31/5/2009

I had barely heard of postmodernism when i entered grad school in 1981. I tended to see Levertov, Olson, Creeley, O'Hara, or Ginsberg as continuers of a tradition. Didn't they admire William Carlos Williams? Didn't Williams, Pound, and Stevens really come into their own, reputationally speaking, in the 1960s? I felt we were still living in the modernist period. I still feel that way.

I remember a fellow grad student glibly rattling off the differences between modernism and postmodernism. I wasn't having any of it. In part, it was my own ignorance, but I also think I was intuiting something. Sorrentino's attitude toward Williams, Joyce, or Blanchot was wholly reverential, wholly unironic.

Though people like Olson invented the term "postmodernism," the term took on a different meaning after Lyotard and Jameson. Basically, the word was hijacked as a term for "poststructuralism" or for "late capitalism," respectively. It became just that much more useless as a term for literary studies.

27/5/2009

The other part of this project is the intellectual history dimension. What does it mean that a prominent Spanish exile (Zambrano) was advocating a kind of Spanish exceptionalism with roots in Unamuno? That Valente's intellectual hero is Saint John of the Cross? What happens to the concept of literary modernity if your chief modern poet is Lorca, a poet so ambivalent toward modernity (when he wasn't just hostile to it)? What happens if you juxtapose Lorca's Duende lecture to Zambrano's cultural history of Spain in Pensamiento y poesía en la vida española?
The case for high modernism / late modernism in Spain, being the movement of most vitality, is even stronger than I thought. Where my argument in The Twilight of the Avant-Garde was much more qualified and hedged, I am now prepared to make the case that modernism is a movement that we have not yet caught up with. No more apologies for hard-core late modernism in my next book Fragments of a Late Modernity.

The introduction is titled "Catching Tigers in Red Weather." Basically, the point here is modernism is still the strongest game in town, and that a full reckoning of the movement could not happen until much later. No one, single reader in 1930 could have had access to Pessoa, Cavafy, Rilke, Lorca, H.D., Vallejo, Mayakovsky, Stein, Williams, Breton, all at the same time. We're lucky even now to find a grad student who knows even the basics of modernism. Modernism, historically, was and is fragmented. Any reading of modernism is not a reconstruction of some knowledge that existed in 1930, but a recuperation of a past that never happened. Literary history is our own invention, but we have ample material with which to work.

Nor did modernism end in 1930, or 1939, or 1960. It was only something called "postmodernism" that seemed to put a final point to it. But what was postmodernism except a continued recuperation of the modernist heritage in all its richness?

So after the introduction, I will have two chapters on Lorca. Nothing to do with Apocryphal Lorca, but an attempt to recuperate him within international modernism and connect him with a later Spanish poetry that seems to neglect him.

After that, three chapters on the Zambrano / Valente nexus, two of which I've already written, so that should be easy.

The final section consists of four chapters. I wrote my dissertation on Claudio Rodríguez, but that was twenty years ago. It's time for me to revisit the strongest Spanish poet of our time. Another chapter on Gamoneda, which I've also already written.

A chapter that tentatively will address the work of Núñez and Ullán. A final one devoted to OGV.

I've written 3 of 8 chapters, plus an article in Spanish containing some of the ideas for the first Lorca chapter.

Here are my worries:

The book will be boring.
It will keep me from more interesting projects.
Nobody will read it.
The book will be too much a repetition of TWOTAG and AL.
I won't find a publisher.

26/5/2009

Like those of Art Tatum, Monk's improvisations consist of playing the melody of the song and varying the accompaniment, the harmonic and rhythmic approach, the ornamentation. The melody is sometimes concealed for a stretch, but it always reemerges. On standards, like Tatum, he often comes back to a basic stride pattern to reassert the basic melody / form / harmony of the tune after a more abstract or concealed passage.

So there is little of the "blowing over the changes" improvisation in Monk (or Tatum), where the original melody is simply forgotten in favor of new, improvised melodies that relate only to the underlying harmonies. If you turn on the radio in the middle of a song and hear Monk play a standard, you will always know what song he is playing right away, even if you're bad, like me, at recognizing chord changes by themselves.

When he plays his own songs Monk still plays the melody. On Monk's Mood, Crepuscule with Nellie, Reflections, Pannonica, Ruby My Dear, do we really want a performance that effaces ;those very beautiful melodies? On more simplistic sounding Blues, his approach might be a bit different, In those cases, the recognizable blues cadence is more significant than the melody per se.

There is a bias against melody in some jazz criticism. The logic seems to be that just playing a popular song straight, without changing the melody much, unjazzlike. You find references to "These Foolish Things" as a trite melody, for example. That drives me crazy.

25/5/2009

Despite the lack of "voice" and "style" in Ullán's work I do have a sense of an authorial "presence," one at the level neither of rhetorical persona or of stylistic device (or cluster of devices).

I don't have my Ullán books here with me for the summer. His publication history is a complex one, with an early "social poetry" phase not represented in collected volumes. One book I remember consists entirely of accounts of various people's deaths, taken verbatim from newspapers, in various typographical layouts. Another takes its title from a sonnet by Góngora and consists largely of visual effects. Yet another, Manchas nombradas, or "named stains," refers largely to works of visual art, such as paintings by Tàpies.

I have an art book by him titled Agrafismos consisting mostly of squggly images that imitate writing but are not actually letters, or graphic signs of language--but which are not really anything but graphic signs of language.

Despite the large number of publications I don't have a sense of Ullán as a facile or garrulous writer. If he wrote 20 or 30 books each one is an individual work with its own integrity.

Ullán's death puts his work in a different perspective for me. I feel I should write about him. In fact, his poetry fill the exact space in my current project that I had left open. His inclusion would give the book a coherence and level of interest that it wouldn't otherwise have had.

At the same time, his passing marks the end of an era. If you knew everything there was to know about Ullán, you would have access to an entire period of Spanish culture. I feel this loss very keenly, though I only interacted with the poet very briefly over the course of a few days, a few years ago.
One thing I have always admired about Ullán is that he doesn't have a style or a voice. In other words, the effort doesn't go into defining a particular persona, a speaking voice, or into developing a certain repertoire of stylistic devices that, taken as a whole, create an identifiable poetic style. Most poets, even on the avant-garde side of things, where Ullán definitely was located, do put most of their effort into style and voice. This is probably why, if you asked me to define Ullán's legacy, I would first draw a blank.

Prieto de Paula defines it like this in today's País: "El hilo conductor de su obra es el proceso, la búsqueda. Cuando encontraba lo que buscaba, rompía con ello. De ahí que no tenga un título que podamos considerar emblemático. Su propio discurso repudiaba eso." Miguel Casado points out that there could be no school of Ullán. There is nothing to be imitated.

This may be why I've never written about him. It's harder for the critic, too, to get a handle on a figure like this. Just to say he did visual poetry is one crude way of locating him, though not all his poetry falls in this category.

24/5/2009

The poet and artist José-Miguel Ullán died yesterday in Madrid. He was born in 1944 so he was a very young man. I met him a few years ago in Tenerife, after having puzzled over his poetry for many years. My condolences to his partner Manolo.

18/5/2009

Kenneth Koch had the concept of the "happiness base" and the "poetry base." The happiness base, for example, consists of all the elements supportive of happiness, like good health and relationships, a good attitude toward life, enough material comforts, etc...

Today, I'd like to consider the "scholarship base." This consists of things like your "cultural capital," the excellence of your training and education, your knowledge base, your access to a good library (plus the quality of your personal scholarly library), your ongoing activities and participation in networks of other scholars, and the momentum from previous scholarly projects: unused ideas and knowledge, logical next steps in your scholarly trajectory. A lot of the "work" we do serves simply to maintain the scholarly base, and thus is work that doesn't lead directly to publication. Nevertheless, an excellent base makes everything else far easier. I think of the base as about 75%, with the actual writing being the remaining quarter. Some refer to this as the iceberg theory. We are judged by what is above the surface of the water, but the iceberg itself is mostly submerged.

For example, suppose a teacher at a liberal arts college who doesn't get any research done during the academic year has the summer off. Probably the whole summer could be devoted simply to restoring the base to decent shape, without any articles being written. At the end of the summer, it is time to go back to teaching again. You wouldn't expect more than one article to be written every one to three summers on such a schedule. An active researcher at a Research One university with an excellent scholarship base might write one to two articles, on average, in that same summer, finishing up one begun during the Academic Year and writing another from scratch. If you are already doing research it is easy to keep doing it.

That some researchers in very good institutions do not produce very much shows how difficult it really is to sustain a research program over the long stretch.

7/5/2009

One of those "duh" moments last night. My topic is "late modernism," and I suddenly put that together with the fact that Zambrano, born in 1904, published (or re-published) many books in the 1980s, and some even posthumously. The main frame-work for her reception, then, is the exact period I am studying.

6/5/2009

There's a lot in Valente that was in Zambrano before: the interest in mysticism, "passivity," the union of poetry and philosophy or "pensamiento," Lezama Lima... He owes as much, if not more, to her as to Cernuda. What kept me from seeing that was my relative unfamiliarity with Zambrano. Of course he's written about her so he wasn't exactly hiding this influence, but for me it was "hiding in plain sight." Zambrano was an exile in Cuba during and after the Spanish civil war, and contributed regularly to Lezama's Orígenes. Valente didn't meet Lezama until 1967. You can see letters where María Z is writing Lezama about this young poet (Valente) who is about to make the trip to Cuba, and then letters afterwards about how happy she is that the two of them got along.

This is significant because there is this religious, mystical strain that comes out of Lezama and Zambrano that gives an interesting twist to Spanish modernism--kind of a de-secularization of Ortega y Gasset. It's interesting for me because as a non-religious type person it provides me with a problem or a source of resistance. I had thought that Valente's religiosity was just a metaphor for poesis, but what if is something more than that?

This is a very inchoate part of my project. I love that word because it means "unformed because in its early stages." A particular kind of formlessness deriving from something not yet having taken shape. That's a cool concept.
I see the first hour of work in any given day as a way of maintaining the project and making minimal progress. Anything after that is the "bonus," where the progress will be substantial. So if I am able to work an hour, that's great. An hour and 45 minutes is like an hour of maintenance and 45 minutes at time-and-a-half. This method allows me to snatch significant moment throughout a busy day just to get up to my hour, and then everything else is just extra.

Progress will seem slow when judged by hours and days, but rapid when judged by months and years.

Words have a power of their own. For example, I found myself using the ridiculous phrase "iron will" about myself, as in "I have an iron will." Obviously I don't, and the phrase sounds silly. Yet somehow that phrase worked for me and allowed me to persevere on a day when it seemed unlikely. Some people derive power out of affirmations of weakness, abjectness, and powerlessness, I've never understood it, but there you go. If that works for you, go for it.