29 mar 2007

Visual description is probably the most boring use to which writing can be put. It is vastly overrated. Aren't descriptions what most people skip over in a novel?

Put another way, do you miss the visual when it isn't there? As in Creeley who is very abstract and often doesn't present a visual image at all? Despite his obvious indebtedness to WCW?

Isn't visuality in most great canonical poetry quite conventional and generic anyway? Language itself is very abstract, in that even visually suggestive words, like color names, present a platonic archetype rather than an eidetic image. There aren't miniscule descriptons of cherry blossoms in Japanese poetry. We already know what they look like so language's role is not to paint a picture of them.

Take this as a contrarian view. I'm assuming that the valuation of visual elements is a given; we were all raised on imagism. My point is that the imagistic imperative is not necessarily universal, that it is the product of a particular history and doesn't really apply to all or most poetry in most languages and periods. It can't be a way of valuing one poet over another. For example, if I were to say that Schuyler has a keener visual eye than Ashbery (true enough) that wouldn't imply that Schuyler is better.

28 mar 2007

I'm thinking particularly of modern poets for whom the modern world per se does not enter into the referential field, or is barely visible on the horizon. (The opposite of a poetic modernity defined by the presence of airplanes and telegraphs, the intrusion of technology.) What makes this poetry modern? It is modern by its implicit reference to something not there. That which "brilla por su ausencia" as we say. That makes it a little more interesting as a critical problem, don't you think? Modernity as an absence of modernity.
All aspects of language are relational in the same way that aspect in verbal tense is. (As David S. suggests to me in an email this morning.) Taking Jakobson's six dimensions of communication as a model, there is the relation of the speaker to all the other five dimensions, the relation of the addressee to the speaker and all the other linguistic functions. The poetic function is not just the focus on the "message" in its phonological dimension, but the self-conscious attention to all six communicative functions.

For example, the channel of communication, the "phatic" dimension in RJ's jargon (gotta love that word!), might seem like one of the least promising from a poetic point of view. But who more than poets are attuned to to the "grain de la voix" or the quality of paper a text is printed on? Even the pneumatique at the bank's drive-up window is charged with poetic resonance.

Attention to code, to the language as code, is a given. Lyric poetry focuses intense interest on the addressee, so that's a given as well. And lyric subjectivity, the definition of the speaker's self, is in fact the main subject matter of modern and contemporary poetry.

Where poetry seems the nakedest if not the thinnest is in context, or the "referential" function in Jakobson's terms. That is, poetry doesn't seem to be about anything. "Subject-matter" is minimal, in relation to the other five elements. This is because attention is diverted to the other five elements with great intensity, so that all aspects of communication are intensified, but at the expense of what normal people call "communication."


Despite this, I'm interested in a poem's "referential field," that is, in what gets mentioned and what is left out. For example, imagine a novel in which none of the characters are depicted as eating anything. Don Quixote has great troubles because he wants to live within a referential field, defined by certain chivalric romance novels, in which certain bodily functions are never mentioned. It bothers me in Henry James novels when the narrator wants to present a certain character as highly intelligent or sensitive, but never puts in an idea or observation of the character.

What would a theory of poetic reference look like? One way to look at it would be to compile a lexicon for a given poet. The lexicon would basically describe a referential circumference--not only the nouns but also the verbs and adjectives, even the prepositions and adverbs. Really what would be interesting is the limitation of the lexicon, that is, the words that do not appear. A large number of words would hold less interest, because there would be no exclusions: the referential horizon would be too large to be meaningful.

So maybe poetry does in fact focus attention on referentiality, but in a peculiar way, through a pattern of exclusions.

27 mar 2007

The past is not a definite place, it's a relation. It's not so much tense as aspect.
The avant-garde is radically traditional, oriented toward the past. A poem by Lorca resembles a medieval lyric from the cancionero tradition. All the great modern poets look backwards. Pound turns his eye to the Troubadors, to the T'ang dynasty, toward Calvacanti. Cavafy toward the Hellenistic age. Rilke toward Orpheus. Eshleman recreates the paleolithic. I could give many more examples. Perse? Eliot? Neruda's Machu Picchu? Lezama's "eras imaginarias"? Heidegger's presocratics?

The suburban mode of American Creative Writing, in contrast, is devoted to a banal presentism.

26 mar 2007

The David Shapiro New and Selected Poems is unbelievably good, though I fear that if I looked through some of the original books I would find poems missing. I'd love to have a Collected Poems too, but I think strategically this is a better moment for a Selected. David at 60 is still a child prodigy. When he grows up he'll be even better.

Even good university libraries might not have January or some of the early books, or even the mid-career books, and not everyone has access to a good university library anyway. This means that much of David's achievement has been virtually invisible for forty years. I think this Selected Poems will go along way to proving what some of us have already known, what Jim Jarmusch says on the blurb, "one of our greatest poets."


Montejo's Partitura de la cigarra [title poem of the book] is also very good, if you like late modernist quiet mastery like I do.

23 mar 2007

While in Spain, I bought a bad (so far)! anthology of Mexican poetry. I haven't found many good poems in it yet, one hundred pages in, and it leaves out Coral Bracho and David Huerta, two of my favorites writing during the period covered (1950-2005).

On the other hand, the complete poetry of José Barroeta is outstanding. I'm also working through two recent books by Eugenio Montejo.

21 mar 2007

Here I am in the Valente library with the other scholars on my panel.
My copy of David Shapiro's Selected Poems is in Kansas waiting for me. I am on Spring break, and will have tons of extra work waiting for me on my return--since I took a week off before Spring break to go to Santiago. So my full review of the volume will have to wait until the next weekend. I take Ron's and Jordan's word for it that it is an excllent selection.

20 mar 2007

My flight on Sunday from Madrid to Newark was 7 hours late. So I got in a line with about 400 or 500 other people to redo a connection and get a hotel voucher. 3 1/2 or four hours later I reached the end of the line. I was asleep at 3 a.m. in the Meadowlands Hampton Inn. (I had arisen at 5:30 a.m. on Monday in Santiago de Compostela.) I made it back to St. Louis on Monday evening.


While on the plane from Madrid I looked at a poem by Miguel Hernández that I figure most be one of the first Spanish poems I read in Spain on my program abroad in 1979.

Pintada, no vacía,
pintada está mi casa
del color de las grandes
pasiones y desgracias.

Regresará del llanto
adonde fue llevada,
con su desierta mesa,
con su ruinosa cama.

Florecerán los besos
sobre las almohadas
y en torno de los cuerpos
elevará la sábana
su intensa enrededera
nocturna, perfumada.

El odio se amortigua
detrás de las ventanas.

Será la garra suave.

Dejadme la esperanza.

I remember I bought a book by Miguel Hernández in a bookstore in San Sebastián in the summer of '79, Poemas de amor. I still have the book and I still have acess to the particular quality of emotion that I felt on first reading this poem. It doesn't matter that I know Spanish better now than then, because this was precisely when I learned Spanish. That is, it is a decisive moment for me.

They say that chess masters can memorize the positions of pieces on the board if those pieces are engaged in a meaningful game, but if presented with a purely random set of chess pieces on a board, they do no better than non-chess players at memorizing those positions. Memorizing poetry is a similar task. I re-memorized this poem of Hernández in about 10 minutes on the plane, because it makes aesthetic sense. There's an inner necessity there.

17 mar 2007

The Valente-Beckett talk went over well. I had not had much sleep the night before, so waiting till four thirty was not easy, but then I got through it by dint of adrenaline. Claudio Rodríguez Fer showed me Valente´s private library, now housed in the library of the Falcutade de Filoloxía of the University of Santiago de Compostela. Then we went for a dinner at the favorite restaurant of Valente.

There were other talks too, on Celan, Heidegger, and Jabes in relation to Valente, and another I missed in the morning. It is my last day here in Santiago. We have had sun every day I have been here.

13 mar 2007

While in a bookstore this morning here in Santiago de Compostela, I found a copy of a poetry journal with two poems of mine in it, from a few years back when I was writing directly in Spanish. La alegría de los náufragos. I never got this issue. One of them is a poem in which I tell the story of the death of Kasey Mohammad´s brother. The other is poem in which Ron Silliman and Kasey Mohammad-like figures do battle in my brain.

They put Billy Collins in this issue. That seems a little strange, but I guess the editors didn´t know any better. That could explain my presence there too, come to think of it.

9 mar 2007

I'll be in Santiago de Compostela between Sunday and the following Sunday. Conga performances will resume the week of March 29.
Here's my pet peeve: people who have pet peeves.

My biggest objection is to people who think they way they happen to say something is better than that of the speaker of some other dialect or regional variety of whatever language they speak.

I say "waiting for" someone not "waiting on" someone (unless in the context of a server in a restaurant.) When I moved to Ohio once upon a time I noticed that people there said "wait on." It did bug me at first, but then when I went other places, I noticed that people there used it too. I even heard it back in California, where I am from. I never heard it growing up, but now it seems like it's taken over most places.

Speaking of "over". My students will ask me what the paper is "over." It's not "over" anything, in my dialect; it may be on or about something, but never "over." (A test can be over something, but not a paper.) Yet ultimately what can you do? It's not one student who says this, but almost every single student, so I have to accept that as just something people say. My earlier hypthesis was that the students were mis-applying the concept of a test to the context of a paper. A test can encompass a certain amount of material, but an essay does not. Now I think it's just a preposition. Who cares what preposition someone uses?

8 mar 2007

I don't have an eidetic memory in the true sense. I can't do any amazing memory stunts. I have memorized a large proportion Shakespeare's sonnets, Lorca's romancero gitano, and Gamoneda's Libro del frío.

I have noticed, however, that my memory is improving with age. Visual images and musical phrases are more vivid to my mind. I can picture someone's face in a great deal of detail--something I wasn't that good at when I was younger. I can look over class notes once and then give the class without looking at the notes at all.

The only part of my memory that is weaker now is the retrieval of proper names. I learn names very fast, in a class I have to teach say. But I could forget the names of people I know quite well. I once forgot Johnny Hodges' name for a few agonizing hours. I am also not good at matching up purely instrumental tunes with their titles, even though I am reasonably good at remembering lyrics to songs.

So memory is several things.

Learning something for the first time and retaining it for a short time. I am good at this.

Remembering a text learned long ago. There tends to be decay here. Some poems stick in my mind better than others. For example, I now only know about 10 sonnets by Shakespeare.

Relearning a text. I am good at that. I can rememorize another 80 sonnets with ease.

Retrieving a proper name. I stink at that.

Connecting a face to a name. I can do it short term very well, with medium-term decay.

Calling to mind a visual image. I can do this better than I used to.

Retrieving the title associated with musical composition. I am bad at that, though I never fail to identify "Bemsha Swing."
In Scarlet Town where I was born...

Test yourself. What's the next line??

None of my undergraduate students was able to come up with the definition of a "ballad," in the historical sense. A few knew the word "ballad" to mean a slow song in twentieth century popular music. "My Funny Valentine" is a "ballad" in this sense. None had heard of "Barbara Allen."

So my question is this. Is this particular lacuna surprising to you? When I was a kid (60s) people still sang these songs at home with guitar or autoharp. At what point did this particular part of popular culture drop out of the "vernacular"?

It's the height of dumbness to condemn people for not having been exposed to something. I'm just curious. Where is the cut-off point in knowledge of ballads? 30? 40?

7 mar 2007

Finished the paper on Beckett. It's amazing what five or six hours will do. Prepared a few classes too. There are still exams to grade and I haven't even taken my conga out to the couryard yet for my daily performance. That will be a little later today.

6 mar 2007

I have to write a paper on Samuel Beckett and José Angel Valente to give in Spain a week from Thursday. I have to do it by Saturday night at the very latest. I really need to finish it right now. I've written about 1/4 of it.

2 mar 2007

It would be interesting to study folk beliefs about language, using people's complaints about phrases they don't like or think incorrect as the evidence.

1. Language is fundamentally logical, and phrases that can't be taken literally should not be used.

For example, on one of the sites in which people were complaining about phrases, several complained about the phrase "There you go," (a server says this when setting food down for you at a restaurant) on the grounds that no, "I am not going anywhere."

2. Labels are descriptions

A preposition must come before something because the prefix "pre" means before.

3. The true meaning of a word is its etymology.

4. What my English teacher taught me must be right.

5. The true meaning of a word is what it meant in my parents' (grandparents') generation.

6. Linguistic change is (almost always) for the worse.

7. My dialect is better than other people's.

8. A word should only be one part of speech.

If something is more noun than verb, you shouldn't use it as a verb.

9. It is possible to protect or improve a language "academically."

The motto of the Royal Spanish Academy of the Language is "Limpia, pule, da esplendor."

10. Younger people speak worse than older ones.

(see also number 6 and number 5)

11. A word's correct pronunciation should reflect its morphology

Someone objected to the pronunciation "kil-Ometre" alleging that "there is no such thing as an 'Ometer.'" He preferred to pronunciation "KIlo-MEtre," which is his right. But there is no inherent reason why the word should break up phonetically into its morphemic structure.

12. Americans speak worse than Britons.

13. If at any time someone has proposed to distinguish between two words, like "continuous" and "continual" or "uninterested" and "distinterested," that distinction should hold for all time.

You still find people saying you can only "rear" children, never "raise" them.

14. The writing system of a language is an essential part of its structure.

15. Variant pronunciations of words are signs of ignorance; the letters of a word should always be pronounced in the order in which they appear in the word.

I'm sure there are more such "folk beliefs." These are just the ones that occur to me.

1 mar 2007

A reward of $1,000, 000,000,000 dollars is offered for the return of my hat, lost last week somewhere in Lawrence, KS. A brown fedora, medium in size, with "New York Hat Company" written in the inside. Please email me if you have located my hat.
The conga didn't work quite so well at 45 degrees as at 65 yesterday.
The medieval Spanish anonymous lyric holds up pretty well, whether written in Spanish, Catalan, or Galician-Portuguese. The speaker of the poem is usually female, though scholars want to claim that the actual "authors" are men. The "amigo" is the figure of the lover, hence the "cantiga de amigo." There are certain archetypical situations:

The young girl doesn't want to become a nun ("niña namoradica soy.")

The woman is married, but to someone she doesn't love. ("la mal casada")

She was born with white skin, but working outside has made her "morena."

She went to the fountain or well to get water, or to the sea to bathe, and fell in love. ("ferida de amor"}

The mother speaks to her daughter, the daughter to her mother.

I don't have the scholarly knowledge of this particular field to challenge the attribution of these lyrics to an exclusively male authorship. I'm suspicious, but I can't back it up, which is frustrating.