This is a major book review catch-up. As I've been switching work situations, I kept on reading but couldn't keep up with blogging. So here we go...
The World Broke In Two, Bill Goldstein
The book cover looks very retro but this book actually came out in 2017 and it's about the year 1922, right after Proust had been translated into English and James Joyce has published Ulysses. Many established writers were disrupted (as we would say today) and Goldstein covers the comings and goings of four of those writers: Virginia Woolf (working on her Mrs. Dalloway novel), T.S. Eliot (writing his epic poem "The Waste Land"), E.M. Forster (working on A Passage to India) and D. H. Lawrence (roaming the earth, particularly his visits to Italy, Australia and Taos, New Mexico).
Although I loved getting context on D.H. Lawrence's inability to like anything, (he's the favorite writer-visitor of the state of New Mexico and I'm always trying to figure out why), I don't really see how his chapters fit in with the others. He wasn't influenced by one of the two landmark books as the others were, the other's had of a circle of friendships (which he was not a part of), and nothing of a modernist masterpiece came out of his work during that time. So why was he included?
But anyway, the biographer does penetrate the time very well, including all the letters going back and forth, discussions about writing and figuring out how to be modern.
This is one of those books I've been trying to find for a while. Copies are usually too expensive, which happens with certain books that are used as textbooks. For some reason the world thinks it's okay to extort shameful fees from poor students.
Anyway, this 2012 book is pure textbook stuff. Not for the disinterested. Most of the online pieces I tried to look up were already unavailable, with screenshots at best (example, Angela Ferraiolos pieces and works by Mary-Anne Breeze). So the book is basically descriptions of cool digital pieces (mostly in Flash) that you have to imagine in your head.
I love the possibilities for digital poems, but it still seems that many talented writers are fiercely disinterested in exploring digital media. And likewise, the writers who do explore these terrains are often programmers first. As Funkhouser admits,
"...many digital poets do not aspire to reify lofty historical norms. Instead they employ different sorts of patterns, wherein programmatic randomness and machine cognition combine to synthesize network/media resources into a digital event almost guaranteed to contain turbulence. Readers may intuitively acclimatize to fragmentation and the absence of conventional syntax, traits not foreign to modernist and experimental poetry in the last century."
I have plenty of thoughts about this and the values experimental programmers bring to poems versus the value that writers would pursue. More on that later. But for now, it's just interesting to note that poets are willing to do experiments on paper that they're shy of doing in other media for some probably techno-phobic reason. And although I sympathize with that (as a lover of books and the machine of books), it's shortsighted and willfully missing out on understanding the possibilities of different platforms and media. And it misses, by a mile, the issues of our times, particularly similar interests in the realms of abstraction and the role of authorship in web reading and how "the signal to noise ration...is often fraught with diversion and dead ends." Better writers could explore digital opportunities, "orchestrating a textual experience that undermines its facade."
Most digital poets and experimental traditional poets have the same end goal: they want their pieces to "cause thinking" or "incite thought." And digital lit isn't always a criticism of traditional modes, although sometimes it is.
I really enjoyed one of Howard Nemerov's essays in the compilation Poetics, Essays on the Art of Poetry and so I bought his collected essays from 1985. Nemerov is the sister of famous photographer Diane Arbus (who claimed they had a sexual relationship as teens), and was a distinguished professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis from 1969 to 1991. This book would have come out when I was 15. The likelihood of my attending Wash U was slim. It was St. Louis' ivy league. But to think I could have studied with him if I had been more aware of my surroundings...
Anyway, this book is dated in many ways (one essay is on the horrors of in-vitro) and there is an extremely unilluminating love-fest of essays between Nemerov and poet Kenneth Burke. But there are some great things in here:
- A great fictional conversation between an advertising copywriter and a poet.
- Good comments throughout (and one full essay) on Wallace Stevens.
- Big topic areas like middle-aged poets used to write about in the 80s: the arts vs. religion and another essay on how poems operate like jokes (you know I love that stuff!).
- A comparison between human imagination in Blake and Wordsworth.
- He also tackles essays on metaphor, figures of thought and making meaning.
- There are also essays on newsworthy topics of the day, speeches, commentary on fiction, meter in poetry, and essays on Dante, Rilke and Randall Jarrell.
Some good quotes:
"The great babble of the world goes incessantly on as people translate, encipher, decipher, as one set of words is transformed more or less systematically into another set of words--where upon someone says, 'O, now I understand....'"
"To view the poet as a magician is fair, if we remember that magicians do not really solve the hero's problems, but only help him to confront these..."
"A joke expresses tension, which it releases in laughter; it is a sort of permissible rebellion against things as they are--permissible, perhaps, because this rebellion is at the same time stoically resigned, it acknowledges that things are as they are, and that they will, after the moment of laughter, continue to be that way. That is why jokes concentrate on the most sensitive areas of human concern: sex, death, religion, and the most powerful institutions of society; and poems do the same.
"...as Mr. [William] Empson said (in a poem), 'The safety valve alone knows the worst truth about the engine.'" [There's a whole magazine predicated on this very quote!]
"...In general, to succeed at joking or at poetry, you have to be serious; the least hint that you think you are being funny will cancel the effect, and there is probably no lower human enterprise than 'humorous writing.'" [Thank you.]
And in reference to the book above, this quote seems apropos here:
"A.M. Turing [the godfather of digital lit, by the way] once said that the question 'Can machines think?' was too meaningless to deserve discussion, and suggested that the proper short answer was 'Can people?'"
"...the posture of the literary mind seems these days to be dry, angry, smart, jeering, cynical; as though once people had discovered the sneaky joys of irreverence they were quite unable to stop" and he warns that "the intelligent and crafty young at last, as Ulysses says, eat up themselves."
These books are so similar in a way I feel I need to compare them. In the Baker story, the main character is a man, a poet and musician going through a breakup and unable to finish the introduction to an anthology of metered poetry. In fact, the whole piece is pretty much about his avoidance of writing or his struggling to learn a new instrument. He's not very likeable and he thinks a lot about poetry and music (there's some great meditations on the history of poetry here converging back to music) and discussion on the history and meaning of many poets and poems. And although the character is a bit of a mansplainer, that annoyingness is part of the point. He knows so much he can't move. He can only ruminate. It's enjoyable but I had to take it in little bursts because he does drone on and the novel melds into a kind of free-form essay on poetry and music. Luckily the chapters are short. The book resolves but somewhat unsatisfactorily. It just kind of runs out of steam. And although the novel is a nice enough way to spend some time, I haven't recommended it to anybody. But I'm keeping it, so that says something.
The main character in Davis' book is an academic woman, a translator of French, and a novelist who is struggling to write the very novel you have in your hands. Although you never fully believe the story is a fiction and she ruminates herself about the borders between the forms. Like the character above, this story involves a very painful breakup told in excruciatingly but amazingly exacting psychological detail. Think Proust in "Swann's Way." Davis is interesting in that she's a Proust scholar (she's re-translated his first book, to date) but she writes with a very limited vocabulary. Not quite like Hemingway but closer to that than to Proust. Her topics get a lot of coverage but not in a vocabulary-rich, long-sentence way. Which is perfectly fine. That entirely serves the character, who is even less likable than Baker's main guy. Our character here has hit rock bottom in the relationship arena and so there's no 'splaining at all, just wading through the all-too familiar confusion of a sudden collapse of a love affair. There are no chapters here...it's just one long mess with section breaks; but thankfully it's a short book. There are great passages about novel writing and character construction and although the story doesn't resolve, the end seems pretty perfect. It was heartbreaking and I've been recommending it to everyone I talk to.
Carson's covers are so demure. I'm including this because there's not an Anne Carson book I've read that doesn't inspire me to try one of the same epic forms she invents from piece to piece. I can't not think about writing when I read her books. They never disappoint even though often they're often above my head.
This books seems like her most personal. She calls the pieces essays and poetry but it's hard to tell what's what. The cornerstone piece, "The Anthropology of Water" is about modern pilgrimages and amazingly threaded together with great commentary on love and traveling. The love poem, "Canicula di Anna" is also another good piece of brain food I'm still deciphering.
Her books have real re-readability for me because even the fragments I can manage to understand are plenty thought-provoking.
I also just finished her chapbook, The Albertine Workout, which considers Prout's character Albertine from many angles.