Michael Robbins sounds a lot like pentametron.
Getting fixated on Liberation Philology apps.
Sitting on the tube guessing Old Norse words + forms madly satisfying.
Can I learn Old Norse on the quiet while sitting in an office?
Let’s find out.
Tomorrow: I change my mind and learn Gothic instead.
Wednesday: No, you know what, Python would be practical.
I mean… I think lit culture has pretty firmly reconstituted itself at this point. Lots of places running long-form pieces, people talking about books everywhere, the big British institutions (apart from the TLS) solidly on the web, civilised conversational communities if you know where to look… there really is absolutely no reason to worry whatsoever – it’s still ticking along, it’s all still going and in fifty years time a cadre of intense young men will definitely be writing 4,500-word pieces rediscovering (Abiezer Coppe|Christopher Smart|William Gerhardie) for almost no money.
I think we’ve found our own way of being boring too. Ponderous lucubrations about DFW or the central Europeans.
Me? I’ve retired. Every evening I sit in my armchair and read aloud passages from Paradise Lost in a Lumpy Space Princess voice. It passes the time.
Poetry. I read the two coming-man collections, enjoying both. Alien vs Predator by Michael Robbins is funny. I said this about it, somewhere:
There’s an intensity of reference that’s a bit exhausting – its’s kind of ‘surprise! surprise! surprise! surprise!’. I’m struggling to get over that, tbh; the moments of going ‘oh Summer Breeze GnR Larkin Ghostface Adorno GrantMorrison etc etc’. I usually find allusion a p limited tool, but the rate and range(*) here are overwhelming, & give the verse its flavour and substance.
Formally it feels a bit samey, like his music is just a bit too narrow. I’m trying to put my finger on what exactly it is, it’s like some fragments of Stevens (Blue Guitar couplets?) or Ashbery maybe, stuck on a loop. He does love the sound of words, but it’s a bit too obvious – the light verse charge very nearly sticks, and looks true over the course of single poems.
So I’m saying that it doesn’t quite get out of the trap of sounding superficial while trying to represent overstimulated superficiality maybe – but I like it more the more I read – the effect of the volume, a mind spinning pointlessly, trying to grab onto things and slipping off them, entertaining itself in whirlwind or falling apart in front of the mass of manufactured stuff, then asserting ‘I’ again before losing track of it. (The major sound-syntax signature of the book, all those sentences starting out with ‘I…’ would be deliberate I guess.) Trying to say something serious but everything turning into a joke.
(*) It’s not really the span of the range that locks my attention, it’s narcissism: white middle class 30-something male who likes pop culture and canonical poetry (The big gap is us/uk.) Feels like someone is close to locking patterns in my head into a music, which makes it more frustrating that this does feel a bit empty, that it’s not quite managing to adhere to the world or to feelings or… i dunno.
Seidel. My ears were off when I was writing that. I didn’t hear just how close he gets to Seidel’s sound.
I like the one from over here too, Sam Riviere’s 81 austerities. I’m not 100% convinced yet, but it’s funny, good to hear that voice – the sketched-out, run-on internet board voice – put clearly on paper.
I read about a third of The Cantos.
I read a lot of Robert Browning.
I read quite a bit of Spanish Civil War verse for some reason. Because Val Cunningham’s anthology is so terrific, maybe? Seems plausible.
I read a fair bit of and about Shakespeare. I thought I might pick up some tutoring to make $ome mad bank, and I figured Shakespeare’s the only one that every single rich little fucker has to sit an exam on. Summary of findings: Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Don Paterson is really great, one of the best books about poetry in recent years. He’s gathering things up and thinking and reading and arguing with critics and chatting away and rhetoric-geeking, and in some ways it’s the normal critical process, but more alive than anything I’ve read in ages. Gets the strangeness of the poems, gets the absorbing, buzzy process of sitting with the sonnets, where you’re surprised then let down then it goes somewhere strange in the middle of a minor poem… I was an enthusiast for this. Contrast: I read a page or two of Prynne’s book on ‘Love III’ by Herbert every now and again, and yeah shit is deep, but Paterson’s a real pleasure.
My plan to become a Shakespeare scholar went wildly off track of course, and I ended up reading Tudor interludes. These are dreadful.
I pick up and start reading and stop reading history books more now. Ronald Hutton’s book on the The English Republic; Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World; Hugh Trevor-Roper essays. I did a lot of this sort of thing, but most of it’s gone from my head for the moment. It’s often quite boring, but I like having this world, the 17th/18th centuries, I can hang out in and that I know my way round but will still surprise me.
I read Debt! The First Two Thousand Years by David Graeber. This was ok, apart from the moment where he claims that saying please and thank you is a bourgeois construct. NO IT IS GOOD MANNERS. I like the debt jubilee suggestion, and his defence of the undeserving poor. Found the thesis persuasive, but I’m always more inclined to a messy anthropological structures-and-power narrative than the magic abstractions of economics.
I actually read Lionel Asbo! It wasn’t very good but it wasn’t very bad. He doesn’t know how to look at England any more, and his imaginary society lacks vigour and detail; still, it was better than The Pregnant Widow.
I reread Success. It is quite good. Maybe even better than quite good. Early Amis has his limits, but this one’s shaped so it doesn’t strike them in quite the ugly way that Dead Babies does.
The best newish novel I read this year was Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. It was funny and extraordinarily well-poised. I was drunkenly trying to articulate something about it the other evening – it’s actually genuinely like Swift in lots of regards, but Swiftian is the wrong adjective because I don’t think it’s ‘excoriating satire’ or whatever people mean when they pluck ‘Swiftian’ from the wordbag; rather it’s a dizzying & ice-cold following-through of a premise, managed with an entirely straight face and an extraordinary style, or perhaps voice. That internal coherence makes it multivalent – so it does put the shiv in to capitalism, or America, or gender relations under capitalism, or male lust, or self-empowerment culture or other things I am entirely sure slid by me. Generous though.
On recommendation of DeWitt at Paperpools, I read The Transfiguration of the Commonplace by Arthur C Danto. This is one of the best books in the world.
HANG ON… That reminds me… I must have read a Muriel Spark novel this year… but which one?
GOT IT! I finished The Bachelors by Muriel Spark (which I actually started a couple of years ago). Yeah, pretty good, which is very very good for anyone else. Stern little set of games played around the corruption and uncertainty of living without institutions, ie it is Catholic.
I read Daniel Deronda. Liked, but maybe not the sort of novel I’m interested in, so I’m not sure I’ve got much useful to say about it. With trad consensus though, and was more engaged by decompressed Jane Austen sections than the quest-for-roots business.
Martin Chuzzlewit though! There’s a book! Wasn’t expecting that much from it, but, really, how the fuck does he do that, how does he do it, the kick into thousand-word thrilling descriptions when little seems to be happening, the booming set pieces that do nothing in particular, the truly hateful villains, just the endless resource of genius. He doesn’t waste time blathering about the nuances of characters’ thoughts, and do you know why? Because LOOK LOOK THERE’S THE WORLD AND IT’S ALIVE AND AMAZING.
Anyway, still a Dickens man it looks like.
I finally read Angel by Elizabeth Taylor. I have no idea why I did not read this before. It is completely excellent.
I read The Green Man by Kinglsey Amis. Lifting what I said about it:
I liked it, but didn’t like it a lot – generically a bit underpowered, not much in the way of fright or rural chills, but I think that would have been fine if there hadn’t been quite so much opinionating kingsley in there, felt like I was getting some man-of-the-world bs – the thing about women/how sex is/how to drink – thrown at me about every few pages (which is def the narrator speaking, and the book is about the narrator’s fucked-upness, partic in those aspects, but all the same feels like KA can never resist dropping an opinion. A challenging opinion)
BUT all sorts of sharp sex/death things going on, and a nice theological turn.
I’m not sure it is that misogynistic really (homophobic though, yes) – it treats the female characters the main guy doesn’t want to go to bed with fairly decently iirc, and elsewhere the confusion and sex is p crucial. It’s on the same old KA men/women traintracks, but he’s a sharp observer.
‘Serious’ moods: I turned the pages of Marcuse, Adorno, Marshall Berman, Bourdieu, Habermas. I have so little to say about this kind of thing!
I tried, I really tried: Nigel Smith’s biography of Andrew Marvell. Dismal unreadable academic prose got in the way, basically. I mean I have been a semi-pro seventeenth century guy in my time and am willing to machete through jungles thick with shitprose if the info is good, and furthermore this is Marvell, a mysterious and astonishing talent who endlessly pulls you back in to both his perfect little boxes and strange sprawls, but it was like a really, really long footnote. (See also Smith’s Literature and Revolution in England, 1640-1660. What subject could be more interesting? What book duller?)
Greek training. Read Aristotle’s Poetics. I’ve spent about three months painfully crawling through The Symposium. First try at a real edition, ie, no faing page crib.
I had a minor psychic collapse about a month ago. The only thing I could read was ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce. It’s obviously the top achievement of literary art.
I am about to go to bed and read Edwin Morgan’s selected poems.
Apologies if strange things pop up in your RSS feeds – I’m just moving server and fiddling with wordpress.
Hello Mr Browning,
I think you are great. Really great. Thank you for writing lots of the best poetry in English, including, but not limited to, ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, ‘Andrea del Sarto’, ‘A Toccata of Gallupi’s’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover'(*).
I set up a thing about you. It was mostly meant as fun, and I suppose it has been, or at least it’s kept me entertained. (By the way, I was delighted when my rips of James Mason reading your poetry were exactly the right length to be mixed with the exact two songs that I’d already thought it might be fun to use. I took it as a sign. Thanks.)
It’s meant I’ve spent the last month or two thinking about you a lot, and reading you. I’ve really enjoyed it. Thanks again.
So, you’re a classic, but not much more than one at the moment, and that bothers me. You’re in the canon, but there are no festivities, no seasons of your works, no big articles in which a minor novelist or thoughtful actor tries to sell you to an indifferent public. I’m a bit out of touch (In the West of Ireland, on a bad internet connection, so excuse the fact-checking and lack of quotes) – so maybe The Essay on Radio 3 is about you this week. But it’s all a bit disappointing. I feel like there’s just a little cadre of fans and maybe a few poems that people know(**), and otherwise you’re in the hands of the academics, God love them.
I don’t get it. You’re dynamite, a poet who absolutely answers to us. You know how we’re all middle class now? (HA! RIGHT!) You’re the pre-eminent English poet of the middle class, & I don’t mean how-the-middle-class-sees-themselves, because if you were you’d be popular, I mean you are the great artist of the urban bourgeoisie, the revolutionary class that Marx told us to learn from, the one that took over and transformed the world, 1688-1900, who built the hegemon we’re trapped in; you’re their/our artist (not a laureate, not telling us what we want to hear) because you are all about the doubts, the terror, the one who gets how everything is collapsing even as it is being built, the contingency of it all, Clive of India about to get a bullet through his skull in a card game, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, a tyrant of compromise and laodicean cowardice…
wait there’s a donkey giving birth in a field nearby, I want to go and have a look.
Cool, the action’s over, everything fine, mother and child are doing well. Donkey foal is bigger than I would have imagined. Took some photos. Where were we?
You seem to know what’s underneath: that it’s all built of private states and private moments and that we justify ourselves, everything by returning to the interior. That we build lives on top of the void with these voices in our head, nagged by these other voices around us, aware that everything can be seen from another perspective. God might vindicate it all, wrap it all up into one big story, but really, who can trust him now?
It’s not that you write about Empire, London commerce, what it is to be ‘modern’ etc, in fact you really don’t – you’re always going crabwise to it – you’re drawn to the Italian city state maybe because it’s the birth of the secular world – banks and scholars and show-off merchants and dubious priests and artists who don’t give a row of buttons about the one holy roman catholic and apostolic church even while living in its shadow (The poleis should suit you, too, but I don’t really know your Greek poems (***)).
Your contemporaries worked hard to make you more sensible than you were, just a poet of bullish optimism and over-active intellect, but you you were always overshooting or undermining. Too particular, too precise, too thrilled by the throng of the world (haha I’m picking up your faults – thrilled, throng – seems that initial alliteration always the first thing that comes out of your toolkit when you’re getting a bit prosy and want to pick things up. Sorry. But the criticism’s coming from a loving place.)
(People say you’re like Dickens sometimes. I think this is largely wrong; you both like grotesques and details but you’re far far better at the interior world than him; more a George Eliot than a Dickens, though it’s deeply disguised.)
(Oh, I’m not saying you’re secretly a fiction writer; that long tradition of trying to cast you as something other than a poet – philosopher, thwarted dramatist, novelist – almost always reveals the person making the claim to be a bit thick about poetry’s capacity, power and history, and not to have really paid attention to your joy in form, love of supererogatory detail and heft of language. Though I accept such claims can be made to draw attention to an aspect of your poetry. Which is what I’m doing. Obvs.)
(There’s one thing you do have in common with Dickens. As you know, because you’re a ghost and can read my thoughts, I think paper was too cheap in the Victorian period and there weren’t enough distractions like telly and such, which meant basically people wrote way too much – it is the era of flabby style, ‘ffs i don’t have time for this Cardinal Newman’ etc. You and Dickens are the two with the constant energy and inventiveness to fill all that space, those reams and reams of paper, brilliantly and engagingly, detail after detail, novelty after novelty. Sometimes it can be a little wearing. But we’re here to celebrate!)
I live in Camberwell, by the way. You’d find it very different today – there’s little you’d recognise in fact – but you’d enjoy it perhaps. It’s busy and confusing and mixed up and there are a lot of buses. The strange foods and strange fabrics would catch your eye, and I hope you’d be ok with the fact that it’s very black –wasn’t your father disinherited because he took an anti-slavery stand? (and then your grandfather presented him with a bill for his education!). It might take some getting used to, but surely you’d at least want to find out about the African churches set up in disused office spaces on Walworth Road. It’s just your subect!
That makes me wonder: Would you be a Christian if you were around now? Can’t imagine it; you were barely one then in some ways, the great and profound poet of Victorian doubt, radio receiver picking up a signal that said the world was pointless even while transmitting message that we had to carry on, had to do and make things: the interference made the poet. But you wouldn’t be a science-sceptic either I suspect. Too much uncertainty in the world and in people’s hearts; you like the margins, the doubt, the shifting light at the edge. But maybe you’d see something in the science world now: living information, patterns and codes at all levels, chaotic systems… maybe. We need new theologies, but perhaps there’s not quite enough love or death in it for you, a bit too paracelsus-lost-in-intellect.
Oh, there’s a street named after you, up where your school used to be, near the Elephant and Castle. Isn’t that great? It’s not an especially nice street, but still.
I’ve enjoyed hanging out with you a great deal. Today, I’m going to finish off Fifine at the Fair (****), maybe read Red Cotton Night Cap Country.
Fifine, God, that reminds me, we haven’t even started talking about you and sex. Chesterton wonders how the hell you got past Victorian prudery, and you pop up in John Carey’s book on Donne when Carey points out you’re way more physical, more sensual than Donne, and I think he’s right: all those details of body parts, imagining the weight and texture of clothing on skin. Lust and perversity and perversion – sometimes feels you’re nearer the bottom of them than eg Swinburne (plays the shock game, plays the fetish game, cannot get beyond them).
Take The Inn Album. 1) It is super creepy that no-one has a name. Amps up the vaguely kinky atmosphere. 2) Feels like the relationship between the older and younger man is swimming over the line from homosocial to homosexual. The whole education-in-corruption thing that’s gone on before the action starts unspeakably suggestive. 3) It’s one of the great sex-death-money narratives of the reign – the older man’s horrible psych game in which he fake-pimps the ex-hot-stuff turned dutiful clerical handmaiden (which, as it turns out, = living in actual hell) to the younger man in order to get out of his gambling debt is, well… I am completely unsurprised the critics gave you a kicking for the ethics of this one. But it’s great and you are right and it is a pity barely a soul reads it now.
Anyway. I’ll stop there. I could probably go on, but I’m already annoyed at this ramble. I come to praise you, simply, and say hello, and I end up wrapping myself up in arguments about class and sex and canon, and slightly odd theories that you don’t much care about. You loved people; you mastered sound and rhythm; you wrote astonishing poems. You made the world better. Thank you Mr Browning, and happy birthday.
(*) I know, it is a totally unimpressive and obvious list, as though I had picked ‘Yesterday’, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘In My Life’ as my favourite Beatles songs, but hey that is just the way things are sometimes. But i will now also mention ‘Development’, and ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’ just to let everyone know I rate a few deep cuts. Literary anxiety! One of your subjects, eh?
(**) By the other measure of survival, tag-making, you’re actually doing pretty well. You have a few lines that just float around, and people know them even if they don’t know where they’re from: ‘Oh to be in England, now that April’s here’, ‘God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world’, ‘where were you when the kissing had to stop’. I think that’s competitive with other major figures. Does Jonson have a single one?
(***) Could have just used ‘polis’ there of course, no need for the plural, much less the fussy plural, but dammit I taught myself Attic Greek and I am going to show it off else what’s the use. And then tell you about it in a footnote, just in case you DON’T GET IT.
(****) This is only going to mean so much to you, but I spent the best part of a morning before going to Ireland looking for Fifine on Google books and sending increasingly enraged feedback when they were refusing to offer anything more than snippet view of editions from the 1870s. HOW CAN IT BE IN COPYRIGHT? HOW? HOW? ANSWER: IT ISN’T.
The Guardian Review again. Last time it was Beyoncé and Jay-Z, this time:
the legacy of the dramatic monologue runs (via Eliot, Pound, Frost, Plath, Hughes and others) to Carol Ann Duffy in poetry, all the way to the use of personas by rappers such as Eminem and Nicki Minaj in music.
I am casually fascinated by this underworld, but ccc is putting the hours in.
This is just to say I am around and about over here for a little while. It’ll probably stop sometime in May, but in the meantime, god is in his heaven and James Mason is reading Andrea del Sarto over the music of CAN.
7 Post-Dickens Victorian fatigue may dampen celebrations of twin bicentenaries, of Robert Browning’s birth and Edward Lear’s on 12 May. Together they can claim an influence that has filtered through to all surreal or nonsense literature and anyone writing in character, from Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Carol Ann Duffy.
It’s the obviousness that disappoints me. I don’t think any serious writer on hip hop would dispute Browning’s influence on Hova.
(If I were the twitter sort we could have such fun mashing up browning & jay-z titles! I’d think of a clever hashtag, and we’d all be full of clever jokes. But I’m not and here we are)
(Actually I’m grateful to this article. I didn’t realise it was the Browning bicentenary.)