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. . . 2003-02-09

Induction of Intent

Phew. I'm glad that's over. Aren't you?

Serialization helps, but still the time it takes for me to finish any piece of writing increases exponenentially with the piece's projected length. That's why I had to give up fiction. All my ideas were for novels, and none would have been drafted before my great-great-grandniece's wedding.

During the month-long harrowing of Graceland, I solaced myself misty-eyed at One Pot Meal, Ftrain, and Fireland, which have all recently indulged in navel-gazing on the positive tip. A pleasant trick of nostalgia, since back in the olden "home page" times I didn't have much in common with Ftrain or Fireland.

My own models for the reversed-chronology many-entries-per-page form were Alamut (a professional artist's notebook) and Robot Wisdom (the "What's New" list of a reclusive crank). For those I quickly grew to think of as my compeers, the web was an adjunct to a more established career or, for the younger writers, a projected adjunct to a hoped-for career. Among them, my distinguishing trait (if any) was bovine rectus acceptance of the web as my primary medium and serial self-publishing as my primary work.

That wasn't the result of community values or allegiance to the cutting edge, but merely of crabbèd age. Insofar as I displayed confidence, it was the confidence that no other path was left to explore.

At thirty, I'd found it necessary to begin writing. By forty, I still found it necessary, but I had even less notion what to do about it. I'd made the mistake of believing that skill and intention were equivalent to capability: that a writer writes what they choose to write rather than what they're capable of writing. (This seems laughably naive to me now, but it's been a common enough naivete even among those I respect: think of Dashiell Hammett starting [and starting] his mainstream novel or Raymond Chandler finally getting the chance to work on that historical romance....)

In ten years of confusion, backtracking, and intermittant clarity, I'd gained ability and access, but my capability stayed stubbornly put. In 1999 as in 1989, the writing was motivated by dialogue, you-gotta-see-this enthusiasm, problem solving, and the mesmerizing glitter of verbal artifacts-cum-artifacts; it remained mulishly unspurred by ambition but turned into Red Hot Ryder's mighty Sliver whenever it whiffed a digression -- "Whoa, horsey! Aw, come on, horsey, won't you please whoa?" --; and it arrived as opaque fragment or self-undermining rant or pseudo-conversational speech.

Boy meets form. "For good or for bad," as one mildly disapproving friend said.

Three-and-a-half-years in, the compeers swarm and I grow ever more grateful to the form. Which is saying something, since it started pretty much saving my life from the get go.

Even the "vanity publishing" label comforts me, much as a fetishist might take comfort in wearing the fetished object, no matter how despised by the mob. Virtually all my writerly heroes enjoy only mild-to-imperceptable popularity. And so, if I had somehow managed to succeed in my ambitions for my own work, I was certain that I wouldn't have helped the financials of those nice editors in the slightest.

. . . 2003-02-10

Right String Baby But the Wrong Yo-Yo

Once again, a large portion of the writers I follow are astir over their popularity relative to everyone else. I know we've been submerged in winner-take-all propaganda from birth, but I'm still always astonished by how eager we are to misapply competitive structures. Explanation trumps [link via OLDaily] truth every time.

Even Jonathan Delacour only almost gets it:

"My instinct is that the real innovations in blogging will be made by those of us in limbo: without the pressures of producing for mainstream tastes but with the ambition to do more than chat amongst a tiny number of friends."
Whenever I hear the word "innovation," I reach for my Catullus. But replace "innovations" with "worth," and that seems fine for how far it goes. It's still not going far enough because it's still accepting an implied hierarchy at odds with the matter at hand.

Despite some promising research, the technology of the web is hostile to mass popularity, as anyone who's been on the receiving end of a Slashdotting can testify. Only the Pyrite Rush years of web advertising made it seem otherwise, and those years are gone.

Delacour's "limbo" is in fact what the web was built for; the extremes of the hit-count scale are just gravy, not very well served. Commercial broadcasting and journalism are set up to handle high traffic and wide popularity. Email and bulletin boards are set up to handle friendly conversation. The niche markets and the midlists are what the web's low cost and wide distribution custom-tailor.

For the type of webloggers I read, the comparison that matters -- the comparison that decides the value of what they're doing -- isn't their hit count vs. the largest hit count on the web. What matters is their hit count vs. the number of readers they would have if they printed on paper (or not at all).

To take the biggest print-world celebrity on my regular rounds, Ron Silliman's Demo to Ink seems more worthwhile to me at Amazon sales rank 886,274 than Crash Profits at 3 or Atkins for Life at 7. His self-published and determinedly insular weblog may have reached more readers in four months than his manifesto-proffering The New Sentence (Amazon sales rank 452,995) has in fifteen years.

And Silliman is unusual in having so many books remain in print once printed. For those whose work appears mostly in journals, the summed hit count available through paper publication rarely matches a single week of a middling weblog.

. . . 2003-02-11

Limbo has been confounded with the Elysian Fields

And not for the first time, god knows.

My friend the Angel climb'd up from his station into the mill: I remain'd alone; & then this appearance was no more, but I found myself sitting on a pleasant bank beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper, who sung to the harp; & his theme was: "The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind."

But I arose, and sought for the mill, & there I found my Angel, who, surprised, asked me how I escaped?

I answer'd: "All that we saw was owing to your economy; for when you ran away, I found myself on a bank by moonlight hearing a harper. But now we have seen my eternal lot, shall I shew you yours?"

. . . 2003-02-13

Notes & Queries


I ran into your name on the big Internet, and I thought: "Hey, I used to know a Ray Davis...I wonder if it's the same guy?"

If you are the same guy, prove it by answering *this* question:

In "Not Fade Away", Buddy Holly sings "my love is bigger than a Cadillac". Was he referring to the intensity of his emotion or the size of his equipment?

Doug Asherman
Oakland, CA

According to the late Mr. Holly's associate, Mr. Penniman, Mr. Holly meant by "my love's bigger than a Cadillac" that it comfortably seated six adults.
  Pierce the bag

. . . 2003-02-14

Notes & Queries

A reader submits a candidate for the FAQ sheet:

Bologna Tines?
Yes. Very much so.

Another requests:

Please send me evenings and weekends.
Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do.

Paul McEnery posted from San Francisco's fashionably lower Haight:

In re: Wilensky.

Seems like this kinda goes back to Lakoff's argument that we have to choose between Mommy Government and Daddy Government. Lakoff's superficial argument tends to imagine that an infantile polity is the only kind the US has to offer (at least, that's what I got from the book reviews and reading the back of the book), but it gets close to the nub. What we really got here is (sticking to the infantile polity script) a choice between the two least recommended parenting strategies: authoritarian and permissive. Both of these produce neurotic people who are incapable of fully individuating. The recommended course -- authoritative, according to the book -- is firm but fair, and does all the things that any parent with a lick of common sense would do. Now take this lesson and apply it to the big, bad world, and we're in business.

In some distress, I wrote back:
Since democracy is supposed to be about self-governance, I have a hard time seeing any way to go right once you've decided to think of your government as your parent and yourself as a child. Is this uniquely unimaginative of me?
Mr. McEnery was kind enough to respond:
Well, that's my problem with the Lakoff analysis. He appears to accept the state of affairs, whereas I regard it as a uniquely pathological relationship to the democratic process. Of course, not having done more than skim the book, I might be giving him short shrift. However, I'll stick to my guns: it's a sound diagnosis of the problem, the prognosis is to ditch the party system (and the electoral system past the level of state congressman) as an irrelevant boondoggle, while working at the local level to increase democratic participation wherever possible. Except for the last step, I think that's the point of view of most Americans.
I wish I could believe you, Mr. McEnery. But I'm afraid that, as another reader has pointed out, given complete freedom of choice, the mob will always instead let themselves be distracted by free access to peculiar short fiction by young Israeli authors:
speaking of Etgar Keret I just read a great new story at openDemocracy
Puppies. I ask you. Puppies.

. . . 2003-02-22

Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers by Michele J. Leggott

80 Flowers was published in an edition of 80 in 1978, soon after Louis Zukofsky's death, and left at that. I didn't own any of the 80.

I first tracked down a library copy of Leggott's book not long after its own publication in 1989, but I didn't read it, really, just her citations. Like Stuart Gilbert in 1930, under cover of criticism Leggott had smuggled extensive excerpts from an inaccessible work. Although I was grateful, criticism of an unread work needs to be awfully coherent to seem anything more than discardable cover. I discarded it .

In 1997, the Flowers were finally reprinted.

Last month, while browsing another library, I rescued Leggott's book from a misshelving and decided to read it anew.

There are three ways of defending and elucidating a pointedly difficult work. They build on one another: the upstairs neighbor gets access to the downstairs neighbor's heat, but she's on shakier ground.

  1. The close reading

    The thing itself and you yourself, nose to nose, mano a mano, pas de deux, no time limits and no props other than the ones you walked into the room with. Structure is grasped, experience is applied, pleasure is described. When faced with relative transparency, a plot summary might be attempted. When faced with apparent chaos, a celebration of apparent chaos is likely. Rewards are hit and miss, as followers of this site may have noticed over the years.

    Kent Johnson took more or less that approach in his 1996 essay, "A Fractal Music: Some Notes on Zukofsky's Flowers." For hit, he usefully described Zukofsky's 8-line-by-5-word stanza as a grid of multidirectionally associative vectors. For miss, he then vanished into Catchphrase Forest with his fuzzy-wuzzy friends Quantum and Fractal and Noneuclidean. (Few English majors notice that Zukofsky's own mathematical figure for poetry was the frumpish chore of calculus.)

  2. The researched reading

    You maintain the pretense that some ideal reader -- an ideal reader who doesn't trade on any personal relationship with the author but who has fingertip access to all other possibly relevant sources of knowledge -- might have the reading experience you describe. You give up the pretense that it's you. Instead, you seek to become that ideal reader. The work supplies your checklist, your syllabus, your scavenger hunt; assignments radiate from the object and are reflected back again. You report as the person you've become.

    Volumes of the OED circled round him, David Levi Strauss took more or less this approach in the first published criticism of 80 Flowers in 1983 (sadly excluded from this online edition of the book in which it appeared).

  3. The genealogical narrative

    The author-artifact barrier is perforated, leaking special knowledge, special relationships. Work sheets, drafts, charts, conversation, and diaries are brought to bear. As scholarly infotainment in its own right, or as instructive example to those learning a useful craft, this is straightforward enough. As criticism, it seems to assume that if the writer had something in mind and can document it, then it's up to the reader to find it communicated.

    The assumption is flawed:

    Nevertheless, the strategy has proven a useful defense against charges of arbitrariness or sloppiness, Stuart Gilbert being the pioneer here, too.

Michele Leggott took the top floor approach to such heights that Hugh Kenner (who must've encountered any person's fair share of genealogists among the Joyceans) called it a new critical method. Certainly it was a new critical voice -- a combination of Robert Burton and Fritz Senn, I think.
... to be continued ...

. . . 2003-02-24

Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands! Hands!

Ross Nelson writes to make my brain itch:

I was watching the newly remastered version of "Metropolis" Wednesday night, and a detail struck me that I hadn't paid attention to before. The mad inventor, creator of the city's engines and the robot/Whore of Babylon anti-Maria, has one prosthetic hand. Now, I automatically associate this device with Peter Sellers' Strangelove character in the Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" but as I thought about it, I figured it must be a common trope, an echo of the evil character whose physical disfigurement shows his moral disfigurement.

Anyway, my question is, does that particular form, the inventor who is himself part machine, have a long lineage in film, traceable through the years, or is it mostly literary, and if so where does it appear? I expect the scifi B movies of the 50s must have used it as well, but where did Kubrick get it, and was "Metropolis" the first film usage?

I have a clear memory, which seems to be completely false, of a grotesque done during one of the great ages of prosthetic invention... something along the lines of Swift's "Lady's Dressing Room," or Mark Twain's or Edgar Allen Poe's burlesques, or The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin.... Well, those lines are getting awfully broad, aren't they?

The pulp era of science fiction (from what little I know of it) seems to have jumped straight to full-out cyborgs, with everything replaced but the brain. There's The Hands of Orlac, which is almost but not quite there and whose author may have come closer in some book I never would've heard of.

And there's whatever that itch is.

Anyone out there know? I'd really rather not credit Thea von Harbou with an original idea if I can avoid it.

. . . 2003-02-25

Reading disorders

Paul Kerschen interrupts and anticipates our recalcitrantly ongoing response to Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers with a response of his own:

I've had similar thoughts about close/researched/genealogical readings in regard to the Difficult Joyce Tomes, since, as you pointed out, Joyce tends to drive scholars like Gilbert and Kenner to the third strategy. It seems clear that Joyce himself encouraged the third strategy; e.g., having Beckett et al. come together and publish those essays in "Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress," in order to demonstrate to the world that he wasn't completely bats and that there were real scholars out there, somewhere, who at least partially got what he was doing.

In the case of Finnegans Wake, I don't think anyone was meant to get it all. There's a passage somewhere, I think in the introduction to the new Penguin Finnegans Wake, that quotes Joyce trying to explain his method to someone: "You understand music, so you'll love this page full of musical puns, whereas your friend who knows nothing about music but is an expert on, say, shipbuilding will love this nautical passage." Reading the Wake is meant to be inclusive rather than exclusive (rather like the three- and four-way puns, which seem like a direct attack on Saussure's idea of signifiers excluding each other). It's rich and sloppy, like life. There's something for everyone, even if the totality is not for anyone, not even Joyce. He'd never know how famous that "three quarks for Muster Mark" passage would become, thanks to Murray Gell-Mann's naming his subatomic particle after it, but that knowledge would have delighted him. There's also that anecdote where Joyce is dictating a passage to Beckett and someone knocks on the door; Joyce says "Come in," Beckett transcribes it, and with a smirk Joyce says "Let it stand." Anyone who didn't know the story would pass right over it, but those few who knew would get a chuckle--and all the Wake really wants to do, in all its scope and silliness, is make you laugh. And woo you with its music.

. . . 2003-02-26

Reading Leggott's Reading Zukofsky's, cont.

"I fall upon the books of life! I read!"

For the very most part, what Leggott finds in the genealogical record of Zukofsky's book is other books (including Zukofsky's own earlier work). There are some notes on the Zukofskys' retiree garden, whose progress guided the composition schedule, but (to judge from Leggott's presentation) as usual the material world impinged on Zukofsky mostly as calendar: dates of flowering join birthdays and Valentines as occasion for verse, while botanical expedition reports and seed catalogs join the shelves of poetry and philosophy.

As anyone who's ever written anything knows, the relation between preliminary notes and a finished work isn't simple derivation. If it was, there would be no point to the finished work, and we could stop reading any novel at its epigraph. (Not a bad idea in most cases.) The raw materials -- which is to say the words -- of Zukofsky's poems are drawn from other sources, as they are for most of us. The question is: what got made with them?

It's a question Leggott treats with understandable caution, given the extremity of her straddling. As a Ph.D. candidate, she shouldn't have to defend exemplary primary research; as someone who's publishing 400 pages about an inaccessible book by a not-yet-industrialized writer, she's got some 'splainin' to do. The lines between "ideal reader" and "genealogist" are blurred in self-defense.

She's careful in her talk about intentions; the intentionality she writes about is always tactical (and always tactful, given Paul Zukofsky's iron grip on the copyright), never going so far as to claim readerly recognition of Zukofsky's sources as Zukofsky's goal. When she says of Paradise:

"The garden must be like a real garden, with cycles of growth; blossoming and witherings."
the cycles are those of the writing, not those of the reading.

On the other hand, she knows hostile suspicions might be aroused when one seems to make interpretation and enjoyment of a supposedly functional work dependent on ancillary scribbledehobble, and so she defends the practice as a pragmatic smoothing of the way: Zukofsky was always ahead of his time, and this book, being newest, is ahead furthest. To help its time along, crafty Zukofsky deliberately dropped off its blueprint (in the form of notes, drafts, and galleys) at U. Texas. (Being from New Zealand, Leggott might not have realized how financially dependent American poets have become on archival donations to state universities.) And in using that material so extensively, Leggott is merely following Zukofsky's implied wishes. After all, it's always easier to inhabit a house once you've seen the blueprint. That way you can find the kitchen when you need it.

Leggott relates the material in Zukofsky's notesheets to Zukofsky's finished poetry using the Poundian-and-Objectivist dictate of "condensare" ("condensation" in Zukofsky; in Niedecker's exquisite American, "this condensery"). Now, besides being somewhat self-destructive (in both good and bad ways), "condensare" is ambiguous. In Pound's and Zukofsky's critical writings, "condensare" sounds something along the lines of Strunk & White or Readers Digest: don't waste words; don't dude it up; get to the point. Niedecker, for example, could often be said to follow the poetic practice Zukofsky recommended: notice something, reduce it to its essentials, and make it musical. (Not necessarily in that order, of course.)

In Pound's and (particularly) Zukofsky's poetic writings, what happens is less often condensation than fragmenting. The effect isn't of a cleanup or a liposuction or a diagram or a sketch or even an ideogram of "the original source"; the effect is of "the original source" being busted to bits and used to tile a more-or-less abstract mosaic.

Busting doesn't come much finer than in 80 Flowers. (Jackson Mac Low's mechanical word crushers don't count, since his original sources are explicitly cited as the subjects of the work.) No matter what the diligent scholar finds in the manuscripts, when a "quote" consists of a single word or two, or a punning transliteration of a single word or two, in what sense can 80 Flowers be said to reference Theophrastus, Juvenal, Horace, Chaucer, Gerard, Shakespeare, Thomas Campion, John Adams, Henri Fabre, Thomas Hardy, Albert Einstein, or private correspondence from Guy Davenport?

... to be continued ...

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2003 Ray Davis.