22 dic 2007

I have a strong urge to blog through Bach's unaccompanied cello suites... Maybe I will after returning from California vacation... Just write something brief for each of the six sections of the six suites. 36 posts as a musico-poetic sestina of sorts. I won't let my lack of musical knowledge stop me. A little dancing about architecture.

21 dic 2007

Here's another motivational trick for Thomas Basbo/ll [can't get that slash to pierce the letter o, sorry]

Do things quickly. For example, if I get two articles to review for a journal, I will read them the same day I get them and write up my reports within a day or two. Why? I am likely to be more busy, not less, at any given moment in the future, than I am right now. Waiting for a time when I am less busy is not all that productive. And by doing them now I am making myself less busy in the future too, since part of feeling "too busy" is having a lot of things still to be done. Also, having "more time" to do something is not helpful if it is a routine task that can be done fairly quickly. You are better off if someone gives you less time to do that kind of task, because then you end up having more time--for something you'd rather be doing.

If I am asked to review a scholarly book I don't let any time pass between reading the book and writing the review. I begin to formulate sentences of my review as I read, and then the review is essentially "written" in my head by the time I finish the book. I can write a 600-word book review in less than an hour after finishing the reading.

However, you should never work on a book review or other minor project instead of your main project in your minimum number of minutes of writing per day. Work on your main project first. Then you can do a few other things later on in the day, a letter of recommendation, the review of an article, a blog post... If you wait till your desk is cleared to work on your major project, then you will never work on it.

So to summarize: do minor writing tasks quickly, but not at the expense of the big enchilada.

19 dic 2007

Here's a literal version of a Lorca poem I just did.

Blackberry bush with gray trunk,
give me a cluster just for me.

Blood and thorns. Come closer.
If you love me, I will love you.

Leave your fruit of green and shadow
on my tongue, blackberry bush.

What a long embrace I would give you
in the penumbra of my thorns.

Blackberry bush, where are you going?
To look for loves that you are not giving me.

Now for the critique: C. rhythmically there's nothing going on here. This is essentially a folk song: it needs to be set to music, and it is not presently cantabile. The original rhymes, with one distinct rhyme per couplet. My version just kind of comes to a clunky stop at the end of each line.

There are a few phrases or lines that might be salvageable in a final version" "Blood and thorns," "in the penumbra of my thorns." The version is literal where it doesn't need to be. I don't like the verbs "leave" or "look for." Would the bush really say "What a long embrace I would give you?" So here's version 2:

Blackberry with your gray stalk,
give me some berries of my own.

Blood & thorns. Come near.
If you love me then I will love you.

Put your fruit of green & shade
onto my tongue, blackberry.

How long our embrace
in the penumbra of my thorns!

Where are you going, blackberry?
To find the love you won't give me.

The tone and the rhythm are still off. The third couplet is still weak. It needs to be recast somehow. Lorca uses two parts of speech, "verde y sombra," adjective and noun. Shade is probably better than shadow. The implication is of a plant that grows better in the shade.

It's a courtship song. The blackberry bush is a woman (zarzamora), maybe, then, a "mora"? (Moorish woman). It's a childlike but very erotic dialogue. The man approaching says, "give me some of those blackberries." She seems willing, but the juice of the berries is transposed into blood. Her embrace is dangerous, maybe even fatal--though this is in the "penumbra" of the poem's meaning. At the end, the approaching lover is too afraid, and the Mora is going to choose someone else.

So how much of that does my translation convey? I feel I'm still at the C+/ B- level, yet I don't quite know how to fix it either. I can't make it more sexualized because that has to be implicit. You can't say "But you / are rich / in savagery— / / Arab Indian / dark woman" as Williams once did. (How embarrasing!) Spanish folk songs about Moorish women are not that crude. Think of "Tres moras me enamoran en Jaén..."


I looked at an early edition of Canciones today in the library and the exclamation point was there in the next to last stanza, as i had intuited in my translation. (It is left out in the version I was working from originally.) Of course it was syntactically an exclamation all along, so I can' claim that much insight: ¡Qué largo abrazo te daría / en la penumbra de mis espinas!"

There are popular songs with the figure of the zarzamora (blackberry), such as

"A la zarzamora
que en el campo se regaba sola
sola se regaba
con agua de la mar salada"

[The blackberry who in the wild watered herself alone, alone watered herself with water from the salty sea.)

In other words, she thinks she is self-sufficient, watering herself, but she is ultimately watering herself with tears.

18 dic 2007

Here's one thing I do: if I finish a chapter, as happened today, and I still have another ten minutes left in my scheduled writing time, I immediately start to work on some other section of the book. I don't just celebrate and stop working for the day. It's a way of letting the momentum carry you forward. That extra ten minutes of writing will produce some extra ideas in the shower the next morning.


You've all heard of the professor who doesn't publish much, but his/her work is of high quality, etc... That's always seemed counter-intuitive to me. Such people do exist, as well as the proverbial academic who turns out huge quantities of bad material. But the general human pattern is that if you do more of any activity you'll get better at it. If you're good to begin with, you'll get better. Even the mediocre overproducer will probably get better over time. The brilliant person who writes one or two articles will never get to the that 10th or 20th article that is even better. So my second stupid motivational principle of the day is that quantity, intelligently managed, produces quality.


I have some horrible work habits too. When I talk about how much I'm getting done you should understand that I am a lifelong procrastinator, very disorganized, who could have produced several more books in my career were it not for my essential laziness. I've always had the drive to publish, and have done enough for a successful academic career, but until recently I was not husbanding my efforts very effectively. I was actually holding myself back.
When it's dawn just throw some sort of cloth over me
because I know dawn will toss fistfuls of ants at me,
and pour a little hard water over my shoes
so that the scorpion claw of the dawn will slip off.

Here's Robert Bly attempting a stanza of Lorca. I've put in bold the elements that do not correspond to any element in the original stanza.

"Cloth" is Bly's translation of "velo" [veil, shroud]. You can almost read the translator's mind:

"What does velo mean again? Oh yeah, some sort of cloth." Bly does that with Machado too, translating "Quimera/ Chimera" as "mythological beast."

What motivates this kind of translation? It cannot be fidelity to the original OR a desire to create "a new poem in English" blah blah blah because redundancy, verbosity, etc.. are not usually considered to be more poetically effective in contemporary English. So I think that those who see those two goals as fundamentally opposed do not realize that sometimes neither factor comes into play. Often, too, the literal choice will actually be more effective as poetry in English (surprise, surprise) because it just works out that way.

I don't think vandalism is the motive either, because Bly is no Dadaist. I am befuddled.

{Cúbreme por la aurora con un velo
porque me arrojará puñados de hormigas,
y moja con agua dura mis zapatos
para que resbale la pinza de su alacrán

Cover me at dawn with a shroud
for [it] will throw fistful of ants at me,
and drench my shoes with harsh water
so the claw of [its] scorpion will slip}

17 dic 2007

I got a Klee wall calendar for Akiko today. When I showed it to her, she said she already had a calendar for 08, and showed me her Kandinsky calendar, made by the exact same company. It might be a better "Gift of the Magi" story if it had been the exact same calendar. At least both names start with K.

16 dic 2007

I read in the NYT today that Americans spend "more than 50 billion dollars" on toiletry items a year. I guess that seemed to be a lot because any number in the billions seems huge. At least that was the implication of the particular review I was reading. But the US has a population of 300 million, so that is $166 dollars per person, per year. That's awfully low, less than 50 cents per diem on average, for something that almost everyone uses. Since I'm sure some people spend hundreds of dollars a month on hairspray, etc... the average has to be much more than that.

What does the average person think when reading about the XXX billion dollar a year YYYY industry? A billion dollars is 3.3 dollars per person, right? So an industry of that size is pretty insignificant to the size of the economy as a whole, though it would be highly significant to someone with a major stake in that particular sector.
Here's another one: merlines = wizards (instead of "Merlins"). Here the translator erases a trope (antonomasia, like when you use the word Einstein to mean "genius.").

15 dic 2007

The seminar continues...

There's a kind of translation-effect that you would think would be quite easy to avoid: flattening, or choosing a word much less powerful and vivid than the original.

"La piedra es una frente donde los sueños gimen"
Stone is a forehead where dreams grieve {Stephen Spender)

"gemir"= to moan, cry out, is stornger than "grieve," which refers, usually, to a mental state.

"Mientras las llamas te cercan"
"While around you are flames" (A. L. Lloyd)

"cercar" could, should be translated as "besiege," not merely "surround." "around you are" is especially weak.

"Camborio de dura crin"
"An authentic Camborio" (SS)

"crin" is the mane of a lion. What happened to the hard mane of the lion in the word "authentic"?

"guardias civiles borrachos
en la puerta golpeaban"
"were knocking at the door" (SS)

Golpear is to hit, pound, not merely "to knock." If a Spaniard wanted to say merely "knocked on the door" he or she would say "llamar a la puerta"

"de la lluvia que busca débil talle"
"of the rain that seeks the feeble form" (Merwin)

"talle" is "waist." It can mean "form" or "shape" in a metaphorical sense, but this particular choice is considerably weaker, less visual.

Kirkland translates "sonsonete" as "sound." A sonsonete is usually an irritating sing-song effect.

(most examples from the New Directions Selected Poems of Lorca)

And so on... "silent" for the stronger and more specific "mute" ...

This particular kind of (mis)translation is not based on a lack of comprehension of the text, since one assumes that the translator has understood that, yes, the drunken guardia civil is at the door, etc... It's interesting that it seems to go more in one direction than the other. The translation is typically flatter than the original. (The choice of a stronger word where Lorca has a weaker one is more unusual, though that can happen too. Merwin writes "charred" where Lorca had written the equivalent of "burnt.")

These are not mistakes or mistranslations in the usual sense, since they fall within the general semantic range. You could imagine a situation where you'd want to translate gemir with grieve (you could, maybe, but I can't), or golpear with knock. But why would a translator want to consistently err on the side of weakening the effect? It's like making a photocopy of an original and having the print look obviously fainter.

Lorca is a poet of the five senses. Whenever the word chosen by the translator is less visual, tactile, or auditory in its effect than the original word I think a mistake has been made.
The books of poetry of which I have at one time or another memorized substantial proportions are Shakespeare's Sonnets, Claudio Rodríguez's Don de la ebriedad, Alianza y condena, El vuelo de la celebración, Casi una leyenda, Antonio Gamoneda's Libro del frío, and Pedro Salinas La voz a ti debida.

And of course, Lorca's Romancero gitano and Diván del Tamarit.

Now I must shovel snow.

14 dic 2007

For some reason I associate doing a close reading of a poem in the middle of a critical essay with bicycling up a very steep hill in a very low gear.

... and reading over a paragraph to see what needs to be changed is passing one's hand over a piece of silk to see what "catches" on it. That metaphor should be reversed in some way because the silk should be the paragraph, not the hand.

13 dic 2007

I am writing my current book for the chimerical "general audience." The college-educated (or advanced undergraduate) literate person who is not necessarily a PhD in literature (or aspiring to be one). Even if such a person never reads the book, the literature professor who does read it will still feel the pleasure of something readable--I hope. The originality of the argument and the actual content should still be of interest to the more or less specialized reader too. I often write with specific people in mind, readers who I think might enjoy my book. That helps to focus the attention on the reader. I think: what would Joseph Duemer think about this point? Of course, I don't really know, but it helps me to realize whether something is convincing, clear, etc... I'm sure other writers do the same thing.

There's nothing like having an article in a prestigious journal and then to look back ten years later and see that this article has been cited by THREE other scholars (in the best cases; the mean is actually zero). My last book got all of four book reviews.

That's why I don't really understand why all academics are not bloggers. I get to hear about more interest in my ideas in an average week on the blog than I would over a five year period just writing books and articles.
Is a "romance" a "ballad"? Imagine the following debate:

PEPE: It is a functional equivalent. Both are rhymed, anonymous, narrative poems. Metrically, the English ballad stanza features lines of about the same length as the Spanish octosílabo or 8-syllable line, so there is some functional equivalency there too. So yet, a romance is a ballad.

MARICARMEN: Pues no lo creo. The "romance" is a culturally, historically, and linguistically specific form. "Romance" meant the vernacular language, in disinction to Latin. Hence the "romance languages." The French derived their word for novel ("roman") from this word, the Spanish took their word for a certain kind of narrative poem from the same root. Later we had "romanticism." By translating it as "ballad" you are wrenching it out of that context.

The ballad is something different. Also a cultural distinct form that took shape on the border between England and Scotland. To call a romance a "ballad" is grotesque.

PEPE: The "romance" is also a border form, which took shape during the reconquista on the border between Christian and Muslim Spain. Another functional equivalency. How else would you translate it?

MA-CA: I wouldn't translate the title at all. That is too much of a concession to the reader, who will think she knows what a "ballad" is from her knowledge of the folk traditions of the British Isles.

PP: Next you be telling me that gitano cannot be translated as "gypsy"! You're exasperating. Translation is always a search for cultural anaogies. Some work better than others, but "ballad" is the best we've got.

MC: You're right, gypsy is a horrible word. I prefer Roma, the term that the actual gypsies call themselves so my English-language version of Lorca's Romancero gitano will bear the title "Romancero / Roma.

12 dic 2007

Suddenly, as I was reading about Lorca and Dalí, I remembered my teenage poster of the melting watches of "The Persistence of Memory." Then I remembered my other posters in the same room. On the inside door, a nearly life-size Humprhey Bogart in suit and hat, a long rectangie covering basically the whole door. A rather large Brueghel of peasants, which I probably got after reading Pictures from Brueghel. I'm pretty sure it was the one called "Children's Games," though it could have been another one of peasants dancing. (I am getting some interference from a jigsaw puzzle I once had.) And Picasso's "Three Musicians." There is no difficulty remembering all this, because I saw these things daily from age of 14 to 17, yet the memory was not present to me until today, thirty years later.
I got back some reader's reports on the Lorca book today. Professor X and Professor Y both had laudatory things to say and some suggestions for improvements, corrections. I like that fact that X said my book will annoy some people--and that that is good thing.

10 dic 2007

The Rolfe Humphries 1953 translation of The Gypsy Ballads of García Lorca, published by Indiana University Press, is not a bilingual edition. This is much less excusable because of the date: the reader probably didn't have easy access to the Spanish original or an alternate translation. Humphries says his translation is in blank verse, but it is not. There is not an iambic pentameter line to be had. I think he means simply unrhymed, because he goes on to say that he throws in a random rhyme whenever he feels like it.

I'm glad to have this book as part of the record of Lorca's reception in the US, but it inspires in me violent thoughts toward the translator. Turning something wonderful into something grotesque, and not even doing it out of disrespect, but out of a total lack of self-awareness...

9 dic 2007

Between 1921 and 1936, the year of his death, Lorca wrote

Poema del cante jondo, Canciones, Suites, Romancero gitano, Poeta en Nueva York, Diván de Tamarit

and, in the theater

Mariana Pineda, La zapatera prodigiosa, El amor de don Perlimlín, Comedia sin título, Así que pasen cinco años, Bodas de sangre, Yerma, Doña Rosita la soltera, La casa de Bernarda Alba

Plus some other short plays, lectures, and poems not included in his major collections. (For example the short sequence of sonnets that was not published until long after his death.) More than a dozen major works in sixteen years. It is hard to understand this level of productivity, since this is not a matter of finding a formula and repeating it twelve or fourteen times, but of constantly experimenting, doing something different in each work of lyric poetry and drama. Maybe only Byron, dying at 36, is an equivalent case of not only dying young, but dying young with a fully formed work in multiple genres.

7 dic 2007

I was reading Rothenberg's Suites in the Green Integer edition, which is not bilingual. It really gave me a chance to appreciate the translation for what it is, without the distraction of the original. Many of these poems read quite well. It's really a delightful translation in many ways. When I didn't like a particular line, which happened a few times, it was because I didn't like it, not because I was comparing it with Lorca's original. When I happened to remember the Spanish original for a particular line it was distracting. When JR quoted "skip to my Lou" it was fine, because I wasn't worried that this was an imposition on the text.

Usually I am an advocate for bilingual editions, but I already have this same translation of the Suites in Christopher Maurer's Collected Poems of Federico García Lorca. Reading a translation AGAINST the original is a completely different sort of reading, one that cannot withstand my irritating nitpicking.

6 dic 2007

Take my Lorca and American poetry survey! Send me an email to jmayhew "at" ku "dot" edu. I've disabled comments for this post because I don't want people to "contaminate" one another's answers. By writing an email to me with the subject heading "Lorca Survey" you agree that I can use your answers anonymously in the book I am writing. If I want to quote you by name I will ask your permission.

(1) Name a poem by Lorca and the name of a book of poems by Lorca off the top of your head, if you can. Use either Spanish or English, whatever comes most naturally.

(2) What American poet writing in English, living or deceased, do you most associate with Lorca? Name one American poet you think is antithetical to Lorca. What other poets NOT writing in English do you associate with Lorca? (You can give reasons for these answers.)

(3) Without looking up the answer, tell me the dates of the Spanish civil war. (If you don't have a good idea and don't want to embarrass yourself just say 'pass.")

(4) Write one sentence or two that summarizes your own thoughts about Lorca and your own poetry or the U.S. poetry that most interests you, or your reasons for NOT being particularly interested in anything to do with Lorca if that is the case.

(5) How well do you read Spanish, if at all?

(6) Without looking at any books or reference materials, name one Spanish poet (from Spain, not Spanish America) who is currently living. (You can pass on this one too; I'm not interested in embarrassing anyone.)

Maybe this survey will not yield interesting results, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway. Even if you know very, very little about Lorca your answer could be helpful because I want to know what people who don't know much actually do know, if that makes any sense.

5 dic 2007

Now I have to start writing as though the praise offered me were accurate. Starting next week.


Imagine a composer with severe back pain. She writes a symphony of a certain complexity. Now if a biographer wrote an essay explaining the symphony as the expression of the pain, we might be a bit skeptical. Biographical interprerations like this seem remarkably impoverished: the biographer says "Aha! I've discovered the secret behind the work," but the back pain itself is as banal in and of itself as anyone else's. The complexity of the work is out of proportion to the reductiveness of the explanation. What is more interesting, anyway, the symphony or the back ache?

Now substitute the "emotional pain of having been spurned by a lover" for the "back pain." Is the explanation any better? If the music sounds like "spurned by lover" music anyway, the biographical explantion is otiose. It's a nice romantic back-story for the program notes, but who really cares?

Now substitute an elaborate psychoanalytic acount of the poor composer's childhood. The essential poverty of the explanation remains, but somehow the intellectual respectability quotient seems to rise, because now there is a richer metalanguage in which to dress up the cause. Still, the composer's childhood is like any one else's, pretty much, with the inevitable variations. The music is stunning and unique in a way that the explanation is not.

Put another way, even unique and interesting people often produce banal, derivative works of art. If the life is more interesting than the work, then the reductiveness is moving in the opposite, and wrong direction.

On the other hand, many people care more about the back ache then the symphony, the romantic back-story than the work of art itself.
And [Scott Eric] Kaufman singles out Jonathan Mayhew’s Bemsha Swing as a source of “the best writing about writing out there, a consistently sound motivator for me to stop reading blogs and start writing my dissertation. (Odd praise, that is: it’s the blog that makes you want to stop reading it.)”

Thanks SEK!

(and to Andrew Epstein for calling this my attention this morning)

4 dic 2007

The long-lost manuscript for Poeta en Nueva York showed up at one point and was sold by a London auction house to the Fundación García Lorca in 2003 (controlled by the Lorca family). Lorca had left it with Bergamín in Madrid right before going to Granada, where he was shot a short time later. For years a controversy raged, acrimonious at times, in Lorca studies. Some scholars thought that Bergamín had just "invented" the book, that it really should have been two books, Poeta en NY and Tierra y luna. Now we know that is not the case.

A critical edition published by the foundation and based on the manuscript should appear in 2009--69 years after the New York and Mexico publications of the two competing first editions.

Textual problems have haunted the reception of PENY for years. How can you read a book if you're not sure it really is a book, if you don't have any certainty about its definitve state? Normally that confidence precedes the reading of the book. The answer, for me, is that you read the version you have. The American reception of Lorca, the object of my particular project, is based on faulty editions and less than ideal translations, but those were the editions and translations that actually were used and we can't go back in time and change that.

3 dic 2007

Conversation in the car...

--Are there any French horn solos on this? [Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool]

--I don't think so. I think it's Gunther Schuller playing. He's not really a jazz player...

--No, I think it's Julius Watkins.

With what twelve-year old would such a conversation be possible? I asked myself coming in from the car. Then the obvious answer: with MY twelve-year old. Where did she even hear of Julius Watkins, who is a jazz French horn player but is not in fact on BOTC?

Children absorb a lot from their parents, I guess.

1 dic 2007

I've come down from about 164 lbs. around a year ago to about 146 now. You probably wouldn't notice the difference if I had my shirt on. I never looked particularly overweight, since I have a kind of "squarish" frame. I'm not sure where those 18 pounds were lost from exactly. I've never dieted or tried to lose weight per se, never regulated my eating aside from trying to eat things that actually taste good. I just walked five or six miles a day for about eight months until I started riding a bike around town for about an hour (average) a day.

As with the writing two hours a day, my own preferences make things easier. I have no interest in watching television or drinking soda, for example. So I don't have to budget in tv watching tiime to my days or bike an extra few miles to burn off that coke.

At 170 and five-eight I would possibly open myself up to type II diabetes given my family history. And I would have hit 170 by my fiftieth birthday in 2010 on my previous regimen--or lack of.