29 mar 2008

How can you avoid self-delusion in translation? It seems like translators fool themselves a lot, that they are not necessarily good readers of their own translations. Their justifications tend to be self-serving. My method is to give myself a grade for each translation, and then work over each poem that is at a "C" level or lower until it is at least a "B," then go on to make sure each is at least an "A-." Even then, I might be fooling myself.

There should be no justifications. If you have to give an explanation, it means something is amiss.

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to look at the floor, the other, the ceiling.

On the floor level, you want to make sure there are no flaws caused by misunderstanding the original text. No line that sounds awful in English. If one of the poet's main tools is repetition, don't eliminate the repetitions. First, do no harm; that's the Hippocratic oath of translation.

By getting everything on the floor level, you are basically saying: nothing falls below this point. The translation might still be a C or C+, but all you're really doing is protecting yourself against the translation police, ensuring that nobody will find a howler.

To look at the ceiling provides a different perspective. Is the poem convincing, not as a translation of a putatively great original, but simply on its own terms. At this point it is not enough for a line to be not awful, or a reasonably good way of translating the original. If the floor is more or less fixed, the ceiling is infinite. There is no ceiling, only a sky.

A lot of the ways we think about translation don't make too much sense to me. Do we need a balance between floor and ceiling? No. Once the floor is achieved, we don't have to worry about it any more. Once a translation agrees 95% with what any competent translation would be, the semantic material of the original really doesn't need much more attention.

27 mar 2008


The NYT crossword for Friday, when it wants you to give the opposite of "loco," assumes that you will put "sano." (I know because I just completed the puzzle on line. For some reason it was easier than today's, Thursday's, which I haven't finished yet) The only problem, of course, is that "sano" means healthy, not "sane." The opposite of "loco" should be "cuerdo." It's rare to find a genuine mistake in these puzzles. They are very well edited. I first put "sane" in the box, in the English, then realized I needed an "o" there.

26 mar 2008

In his lecture on Góngora, Lorca says the poet should be a professor of the five bodily senses, in the following order

"vista, tacto, oído, olfato y gusto"

It's curious. My ordering would be

oído [ear], vista [vision], olfato [smell], with gusto [taste] and tacto [touch] bringing up the rear, roughly tied.

Smell is the sense of memory. Most of taste is really smell anyway. Texture, touch, is important too, but I wouldn't put it second as Lorca did. Lorca who was an excellent musician. I'm definitely in the "De la musique avant toute chose..." camp.
From Garrison Keillor's column

"Should I accept financial advice from someone who uses Me as a subject?" she asked me.


And now I am wondering if the upheaval in finance may not be the result of the raging epidemic of poor spelling we see all around us.

The field of language seems particularly prone to a kind of "magical thinking." If we only knew how to SPELL then society would be on a proper footing. Yes. I'm sure all the wall street geniuses who gave us the sub-prime mortgage crisis did so because of misspellings. If people didn't say "aint" they woudln't spit on the floor either. Of course, Keillor is a humorist so I'm sure he doesn't mean this idiocy to be taken literally. It's a very literal-minded approach, though.

Pound was especially prone to this kind of magical thinking. He thought certain breakthroughs in usage of language could lead to a better society. We all saw where that led. Orwell too. Why if we just didn't use so much litotis, euphemism, and the passive voice, our political thinking would be cleared up.

Magical thinking, basically, is the idea that we can influence reality through the strict control of largely irrelevant minute particulars. A mistake in the performance of the ritual will make the gods angry. If nobody uses "disinterested" to mean "uniniterested" we will all think clearly ever after. If Bush had paid attention in philosophy class, we wouldn't be in Iraq. For some reason liberal, educated folk are more, not less prone to this kind of magical thinking, especially about language. I hear this kind of crap all the time from people who should know better.

For example, the idea that poets are anti-war because of their unique sensitivity to language and its political manipulation. Then why are the crappy poets anti-war too?

I'm even prone to it myself. I caught myself thinking: if Garrison Keillor had only read Creeley and Silliman instead of Bly and Collins, he wouldn't make that mistake!

I had to overcome it in my work on translation. I was thinking that if translation of Lorca had been better, we wouldn't have had all those cultural misunderstandings, as though a good enough translation would simply abolish the difference between cultures. I don't believe that any more.

25 mar 2008

The immature writer, afraid of sounding dumb, will sometimes choose a style that masks rather than reveals. Clarity and simplicity can leave the writer feeling too exposed. If the point really is a simple one, state it simply. If it too obvious, then leave it out or frame its necessity.
I read on the AP wires that...

"Obama and President Bush are 10th cousins, once removed, linked by Samuel Hinkley of Cape Cod, who died in 1662."

I guess that makes me cousins with both of them, since I am descended from Samuel Hinkley too, via my paternal grandmother Vera Hinkley Mayhew.

Like everyone else, I suppose, I'm reading Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, number 2 on my 99 books about music thread. Shostakovich's Stalinist ordeal is harrowing, all the more so because he was, essentially, a Stalinist. Prokofiev comes off as a naive stooge as well.

Books on music end up being books about other things. In this case, the relation of music to politics and larger historical forces.

I'm not reading this as a book about jazz so it doesn't bother me that it is shunted off to one side. There are plenty of books about jazz already. He includes some to complete the picture, but it's not his main focus. If this were your main source for jazz history, you'd be in trouble.

I'm going to have to re-evaluate my position on Sibelius now.

Apparently there were no women composing music in the 20th century. That's the conclusion I've drawn, so far at least. I wish I were in a position to disagree, but my ignorance is astounding. Maybe in the last chapter some women will show up, but that's extraordinarily late when you think that women modernists in literature made a subtantial impact--H.D., Stein, Woolf, etc...
I went to see a reading by John Balaban yesterday, attended by about 12 WashU students plus myself. Some of his observations about translation from the Vietnamese were interesting. Of his own poetry, not much stuck with me. I haven't been feeeling too well--the inevitable let down after turning in the Lorca book to the publisher, so I dozed a little. What I did hear was basically prose poetry of an undistinguished variety, the kind where the story told in the poem might as well have been told using a set of different words. I didn't see what it looked like on the page. It could have been lineated, but what difference would that make? He seemed a sincere, genial guy.

If you invite a poet to the English department to read and not a single faculty member shows up, what does that mean? You should either show up or invite a better class of poets to come. An academic poetry of no interest to academics.

23 mar 2008

Ten Goals, Some More Realistic than Others

1) Publish the book of poetry.

2) Do the same for book of poetry written in Spanish.

3) Become a truly excellent teacher.

4) Become a really good drummer.

5) Become a truly mediocre clarinet player.

6) Find a way of supplementing income (hint: it won't come from 1-5).

7) Learn to fix a flat tire on the bicycle.

8) Job at better university?

9) Saxophone?

10) Publish another scholarly book with U of C P.
I'm sending the book to the publisher tomorrow. It took about 8 months of writing about two hours a day, and skipping only 3 DAYS during that entire time. Now I will be a full time poet until classes start in August. Of course, there is copy-editing, proofs, permissions, etc...

21 mar 2008

Separated at birth? (JFK & Juan Ramón's wife Zenobia Camprubí)

Separated at birth? (Celan and Collins)
Some more personal neurology:

Physical Left handedness. But if you asked me to punt a football I would use right foot for example. (By why would you ask me to do that?) Good balance. I learned easily to ride a unicycle, for example. A good typist, with the location of qwerty keyboard "wired" into my fingers. Bad handwriting, fine motor skills are not highly developed. Poor eye-hand coordination for sports, but good indepedence of 4 limbs playing drumset. In short, an interesting mix of clumsiness and coordination.

Sense of Time Relatively elastic. Good estimation of time (guessing what time it is). But some puzzlement about pace of years and months. I couldn't tell you whether something happened 2 or 4 years ago.

Sense of Direction. Good outside. I don't know where North or South is inside a building, unless it's my own house and I think for a minute.

Toleration of pain. I don't really know. I haven't really been in that much physical pain in my life. I tolerate mild discomfort with no problem. For example, I can work in a cold room if I'm concentrating.

Gustatory. Dislike for blandness. I need hot pepper in my food. I like certain combinations: black pepper with garlic. Cilantro and lime.

I drink coffee with nothing in it, even expresso at times with no sugar. I can't take overly sweet things, I loved smoky and pickled flavors.

I can't stand the texture of confectioner's coconut.

Olfactory Nothing too unusual here. I don't like "chemical" smelling smells as a rule. I don't see myself as oriented toward smells per se, though I'm not indifferent to them.

Sleep. I perceive sleep as a kind of "sweetness." I feel half-conscious and times and can take pleasure in being asleep. Dreams are intense but cannot be recalled usually.

What other categories have I forgotten? If I've left something out, at this point, that probably means it's not as significant to me, or that somehow I don't think of it as part of my neurology: brain + nervous system.

20 mar 2008

I find my time is better for having played drums. I feel the pulse pretty strongly when playing clarinet, even though my drumming pulse itself is not that strong (I thought.) The difference is that in drumming you are playing the beat, whereas playing clarinet with no other instruments you are playing in reference to a pulse that nobody is playing.

19 mar 2008

English has no future.

As I undertand the point, (1) there are many uses of modal constructions with will, only some of which entail futurity.

(2) There are many ways to express futurity in English, only one of which is the modal construction with will.

So it is arbitrary to take the cases where (1) and (2) overlap and call those the "future tense" in English. You might as well call some other construction the future tense--the periphrastic "going to..." construction for example.

Compare to Spanish: there is a dedicated verbal form for the future. This form can also be used for other, non-futurity cases:

Tendrá sueño might mean "she is probably sleepy," rather than "she will be sleepy." It is also used as an imperative, as the English will is.

There are also a periphrastic form for future events: Te voy a matar, and other ways of expressing futurity which don't involve the dedicated verb form. So is there a future in Spanish? Is it arbitrary to call that verb form the future, when it can be used for other things, and other forms can be used in place of it? The fact that it is a morphologically distinct tense is the decisive factor here, I think.
I promise to be less boring once the Lorca book is done and delivered to the publisher in about 10 days.

18 mar 2008

Sacks notes that William and Henry James almost never refer to music. I'd never thought of that before: you don't necessarily notice an absence like that till it's pointed out. You can't imagine Proust without the haunting phrase of Vinteuil. If I wrote a novel and it happened to have no music in it, you might draw a mistaken conclusion about me. I might say that the absence of music is not significant: novel writing is about something else, a different compartment as it were. If I wrote 50 novels without music being played in them, that would even stranger.
Although I still hate politics, I'm kind of liking Obama today and thinking he won the election with that speech he just gave. Aside from some stupid things he had to put in there--the American exceptionalism, the idea that the Middle East conflict is none of Israel's fault and 100% the Arabs' fault. (Or did I get that wrong?) Yes, I do hate politics, because it makes Obama say dumb things to get elected. Rhetorically brilliant, with that opportunism that doesn't seem opportunistic.

The references to "my former pastor" were brilliant. That one word does a lot of work.

Obama understands White lower middle-class resentment. That's important because it allows him not to be the "affirmative action" candidate. He's not the "unqualified minority" taking your job, Mr. Blue Collar worker.

The parallelism he establishes between pastor Wright and Geraldine Ferraro is also a brilliant move. It slams her without slamming her.

Obama has the savvy to run both to the left and to the center of Clinton at once, boxing her in as it were. His positions can be lefter than hers (on the war most significantly) , while his rhetoric remains more centrist and inclusive. He has a talent for being in the fray and above the fray at the same time. (What is a "fray," by the way? What do you call one of those words that only exists in a set phrase?) Can he seem more centrist than McCain, who has the talent to seem centrist when he's really not?

17 mar 2008

I was reading Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia. That prompted me to want to do a neurological self-portrait. Sacks approaches normal neurology through the abnormal, on the theory that taking something away and seeing what the results look like will give insight into things we take for granted. In principle, normal functioning neurology is just as interesting as the more freakish manifestations, but the extremes clarify the norm. I don't think I'm particularly exceptional; any introspective person could come up with as much detail.

1) General state of mind. Restless, with a need for constant stimulation, with thoughts that never "turn off." A contant internal monologue, with sentences being "written" in the mind's eye. Extreme introspection and self-absorption, at times.

2) Visuality. I'm not an exceptionally strong visualizer. I cannot always bring up a mental image of a person's face if I don't know them well. I respond emotionally to visual images, but less so than to music. With images that I feel specially drawn to, I feel a sense of "nourishment" emanting directly out of the surface. Ansel Adams and Phililp [UPDATE: I MEANT MARK OF COURSE] Rothko produce this effect in me. I am strongly drawn to rhythmic, "dancing imagery" as well as to calming, horizontal images.

3) Speech/language. I'm bilingual, with different modes of speech in either language. Ideas seem to flow better in Spanish, both in writing and in oral production. It took me a long time to feel I was very articulate; I'm not verbally facile. Obsessed with crosswords; very interested in issues of phonology and to a less extent with linguistics generally. I love language.

4) Memory, concentration. I have strong recall of words, making memorization easy. I can make my memories of the past more vivid by concentrating. Memory responds to effort. Bad memory for proper names and for the names of musical composiitons, even those I know well.

5) Music. Combination of modest talent and immoderate obsession similar to my father's. Physical craving for particular kinds of music. My emotional sense of things is that music is the most important aspect of human experience. A feeling of being "wired" for different kinds of music. Obsesssion with complicated polyrhythms. Maybe interest in poetry is just a subcategory of my general musicophilia. I would definitely be a musician if my talent matched my interest.

6) Sense of body, touch. I feel the basic sense of being conscious and aware of my own body to be centered in the taste of my own mouth. Secondarily in the gut. A sense of surprise at looking myself at the mirror. I don't hold an image of what I look like in my own head. My body can feel differently, strong or in shape or skinny or flabby, depending on mood.

Emotions are felt as physical sensations. General "aetheticism" manifested in tactile form too.

7) Intellectuality/sense of self. A feeling that I'm "wired," neurologically, to certain styles of thinking. Especially drawn to polemics, contradictions, points of contention. I don't feel tied to intellectual positions as much as to styles of thinking. I frequently have the feeling that "I've been myself for quite some time. I'm tired of this; why can't I be someone else?"

Interest in qualia, qualitative sense of "being alive." Frequent sense of awe at reality itself.

8) Odds and ends. Very mild synaesthesia. Frequent deja-vu and "earworms." Relation or fascination to certain object, like cymbals and other musical instruments, writing instruments. Toleration for mess and chaos, addiction to caffeine.

There's probably more, if I went into gustatory sensations, smells; relation to weather, other people, sexuality, etc... It's an interesting excercise to link all these things together. For me, these are the things that make me recognize myself.
Two things that are necessary to write are

1) Starting.

2) Continuing.

To write, you must at some point begin to write. As the song says, I've flown around the world in a plane, I've settled revolutions in Spain, but I can't get started with you. Starting is a lot harder than continuing. In fact, once you've started, it is hard not to continue for at least a little while. You can easily trick yourself into an hour or so.

So if you're not writing very much, you might want to analyze whether your problem is a starting problem (attack) or a continuing problem (sustain). If you have no starting problems, you are better off than most people. All you have to do is trick yourself into continuing for long enough. If you have no problem with sustain, but can't get started, then try to just begin by telling yourself that you'll only write for five minutes. Then, once the five minutes are up (you've already started!), you can just keep going. Or not. But at least you've practiced your starting.

If your problem is exclusively sustain--you begin to write frequently but cannot concentrate for long--you have several options. Analyze what is it that is interrupting you. The phone rings? Thoughts of self-doubt? (external or internal). If the cause is external, then try to eliminate it. Write after baby is in bed or before she wakes up. Turn off cell phone. Don't check email. If internal, then make a conscious effort not to listen to those voices telling you you can't do it. Make a list of excuses you make not to continue, and refute them one by one.

16 mar 2008

I had a colleague once who said he would rather be interesting than right. I disagreed, because, usually, if you're wrong, you're unlikely to be interesting either. (That's probably why, after having been friends, the two of us drifted apart somewhat. I had a hard time respecting him intellectually, even though he had been very supportive of me. I felt like an ingrate, but ultimately I felt like cringing whenever he opened his mouth. I also felt odd because he was a big name in my own field.) In the Humanities, obviously, we can never be right in an absolute sense. But we can, in fact, be wrong. The "creative," fanciful interpretation of the literary text, the one unsupported by any argument or evidence, can be wrong. Think, too, of the implications of the notion that a more accurate view of things as they actually are is inherently devoid of interest. If the truth about literature bores you, maybe you should be in another field.

I was not expecting to find so many Lorca poems (by American poets) with a Cold War subtext. That was a total surprise, and yet it turned out to be a central pillar of my argument in one part of the book. The creativity of scholarship is to see patterns, not to impose them a priori; to develop arguments out of what is actually there. It's not like you can preclude all future disagreement. My goal is to make disagreement difficult, by making my arguments as air-tight as possible.

"American poems about Lorca" is an arbitrary corpus. Out of this corpus, I select some texts and don't comment on others. This is also arbitrary. Among those I single out, some I think are more significant than others, for my own purposes. (A third arbitrary move.) In the fourth place, I bring to bear my own ideological and aesthetic biases in discussing these significant texts. Yet I'm still aiming to tell a true story, not a merely arbitrary fabrication.
Songs I played today include "Bemsha Swing," "Monk's Mood," "Bolivar Blues," "Reflections" (several other Monk tunes,) and "Greensleeves." I was actually able to play a pretty good version of "Greensleeves" all the way through with some dynamics, articulation, phrasing, etc... I could now re-join my 7th grade band of 1972.

I'm restarting the Bach Suites, listening to Pau Casals instead of Ma. I've kind of absorbed Ma's version so I'm relearning the music now from another perspective.

13 mar 2008

Maybe I should have a feature on good prose, to balance the "scourge of bad writing" thread. It's not as much fun, maybe, but it might have some utility. I think Reginald Shepherd has enviable prose chops; let's see how he does it:

I have always had a fondness for verbal extravagance in poetry, for rhetorical splendor and a fine excess.

Strong opening: direct and eloquent, but just a little pleonastic: end the sentence after the word poetry, and something would be missing. I would have credited Keats for the "fine excess" phrase, but maybe he's counting on his readers to know the origin of the phrase: "Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity, it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance." .

One should be suspicious of such excess to a certain extent (Eliot wrote that a poet should always be suspicious of language), lest it descend into mere self-indulgence.

A reversal of direction, an apparent qualification of the first statement. Eliot against Keats? Note that that the first sentence has no qualifiers, and the second one has "to a certain extent" and "mere."

But ours is, in French novelist Nathalie Sarraute’s phrase, an age of suspicion, in which intensity of feeling and expression is an embarrassment, at best an admission of lack of discipline and self-control, at worst an invalidation of whatever one may have to say. “You’re being so emotional,” people say, as if to feel strongly cancels out the worth of one’s thoughts, arguments, or positions. .

These two sentences constitute another reversal, going back to the first idea. Rather than affirming the value of emotionality directly, the writer disparages suspicion, pointing out that it, too, is excessive. There concludes the paragraph. I like the "at best... at worst" construction; it has both clarity and balance. Notice how the longest sentence of the paragraph does most of the heavy intellectual lifting. The concluding sentence brings it home with a concrete example.

All the sentences in the short paragraph attribute opinions to someone or other. First the authorial "I," then Eliot, Sarraute, and "people." The effect of this is to establish an intellectual conversation among multiple voices. Maybe it would be too much to bring in Keats in the first sentence after all.

There's a little bit of slippage between verbal and rhetorical excess, on the one hand, and emotionality, on the other. Not at all the same thing. The rest of the essay will explore those issues so that's not necessarily a flaw.

Is this how I would have written this paragraph? Not at all. I would have made a different set of choices, but I doubt I could have done it better.

The point of fine-combed analysis like this is this: you have to learn to do it to your own prose, because that is how good writers learn to write.
Some things that are getting better:

*Reading, especially accidentals. Three sharps is relatively easy, for four you just add D#. Going in the opposite direction around the circle of fifths, you just B flat, E flat, A, flat, etc... A flat is the enharmonic of G#, so that's the third accidental you add whether in sharps or flats. So about eight key signatures are manageable, leaving four that we'll just ignore for now. I'm reading through a jazz fake book and haven't found more than four sharps or three flats.

*I realized that sqeaks and squawks are the fault of the fingers, not the mouth as I had thought.

*You can't correct a problem in tone quality or intonation unless you first hear it. Ah ha! For some reason C# in the middle register has a hissy quality on my instrument. B flat is kind of strained and wimpy. So making adjustments per individual notes and general ranges, compensations...

*There's a break between B flat, which uses almost no fingers and has that strange quality, to B just above it, with all the fingers and has more resonant. So it's helpful to play pieces which have you moving constantly between those two registers, instead of avoiding having to do that.

*Articulation is getting better. I've been able to play a few phrases that actually sound like musical phrases, giving them shape, rather than just playing everything legato with no tonguing at all.

*Endurance is improving. I can play for longer.
Here's the problem. Arguments for there being something rather than nothing in the spiritual realm invoke our vague longings and feelings of awe, our ethical and aesthetic urges--and then tie them to something quite specific: "Here, everything you are feeling comes from Zeus, and here is a book you have to study, and Zeus wants to to do this and that three times a day. This is the kind of calf you have to sacrifice to him, etc...." But there are no good arguments for any such specifics; they are grafted onto those vague feelings in a totally illegitimate way. That's easy to prove simply by the fact that there is more than one religion in the world. Language is imperfect because there are so many of them, as Mallarmé said.

Yet the vague feelings need a specific structure, some framework, in order not to be so vague, some would argue. There has to be a name for it. In view view, theology can only be negative. There are no positive assertions that can be made without making that illegitimate move from the vague to the specific.
Things Academics Like

Here are some things academics (in the Humanities) like. I know because I am one.

1) NPR. Nuff said. Without academics and college towns where they live, there would be no NPR.

2) Being busy. Even if you're not busy on a particular day, it is bad form to say so.

3) The "book-length project." We are always at work on one, by definition. There is always a book waiting in the wings to be written. Even if there's not, we will say there is. Confessing to not being engaged in writing a book is like saying you're not busy.

4) Feeling superior to other people, especially students and people who don't listen to NPR. Face it, we are the best educated segment of society, by definition, but the least well remunerated in proportion to educational level.

5) Feeling at the same time guilty about privileges enjoyed and resentful about privileges not enjoyed. It's an oddly privileged life, since we are payed to think about and teach literature or music or art or philosophy. We can feel guitly about that, or about not being oppress't, while at the same time feeling we really should have more money and get to live where we want, not in some podunk midwestern college town with an NPR station.

6) NPR.

7) Hating Republicans. (No explanation needed.)

8) Tenure, unless we don't have it yet.

9) Ugliness. Ugly clothes, cars. Bad music on Garrison Keillor's show. The execrable prose in our own book length projects.

10) Complaining about things. Maybe that should be first on the list; it's inherent to the job.

12 mar 2008

Gary wanted more. Here's one from James Matthew Wilson, an English professor, strange as it might seem:

These claims for the difficult craft of verse are valid insofar as they go. It takes work to learn to hear meter as it does to write it. But like grammar, once one gets the hang of it, it becomes very easy.

He means "as far as they go." ("Insofar" means something different.) There should be a comma after "but" in the second sentence. The prose here is clear, acceptable, but a little clunky. Every native speaker of a language knows grammar, so grammar is easy in that sense, but how does that apply to "the difficult craft of verse"? Does he mean that it's easy to write in verse that scans (in which case I agree), or that it's easy to write good verse (in which case I don't)..

Let me amend that last statement by removing the simile: versification is a branch of grammar. To ancient grammarians we owe our knowledge of classical prosody; Dante referred to poetic composition as grammar per se. One must know how to punctuate a sentence to write sound prose. One must know how to write a sentence in meter and, perhaps, in rhyme, to write verse (we shall return to this).

The sentences are becoming increasingly choppy. The claim that versification is a branch of grammar needs a better explanation; doesn't he mean that phonology, and hence prosody, is a branch of linguistics? That would be be more accurate. A direct quote from Dante would be nice; I'm sure Dante said it more eloquently than this, without the vague "per se." The implied comparison between punctuation and versification is not clear to me. Obviously you can write in meter but not rhyme, so it's logically possible to write verse without knowing how to rhyme at all.

And why amend the simile? Just say what you mean the first time around.

But once one has learned grammar—including the grammar of verse—it becomes quite easy, and one turns not to other things, but to more things, which is what is meant by developing a style. One may write in form, after a few hard jogs, with ease; but style is the work of a lifetime, and few men truly live.

The "not to other things... but to more things" construction is quite awkward, as is "what is meant by developing a style." Why be so wordy? Change the semi-colon to a comma after the word "ease," and lose the existentialist melodrama of "few men truly live." What about women? Are they truly alive?

The basic point comes through clearly enough in this paragraph, if the reader puts some effort into trying to understand the relation between grammar and verse, but the prose is stiff, graceless and unidiomatic. The writer hasn't thought of an eloquent way to express his thoughts. He comes off as priggish, hectoring, condescending in tone. He seems to have the answers, but his coarsely imprecise style undermines his implied authority to give writing advice, whether about prose or verse.
In honor of Margaret Soltan's invigorating Scathing Online Schoolmarm I've decided to start a new feature here. The first victim is the self-proclaimed King of underground literature.

IT IRKS ME just a tad when some ignorant brainwashed stooge who knows nothing about literature and writing other than what was pumped into him in school will glance at a criticism I make of the lit world-- an informed criticism-- and dismiss it, out of hand, with a remark highlighting his ignorance-- usually that I'm "bitter" or "not good enough" for said literary establishment.

Defensive, overemotional tone strains the credibility of the reader from the beginning. Why "just a tad"? The writer has a tendency to assert the value of his own perspective "an informed criticism." Well of course he would think his criticism is informed; that is the sort of remark you should make about someone else, not yourself. "In my insightful article..." Nuh, huh.

Not good enough! For a System which by-and-large produces garbage, from Philip Roth down.

More defensiveness and name calling. Fallacious reasoning. Any reader who thinks Roth is an above average or even average writer automatically discounts the King's perspective.

This is akin to the "not a writer" charge which I endured patiently for seven years from a series of ULAers I was trying to promote, from Miss Sneerzinger to Mr. Hall to the five who bailed from the ULA a year ago. (Four whose own writing has scarcely progressed from kindergarten level.) The kind of thing which finally caused me to say, "Enough!" and depart from the organization myself.

So apparently the King was, for seven years, promoting writers who didn't progress much beyond kindergarten. (As opposed to Roth's garbage?) He portrays himself, unintentionally, as one unable to forge alliances with those with similar aims..

Sorry, guys, but I KNOW I can write-- have put occasional evidence of this even up on this blog, if you care to look for it. In the last few months: my 12/31 post, or the Lish/Tolstoy satire, or more recently the "Planet XYZ" and "300" posts, in-your-face though they are.

Sorry, we already KNOW you can't write. Self-congratulation makes the reader jump to the opposite conclusion. Just putting extra stress on the word doesn't make it any more convincing. "even up on this blog" is unfortunate: he's confessing to being not so great a writer most of the time on the blog we are now reading..

Back in the early 90's when most of my current critics were soiling their diapers I wrote two long essays for what was then the best literary magazine in the country, regular winner of national magazine awards and such. Serious essays-- unlike what I do here. (One has to wonder if the journal was penalized for publishing me. Seriously. The lit-world is every bit as corrupt as I've claimed.)

Paraphrase: "No really, I CAN write. If you just look beyond this post, to my oh so serious essays, not like the unserious post you are now reading." Nice job of undermining yourself again. Is the Best Literary Magazine part of the corrupt establishment that the rest of the post decries? Would it publish Philip Roth? How can you gain credibility through your connection to such corruption? Surely those awards were alloted through a corrupt process. The paranoid note is disturbing. Doubtless the head of the Establishment personally put out the word to punish this magazine for publishing those serious essays. The argument from the relative youth of the nameless critics is fallacious and not particularly witty. All of us have soiled diapers in one decade or another.

In short, most of the post consists of defensiveness, jejune name-calling, paranoia, and unsupported, preening self-congratulation. There are no substantive points at all, no answer to the imaginary critic. The writer paints himself as a bitter malcontent, in order to disprove his critics--who call him a bitter malcontent.

11 mar 2008

All sounds have timbre. Yet the word is applied most often to music, and to the human voice even when speaking and not singing. So when we think of timbre we think of sounds that have a primary pitch, a fundamental in the jargon. Unpitched percussion instruments are an interesting limit case. They have their own harmonics, their own tuning, and nobody is more obsessed with timbre than drummers. That's why there are $1000 snare drums. Every sound has a frequency or set of frequencies, but "musical" sounds tend to have a clearly defined fundamental pitch.

It's a little like limiting the definition of the aesthetic to works of art. All experience has an aesthetic dimension, but we segregate some experiences off from others and call them aesthetic. The aesthetic, as I define it, is the perceptual in its specific and qualitative relationship to human "structures of feeling." That's all I'm really interested in, ultimately, but it's quite a bit. If anyone really understood all this and could explain it...

We can talk about other things having rhythm, but we still think of poetry and music as the paradigmatic cases of rhythm. So too with tone quality or color. Language (speech) and music are where we look for these things. (I'm kinding of making this up as I go along. Help!). Music and language seem to be akin. There are words like "phrase" and "rhythm" that have applicability to these two areas and no where else, except metaphorically. What about Barthes' "Grain of the Voice"? I feel that if I understood that essay completely I would be a very smart man.

What's the role of the "aesthetic" in terms of better or worse sounds, pleasing and harsh timbres? Tune in tomorrow...
A graduate student in my own department writes to ask how the levels of writing I described in a recent post (treating, explaining, contextualizing/narrating, and problematizing) translate to the graduate classroom, where the performance is oral rather than written. Treating the subject matter is what happens by default, so a comment in class might be a description, and explanation, a contextualization, or a problematizing, among other things. All these things are possible in a class discussion, but none of them will be fully developed as it might in writing.

What makes for a good comment in class?

*Preparation. The student comes to class with an idea already formulated. Not always possible, because the discussion might not be going in that direction.

*Relevance. The comment relates directly to other things said; it is part of the conversation. The student doesn't always make the same comment about everything. Relevant, improvised comments are even better than prepared statements. You can also prepare to improvise.

*Thoughtfulness. The student might not say everything that occurs to him/her, but will self-censor to a certain extent. Too much, and he/she will never say anything. Not enough, and you have the glibness syndrome. We encourage glibness when we ask for participation but don't necessarily have a structure that produces good student response.

The classroom discussion is a collaborative enterprise. The best discussion is not one to which you could go back, listen to the tape, and judge everything to have been perfect. Rather, it is one in which students responded to one another, developed ideas suggested by others and by the profe. There will be digresssions and even irrelevancies. You would have to go back and edit it to make even the best discussion a well developed essay, but that's not really the point, is it? It should be more jam session than recording session.
Timbre might be be a good entry into the category of the immanent. That's another way of saying the qualitative, the irreducible, the distinctive.

Paul Desmond: A very saturated, dense tone. Imagine a wall painted with many coats of a bright color mixed with a little black.

Stan Getz: Airy and light, with a lot of breath. Here there is white mixed in the paint instead of black. The attack of each note is more discernible. A hint of bassoon.

Charley Rouse: Almost textureless. I have no visual image of his timbre at all!

Lee Konitz: Bright and ringy. Smooth on the surface but with a lot of upperlevel partials giving it a tense harshness. You never forget that the saxophone is made of metal.


9 mar 2008

Timbre is also the way that we distinguish between one vowel sound and another: they are qualitatively different, with different harmonics. We know that eeeee is higher-pitched than ooooo, even when the actual pitch is the same! That's because the harmonics of the instrument (the human voice in this case) are changed depending on what part of the anatomy is resonating.

That's why we say that vowel sounds are "musical."
The qualitative defines personal experience, its distinctness. One reason that I know that I am still I is that I can listen to Art Tatum play "Nice Work if You Can Get It" and recognize my previous experience in it. It's almost like opening a door to the self and seeing that the self is still there. (I listened to this maybe 400 times when I was 14.) I cannot get that qualitative experience out of something I listened to for the first time at 30, with the same intensity at least. The qualitative (timbre) is what makes things recognizable as themselves.

I feel especially drawn to things that were happening around the time I was born, or just before or after. Everything I end up being interested in falls into that 1947-1967 window. Which means in practical terms that the writers and musicians I most love were born between 1920 and 1940, or might as well have been born then. (Shapiro the child prodigy is younger but already writing poems when I was born, so he qualifies.) I wrote my first book on a Spanish poet born in '34, and have been mostly interested in that group of poets. It's the generation of yr parents, sd the Freudian.

Just to give 1926 as an example, we have Miles, Coltrane, Ginsberg, O'Hara, and Creeley who are born that year. Not to mention my favorite modern composer Morton Feldman.

I was never as fascinated by the generation born in the 40s or 50s. I came of age when the good stuff was disappearing from the culture in favor of a cruder aesthetic. I'll give some of it my grudging admiration, but really I don't have the same personal investment in it.

Going back to generation born in the 1880s: that's another source of fascination for me, but it is not as immediate. I could be Creeley, in some sense, but not Wallace Stevens.

Timbres are auditory odors.
Timbre is a qualitative judgment of sound. In fact, it's the best example I can find of what the word "qualitative" means. It has an objective counterpart--timbre as defined accoustically by the components of the sound in question. But that's not timbre. Just like the qualitative experience of seeing bricks of that particular shade of red out the window right now is not defined by the length of the waves of light that produce the experience. There's something irreducible about the qualitative. If you translate into other terms, non-qualitative, you've missed the point.

A lot of what we hear as timbre is the onset of the sound, its duration, and its decay. Think of a piano note that has a percussive beginning and begins to decay almost immediately, in contrast to an organ note, that has almost no "attack" at all and continues at an equal volume until it is shut off. It doesn't fade away but stops. So articulation is a part of timbre.

From the objective point of view, what causes differences in timbre are the harmonics of the overtone series. You don't hear one note but a fundamental at the bottom and various partials at fixed intervals, whose relative strength or weakness gives a unique sound. So harmony is also a part of timbre. A dissonant chord is basically the result of the same cause as a harsh timbre.

Pitch is basically frequency: how fast the vibrations are being produced. Timbre is a combination of pitches; it is harmonic, hence a tempo or combination of tempos.

There's a material aspect too. Just as you can hear a glass crashing on the floor and know what has happened, you can heard the woodiness or plasticness of instruments. You can hear friction and smoothness.

The purest and smoothest timbre is not the most desirable. The vibrato of an opera singer or violinist, the unharmonic noises incident to attack, the rougher sound of a saxophone, seem more satisfying than an over-ethereal flute. You want prettiness, but not too much.
I am trying this short spurt method for writing an article. About 100 words in 15 minutes each day, with some days devoted to reading for 30 to 60 minutes. Once the waters start spilling over the dam I'll have to increase the time. Right now there is efficiency in doing very little at a time on a secondary project that isn't so urgent.

7 mar 2008

I've figured out why I don't like Hillary. She is a Republican. That Commander-in-chief remark did it for me, because that particular synechdoche is a purely Republican trope.

You see, the constitution makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces, not of the nation. The president is not commander and chief of you or me or any else NOT in the military.

The Republican trope is to make one presidential duty represent the whole, as though the president gained more authority from being military. But the Constitution does not set up a military dictatorship; just the opposite. It's as though you went around calling Cheney "the president of the Senate." That's just one particular responsibility.

Furthermore, the point is not to put the most military person possible in that position, but to have CIVILIAN CONTROL OF THE MILITARY. If she's saying that McCain will be a better CIC than Obama, then McCain can always out-military her, out Republican her. A Republican in name only, like McCain supposedly is (another lie, by the way), will be able to beat an aspiring Republican in all but name. All he has to do is establish differences; she has to prove that she's virtually the same as him, if she sticks to Republican tropes.

I hate politics, by the way. And this is a good example of why. This is why I never blog about politics, because I hate it. It's not that I think it's unimportant, I just hate politics' guts. If politics were a person, I wouldn't be able to stay in the same room with him or her.

6 mar 2008

There are psychological factors in writing. One problem I have is over/underestimating time. For example, I thought it would take a long time to switch over the footnotes from MLA to Chicago Style. While this is laborious and boring, it really is fairly quick compared to other tasks. I also thought it would take longer to revise for style, but some of the chapter I wrote earlier are better than I thought they would be. On the other hand, tracking down incomplete bibliographical material is harder and will take longer. The March 31 deadline seems reachable.


I'm doing 15 minutes a day on another article. Just to see if there's any efficiency at all in that.
What we don't talk about when we don't talk about craft

Wash U had a "craft lecture" last night by Michael Palmer. It was a very erudite and compelling talk, and I enjoyed meeting MP. What struck me is that there are two basic approaches: the "I don't know what technique" is approach and the nuts-and-bolts approach. Palmer is in the first camp. I waver every second between the knowable and the unknowable philosophy. There are quite specific particulars that can be known and studied. On the other hand, the approach that takes them as finally knowable is misguided. It's a dialectic, an aporia of multiple layers. I don't know how to resolve it.

4 mar 2008

Random music from my laptop. A supposedly random selection of 1300 songs.

1) Ben Webster. "Early Session Hop." As typical for this epoch, the soloists sound hipper than the background, arrangements, rhythm sections. Webster didn't get much of a chance to make a statement.

2) Ella Fitzgerald. "My Heart Stood Still." (Rogers and Hart Songbook). A perfect rendition of that lyric, that perfect line "My heart stood still."

3) BW. "Linger A While." This sounds like the same corny rhythm section. Fire the drummer! I cannot rate Webster with Coleman Hawkins. There's not that fire in the belly. The two solos after him sound rinky-dink. They're nice enough in a period-style sort of way, I guess, with those mutes in the bells of trumpets and trombones.

3) Antonio Gamoneda. The first part of Libro del frío, "Geórgicas." Not "music," I guess. I memorized this book of poetry almost entire a few years back. "Esta casa estuvo dedicada a la labranza y la muerte." What will my computer give me next?

4) Miles Davis. "So What." A live version, from the Blackhawk in San Francisco, a little faster than the Kind of Blue version. He goes on long in this solo, leaving a lot of space. Then the sax come in, not particularly intensely. Hank Mobley is good, but not quite good enough for this group. Mobley is to Coltrane as Webster is to Hawkins.

5) Cal Tjader. "Cal's Bluedo." Too "space-age bachelor pad" for me, tonight. That was a surprise. It doesn't quite get the Latin feel it's striving for. Lose the shaker.

6) Cannoball Adderley. "Them Dirty Blues." I believe this has Nat on cornet. Now I have to decide whether I really like Cannonball Adderley. This two-feel on Nat's solo is not really doing it for me. It's not really swinging. Maybe it just doesn't match my mood today.

7) Art Tatum. "I've got a right to sing the blues." He's showing them how to do it. First a rubato chorus to set up the tension, then a chorus in time, with lots of ornaments. I used to think this was all improvised when I was a kid, but it has the feel for me now of a worked-up arrangement. Nothing wrong with that. I like the architecture of it, in so short a space.

8) Bach. Allemande from Suite # 5. I heard Pau Casals on Youtube the other day, so now Yo Yo Ma has been demoted.

9) Monte adentro, "Igualito a ti," off one of those putumayo world music collections. That doesn't hit the spot either. Something perfunctory about it. This music has to groove or it has nothing.

10) Lee Konitz. "317 East 32nd St." I love Lee Konitz, but lose the clunky bass player, the chunky drums. And Konitz's ringy timbre wears out its welcome. What's the meaning of that address?

And the winner is ... Art Tatum!
I'm going to Tenerife in May to give a talk about Luis Feria, a poet born there in 1927. They are paying my way and hotel plus honorarium. Anyway, they want me to talk for 50 minutes, so that's a good sized article-length piece, which will then be published in the actas of the conference. I thought it would be useful to keep rigorous track of exactly how long it takes to write. (Yesterday, I spent about 2 1/2 hours reading through his poetry, today, 15 minutes writing 200 words that might be the start of an introduction.) I'm guessing it will take 30 hours total, not including thinking about it in the shower and while riding my bike, so what will be interesting is seeing whether this is a low or high estimate, or just about right. It won't have many citations, so that's a plus. I don't know if ideas flow faster or slower to me in Spanish. I suspect Spanish might be slightly faster simply because I have fewer stylistic resources at my disposal--and a less choppy rhythm, more paratactic, such as is the case in Spanish, is conducive to writerly flow.
Blizzard + Michael Palmer lecture I want to go to. Not a good combination. Maybe it will clear up by 8 this evening.

3 mar 2008


Henry Green. Loving. 1943. 229 pp.

This is another re-read. Henry Green is a favorite of mine. Sorrentino liked him; Ashbery wrote his master's thesis on HG. I've always been more interested in Green than in Greene. There's a hilarious moment in the Paris Review article when Green takes the word "subtlety" and transforms it into "suttee," pretending (or not) to have misunderstood the interviewer. (Of course there's nothing funny about suttee, but the incongruousness is priceless.)

Of Loving itself: it takes place in Ireland during the war, in a house full of restless English servants. The butler has just died, and Charley Raunce is trying to replace him. A little boy strangles a peacock. It's all very wonderful and strange. I remembered very little of it, so it was almost like reading it for the first time.

Adolfa Bioy Casares. La invención de Morel. 1940. 91 pp.

A fugitive arrives on a desert island. A group of people periodically appear there and play "Tea for Two" loudly on a phonograph. He hides out from them at first, secretly admiring a young woman named Faustine. He gradually realizes they cannot see him, and essays various explanations. Then the mystery is revealed as "Morel's Invention." This is the plot the Borges calls perfect in his preface.

This is the first I've read in Spanish for this project, and one of my favorites of the first 15. Novels permit a kind of continuity of attention that I cannot get reading poetry, where the pattern is brief, discontinuous acts of attention followed by long ruminations. I rarely pick up a novel when I am not reading that particular novel, but I often randomly pick up a book of poetry to look something up or to read a poem or two.

2 mar 2008

The bibliography check:

Is each entry complete? Any obvious typos? Check against the actual book/article if you have it on hand. Does anything look wrong? If it does recheck it. But don't assume that if it looks right it is.

Are all entries actually cited your own book / article? Maybe you put something in the bibliography at an earlier stage and didn't use it.

Are all sources referenced in the text listed in the bibliography? Check each reference in chapter against the master bibliography.

Do all entries reflect the format of style you are using? (MLA, Chicago, etc...) Do you distinguish continuous numbering in journals?

Can a reference be ambiguous? For example, "Honig, 33," if there are three books by Honig in the bibliography... If I use three separate translations of Gypsy Ballads, I need a way of disambiguating them in the references as well as in the bibliography.

Can the reader find each entry in the bibliography easily? For example, I have Lorca/Blackburn under García Lorca, with a separate note under Blackburn to check García Lorca. I also have an entry "Lorca, Federico García" with a note to check under the more correct García Lorca, Federico.

What other issues specific to a particular project arise? Many citations of electronic sources?


Have you protected yourself against plagiarism? For example, giving credit to a critic who turned you on to another, third source can be a nice touch. There's a secondary plagiarism in simply taking someone else's bibliography as your own. You sometime want to say, "XX also cites this same text by YY," as a preemptive move, if you've read both XX and YY. Even if you read YY before you read XX quoting YY. It's not absolutely necessary in all cases, but if you carry citation practices this far then you'll also protect yourself against more primary forms of plagiarism. It's a truism that plagiarism is usualy sloppiness, laziness, rather than downright stealing, so the way to protect yourself is not to say, "I'm a good person, I would never STEAL anything," but to have a good understanding of scholarly work practices and the larger issues involved. (I am indebted to Thomas Basboll and his blog "Research as Second Language" for stimulating me to think about these issues. He makes some of these points in different ways in recent posts.)

1 mar 2008

Tone quality: fair to middling.

Knowing where the notes are, sightreading: improving

Playing by ear: haphazard

Transition between chalumeau and clarion register: improving
Altissimo register: non-existent

Articulation, tonguing, phrasing: poor

General enjoyment of playing: wonderful
I've finished the actual writing of the chapters, leaving me one month to do the footnotes in Chicago Style. Chicago Manual of Style style. Track down a few references that have eluded me. Refine the style (the prose-style style) a bit. I've made a backwards timetable, beginning with my deadline and working toward today. It seems doable if I work 3 to 4 hours a day for anther week or so, then at a more reasonable pace after that. I can work 4 hours on writing for a shorter period, but I couldn''t have done that 7 days a week since last August.