Working with Living Authors: An Update on the John Temple Papers

As a scholar of nineteenth-century poetry, the authors I write about remain blissfully ignorant of my attempts to parse their literary productions and, equally, I remain blissfully ignorant of their possible corrective responses to my research. There’s a certain liberty one can take when the object of one’s criticism is beyond talking back. However, working with the papers of John Temple has revealed to me just how generous and helpful contemporary authors can be to the scholars that focus on their work. In October, I exchanged several emails with John Temple as he recorded his initial reactions to my online exhibition. I am deeply relieved that he described my readings of his poems as “perceptive and careful” as well as “genuinely revealing.” I was also thrilled to be able to incorporate some of his insights and reflections into the exhibition itself. For example, he caught a transcriptional error and was able to gloss some mid-Atlantic “hiptalk” for me. He also offered extensive reflections on “The Sisterhood,” perhaps the most opaque poem I chose to work with. Visitors can now browse an updated version of the curated poems with his comments included.

During this revision process, it was a real pleasure to return to the John Temple Papers several months after their launch, an event which Melissa Watterworth Batt of the Dodd Center wrote about warmly, describing the project as “an inventive peeling back and applying of layers of technological onion skin.” I will be showcasing the exhibition at the launch of the UConn Department of English’s Digital Lab in the new year and my theorization of poetic revision has had surprising relevance to my other research recently. At the International Conference on Romanticism this October, I presented on Wordsworth and beginnings, leading to a discussion with one colleague on my resistance to privileging either original inspiration or teleological perfection as an editor of the Temple papers.

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This fall John was kind enough to send me an inscribed copy of The Ridge, from which I took the three poems that are the focus of the exhibition, and re-reading the volume has led me to notice many fresh aspects of the collection as a whole. In the context of our current political climate on both sides of the Atlantic, I was struck by “Euphemes His England,” a poem that juxtaposes the prudence advocated by Machiavelli with Ted Heath’s comments on immigration. The references to the fading “rhythm-loving in-bred” empire also stood out to me and I reveled anew in Temple’s dynamic imagery, perhaps best encapsulated in his description of the “licking flames / over the rim of the dark earth” as “no will o’ wisp… but the ever-present / sign of the interred star” (“South”). John also sent me a copy of his 2003 essay, “Source of Desire: on John Wieners’ ‘Cocaine.’” We are both deeply invested in close reading and John’s response to Keston Sutherland was most concerned with a single verb, “fade.” As I begin my dissertation on the reader’s encounters with genre in the nineteenth century, John’s words on Wieners will stay with me:

Sutherland’s vivid sense of Wieners as supremely ‘destitute of a world’ certainly accords with the (considerable) extent of our willingness to read what he writes in the light of what we think he means to write. We supply that world to an unusual degree. But in the great poetry it is a common world that, in stumbling on, he gifts us first.

I thank John Temple for the world he has gifted me.

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