The Bibliothecary
April 18 -29, 2005
The Omnigatherum

The Bibliothecary

Readers' Comments
March April
January February
April May June
July August

Friday April 29, 2005
Daniel Green, at The Valve, has a commentary on the negative criticism leveled at contemporary poets as of late.  In part, he
mentions David Yezzi’s “The Fortunes of Formalism” that I linked on Tuesday.  I
chimed in on the Valve's discussion.

A.N. Wilson dares to criticize poet Geoffrey Hill, even though Hill's new book, Scenes from Comus, has this Wilson blurb
on its back cover, "There is no one alive writing in our language about deeper or more important matters, no one saying such
interesting things." But in the review, Wilson takes him to task for his obscurities: Who has heard of Hallgrimur Petersson?  
Hill seems to have become everyone's favorite difficult poet.  I've said much the same thing about Hill.  I rarely understand
him on first readings, but I find his verse compelling to read and rewarding in future readings.  I haven't yet read the new
book, but Wilson's criticism, in light of all the
accolades showered upon Hill lately, is refreshing.

And a bit of fun for today: from The Onion, an article praising a man who reads only the first hundred pages or so of classic
novels (and his resulting skewed readings):

"Characters in the great books may be more allegory than human, but there's a lot you can take away from
them anyway," Seward said. "You have to admire the leadership of Captain Ahab as he sets out in search of
Moby Dick, or the sense of personal duty and faith in social order that drive Marlow up the Congo to meet
Kurtz. Or, in a different vein altogether, you must pity the tragic ugly duckling that is Jane Austen's Emma.
I know it may be old-fashioned to say this, but I think what you read, and how you read it, can say a lot
about you."

Sounds kind of like the reactions from readers of Oprah's Classic Book Club ("You know, The heart is a loney hunter") and
they read the whole-entire-book.  And while you're mulling my nasty comment about "just regular folk" readers, here's
another funny Onion
piece on National Poetry Month. (it was April, this month.  If you missed it, you'll have to wait until next
year to celebrate poetry.)  

Roget's Thesaurus was published on April 29, 1852.  Simon Winchester wrote a wonderful piece about Roget's intentions
and the way the
thesaurus has been misused as a mere synonym finder.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Thursday, April 28, 2005
Found a writer I haven't yet read, but would love to.  Here's an old Salon article by Neil Gordon on Los Angeles writer John
Fante.  There is a
movie (starring Colin Farrel, directed by Robert Towne) coming out of one of his novels, Ask the Dust.  
Incidentally, Towne "discovered"
Fante while he was writing "Chinatown."  Fante's life story is fascinating and tragic, though
tragedy of a self-immolating kind.  Gordon makes out Fante to be one of the great American writers of the 20th century:

Here, I saw, was a writer as powerful as any in the American canon and far more subversive, more original
and inventive than most. His voice ranged from gratingly raw honesty to a Thurberesque humor with the ridiculous
figure of the writer himself -- particularly in his role as father and homeowner -- as its object. The language was
astounding, always unsettling, always shocking in the beauty for which it reached again and again, the heights and
depths of emotion it attained, and the risks it was prepared to take. To describe this writing as Dostoyevskian was
not far-fetched; to identify it as among the finest fiction ever written in America was, for me, a certainty.

A Scott McLemee column on the controversy surrounding some intentionally tall tales told by Michael Chabon and the nature
of fabrication/hoax/satire/fraud.

Everybody has a weblog these days, even Superheroes.  Via the Incoming Signals blog,  here are a bunch of links to blogs
by The Hulk, Aquaman, Green Goblin, Spidey, Batman, Robin, and more.  Some of this stuff is pretty funny.  Wouldn't it be
great if there were blogs of famous dead writers?  Or famous literary characters (not wearing spandex costumes)?  I pose
these questions hoping to get lots of humorous scenarios from Bibliothecary readers.     


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005
A review of the new Robert Southey editions asks why Southey's poetry has been so long neglected and answers, because
it's crap (or at least not as good as Wordsworth's):

Southey invokes feelings; Wordsworth explores them, in keeping with his celebrated definition of poetry as
“emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Just as much as Proust, Wordsworth distinguished between voluntary
and involuntary memory: thanks to the detachment consequent upon the interval between the experience and
its recollection, the poet can define and understand feelings which he originally had no time to examine objectively.
The contemplative, philosophical dimension in Wordsworth has no equivalent in Southey, who has a sense of
pathos, but not of tragedy (he kept that for his own life, alas).

A scathingly funny piece on NY Times' columnist Tom Friedman and his inability to write a consistent metaphor (and a
coherent thought).  After reading this, I'll never again read Friedman in the same way:

The usual ratio of Friedman criticism is 2:1, i.e., two human words to make sense of each single word of
Friedmanese. Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite
feature-length essays. I'll give you an example, drawn at random from
The World Is Flat. On page 174, Friedman
is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friedman never
forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written
The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa would have
awoken from uneasy dreams in a Sealy Posturepedic.) Here's what he says:
I stomped off, went through security, bought a Cinnabon, and glumly sat at the back of the B line, waiting to be
herded on board so that I could hunt for space in the overhead bins.
Forget the Cinnabon. Name me a herd animal that hunts. Name me one.

This review was even rougher than the savage beating Joe Queenan gave to A.J. Jacobs, in which he called Jacobs a
"jackass" for writing a book.  Since Queenan's review appeared in the prestigious NY Times, Jacobs was given the
opportunity to respond, but I doubt Friedman would even want to respond to the NY Press, although wouldn't it be great if
he did.

Dead Writer today:  Ralph Waldo Emerson died in 1882.  In Concord, the church bells tolled once for each of his seventy-
nine years.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005
A lament for the declining art of formalist poetry.  Formalist poetry?  Shouldn't that be redundant?

With free verse now the common currency in contemporary poetry, it is easy to forget that it took hold
only a century ago—that’s 2,500 years of metrical verse since the Iliad and 100 years of free verse in
English since Ezra Pound (or 150, if one starts with Whitman).

A review of a new Sherlock Holmes book (seems like there are never enough and also too many), but this one sounds like it
is not the run-of-the-mill pastiche:

This very beautiful novel is about Sherlock Holmes -- or, more accurately, about the human being who lives
behind the public mask of Holmes as that mask begins to crumble. Watson is long dead, and the aged Holmes
has retired to the country, where he pursues an obsessive interest in raising bees. He tells himself it's because
of the health benefits of royal jelly, but he also derives a strange comfort from the communal lives of the bees
themselves. They live an existence of predictable, perfect order -- in contrast to human beings, who strive so
mightily to imbue their activities on this earth with meaning even as order lies quite beyond their grasp.

Dead Writer for today:  Daniel Defoe died in Ropemaker Street, London, 1731.  In 1871, his body was exhumed as part of
a project to erect a seventeen-foot marble pillar as a
memorial stone.  Police had to be called when a riot nearly erupted as
onlookers tried to steal Defoe's bones as souvenirs.  I wonder if anyone got away with a piece of him.  Here's
Virginia Woolf
on Defoe.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Monday, April 25, 2005
More Shakespeare today:  a good review by Simon Callow of Shakespeare Goes to Paris about the Bard's reception in
France in the 18th and 19th centuries and how he was translated.  I'm always intrigued by how Shakespeare had been
glowingly received in the past, yet their performance texts have often been drastically different from the Shakespeare plays
we praise.

Kiernan Ryan takes a stab at clearing up my intrigue in his assessment of
Shakepeare's reputation:

So how did Shakespeare pull it off? Why do these plays, which are steeped in the
life and language of Shakespeare's world and time, refuse to stay put in his world
and time, and have so much to tell us about our world in our time? The popular
consensus is that his drama has defied obsolescence and triumphed in translation all
over the globe because it expresses the timeless truths of the universal human
condition. It's a view that has secured powerful advocates, from Samuel Johnson in
the 18th century to Harold Bloom in the 21st. But it's a view whose platitudinous
piety I've never found credible, not least because it's been used so often to buttress
the status quo.

And to keep today's theme entirely Elizabethan, here's James Fenton's short review of an album of Elizabethan songs.  I
especially like Fenton's first few paragraphs in which he comments on the simply stated beauty of the lyrics:

A whole line can consist of nothing but words common today. "Oh he is gone and I am here," the opening
words of a song by Robert Jones, who flourished between 1597 and 1615, are modern demotic speech. But
they are also immediately recognisable as poetry in the plain style.
Do you suppose Coleridge stored that line in the back of his mind, later to write "Well they are gone and here
I must remain, / This lime-tree bower my prison"? It's not necessary to suppose this. The thought itself is a
common one, and easily expressed. And this is where our poetry begins, in common language and in common

and the intimate, quiet settings of Elizabethan performance:

These gifted men and women, waiting endlessly for the dark, so they could slip away and pursue their loves,
helped the hours pass while playing on soft instruments, and singing into each others' eyes. Rooms were small,
very small, and there was every reason not to shriek. They were not like today's opera singers, with that
astonishing ability to stand nose to nose and blast out their love for each other at the volume required to reach
the back seat of the gallery across a lively orchestra pit. There was often no audience anyway, other than the

Dead Writer today: After years of madness, the Italian poet, Torquato Tasso known for his epic Gerusalemme Liberata
Jerusalem Delivered), died in Rome in 1595, just days before he was to be crowned Poet Laureate.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Saturday, April 23, 2005
A red-letter day for Dead Writers.
Today is recognized as the birthday of
Shakespeare, but it is also the day he died.
We know he was baptized on April 26, 1564, so he must have been born shortly
before then. So why not celebrate on the same day both the beginning and end of
the life of the greatest writer in the English language.  
Also on April 23, 1616,
Miguel de Cervantes died.  Though the date is the same
as that of Shakespeare's death, they died on different days, as the English calendar
was a little more than a week behind calendars on the Continent.  As a Protestant
nation, England had not adopted the Gregorian calendar reforms (and would not
do so until 1752 when they had fallen eleven days behind the rest of Europe).
Today also marks the
deathday of William Wordsworth in 1850, aged eighty.

                                                A good
essay figuring Cervantes' Quixote as a progenitor of the Enlightenment:

                                                Without him, and without Cervantes's own constant shifting between tradition and
                                                modernity, we might have remained for longer in a world of superstition and dogma.
                                                "Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity," Kant wrote in 1784, 180
                                                years after the first publication of the Quixote. "The motto of Enlightenment is
                                                therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence." On the knight's
                                                400th anniversary we can see that this was the courage that Don Quixote has
                                                bequeathed us. His own misguided intelligence, bound to an immaturity that leads to
                                                folly, takes him on an epic of discovery in which he finally leads the reader out of his
                                                or her own immaturity.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Friday, April 22, 2005
Here's a really strange review by Billy Collins.  It is entitled, "The Case for E.E. Cummings," the drift being that Cummings is
no longer respected as a poet, but should be.  But I'll be damned if Collins doesn't make the case that Cummings was
famous, but not a good poet.  There are a couple general observations about Cummings' innovativeness in the middle of this
essay, but for the most part, Collins seems to be making The Case Against EE.  By the time I get to his endorsement at the
end, I'm thinking, what the hell are you talking about?  

Robert Pinsky gives us Alexander Pope's poem, "An Essay on Criticism," which, perhaps, I need to take to heart before
criticizing Collins or Cummings:

In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick's Share

A short piece in a Baltimore newspaper about a new biography of Edgar Allan Poe and its mission to correct some of the
misconceptions of the Poe Myth.  

Dead Writer date:  Henry Fielding, one of the great pipe smokers of literature, was born on April 22, 1707.


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Lemony Snicket reviews the new H.P. Lovecraft anthology published by the normally sane Library of America.  The
reviewer begins,

Lovecraft's stories are so overwrought that they make Jules Verne look like a homebody and Edgar Allan
Poe a well-adjusted realist; he pushes at the already extreme boundaries of the Gothic, horror and science
fiction genres -- not so much in the way that John Ashbery pushes at the boundaries of poetic form but
more as Spinal Tap pushes at the boundaries of heavy metal: by turning the volume up to 11.

But he's praising Lovecraft by the end of the review.  He argues that the accumulating bad prose has a way of becoming
something sublime.  Something crap, if you ask me.  

Tom Stoppard talks about the renovations for the London Library, of which he is now the president:

Most people think of a library as a monument to past endeavours . . . But the past provides the motor of the
present. Libraries stand in the future as well as in the past. When you get a book from the library, whenever it
was written, the work is no longer in the past because it's in your present tense: your experience of that book is
completely in the now, up to the second . . . and it fuels new work, all the time.

If I could smoke in the library, I don't know if I'd ever leave.

Scott McLemee on the process of putting words on paper, literally, why he writes in longhand instead of using a computer:

Nowadays, the word “text” connotes an artifact that is “always already” digitized — something to be fed
into a streamlined apparatus for circulating information. But the word itself comes from the Latin root texere,
to weave, as in “textile.”
In my own experience, though, writing is not so much the crafting of paragraphs as it is a matter of
laboriously unknotting the thread of any given idea. And the only way to do that is by hand. The process is
messy and not terribly efficient.

He also uses a wonderful quote from Roland Barthes, describing the conception of a text: "First comes the moment when
desire is invested in a graphic impulse."  I love that.  I know that moment.  Most of all I like this Ted Hughes quote on the
problem of using word processors to write:

What’s happening . . . is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page became more flexible
and externalized, the writer [could] get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought
to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence
is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated.

Because I'm using my computer to write this, I'll leave it at that, before this blog becomes too attenuated.

Stephen Greenblatt in the LA Times on translation and the cultural mobility it entails.  This isn't a terribly well written piece for
Greenblatt.  The first few paragraphs are a little murky, but stick with it to the end.  The quotes he uses provide much food
for thought and his prose clears up as the article progresses.  Incidentally, I was just talking about reading translations of non-
English works with Dan W only hours before I read this.  I am often deterred from reading certain works because I feel they
are too filtered.  The lexicon and rhythms of Modern English surely can not do justice to the nuances of, say, Tolstoy's
Russian, or Cervantes' Spanish.  But in the end I agree with Greenblatt's conclusion that I have understood something of the
essence of a translated work.  Something of an essence doesn't sound very promising, but it'll have to do for now.   

Dead Writer for today:  Bram Stoker died on April 20, 1912

The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005
A review of two new books on how to read Eliot's "Waste Land:"

most readers will have been first exposed to the poem "in a classroom setting that sometimes encourages
a style of reading inimical to [its] grotesque and grim extremism." The name for that style of reading is
interpretation, as demonstrated and practiced in the scores of books, essays, and classrooms devoted to
explaining what this or that passage or line or word really means. But it is inimical to the poem's ferocity,
a word that Eliot used more than once as a term of praise at the time he was composing "The Waste Land."
Interpretation treats the poem as a puzzle to be understood and solved, rather than as a strange performance
not to be reduced to orderly codes of meaning. For Mr. Rainey the starting and maybe the ending place for
a true experience of "The Waste Land" is to respond to that ferocity

Another dictionary book, but this time not about Samuel Johnson, it's a memoir by Ilan Stevens about his passion for

And so we are whisked upon a magical mystery tour of sorts, back to the great mystic Jewish text, the
kabbalah, whose pages claim that before the universe was created, every word ever destined to be used
already existed in a cosmic super-dictionary. This musing contrasts violently with Stavans' visits to the
reference section of today's chain stores. Here, words are anything but magical: They exist to serve

A great Michael Dirda review (although I think most Dirda reviews are great) about a book I had never heard of and now
can't wait to read (and how many books are in that pile?):

Confined to his quarters for 42 days as punishment for dueling, the French soldier Xavier de Maistre
(1763-1852) decided to undertake a journey around his room. By treating his bed, his armchair, the
artworks on the wall and his small library as major tourist sites, he planned to reflect upon their history,
their importance to him, and the philosophical questions that they brought to mind. Just as some Shelleyan
romantic might stand before the grandeur of Mont Blanc or weep amid the ruins of the Parthenon, so de
Maistre would thrillingly confront the ordinary objects around him -- and really see them for the first time ...
"A bed," writes de Maistre, "witnesses our birth and death; it is the unvarying theatre in which the human
race acts out, successively, its captivating dramas, laughable farces, and dreadful tragedies. It is a cradle
bedecked with flowers; -- it is the throne of love; -- it is a sepulchre."

There is so much I could quote from this review.  Just read the whole thing.

Dead Writer commemoration of the day:
On April 19, 1824, the Romantic poet, George Gordon, the sixth  
Lord Byron died in Missolonghi after contracting malarial
fever while drilling troops to fight for Greek independence from the Turkish Empire.  His heart and lungs are
buried in
Greece; the rest of his corpus are interred at his ancestral estate.  I wonder, why his lungs?


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.

Monday, April 18, 2005
After all of the razzing poor Andrew Motion received on this blog last week for his unexceptional laureate poetry, his poem
commemorating the marriage of Charles and Camilla is actually pretty good:

I took your news outdoors, and strolled a while
In silence on my square of garden-ground
Where I could dim the roar of arguments,
Ignore the scandal-flywheel whirring round,

And hear instead the green fuse in the flower
Ignite, the breeze stretch out a shadow-hand
To ruffle blossom on its sticking points,
The blackbirds sing, and singing take their stand.

I took your news outdoors, and found the Spring
Had honored all its promises to start
Disclosing how the principles of earth
Can make a common purpose with the heart.

The heart which slips and sidles like a stream
Weighed down by winter-wreckage near its source --
But given time, and come the clearing rain,
Breaks loose to revel in its proper course.

I like the way he deals with the controversy surrounding the marriage.  I like several of his lines, most especially the third
stanza.  Hey, I would be pretty happy to receive this for my nuptials.  

And here's Andrew Motion's review of the new book on Dr Johnson's Dictionary:

The Dictionary is a nervous book, for all its authority. It is wonderfully alive to its own time as well
to as the idea of posterity, and it always strikes the right balance between the demand for regularity,
and the need to recognise that language is a permanently-evolving thing.

This just in:  a new technology has been developed to allow scholars to read what were previously illegible papyri:

Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University
scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,
and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.
In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including
writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They
even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of
the earliest books of the New Testament.

There may be a twenty per cent increase in the works of classical Greek and Latin works.  Perhaps I should go into classical
studies.  Lots of lit crit to be done.

Seamus Heaney, whose birthday I mentioned the other day, has a poem in Saturday's Guardian, chock full of wet peat and

A couple of anniversaries for today:  
In 1755, Paul Revere made his famous ride.  
Dana Gioia on Longfellow's poem.

In 1958, charges of treason against Ezra Pound were dropped
as he was found to be "incurably, permanently insane."  He was
confined to
St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, DC for 13 years,
where many writers visited him and listened to his insufferable ramblings.  
The childhood Pound home is around the corner from me at
166 Fernbrook Avenue in Wyncote, PA.  


The Bibliothecary always welcomes readers' comments.