Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chrestomathy, concluded.


For Reginald Shepherd, like a number of significant modern poets, the poet lives in relation to myth. This relationship might be intimate, as in the case of HD, and worn like a chiton. It might be an elaboration of modern life as with Duncan. Mythology might run under the poet’s creative thinking, like veins of coal, in the work of Ted Hughes. It might become a mode of transformation…in Gunn and Doty. In Orpheus and the Bronx, Shepherd troubles over this relationship, well aware of the mythologizing instinct in his own verse. Living out myths is “like wearing clothing that doesn’t fit properly.” Putting on the robes of high Western culture is fitting and awkward. In what sense? In a tragic mode? Like Macbeth? A troubled kingship?


Fata Morgana includes a work that is very important within the corpus of Shepherd’s work: “Some Kind of Osiris”. Even the title acknowledges the uncertainty with which Shepherd wears this myth. “Some Kind of”. There is hesitancy, a mantle passed on. But from whom?


To read it is to encounter holes.

“Green calls green into being/speaking my skin into colour,”
The abstract underpins specific greens…especially in the case of Death, for Green was the Egyptian colour of Death— linked to the mummified flesh of Osiris.

Echoing Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and their belief in the continuity between Death and Life, Shepherd’s poem relates the world of “beetles and dung” (the Egyptian scarab that rolls light) with “smell of basil”.
“The crops will be thick in my death year” wrote Pound. Life ascends from Xthonic forces.

But this is hard “Without Wings”… an allusion to Laurie Lamon brings what into the chrestomathy? A sense of lyric and the elemental?

This Osiris is “less a person/than a place” locution is bound with locus, speech with place. When Whitman wrote his great “Scented Herbage of my Breast”, he did so after studying an image of Osiris. He was struck by the hermetical image of a dead body sprouting plant life. And “less a person than a place”, Whitman’s body of song raised leaves of grass, poetic life turning death into exhilaration.

The body of the poet was the body of America.

In “Some Kind of Osiris”, Reginald Shepherd is loosely mummy-bound (unlike Yeats). No set hermetical path will guide him into occult wisdom...the path of Hermes is wound out in the poem.


Like Delany, writing in the erotic wasteland between Death and Life, Reginald Shepherd tries on myths for size in many of his poems, seeing where mouthing/muthos will lead…what mystery might be sucked in the darkness of language.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chrestomathy, continued...


In his “Notes Towards Beauty”, Reginald Shepherd writes:

“I have quoted and cited, referred and alluded, but I am still no prophet. What do I believe—and which I, and at what time? Perhaps this near-chrestomathy is evidence, however circumstantial, that beauty is not merely personal or idiosyncratic.”

A “near-crestomathy”. What is that? It would seem that Beauty (in its various definitions) does not give “useful” readings that aid “learning”. Beauty, for Shepherd, allows a sense of absoluteness. Historical writings suggest that is not merely personal or relative…yet it is does not become a concept that is entirely useful for the human mind. Beauty is useless and good for nothing except seduction, for “getting laid”...outside the realm of education.


Digging through language in Passages 15/Spelling, Duncan links the Chi-rho symbol of Greek scribes with the poet’s task. He links chi-ro-eston, the “useful” mark placed alongside any important passage with the chrestomathy of his own Passages. Spelling chrestomathy as Xrestomathy, he also draws in the spiritual, the chi-ro that symbolises Christ/Xristos. Locked within chrestomathy is the Spirit, the X of Plato that represented the World Soul. The poet who spells the world through language as he or she understands it is bound to cast spells, to hermetically re-create.


Poetry, like science fiction, is connected to marginal worlds, says Shepherd in acknowledging his affinity with Delany. The poet is a liminal being who lives in margins, marking the body of other works with the “useful” sign and from this creating a chrestomathy, a body of work that is his own. In this sense, the chrestomathic poet is Hermetical, a guide among the souls of the dead, a wanderer in the realms of Osiris, the Xthonic darkness from which seeds of love erupt. This is the orgasm sought by the true poet, the re-making of the body of language in all its stickiness, its adhesion.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A chrestomathy for Reginald Shepherd.


Our modern culture, with its acceptance if not worship of fracture, recreates itself through predictable metaphors. Archipelago remains a key word in the Science of Evolution, Diaspora a major word within the Social Sciences. In Science Fiction, the glittering word is chrestomathy.

A chrestomathy of Ray Bradbury.
A chrestomathy of Samuel R Delany.


Reginald’s Shepherds Orpheus in the Bronx includes a “formal hommage” to Delany. In method and content, “Shadows and Light Moving on Water” returns to Delany’s essays, “Shadows” and “Shadow and Ash”. It is an experiment in a new mode…


Page 132 explains the boundaries of the words chrestomathy. Greek: “Useful”+”To learn”. A “selection of passages” gathered to help learning. The term implies a scattering of thoughts and a gathering together. That view of criticism grows out of Pound at the turn of the last century: “I gather the limbs of Osiris”. (TO BE RETURNED TO). Chrestomathy implies a different view of critical methodology: a sort of connected looseness. Chrestomathy allows spaces to exist, does not aim for a total, totalitarian and comprehensive criticism. In a way, a chrestomathy says “Here is my way, what I have learnt”. The body has holes…I recover what I can from experience to bring spirit to life. The Afterlife of the text!


The most interesting criticism is that which show its holes. The least interesting is that which hides its workings and merely relies on expert statements for validation. A chrestomathy asks that the reader validate the notes…think them through; not surprising, then, that Reginald Shepherd would take this route. It is criticism as process.


“A selection of passages”. That phrase (quoted by Reginald Shepherd) must have resonated for him for The Master of Chrestomathy in the field of poetics is Duncan…his open poem of life created through his fear of closure and death…is PASSAGES, “Tribal Memories” to “Whose”. The lover is always in love with death. Isis and Osiris unite in the Afterlife, a place in which Truth and Justice are images of criticism. (Not Beauty?)


13. “A primary question in all Delany’s work: does one impose form on experience or does one recognise form in and coax form out of experience?” As Reginald Shepherd writes, criticism is formed out of experience…of life…of reading.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The new edition of Thom Gunn.

The new edition of Thom Gunn’s poetry has been referred to as a Selected Poems. This edition even opens its introduction with “It’s now thirty years since the first Selected Thom Gunn” which implies that this latest edition follows the first: it is a second Selected Poems. Mistake? Exaggeration? This latest offering is in no way a Selected poems. It is a “Poems Selected by”, a selection that bears all the usual idiosyncrasies of this poetry series. (The USA version of this book is responsible for this confusion. It bears the title Selected Poems and refers to Kleinzahler as the "editor". Such a description masks the personal bias in the book). Gunn, himself, did his own take on Pound, and “Hang it all, Thom Gunn,” your Pound was never my Pound. An identical problem exists in relation to Thom Gunn: Poems selected by August Kleinzahler.

The Faber poet-to-poet series has been a largely British affair. The poets read are varied, but the poets reading the poets come from the UK camp of contemporary poets. (Why Hollinghurst gets a look in is odd: when did he become a significant poet?) That Faber should choose an American poet to select Gunn indicates something of a departure and an implicit bias in what was desired by the publisher: a robust, modern, American Gunn.

Kleinzahler’s approach to Gunn is robust. His introduction, however, makes rather more sense than his selection.

In his Introduction, Kleinzahler rightly challenges the usual analysis of Gunn’s career. It was brilliant, then Gunn went to the USA, discovered gay sex and gay drugs, and went down hill from Moly; until the elegiacal strain of The Man with Night Sweats gave him fitting content and resulted in a return to form: nothing like tragic deaths to legalise gayness! Kleinzahler offers a much better reading of Gunn as a poet who continued to progress and develop. This perspective is offered as new. In essence, it comes across as “Thom Gunn, the American story”. It isn’t either of these things. Gregory Woods argued much the same a decade ago. Michael Schmidt revised the false reading of Gunn three decades ago. If there is one advantage to the revision affirmed by Kleinzahler, however, it is this: it indirectly corrects the popular, trashy views of Colm Tóibín (who has suddenly acquired gay guru status): Gunn was a poet who “pushed against his own talent”.

Gunn, in his early days, was what the publishing establishment loves, a youthful genius. He was the “discovery” dreamed by every publishing house. Unfortunately, honesty got the better of him. He admired Duncan who placed sexual integrity above the demands of editors. Gunn’s poems developed a mode of speaking that was against the shrieking confessional and against the ambiguous lyric. As if to correct this, Kleinzahler only includes two poems from Fighting Terms (1954). The energies of youth are quickly ditched.

Tóibín’s faulting of Gunn is connected to his failure to have a central “myth”. Kleinzahler almost delights in hiding the “myth” that Tóibín misses. As stated earlier, Gunn selected Pound for Faber. He knew his Pound thoroughly. And what runs through Gunn is an antidote to Pound, a belief that the gay poet has a place within the natural cosmos. The gay poet too can “Make Cosmos”. Gunn was an urban poet, but he was also a pastoral poet, a poet of nature and metamorphosis. Much of this is ignored by Kleinzahler in his selection. So, no “Allegory of the Wolf Boy”, “The Book of the Dead”, “The Garden of the Gods”, “The Messenger”, “Thomas Bewick”, “The Cherry Tree”, “Odysseus on Hermes” and “Duncan”. The whiff of Hermeticism is kept in “Rites of Passage” and in “Philemon and Baucis.” But it is preserved for other reasons. The straight-talking “Philemon and Baucis” begins with an epigram from William Carlos Williams. It comes into the picture—as Kleinzahler paints it—because it shows Gunn’s debt to the American tradition and Williams. For the “poet” reader of this edition, Gunn’s heritage is Williams, Auden, Winters, Keats and the Elizabethans. (The Elizabethans? Only an American could get away with such a meaningless term. American poets are identities whereas English poetry exists as collective abstractions. Kleinzahler quotes Gunn on this: “I want to be an Elizabethan poet” and this moment of autobiography saves a lot of detailed enquiries into what is really there in Gunn’s poetry…his voice, for a start, is often closer to Marvell than Donne). Another theme, out of Pound, that runs through Gunn relates to the qualities of love and the troubadour tradition. The intersection of the body and the spiritual is key to any reading of Gunn. Yet, vital poems that reference this tradition, “The Monster” and its aubade, “The Differences” and Cavalcanti, “Wrestling” and vision, “Troubadour”, a major poetic sequence, these spiritual poems are deselected from the corpus.

It has to be said that any short selection of a poet’s work (here, 58 from 400 poems) is bound to be partial. And readers are always going to create their own versions of a poet. This edition, however, though it provides the range of Gunn’s work from 1954-2000, which is a positive, is not really true to the real Gunn. Not only has the Hermetic Gunn been conjured away, also, the gay Gunn: Eros becomes Thanatos, sexual life is replaced by sexualised deaths. Encounter and chance are replaced by a more rational (heterosexually authored) universe. “Shit”, is taken out of context as a tribute to Rimbaud and Gunn’s love of profanity. Truthfully, it stands in homage to Gregory Woods, as Gunn, right at the end of his life, still playing with the English tradition in poetry, still responsive to the tensions between technique, voice, and dissension, What is also shamefully missing is Gunn’s reflections on the art of poetry: no “A Map of the City”, no“Expression”, no “Painting by Vuillard.” This volume should be read as response by a poet-to-a-poet, and as an intelligent poet’s posthumous understanding of a friend. It is, however, a dubious survey of Gunn and a simplification of the complex gay identity that Gunn sought through poetry.