If you are a graduate student working on poetry, or a critic writing about an unfamiliar period or tradition, you will probably find yourself opening the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for a few decades now the best point of departure for such questions as: what was Lettrism? Who are the major Flemish poets? What are the origins of rhyme? The first PEPP appeared in 1965; two of its three editors died in the 1980s, midway through the lengthy task of turning the second edition into the third. The fourth PEPP, published in August, is not only the first in twenty years, but the first with an all new editorial team: Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman and three associate editors rode herd on 1100 articles, some wholly unchanged, many lightly rewritten, and 250 entirely new. (I rewrote ‘refrain’.) It’s a big brick of a volume, almost the size of a child's head, and it may be the last edition of PEPP to take shape as a physical printed book.
There are the books you like, and the books you can recommend, and the books around which you can muster arguments. And then there are the books from which you can get no aesthetic distance at all. Often they’re books about childhood, or about something or somewhere you knew as a child. They can also be books about books. Among Others by Jo Walton, is one such book for me, and not for me alone: last week it picked up the British Fantasy Award, having already won the Nebula and the Hugo for the year's best science fiction novel. The two awards together describe the state of SF (one’s voted on by working authors, the other by fans); when the same book wins both, it’s a recommendation, and it says something about the state of the genre. And yet Among Others is not science fiction at all, if you judge by its plot.
Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, is a seven-term congressman from small-town Wisconsin, best known for his radical shrink-the-government fiscal proposals, though he's also quite conservative on everything else. A year and a half ago, the ‘Ryan budget’ put him in the national spotlight – with some help from Obama (on which more below) – and made him a hero on the right. It proposes making big cuts in many federal programmes and turning Medicare into a voucher system that would not keep up with healthcare inflation: the government would save money because old people would go untreated or pay more. Compared to many Republican proposals, it’s full of detail, though its arithmetic appears not to hold up.
Timothy Alborn is the dean of arts and humanities and a professor of history at Lehman College of the City University of New York, and a scholar of Victorian business history. From 1989 to 1998 he ran Harriet Records, which released singles and CDs by never or not-yet famous pop groups such as the Scarlet Drops, Twig and Wimp Factor XIV. From 1985 to 1998 he also published Incite!, a fanzine with perhaps as many as several hundred readers, fans of obscure pop and rock bands from Boston to Dusseldorf to Melbourne. (During the 1990s Alborn taught at Harvard, where I met him and became a fan of his work.)
There are the records you like that everyone else seems to like, and the records you like that very few people have heard. And then there are the records you like that everyone else who has heard them seems to despise, the records that sank, or nearly sank, musicians' careers. At the top of that third stack, for me, is Bob Mould's modulate. Before it came out in 2002, Mould was known as an indie-rock guitarist, writing grim, angry, straightforward songs. modulate, though, was half mumbled and half AutoTuned, flipping disconsolately between dirty guitars and a low-budget version of the Pet Shop Boys, composed partly on synthesisers that sounded as if he'd just bought them; it was dance music that nobody could dance to, a collection of could-have-been hits undermined and overrun by brassily programmed samples, police sirens, bells, boxy electronic drums, and other touches that repelled a rock audience without going out of its way to grab anyone else.
Jessie and I were making our way to the Métro from the Jardin du Luxembourg when we literally stumbled – I think I tripped over a microphone cable – into the 29th annual Marché de la Poésie, an open-air, weekend-long festival of poets and poetry, with enough tents, booths, temporary stages, lecterns, folding chairs and rope lines to take up the whole of the Place Saint-Sulpice. The festival is big enough and famous enough to have developed a fringe (périphérie), a set of poetry-related events that continue until late June, in venues from the Portuguese consulate to the Halle St-Pierre in Montmartre. The organisers say that last year there were 509 exhibitors and 60,000 visitors.
When an artist who is already famous dies suddenly, tributes can start right away, and circulate rapidly; when a more obscure artist dies young, the tributes, and even the news of his death, can take much longer to reach people who like, or might like, his work. Take Nick Drake, so much better known now than when he was alive; or Keith Girdler, lead singer in the 1990s indie-pop act Blueboy, who died in 2007, from cancer. You wouldn't mistake Girdler's work for Drake's, but if you like one you'll probably like the other. There's the delicate voice just barely willing (he's clearly able) to lift and drop a melody; the spiderweb-thin bareness of some tracks, and the fluent chamber arrangements of others; the hint of rock and roll, usually just offstage. If Drake was a reticent hippie, Blueboy were reticent sophisticates; Girdler was confessing his quasi-secrets at the edge of a party too fancy for him, and for you, to feel comfortable there. Blueboy were in their time the best and the smartest proponents of a particular sort of mostly acoustic pop.
Earlier this year the TLS took a couple of digs at Infinite Difference, an anthology of 'Other' (i.e. experimental, overtly difficult) poetry by women, edited by Carrie Etter. J.C. made fun of the poems' apparent incoherence: 'If you come across one that is prepared to meet shared experience even halfway, you catch yourself thinking you've got it.' Marianne Morris, one of the writers the TLS mocked, retorted on her blog that of course her poems did not make prose sense, since 'critical language and poetic language are different orders of discourse.' But she welcomed the harsh spotlight: 'That my work is quoted in the TLS at all is merely evidence of the ambitious and peculiar task' of trying 'to bring poetry that is written against mainstream regulations into the mainstream'. If you take these sorts of argument on their own terms you may end up either implying that all poems should make prose sense, or else defending all poems that do not (because they oppose a mainstream, break down barriers, and so on). Better, far better, just to read through the anthology,
It takes guts to name your blog after a book by Henry James; as well as guts, Steve McLaughlin has the time, the energy and the open-ended Greyhound bus ticket to crisscross the USA and Canada interviewing semi-prominent figures in experimental, or semi-experimental, poetry for a series of podcasts. McLaughlin, who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (which is sponsoring the podcasts), has been recording his travels on his blog, The American Scene. There you can see his photographs of graffiti and his portraits of the people he has interviewed in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Maine, Georgia, New York City and New Orleans; you can even read his brief, flattering notes about his interview with me.
If you want to distinguish poetry, the multifarious, sometimes ridiculous ongoing enterprise, from ‘poetry’, the set of prestigious texts (most by people long dead) found on school exams, and if the poetry in question is your own, you can attempt to make the verse you write as shockingly informal, as anti-academic, as unmonumental, as your other aesthetic goals permit. We recognise the New York School poets, and the poets who would be their heirs, by such attempts, which is why scholars who work on them face a paradox.