31 oct 2009

My worst article was probably one I wrote for La alegría de los naufragios. It was a fairly crude polemic against the poetry of experience. A few have taken issue with it: Jenaro Talens from a perspective sympathetic to my own, and Rafael Morales from a perspective unsympathetic. Of course, since it was in Spanish and published in Spain, I am known for that. I have four books published but that one little article has had more impact, because a lot of people don't or won't read English. I don't really regret writing it, and writing it the way I did, because it's had an impact, and the basic point behind it is a valid one. I don't blame Jenaro, who is a friend of mine, for criticizing the crudeness of the attack. This worst article of mine is based on another one in English that made the attack in more measured and convincing fashion.

Matthew Marr, of Penn State, seems to be a nice guy. He wrote a book arguing for the vitality of the poetry of experience, and taking me to task a bit. The only problem is that he ignores my principal article, using instead one from a few years before that is the final section of my second book (rather than the first section of my third book).

I really want to be known for the Lorca book, and the fifth book not yet written on Lorca. It is a little funny that even people in Spain who think I am great know me for my worst article.

30 oct 2009

The worst reason for not liking something is that you think it is "elitist" to like it. Then you're letting yourself be blackmailed by the idea that somewhere else, someone else wouldn't be able to enjoy it. Has that ever happened to you?

28 oct 2009

What I was trying to get at yesterday was that I have two ways of listening to classical music (I mean here classical in the narrower sense of 18th century). I can hear at as conventional, nice-sounding, structurally cohesive music, but without really being engaged with it beyond that, or it can really get to me. For whatever reason, Haydn's opus 54 and opus 74 (string quartets) that I've been listening to lately have just totally floored me. They are as sublime as anything in Mozart. I had only before heard Haydn the first way, as pleasant, upbeat, witty, and structurally balanced music. Nobody told me that Haydn was like this. The world was holding back this music from me until I was ready to hear it. What gave me the hint was the Mozart dedicated six of his most accomplished string quartets to Haydn. I thought that Haydn must have written something interesting in this genre.

It's the same with the baroque, one of my favorite periods of music. Some baroque music I hear as mere "scrubba scrubba."

27 oct 2009

"The item(s) you requested or a bibliographer identified on your behalf are now available at the location(s) shown below."

I got that in an email today from the library and parsed it as meaning "Either the items you requested ... or a bibliographer (who was identified on your behalf) are now available." So i would go down to the library and pick up either a book from interlibrary loan or my own personal bibliographer. Obviously it means "The items that you requested, or that a bibliographer found for you based on such are request, are now available." Even when I know what it's supposed to mean I still see it as "a bibliographer identified" rather than as "the item ... a bibliographer identified."
My "classical" music obsession are very few, but very intense. Bach's unaccompanied cello and violin works, along with the Goldberg Variations. Mozart's "Haydn" string quartets and Haydn's own string quartets--the half dozen of them I'm listening to right now. The music of Morton Feldman.

Beyond that I like the standard orchestral repertoire of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler, Stravinsky. I prefer the concert hall for orchestral music and my own private space for chamber music, etc... I like or actively tolerate most canonical composers, but am not too fond of Benjamin Britten.

To be an obsession, the music has to get to me. It has to get me, understand me at a deep level and anticipate what I want out of it.

The way I "understand" music is pretty elemental. For example, I might be saying to myself: "Here's the main theme, four bars of question and four bars of 'answer.' Then that's repeated. Here comes the cadence. Here's some 'stalling' for four measure. Now here's the main theme in a minor key. Some complication of all that. Return to the main theme. Some conclusive sounding stuff to let you know it's about to end, then a little more of that, then it is really ending." In other words, I listen structurally, rhythmically, and thematically, responding pretty much to standard tension/resolution and simplicity/complexity sorts of things.

The Endellion Quartet has a recording of some Haydn quartets that is superb: both the music itself and the performance. Opus 74 # 2 in F Major is a wonderful piece. The 2nd movement, an "andante grazioso" gets me every time. The timbre of these players here is extraordinarily "sweet," which seems to fit the music nicely.

26 oct 2009

This is my 6th post today, but I've yet to get a comment. What's wrong with you people? I can't get arrested on this blog today.
As readers of translation we (and I include myself here) are too often like parents who alternately over-indulge and abuse our children. We are usually far too complacent, yet at times given to irrational rages. We forgive many big transgressions while harshly punishing trivial infractions of arbitrary rules. We are over-attentive, over-bearing, yet distracted by comparisons to the original. Either we forget we are reading a translation, or we can't stop thinking we are reading only a translation. We rely too much or too little on our own aesthetic compass; we are over- or underinvested in translation theory. The search for a happy medium leads only to incoherence. There is no possible "balance."
I'm going to do an experiment in class today, to measure the entropy effect in translation. I know entropy has a technical definition in information theory--one that I don't understand. What I mean by entropy here is simply the loss of information. I've written down some sentences on index cards.

How my parents managed the sleeping arrangements is still a mystery to me.

I am afraid that my reasoning will not convince many people.

I want to write, but only foam comes out.

Their departure was complicated by Marshall's discovery that the electricity was still on in half of the house.

The dreams of youth are replaced by the dreams of middle age and maturity.

Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls / In the afternoon. The proud and the strong / Have departed.

Some are prose and some poetry, you might recognize lines from A Nest of Ninnies and Wallace Stevens. but that doesn't make too much difference. A student will translate these sentences into Spanish, on another index card, a second student will translate this Spanish sentence into English again (without knowing what the original sentence was) and so on. In other words, the game of 'telephone" or "Chinese Whispers," but using translation.

The question will be, how many translations are necessary to obliterate the message? Or, put another way, how long can the original message survive? The students are advanced (senior level) students mostly majoring in Spanish. We could imagine perfectly bilingual people, who could translate back and forth with minimal entropy, or at the other extreme, students so inexpert at the 2nd language that entropy would be immediate and fatal. I'm interested in that middle range. I'll report back after class. Stay tuned!

[Update: Here are the sentences after seven translations:

How my parents have been driving the sleeping rules is a mystery to me.

I want to write, but my only pen is out.

I am scared that the person I know will not convince many people.

The exit was complicated because Marshall discovered that there still wasn't electricity in the house.

The dreams of the children have changed with the maturity of the teenage years.

Dimmer and dimmer, the evening sun falls. The pride and force have disappeared.

Most of the quotes suffered at least one fatal error, usually the result of a single, identifiable slip-up in the chain. In other words, it wasn't a gradual entropy, but a single person committing an outright misinterpretation. We were able to trace the process and see exactly where the misreadings occurred. There was a process of rationalization, where the idea of foam coming out of a pen changed to a more quotidian notion of a pen being out of ink. Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery/ Schuyler suffered the least damage, it seems to me. Maybe there's something in the poetic message that makes it more resilient to entropy.]
I'm not very good at botanical readings of Lorca.
One of the main scholars I have to deal with in this next project is Philip Silver, now retired from Columbia University. He presents a theory of modernist inadequacy in La casa de Anteo, a theory of romantic inadequacy in Ruin and Restitution.

(Silver was probably the main contributor to the study of Spanish poetry among US academics in the generation right before mine. Unfortunately he wasn't much of a mentor to me. Although he's invited me to contribute to a few collections of essays on Claudio Rodríguez, he never really offered to take that role. The person who did try to actively mentor me was another scholar, whose understanding of poetry was rather antithetical to mine. He brought me to Kansas; we were very good friends for a while, but I think the tensions got the better of us in later years. We never had an official falling out, in fact I had to organize a major symposium for him, and to teach his class when he got cancer, but it was very hard on me. At a fundamental level I just could not respect him as a scholar. It was not just a matter of disagreement, because I might disagree with Silver too in some cases. I felt that he just didn't have "it." I also feel his influence on the field is deleterious. He didn't like Silver--partly, I think, because he knew Silver was at a different level.)

It is interesting that in La casa de Anteo Silver studies Lorca's theater--in a book otherwise about poetry. That creates an opportunity, in a way. The best critics have often side-stepped Lorca's poetry and written about the theater instead.
Spanish literary history has often been narrated as a series of lacks or absences. What is absent or problematic, in such accounts, is modernity itself, high Romanticism, or the Enlightenment. From the point of view of a Hispanist (in other words, non-Spanish specialist in Spanish matters), this becomes doubly problematic: why specialize in an area of the world defined by its deficiencies? Usually the answer is that we Hispanists are motivated by our identification with the liberal Spain repressed by the other Spain. Things are not that simple though. After all, aren't we attracted to the region in the first place because of its exotic backwardness?

Nowhere are these contradictions so strong as in the study of Lorca. The generation of intellectuals right before Lorca despised bullfighting. In a Baroja novel a taste for the national festival usually marks a character as brutish. It is hard to reconcile Lorca with any convenient idea of modernity.

25 oct 2009

Review of my book by Heriberto Yépez. This one is in Spanish:

.... Se trata de Jonathan Mayhew y su extraordinario estudio Apocryphal Lorca. Translation, Parody, Kitsch (The University of Chicago Press, 2009). 

Esta obra se ocupa no de García Lorca sino de cómo los escritores estadounidenses han reinventado a Lorca, desde Spicer y Rothenberg hasta O’Hara y Koch. Asimismo, es una discusión de la Deep Image —¡cuánto hay que desmenuzar de ese capítulo!— y la manera en que la poética norteamericana se ha apropiado de lo lorqueano (o lorcaesco) y del concepto de lo “otro” que éste representa. Éste es un libro repleto de sutilezas, de tesis, apuntes, datos. 

Si alguien quiere comenzar a entender la poesía norteamericana de posguerra, este libro es una vía para aproximarse a esta tradición desde un ángulo inesperado, un Lorca que, en muchos sentidos, parecerá irreal a los lectores latinoamericanos típicos, el Lorca del duende, esa teoría lorquiana que es menor entre nosotros y fue protagónica en el imaginario de la poética en Estados Unidos.

In other words: "What I'm talking about is JM and his extraordinary study AP.... This work is not about García Lorca but rather about how US writers reinvented Lorca, from Spicer and Rothenberg to O'Hara and Koch. It is also a discussion of the Deep Image--how we have to read this chapter in detail!--and the way American poetics has appropriated the lorquian (or lorcaesque) and of the concept of the "other" that it represents. This book is full to the brim of subtleties, of these, of facts. If somehow wants to begin to understand postwar American poetry, this book is a way of approaching this tradition from an unexpected angle, a Lorca that, in many ways, will seem unreal to typical Latin American readers: the Lorca of the duende, this Lorquian theory that is more minor among us and that was the main thrust in the imaginary of US Poetics."

23 oct 2009

If time travel is possible, then it has already been invented. We would already know about it because "they" would have come back to tell us about it. We would already be doing it. In fact, this would be true not only of time travel itself but of all technology. No more stone age tools, if all it takes is one person from the future going back to introduce the most advanced possible technology. Time travel is the negation of time itself. We cannot say "at some point in the future we will learn this," because there is no future anymore. There is not such thing as a "not yet." There is no past either, needless to say.

If time travel exists in its stupid science fiction modality, then other times are other places that exist right now as we speak, somewhere else. The third century B.C. is like a place one can go visit. But then again, every year in this century, every month of this year, every day--down to the most minute subdivisions of time--are places to which one could "travel." But in a sense, then, we are already there, in each place, and each time/place exists right now. If I go to 1964 then I would be myself in 1964. That's who I am in that temporal context. Otherwise, if I go back to a time where I actually existed, but am still myself now doing that, then there are two selves looking at each other. Or there could be infinite selves, since time travel posits that every moment of time exists simultaneously to every other moment--displaced along some spacial dimension.

To travel to a place where I did not or will not exist as myself, on the other hand, is still to posit an intolerable duplication of reality at the molecular level.

The problem with SF is that it doesn't take its ideas seriously enough.
I got my copy of Vanitas with a very short essay by me on Lorca, translation, and prosody. Of course my first reaction on seeing was this was realizing that I spelled Zukofsky Zukovsky. I thought I had transcended that particular mistake. I really hate people who write Zukovsky, along with idiots who write The Wasteland or Finnegan's Wake or Alan Ginsburg. Those are mistakes I would never, ever make. Except with Lewis Z, for some reason. (I mean Louis, of course). I would never write Harry Matthews when everyone knows it is Harry Mathews. I would never write Thelonius instead of Thelonious either.

I would never refer to Leonardo Da Vinci as "Da Vinci." You have to say "Leonardo." It's just one of those things you have to know. You don't ever call San Juan de la Cruz, "De la Cruz" or Garcilaso de la Vega "De la Vega" or Fray Luis de León "De León." It just isn't done.

Bérubé reviewed some book about why the humanities matter, or some such crap, by an Ohio State professor who thinks that Leonardo was influenced by Newton's ideas on gravity. That's a little worse than calling Leonardo "Da Vinci," because, as others have pointed out, Leonardo was long dead before Newton was born. The guy lives in a bizarro universe where Edward Said is not sufficiently sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But, of course, he is the champion of objective reality against postmodernism. Go figure.

Anyway, the Vanitas issue is worth checking out, apart from my deeply flawed contribution. At least I didn't talk about Lorca's influence on "Da Vinci."

22 oct 2009

I have a new post up at Arcade describing my new book project.
I was reading The Anxeity of Influence while my students took an exam and got to thinking. It's such a useful concept--apart from the fact I can't stand Bloom's writing and many other things about the book. In other words, I have an anxiety of influence about the anxiety of influence. Margarita, a student from Spain who's come to work with me for a few months on her dissertation, has found it useful, though in her case it is a question of a weak poet with weak misreadings of much stronger poets. My Apocryphal Lorca is a Bloomian book, en el fondo y hasta cierto punto.

I know Rothenberg wrote about Bloom as the angel of death, deciding who gets in the canon and who doesn't. But when I turn to Rothenberg's reading of Lorca, isn't it just a weak misreading of a strong poet? It's hard to avoid that conclusion: it just stares you in the face.

Here's the thing: it is hard for me to avoid the idea that certain poets matter more than others. You feel that with Bloom, that he gets that. Of course, this all depends on a prior sense that poetry itself matters. You feel that in the writing of Bloom, Vendler, and Perloff, despite their differences. There's an intensity there. I also feel that it's worthwhile to be a strong critic. I am self-aware enough to know it's also a little ridiculous; as Sibelius said, nobody ever erected a statue of a critic. That keeps it in perspective a little.

One thing I've always thought is that criticism should be at the level of the poetry it's about. Bloom knew that, even if we judge his own criticism not at that level. In other words, you have to bring all the erudition, critical intelligence, and poetic culture at the most profound level that you can muster.

20 oct 2009

I got my copy of Principios modernos y creatividad expresiva en la poesía española contemporánea today, with my article on Lorca. The rest of the book pretty much backs up the high modern line that I have been promoting, but mine is the only article on Lorca in it. This made me think that my perspective is still based on my own American Lorquismo. For example, in Spain it is Jiménez--a poet for whom I feel little affinity--not Lorca who is considered the great high modernist icon.

I am the only American critic in this volume, and only one of two teaching in US universities. This is a familiar position for me.

So I guess I am in the position of arguing that the preference for Jiménez over Lorca is--not exactly a mistake--but an oversight. JRJ with his tiresome narcissism and his dire influence on the worst kind of "essentialist" poetry. Surely the worst part of Valente and his followers comes from Jiménez--and the best from Lorca, but indirectly. Why do Spanish readers admire some of the worst parts of their own tradition, like Cernuda's later dramatic monologues? They obviously need me to set them straight.


After hearing the St Louis symphony play the 1812 Overture on Saturday and the SLSO Youth Orchestra on Sunday playing Shostakovich, Bernstein, and Wagner, I was a little overwhelmed by orchestral bombast. The KC Youth orchestra in for a visit did Berlioz. It's enjoyable to a degree, and bombast always gets standing ovations. 19th century orchestra music is loud and always ends with a bang.

14 oct 2009

Negotiations for my critical edition of a certain work of Lorca are going well. I don't want to jinx it by telling you what it is right now, but it will come out from University of Chicago Press if all goes well.

10 oct 2009

Lorca and Modern Poetry [working title]


I. Lorca and Modernity. What does it mean for modern poetry, for modernism in Spain particularly, that Lorca is the major figure identified with Spanish modernism? Explore other kinds of paradoxical forms of Spanish modernity in Unamuno, Zambrano.

II. Vicissitudes of the Duende. Explore Lorca's poetics of performativity from the inside out, beginning with a close reading of the duende essay and supplementing it with readings of other of Lorca's lectures.

III. Lorca and Contemporary Spanish poetry. His seeming non-influence on major Spanish poets--but the way in which the same paradox of modernity / non-modernity repeats itself.

IV. Apocryphal Postscript. A revision of my own views, from a slightly different angle. Answer to my critics, etc...

I think it could be a book. I'm conceiving it almost in dissertation style, with three 40-page chapters. Instead of an introduction, I want a very short preface and a first chapter which serves double duty as an introduction and 1st substantive chapter. As with Apocryphal Lorca, it won't be articles first. It will be through-composed rather than stitched together later.


When I was in my early 30s, I thought I had pretty much arrived. I was publishing in PMLA and MLN. My second book came out in '94, before I turned 35. Someone said once at one of those tenure meeting years ago, about I forget whom, that you have to be 40 to be a mature scholar. I kind of scoffed at that, because I thought I already knew a lot at age 36. Now, though, I realize I didn't know very much. My second peak, which I'm still enjoying, was in my late 40s. I still feel I don't know enough, but that it was precisely by plunging in and learning on the job that I got where I am--writing beyond myself, as it were. It's writing the books that made me erudite.

9 oct 2009

The new collective blog(s) Arcade are open to the public now. I am an Arcade author and am excited about it. I wrote a few posts during the development phase, when it was closed to outsiders. Check it out and let me know what you think.

8 oct 2009

I'm in a bit a of a lull. I could be writing my fifth book as fast as possible, but I don't want to rush it at this point. I have to write an MLA talk on Paul Blackburn, a talk on Ullán to give in January in Madrid, and to complete a large departmental paperwork task that I cannot even talk about beyond that. Giving myself a break from writing is actually excruciating, since I am happiest when most productive.

I would really love to undertake some collaborative work. The one problem with scholarly writing is that it's rather isolating. It would be fun to write an article with someone else for a change. But who? And what exactly would be the interchange?

I'm going to do a really major article on Lorca's duende lecture, which is going to be the centerpiece of book 5. In fact, here as I think of it, I really need to do another book about Lorca instead of rewriting book #3.

It would include the following:

Preface, Introduction.

I. Huge, major essay on Lorca's duende article. "Lorca's performative poetics."

II. ???

III. Section on Lorca and contemporary Spanish poetry. Influence on Valente and Gamoneda. The way Lorca is present/absent from Spanish poetry after Lorca.

IV. Postscript to Apocryphal Lorca. A kind of follow-up on Lorca and translation / reception theory. Answer to my critics?

Where the question marks are would inserted some other reading of Lorca's poetry, from an angle yet to be determined, or the piece that would make this a book rather than just a series of unrelated essays. So I have three ideas, which I already know how to pursue more or less, along with a general direction: Lorca in performance / reception. Dynamic readings of him.

Maybe I'm not in a lull after all. This blog post has been very productive.
Why is García Lorca known as Lorca rather than García?

García is like "Smith"--the most common surname in Spain. We have two María Garcías among our graduate students. Lorca, on the other hand, is unusual and hence distinctive. (There is a town called Lorca.)

Generally, the paternal surname would be used alone, or in combination with the maternal one. According to this convention I would be Jonathan Mayhew Ellsworth, or Mayhew Ellsworth, but never just *Jonathan Ellsworth or *Ellsworth. You cannot say *José Gasset. It has to be Ortega y Gasset. (My actual name is Jonathan Ellsworth Mayhew, and Ellsworth is my mom's original last name.)

The exception is when the maternal surname is so much more distinctive, as in García Lorca or Pérez Galdós. These names get shortened to Lorca and Galdós, because García and Pérez are like Smith and Jones. You still can't say *Benito Galdós or *Federico Lorca. That sounds funny.

With García Márquez, the maternal surname is distinctive enough to be used. Nobody ever says just Gabriel García. On the other hand, in Spanish he is referred to by both names, not as "Márquez. The "English Department" pronunciation is Mar-QUEEZ, with the accent on the wrong syllable.

7 oct 2009

Some key paragraphs from Venuti's review, in the October 2 TLS:

The great merit of Mayhew's study is his sustained effort to document and interrogate Lorca's reception, unique among American encounters with foreign literatures in its nature and extent. For Mayhew, the American Lorca is largely an apocryphal figure, a cultural stereotype that was fully assimilated into the American idiom. Like all stereotypes, the Americanized Lorca is reductive: the poet's life is equated with his homosexuality and his murder by Franco's forces, and his oeuvre, whittled down to his essay "Play and Theory of the Duende" and a small group of poems from Gypsy Balladbook and Poet in New York, becomes indistinguishable from a romantic image of Andalusian folk song and so-called Spanish surrealism.

"Lorquismo", in Mayhew's coinage, serves an ideological function, enabling American poets to resist the repressiveness and conformism of the Cold War era. It is pressed into the service of anti-Fascist and anti-capitalist politics, African American and gay male identities, ethnopoetics, urban working-class experience, and the Jungian-inspired deep image. Mayhew's critique is most revealing when addressing Lorquismo in its historical moment. He points out that its agenda, although opposed to McCarthyism, likewise expresses an "American exceptionalism", the nationalistic view that the US can best deploy the cultural imports needed to revitalize Western nations. His evidence includes Bob Kaufman's anti-racist yet patriotic poem "The Ancient Rain", where Lorca is invoked among American historical figures from Crispus Attucks, Washington and Lincoln to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

The defects of Mayhew's study hinge on his method. His choice of the word "apocryphal" is the first ominous sign: it implies a canonical interpretation of Lorca, and for Mayhew, a professor of Spanish literature, that can only be found in the academy. He complains of the "American popularizers" that "Their aim is not the scholarly one of understanding Lorca as he really is, or Lorca in the context of the larger Hispanic literary tradition". That phrase, "as he really is", is telling.

Mayhew's opening chapter brilliantly clears away the stereotypical notions of Lorca, but it also registers a sophisticated awareness that his own interpretation is a personal preference informed by an academic critical orthodoxy, at once post-structuralist and postcolonial. Thus he asserts that "'Lorca' is a complex author-function", whose "own vision of the gypsies is already that of an orientalist". Yet to expect this sort of interpretation from US poets during the Cold War is anachronistic at best.

I agree completely with that last sentence. In fact, my aim (I thought) was to show how we couldn't have expected that kind of interpretation. I realize now that my own agenda gets in the way of a strictly historicist vision, so that I appear to be criticizing the reception from an anachronistic perspective. Yet in a certain way I needed my own agenda as "leverage" in the first place in order to come up with the insights that I did.

All in all, it's a nicely balanced review that I'm quite delighted with. We always say that we want to have a serious debate about our ideas, but this rarely happens. You need someone smart enough to tell you why (he or she thinks) you are wrong, in a way that can be taken seriously. I often have the sense of having "gotten off easy."

3 oct 2009

I'm reviewed in TLS. I haven't seen the actual review yet, by Lawrence Venuti, but my name is spelled right in the TOC.