Critical Work

My scholarly and critical work has involved three seemingly dissimilar but complementary strands, reflected in the three columns below.  For a brief consideration of the interrelation of these strands, please see: Prolegomenon to a Lack of of a Method aka Three Topics in Search of an Explanation”

Jeffers & Modern Poetry

The summer of 1966 when I first encountered the poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), his collections were mostly out of print, he wasn’t included in the teaching anthologies, and he had become little more than a footnote in critical and historical discussions of American poetry.  T.S. Eliot, then, still dominated the literary histories and the curriculum. And Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Wallace Stevens, and major modern American poets were finally starting to receive the recognition they and their work deserved. Jeffers, though, had been largely forgotten, in spite of having been viewed as a major American poet in the 192os and 1930s.

In the decades since that chance encounter in the Sebastopol Public Library (thank you, Andrew Carnegie), I’ve continued to read Jeffers and think about his work. The five-volume project, The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press) is the most visible result of that. But the questions posed by Jeffers’ work have also factored into my thinking about writing as a textual medium (a strand of reflection taken up elsewhere on this site), my own poetry, and (most relevant for this entry) my thinking about the American poetic tradition, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, which we tend to think of as the era of modernism.

The thumbnails to the left for The Collected Poetry, The Selected Poetry, and Jim Karman’s masterful The Collected Letters link to the Stanford University Press website pages for these projects.  Those interested in Jeffers may also want to explore the projects and resources of The Robinson Jeffers Association and The Tor House Foundation.

The links below lead to fuller descriptions of the books and to lightly edited drafts of various conference papers and articles that focus on Jeffers and his poetry.  Some of these pieces develop critical implications of the textual research that was part of preparing The Collected Poetry but which would have been out of place in that context.  Others are critical arguments.  The pieces are offered here as a kind of place holder as I work on an oft-disrupted and long-deferred book focusing on Jeffers in the context of modern and modernist poetry.

Editions:

Articles, Notes & Papers:

Kerouac & the Beat Generation

After Crooked Road, I focused on other projects, thinking that I’d said what I’d had to say.  But as my work led me into thinking about the nature and dynamics of textuality, I found myself circling back to Kerouac, realizing that his stylistic experiments, his oft-misconstrued “spontaneous prose,” were driven by his sense that the understanding of textuality that undergirded the 19th and earlier 20th century literature that he loved (Melville, Twain, Joyce et al) wasn’t sufficient for what he was trying to do as a writer.  That circling back, and recircling back, led to The Textuality of Soulwork: Jack Kerouac’s Quest for Spontaneous Prose.  The thumbnail, again, leads to the press’s catalog page for the book.

Books:

Articles, Essays & Papers:

Textual Mediation

Jack Goody, an anthropologist, Eric Havelock, a classicist, and Walter Ong, a scholar and theorist of rhetoric, are among the figures who have explored what Goody has taken to calling “the literacy hypothesis.”  They argue that the development of writing alters the way we relate to language, how we use it, and how we conceptualize it.  This line of reflection (other key figures include Milman Parry, Albert Lord, Marshall McLuhan, David Olson, and John Foley) suggests, at the very least, that how literature functions and therefore how it means (which isn’t the same thing as saying “what” it means) is in part a matter of how writing as a particular modality of language operates under different historical and social and technological conditions.  And this in turn suggests that textuality may be less an ahistorical category and more a set of historically conditioned practices.

For those of us in literature and rhetoric, Ong’s exploration of the literacy hypothesis in Orality and Literacy is still the central text.  In it, Ong explores how the practice of writing (the dynamics of literacy) overtakes, even subjugates, and alters the cognitive and cultural styles based in orality.  Ong’s work has been read as setting up a dichotomy—Orality vs. Literacy.  But a more accurate reading, I’d suggest, is that Ong posits this dichotomy in order to bring the significance of the Oral—as something related to but also different from the Literate—into view.  In any case, for the study of modern literature what matters is not the dichotomy of Orality and Literacy but rather the dialectic of Speaking and Writing which the emergence of Literacy creates.  What matters, that is, is not only how Orality and Literacy support different cognitive styles and cultural practices but also how our experience of Literacy is entangled with our experiences of speech.  The way we imagine the nature of writing as a medium is necessarily in part an imagining of writing not in isolation from speech but in relationship to it.  How writers variously enact and exploit this dialectical relationship of writing to speaking matters, I’d suggest, for our critical and analytical work.

The several pieces gathered in this section (accessed by the links below) are provisional attempts to engage this question, by considering a possible point of intersection between the insights of those exploring “the literacy hypothesis,” suggestions about the nature of writing as a medium advanced by the linguists Josef Vachek and Roy Harris, recent directions in editorial theory (the work of Jerome McGann and others), and the reflections on the historical and cognitive dynamics of media and mediation in Friedrich Kittler’s work (most particularly the introductory chapter to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.

(I should add that three of the pieces posted here, written variously 8-10 years ago, predate my reading of Kittler.  How Kittler might contribute to this approach is touched on in the text of the talk on Kerouac posted in that section of this site.)

Articles, Essays & Papers: