March 2010


…or not. (If you’re really interested, go here.)

See, I went to the Crossing the Bar conference at Penn a few weeks ago. It pretty much rocked. I tweeted about it. But ever since I’ve been sort of impossibly tongue-tied. As Mia can attest, I’ve had this post in draft form for several weeks now, coming back to it at intervals when I thought the midsemester chatter (working at two schools with two different spring breaks adds up to no spring breaks, etc.) was dying down, but never really being able to get the words out. I haven’t been totally idle in the interim: I eked out an abstract on Christina Rossetti and sent it to NAVSA and I’ve managed to start to rethink the old albatross of the chapter on Browning without the abject misery that was afflicting me in January and February — and both of these projects have become possible in part because of the jump start that my thinking got in Philly.

But to some extent, these inspirations have all been somewhat tangential to what the conference was actually about — I think one of the things that’s made it difficult for me to write any sort of reflection on the thing is that, at least right now, I happen to be doing something different from what most of the people at the conference were doing. It’s certainly not for the lack of notes I took. I guess the short postmortem would be something like: transatlantic Tractarianism, why “format” (in a quasi-bibliographic sense) matters to our interpretation of poetry, tensions between historical prosody and the intentional fallacy, whether it’s really “about” the poem (the speaker in question said no, I privately said yes and informal conversations occurred), Adah Isaacs Menken and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers paired in an incredibly interesting panel about late 19th century transatlantic performances, more broadsheet ballads, the thought that I really should go back and revisit my thinking about Clough one of these days (apologies for the self-referential linkage but it was one of my favorite POTW posts), Thelwall becoming sexy, and a shout-out to Arthur Quiller-Couch in a discussion of the poem “Invictus” that also included Ronald Reagan and Timothy McVeigh.

The important thing that happened for me that weekend is that I came away with a new sense of how to do scholarship on poetry. I mean, I’m not going to suddenly change my focus to historical prosody — I came to poetry late anyway and have a long way to go. And I’m probably also not going to get all super-historical or archive-y — I assume that y’all wouldn’t want me to do that anyway. What I’m getting at is something like a sense of how to get around a certain stalemate I’d been facing in the more classically deconstructionist / speech act readings of Victorian poetry — eventually it *doesn’t* seem that interesting to show that yet another poem, despite its claims to be about something else, is really about language. I mean, that was a really earthshattering revelation in the 80s and it was actually really earthshattering to me until about 2007. It still sometimes strikes me with the force of newness even now. But I was increasingly finding that it wasn’t enough to get me through the dissertation.

It’s harder to articulate the solution or new direction I’m envisioning now — I guess it’s just to say that the conference reminded me of all the different ways that poetry can matter (and all of the different things that mattering can mean) — historically and in the present. I have a feeling that this may have something to do with my increasing interest in Victorian religion and, for that matter, with why I keep being drawn back to Quiller-Couch.*

In short, it was almost enough to just sit in the very beautiful rooms provided by Penn on a very beautiful weekend provided by Spring and soak in the world as it was being made new in these sorts of dizzying and wonderful investigations. I know that probably sounds cheesy, but I’m being serious here — this kind of weekend is, on some level, why we do what we do, including put up with so much else that is far less immediately rewarding and also downright sucktastic, why we put up with crappy apartments and adjunct pay and cobbling together fellowships and writing this damn dissertation and (in my case) four hours on New Jersey transit (including an hour on the not-so-scenic platform in Rahway, due to a somewhat unforgivable quirk of scheduling) — we do all of that so we can have weekends like this one.

*Does this mean that I will be restarting the Poem of the Week? Yes, it’s still a dream of mine. Right now the week-ness of my weeks is sort of impossibly fragmented by factors  largely outside my control and I have a lot of displacement coming up in the near future — traveling in April and apartment hunting / hopefully moving in May. But the intention is there.

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Tracy Riley and Maggie Galvan, co-chairs of “‘Spanking and Poetry’: A Conference on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,” kindly invited me to do a guest post mortem. I’m cross-posting it here since nobody else lengthened the nineteenth century quite like Eve did.

On my way back home on Friday night, I wondered how one could not believe in magic who had shared the experience of that day and that night? I forget who it was at the “Honoring Eve” conference at Boston University who reminded that audience of this splendid quote from A Dialogue on Love:

I want to know, “Don’t you ever find yourself suspicious when I’m so sanguine about these intimate relationships–Hal, Michael, friends, students? Don’t you wonder, can that much good relating really happen? And where are all the conflicts?”

With some thought, he says, “For a long time I was aware of staying agnostic about it. Not suspicious, but close to that. But over time, I guess I’ve figured that if you’ve been systematically misperceiving all these relationships–well, it is systematic; it seems to work in a consistent way for you. […] Are you asking this because you want to flash me a yellow light?”

“No, no, I don’t think so. But I sometimes wonder

whether you think I
overidealize my
friends. Kind of wholesale.”

“You think?”

“I think about it, sure. Last week Mary described me to myself as ‘scattering sequins over us all’–all the people I love. She’s right, she and they do seem so glamorous and numinous to me. I always see the light shaking out of their wings.” (107-108)

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