From Georges Perec’s “Reading: A Socio-Physiological Outline.” Collected in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces.
I picked up Georges Perec’s twofer Things and A Man Asleep last Friday at the used bookstore. I was there looking for something else. The Perec was not even shelved under “P.” I found it laid on a table. The good people at Melville House also sent me a copy of Perec’s La Boutique Obscure last week, which I do not photograph here because it is an ebook. I read a big chunk of Obscure this week and will do some kind of write-up sometime soon, but here’s David Auerbach’s review at the LA Review of Books in the meantime.
At the home of some good friends this past weekend, reclined nicely in a warm armchair, the warmth of various ales coursing through me, I picked off the shelf by my right hand a crumbling first edition of Modern Library’s A Comprehensive Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Conrad Aiken. I opened at random and found a small and perhaps undue joy that my stochastic flipping led to sections 10 and 11 of Song of Myself—maybe my favorite parts of Walt Whitman’s longassed poem.
Do you recall these bits? The trapper’s wedding? The runaway slave? The twenty-eight bathers and the woman who spies on them? I read them aloud to the room, ostensibly to the people in the room, but maybe just to myself. Walt Whitman’s storytelling is at its best when he moves most away from himself, when he puts on different hats, wears different ears, strolls around America a bit. I love his free verse in spite of—or even maybe because of—its swollen scope, its tendency toward bombast or even hamminess. O Walt! Get over yourself!—but not really, never change! Song of Myself is one of my favorite novels, or one of my favorite epics, or one of my favorite monologues—whatever it is, it’s one of my favorites (especially taken with doses of Emily Dickinson’s strange potions).
I don’t really know a lot about poetry, despite teaching the study of it in certain literature survey classes.
But hang on, it seems I was telling a story, or at least teasing out an anecdote, or at least going somewhere with all this: So, after riffling through the anthology a bit more, my friend says, Hey, if you want to read some really terrible poetry, check out that book to your right. Here is the book:
I had never heard of Walter Benton or his (unintentionally) hilarious volume This Is My Beloved until that moment. So what is it? Combining the worst elements of Whitmanesque free verse with a downright silly conceit that these are diary entries, This Is My Beloved attempts to be the erotic record of a passionate love affair. Benton tries to keep his language sultry, sexy, and sensuous without veering into pornography, but the results are bizarre and grotesque. Here’s an entire page as evidence:
“Your breasts are snub like children’s faces”?!
“…your lips match your teats beautifully”?!
And my favorite: “The hair of your arm’s hollow and where your thighs meet / agree completely, being brown and soft to look at like a nest of field mice.” A nest of field mice! Women love to be complimented on their matching pits and pubes, followed by a simile comparing said regions to a rodent’s hovel.
Indeed, Benton loves animal similes for his lady—later he writes: “Yes, your body makes eyes at me from every salient, / promises warm, lavish promises— / curved, colored . . . finished in a warm velvet like baby rabbits.”
But it’s not just the rabbits and mice that are gross. Lines like “We had loved hard—it’s all over your throat and hair” are simply queasy, bad writing. Or this nugget: “The white full moon like a great beautiful whore / solicits over the city, eggs the lovers on / the haves . . . walking in twos to their beds and to their mating. / I walk alone. Slowly. No hurry. Nobody’s waiting.”
Or this snippet:
It’s just really, really bad—I mean, at least when Henry Miller is gross, he’s deeply, earnestly gross, abject even, depraved perhaps (recall the famous lines: “I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel”).
So, to return to my little story, we read most of Benton’s book aloud, doubling over laughing at times at just how wonderfully awful it is. And, wiping the tears from my eyes, I went to my trusty dusty iPhone to do a little background research—surely the world knew of this awful, awful poetry? Surely folks were getting the same giggly fun as happy we from poor Benton’s lurid verse?
And here, really, comes the occasion for this post, the real reason I write: It turns out that folks love this book—in a sincere, earnest, serious way. No fewer than four audio recordings were made of the book, all set to music (the most famous seems to be by Arthur Psyrock); the book has near-perfect five star review averages on both Amazon and Goodreads; and, perhaps most shocking of all, the book has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1949—it’s in its 34th edition (prestigious hardback with prestigious deckle edges, by the way). And of course you can buy an ebook version! (Unlike, say, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual). Even worse, hack crooner Rod McKuen cites Benton as a major influence, so we have that to thank him for as well.
I don’t know. Am I wrong? Is Benton’s stuff actually good? I mean, I’ll concede that I enjoyed reading the book, but only inasmuch as it made me laugh so much. I don’t know. I already admitted I don’t know much about poetry. (As I write this, I pause to watch and listen to Richard Blanco read his inauguration poem “One Day”; I have no idea if it’s good or not). Benton’s verse seems so hammy, clumsy, indelicate; too earnest, too priapic, tripping over its own boners. It reads like a bad cribbing of Whitman and Miller, with an occasional lift from Hemingway. Even worse, it strikes me as amateurish, as the sort of thing that a teen might scrawl in his Moleskine only to cringe at later before hiding it somewhere. I just can’t believe that this book has been in continual publication from a major house (Knopf) for more than a half-century.
But maybe I’m misreading. Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe the poem is beautiful and profound and not icky solipsistic dreck. But I doubt it.
Book shelves series #53, fifty-third—and final!—Sunday of 2012: In which I take a few photos at random.
I somehow managed to squeeze 52 weeks of shots out of all the book-bearing surfaces of my home (—oh—I did one week from my office).
For the last in this series (yay!) I simply walked through the rooms of the house, took a few shots, and then put them in digital frames.
For the most part, my method was thoughtless, although I did grab a pic of a bookcase new to our house (second pic, top left) that dominates my son’s room.
I also took a pic of Perec’s essay collection because one of his essays inspired this (awful, awful) project.
From that essay, “The Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books”:
We should first of all distinguish stable classifications from provisional ones. Stable classifications are those which, in principle, you continue to respect; provisional classifications are those supposed to last only a few days, the time it takes for a book to discover, or rediscover, its definitive place. This may be a book recently acquired and not read yet, or else a book recently read that you don’t quite know where to place and which you have promised to yourself you will put away on the occasion of a forthcoming ‘great arranging’, or else a book whose reading has been interrupted and that you don’t to classify before taking it up again and finishing it, or else a book you have used constantly over a given period, or else a book you have taken down to look up a piece of information or a reference and which you haven’t yet put back in its place, or else a book that you can’t put back in its place, or else a book that you can’t put back in its rightful place because it doesn’t belong to you and you’ve several times promised to give it back, etc.
So, what did I get out of doing this project?
1. Photographing books is difficult—I mean physically. They all reflect light differently.
2. Doing a regularly-scheduled project is difficult.
3. I have too many books.
Okay. That’s it. Finis.
Book shelves series #52, fifty-second Sunday of 2012: In which, in this penultimate chapter, we return to the site of entry #1.
The first entry in this project was my bedside nightstand. This is what it looked like back in January:
This is it this morning:
This is the major difference:
The Kindle Fire has changed my late night shuffling habits.
Here are the books that are in the nightstand:
I read the Aira novel but completely forgot about it, which I’m sure says more about me than it.
Have no idea why this is in there:
But it’s a fun book. With pictures! Sample:
Finally, Perec’s Life A User’s Manual—this is one of my reading goals for 2013. It seems like a good way to close out this penultimate post, as one of Perec’s essays inspired this project
“Every library answers a twofold need, which is often also a twofold obsession: that of conserving certain objects (books) and that of organizing them in certain ways”
—Georges Perec, from ”Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books” (1978)
Book shelves series #46, forty-sixth Sunday of 2012
Another double-stacked shelf. This one even has a stack of drifters.
This shelf is at my eye/arm level, and looking at it this way, I see that it gets a lot of shuffling—I can see where I started certain projects for the site.
I can see books that are in line, so to speak, for either proper shelving or for reading.
The mounding stack on the shelf below is a bit out of control, although most of what sits there comes from other places (I kinda sorta wrote about those here).
Below: Unsorted stuff that I’ve been reading of an afternoon:
This is the front stack—books that need proper shelving elsewhere, books that I’ve read (and sometimes reviewed here) in the past few months, or meant to read, or in some other way consulted or read from:
The far right side of the shelf—again, a very mixed bag. I think I originally intended to properly shelf everything here and then got sidetracked:
And here’s what’s behind the front stack—okay, I can see now the edges of an idea I had for shelving; I also see where I just abandoned that idea:
This whole project I blame on an essay by Georges Perec, collected in this one:
This is one of my favorite book covers:
More covers I like from this shelf:
1.4. Things which aren’t books but are often met with in libraries
Photographs in gilded brass frames, small engravings, pen and ink drawings, dried flowers in stemmed glasses, matchbox-holders containing, or not, chemical matches (dangerous), lead soldiers, a photograph of Ernest Renan in his study at the College de France, postcards, dolls’ eyes, tins, packets of salt, pepper and mustard from Lufthansa, letter-scales, picture hooks, marbles, pipe-cleaners, scale models of vintage cars, multicoloured pebbles and gravel, ex-votos, springs.
—From Georges Perec’s essay “The Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books”
Book shelves series #20, twentieth Sunday of 2012: In Which I Try to Prove I Am Not Just Phoning It In
Last week I was accused of “going through the motions” with this project, which accusation may or may not be true. I was out of town on vacation, and last week’s post was composed a few days ahead of time in a harried rush of end-of-the-semester grading + summer semester planning + packing + bad bad writer’s block.
The shelf featured last week is the top shelf in the shot above.
Here is a detail of the shelf below, which clearly features things which are not books:
My wife and I—not actually married at the time, kids really—bought these kokeshi dolls when we were living in Japan. We lived in Tokyo, but I’m almost positive we bought these on a vacation in Kyoto. (Or maybe it was in Kamakura. Or I suppose it could have been in Tokyo).
The screen in the background was a gift from a student, as was the screen in the shot below, a shelf that twins this one (if anyone cares at all, the shelf would be sequenced between shelves 10 and 11).
Book shelves series #11, eleventh Sunday of 2012. DeLillo, Denis Johnson, Pynchon (no, I have not read Against the Day nor finished Mason & Dixon). There’s also a hardback copy of Bolaño’s Between Parentheses; I have an ARC of the same shelved with the other Bolaños, which are on the shelf under—but the finished copy won’t fit on the shelf and it fits here. For now.