30 abr 2008


Montejo. Papiros amorosos. 2002. 65 pp.

The love poetry of Montejo. It's ok, but a little too conventional and derivative of Pedro Salinas at times.

María Auxiliadora Alvarez. Ca(z)a. 1990. 38 pp.

Although I like MAA's poetry, this collection is a little too thin and elliptical. I wanted more of it. Too bad this was the only one of hers our library had.

*Vicente Gerbasi. Edades perdidas. 1981. 61 pp.

Un instante
con ojos de rana
en hojas de agua.
que hunde
mi rostro
en los astros.
De la noche
gotas de rocío
en violetas
acostumbradas a mi memoria.

An instant
with eyes of frog
in leaves of water.
A reflection
that sinks
my face
in the stars.
From night
there remain
drops of dew
on violets
accustomed to my memory.

Venezuelan poet Gerbasi is very, very good, probably superior to his younger compatriot Montejo. "Lost Ages" is a series of fewer then 30 short poems about primordial reality, of the cosmos itself and human civilization.

This poem should be understandable to anyone with a year of high school Spanish.

I had planned to mark the best books with an asterisk, but I am reading mostly very good books.

29 abr 2008

I got a nice postcard from Joseph Duemer, part of his postcard project. He remarks on our internet friendship in the context of having different tastes in poetry. My feeling is that I have a fairly wide range of poetic interests, within my own narrowness. I'm not crazy about a lot of contemporary American poetry of the Mary Oliver/Billy Collins type, but aside from that I like everything from T'ang dynasty to contemporary Venezuela.

27 abr 2008

One problem with book awards and prizes is that their proliferation deflates the meaning of awards and prizes. I see this in Spain as well as in the U.S. In Spain almost every other book of poetry, it seems, is a prize-winner. The publication itself is the prize: that's what you get for winning. (In some cruel cases there are prizes that don't come with publication rights at all.) So to say of a book that it's won this or that prize or award is little more than to say that this book was published. Everyone is a prize winner--so effectively nobody is. In this case the book that is published despite having won no prize at all is actually more distinguished: the implication being that the book is worth publishing because someone actually wants to read it.

Nobody picks up Tony Tost's book The Invisible Bride and says, "It must be good, it won the Walt Whitman!." Rather, you say to yourself, wow, lucky for him he won the Walt Whitman and got his book published. This book is certainly good and deserved to be published, but the prize itself doesn't confer high expectations in the inflationary/deflationary market of prizes and awards.

The same goes for degrees in writing. If the MFA degree confers no status, no prestige, given that 100,000 other poets also have the same degree, then you would stand out more without it, I would think. Certainly a degree from a second or third tier place would be worse than nothing--since anyone looking at it would presume the student would need to unlearn quite a bit. I would assume that even about a "good" MFA program, but that's just me.

26 abr 2008


*José Barroeta. Todos han muerto: poesía completa (1971-2006). 2006. 444 pp.

For obvious reasons I haven't been reading many collecteds in this project. I had an urge though to go through Barroeta's work again, which I've been doing the past few nights. My favorite part is a sequence called "El bosque eterno."

As with many poets, there is a certain redundancy from poem to poem. He seems to be saying the same thing over and over.

*Thom Gunn. Jack Straw's Castle and Other Poems. 1976. 77 pp.

I was a student of Gunn's back in another century, exactly 30 years ago. My copy is hardback and autographed by the author. I probably didn't realize how good a writer he was at the time. He is very competent within that Audenesque voice, but even better when he breaks free from it.

I'm closing in a the first half of a percent.

*Lisa Jarnot. Ring of Fire. 2003. 97 pp.

Avant-garde poetry should not be this fluent and rhythmically powerful, this eloquent and seemingly effortless. I've always liked "Sea Lyrics," the central sequence in this book. Jarnot is a poet with a ton of talent. I wish it really were this easy. She just takes a generative device and runs with it. I wish she made more mistakes, somehow.

Barbara Guest. The Red Gaze.

I just wish she wouldn't use the word "lo" so much. That word summarizes what is wrong here: the antiquated, precious feeling, strangely discordant in a defense of modernism. There are poems I like here quite a bit, but the book is too slight to be wholly satisfying.

*Guest. The Blue Stairs. 1968. 46 pp.

This is one of my favorite books of all time, including "A Handbook of Surfing." Guest's poetry of the 1990s is really not that much different from this; a lot of the differences are typographical.

Jerome Sala. Look Slimmer Instantly!. 2005. 127 pp.

I kept waiting for the dimension beyond the hip, knowing schtick. There are a lot of good laugh lines here, but something bugged me about the book. The points made were too obvious, too didactic. I always knew what was coming next. There is a blurb from Eilleen on the back; this is the kind of poetry I am supposed to like. Somehow I don't, though I will certainly recommend the book to people who like this sort of thing. It's not bad, it just rubs me the wrong way.

25 abr 2008


*David Shapiro. To an Idea. 1983. 95 pp.

Sometimes the density of this poetry takes me aback. The combination of density and clarity is startling. Often I don't know what is going on. I'm not sure this is my favorite of David's books, though it contains a few of my favorite poems. That snow falling into the eraser fluid is wonderful image, like Lorca's butterfly drowned in an inkwell.


My method is to read all the book that are actually in my house, in no particular order. If you call that a method. All the books that are in my Kansas office in boxes will have to wait. Plus any new acquisitions.

*Ronald Johnson. The Shrubberies.

I re-read this the other night. It's been one of my touchstone books for the last few years or so. If there is such a thing as craft, I would recommend this book along with a heavy dosage of Yeats and Ceravolo.

*Rilke. The Duino Elegies. (trans. Snow). 1922. 2000. 65 pp.

Edward Snow is supposed to be the gold standard of contemporary Rilke translators, but somehow I can't accept lines like

"the kindled complement of your own ardent feeling"

[deinem erkühnten Gefühl die erglühte Gefühlin]

as contemporary American poetry. Maybe Rilke has to sound clotted and wooden in English.

One thing I noticed right away is that he erases rhetorical figures:

Werbung nicht mehr, nicht Werbung, entwachsene Stimme

No longer, voice. No longer let wooing send for your cry:

What happend to the chiasmus here? (Werbung nicht / nicht Werbung)

What happened to the repetition of "Gefühl / Gefühlin" in the first line I quoted? Feelings are pretty important for Rilke.

It would probably help if I knew German! But translations are not done for those who don't need them.

It's probably a good translation; it definitely has its eloquent moments, but it's unevenly successful. Rhythm is a big problem in Rilke translations.

The star is for Rilke, not Snow in this case.
How do you read a book of poetry?

1) Pick it up and randomly read a few poems. Repeat until the book has been read.

2) Read from beginning to end. Then go back and randomly re-read a few poems.

3) Read from beginning to end, but skip over some parts. Then randomly go back and try to hit the missing parts.

4) Read every page that begins on a page ending with the digit 1: 1, 11, 21, etc... Then repeat for some other digit until you have read every poem.

I suspect (1) is the normal way of reading for most people. It is for me. I do (3) a lot too. (2) works for shorter books. (4) works well if you've already done (1) but want to make sure you haven't missed anything.

*Antonio Gamoneda. Reescritura. 2003. 75 pp.

This book consists of fragments of poems written over a fifty-year period and then revised in the early twenty-first century. The effect is that of a single long poem. Titles of individual poems are supressed; in some cases, a book-length poem will be represented here by a four line fragment. By revising very early poems, Gamoneda brings them into line with the ethos of his later style.

AG contributes a brief preface in which he explains what he is doing. There is also a CD of him reading the whole thing.

Bronk. Metaphor of the Trees and Last Poems. 1999. 147 pp.

I don't have many poems marked in this book from previous readings. One I do is called "Life Class":

The poems when I find them have been there
all along. The surprise is to see them bare.

24 abr 2008


*Eileen Myles. On My Way. 2001. 69 pp.

The one really got me on my way writing. I always get ideas for poems while reading Myles's work. The poem I started is a reflection on the idea of clarity. Is it defined by the presence of light or by the absence of obstacles to vision?

I realize that I could read 9,000 books and, even if the gender balance were way off, I'd still be reading at least 1,500 books by women. Or if I read 99% in Spanish and English, that still leaves me 90 books of French poetry. I like Gary's idea too that I will inevitably repeat a book or two, only reading 8,994 or so.

23 abr 2008


*Barbara Guest. Defensive Rapture. 1993. 103 pp.

I am far from exhausting this book after multiple readings. In some ways it was her breakthrough book (along with the slightly earlier Fair Realism; after that she could be celebrated by the Language poets and get a new lease on life.

Eileen Myles. Maxfield Parrish: Early & New Poems. 1995. 229 pp.

A "new and old" collection by Myles from the mid 1990s. Includes the great poem "Skuppy the Sailor Dog." I picked up this book recenlty.

Barbara Guest. Miniatures. 2002. 45 pp.

The miniatures are not as great as the two "long" poem with which the collection ends. One, "Pathos," about a figure skater falling down, and the other "Blurred Edges."

*Montejo. Partitura de la cigarra. 1999. 83 pp.

The central sequence of this book, "Music Score of the Cicada," is brilliant. The other poems included here are standard Montejo fare.

22 abr 2008

I'm not racing through these books. I'm reading slowly, and reading many poems multiple times. There seems little point in simply passing one's eyes over the contents of 9,000 books! Of course, the amount of attention to each poem will vary considerably. It's not like reading a novel where the tempo of reading is more constant. You might slow down or speed up when reading a novel but you usually won't stop 15 minutes on a page.

Since I'm now officially between projects, this is now my work to which I devote a few hours a day. The next project will emerge out of my reading, in some way I have yet to determine.

I feel that I will start to understand something when I hit about 900 or 10%--a number that will force me out of my comfort zone of already familiar poets and texts. Nobody has written a comment yet here telling me I am insane. Either you think my plan is mere hyperbole or you already know I'm insane and aren't bothering to point that out.

The major categories are poetry written in English, in Spanish, or translated into one of these languages from a third tongue. I will also do some French in the original. I will be reading almost exclusively poetry I think I will admire in some dimension. My feeling is that, with certain popular poets of the day, there is little point in adding me as a reader. I am not particularly needed--as though Mary Oliver's readership would be incomplete without me! On the other hand, I think there are poets who do need me, or someone like me, to read them, that my reading them makes a material difference in the world, even if my commentary on them is very brief.

21 abr 2008


*Olvido García Valdés. Y todos estábamos vivos. 2006. 217 pp.

This is really more like a 100 page book, but at that it's quite substantial.

20 abr 2008


Olvido García Valdés. La poesía, ese cuerpo extraño. 2005. 127 pp.

I can't get enough of this particular poet. A physical craving for her work. "If the wolf see you first / you'll lose your voice."

18 abr 2008


*Antonio Gamoneda. Arden las pérdidas. 2003. 124 pp.

I'm starring the entries that are going to be eligible for the 100 best books of poetry of all time award at the end of the process. This book is not quite as briliant as Libro del frío, in part because it repeats Libro del frío a little too much. Still, it's Gamoneda and can stand up on its own.

"La memoria es mortal. Algunas tardes, Billie Holiday pone su rosa enferma en mis oídos."



I read this guy's blog who was talking about how he had learned so much from reading 50 books of poetry and poetry criticism over the past 15 months in his MFA program. So you're in an MFA program and you're reading maybe 3 or 4 books a month? You don't have to be a maniac like I am, but I would think someone studying poetry would read maybe 20 volumes of poetry a month on average just by virtue of being in that milieu and getting word of mouth recommendations from friends, etc...

*Coral Bracho. Ese espacio, ese jardín. 2003. 61 pp.

One of my all time favorites. I'm reading it now.

María Victoria Atencia. El hueco. 2003. 141 pp.

The page numbering here is a little deceptive: this publisher (Tusquets) will not start a new poem on a verso (even-numbered page). Since all of these poems are very short, every even numbered page is blank. So it's really more like the standard 70 page book.

María Victoria is not that similar to Bronk, but if you translate this poem just so you get a Bronk poem:


It comes without warning. Maybe a tenuous
green thread in the distance. With no urgency
or pause in a process that naturally
returns us to the daily grind
and its fictions of glories and condemnations.

Myung Mi Kim. Under Flag. 1998. 46 pp.

This one feels a little thin, too elliptical for its own good, and for the good of its political agenda. I just wanted more poems, frankly.

Rae Armantrout. Up to Speed. 2004. 69 pp.

On this re-reading I liked the prose bits better than the verse. The wit is unchanged from my previous encounters with it.

In 70 pages, how many really good poems can one expect? There's plenty here, but even so condensed a poet feels merely desultory too much of the time.

I'm going to have to get a system to keep track of these books a little better. At some point I won't remember what I have blogged about.
That was fun, being woken up at 4:30 by the whole house shaking, firmly and evenly. There was nothing tentative about it at all; it knew its own strength. The conversation was more or less:

Her: "What was that?"

Me: "What the hell?"

"It's an earthquake."

"In the Midwest?"

"Thats the only thing it could be."

Then it was over. The whole thing couldn't have lasted more than 35 seconds. Of course I didn't sleep too well after that.

[Update: holy shit: aftershock at 10:16; they are saying that one waas 4.5, as opposed to the original 5.2].

16 abr 2008


David Young, trans. Five T'ang Poets. 1990. 181 pp.

These are nice translations, in a contemporary American free verse idiom. i still prefer Witter Bynner--oddly the one translator to whom Young never refers in his introductions. The book is a little insubstantial. You don't get that many poems considering the length of the collection. And Young translates only a certain kind of poem.

I also disagree profoundly with his contention that the translator should camouflage the syntactic parallelism in order to make the English-speaking reader happy. After all, we have forms of poetry in English that use parallelism.

Oscar Hahn. Apariciones profanas. 2002. 55 pp.

The Chilean poet Hahn makes things so easy for the reader that his work seems to lack essential weight. I didn't have to look up a single word in the dictionary. I don't hate this book as much as the first time I read it. I'm feeling more indulgent now. It's certainly qualified to be one of 9,000.

Bronk. Our Selves. 1999. 108 pp.

There's that hard bluntness again. The books are repetitive; the poems all versions of the same poem, and hence the variability of quality is evident. It's more of a diary than a collection of polished gems. I like the symbolic mode more than the allegorical mode in Bronk. I like it when the inuitition comes from sensory data, as opposed to when the concrete details are just an allegorical example of what doesn't really matter any way. Allegories of nihilism.

The way you play this game is to relax and let any tune you want pop into your head. Then you can play that tune as long as you want or shut it off and wait for the next one to come.

The problem is that the tunes might continue to play unwanted into your sleep. I had the Pastoral playing all night long and couldn't shake it. If you are prone to "earworms" you might not want to play this game.

Ildefonso Rodríguez. Mis animales obligatorios. 1995. 82 pp.

I've never met Ildefonso, but I hope to some day. I've had this book for a while and am gradually getting to know it better with each re-reading. Once again there is the problem of the gap between the best poems and the average poem in the book.

*Barbara Guest. If So, Tell Me.

This book was only widely available in the UK. Being the fanatic i am I ordered it from amazon several years ago. It is one of my favorite books of hers.

There is a weakness in some of the later Guest which is a certain preciosity. Here that quality is mitigated.

Her collected poems is coming out. I've pre-ordered it for myself.


.02% finished. I am going to write one of those How I read 9,000 Books of Poetry and Saved Civilization books. It's sure to be a hit.

William Bronk. Some Words. 1992. 1999. 66 pp.

I didn't quite remember that this was the book that had the poem about "the hard paternal" or the other one about how we can live without consolation: "... consolation is trivial; / it is never enough."

Funny that poetry books all tend toward the same lenth, when in number of words this book is probably 1/3 the length of the average.

15 abr 2008


Amalia Iglesias Serna. Lázaro se sacude las ortigas. 2005. 76 pp.

Sometimes a book will seem different to me on re-reading. This is one of those books. Now I am noting more its meditative qualities. Lazarus shakes off the nettles.


I'd like to advocate the reading books of poetry as a more or less normal thing to do. I'm not skipping through the books particularly fast. I'm enjoying them and reading every poem. I occasionally skim, just like I do with novels, when it doesn't seem like the writer is doing anything particularly interesting for a page or so. On the other hand, I'll also go back and re-read poems. Some of these books I'm reading for the first time; others have been favorites for years. Many have sat on my review shelf while I tried to finish the Lorca book.

There is the poetry of the poem and the poetry of the daily living with poetry. The daily living with it does not imply less of a critical judgment. There is simply more poetry, but the mediocre does not drown out the poetry of the poem.

There is also the poetry of friends and acquaintances. Fortunately I would not be friends with someone who is not a good poet, so that's not a problem.

Clark Coolidge. Counting on Planet Zero. 2007. [no page numbers]

Here's another one I published poems from in The Duplications. A very nice chapbook from Fewer and Further Press. Coolidge's best work in years.

Stéphane Mallarmé. Herodías. . Trans. Antonio and Amelia Gamoneda. 2006. 65 pp.

Antonio Gamoneda translated this long poem by Mallarmé into Spanish with his daughter Amelia, who is a professor of French. The translation is easier to follow than the orginal, both because I know Spanish better, and because you almost have to be more explanatory in a translation of such a difficult work. I did pass my eyes over the French original too. There are these small radiant clusters of very beautiful language.

Eduardo Milán. Habla (noventa poemas). 2005. 121 pp.

The Uruguayan poet Milán. As the title says, there are 90 poems. It's a little hard for me to get into this guy's work. I'm sympathetic in principle to this intellectual tradition of self-conscious poetry about poetry. The problem, mabye, is the ratio of really great poems to so-so ones. Or maybe I just don't get Milán yet. I should be able to meet him in Tenerife in about a month.
There is an almost physical pleasure in writing in Spanish that I don't get from English prose. In my personal economy of pleasures, my neurology, English is work and Spanish is play. The rhythmic flow, the rhetorical flourishes, allow a different authorial personality. I particularly enjoy the more variable sentence length, from very long to very, very short. I wrote 20 pages on my Feria lecture, finishing today, and it was all enjoyable. My entire approach to composition would have been very different in English.

You should get a native speaker of the language look over whatever you write--even what you write in your own native language. But it must be a native speaker whose writing you admire, in the ideal case a better writer than you in that language.

So the lesson for today is, take pleasure in the foreignness of your prose, but still have someone look it over.

Aaron Belz. The Bird Hoverer. 2007. 76 pp.

Keeping with the theme of poets I know personally... I was at Aaron's reading the other day and bought this book. The celebrity poems in the second half are kind of dumb. Dumb in a "good" way, needless to say. Belz's poetic personality is a version of the dumb/intelligent voice of Ron Padgett. I hope he finds a more original "voice" some day, so to speak. Of course this kind of poetry works very well at readings, in the stand-up comic vein.

I've gone through my own phase of wanting to be Ron Padgett too. In a way, that is based on an underestimation of Ron Padgett, the idea that it is easy to do what he does. The danger is that you end up like Tom Clark instead.

The first half of his book I liked better. Not quite as "dumb."

I'm keeping track of the page lengths, so I can then keep an average. I count the number of pages by simply looking at the page at which the last poem in the book ends. At an average of 70, I will read 630,000 pages of poetry.

14 abr 2008


Luis Feria. Cuchillo casi flor. 1989. 87 pp.

One of Feria's best books. Look at the power of this poem:

Guitarra, insurrección, origen de la fiebre,
odre donde los vinos se amotinan,
flagela a los inertes, asalta los reductos.
Timón del viento, arenga a la tormenta,
incrusta tu metralla donde falta la sangre.

[Guigar, revolt, origin of fever / udder where wines mutiny, /whip the inert ones, assault the refuges. / The wind's rudder, harangue the storm, / embed your shrapnel there where blood is absent.]

Graham Foust. As in Every Deafness. 2003. 66 pp.

A beautiful book physically. It didn't impress me much when I first read it. It still doesn't. Any of the poems might be fine as filler in a really good book of poetry, but there are no anchors, no really great poems to give the collection weight. The Celanesque mannerisms get a bit irritating too. It's not that Foust is an untalented poet; he certainly doesn't make mistakes. There's just not enough there.

13 abr 2008


Katie Degentesh. The Anger Scale. 2006.

Wow. I'm 0.1% done with the 9000 book project! I've been meaning to blog about Katie's book for a while. Probably better to do so now that novelty of flarf has warn off and it can be appreciated like any other book of poems. Funny and incisive, with the poetic personality of its author, not of the various sources from which it draws.

The titles are drawn from one of those pscychological tests, statements with which one can agree or disagree. The cover features tests filled out by Katie and Anselm Berrigan, Michael Gizzi, Julianna Spahr, and Carla Harryman. That's a clever concept. The type is Baskerville, and feels like about a 9 point. Hard on my post 40-year old eyes.

The prompts are all of the "I frequently feel angry at the world" type. it's another of those unitary books, like Cyrus's. Today for some reason I am mostly writing about poets I've personally met.

The drawback of this kind of poetry can be the overrealiance on easy laugh lines. I think here they are calibrated just about right. The page and a half length of the poems feels just about right too, allowing for enough variation of tone, but without being tedious. There's very little mean-spiritedness.

"I Loved My Father" is one of the best poems in the book.
Here's a question. Who decided that poetry books should be 60-80 pages long? (Or thereabouts.) Some are 40, and some are 120, but there is a normative length of at least 60 and not too much more than 70. Selected and Collected Poems are another category, though Selecteds tend to be only slightly fatter than the classic "slim volume of verse."

Is it poet, publisher, or reader driven? It certainly isn't simply a fact of nature that books have to be this length. I can see that the practicalities of producing and selling the book at a certain price might favor a certain standardization. You might not want to pay $12.95 for 35 pages. I know prizes have pages guidelines, and probably MFA programs have guidelines for the length of a poetry "thesis." I'm thinking in the 18th or 19th century this convention of 60 pages did not yet exist, so it would be interesting to pinpoint its exact beginning, in its modern form. It's not enough to identify a book from some other century that had about 60 pages: I'm interested in the standarization of this model.

I would be happy with books of about 40-50 pages. Leave out a few of your weaker poems, poets. Really big books like Collected Creeleys or Kochs or Hardys are useful to have as references on your shelves, but as a reader I prefer smaller packages to take along with me on trips. I think the 150 page format is underutilized. How many pages was Harmonium?

Although both SoQ and avant-garde books tend to similar average lengths (I suspect), I think the quietudinous model is a bit more fixed, with fatter and thinner options less acceptable. Of course there is a model of the shorter collection, called the chapbook, but they are associated typically with lower production values.

Raphael Rubinstein. The Afterglow of Minor Pop Masterpieces. 2007.

Another book that arrived from its author when I was busy writing Lorca. With impeccable taste I published two of the best of these poems in The Duplications. I don't like the sans-serif font very much, but I like the scope and variation of poems in what is a very short, modest book. Nice title too.

Cyrus Console. Brief Under Water. 2008.

Cyrus sent me this book a few months ago. It consists of prose poems numbered in binary code, with a unitary, pleasant and gently formulaic surface calm. The whole seems to be a novel about his brother? There is some resemblance to the poetry of Ben Lerner, to whom this book is dedicated. I expect great things out of Cyrus. There is nothing to criticize per se, no fault to be found. I wonder, though, whether the ironic use of formulaic phrases gets in the way of other kinds of poetic expression.

Nice blurb from Scalapino.
Favorite so-called "classical" music. In no particular order.

1) Goldberg Variations.

2) Partita #3 for unaccompanied violin (Bach)

3) Mozart's string quarter # 19.

4) Rothko Chapel (Feldman)

5) Suite #3 for unaccompanied cello (Bach again).

6) Firebird Suite.

7) Beethoven's Symphony # 6 (Pastoral).

8) Brahms's Symphony # 1.

9) Barber's Adagio for Strings

Eugenio Montejo. Fábula del escriba. 2006.

I usually don't like a combination of plain speaking and elevated language, but Montejo is a uniquely wonderful poet. He invents a heteronym who writes a wonderful poem about the singing of toads. A poem about the life-sized dummy-models of the Venezuelan painter Reveron...
Poetry is our garbage genre, the detritus of our culture. We come to crave mere competence after a while.

The ways in which we treat poetry reveal our tacit contempt for the very thing we claim to love.

12 abr 2008


Luis Feria. Más que el mar. 1986.

A book of poetry prose, evoking childhood memories.

Snow is a flower with that smells without love, a cradle without a child. Childhood is an excuse for singing (un pretexto para el canto.) We saw something burning and it wasn't fire (the lemon trees).

A poem about a boy with bad handwriting:

"How could you have handwriting? We had faces, we had feet, ear, hands, but handwritring... "

Carlos Marzal. Fuera de mí. 2004.

Just when I was feeling that there was something valuable in every book of poetry this book came along and showed me my limits. It is pretentious, overwritten, needlessly abstract. And it won some important prize.

I'm sure this is very good poetry, for someone who likes this kind of thing. There's definitely a lot of effort and expertise gone into it. It's like parallel universe poetry--what poetry would be in some other universe where poetry is like that. That should be a good thing--but it resembles too much the overwrought poetry of my own world.

The title means "Outside of me." But he never gets outside of himself.

Jess Mynes/Aaron Tieger. Coltsfoot Insularity. 2005.

I've always liked this collaboration between Jess and Aaron. It's got a nice, loose feel, but there is little fluff in it. It coheres despite having two authors. I know who wrote some of the parts and who wrote others, but the uncertainty of authorship is part of the charm.

Only 8,997 books to go.

11 abr 2008


Luis Feria. Arras. 1996.

These are short aphoristic poems by the Canary island poet Luis Feria.

Ah, la hermosura, toda.
Tacto insaciable, aun así no es bastante.

"arras" is a word that means valuable objects used as collateral or tokens in an exchange:

(Del lat. arrhae o arrhăbo, y estos del gr. ἀρραβών).
1. f. pl. Cosa que se da como prenda o señal en algún contrato o concierto.
2. f. pl. Conjunto de las trece monedas que, al celebrarse el matrimonio religioso, sirven como símbolo de entrega, pasando de las manos del desposado a las de la desposada y viceversa.
3. f. pl. Der. Entrega de una parte del precio o depósito de una cantidad con la que se garantiza el cumplimiento de una obligación.
I'm starting a new series, today, 9,000 books of poetry. I'm still reading novels, but I still once in a while read books of poetry too. Once I get to 9,000 I'll stop (for a while).


Ron Padgett. How to be Perfect. 2007.

I read this in the public library while Julia was in her trumpet lesson, often laughing out loud as discreetly as I could manage. Padgett has perfect pitch for a certain kind of poem. Kenneth Koch is a big presence in this book. The title poem is an advice poem along the lines of "Some General Instructions" by KK. There's also a poem in which he compares his own method for writing with that of Koch.

9 abr 2008

We will all perish... but only some of us will publish.
What I mean is that everyone makes multiple aesthetic judgments every day. If you didn't, you would be a case for Oliver Sacks. You would have a neurology that is so unusual that Sacks would have to write a chapter on you. It is because aesthetics is intertwined with everything else that judgments are varied. (Wittgenstein famously asked whether you could have philosophy of what kind of coffee tastes the best.)

Sometimes it seems only the Englsh department forbids them (aesthetics). That does seem to be a paradox. On the one hand, there is an overt hostility to aesthetic questions in certain quarters. On another level, it is simply taken for granted that there are other questions to be asked aside from "what makes this poem beautiful?" and that the discipline can't go anywhere being confined to that question. In other words, appreciative admiration is assumed (somewhere in the background) but is not itself the goal.

I would prefer to see that every significant question in literary studies has an aesthetic dimension, just like every aspect of ordinary life itself, but I wouldn't want to say that the particular dimension should be at the forefront at every moment explicitly. Mere "appreciation" seems a little cloying, a little narrow, in prescribing an attitude of silent awe. On the other hand, when literary studies forgets the aesthetic, watch out! The discipline becomes unmoored from its reason for being, confused in its aims. Necessary distinctions fall by the wayside.

I also don't believe in any idealization of ordinary life aesthetics, any political claim that such aesthetics are more genuine or authentic than high art aesthetics, or any more worthy of respect. They just are. Another disclaimer: i'm not saying all judgments of this sort are equally valid, but in some sense they are all equally aesthetic, they all belong equally to the realm of judgment I am talking about, whether I happen to think them mistaken or not.
I've been meaning to post my thoughts on aesthetics.

The first principle is that aesthetics form part of everyday life. From architecture to the design of everyday objects, clothing and the "care of the self," gastronomy, entertainment... the relation between humans and nature; sport... Aesthetics permeate life per se rather than being a separate sphere belonging to the "fine arts." Such arts might only be identifiable as such by an apparent separation from other activities, but this separation is always fragile and temporary.

The second principle is that anaesthetic or ascetic views of the aesthetic remain within the realm of the aesthetic. In other words, the negation of the aesthetic: "I prefer to wear ugly clothes" or "I don't care what my food tastes likes" are aesthetic choices. A taste in harsh-sounding music is not a rejection of "beauty." Aesthetics is not about "beauty" as prettiness, but about aesthetic perceptions of various kinds. "Beauty" seems the archetype of such perceptions, but it must be given its widest range.

The third principles is amorality. We are familiar with two archetypes: the brutish aesthete, the man (usually it is a man) with exquisitely refined tastes who is unspeakably cruel. Here aestheticism stands in for a kind of refined selfishness.

Another variation on this archetype: the mad genuis who makes others suffer.

The other archetype is the opposite: the sensitive artist, whose love of beauty is inherently ennobling.

Certain consequences flow from these ways of thinking. Does bad taste make you a saint? Or does despising aesthetics make you a brute?

What if there is actually no relation between ethics and aethetics? Since aesthetics permeate human life, anthropologically speaking, it is found everywhere, so there really no point in associating it (them) either with the best or worst impulses of humanity. The aesthetic urge can seem noble or ignoble simply because of what company it happens to be keeping at any one given moment. If the aesthetic ugliness of something happens to be associated with some ethical evil (Shostokovich's Stalinist Kitsch?), that's just an association after the fact.

8 abr 2008

Akiko is going out to dinner tonight. When she told me that Cristina Rivera Garza was going to be one of the people going out, I was surprised. I had no idea until now that she was a visiting professor this semester at Wash U.

Kawabata. Thousand Cranes. 1958? 247 pp.

Another novel re-read. This is one of my favorite novels of all time, perfectly plotted. A young man has to deal with four women at the same time: two ex-lovers of his father, the daughter of one of these ex-lovers, and a young woman that the other ex-lover wants him to marry.

7 abr 2008

McKuen? Or Kinnell?


If I die before you
which is all but certain
then in the moment
before you will see me
become someone dead
in a transformation
as quick as a shooting star’s
I will cross over into you
and ask you to carry
not only your own memories
but mine too until you
too lie down and erase us
both together into oblivion.



Even wrinkled water stretches out
along its roadway to the sea.
A blemish under sunlight fades,
or darkens,
changes anyway as all things change
the more they meet the Elements.



what seemed your own inner blazonry
flapping and gliding, in desire, in the middle air?
Weren't you reassured to think these flimsy
hinged beings, and then their offspring,
and then their offspring's offspring, could
navigate, working in shifts, all the way to Mexico?



I have fallen in love with the world
And I am aware that I have chosen
the most dangerous lover of them all.

I kiss the bare feet of the forenoon
undress the shadows all along the wall
and on non sunny days



In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.
The biggest lie of our low dishonest decade is that we are doing so much better now than [abitrary date in the last five years]. Casualties are down from [day/month/year aribtrarily chosen to make this point.] Now that [Bush lands on aircraft carrier / Saddam is captured / executed/ elections are held / one particular group is not attacking Americans as often], we have proved how wrong opponents of the war really were all this time. This lie gets repeated over and over again, with the bracketed parts changing. Sure, we messed it up for the first [one, two, three, four, five, six] years, but NOW things are going our way, and it's unpatriotic to suggest otherwise!

6 abr 2008

Things I Liked as Kid, Some of Which I Still Like

1) National Geographic

2) Beethoven's Sixth Symphony in F, "Pastoral."

3) e.e. cummings

4) Raquel Welch

5) Fugues by Bach

6) Art Tatum

7) Ray Charles

8) Bookstores

9) Libraries

10) Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
I'm psyched about my Tenerife trip in May. Antonio Gamoneda is going to be there. Eduardo Milán. Some serious heavyweight poets of the Spanish-speaking world. I'm the only yanqui on the program and they're paying my way. And it's in Tenerife where I've never been.

5 abr 2008

I heard on an NPR newscast yesterday: "HIllary Clinton released tax returns for she and former president Clinton."

The classic hypercorrection. Nominative pronouns sound more formal. We are taught not to write "Him and me don't get along so good." So "for she" sounds more correct than the more natural (and grammatical) "for her." To avoid a grammatical mistake you make a grammatical mistake, since the correct form sounds too informal, somehow. People who go around saying "it is I" don't trust their own grammatical instincts as native speakers. Imagine you're looking at a police line up. You identify the subject. What do you say: "That's him" or "*That is he"? Only a misguided urge to be more "correct" leads to the second option.

But for some reason in compound nounphrases there is more tolerance either way. "For my father and I,... " That sounds almost ok. Nobody says "For I..." in place of "for me." Nobody says "Me went to the store," even though almost everyone says "Me and my dad went to the store."

"My family and I live in..." that sounds good. But not "*I and my family..." "*I and you have to talk" = ungrammatical. It has to be "You and I" or, colloquially, "Me and you."

So the hypercorrection "For she and the president" is the mirror image of the use of me, him, her, them, as nominative pronouns in longer noun phrases in colloquial speech.

Thomas Hardy. Far From the Madding Crowd. 1874. 431 pp.

This reminded me a lot of Adam Bede. Competence seems the great value here in Gabriel Oak (as in the title character of the Eliot novel), who finally wins over the unlucky in love Bathsheba.

I read this book about 12 years ago, so this is another re-read. At this rate I won't read 100 in a year.

4 abr 2008

A clarification on the previous post:

I think it helps to know the rules of the system in which you are participating. If you want to be a chess grandmaster you have to know that the games you won in your dreams against Boris Spasky do not count. The rules are arbitrary and conventional. Journal X is more prestigious than journal Y. Harder to get into. You get more points for that. I see it as a game: I try to get into as many first-line journals as often as possible and award myself "points."

Your reward, if you play your cards right, is to get a job 400 miles from your spouse's place of employment in a dismal Midwestern college town, teaching students who care what's on the midterm, not how smart you are. So knowing how many points you have (in yr own mind) becomes really significant. If you keep score by your salary you'll be very depressed.

There is a journal in my field, let's call it Refereed Journal in Name Only. I've never published there. I've never cited an article published there, or seen an article from this journal cited anywhere else. Nobody I respect in my own subfield is on the editorial board. In fact, the editorial board is mostly in-house, and the home department is not an eminent one. I woudn't published there if you paid me.

But an article in RJINO counts as a publication. It's not a bird dropping, and is actually more substantial than most bird dropping type publications. There was some editorial process. For a very good department, this would count toward quantity but not quality. If all the publications were in 3rd-line journals like this there would be a problem.
Before tenure, avoid too many "bird dropping" publications.

Bird dropping publicatons are short encyclopedia articles, book reviews, non-referreed journal articles; papers in non-prestigious conference proceedings. Articles on teaching. Articles published in Graduate Student journals or internet only journals. Non-substantial translations. Journalism. Blogging. In short, anything but solid referreed article and chapters in University Press books. Suppose someone comes up for tenure with 10 publications and a book ms. in search of a publisher. Seven referreed articles and 3 book reveiws would be marginal at a top university, adequate Mediocre State School. Eight bird droppings and two more legit publications would look like a padded c.v. From the point of view of a tenure evaluator (which I am every summer) I recommend a ratio of at least 4 to 1. In fact, it wouldn't hurt you to have no bird droppings at all. A lot of people don't know this and are never told, or are told but don't listen. Academia is brutally competitive. To get tenure at a research job you should be a researcher, so you should help your tenure evaluators make a case for you by basing your c.v. on solid publications.

Unfortunately, "creative writing" is also a bird dropping from the academic point of view, if you don't have a creative writing gig. If you publish a short story in a journal edited by your friend, but aren't really a serious writer, nobody will care.

I probably have too many bird droppings on my c.v. too. I have enough solid publications to make the bird droppings irrelevant. That's the point, though: they are still largely irrelevant. These publications can hurt you by making you look like a dilletante but they can't really help you very much.

3 abr 2008

How to Be Boring

Choose to write about something that holds no interest for you. If you are bored, chances are you will be able to bore your readers very easily.

(If you insist on writing about something you care about, make sure to adopt an approach in which your personal interest does not reveal itself.

Make sure extrinsic motivations are foremost in your mind: passing the course, getting tenure. Intrinsic motivations are a sure way of introducing some degree of interest into your writing. Make sure you convey the message to your reader that you are only going through the motions, fulfilling your obligations.)

Make sure to use "a significant contribution to the field," if writing a book review. For a cultural studies article, "Can it be a coincidence that...?" Formulaic phrases like those reassure your readers that you have no desire to be overly engaging.

Make sure the argument is a very slight variation on the prevalent kind of arguments made in your field. It is not easy to be boring: you will have to do some research to see what kind of arguments are least objectionable. Your aim is to slip under the radar.

Avoid expressing your ideas directly and concisely, in your own critical voice. Your aim is to make your writing indistinguishable from the scholarly norm. You want your reader to skim over the article just to make sure it conforms to certain conventions. You wouldn't want to put in anything that would make the reader slow down and start engaging with the ideas themselves. Your ideal reader is not someone who will actually read, but someone who will cite some bland, unobjectionable phrase in his or her own article, after a rapid skim.
SEK on signposts

Sarcasm aside, signposting is very useful. It's better to include a lot of very obvious signage in a first draft, then revise to make the signage more implicit, the transitions more seamless. You can tear down the scaffolding after the building is built, but you keep the structural beams. There is a dimension of signage which is mostly useful to the writer, while writing, and another which is mostly useful to the reader.

Scot also points to another function, which is to fold (seemingly) extraneous material into the argument. Here you will need a sign that says, "Scenic Detour This Way," but also The Detour is Really Relevant Somehow.

2 abr 2008

Discussions of the popularity of poetry have always confused me. Doesn't a lot depend on what is meant by poetry and by popular? A few categories to start out with:

(1) Poetry rock stars.

These are popular poets like Byron, Lorca, and Ginsberg in their respective periods of greatest fame. They seem to transcend normal ideas about poetry through the force of personality. Voznesensky.?

(2) Cultural icons.

These are the Robert Frosts and Walt Whitmans and Tennysons. Poets who stayed around enough to become iconic, but in a less rock star kind of way. The good gray poets. Longfellow.

(3) Self-destructive geniuses

These are the Plaths and Dylan Thomases. (Some overlap with rock stars.)

(4) Populists

These are poets who are popular because they are more or less populist. The Vachel Lindsays, Mary Olivers, of the world. They are never quite as popular as the rock stars.

(5) The poet famous for extrapoetic reasons

The one famous poet from a particular country, read only in translation. The political dissident who gets famous without the poetry being read.

There are wildly popular poets of all these categories in the 19th and 20th centuries. There really is not popular poetry at all before that (in the sense that I mean) because popularity implies the media and a reading public. Alexander Pope was the first poet who actually made money by selling to the public, I think. Also one of the last to do so (ha!). I don't think Wyatt was interested in popularity.

There were other modes of "popularity" before, of a different sort. For example, anonymous poetry actually of the people themselves. Poetry identified with the national culture of a particular place or time (Dante). But the debate over poetry's popularity has to be framed very carefully. It always seems that poetry is popular somewhere else, or some time else, but when? When Voznesensky filled stadia? When Ginsberg's Howl was printed and reprinted (now in other words)?

The golden age of poetic amateurism, when everyone wrote poems and published them in newspapers is ... now. Except it's the internet or NPR and not newspapers.

Rilke, Neruda, and Rumi have been wildly popular, if you believe the number of translations.

1 abr 2008

Something about that asthma inhaler... Soon after taking a bike ride and needing some albuterol I read that Dan Chiasson comment and the blood rushed to my head. I felt totally enraged. As enraged as when dealing with the Kent Johnsons of the world. I vowed to spend my life bringing down Dan Chiasson. A polite letter to the New Yorker will have to do, I guess.

Seriously, rants are very fun. There's something cleansing about invective. One important aspect is that the invective has to be out of proportion to the triggering event. It is no fun to underreact. But it must be controlled, with simmering anger, not outraged victim-like emoting. Focus on the absurdity of what was said, not on the idiocy of the person saying it.

I was probably too mad to do a really good rant. I'll try to do better next time.
While at Aaron Belz's reading this evening, it occured to me that this was a great poem. It had nothing to do with Aaron, it was just a random triggering. The greatness of the poem struck me not when I was reading it, but at a totally irrelevant moment several weeks after I had read it. I had to rush home to translate it for you.



Why should we be just children? We wanted to be everything: man, flower, fire, God...

It was easy to be a man: we spoke while wagging a stiff finger, slicked our hair down, without a single strand escaping, sat with our legs crossed.

Flower was a little harder. We poured cologne over ourselves, then the perfume our mother used in her cleavage and behind her ear, then aftershave lotion. With disastrous results. What a stink! Straight to the bath.

Fire: almost impossible. We sat out in the sun for the longest time, suffering through dizziness, headache, itches, nausea. But just when we were about to catch fire they brought us in, rubbed us down with vinegar and water, cream for our bruises, took our temperatures. If we'd continued, I'm sure we would have thrown off flames.

And the easiest of all: God. Not a beard or crown or mantle or sky: nothing like that. Just grow with the trees, be water with the sea, move in the dog's tail. In other words, be all things, but be children also and at the same time. Children, and more.

Four attempts at sympathetic magic or magical thinking.

Mimesis: imitate the adult manner completely, you are an adult. Cross your legs.

Metonymy: select one aspect of the flower, its smell. If you smell like a flower, you are one.

Another attempt at mimesis/metonymy/absorption. To become fire, set yourself on fire by getting sunstroke. Brilliant.

Of course, we expect being God to be the hardest, but it ends up being the easiest. The literalism of magical thinking gives way to something completely different. Not the white beard and the man in the sky, but the tail of the dog.
O’Hara didn’t introspect or recollect much. His poems lacked the formal appliqué of rhyme and meter, and, where most poets deposited words with an eyedropper, O’Hara sprayed them through a fire hose.

That's got to be one of the worst, most ignorant descriptions of Frank O'Hara's poetry ever written. Have you read "In Memory of My Feelings," Mr. Dan Chiasson? If you have, how can you make a statement like that? There is plenty of memory and introspection in O'Hara. I challenge you to come to this blog and back up that statement.

I could name 20 or 30 other introspective O'Hara poems just off the top of my head, but I won't bother. How about starting with "To the Harbormaster." "Personal Poem" is very introspective, and that's one of the best known texts. It's not like you have to go that far to find O'Hara's Pasternakian dimension.

You think that rhyme and meter are a "formal appliqué." Wrong again. O'Hara did write sonnets too, by the way.

You think O'Hara sprayed words through a fire hose? I don't think so. Wrong again. He was a poet of nuance, of subjective experience. The recollection is there too, in poems like the Ode for Michael Goldberg's birthday.

For you, it must be easy to write a review of a book: you simply put forward some cliché about the author prevalent in your particular literary milieu. But what does that say about you? You live in a world where you can make statements like that and not have people call you on them?

And what, the New Yorker doesn't have editors any more? A simple fact checker would have been sufficient in this case, because that description is so far from O'Hara's poetry as to be factually incorrect. This is not a difference of opinion.
I've been fascinated for a while by the poem "Queslques-uns des mots qui, jusqu'ici, m'étaient mystérieusement interdits" by Paul Eluard.

It starts out like this:

Le mot cimetière
Aux autres de rêver d'un cimetière ardent
Le mot maisonnette
On le trouve souvent
Dans les annonces des journaux dans les chansons
Il a des rides c'est un vieillard travesti
Il a un dé au doigt c'est un perroquet mûr

Basically, a series of definitions and associations triggered by particular words. The poem is itself linguistically dense. It's not even that I love this particular poem, I just like the device and the conceit on which it's based. The poet realizes he hasn't used certain words, and rushes in to fill the gap. "dans le gran souci / de tout dire." "Some of the Words which, until now, have been mysteriously forbidden Me." It comes at the end of his surrealist association, in 1937. It's dedicated to Breton, but might be seen almost as a farewell to surrealism.

I don't have a reliable translation of it. I'm going to try to give you one soon. I almost prefer not understanding every word, though. I don't get the syntax of the second line.

"The word cemetery
to the others dreaming of a burning cemetery [Let others dream of burning cemetery]
The word maisonnette
you find it in newspaper ads in songs
he is wrinkled, it's an old transvestite
he has a die on his finger, it's an aged parrot..."