31 may 2008

I've never been paid $1,000 for a lecture before. It feels a little unreal. That brings my average pay per lecture to about $40.
I was up for 25 hours yesterday. A storm in St. Louis meant that we had to go to KC first and wait a bit, meaning the Miami / St. Louis leg of my voyage was 3 hours late. Which was fine except I didn't much sleep the night before and had to get up at 5 to catch a 7 a.m. flight from Tenerife to Madrid.

Came back to the news that my Liverpool University Press book won't need many revisions. It might come out at the same time as the Lorca book.

23 may 2008

There will be a short blog hiatus while I take a trip to Tenerife. I'll be back late next week. Don't bother commenting because I won't have time to moderate comments either.

22 may 2008


*Creeley. Words.

Few poets have been as important to me as Creeley, and this is the best of the late/early stage. I've had this beatiful first edition for a while, but I can't say I've read every word until now.

21 may 2008

We think of noun phrases consisting of strings of long nouns as inelegant.

Like "emergency alert equipment test report."

"Modern Language Association Convention Program Committee Meeting"

But there's a kind of elegance in the fact we recognize immediately that we are talking about a report, a report about a test, a test of some equipment, some equipment used in an alert, an alert having to to do with the possibility of an emergency. Or a meeting of a committee for the Program of the convention of the association for the study of modern langugages. These are not just linear strings of words but the reflection of a hierarchically recursive structure, which could be shown with one of those trees linguists like to draw. There's only one possible order for these words to go and mean what they mean.
More overcorrection on NPR. Sen Dodd saying, about Sen Kennedy: "I wish he and Vicky the best..." (ouch).

Then a newscaster saying Barak had won "more than a majority" of pledged delegates. Almost all majorities are "more than a majority" by definition. (Maybe 51 out of 100 people is not not "more than a majority" but exactly a majority, and nothing more?) He meant to say "a majority."

19 may 2008


Mei-Mei B... Sphericity. 1993. 42 pp.

Here's a book I can't quite accept or reject. It comes uncomfortably close to art-speak jargon, with a narrow register. Yet there are glimmers of an intersting mind there, making me want to read more by the same poet.

18 may 2008


Josephine MIles. To All Appearances: Poems New and Selected. 1974. 163 pp.

Here's an example of a poet who doesn't seem to get what it's all about.

I saw a work so good,
Strong, delicate, and exact...

She's telling us about an aesthetic experience but the experience is not there in the poem. You simply can't write a line like "I saw a work so good." It's completely self-refuting. And that's one of the better poems.

17 may 2008


Benjamin Hollander. The Book of Who Are Was. 1997. 109 pp.

This book has all the credentials. Sun & Moon imprimatur; references to Celan and Wittgenstein, Jabès and Michael Palmer. I ought to just say it's great and move on. However, I have never been convinced by this book. There's something missing in the writing itself. Perhaps there's an over-reliance on the poetic sources?


I'm increasingly drawn to writing I feel has "perfect pitch." It might be a very conservative aesthetic, in a way, but I want my poetry (the poetry I read) to have that quality of being perfectly in tune. I have to be convinced that this was the only way to write that particular poem. I could see it as an acknowledgement of my own limitations as a reader. The abolutism of my own taste can only be justified in terms of a neurology of my own, with the ever-present possibility of being wrong. Not wrong about my own response, but about the relevance of that response to anyone else.

The mystery of taste is not why we don't like the same things, but why we ever correspond at all. If taste is subjective, then there's no reason two people would ever agree. So there has to be something in the object itself. It's not just that we like Mozart because we're told it's supposed to be great: the response is genuine.

16 may 2008


*Olvido García Valdés. Del ojo al hueso. 2001. 116 pp.

I should have a system for giving two stars instead of "just asterisk or no asterisk." But that would get too complicated. This book is amazing. This is in many ways Olvido's best book. I'm not crazy about Anselm Kiefer, to whom she devotes the last part of the book. But I'm glad he inspired one of favorite Spanish poets. I'll just pretend he's a better artist than he is, looking at him through Olvido's eyes.

15 may 2008

Here is an interesting story. We humanists complain there is no money for research in the humanities, but if we define a certain kind of thing as "humanities" then our problem goes away magically:

... But for a humanities professor willing to take up applied work, sources of money are unexpectedly abundant. There is no need for humanities professors to waste any more time envying the resources available to scientists and engineers. Instead, you can offer to play Virgil to their Dante, guiding them through the inferno of cultural anxieties, laypeople's misunderstandings, and political landmines..

For example, this:

The Center of the American West, which I chair at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is making a documentary, the first enterprise (that we have ever heard of) to take literally the familiar metaphor of "America's love affair with petroleum" and put it to work to make a therapeutic case for moving on to a new, more lasting and gratifying relationship with energy efficiency and renewables.


I don't want to sound TOO snarky, because I think a documentary (with a cutesy premise to boot) about energy policy is a valuable thing. The Center of the American West sounds wonderful. I wish we had it at Kansas instead of Colorado.

According to this article, I can get great amounts of money for my research in the humanities as long as I address "cultural anxieties," which, if you think about it for a moment, can be defined as almost anything people are worried about at any given time. But if the humanities are "anything," then they are also essentially nothing. In its "applications," "humanities" tends to end up being social science without the social science jargon. In other words, mostly the history department, but with an approach to history that isn't terribly sophisticated ("the American love affair with petroleum"). She sounds very proud of herself for taking this metaphor so literally.

I shouldn't complain: I've had two NEH Fellowships. But getting one of these is hard. People in my department were in awe that I got it a second time. It's not a normal, routine thing at all, and it took fifteen years for me to get lucky a second time. I guess I'm barking up the wrong tree. From now on I'm only doing "applied humanities," guiding engineers through the labyrinths of cultural anxieties, whether they want to be guided or not. (The Dante/Virgil conceit is cute too.)


The article makes some other very good points; I don't want to be unfair here. For example:

To conventional academics in the humanities, contact with the public, as well as the entrepreneurial pursuit of financing, registers as contamination and impurity.

Touché. She (Patricia Nelson Limerick) scores a point here. I would say, though, that many [of us] conventional academics object not to "contact with the public" per se but to a certain kind of pandering. For example, what exactly are the "humanities" you are bringing to the public's attention in a project like the one described above? Where's the intellectual content?

She also remarks:

It is hard for me to remember why other academics choose to feel marginalized in American life.

Maybe because we don't choose to work directly on issues that are translatable into public policy debates and public television documentaries? It's great if you do want to work only on things directly relevant to people in the region where you happen to live, but is that what the humanities really are about?

*Robert Creeley. For Love: Poems 1950-1960. 1962. 160 pp.

I had this book when I was 15. I recently reacquired it because for some reason I hadn't held on to my original copy. There were poems here I had forgotten about, but as a whole the book has stayed with me for thirty years. I liked that "my lady fair" stuff when I was a kid. Now I see it differently but still like it. Or maybe I like it for the same reason; it's hard to tell.

I have a long term project to reacquaint myself with everything I loved at that earlier time. Recently I bought a vinyl album (having no turntable to play it on!) called "A Memory of Johnny Hodges," because I used to own this record and it's never been released on cd. It's a truly great record in my own memory of it.

I'm closing in on the first 1% of the 9000 books project.

Ted Mathys. Forge. 2005. 93 pp.

I've never liked this book, try as I might. It is very, very good; Mathys has impressive chops, but his aesthetic leaves me cold. He puts things in where I would leave them out. Belonging to the "more is more" school, he never seems to reject anything that has occured to him, and often takes too long to explain himself. The detritus in his head is certainly impressive in its colors and textures, but to me it's not particularly compelling.
As I submit my materials for promotion I realize what I most care about is the aesthetic quality of my prose. That's a surprising conclusion. Well, maybe not.

Although Bemsha Swing is not beautifully written, day by day, the writing of the blog has taught me to address a wider audience, beyond the dozen academic specialists who can be counted on to care. The Lorca book could not have been written without that daily practice.

*Ronald Johnson. Radi os. 1981. 2005. 91 pp.

I'd read this before, but the third section blew me away this time.

As you know, this book was written by erasing the greater part of "Paradise Lost" and leaving a few clusters of luminous words on each page. I've found it's best read very fast, jumping from one such cluster to the next.

14 may 2008


*Menchu Gutiérrez. La mano muerta cuenta el dinero de la vida. 1997. 84 pp.

I was hungry.
A coin fell to the ground
and I didn't stoop to pick it up.
In the street the music of hell was heard
and I followed it
as you might keep drinking out of empty glasses.

*Lola Velasco. El movimiento de las flores. 2003. 88 pp.

The first volume in a trilogy that also includes El sueño de la piedra and--someday to be published El aliento del cazador. There is something very subtle and elusive in this sort of poetry.

[ ]

This particular book, which will go unnamed, was unreadable. It felt as though its author wrote a book of poetry without understanding what poetry was. It's not even particularly bad, it just didn't even seem to be there in any sense.

12 may 2008


*Creeley. Drawn & Quartered. 2001. No page numbers.

Creeley's collaboration with Archie Rand, an artist about whom I know nothing, apart from this collaboration.

Silliman objects to the homilectic uses of Creeley. But isn't that part of Creeley's charm--his usability? Here there are mostly rhymed quatrains that take off from etchings by Rand. The text illustrates the image, and the aphoristic side dominates.

11 may 2008


Lisa Jarnot. Black Dog Songs.

The poem "Lisa Jarnot" is brilliant. I've realized one of the benefits of reading 9000 books is that I will read (at least) 9000 brilliant poems.

10 may 2008


James Tate. Shroud of the Gnome. 1997. 72 pp.

It has its moments, its apercus, few and far between. The wit is extremely strained, ultimately quite predictable.

*José Angel Valente. Material memoria (1979-1989).

This is a cross-section of Valente's mid-career work, including the masterpiece Tres lecciones de tinieblas.

*Clark Coolidge. Ing. 1968. no pagination.

One of the only books of poetry named after a morpheme. The early, abstract Coolidge has its peculiar charm, as in this collector's item with a cover by Guston.

"ing" is a recurring syllable here, in a book that breaks language down to the level of morpheme and syllable. He likes to suggests words by cutting them off "taneity" inevitably suggests "spontaneity," for example. "straction" is "abstraction."

9 may 2008


*Antonio Gamoneda. Descripción de la mentira. 1977. 64 pp.

This is an amazing, ground-breaking work. I discover new things in it every time I re-read it.

8 may 2008


*Claudio Rodríguez. Casi una leyenda. 1991. 86 pp.

I was writing my dissertation, you see, and Claudio told me he had this book coming out. But this was in the mid 1980s and I couldn't wait for it to appear to finish. It didn't come out until 1991, a year after my book on Claudio appeared. So I kind of have a love/hate relationship to this book. It took me a while to realize it's fantastically good, not just a repetition of the previous Claudio books. Probably because I resented its delayed publication so much.

Vicente Valero. Libro de los trazados.

I don't quite believe this book of Rilkean long-poem modernist ambition. It's very nice; I just can't suspend my belief. I liked some of Valero's earlier books a bit more.


I'd be blogging more, but am preparing for trip to Tenerife between sidetrips back to my office in Kansas. Also preparing documents for a possible improvement in professional status.

5 may 2008


*Lola Velasco. El sueño de las piedras.

4 may 2008


*Clark Coolidge. Own Face. 1978. 88 pp.

Here's one of my favorite books of all time. I always find new things in it each time I revisit it.

2 may 2008


*Montejo. Algunas palabras. 1976. 89 pp.

Another wonderful book by Montejo. I'm closing off the Venezuelan interlude now to go back to some English-language material.

Poets from the tropics like to write about snow, Iceland, etc... It's like an alternate imaginative universe for them. Writing what they don't know. It's almost a special topos in Cuban poetry.

1 may 2008


*Juan Sánchez Peláez. Rasgos comunes. 1976. 71 pp.

Another very good Venezuelan poet, writing prose poems influenced by a certain surrealist rhetoric.


And I get José-Miguel Ullán's thirteen hundred page collected poems Ondulaciones, in the mail to top it off. It's not even complete, leaving out some books of the 1960s.

*Gerbasi. Los espacios cálidos. 1952. 1992. 97 pp.

Though not Gerbasi's first poetry, it represents a different stage from the books I have been discussing.

Gerbasi is the first new (to me) poet I have discovered in this project. After 50 books! I'd heard of him before and read a few poems, but this was the first time I sat down with several of his books.

Gerbasi. Los oriundos del paraíso. 1994. 53 pp.

Gerbasi's last poems--"Natives of Paradise."