31 oct 2002

Are my interests broad or narrow? Ron Silliman's blog is almost exclusiveley devoted to defining and documenting a particular tradition of American poetry, in generous detail. So far, in this blog, I have spoken mostly about contemporary American poetry, jazz, translation, Spanish poetry, and academic literary criticism. A narrow range of topics, to be sure.


When looking at a website of "great buildings" I was trying to remember the name of an architect who built several homes in Berkeley at the turn of the century. I knew it started with May... Maybeck. I remember driving around with my parents to look at Maybeck houses, and of course, the Christian Science Church. I hadn't thought of Maybeck in years.


When I last flew, I looked at one of those "sky mall" catalogues. What was striking about these overpriced luxury items was how few of them (almost none) were visually elegant or sleekly designed. Most were pure Kitsch, in fact.

"Against this craft [that of certain Troubadour poets] I put, with quite definite intention, the syncopation or the counterpoint of the Syrian Greek Death of Adonis, with, shall we say, Bion's jazz beat running cross-wise."

From Pound's "ABC of Reading."

This is perhaps the earliest mention of jazz rhythm in relation to poetry (by a white poet). The idea of hearing poetic rhythms as syncopated.


I founded a new discipline yesterday called "Mediocrity Studies." It is the study of stable, self-perpetuating, but ultimately pointless systems of thought. For example, the idea of paraphrasing the novels of Faulkner in a Lacanian meta-language. The dullness of such a method is not an accidental by-product, or the result of incompetence, but the deliberate result of a particular academic mind-set.


Bright undergraduate students, humanities majors, are not capable of reading and understanding a critical article. I'm not talking about Derrida or Foucault, but of a fairly lucidly written critical article by, say, Lawrence Venuti on translation.

30 oct 2002

About the time I started getting interested in architecture, about two weeks ago, I also started reading David Shapiro, who is married to a professor of architecture, and whose poetry is saturated with architectural references.


I've been listening to a genre of music I didn't even know existed a year ago. It is called "Drum 'n' Bass."


I invented a new term, "trifecta" poets. These are poets who have a significant interest and or talent in music as well as the visual arts. David Shapiro was a child-prodigy violinist and is now a professor of art. This would be the perfect example.
Why should I resist thinking that the second generation New York poets are great in their own right? Did I think there was some sort of quota on how many interesting poets could exist in any one geographical configuration?

My top ten poets (those I have been reading most assiduously the past 5 or 10 years)

1. Antonio Gamoneda
2. Barbara Guest
3. Raymond Roussel
4. John Ashbery
4. José Angel Valente
5. Clark Coolidge
6. Samuel Beckett
7. Joseph Ceravolo
8. William Bronk
9. James Schuyler
10. Claudio Rodríguez

29 oct 2002

I just received "Miniatures," by Barbara Guest, in the mail. Before I opened the book I had a moment's panic: what if this book was by a different poet, who also happened to have the name of Barbara Guest? A completely irrational thought, dispelled immediately when I began to read. What if the other Barbara Guest were also a marvelous poet?


David Shapiro's poem "Master Canterel at Locus Solus." It would be completely incomprehensible to someone who had never heard of Raymond Roussel and John Ashbery. I am fondest of Roussel's early long poems written in perfect Alexandrines, like "La Vue." These have not been translated in full into English. Kenneth Koch's "The Railway Stationary" is a parody of Roussel's style. Poets should be able to expect that their readers do, in fact, know things like this. I don't believe in the ordinary reader, per se. I first read Roussel because of Ashbery. I first read Flann O'Brien because someone had mentioned him as a favorite writer of Frank O'Hara. This more than twenty years ago.

24 oct 2002

I am pretty hopeless at transcribing drum solos, although I should be able to learn to do so since I can both read music and count. They go by too fast! I am happy enough to be able to count through them without losing the beat. A blue note record of Bud Powell ("Time Waits") playing his own compositions with Philly Joe Jones (and Sam Jones bass), that I have loaded unto my computer in the office. Each tune is between four and six minutes: I listen to each one four or five times, listening to the drum solos each time. I have the talent of being able to listen to the same music over and over again with little sense of tedium or fatigue. I can also set my "i-tunes" to play my entire music library in random order. Mediocre jazz played as background all the time is fatiguing, it is true.


Jordan Davis mentioned my mention of David Shapiro in my last post, reminding me to resume my reading of Poems from Deal. What did I mean when I said that Shapiro had not been impressive to me in the past? Certainly no disrespect. I find some typical New York school techniques there, and I obviously adore most of the poets in this group. What I want to get at is what distinguishes him from the others. I am challenged by a certain "inscrutable" quality.

I just got my copy of Ashbery's latest book, "Chinese Whispers." I've enjoyed his last three or four books more than I did his mid-80s work, which I continued to buy and read. He is increasingly charming in crepuscular modern fashion. He is no longer stereotypically difficult.


Reading some essays by Spanish novelist Juan Benet, I was struck by one on the author of the "Gulag Archipelago," in which Benet states, outrageously enough, that the existence of people like that (Solshenitzen, whose name I cannot spell correctly) justifies the Gulag, and that they should have never left him out of the camps. Benet also says that he tends to agree with the Soviet government in his assessment of dissident writers (this in an article written in the mid-1970s). There is absolutely no hint of irony in this essay, by the way. It seems to be motivated by pure bile at the thought of a Nobel prize being awarded a writer for purely political motives to a writer whom Benet does not respect. I dislike Joseph Brodsky's poetry (although it may be great in Russian for all I know), but I would never say that he should have been thrown in a labor camp for it. Suppose Augusto Pinochet happened to dislike Robert Bly's poetry (as I do). I would not then conclude that I shared Pinochet's literary tastes in many respects. How does Benet jump to such an obviously wrong-headed confusion of categories?

20 oct 2002

To reach a state of mind where nothing can be found boring. I consider very few texts truly dull; I have questions to ask of almost any piece of writing. Tedium is another matter: I could be deeply interested in a text yet conclude that “tediousness” is one of its several qualities.

Does this imply an indiscriminate approach? That I don’t care what I am reading? No. That is not quite it. Obviously I prefer some texts to others.

I started reading a Hardy Boy mystery in the bookstore while my daughter was looking at books in the children section. The prose was somewhat “stiff,” formal in some respects yet riddled with dated slang. This odd style seemed to infuse the imaginary world with a spurious sort of “reality.” One imagines that this is exactly how certain people at a certain time imagined eleven-year old boys imagining a fictional world. This, then, holds a certain interest for me. Another case: I have a book by David Shapiro, one of the second-generation New York School poets (Poems from Deal). Although I never found his work particularly impressive, when I re-read this book now I have quite a few questions in my mind: is he the same sort of poet as Ron Padgett? Why don’t I remember reading these poems the first time? What was he trying to do? Has anyone else really read this book, and what did they think about it? Answering these questions would still be a fascinating task, even if I found the poems themselves “dull” in some respects.

To have read a text for years and never known what anyone else thought of it. A unique form of isolation.

18 oct 2002

A world takes shape, obviousness--the quality of a syrup being poured from a bottle and missing the plate, the bottle then righted but without haste,
the sense of then explaining this badly.

A book read with my child a few years ago: of an age when expensive refined white store-bought sugar had greater value in a child’s tongue and imagination than maple syrup, taken from trees at hand.

A trust invested, an initial belief in something of great value there, to justify a decade of not wholly frustrated effort. Effort expended in turn adds to this sense of as yet unarticulated valuableness, yet all is not a shell game. This value is now irrefutable in self-evidentness, confirming the initial trust,

taking shape, obviousness, the quality of syrup. The effort having been taken to explain this with such awkwardness! To claim no value for this explanation. Refined sugar now is cheap, devalued, so that the government must subsidize the growers. Artificial maple flavor added to corn syrup.
If I were a linguist I would love to parse this adverbial phrase I found recently in Modern Drummer: “in a not quite full-on rock way.” (Of course if I were a linguist I would no doubt find this a banal and mechanical exercise!) It is adverbial, in that we could substitute an adverb for the entire phrase. It consists of a preposition (in) followed by a noun phrase “NP” (a not quite full-on rock way). This in turn consists of an indefinite article, a noun (way), and an adjectival phrase (a not quite full-on rock) modifying it. “Rock” is a noun (used as an adjective here), modified in its turn by an intensifying adjective (full-on), qualified in turn by the qualifier “not quite.” The semantic brunt of the phrase (and the entire sentence) is carried by this qualifier: the noun (way) seems to be there to indicate adverbialness (like the suffix –ly or –mente). The sense is one of pulling back a bit on a typical driving rock-and-roll beat. Who would have thought that the drummer from Weezer could use language is so precise and expressive a way! He has essentially invented a new adverb on the spot, one that expresses exactly what he means to say.

10 oct 2002

Reading in the NYRB a review by Charles Rosen of Adorno's books on music, recently published in English, I am struck by how dated Adorno's Freudian jargon seems: "infantile," "regressive," "fetish." A Germanic, Hegelian scheme underlies the typical mid-century Marx/Freud mixture. Rosen sees Adorno's dismissal of jazz as sheer ignorance, a position I have long argued myself.
"These days I ask myself again and more acutely the relation (if there is one?) between language forms and the wordless shapes of time. Perhaps there is no direct exchange. All I can be sure of is that I am able to possess them both within one body and one mind." --Clark Coolidge, "A Note on Bop"

This quote comes as close as anything I have read to explaining my own sense that poetry is fundamentally concerned with the relation between "sound forms cut in time" or "the articulation of sound forms in time" and time itself as lived experience.

I listen for a poet's "time feel."

9 oct 2002

The urge to DO something to a poem: translate it, record it, set it to music, write an essay about it, parody it. Reading is active, never a passive "reception."


A cymbal can be an instrument of great complexity. We normally think that sounds without an identifiable pitch are unmusical “noises.” A good cymbal, however, sets in motion a wide range of frequencies or “harmonics” without a fixed tonal center. The particular combination of frequencies will determine the overall tone quality, which can be relatively “bright” or “dark.” A dark tone quality is one with richer overtones and a greater proportion of lows. Thinner cymbals, of the same diameter, are lower in pitch and darker. Cymbals also differ widely in their degree of “trashiness,” often considered a positive quality. A pure, bell-like tone is considered undesirable, since a good cymbal also needs to blend harmoniously, in any key, with other musical instruments that are playing fixed pitches.
The initial onset of sound, or “attack,” is usually brighter than the subsequent “sustain” or “decay.” Higher frequencies decay more quickly, so the cymbal will change its sound as it continues to vibrate. A cymbal thus has two basic sounds, “stick definition” and “wash.” The relative intensity of these sounds is fundamental in determining the musical use to which the cymbal might be put. At one extreme, a cymbal might be so “dry” that it has little or no wash: we hear only a clearly articulated rhythmic pattern of pings or clicks. At the other extreme a cymbal would have so much build-up of sound that individual notes would no longer be heard distinctly. A good ride cymbal should have a balance between these two sounds, although the ideal balance is in the ear of the perceiver.

8 oct 2002

Eliot, in his preface to St.-John Perse, notes that much the difficulty of the Anabasis is due to the suppression of connective material: it is a narrative, but one in which the narrative links have been suppressed. Barbara Guest's "The Altos" is similar, with the difference being that much more is suppressed. Four lines stand alone on a page: "with many branches / coldest butter / alive in the coal meadow / tipped the grief-scale." One would have to imagine the entire page filled in with connective tissue. Discursive coherence is stretched to the breaking point. At other times, however, a section will seem relatively straigthtforward: "an invisible weight / swam in the / night into thunder / cannot find / the platinum / bird coat." What little discursive coherence there is, the mind seizes upon it. Here is my tentative "plot summary":

I. A bird, a warbler, crosses a river into an ethereal landscape. There is a question of finding a bell.
II. Someone describes a place near the sea, "located harbors," in highly oblique metaphors.
III. The question of "walking somewhere" is considered. The bell is a metaphor for something in the sky (the bird?).
IV. A metaphorical description of a sacred space?
V. More rapid movement: a road by the side of a river, a narrow space. There is now an "us" in the poem.
VI. Back at the harbor. The place called "Altos" (from the title of the poem) appears. References to things worn on the head (turbans, the braided helmet). Evening comes.
VII. Sounds and smells of evening traversing a street.
VIII. A weight swimming through the night in search of the bird or bell.
IX. A dream of a botanical form or "stalk image."
X. Disconnected images of branches, butter, meadow, "grief-scale." Perhaps related to the dream in previous section.
XI. The poem concludes. References to barriers and borders. We are at the place called "Altos." People are perhaps too credulous about "staged clouds," putting too much credence in this imaginary, ethereal landscape. Some animal form, "soft meat," crosses the border once again.

The other possibility is that one is not supposed to try so hard to connect the dots.

3 oct 2002

A crack in the sidewalk.
A crack shot (expert marksman).
A crack of a whip.
A “crack” about someone’s lack of intelligence.
A “crack baby.”

The crack of dawn; to crack a smile, crack a joke, crack an egg, a nut, crack a book.

Cracking up (bursting out in laughter or going insane). He is “half-cracked.”

The meaning of the word “crack” would appear to be entirely dependent on its context. The core meaning, however, is rooted in phonetic materiality; the word is an onomatopeia for the sound of something brittle being fractured. By metaphorical extension, the result of such a fracture; a fissure or gap, a fractured composure or sanity; an aggressive remark, etc... It could not be used, except ironically, for something smooth, unfractured, soft-sounding.

2 oct 2002

Reading T.S. Eliot’s translation of St.-John Perse’s Anabasis. The original is often easier to understand—even for a reader with limited French like myself. I understand “délice” more immediately than Eliot’s “pleasance,” for example. The French word“absence” is more transparent to me than the English“vacance.” (Why not just “absence”?) I am not saying that translations need to be absolutely transparent, but why muddy the water to no particular end? It cannot be justified either in reference to the French text or to the English-speaking reader.

“First, do no harm...” That is a good starting point for translation. Just as a physician’s first responsibility is not to actively kill the patient, the translator’s first task is not to blow it too badly. This is not to say that this is the exclusive or ultimate task, but that it has a certain logical priority. Only after looking for a minimum level of responsibility can we look to other great things the translator might have accomplished.
Robert Frost’s “A Silken Tent” is not in any anthology that I know of, which shows that anthologists only read other anthologies: a form of plagiarism, if you will. There are reasons to despise Frost: the overuse of the “paysage moralisé,” the folksy pretence of a fake New Hampshire farmer, the antiquated diction. The worst aspects of his poetry are what attracts many readers to him. This particular poem is great, however, because it creates a wholly imaginary and artificial object: a silken tent standing out in a field for no particular reason except to be the object of the poet’s allegory. I am quoting from memory since I don’t have the poem in front of me: “She is as in a field a silken tent / At midday, when a sunny summer breeze / Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent, / So that in guys it gently sways at ease.” Who is the “she” to which the tent is compared? The poet gets lost in his simile, taking us away from the phantasmatic figure of a graceful woman in a silk dress: “And its supporting central cedar pole, / That is its pinnacle to heavenward / And signifies the sureness of the soul, / Seems to owe naught to any single cord...” [The symbolism is a obvious, all the more so because the poet thinks he has to tell us what the pole “signifies.”] “But strictly held by none, is loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / To everything on earth the compass round; / And only by one’s going slightly taut / In the capriciousness of summer air / Is of the slightest bondage made aware.”

The silken tent is the sonnet itself: an allegory of its own artifice. The poem appears labored in its almost too perfect construction. The cedar pole can only remain standing because of the ropes: yet no particular tie seems wholly necessary. The allegory of freedom and bondage brings to mind Wordsworth’s “Scorn not the sonnet” and “Nuns fret not...”

1 oct 2002

Harold Bloom. Timothy Bahti. Geoffrey Hartman. George Steiner. Highly literate critics whose work I ought to appreciate, but whose prose style is so turgid and overwrought that I rebel. Those who complain about neo-colonial critics could also take a look at these “conservative” Comparative Literature professors. There is a connection, of course: the “Yale” style of Bloom and Hartman is taken up by Yale Ph.D. and Derrida translator Gayatri Spivak. I have never found anything useful in anything written by Harold Bloom. Some specific, identifiable, usable idea would be nice! Bloom has no ear for language—a serious handicap for a specialist in poetry. His own writing betrays him: as Joseph Epstein (a writer I usually dislike) pointed out recently, anyone who writes like that is no aesthete.
An assymetrical grip (“traditional grip”) promotes assymetrical thinking, as a German drummer interviewed in the latest Modern Drummer magazine points out. The simpler “matched” grip, in which left hand mirrors right, is often promoted for its very symmetry. This might be ok for eighth and sixteenth-note rhythms, but I dislike it for triplet-based feels.

Playing triplet-based rhythms with two hands can lead very naturally to polyrhythms. Play eighth-note triplets with alternating sticking: rlr lrl, etc.... Accent every other right, and you get Rlr lRl rlR lrl: three half-note triplets against a quarter-note rate.

I count out the 4 against 5 polyrhythm like this:

ONE two three four
ONE TWO three four
ONE two THREE four
ONE two three FOUR
ONE two three four

Tap with both hands on the first ONE, alternate hands after that (e.g. the left will tap all the subsequent ONES and the right the TWO, THREE, FOUR, or vice-versa)

This is easier than four measures of 5/8 time:

ONE two three four FIVE
ONE two three FOUR five
ONE two THREE four five
ONE TWO three four five

These polyrhythms are symmetrical: identical backwards and forwards in the spacing of the notes.