27 may 2007

Rhyme in a certain kind of poetry is a constraint. The eleborate rules of classic French poetry are one example of this. There is a prescribed alternation of "masculine" and "feminine" rhymes. The rhyming words must not only rhyme phonetically, but they must be of the same category, marked by the silent e or the absence of the silent e (masculine). A word ending in this silent letter aren't necessarily feminine in gender. They might be verbs, for example. So the criterion isn't strictly speaking either purely phonetic, or based on grammatical gender. It's both phonetic and orthographic.

These rules are valid from Racine to Valéry and Roussel. (I haven't gone back to check to see when they became codified. 16th century?) Rimbaud follows them when he isn't writing unrhymed verse or prose.

Rhyme might also be something in addition to being a constraint, even in cases where that is one of the things that it is.

Some other consideration: a syllable can rhyme with itself. That is, it doesn't need to have a different phoneme at the beginning. This is called "rime riche."

Is it any accident that Perec chooses to omit the letter e in his novel La disparition? That's the letter that the elaborate constraint of French rhyme is based on.

If you were to translate French poetry...

(1) View the constraint as something that just should be left behind. After all, we don't have that kind of thing in English!

(2) Come up with some other constraint not identical to the constraint in the original, but equally strict.

(3) Just use some kind of rhyme in the translation, but not be too consistent about it. Gesture vaguely in the direction of the constraint.

(4) Try to find an exactly equivalent constraint. For example, rhyming the silent e in English for every other rhyming pair.

Of these alternatives, only (3) seems very, very, wrong to me. Generally, I'm for all or nothing. I hate translations that "sort of" use blank verse. "It's like hanging around but not attending a school, or 'almost' being friends with someone."

(1) is preferable if you aren't going to do the work of (2) or (4).

19 may 2007

Lee Konitz.

Timbre. Bright, saturated color, intensity, an "acerbic" quality. A marked preference for the middle-to-high register. Vibrato only on longer notes.

Improvisational style. Like Benny Carter, mostly melodic paraphrase in long, sinuous phrases. A trademark move is for him to go up when you expect him to go down. Climax of the solo may be understated at times. Ideas are extremely inventive, but logical. Almost no ornament. A few quotations but not intrusive ones.

It's about as far from the Charlie Parker style as possible, considering that the rhythmic and harmonic conception is pure bop. In other words, it suggests neither a period anterior to Bird, or a development beyond him, yet it doesn't really resemble him at all. This is pretty miraculous. It's in the same general neighborhood as Stan Getz, Paul Desmond, and Art Pepper and other White Saxes of the 50s. The phrases lay back a bit, but never lose intensity. There's an analytical approach in his playing that foreshadows Anthony Braxton.

Personality profile. Introverted, unfrivolous, a bit wry. Very individual. There is wit there but it doesn't need explain itself. Total spontaneity and freedom but no sense of hesitancy. Airiness, lightness, rather than Rollinesque exuberant joy. A high degree of "purity."

18 may 2007

Sam Rivers! It's like discovering another Eric Dolphy, Harold Land, Wayne Shorter, or Warne Marsh that you never knew about. How do fit him in the picture? What else has to move over a step, if anything, for things to make sense again? There's a lot of Dolphy in his playing, from what I can hear, so the first thought would be to see him as a Dolphy-influenced player. But he's more than that. (Tune in to WKCR for a week-long festival on this tenor man.)


Last night in Lawrence, Kansas for many months. Will everything fit in my car? My office is packed up too; they will move it to another floor in June.
I learned something quite significant from this. I learned that C Dale Young and I do not speak the same language, poetically speaking. I searched through a recent poetic sequence of mine, The Thelonious Monk Fake Book, to see whether I use words like dark, sadness, chest, hands, water, rain, body, silence. Generally, I don't use these words very much if at all. Where my vocabulary coincided the most with his was in an Ira Gershwin lyric I happened to be quoting at one point. "Holding hands at midnight , 'neath the moonlit sky." I did use "blue" a lot, but that was quoting the titles of Monk tunes, mostly.

It's no criticism of C Dale's excellent book of poetry of course to say that I simply couldn't bring myself use words like that (very much). To me they are *poetry words.* In other words they might correspond to what the average person expects to find in a poem. I don't like depending on an identifiably poetic tone. On the other hand I'm sure my own *poetry words* would be just as embarrassing, if I knew what they were... If I did know I'm sure I would be obliged to ban them, viewing them as crutches that I was better off without...

(You wouldn't ask Creeley to write a book without the word "echo" repeated 30 times, on the other hand.)
--How many jazz vocalists does it take to sing "My Funny Valentine"?

--All of them.

[Ann Hampton Calloway, as told to Marianne McPartland]

I'm sure it's an old joke but it was the first time I had heard it. Then she sang "My Funny Valentine," of course. Not my favorite singer. A marvelous voice but I just don't think she is very tasteful. Every effect is magnified.
There is a structural problem with the Spanish major. If you look at the structure of the English major at KU, there are 15 hours of literature, plus another 15 hours of (mostly) literature / or creative writing for the creative writing track. The English major is a major in English and American Literature (plus the actual creation of works of literature for CW majors.)

The Spanish major is 29 hours. (Most courses are 3 hours.) There are four literature courses required, for a grand total of 12 hours. The rest is taken up with language and culture courses.

The typical English major is a kid who likes to read and write. So we can assume that in addition to the course work, this student will have read some extra literature. CW courses might even require some additional reading.

The Spanish major is someone who thinks Spanish is useful in some way. There is no presumption that there is an interest in literature. The 12 hours are not enough to provide a solid foundation in literature, in the absence of intrinsic interest. However, they are enough to foster resentment among some students. So many literature classes! This student will not read outside of class, or have particularly literary interests in the native language (English.) After all, students who really like literature would logically be English majors.

What about culture? Linguistics. Aren't those valid areas of study too? Well, yes and no. The English major already knows a lot about the culture of a large section of the English speaking world. If she is an Anglophile she will learn about England as well as the US. And the English major tends to be a fluent speaker of English!

Cultural knowledge and linguistic competence are simply assumed, whereas for the Spanish major they are the objects of study. They often aren't approached that seriously. Culture courses do not require as much reading, in many cases.

As for linguistics itself, there is a little bit of linguistics added on to the last stages of the major, but not enough critical mass so that the students really understand linguistics. Most of the attention is geared toward the acquisition of the language.

So the problem is that the major lacks a serious core. There is simultaneously *too much* and not enough literature. Too much attention to the acquisition of the language, but a low standard of acquisition in the end.

17 may 2007

I was listening to the Verve Benny Carter small group sessions on my latest long car trip (highly recommended btw). These are the notes I took in my head as I was driving.

Timbre: Warm, but not too sweet. A rough edge. Breathy in the lower register, bright at the higher range. Timbre, intonation, articulation, are not constant but expressive, variable.

Vibrato is noticeable on longer notes, and is highly controlled. One of his trademarks is to crescendo through a long notes while increasing the vibrato. His normal style at fast tempo has virtually no vibrato at all.

Phrasing and rhythm: Phrases tend to be long, with logical connections between phrases. At slower tempi there is a rubato feel, even when he is playing over strict time. There is no nervous edginess; the rhythmic conception is pre-bop. At medium tempo plays on the beat, rather than lagging behind or pushing it. At slower tempi he plays more behind, but not as much as the later Lester Young. Articulation is fluid, legato, with sensitive dynamics, especially at slower tempo. Attack is sharper at fast tempo. (Always sharper than Johnny Hodges.)

Improvisational style: There is a lot of direct statement of the melody, with variation in rhythmic phrasing but not a lot of excess ornament. There is more melodic paraphrase than simple "blowing over the chord changes." (You can always tell what song he is playing!) Ideas are inventive, memorable, melodic, exploitating the full range of the alto sax. A strong sense of logic in the development of solos. Limited use of too obvious formulas. However, if he comes upon a phrase he likes he will repeat it a few times before moving on. Very "tasty" aesthetic, similar to Teddy Wilson (who plays on some of these tracks.) In the same general feel as Lester Young.

Emotional range: he excells both at melancholy and exuberance. (He has different approaches to slow and fast tempi.) He is not afraid to be lushly romantic, but doesn't lapse into bad taste, because there is a wry tone of resignation in his melancholy.

Overall qualities: Intelligence, warmth, flexibility, amiability, confident ease, equanimity. Emotional responsiveness. Good taste ("tastiness"). A pleasant up and down "lilt" to his playing, resulting from overall rhythmic and melodic approach. Along with Hodges, Young, Hawkins, the best representatives of the classic "swing" style on the saxophone.

16 may 2007

While my students were taking an exam, I came up with a proposal for deep rhythmic analysis:

Choose a poem. The poem must be on that you think will withstand this kind of scrutiny in the first place. The exercise won't work otherwise. It also won't work if it is approached in a perfunctory spirit. In fact it won't work unless you kick the bejeezus out of it. The value is in that last 5% of insight, not in the 95% of description.

(Get past all the obvious points quickly, the syllable counting. That's not the point of the exercise.)

Now talk about some of the basic rhythmical devices. Parallelisms? Alliteration? The length of phrases, the ways phrases are linked together. Just describe what's happening in the poem rhythmically. Some points might still seem obvious, but will lead to other insights a little later on.

Now try to describe the rhythmic style or approach of the poem in more holistic terms. What is the rhythmic feel of the poem? Nervous, calm, stately, breezy? What is its overall shape or form? What contributes to this effect? Go back to the basic scansion and see what the poet is doing on the level of syllable and line. How does your holistic conclusion relate to other poems by the same author? To the time period in which the text was written? You may even want to talk about other dimensions of the poem at this point.

Finally, draw some conclusions. Write a single sentence that sums up the most significant thing learned.

Interpret the holy shit out of the poem. (Do a close reading for meaning.) What aspects of your rhythmic analysis are relevant to this interpretation?


Next, take your favorite musician and do an analysis of his or her rhythmic style. Write down as many ideas as you can. How much harder/easier was it to do this?

15 may 2007

I have to pack up every single book in my office because we are moving to another wing of the building. I have nine boxes so far, which looks like slightly more than half. Then there are the files... And books in my apartment that must to be brought to St. Louis house or to the office.

I am learning a lot about myself, or at least about my book acquisition habits. I own five copies of Bodas de sangre for example.

10 may 2007

teaching can be painful because of the magnification of my own shortcomings in the work of students. in that sense I get exactly the papers I deserve. if all of them have the exact same misconceptions in them, where do you think those come from? me, that's right. but those misconceptions are exaggerated, thrown into relief in a way I find excruciating.

9 may 2007

Sometimes I wish you could just be mean to your students, old style mean.

If any of my students are listening, I don't really "mean" it, of course.

(If I really thought it would be helpful I would do it!)

I have a hard time making my expectations transparent.

Respond to the text. That's it. Don't tell me when García Lorca was born because I already know that. You could easily tell me something I've never thought of about a Lorca poem, but you could never come up with an original insight into Lorca's date of birth.
My tendency to construct a pantheon of musical and artistic heroes, (with a few poets thrown in too of course). It's really a sense of creating a mythic construction of the self. I am the person influenced by these people, in the sense that they flow into me. Each is an alternate self or part of the self, but of the self conceived of as a kind of collector of artistic arrangers of the world. I'm not sure if it's especially commendable--or condemnable either. It's just the way I'm wired.

If someone does not appear on my list, it is not because of a lack of respect in any sense, but simply because they aren't personally engaging at that deep level. For example, Reverdy and not Apollinaire, though I'm sure Apollinaire is more important than Reverdy in the grand scheme of things.

Not surprisingly, there are more men than women on the list. The MLA guide to language gender and professional writing tells you to avoid catalogues or lists of great male figures, that rhetorical flourish of citing names like that. I'll never be able to avoid that gesture though. I guess the genius model is suspect. I had this argument with someone a few years back. Someone who didn't believe in geniuses. I won the argument by playing the Coltrane card.

Ashbery. Bach. Barthes. Baudelaire. Borges. Bracho. Brown (Clifford). Camarón. Ceravolo. Chambers. Charles. Coleman. Coltrane. Coolidge. Cornell. Creeley. Evans. Feldman. Gamoneda. García Lorca. Guest. Hawkins. Hodges. Holiday. Jones (Elvin). Koch. Lezama Lima. Miles. Monk. Montejo. O'Hara. Parker. Powell. Puente. Reverdy. Rodríguez. Rollins. Rothko. Roussel. Shapiro. Schuyler. Stevens. Tatum. Vallejo. Varela. Velasco. Williams (Tony + William Carlos). Wittgenstein. Young (Lester that is).

That's just a fraction of my admirations. Some I admire greatly but wouldn't put on the list because they simply do not belong to my intimate sphere.

8 may 2007

Several people seemed to appreciate my rumba guaguancó today outside of the building where I work. Tomorrow you might just hear some mozambique or bembe.

It takes a while just to make a rhythm feel good. If it doesn't feel good to me it certainly won't feel good to anyone else. If your muscles are tense your groove will be tense too. I played cajón out there once but someone said he preferred my "real drum." You'd be surprized by how many people call my conga drum a "bongo."

7 may 2007

I'm very invested in my poetic work as work, but very little invested in it as a "body of work," or as something demonstrating that I'm a poet. I don't want the ego of a poet, or the self-definition. The narcisissism of it all. Who needs that.

I ruined your make up
You left my notebook out in the rain
You sanded down the head of my snare drum
I left coffee grounds on the counter

You derived pleasure
I ate your stale leftovers
I derided your niece
You saw “Throne of Blood” without me

I gave your parents a wilted houseplant
You ate my soup without giving thanks
You forgot to fulfill my dreams
I risked the life of your friends

I was a lazy child

I lived only for poetry and masturbation

I was asthmatic; my father was arthritic

my grandfather would come over to do our yard work

We cut down an enormous fig tree--my grandfather and I

I dreaded his visits--the yardwork and asthma attacks

he would come over with a chain saw

we cut interminable logs of fig

You can't burn green wood in your fireplace

the wood of the fig tree is worthless

we built interminable fires of fig

I lived only for poetry and arthritis

5 may 2007

The way "the body" or "the voice" or "the material" become just metaphors and thus disembodied, dematerialized. Not really anybody's body, but "the body." The way "forms of feeling" seem to lose the form part. The way culture starts to mean everything that isn't culture, the non-cultural part of culture, in other words. There's the culture of culture, and the non-culture of culture, and cultural studies wants to always move to the second. It's all studies and no culture.

The way the least interesting parts of literary studies are held over into cultural studies. For example, the lack of interest in anything real and tangible, the use of the "cultural" or "literary" product as grist for the critical argument, the positioning of oneself in a particular critical debate.

The way the interdisciplinary doesn't really involve any other real discipline, just gestures in the direction of other disciplines.

All this by way of my anxiety. Would it work to do my approach to questions of culture, in a setting where I am bucking against this tendency? Can I even articulate what I'm doing in a way comprehensible to those who would want to take the course.

3 may 2007

In the email last night:

Dear Uncle Jonathan,

I can't figure out a topic for a poem. Do you have any suggestions about how to choose a topic? I like writing poems about nature. I wrote other poems at school, but I want to do something different. So I'm going to write some poems about nature.
Please write back.


Sarah Mayhew, age 7

2 may 2007

I read Harmatan this evening. It's an interresting book written in Nigeria in 1966-67 with lots of sharply observed detail. There is some overwriting, like section 49 "Foliage burgeoning in summer rain." It would be easy to isolate passages of good or indifferent writing, nothing really bad. If I had to choose my favorite it would be poem 48, the penultimate section of the book:

Somewhere the rivers are slowing down,
are less and less deep every year
and will soon be shallow enough to lay on
and let the water pour over you as you sleep;
the birds don't panic at dawn
and walk more than they fly; the ocean
sends one less wave ashore every day,
one more thought of sleep.
Fine dust above the goat paths
suspended in the sunlight
then drifting upward
as though the ground were raining on the sky.
The network of goat paths lining the ridges
and mounds which were once the city wall of Kano.
Sunlight, the memory of it, entering
the arid space of a demolished building in New York.
Dreamy movements of light and dust.
A slow shadow revolving at the center
of flattened miles,
one ant dancing with a dead ant in the sand.

The conceits are clever without being too clever: A river so dry you could sleep in it without fear. The ground raining on the sky. Birds weighted down by a general mood of slowness so that they prefer to walk rather than fly. Mounds that were once a city wall. The energy of an ocean dissipating so that is sends one less wave each day to the shore. The last line is beautiful too! Everything is communicated indirectly, but without obscurity. There is nothing labored about the writing itself, no word or phrase that sounds forced or out of place.

Violi's not a poet I know at all well. This book was published 30 years ago and I had never heard of it. I am its first owner (of this particular copy I mean) for all I can see. The copy is pristine, odorless, with no names of previous owners in it. Published by Sun in 1977, in a series that included Ponge, Padgett, Knott, Towle, Lopate. Roussel, Economou, Ely. Whenever I see a book published by Sun in the 70s, I pick it up.


Could you imagine a poem like this being "workshopped," re-crafted into something better? I'm not saying that it's perfect, but that a few imperfections here and there make it breathe all the more. The line "the arid space of a demolished building of New York," for example, does not sound quite as elegant as the surrounding lines (possibly). Yet by correcting the "worst" line you might destroy the entire poem. The whole idea of having a workshop in which inexpert writers criticize each others' work seems profoundly stupid to me. Even a very good poet might ruin someone else's poem with a misplaced suggestion, so wouldn't even worse writers give even worse advice?

1 may 2007

I'm not crazy (lately) about poetry that sounds too written, work that is with a willful quality that's like bad acting. Where the "craft" is visible as "fine writing" there is probably some overwriting there. "Craft" is something to be unlearned, in that sense. I prefer the Creeley approach where he doesn't feel the need to show you how good he is at every turn. It's kind of a hard lesson because everyone wants to stand out from the crowd with marvelous writing chops. It's hard to remember how deceptively simple some of the best writing is, in Lorca, in Creeley. It's not like it's not trying hard, but that is doesn't show visible signs of effort. I always pick up those signs, somehow; that is my misfortune in that I can't enjoy a lot of poetry that's well written and I'm sure better than anything I could ever come up with, because I simply can't take that overwritten Derek Walcott effect.


Picked up Paul Violi's Harmatan at the Dusty Bookshelf here in town. In other poetry new there was reading last week by Irby, Roitman, and Larkin. It was nice seeing and hearing Maryrose again.


Kagemusha was worse than I remembered it. Kurosawa was in decline at this point of his career. I should have rented "The Spirit of the Beehive" instead.


I love Lorca after all. Hah! I will accept my destiny--long postponed--as a full fledged lorquista. I didn't write about him ever for the same reason that any self respecting Spanish poet has to flee Lorca with both feet as fast as possible. I do hate bad lorquistas with a passion. Few have attracted as many crappy critics!
I have Nick P's new book, Fait Accompli, a book that I've read in its blog form almost complete. Piombino's writing on the blog stands up well in book form, and brings with it for me that special emotion of "I was there as this was being written." I wasn't physically present with Nick while he was writing, but I have met him a few times in New York and have been present as reader of the blog from the get go.

I've always wanted to do a book called Best of Bemsha Swing. When I go back in the archives I find my writing stands up pretty well too--some of it at least. I don't produce those marvelous Reginald Shepherd mini essays, but then again I am no Reginald Shepherd.
I'm pretty beat, having done an incredible amount of work including finishing a 5000 word article in Spanish. I still have an exam to give, a second meeting of the day, and another appointment at 5.