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yeats and the imf, harry potter brutalism, apple store art museums: aesthetics via the wsj 19/11/10

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In addition to my IHT, I like a financial paper every day, as the “business section” is the only section where the actual news happens. I used to read the Financial Times until, at MSA 2008, I saw Frederic Jameson carrying around a copy to match mine (we’d probably both walked to the Borders down the road as there was nowhere else to buy such a thing in Nashville) and realized at that moment that this FT shit had, as they say, jumped the shark. So now I kick it old school with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal – European Edition, which is cheaper by miles anyway.

(a joke, btw – in case it’s not clear. maybe a joke. i dunno)

Anyway from yesterday’s WSJ, a strange melange of aesthetics / politics / commercialism that gives us the present state of play in snippets. First, from an article on Ireland’s debt crisis / IMF intervention:

It (an editorial in The Irish Times) went on: “There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.” In Ireland’s parliament, a deputy recited the stanza of Yeats from which the editorial takes its title, an elegy for the dead of an earlier, failed, revolution.

Let a billion quasi-leftist grad seminar papers bloom. Folks have been – at times very cheaply and with a tinge of, dunno, residual and deeply perverse ethnocentrism – using Ireland and its literature as a way to be a “post-colonialist” without dealing with, you know, black people. This would seem to me to be the wet dream via Naomi Klein version of this…. The quotation in question, as another article in the WSJ indicates, was from ‘September 1913’:

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing upon every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,

All that delirium of the brave?

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Funny thing is that there are better bits from that poem to cite on this occasion, namely the first stanza (“What need you, being come to sense / But fumble in a greasy till / And add the halfpence to the pence” etc). If I were one of those erstwhile hibernian pocoists, that’s where I’d go with my deconstructively angled paper…  Alternately, if I were still attending “mass” on weekend evenings at the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park, I’d ask and receive, I’m sure, incredibly fascinating analyses of this poetry-cum-or-anti-economics issue from the (sometimes) friendly and strangely erudite pensioners who go there to receive liquified communion.

And then there’s this from an article about the CGI in the new Harry Potter film(s):

Leavesden (Studios) is also home to the fictional Ministry of Magic, which is supposed to sit beneath a real street in the London government district of Whitehall. To create the ministry, which first appeared in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in 2007, Mr. Craig studied underground structures such as the London and Moscow subway stations.

For the new film, Mr. Craig added a towering monument to the ministry’s atrium. The Soviet-style sculpture shows wizards crushing cowering muggles—people without magic powers—and bears an engraving that says “Magic Is Might.” The totalitarian aesthetic, Mr. Craig says, highlights the theme of a world dominated by evil. He used seemingly long, winding corridors to give the ministry a Kafkaesque feel. As the characters explore the building, including an upstairs office and a basement courtroom, viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.

Leaving aside the sublation of the Red Menace into noseless (syphlitic?) baddy magicians, that final phrase is a bit bizarre: “viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.” Location, Location, Location real estate imaginineering meets Kafkaesque Unheimlichkeit in some sort of illogical and unholy union, no? Perhaps that, my friends, is the definition of the uncanniness of our times: bureaucratic befuddlement that somehow you feel cozy in, that you want to take out a variable-rate mortgage in order to buy-to-let, even though there are no mortgages to be had…

Finally, and winning today’s Rem-Koolhaas-Was-So-Right prize, is this on forthcoming renovation of the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague:

“You can think of a cross between the Apple store in New York and the Louvre,” is how Mauritshuis Director Emilie Gordenker describes the museum’s hopes for the extension and renovation. “We’re going to open up the gates. Then you come in and you end up in a very large, spacious and light-filled foyer.”

And things finally head full-circle. The Apple Store aesthetic, stolen from what I can tell (or remember) out of certain now-lost Soho (NYC) sleek coffeehouses, which in turn had stolen their look out of the galleries that were just then on their way out, returns to garnish the place where they keep Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” What is the next turn of the screw to come in our frenetically static cultural world, the palpating infrastructure built atop an ever self-renewing base? Apple Stores shaped like Aeroflot terminals? Childish pre-sex fantasies (wtf?) cast in the light of Allende-ite democratic socialism? Ezra Pound cantos about usury and the Jews recited on the House floor?

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November 20, 2010 at 8:56 am


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OK. I’ve long really loved this song and I’m not about to explain why, at least not in the first person. But myxomatosis is fascinatingly awful to the entrant to the UK, as we don’t have anything like it in the USA. Here’s the wiki description:

In rabbits of the genus Sylvilagus (cottontail rabbits), myxomatosis only causes localized skin tumors, but the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is more severely affected.[1] At first, normally the disease is visible by lumps (myxomata) and puffiness around the head and genitals. It then may progress to acute conjunctivitis and possibly blindness; however, this also may be the first indication of the disease. The rabbits become listless, lose appetite, and develop a fever. Secondary bacterial infections occur in most cases which cause pneumonia and purulent inflammation of the lungs. In typical cases where the rabbit has no resistance death may take place with frightening rapidity, often in as little as 48 hrs. Death takes an average of 14 days.

Go read more of the wiki description for the absolutely fucked history of the spread of the disease. Horrific, and horrifically stupid mankind is. And you have no idea how many stories rural brit types have told me about how mixy rabbits are handled here. Benevolently bashed against a tree, charitably run over by cars. Here’s why you do that, Americans:

Jesus christ, this world, huh? But now to the point of the post. Philip Larkin’s poem on the subject:


Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

Again, jesus god. Everyone forever should leave Larkin alone because to write one like this I’d give, well, I’d almost suppurate. Strange word that. Basically the verbal form of pus. To pus. Where the hell did Larkin find that? And the sort of miscross with piggish Latin “to be supper for someone” is the key. The rabbit’s misunderstanding of its problem crosses with our misunderstanding of the latinate word. Brilliantly disturbing line, eh, when you think about it, mixing the conjunctivitisy pus with fox’s rabbit for dinner. And that colon at the end of the third to last line really really bothers me in a vividly fucked up sort of way. Tragic punctuation. Think I’ll go back to the strangely more optimistic Radiohead song before I start to worry about my listlessness and lost appetite in a different manner than I already do. Or worry about the fact that I somehow think things will come right again if I can only keep quite still and wait.

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August 18, 2010 at 4:11 am

Posted in poetry

roundabout praise for ange mlinko

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As you might guess if you’ve been reading awhile, I’m a wee bit critical, skeptical of things, generally not happy with much that I read and less that I hear in conversation. Erm. It’s a family trait, and I suppose in some ways I should be thankful for it as, ultimately, it’s likely responsible (first) for my father’s escape from a household in which his mother was wearing his handmedowns and (next) my transcendence of a situation in which I lived in a house with no reading material other than Jonathan Livingston Seagull, whatever that is or was other than an appropriate if cheap wedding present at a certain time and place.

The critical annihilation of peers is a particularly dark and perhaps extremely efficient form of self-motivation, one that provides mountains to climb and rivers to cross where, to the eye of the ordinary guy on the street, elevation and depth there are none.

We’d, my family, sit at the kitchen table for dinner and talk shit about our friends and neighbors. Sometimes the relatives. Unspoken was the critique of ourselves, which nonetheless was constant and total, of course. A hellish start – can’t really imagine what something like charity would be like, save when I’m paid to perform it as a teacher, and in that case perform it I certainly do.

But, no, I don’t like much that I read and less that I hear. Visceral and undeniable, this feeling of disappointment and (ugh) antipathy. Especially when it comes to people who do the same sort of thing as me, in any sense whether real or prospective.

(Confessional, this blog is. Jesus. You should hear the things that I don’t tell you though… What franticness it is to be me…)

Still and despite all this, I really, really like Ange Mlinko’s stuff for The Nation. (Ha!) It has the undeniable sniff of real intelligence. A bit overwhelming when you happen upon it, the sniff of that. You should go read some – stuff like this is rare in a day and age like ours, or really anytime and anywhere.

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June 1, 2010 at 3:29 am

Posted in criticism, poetry

“is stuffed, de world, wif feeding girls”

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Even the people who know me best would guess wrong, perhaps maybe with one important exception. Given a list of books that I would most like to write something just like, people might guess Ulysses, or Portrait, Disgrace or Diary of a Bad Year. Madame Bovary would figure. Or maybe Underworld, Infinite Jest, fucking Netherland in the worst case? Others might say Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. I’ve hinted that I’d like to write a new Kapital – it’s mostly a joke. Principles of Literary Criticism?

But actually, really, what I’d love to do is something like John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. I have the right disposition, I am sure of that. All of the other that goes into something like this, who knows – doubt it strongly. There’s a chance that if I prepared for my tutorials properly…  But dispositionally, sure, have that in spades. Ugh.

What an odd text. Shakespearean brilliance, that sort of line play, cut with downmarket thematics. Get a bit baffled by his virtuosic breaks, willingness to indulge himself with the short line. It’s actually the only thing in the world I willingly reread. Purchased for a strange class with BLeithauser, from what I can remember, sometime in 1998-1999. It was the first time I saw anyone use a french press, which someone recently had to reteach me how to use. The American Long Poem, was it? Just before I changed sides to the novel. Remember staying up late at that table in the kitchen (Missus? You souviens?) to write the papers for it. Wish I could remember what I wrote about, but I know it wasn’t Berryman.

Discovered the other day that #14 is hung on the wall right outside my office. Omen I missed, somehow. But how did I miss it? Perhaps because I don’t believe in omens.

Watch. Will do something strange with this blog. Why not at this late stage in the game?

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September 10, 2009 at 1:26 am

Posted in poetry

muldoon and me, me and poetry

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(What follows is exactly the sort of confessional post that makes some of my readers, in particular those that I see in person with relative frequency, cringe a bit. So be it. I work things out on here – makes me cringe too, trust me! Especially this one!)

It’s been ten years, just about this month, since I graduated from college. So that’s what all those emails with “reunion” in the subject line were about – I summarily and instantly delete anything from that place. Which I shouldn’t do. I have daughters now, who might one day be what they call legacy applicants. Look at that – all that I believe in, and believe in deeply, disappearing across the haze of parental anxiety!

I know it is a bit embarassing vis a vis the poet types that read this blog, and poet-types do seem to be a major sub-demographic, but I was just thinking about the way my relationship with this guy (watch it, it’s funny – sorry can’t be embedded in wordpress) has sort of indexed or paralleled at least my life since the start of my academic work, since I left home.

The first time I had a sense that I might be good at all of this came during my first year of college. I wrote a paper on The Annals of Chile for a course called Reading Poetry. I really loved the book, and went all out in writing the paper. Spent time with an Irish dictionary in the library and everything, but I am sure – despite the fact I can’t now find the paper, but also knowing what I know about the predilictions of the department I was in – that the paper was hung on good close reading.

I got the paper back in the mail that summer. The professor (who would soon become my advisor) wrote across the bottom, “Ads, this is fucking great! Amazing!” The “fucking” echoed, made me a bit dizzy, and a tiny turn that would in the course of years become highly significant, encompassingly so, shaped itself into the road that I was on.

It bears saying that at the same time I was also taking a course called Writing Poetry I. Now, it was nearly impossible for first-year students to get into this course. It was capped at 15, and generally speaking you had to be in the second or third year to get in. I submitted a sample of my work, and along with one other first-year, was allowed into the class.

The other first-year student was an interesting case. Her work was very good and was often chosen as the material for group discussion in the weekly workshop. She was a slight and attractive girl from Georgia. Unassuming but had a real way with words. After the first year, though, she disappeared. When I finally got around to asking someone what had happened to her, I learned that she had in fact gotten pregnant and had decided to keep the baby. She had moved back to where she grew up – the suburbs of Atlanta. I don’t know the rest of the story, but really wish right now that I did – or that I even remembered her name.

My work, on the other hand, was rarely chosen for class-discussion. Something went a bit wrong. I waited until the last minute to write my stuff; I didn’t follow the rules of the assignments. After this class was over, I never took another creative writing course again. I had come to college thinking that I was a poet, first and foremost. I ended the first year, given the differential between the comments on my critical and creative work, thinking I was a critic. That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, but it’s a start, an approximation. Other things happened – thing I haven’t thought of for years – in that writing class, but nothing for me to share with you now.

Time passed. I kept reading Muldoon. I decided to write my senior thesis on Pound – a senior thesis that somehow got me into a good grad school, though my secondary advisor’s letter to Helen Vendler at Harvard didn’t seem to do the trick. Their bad – I have been a model post-grad student. I have filled the “Our students have taken jobs at….” with good proper nouns, attractive places – places that even Harvard would be proud of.

The guy who picked the poems for the workshops, and who wrote “fucking great” on my paper on Annals, was in his late sixties. He’d never published a monograph, or a serious piece of criticism. After I left, he placed a single poem in the New Yorker, the publishing coup of his entire life. A pseudo-vanity press published a slim volume after that. He was a good teacher, I suppose. Once his wife had caught him cheating, and had tried to run him over with the family car on the little street in front of the English Department. Later, he married someone else and bought a Lexus.

In my final year of college, I would hop in my own car (not a Lexus) and drive down to the city to see Muldoon read at the 92nd Street Y, elsewhere. I never stopped writing poetry.

It’s about to get a bit complicated in light of my pseudonymity. But I ended up, next, living rather proximately to Muldoon. One of his best poems was written about a canal that ran right past my first post-undergrad apartment – a canal that flooded rather badly during my first months of grad school. I assigned the poem to some of my students this year for a writing exercise; I had to provide ample footnotes.

One of things chronically misunderstood about the place where I went to grad school is the fact that the creative writers aren’t a part of the English department – they exist in their own part of the school, with a separate building and everything. This had some hilarious effects. Year after year, we were ranked by US News and World Report as the top department in African American studies in the country, despite the fact that we had neither a single African American working in the department for most of the time I was there, nor a specialist in African American Studies. I won’t explain – you can do the arithmetic if you like.

I did not work on poetry during graduate school. I worked – and I continue to work – on the novel. There are reasons both simple and complex why this happened – a sense that I’d done my work on Pound, and that was enough for awhile, the persistence of theory at that point and the tendency of theoretical work to focus on narrative texts, brutal self-repression and a sense (wrongheaded and not) that prose is actually more difficult to work on than poetry.

Later, toward the end, I went out for dinner with Paul Muldoon and a few other people. It’s not like he was inaccessable – some of my fellow students were working with him in one capacity or another. But as you might imagine, this was a bit momentous for me, given all I’ve said above. Since then, there’s been a men’s room run-in, at a conference somewhere for something where he gave a keynote reading, and during which my look of surprise and recognition (I am guessing, I am safely assuming) provoked him into a polite look of slightly baffled recognition. “Ah hi again!” I am sure he didn’t remember, why would he, but there you go.

I have continued ordering all that he writes, and I have continued writing poetry, on nearly a daily basis, and I have continued not sending any of it out. Perhaps I’ll do something about that in the next week or so, if I get a minute. Recently, Waterstones sent me by mistake two copies of some new and trendy poetry that I’d ordered. I gave one of them to a colleague, my “mentor” or “buddy” or whatever he is semi-officially called. He is a fairly prominent poet. He said to me, when I gave it to him, But Ads, I did not think that you were a reader of slim volumes. Oh, but a secret one, a sureptitious one, I am.

A little while ago, Muldoon made an appearance on the Colbert Report. (Sorry – video only available in the US or if you have a slicko proxy like me….) I watched the segment with great pleasure, you can be sure, as it’s been awhile. And then I showed it to my wife, who said something like, Oh dear. He is looking so much older, isn’t he? I snapped back Of course we all are, aren’t we? We’re all looking a bit older since the 92nd Street Y! And then, that night, I started to write this post…

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July 8, 2009 at 12:10 am

Posted in poetry

“my own lavatory and a daily copy of The Times”: larkin on work, bunnycide

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Ah, two weekdays mostly at home and suddenly the infarctional insanity of work is thrown into stark relief. This is so civilized, gawd. Wake up, walk my daughter to school (I’m usually on the bus an hour before she goes), sit at my kitchen table with newspapers and novels and coffee.

Anyway, here’s a nifty thing from the TLS about the earliest interviews with and articles about Philip Larkin to appear in the press….

I was particularly struck by Larkin’s loathing of work, including, I suspected, his job as a librarian, although he carefully did not specify this. We discussed his career and much of what he told me I included in my profile. He said that on going down from Oxford he could have taught or gone into the Civil Service. “I did not want to teach because I stammered and the Civil Service turned me down. I even considered journalism but I could not write to order.” I omitted, for obvious reasons, what he told me about his first job at Wellington in Shropshire. “I saw and applied for a job as librarian at Wellington”, he said.

“The last man had scrubbed the floor and stoked the boiler but I refused to do this. I was accepted nonetheless. This was a stupid choice that has determined the course of my life ever since but I didn’t have the courage to chuck it up. My two-and-three-quarter years at Wellington were the most unhappy of my life – and the most creative.”

(I did not know then that it was while he was at Wellington that he met and broke up with Ruth Bowman, the only woman to whom he was ever formally engaged.)

“I hate work. Libraries are a quite pleasant way of earning a living. Dismal prospects though! Jobs connected with books like publishing are not good for creative writing. That’s why libraries, all technical and administration, are so good.”

He added wistfully: “It’s too late to change now”, and, only half in jest:

“I’d like to have been a solid, uncomplicated, second-rate novelist producing a novel a year. And not ‘Crouch in the fo’c’sle, stubbly with goodness’. My only ambition now is to write more, to write better and to live without working, which is immensely distasteful to me. I’d like to earn enough to retire on from football pools, which I do every autumn.”

I asked him if that really was his only ambition. His answer was that, as he had spent most of his life in bedsitting rooms and was still in one (“the only life I have known”), he would also like to achieve his two private symbols of luxury, “my own lavatory and a daily copy of The Times”. Greatly daring, I asked him if he contemplated marriage (I knew nothing then of his tangled love life or of his difficulties with girls). He said he certainly intended to. “I’m not a confirmed bachelor but I rather enjoy the rattlesnake image.”

Ah, so you see? I’m starting to think, more and more each day, that these sort of stories are worth thinking about. Duh. OK – I’ll put it this way. Do you know when you teach lit (if you teach lit), we always end up starting out with some sort of capsule biographical description before heading on to the Heavy Work of close reading or whatever? Well, I’ve rejiggered my capsules to focus on this sort of story and not the other one. The story of “creativity” is the story of finding space, time, and market. It’s sort of a more materialist, matter-of-fact, less mystical-abyssal, Adornoism, btw btw btw, before anyone hits out at me for being, well, something about all of this.

Harumpf. Bonus poem time:


Caught in the center of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.

Nice, geez. Have never read that one before. And am facinated by mixy bunnies, so there you have it. But it’s also a decent enough poem about work, if you squint at it, no?

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April 1, 2009 at 9:08 am

erected and/or/yet/but infected

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Our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.

Philip Sidney, In Defence of Poesy

Is just so in all the cases that matter, this. Including, though not most pertinently perhaps, poesy considered very broadly.

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March 26, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Posted in poetry