“He was drunk and exhausted
but he was critically acclaimed and respected.”
– The Hold Steady, “Stuck Between Stations”
Writing about literature is often figured as a sort of parasitism – “what lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck,” is how I’m told they put it in the Nineteenth Century. For a time in the Twentieth, however, the relationship between a certain school of exegetes and a certain coterie of writers was closer to symbiosis. The job of New Critics and their Formalist counterparts was to decode a text’s meanings through close examination of its language. The job of the poet, meanwhile, was to create a text that would stand up to such scrutiny.
Ezra Pound’s Cantos constitute, it seems to me, the paramount example of poetry alert to – even anxious about – its own interpretative possibilities. It is the tension between Pound’s confidence in the cryptographic stamina of his readers and his desire to make the poems finally unsolvable that makes The Cantos (all 800 pages of them) so frustrating. And so beautiful. Behind the bricolage of quotations (translated, mistranslated, untranslated), the syntactic suspensions, the typographic oddities and the lunatic fragmentation, there’s always a sense of something powerful, mysterious, and epic at work.
John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, which I came to by way of The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, clearly counts The Cantos among its million billion influences. And at first blush, The Dream Songs seem equally baffling – the kind of private language the philosophers tell us isn’t possible:
Le’s do a hoedown, gal,
one blue, one shuffle,
if them is all you seem to réquire. Strip,
ol banger, skip us we, sugar; so hang on
one chaste evenin.
-Sir Bones, or Galahad: astonishin
yo legal & yo good.
Who is Mr. Bones? Why the dialect? And what’s up with that accent mark over the “e”? These are the same kinds of questions Pound invites. For all their fragmentation, though, The Dream Songs are intensely intimate in a way The Cantos never quite manage. Through a variety of moods and methods, they adumbrate the life and consciousness of a hero as multifarious and singular as Joyce’s Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Also: Berryman’s ear is astonishing. Sometimes a Difficult Book is more swimming pool than jigsaw puzzle. Rather than trying to solve it, we do better just to jump in.
The final poem cycle worth mentioning in this troika of Difficult Books is Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets. Berrigan is often identified as a “second-generation” New York School poet, a designation both helpful and un-. On the one hand, The Sonnets draw on both the suggestive opacity of John Ashbery and the urbanity of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. On the other, nothing about these poems feels self-consciously “School”ed. By the time his generation came of age (Berrigan was born in 1934), the New Criticism’s dominance was waning, and with it the legacy of programatic formalism. The fragmentation of The Sonnets speaks of openness and freedom, rather than discipline and constraint. Which is to say it’s a very 1960s kind of book. “And high upon the Brooklyn Bridge alone,” Berrigan writes,
to breathe an old woman slop oatmeal,
loveliness that longs for butterfly! There is no pad
as you lope across the trails and bosky dells
I often think sweet and sour pork”
shoe repair, and scary.
What does it mean? I have no idea. I often don’t, when I read these three marvelous poets. But I don’t know what life means, either – just that, like Berrigan, Berryman, and Pound, it makes me feel alive.
More Difficult Books
So that you may get to know us better, we introduce The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments.Today’s Question: What’s on your nightstand right now?Emily: Deciding where the nightstand stops in my dorm room is something of a quandary. And sadly, in this final dissertation push, pleasure reading is a thing of the past (Swift Studies 2006, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, The Chicago Manual of Style…). But among the piles that daily encroach on my bed are two recent purchases: Dover’s paperback editions of Goya’s print series Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War. If you haven’t seen them, take a look. I hesitate to call either a pleasure, but they are, in their ways.Edan: I’m about to read The Great Man by Kate Christensen, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year. I enjoyed her previous novel, The Epicure’s Lament, and this one, about a recently deceased painter and the women in his life, sounds like something to dive into.After that, I’m going to give Edith Wharton my attention, beginning with The Age of Innocence. I also have a galley of Joan Silber’s novel, The Size of the World, the follow-up to her terrific and pleasing story collection Ideas of Heaven (which was nominated for a National Book Award).I just snagged the latest issue of Field, the poetry journal published by the Oberlin College Press, and a copy of Darcie Dennigan’s debut poetry collection, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse. Aside from this poetry reading, I’ll be steamrolling through months of unread New Yorker and Gourmet magazine issues.Garth: I seem to be having a big books problem this summer; my nightstand is about to collapse under the weight of three of them. The first is Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which I’m about 600 pages into (out of 900). The second is Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, which I’m about 300 pages into (also out of 900)… and let’s just say that, for all that she does well. Gertrude lacks the, shall we say, narrative velocity of Mr. Bolano. Finally, clocking in at over 1000 pages, I’ve got Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, which seems insane and brilliant and possibly unfinishable. I keep thinking there are only a finite number of gigantic books, and that once I get them out of the way I can move on, and then I learn about writers like McElroy. I’m also hoping to get to Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker this summer. Seriously. In order not to get hopelessly depressed about my rate of reading, I try to read really, really short things in between the long things. My current favorite amuse-bouche or palate-cleansers are Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance and Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets. It occurs to me that I may be suffering from some variety of disturbance myself. Call it gigantobibliomania.Ben: I have 18 books on my nightstand at the moment, three of which I think I’m supposed to be reviewing. Most interestingly, I have two autobiographical accounts by historians who retraced the steps of Mao’s Long March. When I learned would be going to China this summer, I briefly toyed with the idea of spending a few months traveling along the route taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as they fled from the Kuomingtan. The three year journey was a harrowing race across thousands of miles of China’s most unforgiving wilderness, and it would eventually go on to become the founding myth of the CCP. Its story is replete with violence and political intrigue and following in its steps while observing how China has changed in the intervening years “would make one great book,” I thought. I was wrong. It has made two mediocre books. The Long March by Ed Jocelyn and The Long March by Sun ShuyunAndrew: It would appear that thirty or so books have taken up occupancy on or near my nightstand. This is where the triage happens. Every few weeks, books seem to show up, sometimes all at once, sometimes individually. Compulsive second-hand book-buyer that I am, I’m afraid I can’t control the in-flow.Like an ER, this may seem to be a chaotic place, but it’s functional and I give prompt attention to the book that demands to be read next. When completed, the book is transferred to the recovery area (aka the bookcases in my den), a much more orderly place. Calm. Perhaps too calm.I began M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few weeks ago, then had to abruptly stop when my life took a chaotic turn, and now that calm reigns once again, I’ve restarted it. Up next will likely be A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair, by Peter Wiedhaas, unless some literary emergency comes in off the street.Emre: My oft-cluttered, permanently dusty nightstand is home to months-old copies of Harper’s and New Yorker magazines, the occasional New York Times Magazine and four books. The books are all byproducts of articles I read in the aforementioned publications. Yet, despite the enticing reviews/mentions I find myself unable to read any of them. Top of the list is Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. After reading an article about the Bronx’s revival and realizing that as an adopted New Yorker with literary vices it is a sin not to have read a single Wolfe novel, I immediately picked up a used copy. Despite my best intentions to get going with it right after finishing Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, I am still only some 20 pages into the book. But it remains my top priority. Kind of.I might have a commitment problem. The second book is Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. A book review in the NYT, as well as an excerpt from the book which appeared in the Times Magazine, sounded oh so interesting and timely that the politics wonk in me returned from the depths, turning me into the four-eyed nerd that I actually am to begin reading about how global powers – U.S., EU, China – are attempting to wrest control of the Second World – a term formerly ascribed to the communist bloc, which now may be morphing to describe emerging-market and resource-rich countries. Despite its accessible, Thomas Friedman-ish language, however, I am stuck at the end of Chapter 1. I blame my job for it. Part of my work description is to read news all day. After reading the Wall Street Journal, NYT, the FT and assorted other publications all day long, I have little appetite left for politics and business. On the other hand, I do feel an urgency – as in, lest I read this in the next six months, it may be obsolete.Sharing the third spot and making for a potential good duo-read are my girlfriend’s birthday presents to me: Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems. The gifts were, of course, not coincidental. They were conceived in the aftermath of a New Yorker article about the dying news industry (damn you, Huffington Post, et al.!) and born of our conversations regarding, well, the dying news industry. As conceptually interesting as Lippmann and Dewey’s books are, they also fall into the realm of thought-provoking, attention-requiring books, a la The Second World, which these days is a far stretch from the TV-watching couch potato I am after work. I might have to add a new book to my nightstand. Something in the 200-300 page range that involves fiction and is a light read – as in Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!-light. Any suggestions?Max: I’ve got just one book on my nightstand: Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which Mrs. Millions recently finished and which is waiting to be put back on the Reading Queue shelf. I’ve also got a teetering stack of magazines – issues of The New Yorker, The Week, and The Economist – that keep from reading my books. The book that I’m currently reading, meanwhile, is more often in the same room as me (or in my laptop bag if I’m on the go). This does make for occasional overnight stops on the nightstand.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What’s on your nightstand right now?