Mark Scroggins

Blood to the Ghosts:
Biography and the New Modernist Studies

(with special reference to Louis Zukofsky)

[NOTE: This piece was a talk delivered in October 2002 at a Cornell University conference on the state of modernist studies; I did my graduate work at Cornell, which perhaps explains - but does not of course excuse - some of the more irritating in-jokes of the essay.]

"Fiction." At its worst and at its best, that is all that biography amounts to. Or so according to one great scholar of American modernist poetry, Hugh Kenner, who made it one of his hobbies to pluck out and gleefully display - like Jack Horner with his plum - the factual errors of every biography that crossed his desk. He says so outright in a rather nasty note on Deidre Bair's life of Samuel Beckett, but it echoes any number of his remarks on lives of Joyce, Pound, and others. I'd like to take his term "fiction" in its etymological sense, and blandly agree that, yes, a biography, like any other book, is a made thing. But that of course isn't what Kenner means. To some of its practitioners, and to most of its readers, literary biography is a variety of historiography, an act of truth-telling; to Kenner it's a fog of distractions from literature itself, a trap that seduces "the unwary reader, like Aesop's dog, to drop the solid bone and snatch at the bone an inverted dog seems to hold beneath the stream." Kenner's out to take the whole genre down a notch by proving that it relies fundamentally on the structures, and often the outright inventions, that we associate with the novel. In that, at least, he's right, and it's probably no coincidence that, while the bulk of my own scholarly work has addressed twentieth-century poetry, I've found the novel on my mind very much over the last four years, ever since I began my foray into the professionally ambiguous badlands of life-writing.

During my time at Cornell - the second half of the eighties - the novel most talked about and swapped around among the graduate students was probably David Lodge's Small World. It seemed a perfect, ironic mirror of the professional world into which I and my colleagues were poised to step, a glittering Vanity Fair of glamorous theorists, curmudgeonly traditionalists, and keen minds very much on the make. I still return to the book with pleasure, but lately I've been finding a better mirror of my own preoccupations in a novel published right around the time I left Ithaca - A. S. Byatt's Possession. Both Small World and Possession are self-defined as "romances," both in the common contemporary sense - they revolve around the erotic attractions of their central characters - and in more specialized ways. Lodge's novel evokes the tantalizing deferrals, the ever-postponed consummations of medieval and early modern quest-romance, transmuting those knights-errant into a cast of contemporary academics. It's a gesture that owes much to Joyce's Ulysses, whose Odysseus is a petit-bourgeois Dublin advertising salesman, but more perhaps to the mock-heroic enterprises of the eighteenth century - The Rape of the Lock, Tom Jones. Byatt, on the other hand, deliberately evokes Hawthorne's definition of "romance," the fictive form which untethers the novelist from a "minute fidelity" to the laws of experience and sets the "truth of the human heart" as the writer's only ultimate tribunal.

Those of you who are familiar with Byatt's novel (rather than the bloodless and miscast recent film of it) recognize the resonances of its title. The book is about the literary scholar's possessive relationship with the writings of the past - how the scholar feels a relationship of ownership towards the works and their author in which she or he has invested life and energy, and how those writings - and in some sense, the ghostly presence of their author - can in turn come to possess their loving reader. But Possession, like Byatt's more recent The Biographer's Tale, is a novel which is ultimately more about biography than about literary scholarship or criticism. Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, Possession's protagonists, begin the novel as recognizable representations of text-centered contemporary literary scholarship, but as they uncover more and more about the hidden lives of the Victorian poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash, they increasingly come to read both Ash's and LaMotte's works as voices in a dialogue - a literal dialogue between the two long-dead poets, but as well a multifaceted conversation among the poems and the events of the poets' lives. The novel's happy ending is double: of course, Bailey and Michell become lovers - that goes without saying - but more importantly they have learned the falsity of the New Critics' "biographical fallacy." They have discovered how deeply intertwined LaMotte's and Ash's poems are with the events of their lives, and how the poets in some sense live on into the present through their texts - a survival emblematized in Maude Bailey's discovery that her own grandmother is the product of Ash's and LaMotte's passionate and previously hidden liaison.

My own shift of fictive identification, from Lodge's jet-setting conference-goers to Byatt's archive-grubbers, is emblematic of my changing loyalties. I never dreamed, as I fumbled my way towards a dissertation topic, that a decade later I would be writing of all things a literary biography. Indeed, during my time in Ithaca reading literary biography was a guilty pleasure, somewhat more respectable than science fiction novels and somewhat less instructive than spending five nights a week at Cornell Cinema. In a program where the highest term of approbation was the deManean "rigorous," biography was nothing if not "soft" - squishy, hard to pin down. Among the denizens of Goldwin Smith's second floor, literary biography occupied a peculiar, unenviable middle ground: It was neither an object of critical scrutiny in the same way that poems, films, works of fiction, and other texts were, nor was it a recognized species of the intellectual work that one expected to do in the academy. Like the reviewing of contemporary books of poetry or fiction (though not of criticism), one had the sense that biography was some species of benign belles-lettres - the sort of thing perhaps best left to the MFAs.

Two-thirds of my Cornell dissertation was on the American poet Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978), and by the time Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge was published, I was beginning work on a project that would address issues of language and cultural identity in contemporary Scottish and Caribbean poetry. I donned a biographer's hat - something of a cross between Sherlock Holmes's deerstalker, George Saintsbury's skullcap, and Don Quijote's shaving basin - largely by chance. In early 1998 another scholar, who had been working on a Zukofsky biography for several years, abruptly abandoned the project. The field was open, and I, with far from habitual boldness, decided that no-one was likely to do the job as well as I. Much of what follows, then, will probably sound like a conscious or unconscious defence of my own decision to shift my scholarly energies from "hard" literary criticism into the more ambiguous genre of literary biography. But I think it worthwhile to cast aside diffidence for once and engage in something like a defence of biography, and in particular of its place within the orbit of the various critical discourses that make up the new modernist studies.

The modernists revolutionized and problematized life-writing, as they did every other genre. Lytton Strachey rang the death knell for the Victorian "life and letters" model of biography in the preface to Eminent Victorians, where he dismissed such books as "those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead - who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design. They are as familiar to us as the cortege of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism." Eminent Victorians, Strachey's most scandalous and influential book, exhibited almost demonic selection and design, and was nothing if not detached from any hint of admiration for its subjects: indeed, the book introduced a tone of irony into twentieth-century biography that would at times turn sour and querulous.

Strachey, along with Virginia Woolf - even more in her fictionalized biography of Vita Sackville-West, Orlando, than in her life of Roger Fry - made a claim for biography as a high-stakes literary venture, an artistic genre in its own right, rather than a dutiful and long-winded homage to the dead. The legacies of this claim are evident: on the one hand, biography has been freed - or rudely divested - of its overt instructional role, its Plutarchan imperative to provide detailed representations of lives worth emulating. It is hard to imagine, in the wake of Strachey, a contemporary biographer inventing a morally instructive incident out of whole cloth, as J.G. Lockhart did when he assigned his father-in-law Sir Walter Scott a deathbed passage of moral uplift. It is also hard to imagine a biography put to such exemplary uses as Stanley's life of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, copies of which were distributed in 1901 to every trainee teacher in England and Wales.

The writing of an author's biography these days is only rarely an obligation imposed upon a perhaps reluctant disciple or family member, but has become the province of a quasi-professional - in some cases outrightly professional - class of biographers, who for the most part pursue biography with sets of evidentiary and aesthetic standards that put the Victorians to shame. The work of these writers - Richard Homes, Victoria Glendenning, Michael Holroyd, Lyndall Gordon, and Peter Ackroyd, among others - along with a more general popular flowering of the genre, have made the last few decades of the twentieth century something of a golden age of literary biography.

However, even as literary biography has over the course of the past century come into its own as a literary genre, it has largely failed to find a place among the professional discourses of the academy. The various critical schools that dominated much of American poetry criticism from the end of the Second World War through the 1970s - with the notable exceptions of some varieties of American feminism and the various recovery projects on behalf of African American and other marginalized groups of writers - could only grudgingly recognize literary biography as doing serious intellectual work at all. The New Criticism instituted a method of close reading of the poetic text, and that method - with sometimes procrustean shifts of emphasis - could be accomodated to the agendas of the psychoanalytic, phenomenological, and deconstructive criticisms that came in its wake. What all of these modes of reading had in common was their explicit disregard for the life-stories of their texts' authors.

At least insofar as poetry is concerned, one could easily trace this eclipse of biography back to the modernists again - in particular to T.S. Eliot, whose "Tradition and the Individual Talent" insisted, against the impressionistic and sentimental reading habits of the fin-de-siècle, on the poet's necessary "impersonality": "the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality…. Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." Thanks to the work of biographers, we now know some of the emotional and personal pressures that prompted Eliot so radically to divorce art from life. Eliot's first generations of readers, however, were all too ready to ignore the sly truth-telling of his next sentence - "But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things" - and accept his dissociation of biography and literature as an ex cathedra truth. Like any new religion, the New Critics read their prophet selectively. In promulgating the notion of the "biographical fallacy," they conveniently passed over Eliot's later statements that he saw no "reason why biographies of poets should not be written," and that "any critic seriously concerned with a man's work should be expected to know something about the man's life."

The New Criticism, like Eliot himself, is now long dead and gone - except, of course, in undergraduate poetry classes, where it still holds sway - and the criticism of modern poetry, which was for some decades driven by agendas established by or descended from the New Critics, has flowered into something altogether new and exciting. Much of the discourse of the new modernist studies, I would argue, is far more sympathetic to biographical work than were earlier critical modes, and indeed intersects with biography in some very substantial ways. At the same time, the specific project of literary biography - the at-length narration of a poet's life - continues to be intellectual work that seldom finds itself entirely at ease or at home within the overall academic conversation. The shifts the field of modernist studies has undergone in the past two decades have been every bit as landscape-altering as the changes the New Historicism has wrought on early modern studies (and indeed, many of these shifts owe much to the example of historicizing trends in the early modern field). Leaving aside the much more sophisticated theorizing of the entire category of modernism itself, I'd venture - at the risk of inevitable over-schematization, and confining most of my examples to modernist poetry - to sum up those shifts under a few heads.

Perhaps most notably, the canon of American modernist poetry, once limited to a half-dozen poets, has been radically opened by the attention paid to writers from marginalized groups: Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Angelica Weld Grimké among African American writers, Edwin Rolfe, John Wheelwright, and Sherry Mangan among left-wing poets, and Mina Loy, the Baroness Elsa von Freitag-Loringhoven, and Lorine Niedecker among women poets. One of my colleagues summed up this institutional shift memorably, if a bit brusquely: thirty years ago "modernism" was a style - Pound or Eliot is "modernist," Millay or Sandburg is - well, something else; today "modernism" has become a period.

The ideological bases of "high" modernist poetics, poetics which for so long were taken as self-evidently heroic ruptures with fin-de-siècle stasis, have been examined in unprecedented detail and sometimes subjected to withering critique, as in Gilbert and Gubar's No-Man's Land, Peter Nicholls's Modernisms: A Literary Guide, and Raymond Williams's posthumous The Politics of Modernism. And the writings and ideological commitments of the canonical modernist poets have finally begun to receive adequate historical contextualization. Literary scholars have rarely written about "The Waste Land", The Pisan Cantos, or Auden's "Spain, 1939," without at least nodding towards historical context, but those nods were often exceedingly perfunctory. Far more detailed, careful, and revelatory are Alan Filreis's work on Wallace Stevens, for instance, or Lawrence Rainey's on Ezra Pound. Filreis's two books, which examine Stevens's career during the 1950s and the 1930s, have demolished once and for all the image of that poet as an ideologically detached contemplator of reality and the imagination. Rainey's Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture has demonstrated not only the idiosyncratic, ad hoc, and ideologically motivated routes and methods of Pound's appropriations of Italian Renaissance culture, but how Pound criticism has in its turn largely overlooked or ignored those idiosyncracies and ideological motivations, implying instead that Pound simply drew upon some monumental, homogeneous archive of "true" history.

In addition, Rainey's work, along with that of Jerome McGann, Joyce Wexler, and others, has gone a long way towards laying bare the mechanisms through which modernism was produced, marketed, and promoted, in the process irrevocably problematizing the picture of the production of modernist works promulgated by the modernists themselves and ratified by the New Criticism. Stephen Dedalus's ideal artist may have been "like the God of creation.. within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails," but recent accounts of modernism have shown that Joyce himself - like Pound, Eliot, Stevens, H.D., and others - was far from "indifferent," but deeply and complexly involved in the design, printing, promotion, and distribution of his work.

All of this recent scholarly work, needless to say, rests on biographical bases. When these scholars are not drawing upon standard biographies of their subjects, they are themselves exploring historical documents and archival materials in much the same manner as a biographer; and often, in fact their work takes on a narrative form hardly to be distinguished from that of biography. Despite the half-shelf of published Pound biographies, Rainey's Monument of Culture has become the definitive account of Pound in Italy in the early 1920s, just as Filreis's Modernism from Right to Left narrates Stevens's life in the 1930s far more insightfully than any of the available Stevens biographies. These works, however, are not really biographies nor biographical essays. The distinction between literary biography and literary analysis - whether in a text-centered or a contextualizing mode - is both a distinction of genre and a distinction between intended audiences for a piece of writing. I'll return to this point; for the moment, suffice it to say that the literary biographer generally writes for a significantly different readership than the academic critic, and that the demands, rewards, and hoped-for results of a literary biography are rather different than those of a critical study.

The writing of full-scale literary biography, however, has played a major role in a series of specific projects of recovery, of lifting out of institutional and public obscurity a writer whose works and careers were largely passed over when the "high" modernist canons were established in the 1950s and 1960s. I'll mention three in particular: the 1996 publication of Carolyn Burke's Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, and the publication that same year of a new, meticulously edited selection of her poems; Deborah Baker's 1993 biography of Laura Riding, In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, which roughly coincided with a wave of first publications and reissues of Riding's work; and Cary Nelson's work on behalf of the American leftist poet Edwin Rolfe (1909-1954). As Rolfe's literary executor, Nelson has edited or co-edited the poet's selected and collected works, has featured him prominently in his critical books and in the anthology of American poetry he edited for Oxford University Press, and is currently writing his biography.

Nelson's work on behalf of Rolfe - editing, life-writing, and general critical cheerleading - is an unabashed act of canonical intervention, and it's no coincidence that Burke's life of Loy, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, has been accompanied by a new edition of Loy's poem from the same publisher. It's also no coincidence that Wesleyan University Press, which is in the midst of issuing a "Centennial Edition" of Louis Zukofsky's critical writings, will as well be publishing my biography of Zukofsky - in time, I hope, for the tail end of the centenary celebrations 2004 will bring. These publishing and life-writing efforts are more-or-less coordinated efforts among biographers, literary estates, and publishers to insert or reinsert particular figures, if not into the attention of an ill-defined "general readership," then into the teaching canons of the academy.

It would be difficult to assess the results of these canonical interventions, even if one had a comprehensive database of poetry syllabi. The MLA Bibliography can give us a rough indication only of published critical work: thus far, Nelson seems pretty much alone in paying critical attention to Rolfe. The 1993 publication of Baker's biography and the return to print of Riding's major works have resulted in a a small but significant groundswell of new scholarship, some twenty-five or so publications in the last nine years. On the other hand, Burke's 1996 life of Loy and the new edition of Loy's poems seem to have sparked a considerable amount of interest in Loy, as reflected in panels at the MSA and various other conferences, some thirty-odd articles, chapters, and dissertations on the poet, and a general, anecdotal "buzz" among graduate students and young faculty members.

I do agree with Harold Bloom, however, who has confessed - in an uncharacteristically diffident moment of his self-monument The Western Canon - that canonical prophecy is "a mug's game." Bloom, in rare accord with Hugh Kenner, claims that canons are made by poets rather than critics; they're both fooling themselves, however - clearly, the still fluctuating canon of twentieth-century American poetry has been established both by poets hailing other poets as progenitors or peers, and by critics and scholars who have written about particular poets, reviewed their books, persuaded publishers to put their works in print, and assigned their poems in courses. And the ongoing remapping of this canon is probably driven more by the interpretive agendas of contemporary scholars than by the voices of contemporary poets. It is a "mug's game" indeed to expect one's canonical interventions to have an immediate effect on the academic status of a given poet, and it is even more unrealistic to try to predict the future valuation of a given poet within and outside of the academy.

But it is clear to me that Burke, Baker, and Nelson, have written (or are writing) their biographies because they believe that Loy, Riding, and Rolfe ought to be more widely read - that their works provide pleasure, instruction, or some other human value from which the biographers have profited, and which they want to share with potential readers. These biographers, and most biographers, feel a sense of closeness to their subjects which we in the academy are liable to find rather disconcerting: no literary scholar would dream these days of referring to her or his subject by first name, as "Ezra," "Emily," "Gertrude," or "Wystan," while biographers tend to do so with alarming frequency. (I have heard Cary Nelson, who rarely violates academy decorum in print, in conversation effusing over his progress on writing "Eddie's" life.) The chumminess such first-person address betokens is hardly to be distinguished from the "possession" of which Byatt writes. This is a fact of the sort of intellectual labor that produces modern biography: in order to write a poet's life, you must immerse yourself so deeply into her or his Weltanschauung that there occurs a certain degree of what Leon Edel, the Henry James biographer, has written of as "transference." That transference - a "possession" where the biographer has been possessed by the subject - can be analytically crippling, and must eventually be overcome, but it is a stage through which the biographer must pass. And herein the biographer differs from the writer of a critical study, from whom the academy is in the habit of demanding a rather vigilant critical detachment - or at least the appearance of such detachment - from the objects studied.

In the end, however, if literary biography stands in an uneasy relationship to the other sorts of writing we do in the academy - "will it get me a job?" asks the graduate student; "will it get me tenure?" asks the junior faculty member - it is also one of the few sorts of writing housed in the academy - apart from the ghettoized "creative writing" - that can aspire to a readership wider than the academy itself. The latest Pound biographer - by my count the seventh - is a tenured professor of English and author of a densely researched Cambridge book that is among the finer contributions to new modernist studies on Pound. He's received an advance in the mid-five figures to write Pound's life for a trade press; clearly, that press hopes for sales that go beyond what even Cambridge expects of our scholarly studies.

I wish this chap the best of luck, both in his adventures in the sea of archival material he's confronting, and in the more challenging task of recalibrating his critical and compositional skills in order to write biography rather than criticism. Generally speaking, I am heartened whenever I read a first-rate biography written by an academic, since there is precious little in our training that prepares us for such a task. We are taught to analyze literary and cultural texts with a subtlety and theoretical sophistication that bewilders the unitiated. While we (sometimes) pay careful attention to the verbal textures of the works we discuss, we seldom attempt felicities of style in the words by which we discuss them. We speak, in short, as a caste of specialists addressing other specialists - and this is no doubt how it ought to be. This is, after all, the condition of professionalization.

Biography, however, demands a different set of skills than literary or cultural studies as they are now practiced. It demands an ability to construct a narrative, to tell the story of a career in motion, rather than the freeze-frame analysis of individual works to which we are accustomed. It demands a care for prose style, for the sometimes painful crafting of sentences that will draw a reader onward, or cause her to pause reflecting, not on the biographer's skill, intelligence, or subtlety, but on the events or issues the text has raised. It demands both a prodigious memory and an efficient filing system. The literary scholar embarking on a biography is apt to be intimidated - as I still am - by the polish, insight, and sheer readerly pleasure to be found in the literary biographies produced by such non-academic professionals as Holroyd, Holmes, and Glendenning.

I'm not at all lamenting some set of writerly norms that the academy has abandoned over the last forty years or so - though I think it's well worth our while, whether we consider ourselves critics, theorists, scholars, or students of culture, occasionally to reflect on the fact that our most characteristic activitiy, along with reading and teaching, remains precisely writing. Instead, I'm trying to point up some of the terms of the implied contract into which one enters when one attempts to write for an audience that has not been professionalized in the language of the academy. And that audience - however ill-defined it might be, however little contact we might have with it - does indeed exist. People in the academy involved in the study of poetry often lament, or simply assume, that the university has become the exclusive site of poetic activity - of poetry readings, poetry writing, poetry publishing. It's obvious, I think, that this notion is somewhat self-serving. More importantly, it's not really accurate. Intelligent non-academic readers - the people who read the latest Paul Auster or Margaret Atwood novel, who follow Harper's, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker - are not yet an endangered species, even if they turn their attention to poetry less often than they did in the Victorian era. These are the readers who made David McCullough's life of John Adams a best-seller, who have bought over 50,000 copies of Billy Collins's Picnic, Lightning, and who have kept Deborah Baker's life of Laura Riding in print for nine years now. The attention of these readers, who may or may not take our courses, who probably don't read our scholarly works, but who are buying and reading books by the poets we value, is crucial - at least in the short term, and probably in the long - to the survival in print and in cultural memory of those poets' works.

My biography of Louis Zukofsky will address these readers, though addressing them is only part of the work I hope it will do. My Christmas list runs something like this: For my colleagues in the academy, I want to provide a historical and biographical framework for further examinations of Zukofsky's career and individual works; as well, I hope to write an interpretive primer, a basic analytic frame in which to think about his various writings and how they relate one to another. While there have been a number of excellent studies of Zukofsky's various works, I find with some astonishment that now, nearly twenty-five years after his death, there has yet to appear a synthesizing overview of his writings comparable to Kenner's 1951 book on Pound, or Rachel Blau DuPlessis's 1986 book on H.D., or even John Shoptaw's 1994 study of John Ashbery. For the non-academic reader - apart from those poets and readers of poetry who are already familiar with Zukofsky's work - I want to provide a detailed, lively, and accessible introduction to the range of pleasures available in Zukofsky's work. Those pleasures are real, and I unashamedly describe them in primarily aesthetic terms: a writing that is terse, witty, and chary of its syllables; an intelligence alert to the infinite possibilities of words in combination, always awake to the historical echoes of a phrase or motif; an eye open to minutest shifts of quotidian appearance, and to the vast upheavals of the twentieth-century history it witnesses; and a lyric ear almost without equal in its day, restlessly configuring and reconfiguring syllables in patterns as complex as Daedalus's labyrinth. To tell the story of Zukofsky's writing life may not be the ideal way to convey those pleasures to a reader - but it seems to me, at this point in the history of his reception (the poetry and prose is in print, the commentaries are being written), the readiest and easiest.

This Christmas list of intentions poses challenges that have occupied my energies for some years now. Most obviously, I have had to learn the art of narrative, something to which I had given little attention since my abortive undergraduate attempts at writing fiction. Writing engaging narrative, I have learned, is no less difficult when one works with an armature of facts and documents than when one is able to invent one's plot from whole cloth, and indeed presents problems of which the novelist never dreams. (This problem is especially acute, I might add, in the case of a writer like Zukofsky, whose life is largely devoid of exciting incident - one longs for a love affair, a snazzy addiction, even a suicide.) I have had to consciously retool my prose style; while this book will be a critical biography, it will be a biography in which the passages of literary criticism should not pose insuperable difficulties to readers who are not professional literary scholars. Often, I've found myself torn between advancing an interpretation of a given work or passage and simply describing the overall shape or mode of operation of that piece of writing. More often than not, description has won out over interpretation.

The most vexing challenge, however, has been that of form. How, when one is writing the life of a poet whose career stretched over six decades - some twelve hundred pages of poetry and a similar amount of prose, much of it as oblique and impacted as his famously oblique and impacted verse - how does one balance narration of the life with discussion of the works? Some biographers - Edgar Johnson in his life of Scott, for instance, Barbara Lewalski in her life of Milton - have opted to section off the criticism from the life-narration, telling the story of a stretch of the life and then discussing the works produced during that period. After much backing and forthing, I have opted to pursue a modified version of their method: in my Zukofsky biography, primarily narrative chapters will be occasionally relieved by primarily critical chapters - a chapter on the first seven movements of his long poem "A", a chapter on his monumental meditation Bottom: on Shakespeare, a chapter on the short poem sequences of the 1950s and 1960s - and interspersed among the chapters proper will be brief interchapters, meditations on career-wide themes and motifs: Zukofsky's obsession with horses, his lifelong love-affair with the works of Baruch Spinoza, his continual experiments in translation, his rather dotty interest in numerology. Throughout, however, there is continual and quite intentional "bleed-through": there are passages of criticism in the primarily narrative chapters, and sometimes crucial narrative passages in the primarily critical. I'm hoping my readers don't skip around too much, or they'll miss something important.

As I've worked my way through these various challenges, I've encountered some of the rewards of writing a poet's biography, rewards not altogether different from those of making poems, of the act of poiesis. There is the simple but undeniable pleasure of writing a well-turned sentence or a memorable phrase; there is the pleasure of arranging a succession of events in an order and in a prose rhythm that suggests inevitability; above all, there is the pleasure in finding form, in casting one's information and interpretation into a shape that gives delight to the ear and the mind. Even the endless archival work - what I like to call "the monster that ate my summers" - has proven a pleasure. Once I'd gotten past my early difficulties with the elderly Zukofsky's handwriting (perhaps a trifle more legible than Samuel Pepys's seventeenth-century shorthand), it was in the archives that I found myself closest to the modernist enterprise as Pound conceived it: "giving blood to the ghosts," as he described Canto I to his father - reconstructing, bringing alive the voices of the dead from their traces on paper. Pound was well aware, long before Lawrence Rainey, of the paradoxicality of that project: in Canto II he questions whether the Sordello of whom he writes is the historical Sordello, the Sordello written about by Camille Chabaneau, Robert Browning's Sordello, or - ultimately, and inescapably - some Sordello of Pound's own invention.

The moment you hold an archival document in your hands, however - as Pound well knew - is the moment of possession: not your ownership of the document, but your possession by the writer, your conviction that the document's author is in some sense alive at the moment of your reading. It's an illusion, of course, just as every "voice" or "person" we hear in a poem is not a true voice, but a "lyric effect." And it's a moment of possession that the biographer must move beyond, just as she or he must move beyond the converse sense of possession - that this is "my" author. The canniest contemporary biographers are able to embody that dialectic of possession and renunciation in the very texture of their work: to give blood to the ghosts, bring the dead to speaking life, even as the biographer continually admits, and even reminds the reader, that this is only a paper life.

For better or worse, literary biography is likely to maintain its amphibious position in the academy's marshy borderlands. Most biographers, I sense, are too enmeshed in their tasks - too busy taking possession or being possessed by their subjects - to expend much energy arguing that the genre ought to have a more central position among the discourses of our profession. I suspect as well that the challenges and pleasures of writing biography are themselves possessions that the biographer is loath to relinquish in exchange for what begins to seem, after months in the archives, a rather small world after all. Thank you for your time; wish me luck.