29/2/2008

The supercilious urbane twit is dead. Precursor of college republican twits of generations to come. He was wrong on segregation (supported it), wrong on Senator Joseph McCarthy (thought he was a good guy), wrong about God, wrong about Man, and wrong about Yale. He was wrong about Vietnam and wrong about Greece. Wrong about Generalísimo Francisco Franco, another guy he thought was swell. Probably wrong about virtually everything else too.

He wasn't a better man because he was urbane and supercilious. Those two qualities, in him, were just another way of being wrong. His intellect was vastly overrated because of a cultivated accent and a knowledge of polysyllabic words and a few debater's tricks. He only looks good now because the cultivated air makes him seem unthreatening. Tired of being wrong about just about everything, he decided not to be wrong about Iraq in the end. Once he was no longer influential, once he had no power to help or harm, no role to play, he could take the right position. Thanks a lot!

Don't tell me he was genial person in private life sailing his sailboat and writing his detective novels. Why should anyone care? Remember WCW's poem about the yachts? Hugh Kenner should have quoted that to him some time. I don't really see why upper class privilege (the yachts, the fucking accent, the nauseating raising of eyebrows, the condescension) should make us feel more kindly toward him. It's like saying, "he was a reactionary elitisit" and then someone objecting, "Yes, but he was rich!" (as though those were two unrelated facts).

We'll probably have to read tributes by Garry Wills and Joan Didion. We'll hear liberal voices in the New York Times bending over backwards to tell us how intelligent and urbane he was, now he is safely dead and even more irrelevant than he was during the last ten years or so. We can feel nostalgia for the good old conservatives, like Barry Goldwater and Generlísimo Francisco Franco. Not like those bad new ones who kill and torture, right? The good old days of the Latin mass and Senator Joseph McCarthy, segregation and gays in the closet...
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Gilbert Sorrentino. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. 1971. 245 pp.

I said I wasn't going to be re-reading, but what could I do? I had to reward myself with this. "I make them up so I can put them down," says that narrator, about this characters. There are 8 chapters, each devoted to a separate character. The novel is repetitious, in that the 8 seem like variations on a few archetypes.

The qualities are actual, the things made up, imaginative, as in all fiction. The title gets it backwards, but it's based on a WCW quote.

I even got a paragraph for my Lorca book out it--an added bonus. I had forgotten completely that Sorrentino gets in a few digs about bad imitators of Lorca.

27/2/2008

I'm tasting the end of this Lorca book. It tastes good. The last chapter should be complete on February 29. I'm trying to do an hour or two in the afternoon to supplement the normal morning hours of writing, to stay on deadline. That wil give me the month of March for the penultimate revison in advance of the March 31 deadline. Then I'm retiring from scholarship for a spell to just write poetry and think about what I should do next.

I have to do a reading for continuity, to make sure I don't repeat the exact same point in the same way, or contradict myself outright.

The first chapters are introductory. "Lorca Par Lui-même" is about my own views of Lorca. Chapter 2 is about the general reception of Lorca in the US in relation to coldwar culture. Chapter 3 is about individual poet transators, from Hughes to Blackburn.

The rest of the book is about individual poets and movements: The deep image school, Spicer (with a little Creeley), O'Hara, Koch, and Rothenberg's Lorca Variations. Then a brief conclusion. The chapter that's not complete is chapter 2. I saw no reason to write the chapters in order. In fact, I did the body of the book (4-8) before the three introductory chapters (1-3). The entire project will have taken 9 months to write, not counting, of course, all the initial work that went into it before I started to write in earnest last August. If I applied my method to a project from scratch, I'm not sure how long it would take. Probably around two years.

26/2/2008

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Faulkner. Sanctuary 1931. 250 pp.

At the level of the individual phrase there's no beating Faulkner. I noticed that there is always a well-educated ineffectual middle-aged man in a Faulkner novel--or at least in these two I've just read. The disaffected intellectual through whom a lot of the narration is focalized, but who does not actually narrate. The disgraced preacher Hightower in LIA and the aimless lawyer Horace Bemlow here.

I like how the narration jumps ahead--then pulls back later to explain.

The bleakest view of human nature I've found is not in Faulkner but in Iris Murdoch. Faulkner thinks people are foolish but he still llkes them on some level. The kindest view is that of George Eliot. The biggest disappointment has been Jacob's Room. I barely remember Glory.

It would be interesting to try to remember everything possible about a novel read exactly a month ago. What sticks in the mind?

I will now do that with The Sandcastle:

William Mor is a teacher of Latin at a typical English boarding school. He lives in fear of his wife, Nan. He has a son, Donald, who attends the school, and a daughter ???, younger than Donald. Donald likes to climb tall objects. A woman painter, Rain, daughter of another famous painter who has just died, arrives to paint the portrait of ????, the former headmaster at the school. William and Rain have a close encounter in the rose garden and fall in love. There is rather pedantic art teacher who is against the painting of portratis on religious grounds.

Mor and Rain have an escapade in her car, in which the car ends up in the river. Mor takes the train home. Tim Burke, a jeweler friend of Mor and Nan, lies to protect Mor, even without being asked. More foolishness ensues. Burke (whose name I remember because of the history professor at Swarthmore who has a blog), wants Mor to run to be an MP in the Labour party.

Donald admires Burke, who has a thing for Nan. His father wants him to study chemistry in the University but he would rather be a jeweler like Burke.

Scenes of playing cricket. Scenes of Mor chasing after Rain.

The children discover the love affair of their father. The daughter is psychic and has communication with the dead family dog and a spirt named "Angus," possibly.

At some big school event, Donald climbs a huge tower with his friend ??? and there is a dramatic rescue. Mor acts heroically but Donald disappears.

Nan goes on vacation with daughter. Mor continues affair, but does not sleep with Rain. Nan comes back and finds Rain in her house with William. Runs to Tim Burke for consolation. Drinks alchohol, which normally she doesn't touch.

At the big banquet in honor of Rain's portrait of headmaster, Nan is to give a speech. She announces something that effectively ends the affair. She has won. Mor will be MP, but Rain runs away from him.


I actually remember more than I thought I would. I could even provide more detail than I have here but I need to go to bed.
I was playing "Our love is here to stay" today. I don't have the music to it so I just started on C and went from there. Anyway, I got stuck, I had the next pitch in my head but I didn't know where that pitch was on the instrument. I sang the pitch (luckily nobody was home) and immediately my fingers went to a certain position and I played the same note. It was a D, but I didn't think "D" and then look for a D. I simply played it and then took cognizance of what note it was. This seemed deeply weird to me, since I haven't played the clarinet since 1975 and am not a particularly gifted musician. We know that the brain can tell the vocal chords exactly how much to contract to hit a certain pitch--if you can match a pitch played on the piano with your voice. So can the brain tell the fingers and the mouth exactly the right configuration to hit the same note? Obviously a good musician proficient on the instrument, with perfect pitch, could do this every time. But a very unproficient musician?

25/2/2008

Ego is mostly an obstacle in scholarly writing. You should have a healthy sense of being competent and having a perspective worth hearing. (False humility is pretty much worthless.) But ego interference can be crippling, leading to

1) Writer's block. What you write is never good enough for your own over-exalted sense of how good a writer you are. Therefore, you write nothing.

2) Inabilty to take criticism from others.

3) Inability to be a good critic of yourself, to evaluate what you've done the day before with a cold eye.

4) Lack of generosity toward previous scholars and critics.

etc...

Egotism manifests itself both in being overcritical of one's own work and in not being critical enough. It's a matter of calibration. Use ego when it helps you, discard it when it doesn't. (Easier said than done!)

Imagine me playing the clarinet. I was today just exploring the tone quality of each note on the instrument. Some were more in tune than others; some had a more pleasant tone quality. That's information that I can use. If I make it about the note: "that note is not in tune," that is more useful than a statement about myself like "I am a lousy clarinetist." If a note sounds good, I am thinking, that sounds good.

I use the same principles for something I am very good at (scholary writing) and something I am definitely not good at (clarinet playing). The wrong calibration of the ego would be harmful to either one.

24/2/2008

What does your scholarly writing do?

Treat, examine, consider, take into consideration, look at...

That's a good start. But those words simply name your subject matter!

Explain, account for, clarify, give an account of...

Ok. You're not only treating, but explaining; that's better.

Narratiing, tracing the trajectory of, telling a story, summarizing, paraphrasing

Now there's a forward movement, a momentum, a taking into consideration of other scholars' work. Beware of merely summarizing too much, though. It sounds rather dull.

Problematizing, analyzing, calling into question, re-evaluating, etc...

A more critical scrutiny than a mere treatment or consideration. What's the next level. An even more precise vocabulary for describing your particular task.

Look over a paper you wrote a year ago, with the proper perspective time gives. Which of these words do you use? Could you have done better work by conceiving of what your set of tasks is in more precise and descriptive language?

23/2/2008

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Kathy Acker. Empire of the Senseless. 1988. 227 pp.

This one also took me a while to get through. It kind of forces you to look for moments of tenderness and humor amid all the violence and anarchy. The canned feminist theory was a bit much.

I guess I'll have to read more Faulkner now, or switch to something completely different.
I got a sound out the clarinet. The first day I had a little difficulty because I was overblowing the notes in the lower register and making them sound a 12th higher, even without hitting the register key. The second day I produced a fairly good tone and got my fingers to remember where some of the note were, with the help of a chart. I sight-read some easy duets with Julia, out of her elementary school trumpet method book. Luckilly both instrumenets are in B flat. Julia told me how to play "St. Thomas" in the key Sonny Rollins does, two sharps.

My next goal is to learn where all the notes are automatically, unconsciously, the way my fingers know the qwerty-uiop keyboard. Embouchure should come along fine by itself for now, without professional help. I don't need an atllissimo register right away. The clarinet sounds best in the lowest range and the medium high range.

The instrument itself seems fine. Since a better instrument gives better tone, and my tone is already half-way decent on only my second day, I'm figuring it's going to ok until I reach the point it's holding me back.

Medium-term goal: learn Russell Procope's solo on "Mood Indigo."
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Faulkner. Light in August. 1933. 507 pp.

Where would Faulkner be without the recursiveness of syntax (and for that matter the recursiveness of plot.) This was easily the best novel that I've read so far in the 100 novels project. I have no interest at all in the South per se, but it is interesting that Faulkner presents racism as a kind of mental illness infecting an entire society. I'm sure that's a very unoriginal observation.

The novel is focalized through characters who manifest that disease in various degrees. Nobody is free of it, even the implied author "Faulkner," whose position tips closer to that of the less racist racists.

This one took me four weeks to read. I kept starting and finishing other novels in the meantime. I wanted it to last longer. Novels I hate I read much quicker.

22/2/2008

What happens here? First go and listen to the first song then come back and compare your impressions with mine.




After the piano intro (Hank Jones) Coleman Hawkins starts his solo, playing in his characterically legato arpeggios. Charlie Parker fidgets and smiles and grimaces in the background, holding a cigarette in his left hand. The form of the song is AABA, so Hawk obviously thinks he is going to play 32 bars before giving the floor to Bird, but Bird has other ideas. He tosses his cigarette on the floor, in back of his chair on the left side it appears, and puts his horn in his mouth, coming in emphatically on the first beat of measure 17, the beginning of the Bridge or B section, while Hawkins's horn is still in his mouth and he's obviously thinks he's supposed to keep playing. The ironic halfsmile on his face says, "well, well, what do we have here?" He stops midway through articulating the first note of HIS bridge and sits back a bit to listen to Bird's brilliant 16 measures, swaying to the younger man's solo. The Bridge he (Parker) plays shifts back and forth between the original tempo and double time notes. Then in the last 4 measures (the last half of the final A section) he makes a statement through very deliberate, almost formulaic-sounding phrases... Then Hawkins plays a whole chorus of the song in pretty much his original conception, as though Bird's intervention hadn't happened at all. The two never really look at each other. The rivalry is palpable, although Hawkins just responds to the provocation by being himself, and then a little bit more so. Parker goes through about 10 moodswings during Hawkins's playing. His eyes shift from side to side...

21/2/2008

One thing blogging is good for is developing the ability to come up with ideas and put them in serviceable written form quickly. I found myself using my blogging voice (a little more casual say) while writing part of a chapter and realized what was happening. It was fine because I can go back and rewrite those ideas, and the ability to get them down quickly was what mattered in this particular case.

20/2/2008

I bought a clarinet. Not really sure why, except after my March 31 deadline for the Lorca project come around, it would be nice to start mixing things up a bit. That's probably why!

Do I still know how to play the clarinet? That remains to be seen. When I try to figure out what a melody is, my fingers tend to move about clarinet-style. If I can really play, then I'll probably need a better one than the one I purchased.
Why do students use the passive voice in writing? I'm sure they use it very seldom when talking to their friends, so their overuse of it in writing must be an attempt to imitate the (perceived) dullness of academic prose, as they have experienced it in textbooks, etc... Academic writing, to the person learning such writing as a foreign language (essentially), appears pompous, dull, impersonal, agentless. All that "It could be argued that..." Freshman comp is an attempt to teach the students to write for subsequent college work, so there is an inherent contradiction between telling students NOT to imitate that insipid style, when that style is in their heads already and is the perceived goal of the course. In other words, they think WE write like that (as sometimes we do.)

I used a composition book once that was written in an atrociously tedious style, in a a style you would never want the students to use. It was a primer in dullness. And to teach them to write in Spanish, no less...
Good scholarly writing involves an argument with oneself (to paraphrase Yeats on poetry).

There has to be an intellectual problem, toward which the writer feels some degree of ambivalence. This tension or ambivalence creates interest in the reader, who wants to know how the tension will be resolved.

In my Lorca project, for example, the tension arises from the way I personally would approach Lorca, as a scholar of Spanish lit, in contrast to the way American poets tend to approach Lorca. If I thought these poets were simply doing something wrong, it wouldn't be an interesting project. I have to feel that their approach is justified on its own terms, and yet deeply wrongheaded-- if looked at from a perspective outside of American poetry. I've been having this argument with myself every day since July of 07.

If the tension is unacknowledged, then the project risks incoherence or outright self-contradiction.

19/2/2008

I will now blog without using a common graphic mark. (Hint: fifth in a row.) Wriiting without that sign won't work for long, probably. Doing without grammar parts (nouns say) is difficult. Doing without this visual sign is awkward and not particularly illuminating. Try doing it for six thousands words at a pop, as a task in a composition class. Good luck with that! Try for it not to sound awkward, with a smooth quality all its own, not just as a stunt for a blog post. As I thought, you can't do it. Hah!
Nobody complains about the false sense of agency created through the avoidance of the passive voice. It is a cheap literary trick (though an effective one if used judiciously) to re-cast a static description to make it seem as though the object in the description were engaged in some activity, not just sitting there being described:

"The mountains rose abruptly from the rolling plains; dense groves of pine covered them, leaving only miniscule clearings that offered respite to bone-tired travelers..."

That kind of thing. (I ought to put that in my list of 1001 novelistic clichés!) In scholarly writing I find myself performing an analogous manoeuver once in a while. The defamiliarization the results from a reversal of perspective can be effective, though it can be distracting too (if overdone).

Imagine a description of a poet's accomplishments. She was educated at Yale; she was awarded this prize and that. She studied with blank and blank. If you recast everything to the active voice, you might lose focus on the poet: Knopf published her; Jorie Graham taught her... etc... The American Academy of poets showered prizes on her. What you really should be aiming for is a smoothly modulated effect, combining some intransitive verbs, some passives, and some transitive verbs in the active voice.

To follow up a comment by the inestimable Thomas Basbxll, the notion that "only those who teach freshman comp should be allowed to offer style advice" is, in my view, exactly the opposite from the way we ought to be thinking about such matters. Since those teachers see the worst writing, they might develop a distorted perspective. (Wouldn't teaching fourth-graders to play the clarinet lead one to a distorted idea about musical phrasing? Anything but THAT! You would say.) You see only the photographic negative of good style.

17/2/2008

There is nothing wrong with the passive voice per se. The idea of changing every passive to an active is ridiculous, because sometimes the agent is just not that important. Take the Johnny Burke lyric

A country dance was being held in a garden.
I heard a bump and then an "Oh, beg your pardon"
Suddenly I saw polkadots and moonbeams
All around a pug-nosed dream


Some would tell you to change to the active voice, just for the sake of avoiding the passive at all costs: "They were holding a country dance in a garden." But the "they" there is just a grammatical place holder; it's not doing any real work. You could make the country dance a subject in its own right: "A country dance was taking place in a garden." You've avoided the passive, sure, but to what benefit? The first sentence is setting the scene for the next one, which is in fact active and in the first person. Alerting the first sentence to say "They were holding..." would actually make the second line less effective.

Which is more effective?

1) "His first book of poetry was greeted with howls of derision."

2) "Howls of derision greeted his first book of poetry."

Aside from the stock phrase "to greet with howls of derision," which I would never use myself, the first is better. By recasting the sentence into the active voice, you are forcing yourself into putting the elements of the sentence in a less logical order. You want to know what happened to the book, not what the howls of derision did. Compare

3} My great-great-great grandfather was killled by Rebels in the Civil War.


4 } The Rebels killed my gggg in the Civil War.

Isn't 3 better? The fate of my ancestor is more significant than the agency of the Rebels. The anti-passive fundamentalists do not seem to realize that the passive can actually be preferable in cases like this. Of course, if there are more than three or four passive verbs per paragraph, or several in a row, your prose might acquire a leaden, sluggish feel, but that is another question entirely.

16/2/2008

Take this stanza from an American poet's homage to Lorca

Mandolins grow on the high slopes
And orange-robed monks collect songs
Just beyond the last line of fruit trees.
Naked girls pretend they are butterflies,
And a deer tells stories to the twilight.


Here is an example of how cultural studies needs to consider the aesthetic dimension. This stanza is not horrible, but it's particular failures let us know something is wrong. They are clues to a lack of cultural understanding. There seems to be a half-hearted attempt at surrealism in lines like "And a deer tells stories to the twilight." This is typical of the American idea that a surrealist image by a Spanish poet is just any random, inconsequential image.

15/2/2008

One benefit of "clarity" is to communicate to the reader, of course. Another, huge, huge benefit, though, is the possibility of communicating better with one's own self. To make an idea clearer is to explain it to oneself, in the first instance. The process of revising a paragraph for "clarity" is a process of thinking through the ideas better, not just expressing those ideas more elegantly.

One way to do this is to simplify the ideas themselves. Sometimes this works--there may be a level of complication that is simply not relevant, or not as interesting as you thought it was. But the main goal is to present the most nuanced possible view of things--we are scholars after all. The subtlety is itself the goal, not some obstacle in the way of the communication of simplistic information.

I'm not saying clarity should trump all else, but it does have its benefits. It can communicate a sense of modesty and friendliness. It tends to get along well with elegance too. In an immature scholar, lack of clarity is associated at times with the mimickry of theoretical texts. Clear writing tends to be more "one's own voice," all things being equal.

Clear writing can be quite clunky, as in this blog post. So this particular value is necessary but not sufficient.

I've had to reject a few articles recently that were beautifully and clearly written. Hélas.
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Charlotte Bronte. The Professor. c. 1846. 247 pp.

This one starts off well, as a Bilungsroman about a straightlaced orphan working in his tyrannical older brother's business. Then the young man escapes to Belgium to teach school. The plot morphs to a less satisfying Pygmalion-like plot. He falls in love with a Swiss woman with an English mother, who just needs a little more education--provided by the main character. All the 19th century talk about national characters and the strong Anti-Catholic sentiments get a little tiresome, and the quality of the prose gets noticeably worse when the action shifts to Belgium. Still, I'm glad I read this one.

14/2/2008

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Danzy Senna. Symptomatic. 2004. 213 pp.

I'd read her Caucasia before. This one is tauter in its pacing; it seems like it's going to be a little light-weight at first, but picks up steam at exactly the right place.

Senna is the daughter of poet / novelist Fanny Howe. You can see the influence there.
When I am not concentrating quite as well, at the end of a writing session for example, I will write some "placeholder sentences." These serve to mark the place in the text where the real sentences will go later on. Here, for example, is a transition placeholder I wrote this morning:

I began this chapter by looking at translation theory, but I have not looked at translations themselves. I am more interested in the overall transformation of Lorca's work into its relation to the American cultural paradigm than in individual versions of Lorca's poetry. However, those are also worth a look.

This is enough information for the Jonathan of tomorrow to use to write some better prose. I'll usually put those kinds of sentences in brackets to signal to myself that they are simply notes to myself. I'll even write "[insert sentence about x here]." Toward the beginning of my writing this morning I was writing sentences at the "penultimate level," that is, decent scholarly prose that might need to be rewritten only a few more times before going into the final, pre-copyediting phase. For me, a sentence won't really get into penultimate form on the first try unless I am really on my game. The beauty of it is that a day's writing will include sentences of all types, as well as revisions that bring the sentences up one level. Once the whole chapter is more or less in antepenultimate form, then I can bring it up to penultimate form and then to pre-copyediting final form.

12/2/2008

I often don't know what I'm going to say before I start a chapter. I have some notions about things, of course, but they are not necessarily the ones that will end up in the final version. So research and writing are not separate activities for me. The organization is up for grabs too. I let the material organize itself. This means that a chapter will sometimes split into two, or that a single section of a chapter will expand at the expense of something else. I'll invariably find a better argument than the one I started with. For example, I first was going to say women in the 50s were not that interested in Lorca. That's kind of a non-starter. Women were interested, but interest in Lorca tended to be marked for gender--the masculine gender. That's a little better. There was a Jewish Lorca, but not one marked for Jewishness per se. Whereas the gay male and African American Lorcas were marked as such.

•••


I was writing about Bob Kaufman yesterday. I knew that Maria Damon, whom I went to graduate school with, wrote a chapter on Kaufman in her book The Dark End of the Street, which I had read several years ago. Then I found a quote from this book that exactly reinforced an argument I had made in another section of the same chapter. It cemented the connection between two parts of my argument, in a way almost too good to be true. That happens a lot when you are on to a really good subject you know a lot about. There is another quote in a biography of Miles Davis that just nails my argument for me. It's better sometimes when someone else makes your case for you. You can say, "hey, it's not just me making this crazy argument..." There's kind of an authority there, even if the other person is just a person pretty much like you, just writing a book about something.

There's never been anything I wrote before that drew on everything I know to such an extent. Usually I have the sense of writing only a fraction of what I know, but in this case being a serious aficionado of Miles Davis (for example) seems wholly relevant to my project. Read the book to find out why!
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Virginia Woolf. Jacob's Room. 1922. 176 pp.

This one is elliptical in a not especially useful way. It's got some beautiful passages of prose, but to what end? This is no To the Lighthouse.

10/2/2008

I was used to the Gidon Kremer recording of the Bach unaccompanied violin pieces. Well that is on my computer in Kansas and inaccessible to me. So I checked out the Perlman set from the library, put it on my lap-top.

And of course, I am finding the Perlman unlistenable. I don't know whether it's because I have them in my head already differently, or whether it's just that vibrato, that cloying tone. The fourth movement of the Partita One came up on my private radio station and it seemed way too fast. It seemed like he saw his task as one of getting through all the notes in order before supper. Or maybe he confused it with the cadenza of a 19th century concerto, as one of the amazon reviewers suggested.

And Bach's leading me back to Zukofsky, not suprisingly.
The last chapter (really the second in the order of things, but the last to be written) includes American exceptionalism. The Beat Generation. Gay Lorca. Black Lorca. Jewish Lorca. The jazz / flamenco parallelism. Ralph Ellison. Bob Kaufman. Norman Mailer. Translation theory. The duende. And the kitchen sink, of course.

8/2/2008

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Penelope Fitzgerald. The Book Shop. 1978. 123 pp.

This was a delightfully droll book about a a woman opening and then being forced to close a book store in a water-logged Suffolk town in 1959. Another novel, Lolita, is almost a character in the book.

By coincidence this book, like The Sea, The Sea is also from 1978, written by an Englishwoman, and takes place in an old, damp British house on the seacoast.

The recommendation comes by way of Jordan.

7/2/2008

I couldn't face the computer yesterday so I did my 2 hours work on the project in the library, with just books and a pen and notebook. I was reading Michael Magee's book on American pragmatism, Ellison, jazz, Frank O'Hara, and Emerson, since I was making a point that piggy-backed on his overall argument to some extent. (You know the book I mean, I'm sure--Emancipating Pragmatism: Emerson, Jazz, and Experimental Writing (Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series))

Of course, the writing today went even faster and better than normal. I had more to say after taking the day off. So taking the SMT of the day is to take a "change of pace day" without interrupting continuity. A change of pace day means no computer for me. For you it might mean using the computer instead of writing long-hand, or opening up a new document and writing random notes that don't form part of the chapter you are writing. I personally feel the need of momentum, so I hesitate to take a day off completely, but there are many things that can be done if you feel you can't face the chapter you are writing on any particular day.

Another good tactic is to write emails to scholarly acquaintances with specific questions during part of your writing time. I try not to abuse the patience of any one individual, but I've found that usually people like to be consulted a bit. They know they will get their name in my acknowledgements. And who reads those except to find YOUR OWN NAME?

6/2/2008

I have my "purchased" music on random rotation. It's like my own private radio station. Let's see what it gives me, out of the 304 songs I have there.

1. Mozart's "dissonance" quartet, first movement. Emerson String Quartet. Very nice. I've played this 15 times apparently. You'll probably think I manipulated the results just to make myself look good.

2. Ornette Coleman. "Song X." From the Sound Grammar album. If there were a Nobel prize for music... I liked the original Song X Album back in the 80s.

3. A Sarabande from the Bach Cello Suites. #6. I'll have to get back to blogging through those.

4. Lee Konitz: "Mean to Me" (take 4). He's a purer improviser than even Ornette. I wonder who this bass player is.

5. "Think of One." Sonny Rollins, from the Prestige Profiles. With Monk on the piano. I must like saxophone players! There's a nice trombone solo too.

6. Stan Getz playing "Four," which I believe Miles Davis wrote. I love Stan Getz, except the bossa nova stuff gets overplayed. This is off the West Coast Jazz album, with Stan Levey on piano and Shelly Manne drums. His tenor sounds like an alto compared to Rollins. Conte Candoli plays trumpet on this. I had this playing in my car for a month.

7. Rollins again. "Nishi," off the recent "Sonny Please" album, his best in years. I've never really noticed this guitar solo before. My wife Akiko has played this album in her car and ipod probably 100 times. Julia's played along to it.

8. "Just one of those things." Sinatra, off "Songs for Young Lovers."

9. Goldberg Variations (#3) played by Simone Dinnerstein. I found out about this recording through my friend Bob Basil's webpage (basil.ca) and have been listening for quite a few weeks obsessively She plays with such a sense of calm. When I have this on in my car I am still alert, but also transported to another place. Listening to Gould, on the other hand, makes me nervous...

10. "Can't We Be Friends." Off the "In the Wee Small Hours of the Night" album. Sinatra's finest.

Two sinatras, two Rollins, four or five saxophones, two Bachs.
I need suggestions for novels / novelists for the 100 novels project. Anything's fair game, but I don't want to re-read too much or read the kind of thing I normally do ("poet" novels). I want novel novels.
(6)

Iris Murdoch. The Sea, Sea. 1978.

Cringeworthy exposition for 80 pages before anything happens: "I will now describe the physical appearance of this character." "I will now tell you what happened next." That kind of thing. The narrator whose diary we are reading is not supposed to be a professional novelist, but a little bit of this clumsiness would have gone a long way to suggest this. He is supposed to a playwright.

The plot and characters also provoke embarrassment from the reader. The arrogant cluelessness of the self-involved narrator-protagonist. The contrived plot-twists. I've never felt such vergüenza ajena reading a novel. It sucks you in and repels you at the same time.

She does keep you guessing about what's going to happen, and the characters' unpleasantness is a kind of tour de force in its own right. I won't be reading any more Murdoch for a while. The Sandcastle was better than this.

Moral of the story: people like to be unhappy. Happiness is a delusion leading to disaster.

5/2/2008

The opposite of stretching is being ensconsed in a particular specialty and achieving mastery. That is also valuable. In fact, such a specialist makes the best generalist. You have to have depth in at least one thing. Breadth will come through wanting to understand other things in equal depth, and usually failing at it.

***

When quoting from a secondary source in my own writing this morning, I noticed a clash of styles: "[...] the perspective from which the Beats should be evaluated is from within the myth of American exceptionalism" (John Lardas, The Bop Apocalypse). The insight is essential, or I wouldn't have quoted it, but I would have rewritten that sentence a few more times, eliminating both the passive voice and the overall awkwardness. I'm not saying I never publish a bad sentence, of course, but in this case the quoted sentence stood out from my prose, making my writing look a bit more elegant by contrast. Quoting writers better than myself, or simply different in tone, register, style, might have a similar effect. Quotation, then, serves a stylistic function of alllowing the reader to perceive the distinctiveness of one's own prose.

In writing about poetry, the perceived quality of the poetic excerpts quoted also has an effect. Poetry will almost always produce a stylistic clash with the surounding prose, but if the poetry is perceived to be not very good, it will weaken the argument, even if the argument does not depend on an aesthetic judgment. With very bad prose about poetry, the impression will be that the critical discourse has not come up to the level of the poetry.

When taking issue with another critic, the stylistic contrast becomes doubly significant. One can gain the rhetorical upper hand by quoting awkward or banal sentences, without even pointing out those qualities in the prose of the criticized critic.

I will never be a good enough prose writer to satisfy my own standards. Yet it is because I feel this way that I am a better writer than I would otherwise be.

4/2/2008

I like to stretch myself in various ways: reading things I wouldn't normally read, or taking up new hobbies. I feel that the lack of such stretching at previous points in my life led to artificial limits. How many times have you said to yourself: I can't play a musical instrument, learn a foreign language, do math, draw. Things that might seem to be beyond you but really are not in an absolute sense. Even learning to do something badly can be quite instructive, as I learned when I learned to draw just a little bit, and without any real achievement. Now I can picture people's faces after meeting them a few times. Before I learned my very little bit of drawing I couldn't do this.

For example, I am now telling myself-- Well, I could never write anything about music, because I don't have the technical know-how, the ear for harmony, etc... That is a real limit in some sense: I really don't have those capabilities developed to a high degree. What makes it an artificial limit, however, is when the thought of this makes me stop doing something that I might learn something from. I can have "ah-ha" moments even after a middling level of understanding. I could make a serious study of phonology, of harmony, or of Ancient Greek if I really wanted to.
(5)

George Eliot. Adam Bede. 1858.

This is my new favorite novel so far (of the five I've commented on so far.) I haven't finished it yet so I can't give away the ending.

Adam Bede is young, strapping pragmatic country carpenter admired of everyone in a 30 mile radius. He has only two flaws: he loves the vain, superficial and attractive Hetty (infatuated in turn with the dashing young squire Arthur, a well-intentioned person who will never have to face any consequences for his actions) and he beats people up. Methodism, a kind of late 18th-century liberation theology, is sweeping through the countryside. Adam's gentler brother Seth is a Methodist in love with Dinah, an earnest rousing woman preacher meant to be the polar opposite of Hetty.

Eliot, of tolerant spirit, warns the reader not to judge these characters too harshly. I love those Victorian asides to the reader! That earnestness tinged with tolerant irony! That sentimentality in which the author does not quite believe.

Competence, embodied by the eponymous hero, is almost the highest ethical value in sight--aside from tolerance itself. Competence is identified with a pragmatic sense of mathematics, of judging things correctly. The angle is either square or not. So his mistaken judgment of Hetty must have some consequences: here he is off in his calculations.

Murdoch is the same kind of novelist, ceteris paribus, but I am always relieved when I turn back from her to George Eliot. Victorians wrote better Victorian novels than anyone else could later.

Coming soon: Faulkner, more Murdoch.