Monday, August 24, 2009

Blinking Don: tired of mini-reflections

Jordan Davis wrote in to say:

"I saw a quote used as an epigraph that reminded me of your bout of Johnsonism a while back:

'I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation and connection and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made.' -- Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

Almost immediately afterwards I was pointed to this article.

For some reason I thought you'd enjoy both of these."

I did enjoy them, and his message induced me to reflect thusly:

Before I left Harvard, my office there had been relocated for a time in the new and not-yet opened Samuel Johnson wing of the Houghton Library. There wasn't a curator yet for the recently acquired Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, so I got to work there alone with such things as Johnson's silver teapot (click here to see it), his mss., Boswell's, too. My desk sat beneath one of the famous portraits of Johnson, and his peering over my shoulder got me to reread, or read, everything I could pertaining to his life and work ... it almost took over my life. I'm far away from all that now, but Jordan's message reminds me that Johnson both predicted and would have hated things like Twitter; wouldn't you know it, there's a guy now tweeting Johnson quotes all day long.

You can't even imagine a writer or man like Samuel Johnson flourishing now - and most everyone reading this would think, Good! That's progress, I guess. But I'm increasingly tired of reading and trying to get anything out of all the spurts and blurts and mini-reflections I take in, online in general and in contemporary poems in particular that I look at. Worse, I'm definitely & unapologetically a big book guy. I still rankle at Simic's dismissal of poetry books that are... too big. Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy is my favorite book of prose, and I'd have no bookshelf without Boswell's Life, half of Dickens, Creeley's / Lowell's / Blake's / Dickinson's / Olson's / Prynne's collected poems and EP's Cantos. I've been reading every syllable of Silliman's the Alphabet. I read all of the essays in Geoffrey Hill's collected essays - no mean feat, that. I've got a copy of Wendy Doniger's book on the Hindus on my to-do list - the largest book I've seen in a while! I admire Mark Scroggins' project to read Ruskin - and his biography of Zukofsky, both big. For me, the internet and the big book actually work together, but I can't quite explain how that works. And I don't feel superior, not at all, reading large books - it's just an appetite, like any other. Big damn books are, for me, as addicting as Facebook or iPhones are for other people. I picked up the habit when I spent almost the whole of my senior year in college reading Gravity's Rainbow instead of doing any work - for no other reason than because it was there. Even now, I read and read till my eyeballs hurt. I admire and try to imagine what goes into the writing of big books - usually, it's big lives - yet suppose few have or want the time to read or write them anymore - excluding, say, the ones about Harry Potter and maybe (have you finished them yet?) the novels of Roberto Bolaño. After all, who needs to think long and hard (what Bunting called sharp study and long toil) when you can type away, fuelled by caffeine or the moist air of some hothouse mentality - then emote and opine instead on your gizmo - and be taken seriously?

David Shapiro says: If a poet bores you, just wake up and look for another voice. I'm awake and looking. In the spirit, then, of brevity, soul, and wit - and wakefu looking - I hope to concoct a periodic feature here or elsewhere consisting of short and thoughtless takes on books that cross my desk. Maybe I'll call it "Editor's Briefs" or "Little Giddings..."

UPDATE: John Latta, on his sublime blog, happens to quote S.J. today:

"The greater part of readers, instead of blaming us for passing trifles, will wonder that on trifles so much labour is expended, with such importance of debate, and such solemnity of diction. To these I answer with confidence, that they are judging of an art which they do not understand; yet cannot much reproach them with their ignorance, nor promise that they would become in general, by learning criticism , more useful, happier or wiser."

To which John responds:

"Ah, for a pedagogy that admits up front its subject is a fool’s errand..."

(And it was bound to happen: a one-man show on Johnson.)

N.B. The funny-looking portrait you see above by Joshua Reynolds of my hero, Samuel Johnson, shows, as Wikipedia (which owes something to him) calls it "his intense concentration and the weakness of his eyes; he did not want to be depicted as 'Blinking Sam.'"

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