31 ago 2006

Whatever the opposite of condescension is, that's how I like to address the readers of Bemsha Swing. Condescension is assuming that others do not know what you do. I assume you all know, if not what i know, some equivalent body of knowledge.

30 ago 2006

Lineation is overrated. Take Juan Ramón Jiménez. Please, take him.

No, seriously. At the the end of his life, he compiled a huge anthology of his work entitled Leyenda. It's not his whole work, just what he wanted to save, about 1,300 poems. Anyway, he wrote out all his free-verse poems as prose. In fact, anything without rhyme, became prose. It's rather shocking, because, much as I'm ambivalent about JRJ, I would never question his ear. He practically invented free verse in Spanish, or at least one variant of it. So is this a huge blunder of an aged poet? That was my first reaction, many years ago when I first noted this. You wouldn't want to have an edition of Creeley with poems like

"As I sd to my friend, because I am always talking, John, I sd. which was not his name, the darkness surrounds us, what can we do against, or else, shall we, and why not, buy a goddamned big car, drive, he sd, for Christ's sake look out what your doing."

It seems to ruin the effect! However, the presumption that we cannot pay attention to rhythm if something is written out without lines is absurd. Any poem with a powerful rhythm will have the same rhythm without the division into lines. I wouldn't mind even reading The Prelude that way. I would still know where the line breaks were. I'd lose a few specific effects due to enjambment, but the effect would be similar to having it read aloud to me. John Hollander [The Untuning of the Skies] points out that many people have always found it difficult to discern line-breaks when hearing blank verse. This complaint was often directed at Milton: his line-divisions were more for the eye than the ear.

JRJ's poems work perfectly well in prose format. They aren't less rhythmical. Whatever rhythms exist in them do not disappear. It's like taking the training wheels off a bike: you know longer have that assurance of knowing where the metrical divisions are, as opposed to the syntactical ones. If there wasn't much enjambment in the first place, if the line had syntactic unity, then you still have those same syntactic units in the prose poem. It's only when enjambment is a major technique, as in Creeley, that you lose very much.

Sometimes, when listening to Ornette, I lose track of where the "one" is. There is a bar line, implicitly there, but it isn't written down anywhere. Isn't the whole point not to mark the bar divisions so rigidly, to have a greater flow? Poems in my memory, curiously, do not have line breaks, unless written by Creeley or Williams. I might know where the line breaks are, but they don't have much weight, compared to the importance they seem to have on the page: "I AM A POEM."

I read an early article by Borges, in which he outlines all the arguments against rhyme, starting with Milton. (Of course Borges' own poetry later rhymed more often than not.) At the end, he says that it's more interesting to outline the arguments against rhyme, because they are less frequently heard. I feel the same way about lineation. I feel, yes, it's very significant for most people writing poetry--otherwise they would write prose poems. But at the same time, lineation is boring and overrated most of the time. Anyone with any sense, who's been writing for more than a few years already, would run away from such a topic. Even this post is boring, since it is about this topic.

It's like fiction-writers discussing things like how to get characters in and out of rooms. It's easier just to stipulate that if a character is found in a room, he or she got there somehow, and leave it at that.

29 ago 2006

I got an article on Beckett and Valente accepted at Comparative Literature. The reader said "This article is beautifully written, fluid, and extremely insightful." Then gives a page of very good suggestions for fixing all that is wrong with it.
The phenemenon of the *calque* is quite interesting. What starts out as a literal translation comes to form a part of the target language. "Ciencia-ficción" is "science fiction." It started its life as a calque from the English, but now it is simply part of Spanish. It is one level of abstraction above the mere loan word. It is a loan phrase. There is no attempt to make the Spanish phrase "ciencia-ficción" follow the typical syntax or morphology of Spanish. [ It sounds quite ugly in a way. Compounds of two nouns stuck together are not unknown, but usually they imply an identity. Wolfman is a man also a wolf, hence "hombre-lobo." But a dog house is not a dog and a house at the same time, hence it is "casa para el perro" or "casa de perro." It cannot be *"casa-perro."]

If one language were completely calqued from another, translation would become virtually automatic, the transfer of set phrases from one code to another. The calque thus demonstrates what translation is not, usually. Their aesthetic failings also demonstrate that the creative aspect of translation (in other words, its ability to create new words and meanings in the target language) can clash with a more aesthetic sensibility, attuned to more idiomatic phrasings. The calque is only noticeable as a calque when there is some new way of using the language, some innovation in the combination of words. It is not how the language would have chosen to express the concept, if left to its own devices. It shows that decisive influence of another tongue. Usually, calquing is seen negatively, as an improper influence of one language on another.

Gil de Biedma's concept of "palabras de familia gastadas tibiamente." In other words, words used so much, in circumstances so ordinary, that they have acquired a familial warmth, but at the same time are almost worn out from use. That would be one opposite of "translatorese." Yet what if in one's family there were a lot of calques used, as in many bilingual situations? Would those calques also be be warmly-worn-out words-of-the-family?
Once you tell your students that any poem can be about poetry itself, then they go through a period of reading this way excessively, making any poem "metapoetic" even when it's really NOT. Yet this stage of reading is necessary. In other words, you have to have gone through this stage at some point. When you come out the other side... you recognize the difference between forcing the metapoetic reading and listening to what the poem might have to say about itself.


The sun down, the ease, the speed of the night
chill make it seem in the nature of things to be cold...

Reading these lines by Bronk it is impossible not to think of the great Steven Wallace.


We accept deritativeness in others because we are derivative ourselves. Still, I wonder whether we're not too tolerant, sometimes. There's that polite fiction of not mentioning the obvious source of the derivation, pretending that the poet has any originality at all.

24 ago 2006

I share my August 24 birthday with Jorge Luis Borges, whose work I am teaching today in class.

23 ago 2006

Turning 46 tomorrow. Another birthday to be spent alone.

The best thing about Billy Collins' BAP might very well be that there are no poems by Billy Collins in it! I'm hoping at least that there are no poems by him in it.

I can't seem to get angry enough to blog properly. One thing you should check out, though, is the shoddy science behind Sax's popular book on gender differences, as exposed by Mark Liberman on Language Log. To prove that men and women see the world differently, the guy looks at differences in RAT EYES, and gets it completely wrong on top of that. He makes absurd claims about the greater aural sensitivity of girls, in the service of a rancid gender ideology. Mark is doing a valuable service in exposing this charlatan.

Anyone can cite a scientific study in a popular book, with the assurance that few people will check out the study to see if it really says what it is purported to say. Most people wouldn't even have the expertise to do it anyway.

16 ago 2006

I have a new blog,Books I Read Today, more for keeping track of what I'm reading than for anyone else's infotainment.
Half Truths

I was raised in a tomato field.
There I could never be a boy.

My livelihood is in school supplies.
I dreamt the ink in my pens was blue.

6 ago 2006

"tan norteamericano como desorientado"

is as offensive as any other linking of a negative characteristic with a national or ethnic identity.

"tan judío como despistado"

"tan árabe como mal informado"

"tan suramericano como confundido"

"tan español como grosero"

"tan granadino como rancio"

It's a clever rhetorical trick, much beloved of racists the world over. García Montero also accuses me of being "políticamente correcto" and a lover of Indian Reservations. I suppose that's an insult from where he comes from. It ultimately just shows the rottenness of his ideology--the very point I was making in my original critique of him.

4 ago 2006

It strikes me that I am a specialist in contemporary Spanish poetry, but that my own intellectual formation and set of influences is not in the least Spanish--apart from the specific work I did in order to become a specialist in this area. Thus the perspective I bring to the field is completely different from that of a Spanish intellectual--aside from what we might share by virtue of belonging to the same sub-specialty.

This is not a wholly bad thing. Now there are people I know of who are academic specialists in Spain who don't have a firm grasp of Spanish intellectual life at all. I'm not saying that's a good thing. On the other hand I think it's fine to be influence more by Kenneth Burke, Marjorie Perloff, and Roland Barthes than by Carlos Bousoño and Dámaso Alonso. To have grown up reading the New York Review of Books more than Insula.
I believe in historical specificity, in the where and when of it all. However, the true historicists are the formalists, because only the formalists have an eye for the specific forms of a period. Historicists who resort to the "content mining" mode of literary criticism largely miss the point.
What do the nativist and the cosmopolitan share? A belief that what matters is where an idea comes from, home or abroad. Like fans of two teams who share a common interest in the outcome of a game.

3 ago 2006

If you memorize a poem in a particular place, and then remember the poem the next day, you will also remember the place you where you memorized it. The test for a class should take place in the same classroom where the class is taught. If I am listening to the radio, All Things Considered, for several hours in the car, until a particular story is repeated, I will know the exact place I was when I heard this segment the first time. If you make a drawing of something, you will never forget what it looks like, even if the drawing itself bears no resemblance to the thing drawn.
I've been described by one prominent Spanish poet as "tan norteamericano como desorientado..." [both North-American and clueless, or as clueless as I am American] Not by name of course. He wouldn't stoop to acknowledge me by name. A useful footnote in the article where I found this quote helpfully identifies me as the culprit. Of course, I don't mind. It's nothing personal on either side. He's just the Spanish equivalent of Official Verse Culture and I criticized him for it.

2 ago 2006

Whew. 101 degrees for the third straight day. We're in our apartment, between two houses. I'm working on a Guggenheim application, while Julia draws Wile E Coyote and Daffy Duck.