Rereading Sedgwick, or, Oh Yeah, I Like Teaching

The first paragraph from this famous essay by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick just stopped me cold:

“Sometime back in the middle of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, I was picking the brains of a friend of mine, the activist scholar Cindy Patton, about the probable natural history of HIV. This was at a time when speculation was ubiquitous about whether the virus had been deliberately engineered or spread, whether HIV represented a plot or experiment by the U.S. military that had gotten out of control, or perhaps that was behaving exactly as it was meant to. After hearing a lot from her about the geography and economics of the global traffic in blood products, I finally, with some eagerness, asked Patton what she thought of these sinister rumors about the virus’s origin. ‘‘Any of the early steps in its spread could have been either accidental or deliberate,’’ she said. ‘‘But I just have trouble getting interested in that. I mean, even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren’t actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things—what would we know then that we don’t already know?’’ -from “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”

Very different epidemic–AND a remarkably speedier development of treatments and vaccines (an observation I don’t think is paranoid)–but still, what foreshadowing in a piece originally published nearly 20 years ago! The essay goes on to analyze the contagiousness of suspicion as an approach to texts taken by literary critics and theorists, as in, “Let me expose the prejudices lurking behind this poem.” Rather than strive to forestall humiliation by the author-poet who wants to put one over on you, a reader could, she suggests, seek pleasure from a piece of literature, because life is pretty hard and art can make us feel better. That’s a gross oversimplication, and I’m not even touching on some really important aspects of the essay: how she describes each method working in queer theory plus the Freudian stuff (so much Freud…). Yet this essay grants a professor permission to be a fan as well as an analyst of poetry, and many others have taken it that way, too. What a pleasure to revisit it.

My first full week of teaching was exhausting, full of positive feelings about my students but inflected by pandemic fears, too. Cases are rising fast here. We’re in person, masked, but students are having tons of unmasked encounters–let’s call them encounters–in residence and dining halls and, I presume, at parties. Prepping for and teaching 6 90-minute classes is as hard as I remembered, even before the grading starts; things are high-powered here, with smart students chewing through material fast, something that’s both lucky and sometimes a major challenge to keep up with. And there are all the extras like advising, reference letters, department meetings and consultations, university-wide meetings and events, etc etc. I’m beat.

Yet I’m having fun, too. I’m prepping Sedgwick’s essay for a senior seminar called “Taking Literature Personally”; during that session we’ll try some paranoid and reparative reading of Frank O’Hara’s poetry (no spoilers, but my lesson plan involves crayons). For yesterday’s class, we read the poem “Philomela” and the essay “Nightingale” by Paisley Rekdal as well as the Ovid tale for background, which is infinitely darker material though just as powerful. Whatever the literature at hand, the flow experiences of rereading then planning discussions feels really good. I wish I had more time to linger in it, but I’m being strict with myself about stopping work when I’m tired. I’m an introvert who HAS to recharge and a grown-up person who HAS to rest and sleep. I’m doing okay at it for now.

The picture below is from my book signing here in Lexington this week. Office hours, teach two classes, assemble cheese plate, then hold court at an author event for 2 hours–it was ambitious for a Tuesday. Yet pleasurable, too. I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my Randolph College reading next week, where at least I don’t have to cater the refreshments. Meanwhile, here comes Friday night, a drink with a friend, a gentle hike tomorrow morning. As I used to tell myself during college hangovers: pacing, Lesley. Everything’s more fun when you get the pacing right.

When revisions are even harder

I’ve been working flat-out on honing the manuscript of an essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, due from Tinderbox Editions late this year or early next (I suspect the latter at this point). It’s a blend of memoir and criticism with a good dose of cognitive science and narrative theory, plus thirteen 21st century poems reprinted in full to anchor the short chapters. Recounting the close of my con-man father’s life, it’s also the story of reading poetry through personal crisis AND an analysis of how “literary transportation” works when you enter a poem’s pocket universe (that’s immersive reading or getting lost in a text, for the layperson). I’ve been drafting this book since 2012 so it’s really important to me. Closing in on a final version I’ll submit to an editor, though, always makes me nervous. You’re down in the weeds, seeing ways a sentence here and there could be made more elegant, checking the bibliography, and wondering whom you’ve inadvertently omitted from the acknowledgments. But it’s also the last time you can try for the 30,000 feet perspective, imagining how the book will be received by others and trying to catch those moments of obtuseness or under-explanation that inevitably linger. Hard work in multiple ways.

This book, though, works through challenging personal material. On the good side, there are stories of travel, particularly my 2011 Fulbright in New Zealand; reflections on growth and change; and positive representations of sustaining relationships. The dark stuff involves, of course, tales of my dishonest and narcissistic father but also workplace harassment; a long-ago sexual assault; Chris’ mother’s dementia; and my mother’s first round of lymphoma in 2015. It shook me to spend time with that material again. Worse, since my mother died of the lymphoma’s recurrence in April, I had to put my sentences about her into the past tense. No wonder I was resisting finalizing the ms.

I did the same thing to myself in July, at the Sewanee Writers Workshop. I had to finalize my workshop ms in May, and it was full of poems about my mother’s death and other tough material. Somehow, for the last couple of years, I’ve finally been writing about childhood abuse and mental health. My mother always read my poetry books, but I think at some level I knew she wasn’t likely to read this new stuff. I’m freer to be honest than before, and some of what hurt me long ago was my mother choosing not to protect us from my father. Again, no wonder Sewanee was emotionally intense.

I came to a good pause point on Poetry’s Possible Worlds this morning, and I go to Chris’ play The Zombie Life in Richmond tonight, so next week I’ll be turning my attention to different things: a department retreat, course prep, reference letters, poetry submissions, and as many other smaller writing-related tasks as I can squeeze in. That sounds like a lot, but except for the poetry subs, it isn’t nearly as difficult. Writing, as I tell my students, is a complex task with many factors always in play, which is why even a short, imperfect essay or poem is such an achievement. It’s salutary to be reminded, as I approach another academic year, that it can be hard in other ways, too.

A Very Good Anti-Best List

It’s exasperating when people refer to a work of art as “great” as if that were an objective pronouncement. Great for what? The idea that there could be stable, neutral criteria by which literature could be judged more or less worthy is at best nonsensical. In practice, it’s often a way for powerful people to consolidate power and invalidate contradictory views so they can keep controlling resources, while calmly holding that their views are apolitical, unlike the allegedly hysterical screeds of propagandistic forces celebrating “minority” voices. In English department canon wars, these power-conserving arguments often mutate into claims about “influence”: a work is great because it has been important to many other writers. There’s validity to that; whether or not they find literary monuments beautiful, it’s useful for students of literary history to encounter them, the better to understand books that set out to repurpose or smash the monuments. If you’re serious about literature, though, you also read horizontally across fields, trying to understand the networks and processes of inclusion and exclusion, knowing that you can’t read it all, taking joy in what you love but also listening to arguments based on values/ tastes other than yours. You recognize that what’s “good” for classroom discussion and paper-writing at your institution might not be “good” in another educational setting, much less for a grief group, an open mic, or reading alone when you’re down. And, of course, even a classroom at an apparently homogenous college (like mine) is a gathering of wildly various experiences and needs. What it boils down to: many syllabi and anthologies are carefully curated, inclusive among many axes, and generally wonderful, but they remain documents of networks, access, and other specific, temporary conditions.

Emerging from English department hothouse-politics into the different canons and procedures of Creative Writing, I have to say, oh, man, here we go again. Plenty of people who publish annual best-of lists know perfectly well that what they really mean is “what I liked most among the books that presses sent me or I heard publicity for or came across randomly.” Their newspaper or magazine editors just won’t allow such an egregious headline. Still, these lists bug me, even though, probably hypocritically, I would be quite happy to see one of my books appear on almost any of them. I’m more than delighted when something I wrote delights anyone, and a media boost is awesome. I just don’t like this annual critical abandonment of knowing better.

So here are some 2020 poetry books I like that didn’t appear, to my knowledge, on any best-of-year list or major postpublication prize longlist (I also liked a lot of books that are critical faves, but I’m putting them aside for the moment). The beauties in the picture happened to be in my home office this week (I had already toted others to my work office). Among those shelved across town, special praise to Kaveh Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile; Tess Taylor, Last West; Jessica Guzman’s Adelante; and all the books I had the pleasure of featuring in my spring-summer Virtual Salon (which I’d be happy to reboot if you contact me with a newish book–just message me). There are many, many other exciting collections I haven’t read yet, and everything I found rewarding enough to finish in 2020 is listed below the photo. An asterisk doesn’t mean it’s “better,” just that it was published during the year before I read it. I notice I read a ton of poetry this year but much less prose than usual–that has to do with fragmented concentration–although there are many new books in those categories I also loved.

Best wishes to all of us for a good new year full of good-for-something literature, good-enough health, and please-be-better government. On the reading side, nourish yourself with books, buy from indies when you can, give love to small presses without publicity machines, and like what you like no matter what the critics or professors say!

POETRY (82 books and chapbooks)

  • 1/12 Jeanne Heuving, Mood Indigo* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/12 Tyrone Williams, chapbook* (bought at a conference)
  • 1/18 Harjo, She Had Some Horses (teaching)
  • 1/19 Harjo, American Sunrise* (fandom)
  • 1/22 Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead (reread for teaching)
  • 1/26 Forche, The Country Between Us (reread for teaching)
  • 2/12 Cooley, Breach (reread for teaching)
  • 2/15 Spencer, If the House* (fandom)
  • 2/19 Young, Ardency (reread for class)
  • 3/4 Dove, Thomas and Beulah (reread for class)
  • 3/7 Bassiri, 99 Names of Exile* (gift)
  • 3/7 Witte, All Fires Don’t Burn the Same (gift)
  • 3/8 Smith, Wade in the Water (reread for class)
  • 3/20 Nethercott, The Lumberjack’s Dove (reread for class)
  • 3/21 Liz Hazen, Girls Like Us* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/22 William Woolfitt, Spring Up Everlasting* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 3/25 Elizabeth Lindsay Rogers, The Tilt Torn Away from the Seasons* (Virtual Salon)
  • 3/29 Phillips Bell, Ornament (reread for class)
  • 4/3 Cabrera, lack begins as a tiny rumble* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Savage, Detail (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/6 Michael, Barefoot Girls* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/11 Taylor, Rift Zone* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/18 Chan, All Heathens* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 4/19 Green, The More Extravagant Feast* (local friend)
  • 4/27 Dungy, Trophic Cascade (reread for teaching)
  • 4/29 Robinson, Needville (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/9 Kildegaard & Hasse, Rocked by the Waters* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/10 Dickey, Mud Blooms (for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/15 Silano, Gravity Assist (reread for Virtual Salon)
  • 5/23 Balbo, The Cylburn Touch-Me-Nots* (for Virtual Salon)
  • 6/2 Greenfield, Letdown* (for virtual salon)
  • 6/6 Solari, The Last Girl (fandom)
  • 6/12 Walker, Maps of a Hollowed World* (blurb)
  • 6/27 Egan, Hot Flash Sonnets (fandom)
  • 7/6 Petrosino, White Blood* (ad)
  • 7/14 Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem* (fandom)
  • 8/1 Voigt, Kyrie (friend recommendations)
  • 8/2 Atkins, Still Life with God* (local friend)
  • 8/3 Guzman, Adelante* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/4 Hong, Fablesque* (fandom)
  • 8/5 Davoudian, Swan Song* (Shenandoah author)
  • 8/6 Matejka, The Big Smoke (reviews/ buzz)
  • 8/7 Hedge Coke, Burn (fandom)
  • 8/8 Sealey, Ordinary Beast (reputation)
  • 8/9 Chang, Obit* (fandom)
  • 8/10 Perez, Habitat Threshold* (fandom)
  • 8/11 Corral, guillotine* (reputation)
  • 8/12 Neale, To the Occupant (fandom)
  • 8/13 Bailey, Visitation* (pressmate)
  • 8/14 Chatti, Deluge* (buzz)
  • 8/15 Muench, Wolf Centos (recommendation)
  • 8/16 Flanagan, Glossary of Unsaid Terms* (gift)
  • 8/17 Nuernberger, Rue* (fandom)
  • 8/18 Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (fandom)
  • 8/19 Farley, The Mizzy* (gift from a friend)
  • 8/20 Avia, Fale Aitu | Spirit House (fandom)
  • 8/21 Andrews, A Brief History of Fruit* (was sent to me)
  • 8/22 Taylor, Last West* (fandom)
  • 8/23 Harvey, Hemming the Water (reputation)
  • 8/24 Ben-Oni, 20 Atomic Poems (fandom)
  • 8/25 Ewing, Electric Arches (reputation)
  • 8/26 Mountain, Thin Fire (Shenandoah contributor!)
  • 8/27 Randall, How to Tell if You Are Human (spouse the comics reviewer had it)
  • 8/28 Davis, In the Circus of You (bought at a conference)
  • 8/29 Clark, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (reputation)
  • 8/31 Murillo, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry* (buzz)
  • 9/20 Kuppers, Gut Botany* (fandom)
  • 9/21 Su, Middle Kingdom (research)
  • 9/22 Tolmie, The Art of Dying* (research)
  • 9/24 Phillips Bell, Smaller Songs* (fandom)
  • 9/30 Coleman, Selected Poems* (research)
  • 10/1 Van Duyn, Firefall (research)
  • 10/26 Birdsong, Negotiations* (review assignment)
  • 11/14 Malech, Flourishing* (reputation)
  • 12/1 Erdrich, Little Big Bully* (fandom)
  • 12/12 Gay, Be Holding* (fandom)
  • 12/17 Miranda, Altar for Broken Things* (friend)
  • 12/18 O’Hara, The Ghettobirds (ms for blurbing)
  • 12/19 Igloria, Maps for Migrants and Ghosts* (fandom)
  • 12/25 Beatty, The Body Wars* (fandom)
  • 12/26 Daye, Cardinal* (review assignment)
  • 12/31 Oliver, Devotions* (fandom)

FICTION (32)

  • 1/8 Suma, The Walls Around Us (friend’s recommendation)
  • 1/26 Cho, The True Queen* (fandom)
  • 2/24 El-Mohtar and Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War* (reviews)
  • 3/7 Mantel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (review)
  • 3/29 Erdrich, The Night Watchman* (fandom)
  • 5/9 Mantel, The Mirror and the Light* (fandom)
  • 5/28 Mandel, The Glass Hotel* (fandom)
  • 6/3 King, Let It Bleed* (fandom)
  • 6/10 Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (many reviews and friend recommendations)
  • 6/17 Collins, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes* (fandom)
  • 6/21 Foley, The Guest List* (review)
  • 6/24 Brooks, Year of Wonders (audiobook, review)
  • 6/28 Hill, On Beulah Height (friend’s recommendation)
  • 7/5 King, Salem’s Lot (review)
  • 7/8 Wehunt, Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here* (social media)
  • 7/13 Baggott, Seventh Book of Wonders (fandom)
  • 7/18 Jones, The Only Good Indian* (fandom)
  • 7/26 Atakora, Conjure Women* (reviews)
  • 8/8 LaValle, Devil in Silver (fandom)
  • 8/16 Bardugo, The Ninth House* (review)
  • 8/27 Hall, Dread Isle (ARCs, in fandom, and for blurb)
  • 9/18 VanderMeers, ed, Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (a lot of it, anyway)
  • 9/20 LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom* (fandom)
  • 9/24 Tolmie, The Little Animals* (research)
  • 10/11 Galbraith, Troubled Blood* (fandom)
  • 10/18 Dimaline, Empire of Wild* (review)
  • 11/15 Jones, Night of the Mannequins* (fandom)
  • 11/21 Clark, Ring Shout* (reviews)
  • 12/10 Harrigan, Half* (friend’s recommendation)
  • 12/19 White, As Summer’s Mask Slips* (met at a conference)
  • 12/24 Shawl, New Suns (research for teaching)
  • 12/26 Riley, Such a Fun Age* (many recommendations)

NONFICTION/ HYBRID (8)

  • 1/4 Reynolds, Walt Whitman (teaching prep)
  • 1/12 Macfarlane, Underland* (recommendation from friends)
  • 4/10 Buntin, Sheffield, Dodd, Dear America* (anthology I’m in)
  • 4/12 Finch, ed., Choice Words* (anthology I’m in)
  • 5/17 Selznick, Live Oak With Moss (for class)
  • 7/6 Sheldrake, Entangled Life* (review and fungal curiosity)
  • 8/30 Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders* (fandom)
  • 9/? Lee and Winslow, eds., Deep Beauty* (anthology I’m in)

*published within the last year or so

We are all steam engines

In The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Atkins conveys an impressive degree of excitement about entropy. “No other scientific law has contributed more to the liberation of the human spirit than the second law of thermodynamics…because it provides a foundation for understanding why any change occurs,” he writes (37). Later in the chapter, after reminding us that we are basically steam engines, he describes how “wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere” (61). (Is that why my house and office get so messy when I’m writing?)

For example, in human beings: “the dispersal that corresponds to an increase in entropy is the metabolism of food and the dispersal of energy and matter that that metabolism releases. The structure that taps into that dispersal is not a mechanical chain of pistons and gears, but the biochemical pathways within the body…Thus, as we eat, so we grow. The structures may be of a different kind: they may be works of art. For another structure that can be driven into existence by coupling to the energy released by ingestion and digestion consists of organized electrical activity within the brain constructed from random electrical and neuronal activity. Thus, as we eat, we create: we create works of art, of literature, and of understanding.”

I am reading about thermodynamics and quantum theory in order to better understand some poems, naturally. A former undergraduate student–a poet and a Physics/ English double-major, Max Chapnick–is now an English PhD student at Boston University, and he contacted me last summer about putting together a panel on physics and poetry for the International MLA Symposium. It was accepted, so now we’re all going to Lisbon in late July (hurrah!). This requires me to spend a few preparatory weeks analyzing Samiya Bashir’s excellent 2017 collection from Nightboat, Field Theories. I understood what she was doing with thermodynamics and quantum theory just enough to generate a proposal, but to be able to write in some depth about what radiation means in her book, how blackbodies function, whether or not that one poem is meant to resemble the “ultraviolet catastrophe” graph, etc.–well, it’s hard.

Work is motion against an opposing force,” Atkins writes, and I’ve definitely been feeling the weight of my own intellectual resistance. It’s not that I don’t want to do the writing or even the thinking; it’s a privilege, truly. But I’ve been puzzling through problems laboriously, in a mood of worry. I’ve written before about the annual difficulty of kicking my brain into a different gear, and surely that’s part of it, but I’m also experiencing one of those bouts of insecurity that afflict most writers I know, no matter the genre. It’s not only “am I interpreting these difficult poems in plausible ways?” but something more like “are my scholarly/ interpretive moves sufficiently interesting that anyone would really want to read or listen to me, or is everyone just humoring me because I once showed some intellectual promise and remain a reasonably nice person who tends to do the work and show up on time?” It doesn’t help my morale that I was just informed that I’ll receive an average raise this year, percentage-wise, when I know my DH recommended me for an exceptional one. Between you and me, I did a monstrous amount of good teaching, service, and publication in 2018, but my radiation did not seem to fall into the spectrum of visible light.

This is not my first self-doubt rodeo, so I can reassure myself that continuing to work is better than the alternatives, and confidence comes back. Besides, delivering Bashir’s accomplishments to new audiences is in itself worthwhile service to an art I love. And when self-doubt veers into guilt, as it should sometimes–a mediocre raise, how sad for you! or why do I get to eat a nice lunch and metabolize the results into criticism while refugees ail at the border in dangerously overcrowded detention camps?–I should make a donation or put that rally on my calendar, but still keep dispersing most of my daytime labor among tasks I’m competent at and believe are worthwhile.

Scholarship is a smaller portion of that array of tasks than it used to be, in part because it sharpens my existential angst more than other kinds of labor. I’ve been studying a couple of brilliant, well-written books about literature and science by scholar N. Katherine Hayles, for instance, and realizing again: look how amazing this is, how much work and hard thinking it represents, and here I am skimming the damn stuff. I would so much rather read and be read than keep participating in the scholarly skimmability system…so whenever I reenter this arena, I end up pondering ways to reinvent the universe.

So I remind myself: just write the conference paper, Steam Engine. Next week, start re-revising your book of hybrid criticism, which WILL come to print in 2021. Keep submitting and revising shorter works around the edges and planning some exciting new courses. At an undetermined date (but soon?), you will be asked to submit your poetry ms to Tinderbox Editions, then there will be edits, then galleys. In August, after Lisbon, come novel edits (the pub date for Unbecoming has been pushed back to March-ish, same as the poetry collection, yikes). In the mix should be book promotion planning, reviews and reference letters, grant applications for that 2020-2021 sabbatical. There’s a lot of landscape to cover, Steam Engine, but address one task at a time. Don’t panic and increase the pressure unsustainably, but don’t quit either. It’ll take as long as it takes.

Chug, chug.

Also a steam engine, believe it or not

Obliterature

“Obliterature draws attention to the gendered formation of literary value while also denoting the casual, minor, repurposed, and ephemeral writing expelled from literary criticism’s traditional purview. Such writing might include letters to the editor, junk mail, diary entries and their twenty-first-century digital descendants: blog entries, comments on a newspaper and magazine site, Instagram posts, LiveJournals, Snapchats, Tumblrs, or tweets. Obliterature, fittingly enough, is also popular parlance for a ‘letter or email written while drunk off your ass’…The concept, as we develop it in this article, explains the literary phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s words and the labor phenomenon of not being fully in control of one’s work.”

– from “Obliterature: Towards an Amateur Criticism” by Melanie Micir and Aarthi Vadde in the September 2018 Modernism/ modernity, a special issue on “weak theory”

None of us knows if our writing careers will be of much interest to literary critics in the future–or whether there will continue to be literary critics, or a future–but I have to add a few more categories of ephemeral writing that consume a LOT of my time these days: comments on student poems, response papers, quizzes, and essays; assignment sheets; teaching notes; course descriptions; recommendation letters; private editorial comments on Submittable; and the smartphone text-i-verse with its debris of emoticons. I’ve also been a lead drafter on a surprising number of university-related guidelines and reports, having been here for 24 years and generally preferring to do the writing portion of committee work over other tasks.

So I like this term “obliterature” a lot, although it’s from an article I’ve so far only read a portion of, because I’m tight on time but got snagged by the title as I was sorting mail. I recognize obliterature as an object of fascination for me as a critic–all the scraps and commonplace books kept by Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Anne Spencer, and many other women as they tried to find time for poetry amid domestic chores, tough jobs, and political urgencies. I also recognize it, with more chagrin, as denoting a body of seemingly-necessary writing I constantly perform, obliterating time for other kinds of writing I am constantly saying I should prioritize.

Trying to keep my head above water as a teacher, I’m writing very little for any current or future public these days, except for this blog. But I have been stricter with myself than usual about finishing revisions on long mss and making sure they’re under submission–one of which is a book of criticism mixed with personal narrative, which editors keep telling me they like but can’t publish or persuade their boards to take on. Writing personally is just too feminine, maybe. To quote from later in the same essay: “To read like a girl, or throw like a girl, or run like a girl, is to do it the wrong way.”

I love the feminist call from Micir and Vadde for passionate amateurism, for questioning the grounds of expertise and its forums, but I also observe how professionally the call is constructed, in a top-notch scholarly journal, with 6+ pages of fine-print endnotes. In other words, their petition arrived on my desk via the very mechanisms they put under critique. I just hope they and I are right that there’s a readership for such writing in its long, less familiar, less prestigious, and perhaps girlier forms–and that publishers become more willing to take it on.

IMG_0428

A few of the many cards collected among Anne Spencer’s papers

Bialosky, Logan, and taking poetry personally

Scandals in the poetry world seem sweet from a distance, like triolets blooming in epic slush pile. When, for instance, author and Norton editor Jill Bialosky publishes a memoir, Poetry Will Save Your Life, and William Logan excoriates it in Tourniquet Review, accusing Bialosky of “plagiariz[ing] numerous passages from Wikipedia and the websites of the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation”—you might be forgiven for not caring. Some of you, like me, are buried in not-so-golden leaves of student writing, committee reports, etc. And then there are the environmental and political upheavals threatening to wipe out civilization. It’s hard to get het-up about a distant executive passing off biographical cliché as her own prose.

There are also reasons to root for Bialosky, beyond dislike of Logan’s harsh take-downs. I find myself wanting to defend her not because of her other accomplishments—she has devoted her professional life to an art I love—but because of the nature of this book. She’s performing an experiment in literary criticism from outside the academies, writing a hybrid kind of nonfiction Joyce Carol Oates has dubbed “bibliomemoir.” Taking poetry personally, showing that universities don’t own any art form—this is urgent work. Yet the project deserved more life-saving attention than Bialosky gave it.

It’s not that I disrespect scholarship written for specialists. I’ve found reams of it brilliant and useful. I’ve written some. I teach it, gladly, while leading cerebral discussions of prosody and metaphor in seminar rooms. Yet while universities may be the best patrons poetry has ever had, verse ought to thrive in many habitats, and its appreciation ought to take many forms. Snap your fingers at a good line during an open mic, recite it during a bout of insomnia, analyze it in a scholarly article or a trade memoir: it’s all good.

I’m especially hungry for fresh ways of writing about poetry, because my undergraduates deserve a wide range of models. Only a fraction of them will teach, after all. While they benefit from applying their full intelligence to art made out of language—reasoning through ambiguities, conducting research, acknowledging the insights of earlier readers, and generally writing their hearts out—learning MLA conventions shouldn’t be their top priority.

Being skeptical of what Philip Larkin bemoaned as the “cunning merger between poet, literary critic and academic critic,” I am eager for books like Bialosky’s, but Logan’s critique has merit. Some of the gaffes in Poetry Will Save Your Life reflect hasty copy-editing: not great, although not catastrophic, either. The plagiarism is more serious. As much as I respect the signatories to a recent letter defending Bialosky—it’s a dazzling list—they did not persuade me that the New York Times, “by giving a large platform to a small offense, has tainted the reputation of this accomplished editor, poet and memoirist.” Bialosky’s respect for literary achievement shines through this book, but just as poetry requires slow care from its makers and readers, so does poetry criticism.

To appreciate a poem is to step into an expanded moment and give words your undivided attention. To write about that poem, whether in an online review or a book-length study in print, you have to linger longer, reading recursively, pondering the marks on the page, their origins, and their effects. One should commit criticism with full attention, too. Most readers won’t or can’t visit archives, count pronouns, study every essay published on the topic, or otherwise duplicate whatever persnickety strategies a critic employs. But critics can give valuable tribute to literature’s power and make a new kind of sense from it. Reading criticism should confer insight or at least complicate the meanings of art worth pondering.

Apparent hastiness is what I regret most about Poetry Will Save Your Life, because I like Bialosky’s premise. The memoir portions brim with moving stories from her own life, interspersed with great verses reprinted in full. Yet she connects her autobiography to the poems only superficially, and she rarely enriches her own reactions by referring to the many insightful readers who arrived there before. About the ending of James Wright’s “A Blessing,” for instance—“if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom”—Bialosky tells us, “reading the poem fills me with the wonder of this phenomenon. Is this a love poem or a nature poem? No matter. A love poem can be disguised within a nature poem.” Instead of feeling wiser about the poem, or pondering new emotional associations Bialosky has bought to bear, I’m just wincing.

Being dumbstruck by a powerful piece of art, unable to address the uncertainties it provokes—that’s a valid response. A tribute, even. Yet it’s not an occasion for criticism. Failing to forge bridges based in interpretation or research or both, Bialosky ends up stranding autobiography and poems on alien shores. They just don’t communicate with one another. A memorable chapter on “Motherhood” works best because she makes scenes of reading and rereading painfully vivid. But the author isn’t a great explainer.   

So where does a reader go for meditations on how poetry, embedded in daily living, can enrich and be illuminated by personal experience? Plenty of scholarship is grounded, at least fleetingly, in the circumstances of the researchers’ lives, although it uses specialist shorthand (try Alice Te Punga Somerville, for instance). Less professorially, there are splendid poet-critics past and present: Adrienne Rich on Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Alexander on Paul Laurence Dunbar. The latter, however, are compelling in part because the subjects of the critiques are as interesting as the objects. It’s not clear yet whether William Logan, Jill Bialosky, my undergraduates, or I will ever command such fascination in our own right. Frankly, the odds are against us.

The criticism I find in literary, as opposed to academic, journals, is less jargon-ridden but often ill-informed. Yet exceptions inspire optimism. For example, the first line of Bruce Snider’s recent essay in New England Review has the drama of gripping nonfiction: “The first gay man I knew was the undertaker.” Addressing a topic he calls “the gay rural,” Snider conveys the significance of his own early reading experience: after childhood in a small town, he immersed himself in poems by Frank O’Hara, Mark Doty, James Schuyler, and others, deriving the moral that “if you were gay, you needed to live in the city”—and, if you were a poet, write urbanely. Snider’s bibliography contains mostly poetry and criticism by poets; there’s no attempt to reference the full research field of sexuality in American poetry. I wouldn’t call Snider’s essay scholarly. Yet it’s a compelling, insightful piece of criticism that shows a reader in conversation with other readers. It’s worth attention.

Outside of a very few magazines and university presses—usually the elite ones—there are scant venues for good, general-audience criticism, much less criticism blended with memoir. We need risk-taking publishers as well as writers, so that bibliomemoir haters have more books to lambaste and the genre doesn’t stay islanded in blogs. Literary scholarship, after all, doesn’t always serve poetry well by downplaying story in favor of argument, addressing specialists instead of interested general audiences. We poetry fans know that reading changes us in small, meaningful ways, as well as, once in a great while, performing dramatic rescue missions. Isn’t that worth writing about—slowly, carefully, maybe even with an occasional footnote?

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Poetry fans as Wordsworth and Coleridge this Halloween

Thrushes, worms, and bibliomemoir

What can amateur accounts of literature do better than conventional literary criticism? That’s the question I brought to two recent bibliomemoirs: Alexander McCall Smith’s What W.H. Auden Can Do For You (from Princeton and Oxford’s Writers on Writers series, 2013) and Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014). The main answers seem to be: 1. sell books (well, better than criticism generally sells, anyway) and 2. testify ardently that reading matters and, perhaps, that the books that strike us powerfully in our teens and twenties may matter most of all. Which makes me think: teaching matters.

smithI enjoyed both books in a mild, non-urgent way. I’m a binge-reader of print or e-books but a slower listener, and because I downloaded My Life in Middlemarch as an audiobook, I consumed it in nibbles. I started Mead’s encomium in September and finished it two months later, listening mainly on extended car trips—and I don’t have a lot of those, since I commute on foot. Yet “no car time” isn’t really the headline here: when I listen to Robert Galbraith or Tina Fey, I somehow find more listening occasions. There just isn’t much suspense in a bibliomemoir. (Spoiler alert: she loved the book!) I read Smith more rapidly, in just a couple of evenings last week, but his is actually the less compelling of the two books. What W. H. Auden Can Do For You just happens to be shorter by more than half and, ahem, I had a deadline. I post this bibliomemoiristic episode from the Modernist Studies Association meeting where I am about to moderate one of the conference’s “What Are You Reading?” sessions, in which I’ll informally present Smith’s prettily-printed meditation.

My feelings are mixed. Smith is an acclaimed mystery writer—I dipped into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series a couple of times—so he has an easy, appealing, unpedantic style. Twelve short chapters present different aspects of Auden’s life and work, including some basic biography, attention to the major works, and a tactfully-written meditation on how secular people can appreciate a poet’s turn to religion. Smith’s subject is a writer I care about, but not one whose works or life I know thoroughly. I teach Auden and adore many of his lyrics. I don’t know much Auden scholarship. However, even I can tell Smith’s book offers no serious, original appraisal of the Anglo-American poet’s work. In fact, there’s plenty here to irritate even a disaffected member of the contemporary Critical Congregation. Smith pontificates, oh lord, on themes of choice, responsibility, and the journey; and while Smith is totally forthright about Auden’s homosexuality, I found the bit about how “Lullaby” “transcends gender” and “can be appreciated by anybody”—well, not quite untrue, but defensive. And reductive of one of the century’s most beautiful poems. A more accomplished critic could deepen “Lullaby”‘s magic even while explaining its tricks, I think.

Yet there are parts of Smith’s book I found memorably charming. While this is not a very personal bibliomemoir—I closed it knowing the author’s disposition, but not much about his life—I recognized myself in his descriptions of poetic earworms. “The line returns again and again until it becomes part of the way I look at things…It is rather like having the poet by one’s  side—ready to point something out, ready to put into words a feeling or impression that would otherwise be fleeting.” Because Smith happened to read Auden at an impressionable age, and because Auden’s lines delighted and mystified and haunted him, he proceeds to perceive events of his own life more richly and vividly. I loved a passage starting on page 93 and triggered by Auden’s phrase “with thrushes popular”: Smith is inspired by it to find hidden life teeming in all kinds of scenes: rivers become with salmon popular, etc. Auden’s strange locution populates Smith’s life with weird, excessive liveliness. Words affect perception: “the way in which we stock our minds will surely determine the quality of our experiences, conscious and subconscious.”

Overall, Smith’s approach to the poetry seems dated and shallow compared to Mead’s. However, there are several circumstances that dispose me to prefer the latter. I’m less invested in Eliot’s work than Auden’s, which may make me less critical. Mead, a journalist, is in her forties like me and Smith, twenty years senior, sounds rather more like my own stuffiest high school English teachers. Mead’s basic premise cuts close to the bone: she’s a middleaged person beginning to see the shape of her own life the way a novelist might, and also contemplating the ultimate meaning of love and work. Well, yeah. Me too.My Life in Middlemarch is in any case more complex study, rooted in extensive research, archival work, and site visits, as well as a detailed interweaving of both authors’ lives. Mead’s book is not so different from a critical biography; it just foregrounds the researching writer more.

I’m interested in bibliomemoir because my current critical project, Taking Poetry Personally, shares affinities with this emergent genre. I didn’t expect to find myself feeling suddenly more thoughtful about my own children’s reading and the books I assign to undergraduates. It might be that life is full of crises, of which youth is only one, and what we read at any crux can hook us deeply. Yet when I think back through the books that have shaped how I think about myself, that have encouraged and chastened and obsessed me, I realize that I encountered almost all of them before my twenty-fifth birthday.

Twilight, Call of Duty, stupid cat videos: contemporary twenty-year-olds’ brains are with zombies popular. I’m not anti-screen, or even anti-zombie.( I don’t think there’s a better show on the air right now than The Walking Dead, but that’s a swordfight for another day). Yet I do feel inspired by these bibliomemoirs to keep stocking student trees with literary singers. You never know which bird will become the worm.

If you’re swimming with the scholars like me, by the way–or just in or near Pittsburgh–come check out a free reading at the Omni William Penn tonight, Friday 11/7, 9 pm, in the ballroom on the 17th floor. The conference program is here. There will be a LOT of thrushes warbling, including Cynthia Hogue, Meta Jones, Dan Tobin, Julia Lisella, Tyrone Williams, Jan Beatty, Elizabeth Savage, Beth Frost, Aldon Nielson, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Lisa Samuels, and Jeanne Heuving.