Now that we’re at the end of this politically disastrous year, I’ve been thinking about all those tomes that I should have read but didn’t. This is purely for my own record and I’ll probably do it again next year. The reason for this interest in the passing of time is probably due to a recent ‘cardiac episode’ which is oddly ironic given that I’ve spent parts of the last five years planning to kill myself. One of the side effects of an unscheduled brush is a half-recognition that you might not have all the time in the world to read all the stuff that you need to.
I also want to use this to record what I see as a more significant event that I haven’t yet fully worked out. After said brush my two kids returned home briefly to offer support and to0 make sure that I wasn’t actually at death’s door. I’m unspeakably and fiercely proud of both of them. Kayt is 29 and beginning to pursue a career in archaeology which is her passion. Jack is 25, intent on saving the world (all of it), and is about to embark on the next phase of this project in Tbilisi.
They’re both incredibly bright and articulate and think that I’m cleverer than I actually am. We debate issues of common interest (poetry, the revolution, music etc) with more than a degree of good-natured intensity which is great fun- Jack and I recently discussed the possibility of setting up a better organised piracy business off the coast of Somalia whilst Kayt and I are currently arguing about Bachelard’s notions of resonance and reverberation.
During the visit we were talking about the first Michael Faber novel and Kayt offered the view that it doesn’t have much of a plot. I expressed some surprise at this and pointed out that things do occur in the book. I was then going to expand on plotlessness when I noticed an exchange of glances between my two offspring. Jack smiled and gently explained that, to most people, narrative consists of things that occur in sequence. Kayt nodded in agreement and I realised that any further argument on my part would merely be seen as further proof of my inherent oddness.
The significance of this moment cannot be over-emphasised. For the last thirty years I’ve been able to express all kinds of ‘odd’ views to my kids and they’ve taken some of these on board and we’ve argued about the rest. I now realise that any notion of parental guidance / influence is a thing of the past in that they are now (more or less) autonomous and have formed the view that my interests may be a little too strange or esoteric for them. This was probably compounded by the fact that I had earlier shown them both passages from ‘The Unconditional’ which was met with quietly amused bewilderment.
This is not to say that my feelings about them have changed. My love for them is absolutely unconditional and I will move heaven and earth to prevent bad things happening to them but there is a sense that the dynamic has changed. I then began to consider this perceived oddness and whether or not the hours spent with Prynne, Sutherland, Celan, Derrida, Blanchot etc has actually pushed me into a fairly small and obscure corner of the world where debate is only possible with fellow eccentrics who’ve read the same stuff. I’ve decided that this may be the case but I don’t actually care- I’m not going to start engaging with more mainstream stuff because it’s not very interesting and it doesn’t challenge me.
I do need to work on the ‘oddness’ thing- I recognise that I’m attracted to the odd but (I like to think) only if it makes some kind of sense at some level. I also have to recognise that I may need to spend more time giving this oddness context so that it is less likely to be viewed as merely eccentric. This may also entail a greater degree of seriousness on my part but that may be a small price to play- especially if I’m going to escape this kind of marginalisation.
I must point out that this view isn’t confined to my kids. The NHS sends a man around once a week to check on my mood and thinking. This is very useful as he’s a Dorn fan and we can argue about the whole Olson/Dorn/Prynne thing but he does view my adherence to most things Cambridge as wilfully odd.
I’ve spent longer on that than planned so here’s the books not read-
“The Unconditional” by Simon Jarvis. I’ve tried and I’ve written about trying and I’ve even started to take an interest in Jarvis’ criticism but there’s a long way to go. The excellent Timothy Thornton recently described the experience thus “never got through The Unconditional, but can’t stop returning to it somehow” which describes my own experience better than I can. Next year will see me trying to work out the nature of this particular “somehow”.
“The Cantos” by Ezra Pound. My only excuse is that it’s very long and full of stuff that I’ll need to look up. I know that reading Hugh Kenner and the wonderful Christine Brooke-Rose on Pound isn’t the same and that such an omission is unforgivable but the time required to pay full attention will detract from other stuff and I know that, once started, I’d become more than a little obsessed.
They That Haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets by J H Prynne. The only excuse is that I haven’t been able to find a copy on the web and the second-hand sites that I use don’t list it.
Anything by Wallace Stevens apart from “The Rock” following Jim Kleinhenz’ contribution to arduity. This is again unforgivable and my only excuse is that the Collected has got to the top of the waiting list twice in the last few months but was supplanted by stuff that seemed more urgent.
A guide to The Maximus poems of Charles Olson by George F. Butterick. The reason that this is on the list is that I’m a Maximus obsessive and Butterick makes a point about originality in his introduction and I want to see where he goes with it. The reason for not reading it is that I’m queasy about commentaries and would rather spend time reading the poem.
Anything by Benjamin, Adorno, Hegel, Marx. This is a lie, I have read one essay by Adorno and a couple of essays and a poem by Marx. I also read more about Hegel than was good for me. I read ‘Arcades’ in 2009 and hated it and don’t intend giving Benjamin any more attention ever. Adorno has been avoided for most of the last year but I have this horrid feeling that making sense of Jarvis will involve making some sense of critical theory in the near future…. I remain firm in my intention not to engage with Hegel because life really is too short.
Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England by Blair Warden. I’ve been intending to return to the 17th century for most of this year and this tome is attractive because it’s bound to annoy me and it’s a useful way into reading Nigel Smith’s new biography of Marvell and then Marvell’s prose. This was going to occur when I felt the need of a rest from contemporary stuff- the need has not yet arisen.
This list is not complete but it does contain most of the stuff that I probably should have read. There’s also the list of stuff that I should have written about but that’s going to stay in my head.
Happy New Year! I’m just back from holiday travels — no specific responses to what you’ve posted, except to say that I’m glad you’re posting (rather than, well, not).
For what it’s worth: I thought Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was “promising”, but his C is not.
I’ve given up on novels for the time being, apart from DeLillo, Pynchon, Coover, Kelman and Ishiguro they all seem to disappoint me.
Good to have you back
John, the Butterick isn’t really a commentary, outside of the introduction. It’s more like a “notes.” Don’t read it, but have it at hand next time you read Olson. As for the Cantos, give yourself 8 weeks or so, and just do it. Several years ago I led a class (I think it was 8 weeks, but it may have been 10), and we read The Cantos in their entirety. Everyone got through it, everyone enjoyed it, though there was certainly a lot of heated discussion. Maybe that’s a good idea, too — read it with others!
Thank you for this advice, I’m on a continuous re-reading of Maximus and commentary seems superfluous although his letters to Creeley (which I have in pdf) are a delight.
Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Cantos this week and this evening I’ve started from the beginning again and am now up to no8. I’ll let you know how I get on.