Archive for the ‘Notices’ Category

Looking over Don McKay’s Collected Poems

bull-calf-logo-website1The new number of The Bull Calf is on-line, with 800 words of mine glancing over Don McKay’s collected poems, Angular Unconformity.

There are, as well, notices of Phil Hall’s selected poems, Guthrie Clothing, and Jacob Wren’s novel Polyamorous Love Song, along with much else calling for attention.



Prophecy in Reverse: a notice of The Relevance of Romanticism: Essays on German Romantic Philosophy

The Relevance of Romanticism

Anyone who studied Philosophy or Literary Theory at a certain point will be all too familiar with the bitter and apparently insurmountable divisions between Anglo-Saxon and Continental developments in these disciplines, a conflict that extends to the literary world, where, in English-language Canadian poetry, the schools of latter-day Johnsonians and that of the Theory-inflected avant-garde eye each other warily and dismissively, when they bother to regard each other at all. Of late, some attempts at a synthesis have been attempted, under the rubrics “hybrid” or “steampunk” poetics, or the “post-Language” or “Conceptual lyric.” However, all these attempts suffer a lack of depth and conceptual resources prey as they are to the prejudices of their precursors.

Most immediately, a straw man Wordsworth has been the whipping-boy of the grad schooled avant-garde, while our latter-day practitioners of Nobelese owe their complacent modernity ultimately to the struggles of early Modernism to define itself over against its late British Romantic forerunners. Ironically, in both cases, though it seems generally unacknowledged, Romanticism was roundly defended by the Yale School, in both the Deconstructions of Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man and the Aesthetic Criticism of Harold Bloom. The former showed English Romantic poetry to be as linguistically self-aware as any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, while, for the latter, a Romantic stance became synonymous with poetry-as-such. Nevertheless, the sentiment of trenchant materialist critiques, such as Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology, that Romanticism is firmly a thing of the past, seems the norm. Romantic poetry and poetics, in various guises, however, has given some small signs of resurgence, first, in Rothenberg’s and Robinson’s 2009 assemblage of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (Poems for the Millennium, Volume III), a welcome dilation and extension of Robert Duncan’s unapologetic if idiosyncratic High Romanticism, and in the exploration and development of kitsch carried out in the criticism and poetry of, for example, Daniel Tiffany.

In any case, past divisions or present attempts at synthesis have carried on ignorant of the groundbreaking research and thinking going in Germany. Patient scholars laboured at producing the first or new critical editions of Hölderlin and Novalis. Meanwhile, Dieter Henrich and his students pursued diligent and painstaking research in an attempt to reconstruct the post-Kantian maelstrom of literary, critical, and philosophical activity centred around Jena and the short-lived journal The Athenaeum. Henrich’s student Manfred Frank built on these studies, exploiting the conceptual and argumentative resources they provided to come to grips in new ways with questions around language and meaning, history, the subject, politics, society, and the environment. In France, Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy brought the heritage of The Athenaeum to bear on contemporary thought in The Literary Absolute, published in France in 1978 and in English translation in 1988. Finally, 1990s England produced analogous work from Richard Eldridge and Andrew Bowie, whose 1997 From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  the Philosophy of German Literary Theory along with Frank’s now out-of-print What is Neostructuralism? (1989) are required reading for anyone eager to think apart from and beyond the staid, false dilemmas of present-day philosophical, literary culture. Not to be outdone, even Slavoj Žižek has contributed to the revival,development and exploitation of Schelling’s philosophical work.

It is within this horizon of preliminary scholarly and critical accomplishment that a strikingly welcome collection appears, The Relevance of Romanticism (ed. Dalia Nassar, Oxford University Press, 2014). The volume collects sixteen essays addressing history, language, sociability, poetry, painting, mythology, mathematics, and the environment within the context of the philosophy of early German Romanticism. Contributors include scholars well-known to anyone familiar with this field—Manfred Frank, Frederick Beiser, Karl Ameriks, Michael N Forster, and Richard Eldridge—as well as eleven others, all of whose work is informative, eye-opening and thought-provoking.

The first two essays by Manfred Frank and Frederick Beiser frame the debate concerning the relative Realism or Idealism of early German (or Jena) Romanticism. Offhand, the debate certainly seems esoteric, but it has its finger on the pulse not only of the most current philosophical concerns, namely those that have inspired the various “new materalisms,” object oriented ontology or speculative realism, but also the controversies about how exactly the human being (or Subject) is to be conceived. As Bruce Mathews remarks in the course of his contribution, this problematic is one whose

consequences are far from academic. As Manfred Frank has repeatedly warned, to surrender our subjectivity and free will to the deterministic vocabulary of the natural sciences will not only undermine the personal accountability that supports moral action, but it will also lead to a “political fatalism” that will destroy the legitimacy of society’s defining institutions. (202)

The next four essays explore, as their section title declares, History, Hermeneutics, and Sociability. Karl Ameriks constructs a typology for philosophies of history—circular, linear, and chaotic—in order to illuminate Friedrich Schlegel’s famous definition of Romantic poetry as “progressive” and “universal.” Michael N Forster condenses his two studies of German philosophy of language (After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition (2010) and German Philosophy of Language:  from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (2013)) in a dense but less pointed chapter that, though informative, passes over the equally valuable if more obscure work of Novalis and more importantly fails to make as clear as need be how much de Saussure, structuralist linguistics, semiotics, and post-structuralist philosophy stem from and twist the more thorough-going and coherent contributions of Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and von Humboldt (a point well-made in detail by Frank in his What is Neostructuralism? and Boris Gasparov’s Beyond Pure Reason (2013)). The pair of essays by Kristin Gjesdal and Jane Kneller address an aspect of Jena Romanticism not widely enough surveyed (to my limited knowledge), namely the social dimension and pertinence of the movement. The Jena circle was infamously cosmopolitan and egalitarian, not only in terms of class and religion but of gender, too, values absolutely essential to the Berlin salon society within which its members moved and to Schleiermacher’s idea of sociability in his Essay on a Theory of Social Behaviour.

The five contributions of the volume’s third part address literature, art, and mythology. Richard Eldridge reads Hölderlin’s fragment “Rousseau” with attention to what it says about subjectivity and finitude. Brady Bowman and Keren Gorodeisky explore the lively pertinence of Jena Romantic thinking to reflections on the truth of art in analytic philosophy and the fragmentary form and pragmatic content of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in relation to Friedrich Schlegel’s. A real eye-opener for me is Laure Cahen-Maurel’s study of the painting and art theory of David Caspar Friedrich and its influence on Abstract Expressionism and the art of Anish Kapoor. Surely the most gripping read, however, is Bruce Mathews’ “The New Mythology:  Romanticism Between Religion and Humanism” that takes up Schelling’s speculations concerning a mythology that would harmonize art and science, humankind and nature, a discourse that holds the promise of helping us avoid what Schelling already in 1804 foresaw as “the annihilation of nature.” No remark by Žižek on the environment or environmentalism or any tract on ecopoetics or ecopoetical work I can think of open such compelling vistas or place a higher or more urgent demand on the imaginative artist or thinker than these fifteen or so pages.

The book’s final section, Science and Nature, is no less surprisingly informative or pertinent to the present day. Anyone who believes the Romantic thinker is a wooly-brained dilettante will find that prejudice shattered here. One learns in the contributions from Paul Redding, John H Smith, and David W Wood that Novalis (a mining engineer by trade), Friedrich Schlegel, and Salomon Maimon (surely one of Kant’s most idiosyncratic interpreters and critics) were absolutely contemporary in their knowledge of the most advanced mathematics of the day, particularly that having to do with controversies over the then relatively new infinitesimal calculus and the nature of the infinite, notions that informed Schlegel’s definition of Romantic Poesie as “progressive.” Redding shows how Novalis’ fragmentary notes on computation remain relevant to contemporary philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and procedural, cyber- or Conceptual poetries. Regarding this aspect of Novalis’ thinking, Redding observes

We can see how the interests of the poet and the computationalist might converge…and a point of convergence can indeed be found in the strange case of the combinatorial poetics of Erycius Puteanus, a seventeenth-century humanist whose generation of multiple verses to the Virgin Mary from a single eight-word poem came to the attention of Liebniz…An eight-word, one-line Latin hexameter…formed the base from which Puteanus generated 1,022 verse permutations… (228)

Equally startling is the relation of geometry and algebra and calculus to the concepts of philosophy of Fichte and Novalis and the relevance of the former’s Wissenschaftslehre to such mathematical luminaries as Herman Weyl. Amanda Jo Goldstein’s contribution on Herder’s “irritable empiricism” complements Forster’s on Herder’s language philosophy, laying out as it does Herder’s peculiar theories concerning sensation, culture, and language and their unknottable intertwining that weaves poetic tropes into our very nerve fibres and their “irritations” two centuries in advance of similar proposals made by Canguilhem, Jacob, or Foucault and in a much more compelling way for poets and poetics. Likewise, the volume’s final piece, Dalia Nassar’s “Romantic Empiricism after the ‘End of Nature'” complements Mathews’ on Schelling’s New Mythology, setting out to clarify and legitimate Goethe’s concept of science and nature in the context of the contestations over the very idea of Nature itself.

Nassar’s collection should disturb the prejudice that Romanticism is dustily antique and that our absolute modernity is a quantum advance upon its quaint notions. As the philosophies of Kant and Hegel come to be seen to possess potentials to illuminate the present moment, so the thinking between theirs comes to the fore. Not only do we share the more general horizon with the Jena Romantics—developments in technoscience and its worldview and the attendant social and environmental predations of industrialism—but their terms define our own in advance. Indeed, the essays in this volume propose that it is our thinking that is a pale shadow of theirs and that the promise of their speculations resides in our future.

Peter Dale Scott’s Tilting Point: “tilting at the mills of state / with a lance of paper”

Peter Dale Scott’s first full volume of poetry since Mosaic Orpheus (2009) collects ten new poems that speak from the vantage point of a lifetime and his singular interrogation of the American Empire. The first eight, short poems reflect on the eros of old age, the “drive’s decline”, a shift to “love not as acquisition but as gift”, an eros poignantly in love with living more than with any one beloved, that lifts

…once again


for an instant

into this abiding


of all there is

Fifty-seven of the volume’s seventy-pages are taken up by two longer works Loving America and Changing North America, the former probing the schizophrenic love-hate relationship Scott has developed over decades’ engagement with his adopted country (“the cradle of the worst and the best” as Leonard Cohen sings), the latter searching for resolutions to the country’s increasingly pathological contradictions.

The profound pertinence of Scott’s message is tuned to a style tempered to communicate it. Tellingly, at least four of the book’s poems, including many of the long poems’ sections, first appeared on “the spreading / leafwork of the Internet,” an index of Scott’s urgent desire to get the word out. His classical manner verges on the prosaic, even the pedestrian at times, guided throughout by a democratic ideal to address the widest possible audience, such as in the startling “To the Tea-Party Patriots: A Berkeley Professor says Hello!”. Often, that audience is an expressed dedicatee or interlocutor, poets or friends, including Daniel Ellsberg, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Czeslaw Milosz, and Walt Whitman, among many others.

More ruminative readers, however, will not mistake the clear surface of Scott’s language for a shallowness of thought or knowledge. Already, for example, in the volume’s first piece “Homing:  A Winter Poem,” Scott’s simplicity belies a profound complexity of reference, the tracing of which is the richly rewarding work his writing invites:  the significance of the dedication to Tomas Tranströmer, the epigraph from Genesis, the allusions to ‘Jubal’ and ‘Urthona’ and the poet speaker’s “dead parents,” among others, coupled with the intratextual references—the “tilt of the earth” nodding to the collection’s title and the “glimpse of odyssey” that winks at the poem dedicated to Milosz “Not for long”—all point to a profound  and unending network of meaningfulness, a characteristic virtue of literary art.

For all its accomplished polish Scott’s poetry is no mere aesthetic production. His manner is chosen to address matters of the utmost consequence, the character and fate of America, a topic that has inspired him to produce more than eight volumes of painstaking investigative scholarship into the machinations and abuses of power and a monumental long poem Seculum (in three volumes, Coming to Jakarta (1988), Listening to the Candle (1992), and Minding the Darkness (2000)). It is in the book’s two long poems that Scott most firmly grasps this theme that runs throughout his life’s work, work that rises to his friend Milosz’s question “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or peoples?// A connivance with official lies…” Scott’s answer to Milosz’s demand is, in part,

… to write any poem

encompassing this nation

one must have an awareness

of gratuitous murder

committed by released felons

in uniform for sport

without forgetting the grace

of a doe drinking from a forest stream

Scott’s theme, like Whitman’s before him, has vista. The periplum of this territory his work traces and this latest book continues invites and demands our attentive study.

Tilting Point, Peter Dale Scott, San Luis Obispo:  Word Palace Press, 2012

Notice: Norman Nawrocki’s Nightcap for Nihilists

One discouraging struggle of the writing life is getting one’s work noticed. One obstacle is that many of those who do engage in literary journalism hardly have the time for their own lives and writing, never mind wrighting a solid, sensitive review. Those with the time and energy to write intelligent criticism, something else again, have my undying respect. But, what one can do with relatively little effort is give notice of work that has appeared, like recommending a good movie to a friend, getting the word out just to share the pleasure.

Norman Nawrocki has just published Nightcap for Nihilists (Les Pages Noirs, 2012), the fourth volume in his Brain Food series that includes Breakfast for Anarchists (2007), Lunch for Insurgents (2009), and Dinner for Dissidents (2009).  This latest volume and series are just the latest addition to a very long, impressively engaged body of work that includes cabaret, spoken word, musical collaboration, theatre, and even sex education!—just check out his biography. Like the man, the work is on the front line of the struggle for social justice:  rants, anecdotes, parables, and songs, all in that long tradition of imaginative, creative, eloquent engaged art that aspires to cheer the downtrodden and horrify despots.

Here’s his contribution to a recent memorial reading held for the late Andy Suknaski:  “Homestead, 1914 (SEC. 32. TP4, RGE2, W3RD, SASK.) 1. returning”