scenes from the writing life: the silent estate of louis zukofsky

"I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature . . ."

[Zuk_alone1.jpg] 

Don’t quote me

 

In any alphabet of modern American poets (Ashbery, Bishop, Creeley … ), Louis Zukofsky (1907- 78) conveniently fills twenty-sixth place. He is less well-known than contemporaries such as Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth, or even his friend Lorine Niedecker, who has benefited from "a posthumous boom in her reputation", according to David Lehman’s recent Oxford Book of American Poetry. No boom has sounded in Zukofsky studies, and none will do so in the near future, if the poet’s son has his way. Paul Zukofsky, who administers the author’s estate, has posted a "Copyright Notice" on an independent website devoted to his father’s work:

 

People have been misled into thinking that, in terms of quoting LZ, they may do what they want, and do not have to worry about me. These people are then suddenly faced with the reality of an irascible, recalcitrant MOl, and are confronted with the very real prospect of years of work potentially down the tubes.

 

He wants scholars and critics to know that he is planting "an obvious ‘do not trespass ‘sign where LZ aficionados may see it". He has no desire to cultivate interest in his father’s poetry, the most prominent example of which is the long poem "A", which occupied fifty years of Zukofsky’s life. "I urge you to not work on Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not", Paul writes. "You will be more appreciated working on some author whose copyright holder(s) will actually cherish your work. I do not."

 

Should you insist, you and Paul may "more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand". Otherwise, "remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers". As for those (like us) who believe that the "fair use" clause in copyright law permits reasonable quotation for critical purposes, be warned. "I promise to do my utmost to hamper, hinder, and preferably prevent all quotation."

 

The TLS is one of the few mainstream journals in the English-speaking world to have paid critical heed to Zukofsky, an allegedly "difficult" poet. In the issue of September 7, 2007, Marjorie Perloff reviewed a biography by Mark Scroggins. Needless to say, she quoted all she needed to qualify her well-informed argument. Would Zukofsky have enjoyed the serious attention devoted to his poetry? Probably yes. Does Paul? No.

 

I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature … but one line you may not cross, ie, never never ever tell me that your work is to be valued by me because it promotes my father. Doing that will earn my life-long permanent enmity.

 

You wouldn’t want that. You could, alternatively, calm your nerves by reading Zukofsky. We recommend the charming "To My Wash-stand", included in Mr Lehman’s Oxford Book.


—from the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009

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cain’s credo


Son of a college dean, newspaperman, novelist,
screenwriter & Shakespeare worshipper.

I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise, and I believe these so-called schools exist mainly in the imagination of critics…. Schools don’t help the novelist but they do the critic; using as mucilage the simplifications that the school hypothesis affords him, he can paste labels wherever convenience is served by pasting labels, and although I have read less than twenty pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammet in my whole life, Mr. Clifton Fadiman can refer to my hammet-and-tongs style and make things easy for himself.


mailer and maugham’s favourites


Norman Mailer’s Ten Favorite American Novels

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­1. U.S.A., John Dos Passos

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

3. Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe

4. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

5. Studs Lonigan, James T. Farrell

6. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

8. Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara

9. The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain

10. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

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W. Somerset Maugham’s Ten Greatest Novels



Alfred Eisenstaedt: Maugham reading on Cape Cod.

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In 1948 the British novelist wrote Great Novelists and Their Novels, which contained the following list of what he considered the ten greatest novels ever written. He acknowledged in the introductory essay that "to talk of the ten best novels in the world is to talk nonsense, " but he went on to analyze what made these novels great in a short essay that became required reading for any would-be novelist. It is difficult to believe that anyone embarking on reading these ten books would not come out of the experience a changed person.

1. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

3. The Red and the Black, Stendhal

4. Old Man Goriot, Honoré de Balzac

5. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

7. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

8. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

9. ­War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

10. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

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—from Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan (eds.), A Passion for Books: A Book Lover’s Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Lore, and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books (1999)

beckett on writing poetry

Beckett held the idea of the ‘professional’ poet in abhorrence. To him it was virtually a contradiction in terms. Craft, structure, rhythm, linguistic energy were assumed prerequisites, but poetry was a calling, not a profession, not something you could decide to do at a certain moment. He meant what Keats meant, whose work he knew so well, when he wrote that ‘if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’. He certainly did not mean that poets should not earn money – he himself had taught for a while (was miserable during that time), had translated prolifically, written essays and reviews — but that the poem itself should not be academic or intentional, that the library shelves must not crush the furze. Beckett was a poet down to his teguments, ligaments, cells; standing or sitting, poetry’s presence in his presence was as pervasive as oxygen.


—from Anne Atik, How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett. Faber & Faber, 2001.

“holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books”—james ellroy’s road to writing


ellroy.jpg image by tomasutpen

Portrait of the artist as a young dipshit.

INTERVIEWER


Is that when you started writing—after your father died?


ELLROY


The first thing I did after he died was snag his last three Social Security checks, forge his signature, and cash them at a liquor store. From ’65 to ’75, I drank and used drugs. I fantasized. I swallowed amphetamine inhalers. I masturbated compulsively. I got into fights. I boxed—though I was terrible at it—and I broke into houses. I’d steal girls’ panties, I’d jack off, grab cash out of wallets and purses. The method was easy: you call a house and if nobody answers, that means nobody’s home. I’d stick my long, skinny arms in a pet access door and flip the latch, or find a window that was loose and raise it open. Everybody has pills and alcohol. I’d pop a Seconal, drink four fingers of Scotch, eat some cheese out of the fridge, steal a ten-dollar bill, then leave a window ajar and skedaddle. I did time in county jail for useless misdemeanors. I was arrested once for burglary, but it got popped down to misdemeanor trespassing.


The press thinks that I’m a larger-than-life guy. Yes, that’s true. But a lot of the shit written about me discusses this part of my life disproportionately.


INTERVIEWER


Aren’t you responsible for this? You’ve written a lot about this period, and you frequently talk about it in interviews.


ELLROY


I’ve told many journalists that I’ve done time in county jail, that I’ve broken and entered, that I was a voyeur. But I also told them that I spent much more time reading than I ever did stealing and peeping. They never mention that. It’s a lot sexier to write about my mother, her death, my wild youth, and my jail time than it is to say that Ellroy holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books.


INTERVIEWER


Still, writing couldn’t have been exactly in the forefront of your mind at the time.


ELLROY


But it was. I was always thinking about how I would become a great novelist. I just didn’t think that I would write crime novels. I thought that I would be a literary writer, whose creative duty is to describe the world as it is. The problem is that I never enjoyed books like that. I only enjoyed crime stories. So more than anything, this fascination with writing was an issue of identity. I had a fantasy of what it meant to be a writer: the sports cars, the clothes, the women.


But I think what appealed to me most about it was that I could assume the identity of what I really loved to do, which was to read. Nobody told me I couldn’t write a novel. I didn’t live in the world of graduate writing schools. I wasn’t part of any scene or creative community. I happened to love crime novels more than anything, so I wrote a crime novel first. I didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories, and only later write a novel. I never liked reading short stories, so why the fuck should I want to write one? I only wanted to write novels.


—from “James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201.” Interviewed by Nathaniel Rich. The Paris Review. Issue 190, Fall 2009

the philosophy of boredom: the boredom of philosopy


boredom as a philosophical problem

Svendsen’s conclusion: “Boredom is life’s own gravity."

As a philosopher, from time to time one must attempt to address big questions. If one fails to do so, one loses sight of what led one to study philosophy in the first place. In my opinion, boredom is one such big question, and an analysis of boredom ought to say something important about the conditions under which we live. We ought not – and are actually unable to – avoid considering our attitude towards the question of being from time to time. There may be many initial reasons for reflecting on one’s life, but the special thing about fundamental existential experiences is that they inevitably lead one to question one’s own existence. Profound boredom is one fundamental existential experience. As Jon Hellesnes has asked: ‘What can possibly be more existentially disturbing than boredom?’


The big questions are not necessarily the eternal questions, for boredom has only been a central cultural phenomenon for a couple of centuries. It is of course impossible to determine precisely
when boredom arose, and naturally it has its precursors. But it stands out as being a typical phenomenon of modernity. On the whole, the precursors were restricted to small groups, such as the nobility and the clergy, whereas the boredom of modernity is wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomenon today for practically everyone in the Western world.


Boredom is usually considered as something random in relation to the nature of man, but this is based on highly dubious assumptions regarding human nature. One could just as well claim that boredom is embodied in human nature, but that would also presuppose that there is anything at all that can be called ‘human nature’ – a presupposition that seems problematic to me. Postulating a given nature has a tendency to put an end to all further discussion. For, as Aristotle points out, we direct our attention first and foremost to that which is capable of change.
By postulating a nature we are claiming that it cannot be changed. It can also be tempting to postulate a completely neutral human nature, where man has just as great a potential to experience sadness as happiness, enthusiasm as boredom. In that case, the explanation of boredom is exclusively to be found in the individual’s social environment. I do not believe, however, that a clear distinction can be made between psychological and social aspects when dealing with a phenomenon such as boredom, and a reductive sociologism is just as untenable as a psychologism. So I choose to approach the matter from a different angle, adopting a perspective based partly on the history of ideas and partly on phenomenology. Nietzsche pointed out that the ‘hereditary fault of all philosophers’ is to base themselves on man at a particular period of time and then turn this into an eternal truth. So I will make do with stating that boredom is a very serious phenomenon that affects many people. Aristotle insisted that virtue is not natural, but that it is not unnatural either. The same applies to boredom. Moreover, an investigation of boredom can be carried out without presupposing any anthropological constants, i.e., anything given independently of a specifically social and historical space. We are dealing here with an investigation of man in a particular historical situation. It is us I am writing about, living in the shadow of Romanticism, as inveterate Romantics without the hyperbolic faith of Romanticism in the ability of the imagination to transform the world.


Even though all good philosophy ought to contain an important element of self-knowledge, it does not necessarily have to take the form of a confession modelled on Augustine’s
Confessions. Many people have asked me if I undertook this project because I suffered from boredom, but what I personally feel ought not to be of any interest to readers. I do not conceive philosophy as being a confessional activity, rather one that labours to gain clarity – a clarity that is admittedly never more than temporary – in the hope that the small area one feels one has shed light on will also be of relevance to others. From a philosophical point of view, my private conditions are irrelevant, even though they are naturally important to me.


I carried out a small, unscientific survey among colleagues, students, friends and acquaintances that revealed that they were on the whole unable to say whether they were
bored or not, although some answered in the affirmative or the negative – and one person even claimed that he had never been bored. To those readers who have possibly never been bored I can say by way of comparison that deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void. One tries to fall asleep, takes perhaps a few faltering steps, but does not gain sleep, ending up in a no man’s land between a waking state and sleep. In Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa wrote:


Certain sensations are slumbers that fill up our mind like a fog and prevent us from thinking, from acting, from clearly and simply being. As if we hadn’t slept, something of our undreamed dreams lingers in us, and the torpor of the new day’s sun warms the stagnant surface of our senses. We’re drunk on not being anything, and our will is a bucket poured out onto the yard by the listless movement of a passing foot.


Pessoa’s boredom is obvious – it is distinct in all its formlessness. It is, however, in the nature of things that very few people indeed can come up with an unequivocal answer as to whether they are bored or not. First, moods, generally speaking, are seldom intentional subjects as far as we are concerned – they are precisely something one finds oneself
in, not something one consciously looks at. And second, boredom is a mood that is typified by a lack of quality that makes it more elusive than most other moods. Georges Bernanos’s village priest provides us with a fine description of the imperceptibly destructive nature of boredom in The Diary of a Country Priest:


So I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this – one does not see it immediately. It is a like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it, and it is so fine that it doesn’t even scrunch between one’s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off one. That is why people are so restless.


It is perfectly possible to be bored without being aware of the fact. And it is possible to be bored without being able to offer any reason or cause for this boredom. Those who claimed in my small survey that they were deeply bored were as a rule unable to state accurately
why they were bored; it wasn’t this or that that plagued them, rather a nameless, shapeless, object-less boredom. This is reminiscent of what Freud said about melancholy, where he began by stressing a similarity between melancholy and grief, since both contain an awareness of loss. But whereas the person who grieves always has a distinct object of loss, the melancholic does not precisely know what he has lost.


Introspection is a method that has obvious limitations when investigating boredom, so I decided to look critically at a number of texts of a philosophical and literary nature. I regard literature as excellent source-material for philosophical studies, and for the philosophy of culture it is just as indispensable as scientific works are for the philosophy of science. As a rule, literature is a great deal more illuminative than quantitative sociological or psychological studies. This applies not least to our subject, where much research has focused on how the deficiency or surplus of sensory stimuli cause boredom without this always being particularly illuminative when considering such a complex phenomenon as boredom.
As Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, has expressed it: ‘Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.’


—from
Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

john asbery on writing & reading a poem



John Ashbery being intense in 1962

“Paradoxes and Oxymorons”


This poem is concerned with language on a very

plain level.

Look at it talking to you. You look out a window

Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t

have it.

You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.


The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and

cannot.

What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,

Bringing a system of them into play. Play?

Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be


A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,

As in the division of grace these long August days

Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know

It gets lost in the stream and chatter of typewriters.


It has been played once more. I think you exist

only

To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then

you aren’t there

Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem

Has set me softly down beside you. The Poem is

you.


—from Shadow Train (1981)

If infinitely many monkeys are set before typewriters, the statistical paradox goes, they will sooner or later produce Shakespeare’s plays. Ashbery’s poem “has been played” like a record or a trick. But perhaps it is the reader’s trick as well. In the communication system, the ideal reader now resembles the Divine Paradox: “I think you exist,” the poet asserts, “and then you aren’t there.” In his final paradox, the poem is you,” varying the dedication “the poem is yours,” Ashbery yields himself to the reader, who nevertheless continues to “miss” him.


—from John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (1994)