30 nov 2002

The hokey, kitsch element in H.D's poetry is its Hellenism. Yet this Hellenism is inseparable from all that is best in her work.
"It wears the uniform of the sort of poetry I like." One of the series of aphorisms I wrote about 10 years ago. The idea that you ought to like a certain sort of poet, belonging to the tradition you identify, but find the actual reading somewhat tedious. Barthes has a similar observation somewhere about "blackmail," when someone gives him an unpublished experimental novel and says: "here, this conforms exactly to your theories of literature." I don't remember the exact quote, and in fact enjoy quoting inaccurately, from memory. Oftentimes the quote I am thinking of ends up being (and meaning) something quite different.

I've been reading Guest's biography of H.D. That whole modernist mythopoetic/astrological thing I never really got into. Huge chunks of H.D., Duncan, Kelly, that I feel alienated from for this reason. Not to mention Yeats and Pound.

There is no joy in checkmating a 7-year old. Especially when I myself am so inept I don't even realize I am checkmating her.

29 nov 2002

Greatest Hits

"The Proverbs of Shmoe." "Long, Narrow Poem."
"Poem.” "Conventionally Good Poem."
"Cuaderno de infamias." "Minor Poets
Of the New York School."
"Untitled Original." "Inane Anecdote."

"The Waste of Perfectly Good
Parking Space." "Sam Beckett's Ride Cymbal." "Heroic
Couplets." "Rainer Maria Rilke Explains
The Theory of Evolution to Fernando
Pessoa." "Greatest Hits." "The Unsure Egotist."
"Without Which." "False Poems of Pierre Reverdy."
"Unsure Footing." "Ode to Dr. Seuss." "Monk's Dream."
"Late Ashbery." "The History of Modern Poetry."

"I Have a Theory About That." "Poem
Making No Reference to Itself." "Bronkiana."
"The Creeley Variations." "A True Poem."
"On Rachmaninoff's Birthday." "From the Spanish."
"Minor Poem." "The Iliad." "Against the Income Tax."

"Self-Parody." "Sardines." "I Dislike Cold Soup."
Steven Pinker opines, in "The Blank Slate," that "middle-brow novels" are probably sufficient to provide any morally edifying messages humanity might need. "The Nation" gave this book a too-kind review; Louis Menand in "The New Yorker" puts it in its place, however. Evolutionary psychology really has very little to tell us about what sort of poetry we should be reading.
Spanish poet Angel González read a poem last April, at a symposium I myself had organized, in which he compares Mallarmé--in a photo--to a lap dog. As host I could not openly object, but I felt myself seething with anger. This poem to me was one of the most obscene things I had ever heard. It represents the contempt for poetry that inferior poets feel themselves entitled to demonstrate. I feel the same thing about Billy Collins. Irrationally, perhaps.

28 nov 2002

E-mail from Tijuana, Heriberto Yépez writes, a propos of this blog:

"Estimado Jonathan M.

Aunque no seas mexicano, tu humor es latinoamericano, sin duda."

Apparently my corrosive sense humor sounds Mexican, to at least one Mexican reader. And here I thought I had gotten it from the New York School of poetry! And I am a peninsularist, not a Latin Americanist, in the jargon of the field.

27 nov 2002

A record of everything I've read and thought for several years. Surely there's value to that.

A given book by John Asbhery that I might own might be a) in my office at the University b) my Kansas apartment c) my house in St. Louis, or d) the trunk of my car. "Your Name Here" and "Can You Hear, Bird" are the best of his later collections. I have not yet started to read "Chinese Whispers." Two new books by Kenneth Koch, "Sun Out" and "A Possible World" also await me, along with Jordan Davis's "Poem on a Train." Everywhere I go in house, office, apartment, I leave behind stacks of books.

Supply of poetry outstrips demand, as has been noted by many others before me. Yet a single reader justifies the existence of a poet. Imagine a physical therapist with a single patient: surely that physical therapist should feel his or her life-work was wholly justified. Why should a poet with 600 serious readers, or even 50, feel less valuable? The argument that poetry is socially irrelevant, due to small size of audience, has always seemed fallacious to me. School children learn to write poetry based on the pedagogy of Kenneth Koch or Ron Padgett, who are in turn inspired by Raymond Roussel, a wealthy eccentric who had to pay for the publication of his own books. The idea that only poets read poetry can be turned around as follows: reading poetry should make one into a poet. Are there any good critics of poetry who are not poets themselves? Only a few names, like that of Marjorie Perloff, come to mind.

26 nov 2002

Bernstein's humor, a repetition/parody of borscht-belt schtick. Like "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? (Theory)." You have to know the old joke about the guy walking up to someone with a violin case in his hand in mid-town Manhattan. Take my language poetry--please! This strikes me as quite different from Silliman's observational wit. To observe men of three different generations on a couch watching football without saying a word--(example from "Paradise") is funny, but it's not in the Henny Youngman vein--fortunately I might add.

Susan Howe strikes me as quite humorless, on the other hand. I don't mind a lack of humor or wit, necessarily. I do like finding it in unexpected quarters.

25 nov 2002

Count the number of times you see the phrase "the human condition" in the New York Times Book Review. It is meaningless because it doesn't tell you anything particular or specific. What Nobel prize citation doesn't say that the writer in question "illuminates the human condition"? That's the problem with the word "beauty" also. It either means pretty in the conventional sense, or is pretty much up for grabs. Hence it makes no sense to talk, with Wendy Steiner, about a "return to beauty." Are Kandinksy, Klee, and Shoenberg beatiful? I think so. Pound and H.D. seem very concerned with beauty, "Beauty is a rare thing..." etc... So is Wallace Stevens.

Is this a terminological question? Do artists stop thinking of themselves as being in pursuit of beauty? (because they reject the word, not the concept)? Or, alternatively, do they still think of themselves as in pursuit of beauty, keeping the word, but meaning something different by it? You could make the case for either scenario. Our critical language is just that, the clichés we use to talk about things. As Frank O'Hara pointed out, "The formal qualities to which, for convenience and expediency, we attempt to ascribe the qualities we admire in a poem are, after all, no more than conveniences. It should be understood that they are signs for the qualities, not absolute rules by which the work is judged." He goes on to take to task a reviewer of an early book of Kenneth Koch, who criticized Koch for an absence of "verbal excitement," "tension," "significant detail," and the like.
National Middle-brow Radio officially fell to National Low-Brow Radio today with Terry Gross's interview of minor celebrity ex-spouse Tom Arnold. He had nothing interesting to say about his dysfunctional life. Rose briefly to highbrow with a discussion with Wendy Steiner and Arthur Danto on beauty in art--flawed because noone seemed to be asking the questions that I would have asked. The panelists seemed to assume that modernist art and literature were ugly by definition and that we needed to return to beauty. Back to National Middle-Brow Radio with an interview with Jonathan Franzen, a rather dull and earnest novelist, most famous for snubbing Oprah (a middle-brow gesture if ever there was one) plugging his book of essays. That's what I get for having to spend five hours in my car.


I owned the Ellman-O'Clair Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry as a teenager. It didn't necessarily occur to me at the time that major poets would be absent from this sort of book. At different points in my subsequent life, I discovered William Bronk, Jack Spicer, and Barbara Guest, three of the most flagrant omissions. It is curious that those three are also missing from Poems for the Millenium. I can imagine an inexperienced reader thinking that this huge volume pretty much covered the anti-Norton tradition. Maybe it's better to discover one's poets more randomly, in any case.

24 nov 2002

Coltrane is not witty; Rollins is. That does not imply any preference for either one.


How can I define the quality I find in Tony Williams' drumming? I think, absurdly, of the phrase "cleansing the palate." A pure or cleansing sound, a refreshment of the senses. How different from Elvin, who I also love, but who is not as recent a discovery for me. I understand Elvin, in the sense that I know what he is doing rhythmically, in way I don't yet understand Tony. How the fact that poetry people are more likely to read this blog pulls it away from my jazz interests, to some degree. Does the ear for drumming correspond to the ear for poetic rhythm? Yes and no. Each requires a specialized training. Theory of prosody has not caught up to where a good listener's ear should be. How great it is that Jordan Davis should define his blog as a way of testing out ideas about versification. Most recent post first, backtracking through the day.
The humor of Silliman's poetry: this is more or less the kind of thing I meant (from "Paradise," my favorite of his Alphabet series):

"Five minutes down. Boysenberry yogurt. Alternate spelling. The large bowl of his stomach made for a sloping desk. A mean-spiritdness to the humor of the comic poet. Just us chickens, classicly trained. Now that she's making 25 thou. A jolting bus impossible to write on. What I wish to say, dear reader, take off your blouse. April, turning toward November. Suggested denotation. An old stuffed chair on the sidewalk in the rain. Caution: frequent stops." [pp. 44-45]

This is hilarious both in individual sentences and as a passage. The juxtaposition of two clichés like "just us chickens" and "classically trained" is particularly witty. A cruelly comic sentence about a fat guy sitting behind a desk is juxtaposed to a comment about mean-spirited humor in a comic poet (himself, or someone else?). Frequent stops could be a reference to the bus (cautious, this vehicle makes frequent stops) or to the poet's writing.

Of course, Ron's more "serious" attitude in his blog is equally valid. A different time and occasion requires a different stance.

23 nov 2002

Pound's three categories--phanopeia, melopeia, logopeia--are great (or not) because they are ahistorical filters. You can compare Homer with Wordsworth. A poet considered canonical (like Wordsworth) can be found lacking in all three areas.

21 nov 2002

Drumming lineages.

Jeff Watts

Ed Blackwell, Elvin Jones

Cindy Blackman

Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Elvin

Bill Stewart

Tony, Elvin, etc...

Every mainstream, middle-of-the road jazz drummer

Max Roach, Philly Joe, Elvin, Tony, etc...

Instigated by Jordan Davis, I found an old Graduate School paper I had written on Kenneth Koch, taking the short story "The Postcard Collection" as my point of departure. I wrote the paper in 1983 or 1984, and I believe, sincerely, that it still kicks some serious ass. I don't think I could come up with something as original now. Of course to publish it I would need to revise it and bring the bibliography up to date, but I think my central point is still valid. Now I understand why I am impatient with Graduate Students. I pretty much knew what I was doing at age 23 and spoke with a certain critical authority. I still have Gilbert Sorrentino's comments on the first version of the paper. He pointed me in the direction of Raymond Roussel and Harry Mathews. He also mentions Ashbery, Antin, Chomsky, Valéry, Stevens.

When I first studied with Gil Sorrentino, in a course on William Carlos Williams, it was the first graduate course he had ever taught. He didn't really know how to teach a graduate course, in the conventional sense, though he was far superior to almost everyone else in Stanford in the pre Perloff days.

When Marjorie Perloff was about to be hired, at Stanford, Denise Levertov wrote a nasty letter and put it in the boxes of everyone in the English department. Pretty much a personal attack on Marjorie and her ideas. She was incensed that Marjorie was taking the Language poets seriously. Someone sent the letter to Perloff as well, I believe. Me perhaps?

In my car yesterday, listening to NPR. A nice feature on Copper Canyon Press, how they only published poetry and have two out of five nominees for National Book Award. Of course, the question in my mind was "who are the two poets in question?" I stayed in my car for an extra five minutes to find out, and of course the feature ended with no mention of the actual names of the poets.

20 nov 2002

Buckle Fishery

In this figure
Where the small annotations ran from a buckle fishery
It is a voltage
In burned welts, saying
I love you

Still, when I go there
I find only two gray stoves,
And, lyiing between them,
A dead blabber the comb of sleet.
It lies askew on its wisps,
Its thug bent back as if at the helmet of some juggler too great
To bear to give.

And the limbos are going out
In a fastener, evolution
Stands, in a gray frugality, silent, at the far signature
of a radiances's gremlin.

This is my re-writing of a poem of James Wright using the N+7 method. It is definitely an improvement!

"Thank You and Other Poems," by Kenneth Koch, published by Grove Press and Evergreen in 1962. It would seem that any discussion of postmodern parody would have to begin with this crucial book. No single book was as influential in the development my own poetics. "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" is the most obvious parody in the book. "The Artist" is a hilarious send-up of the impulse conceptual art of the Christo variety, and actually predates a lot of the material it is parodying. "The Railway Stationery" is directed at Raymond Roussel. "Aus Einer Kindheit" refers to Rilke and Frank O'Hara. "The Bricks" resembles the Ashbery of "Some Trees." Not to mention "Fresh Air," a satire (though not a parody per se) of academic poetry of the 1950s, and "The History of Jazz."

Now this book is not mentioned in any of Linda Hutcheon's books on parody and postmodernism. Her primary frame of reference seems to be novels written in English by people like John Fowles and Doctorow. She barely mentions any poet at all, maybe a passing reference to Ashbery. How would her theory change if she had a more inclusive sense of postmodernism? Why the assumption that the novel is the primary vehicle for literary innovation?

The postmodern aesthetic was invented by Frank O'Hara as a student at Harvard. This is a relevant sentence from Brad Gooch's biography of O'Hara: "O'Hara's and Ashbery's innovation was to be able to pass with each other from the high to the low, to gather in their net such disparate fascinations as French Surrealist poetry, Hollwood's 'Guilty Pleasures,' Japanese Kabuki and Noh, Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositions, Leger's geometric paintings, Looney Tunes cartoons, and Samuel Beckett's spare prose."

19 nov 2002

How much could be too much? If I own, say, 20 books by Ashbery, what would I lose by having only 17? Coolidge raises a similar dilemma. My answer, of course, is that one can never have enough, given world enough and rhyme. Diminishing returns? One would think that would be the case but it is not. It is true that I reach a point of saturation and back off from time to time. I might read intensely for a month or two, and lay off a poet for as long as five years. I cannot wish them to have written less.

I remember that it was in an Ashbery poem that I first came across the word "recondite." I looked it up in the dictionary. It was in the poem "Fragment" (from The Double Dream of Spring): "older / Permissiveness which dies in the / Falling back toward recondite ends." How appropriate that it is this word that I remember looking up. Who is more recondite than Ashbery?
Perdido entre las leyes

Engendrado aquí fuera en la historia de las estrellas
nadie está seguro
son fechas que sólo valen más tarde
por lo general
mete la mano en la mente una posibilidad el sol
nunca te hará pensar en
un relato cuyo nombre nadie necesita

Una parte pequeña de tu ser robada
cuando nombras cada trozo
una cantidad enorme de trabajo reducido
para un ser humano a una mina terrestre
a punto de eliminación completa y final
el estorbo ya quitado

No sé de nadie aquí
que tenga un destino más lejano
que el mío

Soy el hueco entre
actos soy
la piedra

My translation of this poem of Clark Coolidge required me to choose different possible meanings for words like "hold" and "broken down." The translation is much less ambiguous and awkward than the original. For example, "un relato cuyo nombre nadie necesita" translates the line "a tale no one needs the name of," which ends in a preposition.

None, or very little, of what I value in the poem is present in my translation. Yet the process of translation itself has inestimable value. The mistake is in thinking the value of this process, for the translator, is present in the text, for the reader.

Why do I dislike David Lehman, whom I don't even know personally?

1. Role in "Best American Poetry" series, that always seems to include poem of unrelentingly mediocre Donald Hall, no matter who the famous poet editor is.

2. Book on the New York School poets, "The Last Avant-Garde," which leaves out Barbara Guest, and makes the New York school seem less, rather than more avant-garde. The fact that this is the one book someone is likely to have read on these poets.

3. Book on Paul de Man. I don't admire de Man excessively, but the deconstructive criticism must be attacked head-on, if it is to be attacked, not indirectly by disqualification (de Man was a Nazi sympathizer, therefore...)

4. Lehman's own poetry, faux-O'Hara of the worst sort, and its inexplicable presence in media outlets. (I just read a bad poem of his in Slate.)
One of my "lost books" is a complete set of issues of the literary magazine Locus Solus, edited, I believe, by Harry Mathews, and including work by many of the New York poets. I remember reading it in library once, never having owned it. Over twenty years ago I am sure. It must have been the U.C. Davis library.


I have often rejected the category of "understanding" poetry. The source of so much resistance--"I don't understand it." If this problem can be bypassed... When I think of understanding a poem by Clark Coolidge, I mean that I can justify it to myself aesthetically, not that I can provide a paraphrase. Brooks and Warren's new critical textbook "Understanding Poetry" seems quite incompetent to me, in my hazy memory of it. I remember a rather inept scansion of a Yeats' line, a condescending comment about WCW.


The students in my translation class are studying poetry without realizing it. By deflecting their attention onto the problematics of translation, they are freed up to read a poem. I invited Stan Lombardo, master translator of Homer, to speak to my class last week. What was most impressive was his approach to Homer as a POET.

18 nov 2002

I have owned my copy of Clark Coolidge's "Own Face" for several years (5, 7, 10?). At some point I began to mark poems that I particularly liked with a check mark at the corner of the page. I returned periodically to the book, marking more and more poems, until most were marked. I am now starting a second time, marking those that I like even more than the rest. I had a sort of epiphany when I realized that the way to read his poetry was to treat every poem as worthy of serious attention. My initial approach was to see him as a "hit and miss" poet, largely improvisational, and withhold my approval until I was convinced that I was reading a fully realized poem. Part of my resistance was my assumption that noone who wrote so much could possibly write so well so much of the time.

I am doing the same with "Solution Passage" and "The Crystal Text." I have selected 73 poems from the former (out of a much greater number). I love Coolidge's late 1970s and early 1980s period. I'm not sure I get "Mesh" and "Odes of Roba" yet. Nor have I studied his early work extensively. He is prolific, but all is required reading; despite repetitions, nothing is truly redundant. Why is it I don't own "Mine," one of my favorite of his books?

15 nov 2002

I found, in an old computer file, a recipe for a series of poems. Each poem would contain the following references, in successive lines: 1. mental disease, personality disorder ; 2. jazz musician; 3. occasion of domestic dispute; 4. generalization or stereotype; 5. solecism or grammatical error; 6. plagiarized line; 7. non-sequitur or logical fallacy; 8. free line; 9. gambling, odds or probability; 10. invented aphorism or proberb; 11. reference to a system of government or political philosophy; 12. idiotic idea; 13. autobographical detail; 14. sexual fetish or perversion. I also found fragments of the beginning of several poems written according to this formula. I think that I had planned to write 10, fourteen-line poems, with the elements in this order. Each line of each poem would be interchangeable, on the model of Queneau's "Cent mille millards de poèmes." I think it is 10 to the fourteenth power? I am going to work on these poems until they are all complete. I never got further than line 9 of any one of them. How could I have abandoned such a brilliant project? I will be publishing the poems on this blog as I complete them.
What bothered me about the recent "Frida" movie, I realize now two weeks after seeing it, is how it converts the visual images of Kahlo's paintings into Kitsch. The paintings you see in the film are designed to be assimilated into the visual look of the film itself (as opposed to modelling the look of the flim after the paintings). The film is visually clever, inventive even, but in an ultimately cartoonish way. Contrast the surrealist film effects in Buñuel's "Tristana"--or even Hitchcock.
I have read Paul Auster's novels with some degree of satisfaction in the past. I feel, though, that I know his sources too well to accord him much originality. If I hadn't read Kafka and Beckett, Celan, etc... then Auster would be an extremely original writer.


The extraordinary second half of Beckett's "Molloy." Moran, in this alternate universe where almost everyone's last name seems to start with M, makes preparations to go on a secret mission, on foot, to find Molloy, whose name might be Mollose. He must bring with him his fourteen-year old son, whom he views with an odd mixture of contempt and tenderness. Everything great about the Beckett of this period is in this 60 pages or so. I'm going to have to read it in French.

What is the point of my series of comments on slips of paper found in books? I honestly don't know. I once sold off a large number of books to a used book store, some of which my friend Bob Basil subsequently bought. Imagine his surprise bringing home a copy of Pound's Cantos and finding my name in it. Of course, I regret selling these books now.


Ron Silliman's blog, found on this same site (ronsilliman.blogspot.com) is a wonderful source of information and insight. I wonder, though, why it is so darned earnest in tone--in contrast, of course, to the humor of his poetry. In Columbus, Ohio, where I was teaching in the early 1990s, there was a bookstore across from campus on High Street where I would buy books of LANGUAGE poetry. I have never seen a book of Ron Silliman in any other bookstore before or since, but I would walk over there quite often and acquire a new letter of the "Alphabet." Or did I order most these books from Segue or Roof after getting a catalogue in the mail? My memory is fuzzy. I will never forget the line "Teaching Reagan to count backwards by sevens." Or is it eights?

14 nov 2002

A slip of paper pasted to a copy of James Merrill's "Braving the Elements" (Atheneum: New York, 1972). Inside front cover. A woodblock print of a student apparently fallen asleep at a library desk. Above the picture THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY. Below, NEWARK CAMPUS LIBRARY. Running on the left, down to up, CENTRAL OHIO TECHNICAL COLLEGE. In the left hand corner, very small, THE GREAT SEAL OF THE STATE OF OHIO. Diagonally, across the shoulder of the sleeping student, the word WITHDRAWN. Various ink stamps on different parts of the book, some stamped over with the word WITHDRAWN. On the front of the book is a call number label: "NWK PS3525E692B7C.2.

Pasted to back cover, a library slip, printed by the GAYLORD company, with the words DATE DUE at the top. Noone had ever checked out this book, apparently, although they had two copies.
Written in a used copy of James Merrill's "Braving the Elements"

What elements are braved here
O garrulous one?

What would Kafka say?

Newark Campus (Ohio) Library
discarded this book.
William Bronk has an allegorical mode and a symbolic mode. The allegorical mode starts with an analogy and draws a conclusion. Something like "We suited up for the baseball game / and kept score until it was over. / We kept records of the scores in books / and even cared years later who had won and lost. / In the end, losers and winners were the same. It won." (My invented example.) The symbolic mode begins with a specific insight, a luminous flash. Romantic theory would tell us to prefer the symbolic to the allegorical, and indeed I do prefer Bronk's symbolic poems to his allegories, where often it is too obvious from the onset that the baseball game (or whatever) is unimportant. Can this distinction be maintained? A third mode might be the purely abstract poem, in which there is neither symbol nor allegory per se.

I began to read Bronk seriously in the late 1980s and continued to buy all of his books until his fairly recent death. I still return to him from time to time.
The Collected Earlier Poems of William Carlos Williams. A receipt from Books at Gayles, in Davis, dated 28 AUG 77. The book cost me $12.95, plus 90 cents in tax. This would have been four days after my 17th birthday. Not a cheap book for that date. I remember that I had to special-order this book, and that when they called me the woman said "a book ABOUT William Carlos Williams."

I am starting a series on slips of paper found in books. Stay tuned.


Growing up in Davis, California, the New York poets represented for me a sort of alternate universe. I did see Kenneth Koch read his poetry once, and had him sign some of his books, which I still have today. "Ko," "The Pleasures of Peace," and "The Art of Love." I told him, semi-incoherently, why I admired his poetry.

I saw a series of poets read in my high school/undergraduate days: Stephen Spender, Richard Eberhart, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, William Stafford, etc... I also saw Hillis Miller and Helen Vendler. Koch was the only New York school poet, and in fact the only one I have ever seen in person, which seems odd given my overwhelming devotion to these poets.

13 nov 2002

In my copy of Ashbery's "Some Trees" I found a receipt for the purchase of this book, dated 4 19 78. I was 17 years old, and paid $3.50 for it, plus 21 cents in tax. The edition was published in 1978 by the ECCO press. In the wake of the 1976 prizes awarded "Self-Portrait" all of Ashbery's previous books found themselves back into print.
I have always been more interested in translating away from my native language than into it, although this of course requires a much greater linguistic competence. I've done a few of Berrigan's sonnets and some Barbara Guest. Here is a version of a striking David Shapiro poem from "House, Blown Apart." One could imagine it as the lost original from which David translated his poem. The translation is noticeably "flatter" than the original. The phrase "pink bottomless barge," for example. Nevertheless, that dream-like quality, so often found in Shapiro's poetry, works well in Spanish. The proper names, Malcolm and Popeye, gain an exotic quality. Who is Malcom?

Otra versión de la nieve ligera

Se te cae un mapa de las manos
como una voz. O cae un mapa mientras suena una voz,
desde ahora en adelante procederás en la oscuridad. Ay, es cierto. Mapa
del único mundo en que se me permitía un nombre único.
Un nombre, una isla. Por otro lado,
"La sentimentalidad es peor aun que la muerte."
No sé. ¿De dónde procede la "lepsia"?
¿De dónde? ser tomado: el sueño; las ninfas;
o simplemente ser engañado. Como si hubiéramos dormido
cerca del libro escrito por Malcolm, donde todo lo que sabemos es que nos despertamos
para encontrar el mapa árido de Popeye en el buque rosado sin fondo:
"No lo sabemos y no lo sabremos nunca" en tinta minúscula.
Aunque sé adónde vas, por la influencia de la estrella lejana
pegada como una nota en la pared trasera de un aula.

12 nov 2002

After looking at some Joseph Cornell images on the internet, I suddenly remembered the image on the cover of Ashbery's "Hotel Lautréamont," a haunting collage by Cornell. I took it off my shelf to look at it again. I don't remember when I actually found out who Cornell was. I read New York school poetry quite a bit when I was very young and had no visual references for most of the painters whose names appear in poems and essays. I think of myself as someone of quite limited visual culture. Is this really true? I can't draw. I have been to museums and the like, of course, and am familiar with visual styles of many modern and contemporary painters. Yet I have some seroius gaps in my knowledge as well. Aside from an article on Tàpies (and Valente) I have not written on visual art either.
My translation course is inevitably the source of new insight. It is as though any problem relevant to my own intellectual pursuits can be approached via translation. Whether the students feel the same way is another matter entirely.

Borges has an essay on the "Superstitious ethics of the reader" (approximate title). The idea is that, by dint of repetition, a particular literary passage might come to seem inevitable "En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme..." "Longtemps, je me suis couché à bonne heure." "Of man's first disobedience...." But the original author would not necessarily have thought of this language as sacred or immutable. For Cervantes (says Borges) the opening of the Quixote was nothing special. Borges's approach to translation, then, involves a questioning of the idea, found in theorists from Benjamin to Steiner, that the original is a sacred text.

The OuLiPo approach, exemplified by Harry Mathews, sees translation as a game with particular rule or constraints. Why translate with an artificial constraint, the prohibition of the letter "e"? The point is to become aware of the less visible constraints that govern translation.

11 nov 2002

In my copy of Barbara Guest's "Poems" of 1962, there is a hand written note on a pre-printed card that says "Compliments of Doubleday" and has the little anchor Doubleday logo. The card is written in blue fountain pen and says "Thank you, Ruth, for a most delightful evening--food and company. Love, Larry." I bought this book over the internet a few years ago, for the extravant price of $50.


I read a biography of Joseph Cornell over the weekend. It is obvious to me now that he is the link between Dada and Surrealism (Duchamp, Breton, Dalí, etc...) and Pop Art. The actor Tony Curtis would bring him over boxes that he (Curtis) had made, in an obviously derivative (of Cornell) style. This struck me as quite hilarious.

A poem by Octavio Paz dedicated to Cornell, which I saw in another book on Cornell, seemed to me transparently inadequate, in that it basically paid homage by listing typical elements one might find in a Cornell box and saying how wonderful all this was. The poem was, in a sense, a variety of Kitsch, in that it invited the reader to say, "yes, how wonderful of Paz to notice how wonderful Cornell is." Of course, my reaction was exactly the opposite. Has anyone noticed how obvious Paz can be? How much better is F.O'H's poem entitled simply "Joseph Cornell." I'm sure the first time I read it I had no idea who Joseph Cornell was.

9 nov 2002

Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Papa Jo Jones, Victor Lewis, Jack DeJohnette, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Cindy Blackman, Joe LaBarbera, Shadow Wilson, Shelly Manne, Mel Lewis, Kenny Clarke, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes, Billy Cobham, Jimmy Cobb.

I once used the OuLiPo N+7 technique on some W.S. Merwin poems. It improved them greatly, probably because the lexicon he used was so predictable in the first place. I also did another subtitution exercise in which I simply wrote down a list of nouns at random and replaced Merwin's nouns with my own.

Why did not Bloom in his book on "geniuses" choose a single eccentric genius like Raymond Roussel? Even Jules Verne would have been a better choice than Tennyson.

I had my translation course translate a short Spanish poem using the Lipogram method: omitting the the letter "e" from their translations. The students were quite successful. Know my only task is the explain to them why I made them do it. Could I blog for a day with this letter?

8 nov 2002

College radio stations, such as my local KJHK in Lawrence, will play avant-garde jazz. The NPR affiliate, also at the University will only play mellow, middle-of-the road. What happens to the avant-garde disk jockeys when they graduate? Is that the end of Eric Dolphy for them?

7 nov 2002

Isn't it interesting that "genius" is a now popular idea? Elite academics avoid this concept--except of course for popularizers like Harold Bloom with his recent overblown tome on the 100 greatest geniuses of literature. Of course, for élite academics, this concept is suspect precisely because it is supposedly elitist. The middle-brow public for which Bloom writes, meanwhile, has no such scruples. For me, the concept of genius has no specific analytical value, in other words, it doesn't tell you anything specific about a poet to say he or she is a genius. You do have to know whether a writer like Gertrude Stein saw HERSELF as a genius (she did of course, and meant something fairly specfic by this word.


Stephen Pinker, the author of a new book attacking the concept of the "blank slate." In theory he is quite right. I'm sure that if I had an identical twin separated from me at birth he would love poetry of the New York School, Ornette Coleman, and double lattes. The problem is that every specific conclusion that Pinker wants to draw from the centrality of genetics and evolutionary biology is ideologically charged in a tendentious way. When he gets to the Arts he wants to say that modernism is a betrayal of our genetics. He has great fun with Virginia Woolf's assertion that human nature changed in 1910. Of course it didn't, he dutifully points out. Here's the thing, though: to take this sort of statement literally shows an obtuseness to imaginative uses of language that should disqualify him from saying anything about literature.

If my hypothetical identical twin also loves Ornette, then we might say that this preference lies in our genetic make-up. Yet there obviously cannot be an Ornette-loving gene per se. It must mean, rather, that it is in our genetic make-up to like "that sort of thing," however that is defined. Then how can any preference for the avant-garde be defined, a priori, as contra naturam? How can some behaviours and preferences be seen as naturally human and others be disqualified as abberant? If genes make us what we are, they also make us write dissertations on Foucault and found feminist movements, write atonal music, build ugly modernist skyscrapers, and join cargo cults. By definition, no activity reasonably widespread among human beings of any place or time can be defined as fundamentally unhuman. It would be like arriving at the Galapagos Islands and saying "those tortoises aren't acting like real tortoises; obviously they haven't read Stephen Pinker's new book!"

Richard Cureton's "Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse" is a crucial book. This is the third time I've checked it out of the library. I'd love to develop a similar approach in Spanish. I would do it if I had the phonological expertise. Cureton applies groupings of weak and strong elements to higher levels of discourse. If you began with the syllable you would go up from there to the clitic phrase, the phonological phrase, the intonational unit, the utterance as a whole; from there larger groupings of sense. The rhythm of the poem is also a rhythm of information, at the higher level. The theory is not without its problems, but I am struck by how little such a book is cited in literary criticism, even though it is now ten years old. I would expect to see references to this book in books like Susan Stewart's "Poetry and the Claim of the Senses" (also a marvelous book by the way).

Two cases of eminent people who make gross misidentifications of meters. I don't want to identify them because the point is not to attack anyone in particular, especially these two whom I happen to respect a great deal. The first, a poet-critic talking at great length about the significance of the fact that a certain kind of third-world poetry is written in "pentameter." The problem is that the actual lines cited are hexameters. A second case: a complaint is made that a certain badly written poem in an anthology is "doggedly iambic." The problem in this case is that the poem cited is anapestic. Has "iambic" become simple shorthand for "metrical"? Of course the anapestic rhythm sounds more dogged, more doggerel-like, than the iambic would in this case! Both misidentified meters were written by African-Americans. Can the white poet/critic even hear what the black poets are doing? The reminded me of Ron Silliman's recent comment about people unable to hear William Carlos Williams. I remember when Thom Gunn read aloud the first poem from "Spring and All" to a class I was taking as an undergraduate. It was clear that he didn't hear the rhythms as I would. You can't read it in that British accent.

I went to an exhibition of Cuban hand made books yesterday at the Spencer Museum. Some translations of poems by Langston Hughes by the Cuban poet Eliseo Diego struck me as quite effective.

I am convinced that this blog is actually the best book I will ever write.

6 nov 2002

I've got to get out of this office! I have few friends here in Lawrence, Kansas, apart from my colleagues.


A few titles I can see on the bookcase near my office door: "Flow Chart," "Girls on the Run," "Homage to Frank O'Hara," "The MLA Style Manual," "The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (both volumes), "City Poet," "A Void," "A Poetics," "Radical Artifice," "A Change of Hearts," "Early Writing," "Disbelief," "Standing Still and Walking in New York," "The Remains of the Day," "Other Traditions," "The Tennis Court Oath," "The Journalist," "Odes of Roba," "The Art of the Breath," "The Confucian Odes," "How to Write," "The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W.B. Yeats," "Unending Design," "Life Supports," "Life: A User's Manual," "Living Instead," "Poems Retrieved," "Gender Trouble," "Exact Resemblance to Exact Resemblance," "Japanese Poetics Diaries," "The Duplications," "Great Balls of Fire," "Poems from Deal," "Because I was Flesh," "A Day Book," "At Swim-Two-Birds," "Four Lives in the Bebop Business," "The Structure of Verse."
We read Harry Mathews piece on translation and the OuLiPo yesterday in my translation course. I wanted my students to do an Oulipean translation, but I think that is unrealistic at this point. I think I will have them to the N+ dictionary excercise and explore ideas of linguistic redundancy.


I am reading NEH summer applications this week. So much of my work life involves evaluation: grading, reading manuscripts, evaluating people for tenure, etc... This is psychologically excruciating for me. More equanimity! (Jordan Davis).


I tend to think that people ought to be like me. In the sense that they should be passionately interested in what they are interested in, whatever that might be. The academic institution promotes a sort of perfunctory approach to everything. I am giving an independent study this semester on "world poetry" for two students who are taking a Ph.D. exam and need to know some basic things outside of Hispanic literature. It is great to be able to talk about Ginsberg, Baudelaire, or even Wordsworth, to try to condense a life-time of reading into an hourly meeting a week. Am I justified in making them read Barbara Guest? You don't have to know her work to be a good Hispanist, I suppose. Yet why shouldn't two young American women not know something about the most accomplished woman writing in the past 50 years in their own country?

2 nov 2002

I did the New York Times crossword puzzle today, on line, in 31 minutes. Saturday, of course, is the most difficult day. Partly it is a matter of confidence: puzzle-solving technique seems more important than encyclopedic knowledge.


I live so much in my own head; I could not do this blog as a private diary, since the idea of having no readers at all would be intolerable. Even if noone is actually reading, the possibility is there.