self-portraits] knows he is wounded, but he wants to be cured. From that knowledge comes the impression of vulnerability we get when we look at his self-portraits and the expression of confident strength when we are faced with the other paintings.(86)
Genet likewise speaks of this 'wound' in the Giacometti essay:
Beauty has no other origin than a wound, unique, different for each person, hidden or visible, that everyone keeps in himself, that he preserves and to which he withdraws when he wants to leave the world for a temporary but profound solitude... Giacometti's art seems to me to want to discover that secret wound of every being, and even of every object, so that it can illumine them.(42)
(Now, as I transcribe this passage, I'm reminded of Hemingway's great letter to Fitzgerald upon reading Tender is the Night: "We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it...")
As I stated, the Rembrandt passage impressed me deeply, leapt off the page, exemplifying Emerson's aphorism on genius: In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Substitute "unconscious apprehensions" for "rejected thoughts" and you'll get a flavor of the "alienated majesty" I find in Genet's lines.
Because readers have asked for an update on my health, and because, unlike most authors of memoirs, I hate to write about myself, I'll keep this note short:
Alright, I suppose I can be somewhat more expansive:
It's no news to anyone that 2020 was a terrible year. It will likely go down as the worst year of many of our lives. In my life (cue the Beatles tune), the year began with blinding cataracts in both eyes that reduced my zone of clarity, even through monstrously powerful glasses, to a few inches in front of my face. The necessary surgery was delayed due to the pandemic, but by the beginning of summer I had undergone cataract extraction and lens implant surgeries in both eyes. Immediate results were positive--indeed, from my point of view, pretty fucking miraculous. My vision cleared and improved to the point that I could read without glasses for the first time since childhood. But then the Shit Year did its shitty thing. Because the implanted artificial lens is slightly smaller than the natural one, the vitreous gel inside the eye sometimes pushes forward after surgery, a phenomenon known as posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). In my case the PVD was particularly violent, tearing the retina and causing retinal detachment and blindness in one eye. During the month of August I suffered three separate retinal detachments and underwent three surgical procedures to repair them. The final surgery lasted three hours and left me with an eye filled with silicone gel, the only option for my multiply recidivistic retina. This repair has held--so far--and the world I now see consists of an occasionally annoying double exposure: the relative clarity of my undamaged eye superimposed upon the severely tunnel-visioned blurriness of its vitrectomied and siliconed twin. My next visit is to an optometrist for the eyeglasses that should help even things out. Bottom line: after a hellish 2020, I'm looking up.
There are writers who drink and drinkers who write, and then there's Richard Yates, who spent a lifetime blurring the distinction. Habitues of Boston's Crossroads Irish Pub in the 1980s might've been shocked to learn that the skinny old barfly who seemed to live in one of the booths was in fact 'America's least known great writer,' the author of at least three undeniably superlative works of fiction: his first novel, Revolutionary Road, the follow-up story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (great title too), and his 1976 Bicentennial fireworks display, The Easter Parade. That he was also a chronic alcoholic and frequent mental patient who once, in the grips of manic psychosis, stripped naked and ran around a friend's house urinating on the walls... well, that might have surprised the Crossroaders not at all.
Biographer Blake Bailey (whose life of Yates I've just read while awaiting the spring publication of his expected-to-be-definitive biography of Philip Roth) here demonstrates a near-Yatesian eye for the telling detail, the kind of symbolic image Yates eliotically referred to as an "objective correlative":
Work on his war novel had come to a dead end, and at one point he became so desperate that he blamed it on his table. "It's too high," he told Grace Schulman. "I need to get over my writing...." So he sawed the legs down, to no avail. (256)
He sawed the legs down, to no avail. Richard Yates's tombstone--if he had one; as of 2003, he didn't--might have worn that sentence as an epitaph. For Bailey's Yates is a physical and psychological basket case who spent much of his life sawing off his own legs. Given the drinking, the smoking, the tuberculosis, the accidental incineration of his New York apartment, and the long, dreary catalog of hospitalizations and relapses, it seems nearly miraculous that Yates could write his name on a check. That he produced nine estimable works of fiction almost beggars credulity.
Until, that is, one reflects that his always autobiographical fiction might have functioned for Yates in the way psychotherapy works for the less talented. He spent most of his life angrily deriding and avoiding psychotherapy, preferring to gobble psychotropics and neutralize their effects with a whiskey chaser (that old leg-saw buzzing again...). (He did finally undergo analysis in the 1970s, but it was fruitless--a failure the doctor attributed to his drinking.) In his fiction, however, he returned to his earlier years, his childhood, youth, early adulthood, and examined them, through the protective screen of fictionality, with the coldest of eyes. Bailey is anything but a 'psychobiographer,' but his book portrays a Yates in perpetual psychological flight from his grandiose, deluded, Bohemian mother. And as is the entirely predictable nature of such things--a tragic trajectory older than Sophocles--the thing he flees is exactly the thing he becomes. This son of an unappreciated, itinerant artist with money woes and mental problems becomes exactly an unappreciated itinerant artist with money problems and mental woes. Determined to avoid his mother's life, he repeats it as exactly as he can. Although Bailey's biography is not nearly so good as a novel by Richard Yates, it is every bit as sadly fucking tragic.
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Lorrie Moore, for whom I had hope, disappoints me with the first half-dozen of her COLLECTED STORIES, a hefty, great-looking Everyman's Library volume that deserves better contents. The stories are alphabetically arranged, so the first six form a mini-retrospective of her career, and from this I judge her to be an above-average 'program writer'. Her prose is surprisingly good, her voice sometimes flashes a caustic humor, but her work doesn't approach greatness. These aren't stories on a level with Munro or Proulx or Carver. There's nothing shockingly new or wow-inducing in Moore's work, no revelations. She composes the sort of entertaining, work(wo)manlike stories typical of MFA program professors (we can even fairly classify her as an 'academic writer' a la David Lodge); and like most capos of the MFA mafia, she's handicapped by the 'write what you know' dogma. Like her professorial contemporary George Saunders, she's too traditional for her own good (Saunders' overpraised oeuvre consists mostly of warmed-over Donald Barthelme, and his stories' irrealistic surfaces serve to advance an underlying, and ultimately conservative, sentimental humanism.), and like her fellow prof Richard Ford, her reputation has likely been artificially inflated by her institutional affiliation. She's worshiped by former students (like the one whose hagiographic introduction dubiously graces this collection), but I can't find the knockout greatness in the work. What I did, repeatedly, find was a tendency to end her stories with unearned epiphanies. Instead of putting in the hard imaginative work required to bring a complex story to a satisfactory conclusion, she simply pulls an arbitrary epiphany out of her buttcrack and calls it an ending. Lorrie Moore leaves my mind unblown. What Gore Vidal grandly called "the matter of America" deserves a better teller.
Eighty pages into Ashbery's Flow Chart, in the restored Library of America edition, I found myself just beginning to understand it--this book-length poem that ideal readers will perpetually 'begin to understand,' without any of that Keats-derided "irritable reaching after fact and reason"--I began, that is, to understand it as a kaleidoscopic late-late-Surrealist love poem. As such, it belongs to the line of Surrealist art about love and sex highlighted in the ca.2002 exhibition catalog Surrealism: Desire Unbound--an exhibition JA probably saw at the Met (incidentally, for our purposes, since it arrived a decade after the poem's publication). I also find obvious affinities with Dada, Pop Art and, more pointedly, the assemblages and 1960s paintings of Robert Rauschenberg--as well as their ancestors in the collage paintings of Picasso and Braque from the 1910s. Ashbery's text also winks and nods--obscurely, its gestures clouded by Cubist cigarette smoke--towards other, more specifically literary precursors (of the sort that might have popped into the late Harold Bloom's echo-capturing mind as he read the poem): The Bridge, Leaves of Grass, The Cantos, and that lodestar of Modernist difficulty, The Waste Land. And of course (bien sur), Mallarme and the French Symbolists are in here too, swirling in the Ashberian cyclone.... Ashbery's poem, however, embodies a difficulty beyond the High Modernist, a difficulty we might consider characteristically 'postmodernist,' due to the work's anarchistic skepticism with regard to language, meaning, narrative and form. If such earlier Ashbery books as The Double Dream of Spring, Houseboat Days, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror might be collectively considered JA's Ulysses, Flow Chart is his Finnegans Wake. A work of remarkable local beauty (line by lovely line, image by startling image), it presents difficulties of global interpretation (the Alfie question: "What's it all about?") that might keep its select few readers guessing for lifetimes--or lead them to run up the white flag of aporia and surrender to France, reducing the poem to a textbook illustration of Derridean radical skepticism, the post-structuralist circulation of meaning, and any number of other ideas powerful enough to keep grad students off crack during the 1980s.
Upon finishing this first reading--complete but necessarily inconclusive, like any reading of Ashbery's best works--I thought Flow Chart a remarkable enigma, an exquisitely difficult pleasure with enough moments of beauty to inspire multiple readings and the desire to pluck the mystery out of the poem's heart. I hesitate only slightly before calling it a great poem (the hesitation a first-reading's hedge); it is Ashbery's magnum opus. And as to what it's all about: all is what it's about. It's a tragic, comic, goofball meditation on life, death and everything in the indecent interval between. It is 'about' (in the sense of 'man about town') the Lucretian-Epicurean rain of imagistic atoms flowing from John Ashbery's mind to his writing hand as the nineteen-eighties stumbled to a close.
This is all but a raw, tentative reaction to a first reading of Flow Chart, and as such it fits the blog, because Mindful Pleasures for the past 12 years has been a place to prose-out my raw readerly reactions. Pretty much everything here is a trial piece. If I'm ever able or willing to write the book-length commentary that Flow Chart deserves, I will title it, from the poem, Exquisite Nitpicking.