Favorite Poet(s) of 2008

This year was one of discovery for me, finding poets that have long been familiar to others but hidden from my parochial, provincial vision. For instance: while Donald Hall had been on my radar, it wasn't until 2008 that I finally dove into his work. And according to my notes, I first discovered Charles Wright in the summer of 2007, but this year I enjoyed lingering with Negative Blue, with its alternate evocations of Italy and Virginia, Rorty and Dante.

But what's most remarkable for me is that, one year ago, I had never read a poem by Ted Hughes. That's what it means for me to "find" a poet: I don't know how I inhabited the world without him (or her). I simply can't imagine how my imagination looked before I read Anne Sexton; and I can't imagine how I perceived the world before Franz Wright.

And I don't know how I heard the world before reading Ted Hughes. His is the poetry of a Yorkshireman: earthy, wet, gutteral, alliterative, rolling and rocking. I can still remember being in our flat in York and being riveted by "The Hawk in the Rain":

I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges,

Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,
And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs
The diamond point of will that polestars
The sea drowner’s endurance: and I,

Bloodily grabbed dazed last-moment-counting
Morsel in the earth’s mouth, strain towards the master-
Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still.
That maybe in his own time meets the weather

Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside down,
Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him,
The horizon traps him; the round angelic eye
Smashed, mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land.
The very syllables are knee-deep in the muck of English winter while the word-hawk feels like it inhabits a vacuum, slipping streamlined as if the world were nothing, though threatened by that looming earth.

Or consider "The Thought-Fox" in which the poem sneaks up on both the poet and reader:

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
I'll also not forget finding a used copy of Hughes' New Selected Poems, 1957-1994 at Blackwell's in Oxford on Maundy Thursday, then reading it during a lonely Indian dinner before Maundy Thursday worship at St. Mary's.

I have much for which to be grateful in 2008; Ted Hughes is no small part of those graces enjoyed.


2008 Retrospective Reading List

Tis the season for literary retrospectives. Around this time of year, my retrospection is always tempered by a certain amount of guilt and a sense of failure (alas, the plight of a Calvinist who loves literature). As I pass by our bookshelves--in the living room, in the front hall, above my desk, behind my desk, in the bathroom--I'm always a bit overwhelmed: even in my own rather humble libraries, there are volumes and volumes of "classics" calling my name: from the Odyssey and Dante's Vita Nuova to yet more McCarthy, Updike and Julian Barnes. There's half a shelf of Wodehouse, a collection of Sir Walter Scott novels, and twentieth-century landmarks like Bellow's Adventures of Augie March and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. From across the pond, I'm still looking at James Joyce and piles of Evelyn Waugh, and the remaining volumes of Proust seem to turn up their nose in condescension when I walk past.

And here we are at the end of another year and my shelves are still weighed down with books I've yet to read. So I thought I'd do a little inventory; ranging across the shelves with my notebook, I recorded the books that I actually did manage to read (entire books, mind you; I'm the master of sampling, but that doesn't count). And it turns out that, though there are all those uncracked spines staring back at me, I did manage to wade into a decent number. (I've not done this before, so I don't have any comparative "sample.") Most importantly, there are books on the list that I've wanted to read for a long time and finally had the opportunity (our time in England was a change of rhythm that made this possible). Closer to the end of the year, after grades are submitted, I hope to comment on five or ten of my favorites from this past year (some I've already blogged about). Until then, in no particular order, here's my 2008 Retrospective Reading List:
[When I'm looking for more excuses to avoid grading, I may comb through my periodicals, magazines and collections and come up with a list of short stories read this past year.]


Books, "Book Talk," Grand Rapids...and Wendell Berry

Reading The New Yorker is both pleasure and pain for me. The pleasure comes from the stimulating content, including excellent commentary, criticism, fiction and poetry. The pain comes from the fact that I actually work through "Goings On About Town" each week--the pages and pages of fine print summaries and highlights of all the concerts, plays, exhibits, and films on offer in New York City. Reading about the cultural riches of NYC from afar usually deepens a sense of cultural exile here in the so-called heartland, in podunk Grand Rapids, Michigan.

But on other days, I'm reminded that we have our own little intellectual province here in Grand Rapids. This past Saturday, for instance, I took a stroll to one of our local used book shops, Redux Books. There I bumped into one of the sales executives of one of our local publishing houses, and along with the proprietor, we enjoyed a lovely conversation about publishing, books, and theology. I then made my way down into some of the far recesses of the basement holdings and emerged with a book of poems by Marianne Moore, the third edition of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry, and a first edition of Donald Hall's Remembering Poets. That's a pretty delightful Saturday morning in any city.

Then this past Wednesday night was another wonderful "literary" experience. My friends Matt Bonzo and Michael Stevens, both professors at another local Christian university, have just published a wonderful new book, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader's Guide (Brazos--another one of our local publishers). The book launch was Wednesday night, at one of my favorite spaces in Grand Rapids: the Ryerson Auditorium in the Grand Rapids Public Library downtown. The reception was hosted by the Vanderveen Center for the Book and was an evening of interesting, provocative conversation--on top of the fact that Bonzo and Stevens have also written a great book (which I'm now reading).

When I daydream (and night dream) about being a "writer," New York looms in my imagination like Nashville does for the young country musician, or the way Los Angeles tempts the aspiring actress. And the desire to make the pilgrimmage can make "small town" Grand Rapids feel cramped and provincial. But on other days, like these, I'm grateful for this little corner of the midwest in which are buried our own little cultural treasures.

NYC, of course, would also come with its price (as do Nashville and Los Angeles!). Not a few writers (especially southern writers like Faulkner and Walker Percy) found distance from the Eastern seaboard to be a necessary space for their work. Perhaps instead of pining for Manhattan or, in turn, resenting it, we should be working on fostering a literary and cultural regionalism. The Podunks of middle America can be home to "small, good things," too.


Unpacking the Boxes: More Donald Hall

I recently noted the poetry of Donald Hall which has nourished me over the last few months. I think his verse has a cunning simplicity about it. In that earlier post I perhaps gave the mistaken impression that Hall was (just) a "nature" poet--the next Robert Frost or something like that. Such an impression would be misleading. While he hymns New Hampshire and Eagle Pond, he also pens verse about urinals and baseball. (He has suggested that "Love, Death, and New Hampshire" would be a good title for his collected poems.)

Given this immersion and appreciation, I couldn't resist reading his new memoir, Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry. The prose of poets is often both curt and intense. Hall's prose exhibits this in flashes, with passages that have the density of poetry, making you wonder whether the paragraphs began with line breaks and pauses. But other long sections are conversational. Hall lacks pretention, even though such would be warranted. This little volume tracks his childhood and his early love of poetry (both reading and writing), through his college years, time in Oxford and at Stanford, and then his longish tenure teaching at the University of Michigan. It then follows him to New Hampshire (though omitting the long illness and death of his wife, Jane Kenyon, which he's addressed elsewhere). Perhaps most poignant, even jarring, is the final chapter on "The Planet Antiquity"--the poet's honest chronicling of what it means to grow old, the body's cricks and creeks and general stubborness resisting desire. It is an account that gives pause to (relatively) young folks like me who continue to think of themselves as invincible.

As the subtitle promises, this memoir focuses on his life as a poet, with reminiscences of poet-friends (including life-long friendships with Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich) and experiences with some of the greats like Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves. (Just this past Saturday at Redux Books, our little treasure here in Eastown, I picked up a first edition of an earlier book of recollections by Hall, Remembering Poets.) Describing his experience as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, I could picture all his haunts and movements (he was a fellow at Christ Church) and was once again beset by nostalgia for England.

But Hall also recounts the work of poetry, the disciplines and regimens of a poet (every morning, for two hours--a Herculean feat), including the life-giving regimen of the 20-minute nap ("I have practiced the twenty-minute nap for half a century"). And the wrestlings of the poet with language, including the "spaces" of language--not just the words, but their arrangement and rhythm, the gaps and silences. Consider this reflection on a transitional phase, where he's grappling with form and meter and resisting the temptation to think of poems as "messages":
With my immersion in form, I found myself writing a kind of poem. It wasn't meter's fault; metrical poems can go anywhere and do anything. For me, these forms came to imply a reasonable poem. It sounds crazy now, but at that time I needed to understand what the poem was going to say before I began it. The better poems I wrote in my twenties--like "My Son My Executioner" and "The Sleeping Giant"--concealed a content I was not aware of. [...] As I was finishing the late poems of Exiles, something in me began to feel stifled, dumb, inarticulate. My grand language failed to express or reveal crucial areas of feeling. I flailed about, looking for other ways to make a noise. I had admired Marianne Moore's syllabics--keeping a syllable count, avoiding metrical feet. Holding on to the count of syllables as to a guardrail, I wrote a poem called "Je Suis Une Table." I thought it was a poem of wit exploiting a language error--tables can't talk--but it wasn't; it was an outcry, complaining of habitual limitation or inhibition. This poem began a journey. Eventually, I no longer demanded that my poems explain themselves before they got written; I learned to trust the impetus, to ride the wave. The wave was feeling, expressed largely in long vowels. I worked by accepting an image compelled by rhythm and sound--without requiring that it explain its purpose (pp. 120-121).

For thirteen years Hall taught English at the University of Michigan (he started when he was 28; finished in his early 4os). While he never saw this as his primary vocation, he did see it as a meaningful and passable way to fund what he really wanted to do, which was write. But one has the sense that, despite his ambivalence, Hall was a master teacher. As he rightly notes, the trick is to teach what you don't know. And to live for those glimpses where teaching and learning hit their stride.
Answering questions was the best part. Everyone who loves teaching has the same experience: Someone asks a question; it's something you never thought of, but the moment you hear the question, you know the answer. Ninety percent of what you say is something you didn't know until you said it.
(These are my favorite moments of teaching, too: when something emerges in the conversation, in wrestling together with texts and ideas. On the best days, in response to good questions, I can venture into new territory. Chalk flies, and sometimes, on a good day, we all learn something. I then stay in the classroom, after the students have filed out, and take down my own notes, recording what I've just figured out on the board for the first time.)

Mostly what shines through is a love of poetry and the poetic life (and Jane, and New Hampshire), with all its friendships and disappointments and anxities and depressions, with no small number of joys and delights. Here is poetic ambition: "the poet at fifteen wants to be as great as Dante; by twenty-five he wants to be in The New Yorker."


What I'm Listening To: Shakespeare's MacBeth

I had a long drive, by myself, to Chicago this past weekend, so I was excited to learn that Calvin's library recently acquired a complete set of fully-dramatized recordings of the works of Shakespeare. I took Macbeth along with me, cranked it up, and was pretty much spell-bound--disappointed that I got to Chicago so quickly. A great performance that is very creative in trying to translate the dynamic, multivalent medium of the theatre to the pared-down medium of audio. The score is subtle but haunting, and the dramatization is very good. Highly recommended.


Poetry, Language, and Propositions

Continuing on the poetry theme: in my upper-level seminar on Philosophy of Language & Interpretation, we've been talking about different "registers" of truth that map onto different uses of language. The sort of truth that is effected in poetry and literature is not reducible to the register of truth that is captured in propositions and syllogisms. Poetry does something different than an argument; but that doesn't mean it isn't "true." Only a kind of propositional imperialism would reduce truth to the mode of assertion.

In the course, we're going to work through these issues by reading Wittgenstein then diving into Nicole Krauss' novel, The History of Love. But this poem that I just read in the New Yorker also hints at these issues, in just the sort of way that can't be elucidated in propositional form:

by Albert Goldbarth

The sky is random. Even calling it “sky”
is an attempt to make a meaning, say,
a shape, from the humanly visible part
of shapelessness in endlessness. It’s what
we do, in some ways it’s entirely what
we do—and so the devastating rose

of a galaxy’s being born, the fatal lamé
of another’s being torn and dying, we frame
in the lenses of our super-duper telescopes the way
we would those other completely incomprehensible
fecund and dying subjects at a family picnic.
Making them “subjects.” “Rose.” “Lamé.” The way

our language scissors the enormity to scales
we can tolerate. The way we gild and rubricate
in memory, or edit out selectively.
An infant’s gentle snoring, even, apportions
the eternal. When they moved to the boonies,
Dorothy Wordsworth measured their walk

to Crewkerne—then the nearest town—
by pushing a device invented especially
for such a project, a “perambulator”: seven miles.
Her brother William pottered at his daffodils poem.
Ten thousand saw I at a glance: by which he meant
too many to count, but could only say it in counting.


The Poetry of Donald Hall

Having posted about poetry over at Fors Clavigera, I thought it might be appropriate to share some recent poetry reading.

By the way, did I ever share one of my treasured little "poetic" experiences from York? Well, one of the things that characterizes a robust "newspaper culture" in England is stiff competition; and one of the outworkings of that is an incessant stream of promotional hooks and gimmicks to attract buyers. For example, the Sunday papers will regularly feature DVDs of classic movies, or a series of small glossy booklets on gardening or cosmology, etc. While we were there, my favorite paper, The Guardian, ran a fabulous promotion: "Great Poets of the Twentieth Century." For seven days straight, the paper included a small booklet of poems by some of the greats: Frost, Sassoon, Plath, Ted Hughes, TS Eliot, Larkin, and Seamus Heaney. This was capped off with a CD of the poets doing select readings. Like a boy collecting box tops for a magic decoder ring, I saved up mastheads of the paper to then send away for a free storage box for the set. It now sits here in our living room as a wonderful reminder of our time in York--and a very nice anthology of some great poems.

Over the past couple months, though, I've been enjoying the poetry of former Poet Laureate, Donald Hall, as collected in White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems from 1946-2006. Hall is a laureate of nature, especially New England's nature. But he's not a romantic. In fact, one will sometimes find oneself jarred by his grittiness and honesty about relationships. But he can also just be a charmer, giving us lyric that simply elicits a smile--until you start thinking about it, and realize more's going on here. Take, for instance, a fairly recent poem, "Olives" (apparently you can listen to it here):
"Dead people don't like olives,"
I told my partners in eighth grade
dancing class, who never listened
as we fox-trotted, one-two, one-two.

The dead people I often consulted
nodded their skulls in unison
while I flung my black velvet cape
over my shoulders and glowered
from deep-set, burning eyes,
walking the city streets, alone at fifteen,
crazy for cheerleaders and poems.

At Hamden High football games, girls
in short pleated skirts
pranced and kicked, and I longed
for their memorable thighs.
They were friendly--poets were mascots--
but never listened when I told them
that dead people didn't like olives.

Instead the poet, wearing the cape,
continued to prowl in solitude
intoning inscrutable stanzas
as halfbacks and tackles
made out, Friday nights after football,
on sofas in dark-walled rec rooms
with magnanimous cheerleaders.

But, decades later, when the dead
have stopped blathering
about olives, obese halfbacks wheeze
upstairs to sleep beside cheerleaders
waiting for hip replacements,
while a lascivious, doddering poet,
his burning eyes deep-set
in wrinkles, cavorts with their daughters.

(Revenge of the poets!)

But most moving in this collection are those poems written after the death of Hall's wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, particularly those collected in "Letters Without Addresses." The letters chronicle a year of mourning that cycles with the seasons as articulated in the rhythms of Jane's garden (an image particularly haunting for me, as I think of Deanna's gardens that adorn our house and life) and the snow that buries her grave.
Do you remember our first
January at Eagle Pond,
the coldest in a century?
It dropped to thirty-eight below--
with no furnace, no storm
windows or insulation.
We sat reading or writing
in our two big chairs, either
side of the Glenwood,
and made love on the floor
with the stove open and roaring.
You were twenty eight.
If someone had told us then
you would die in nineteen years,
would it have sounded
like almost enough time?


Gopnik on Mill in the New Yorker

Last year, since we were headed to England for five months, I had to let my magazine subscriptions lapse. Upon returning, I decided to change things up a bit: though I re-upped on Vanity Fair, instead of renewing Harper's (I now get hand-me-downs from a friend) I subscribed to the New Yorker and am loving it (even if it does tend to make Grand Rapids feel very "midwest"). Samplings of cultural happenings in NYC, deeper reflections on the headlines, film reviews from Anthony Lane, regular pieces by Adam Gopnik (who I've praised before)--and it's a weekly. What's not to love?

Take Gopnik's review of a John Stuart Mill biography in last week's issue. Noting that Mill's staggering genius and enduring contemporaneity make any biographer just a bit resentful, Gopnik remarks:
Every time we turn a corner, there is Mill, smiling just a touch too complacently at having got there first. Admiration for intelligence and truth easily turns into resentment at the person who has them; Aristides the Just was banished from Athens because people were fed up with hearing him called Aristides the Just. It is one of the many virtues of Reeves’s funny, humane biography that it brings Mill to life in the only way sententious great men can be brought to life, and that is by showing us what he was like when he lost his heart and when he lost his reason. Both happened to him just once, but that was sufficient. Mill’s is a story of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.


The World according to David Sedaris

For the proverbial "something completely different," I just finished David Sedaris' latest book, When You are Engulfed in Flames, the first Sedaris I've read. Having enjoyed some of his NPR spots, I knew I'd be in for a treat. Sedaris is not a "comedian," but rather a humorist--a quirky observer of nooks and crannies of American (and global) culture that are usually ignored by other "critics." After the first night I had to stop reading this in bed because the uproarious laughter it caused kept waking up the kids. But don't be fooled: these aren't just funny little Seinfeldish "observations" (though you have to love lines like his comment on living in Normandy: Normandy "is like West Virginia, but without the possums"). In fact, one might be surprised at how Sedaris can explore the morbid and macabre in the mode of the comedic: from a season spent in a coroner's autopsy room to the human skeleton hanging in their Paris bedroom. I think Sedaris might be best illuminated if we see him in the orbit of Southern Gothic.

While it's a nice breezy, "beach" sort of read, it also feels like a book that should be read again. I'm not sure I've quite got a handle on Sedaris' world, but I have the sense that it's not the pop nihilism of a Seinfeld, nor just the trivialized world of other comedians. Despite the drugs and homosexuality, I have this hunch that if one reads between the lines, there's something sort of "conservative" about Sedaris: that at the end of the day, what matters are significant relationships, including (and perhaps even primarily) family. There might be a sense in which all of Sedaris' weird, even disturbing, stories are implicit love stories. Maybe the distance between Flannery O'Connor and David Sedaris is not as far as one might think.


The Practice of Criticism: On James Wood's, "How Fiction Works"

I should say up front that James Wood is living my dream. A staff writer for the New Yorker, chief literary critic for The Guardian, professor of the practice of criticism at Harvard University, and a respected novelist to boot (and he's only five years older than I am!), Wood might be the closest thing we have to a successor to Edmund Wilson. So any criticisms that follow can probably be chalked up to little more than jealousy--the literary equivalent of suggesting that Wood has fat ankles.

How Fiction Works is a compact, even squat little hardcover, the very materiality of which seems bent on recalling an era and ethos of reading "before theory," as it were. Somehow the 4.5" x 7" format--coupled with wide margins, classic font, and running page heads that indicate the content of each page--manage to evoke the sorts of predecessors that Wood himself invokes: Ruskin's Elements of Drawing and E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. The materiality of the book primes a certain approach, a certain horizon of expectation for the reader and seems to effect a first shift in readerly stance that Woods' criticism would encourage: attention to the craft.

If the title sounds like a dreary, mechanical textbook for Creative Writing classes the world over, in fact the book is as much for readers as writers. This is a work of criticism, not a Writers-Workshop-in-a-box. Nor is this a book which sets out to demystify the novel as if Wod were a member of the guild willing to share with us the secrets of the illusionist. While it is attentive to concrete realities of mechanics, How Fiction Works is not a disenchantment of the novel, disclosing to us the code or formula that makes fiction work. In fact, any reader will thank Wood for breaking open fiction in new ways in the opening chapter on narration alone. Like all good criticism, Wood names and articulates our intuitions and gut reactions. For instance, he names exactly the discomfort I have long felt about straight-up, confident, magisterial third person narration one finds in someone like Jane Austen (or Joyce Carol Oates, for that matter?). On this point he cites W.G. Sebald:
Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history.

Wood goes on to provide a breezy but profound analysis of different kinds of narration which almost turns into a reverie on free indirect style. In this context he provides a stinging critique of Updike's failures in this respect in his 2006 novel, Terrorist, where the narrator's language refuses to bend "toward its characters and their habits of speech." Of course, some novels are exercises and experiments bent on seeing the extent to which this is possible. Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury comes to mind, but more recently, something like Kieron Smith, Boy in which James Kelman tries to be the ventriloquist of a boy from working class Glasgow. But such a project is always beset by a bit of a ruse. After all, how likely is it that a tough young Glaswegian is going to take the time to pen a 432 page memoir, even if it is in the dialect that Kelman seeks to reproduce?

Wood is out to explain how fiction works, not in order to provide a template for would-be writers to go enact a formula, but more for readers who appreciate good criticism as a portal into the further enchanting mysteries of fiction (as when we ask ourselves sometimes, "Now, just how does this paper-and-ink artifact manage to do this to me?"). While Wood tips his hat to Barthes, this is not a "theory-driven" account of literature. Indeed, there is something kind of "lunch box"--or rather, "tool box"--about it in its meat-and-potatoes attention to the basic elements of narration, detail, character, language, register, and dialogue (ending with a short theoretical riff on one of Wood's enduring interests: the question of realism).

The range of Woods' interlocutors is almost dizzying (from Homer to Cormac McCarthy), but a couple of heroes keep asserting themselves: Flaubert and Henry James, even thought both were prone to what Wood sees as the persistent temptation of the modern novel--an aestheticist wallowing in detail (see Updike). But Flaubert and James are simply the leading voices of a rich choir that Wood orchestrates, with parts for Cervantes and Defoe as well as Pynchon and Delillo.

It's on this point that I would register one criticism. In what is, without question, a landmark book that I have already profited from quite immeasurably, I do find Wood sometimes wears his learning a little heavily. To be more precise, there are times when he slides from being precocious to being just rather obnoxious. Take, for instance, an opening "Note on Footnotes and Dates" in which Wood feels it necessary to point out that "I have used only the books that I actually own--the books at hand in my study--to produce this little volume." Why tell us that? Perhaps to deflect critics who will decry books that have been ignored--though, in that case, the criticism would still hold, wouldn't it? For instance, one can imagine politically correct assistant professors of English lamenting the "Eurocentric" nature of Wood's book ("Where is the Indonesian, post-colonial fiction?!") and thus Wood trying to head them off at the pass by saying, "Look, I was just working with what I had to hand." But then the criticism would be: "Not only is this 'little book' Eurocentrist and still-colonial, but James Wood is! He doesn't have any Indonesian, post-colonial fiction in his personal library!"

Instead, what is intended as a mark of humble constraints (in producing "this little volume") comes off as backhanded pomposity. This is augmented by the function of several of the scant footnotes in the text which seem like little more than Wood showing off. These includes little asides which catalogue instances of self-plagiarism in Tolstoy, Dickens, James and McCarthy (p. 65); or the convention of allegorical names in Tolstoy, Thackeray, Wordsworth, and Evelyn Waugh (p. 115); or the cast of minor characters with writers' names in Proust, Bernanos, Updike, Jones, Tolstoy (again!), and others (p. 162). Methinks Wood doth indulge a bit. (Read: fat ankles!)

Finally, let me take up one particular piece of criticism in which Wood, contrary to his otherwise exemplary practice, seems to miss the point precisely because he fails to appreciate a theological point in literature. (In The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, Wood has shown his superiority to a critic like Christopher Hitchens precisely in his ability to appreciate theological nuance.) The context is his marvelous discussion of free indirect style. Not surprisingly, he holds up Henry James' What Maisie Knew as a model. Though told from the third person, Wood notes how James' manages to make the narrative bend to the voice and world of young Maisie Farange, who is bounced between her divorced parents and attaches herself to one of her governesses, Mrs. Wix. Mrs. Wix had a daughter, Clara Matilda, who died tragically just when she was about Maisie's age, and Maisie often accompanies Mrs. Wix to Clara's grave in the cemetary at Kensal Green. Wood wants us to focus on James' ability to write from the third person in a way that invites us to inhabit young Maisie's confusion, torn between her mother (who speaks poorly of the lowly Mrs. Wix) and the governess, but also confused by the absence of Clara Matilda. He hones in on this passage:
Mrs. Wix was as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrasingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave.
Wood suggests that "James's genius gathers in one word: 'embarrasingly.'" Whose word is "embarrasingly," he asks? "It is Maisie's: it is embarrassing for a child to witness adult grief, and we know that Mrs. Wix has taken to referring to Clara Matilda as Maisie's 'little dead sister.'" Wood is exactly right that "embarrasingly" is Maisie's language, and thus rightly notes James' ability to bend the narrative--even in the third person--to Maisie's world so that we hear Maisie and not (just) James. But Wood seems to completely misinterpret just what is "embarrassing" for Maisie. It is not witnessing Mrs. Wix's grief. It is, rather, the theological tension that even young Maisie experiences: how can Clara Matilda be in heaven and in Kensal Green? Wood seems to completely miss the also in the passage. It is the conjunction that is the cause of embarrassment.

These minor criticisms aside, How Fiction Works leaves one eager to read anew.


Flaubert's Madame

I was recently pointed back to Flaubert's Madame Bovary by a bit of a circuitous route. In preparation for writing a review of Julian Barnes' new book Nothing to be Frightened of (the review will appear in the summer issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin), I spent some time in Barnes' "novels," including A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters and Flaubert's Parrot, both of which are fantastic forays in history and biography, contesting our tidy self-assured distinctions between history and the novel. (This relationship and distinction is brought to the fore in what I'm reading right now: the novelist Shelby Foote's monumental The Civil War: A Narrative--but more on that some other time.) Flaubert and his generation are at the center of Flaubert's Parrot, but they also persistently appear as sages of a sort in Nothing to be Frightened Of. Thus I was pointed back to Flaubert's classic (particularly Geoffrey Wall's translation for the Penguin Classics).

The subtitle of Madame Bovary is a signal to us: it promises to narrate Provincial Lives. One might say that Madame Bovary is the first "suburban" novel--opening and anticipating a literary line that peeks into the mundane lives of the petit bourgeois, a line that will eventually give us films like Magnolia and Little Miss Sunshine. "Provincial" in a French context, of course, simply means "not Paris," though the Rouen region of France was perhaps particularly "provincial" in this respect. And yet, Madame Bovary is not the cynical work of a snooty Parisian taking shots at benighted provincials. There is a certain way in which the novel's subject almost hallows provincial life, I'd say: it decides that it's worth looking behind the doors of a village pharmacist and tracking the life of a despondent housewife. No one could read the heart-rending closing scenes of the novel--where Flaubert's stylistic flourish is most evidenced--and conclude that the author despises "provincial lives." (In this respect it calls to mind what is still perhaps the most important novel I've ever read, Jean Girardoux's Choice of the Elect.) If I ever become a writer, this hallowing of the domestic will be my literary mission.

Of course, Madame Bovary is not famous for her domesticity! However, given the scandal of the novels sexuality upon appearance, the contemporary reader will be (pleasantly) surprised at how oblique the eroticism is here (cp. Stanley Fish's recent comments on "the two most erotic moments" in American cinema). Indeed, the explicitness of Madame Bovary will look tame to anyone who just watches the Disney channel.

But most significant about the novel is the way that Flaubert bores into his characters, stopping the camera, so to speak, and letting it hang on their interiority in ways I find quintessentially French. While there is a plot driving the story, we find ourselves reading as explorers of an internal geography. Flaubert is a kind of cartographer, mapping the psyche. And he does all of this in a style that is unmatched--not particularly baroque or flowery, but still in a way that seems to sing. He pauses at just the right moments and describes what is etched on a face or the movement of a hand. Sometimes, as in the closing scenes, this is done with a pace that is breathtaking without being hasty or impatient. Consider just one snippet, quite at random:

But as she was writing, she beheld a different man, a phantom put together from her most ardent memories, her favourite books, her most powerful longings; and by the end he became so real, so tangible, that her heart was racing with the wonder of it, though she was unable to imagine him distinctly, for he faded, like a god, into the abundance of his attributes. He lived in the big blue country where silken rope-ladders swing from balconies, scented by flowers and lit by the moon (p. 271).

It is a small irony that a story which narrates the disastrous frustrations of pleasure-seeking is couched in a style that makes reading sheer pleasure.


Revisiting the '68 Conventions

As historical animals, we seem to have a curious blindspot: about a decade that precedes and then includes our birth. When we are young, this time has not sufficiently settled into the past to count as "history," and thus doesn't show up in our history textbooks. It is also an era that has been lived, shared and thus assumed by the adults around us; they needn't talk about it because they've all been there.

For me this blindspot has been particularly disappointing and frustrating because it means "the sixties"--an era that hovers in our collective consciousness as either a past nirvana or the time when hell's handbasket showed up on our doorsteps--has always been just out of reach, a fuzzy apparition that I've never quite been able to grasp. Having been born in 1970, I have no personal memories of the tumultuous and frenetic shape of the sixties and early seventies: the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK; the civil rights movement and urban riots; the moon landing; Vietnam; the Kent State shootings; Watergate; and so much more. (Being born and raised in Canada is also a factor here.)

If there was a year I could live in that decade, I think it would be 1968. As an academic, and particularly as a philosopher specializing in French philosophy, '68 has always loomed over the figures I study--which includes the soixante-huitards who barricaded the Sorbonne. But given that such time travel is not likely any time soon, I was at least encouraged by the NYRB's republication of Norman Mailer's account of the 1968 presidential nomination conventions in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Sensing, I guess, that the 2008 conventions will be "historic" (I don't quite share that sentiment, but I understand where it's coming from), the reissuing of this classic actually shows how gutted and disappointing the nomination process has become.

Mailer brings his flair and cadence as a novelist to this "new journalism" account of the conventions (the Republicans in Miami, the Democrats [in]famously in Chicago) originally written for Harper's. Punctuated by rapid-fire brilliance and mad, dazzling metaphors, the book reads like a dispatch by beat poets. And Mailer inserts himself into the story (hence the "new journalism") but not intrusively. This is never about Norman Mailer; rather, the anxieties and hopes of "the reporter" (always in the third person) are simply taken to be portals that intersect with his quarry.

Mailer brings this period to life in ways that had me astounded--partly because of my ignorance of just what happened in Chicago that August, and partly because of Mailer's character studies of figures like Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, even Richard Nixon. Indeed, what is perhaps most surprising from Mailer is his generosity, which functions as a kind of objectivity that prevents his "new journalism" from just sliding into propaganda. Indeed, the Maureen Dowds and Michael Moores of the world would do well to read this and see how Mailer--who ceretainly didn't lack commitments--could even be fair to Nixon (Nixon!). "In 1962 the reporter had given a small celebration for the collapse of Richard Nixon after his defeat in the election for Governor of California," Mailer confessess. "Now, in 1968, he was on the edge of becoming the nominee. It was obvious something was wrong with the reporter's picture. In his previous conception of Richard Nixon's character there had been no room for a comeback" (p. 42).

Mailer's descriptions are wry and incisive. His account of the Republican convention is concerned with the plight and fate of the WASP, observing "the muted tragedy of the Wasp--they were not on earth to enjoy or even perhaps to love so very much, they were here to serve, and serve they had in public functions and public charities...--and so much of America did not wish them to serve any longer" (35). This might explain why "you could not picture a Gala Republican who was not clean-shaven by eight A.M." Hence the irony "that in a year when the Republic hovered on the edge of revolution, nihilism, and lines of police on file to the horizon, visions of future Vietnams in our own cities upon us, the party of conservatism and principle, of corporate wealth and personal frugality, the party of cleanliness, hygiene, and balanced budget [!], should have set itself down on a sultan's strip" in Miami (14). (Brings to mind the complete lack of intuition when the Democrats recently organized a conference on faith and politics--in Las Vegas!)

At times Mailer's descriptions border on reverie, like his closing reflections on cops and the police mentality, or his early riff on the religion of "Americanism":

So far as there was an American faith, a belief, a mystique that America was more than the sum of its constituencies, its trillions of dollars and billions of acres, its constellation of factories, empyrean of communications, mountain transcendent of finance, and heroic of sport, transports of medicine, hygiene, and church, so long as belief persisted that America, finally more than all this, was the world's ultimate reserve of rectitude, final garden of the Lord, so far as this mystique could survive in every American family of Christian substance, so then were the people entering this [Republican] Gala willy-nilly leaders of this faith, never articulated by any of them except in the most absurd and taste-curdling jargons of partriotism mixed with religion, but the faith existed in the crossroads between the psyche and the heart where love, hate, the cognition of grace, the all but lost sense of the root, and adoration of America congregate for some" (33-34).

Most harrowing, as you'd expect, is the first hand account of the violence and police brutality in Mayor Daley's Democratic Chicago. ("Daley," Mailer comments, "was not a national politician, but a clansman--he could get 73% of the vote in any constituency made up of people whose ancestors were at home with rude instruments in Polish forests, Ukrainian marshes, Irish bogs--they knew how to defend the home: so did he" [104].) This, I'm embarrassed to say, was all news to me. Here is Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy, with Mayor Daley's army and Bobby Kennedy's ghost both looming over the Amphitheatre. Here we run into Alan Ginsberg and Jean Genet making their way to Grant Park, camped out with the Yippies across from the Hilton. Mailer's account of Chicago, "the last of the great American cities," includes a stark account of the stockyards and slaughterhouses that would be the milieu of the Democratic convention. I can't do justice to it here and simply counsel reading the book; it broke open this fuzzy area of my historical blindspot.

Perhaps most surprising, given what I knew of Mailer, is his honesty and self-knowledge, his almost confessional mode--wrestling with his own cowardice, racism, frustrations. One can feel the divided conscience of the now middle-aged Mailer who owns up to a "conservative" fear that he might lose the America he knew--"that insane warmongering technology land with its smog, its superhighways, its experts and its profound dishonesty" (186-187). And yet...

Yet, it had allowed him to write--it had even not deprived him entirely of honors, certainly not of an income. He had lived well enough to have six children, a house on the water, a good apartment, good meals, good booze, he had even come to enjoy wine. A revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke (187).

This sort of honesty seems to be lacking from those who consider themselves the heirs of new journalism. Mailer fesses up to feeling caught: "To be forty-five years old, and have lost a sense of where his loyalties belonged--to the revolution or to the stability of the country" (188).


American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia

I think I'm pretty clearly out of the closet now as at least a conservative sympathizer--so long as "conservative" refers to the dispositions of Burke et. al. and not the neoliberalism and libertarianism that currently marches under the banner of "conservative." Really, how could any enthusiastic Americanism, founded in revolution, ever be "conservative?" That tiny little problem notwithstanding, I've been spending the last couple of days dipping into American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. (It's publication garnered quite a bit of attention, including a review in the New York Times.)

I should admit that if I'm a journal junkie, I also have a soft spot for encyclopedias of this sort. They still represent for me veritable educations in themselves, so I love wending through them, dipping in at a whim, then following the cross-referencing to pursue a thread. For instance, I followed a thread that began with an entry on Cleanth Brooks, which then took me to an entry on New Criticism, to ones on Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, pointing me to Southern Agrarians and The Sewanee Review. Another foray began with the entry on Eugene McCarthy (who emerges as a fascinating character in Norman Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago), which then pointed me to an entry on Hilaire Belloc, landing in the entry on distributism (which I think I just might be).

The encyclopedia does a pretty decent job of exhibiting that "conservatism" in America is a contested philosophy. While all the luminaries of neoconservatism receive praise, other strains of American conservatism that contest this vision also receive coverage. So, for instance, Jeremy Beer 's entry on Schindler, David L. notes how Schindler's ecclesially-centered conservatism (for which I have great sympathy) is a trenchant critique of the "John Courtney Murray project" of assimilation carried out by supposed "conservatives" like Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel (all of whom get their own entries, too). Or the constellation of entries related to the Southern Agrarians (including entries on Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and I'll Take My Stand) sketches a kind of conservatism opposed to the nationalism (not to mention "big government") that now passes for conservatism in federal politics.

Admittedly, there are pieces of the encyclopedia which are incestuous, hagiographic, and bordering almost on the ridiculous. (In the last category I point to Robert Sirico's entry on liberation theology, which is pretty much like asking Jeff Sharlet to write the entry for Ted Haggard in something like the InterVarsity Encyclopedia of Evangelical Saints.) But these weaknesses aside, this will be a book I keep on my desk, and close to my reading chair, as a mini-education in a movement.


Madapple: A Taste of Science and Religion

A few months back I was intrigued by a booknote in Vanity Fair about Christine Meldrum's first novel, Madapple (published by Knopf--not a bad way to start!). It piqued my interest because the note indicated that the story--aimed at a young adult market--intertwined issues of science and religion. This past week I finally had a chance to read the book, which was entertaining, intriuging, a bit maddening, and in the end, only slightly disappointing.

The story is certainly not the usual fare, eluding the categories of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, while dabbling in all three. Set in rural and smalltown Maine, the narrative revolves around a girl named Auslag who is part of an immigrant family from Denmark. The story also plays with time, starting in 1987, but then regularly transporting us to a courtroom in 2007, to dip back to events in 2003 and 2006. In some ways, Meldrum is at her best in the courtroom scenes (she's a trained lawyer), and the regular visits to this setting help make for chapters that come in short bursts--no doubt welcome by many young readers (and not a few older ones). The other "device" that Meldrum uses to weave the story is a persistent thread of botany. The life of Auslag and her mother revolves around a dizzying array of plants and flowers found in the the region (including "madapple"). At times this felt like an MFA gimmick, but it works and rarely feels forced. It not only moves the story forward and helps it to hang together, it is also an important means by which nature and science make themselves felt in the story--though "science" isn't the only way to respond to the "nature" that is plantlife.

And that, it seems, is at the heart of Meldrum's interest: if science and religion are at play in the story, they are on the stage as alternative explanations of phenomena. If Madapple deals with issues of science and religion, it's because the book is more fundamentally dealing with what Paul Ricoeur described as "the conflict of interpretations." Phenomena press upon us, nature pushes back against us, and we are pushed to render explanations, interpretations, and construals of what's happening. For instance, a strange and "unexplained" pregnancy can be variously described as a virgin birth or a rape. Meldrum tackles the conflict of interpretations at various levels throughout the story, and persistently offers episodes of religion and science as competing explanations--but also a couple of hints that they might be complementary explanations of the same phenomenon. On top of this, she is weaving a story that has just enough mystery and intrigue to keep you turning the pages (though a couple of things were telegraphed a bit too much). My disappointment stemmed from two trends in the book: First, methinks Meldrum caught a bit of the Dan-Brown-syndrome, displaying a sophomoric fascination with Gnosticism, the Essenes, and the Gospel of Thomas that is meant to shock and scandalize. (It was also weird to read a novel with a bibliography--what is that saying?) Second, I don't think Meldrum let's the conflict of interpretations persist. The novel shrink back from letting the conflict go "all the way down," so to speak (I won't hint in which direction in tips so as not to ruin the story of you); there could have been resolution to the story without bringing definitive resolution to the conflict of interpretations.

Those concerns aside, it's a great summer read, easy enough for the beach, and something you can pass along to your teenager--as I just did.


Beware of Books! From Walker Percy

I'm working in a few snippets from Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins into the book I'm trying to finish (called Desiring the Kingdom). But I couldn't find a good excuse to work in this quote, so thought I'd pass it on here, from the mind the protagonist, Dr. Tom More:

Books matter. My poor wife, Doris, was ruined by books, by books and a heathen Englishman, not by dirty books but by clean books, not by depraved books but by spiritual books. God, if you recall, did not warn his people against dirty books. He warned them against high places. My wife, who began life as a cheerful Episcopalian from Virginia, became a priestess of the high places. I loved her dearly and loved to lie with her and would and did whene'er she would allow it, but most especially in the morning, at breakfast, in the nine o'clock sunlight out here on the "enclosed patio." But books ruined her. Beware of Episcopal women who take up with Ayn Rand and the Buddha and Dr. Rhine formerly of Duke University. A certain type of Episcopal girl has a weakness that comes on them just past youth, just as sure as Italian girls get fat. They fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine (p. 64).


Vidal's Prescience

A couple of weeks ago a long-anticipated book arrived at my office: The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal (Doubleday, 2008), edited by Jay Parini (also Vidal's biographer). It provides an excellent selection of Vidal's criticism and essays from 1953-2004. Unfortunately, having lately seen and read interviews with the aged Vidal, I'm afraid that he's becoming a bit predictable, regularly harping on the Bush regime, which seems like too easy a target and doesn't yield much creativity from Vidal's sharp mind.

However, most of these essays represent Vidal at his best: a participant in the nation's history who, with just a slightly haughty air, offers an incisive take on what's going on because of a keen sense of what's happened in the past (chronicled so well in his historical fiction). He refuses any distinction between "high" and "low" culture; all is fair game. Consider, for instance, the hilarious (but deadly serious) account of the "The Top Ten Best-Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973," in which Vidal explores the Koontzes and Graftons of his day (concluding that, in fact, here was the first generation of novelists raised on television). There is a wonderful recollection of Edmund Wilson, as well as an iconoclastic and irreverent essay on "The Holy Family," the Kennedys, in which Vidal predicts a dynasty--in 1967, just months before RFK's assassination.

And reading these essays now, in some cases 50 years later, one has to be struck by Vidal's prescience. For just one example, I would point to some closing reflections in a long essay on Egypt under Nasser, published in Esquire in 1963:

We [Americans] truly believe that we never wanted a world empire simply because we don't suffer from a desire to see Old Glory waving over the parliaments of enslaved nations. But we do want to make a buck. We do want to maintain our standard of living. For good or ill, we have no other true national purpose. [...] Our materialistic ethos is made quite plain in the phrase 'the American way of life.'

I submit that our lack of commitment to any great mystique of national destiny is the healthiest thing about us and the reason for our current success. We are simple materialists, not bent on setting fire to the earth as a matter of holy prinicple, unlike the True Believers with their fierce Either-Ors, their Red or Dead absolutes, when the truth is that the world need be neither, just comfortably pink and lively. Even aid to such a disagreeable and unreliable nation as Nasser's Egypt increases our sphere of influence, expands our markets, maintains our worldly empire. And we are an empire.

While neoconservatism is defined precisely by its invention of and commitment to something like a "mystique" that Vidal cautions against, the pragmatism of the American empire remains solidly in place. And hence Vidal's closing warning is also prescient:

Ultimately, our danger comes not from the idea of Communism, which (as an Archbishop of Canterbury remarked) is a "Christian heresy" whose materialistic aims (as opposed to means) vary little from our own; rather, it will come from the increasing wealth and skill of other Serene Republics which, taking advantage of our increasing moral and intellectual fateness, will try to seize our markets in the world. If we are to end, it will not be with a Bomb but a bigger Buck.

What Vidal's prescience perhaps did not see is that such a displacing Republic would not be quite Serene, but Red.


Books, Materiality, and Beauty

This is a bit spooky: just this morning, as I was waiting to head out for an appointment, I picked up a brand new volume sitting on my nightstand: a collection of Edmund Wilson's criticism just published in the the Library of America. And to be perfectly honest, I didn't pick it up to read it; I picked it up just to hold it, to caress it. I don't know if you've ever held a LoA volume, but they are pretty much the most sumptuous books one could hope for from an American publisher. They are thick and squat, with Bible-like pages and exquisite bindings, as well as a classic font. There is a weight to the books that is just a pleasure to hold and handle. Most of my library is very pragmatic (i.e., driven by a concern for building content on a budget, and thus populated by alot of Penguin classics paperbacks and such); but every once in a while, when I get a gift certificate, I splurge and also indulge in purchases that reflect the book as object.

How funny, then, to just read John Lancaster's reflections on the same phenomena, with the very same book, in this week's London Review of Books. Wilson, of course, would have taken a certain delight in such fetishization of his work!


The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A couple of weeks ago I had a brief wait in the Birmingham train station, waiting to catch a train back to York. Somehow I found myself in the bookstore (imagine that!) and picked up a book I'd heard a bit about: Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize (akin to the American Pulitzer). After perusing the blurbs, I opened to the first page which opens thus:
"Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your own language, I thought I might offer you my services."
Perhaps it was the use of the second person; perhaps it was because I somehow heard this in accent; perhaps it was because of the tension embedded in just these few lines; but in any case, I was hooked. Though I stacks of papers to grade on the train ride home, I bought the book and consumed it, finishing it just as the trained rolled into York station.

The book is set in a timeline that spans pre- and post-9/11 context; the event itself makes only a minimal cameo, though its ripple effects drive the later action of the narrative (tensions between India and Pakistan are much more significant). The novel tracks the "formation," one might say, of a young Pakistani, Changez, by some of America's most powerful institutions, including Princeton, Wall Street, and New York in general. (Of the difference between Princeton and New York, the narrator notes: "I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker.")

But the story also documents how his personal version of the American dream begins to unravel, because of 9/11, because of a surprising--even unwanted--new sense of allegiance to his homeland, because of a girlfriend who seems to have all one could dream of but who, in fact, suffers a private nightmare.

Hamid's command of the very difficult second-person approach is stunning, allowing him to play with time and ambiguities in quite captivating ways--including a delightfully maddening conclusion. And the story moves quickly while also developing characters: sort of breezy, but with real substance that sticks with you long after you're done the book. In short, a great read for a train ride.


Teaching as a Postal Vocation

George Steiner's latest book, My Unwritten Books, has been getting a lot of press, mainly for the racy chapter on his sexual escapades in which he considers how different languages condition erotic experience (he takes this well beyond the old joke about sex in German). Indeed, critics seem rather fixated on this chapter--from the first review I read, I wouldn't have guessed that the book also includes some stellar criticism! But perhaps my favorite snippet comes from a conversation with him in The Guardian in which he captures the exciting opportunity that is teaching:
"unless you are absolutely first rate, which so few of us are, then what I call the letter-carrier function of the teacher is wonderful. To serve great works, to send the letters out hoping they get to a good mailbox, is a marvellous thing."

Academics are notoriously given to frequent fits of self-importance and illusions of grandeur. But every once in a while, we get a clear, humble, maybe maganimous glimpse of who we are and will be, and then find a special joy and delight in being teachers. Would that I could always be content to be a mailman.


Resurrecting the Green Knight

My romance with medievalism makes me a sucker for anything Arthurian. What a treat, then, to be part of the generation that gets to enjoy Simon Armitage's new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the most beloved epic poems in the orbit of the Arthurian tales. Armitage was particularly concerned to recover something often ignored by other translators: the importance of alliteration in the original. With that as a central goal, Armitage has produced a version that sings, even though it also conveys the grittiness and earthiness of the poetry (think Ted Hughes). This is poetry where guttural syllables matter. (I tried to read it with a kind of northern brogue in my head--but probably it's best read out loud. I'm going to try to convince the kids of that!) Aside from a fascinating story of honor, chivalry, and the Green Knight's rather pig-headed lack of prudence, there is also the titillating undercurrent of a certain eroticism in the story that is alluded to with a wink and a grin. A delightful experience that repays many re-readings.


Poetry Month with Knopf

It's Poetry Month again, and as has been my custom, I encourage folks to sign-up for Knopf's wonderful Poem-a-Day program. Consider, for instance, today's treat from Edward Hirsch:

Self Portrait

I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can't get along.

I lived between my left arm, which is swift
and sinister, and my right, which is righteous.

I lived between a laugh and a scowl,
and voted against myself, a two-party system.

My left leg dawdled or danced along,
my right cleaved to the straight and narrow.

My left shoulder was like a stripper on vacation,
my right stood upright as a Roman soldier.

Let's just say that my left side was the organ
donor and leave my private parts alone,

but as for my eyes, which are two shades
of brown, well, Dionysus, meet Apollo.

Look at Eve raising her left eyebrow
while Adam puts his right foot down.

No one expected it to survive,
but divorce seemed out of the question.

I suppose my left hand and my right hand
will be clasped over my chest in the coffin

and I'll be reconciled at last,
I'll be whole again.


Gary Wills' Venice

Tomorrow I make my first pilgrimage to Venice, the enchanted city that so charmed Ruskin, though his Stones of Venice narrates both what he takes to be its genius and its demise--which correlates with its Gothic beginning and Renaissance decadence. For Ruskin's Venice, the renaissance was as hardly a re-birth, but more of a death knell. So, as a devotee of Ruskin, you can imagine that I've been boning up on Stones (from a great 1898 edition in the York St. John's library in York).

However, I also took this as an opportunity to finally read a book that's been languishing on my shelf for a few years: Gary Wills' Venice, Lion City: The Religion of Empire (Simon & Schuster, 2001; paperback, 2002). I recall picking this up at a bookstore in Stratford several years ago, piqued by interest in Ruskin but with a sense that Wills' take represented the loyal opposition as it were. Turns out I was right.

It's a marvelous book, taking the reader on a tour of Venice's religious, commercial and political history through its rich artistic archive. (Wills opens with Evelyn Waugh's comment that "If every museum in the New World were emptied, if every famous building in the Old World were destroyed and only Venice saved, there would be enough to fill a lifetime with delight.") While the book does presume some prior knowledge of Venice (both history and art, as well as some sense of the geography of the city), it could also be profitably read alongside a decent guidebook for a first time visitor to Venice.

What's interesting is how Wills frames his "argument," as it were: First, though it was Ruskin who put him onto Venice, Wills is really out to contest Ruskin's moralistic thesis which suggested that Venice's empire crumbled precisely when commerce trumped religion. According to Wills, not only can the two not be separated, in fact, it was Venice's relentless pursuit of trade and commerce that already yielded all the earlier Gothic delights that Ruskin so valued.

This claim then floats on a second, more submerged interest: drawing persistent parallels with the "American" empire. Venice is celebrated as an empire of "independence," constantly resisting both Roman and Eastern hegemony--a kind of proto-protestant city on a hill devoted to labor, commerce, and trade. The analogy keeps bubbling up throughout the book--as when Lotto's depiction of the Annunciation brings to mind Jackie Kennedy (!): "I thought, when I first saw the picture in Washington, of Jacqueline Kennedy turning to clamber out of her car when the tremendous blow fell on her in the Dallas motorcade" (232-233). He brings the analogy home in an Epilogue, "Farewell to Empire," where he then labors to emphasize the differences between Venetian and American exceptionalism. While Venetians considered themselves exceptional, they didn't think that Venice could be replicated or exported, in contrast to American self-understanding which took itself as a pattern to be emulated and a system to be exported. In other words, Wills seems to draw the analogy in order to note that Venetian imperialism was pragmatic, commercial and "realist;" in short, Venetians weren't neoconservatives, had no PNAC-like idealism about a global Venice.

What's intriguing and prescient is the fact that this book was published on September 18, 2001 (and Wills didn't seem to make any changes for the 2002 paperback edition). He couldn't have known that the string of quotes from Wintrhop ("city set on a hill"), Jefferson (America as "the world's best hope"), and Lincoln would, within a year, be marshaled for just the kind of exceptionalist imperial project he was worried about here.

However, prescience is not quite wisdom. While the book is a spectacular tour of Venice via its art and architecture, and should be required reading for any thoughtful pilgrimage to Venice, I'm not convinced that Wills rightly diagnoses what's at stake in the "religion of empire."

Let me take just one example: What makes Venice the "Lion City" is the fact that it is home to the body of St. Mark, the Gospel writer signified by a lion. The relic of the saint--stolen from Alexandria by Venetian forces--played a central and crucial role in both the religious and political life of Venice from the time of its "translation" there in 828. The relic was presented to the doge (roughly, 'emperor') for protection. This is already an important episode: the saint's body was not delivered to the bishop, but to the doge--not to an ecclesiastical authority, but to a secular one. This already represented a marginalization of the bishop and--by extension--the pope and Rome (an early assertion of the "independence" of Venice that Wills so prizes). The doge becomes the protector of St. Mark's body in exchange for the saint's protection and prospering of the city. The Basilica of San Marco is the 'home' of this relic; but note, this is not a cathedral or a diocesan church--it is, in fact, the private chapel of the doge.

What does Wills conclude from this? That "Mark's body ordered the whole of society around itself" (33). Henceforth, "the republic would be true to him" (35).

But of course this is susceptible to exactly the opposite reading: that the "ordering" is just the other way around--that the republich has marshaled Mark's body as an instrument for its own ends, and that Mark's body is literally "brought in" (by theft) to baptize and sanctify the activity of the commercial empire.

Wills never seems to entertain this reading (even to disagree with it or dismiss it). As such, I think he underestimates his own phrase: "the religion of empire." These genitives are notoriously slippery. Wills seems to me "religion AND empire." This is why he thinks he can dismiss Ruskin's reading simply by noting that both piety and aggressive commercialism functioned simultaneously at the height of the Venetian empire. But that's seeing the two as distinct entities: Christian "religion" on the one side and commercial "empire" on the other. (Granted, I think Ruskin's reading fails on this point as well; he still works with too simple a dichotomy.)

But what if both are a matter of "religion?" What if it is precisely commerce that was the god of this empire? In short, what if it really might have been the case that the empire was the religion? (Wills seems to almost glimpse this when he notes that "[t]he doge, not the bishops, was the protector of religion in Venice, and when conflicts arose with Rome, the clergy were expected to be loyal to the Venetian faith" (45). Would it not be the case, then, that St. Mark was hijacked in the service of false gods?

And might this be a familiar story?


What I'm Listening To: More Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter has been keeping me company lately. (I was pretty bummed to learn that he'd be playing at Calvin in the semester that we're in England; but I just saw today that in April he's going to be playing in Leeds, just down the road from York! Sweet.)

In particular, I've been spending time with some of his earlier albums like Animal Years and Hello Starling. And I've been just mesmerized by "Bone of Song," a strange hymn to musical creation through the story of a relic that is also a muse. Unfortunately I can't find anywhere that the song is streamed, but if you can, do listen. The lyrics alone don't do it justice.
Bone of Song
just where it now lies I can no longer say
I found it on a cold and November day
in the roots of a sycamore tree where it had hid so long
in a box made out of myrtle lay the bone of song
the bone of song was a jawbone old and bruised
and worn out in the service of the muse
and along its sides and teeth were written words
I ran my palm along them and I heard

lucky are you who finds me in the wilderness
I am the only unquiet ghost that does not seek rest

the words on the bone of song were close and small
and though their tongues were dead I found I knew them all
in the hieroglyphs of quills and quatrain lines
Osiris—the fall of Troy—Auld Lang Syne
Kathleen Mauvoreen—Magnificat—Your Cheatin’ Heart
the chords of a covenant king singing 'fore the Ark
then I saw on a white space that was left
a blessing written older than the rest
it said

leave me here I care not for wealth or fame
I’ll remember your song – but I’ll forget your name

the words that I sang blew off like the leaves in the wind
and perched like birds in the branches before landing on the bone again
then the bone was quiet it said no more to me
so I wrapped it in the ribbons of a sycamore tree
and as night had come I turned around and headed home
with a lightness in my step and a song in my bones
lucky are you who finds me in the wilderness
I am the only unquiet ghost that does not seek rest

I just love the juxtaposition of the Mary's song and the Hank Williams classic, "Magnificat--Your Cheatin' Heart." It was for just such brokennes that Mary's son broke into the world--and occasioned a song. If Jesus is the Word, perhaps he's also the song whose lyrics are closer to "Your Cheatin' Heart" than the pop diddies that are regularly "Jesu-fied" to make them allegedly "Christian."


A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

While tackling some British classics, it's also fun to read what British folks are reading today. For a start, I just couldn't resist a book with this fabulous title: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka (a lecturer at Sheffield University, not far from York). A breezy, entertaining story of a quirky family set amidst the Ukrainian immigrant community of the British midlands. A long ways from the thick, literary depth of Ivanhoe but a fun book to curl up with for a couple nights.


The Age of Chivalry Revisited

One of the benefits of our sojourn here in York is that it means we're "unplugged" from some of the frantic pace that characterizes life back in the States, freeing us up for some dedicated time of reading. So one of my goals for this semester is to read a number of British classics that I've only dabbled in before. I've brought along Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Cardinal Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, and others. But I dove into the pile by first reading Sir Walter Scott's 19th-century manifesto, Ivanhoe.

One of the courses I'm teaching here is "Victorian Britain and Postmodern Culture: Contemporary Medievalisms" (the informal title is "Everything Jamie loves about 19th-century Britain!"). As England was undergoing the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution--which, for all its "economic growth," also fragmented families and entire ways of life--the middle of the 19th century saw a backlash and critique in the form of a new fascination with medieval modes of life. Scott's Ivanhoe was a huge part of this. While penned as a story, it was adopted as a manifesto, calling England back from the atomism spawned by the "Satanic mills" of industry to the organic (and admittedly hierarchical) organization of the body politic in feudal times.

Scott's book (much of which is set right here in Yorkshire) embodies all the (often caricatured) pictures we've come to inherit: knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, tournaments and jousts, Richard the Lionheart and the despicable Prince John, characters hearkening to Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. But this is no mere lads' tale or entertainment. One has to be struck at the genuine literary quality of the book; this isn't some sort of proto-"genre fiction." And there are very interesting subplots and themes: One concerns the status of Jews in late medieval England, and here what appears to be Scott's traffic with typical anti-Semitic slurs is actually undercut, I think, by how Isaac and Rebekah function within the story. While anti-Semitic readers might have heard what they wanted to hear, on the other hand I think their attitudes are consistently undercut by Scott's narrative.

The other theme is historical and political, namely how "the English" came to emerge from the meld of Saxon and Norman--the indigenous English and the interloping French. King Richard and Ivanhoe's friendship marks the end of their animosity and the beginning of "the English."

An English treasure, penned by a Scot.