Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day Five
I don’t crawl the web very much, unlike, I think, a lot of younger poets I know. I don’t get much pleasure from it, though it’s proven a convenient tool for looking stuff up. And I’ve only poked around on the blogs. Ron Silliman has a good one, what an astonishing amount of energy he must have! The one website I feel I’ve really learned something from is Jacket, edited by the Australian poet, John Tranter, now about 30 issues out, and 5,000 pages total (he informs us). (I’ve never published anything on it). I find myself going back to it every so often and losing hours. . . .
Occasionally I find poems I like, and reviews of contemporary poetry I want to read; but the historical stuff, about the modern/postmodern, is often first rate, and I learn a lot about poetry in the U.K. Great photographs, too. The most recently complete issue, from last October, has an enlightening section on the great London critic Kenneth Cox, with a pungent essay by August Kleinzahler. One of the things I like about the site is that Tranter lets you poke around future issues under construction.
Overheard in a bookstore recently in Washington D.C., about the work of a poet who had just finished reading: Q: “It’s perfectly fine, it’s fine, but that’s it, what’s wrong with it?” A: “It’s not fresh bread, it’s old bread, it’s not fresh, but it’s still bread.”
In the news recently, I read a story about the Protestant cemetery in Rome, which attracts visitors who wish to make pilgrimage to the gravestones of Keats, Shelley, Hans Christian Andersen, Richard Henry Dana, William Wetmore Storey (whose dramatic statue of a weeping angel, cut for his wife’s grave, is memorable on several counts, none favorable), Antonio Gramsci, and other legendary figures who died in the eternal city, but outside the Catholic faith. The ambiance there impresses with its cypress shade and moss, its crowded rows and many cats, and the small-scale Egyptian-style pyramid that is part of the Aurelian Wall bordering the cemetery. Every year, lefty Italians gather at Gramsci’s stone to read out loud Pasolini’s poem dedicated to him, Marxist to Marxist. But the cemetery has been falling into serious disrepair, hence the newspaper coverage. One of the curiosities, I found, on a visit there in 2004, is the conspicuous placement of Gregory Corso’s gravestone at the feet of Shelley’s marker. I can understand Corso’s desire to plunk down across the path from his Romantic hero; what I don’t understand is how they found the room to drop him there. Because of its illustrious residents, the Protestant cemetery in Rome has long been coveted ground, and there have been scandals in the past about payola laid out to secure a hot spot. The problem is, there are no empty plots. The earliest burials date from the early-mid 18th century. To accommodate deceased status-seekers, remains were being dug up and reburied elsewhere, probably at some distance from the congested center. Corso died in 2001. How did he secure such a coveted location? He came from an Italian family. One wonders . . .
Penultimate entry, with recommendation. I spent the winter of 1994 in Provincetown, MA, at the Fine Arts Work Center. It was an unusually cold and snowy winter that year. Because the gauge of the metal on most of the pipes was too thin to keep oil from thickening and clogging, guys from the town oil company routinely came by with blowtorches to warm the delivery pipes below ground, accessible through a plate cover. Frequent plowing of the parking lot resulted in a snow mound that grew past the roofline of the Stanley Kunitz Common Room, where they hold readings. While most stores & restaurants closed and commerce disappeared on Commercial Street, a good used bookstore in town, Tim’s Books, stayed open through the winter, a great boon, and one of the places I frequented for idle, entertaining bullshit with the bookish and opinionated Tim, and his friend Dorian, the most devoted, disinterested, voracious reader I’ve ever met. I was working on a doctoral dissertation about Mina Loy, and Tim’s Books was a little trove of modernism—I found more than a few titles that extended my education, though in often-unanticipated directions. One such title was Catullus, translated by Celia & Louis Zukofsky (Cape Golliard, 1969). I didn’t really know anything about Zukofsky, except some vague tags that linked him to Oppen, Niedecker, Bunting, and Pound. Well, the constellation of associations recommended it, and I had not read any Catullus. Here was my chance to enter the translations of a Latin poet I had been meaning to read, and through another modernist, whom Loy might have even known in New York, but whom I knew only by hazy way of reputation. A handsome, large-size format paperback, with nice heavy pages and sewn binding—I barely looked inside it, paid my six bucks and took it home. I opened it up and looked at the Latin:
Risi nescio quem modo e corona,
qui, cum mirifice Vatiniana
meus crimina Calvus explicasset,
admirans ait haec manusque tollens,
“di magni, salaputtium disertum!”
I looked over at the en face translation:
Risible nice go when from mud a crony
quickly confirms the case against Vatinius
discriminating Calvus made explicit—
all admiration hikes its hands in tolling,
“Loving Gods, that tiny man’s dissertation!”
What the fuck? I didn’t know Latin, but I knew enough to know that this was whacked. It was funny, though. I felt like a tiny man, myself, jerking my dissertation. I flipped around.
Siquoi iure bono sacer alarum obstitit hircus,
aut siquem merito tarda podagra secat,
aemulus iste, toro qui vestro exercet amorem,
mirificet a te nactus utrumque malum.
nam quotiens futuit, totiens ulciscitur ambos:
illam affligit odore, ipse perit podagra
Securer a bo ? no sacred armpits lair hops as that he-goat’s—
out seeking merit with hardy podagra sick cat,
emulous he’s the, tergiversator exercising your whore,
miracle cast of your nights’ traumatic malignance.
Now quotidian as you to it, both tense in ulcerated ambush:
a love laid flat with his odor, himself pierced with podagra.
It was a long, cold winter. And my girl was in New York. I was game for sound-play, pun, homonymic pranking, leaving sense by the wayside, and dipping into this strangeness like an otter without a care. I came to like a lot of Zukofsky’s short poems, though I made little headway into his monumental A.
My sense is that the Internet has destroyed such opportunities as I had in those years, for buying rare books cheap—the booksellers check each other’s pricing now, and so the market finds a level for each item very quickly. I don’t know what this large format paperback is worth, that I bought for six bucks, but a good hardcover is about $175, a collector’s item (I just checked, at Abebooks.com).
Thus, the publishing venture at Wesleyan University Press, to reissue the Complete Critical Writings of Louis Zukofsky is welcome; though I doubt they’ll reissue the Catullus, I did find something recently, that I had never read, while poking around at Second Story Books, in Dupont Circle: Zukofsky’s A Test for Poetry, first published in 1948, reissued by Wesleyan. This is a book-length comparative study, in which Zukofsky takes well known and lesser-known passages and places them side-by-side for the exercise of developing literary judgment. He’ll put a passage by Shelley next to one by Hopkins, for example, or something obscure to modern readers, such as a passage from Gawin Douglas’ 16th C. translation of the Aeneid next to a passage from Shakespeare’s Pericles. A comment then follows about the two passages and, often, a more general note about what constitutes good writing and good poetry. Zukofsky’s perceptions are always original and clear, his reasoning persuasive. It’s a unique book, more open than Pound’s primer, ABC of Reading, because the format allows Zukofsky, the teacher, to hold off so that the reader can form an opinion, and then test it against Zukofsky’s. The test for poetry is always, ultimately, in the reader’s mouth; but Zukofsky turns us to sight, sound, and intellection (his breakdown), and thereby sharpens our sense of each. A great book for anyone interested in poetry. For anyone interested in Zukofsky more generally, Robert Hass’ fulsome essay in the September/October issue of American Poetry Review is a good place to start.
Having just returned from an event around the recent publication of Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allen Poe & The Jukebox: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, edited and annotated by Alice Quinn, I think the season’s controversy will be about the decision to publish these materials. If talk at the soirée afterward is any indication, feelings will split between those who want to see what has been available to the public through the archive, but now in a convenient and tangible format, and others who feel that the lesser work doesn’t shed adequate light on the great poems to justify the presentation. The critical questions should gather around some key issues: Is the Bishop of the Complete Poems 1927-1979 recognizably, audibly, the same as the Bishop of the “Uncollected Poems”? Do these archival poems and fragments suggest how Bishop became a great poet? If not, what is their reason for publication now? Do these uncollected materials somehow connect to the present concerns in the culture of the art about the nature of poetry—what it is, what it’s for, how it sounds, how it makes its meaning? How does Alice Quinn’s arrangement of these materials create a particular portrait of the poet in process? Is it an accurate picture, a valuable one? How do these materials now alter our reading of the great Complete Poems? Do we find continuities or breaks, developments or departures? Does the volume add to Bishop’s stature or diminish it?
Conversation moved through the slalom of concerns, swerving to the topic of poets now selling their personal archives to libraries, thereby becoming more self-conscious about the letters they write to friends, the sharing of works-in-progress, and the like. Do you save everything, all your drafts and correspondence? Do you date your drafts? I thought of Hemingway’s remark that posterity can take care of itself. Some sympathized with the impulse to burn one’s notebooks and correspondence, though they also acknowledged that it’s presumptuous in the first place to assume anyone cares. I can’t be bothered, myself, with burning it or organizing it. I think of the scene in Terry Gilliam’s great movie, Brazil, in which Jonathan Pryce’s character walks out of a building and onto a blustery street; papers, trash, are swirling around him, some touching him, blowing against his legs, his body, and sticking there. An accretion of papers. Pryce is disappearing. He’s covered in paper, and disappears beneath it, disappears altogether. An allegory of bureaucracy; easy, as well, to see there an allegory of the archive.
Which brings us, of course, full circle to this blog, a kind of hopscotch on the grid. I enjoyed playing for the week, letting my little streamers unfurl in the wind. And so, to bed.