Friday, March 27, 2009

Things Acquired Along the Way

I had a banner week at the Goodwill retail thrift stores in the region this past week. In two visits I found a whole stack of books of interest. When I was moving, last year, I divested myself of lots of books, knowing that I needed to weed out. I got rid of a lot of things that I didn't need to keep around anymore, that I wasn't going to re-read. But there are always new things a-coming down the pike, new adventures and bits of knowledge as yet unknown and untrammeled.

Sometimes I find a few things on a thrift store visit, sometimes nothing. It's always a treasure hunt, but not always one that brings in something substantial. This week I got lucky though, and hit real paydirt. Forthwith:

Lillian Feder. Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry. (1971) This heavy tome looks at how ancient Greek and Roman myths function in Modern English and American poetry, in the poetry of Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Pound and their followers. It looks to be dense going, but it interests me because I have been reading articles lately that ask a relevant question: The High Modernist poets were so well-read, so allusive in their poetry to ancient myth, so allusive also to their vast knowledge of literature, that they included so much in their poetry, that one must wonder if they went too far. Is one reason that Modern poetry started the trend of poets writing for each other instead of a general audience, which has led to a powerful contemporary disconnect between artist and audience, because they were so insular in their allusions that the audience couldn't keep up with their references? In the case of Pound's Cantos, I've often thought so: those are such twisted and processed references in the Cantos that it's no wonder that one of Pound's influences on later poets was the movement towards the disconnection between sound and sense. I look forward to reading through this from the direction of myth studies, too, in the sense that myths are the stories a culture tells itself about itself; and myths are always living stories in a culture, even though they will change as the culture changes.

James Dickey. Poems 1957-1967. Essentially a Selected & New Poems, this collects his best known early work with a few new poems; including probably his best work, the poems in Buckdancer's Choice. Why would I pick up a poem collection by a poet I don't particularly like? And I don't like Dickey, for the most part; occasionally a brilliant novelist, started out with some excellent poetry, which got worse with time. When Dickey's imagination is engaged, his writing rises from the bestial to the angelic, and transforms the mundane into something archetypal, if not always pretty; but when his imagination seems perfunctory, Dickey's poetry is morbid, flat, and his characters and events are stereotyped. Death is everywhere; it's a major theme throughout the first few poetry books; the poet's voice often speaks of how the dead are more real than the living. It seems to me, and some critics confirm this impression, that as Dickey proceeded, his poems became focused on power and brutality. Almost sadistic at times, jingoistic at others. So why would I want this book in my collection? Because I collect Collected Poems, even of poets I don't like very much; it's for my library, so I have it available if I need to read it or look something up. Call it a reference book purchase. And for a buck at a thrift store, no problem.

Peter Matthiessen. The Snow Leopard. (1978) Actually, I have more than one copy of this excellent book. I've read it several times, over the years; not too long ago, I found a hardcover first edition at another thrift store, and was giddy. This is a spare copy to give away. I do that: buy extra copies of certain favorite books, to give away, to inspire a friend, for the wisdom offered, and the lessons to be learned. I've given away at least 4 or 5 copies of this classic already. Good to have a backup.

P.W. Atkins. Periodic Kingdom: A journey into the land of the chemical elements. (1995) A book on taxonomy and classification, also a bit on the history of the discovery of the chemical elements—which is a fascinating detective adventure in the history of science. I like history of science books, and books on the history of technology; I'm fascinated by the interactions between technology, culture, and how we conceive of reality.

Vincent Mosco. The Digital Sublime: Myth, power, and cyberspace. (2004) Speaking of how we conceive of reality, this speculates on the transformations of culture currently underway in our times. Myths are, again, the stories that lift us out of the mundane and into the sublime, the archetypal. (Sounds like poetry!) There's a bit of history in here, about cyberspace and the Dot.Com collapse, but what interests me is the premise "that if we take what we know about cyberspace and situate it within what we know about culture—specifically the central post-Cold War myths of the end of history, geography, and politics—we will add to our knowledge of the digital world." So there's some history of technology to be studied here, even as it is happening: the creation and change of the myths we live by, even as they are forming and dissolving.

Alistair Cooke. Six Men. (1995) This is just pure pleasure. Cooke's prose is always erudite, clear, full of connections and insights, and no more so than here in these short portraits of sex famous figures that Cooke personally knew, interviewed, or was friends with. My favorite essay is the one on Humphrey Bogart; Cooke met Bogart and his wife Bacall when they were all traveling on the Adlai Stevenson campaign train, and became close friends. This portrait begins with several sublime paragraphs on what's it like to be a reporter assigned to the campaign trail, that is a brilliant set-piece in its own right. Delightful reading, the world in these pages.

William Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury. This is the second Norton Critical Edition, ed. by David Minter. (1994) I've never been a big Faulkner fan. Maybe there's something to the regionalist argument, after all; I'm a Great Lakes native, not a Southerner, or a New Englander, and it's true that I feel more of a connection to Hemingway than I ever did to Faulkner, or F. Scott Fitzgerald (or, at least, the writings that emerged from his milieu). But Norton Critical Editions are always valuable, and can get you involved in understanding and appreciating a work you might otherwise not get into. I always like the critical essays and responses in these editions. Now I look forward to giving this novel another try, with a little help from some (virtual) friends.

Hugh Kenner. The Elsewhere Community. (1998) The theme of this book, actually the scripts for five radio lectures, is travel, its value to the imaginations of Modernist writers, and the excitement it added to their texts. Kenner is no doubt one the foremost critics of Modernist literature, and it shows. He writes of his own visits to Samuel Beckett and William Carlos Williams; he writes of literary meetings such as Eliot's visit to Pound; and he writes of cyberspace, with its new visitation possibilities free of physical limitations, with a created parallel geography. A wonderful series of integrative talks from a very learned voice. I'm also interested in this book because of its connection to my ongoing interest in nomadics, books about travel and being on the road, literary and otherwise.

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Blogger Mark Kerstetter said...

I noticed you have a link to Jerome Rothenberg's site. I once found a book in a thrift store (50 cents) that he edited: "Revolution of the Word". There's a weird incongruity about the book - looking old, with yellowed pages, devoted to "avant garde poetry 1914-45 - which is only increased when one reads Rothenberg's preface (1974). The revolution had already taken place, yet he felt the need of this handy reminder.

I am also interested in the "relevant question" you mention with regard to the Feder book (it's one of the reasons I like W. C. Williams).

And I've read Matthiessen this year for the first time - "Shadow Country" - an awe-inspiring work.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah. I have been a long-time follower of Rothenberg's ideas, on ethnopoetics, on the shamanic aspect of poetry. I first got into his work with his two big anthologies, "Shaking the Pumpkin" and "Technicians of the Sacred." I don't always agree with him but he has a way of doing an overview and/or summation of huge topics that really make sense. Some editors and writers might like a lot of things, but they can't synthesize WHY into a pithy introduction. Rothenberg has always been about the avant-garde, but in ways that track sources and roots. He thinks about it in ways that I appreciate, rather than being a slavish fan. You know what I mean?

The 70s were an other revolution, too. I think it was probably about then that it was good to be reminded of the earlier avant-garde(s), to provide a historical context. The revolution begun in the 70s, which leaders of are now more or less in dominance of big sectors of the poetry world, was revolution further away from "meaning" towards the elements of craft themselves being foregrounded; LangPo is only one example.

I haven't finished thinking about any of this. I doubt most folks have. It's ongoing. I've been getting more and more hints, though, that I'm not alone in wondering about how those early High Moderns operated as literati, with all their specialist knowledge. People often complain these days that poetry has become a specialist literature, insular and self-referential, and not at all connected to the rest of the world anymore. I think one could make a strong case for the early High Moderns being where that turning was first taken.

Glad you liked Matthiessen. He's one of those writers that quietly goes on making remarkable books, while the neon of literary fashions pass him by. All of his books are durable, in my opinion.

Thanks for the comments!

4:38 PM  

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