Thursday, March 17, 2011

SPICER HIS BEOWULF (ROUGH NOTES ON INSURGENT PHILOLOGY)

Nothing so postcolonial as the New Philology, but a reimagined philology that likewise dispenses with the eighteenth-century antiquarian's creepy devotion to dusty parchment and linguistically determined claims to power, race and nation. Even Thomas Jefferson was an amateur Anglo-Saxonist (recall the First Barbary War, the first US assault on the Muslim world in 1805; or, later, when Seamus Heaney's Beowulf fell from Faber like Little Boy from the Enola Gay.

Jack Spicer's Beowulf is work of a markedly different variety. Brought out as part of the CUNY Poetics Document Initiative and collaboratively edited by David Hadbawnik and Sean Reynolds, Spicer's raw and unfinished translation of the Anglo-Saxon is overwhelming. Until now — and aside from, say, his Troilus or The Holy Grail — there has been little in the whole of Spicer's formally published work that points so boldly to his scholarly investment in the Anglo-Saxon and medieval.

Hadbawnik frames Spicer's translation with an extensive introduction to the work, and what I find far more interesting than Spicer's interest in Beowulf — or any investment Duncan or Blaser had in the medieval — is Hadbawnik's interest in it all. Hadbawnik's introduction is careful work built not only on an intimate familiarity with the poetries of the Berkeley Renaissance but with medievalism as a discipline — that is, Hadbawnik comes to Spicer with formal training in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Medieval Latin and any other number of languages essential to a responsible appraisal of the medieval. But — and I may be wrong in assuming this — Hadbawnik's deeper, more fundamental interest appears to lie in the production of poetry and an investigation of language itself (viz. I'm not sure his desire is to participate in the practice of Anglo-Saxon or medieval studies in the same way scholars like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Louise Fradenberg or Patricia Ingham have). So I am reminded of Alan Halsey's or Steve McCaffery's neoantiquarianism, Bill Griffith's Anglo-Saxon scholarship — or, more recently, Geraldine Monk's poetic excavation of Sheffield, Caroline Bergval's foray into Middle English, Andrea Brady's commitment to Early Modern studies, Keston Sutherland's theorization of a conceptual philology (built on a rigorous familiarity with the rise of German philology), Andrew Rippeon's attention to eighteenth and nineteenth century theorizations of lyric practice, the incredible scope of Rob Halpern's inquiries into German and French Romanticism, and Michael Cross' various interest in Icelandic sagas. All of these come to me first and foremost as poets, or poet-critics, whose scholarly commitments are given to the construction of an efficacious poetics. And this is not to say their scholarship is secondary or subordinate to their work as poets, but I do believe their scholarly work is driven by deep commitments that extend far beyond the disciplinary limits this work emerges out of.

The type of work I'm addressing here and which I see embodied in Hadbawnik's devotion to a rigorous study of the medieval and its reception across centuries — at bottom brutal, painstaking work — is something utterly singular and wholly distinct from the usual scholarship given to twentieth century or contemporary poetries. Not sure what to call it, or that it needs to be named at all, but I see this work as a sort of radically reimagined philology, oriented toward questions of language and history and fundamentally different than the more hermeneutically oriented critical work produced by poets during the 80s and 90s. This work is given to the matter of history differently than, say, the theorizations and critical work constructed by many Language poets (i.e. Silliman, Bernstein, Hejinian, Andrews, Watten). This work extends well beyond critiques of interpretive processes and, as such, the work seems — or at least feels — more contiguous with what we encounter in Prynne's commentary on Wordsworth or his critique of Saussure and structuralism. The materials of history are imagined and engaged differently; the speculative character of the work takes into its purview vast panoramas that allow for critiques of cultural tendencies and practices as they develop across centuries.

Thinking in broad strokes here — and 2007 MLA president Michael Holquist's odd call for a return to philology in the classical sense hasn't escaped me — but perhaps something more in line with Nietzsche, "We Philologists": "To make the individual uncomfortable is my task," or, earlier, commenting on the weaknesses of nineteenth century philology and the unconscious (ideology, hegemony, or culture in other languages:

It is the task of education to change certain conscious actions and habits into more or less unconscious ones; and the history of mankind is in this sense its education. The philologist now practices unconsciously a number of such occupations and habits. It is my object to ascertain how his power, that is, his instinctive methods of work, is the result of activities which were formerly conscious, but which he has gradually come to feel as such no longer: but that consciousness consisted of prejudices. The present power of philologists is based upon these prejudices ...

We might say the same about the contemporary English Department, or the humanities as a whole, or what Spicer refers to more broadly in Admonitions as "the English Department of the spirit":

It was not my anger or my frustration that got in the way of my poetry but the fact that I viewed each anger and each frustration as unique — something to be converted into poetry as one would exchange foreign money. I learned this from the English Department (and from the English Department of the spirit — that great quagmire that lurks at the bottom of us all) and it ruined ten years of my poetry.

(viz. Gavin Douglas' "Conscience": "And fra conscience the con thay clip away, | And maid of conscience science and na mair." Or the whole of the opening paragraph from Ryan Dobran's introduction to the Prynne number of Glossator:

In the ‘Preface’ to Daybreak, Friedrich Nietzsche states his preference for lento, for what Roman Jakobson would pass along to his students as the definition of philology: slow reading. Nietzsche writes: “For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work,’ that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book....” There is no mistaking this model of devotion, which presumably inheres to all good philological readers: the physiological intimacy with the texts, reading with recursive parafovea, attending to obscurity with curiosity and research; all of these approximate a rough ethics of thinking the text, rather than about the text as a completed or completable event. Nietzsche’s critique of the ‘present-moment’ figure, whose speedy “work” must hasten to meet the mass allotment of task, whose epitomization of sameness would later become un-lost in the illusory image-mediation of Debord’s spectacle, is also a call for commentarial labor, which invokes the pleasure of the text, as much as it enhances perceptivity and description of those yet unmarked potentialities into which reading may move, pre-articulate feeling born of pre-representation, prior to the delimitation of paraphrasis and readerly introjection. If the slow reading of the philologist aims to complicate presumed epistemological achievement, knowledge as circumscribed locus for the residence of belief, then the speed-reading of the sensationalist requires the ideological vacuity of that which can never begin, for its historical valency is anoxic; in remission without desire for truth-claims, it bites the first idea it thinks, sloughing off the pressures of precision for quotidian ressentiment. While interpretation can end, commentary is endless.

Care or a notion of committedness — a particular type of attention — can, no doubt, stand in as an adequate substitute for slow (which I fear might elide the energy and urgency of the work at hand if construed too narrowly). The point is, I believe, as Dobran suggests, to avoid "the speed-reading of the sensationalist" that too hastily "bites the first idea it thinks" in a desperate effort to close the circuit and get on with business.

Monday, March 14, 2011

AGAINST POLICE REALITY: SEAN BONNEY ON ANNA MENDELSSOHN

The Feb/Mar number of The Poetry Project Newsletter features an excellent essay by Sean Bonney on poet-activist Anna Mendelssohn. Using the simplest of language, the essay begins with a seemingly self-evident but too often ignored appeal:

If you want to find good poetry written in Britain, you have to go looking for it: with very few exceptions, it is hidden away behind a poetry of more or less genteel self-expression, metrical sentimentalities and easily digested liberal homilies that are essentially reports on police reality.

Reading English and American literature through the late 1960s at the University of Essex — at a moment when Donald Davie, Ed Dorn and Elaine Feinstein were among the faculty — Mendolssohn dropped out a year before completing the degree. In the bio note attached to her work in Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos, which Bonney quotes, Mendelssohn writes: "My academic career was brought to an abrupt halt in 1967 by harassment, both political and emotional. Upon returning [from Turkey] to this country, in 1970, I was attacked, my own poetry seized, and my person threatened with strangulation if I dared utter one word of public criticism. I was unable to return to university at that point and was silenced."

Such a note could, I suspect, be dismissed as the hyperbolic excesses of an unprovoked paranoia were it not for her arrest and imprisonment in 1971. Convicted as one of the "Stoke Newington Eight" for her alleged involvement in a series of bombings attributed to The Angry Brigade, Mendelssohn served seven years on a ten year conviction. By the mid 1980s Mendelssohn relocated to Cambridge, where she resumed studying literature and writing, falling in with Peter Riley, Rod Mengham and others who would publish a small portion of her poetic output through Poetical Histories and Equipage. In a December 15, 2009 obituary at the Guardian, Riley writes:

Anna's legacy, apart from a room heaped to the ceiling with books, poetry manuscripts and drawings, lies in her unique artistic temperament, beholden to no cultural dictates, fiercely reclaiming her rights as a woman and Jew, but partaking equally in art as a theatre of linguistic and visual delight.

Bonney seems most interested in Mendelssohn's unbeholdenness, but for Bonney the poetry Mendelssohn produced during the 1980s is not just detached from cultural norms and dominant tendencies; her poetry embodies and enacts a poetics of total refusal and unrelenting struggle:

Mendelssohn's utopian society of art is overridden and taken away by the sentences of authority. It is unsurprising, then, that a dominant mood in Mendelssohn's work is anxiety, and even a sense of persecution. It is a political poetry that is fully aware of the limits of what is permitted in bourgeois society, that understands that for a revolutionary, or ex-revolutionary, the prison is the centre and the perimeter of permitted life.

Further on Bonney reads Mendelssohn's poetry through the contradictions and interpenetrations of interiority and exteriority, inside and outside:

As far as Mendelssohn's enemies are concerned, and these are many — not only judges but, variously, pompous poets, social workers, narrow-minded politicos and patriarchal imbeciles of all sorts — it [Mendolssohn's poetry] is a communication that speaks to them in order to deny their ability to read, and to refuse them a place within the poem. It is an outsidedness that also has nothing to do with the easy conformity of the poet as some kind of rebel. Mendelssohn is no rebel; the content of her refusal to communicate with her enemies is one that demands the possibility of communication, and of the reality of a community that can exist despite the accusations of its incomprehensibility and illegitimacy. In the face of those who would have "silenced" her, the response is to speak a language to which they have no access.

If I read this correctly, the poem appears to perform — or simply exist — as a hermetically and hermeneutically sealed terrorist cell within the polis, an impenetrable instance of urban blight that aspires toward its own renewal by otherwise unavailable means. Especially affirming in Bonney's reading of Mendelssohn is his clear rejection of the self-congratulatory outsider status too often assigned to decidedly political poetries. The preference is for taking and occupying the center rather than fetishizing our distance from it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

SO LONG COLLECTIVE BARGAINING HELLO GOOD TIMES

While the price of arabica coffee will unfortunately shoot up due to rising temperatures in Columbia, the cost of a lambswool cardigan from LL Bean's impressive spring catalog remains competitive with last year's prices ($79.50). Sweater weather is approaching. In other words, the combined net worth of Bill Gates ($54 billion) and Warren Buffet ($45 billion) can easily provide every American child living below the federal poverty level (projections indicate this will soon be 25% of all US children) with a warm lambswool sweater to stylishly arm these starving children against the unforgiving vicissitudes of a cool spring breeze, thus enabling the extraordinary potential each of these children hold deep within their ambitious little hearts. This is giving back. This is philanthropy. Any one of these children might be tomorrow's astronauts working to terraform otherwise uninhabitable planets once we're ready to discard this one and I, like most sensible Americans, want to grow old on the moon.



These are indeed heartbreaking times when every intrepid self-styled poet-activist and cultural critic cannot have a Thule storage shell securely strapped to the roof of their fashionable but eco-friendly Subaru Outback. And while this humble blogger is shamefully ignorant of the finer points of fiscal responsibility, I do have a potentially productive proposal for state-level legislation that might effectively reboot our persistently failing economy and provide a form of renewable energy.

The legislation I propose would contractually oblige every child living just above the poverty line to physically extract fuel-rich blubber from each and every US adult above the 25% income tax bracket according to Internal Revenue Code (though this proposal is generously based on Adjusted Gross Income rather than Total Income). State governments would be responsible for providing each child with four essential tools: a head spade, a boarding knife, a blubber pike and a gaff. The child would then use these tools to extract the blubber from reasonably wealthy adults, including parents, in strips which would then be thrown into a blubber bank and processed into energy-producing fuel. Since starving, powerless children colloquially refer to this ancient but long since forgotten practice as "flensing the rich," the title of the legislation I propose here is the Tension Relief and Flensing Fuel Internecine-Cooperation (TRAFFIC) Act. This act would not only reignite the economy by literally setting fire to the otherwise inactive but rapidly accumulating blubber of the rich, it would also make of every child a productive civil servant of the demos, each an essential component of the world's most internally dynamic and globally aggressive democracy.



Children living below the poverty line are naturally too weak from malnutrition to be tasked with the labor intensive but fulfilling duty of flensing the rich. In order to raise these children to a standard of health suitable for the practice of flensing, the TRAFFIC Act also includes a clause that would require anyone who manages to survive the extraction of their blubber to spoon feed these children the same impressive range of organic groceries, truffles and foie gras that so inflated the fuel-rich flesh of the wealthy in the first place.

Aside from the desire to make flensing a household word again — because it is was, long before the second and even first generation iPhone, a hallowed and distinctly American practice — this call for a return to flensing is built on the simple, delightfully imbecilic Hoosier belief that, if America is to invest in anything in order to rekindle its flagging economy, America should invest in Americans. Flensing is no less American than baseball. And just as most any American child knows how to swing a bat, it is not unreasonable to imagine the delight American children will take in wielding a blubber pike.

Many Americans would agree Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is one of the most inspiring texts generated in an uncertain time of turmoil, difficulty and internecine strife. A similarly inspiring but widely ignored document informed by the same historically transcendental proposition is Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. This book-length work is First Mate Owen Chase's account of the 1820 wreck of the whaling vessel that departed from Nantucket, crossed round the horn from the Atlantic to the Pacific and suffered the devastating attack of an immense but typically docile creature, a sperm whale as large as and far stronger than the vessel that so ruthlessly hunted it. What strikes me about Chase's narrative — and what Melville fails to draw on in Moby-Dick — is how the crew of the Essex behave after the wreck. Moby-Dick ends with wreckage, but Chase's narrative persists onward, toward full post-traumatic eco-political recovery. After a brief respite on a fairly barren and uninhabited island following the wreck, the crew of the Essex are for months adrift, starving on the open ocean in three small whale boats. But, by way of what I recognize as a distinctly American order of entrepreneurial ingenuity and democratic will, the intrepid crew of the Essex agree to begin eating each other in order to survive. Of course, not all of them survive the outcome of the democratic process (all must make sacrifices) but what I applaud here is the visionary strength of the crew: they knew in advance, as if inspired by God, that the only road to spiritual, emotional, fiscal and political recovery involved feasting on one another and, in the worst of times, even sucking the marrow from a comrade's bones.

But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with flensing? Well, flensing creatures far larger but far less aggressive than the crew of the Essex is what first threw the characteristically peaceful sperm whale into the uncontrollable rage that sank the Essex in the first place. And with the same strength of spirit that successfully defended the Alamo, the resilient crew survived by selflessly flensing each other. From this perspective, reimagining one of the more colorful practices responsible for setting these hard-boiled heroic Americans adrift nearly two centuries ago seems, at the very least, apropos.

Monday, March 07, 2011

RECENTLY: SOUS LES PAVÉS & ECCOLINGUISTICS
















Sous Les Pavés (edited by Micah Robbins out of Dallas, Texas) and Eccolinguistics (edited by Jared Schickling out of Farmington, Maine) are two relatively new print magazines, both produced in much the same way: photocopy or desktop printer, a staple in the upper left corner. The description at the Sous Les Pavés site claims SLP

. . . is a bi-monthly newsletter of poetry, prose, ideas & opinions, reviews, photo documentaries, b/w artwork and letters of all kinds. It is conceived in the spirit & tradition of THE FLOATING BEAR, FUCK YOU, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, ROLLING STOCK, THE REALIST, THE DIGGER PAPERS, INTERNATIONALE SITUATIONNISTE, THE BLACK PANTHER INTERCOMMUNAL NEWS SERVICE, PROFANE EXISTENCE and any number of lo-fi no-frills PUNK ZINES & COMMUNITY PAPERS. At a time when much discourse circulates amid the instantaneous push-n-pull of the blogosphere – some of which is sharp, but much of which is soggy pulp – we seek to slow down, pause, and cultivate thoughtful responses to our collective troubles before delivering a polemical flux of ideation via the hands & feet of the world’s postal workers

The call for pause toward the end of the statement reminds me a bit of P. Inman's interesting comments on the utility of "slow writing":

Against it. The overwhelming noise of late capitalism. The omnipresent signal of late capital (of "product" minus production) wearing away at everything else: at anything apart, anything aside from its own tautologism. "Noise [visual, auditory] as a weapon ... " The communications [sic] network driving not only the superstructural, but the economic & political as well. "Electrification" given a perverse twist with the digitalization of banking, commerce, investment, production, text, weapons delivery &&&.

Inman's statement here, delivered as part of the Philly Talks series in November 1999, concerns the production of poetry rather than editing practices, but these thoughts are no less applicable to editing and publishing practices. Inman's call, if I read it correctly, is to offer "an interruption in the ongoing transmission" of capital, and this is something I think magazines like SLP and Eccolinguistics do offer and perform.

Either way, both are magazines I've had the good fortune of contributing to in recent months and both are doing work I recognize as incredibly meaningful.

In addition to several stunning collages from Steve Dalchinsky, the inaugural issue of Eccolinguistics includes writing by Patrick James Dunagan, Whit Griffin, W. Scott Howard, Mary Kasimor, Michael Leong, E.J. McAdams, Deborah Meadows, Philip Meersman, Jonathan Minton, Nate Pritts, Chuck Richardson, Andrew Schelling, Brandon Shimoda and Tyrone Williams. Williams' brief statement on education and poverty in America is especially charged:

The state of American education is not an index of our collective lack of intelligence but a willfully obstinate underdeveloped intelligence. In the current cultural climate of tabloid television news, talk radio muckraking, corrupt political processes and unethical business practices, it is impossible to assess anyone's intelligence quotient, especially since that process itself is little more than the institutionalization of a glorified house of mirrors.
The most recent number of SLP (1.3) is given to protest: "... the past year has witnessed a resurgence of direct-action politics in the streets of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. These actions have taken new and surprising forms and have developed in ways that indicate immense complexities that are invariably distorted by the chatter of the mainstream media. In an effort to both register and understand something of these events beyond the usual clichés, the current issue is largely given over to individuals with first-hand experience of the protests in the UK and is entirely dedicated to the spirit of dissent and revolt." Contributors include Jay James May, Lara Buckerton, Frances Kruk, Susan Briante, Francesca Lisette, Goat far DT, Sean Bonney, Justin Katko, Elliott Colla, Debrah Morkun, Tomas Weber, Linh Dinh, Danny Hayward, Keston Sutherland, Pocahontis Mildew, Sommer Browning, Collective Anon, j/j hastain and David Hadbawnik.

LZ = LIONEL ZIPRIN NOT LOUIS ZUKOFSKY

Of the five poets Asa Benveniste's Atoz Formula is dedicated to, it turns out "LZ" is not Louis Zukofsky but NYC poet and rabbi Lionel Ziprin. What are the odds, right? Kyle Schlesinger was kind enough to alert me to this fact after receiving a message from poet and film critic Bill Sherman. Schlesinger also forwarded a link to the following short film, a wonder to behold:





Stranger still, it seems Ziprin did a stint during the mid 1960s as a comic book writer for Dell Publishing: "... I wrote a series of comic books on every battle in the Pacific and European theaters."