Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, December 31, 2017

D. A. Powell, _Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys_

MYSTIFIED AT WHY I took so long to pick this up--it came out in 2012, and I had liked Tea, Cocktails, and Chronic--well, better late than never, and it's excellent. In a different vein from his earlier work--more formal (quite a few sonnets in the first section), more elegant, more mandarin perhaps...I kept thinking of Auden and Merrill.

The first part, "Useless Landscape," seems to be be looking more at the present, the second, "A Guide for Boys," to be more based on memory. They differ a bit in voice, too, with the second section a little closer in tone to Powell's previous books, but both parts seem to be contemplating the Central Valley, geographically near but culturally distant from the earlier work's center of gravity in San Francisco.

Glad I finally got around to this--shows Powell has a lot more range than I had suspected. Greatest Living American Poet? He's in the hunt.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Edward Hirsch and David Lehman, eds, _The Best American Poetry 2016_

Yes...last year's. Took me a while to get around to it. I've had a difficult year, though I had it easier than many (hello, Houston & Puerto Rico).

I am among those who classify American poetry into two broad camps, but I'm not sure what to call them. Traditional and experimental? Those terms seem a poor fit, since someone like Ed Hirsch is obviously not experimental, but you wouldn't say he sounds much like Shelley or Robert Bridges or Frost--so what "tradition" are we talking about? Avant-garde and mainstream? But is any poet mainstream, given what a small and specific readership poetry has? If you're publishing poetry at all, you are already part of group that is basically on the margins compared to novelists, memoirists, biographers, and so on.

I am going to go with "representational" and "non-representational," as with painting. A great many (most, I'd say) poets are engaging with phenomena--persons, places, objects, events--with some investment in "getting it right," fidelity, accuracy, truth. Quite a few poets are more interested in what is generated by language itself, or problematizing the whole question of representation, to the point that asking what a poem is about is just the wrong question.

Representational poets can certainly dip into the toolkit of the non-representational ones, and vice versa, which I think was the point of the Cole Swenson and David St. John anthology, American Hybrid. (Which must be about ten years old now, I think). By and large, though, the two camps do not seem to be paying much attention to each other.

All the above is my wide turn into the point that Edward Hirsch, a representational poet, has (I would say) a 100% representational anthology here. This gives the book some consistency, but risks monotony. Sometimes the chance operations of the alphabet underline how like each other the chosen poems are. A poem by Rowan Ricardo Phillips of about two dozen lines in loose blank pentameter, syntactically all one sentence, is followed by a Stanley Plumly poem also of about two dozen lines in loose blank pentameter, this one in three sentences; one run of four poems includes three sonnets (Silver, Sleigh, Stallings).

Not that the work herein is weak. Just the contrary. Seventy-five really good, worthwhile poems, just as advertised. I do prefer it, though, when the editor decides (as did Denise Duhamel and Terrance Hayes) to mix it up a little.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Kent Haruf, _Our Souls at Night_

HARUF THROWS A curveball near the beginning of chapter three: "Louis never knew him well. He was glad now he hadn't." Seems unremarkable, I know, but Haruf reports so rarely on his characters' internal states--Louis's being glad of something, for instance--that it's something of a seismic event when he breaks his own rules and does so.

Haruf typically, almost exclusively, relies on what an invisible observer to his scenes would have seen and heard. We know what the characters in his later novels do and say, but only on rare occasions do we know what they think. Interiority--the natural domain of the novel for the last century and more--is a strategy from which Haruf abstains, with an almost Robbe-Grillet kind of rigor.

I am guessing that the names "Haruf" and "Robbe-Grillet" rarely occur in conjunction. Haruf is associated with plain-spoken novels about salt of the earth kinds of people who live in the broad middle of the country, not with la nouvelle roman. But even though the man did, indeed, write plain-spoken novels about salt of the earth kinds of people own the broad middle of the country, he was a slyboots, too.

Chapter 34, for instance, takes a quick dip into the metafictional when the novel's main characters, Addie and Louis, discuss heading to Denver to see the theatrical adaptation "of that last book about Holt County," the one "with the old man dying and the preacher." That is, the characters in Haruf's sixth novel are talking about seeing a play based on Benediction, his fifth. They go on to discuss his other work, including Plainsong, of which Louis says, "But I can't imagine two old ranchers taking in a pregnant girl." Louis's criticism then becomes more general: "But it's his imagination. He took the physical details from Holt, the place names of the streets and what the country looks like and the location of things, but it's not this town."

Holt, Colorado exists nowhere but in the fiction of Kent Haruf, so there's something delightfully giddy about his own fictional characters in his own fictional town complaining about him getting things wrong, as if Flem Snopes were to say, "Yoknapatawpha's not like that at all."

And even better than that is when Addie replies, "He could write a book about us."

Robbe-Grillet and Gide (or Cervantes).

When enough people notice this, Haruf is headed for the Library of America.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

D. A. Miller, _Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style_

THE LAST ITEM in my Austen binge, and the best, I'd say. A Queer Theory take on the novels, not so much in the sense of tracking down traces of same-sex affiliation (as Terry Castle did back when), but in the sense of elucidating a novelistic discourse that apotheosizes as it conceals...

...a statement that makes almost no sense at all, but Miller's idea is that the historical Austen is not particularly discernible in the novels at all, notwithstanding all those readerly efforts to find the real Jane, as analyzed by Brownstein and Johnson. The real Jane, Miller argues, had next to no actual social capital as an unmarried, aging clergyman's daughter, but her style dissolves-and-transcends her own marginalized subject position and makes her a god: "Like the Unheterosexual, the Spinster too resorts to Style, the utopia of those with almost no place to go" (29).

Miller fastens onto moments that seem ephemeral--the first glimpse the Dashwoods get of Robert Ferrars, a sentence that ends one chapter of Emma and then also begins the next--and opens them up into vistas. "Close reading" hardly seems to do justice to the method--it's more like Geertz's thick description--thick reading? But Miller is better than anyone else I've read at showing how much is going on in the Austen sentence, e.g., its "obey[ing] an overwhelming urge to give correctness a theatrical form."  "Even of a non epigrammatical Austen sentence," he writes, "try normalizing the typical inversion; correct the sentence would remain, but gone would be the acrobat somersault that flaunts this correctness, that supplements grammatical completion with artistic finish" (84).

This helps me understand my relatively low enthusiasm for Eileen Myles or Kathy Acker or Chris Kraus. Their content is bold, urgent, and transgressive enough, certainly. Toujours de l'audace, and so on. More power to them. But their sentences tend to be well-behaved, domesticated little creatures. Austen's content (pace Helena Kelly) tends to stick to the conservative notion that a young woman's most important task is to find a  good husband, true. But her sentences are those of a daredevil. What Milton's Satan is to Paradise Lost, Austen's sentences are to her oeuvre.

Miller's book is short--one hundred and eight pages, counting the footnotes, which you should by no means skip. But it's one of the great books on Austen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Paula Byrne, _The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood_

HMM. NOT QUITE what the cover (30ish brunette woman in a high-waisted Empire dress poolside in L.A., cellphone in hand and Variety beside her) or the subtitle would lead you to expect. What you expect, of course, is some analysis of why film and television adaptations of Austen's fiction have been so successful. All of the novels have been adapted multiple times, with even the juvenilia getting a look-in (Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, actually based not on the work of that title but on Lady Susan). How might we account for that?

There is indeed a chapter at the end of the book on that topic, but it turns out to have been tacked on to a more soberly and scholarly tome from 2002, not published in the US, called Jane Austen and the Theatre.

The chapter at the end was a bit disappointing, really. It surveyed several of the adaptations, made the point that the ones that were the least reverential towards the material (Clueless, Rozema's Mansfield Park) were actually the most faithful to the spirit of Austen, but essentially begs the question on the topic raised by the subtitle by claiming the novels were rooted in Austen's love of the theater of her day--as if 18th century plays were already Hollywood-friendly. Which is why we have so many film adaptations of School for Scandal and She Stoops to Conquer, I guess.

The original book itself is interesting, though. Knowing that the Austens themselves frequently went in for private theatricals puts that episode of Mansfield Park into a whole new light, and Byrne does a nice job of showing how Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows (the production aborted in Mansfield Park by the unexpected return of Sir Thomas Bertram) counterpoints the circumstances of the characters planning to perform it. Byrne also has some enlightening discussion of the relevance of Sheridan's Rivals to Sense and Sensibility.

Worth reading, in short--event though the cover and subtitle are a bit opportunistic and misleading.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Claudia Johnson, _Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures_

JOHNSON'S JANE AUSTEN: Women, Politics, and the Novel would be my pick for the best book on Austen's fiction. This one, from 2012, like the Brownstein and Looser books discussed earlier, is more about the reception of the fiction than the fiction itself. It's learned but witty and light on its feet--Johnson is a really good writer.

The book tracks how love of the novels turns into love of their author--or our idea of their author--and how that love turns into a quest for images and relics. Portraits of Austen get an excellent chapter, which is mainly about the transmogrifications of Cassandra's pencil and watercolor sketch (surprisingly, for me, Johnson turns out to be inclined to accept as genuine the "Rice portrait").  The final chapter, likewise excellent, is on the fetishization--she doesn't call it that, but she is a bit of a balloon-popper--of Chawton Cottage.

My favorite chapters were "Jane Austen's World War I" and "Jane Austen's World War II," which mapped the Austen-fandom world of the first half of the 20th century, back when it was mainly defined by men, strange as that seems now. Johnson talks about Kipling's great story "The Janeites," of course, but also spends some time on Reginald Farrer's essay written for the first centenary of Austen's death in 1917. Johnson's account was so intriguing that I dug up Farrer's essay (it's in the second volume of B. C. Southam's Critical Heritage collection) and it is well worth the digging up.

Even though the book is not mainly about the fiction, brilliant aper├žus about the novels pop up every few pages--e.g., "No realistic novelist is less interested than Austen in the minutiae of physical description" (163). I had no idea, until Johnson told me, that Austen never mentions tea sets.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Rachel Brownstein, _Why Jane Austen?_

A BIT LIKE the Devoney Looser book I wrote about a couple of months ago, Why Jane Austen? is less about Austen's novels than it is about the broadly-based and still-expanding fascination with those novels and with the person who wrote them, or the person we imagine wrote them.

Brownstein's is the earlier book (2011) and focuses on the Austen-philia of the last twenty years (Looser spends more time on material from the 19th century and the first half of the 20th). Brownstein's is a bit bolder--less pedestrian, too, I would say. Brownstein writes with more brio, with some short flights into memoir.

Brownstein is generally wry rather than grumpy about the Colin Firth/Chawton Cottage/totebag side of Austen-philia, but also willing to draw a line in the sand. "Contrary to the main current of popular opinion today," she declares a few pages from the end, "Jane Austen's novels are not first of all and most importantly about pretty girls in long dresses waiting for love and marriage; and they are not most importantly English and Heritage, small and decorous and mannerly and pleasant."

She spends some time on "Why We Read Jane Austen," the essay Lionel Trilling was working on at the time of his death, and notes of the "we" of the title, "In  his final essay, Trilling made a last gasp at securing Jane Austen for his masculinist party: his magisterial 'we' separates (as that pronoun always does) 'us' from 'them.'" Maybe...but I had to think of Edward Mendelson's analysis of the Trilling "we" in Moral Agents. According to Mendelson, Trilling's usual strategy was to set up the "we" as well-informed, bien-pensant types, of whom he was deeply suspicious, and whose stock position on x or y or z he would go on to undermine. Trilling may have been headed for an argument that an awful lot of Austen's admirers read her for the wrong reasons. That's not too far from where Brownstein ends up, really.