24 sept. 2008

Crossposted to Frío de límites

Suppose you wanted to be an actor. You would have certain actors that you admired, and you would presumably study their work. Meryl Streep or Fernando Fernán Gómez, Marlon Brando. Penélope Cruz. Or a musician, or painter, or writer. You would model yourself after one or more people whose work you admired. You would, essentially, go to school with major figures in your chosen field. You would attempt figure out the secrets of their achievement. You might be a "completist," collecting every record made by Bessie Smith or Camarón de la Isla.

I have done this with numerous literary critics, theorists, and poets. I've read every book Marjorie Perloff wrote. (A lot of books.) I made an intensive study of Roland Barthes at one point in my life. I've "gone to school" with Creeley and Frank O'Hara, Lorca and Claudio Rodríguez. Although I don't play the bass I'm doing it with Miles Davis's bassist Paul Chambers.

Emulation is a very powerful force. True originality comes from deep absorption and assimilation of other models, not from keeping yourself miraculously free of influences. If you have an original mind, if will come out no matter what. If you don't, you might as well be derivative of half-way decent models.

My most recent book is on Lorca and his influence on US poetry. My model was Marjorie Perloff, who uses in some of her books a central figure (Wittgenstein, Pound, Rimbaud) and studies the refraction of this figure in various other writers. Yet my book is nothing like what Marjorie herself would write.

It makes sense for you to do have model too. It might be Jo Labanyi for you, or Jorge Luis Borges. (Or "Gabriel García Lorca," as one of my undergraduates put it.) If you want to be a literary critic, but don't have any examples of critics you admire, then you are at a serious disadvantage. You don't even know what it is to which you are aspiring.

If you read and undertand everything written by John Kronik, or Ricardo Gullón, Miguel Casado, or Ángel Rama, you will in a sense know what they know. Or at the very least, you will know the best of what they knew and saw fit to commit to print. If you care about really good writing, as I do, you will find some critics who excel in this area.

Part of going to school with these models is knowing what they knew, retracing the figures that your model him or her self went to school with. You might end up knowing more about your favorite writer's favorite writer than your favorite writer did. For example, many sinologists were inspired by Ezra Pound to learn Chinese. They inevitably came to know much more Chinese than Pound ever knew.

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