In the spirit of PiL's American Bandstand appearance, I thought it'd be a good idea to share my guest spot with some guest guest contributors.
I asked a passel of illustrious commentators to respond to this question: Can you recommend a "neglected classic," i.e. a work (not necessarily literary) that has real significance to you that you think is generally un- or underappreciated? (The "classic" language is by no means meant to limit things, temporally or otherwise.) And the results are in!
Tisa Bryant: Eyeball
A groundbreaking African diasporic literary publication from 1992-2002 edited by Jabari Asim and Ira B. Jones in Philadelphia, Eyeball featured poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, visual art and interviews displaying a range of artists and aesthetic practice, including Paul Beatty, Esther Iverem, John R. Keene, Clarence Major, Lisa Teasley, Askia M. Toure, Jerry Ward, the collective vision and individual visions of both DrumVoices and the Eugene B. Redmond writers, and Gwendolyn Brooks on Audre Lorde. At present, an archival set of Eyeball is unavailable to writers and researchers. Yale graduate student Claire Schwartz leads a project to remedy that, via donations of back issues, at [email protected]
I have pretty specific tastes in movies. My favorites are Mulholland Drive, The Shining, and Vertigo. Sometimes the order I rank them in changes but right now it happens to be alphabetical. Darkness, obsession, existential weightiness, tragic fatalism, the supernatural, and impossible formal beauty are what I want in a movie, and all three of these give me as much as I could ever hope for and then some. It’s odd, then, that my fourth favorite movie, or maybe it’s my fifth, isn’t anything like these others at all. In fact, it’s a G-rated comedy—1972’s What’s Up, Doc? You probably haven’t seen it.
Paying homage to old Bugs Bunny cartoons and the screwball comedies of the 30s (weird to think the 30s were as far back in 1972 as 1972 is to us now), What’s Up Doc? stars a young Ryan O’Neal and an even younger Barbara Streisand, skin all tanned and eyes wild blue, and it costars an amazing lineup of character actors, including the scene-stealing Madeline Kahn, here in her first feature role. It was directed by the great Peter Bogdanovich, better known for the movies he made just before and after What’s Up, Doc?, namely The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973). Those you’ve probably seen.
What makes What’s Up, Doc? a favorite of mine, aside from its performances and my nostalgia for it, is its relentlessly witty, intricate, and just plain madcap script. Written by Bogdanovich, the whip-smart Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton, What’s Up, Doc? is full of fast-talk, banter, wordplay, puns, allusions, pastiche, and inspired nonsense. The speed with which it barrels forward from one absurdity to the next stimulates me in a way analogous to how my other favorite movies’ terror and beauty do. And come to think of it, it’s completely obsessive—just in another key. But even as it concludes with couples paired up and order restored, it still keeps cracking wise and twisting in its happiness. That’s my kind of movie. The other kind.
A chapbook that I held close for a long time: a vision of the experimental feminine -- how the writer approaches a plaza in the off-season and there, in Montreal, comes to writing as to place itself: elemental forces, intense desire for what the book could be in a truly communal life.
Last year, reading Percy's anthology Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, I encountered Walter Ralegh's poem, "The Lie," and was struck by its freshness. It is a masterpiece of the drab style in sixteenth-century poetry.
The premise is Ralegh's dying wish for his soul to visit all of the world's most profound concepts and institutions, and tell them the plain truth about what they are. If there is any further conversation, Ralegh's soul is to "give them all the lie." Anything they say in response, even a simple "Yes," would be a lie.
For example, Ralegh's soul is to tell the arts "that they want soundness," and to remind time, "Thou art but motion." Now both of these statements are regrettably true. No physicist, philosopher, or mystic has, to my knowledge, come up with a better definition of the profound concept of time. The only figures of speech in these lines are abstraction and apostrophe — Ralegh's address to his soul, and his soul's address to the abstraction. There is also an intriguing implication that time has pretensions to being something more than mere motion.
The tone is cool and dry, with suggestions of anger successfully controlled. For a while, this was my favorite poem. Reciting it comforts me, as I believe Ralegh intended.
One last anecdote about the neglect of this amazing poem. In his "Brief Life" of Ralegh, the seventeenth-century biographer John Aubrey notes that someone told him Ralegh "died with a lie in his mouth, but I have now forgot what it was." Presumably Aubrey is garbling this poem, which Ralegh wrote some time before he died, but imagining the moment of his own death.
I wrote about this before on The Millions blog for their 2010 Year in Reading, but my favorite neglected classic is Hannah Weiner’s The Fast (United Artists Books, 1992). It is one of her early journals, written in 1970, which explores how limiting one’s environment can be a kind of holy poetic constraint. I’ve used the book a lot in my classes on color and poetry, because the auras that Weiner describes are so vivid and real and they can be a great jumping off point for students to think about the colors of things, not concrete always but hallucinated. I believe the book gets to the matter of things: the matter of language and why language matters. It is also a mystical text and about the spirit. What poetry can and should and will be all about—the indefatigable spirit. Hannah Weiner is one of our American classics.
If I rubbed a wishing lamp, and the genie came out and said, "You can revive one reputation and one reputation only—choose!," I would instantly reply: "I choose the reputation of James Thomson, 1700–1748, author of The Seasons."
I was turned on to Thomson by Samuel Johnson's twenty-page biography of him in the Lives of the Poets. I have always thought that piece the best of the medium-sized lives. Johnson makes you lust to read Thomson. And Johnson does not always make you lust to read people.
If anybody wants to Facebook message me, I'll be HAPPY to type out some choice bits from The Seasons, and I defy anyone who likes poetry at all to resist the shit. In my opinion? Thomson is right up there with Virgil and Milton.
I don’t know if The Scribleriad (1751) can be said to be neglected, because it was never properly “lected.” I found it while using “scribble” as a search term in the vast trove of the Literature Online database, only to find the ultimate scribble—an epic of all things desultorily authored, an heroic tale about bad writing. In-and-of itself, The Scribleriad performed its problematic quite well, and forthwith disappeared into history. This self-published epic follows the journeys of Martin Scriblerus, “alchymist and pedant,” to exotic locales like the “Island of Poetry,” where he meets with proto-Oulipeans and gets unnecessarily angry with them. Ah yes, we’ve heard this tale before, not just because I’m sure we all know, say, a visionary nature poet who is routinely annoyed by the neighborhood lipogrammatist, but because Martin Scriblerus was a character created fifty years prior, by Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot, et al. subsequently to be abandoned. Richard Owen Cambridge’s recycling, then, is a type of plagiarism-by-anticipation (of Oulipo) and plagiarism proper (of the Scriblerus Club). It is a remix-epic of cosmic proportions, positing the poetic line as the hero’s comic dilemma.
Adventure never gets the love that Marquee Moon gets, and that’s never made sense to me. The ringing excitement of the interlaced guitars on “Days” explore (and perhaps delimit) the possibilities of grace in popular music. It’s dirty and stately and pastoral and confusing. This record pops up in conversation with poets – I have made friends talking about this record. Did I mention the lyrics? Tom Verlaine knew how to make poetry work in pop – couplets like “I love disaster / and I love what comes after” or “I feel the shells hit – moonlight web / Goodbye arms, so long, head!”
I was fortunate enough to be in NYC last weekend during a celebration of David Rattray's life & work at the Poetry Project. It was a revelatory & beautiful two hours, every performance moving & informative, each lending some resolution or arc to the life of this legendary writer. I'd been a fan of his Semi(o)text book, but had never gotten my hands on his volume of verse diwan published in 1990. Having had it now for less than a week it's already changed me consequentially, reading it in spring, being with this person's extremely fine & rich sense of being living in & out of light. It's become one of my favorite books in 5 days time, & I can only hope that others are as lucky as me as things go along, to have a chance to encounter this writing. Thanks to David Abel, Eileen Myles & everyone else for making Rattray's art & life ever more visible (again) in the world.