31 ene 2006

I've discovered the influence of Vallejo on Quevedo. How a twentieth-century poet influences one in the seventeenth century, I'm not sure. What I mean is that you can pick up a certain "precursor" quality in Quevedo that would be invisible, wouldn't exist at all, if we didn't know Vallejo as well.

I think Borges turned away from Quevedo because the latter was a writer too invested in verbal effects. I'm wondering whether the Quevedian aspect of Vallejo is a cliché that I'm not even aware of, not being a Vallejo specialist (good enough for undergraduate teaching.)
I've been obsessed with a certain polyrhythm since the weekend. It's a 2-3 rumba clave (a two measure pattern) against a 3/4 shuffle-like pattern (played three times in 4/4 time.) The entire thing resolves in six measures. I've almost got it down.
Writing a poem that will get you thrown in jail is taking a risk.

Turning an elegant variation on an existing style is not taking a risk. Or even an inelegant variation.

Enjambment is not a risk. Almost no stylistic move is "risky." What is exactly supposed to be on the line, at stake?

I might risk being rejected by Poetry Magazine if I write a certain style. But they might reject me anyway.

Is "Chicks Dig War" a risky poem? I suppose the real, verifiable risk is that unintelligent people might think Drew is sexist. He is risking something to that extent. But I doubt he cares.

Maybe I'm being too literal-minded here, but the entire trope of courage and risk, when applied to the writing of poetry, seems to be almost entirely misplaced. Poetry is not a daring adventure. It is not dangerous or risky, unless you happen to be César Vallejo. Most poets are making their bets with other people's money.

Then does that mean I have to stop criticizing poets for being complacent, for not taking these metaphorical, purely imaginary risks?

Is there something existential I put on the line whenever I write, a real risk, but one invisible to the outside world? There could be. But then our practice of praising every poet for "taking risks" in endless identical blurbs cheapens this existential process. Even the most seemingly complacent poet might feel some sense of emotional risk just being a poet at all. For all I know. Maybe the conquest of that genteel style involved a huge leap of faith, if the poet came from a family hostile to any artistic endeavour.

What am I really talking about?
"Proso / estos versos"

"I prose / these verses"

It seems to me that that is the only possible translation. You can't say "I write these lines," or "I put down these verses," or "I prose these lines." You have to preserve that pun and that antithesis (prose/verse). That's the point of the phrase.

Vallejo invents a verb that doesn't exist in Spanish: "prosar." So we do the same in English. He could have said "prosifico" (prosify) but that would have meant something different: to rewrite a text in prose (like "versificar").

What does it mean to prose verses? To write prosaically in verse? If we look at the poem where this phrase occurs, it is obviously a sonnet written in endecasílabos. There is one peculiarity: assonant rhyme (instead of consonant) is highly unusual in the sonnet form. Less prominent rhyme, enjambment, and a colloquial tone combine to make the poem prosaic. There's also a certain modesty in the authorial persona--combined with a self-dramatization that's not exactly modest: "César Vallejo ha muerto." "I'm not a real poet, I can only prose together this sonnet."

There is the poet César Vallejo, author of these lines, and the character César Vallejo who appears there. There is a division in the subject position that might be interesting to study, but I have to go teach something completely unrelated in 5 minutes!
Vallejo fell flat last Thursday. I'm hoping he does better today. It's not really Vallejo's fault. It was my naive optimism thinking that students would easily get him. This could be a long semester.

That linguistic specificity: "¡De puro calor tengo frío / hermana envidia!"

That's what gets me every time: "El acento me pende del zapato" (I have an accent hanging from my shoe). The presence of the voice in the writing. How exactly is that done? It is so strong it even comes through in English.

30 ene 2006

Check out this collaborative poem. Jim McCrary and I did the Kansas sections. I believe that part I wrote goes--

I am not a painter; I am a poet.
A cento of white glass, a curio,
A cameo. A bad translation of Tu Fu,
A snowball running down a hill.
There is no hill. Glass! Glass! Glass!
Ginsberg slept here. Kansas spleen.
Wearing ridiculous hats as a badge of honor.
For example. Other examples include
Eating while still full, using words you
Don't know the meaning of. Making inappropriate hand signals.

29 ene 2006

Irony is dead. Someone on the Lucipo list pointed out (in reference to a Drew Gardner poem) that "chicks" do not really "dig war." This is untrue, it turns out! Turns out the army is full of men, who'd have guessed? I got some emails asking me about my advice to translators. Did I really mean it when I said "Stick to Neruda and Lorca; nobody wants to hear about new poets"? You may not like sarcasm, but if you don't even recognize it...


I'm surprised that anyone would even question the merits of Drew's poems. Their brilliance is self-evident. It's not even the "subtle" kind of brilliance.

Irony is a necessary tool. To rule it out would be as radical as eliminating metonymy.

Is there an "irony aphasia"?

"The heroic city was sleeping the siesta." That's the famous beginining of 19th century Spanish novel. A contemporary reviewer (contemporary to the novel, not to us), pointed out that it was not the city sleeping, but its inhabitants. He pointed out that the South Wind could not be "lazy," because wind is by definition in movement. He hoped these slip-ups on the first page would not prevent readers from going further in their reading of this otherwise excellent novel.

(I couldn't tell whether his nitpicking was itself ironical. Was he satirizing a prevalent mode of criticism, or exemplifying it? You would have to be closer to the period to even tell.)

The metonymy of "lazy summer day" is quite interesting; it would take a long while to explain it to someone who didn't intuitively get how metonymy worked. But we all understand it quite well.

To leave ideas "in the inkwell." ("dejar en el tintero") = to fail to write all the ideas one might have written. I've always liked that 19th-century Spanish expression.

You would think a capacity for reading figurative language would be the sine qua non of literary folks. After all, we all know how to understand figurative language in "real life." Why do we forget this skill when reading literature? Should we point out that houses don't talk, and therefore "The White House Announced..." doesn't make sense? That streets cannot be nervous, only the people who work there? That it's the bosses inside the suits, not the "suits" themselves, that do the hiring and firing?
Nomadics: Two Paul Celan Fragments: "Poems are paradoxes. Paradoxical is the rhyme that gathers sense and countersense: in a chance-place in language-time, which no one can foresee, it lets this word coincide with that other one--for how long? For a limited time: the poet, who wants to remain faithful to the principle of freedom which manifests itself in the rhyme, now has to turn his back on the rhyme. Away from the border-- or across, beyond it, into the unlimited!"

28 ene 2006

"Quiero laurearme, pero me encebollo" (César Vallejo).

I want to be the "laureate," but I'm the "onionate."
Jimmy in Extremis

25 ene 2006

Lincoln and Vallejo: separated at birth?


Five talking points about César Vallejo.

1) There's the inexplicable mystery of how and why he realized that he could be César Vallejo. That is, speak with such an unmistakably individual voice. What gave him that courage? (Normally I hate to apply the word courage to writing in a particular style; it seems fake and inappropriate to say that it is courageous for me to write in a particular way. For Vallejo, though, this is entirely approrpriate.)

2) He had a complete poetic language, ranging from the colloquial to the erudite, the Quechua-inflected Spanish that he grew up speaking to the avant-garde cosmopolitan discourse of Europe.

3) He had a unique way of bridging the individual and the collective voice. "Yo no siento este dolor como César Vallejo." Yet it took "César Vallejo" to articulate this insight.

4) He passed through the historical avant-gardes and forged a style of political poetry totally inflected by the freedom given to him by this avant-garde. He never practiced a sort of "generic" avant-garde style. Unlike Neruda, he never did generic "political poetry" either.

5) His appeal is immediate and direct. You know that it's great before you even understand what it's all about. Further study only deepens our appreciation.
Stuck under my office door was a package from UPS. Opening it up, I found a copy of Island Road by Henry Gould.

Maple seedlings twirl out of the reddening leaves
out of the blue cerulean onto ochre bricks
in the clear wonder of one autumn day
everything blushes toward the fall to come

But the road in my mind ends among some birches
somewhere in Siberia white on white
their limbs garnered into icebound sheaves
woodpiles a pear-shaped lake frozen like a drum

White too are the endless nights
among huddled words I am a bundle of sticks
frozen head down signalling "wrong way"

until a forgotten phantom heaves back the door of
the inclined pole and lurches free
bearing my whole body toward her delirious shore

Why is not Henry Gould better known? He has the kind of poetic chops that transcend categories or divisions. I used to think his poetry was over-written, mannered. That may be true of some of his work, but that may be more my problem than his. It's like knowing that a particular street entrance labelled "wrong way, do not enter" is in fact a place where you need to enter. Even though I prefer coffee to tea this is in fact my "cup of tea."

23 ene 2006

On a more serious note, our close friend the legendary Hispanist John Kronik passed away yesterday. Like Marjorie Perloff, he escaped with his family from Vienna in the Nazi era and came to the U.S., --where he made a name for himself in academia He is perhaps best known for a series of brilliant articles on Galdós in the 1970s and 1980s, and for being the editor of the PMLA, opening it up to scholarship about Spanish and Latin American Literature rather than merely a bastion for English Professors.

Famously, he wrote only articles, no books, substituting quality for quantity. A rigorous prose stylist in both English and Spanish, he showed a rare analytic ability, coming into his own with a nice synthesis of New Criticism and the structuralist and poststructuralist ideas coming into the forefront at Cornell. Unlike other critics who merely applied theory, he actually used it intelligently and subtly, with a rare flair and tact. He was a gifted teacher who turned out many of the best scholars in the field, giving a series of NEH Seminars on metafiction. My wife studied with him at Cornell, both as an undergraduate and graduate. He was an informal mentor to me as well. He concealed the extent of his illness from most people. We had no idea he had had several rounds of chemo. He still travelled and lived life to the fullest until the very end.

21 ene 2006

More advice for translators:

Make sure to quote a lot of Walter Benjamin in the "Translator's Introduction." Make sure everyone knows translation is a near mystical experience. Remember: the process is everything; nobody cares how good the finished product is as long as they know you had a profound experience along the way.

Never use dictionaries. If you don't know what a word means just trust your "poet's intuition."

Never translate from a language you know well.

Disdain the expertise of mere "scholars." Translation is a lofty calling far removed from their pedantic concerns with accuracy. Quote some Benjamin again to quiet any objections. Quote Lawrence Venuti to complain how translators don't get any respect.

If anyone complains about the fact your translation is unreadable, say 'It's only a translation, after all." Remind them, though, that translation is actually more "essential" to literature than mere original works. In the resulting confusion you can make a quick escape.

If you are scholar, on the other hand, disdain the efforts of mere poets, dabblers who don't understand what they are doing. Never combine good scholarship with poetic discretion. The two don't mix.

Confine your efforts to poets who have already been translated a lot. Lorca and Neruda are always safe bets. Nobody wants to hear about new poets.

If you must use rhyme, make sure it's half-rhyme, slant-rhyme, eye-rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration, rhyme-whenever-you-feel-like-it-rhyme. Just gesture vaguely in the direction of rhyme and your reader will feel satisfied. By the same token, as long as your translation looks more or less like blank verse, just call it loose blank verse and quote Eliot about the shadow of iambic pentameter haunting all free verse. The most supple blank verse, everyone knows, has approximately 6 to 28 syllables per line.

20 ene 2006

Can of Corn: This is so right 1.20.2006. I hope "can of corn" knew that I was saying the exact opposite of what I think. It's pretty obvious, but then again I am not sure if he is saying "right,"that's the opposite of what I think too," or "that's what I think>."
It's important, when you translate, that you suppress the rhetorical structure of the original. Make sure that, if there is syntactic parallelism in the original, that this is nowhere visible in your version. Make sure the form into which you translate has no relation to the original form. If all the lines in the original are end stopped, for example, make sure the translation contains many violent enjambments. If a particular word has specific connotations through its etymology, make sure that you choose a word devoid of such connotations. Translate "quimera" not as "chimera," but as "illusion." You wouldn't want the reader to think of the mythological beast. Your task is to translate some essential meaning in the poem entirely detachable from its language, not to bother yourself with the actual poetic devices that the poet used.

19 ene 2006

Al estanque se le ha muerto
hoy una niña de agua.

Blackburn changes this to a girl drowning in the water, when actually the conceit is far more subtle: "se le ha muerto" means "his child has died." That is, the pond has lost its own daughter, a girl of water. This rises to the level of wtf translation. It's easy to see how the mistake was made: unfamiliarity with this particular syntactic construction, in which the person who loses something becomes the indirect object pronoun rather than the subject of the sentence. Blackburn read it as though it said "En el estanque ha muerto..."

It's too bad, because I'm sure if Blackburn had been alive when the book was being prepared for publication, he would have wanted to show it to someone, get if vetted. There are really simple mistakes in the book, like "sin esfuerzo" (effortlessly) which Blackburn translates as "powerless." I can reconstruct what happened: he read it as "sin fuerza." It's really more of an editing question, because anyone can make mistakes. It is easier to catch other peoples' mistakes, so that even a person with less knowledge of Spanish than I have might be able to catch my errors.

Don't try to tell me that mistakes in translation are felicitous--happy accidents. Usually they aren't.
I sometimes wonder why there are not more of me. That is, people who got into my field because of reading and wanting to read Neruda, Aleixandre, and Lorca in the 1970s. I would have never gone into my field to be a specialist on the Spanish novel. As interesting as this field is, it doesn't have the same kind of resonance. In other words, I don't imagine people learning Spanish just in order to read Baroja, Unamuno, Azorín, Cela, Delibes, Goytisolo, Martín Gaite. Of course, that's just the Spanish novel. Latin American prose has Borges, Rulfo, García Márquez, so I can imagine that quite easily.
A translation from Paul Blackburn caught me up short. "Mis palabras--pececillos-- / nadarán alrededor." "Your words, / sinful little words--will swim around it a bit." How did Lorca's pececillos (little fish) become "sinful little words"? Did Blackburn mistake the word "pecado" (sin) for pez (fish?) Or did he know what the word was and decide to go off in a different direction? Playing off the English word "pecadilloes," maybe? Then why not say,"your words, piscine pecadillloes.." (sorry, that's bad.)

You change two little letters and get a completely different word. Imagine that.

He is wordy and wants to explain, always a bad sign. "La mar no tiene naranjas / ni Sevilla tiene amor." "Oranges / do not grow in the sea / anymore than there's love in Sevilla." Anyone with High School Spanish could understand the Spanish more easily, more directly, than the translation, which telegraphs its punches.

I have had students not recognize a word in diminutive form. They look it up in the dictionary and can't find it. It is a word they know, but morphologically transformed.

The relevant words are:

pez: fish, singular,
peces: plural form,
pececillos: diminutive form of plural.

(contrast pecado, pecados, pecadillos)
What I meant by that comment about Pound. Pound was a voracious, scholarly inclined reader and redefined the "usable past" from scratch, promoting things like the Troubadors, Calvacanti, Chinese poetry, Noh theater. His academic training was in Romance Lanugages and Literatures so he knew about the literary traditons of Spain, Italy, France. This is all in addition to his knowledge of literature written in English. So if even someone like that didn't take an interest in other great modern poets of his own time, like Rilke or Pessoa, it shows that one person cannot read all the poetry available to him or her. I'm sure Pound would have hated Rilke.

A second generation modernist like Octavio Paz could read all the modern poets who wrote in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc... The first generation modernists probably couldn't keep up with all their own conteporaries.
How many great texts I'm going to be able to teach this semester. Vallejo, Neruda, Aleixandre, Lorca, Blanca Varela, Amalia Iglesias y Lola Velasco. Some Venezuelan stuff, maybe. María Auxiliadora! I don't know why I always do mostly male writers from the first half of the century and mostly female from the second half.

My colleague in Latin American poetry has come up with a similar course, but with a different roster of poets, so the graduating seniors who need this course have a choice between poetry ... and poetry.

18 ene 2006

Some poets hit you immediately and some don't. The ones that do give you that immediate, and mostly false, sense that poetry is immediately available, and that poetic greatness is like a visible aura that surrounds the work. For example, I never doubted that Wallace Stevens or Claudio Rodríguez were great. I recognized it within seconds of first reading their work.

This doesn't work most of the time. That is only one way of experiencing poetic "greatness." Yet without this experience there would be a diminished sense of poetry.
Ezra Pound would not have been a very good guide to the poetry of Rilke or Breton, Pessoa or Lorca, Kavafy or Montale--just to name poets in a few languages that Pound had some reading knowledge of. There exist incommensurate poetics, which fact makes it impossible to have a single person be a reliable guide to all of poetry. It is possible for one person to know more about poetry than someone else, to have read more, to have more discernnment, etc..., but even someone who knows a lot will still make foolish mistakes, if he or she oversteps, or have vast areas of ignorance/lack of sympathy.

Borges hated Lorca (the work, not the person)

Miles Davis didn't like Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman's music, or Eric Dolphy.

Poetry is not knowable by one person.
I had a professor once who would show us paintings by Demuth and Sheeler and say, that's where Williams got his inspiration. That's what he's trying to do, but in words rather than paint. And I kept having to point out that this wasn't true at all. Or was true in a very limited sense. After all, you don't just stare at a poem on the page, you read it, it moves through time and has sounds, rhythms. From here I derive a few more maxims.

Poetry is its own art form; it isn't an alibi for some other form of art; but at the same time it has deep affinities with other art forms. Someone who doesn't understand both these things will not understand poetry..

People that aren't really interested in poetry will always try to talk about something that isn't poetry instead of talking about poetry. But since poetry is not exactly what we think it is, these displacements, in the right hands, can sometimes be the best way of talking about poetry.
I'm interested in that gap between what we think something is and what it actually is. Or the gap between what I think a particular writer is when I'm reading the work, and when I'm just thinking about the writer in the abstract. For example, I might have ideas x, y, and z about Creeley when I'm not reading him, but discover that none of them is true when I actually am in the act of reading. Yet I revert back to my old ideas to a certain extent after a while of not reading. That's the first concept I have about poetry.

It's never exactly what you think it is.

Julia was supposed to design a zoo enclosure for some gazelles, for science class. She spent about 8 hours on this. Colored pencils on a 2' by 2' piece of poster board.

17 ene 2006

Our ideas and aspirations for poetry rarely coincide with poetry as it actually exists. When they do, that's a moment worth remarking on. Poetry as it actually exists, in all its mediocrity, only exists because of the hope or possibility that it will coincide sometimes with what we want it to be. It is not valuable in and of itself.
I'm thinking if I could find five concepts I wanted to impart to my students--Spanish majors graduating without much intrinsic interest in poetry, or even literature, in some cases--I could organize my course around these concepts. But I have no idea what they would be.

14 ene 2006

Creeley's biographer, Faas, seems unwilling to forgive him for his later maturity. As though Bob Creeley should have been a Charles Bukowski instead of mellowing with age as he did. Faas has little appreciation for the later work, which I find, at its best, to be equal to that of the self-destructive younger self. There are flaccid stretches in the later poetry, I admit, yet also a kind of wisdom that Faas sees as almost cynical, as though Creeley were only pretending to be less choleric after the age of 60!

So the biographer is sympathetic to the unsympathetic younger writer, dislikes the likable older Creeley. Of course you can't have those tortured early poems without a tortured life, but I'm comforted by the fact that the later work, which I'm coming to appreciate more and more, shows a less tortured sense of self.

I did find a possible source for the "After Lorca" poem. I don't want to give it away just yet. (It's not a poem by Lorca.)
That Creeley poem "After Lorca" ... is not "after" any Lorca poem I recognize. It strikes me as very un-Lorca-like in any case. Yet there has got to be some identifiable source, if we believe his biographer Faas.


I downloaded "Tenor Madness" so Julia could practice her trumpet along with it. I had forgotten that that one has Rollins together with Coltrane, in sort of a dueling tenor thing, so I had a weird experience of listening to what I assumed was Rollins but playing typical "Coltranisms," phrases really very easily identifiable as carbon-copies of phrases he (Coltrane) plays on other records. I caught myself saying, "boy, I didn't realize Rolliins has absorbed THAT much Coltrane influence." But, of course, I felt very stupid when I heard the real Rollins start his own solo, with his own trademark phrasing. Of course, that's why it's called "Tenor Madness." Hearing the two of them trade phrases at the end is truly extraordinary.

13 ene 2006

When we say an author is influential, that means we are saying that those influenced by him or her are significant in some way. In other words, if we say Beckett is influential, and then give a list of playwrights to prove our case (Albee, Pinter, Mamet, Ionesco), we are really saying that these are writers of some importance. (Otherwises there would be no special value in being influential. ) So when we say that WCW is influential, it is because of Creeley, Snyder, O'Hara, and other similarly "influential" poets. Thus it makes no sense to speak of influence in quantitative terms, to speak of how many writers are influenced by a particular figure. The literature we truly value is always less than one percent of the total literature that exists, is published. If someone said a playwright named "Snow" was more influential, because he had influenced "Rain, Sleet, and Fog" and a hundred more that I've never heard of, I would say that is another conversation.
What Mayhew's Law (see post on this a few posts down) is really saying is that there cannot be more than one Lorca. That is, his is a role that can only be played by one figure at a time.

Voices from the silence. Silencio inmenso. Darkness falls from the air. When I show myself as I am, I return to reality. Vestida con mantos negros. Somewhere else, sometime. Walking in the rain.

When I show myself as I am, I return to reality. Piensa que el mundo es chiquito. Goes green, goes white. Weather falls out, raining. Applause at the edges. Seeing wind. When I show myself as I am, I return to reality. People should think of themselves when they live alone. Goes white.

Vestida con mantos negros, piensa que el mundo es chiquito. Thinks white. Falls from the air [...]

I've always loved this Lorquian riff in Creeley's Presences. It's the last thing in the book before the "Postscript."

Vestida con mantos negros
piensa que el mundo es chiquito
y el corazón es inmenso.

In Spain, Lorca is only about the fourth or fiifth or maybe even seventh most influential poet of the century. Machado , Cernuda, and Jiménez--even Guillén, Aleixandre, and Salinas--have had a more direct impact on subsequent Spanish poets. His poetry is not iterable. You can't write a Lorcaesque poem without it being obvious. You can only come by his influence honestly if you write in a language other than Spanish.

A weaker poet like Cernuda can be appropriated. A whole generation of Spanish poets riffed off of him. It took Hefferman, a Spanish critic who had studied with Bloom at Yale, to finally point out that Cernuda's reading of the English Romantics was superficial, "weak" in Bloomian terms.

Even Juan Larrea is usable, in a way Lorca is not. The Spaniards tend to want to keep Lorca "chiquito" when he is really "inmenso." A kind of Andalusian folkloric figure or a minor writer of songs and quaint plays. I'm not saying Lorca is not revered in Spain--he is, obviously--but that he is kept at a distance and in the diminutive.
Check out this post from Dan Green about Chris Wiman and Wallace Stevens..

12 ene 2006

Mayhew's Law: If a contemporary American poet cites one and only one Spanish language poet, that poet will be Lorca.

Examples: Koch, Ginsberg, Creeley, Spicer, Rothenberg, Langston Hughes, WCW. KK includes Lorca in "Fresh Air" and in his pedagogical works. Rothenberg has translated Lorca but includes only Lorca in the Poems for the Millennium--no other poet from Spain. (There are a few Latin Americans.)

If a poet cites or translates several Spanish-language poets, this law does not apply. Eshelman, Bly, Wright, Merwin, Strand...

There may be cases of poets who are limited to Neruda. That would falsify Mayhew's law.

[Update: There are cases in which a poet will give pride of place to Lorca, but still be interested in some other poets. WCW, for example, who translated some Parra. This does not falsify Mayhew's Law.]

11 ene 2006

I was driving home and looked at the front of my house at the spot I usually park, and thought, hmmm... my car's not in its spot, I wonder where it is. Then I pulled my car into the spot and there it was.
I gave another go at Where Shall Wisdom be Found to see if I was giving it short shrift. No. There is no substance there. The remarks feel almost like random references to other Bloom books that we should have read--the Shakespeare and the invention of the human, etc... You would have thought that the publishers would insist on an edit, at the very least.

Why Bloom has to lash out at JK Rowling is beyond me. Rowling is a perfectly good middle-brow writer for kids and adults, who expertly brings together several traditionally British genres such as school-boy novel, Dorothy Sayers mystery, and Tolkienesque fantasy. Nobody has made the claim that she's a high-brow writer who will rival Proust, but she's as good as Anthony Powell or Dorothy Sayers. Why make a dig at Stephen King? He's a good genre writer whom nobody confuses with Thomas Pynchon. Why just the other day I saw a letter to the editor at the NYTBR, making the very good point that we should read D.H. Lawrence's works to gain an understanding of his works, instead of expecting to find insight into him from reading biographies. I fuly expected the signature to be "Dan Green," since he makes this point all the time on his blog, but instead it was "Stephen King."

I could forgive Bloom his attitudes and his resentments if there were a pay-off of some kind. But no.

10 ene 2006

Over at a Spanish blog I frequent, the question of the superiority of American literature comes up. The feeling that Spain does not have novelists of the stature of Pynchon, poets like Ashbery, or critics like Bloom. The difference of perspectives always comes into play. I have had to admit to my friend Vicente Luis Mora that I don't particularly admire Bloom. I can see how he might be admirable from afar, of course. My single most significant complaint about Bloom is that he never says anything useful, or usable. That is, I can never pin him down to an insight that I can actually paraphrase and apply in some other context. It's the kind of mind I am not drawn to. I don't just mean because his "canon" differs from mine. I mean in the sense that he has never said anything about Ashbery that makes me understand Ashbery any better, or Stevens, or any other poet we both might admire. Maybe it's the refusal to read the text closely on his part, to say something significant about the text on the page. He seems to want to do the opposite: impose a theoretical metalanguage on the reader that will prevent reading from ever taking place: the terrain of critical discussion is taken to some abstract where Bloom's own issues are the focus. That's why Bloom is much worse that even Helen Vendler, who at least is a close reader.

Take Bloom's recent book on Wisdom Literature. I can read a few pages, but only get the sense that wisdom writers are very wise and want us to be wise. There's no critical argument, just the sense that we should sit back and admire Bloom's own wisdom.

I suppose I should distinguish between the Bloom/Theorist of the Anxiety of Influence and the Bloom/Middle-brow Cultural Hero of the later anthologies and popularizations. One thing in common is that he is an uncommonly bad writer.
Max Roach's birthday.
Out of coffee. See you in a few hours.

9 ene 2006

An example of a poetry written with a "hook." A book published by a woman who seems to be a prostitute in Barcelona, Violeta Rángel. Written with a lot of street slang. There's a suggestive blurry photo of author en deshabillée. I was suspicious. Later on I found my suspicions confirmed: the actual author was a guy named Manuel Moya. The hook in this case was the sordid biography of the writer and the aura of suspicion surrounding it. Then, once the hoax is exposed, the hook can be the fact that it was a hoax all along.
Grad students, even colleagues sometimes, have asked me, "What do you do with poetry?" The process of writing about poetry seems mysterious to them. I suppose that's because a lot of people working mainly on the novel use the plot as the main organizational guide for writing. They go through the novel's plot and point things out as they go along, but the basic rhythm of the article is narrative, an echo of the novel's structure even when overt "plot summary" is kept to a bare minimum. At its worst, this method does produce mere plot summaries. I've been to conference panels where scholars simply summarize the plot of a novel for 20 minutes.

For those of us who write mainly on poetry (I don't think I've ever written an article on a novel), there is no such ready-made critical vehicle. The closest thing would be to string a few "analyses" of individual poems on a thread.

I like the fact that for what I do there is no one format that works most of the time so easily. I can try out different organizations.

I try to have a least one "intrinsic point" and one "extrinsic point" in my argument. Intrinsic in terms of the "poetry itself." Extrinsic having to do with the context of reception or production, the larger point about why the poetry I'm talking about is significant in the larger scheme of things. I am dissatisfied with articles I read that don't have some contextualization. The reader needs some reason to care.

As a peer reviewer for scholarly journals, I find an enormous range of competencies.

7 ene 2006

It's not as though I were the most appropriate person to speak of such things, but that I don't find others doing so.
Charlie Haden has a very sweet, pretty sound on the bass. I heard him interviewed recently and he said he liked to hire musicians with similarly beautiful sounds. All to the good, one might think; what's wrong with beauty? But I find many of his ensembles of the past 15 years too sweet in sound. I realized that his sweet sound is most effective when contrasted with the harshness of Ornette's alto. He has a duet album. His duet with Alice Coltrane on harp is much less effective than his duet with OC. It's like in certain Thai restaurants where they add sugar to the food. You need a little bit of it when the food is hot, but when you order the same dish medium or mild the sugar becomes overpowering.


The way each dialect of Spanish has a distinctive intonational tune.

6 ene 2006

The vibraphone has a relatively "cool" and "pure" bell-like sound. It doesn't have that vocal warmth of a saxophone. So what it takes to warm it up, to compensate for this, is the use of vibrato. That's what makes it a "vibra"phone and not just a marimba or xylophone. What Milt Jackson does is to slow down this vibrato, creating a soulful oscillation that counterbalances the harmonic purity of the timbre. Miles Davis comes at the trumpet from the opposite direction, reducing vibrato to a minimum, so that the absence of oscillation itself gains a unique emotional power. It's not just the absence of vibrato, but the tension created by this absence. Coolness is not absence of heat but heat contained. Pitch is itself a rhythm. A vibrato then is the oscillation of a pitch, the rapid variation between two pitches close to each other. It can be narrow or wide, slow or fast, or varied. Think of how some horn players' vibratos become faster or wider toward the end of a long note.
On the other hand there's the Aristotelian idea of organic work that cannot be altered from start to finish. Didn't he see the episodic nature of Homer to be a flaw, in comparison with the unity of the Sophoclean tragedy?

What's interesting, then, is how our poetry and our drama doesn't seem to require this particular kind of Aristotelianism. I'm not knocking hypotactic forms of organization either. I'd be perfectly happy if my favorite writers did that instead once in a while. What is significant is how this is no longer felt necessary, that a huge number of poetic works judged successful or at least unignorable by many people--the best readers in fact--don't require this.

Other examples: The first section of Howl. The list of things that the best minds of my generation have done. Is there an Aristotelian order in this list? Would the poem be better if there were?

When I re-read The Crystal Text I skip around freely. As Thomas points out in comment to the post below, skipping around is our natural way of reading, once the text has been read through once.

I have a flaw in that I tend to skip around even when reading a novel for the first time. It's even worse when I've read it once, because I've done my duty and now can have my way with the text, reading it however I want to.
I could create many meaningful re-orderings of One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays or virtually any book of poetry. Then I could say, Look, the author isn't even competent enough to create the best possible ordering of his or her book. Why in five minutes I did a better job. I would be wrong.

Or with any list poem, by Koch or Whitman, I could rearrange the elements and make other possible texts equal in value to the original. Any text that depends on a concatenation of paratactic elements is somewhat open to this kind of "critique." Hejinians' Life, almost any text by Ron Silliman from the early period. Even an episodic narration, like the Quijote. Borges said that we could imagine the episodes in a different order, or even with different episodes or some left out. It would still be a masterpiece, even though we couldn't justify the exact order or constitution of the plot.

Diaristic works use the device of chronological time to justify a progression that doesn't have any other logical progression. Oftentimes what happend January 6 might just as well have happened January 5, but we accept a certain amount of "randomness" because of the convention of the diary. Why not accept the order of paratactic elements simply because that was the order in which they occured to the poet? The diary of a few minutes in time? Maybe the poet doesn't want to go back and say, I should have thought of that image first.

I often feel the proper names in fiction are arbitrary. That the character has no reason for being called Marie or Jane. If I wrote a novel the characters would have real names in them. Who has written a poetics of proper names?

Borges also said that the inevitableness we feel with "classic" works is simply a function of repetition. We can't imagine a different beginning than "Nel mezzo del camin de nostra vita..." or "En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme...." or "Call me Ishmael." They seem so perfect and inevitable. But for the authors of these lines, there could have been no such feeling of invevitability: they were choosing from among infinite possibilities and what they came up with was random, contingent. The feeling that it had to be that way, according to JLB, is a kind of readerly superstition.

5 ene 2006

My post about a poetry that did not rely on "hooks" was quoted here as a piece of "PA philosophy." Let me make it clear that I was just expressing a personal interest in this poetic goal, but that a lot what goes by the-term-that-we must-revile-and-kill-off does in fact rely on such hooks, and quite explicitly. For example, Deer Head Nation is a book I admire a lot, but it does not correspond at all to my idea of a poetry that refuses identifiable "points of entry."
I'd love to get a review copy of the Berrigan collected. I don't think I have 50 extra dollars right now, after paying the painter.
My normal cycle of scholarly productivity might be four to seven years of insane activity, followed by an almost equal period of time in which I appear to be doing very little except reading. Of course, the cycle on which things are judged is yearly. In any given year I mght have published very little. Luckily, I have had no year in which I appeared the total bum.
In an hour I can add 400 or 500 words to my total word count. Thus a 5,000 word article will take somewhere between 10 and 12.5 hours to complete. Even it if takes another twelve hours to revise it into presentable style, that's still only about 24. Of course, that still doesn't account for the everyday reading and mulling over of things that makes it possible to come up with a viable concept for the article in the first place. That is unquantifiable. Should one account for dreaming hours to?


David Shapiro's birthday was January 2. He is the oldest 59-year-old poet, in number of years he has been writing, and writing well. The youngest 59-year-old American poet in his youthful freshness. There are poems in January that, if better known, would completely re-alter our thinking about contemporary poetry. He was "pre-post-avant,"-- to abuse a term that Jim Behrle says we should simply retire. (I agree with Him.)


The next article: "Episodes in the Reception of Spanish-Language Poetry in the U.S.: Parody, Pastiche, and Assimilation" It will have one major section on Kenneth Koch's "Some South American Poets." You'll have to come to Austin and hear me speak about this. I can't get an entire article out of just Koch's parodies, but I can get one section of a longer piece. I have till March to finish this one, according to my one-year plan. At least I have a title that can hold its own.

So much depends on how much I can get done before classes start. I don't have to step into the classroom until January 24.

I can only deny my inner academic so long before he starts to howl in protest and sabotage other parts of my life.

4 ene 2006

Beckett characters, like Murphy, Malone, Mercier, Moran, Molloy... I can easily picture a Beckett character named Mayhew.
What are your favorite poetic collaborations? How many significant works have been produced this way? I like the recent Tieger/Mynes book. I know Silliman wrote one section of The Alphabet with Rae Armantrout. Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson...

Where are the great poems written by W.C. Williams and Wallace Stevens together on a rainy afternooon?

3 ene 2006

Anyone recognize this quotation from Djuna Barnes? "Bones only hurt when they have flesh on them." It may not be exact. I'd like a reference and a page number.
I'm wondering exactly how long it takes to write an article of 5,000 words, complete with notes and bibliogrphy. I'm going to keep track with the one I'm writing now. Then I could plan exactly a certain number of hours needed for each one.

Illusory sense of control. Yet it could bring real control in a psychological sense. I despair of keeping track of a single piece of paper.

2 ene 2006

I guess what I keep coming back to is a poetry that doesn't have any "hook" in the reader. That actively discourages any kind of engagement outside the purely poetic--however that is defined. A poetry that's almost impossible to talk about, because it doesn't offer a point of entry, a selling point. Imagine a book with no blurbs, almost no "premise." No crutches.

1 ene 2006

A question. Why do I do Sudoku puzzles. I don't even like them, but find they scratch some neurological itch I have.
I'm finished with the first article of the new year. (I cheated and started in December based on notes taken last spring.) Now on to the second.

I learned a lot about Samuel Beckett. I learned mostly that I already knew a lot about him.

Next article: I'm going to try to write about Intravenus, a poetic collaboration that I've translated. I'm hoping my critical argument will arise somehow out of what I write. That's the "February article." My plan is to write enough in one year so I will have three or four articles come out each year for the next three to four years. It sounds crazy; one of those New Year's plans that will be forgotten by March.