Random literary thought of the day 

Has anyone every written anything connecting Frank O'Hara's "Melancholy Breakfast" with Sappho's fragment 168b? Consider:
Tonight I've watched
the moon and then
the Pleiades
go down
The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am
in bed alone
(Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard)
Melancholy breakfast
blue overhead blue underneath

the silent egg thinks
and the toaster's electrical
        ear waits

the stars are in
"that cloud is hid"

the elements of disbelief are
   very strong in the morning
(Frank O'Hara, Collected Poems, p. 315)
Something about O'Hara's "the stars are in / 'that cloud is hid'" (not to mention the silent presence of the everyday objects -- egg and toaster -- at the melancholy breakfast table) reminds me of the lines about the setting moon and the Pleiades. Either that or Barnard's translation of Sappho somehow calls up O'Hara for me, but I don't think it's just that translation.



I'm going to a recital by Cecilia Bartoli! Singing 18th-century Italian arias! The recital isn't till spring, but T. and I just bought tickets today and I'm very excited. I just hope she doesn't cancel at the last minute.


An ode to the Chicago Manual of Style 

I've just spent the evening formatting bibliographic entries for a friend who's now on the home stretch of her dissertation. Somehow it's a much less stressful job, even enjoyable in a fiddly way, when it's not one's own dissertation. I'd read portions of M.'s dissertation before, back when we were in a writing group together, and I've heard her describe other portions, but it was very interesting to get a sense of the scope of the project from its sources. And she's paying me for it, which is good because I could use a new pair of shoes. Maybe I have a future in scholarly editing, or indexing, or similar. The question is, would it drive me nuts if I did this full-time?

The formatting also reminded me of the many things I like about the Chicago Manual of Style, particularly its appealingly humane moments of flexibility. It allows more room for the author's or editor's discretion than one would think; it stresses "clarity, consistency, and usefulness" (15.74) above unswerving adherence to rules. It lets you condense multiple citations into long notes to avoid cluttering up the page, and gives you leeway to insert parenthetical citations where you might otherwise end up with "garlands of ibids." It doesn't discourage substantive notes. When I consulted the section on "Indexing" to see if there's a hard-and-fast rule about whether an author with a last name beginning with the particle "de" should be listed as "Schmoe, Joe de" or "de Schmoe, Joe," it suggested using whichever format Joe de Schmoe himself would have preferred: "Family names containing particles often present a perplexing problem to the indexer. Both the spelling and the alphabetizing of these names should follow the personal preference of, or accumulated tradition concerning, the individual" (17.106). There's something pleasing about the thought of handling the micro-questions on a case-by-case basis like this, and letting Ramée, Marie Louise de la, or de la Mare, Walter, have a say in the citation.

By contrast, I once had a summer job checking citations for a law journal. I thus learned to follow legal citation style, which dictates every imaginable aspect of the citation, from the order in which you put your references to the phrases you use to introduce them: "see X" and "see also Y" to designate sources you agree with, "but see Z" for different points of view, and so on. And woe betide you if you use them inexactly, or forget the hierarchy of which sources are the most authoritative. It gave me all sorts of food for thought about the culture of the legal profession, but from an editorial standpoint, it was maddening. This is why I have no desire to go to law school -- no offense, of course, to those like Ambivalent Imbroglio, who have left the humanities for law. (Oh, and MLA style? Sets my teeth on edge. I don't like having every single citation in the text, interrupting my reading. I like to be offered the opportunity to look at them right away or read the footnotes later. And as for endnotes, I hate them.)

And now there's a new edition of the CMS. I've been eyeing it covetously at bookstores. As Charles Hartman comments, "You know you're a geek and a bibliomaniac when the publication of the Chicago Manual of Style: Fifteenth Edition gets you all excited." Geek and bibliomaniac here, yessir.

Our summer made her light escape... 

I am not used to Hope—
It might intrude upon—
Its sweet parade—blaspheme the place—
Ordained to Suffering—

It might be easier
To fail—with Land in Sight—
Than gain—My Blue Peninsula—
To perish—of Delight—

Emily Dickinson, who knew a thing or two about the fear of success, poem 405

August is winding down. For once I can say that I haven't frittered away the summer avoiding my dissertation (ha ha, finished it, ha ha!), but this year the annual attack of "where did the summer go?" includes a sense of my sinking back into a familiar routine: teach classes in the fall, reconnect with friends returning from summer research trips and vacations, drop into the composition program office for a coffee and catch up on everyone's news, frantically assemble course packs and syllabi, enjoy last of warm weather and brief spectacular burst of color before November arrives and the sun goes under a permanent cloud layer, meet with comrades in arms for grading and spontaneous bitch sessions, break out cool-weather teaching wardrobe, remember not to wear all black on days when heavy chalk usage is likely...

This is at once reassuring and worrisome, because it's starting to seem way too easy to stay exactly where I am and keep doing exactly what I'm doing. I can remind myself of all the reasons why it's pointless for me to remain in academia without either the prospect of a job in a place where I'd actually want to live or a burning desire to teach. (If I had one or the other, I'd consider staying. But I have neither.) I can make lists of my transferable skills, I can visualize my dream jobs and my nightmare jobs and jobs in between that I might even have a shot at getting if I hone my networking skills. I can picture a life happier than the one I see waiting at the end of the academic job-search tunnel. But at the same time: it might be easier just to keep things as they are. Do I even know if that blue peninsula is there? How do I know it won't disappoint? I am not used to hope. Is this one of the reasons why people stay on as adjuncts?

These are the kinds of thoughts that go through my head late at night when I have course preparation to do and keep having to decide whether to tell people about my "academic job or no?" quandary. Of course, then I start Googling for the Emily Dickinson poem I just quoted from, and come across three "Hey, lazy plagiarists! Download term papers here!" sites offering what look like C-worthy essays on Dickinson, and I start thinking about the demise of higher education as we know it and also about how much I won't miss having to deal with students who download their papers off the web, not to mention students who show up at my office indignant because they didn't get an A- instead of a B+, and my more cynical side returns with a vengeance.



Language Hat points to the worthless word for the day archive, which has been providing me with much amusement. Among their recently spotted obscure words is "bloviate," which, as Worldwidewords.org points out, means "to speak pompously" and is closely associated with President Warren Gamaliel Harding. Reading this, I was immediately reminded of this poem:

Warren G. Harding invented the word "normalcy,"
Also the lesser-known "bloviate," meaning, one imagines,
To spout, to spew aimless verbiage. He never wanted to be President.
The "Ohio Gang" made him. He died in the Palace

Hotel in San Francisco, coming back from Alaska,
As his wife was reading to him, about him,
From The Saturday Evening Post. Poor Warren. He wasn't a bad egg,
Just weak. He loved women and Ohio.

This protected summer of high, white clouds, a new golf star
Flashes like confetti across the intoxicating early part
Of summer, almost to the end of August. The crowd is hysterical:
Fickle as always, they follow him to the edge

Of the inferno. But the fall is, deliciously, only his.
They shall communicate this and that and compute
Fixed names like "doorstep in the wind." The agony is permanent
Rather than eternal. He'd have noticed it. Poor Warren.

-- John Ashbery, Shadow Train

Shadow Train isn't one of Ashbery's better-known volumes, but it interests me. In some ways it's a kind of formal experiment: all of its fifty poems, like "Qualm," consist of four stanzas of four lines each. The effects of this form are varied from poem to poem, but in this one, the break between stanzas 2 and 3 seems to split the poem into relatively distinct halves, leaving the reader to supply his or her own connections between Warren G. Harding and the summer of the golf star, until the final line makes one such connection for us: "He'd have noticed it. Poor Warren." It reminds me of the volta, or "turn," that usually occurs between the first eight lines and the last six lines of a Petrarchan sonnet, and, for that matter, a lot of Shakespearean sonnets as well. I think there's something to be said about the time frame of this poem ("time in the lyric" is one of my recurring research obsessions, so perhaps this is a predictable thing for me to notice): the unusual (for Ashbery) way the poem points to a definite historical time and place, Harding's America, and then the jump to the here and now of "This protected summer of high, white clouds" -- a line that tends to pop into my head on bright, warm, partly cloudy days like this one, when the clouds look huge and toweringly three-dimensional -- and, finally, the looping back around to Harding with "He'd have noticed it." Also the lines "The agony is permanent / Rather than eternal" make us wonder about the distinction between the two -- is "permanent" somehow more (or maybe less) static than "eternal"? Now I'm out on a limb, speculating about the briefness of Harding's life in this poem, the casualness of the way the speaker imparts the information about his death in the Palace Hotel, the golf star's brief career, the flash of confetti and implied transitoriness of summer in stanza 3, and what place the "fixed," as in "'doorstep in the wind,'" has in all of this. This is why I like Ashbery so much, and why I don't write academic criticism about his poems in the same way that I'd write academic criticism about George Herbert's use of writing metaphors.

Side note: Worldwidewords.org's entry on "bloviate" points out that it actually predates Harding's presidency. Personally, I don't think it deserves to languish in obscurity. It manages to suggest bloatedness as much as pompous windiness -- surely we can find uses for that set of connotations. Think of the applications to academic discourse: "The title of the paper looked exciting in the program, but then the speaker bloviated for twenty minutes and didn't say anything useful until the Q & A session." "I'd like that seminar better if X didn't bloviate so much." And so on.