. . . Dickinson

. . .

Modernist Class

You can tell by the jarring sound of "Zukofsky" in The Trouble With Genius : Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky that Bob Perelman is better read than most academics. He's also better to read: his observations are sensible and accurate.

But those being observed are "Modernist," and Perelman is "Postmodernist." And, apparently as a result, his tone is one of such versatile hostility that no book could escape censure. He holds the proselytizing rhetoric of critics against the writers' own works, and he's pissy about these four writers in particular 'cause they weren't able to meet the supposed "Modernist" ambition of perfect synthesis of every conceivable human goal. He provides a brilliant short introduction to the unique virtues of Ulysses and then claims that the lovely object he just described is proof of Joyce's ineptitude.

But it's not all that clear that such weirdly individualistic writers as Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky actually ascribed to the dopey ambitions Perelman posits, except inasmuch as any working writer has to deal with them: Sure, we got to try to do the best we can think of doing, right? And that can get pretty inflated before it gets punched down. And what we end up with is never quite what we thought we were doing, but sometimes it's still OK, and we can at least try to have a sense of humor about the yeasty smell.

After that performance, Perelman's sequel book, a collection of upbeat reviews mostly of his fellow Language Poets, is about as convincing as the happy ending the studio slapped onto Face/Off. Despite their own lunatic ambitions, Perelman's compeers don't piss him off the same way Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky did. Why? 'Cause they're "Postmodern" and so they're smart enough to undercut their own claims to textual mastery.

The trouble with that is that The Trouble with Genius spends most of its time showing how those stuck-up Modernists also undercut their own claims to textual mastery. I mean, out-of-control-ness is pretty much what you (and Perelman) notice in the second half of Ulysses or in almost anything by Stein or Zukofsky, and it's pretty fucking arrogant to claim that such a pleasurable (and obviously labored-over) effect is attributable to blind error with those guys any more than it is with Ron Silliman or Susan Howe -- or with Melville, Dickinson, Austen in Mansfield Park, the indomitable bad taste of Flaubert, or the wild line-to-line mood swings in Shakespeare, for crying out loud.

At the end of the book, Perelman says that blanket-statement theorists, snippy critics, and it-is-what-it-is poets are playing an unproductive game of paper-scissors-rock. Probably that's a fair assessment, at least when any of them are responding to professional challenges by the other players. But who except a rhetorically worked-up poet would say that a poem was a rock (let alone say that Ezra Pound was the Alps)? Who but an allegiance-drawing theorist would announce in print that any theorist was in any conclusive fermez-la-porte! sense correct?

What Perelman leaves out of his game and out of his book is the possibility of the reader. And publishing gets to be a pretty sad affair without an occasional appearance by that self-satisfied little cluck.

. . .

To unclench our previous entry on the transformation of Insider Art to Outsider Art....

The process can always be side-stepped by looking at artifacts as History: History, like Cheese, is capable of digesting all. But inasmuch as we try to keep our receptiveness aesthetic instead of historical -- focused on surface pleasure rather than background book-larnin' -- when faced with an artifact imported from outside our assumed position, narrative impulse veers us towards seeing the alien context as the alienated individual and the artist as Outsider (rather than ourselves as Importer).

Some examples:

To be fair, one reason Spicer's group allegiance doesn't stick to his reputation is that his group was so dismal. Which brings up the biggest problem with deciding that you're not going to rest easy with being a solitary crackpot: who you end up with. I mean, the insular self-absorption of an attic painter or bedroom songwriter at least tends to make a talentless crank more affable. The real problem is when talentless cranks band into an insular group, cheering on each other's mediocrity and adding an ugly self-righteous odor to their formerly fairly innocuous waste product.

And unless you're talking bestsellers and movie deals and posters on bathroom walls, it's awfully hard to be sure you've made it off an insular group and onto the mainland. "Professional" or not, in my cartography, the arts and book reviewers of the semi-major media look just as self-congratulatory and determinedly deluded as any communal gallery, small press magazine, indie rock scene, little theater group, or crosslinking weblog....

. . .

An Orator John Thelwall addressing the crowd in Copenhagen Fields, 1795 - from Caricature History of the Georges
It's all very well to compare a weblogger to Samuel Beckett or Emily Dickinson or William Blake, if by "well" we mean "ridiculous."

Closer analogies exist, however. I recommend John Thelwall to the attention of future analogy-drawers, and if the name of John Thelwall is unfamiliar, well, that's one of the reasons I think it's closer.

Thelwall was a self-educated Londoner who spent most of the 1790s working for free speech and universal suffrage (and therefore most of 1794 in prison). His unlucrative career of debating, lecturing, and publishing was launched by three volumes titled The Peripatetic; or, Sketches of the Heart, of Nature and Society; in a series of Politico-Sentimental Journals, in Verse and Prose, of the Eccentric Excursions of Sylvanus Theophrastus, Supposed to be Written by Himself, well described by the Analytical Review of May 1795:

"The author feels strongly on subjects of political oppression; and writes like an honest friend to his species... The author's design appears to have been to unite the different advantages of the novel, the sentimental journal, and the miscellaneous collection of essays and poetical effusions. The character of the language is rather of ease, than elegance.... We cannot however flatter Mr. T. so far, as to pronounce his style so peculiarly his own as to bear the distinguishing marks of original genius. It is too negligent, and, if we may conjecture, was too hastily written, to receive any characteristic impressions. It is, however, on the whole pleasing, and very naturally and forcibly expresses the writer's ideas and sentiments."
The book includes the thin and scattered pretense of a sentimental novel, but it's clear (and Thelwall freely admits in his Preface) that this "was not originally intended to form any part of the design, till it was suggested... that it might afford a prospect of more extensive circulation." (St. Martin's Press, please note that I could easily throw a couple of good incest-and-murder plots into any proposed reprint of the Hotsy Totsy Club archives.)

What the book more whole-heartedly provides is a meandering sequence of gassy mini-essays and dreadful poetry (which, according to this edition's editor, Judith Thompson, exerted great influence on Thelwall's magpie friend Wordsworth) encompassing speculative medicine, detailed sight-seeing reports, soul-searching over the extent to which a beggar deserves spare change, the causes of war and unemployment, the defects of an English education, historical anecdotes, who's better: Pope or Dryden?, the class hypocrisy of drug wars (the drug du jour being gin), self-congratulations on having gotten down from a scary high cliff, and so on, all fired up by truly blog-worthy righteousness.

A Minister in High Glee Prime Minister Pitt, who, during 1795's grain shortage, suggested that laborers who couldn't afford bread buy meat instead.
Here, for example, is how Thelwall sums up the Wat Tyler story, occasioned by a trip to Dartford, told through quotes from David Hume's "obsequious" history and interrupted by heatedly sarcastic asides:

I, for my part, am no friend to insurrections, to unrelenting vengeance, or even to sanguinary justice; but I appeal to the knowledge and common sense of mankind, whether the uniform conduct of all tyrants has not conspired to teach the world this lesson -- that when once you have got them in your power, you either must lop them off, or they will lop off you?

(And I, for my part, enjoy seeing George III called "a phlegmatic hog.") He closes with nine exclamation marks.

Always pompous, always well-meaning, occasionally insightful, and usually right -- yes, Thelwall seems a fine role model: followable, forgettable, forgivable.

     "... So, sullen fiend! to this dark cavern flies
   The man of crimes -- by hopeless pangs opprest.--
Fiend! thou art here.-- How ghastly glare thy eyes!
   While thy chill touch congeals my shuddering breast.
Come, endless Night! thy thickest mantle spread!
Ye kindred horrors! shriek around my head!"
The vehemence with which this was delivered in some degree alarmed my fellow traveller; but, for my own part, having fallen several times in conversation with persons occasionally visited by temporary fits of extravagance, I have learned to consider them as perfectly innocent, and to leave them to their own correction.

. . .

(I know I sound like a broken record. Pretty much all records would be broken if we had to wait 95 years to copy them.)
Intellectual Property Duties

William Blake didn't stop writing in 1818. It just looks that way because his antejerusalem manuscripts were destroyed after his death and before his most fervent admirers were born.

Our access to European pre-Christian culture depends largely on copyists' lack of judgment: wild-assed Christians, like wild-assed fundamentalists of other sacred-or-secular stripes, aren't shy about discarding the not-obviously-utilitarian.

A while ago, I picked up a "great young American poets" anthology from 1880 or so. I recognized only two or three names, and them not for their verse. Among the missing: Dickinson, Melville, and Whitman.

They might've stayed missing, too. Whitman developed a cult while he was living, but scandalized heirs could easily have snuffed posthumous printings. And under our current rules, Moby-Dick and The Confidence-Man wouldn't have entered the public domain until 1961, crimping the 1920s Melville revival.

I'm not worried about the Mouse or Gone with the Wind. Where there's money to be made and no insanity in the family, distribution will probably take place, with or without legal encouragement. And it's arguable, case by case, whether copyright hinders creation in the arts or promotes it or leaves it alone. But it inarguably suppresses art (and embarrassing evidence) after its creation.

Current copyright laws discourage copying in favor of hoarding. Art drops and disappears forever (or for 95 years, whichever comes first) into the capacious legal laps of those who are indifferent or passively hostile towards it. The longer the term of "protection," the greater the chance that a work will encounter an unmotivated owner and be removed from circulation.

Under the previous less-but-still-extreme corporate copyright limit of 75 years, the golden age of American pulp magazines would now be passing into the public domain. Instead, it's crumbling for lack of anyone to get definitive permission from. Individuals such as myself may be willing to take the risk of reprinting orphaned work and waiting to see who protests, but cultural institutions (you know, those people who have archives and funding) cannot.

Worst off -- being both most expensive and most fragile -- is the twentieth century's signature medium.

I became a Hong Kong movie fan in 1985, thanks to the NYC Film Forum's King Hu festival. Having been revealed as one of the greatest directors of the 1960s and 1970s, King Hu then seemed to vanish from American theaters. I'm used to Hong Kong studios' disregard for their own achievements -- one of the many crassnesses they share with 1930s Hollywood -- but I always expected another chance for King Hu, who was, after all, a commercial success in his day.

Forget it. Our local film archive tried for weeks to contact the rights holders. No response at all. As so often happens in the corporate world, it simply isn't worth anyone's time to answer: they figure a lawyer taking a half-hour to check the paperwork would cost more than they'll gain by showing the films. Just wait till 2074....

Although admittedly a novice lawmaker, I offer a possible solution:

Make copyright dependent on the active exercise of copyright.
Copyright "protection" has not only been extended beyond recognition: it's also been made completely passive. You no longer need to register or renew work for it to be legally yours.

That may be fair during an individual creator's lifetime. But the combination of passivity and indefinite-extension encourages disappearance rather than publication. Lengthening copyright on a marginal work makes it more likely to be out of print, unviewable, unrestorable, unencountered, unknowable, and lost.

If copyright extension was contingent upon distribution of a work, profitable works would continue to keep uncreative corporations and heirs fat and happy, while unprofitable works could be freed and rescued by scholars, fanatics, and gamblers.

. . .

Because I could not stop for Brick

In an aperçu more winning than anything from Critical Inquiry's past few years, Da Hat compares Emily Dickinson to George Herriman. Twin lines of different media: iconic and organic; sketchy and exact; gracefully liberated in self-forged chains. How easy to imagine "kat" stretched, tail akimbo, laboriously scratching out a letter to Master, or Offisa Higginson covering his eyes and moaning, "That dear poet!" How reassuring the reminder that sometimes the pure products of America go krazy.

. . .

The Spasmodic Gap

(Written for The Valve)

In mid-nineteenth-century Great Britain, a group of left-wing lower-class poets publish autobiographical free verse epic dramas. Critics name them the Spasmodics.

It sounds like a Howard Waldrop premise. Could the Winter 2004 issue of Victorian Poetry be hoaxing us?

For a while, my answer was "Baby, I don't care." Editors Charles Laporte and Jason R. Rudy select well and structure novelistically. First, Herbert F. Tucker begins with a high overhead shot of exposition, a lightly satiric, lightly sympathetic tone to draw us into the story. Then, with admirably ethical opportunism, a series of contributors apply varied professional interests to bring out aspects of Spasmodic characters and times. Details and depth accumulate. Finally, Florence Saunders Boos, openly partisan, fully engaged, describes the movement's catastrophe, with heroes ambiguously vanquished and villains ambiguously triumphant, leaving the signature effect of alternate history: an exhilarating sense of possibility; a melancholy sense of possibility foreclosed.

When curiosity won, though, I found confirmation (if not texts) easily enough.

"But, by a certain gorgeousness or intricacy of language, by a scrupulous avoidance of the apparent commonplace in subject; by more or less elaborately hinted or expressed unorthodoxy in religion or philosophy; and, above all, by a neurotic sentimentalism which would be passion if it could, and, sometimes, is not absolutely far from it, though it is in constant danger of turning to the ridiculous or of tearing its own flimsiness to tatters by all these things and others they struggled to avoid the obvious and achieve poetic strangeness."
- George Saintsbury, Cambridge History of English and American Literature

How to excuse, or at least explain, my ignorance?

When I search my memory for verse of the 1840s and 1850s, I find Poe smouldering at one end of a long flat expanse of Tennyson, broken by a few Brownings, between the issueless extravagance of the late Romantics and the parentless extravagance of Swinburne and Whitman.

That bare spot is where the Spasmodic impulse once grew. Insofar as the Spasmodics could be construed as a group, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is what's left of them. Kirstie Blair points out that, for once, reactionaries had reason to welcome a major work by a woman. Despite its provocations, Leigh's redemption ("Oh, wait did I say Art was the most important thing? Sorry, I meant Marriage.") provided a reassuring ending all round. Domestication was what the Spasmodics most infuriatingly lacked.

+ + +

"A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. [...] USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always, always one perception must must must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!"
- Charles Olson, "Projectivist Verse"
"Words rhythmically combined affect the feelings of the poetic hearer or utterer in the same way as the fact they represent: and thus by a reflex action the fact is reproduced in the imagination" ... "Depend on it, whatever is to live on paper, must have lived in flesh and blood." ... "certain rhythms and measures are metaphors of ideas and feelings" ... "the word of Man made flesh and dwelling amongst us."
- Sydney Dobell
(quoted in "Rhythmic Intimacy, Spasmodic Epistemology" by Jason R. Rudy)

+ + +

Pace (not really) Ron Silliman, the School of Quietude sometimes wins. Not by being remembered, but by making sure its competitors are forgotten first. (Silliman, for example, seems as ignorant of Whitman's Spasmodic interests as I was.)

The literary canon, like other institutions, bases its authority on a set of fragile contingencies. And literary justice, like other justice, usually depends on a few outspoken individuals who refuse to let an injustice go. I'm not sure all English majors realize how unlikely their access to Melville or Dickinson really is. (Most of the creative writing MFAs I've met could certainly benefit by deeper meditation on the subject.) In my own lifetime, Zukofsky and the other Objectivists might have stayed out of reach if weren't for Robert Creeley.

John Keats barely made it through the gates into the immortality of persistent reprinting. Thirty years after his death, plenty of authorities still wished he hadn't and wanted to ensure that it didn't happen again.

+ + +

"Take yourself, and make eyes at it in the glass until you think it looks like Keats, or the 'Boy Chatterton.' Then take an infinite yearning to be a poet, and a profound conviction that you never can be one, and try to stifle the latter. This you will not be able to do."
- W. H. Mallock, "How to Make a Spasmodic Poem"
(quoted in "Glandular Omnism and Beyond" by Herbert F. Tucker)
"What a brute you were to tell me to read Keats's Letters... What harm he has done to English Poetry. [...] But what perplexity Keats Tennyson et id genus omne must occasion to young writers of the όπλίτης [hoplite] sort; yes & those d-d Elizabethan poets generally. Those who cannot read Gk shld read nothing but Milton & parts of Wordsworth: the state should see to it...."
- Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, 1848
(partially quoted in "Victorian Culture Wars" by Antony H. Harrison)

+ + +

In this case was literary injustice done?

It depends. (See, that's what sucks about justice.)

Like George Saintsbury, the Victorian Poetry essayists admit more or less kindly that the core Spasmodic works aren't great. Although I've only found excerpts so far, they certainly don't seem to my own taste.

But tastes differ. I also dislike the Beats, hippie shamans, declaimed celebrations of groupthink, and most attempts at lyric confession. That hasn't stripped them from bookstores and libraries.

And tastes change. The Spasmodics don't sound more embarrassing than the self-pitying concept albums of 1970s AOR. Or more embarrassing than I was back then, a teenage cracker in an isolated farming town writing imitations of John Berryman and arguing the relative merits of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson with my best friend, soon to become a born-again journalism major. A year or two later, for a few months during an alcoholic nervous breakdown, I even liked Charles Bukowski. For me, as for so many overweeners, Keats's defiant blush has always been a beacon.

At the very least, if I'd heard of them, my college band would have been named the New Spasmodics.

Most pertinently, authors can change if they're given the chance. Victorian Poetry essayists describe most Spasmodic targets as first volumes from beginning writers, not outrageously weaker than the first volumes from their better remembered peers, and usually more interesting than any volumes from their most hostile enemies. If there was a Spasmodic "school", it was shut down before the students matriculated. I was able to read this academic journal as alternate history partly because it so often emphasizes their lost potential.

Their pop-scientific poetics anticipated twentieth century avant-gardes. Their class diversity anticipated the GI-Billed New American Poetry. Their sprawling yet motionless epics of young writers struggling to produce sprawling epics anticipated the Thomas Wolfe subtype of the Great American Novel. Their shameless invocation of neuraesthenia as muse should have interested Eliot and the poet-professor crowd. That poor sap R. H. Horne anticipated the New Directions paperback with his one-farthing-cheap Orion. The young Alexander Smith was advised to produce one long poem rather than a collection of short ones, and that's a fairly early example of narrative trumping lyric.

Smith chose to embed his lyrics in an autobiographical fantasy epic drama, since that's what everyone else seemed to be doing. And it did indeed attract attention. It got him and his advisor whacked by viciously conservative William Edmondstoune Aytoun, first from the sniper tower of Blackwood's, and then in a book-length parody, Firmilian.

"Other 'spasmodic' impulses migrated into fiction, most conspicuously the 'sensation fiction' of the 1860s, but the shadow-movement's preoccupations with romantic populism, formal experimentation, and unguarded honesty endured. Aytoun played successfully to a receptive claque, but subsequent generations have largely consigned his sensibilities to a literary and political backwater. Then as now, it was easier to be a clever critic than it was to write a memorable poem.

"More disspiriting were the enduring triumphs of the iron laws of class and education that Aytoun exploited. No acknowledged 'major' poet of Victorian Britain came from working- or lower-middle-class origins, and none of the 'spasmodists' is likely to gain more than token entry into any twenty-first-century anthologies. Even here, however, Dobell, Smith and the others might have found a measure of vindication in the vast palette of subsequent generations' preoccupations with despair, recovery, aberrance, marginality, and self-examination a palette they helped, in the face of withering critical abuse, to configure."

- Florence Saunders Boos, "'Spasm' and Class"

Snobs produce memorable satires and parodies because reactionaries depend on reaction. Without venom, their tongues go dry. Without a victim to strangle, they lie limp and tangled, a heap of parasitic ivy. Having deadened the nervous impulse that gave it life, even Aytoun's Firmilian vanished from collections: an Acme-brand hole slapped onto the cliff face, and then peeled off and thrown away.

+ + +

"The calm philosophy of poetry, in its addresses to the understanding and the domestic affections, now holds the ascendancy; but as the fresh and energetic spirit of the present age advances, a contest is certain to take place in the fields of Literature on the above questions. The sooner, therefore, the battle is fought out, the better; and to this end, the poetical antagonisms shall at once be brought into collision."
- Richard H. Horne, A New Spirit of the Age, 1844
(quoted in "Editorial Introduction: Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics" by Charles Laporte & Jason R. Rudy)
"... and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas


i am still suspicious of a hoax.

Apparently, if you happen to have university library privileges and can get away from your job and family for a bit, you can see for yourself.

an elaborate hoax.
The word "hawk" begins in the air and ends with talon in the heart

'At's a good one, boss. Now I tell one: What's high in the middle and round on both ends?


Right! (I was gonna guess "E-40", myself.)

. . .


(Also at The Valve)

Variations on a theme by Amardeep Singh

I have always liked Andersen's fairy tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Fundamentally, it is the symbol of my life.
- Thomas Mann to Agnes Meyer
At that moment one of the little boys picked up the soldier and tossed him right into the stove, giving no explanation at all. The troll in the box was most certainly to blame.

The tin soldier stood there, brightly lit, and felt a terrible heat, but whether it was from the actual fire or from love, he didn't know. The paint had worn right off him, but whether this happened on his journey or from sorrow, no one could say.

- Hans Christian Andersen
Every day you see his army march down the street,
Changing guards at the High Road.
He's a tin soldier man
Living in his little tin wonderland,
Very happy little tin soldier man
When you set him on your knee.

In Singh's account, a feminist critic of Toy Story would be pleased that a girl owns toys. A less sanguinely imagined feminist would also note the toys' rigid gender segregation, with girls relegated to support and nagging while character development, plot points, and boffos go to the boys. Another viewer might be nettled by the contrast between a story which merged handmade family toys with imported plastics and a production which contributed to the replacement of hand-drawn original characters with celebrity-voiced 3-D models. Or by the movie's recycling in more concentrated form an earlier era's conformist fantasies, newly trademarking someone else's nostalgia to push "like momma used to buy" security. And leave us let aside those misguided children who for some reason lack access to such lovably life-fulfilling objects....

I believe these reactions to the Toy Story movies are possible since, alongside cheerier reactions, I felt them all myself. And, as with Amardeep's reactions, I think they all suggest stories about criticism. He's struck (or stuck) a rich vein here as Hans Christian Andersen did when he first made the fairy tale a vehicle for meta-fiction.

* * *

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" isn't an example of Andersen's meta-fictions. (I've made a long list of them and I just checked: "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" isn't on it.) But as the ur-text of Toy Story 1 and 2, it might have something to offer meta-criticism. Let's see!

This particular tin soldier "the one who turned out to be remarkable" is disabled a birth defect left him only one leg and immobile. While the other toys gain autonomy and "play" (that is, squabble, jostle, chafe, bully, whine, and put on airs), the tin soldier stays resolutely toylike, moved only by outside forces.

But his immobility has nothing to do with his disability; on the contrary, it's his claim to mastery: No matter what threatens him, no matter who attracts him, no matter how it might benefit him to bend or speak up, he remains "steadfast", silent, at attention until the end, of course, when we find what stuff he's made of.

The troll-in-the-snuff-box curses the soldier for the fixity of his male gaze, its object an immobile paper ballerina en pointe. Misled by his unvaried point of view, he believes her also one-legged, and therefore a suitable match. He learns his mistake only a moment before one of the children decides to put away childish things with a vengeance.

* * *

I don't know how other folks take the "station" in "Playstation". I'm a Navy brat, so I assume it refers to a tour of duty something you're assigned to live through, pleasant or not.

For me, not; maturing seemed a continuous trading up. (Until I got to backaches and ear hair, anyway.)

But then my version of maturity like yours is a bit peculiar.

* * *

Advertising supports and depends on reader identification. This story is your story; this story is brought to you by this product; this product produces your story.

Our story, ours right here, is a story of salvation-through-consumption. No matter how we put it to ourselves, literary readers' status as consumers seems clear enough to publishers and copyright hoarders. What makes us niche consumers is our attachment to kid's stuff stuff we refuse to throw away despite its blatant obsolescence.

For most non-academics, including a number of English majors I've met, all literature is children's literature. Prepubescents get Gulliver's Travels, adolescents get Moby Dick, and college freshmen might be served an indigestible bit of Henry James. Once normal people have a job, they never again bother with such things until they have children of their own. Even if they patiently crate, uncrate, and re-shelve their T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson volumes over the decades, they won't place Amazon orders for A Hundredth Sundrie Flowers or Best American Poetry 2004.

(Which is why "fair use" nowadays tends to get narrowly defined as educational use. No normal adult would want access to a 1930s novel or magazine or song or movie for its own sake.)

In such a world, disputes between proponents of "realistic" and "experimental" fiction seem as absurd as a Federation-outfitted Trekkie snubbing a Dark Shadows fan for his fangs. Grown-ups know the real battles are between the Red Sox and the Yankees or the Christians and Satan, and know the only stories worth reading are True-Life Adventures of themselves. To the vast majority of Americans, all of us here are only marginally distinguishable from the arrested development cases depicted by Chris Ware or Barry Malzberg.

I carry some of their skepticism. It was bred into me, like my bad teeth and whiskey craving. I wince at a poem demanding that this war be stopped right now!, or at a blurb like "You can't spell 'Marxist' without Matrix", or at the ALSC Forum's complaint that community college composition classes stint the Homeric epic, and it's the same wince I made at Ware's "Keeping Occupied" column:

A lonely youth in eastern Nebraska came up with the idea of drawing circuit chips and machine parts on squares of paper and affixing them to his skin with celluloid tape. Hidden beneath his socks and shirt sleeves, these surprising superhuman additions would be just the things he needed to gain respect and awe while changing clothes amongst his peers before gym class.
- Acme Novelty Library. Winter, 1994-1995. Number Four, Volume Three.

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 1

Rhyme's easily defined so long as we ignore the evidence. As actually deployed, the device is slippery.

For example, people who read silently become confused about what's supposed to repeat: the terminal phonemes or the terminal graphemes? The latter is called "eye rhyme"; when it conflicts with "ear rhyme", it's a mistake. But because English spelling began to standardize before English pronunciation, many apparent blunders were perfectly fine ear-rhymes to their original writers.

Regional and class differences continue to play merry hell with terminal vowels and consonants, as in Bunker Hill's glorious coupling of "The road was muddy" with "My toe was hurting". And so, when poems are transmitted orally (or to a particularly meddlesome editor), adjustments get made. Generally, sound wins over sense, with some startling exceptions, such as the version of "Tam Lin" which rhymed "a snake" with "your baby's father." (The reptile started as "an adder," and that rhyme could have persisted if it had been passed to Allan Sherman.)

At any rate, given free rein, English prosody seems as contented by terminal assonance or slant-rhyme as by perfect dictionary rhyme.

Certainly, I am; and I'm also particularly attracted to ear-not-eye rhymes. Which brings me to an endnote of David C. Rubin's Memory in Oral Traditions.

Rubin and Michael H. Kelly wanted to check their hunch that literate poets would tend (consciously or unconsciously) to prefer eye-rhymes, whereas traditional ballad singers would use rhymes without regard to spelling. They sampled from ballads, and from three poets who used similar rhyme sounds: Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, and James Whitcomb Riley. The ballads contained the proportion of eye rhymes expected by chance: around a third. Burns used significantly more eye-rhymes than would be expected for the number of ear-only rhymes available to him. Riley didn't; on the other hand, Riley's pool of candidates were more eye-oriented: Burns ended up with 40% eye-rhymes and Riley with 46%.

But in Dickinson's sample, only 17% were eye-rhymes. "This is the largest difference observed, and it is in the direction opposite to that expected. That is, Dickinson matches the spelling of her rhymes much less than would be expected by chance."

... to be continued ...


good methods in aprill

We can only hope, my friend. We can only hope.

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 2

I would have no newes printed; for when they are printed they leave to bee newes; while they are written, though they be false, they remaine newes still.
- Ben Jonson, Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moone
Literature is news that STAYS news.
- Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

It's traumatic when performed art becomes recorded art. (Gawd, do I really sound that whiney?) And poetry's been traumatized longest. Sure, we have all that noise; sure, we can pattern it. But what's the point post-literacy?

So, there's been the pleasure of showing off, when someone's willing to be impressed, or when we can pretend that someone is. There's been seduction and devotion and advertising, when we want our words to stick and intrude far from support of paper. There've been brief re-marriages of written word with notated music before career ambitions drove them apart again. Pound and Zukofsky sincerely believed that poetry became corrupted as it drifted from song, but that didn't make them want to become Sappho or Thomas Campion or Smokey Robinson: it made them want to become a textual version of Brahms or Bach or Webern.

And then there's nostalgia for the days when sound made sense, because it was all the sense we had, even if we usually couldn't say what it actually meant, Remember the good times? Couldn't we bring them back before they're completely lost? The familiar problem of Ossian and Wordsworth, Olson and Rothenberg....

Traditional ballads and heroic epic didn't play much part in the social life of mid-nineteenth century Amherst, Massachusetts. To take them as role models would have been a purely literary affectation rather than a return to orality.

Dickinson's community did, however, include a lyric form comparable in centrality to (say) folk songs for Robert Burns: the hymn.

Of course the Protestant hymn was a written and notated form, but it was expressed in oral performance in public, in the family circle, and presumably within the concert hall of one's skull. (Limited seating, but excellent accoustics.) Would it be possible for an atavistic poet in a literate society to take that written devotional lyric as an origin for oral composition? What might such a throwback look like?

Well, we might expect a reversal of the written lyrics' preference for eye-rhyme. We might expect a return to assonance and slant-rhyme. We might even expect hypercorrection.

We might expect the formal grammar of written sentences to be replaced by the looser, more dramatic and fragmented syntax of spoken English. Since formal syntactic punctuation then loses its function, we might expect a simpler notation of phrase breaks and emphasis dashes, say, and an occasional exclamation mark.

We might expect the literary meter to revert to some features of traditional ballad metrics. That is, a simple regular form might serve as a reference point for ear-and-mouth, perceived as a default mode even if frequently varied in practice. Again positing hypercorrection, it might be deviated from so often that irregularity became the real but imperceptible rule. (And we might expect a great deal of posthumous meddling from editors who prefer the properly regular.)

Dickinson is mostly thought of as a poet of hymnodic quatrains, and there’s no doubting she was partial to hymn meters. A survey (see appendix) of the first quatrains of the 295 poems she wrote in 1863—her most productive year, in Franklin’s dating (which I follow here), and the year that saw the creation of most of her renowned poems—yields one hundred in common meter (8686). At a distant second, comprising about one eighth (37) of the total, come the short-metered poems (6686). Another familiar meter, long meter (8888), Dickinson used only six times, each time rhyming it as couplets. There are also three poems in the sestet variation of common meter known as common particular meter (886886). But the surprising and wholly unrecognized feature of these celebrated poems is that Dickinson worked most frequently in none of the above, often inventing a meter for a poem and using it just that once. The number of poems Dickinson composed in 1863 in patterns rare or unheard of in religious or secular lyric poetry, including her own, surpasses even those in common meter.
- John Shoptaw, "Listening to Dickinson"

We might also expect a re-re-definition of "verbatim recall".

... to be continued ...


Stand not upon Formality / For it leaves an Imprint

That poet-with-swing Jonathan Mayhew writes:

Some have repeated the claim that all of Emily's work can all be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." This is clearly spurious, given the number of invented forms she wrote in.

"All" is a great exaggeration, true, but not so exaggerated historically speaking, since Dickinson's early editors mercilessly regularized her into acceptable common meter -- which is indeed singable to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and probably hundreds of other tunes. (I mean, there's a reason it's called common meter!)

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 3

Wallace recorded the same four ballads about ship wrecks from a traditional ballad singer, Bobby McMillon, during two sessions held 5 months apart.... At the level of exact words recalled, there were 29 word substitutions preserving meaning; 4 changes in prepositions, pronouns, or articles that had only a slight effect on the meaning, and 2 changes in verb tense. There were 7 cases of words present in one version, but absent in the other. These cases, which had little effect on the meaning, were a, and, as she, just, only, said, and sweet. There were also four pairs of lines that differed in a way that changed the meaning. For these, the first session's alternatives are shown in brackets and the second session's alternatives are shown in parentheses.

There was another ship [and it sailed upon the sea] (in the North Amerikee)
And it went by the name of the Turkish Revelee

She had not sailed far over the [deep] (main)
[Till a large ship she chanced to meet] (She spied three ships a sailing from Spain)

Her boat [against the rock she run] (she run against the rock)
[Crying alas I am undone] (I thought my soul her heart is broke)

Go and dig my grave [don't cry don't weep] (both wide and deep)
Place [marble] (a stone) at my head and feet

- David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that Caused it
Block it up
With Other and 'twill yawn the more
You cannot [Solder an Abyss] (Plug a Sepulchre)
With Air
- Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson's fascicles make tidy manuscript pamphlets, ready to post to your local small press, save for one idiosyncrasy. (Not counting spelling and dashes —) Small crosses are inserted in some lines. At the bottom of the page, matching crosses prefix variant words or phrases.

Early critical orthodoxy took them as eccentric attempts at revision. Even given, though, that Dickinson had no training as a proofreader, plus-signs and footnotes seem vague. Were the additions second-thoughts-best-thoughts? Or contemplated changes for a second edition, but still carrying less weight than the consummated originals? What about the doubled or tripled second thoughts? What's their weight class?

Over time and a lot of heat, more scholars have shifted to admitting that Dickinson's priorities are undecidable.

Scholarly explanations, however and, my apologies, I realize this is a matter of taste have tended to the vaporous:

As Marta Werner puts it, "Writing at the far end of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson refused the limitations of a print existence and, in doing so, effectively altered the ways in which we read (receive) her encodings". ... as Sharon Cameron puts it, "variants indicate the desire for limit and the difficulty of enforcing is impossible to say where the text ends because variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem potentially limitless".
- Michele Ierardi, "Translating Emily: Digitally Re-Presenting Fascicle 16"

Let's get real. When we have some tune rattling around in our head or in our mouths, it rattles in slightly different ways now and then and later. In oral transmission, the changes might not be noticed, or some might be remembered as potential improvements and latched onto, and no one knows the diff. In manuscript transmission among (for example) the aristocratic poets of Tudor or Stuart England, the "same" poem or joke or rumor might be scribbled out to different recipients in slightly different ways.

In print culture, there's more of a tendency to think in terms of revising towards a final unique artifact which says all worth saying. Variants become competitive decisions. Should I stick with the paisley tie, or does the dark blue deliver the right message? Even believers in some external voice, like Yeats or Spicer, in their different ways treated the Muse as a problem of tuning the dial just right, filtering the static, bleaching out the bones of that amplified signal, any signal like other bards, trying to capture that perfect final take.

Then there's the approach associated with folklorists, jazz fans, and Deadheads. Each take its own thing. Comfortable with a message carried across a range of frequencies.

The poet's job is to listen hard and write it down. But the editorial aspect of that job could just as easily involve collating equally viable variants as arranging a showdown to the death. Who knows, maybe even more easily. To meet the question of lyric method in literate culture, Dickinson may have become oral poet and transcribing collector in one: her letters performances; her fascicles a record of possible performances.

Which drops me square in the middle of the Dickinson editorial wars.

As much as I respect Susan Howe and Jerome McGann, my eyes and ears tell me that not all Dickinson's edge-of-the-page breaks need to be reproduced and that Dickinson's genius doesn't lie in calligraphy. On the other hand, publication of a singular reading edition seems impossible to justify. Even though we only ever read one version at any one time, what we read needs a chance to vary, either dynamically (as in Ierardi's digital edition) or through Dickinson's own end-note approach. We're talking about only an extra line or two for a subset of lyrics; it doesn't have to be a choice between Franklin's three volume hardback monster (including all posthumously imposed variants) or Franklin's one volume of guessed-at "final versions" in a guessed-at "chronological order". The editor's soul shares every soul's privilege to - from an ample nation - choose one, then close the Valves of her attention - like stone. But the editor's Emily Dickinson, and my Emily Dickinson? Hang it all, the Trustees of Amherst College, there can be but the many Emily Dickinsons.

So whether it be Rune
Or whether it be [none] (din)
Is of within.

The "Tune is in the Tree —"
The Skeptic showeth me
"No Sir! In Thee!"
- Emily Dickinson


If he could only find that sound, that ultimate Joe Meek effect, he could wrap up his mortal session--finally get it down, with all the clarity of shattering glass.

. . .

Nothing Personal, 8

"But then Michael Palmer might not be a Language Poet. We won't know until he dies and they cut his heart open and see if L=A can be found there.... And the politics of it all is fascinating, but there are people who are much better equipped to speak about it than I am. You might want to go and talk to some of them about it, if you're interested."
- David Bromige

Note: The following is based on second-hand hints and third-hand extrapolations. That is, it's gossip. And since I'm art-for-art's by nature, it's not even good gossip. But my essay's carried me out of my depth, and in this deep water I'll paddle. Feel free to administer a little paddling of your own.

I told my conversion narrative because it's not unique. (It's not interesting, either, but that wasn't why I told it.) For me it happened in 1989; for others it happened in 1982 or in 1999, or it will happen in 2007. All that changes is the number of precursors and passersby clumped into the Katamari Damacy of "Language Poetry".

No conspiracy lies behind that phenomenom, and protests were futile. It's merely a side-effect of success, enthusiasm, and inattention. I've witnessed similar confusions in punk and hip-hop, and a recent museum show dedicated to "the Beats" included work by Frank O'Hara and Jess.

What distinguishes LangPo is the stability and range of its success. The Beats weren't moving by the time of that pleasant curatorial blunder; the Language Poets continue. And the formal advances responsible for that success were political ones:

Instead the group's glue is found in the non-poetic work of "poetics": self-publication, self-promotion, self-defense.... Creative members could parlay any diction they liked so long as they cooperated with the critical members. And, David Bromige aside, those critics weren't fooling around: they've been painfully sincere, with most of the pain directed outwards.

This community, like any community, coheres by selective memory and selective attention. I share a class background with Ron Silliman, and an allergy to academic power structures. Naturally we except our friends from our prejudices. Silliman, however, sometimes deploys those prejudices even in defense of his friends and despite the disposable incomes which back their publications. Then there's the contrast between Perelman's finger-wagging and high-fiving, and in another way Susan Howe sacrificing her own layouts while insisting on the primacy of Emily Dickinson's....

I don't mean to characterize them as villains in this history. (They are, after all, three of my favorite writers.) Conservatives and the old-garde haven't been shy about marking their dry discolored turfs, would-be Young Turks tried similar tactics, and when Bromige enlivened the Buffalo Poetics list, the mob who shouted him down wasn't led by his fellows. The Language Poets didn't invent the game: they only managed it better.

I do mean to imply that the game has a human cost. If I haven't heard versions of Luther Blissett's story quite as often as versions of my own, still I've heard them. And worse, the one-time-enemy may be appropriated: I remember some poet I respect (whose name I don't remember) being asked by someone somewhere if she considered herself a Language Poet, and her answering something like she wouldn't have minded but someone I respect less (whose name I also don't remember) said she wasn't Marxist enough. (As I warned, my gossiping skills are weak.) Then there's Benjamin Friedlander, often called a Language Poet because he paid them close attention, and scarred by them for the same reason.

Given the human payback, though, was it worth it? Could any avant-garde have managed the scarcity-economy of print better?

I don't know; I just hope the post-print world does.

* * *

The web hosts an economy of attention: Who's attended to? Who should I attend to?

It's one question with two faces, self-ish and other-ish, inseparable yet rarely perceived simultanously. We become two-faced in asking it. We lament the lack of attention paid our so worthwhile work and then spend a half-hour responding to an irksome comment made by someone who doesn't particularly interest us.

In the mailing lists, there was no way around it: you had to slog through mire to reach anything at all. While the web allows for greater selectivity and wider browsing, established algorithms steer us towards continued dysfunction. Jordan Davis may have closed Equanimity to focus on other projects, but (as usual) I fear the worst. And there's Gary Sullivan's recent comment....

The next innovation in American poetry might better target LangPo's social aspects than its lyric ones.



Mark me as a Luther Blissett story. Sure, I like\love 80% of first-gen LangPo, but would you speak as kindly of the things you rightfully mention to be the actual correlate of the LangPo appellation -- their theory, norms, critical language, self-definition of their practice, analysis of literary history? This aspect wasn't only lackluster, but managed to salt the earth rather thoroughly with unimpeachable dogmas, and as much as I love A.K.A and Sunset Debris it wasn't worth it.

It *isn't* worth it, even. Which is why I'm halfway to goodbye poetry hello video-games, and even though I probably won't, I'll always feel a little miserably about my field of interest\study in a way I never thought I would before I discovered that the guy who wrote Tjanting has essays.


A God's mask have ye hung in front of you, ye "pure ones": into a God's mask hath your execrable coiling snake crawled.
shiver down the spine


Turbulent Velvet extrapolates.

. . .

When life makes you a lemon, give lemonade

SPOILER WARNING, but I felt Barbellion finished the Journal properly. (And capped it with the best hiatus announcement in proto-blogging history.) Exclamations and expletives aside, odds are high that "Self-disgust" will be my last thought as well. Although of course one tries to avoid directly addressing a topic that forces polite bystanders to dredge up ineffective protests: it's dull and egocentric and even deadlier to conversation than say dreams or SAT scores or incomes.

The need to not quite express oneself leads I guess to writing but that hardly settles how much is not quite enough. Witness the "careers" of Barbellion or Henry Adams or Jean Eustache or so many others.... Three days ago for example I finished Dickinson's Misery despite the title. (Its true name is Dickinson's Genre. Virginia Walker Jackson justifies "Misery" as a generic metonym, like "Stars" or "Trillion Year" on a book about science fiction , but "Arch Playfulness" marks the same genre just as well, so tush.) While its argumentation may be knotty, it's not the usual loopy; anyway, the real joy's in the archival contextualizations and complications which re-establish Dickinson as unknowable: an Open and therefore Shut Case.

Yesterday for another example I finished an iffy novel by B. S. Johnson, an experiment marred by sloppy procedure, a eulogy uninterested in its subject, instead that imitable B. S. Johnson self-loathing, very understandable too, or "surprisingly accessible" as the critics say, it's the Malcolm Lowry problem, ha, he follows on Joyce and Beckett, but without the grasping or the distancing, we're flipping pages in his head, a fine fat one, still no room to breathe, we know how that ends.

Back to me though, about eighteen years ago for example I emerged upon a new plateau of despair and not long after began to write and then to publish. The triggers are clear enough; the motives are questionable. Just a week ago for example while I was in a frenzy of fatuous blundering the question arose. I have two pat answers and this being a social occasion I deployed the social one: I write to meet people. Now clearly that's false: I wrote before I met people, I write without meeting people, if these are advertisements for myself then they're the sort of ads that never mention what the product does. No, the primary motive must be my other pat answer, to get verbal structures "out of my head." But as I commented to Mr. Waggish ten days ago "out" is a vague word, and what I mean by the pat answer I used I guess is that meeting people is the only reward I receive from writing, which in turn determines the particular type of "out" I'm in: commercial writing pays too little, an academic position would make me go Stanford, and the thrill of seeing my name in print lasts thirty seconds to be followed by years of sore regret over my inability to edit the bylined piece, the unnecessary expense for readers who won't like it, and the unlikelihood of it ever reaching readers who will. Not that I don't suffer sore regret after meeting people but, you know, it's by far the best of the lot.

In conclusion then, The Unfortunates is another, Dickinson's Misery is good, Barbellion is better, and give me a call.


Call?! I'll see you and raise you!
next time I'm in California, I will.

Holy crap, it works!

. . .

They Saved Dickinson's Brain

The one part of Raymond Tallis's polemic I left uncheered was its Axis-of-Evil association of neuroscience-based foolishness with "Theory"-based foolishness. The intersection of "writers classified as Theory" and "writers I follow" offers no support, and most cognitive-aesthetics bosh I've seen was written by Theory-bashers. (Unless I count. I don't count, do I? ... do I?)

Well, I haven't been following Sabine Sielke, who's just transported Derrida's structural trademark "I wrote these words on a bar napkin last night so they must be very important but I can't for the life of me remember why" into a new era:

What, then, does it mean to "re-cognize Dickinson"? And why re-cognize the poet in the first place? ... In some way, we have always been and cannot help re-cognizing Emily Dickinson.

I look forward to her take on re-ader re-sponse studies.

But given the essay's many admiring citations of Camille Paglia, we might still need a broader label for that brush. How about "foolishness at large"?


For an alternative application of neuroscience to poetry criticism, see (possibly with the aid of your friendly local pirate) Hisao Ishizuka.

. . .

The Secondary Source Review : Two Correctives

Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young

Terrible title; slightly misleading subtitle. Jordan-Young isn't fool enough to take on the entire "science of sex differences" armed only with thoroughness and rigor. Instead she surveyed a single research topic the determination of stereotypically gendered behavior by prenatal hormones and that proved enough to fill thirteen years and three hundred pages.

Of course Jordan-Young's chosen slice and the broader headline-whoring community draw from a common store of techniques. For example, the grossly tendentious summary, whereby "All the children preferred to play with the truck, but truck-deprived children who picked up a doll were slightly more likely to be girls" becomes "Men are hard-wired to be mechanics and women are hard-wired to be nurturing." And the whatever looks good at the buffet approach to confirmation: a miscellany of self-evidently sexually linked characteristics is compared to the particular evidence at hand; positive correlations are reported, negatives discarded; and the winnowing vanishes behind the paper's title. Particulars may never be successfully replicated, but that's just nit-picking; the titular beast thrives on.

In a few respects, though, the hormonal shtick is instructively unique.

  1. Killjoys might blather all we like about purported "facts" like the cultural specificity of gender-keyed colors or the tendency of homosocial communities to consider womanizers effeminate, yeah yeah whatever that's not science! Where's our nonlinear regression?

    Stereotyping hormonalists have been churning out text for a century now, and the brain organization theory targeted by Jordan-Young was introduced in the year of my own chemically-imbalanced birth, 1959. That makes it by far the most venerable line of current research and therefore most firmly established but also most vulnerable to social change.

    When, for example, early researchers managed to correlate higher IQ scores to one set of subjects, they would describe that population as "more masculine." What was significant evidence for them would become insignificant noise to their successors, disadvantaged by the revelation that men in the general population didn't really test higher after all.

    And early research described women who weren't particularly interested in sex or sexual fantasies (involving men or anyone else) and never experienced orgasm as more feminine than freaky chicks who fucked around or masturbated. Whereas by the mid-1970s good girls and boys had other expectations, and asexuality began to count as less heterosexual/feminine/normal rather than more.

    But, as Jordan-Young shows, later paper-writers and popularizers would continue to cite these earlier papers as if they were supportive rather than contradictory. Pluralism had infected SCIENCE ITSELF!!1!

  2. Still, a lot of studies report some significant differences in prenatal-hormonally-divided populations. Crediting the integrity (within limits) and validity (within limits) of those studies, is there any way a single biological factor might genuinely sway social behavior in one direction at one time, yet in another direction at another time?

    Well, if the biological factor attracted unusual attention to a child's sex, and if extraordinary attention influences behavior, then one might expect some deviation from expected sexual norms even while expectations change. What do I mean by "extraordinary attention"? Consider:

    The vast majority of women and girls with classic CAH, even in fairly recent studies, have had clitoral surgeries [and] have either impaired clitoral sensation or no sensation at all.... for most women with CAH, vaginal penetration is painful.... In a very large study that is now more than twenty years old, Mulaikal and colleagues found that the sexual orientation and activity women reported was more closely related to their vaginal condition than to the degree of prenatal androgen.... Medical visits every three or four months are often considered necessary to monitor children's hormone levels as well as their response to treatment. As Karkazis documents, girls with CAH, as well as their parents, often experience the genital scrutiny as "intrusive and dehumanizing."

This feels like a nice solid piece of work which (as you probably already realize) did not achieve New York Times Number One Best Sellerdom or win blurbs from our leading bullshit artists. Was Jordan-Young's analysis fatally flawed? Probably not; the most negative critique I've found goes "We wish she'd written about more flattering things and oh hey look over there at that other book, man, that's a bad book, in conclusion why do these women write such bad books?"

No, most likely the fate of Brain Storm was determined from its very conception, and by that I don't just mean the terrible title:

A long time ago I was asked to analyze a sex survey conducted by a popular magazine, and the editor was especially interested in comparing the interests and behavior of men and women.... When he finally said to me, "People don't buy this magazine to learn something, they like to confirm what they already know" I knew it was time to withdraw from the project.

* * *

Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century
by Cristanne Miller

A densely researched, rationally argued, and slightly miscellaneous contextualizing of Dickinson's techniques, subject matters, and career path by a writer with clear mind-mouth-ears-&-throat, access to large libraries, plenty of patience, and a healthily congenial attitude towards those she disagrees with. If she somehow neglects to cite this seminal-in-my-dreams Valve effusion, well, I confess to having missed some of her prior art as well.


Peli points out:
Cordellia Fine's 'Delusions of Gender' came out at almost the exact same time and got a lot of buzz/praise, and is a very good book.

Yeah, but it looked (and looks) a bit poppy for my taste more what I like to write than what I like to read. Pretty much on that basis it's the whipping-book of the "negative critique" I linked to; their complaint about Jordan-Young, on the other hand, is that she didn't shift her focus from claims about human sexual orientation and stereotyped social behavior to less embarrassing and more useful research that she wanted to write this volume rather than some other.

. . .

An Integral

Gypsy by Carter Scholz, PM Press (2015)

The enormous weight of the waft which was quite light was the thing that kept me contained in my perfect state which was as good as the state of any other thing before it is broken.
- Madeline Gins
Hold on to what you got but don't let go. Don't let it go.
- Bo Diddley

This is a soft time to write future history. Our post-1980 vector's so well defined and so evenly accelerating; we've so clearly passed "If this goes on" and entered "As it will be."

Too soft to support hard science fiction, or at least too soft to support the supersized undertested battleships which have served as its principal transport since, oh, say 1980. What's your rusty debris worth without a hero's journey? Where's your rotting corpse's character arc? And the three-act structure? Where are the next eight hundred pages?

There were once other ways to make the trip, still choosable if not necessarily profitable. For his first hard science fiction publication Carter Scholz went old-school.

By his own account, he was old-schooled. Like me, Scholz "grew up and was educated during the Cold War, when math and science education were priorities." There was a certain fogginess about utility then, before our rulers successfully separated education-for-maximal-exploitation from the chaff of pure-science truth and high-culture beauty I think they call it "rationalization"? Those were the irrationally unexuberant years when, as mentioned on the fourth page of Gypsy, someone like Louis Zukofsky could find a stable day-job at Brooklyn Polytechnic.

Passing references to poets are themselves a bit old-school in fiction: Shakespeare or Eliot for titles; Dickinson or Blake for epigraphs; Villon or Rimbaud for stock characters. Louis Zukofsky is an unusual choice, though.

Zukofsky's poetry wasn't widely available until the late 1960s. Back in 1978, the year of his death and the year his long "poem of a life," "A", was published, niche readers like myself and (I suppose) Scholz still thought it likely Zukofksy's brand of difficulty would follow the Modernist course of things and become, if not widely known, then about as widely known as twentieth-century poetry gets. It never happened. His niche readership now is probably no larger than his niche readership in 1978. Rather than poetic heroism triumphant, Zukofsky exemplifies th'expense of spirit in a waste of craft, sloughed off by posterity as insufficiently instantaneously rewarding.

At any rate, Louis Zukofsky's name does not appear after the fourth page of Gypsy.

* * *

Before turning even to the first page, readers will know Gypsy as a throwback by sheer lack of heft. Classic science fiction's markets were magazines and cheap paperbacks. A novella sells either/both, and novellas like Scholz's therefore became the classically approved dosage of mindblowing science fiction. (Longer volumes such as Asimov's Foundation trilogy would be constructed from semi-autonomous novellas and short stories, an assemblage known as a fix-up and carrying its own stylistic markers.)

As for three-act structures, an equally viable narrative strategy is available in hard science fiction's native version of the picaresque: one-damn-thing-after-another whack-a-bug-make-a-bug problem solving, drawing straight from the genre's turpentine-soaked roots in hobbyist magazines. Hollywood itself recalled that formula into service for two of its best recent spectacles, and that's how Carter Scholz builds Gypsy.

Although Scholz gives "Earth's first starship" every reasonable break, it finds (as it reasonably must) problems sufficient to his purpose. By way of comparison, consider our national attempts at an oceanic habitat, summarized by Ellen Prager in Chasing Science at Sea:

The U.S. Navy's first undersea laboratory, Sealab I, sank twice and filled with water before a successful launch in 1964 in the Bahamas. A tropical storm then halted the Sealab mission after only eleven days, although it was supposed to have lasted for three weeks. [...] Hydrolab also had its share of problems in the beginning, including one 25-mile (40-km) trip out into the Gulf Stream after breaking loose in a storm. [...] During decompression, when the air pressure inside the habitat was decreased, the internal air inside the toilet's holding tank not only expanded, it literally exploded, splattering its contents all over the entry trunk of the habitat.

A breathable atmosphere was within reach of Sealab; Gravity had Earth (and video-game physics); The Martian had NASA (and public funding and international good will). Scholz takes hard-science-fiction's nominal rules at their word, and so Gypsy has, at best, in its hoped-for sequence of events, seventy years of nothing. Pulp self-sufficiency could hardly desire a more congenial home. It is therefore, of course, populated by a secret band of brilliant, dedicated, rebellious, rationalist-if-not-necessarily-rational brethren and sistren with hands-on can-do attitudes; there's even Heinleinisch intervention by a left-behind robber baron.

There's not much Hawksian teambuilding chatter, though. Sustainability requires redundancy for backup; constraints of mass and energy require as quiescent an organic load as possible. Therefore at most one crewmember at a time can be conscious. The book's chain of puzzles must be linked in, as writer Juliet Clark put it, a game of exquisite corpse played against actual corpses.

These P.O.V. transitions provide Scholz ample opportunity to mimic fix-up novels' stock three-asterisk-separated gestures towards excyclopediac range and cosmic sweep, weaving flashbacks, expository passages, back-stories (almost aways of refugees, almost tautologically: anyone who reaches adulthood must have survived something to get there) and monologues, of course, monologues: little self-pep-talks, little cries-on-one's-own-shoulder, simulated second-guessing, checking off the list, working shit out....

As decades pass, and glitches and kludges accumulate like a hoarder's maze of newspaper stacks, first delimiting paths and then blocking them, and the spacecraft-and-story Gypsy nears its destination, characters are given more time for reflection, and their monologues shift register. They abstract; their rhetoric is shaped. They become arias of anger, arias of despair, arias of nostalgia. They fit 2016, yes, but to some extent they'd fit 1917, or 404 BC, or 586 BC.

* * *

Gypsy's closing lamentation may not be instantly recognizable even in 2016. I don't know if the initial Locus reviewer saw the same printed letters pass her eyes; we certainly didn't read the same page.

Myself I found it most effective; it led me to write this to you. But how can I explain the effect without snuffing its already-slim chances of replication?

Tossing another kludge on the pyre, then:

That last chorus is a reference but not a quote. A collaboration of sorts between dead author and not-yet-dead writer, but also between immersion in books and immersion in the melting shards of a human-free but human-welcoming world. Its import will be missed entirely by most readers and missed deeply by a very few. "The Happy Few," I want to say; happy in the Stendhalian sense, as in "Happy to have met you" no one would claim we're distinguished by our cheeriness, or by our good fortune, or by much other than our reluctance to trade up.

Even when we're offered sweet fuck-all to trade up to, to return to future history. In his deauthorized transtemporally award-winning story "The Nine Billion Names of God," Scholz editorially queried "That is the real last question: Do we need fiction? Do we need science?" and introducing those two interrogative sentences as a single question was no mistake. The triumphalism of art is as beside the point as the triumphalism of science: Two Cultures, one boat, no Coast Guard.

Going old-school one older, Gypsy brings grounded technophilia's sense-of-wonder back to its source in the Sublime of terror and pain. While a surplus of Big Dumb Objects may have calloused over our shock at the infinite scale of the universe, shock at the infinite scale of our loss snuffs out only with us. Science fiction still has one vacuum-packed export for the stars.

. . .


For the drain doth not drain every day Shakespeare
The grate is strait; I shall not be there. Swinburne

Descended from the plaguey polis, we see stretched before us an expanse of flyblown Hot Takes baked and blanched by the sun, while patchy ungroomed Long Tails twitch and glimmer beneath the rainless orange horizon like a great lake of fuzzy caterpillars. By the barren banks of Babylon, let us sit down.

In this round of Pin the Longer Tail on the Caterpillar, I shall weep of Algernon Charles Swinburne, carrier of the Swinburne verse which infected a broad swathe of English speakers during the late nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth, herd resistance was achieved, and recent studies confirm that a fresh outbreak is unlikely.1

1. What's the deal with Swinburne?

Fifty-five years ago, my eye first passed over Swinburne's peculiar name atop "The Garden of Proserpine," the penultimate of the Little Leather Library's Fifty Best Poems of England (followed by that ne plus ultra in ultra-moderne verse, Francis Thompson's "Arab Love Song": "And thou what needest with thy tribe's black tents / Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?"). It should've made a fine introduction: characteristic in mood and music yet uncharacteristically easy to parse. But until puberty I had no notion of oral pleasure, and I feared sleep (and immersion in cold water, and cats, and children, and beatings pretty much all the Swinburnean goods really), and I preferred the cod-Ecclesiastes of Olive Schreiner's Dreams.

In maturity, however, I was impressed by Henry Adams's introduction to the not-yet-famous poet, at a small dinner hosted by Monckton Milnes:

The fourth was a boy, or had the look of one, though in fact a year older than Adams himself. He resembled in action [...] a tropical bird, high-crested, long-beaked, quick-moving, with rapid utterance and screams of humor, quite unlike any English lark or nightingale. [...]

That Swinburne was altogether new to the three types of men-of-the-world before him; that he seemed to them quite original, wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll, Adams could see; but what more he was, even Milnes hardly dared say. They could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, mediæval, and modern; his faculty of reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backward, from end to beginning; or Dante, or Villon, or Victor Hugo. They knew not what to make of his rhetorical recitation of his own unpublished ballads "Faustine"; the "Four Boards of the Coffin Lid"; the "Ballad of Burdens" which he declaimed as though they were books of the Iliad. [...]

The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last.

Then came the sad reaction, not from Swinburne whose genius never was in doubt, but from the Boston mind which, in its uttermost flights, was never moyenâgeux. One felt the horror of Longfellow and Emerson, the doubts of Lowell and the humor of Holmes, at the wild Walpurgis-night of Swinburne's talk. What could a shy young private secretary do about it? Perhaps, in his good nature, Milnes thought that Swinburne might find a friend in Stirling or Oliphant, but he could hardly have fancied Henry Adams rousing in him even an interest. Adams could no more interest Algernon Swinburne than he could interest Encke's comet. To Swinburne he could be no more than a worm. The quality of genius was an education almost ultimate, for one touched there the limits of the human mind on that side; but one could only receive; one had nothing to give nothing even to offer.

(Fifty-four years later into his own life, Adams still mumbled Swinburne's tenacious word-tunes:

Today, the death of Harry James makes me feel the need of a let-up;2 I must speak to some one.... Not only was he a friend of mine for more than forty years, but he also belonged to the circle of my wife's set long before I knew him or her, and you know how I have clung to all that belonged to my wife. I have been living all day in the seventies. Swallow, sister! sweet sister swallow! indeed and indeed, we really were happy then.
- Henry Adams to Elizabeth Cameron,
1 March 1916)

Then, in late middle age, I was moved by Jerome McGann's career-long efforts from 1972's Experiment in Criticism through 2004's massive (and discriminatorily priced) selected works to rehabilitate Swinburne's reputation. I encountered his parodies, which displayed self-awareness and made a pleasing noise, and was encouraged.

And so, upon senescence and retirement, I resolved to figure out what was up with Algernon Charles Swinburne anyway huh?

2. What's the deal with Swinburne?

I started as usual: top of the body of the text, subvocalizing down the lines, letting them dictate the pace. It quickly became manifest that Swinburne, like the Stooges, wanted to be played loud, and so I and my new playmate moved outside, where occasional bursts of muttering or worse would cause less disruption.

Pace presented a stickier problem. Each afternoon I'd set out well, with a measure of swing, and then, within a page or two, go off track. As one who seeks the spiritual renewal of a scenic walk, and ventures into a monotonous landscape in which every second step skids against ice or flat-foots into a sinkhole of slush, and who pauses again and increasingly again to reconfirm the obstinate distance yet to travel before one's targeted landmark, and who finally gives way and retreats, unrefreshed and a bit demoralized, so was I before Major Poems and Selected Prose.

This went on for weeks before I found the problem.

Swinburne's poetic themes are few. Swinburne's poetic vocabulary is slightly archaic, mostly monosyllabic, and very limited. (All soft things are snow-soft; snow has no attributes other than softness.) Swinburne's verbal music rhythms, alliterations, rhymes, elaborate set patterns, the whole shebang and shboom is in your face and all over the place; more insistent than Yeats, than Spenser, than Edgar Allen Poe or Vachel Lindsay for chrissakes. And Swinburne plays that music long; once he got started, the guy would not stop; he just keeps blowing, good stanza, vapid stanza, pivot-on-an-ambiguous-pronoun stanza, doesn't matter so long as they're coming.

All of which encourages the clueless reader to accelerate. And that's how the clueless reader stumbles, because Swinburne allowed himself one complexity amidst all this simplicity: sentence structure. While the syntax stayed transparent, I'd drift into the warm fuzz of noise, start to nod off, then be jolted awake and realize I'd completely lost my way.

Other Swinburne readers have struggled in similar fashion, and some would have warned me, given half a chance. I'll cite Morse Peckham's 1970 account at length since it's otherwise inaccessible:

Swinburne is at once an extraordinarily seductive poet and an extraordinarily difficult one. Because of this his charm has been dismissed over and over again, an untold number of times, as simply a matter of “word-music”: in Swinburne, it is alleged, there is nothing but a leaping rhythm that hurls you along and a completely irresponsible use of the various devices of euphony (or more precisely, phonic over-determination), particularly alliteration. He is recognized to be the greatest virtuoso of sound in English poetry, but that prodigious technique, it is asserted, is entirely without foundation or justification, for Swinburne says nothing.

It is not always recognized that the major Victorian poets are in fact difficult poets. To be sure, everyone knows that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ work is difficult; so difficult that many think of him still as a “modern poet,” though what of his technique he did not learn from Browning he learned from Swinburne. Arnold is admittedly quite transparent; Tennyson seems to be transparent to the point of simple-mindedness, but in fact is an exceedingly subtle, devious, and baffling writer. It is obvious that much of Browning is very difficult indeed, but the most difficult works of Browning are, for the most part, unread even by Victorian specialists, and are generally, though quite unjustifiably, dismissed. But the advantage of Browning over Tennyson is that he looks difficult, and over Swinburne that it is obvious that he is saying something. Swinburne, by contrast, seems to be almost contentless. Yet he is not. Quite the contrary . The difficulty of Browning, like the difficulty of Hopkins, is a difficulty of syntactic compression and distortion. Swinburne also offers a syntactic difficulty, but one of quite a different order. The effect of monotony comes not primarily from the unflagging splendor of the rhythm or the obviously beautiful sound, but rather from the fact that Swinburne constructs his sentences by building them up of long syntactic sub-units; the first sentence of Atalanta, for example, is sixteen lines long. What he exploits are the possibilities of parallel syntactic structure. The effect is that the unpracticed reader loses control over the syntax. In Hopkins and Browning the extreme use of elision and syntactic distortion confuses the reader. There is not, so to speak, enough syntactic redundance to keep the reader oriented. But in Swinburne there is too much syntactic redundance. In this he resembles to a certain extent Milton; but the difficulty of reading Milton comes from trying to follow a syntactic style of dependent syntactic units, while Swinburne exploits the possibilities of disorienting the reader by presenting him with parallel structures so far apart that it is difficult to remember and grasp their syntactical relationship. The consequence with all four of these poets is that the reader untrained in their syntactic styles loses semantic control. Yet he knows, at least, that Hopkins, Browning, and Milton are saying something; but Swinburne further confuses him by offering a continuum of beautiful sound which seems to have no relationship to anything at all. The result is that for the first three, the unpracticed reader, though baffled, is at least aware that he is not understanding what is before him, but with Swinburne he rapidly comes to the conclusion that there is nothing to understand.

To learn to read Swinburne it is necessary, therefore, to resist with all one’s power both the seductiveness of the rhythm and the seductiveness of the phonic character. One must read him slowly, very slowly. The mind must always remain focused intensively on the task of comprehending the syntax, of grasping how the parallel syntactic sub-units fit into the larger sentence construction; and it must do this as they come along, in the order in which the poem offers them. It may be said that there is at every cultural level an upward limit to both the complexity and the length of the syntactic structure that may be comprehended. Obviously, the higher the cultural level, the greater the complexity and the length of the syntactical structure that can be grasped. But the fact is that today the general simplification and deterioration of the cultural milieu have meant that most people are not exposed even in prose to much opportunity for extending the range of their syntactic grasp. The power to extemporize extremely long and complex syntactic structures with an extensive use of parallelisms is rapidly disappearing, and has been for some time; and at the higher cultural levels the sentence fragment, which presents precisely the opposite difficulty from Swinburne’s, has long been a standard device in both verse and prose. The first task, then, of the reader of Swinburne is to train himself by extending very far indeed the upward limit of his range of syntactic comprehension. The problem is analogous to that presented by Bruckner’s symphonies, which seem too long for people who have trained themselves on shorter symphonies, but are not a moment too long for those who have developed their capacity to maintain their attention span during a symphonic movement that lasts half an hour.

But when the reader who wishes to come to terms with Swinburne has conquered this difficulty—and it takes both time and a great deal of rereading to do so—he is faced with still further problems.

- Morse Peckham, "Introduction" to
Poems and Ballads / Atalanta in Calydon

Although Peckham describes the issue well, I can't recommend his proposed remedy. For myself, so long as I stubbornly maintained my straight stride down the path of the pages with no retracing of steps, reading "very slowly" proved ineffective: I became just as lost but even more exasperated.

Instead, at the start of each new syntactic unit, I began glancing ahead, silently, at its end, to get some notion of the terrain before blundering into it.



3. What was Swinburne's deal?

My life has been eventless and monotonous; like other boys of my class, I was five years at school at Eton, four years at college at Oxford; I never cared for any pursuit, sport, or study, as a youngster, except poetry, riding and swimming; and though as a boy my verses were bad enough, I believe I may say I was far from bad at the two latter. Also being bred by the sea I was a good cragsman,3 and am vain to this day of having scaled a well-known cliff on the South coast, ever before and ever since reputed to be inaccessible. Perhaps I may be forgiven for referring to such puerilities, having read (in cuttings from more than one American journal) bitterly contemptuous remarks on my physical debility and puny proportions.
- Swinburne to E. C. Stedman, February 20, 1875

Swinburne understated the case. He didn't just swim: he swam outrageously, fearlessly, alarmingly into the coldest, deepest, most treacherous waters he could find. He didn't just ride: he galloped like a Dionysian centaur and had the broken bones to prove it.

And, because he was writing to an unknown American instead of an old crony, he also undercounted: he was notoriously just as "far from bad" at being whipped and getting drunk.

As Swinburne himself suggests, these high-risk behaviors are all ways by which a small tremulous slightly-built countertenor might assert his masculinity. But more to the point, I think, they're also all recognizable ways to (in present-day jargon) self-medicate a painfully manic case of ADHD by forcing focus upon the here and now.

As I expressed it at thirty years old, I really did want to get away from fiction and into something real. I'd spent ten years writing fantasy and I wanted to be in some kind of situation whereby if you made a mistake, what would happen to you would be real. That was the way I expressed it to myself: that if you fall off a rock climb above a certain height, something very real will happen to you. [...] The greatest thing about rock climbing is that if you suffer anxiety it gives you a reason. You know, your day really fires up when you're eighty feet above the ground and things are going wrong and you suddenly think, Wow, I've got a reason to be worried for today. It's a fantastic relief to have a reason to feel anxiety.
- M. John Harrison in conversation with Mariana Enriquez

The applicable jargon of Swinburne's own time comes to us through an at-fourth-hand diagnosis of his uncontrollable twitching, trembling, and jerking:

It made me unhappy to see what trouble he had in managing his knife and fork. Watts-Dunton told me on another occasion that this infirmity of the hands had been lifelong had begun before Eton days. The Swinburne family had been alarmed by it and had consulted a specialist, who said that it resulted from ‘an excess of electric vitality,’ and that any attempt to stop it would be harmful. So they had let it be.
- And Even Now by Max Beerbohm

While essential tremor is no longer explained by "electric vitality," it remains untreatable, and marks the spazz as a social oddity from childhood on. Any initial awkwardness would have been intensified by Swinburne's other difficult-to-diagnose ailment, early-onset deafness. And that eventually overwhelming self-consciousness seems to have been what triggered Swinburne's near-suicidal binges (as well as his marathon monologues): when cozily secured with intimates or left to his own devices, Swinburne stayed sober; moved into urban sociality, he quickly got blotto.

No matter how we choose to clump these personal traits, their aggregate is familiar enough. Born into similar privilege a hundred years later, Swinburne would've raced cars or tested planes or OD'd. He needed to drown the unspeakable noise in his head, needed to drown the unparsable noise from outside it, even at the risk of drowning himself. What distinguishes Swinburne from fellow jitterbugs, and from the canonical poets who scorned him in the twentieth century, was his reliance on incarnate versifying whether recited or improvised as the most sustainable of his high-risk behaviors.

Outside the Modernist canon, I find some context even for that. Masters of freestyle will emit occasional sonorous ambiguities or nonsense; maximalists of flow never know when to take the horn out of their mouth. As Swinburne swam beyond his depth, climbed above his height, drank himself past consciousness, and was flogged within a quarter-inch of his life, so he needed to write too much if he was to write at all.

4. What wasn't?

Outside books I've hardly heard anything about Swinburne, and when I did it was dubious.

Anyone expecting a hero of gay pride will be disappointed, or awfully selective in their reading. Swinburne's only definitely established sexuality consisted of masochism, and although as a practical matter it didn't matter much who swished the birch, a preference for male beauty doesn't seem to have been one of the marks left by Eton: his published fantasies put women in charge, his privately expressed polite demurrals and homophobic slurs sound genuine enough, and his "actual admiration of Lesbianism" is hardly counterevidence. Poetically he positioned himself with Baudelaire, Gautier, Hugo, and the Rossettis rather than Symons, Whitman, Pater, or Wilde.

Nor, so far as accessible evidence takes me, did Swinburne quite follow the reactionary path laid down by Southey and Wordsworth. It's true that his first-written (but second-published) book caused a scandal and his third called for bloody revolutions, whereas later collections were far more soothing to his family and the rest of the British establishment. But his anti-colonialism had never extended to British colonies; he always idealized English military action, particularly at its most disastrous; he was always drawn to babies and children; he always idolized Shakespeare. The shift in his publications didn't reflect changes in his beliefs or preferred themes so much as which of those themes found expression at any one time.

Even those switches of filter or booster weren't the result of independent evolution. Despite his vehemence and bellicosity, Swinburne was eminently pliable.4 You could pick him up, plop him down in a different direction or location, and he'd accept it as readily as a good zombie or a good dog. When he was so drunk as to risk arrest, a cab would deposit him at Ford Madox Brown's, the servants would toss him into a bathtub and then into bed, and he'd receive all as his due. When Theodore Watts-Dunton transplanted him to the Pines for the rest of his life, he took the change for granted. Oh, we're sharing a house now? It's very nice here. Water, not whisky? Lovely. You won't mind if I scrape some toast in for flavor?

Thus, during the period in which Baudelaire and the Pre-Raphaelites were his peers, Swinburne scandalized; when Swinburne met Giuseppe Mazzini, he revolutionized; and at the Pines Watts-Dunton encouraged sedate respectability.

Watts-Dunton only stifled so much, though. Swinburne's sex-positive Tristram of Lyonesse may have represented a more fundamental assault on Victorian mores than any vampiric femme fatale, and, around the time his name was proposed for a post-Tennyson laureateship, he publicly called for the assassination of the Queen's cousin:

God or man, be swift; hope sickens with delay:
Smite, and send him howling down his father's way!
Fall, O fire of heaven, and smite as fire from hell
Halls wherein men's torturers, crowned and cowering, dwell!
- "Russia: An Ode"

And from first volume to last, Swinburne attacked the church any church.

He fell into facile writing, and he accepted a facile compromise for life; but no facile solution for his universe. His unbelief did not desert him; no, not even in Putney.
- "Swinburne versus his Biographers" by Ezra Pound

5. What's the big deal?

In 1918 Pound very judiciously wrote that "No one else has made such music in English, I mean has made his kind of music [...] At any rate we can, whatever our verbal fastidiousness, be thankful for any man who kept alive some spirit of paganism and of revolt in a papier-mâché era, in a time swarming with Longfellows, Mabies, Gosses, Harrisons." However, many things can be unique without seeming worth the cost of extraction, and we're no longer threatened by Longfellow and Gosse, much less by whoever "Mabie" and that not-M.-John "Harrison" were.

Peckham promises we can learn "why for sixty years or so people of intelligence, learning, and exquisite taste thought Swinburne a great poet, and why a few people think so today," and is likely to meet similar objections.

Mark Scroggins proposes "the intensity with which Swinburne evokes erotic desire and the conjunction of pleasure and pain," and his poetry's "lush, hypnotic music, its ever-shifting deployment of a fairly restricted vocabulary, leading us through a series of emotional states, laying out in shimmering overlays a series of symbols that can induce in us a new relationship to the 'real' world of objects." (Or, as Yeats wrote and McGann later quoted, "hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.")

I have no inclination to argue with any of that, but neither do I feel the same responses. I stubbornly remain as untransfigured by his symbols as by Blake's or Yeats's, and although young Swinburne's scandalous ditties are catchy and funny, their wicked ladies and sweet sweet dead-leper lovin' strike me as received fantasies; I'm not even sure he'd fully grasped the mechanics of the thing. (Do humans really need their lips bitten through to reach orgasm? Isn't that otters or something?) He'd worked the details out by Tristram, but it's harder to quote Tristram.

In 2004 Jerome McGann found a way to reformulate some of Swinburne's self-evident flaws as virtues:

a type of phenomenal awareness that is perhaps unique in English literature [...] a drama of poetic subjectivity diffusing into the language as such [...] as in life, its meanings spread and mutate and transform under our own pursuit. To read him is to be reminded that a full awareness of even the simplest human experience is unachievable. [...] The dissolution is scarcely to be observed, however, lest one imagine that it could be understood by being seen. It is understood, rather, by being undergone. To read these poems is necessarily to be swept away by tactile and auditional immediacies

Back in 1972, dropping into his own voice for the epilogue to his academic drama, McGann sounded less detached:

Swinburne has not merely given his thought and attention to all disastrous things, he has given them his heart. His world, moving though its ruinations, is a disaster redeemed only, but always, by an equally disastrous love. For Swinburne, the fidelity of such a love is witnessed most eloquently in art, where the presence of beauty is man’s best witness of the deep care in which he holds everything that is lost to him and to all men. [...] Such passages haunt one not merely for their exquisite beauty, but for the fact that they are about being haunted. At the center of both is a heart which forgets nothing, no matter how swiftly things pass or how long they are gone; and which forgets nothing not because he cannot but because he would not.

Share his sentiment or not, that added risk, the risk of sounding heartfelt, seems key. No one who thinks poetry should be written like Strunk-and-Whited-out prose, without repetition or ambiguity or grammatical irregularities no one like Ford Madox Ford, who straightforwardly confessed to disliking all English verse written before Pound and Eliot will ever feel, or have, a need to wrest pleasure out of this stuff, and "bully for them."

More generally he'll never be for the cool, laid back, or dignified. I heard a good writer call him a "clown car." That's fair. Swinburne was a weirdo, and although his poems stopped being scandals they're still embarrassments. After everything changed in 1910, he would never be taken up communally, was always only going to be an eccentric taste. If I (not "we") want to describe the attraction, I have to get personal.

Writing/speaking as a particularity, then, I've come to appreciate the corporeal experience of the reading itself, and two of Swinburne's most persistent and distinctive themes: his championship of mere mortality, and his passion for the sea. As John D. Rosenberg says, those two themes meld. Swinburne's love for the sea was carnal, spiritual, all-consuming; his devotion demanded full-body contact. Other poets pay tribute from shore or shipboard; none writes so approvingly of ocean-eroded cemeteries.

Although I won't follow Swinburne into literal deep waters, I can enter (not necessarily comfortably) his resentment of theistic abstraction, his inability to represent material particulars, and his reliance on the materiality of voice to gesture at their ecstatic (or agonizing, or embarrassing, or irritatingly repetitious) effects. Writing/speaking from a myopic body which meets the world nose first and mouth open, I warmly and wetly second Rosenberg's introductory remarks:

Swinburne is a poet not of natural objects but of natural energies of winds and surging waters. His scale is macrocosmic, his focus [...] less upon things seen than forces felt. At times he is nearly a blind poet, all tongue and ear and touch.

What else seems germane? I don't play video games, and if I did, they'd incapacitate me quicker than rock climbing. I'm retired and can spare the time. I'm oral/aural and can feel the noize. I'm a socially awkward humanist and head-in-the-clouds materialist who can use a hymnal. As I pace within our vermin-blasted garden, mouthing off the verses, their current pulls me offshore; the weave of breath and stroke begins to snarl and splash; the rhythm gallops apace and faster, a bit too fast; I jerk at the reins; I even break a mild sweat. For a second or so I inhabit Swinburne's experience of verse, an immersive adventure sport in words.

Or maybe it's the plague; I haven't been tested in a while.

Next: J. Gordon Faylor!

1.   Davis, "Scanners vs. Swinburne", Bellona Times Science Supplement, 13 October 2020. Subjects were selected based on self-attested tolerance for poetry. A concentrated dose of Swinburne was filtered of generically aversive content (paeans to infants and British imperialism; doggerel about flogging; particularly redundant stretches) and distributed. Only two subjects expressed willingness to consume the sample. Both reported initial mild discomfort followed by swift and complete elimination.

2.   I pray that Henry James's spirit had attained sufficient detachment to enjoy Adams's tribute:

Mr. James when he had occasion to mention Mr. Swinburne would do so with positive sparks of indignation welling from his dark and luminous eyes, his face rigid with indignation.... I do not know what the poet of the Pines can have done to him; Mr. James would be almost speechless with indignation. I never heard him otherwise be immoderate. And with real fury he would imitate Swinburne’s jerky movements, jumping up and down on his chair, his hands extended downwards at his sides, like a soldier at attention, hitching himself sideways and back again on the chair seat and squeaking incomprehensibly in an injurious falsetto....

No! I never knew what so excited the Old Man, though I have often reflected on the subject. [...] I cannot imagine that Mr. James ever cherished a secret passion for Adah Menken!

I have come to the conclusion that it was the natural antipathy that the indoor man of tea-parties must feel for the outrageous athlete, clean-boned, for ever on the seashore or longing to be there. Mr. James indeed exploded with an almost apoplectic fury when I once raised my voice and said that Mr. Swinburne was one of the strongest the most amazingly strong swimmers of his day. I remember recounting, to rub it in, my anxiety on the shores of the Isle of Wight when Mr. Swinburne had disappeared in the horizon on a rough day, amongst the destroyers and battleships and liners and tramps... disappeared and then reappeared hours after, walking with his light, swinging step over the sand dunes a mile behind my back.... Yes, he could swim... and be made a wonder of....

- Portraits from Life by Ford Madox Ford

3.   "Cragsman" is clearly the proper word and should have become standard English usage, even if it's a bit too spot-on for M. John Harrison's magnificently abraded Climbers.

4   Swinburne's many tributes to prepubescents suggest a sense of fellowship with their own lability, their look of being perpetually overwhelmed, and perhaps their inability to maintain a civilized conversation.


FWIW, I wouldn't have self-reported my clinical outcome as "complete elimination"; Algy and I disagree on a lot, but anyone who defies the odds like that writing Greek tragedy in English can come to my party if he wants to. Thanks for giving me the chance to temper my earlier assessment of "another goddamn Pre-Raphaelite." -pk

Way to bum my low, dude. But I'm glad you got something out of it. After all, a lot of eminences found Keats embarrassing, too. Maybe Swinburne, even, since he mostly wrote about Blake and Shelley. An apparent (from this angle) oddity that I didn't look into much was Swinburne's championship of Walter Savage Landor, Matthew "NO SHAKESPEARE! NO KEATS!" Arnold, and young Thomas Hardy, none of whom seem (from this angle) like natural pairings.

If I live long enough (a modifier which might call for Blakean amendment) I do intend to launch a similar assault on Christina Rossetti. Everyone who can stand to read her (including Swinburne) claims her music is lovely.

Write a line? Ritalin!

A lady came in for some stimulant.
    I asked her what kind she'd adore.
"Adderall, please," so I added 'er all.
    Now I don't count there anymore.

Heh, actually I love Christina Rossetti! It's just the dudes (esp. painter dudes) in that circle. I mean, singsong.html#ifam -pk/metameat

As I suspected, Christina Rossetti does a better job with children, just as Kipling's a better jingoist and Shelley and Bryon better revolutionaries. On English nineteenth-century secular masochism, though, Swinburne's hard to beat.

Ford was crazy about Christina Rossetti, even if he disliked all other English verse from before his time. (But where did he say that?)

He labors to give that impression in the Swinburne chapter of Portraits from Life, which splits between youthful reminiscences of the man and bluff dismissals of the poetry, but I gather that Ford's discursive prose like Swinburne's, and Pound's and Eliot's, and, hmm, an awful lot of writers' could cheerfully exaggerate for effect. Earlier in the volume, he proposes a list of Desert Island Books in which Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson are the only poets.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.