30 nov 2008


Ella at Duke's Place

This is perhaps not as good as the Ella's Duke songbook. It is kind of a follow up to that. It does have a nice version of "Cottontail" and Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing." I'm not crazy about the lyrics to "Brown Skin Girl in the Calico Hat' or "Imagine My Frustration." There's nothing here as good as "Prelude to a Kiss."

Anthony Braxton. Seven Standards

Speaking of "Joy Spring," this album by Braxton begins with his take on this song. I actually knew this one before I ever heard Clifford play it. Braxton takes apart the song and puts it back together. Also check out "Old Folks" and "Background Music." I love those songs too.

There appear to be other Braxton collections with the same title. The one I'm referring to, of course, is the one with "Joy Spring." Another case of something which is avant-garde ma non troppo. On each song, Braxton begins conservatively, goes into some more adventurous playing, and them comes back again.

Clifford Brown / Max Roach.

This album appears to be called just that. It has classics like Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring" (two takes) and "Parisian Thoroughfare." I like this a bit better than either "Brown and Roach Inc" or "Study in Brown." Clifford is my favorite player after Miles of this period (on trumpet), and I love Harold Land, the tenor sax player. Richie Powell, Bud's brother, is on piano.

I was shocked to here Alberto Sandoval reproduce the trumpet solo on "Joy Spring" note for note on a tribute album. I could sing along because I know every note on this solo. "Joy Spring" is in fact my favorite song of all time.

Cindy Blackman. Works on Canvas (1999)

This is a drummer's album by Cindy B, known to many as Lenny Kravitz's drummer. Aside from the drumming itself, in more or less the Tony Williams vein, I appreciate here the suite-like arrangement of the album and the original takes on standard tunes. Especially Kurt Weill's "My Ship"; "Green Dolphin Street"; and "April in Paris." Some treatments seem to just get at the essence of the song's melody. That's the case here with J.D. Allen's tenor sax playing on some of these tunes.

It's always hard to compare contemporary albums with established classics, so I won't. 300 should give me room to simply list everything in my collection that I actively like.

Cannonball Adderley. Them Dirty Blues (1960)

This is a classic swinging hard-bop quintet album with Cannonball Adderley on alto sax and his brother Nat on trumpet. I like "Work Song" and "Dat Dere," along with Gershwin's "Soon."

Solo Monk

This was one of the original albums I owned on vinyl in High School. I remember driving my parents' station wagon to Tower Records in Sacramento to buy it. It is somewhat monotonous, but in a good way. Monk doesn't really do much to the songs he plays, in terms of improvisation. He just plays*them. To this album I owe my original knowledge of standards like "Everything Happens to Me" and "These Foolish Things." His playing of "Dinah" manages to be bouncy and very sad at the same time.

Coltrane. Live at the Village Vanguard

I love "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" off of this recording. I also like the contrast between Coltrane and Dolphy.


Coltrane Plays the Blues

This can get a bit monotonous. While the blues is the basis of jazz on some level I actually think the 32 bar AABA or ABAC structure is quite a bit more interesting. Not among my favorite Coltrane albums, though I also have listened to it so much that I may have tired of it.


Coltrane. Crescent.

While I sometimes tire of this particular style this is still a masterpiece.


Coltrane. A Love Supreme

I feel this is a high point for Coltrane--a unified composition in four parts of great power and beauty. This and Crescent have that religious flavor that wears on me sometimes, but overall it's an important piece of jazz history.

29 nov 2008


Ellington. And His Mother Called Him Bill (1967)

After Strayhorn's death Duke recorded this tribute album of mostly Strayhorn tunes--no Lush Life, Chelsea Bride, or Take the A Train though. I'm getting to know this music now. This is not the kind of thing that brought me to jazz in the first place, but once I'm here I'm glad it exists. There's plenty of Johnny Hodges, which is always a plus. Not all the tunes are that memorable, though, and I tire of the the wah wah mutes on the brass.

Duke was never really about pure swing or improvised solos, but about orchestral textures.

26 nov 2008

I saw all my blurbs for the first time today for this book:

“Apocryphal, American Lorca! Inviting us to consider how one culture reads another—how American poets read Spain through Lorca and Lorca through Spain—Jonathan Mayhew has given us an informative, thoughtful, fascinating, and often funny journey through translation, parody and kitsch. No one could be better qualified to study Lorca’s work as ‘generative device’ in English-language poetry and get at the mystery of how and what a poet can mean in a different cultural context.” --Christopher Maurer

“An intriguing and invaluable study of import of Spanish deep image poetry in its domestic American mode, foregrounding problems of authenticity, translation, and imitation—and the legacy of the Duende.” --Mary Ann Caws

“Jonathan Mayhew’s Lorca is less the distinctive Spanish poet, whose murder in 1936 marked the beginning of the Civil War, than he is an American invention. From the 1940s to the end of the century, our poets have invoked Lorca—in translation, of course—as a Romantic, exotic, radical, and, in many cases, gay icon—the poet of mystery and the duende. The Lorca myth, Mayhew argues persuasively, has enriched American lyric, but it has also been an obstacle to a more adequately grounded understanding of Spanish poetry in the twentieth century. Apocryphal Lorca is revisionist criticism at its most acute.” --Marjorie Perloff

25 nov 2008


Ray Barretto. Contact 1997

Barretto, a conguero from Puerto Rico, presents some straight-ahead Latin jazz here. Check out his version of Ellington's "Caravan" and of "Poinciana," a tune associated with Ahmad Jamal.

Sarah Vaughan. I Love Brazil

This was a Pablo record of the mid 70s. Artists like Sarah, Ella, and Oscar Peterson were signed by Norman Granz for this label and put out a lot of material during this decade. I used to own this on vinyl. Here the lush arrangements complement Sarah's lush, mature, powerful voice. It's not necessarily the most "tasteful" music. You have to be in the mood for a certain excess. Check out "Triste," my favorite cut on this album.

Sarah Vaughan. Swingin' Easy

This has got to be one of my favorite vocal albums. Sarah sings with just a rhtythm section with Roy Haynes on drums. Check out "Polkadots and Moonbeams" and "Body and Soul."

None of the bad taste that would creep into Sarah's singing later on. I for one can't stand "Send in the Clowns" that would later be her signature song. All the songs are classic here, and the vocal mannerisms are not exaggerated.

23 nov 2008


Ornette Coleman. In All Languages

I used to to own this on vinyl, a two record set. Now I have it on itunes. Part I is Ornette with a reunion of his original quartet, with Cherry, Haden, Higgins. Part II is a set of some of the same compositions with his funk group, electric guitars and basses and drums. Check out "Latin Genetics."

I tend to listen to the reunion quartet more than to the funk-based part, but they form a nice contrast.

The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1

Bud has two styles, one bebop and the other an ornate style derivative of Art Tatum style solo piano of the previous generation. This compilation has both. I like the dates with a very young Sonny Rollins. I believe some of these have Philly Joe.

With Bud, my reaction is that I don't want him to stop. I just want the solo to go on forever, for there to be no end of invention.

I don't have volume 2, alas.

*Lyn Hejinian. The Fatalist 2003. 83 pp.

The best thing here is that it suggested possibilities for my own poem. I liked the way the poem just went on and on without breaking the mood. I read it at one sitting.

22 nov 2008


Chick Corea. Now He Sings, Now he Sobs (1968)

Chick Corea is not my favorite piano player, but this album is pretty good. It's got Vitous and Haynes on bass and drums, and ranges from straight-ahead post hard bop to free tempo, somewhat rambling, avant-garde. I'm a fan of good trios and of Roy Haynes. Miraslov Vitous is a fine player too.

Will I get to 300 albums? Presumably I will get to know other recordings during the time that it takes to blog what I already know pretty well.

Cecil Taylor/Elvin Jones/Dewey Redman. Momentum Space

Here's a unique combination. I don't think Elvin ever played with these two, or Redman with Taylor. It's a unitary suite, starting out with the three of them playing together on "Nine," then a drum solo by Elvin on Bekei for four minutes, then just Elvin and Dewey on Spoonin. "Life as" is a piano solo. "It" has only piano and drums, and "Is" has all three musicians together again. It is a really first-rate record, one of my favorite for the last 6 or 7 years.

Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall

This was one of the most exciting discoveries of recent years: a live concert with Monk's group during the period that Coltrane was a member. It has one of the best renditions of "Monk's Mood," one of my favorite melodies in the universe. As usual with Monk it is mostly his own compositions, along with "Sweet and Lovely," one of the standards he played most often.

I never felt the quartets with Rouse could really compare to Monk's groups with Coltrane or Rollins. I like Rouse fine, but there's a difference when Monk was paired with a musical equal.

Miles Smiles

I'll take a brief break from the index to comment on this recording, featuring the 60s quintet of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. The compositions are mostly by Shorter, I believe. There are no weak tracks: Orbit, Ciricle, Footprints, Freedom Jazz Dance, Gingerbread Boy, Dr. Jackle. My favorite, however, is "Circle," where Miles does his "containment of emotion" to perfection. Emotion that is more poignant because it it contained rather than expressed full-bore.

21 nov 2008


Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra (1961)

Hodges, fortunately, is amply represented on recordings, because he was featured so long with Duke Ellington and also put out a lot under his own name--mostly with other Ellingtonians as sidemen. Here he is with Strayhorn instead of Duke--same difference, it's still basically the Duke Ellington orchestra minus the Duke. It's kind of elegant and laid-back rather than hard driving swing. It's not the place to find brilliantly inventive improvisational solos. I like "Jeep's Blues." On "Stardust" Hodges doesn't even solo.

*Charles Bernstein. The Absent Father in Dumo. 1990. 37 pp.

I would argue that if you can read James Tate you can read Charles Bernstein. The basic technique of humorous juxtapositions and meaningful line breaks is the same. Bernstein is just a little more intellectual and his jokes are more sophisticated. It was very interesting to read this right after The Lost Pilot.

*James Tate. The Lost Pilot. 1967. 72 pp.

Too bad, you might say, that Tate never wrote any better than in his first book, never improved but instead tended to get a little flatter and more predictable. I love this book though. I always have. It is the perfect example of that particular style, however you might want to define it. It still retains a certain charm.

Gerry Mulligan meets Johnny Hodges (1959; 2003)

Gerry Mulligan liked to meet people, apparently. Aside from this and the Monk album there are several others in which he is paired up with another prominent musician. Mulligan blends in with Hodges just as well as he does with Monk. It makes me think the swing vs. bebop dichotomy is over-emphasized. Someone listening now to Coleman Hawkins with J.J. Johnson is not going to protest that Hawk is a swing player and JJ a bebopper. Mel Lewis is on drums. All the compositions are by the two sax players.

20 nov 2008


Mulligan Meets Monk

I happen to like Gerry Mulligan's gruff and bouncy playing. Maybe Mulligan meets Monk might have seemed like a gimmick at the time--see what happens when you combine the white west coast cool school with Monk's particular brand of bop. But it actually works surprisingly well, with a very nice version of Monk's classic tune "Round Midnight." There's own standard, "Sweet and Lovely," which was a Monk favorite, and one song by Mulligan, "Decidedly." For years I had only heard one track from this, a take of "I Mean You," so it's nice to hear the whole shebang.

Thelonious Monk. Brilliant Corners. (1957)

This has a great lineup of songs: Brilliant Corners, Ba-Lue-Bolívar Ba-lues, Pannonica, I Surrender Dear, and Bemsha Swing. All but "I Surrender" are original Monk compositions. It features Sonny Rollins and Max Roach. Monk plays some strange instrument on Pannonica, a celeste or something like that.

This is one of the greatest Monk albums, recorded for Orrin Keepnews's Riverside records.

Sonny Clark. Sonny Clark Trio (1957)

The trio Sonny Clark had with Philly Joe and Paul Chambers was one of the best groups of its time--which is saying a lot because this was when Miles and Blakey had excellent groups too. Clark is a hard-swinging bop pianist right out of Bud Powell, with those marvelous right hand lines. Chambers is my favorite bass player, appearing on all those Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums of the late 1950s.

Ornette Coleman. Something Else! (1958)

This is kind of an odd album, because it features Ornette and Cherry with a more standard hard bop chord-change format with piano. Actually, I kind of lack the fact that it has these hard bop moorings: it's Ornette as comfort music, but still recognizably Ornette. Purists will object, but uckfay ouyay to them. The tunes are extremely tuneful, catchy: Chippie, Jayne, Angel Voice, Alpha, The Sphinx. "The Blessing" off this album became a standard.

What if Ornette's ultimate contribution is as a composer?

Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden. Beyond the Missouri Sky. 1997.

Generically, this does not sound like conventional "jazz." It is a case of two jazz musicians playing music that you don't have to define as jazz at all. I don't even know what to call it, really, but this has been one of my favorites for over 10 years.

Benny Carter. 3,4,5: The Verve Small Group Sessions (1991; recorded at various times much earlier)

These feature Carter with various combinations, trios, quartets, and quintets, mostly involving the great Teddy Wilson and Papa Jo Jones. The repertory choice of standards tends toward the classics like "Tenderly" and "Our Love is Here to Stay." This is "comfort music."

Dinah Washington. Dinah Jams. (1954; 1990)

Does she ever. This features one of my favorite singers in a jam session format mostly with members of the Max Roach/Clifford Brown group. Maynard Ferguson sits in. She sings mostly standard songs like "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." Dinah had a voice stronger than Billie Holiday, but with similar intonational patterns.

The Hawk Flies High (1957; 1991)

Orrin Keepnews, realizing that Coleman Hawkins did not have a record contract, let him choose his own sidemen for this album, with J.J. Johnson, Idress Sulieman, Oscar Pettiford, and Jonathan "Papa Jo" Jones on drums. There's also a guitar player, because Bean liked the fat sound it gave the rhythm section. This one is a keeper.

Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge at the Opera House. (Released '04; recorded much earlier)

I downloaded this about a month ago because I wanted to learn more about Roy Eldridge. It features the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet (minus Milt Jackson) as the rhythm section with Hawk and Roy. It is a great chance to hear two of the best horn players of the swing era in dialogue. Both are exuberant, assertive players. Check out "Stuffy."

Bobby Hutcherson. Dialogue. (1965; 2002)

This features Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Richard Davis, and Joe Chambers, with Andrew Hill on piano and supplying some compositions. It is the perfect Blue Note album of this period, avant-garde ma non troppo. The album as a whole has a nice unitary feel, like a suite of dances. Check out the up-tempo "Jasper."

John Coltrane. Coltrane's Sound (1964 [recorded 1960])

This is my favorite Coltrane collection, featuring an early version of the quartet with Elvin and McCoy Tyner before Jimmy Garrison joined. (Steve Davis on bass.) It is more or less of the period of My Favorite Things and Coltrane Plays the Blues. To me it is the perfect balance between the hard bop Coltrane of the Miles Davis collaborations and the Coltrane of the quartet recordings of the 1960s. Check out "26-2" and "Body and Soul."

Herbie Hancock. Empyrean Isles. (1964)

What if you take Miles Davis's 1960s quintet and take out Miles himself, replacing him with Freddie Hubbard? Tony Williams cymbal sound on this album is unbelievably sweet. Hubbard is probably my favorite trumpet player aside from Miles himself and Clifford. His tone is so warm and inviting. You probably know "Cantaloupe Island," but the whole recording is worth checking out.

Billy Higgins. Mr. Billy Higgins. (1984; 1993)

This features Higgins on drums and Gary Byas on various wind instruments. Higgins was one of the most recorded drummers of all time, appearing on thousands of albums, but this is one of his only albums as a leader. While the other players don't reach his level of renown the album is very mellow and swinging. I never tire of it. Higgins is the dominant voice, but does not dominate, if that makes sense. He lays back when he needs to. Check out the track "John Coltrane."
Today starts a new feature, 300 jazz albums. These will be a selection of my favorites with no pretentions to be the 300 greatest of all time. The order will be random.

(1) Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes, Dave Holland, Like Minds (1998)

An album of Corea and Metheny tunes, with one by Burton and one by Gerswhin ("Soon."). I like it because of the absolute equality among the five players. You could listen to it five times and just focus on a particular player each time. (I can't get enough of Roy Haynes's drumming but on some albums where he is the leader the other players are not wholly convincing.) Also, there are no weak tracks on this one.

18 nov 2008


*Drew Gardner. Petroleum Hat. 2005. 90 pp.

From the classic age of flarf Drew Gardner's PH, featuring the once hugely controversial poem "Chicks Dig War." I was at Drew's reading when the book came out and I have an autographed copy of it.

*Valente. No amanece el cantor. 1992. 121 pp.

I like this so much that it's on the Master's list, especially the final sequence "Landscape with Yellow Birds" based on a Klee painting.

17 nov 2008

One project I have is to reacquire the entire jazz library I had as a kid--before I sold off my old lps thinking I would never have a record player again. Whenever I remember something i used to own and don't know, I try to look for it.

Ella: Rodgers and Hart Song book. I have only have of this on cd.
Nat King Cole: A capitol record that had him with his trio playing piano but not singing. I've never been able to find this material on cd.
Art Tatum: A selection of the Capitol solo recordings: I have that on cd now.
Ella with Joe Pass. I've just found that on itunes.
Sarah Vaughan, "I Love Brazil." An old Pablo record from the 70s. I'm downloading that as we speak.


There seems to be a special quality to the music heard at a certain age...
Hey, this is post number 4,000 for Bemsha Swing, which in the early days was known as "Jonathan Mayhew's Blog." Of major poetry blogs that are still extant only Duemer and Silliman are older than that--Ron by just a few days.
I'm doing my index, which give a different perspective. Why did I mention so many names over and over again? It makes me realize I have a special relationship with proper names.

13 nov 2008


Octavio Paz. Ladera este. 1969. 161 pp.

Poems that Paz wrote in India, with an orientalist flavor. I hate to say it, but this is generally weak writing, with all of Paz's mannerisms on display. The homage to John Cage is well-intentioned, but very secondary, much like his poem for Joseph Cornell in Vuelta. Of the canonical Latin Americans of the 20th century--Vallejo, Neruda, Borges, Paz, Lezama--Paz is probably the weakest poet, the one who is most willful in forcing poems into existence that don't really need to exist. He is talented but very thin. (Piedra de sol is solid, though.) Some of his poetry works well in the classroom because it is so obvious.

Keith Waldrop. Analogies of Escape. 1997. 78 pp.

I have no memory of acquiring this book or of ever reading it before, though obviously it belongs to me because it was in a box of my books. Unfortunately Waldrop is a poet who says absolutely nothing to me. He seems dull and humorless. I just don't see the point of it, though, as with Rehm, it seems on the surface like well-written poetry in a kind of generic style--of which numerous poets writing today would be capable.

Feel free to sing Waldrop's praises in the comments. I will not crush you like little ants this time.

Pam Rehm. Gone to Earth. 2001. 50 pp.

This is written in the present day post-avant period style, elliptical and spare. I can't say it's a bad book, but it strikes me as kind of abstract and with a kind of off-putting religiosity. I do like the physical book though; Flood out of Chicago puts out beautiful editions.

*Jackson Mac Low. The Pronouns. 1979. 65 pp.

I found my copy of this classic book while looking for another book. I bought it at the same bookstore in Columbus Ohio where I bought much of my Clark Coolidge and Ron Silliman books in the late 80s and early 90s. I remember the guy who sold it to me making a disparaging remark about Mac Low.

The poems, writtten in 1964, are designed as "A collection of forty dances for the dancers." Each line consists of an action. They also work fine as poems that you can just read with no reference to dance at all.

*John Ashbery. Where Shall I Wander?. 2005. 81 pp.

I unpacked my Ashbery box yesterday. I don't care for the title poem that much, or another longer prose poem earlier in the book, but the rest of the book is still great.

I'm closing in on my 4000th post on Bemsha--which makes me realize how ambitious my 9000 book reading project is. I'm almost done with my second percent of that.

12 nov 2008

To understand Creeley, say, you would have to know about Williams, Pound, Duncan, Olson, Levertov. Also Ginsberg and O'Hara and Lowell--representing directions he didn't take. Maybe also Thomas Hardy and some of Creeley's other favorite British poets. Some medieval lyrics. The understanding of Creeley within his context and tradition entails a very dense and nuanced positioning.

It strikes me (and this is not a new observation with me) that we tend to read "foreign" poets in a quite different way. We never see them against the backdrop of their mediocre contemporaries who never get translated. Usually it is only one or two poets from any given country who are at all known at any given time, so there is rarely a sense of Creeley's "company," the social network of poets. The poet translated stands pretty much alone. Things are a little better with French poetry, where most readers who know Bonnefoy would also know Baudelaire or Reverdy. There is a long tradition of contact between the two linguistic traditions. Even though I have spent hours reading French poetry of the past I couldn't name ten living French poets, so in a sense I am not even close to having that sort of "thick" knowledge. This is qualitatively quite different from knowing the work of dozens of contemporary poets in Spain and the US, plus a healthy number of Latin Americans.
I wanted to test myself by listening to an internet vocal jazz station. It turned out to be a dull game. Who can't identify Ella singing "A Tisket a Tasket," Sarah doing "Lullaby of Birdland," Chet Baker, Dinah Washington, Sinatra, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, the Manhattan Transfer, and Kurt Ellling? I did miss Lou Rawls (twice!), and a girl singer whom I'd never heard of before: Sophie Milman.

*Ted Pearson. Planetary Gear. 1991. 74 pp.

I never connected this book with Ronald Johnson's Shrubberies before, but on this reading there are some similarities: terse poems with a similar prosody.

something less than what's more
neither spirit enough nor time
the thing itself a contrivance
sanctuarial ebb of the sea

7 nov 2008

I have often been drawn to Barthes's essay "The Grain of the Voice," which is accessible to the English speaking reader in Image - Music - Text. Most recently, I decided to investigate the vocal style of Charles Panzéra, who is the hero of Barthes's essay. (His foil is Fischer Dieskau.) Curiously, the essay is usually read with no real understanding of Panzéra (who appears as "Panzera" in the translation, minus the accent and the first name.) I bought a cd of him singing and discovered a whole tradition wholly unknown to me, though I had read Barthes on Panzéra innumerable times: the French art song or "mélodie," which usually takes classic French poetry as its basis (Verlaine, Baudelaire, for example.) It's a tradition of setting the poetic text to music with a great deal of respect of the prosody of the French language.

I do like Panzéra quite a bit. I don't know how much by dint of suggestibility: I wanted to like him because of Barthes's description, and I like the idea of looking at setting of Baudelaire. I don't know much about the Lied, which RB uses as his foil to the French genre. I've heard Schubert art songs, of course (no doubt sung by DFD) and I know that it bears some relation to German poetry in much the same way the "mélodie" does to the French. Heine, Goethe, Schiller. Rorem does something similar with English and American poetry. Whether you like any particular composer in this tradition, though, I think it's an interesting way to think about the performance of poetry. That's what I'm trying to start to think about in my Hall Center Paper a week from Monday.
By the way, I have this coming out too in 2009. I didn't realize until now that U of Chicago Press is the US distributor for my Liverpool book.

You probably won't be as interested in this, but I also just realized that I am the second generation to publish with Chicago.
The last time I gave a seminar at the Hall Center for the Humanities it became a [soon-to-be] best selling book published by the University of Chicago Press. So you you won't want to miss this one. You can download the paper. The top secret password is "philandlit."

*James Tate. The Unicorns. 1971. 46 pp.

This book is one I've had for many, many years. I remember I bought it at Serendipity Books when I was a teenager. It's hard to separate my feelings about it now from the emotion I felt reading it for the first time. This is Tate's best period anyway, before he repeated himself 4,000 times and became corny and diffuse.

5 nov 2008

I'm not exactly sure what's happening to me. I can't seem to turn the stress switch off, to the point of having acute anxiety just short of panic attacks. I feel simultaneously overworked and lazy, since I am working hard, accomplishing quite a bit, but still not really thinking I'm going to get everything done. I worked today about six hours on my index for my book, beginning around 7:30 a.m. Then the rest of the day just trying not to be anxious. I also worry about money, my daughter doing her homework, the university turning down my promotion, my undergrads telling me they don't have the next book we're supposed to be reading, etc... The election was a major source of worry. I thought I could turn off my anxiety today, but no such luck.

I don't feel depressed, per se. it is hard to get through the day, though. The weekends are hard when I'm back in St Louis, but the weeks are hard when I'm alone here in Kansas. I stayed here this weekend to get things done, which was probably a good idea, but now I'm feeling even worse after nine days alone. My life is rather impossible as you can see. When I saw Ralph Nader saying we can now see whether Obama is an Uncle Tom or not, I just about lost it. If you see Ralph Nader please punch him for me. That might make me feel a bit better.

4 nov 2008

In order to distract myself from this election, which is driving me crazy and will until Obama is actually inaugurated in January, I have been thinking about the "aesthetics of cultural studies." I checked out a book with this title from the library, ed. by Michael Bérubé about 10 years ago. The book seems a defensive move aimed at the "return to aesthetics" movement. Bérubé in the intro and Rita Felski in her essay argue that aesthetics was always part of cultural studies in the first place. Yet other authors in the book point out that the view of aesthetics in CS is mostly "instrumental." Many of the contributors still skirt around aesethetics per se, and rarely consider any aesthetic dimension of any cultural or literary text. It is still a game of positionings. If your main context for responding to particular piece of classical music is Bugs Bunny cartoon you saw as a child, I suppose that's somewhat interesting, but it's still doesn't tell me much about aesthetics, not even about the aesthetics of Warner Brothers cartoons.

The first problem is that CS places two other sorts of values in primary position: political and commercial. Secondly, it is still caught up in categorizing culture as popular and elite, and deriving ideological conclusions from this division. An "aesthetic" approach would be not to care too much whether a particular cultural artifact belongs to the realm of popular, middle-brow, or elite culture, losing the self-congratulation inherent in studying popular (or elite) culture. The "coolness" of studying popular culture is essentially a mirror image of the snobbishness of studying elite culture. Also, the idea of "edification" persists in both enterprises: whether one becomes a more cultivated person by reading Rilke or uses popular culture for empowerment, the basic goal is a kind of personal edification. Culture is still "nutritional." (A few of the essays point in the direction of this critique.)

There seems to be a lack of imagination about what kind of cultural artifacts might be interesting to study. MB points this out in the intro, when he talks about the proliferation of Madonna articles in the 1990s.

If aesthetics is the product of the 18th century, it might be useful to talk about what aesthetics was before it was aesthetics. In other words, what existed in an analogous position before the word aesthetics was invented? We know that literature came into existence, as a concept with that name, in the 18th century (though that concept is not exactly our own either), but that there were other equivalent concepts before, mostly poetry. Cultural Studies still seems caught up in that 18th century dynamic, rather than looking for an approach that goes beyond those kind of conventional ways of looking at things. If there was an aesthetics before "aesthetics," there can be one after "aesthetics" as well.

3 nov 2008


David Perry. Range Finder. 2001. 61 pp.

On this reading I was more convinced at the level of the line that of the poem. The individual poems didn't hold together as well as the brilliance of individual passages might lead one to expect.
(159) *Juan Sánchez Pelaez. Un día sea. 1972. 135 pp.

(158) Juan Sánchez Pelaez. Aire sobre el aire. 1989. 33 pp.

Sánchez Pelaez in his early work is in the thrall of a certain surrealist rhetoric. Un día sea is really a collection of 4 books, Elena y los elementos, Animal de costumbre, Filiación oscura, and Lo huidizo y lo permanente.

I still like Gerbasi and Montejo better, among Venezuelan poets.