30 sept 2002

What gives a figure like Jacques Lacan his continued prestige and influence?

In the first place, there is the attraction of an authoritarian discourse, that is, an intellectual tradition based on an authority figure, or figures. Behind Lacan there stand two or three authorities, Freud, Jakobson, Saussure, who are no longer seen as part of an ungoing tradition of intellectual inquiry, but as fixed beacons. When Lacan speaks of the unconscious as being structured as a language, he has in mind a particular version of structural linguistics. To the extent that the authority of Lacan is based on superannuated scientific models (Freud and Saussure), it is possible to ask whether his work can be questioned from a purely scientific perspective.

Of course, literary critics do not appeal to Lacan as a scientist: the idea is that this version of psychoanalysis is a convenient fiction of purely heuristic value. But if this is the case, though, what is the point of translating one fiction (a novel by Faulkner say) into another (a Lacanian metalanguage)? Why gives the theoretical metalanguage “authority” over a literary language? In the U.S. academy, certain kinds of theory are frozen, detached from the context of their original production and debate, and so become virtually meaningless. To object to such use of “theory” is not to be “antitheoretical,” but to call for a more rigorous investigation of why we believe what we do.

Paul de Man’s rhetorical analyses are not what they seem: to me, their famous appeal to rigor and unrefutability seems rather specious. It has been pointed out, for example, that what he calls a metaphor in Proust is actually a metonymy or synechdoche.

David Antin, in a recent book-length interview with Charles Bernstein, points out that the “theory” behind much language poetry is based on an antiquated linguistics. Bernstein does not object. His Wittgenstenian background saves him from some of these theoretical quagmires.

29 sept 2002

I dislike writing grant proposals. Having to justify what one is going to do in the future. Couldn’t they just extrapolate from what I have already done and predict that I will do more of the same? I don’t see myself as doing research, but as writing about what I already know. That is to say, my research never stops. I am constantly reading, developing ideas. Then writing. I have written much since last spring: an article on Jorge Riechmann for "Insula." Another, longish article on Spanish poetry of the 1950s generation, in which I refute the idea that these poets used “ordinary language.” A third article, not yet completed, on Carme Riera. A review of Claudio Rodríguez’s complete poetry for Revista de Libros. I found a way of quoting John Riley’s "Beyond Bop Drumming" in an academic article.

27 sept 2002

I have a modest collection of books of the New York School Poets. Books by Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara, Guest, Koch. Some of the second generation poets like Ceravalo, Berrigan, Padgett, Mayer, Shapiro. My father used to drop me off in Serendipity Books in Berkeley on Shattuck Avenue and I would browse for hours. This would have been when I was about 15 years old. The core of my collection began then. I have added to it by fits and starts since then, buying new books by these poets as they came out, and occasionally searching for specific items. The total number of books in this collection is about 250 (depending who I count as a New York poet), and very few of these books are worth more than $50.

This blog is my intellectual biography.

26 sept 2002

The great saxophone players, for me, are Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Bird, ‘Trane, Ornette, Rollins, Dolphy, and Konitz. What is amazing, however, how good the next tier is: Wayne Marsh, Johnny Hodges, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Cannonball Adderly, etc... Even a hypothetical third tier would be comprised of exceptional players like Flip Philips, Paul Desmond, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Stitt, Harold Land, Lou Donaldson, Ben Webster. It seems ridiculous to even call them third tier players. Of course I’ve left out Bechet, Getz, Dewey Redman (and Joshua), Lovano, Woods, and many others that I would have to place at one of these three levels. (This exercise is entirely arbitrary. This is the kind of thing I think about in the car driving to Kansas and back.) There are people still waiting for Branford Marsalis to come into his own as a major figure, but, judging by this list, I don’t see it happening. He is just one more good tenor player in a generation overshadowed by Coltrane and Rollins.


Anthony Braxton’s approach to standards (“Seven Standards, 1985, Volume 1”) is strongly intellectual, analytical: he begins each tune by playing the melody fairly straight once through, with some minimal ornamentation and melodic paraphrase. He seems to be studying the tune, taking it apart, finding the places where he will explore it in the subsequent choruses. Tension builds up in these subsequent improvisations, as he plays in an increasingly more “avant-garde” style, faster, higher, and freer and with a somewhat harsher tone. He is still playing melodically, not just blowing over chord changes; he is always relatively restrained, as though keeping himself in check, even at the climax of the solo. He ends by coming down to a lower level of tension, providing the classic resolution. He is brilliant on Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring.”

25 sept 2002

A row of hard-bound books on a bookshelf at the “ranch,” a property in Napa county owned by my Grandfather and subsequently by my father with his siblings. They must have been mid-level novels of the 1950s of the Louis Auchincloss variety, though probably by writers now even more obscure. “Serious literary fiction” of no particular renown. (My Grandmother would not have kept her Proust or Henry James, or even her Auchincloss, at the ranch.) I remember looking at them when I was 12, or perhaps older, leafing through a few. It is as though they were printed with blank pages: they could make no impression on me, and of course my memory of this event is even blanker than the original experience. The property was sold years ago and I have no idea what could have happened to these books.

What makes writing last? These writers must have been cultivated, literate people with stories to tell. I don’t mean to condescend, but an episode of “I Love Lucy” from the same period holds much greater interest. “Popular entertainment” is usually superior to “middle-brow” culture.
Lester Young was reportedly the first person known to use the word “cool” in its modern, colloquial sense.


A brief poem by Antonio Machado, “Sobre la tierra amarga,” contains four words of Greek etymology: laberínticos, criptas, melancólicos, quimeras. I contend that these should be translated with their English cognates: labyrinthine, crypts, melancholy, and Chimeras, not, as one translator does, with maze, vaults, wistful, and fantasies. The Greek words form an “underlying network of signification,” to use a phrase from Antoine Berman: they have specific historical and linguistic resonance. A labyrinth contains a Minotaur in a way that a maze does not. A crypt is a tomb or something hidden, as in a “cryptic message.” A vault might be found in a bank. Burton did not write an anatomy of wistfulness. A Chimera is a specific mythological beast, etc... (Of course fantasy is also a Greek word, but not the one Machado chose!) Should the translator always go for the cognate? Of course not, but when the cognate is a richer, more resonant, or more specific word, the easiest solution becomes the best solution.

For “quimeras rosadas” the eminent Robert Bly translates “mythological beasts, rosy ones.” It is as though he had looked in dictionary under Chimera and found “mythological beast,” and put this dictionary definition directly into his translation.

24 sept 2002

Minor Poets of the New York School

He spoke sharply--as though a shark’s fin
Could wound the sea, or the fog
Be subject to a tongue-lashing--
Impatient, but not rushing the beat.

The world had coarsened, a meaner
Conception taken hold; or he had
Idealized Surrealism, badly
Misjudged the loyalty of goldfish.

A manuscript, "Minor Poets
Of the New York School,"
Lay unfinished on the kitchen
Table. The fog closed in.


I see 1960, the year of my birth, as the high point of culture in the twentieth century. Monk, Miles, Mingus, and Ornette were at the height of their power, as were Ray Charles, Sinatra, and Samuel Beckett. Picasso, Breton, Frank O’Hara, and Jack Spicer were still alive. This is the year of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry. Yet by the time I was forming my own taste, around 1975, most of this had faded from view. I remember assuming, as a child, that jazz belonged completely to the past. This would have been only a few years after the death of Coltrane. I remember the debate about whether the Beatles were as great as Mozart. Why the Beatles and not, say, Coltrane, Monk, or Ornette? I was reading some of Ned Rorem’s Diaries and essays a few months ago. He had a controversial article about the Beatles in the 1960s, yet he rarely engages jazz in any significant way. At one point he speaks of Ornette’s trumpet and his white imitators of the 1950s, leading me to think he meant to say Miles Davis. This from a composer who claims Billie Holiday as a significant influence. Buying a loaf of bread at St. Louis Bread Company one morning, I heard Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” played as background music. No one else was listening, I suspect.


After I started playing drums I developed the ability to hear a poet’s individual sound as though it were a ride cymbal pattern. With Clark Coolidge, a drummer who employs this analogy himself, this is a natural step. He does phrase like a bop drummer. But I can hear Beckett’s ride cymbal as well. As a teacher of literature, how do I teach such things? Students want different sorts of answers, though in my translation course I am closer to teaching what I truly believe in.

23 sept 2002

The idea of translating in order to arrive at “what the poet would have written / had she written in English.” This is a cliché, of course. More than that, it is radically false. How do we know what kind of English Homer would have written? How would Mozart have phrased his solos on 52nd street in the 1940s? A sonnet in English might have a totally different rhythmic feel from a sonnet in Italian: yet many would accept this exchange as “formal equivalence.”


A diary in which nothing has yet happened.
The first Monk album I bought, when I was sixteen or perhaps slightly younger, was “Solo Monk.” This record had a profound effect on my musical taste. Monk’s take on the stride tradition is austere and even monotonous, but at the same time fresh and witty. The contrast between the bouncy, corny sounding standards like “I’m Confessing” and “Dinah” with originals like “Monk’s Point” and “Ruby, My Dear” was quite stimulating, as was his use of dissonance and rubato. If I had encountered the album at a later date I might have concurred with the consensus that views this as a perfunctory recording: “He delivers these pieces indifferently, as if it were a duty and an imposition” (Thomas Fitterling). At the time, however, I was not yet familiar either with Monk’s music or with standards like “These Foolish Things” or “Everything Happens to Me.” Perhaps Monk’s approach to the music does betray a certain sense of tedium, yet my fresh ears heard this as sardonic, melancholy humor. I would still defend my initial opinion: although I have not listened to this music for many years, I can still hear it in my mind’s ear as I heard it then.

21 sept 2002

Who are the Spanish poets of today? Antonio Gamoneda’s “Libro de los venenos” is a commentary on Andrés de Laguna’s sixteenth-century commentary on an ancient medical/pharmacological text of Dioscurides. Gamoneda reproduces, in three different type faces, Dioscurides’ text, Laguna’s commentary, and his own metacommentary, based on his own extensive reading of other ancient texts. The physical effects of poisons; insect and snake bites; attacks of rabid dogs; antidotes and treatments—this is great stuff. Gamoneda suggests we read it as a complex and engaging palimpsestic narrative. The language is very dense; I don’t in fact possess the technical knowledge of the subject matter to dechiper the text in its entirety. It is not a matter of looking up words in the dictionary: Gamoneda’s book is itself a kind of dictionary of poisonous substances and their corporeal effects. What makes such a work “poetry”? I don’t much care whether we call it that or not. To say that it is not poetry would imply that poetry is a “genre” rather than a mode of signification.

20 sept 2002

I’ve just published an article entitled “Poetry, Politics, and Power” in the “Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies,” in the UK. My thesis is that the Socialist Government of Spain in the 1980s promoted a school of poetry that mirrored its own mediocre yet grandiose cultural ambitions. The so-called “poesía de la experiencia” is a banal “realist” poetry of everyday life, not dissimilar to U.S. poetry-workshop poetry. (I use Charles Bernstein’s handy catch-phrase “official verse culture.”) I’ve written two or three articles now attacking this particular group of poets. I am both loved and hated in Spain.

What makes this article “cultural studies” is that I do not quote a line of verse.

Criticism in my academic field (contemporary Spanish poetry) is deadly. It is a specialization-within-a-specialization, and rarely attracts first-rate minds. To find a more stimulating group of people to talk to, I would have to go into cultural studies; yet such people usually have very little interest in “poetics.” Scholars in my field still tend to see the poem as a decontextualized “text” to be picked apart on the page. Those with a broader knowledge of contemporary Spanish culture, on the other hand, don’t see poetry as relevant in the least.
The principle of non-repetition: once I begin to say the same thing over again, this blog will come to a halt.

Barbara Guest’s “Musicality” is a poem from the collection “Fair Realism.” But it is also a book, a collaboration with artist June Felter printed in an edition of 1000 copies. The text seems impoverished when printed as words alone, without Felter’s art-work. In “Musicality (the book) the phrase “levelled crusts” appears, all alone, opposite a pencil-drawing of a row of low houses that does in fact look like a “levelled crust.” In the pictureless “Fair Realism” version of this poem, this line might easily pass unnoticed. Needless to say it doesn’t get a page of its own.

Felter’s drawings have a “transparent” quality. They are both simple in technique and extraordinarily subtle. People reading this poem in its more widely disseminated version will never see these drawings, unless they are so taken with Barbara Guest that they order every possible available item listed on amazon.com. Of course, this collaboration between an artist and a poet is ostensibly “about” a third art, music. At one point, pencil outlines of trees are interpreted by the poet as “half notes.”

I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw. I went to the bookstore the other day to see if I could get a how-to book, but was put off by the illustrations in the books I found: I didn’t want to learn to draw like THAT. They were the exact opposite of Felter’s drawings, in that their technique was “busy,” over-complicated, in proportion to the relatively meager results obtained.

19 sept 2002

Years ago, before I played drums or knew anything about tuning, I saw drummer Kenny Washington and was impressed with his extraordinarily warm yet well-defined sound. It was in West Lafayette, Indiana and he was playing with McCoy Tyner. Washington, I now realize, is one of the premier mainstream jazz drummers of the past twenty years. I was gratified to read, recently, a sentence in Kenny Matheson's book "Giant Steps": "....Kenny Washington relates a story about how he physically destroyed his first juvenile drum-kit in a desperate attempt to capture [Max] Roach's sound." This anecdote helps me understand and reconnect with what I had heard ten years ago..

17 sept 2002

Sam Beckett’s Ride Cymbal

If quick decay short sustain. And so to conclude vice-versa. To conclude no. Too early. Just about begun. Again. Struck with authority with butt-end of stick near the bell it speaks out brightly. Then continues its dark rumbling. A long while. Unless stilled by hand. Still. Which cannot but feel the vibrations it stills. Again.

From a distance the rumbling inaudible. Visible perhaps to the naked eye the vibrating surface. Vice-versa again. Before little by little dying long sustain interrupted. Long interrupted. By glancing blows. When not the choking hand. Still or once again. In the wash and swell still to be heard when not seen or felt blows. This time with stick’s tip. Dog walk the dog walk the dog walk the dog walk the. How else affirm the undying pattern? Fading or about to fade again when struck again so never silent. Unless stilled. For several minutes thus. Then finally still. This time of own accord.

Held close to the surface the ear savors the undying roar. Not long after last blow struck. Untouched this time by hand or stick. As though measuring long relatively long decay. Sustain. Brighter voice gone in a flash. Roar outlasting it by a minute. A minute and a half. Except when stilled by impatient hand. Throttled! As this time not for worse or better. Or struck again therefore to begin again slow measuring of decay. From the top. The vibrations perhaps still visible to impatient eye. Palpable were the hand to grasp it again.

How long? The scene to hold attention or the surface to shimmer fainter and fainter till struck again? Both. Neither. Both or neither. To conclude again not having concluded from the top. Little to have concluded when not yet started. In haste now the bell ever brighter struck in same repeating pattern each stroke engulfed in its turn in ever less audible wash! Stilled again or still of its own accord. What difference?

16 sept 2002

An episode in Kerouac’s “Visions of Gerard.” Gerard, the narrator’s saintly older brother, rescues a mouse from a trap and brings it home to nurse to health. What gives this story its impact are four subsequent events: (1) the family cat eats the mouse, leaving only its tail; (2) the father attempts to explain to the naive Gerard why this has happened; (3) the normally sweet-tempered Gerard berates the cat ferociously; (4) the narrator compares Gerard’s scolding of the cat to Jesus throwing the money-lenders out of the temple-- uncharacteristic but justified demonstrations of anger in both cases. This comparison is “over-the-top,” and indeed the whole episode is sentimentalized. The entire book is written as hagiography. Yet certain details—the cat’s tail left behind, the ambivalent reactions of the adults to the incident, the narrator’s adult recreation and re-interpretation of a childhood memory—are highly memorable.

There is a section of “Mexico City Blues,” thirteen or fourteen poems around the middle of the book, that recreates Kerouac’s childhood experience with startling vividness, and much less sentimentality. The doggerel in this book is often hard to take, but in these poems it suddenly becomes a poetic resource of great power. It is as though he had to write 80 or 90 poems of noticeably lesser quality to get to this central section. Yet we cannot edit out the unevenness of this book, since it is essential to Kerouac’s practice of writing.

12 sept 2002

In the translation course I am teaching we were discussing why it it impossible to translate the word “phat.” I facetiously suggested “ghordo.” A student pointed out that such a word only has meaning within a specific context. French theorist of translation Antoine Berman claims that “translation is only possible between cultivated languages.” Vernaculars are rooted in particularities: you can’t translate hip-hop slang into the lunfardo of Buenos Aires. What are the implications of this? Is poetry a vernacular language?


The “skip” note of a ride cymbal pattern is like that extra skip-step when a child is skipping. Children skip, then, in “jazz eighth-notes” or in a New Orleans “in the cracks” beat (half way between straight and jazz eighths). This is also the rhythm of the human heart-beat, of course. Triplet-based rhythms are easier on the nerves; straight eighths can be jarring. A nice expression for this is “chopping wood.” Yet there are straight-eighth feels that feel extremely good also.

Elvin Jones’s “rolling triplet” feel can be quite soothing, even when the tempo is frantic and his playing is extremely busy. The 6/8 Cuban-jazz paradigm is always lurking in his playing, whether he is playing in 4/4 or 3/4.

Swing is a subjective category. The swing music of the thirties often doesn’t swing for modern ears, used to the more even 4/4 feel that to the the “two” feel of many older bands. Count Basie is the obvious exception. Ellington’s band didn’t swing hard with original drummer Sonny Greer (in the opinion of many others, not just my own). Does Jeff “Tain” Watts swing? Some say not. Branford Marsalis dismissed that negative take as simply ridiculous, but I wonder...

What is dumber than jazz fans arguing about who swings (or not)? What I am interested in the difference of perception. There is a biological basis for musical rhythm, and we feel it in our bodies more than our ears. But not everyone feels or hears it in the same way. Older rhythm sections can sound “clunky,” but they might have felt fine to the original players and listeners.

11 sept 2002

In den Flüssen nördlich der Zukunft
werf ich das Netz aus, das du
zögernd beschwerst
mit von Steinem geschriebenen

A relatively “simple” Celan poem. Two movements: the speaker casts a net, the addressee loads it with “stone-written shadows.” There is one main clause and one relative clause. Pierre Joris translates it fairly well:

In rivers north of the future
I cast the net, which you
hesitantly weight
with shadows stones

He is trying to avoid the passive construction: “shadows written by stones.” In the process he embeds a second relative clause in the first: “shadows [that] stones wrote.” It seems to me that the poem should end with the word “shadows,” and that the introduction of a second relative clause, with a third active verb, breaks up the the poem’s rhythm: “I cast the net, which you weight...” I generally approve of Joris’s translations because they are very literalistic, that is, they attend to the letter of the text. In this case, a departure from literal translation is not necessarily an improvement.

A misplaced comma or two can ruin a translation. Here is Spanish poet José Angel Valente translating the same poem:

En los ríos, al norte del futuro,
tiendo la red que tú
titubeante cargas
de escritura de piedras,

Valente intuits that the poem should end with “sombras” (Schatten, shadows), so he places it in apposition to “escritura de piedras,” squelching the idea that the shadows are written by stones. The original had two clauses separated by a comma. Valente introduces three extraneous commas, and omits the one separating the two clauses. The rhythmic effect is destroyed. (In German, as I remember from my four semesters twenty years ago, the comma before the relative clause is obligatory.)

Yet Valente’s translation works quite well if we don’t care about the German original. It has its own, broken, stuttering rhythm. The alliteration of “tú / titubeante” is particularly effective. “Cargar” is a good verb here because it means “loading” or “charging.” A participle (geschriebenen) becomes the noun “escritura,” Spanish for “scripture” as well as for “writing.” I visualize huge stone letters being loaded into a net, letters which the poet associates with shadows, a moment later. “Sombras” could be in apposition to either the entire NP (escritura de piedras) or to the noun (piedras). A stonewriting or a shadowwriting? Here is my version of Valente’s translation:

In rivers, to the north of the future,
I lay down the net that you
clumsily load
with a scripture of stones,
of shadows.

Valente reworks some of these images in another poem that begins “Al norte / de la línea de sombras / donde todo hace agua” (To the north / of the line of shadows / where all becomes water). This poem also contains a concealed reference to Celan’s theory of poetic communication as a “message in a bottle.”
There are poets I have been trying to read for years but still don’t “get.” In other words I don’t understand why they write the way they do, or what others admire in them. It could be that every poet requires a specialized approach, that I need to learn to read all over again each time. What I might reject in one poet slowly acquires value in another. I’ve been reading Jim Brodey recently. How could I not like a poem that begins “Art Blakey is in the furnace. Elvin Jones / is in the pipes” -- or “Where Trane went / Ceravolo survives”? Yet still I resist Brodey somewhat, because of a quality that I can only call “sentimentality.” I am an obdurate reader, to be sure. Most people, on the other hand, do not try to read beyond a certain horizon of taste. For me it is more rewarding to read poetry I do not yet like, examining the reasons for my own stubborness.

Taste is not really a matter of individual preferences. How could millions of people, each acting as an individual, suddenly decide that they like Elvis? It would be like that science-fiction story in which the “law of probability” is temporarily suspended, so that everyone in New York City decides to go to the same Chinese restaurant on the same evening at 6:42 p.m. I feel that my own “taste” is perfectly predictable and coherent, the inexorable product of my cultural formation. This might explain my highly resistant style of reading.

10 sept 2002

I have been reading Marjorie Perloff’s new book “Twentieth-First Century Modernism.” It confirms a position I myself have been developing gradually over the past few years. I see a fundamental continuity between modern and “postmodern” poetry. (In fact, I have less and less use for the concept of postmodernism.) When I read Clark Coolidge --

"What I thought was the / ass-end of a pigeon / was a flag of waterproof / linen /
flapped by the wind at the lip / of the roof . . . "

I think of William Carlos Williams. Barbara Guest is basically an Imagiste in the H.D. tradition. Gertrude Stein could have written “Tender Buttons” yesterday. Such work is absolutely contemporary for me, in that I don’t feel it to be the product of a different epoch from my own. On the back cover of Coolidge’s “Solution Passage,” from which I extracted the above quote, there is a blurb from Lydia Davis: “Coolidge’s ear is almost perfect, and he rarely writes anything less than a perfectly beautiful sentence—the beauty coming out of not only the elasticity of his syntax, the brightness of his rhetorical flourishes and lively verbs, but also from the abundance of concrete images in his work.” I agree. This is good poetry in a very conventional, modernist sense, as defined by Pound in “A Few Don'ts." The question is why this type of writing is now characteristic of a specialized, avant-garde taste?

I don’t mean to simplify Perloff’s argument, which I will address later in a more nuanced way. What I like is the sense of freedom I get from throwing out the idea of a postmodern break with stiff, rigid, modernist precepts.
I have been thinking a lot about “frame shifts.” A few months ago, I was studying a transcription of a Max Roach solo from the album “Deeds not Words”(from Modern Drummer magazine). Shortly after, I came across a description of Roach’s playing on this same album, by New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett. To this critic’s ear, Roach’s playing sounded chaotic. You couldn’t tap your foot to it. On paper, of course, the drum solo revealed an extremely logical, almost “neo-classical” sense of organization, as one might expect from Max. I haven’t actually heard the music in question, so I am comparing an impressionistic critical description with a more-or-less accurate transcription.

5 sept 2002

This blog is devoted to contemporary poetics and to jazz, in approximately equivalent portions. Stay tuned.

Pierre Bourdieu refers to jazz, in passing, a middle-brow art. Theodor Adorno, notoriously, lumps it in with the “culture industry,” making no distinction between Thelonious Monk and [insert name of pop star here]. What I find fascinating is that there are high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow approaches to jazz. An interest in canonical or avant-garde figures (Lester Young, Mingus, Monk and Miles, Ornette) is the mark of high-brow taste. The middle-of-the-road approach is self-explanatory. A desire to make jazz more respectable or “classical”hovers indeterminately between the high and the middle category. Low-brow jazz is simply Kitsch, the recycling of popular styles evident in many recent Nat King Cole tribute albums.

These categories overlap and are somewhat arbitrary. The high-brow attitude that consigns Oscar Peterson to oblivion is perfectly understandable. But do we really want Peterson to be different from what he is? His sense of ornamental excess and exuberant swing can be highly pleasurable. This is not the same thing as confusing him with Bud Powell.