Thursday, May 20, 2010

Disturbance at the Poetry House

I got my issue of Poetry in themail yesterday. It was beatne up, bent at the corner, damaged by the hands of mailmen. I find that the contents often match. Then I see The Reader’s article about the troubles that will most likely flourish as the new building gets constructed, and Conversational Reading detailing the death of Poetry’s blog in favor of, sigh, Twitter.

Sleepytime Joyce

Watch this:

I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately. The lyrics come from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which, if you’ve ever tried, you’ll know is damn near unreadable. Perhaps this is a better intro into Joyce’s so-called masterwork: weird ass art rock.

Monday, May 17, 2010

My Morning Fevered Ego

The semester wrapped up without me being much worse for wear. As I did last time, I went to an end of the semester dinner party hosted by a colleague and friend. The food, as always, was superb, and the beer flowed, as did the iPod, which, somewhat per my prompting, played a choice selection of the punk rock chestnuts of lore that I lost when CDs swallowed up the cassette and LP. In heavy rotation (thanks, Jeff) were the Misfits, Naked Raygun, The Cramps, Fugazi, Minor Threat, The Buzzcocks… you know, good music. A fine time was had, to be perfectly goddamn sure.

That was Friday. It is now Monday and I woke with some cocky thoughts swimming in the old noggin, some of them inspired by that evening. Here they are for what it’s worth:

I spent a chunk of that party discussing Bolaño, Murakami, Ciaran Carson and Mary Dorsey. I spent a chunk of the party rocking out to old favorite tunes. There’s a nice balance there, and the two elements might seem separate, but to me they are all part of the same love of art. And then I remembered the conversation about contemporary poetry, and how little the others care for it. Not to get on a high horse or anything, but I felt the need to defend my love of the stuff without, you know, getting defensive.

I also remembered how two of my friends talked about the MFA kids who they would occasionally share classes with while in grad school. They spoke a tad contemptuously of those who penned creative works for their classes, which I thought funny at first (they often are jackasses)—though I had to clarify that it was mostly the fiction writers who have such trouble with theory and criticism, not us poetry folk. The theory I presented—and this is far from valid, though it worked that night—was that the average American MFA fiction student is beset by the need to write linear pieces and is somewhat confused when confronted with anything that challenges their notion of straight prose. This was also my way of saying that us poetry majors possess the capacity to process such diverging writing. But, the irony is that the English majors I meet largely dislike poetry, also divergent and challenging. And as falsely cocky as the MFA kids are because, as my friend opined, they create art, the English crowd is perhaps equally cocky because they digest and comment on art, gazing down from the so-called ivory tower. In a sense, both sides are susceptible to the same disease.

So what can I conclude from this? That I am the Übermensch. I like poetry, I like prose. I am comfortable enough with theory. I love it all, bitches! Thrall!

(Not really—god knows there is plenty of literary and theoretical works that elude my understanding, but permit me this one moment of tooting my own horn, as these moments are rare. There. I’ve had my moment. I’ll retreat now back into humility. Kiss kiss.)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Laugh at the Morons

Thanks to Carla for pointing out this most fun of websites:

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Boom Goes the Canon

Over at the Conversational Reading blog thing, Scott Esposito posted this article, a reprint from the mid 1980s of an interview with Harold Bloom, literary critic extraordinaire. Or so say some. Ignoring the usual accusations launched against Mr. Bloom—sexism, racism—he’s made an important contribution to American literary discourse in the 20th Century. And he mentored Camile Paglia.

But (and it’s a big ass but), I have some problems with the guy. I read the above article and laughed a few times, sighed with displeasure at others. I realize what my problem with Bloom (and, by extension, academia) is: the goddamn canon. I understand the need for a list of important works that define western culture, or all cultures for that matter, but the canon has always struck me as impenetrable when it ought to be malleable, elitist when it ought to be inclusive, and really, when you think about it, so subjective its foundations might crumble at the slightest sneeze. It serves a purpose, perhaps, and maybe those seeking literary scholarship need a foundation, but the dark side of the canon comes from the steadfast belief that all else outside of it might not be worth as much, or any, attention.

Let me state again: Bloom’s no dummy. He’s kind of a prick at times, sure. Yes, he slammed pop fiction and said some not so nice things about J.K. Rowling and dismissed Doris Lessing as a 3rd rate SciFi writer (and I have to agree there) and even in the above article he called Sylvia Plath’s work bad (again, I don’t disagree completely) but the reasons for his dissing of these more popular writers somewhat upsets me, in theory at least. Scores of school girls will continue to idolize Plath out of proportion, and plenty of Brits will read and reread Lessing and Anthony Powell and other bores, so I guess it matters very little. Anyway, my problem with these writers is not that they are “bad,” whatever that means, but that I simply do not respond to their work. I don’t think Bloom would admit the same. To Bloom, literature is either bad or good, or maybe mediocre. There is the canon and then there is all else.

When I was an undergraduate, I came to a point where the survey courses ended and the magic began. In other words, I started reading literature outside of the survey scope. I love Byron, Shelley and the romantics; I think Twain is fantastic. Faulkner? There’s no better. And the list goes on. But, guess what: there’s another list. I call it the sub-canon. Who populates the sub-canon? For me, it’s the writers who are respected, discussed, read and reread, yet somehow are not in the big canon. For many, they are excluded because they are not old enough. You have to be dead (and white and male) to be in the canon. For others, their crime is that they are not European or North American. Where do writers like Cesar Vallejo, Roque Dalton, Ruben Dario, Nicanor Parra, and Octavio Paz fit in? All of these writers are considered masters in Latin America, but few would be found on the lists the typical canon obsessive writes. Maybe Paz, as he won the Nobel, and was, technically, North American (Mexico is part of North America last time I checked), but even then there’s a slightly insulting aspect to the idea that only after a bunch of Europeans decide you are worthy is your work to be seen as valid.

Maybe I am too hard on Bloom, et al. I am sure he has nice things to say about Borges, who was famously snubbed by the Nobel folks. Still, the concept of the canon troubles me. The writers I list among my favorites are largely members of the sub-canon, those writers deemed “literary” though often excluded from academia. I’m thinking of people like Italo Calvino, Robert Desnos, Mina Loy, Anna Akhmatova, Yehuda Amichai, Julio Cortazar, Joyce Mansour, or even more recent interests such as Roberto Bolaño, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Horacio Castellanos Moya, or Paul Muldoon. I read these writers more than Shakespeare or Whitman, which is not to dis Bill or Walt. I just don’t see why some less dead or more foreign writers can’t be squeezed in.

The problem stems from the idea that these revered figures are irreplaceable. First off, no one is looking to replace them. Second, fuck what the people say; when Bloom says that Seamus Heaney is not W.B. Yeats, I want to kick Harold’s octogenarian ass. No, Heaney is no Yeats, nor would he really want to be, if he had any sense. And Heaney has certainly proven himself to the tune of winning the Nobel, publishing some of the most read (and truly great) contemporary poetry, and, basically, staying around in the ongoing discourse. We’ll be reading Famous Seamus for quite a few years to come. So while he is not Yeats, he clearly doesn’t need to be. The very statement is idiotic. I can say that Seamus Heaney is not W.B. Yeats, but neither of them is Ciaran Carson. Also, Harold Bloom is not Kenneth Burke. And Wallace Steven was not Walt Whitman. And you know what? I could give a damn. All of those people are fantastic. Let’s move on from the canonical concerns and just read some good books, okay?

Looking back at the interview, it’s more the fault of the one asking inane questions then Bloom’s. Then again, he didn’t have to answer.