25 dic 2010


Spanish students often invent the word "la empieza" for "the beginning," unaware that other Spanish students have already invented this word countless times in the past. The correct word that they are looking for is "el comienzo" or "el inicio."

It's kind of interesting, actually. Empezar, iniciar, and comenzar all mean "to begin." So the student is deriving a noun from a verb her subconscious, grammar-making mind. The only mistakes he is making are choosing the wrong verb and choosing the wrong gender for the noun. The fact that many students make the exact same mistake indicates that this is a natural path for the grammar-making mind to make. It is not cause by interference from English (which causes students to write "explanación" for "explicación) but an internal to Spanish morphological operation. They are producing a Spanish word they have never seen in an authentic text.

I still wish they wouldn't do it though.


BS will be on hiatus until January 1. Merry Christmas, to those of you who celebrate that holiday.

24 dic 2010

Levels of Rhythmic Perception

Imagine a listener, listening to some rather conventional jazz. Imagine that it is me, so I will call him "he."

He perceives the quarter-note pulse. 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4... These notes are grouped into measures, and those groups are easily perceived too. He has no problem grouping these measures into four- and eight-bar phrases, and these phrases into larger song structures like AABA or the twelve-bar blues.

So he counts four levels of perception: he can easily keep track of the pulse, the measure, the phrase, and the organization of phrases into song-structures. Of course, the actual notes he hears are not just quarter-notes, but whatever notes are actually played, so the fifth level is that of rhythmic detail, the actual swung eight-notes, triplets, etc... that are played, and their relation to the pulse.

These levels can all be perceived easily at the same time because they are hierarchical (smaller units contained within larger) and interconnected. It is not like trying to keep track of five things at the same time, since keeping track of one thing (the pulse say) helps him keep track of everything else.

He can perceive these structures self-consciously, by counting to himself, or simply listen to the music and perceive them unselfconsciously. He could easily teach someone else to hear the music this way as well, if this other person did not already know how. In listening to less familiar genres he does not keep track of things quite as well, but still finds structures more or less "intelligible."

The harmony and melody are also rhythmically, structurally relevant. The listener understands some phrases as answers to others, for example, a falling melodic line as completing a rising one.


Suppose there is an eleven-syllable line that is transparently 11 syllables, like Lorca's "Tu cuerpo fugitivo para siempre." The rhythm is immanent, not concealed. I don't count the number of syllables, but simply fit it into a pattern I have heard many times before. Now take the line "No está en mí, está en el mundo, está ahí enfrente." I accept it as an 11-syllable line in its metrical context, but it is not quite as transparent, because it contains seven elided syllables, with elision crossing over phrasal boundaries. "No es / tá en / mi es / tá en / el / mun / do es / tá ah / i en / fren / te." These elisions of "sinalefas" create stress clashes, with heavy syllables falling on positions 123468910. The metrical accents are on 3, 6, and 10, which makes it a nicely "melodic" hendacasyllable on paper.

So in the prosodic example what is the listener keeping track of? The basic meter, the instantiation of the meter in its actual syllables, and the larger structures. Jack DeJohnette can perform as many metric modulations as he wants, as long as I can still keep track of the pulse, there is no problem.


If I can grasp the basic nature of the problem, then I will already understand it at an advanced level. If I can state the obvious, maybe I can see what is obvious and what is not.

23 dic 2010


There are very few things that don't present themselves, demand to be seen directly, as commodities. Even these things might be forms of "cultural capital" or commodities on some more sophisticated model, but they don't have an immediate exchange value.

Now the form of cultural studies that values objects just because they are popular, or have a widespread currency (best-selling novels, hit films and songs), just lets the market itself be a yardstick of value. I continue to defend a concept of value that resists commodification. In other words, something valuable that has no monetary value is, for that very reason, something that resists that overpowering logic. It may be futile, but at least we can try.

Defenses of the humanities that try to "cash in" their value are doomed, because surely the Humanities themselves are the valuable thing. Bécquer has the right idea when he said that the value of the poem written on a bank-note is the same as the value of the bank-note.

22 dic 2010

Guilty Pleasures

My pleasures include some that I'm not as proud of, like Blaxploitation movies and the study of proverbs. I like the movies because of the great R&B soundtracsk by people like J J Johnson and Isaac Hayes, and the 1970s grittiness. I like proverbs, aphorisms, and maxims even when they are overfamiliar and corny. Paremiology is an underdeveloped field of study, it seems to me.

Why the guilt? I could feel the same uneasiness about kung fu movies, which I also enjoy, but I don't. I think advice columns are a guilty pleasure...

21 dic 2010

Spanish Lessons

Spanish seems easy: there are a lot of cognates with English because of its Latinate vocabulary; Americans have a lot of exposure to the language, typically. It is easy to pronounce, with only 5 vowels sounds.

Yet Spanish syntax and morphology are minefields. The multiple uses of the reflexive (only one of which is a true reflexive); the potential confusion between two past tenses; clitic pronouns and where to put them; the passive voice; the baroque system relative pronouns; gender; the problem of combining a verb with an infinitive and what to put between (a preposition, the correct one, or none at all); the subjunctive.

The lexicon also presents numerous problems. False cognates and derivations; Spanglish words invented by the student.

If you only kind of sort of half-way master grammatical points as you go along, you'll get to the upper-division level and write a paper with a mistake in virtually every other sentence, using made-up words or "calque" translations from English, putting verbs randomly in the subjunctive when there is no reason to, yet not using the subjunctive a single time when it's called for; leaving many verbs simply unconjugated, in the infinitive form, confusing sentir and sentar, creer and crear. Not to mention using the preterite as default for the past-tense even in very obvious cases, using singular verbs with plural subjects (and vice-versa), making masculine nouns feminine and vice-versa, refusing to make the adjective agree with the noun in gender and number, misusing of ser and estar. Not to mention missing accent marks and tildes and writing occure for ocurre.

Some students, though, manage to write with very few of these mistakes, and even manage a convincing authorial voice in Spanish at the discursive level. They actually sound like they are writing in Spanish rather than in some odd pidgin.

20 dic 2010

Henry Green (A Post with Parentheses)

I've always been fond of the novels of Henry Green, especially Living, Loving, and Party-Going. Green described his style in a Paris Review interview as "non-representational." The novels seem mimetic (even conventional at time) on the surface, but are really very stylized modernist creations. Some of the later novels like Doting aren't as good (or at least I don't conserve a memory of them).

I discovered Green very early in life, when I found out that Ashbery had written a thesis on him and became curious. (I have the thesis in my office, in fact, sent to me by a friend of mine.) The appeal is partly snobbish, in that Green is not exactly a canonical author like Lawrence or Woolf. (A true snob like myself distinguishes himself by a devotion to minor writers that haven't been discovered by everyone else.) Novelists as different as Updike and Sorrentino admired Green's writing. (I remember asking Sorrentino once and getting an enthusiastic response.)

19 dic 2010


This poem of mine is up on a Spanish site.

What's the Difference?

In studying the cultural poetics of cultural exceptionalism, I find it interesting to look at how "the eccentric is at the base of design," to slightly alter a phrase from Wallace Stevens. What I mean is that the writer's individual perspective and identity comes into play in a more universalizable, nationalist project. This idea clicked into place for me when I saw an article by my colleague Roberta Johnson who pointed out that María Zambrano had been claimed by feminists in Spain who emphasized the difference rather than the equality of the sexes. I relate this to the eccentricity (and / or emphasis on difference) in Lorca and Lezama Lima.

18 dic 2010

Lorca as Dilettante

I've often had to combat the notion of Lorca as child-like dilettante or señorito andaluz. Christopher Maurer, in Lorca y su arquitectura del cante jondo (2000) provides a lot of ammunition for me. Lorca (as I interpret Maurer) is almost a professional folklorist with wide interests in every form of Spanish poetry from the popular anonymous tradition from the Galician-Portuguese medieval lyric to the romancero viejo to the cante jondo.. Of course, the field of Spanish folklore was only being invented / resurrected by Menéndez Pidal during Lorca's own time, since Machado y Álvarez's work had seemingly fallen into a black hole.

Of course later flamencologists are going to find errors in Lorca's lecture. If he had gotten everything right, anticipating their exact conclusions, it would have been a miracle. Félix Grande objects to a letter from Lorca in which he says that his guitar teacher sang and played "genialmente." He says that is nearly impossible for someone to sing and play guitar at the same time with "genius." But of course this is not a mistake on Lorca's part, as much as a difference in nuance. "Genial" can be just an exuberant term of praise in Spanish, especially in a letter. Even Grande has to backtrack in a footnote and say that some singers have accompanied themselves on the guitar. Obviously if Lorca heard one of his guitar teachers sing and play at the same time, we have no reason to disbelieve him. If this is the kind of judgment that made Lorca seem like dilettante...

Since Lorca was not an academic, but a poet and playwright, his approach to these subjects was opportunistic, In other words, he wanted to learn about these subjects for his own poetry, not for the sake of sheer erudition. His erudition was considerable, but oriented toward pragmatic ends.

17 dic 2010

Conocimiento is not "Discovery"

In my view Andrew Debicki excessively Americanized the Spanish conocimiento by translating it as "discovery" in his book Poetry of Discovery. Conocimiento is a richer concept, encompassing knowledge in the scientific science. It does indeed have the dynamic sense of knowledge as coming-to-know or discovering, but it is not only that. In Spain, Valente would be a poet of conocimiento, but not Ángel González, for example.

16 dic 2010

Narcissists Protest

The narcissists are protesting their removal from the DSM because, you see, it's all about them.

What Maisie Knew

Henry James wrote a novel with the title What Maisie Knew, focalized (in part) through the perception of the title character, a child. It's a narrative tour-de-force, because of the limitations of the child's perspective. The adults in her life do all sorts of horrid and sordid things, and the reader (an adult reader, presumably) knows more than the consciousness through which the information is filtered. I haven't actually re-read this novel since 1980 or so, so if I am getting technical details wrong there's no wonder. I didn't even like the novel itself, but I remembered the technique and the title.

So I decided that I would call my next book What Lorca Knew. The subtitle is The Embodiment of Knowledge in Spanish Poetry, using a title from a book by William Carlos Williams. Here the idea is that knowledge is embodied, pragmatic, rather than being merely mental or "cerebral." The embodied, pragmatic dimension is evident in poetry as a performed art.

What did Lorca know? How can we know what he knew and didn't? What does a poet know, if we take as a starting point Plato's idea that the poet doesn't know anything? This was the starting point for María Zambrano in Poesía y filosofía, and I will have a chapter on Zambrano here too.

I also consider the model of the poet-intellectual as embodied by Valente, and its contradictions. I'll have a chapter on Claudio Rodríguez too. See this post on Arcade.

Originally the book was supposed to be about Spanish modernism; it still is, since all the writers studied are modernists or late modernists, but now the emphasis is on a particular strain of modernity identified with the problem of knowledge (or "conocimiento") and thought (or "pensamiento"). I want to show that Lorca and Rodríguez are also poets of conocimiento.

15 dic 2010


There's a famous joke about a guy shipwrecked on an island. He happens to be Jewish and he spends the first year building a synagogue. Then, when he's done, he builds a second synagogue. When he's eventually rescued they ask me why he built two, and he points to one and says, "That one I don't go to."

Notice that the joke is not funny at all if you change to the punch line to: "I don't go to that one." Nothing; it's not even a joke anymore. Why is this? The information structure is off. " What is the use of being a little boy if you are going to grow up to be a man? " That's an aphorism by Gertrude Stein. It wouldn't work if you said: "If you are going to grow up to be a man, what is the use of being a little boy?" Or take "The business of America is business" (Clark Coolidge). It doesn't work at all as "Business is the business of America." Certain kind of sentences only work because of the exact order of elements.

14 dic 2010

Poet's Novel

I have this secret (no longer secret) project called Poet's Novel.. As the title implies, it is a novel written by a poet (me). My theory is that the poet needs to have a novel to put all his (or her) other stuff in. Poetry is the car and prose is the house. You wouldn't try to fit everything you own in your car. Many of my favorite novels are poet's novels, like those of James Schuyler, novels that I wouldn't claim are masterworks of the novel as literary genre at all. Just as well, because however much I have admired and enjoyed certain works of fiction in the past, I have little sentimental attachment to the genre of fiction.

Poetry leaves almost everything out. I like it for that, but I also feel the need for a place to put some of my other baggage. The poet without his novel is naked. Where would Lezama Lima be without Paradiso?

A poem is something you carry around with you in your life. A novel is an alternate imaginative space where you get lost. The poet's novel works as a hybrid: you can carry it with you (it's portable), but it also has spaces where you can get momentarily lost.

13 dic 2010

What Lorca Knew

So the title of my book is What Lorca Knew. I came across and interesting example that illustrates what my title means.

I often teach Antonio Machado y Álvarez's anthology Cantes flamencos y cantares alongside of Lorca's great book of poems Poema del cante jondo.. This seems logical: the father of Spanish folklore (and also the father of the poets Antonio Machado and Manuel Machado!) right before Lorca's neopopularism. I do this in both undergraduate and graduate courses and it seems to work well. Well it turns out that (at least according to some scholars at least) Lorca did not know of the existence of the father of Antonio Machado when he was writing his lecture "Arquitectura del cante jondo" and his Poema del cante jondo. in the early 20s. These scholars can't exactly prove a negative, but I can't prove that Lorca did know of Machado y Álvarez and his work in flamencología. This is very strange. Lorca and his good friend the composer Manuel de Falla wrote of deep song without knowing of the labor of the previous generation of Spanish folklore.

Here, then, is a question of determining "what Lorca knew." My intuition is that Lorca had to have known of Machado y Álvarez, but I can't support this in the face of more knowledgeable scholars who claim the opposite. If he didn't, the his achievement is all the more remarkable, because he was working blind, without even the most minimal knowledge of the field. After all, I knew of Machado y Álvarez when I was a mere assistant professor, and quite ignorant of Flamenco.

12 dic 2010

The Social Construction of Tuesday

¡Bemsha SWING!

Don't Know Much About Poetry

I used to think I was very smart and knew a lot. Now I know a lot more than I used to, which means I know I don't know a whole lot, but I still do ok for myself. Even I'm a bit slower and less given to shows of brilliance, I think what I've gained makes up for that. Check with me in ten years and then we'll see.

11 dic 2010


When I was a kid I had Standing Still and Walking in New York by Frank O'Hara, which contained a detailed, very technical essay about the composer Morton Feldman. (I still have this book, but I don't know if it is the same copy or if I lost it and replaced it at some point.) Anyway, I read the article dutifully as a kid and put it out of my mind. I also read Feldman's memoir of O'Hara in Homage to Frank O'Hara. I never encountered the music of Morton Feldman for years and years after that. I never heard it or was even very curious about it, even when a niece of Feldman's was a colleague in my department for a stretch of a few years.

Then when I was in my late 30s or maybe early 40s, I began to listen to it for the first time. I felt idiotic because I had never thought to be curious about it before then. I am very devoted to this music now, of course, although I am not competent to say anything intelligent about it. Feldman is also a great writer about music, from whom I have taken many marvelous insights. Feldman's music is very unlike Frank O'Hara's poetry, but I should have known that Frank was not wasting his time.

I tell this story "against myself" because even though I think of myself as intellectually curious, more than the next guy, I have had many similar things happen to me because of my curious lack of curiosity about many things I ought to be interested in. I tend to have a very strong focus on whatever I am interested in at the moment, and asking the logical next question sometimes never occurs to me at all.


Feldman was a friend of Cage's. I was always aware of Cage and approached him mostly through the literary side, paying little attention to music. I'm still not particularly interested in Cage's music. I should be, but I am not. Once again, I am probably being an idiot here and will kick myself later.

10 dic 2010

Twilight On Open Access

It looks like one of my books, The Twilight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry 1980-2000 (Liverpool, 2009), will become available soon for free on an open access system. I gave permission for this and will receive a modest one-time fee. It won't hurt sales much, because the book is very expensive and probably has sold just about all it is going to (to libraries.)

Once it is available I'll provide information on the blog to link to it.

9 dic 2010

¡Bemsha SWING!

I wrote this satirical post a few years ago by substituting my name and position for that of a certain employee of the athletic department.

I think what makes it funny (if it is funny) is the use of the "royal we," and the fact that Bill Self's language is so generic that I didn't have to change a word in his quote.


I like the compact intensity of many short actors. Bogart was short; Paul Newman was about my height, I think, five-eight. Same for Charles Bronson. Robinson and Cagney were very extremely short, and it didn't do any harm to their careers. Peter Lorre's shortness was downright menacing. Hoffman is five-five; Pacino probably not much more than that. Kirk Douglas was five-nine, like Di Niro and possibly Brando and Sinatra and Tom Cruise (don't like him much, but thought I'd throw him in.) I don't know how tall Mifune was, but unreliable sources say five-eight and a half. He tends to physically dominate Japanese movies where he is taller and strong-looking than the other actors. Emilio Estevez and his brother Charlie Sheen look shorter than their dad, Martin.

Actors' reported heights might be inflated, too. I bet Bogie was really only five-five.

Sure, the other model is John Wayne or Clint Eastwood or James Arness, actors who used their larger size to advantage, or Jimmy Stewart's tall skinny awkwardness that seemed to go well with his hesitant, stammering affect. James Garner is one of my favorites in the larger category. What is interesting, though, is how the smaller men project strength, since they cannot do it simply by being the biggest guy in the room.

8 dic 2010

One Exception

... to my abiding interest in the 1945-75 period is mainstream fiction. I don't care to revisit the Roth, Bellow, and Updike novels I used to read. I have no interest in Malamud or Cheever, John O'Hara. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy some of this material back in the day, but I don't really feel like doing back there, back to that place. Some day I might go and see how Vonnegut has held up, though I'm afraid of what I might find. It might be better to have my memories of it than to attempt to experience it all over again as a 50-year old guy.

7 dic 2010

Set Me Straight If You Dare

Not everybody gets my weird perspective. I will sometimes offer a metaphor and people will argue with it as though it were a literal-minded assertion, or I will compress my thought into an aphorism that is obviously *false* if read for what it seems to be saying. So people will argue with that too. Sometimes my irony flies over people's heads. Really, I am probably to blame if I fail to make myself understood.

I don't mind being set right if I stray or affirm something that isn't quite accurate.

Agreement is over-rated, as I've said before. Getting upset because someone does not agree with you seems kind of silly. Do I need my every most-trivial belief to be confirmed in others? It's nice once in a while to have someone agree with me, that's a kind of comforting feeling, but also somewhat dangerous. I could be wrong in factual terms (it's happened before), or just a little bit misguided (that's happened too). I've been accused of being dogmatic, because I like expressing strong versions of my claims. My feeling is that if you disagree, you have to come up with Bemsha-worthy counter-argument.

6 dic 2010


To arrogate is to "take or claim (something) for oneself without justification." Arrogance, then, is not exactly boastfulness or pride, but a a kind of appropriation. To be arrogant is to say that one has special privileges, that the normal rules don't apply to me.

I can be proud or boastful, but I try not to be arrogant.

5 dic 2010

The Problem with Moderation

I find the notion of moderate belief to be problematic. William Egginton is well-intentioned (and an extremely accomplished scholar in his own field) and it seems difficult to argue against moderation, when fanaticism is the rule of the day. I guess I agree that if people have to be religious, that it is best if they aren't fanatical fundamentalist crazies.

So what is my problem? If religious beliefs are actually true (for the believer), then they are profound and radically transformative truths about the very nature of human existence and reality itself. Religions are not all the same: they come up with different answers to fundamental questions. By the same token, if I believe a religious belief not to be true, then I am also implying that it might have harmful consequences as well as being nonsense. Moderate belief, or moderation in belief, doesn't really resolve this dichotomy for me, especially when its proponent, Egginton in this case, believes that this belief is good for other people. He himself does not participate in organized religion. He seems to be motivated more by anti-atheism than by theism.

4 dic 2010


Since I was born in 1960, I feel I have a natural affinity with the culture of the period 1945-1975, my birthday and the window of 15 years on either side.

In poetry, Creeley and O'Hara, the New American Poetry. I still think of Williams as an embattled poet, neglected by the establishment. I like the Spanish poets born around 1925: Claudio Rodríguez, José Ángel Valente.

In film, I like great auteurs like Kurosawa (my favorite), Truffaut, Hitchcock, Bergman. I also like film noir and Hollywood cinema from Bogart to McQueen.

In music, Miles Davis and Morton Feldman. I like classic rock and soul up to about 1975.

This is also the period of the Latin American Boom, of Samuel Beckett. I could go on and on.

I like abstract expressionism, especially Rothko. I like the New York Review of Books.

Nouveau roman, nouvelle vague, Roland Barthes...

I cannot not view most of this stuff as the culmination of human civilization. My second favorite period would be the classic modernist period. My third, the T'ang dynasty or maybe the Heian period in Japan.

Now objectively I know that this set of preference has to do with a particular habitus. Yet I cannot really step outside of this set of preferences either. I wish I liked culture after 1980 as well, but I simply don't. I'll let other people worry about that period. It bothers me sometimes because I feel I am missing something. I don't like to be closed off like that. On the other hand, I have enough things to be enthusiastic about already. My period has bebop and Coltrane. What does yours have?

It's not that I don't like many individual things of the last 30 years, but I don't feel that same sense of deep personal involvement. It seemed like being a writer or musician meant something more in those years. There was a heroic aura about writing fiction or poetry.

3 dic 2010

After yesterday's post, something not quite so controversial:

(Well, I hope it's a little bit controversial so I can get 15 or 20 comments.)

We like our sprinters fast, our professors erudite and distracted, our poets self-involved and tragic, our movie stars glamorous. We like our violinists to be virtuosi, our sopranos to be divas.

We like for people and things to conform to our expectations of them, and usually they do. If they don't, we hardly notice, or we assign them to other categories. We kind of get the reality we deserve: a reality that conforms exactly to ideology.

I don't know quite what to call this effect. Ideology? On one level, it is a taste for the loud, the bombastic, and the stereotypical or larger-than-life. This taste cuts across any sort of cultural divide, in that we want our MMA fighters to be fierce but our violinists to be show-offs too. People, even the most sophisticated people, are attracted both by extremes and by things that are true-to-type. It is hard to argue with this, because--shouldn't the sprinters be the fastest runners, by definition? The race actually is to the swift.

Paradox is the anti-ideological move. Barthes used to define it as something "against the doxa." In other words, not just something inherently contradictory, but a direct challenge to conventional beliefs or Flaubertian idées reçues.

I myself feel the pull of that old sweet ideological strain, of the doxa. It is tiring to be against what other people think all the time. Sometimes I just like some bombast or football.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't be me if I always embraced all that to the full extent. I like to hold back or to explore other models, like the music of Morton Feldman, which is quiet and non-dramatic.

2 dic 2010

I've always hated the idea that a certain kind of linguistic "hygiene" can save us from error of moral or political judgment. I call this idea "Orwellian" because it is expressed in Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." It is also present in Pound: somehow if you get your language straight you will be in a position to see reality more clearly.

Now obviously misuse of power does involve misuse and abuse of language too, but the Orwell/Pound argument seems to imply that you can preemptively inoculate language itself from such misuse, make language a prophylactic barrier against certain kinds of abuse.

Poundian clarity of image and Heideggerian mysticism both lead their authors to Fascism. The prodigious metaphorical language of Neruda entails no guard against the Stalinist temptation. The null hypothesis should be that language in itself makes no difference.

1 dic 2010

Narratives of Lack

Part of my current project has to do with the narrative of lack in Spanish literature. Basically, the idea that Spain missed out on many of the major developments of Western European intellectual history. Humanism, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism. Often time, these narratives support a kind of Spanish exceptionalism that I don't find particularly congenial. Being committed to the theory of a lack commits us to some unattractive forms of exceptionalism.

This does not mean that the narrative of lack is always lacking in validity. The particulars can be debated of course, along with the meaning of the supposed "lack" in each case.

30 nov 2010

It's not so much that I blame my students for not being interested in Spanish literature (just because they are Spanish majors). What depresses me is students interested in literature don't major in Spanish. Spanish is the 2nd most spoken language in the world (if you count several forms of Chinese as one, which is a debate for another day). You would think someone would want to major in Spanish just to read some portion of that literature.

For similar reasons, I don't think it's horrible if English departments define themselves as doing all sorts of things other than teaching literature. There are many valuable things to study in this world, and literature is only one of them.

But I'd still like there to be a department of literature that does mostly that. Once a literature scholar decides she's bored, she can transfer to "English" and "Spanish" and do something not related to literature any more.

29 nov 2010

I've been playing around with the idea of counter-reformation poetics. What I mean by this is a very specific tradition that looks to Spanish mysticism (16th century) in order to create a Spanish cultural poetics for the modern age. There are a few dots I haven't connected yet, but the figures I am looking at are María Zambrano, José Lezama Lima, and José Ángel Valente, with some Unamuno thrown in. My basic question is how secular intellectuals can sign on to this project. Zambrano and Lezama were both practicing Catholics, of course, but their models are influential on many other, much more secular thinkers.

Mysticism almost has to do the work that the enlightenment does for other national traditions.

The notion of the counter-reformation was invented much later, and the term itself is fairly charged. I'm using it with some trepidation but also with some deliberate provocation.

28 nov 2010

People will tell you that contemporary poetry can offer nothing new, because there have already been various avant-gardes that have basically done everything possible. The common complaint that some new iteration of the avant-garde is vacuous, because we've already had dada, etc... is less devastating than it appears--for several reasons. The main one is that...

Modernity/modernization is not an event, but a process. You cannot just invent modern poetry once and for all and then forget about it. Nor can you simply return to a non-modern kind of poetry once you have tasted the modern. Even the poetry of the past is changed when we read Hardy through Creeley or Donne through Eliot.

27 nov 2010

Nobody Had Seen Douglas for Several Days

Jean was there, along with Joan, Jane, Janey, Jan, Janice, Janet, Jeanne, Jeannie, Jo Ann, Jo Anne, Johanna, Joanna, Julianne, and Job. Jo was there, with Josephine, Sue Bob, Sue Joe, Suanne, Suzanne, Susan, Susanna, Diane, Dianna, Dinah, Dina, Deena, Deanne, Deanna, and Deann. Dean and Don came much later, with Pete and Peto, Cassie and Cassandra, Chelsea, Kelsey, and Kelsie.

Robert, Bobby, Bobbie, and Bob showed up on time. Liam, Bill, Billy, Billie, Willy Sue, Will Bob, Wil, and William would not have missed it for the world. John, Jon, Jack, Jacky, Jackie, and The Boy were there. James, Jim, Jimmy, Jimmie Bob, Jimbo, and several girls named Megan, Molly, Danielle, Sara, and Sarah. Who else, you ask? Danny, Slim, Fats, Red, Bean, Prez, 'Trane, Bird, Tain, and Miles--and the other Fats. Sammy, Vinny, Marcia, Toshiro? Yes, I suppose so.

Let's not forget José, José Miguel, José Juan, María José, María Jesús, Maripepa, José María, María del Carmen, María de los Dolores, María de la Concepción, Concha, Conchita, Lola, Lolita, María del Mar, Marisol, Paco, Paquito, Juanmo, Juano, Ñaki, Ignacio, Nacho, Federico, Fede, and Cho. Jean-Pierre, Jean-Claude, and Jean-Jacques were feeling out of place untll they saw Charles, Dominique, and Marie.

At a table by the corner were sitting The Chairman of the Board, The Bronx Bomber, Lady Day, Lady D, Lady Di. LBJ, JFK, MJ, FDR, and JA. JP, JR, JK, FO'H, KK, and others too numerous to name were in attendance. The Duke, The Count, The Baron, The Duchess... Pop, Pops, Poppa, Popeye, Dad, Daddy, Ma, and Nana.

Of the younger generations, Jordan, Britty, Britt, Britney, Brittny, Brittany, several Jasons, Caleb, Zack, Zak, and Zack. The Queen was there, and Queenie too.

I have not yet mentioned a few others: Roi, Roy, LeRoi, Levon; Kirsten, Kristen, Kirstan, Christian, Christanne, Chris, Christopher, Kriss, Christine, Christianna, Krissy, Kitty, Kat, Cat, Cathleen, Kathleen, the other Kathleen, Kate, Kaye, Kay, K., the other Kay, Katie, Katy, Catherine, Katherine, Beth, Betsy, Betty, Liz, Lizzy, Liza, Lisa, Alyssa, Elissa, Elyssa, Lizabeth, Lizbeth, Elizabeth and the other Elizabeth. Bert and Burt were there, of course. But not Bertie or Bertha!

Canines, equines, and felines included Spot, Scout, Harry and Hairy, Baudelaire, Madame Bovary, Man O' the House, Regency, Elmer, Tosh, Empire State, Heavy Breathing, Answer to my Prayers, Heaven Sent, Justine, Acapello, Asterisk, If you expect me to list them all you will be sorely disappointed.

Who am I forgetting? William (the other one) was missing, as well as the other Bill and Fredericka. Someone said they had seen Greg and Craig, but I can't confirm their presence.

Nobody had seen Douglas for several days.

26 nov 2010

I imagine that my phonology is identical to that of Ella when she sings. I say imagine, because I could be making a mistake (or several mistakes) about what I actually say, how I actually pronounce certain sounds. When I hear Ella, however, I don't hear anything that strikes me as different from my own dialect--except for the vowel in immoral which I say as immoeral and she sings as immah-ral.

Sarah Vaughan, on the other hand, sings "Prelyude to a Kiss." I know that I say "prelude" and not "prelyude," just as I say "nuespaper" and not "nyewspaper."

25 nov 2010

The Professor is the conductor, the students are the musicians. The orchestra can only be as good as the musicians.

I like this better than the model that has the professor as the performer and the class as the audience.

24 nov 2010

Another golden hit from the past. I am particularly proud of this post.

23 nov 2010

The Adult Paradigm

From blogger Elisa Gabbert I borrow the idea of the "adult paradigm," who in turn took it from another friend of hers. My understanding of it might differ from hers, or his, so they bear no responsibility for what I am going to say.

For me, the adult paradigm means knowing the true value of things, or at least attempting to know what things are really worth. (Kind of the opposite of the cynic who "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.") Knowing how to hit a ball with a stick is not very important for most adults, but a discussion of who can hit a ball with a stick better than someone else is probably just about as worthwhile as many other discussions, about which perfumes smell the best or which beer is good to drink. In other words, many other topics are equally trivial in the grand scheme, but very significant, possibly, in an immediate situation or for particular people. An adult is a relativist in this sense. She knows that other people won't care about what she cares about, and that's fine. He know there are no gods, but doesn't waste time arguing people out of their beliefs. (Or, if the adult happens to be an adherent of a particular system of belief, he knows it is a useful framework just as good as anyone else's. She knows that if she had been born into feudal Japan or the Egypt of the Pharoahs, she would not have been a Methodist or Theosophist.)

The adult can allow herself true enthusiasms, without adolescent jadedness or faux cynicism. He knows his strengths and weaknesses and is not likely to be star-struck or intimidated by other people.


The adult paradigm is an aspiration; it is not achieved all at once but in little bits, if at all.

22 nov 2010

I've recently let my undergraduate course in on the existence of two American writers whom they had never heard of: Ezra Pound and Elmore Leonard.


Then a few days later they were citing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and developing really succinct but brilliant interpretations of some cryptic aphorisms. The collective intelligence of the class is quite amazing.

21 nov 2010

Cummings was the first poet I really loved when I was 11 or 12. I would buy all those paperbacks but eventually I got myself the Complete Poems. This is a poem that my little brother liked; I would have been 14 and he is seven years younger:
If you can't eat you got to

smoke and we aint got
nothing to smoke:come on kid

let's go to sleep
if you can't smoke you got to

Sing and we aint got

nothing to sing;come on kid
let's go to sleep

if you can't sing you got to
die and we aint got

Nothing to die,come on kid

let's go to sleep
if you can't die you got to

dream and we aint got
nothing to dream(come on kid

Let's go to sleep)

20 nov 2010

I had always had conserved a fond memory of the reading that Michael Caine did of Cumming's "somewhere i have never travelled" in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters." So I watched the film again on netflix online. The poem does appear there, but Caine does not read it aloud: the Barbara Hershey character does instead, and only the last few lines of it at that. I still think they cut out that part on the netflix streaming version, that it must be in the film. I can hear Caine's voice reading it in my memory, with his very distinctive accent and intonation.

But this is probably just a retrospective hallucination: a hallucination of memory.

19 nov 2010

I've been hearing a lot of Russian music lately. Some Proko. and Rimsky-Korsakov at blogger's night at the St. Louis Symphony Last Saturday--a very good concert with a violin concerto by Thomas Adès. Then on Sunday hearing the Youth Orchestra play and last night, the Ladue high school band with more R-K, the Capriccio Espagnol this time.

Prokofief's 1st symphony is nicknamed the "classical" because it has that 18th century feel. The SLSO gave a crisp performance of it, but it's not my favorite piece: it feels a little sterile to me.

The Adés concerto was played by Leila Josefowicz, a wonderful player. I wasn't seduced by the composition itself, though David Robertson gave an entertaining lecture about it before they played it. When he had her play a bit of a Bach piece I found myself wishing she would play more of that.

The RK Sheherazade featured some of the excellent soloists in the orchestra and got a standing O, as Leila did not.


Sunday's Youth Orchestra featured a Mozart war-horse, the 40th, a Barber symphony, as well as a Berlioz overture and Billy the Kid, by Copland, this last one directed by Robertson. No Russian music here. The Youth Orchestra is a fine ensemble in which my particular youth plays the trumpet.
Why do I like the plain style in scholarly writing and the trobar clus in poetry? That's a question I've been asking myself recently.

I do like the other poetic styles, the clarity of Williams, Koch, and Creeley and of the medieval / renaissance cancionero, so in the first place the opposition is not hard and fast. I also am fond of some baroque prose styles.

Yet still I maintain the separation between a certain "plainness" in my own writing and some of the difficult poetry I like. I don't view this as a contradiction but as a complement. There's no point in explaining something difficult in a difficult way: that just adds another layer of complexity.

18 nov 2010

Deconstruction as a way of analyzing texts demanded an enormous technical precision, or prided itself on this precision, at least. The issues often involved very technical distinctions and the analysis of etymologies.

As I see it, there were two problems:

(1) Were the analyses all that precise in the first place? Take de Man's famous distinction between grammar and rhetoric. What he meant by the "grammatical" reading of a rhetorical question was something like a literal, non-rhetorical meaning. But in what sense is this "grammatical"? How is the grammatical a synonym for the literal? (Don't answer that question!) Doesn't the rhetorical question have the same grammatical structure however it is interpreted? I don't find it all that interesting to read Yeats's rhetorical question, "How can we tell the dancer from the dance?" as though it were a real question: "Tell me, how can you tell the dancer from the dance?" If this is the most famous deconstruction of a poem, I want my money back.

(2) Insofar as the ideological tendency of deconstruction, at least in the US academy, was to encourage a kind of interpretive freedom, this appeal to freedom undermined the appeal of precision. Or else the vaunted precision of the interpretation ended up limiting interpretation to a binary choice. The idea was that the interpreter would be eternally caught in an aporia between two conflicting readings, but these two readings turned out to be very determinate.

If the text is anything you want it to be, however, then there seems little point in insisting on the precision of the method. In other words, the demand for technical precision conflicts with the appeal of hermeneutic anarchy.

People who liked deconstruction, I suspect, were seduced by the possibility of having it both ways, having the professional expertise of the close reader and the existential freedom of the textual anarchist.


There's a dialogue between Derrida and some critics (Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon, two graduate students at the time) in Critical Inquiry (Autumn 1985 and some subsequent material in Autumn 1986). He had said, basically "Let Apartheid be the last word." His critics interpreted him as saying that Apartheid WAS the last word. He came back and pointed out that he hadn't read the subjunctive right. It was "soit" and not "est," so to speak. He denounced their rhetorical incompetence, and rightly so. But here there is no textual aporia: Derrida is correct and his critics are not.
If you had paid attention to the context and the modeof my text, you would not have fallen into the enormous blunder that led you to take a prescriptive utterance for a descriptive (theoretical and constative) one. You write for example (and I warned you that I was going to cite you often): "Because he views apartheid as a 'unique appellation,' Derrida has little to say about the politically persuasive function that successive racist lexicons have served in South Africa" (p. 141). But I never considered (or "viewed") apartheid as a "unique appellation." I wrote something altogether different, and it is even the first sentence of my text: "Apartheid-que cela reste le nom desormais, l'unique appellation au monde pour le dernier des racismes. Qu'il le demeure mais que vienne un jour . . . , " which Peggy Kamuf translates in the most rigorous fashion: "APARTHEID-may that remain ... May it thus remain, but may a day come... " (p. 291). This translation is faithful because it respects (something you either could not or would not do) the grammatical, rhetorical, and pragmatic specificity of the utterance.

So Derrida could appeal to precision, to specificity, but he could not do so and at the same time advocate for interpretive anarchy. That was never his game anyway. Derrida was not some advocate of let-it-all-hang out interpretation.

16 nov 2010

I am interviewed:

1. Are there any books (e.g., anthologies, critical books) that you would recommend as a starting point for new readers of poetry who are looking for an orientation?

Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days. For younger (High School) writers, his anthology Sleeping on the Wing, edited with Kate Farrell. Both these volumes contain excellent poems and commentaries in easy-to-understand language. You can’t go wrong with Koch or with Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry. No matter what the exact starting point, all roads lead back eventually to the “good stuff.” The advantage of starting with Koch or Zukofsky is that the path might be better illuminated.

2. Could you recommend some poets who are not as well-known as they deserve to be?

Lorine Niedecker. David Shapiro. Bernadette Mayer. Joseph Ceravalo. While these writers are well-known in the circles in which I travel they deserve even wider attention.

3. Could you recommend some interesting collections of poetry in translation?

Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris edited the first two volumes of Poems from the Millennium. The third was edited by Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson. These books contain many poems in translation as well as poems written originally in English. The University of California Press series Poets for the Millennium is also highly recommended. I’m a big fan of Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain, a classic anthology of Chinese poetry. I would recommend reading the same poet in multiple translations: this is an excellent way to learn about the variability of translation practices. I have multiple translations of Basho on my shelf, and I’ve learned as much from the bad ones as from the good.

4. Could you recommend some contemporary poets who are doing something particularly innovative and interesting with form?

The late Leslie Scalapino. The Canadian poet Christian Bök. The visual poetry of the Spanish poet José-Miguel Ullán. Those are three examples that come readily to mind. What is interesting, though, is that these three poets do not resemble one another in the least. If I had listed three others they would also be completely different from one another: the possibilities of poetic form are virtually inexhaustible.

5. Are there any particular poets who you think are excessively admired or imitated by beginning poets?

I was going to say E.E. Cummings, but I don’t think any heartfelt admiration for any particular poet is harmful. With enough reading, the young writer will transcend any “bad influences.” Cummings, whatever his limitations, is a also a superb craftman to whom we condescend at our peril. Sometimes we get fixated on a single influence when we are younger, trying to learn as much as possible from his or her work. Usually this is beneficial, and we move on to other poets in time. A weaker poet will be exhausted quickly, so there is little risk there. Imitating a stronger poet can be risky in a quite different way: in this case the young writer will have to break away at some point so as not to be overwhelmed. On the other hand, many poets have made an entire career out of imitating a single successful model such as John Ashbery!

True originality, paradoxically, comes from imitation. The less a poet has read, the more clichéd his or her poetry is likely to be.

6. Any other general thoughts on what aspiring poets should be reading?

In the first place I think they should not read exclusively in modern and contemporary poetry. That is the most common mistake I see. A historical sense gives more depth to one’s writing and enlarges one’s sense of poetic possibilities, since poetry, in past epochs, has been many different things: satire, epic, panegyric, lyric... They should learn at least one other language well enough to read and translate. They should also avoid the passive approach, the mere acceptance of the popular poets of today.

Music and visual art should be just as significant to them as poetry: poetry is a synaesthetic art form. The poet should be a “professor of the five bodily senses” (Lorca).

7. Could you tell us something about your book, Apocryphal Lorca?

With pleasure. This book is a comparative study of how contemporary American poets assimilated the influence of the great twentieth-century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. I look both at translations (Lorca and Rilke are the most translated modern European poets) as well as “apocryphal” recreations of the Lorquian style by poets like Jack Spicer. I tried to write this book in a readable style but without sacrificing scholarly rigor. Some readers have told me that they frequently laughed out loud. I did not try to be gratuitously comic, but the material I was dealing with is inherently fascinating and occasionally quite amusing. I hope it reaches a wide audience.

15 nov 2010

I have always had trouble with Pound's Confucian Odes. The awful dialect and doggerel-like effects that mar many of the poems. The mixture of the slangy and the sententious can produce effects that verge on the absurd. But the book has its moments:
I plucked your sleeve by the way, that you should pause.
Cast not an old friend off without cause.

That a hand's clasp in the high road could thee move:
Scorn not an old friend's love.

Sure, it's a little stilted and archaic, but to good effect. Only in very short poems does he steer clear of jarring effects. You're almost rooting for him not to blow it.

The New Directions edition I have has an unsigned introduction. It could be by Pound himself, although it refers to him in the third person. I've had this book since I was a teenager.

14 nov 2010

The New Critics developed theories sympathetic to some aspects of literary modernism, but they condescended to Pound, Williams, and Cummings, tolerated Moore, ignored H.D., did a poor job with Stevens, failed to welcome O'Hara and Creeley, Duncan and Ginsberg--the poets who learned from modernism. Modernism, for the New Critics, didn't include European surrealism or the Latin American offspring of the avant-garde.

So modernism turned out to be Yeats, Eliot, and the poetry of the New Critics themselves (Ransom, Tate), along with the academic school branching out from Auden. The anti-modernist turn within modernism.

13 nov 2010

Here's another popular post from the past.
With Helen Vendler's scholarship I always have the feeling that she represents the triumph of mere competence. I'm pretty sure I could come up with better commentaries on Shakespeare's sonnets. She barely touches their prosody, and often misses points that to me are obvious. It' great that she exists and talks about relevant issues and great poets (and some mediocre ones of more recent years), but couldn't anyone do what she does, more or less? I can't quite put my finger on it. Is it the writing style, the insistence on details that just are not that significant? Is it my own ressentiment? I often think of her as worthwhile and try out her books, but then I give up on them after a while. I still like my Platonic ideal of Helen Vendler more than her actual writing.

This is apart from some of her lamentable lapses in taste. I wouldn't care if she liked the same poets I did in the contemporary period if she did justice to Keats and Shakespeare.

12 nov 2010

At a conference a former student told my wife that she was irritated when someone talked about their 20 minute talk being "part of a larger project." All 20 minute talks are part of larger projects because no scholarly project is only 20-minutes long. I'm going to have to stop saying that now.

11 nov 2010

Here's a post from 2008, back by popular demand. It should have been on Stupid Motivational Tricks, but that blog did not yet exist:

What does your scholarly writing do?

Treat, examine, consider, take into consideration, look at...

That's a good start. But those words simply name your subject matter!

Explain, account for, clarify, give an account of...

Ok. You're not only treating, but explaining; that's better.

Narratiing, tracing the trajectory of, telling a story, summarizing, paraphrasing

Now there's a forward movement, a momentum, a taking into consideration of other scholars' work. Beware of merely summarizing too much, though. It sounds rather dull.

Problematizing, analyzing, calling into question, re-evaluating, etc...

A more critical scrutiny than a mere treatment or consideration. What's the next level. An even more precise vocabulary for describing your particular task.

Look over a paper you wrote a year ago, with the proper perspective time gives. Which of these words do you use? Could you have done better work by conceiving of what your set of tasks is in more precise and descriptive language?

10 nov 2010

I remember reading Asbhery's introduction to The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. He had a list of authors that O'Hara and he had read. A lot of my reading in those days was reading backwards, from O'Hara to Flann O'Brien, from Ashbery to Henry Green, etc... Pound sent countless readers back to Chinese poetry or the Troubadours.

A large part of my reading of Valente has been of this type. I can read him in terms of Lezama, Celan, Zambrano, San Juan de la Cruz, Unamuno, Lorca... Understanding everything he knew and understood.

The opposite method is to take a single figure like Rimbaud, Wittgenstein, or Pound, or Lorca, and study that writer's influence on everyone else. This is what Marjorie Perloff did in a series of books (The Poetics of Indeterminacy; The Dance of the Intellect; Wittgenstein's Ladder). That's what I tried to do in Apocryphal Lorca.

9 nov 2010

Textual Crossings II

I've decided Lezama Lima has to go in the book too. I'm going to put him in the same chapter as María Zambrano.

Wish me luck.

Seriously, though, this is the one poet I've devoted most time to that I've never written about (except for one conference paper 20 years ago that I no longer even have.)

I'm sure before it is all over I will have even more Latin American poetry in this book.

8 nov 2010

This post was written for Stupid Motivational Tricks, but I thought I'd cross post it here, because the readership of the two blogs does not coincide completely:

Creativity has (at least) two different meanings in literary criticism. One is like the creative in "creative accounting" where the creative urge is to make up crap about the text or to invent the most fanciful interpretation. A deeper creativity is the creativity of seeing what's actually there and asking the tough questions about it. Why is something one way and not another. How do we account for something that is (seemingly) anomalous.

Something that seems off, strange, is a good place to start. For example, I wondered why Juan Ramón Jiménez had created an anthology of his work that printed all his free-verse poems as prose, suppressing the original lineation. That seemed odd to me, because skill in verse is defined by, well, verse, and readers don't tend to read blocks of prose for rhythm. That question became the basis of a fairly original book chapter which should form part of my next book. What are the implications of this decision? How is this similar to what other poets have done?

If you are deeply engaged in a field, you will constantly be constantly confronted with things that seem off. Why can Donne be perfectly metrical when he wants to be, yet write the strangest lines elsewhere? If Greek and Roman poetry doesn't rhyme, why is rhyme so central to any neo-classical aesthetic? If you see the strangeness of what's before your eyes, you won't have a need to look for originality in spurious ways. A good critical insight has to be paradoxical, against the doxa or somehow internally contradictory in an interesting way.

Plodding, dutiful criticism just seems to go through the text and point out obvious things we already now.

7 nov 2010

Textual Crossings I
Take Campion's poem, "Rose cheek'd Laura"

Rose-cheek'd Laura, come,
Sing thou smoothly with thy beauty's
Silent music, either other
Sweetly gracing.

Lovely forms do flow
From concent divinely framed;
Heav'n is music, and thy beauty's
Birth is heavenly.

These dull notes we sing
Discords need for helps to grace them;
Only beauty purely loving
Knows no discord,

But still moves delight,
Like clear springs renew'd by flowing,
Ever perfect, ever in them-
Selves eternal.

A metrical tour-de-force. It seems inadequate to say that "the sound should seem an echo to the sense." Rather, the sense tells the reader how to hear the flowing sounds. The sense creates a kind of auditory hallucination, making the silent or dull notes into colorful sounds.

6 nov 2010

In Obabakoak there is a discussion of the short story, what makse a good one. The kind of stories that they tell are of the Maupassant or O'Henry variety. Stories with a satisfying "click" at the end. A good story is short, meaningful, and has a point. "Finis coronat opus." The ending crowns the work.

The characters all converge at the end of the novel to the house of the "Uncle from Montevideo" for a story-telling marathon. The uncle is like a character out of a 19th century novel, an indiano (a Spaniard who has been the Americas to make his fortune and has returned home) who advocates traditional story-telling. But in a Borgesian framework.

In class I told a story from an old film. A man in Central Park is approached by a young girl. They have a conversation. She gives many details about where she lives, her name... Later, the man goes to the address and finds out the girl died many years ago of a childhood illness. I can't remember what movie that is from.

I also told an old joke: A priest and a rabbi go into a bar, and the bartender says, "What is this, some kind of joke?"

5 nov 2010

Update: Areas in red show "rhotic" areas of rural England before 1950, iin answer to Sarang's excellent question.


"Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow"

There is another metrical joke of a sort. That's like the stupid high school teacher's idea of what iambic pentameter is: five feet that are also five phrases. The infinitesimal minority of lines are really like that. ("Devouring time, blunt thou the lion's paw.." That's more typical.) The joke is on the Petrarchan "blason of sweet beauty's best..." The implication is that it is monotonous and predictable.


The other thing I've noticed recently is Thomas Hardy:

"But that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion that could overbear
Reluctance for pure loving kindness' sake"

That briefest, awkward and poignant pause before the word reluctance gets me every time. You have to stop one r sound and begin another.


Frost's "Silken Tent" describes a tent swaying in the wind, controlled by "countless silken ties of love and thought," but bound by no "single cord." There is tension and looseness, then, a swaying or swinging motion. The tent is the poem itself. This is a kind of higher onomatopoeia, where the prosody doesn't mimic sounds, but the structure of psychic events. Williams' cat climbing down into the empty flowerpot is another example. The cat is noiseless, but the poem moves with it. Campion's "Rose cheeked Laura" does it with sound, so there's that too.


None of this is news, but I have to keep reminding myself of the basic thing that makes poetry valuable to me, which is that it is an art form. Even the students who hate literature (they say) respond to things like this.

4 nov 2010

Tips for a great keynote lecture:

(1) Use powerpoint only for text that you are going to read aloud. Make sure there are no images.

(2) Make sure the quotes you put on powerpoint slides are lengthy. If the quotes are awkward translations that you did yourself, and you have them on the screen for a long time, you will earn bonus points as the audience follows along your monotone reading of those slides and second guesses your translations.

(3) Announce you are going to "summarize" a chapter of a book you are now writing. Nothing is as scintillating as a summary.

(4) Summarize the plots of several novels in a monotone. We all love plot summaries.

(5) Make reference to super-familiar ideas: Benedict Anderson's idea of nations as "imagined communities" or Foucault's notion of power as "capillary." You wouldn't want to excite your audience with an idea they aren't familiar with already.

(6) Don't project any emotion to the audience; never interrupt yourself with off-the-cuff remarks. Don't act too excited. No eye contact with any member of the audience.

(7) Just read the text that you have written. Just read it out loud. Nothing more. That is your job: to read the text that you have brought to read to us and show us fucking power point slides with your bad translations.


3 nov 2010

Why should one syllable make that much difference? Let's look at the contrast between the 7 and 8 syllable line in Spanish.

The seven syllable line has this pattern:

1 2 3 4 (5) 6 (7)

There will always be an accent on syllable six, never on 7 and very rarely on 5. That gives us four syllables where the poet will place an accent. The most predictable place will be on 2 or 4, which will maintain an iambic, binary flow. 3 will give a ternary rhythm:

Let's see what happens in this poem by Brines

Vente, luz, a mis ojos, [1, 3, 6]
descansa tu fatiga [2, 6 ]
en ellos, tan cansados, [2, 6]
alíviame y acábete [2, 6]
en el amor del hombre. [4, 6]
Antes que se dilate [1, 6]
la sombra de la noche [2, 6]
en que has de morir [2, 6]
y yo morirme, [2, 5] ! [this line is a syllable short of the six-pack]
álzame tu pañuelo [1, 6]
que, tras de las montañas [2, 6]
es un fuego de rosas, [3, 6]
y dime que la vida [2, 6]
fue un día fiel, y largo [1, 2, 4, 6]
que supo de mi amor, [2, 6]
y amaré este cansancio [3, 6]

Very few lines have more than 2 stressed syllables.

The 8 syllables line has a totally different dynamic, because it will be much more likely to vacillate between binary and ternary patterns, and to have 3 rather than 2 accents per line.

Las piquetas de los gallos [3, 7 ]
cavan buscando la aurora [1,4, 7]
cuando por el monte oscuro [1, 5, 7]
baja Soledad Montoya. [1, 5, 7]
Cobre amarillo, su carne [1, 4, 7]
huele a caballo y a sombra. [1,4, 7]
Yunques ahumados, sus pechos [1, 4, 7]
gimen canciones redondas. [1, 4,7]
¿Soledad, por quién preguntas? [3, 5, 7]

The binary pattern is 3, 7, (or 1,3,7, etc...) with accents on odd-numbered syllables.

The ternary pattern is 1,4,7.

"Mixed" pattern, as defined by Tomás Navarro Tomás, are 2,4,7; 2, 5, 7. 1,5,7 is also possible.

The poet has one extra syllable to play with (1-5) and this extra room allows for a lot more variation of rhythm. There are two distinctively different rhythms, plus a few intermediate variations.

xx/x xx/x (binary, trochaic) [de cristales y laureles]

/xx /xx /x (ternary, dactylic) [Voces de muerte sonaron]

x /x /xx /x (mixed) [aguarda grietas del alba]

x /xx /x /x (mixed) [caballo de larga cola]

2 nov 2010

Maybe because I see such a lack of expertise and erudition, I value these qualities more highly. I think of myself as someone with barely enough to be a college professor at all, yet I know others who know much less than I do. If everyone knew their stuff, then expertise would be mere competence.

When I hear plot summaries (paper that are little more than plot summaries) in conferences, I despair a bit.

1 nov 2010

It's irritating when I am way early on a deadline, and then I get a message close to the deadline (right before or after) reminding me of a deadline I have met with much to spare.

Hello! I sent that to you a month ago / a year ago / etc... and you never acknowledged it. Here it is in my sent messages folder and I'm resending it to you now. You are creating an extra step for me, and also you are not taking advantage of my earliness.

31 oct 2010

We should be careful not to let the general public in on our knowledge. If someone non-academic asks yo what you are working on, make sure to say, "oh, some esotoric subject you wouldn't be interested in." Let's make sure we don't let anyone know that we get to spend our time with "pocos, pero doctos libros juntos." It's bad enough we have to teach our undergraduates some of this literature rather than keeping it to ourselves. Fortunately, we only require them to take four courses in literature to graduate with a Spanish major. Fortunately, too, most of them dislike literature, so there is no danger there either.

And some of "us" dislike it too.

30 oct 2010

Can you be outside and inside at the same time? In other words, can you see yourself as a rogue, an outsider, a rebel, but still be a full professor? That's unlikely.


Agreement is overrated. Maybe you disagree!

I don't really care whether someone agrees with what I say. It only becomes important if my ego is wrapped up in a particular opinion. Then disagreement becomes a threat to my ego, to my very identity. Once I step past that point, then I can debate issues with less worry. When disagreement rankles, it is because I haven't detached the opinions from my ego.

29 oct 2010

The path to originality is to forget about originality, like Pierre Menard. Originality is tiresome if it is sought after, courted, forced.

Be derivative, like Robert Duncan. Your works should derive from other sources, enrich an ongoing tradition. Would you be disappointed that your favorite writer also had favorite writers?

28 oct 2010

Barthes has always been one of my favorite authors. He is really a writer, not just a theorist or critic. What I particularly like is that he is really a 19th century sensibility trying to deal with 20th century avant-garde, or maybe vice-versa. This tension can lead to very irritating moments in Barthes too, when he's hammering home some arbitrary distinction he wants to make.

The way Barthes has dated (or not) is also interesting to me. You can go back and forth between "did people really ever believe this" to "this could have been written yesterday," and back again. To simplify, the theoretical Barthes is dated, but the personal Barthes is not. The Barthes who believed semiology was scientific, and the one who used fountain pens and painted water colors.

27 oct 2010

I was a little surprised that my undergraduate students, in upper-division Spanish literature class, were unaware that Mario Vargas Llosa had won a Nobel prize. Ok. Well, that 's kind of anti-climactic. It's not like the Latin American "boom" is recent news, and to give out the prize now for something more relevant 30 years ago is kind of typical of the Swedish Academy's general cluelessness.

But not a single one of my students had heard of Roberto Bolaño, the most famous Latin American writer (in the US at least) of the last decade or so. I understand that they are Spanish majors, not Spanish literature majors, but still... that level of disengagement is disheartening. Someone asked me after class whether I had studied literature as well as Spanish. Probably because I had Boccaccio, Chaucer, and the Arabian Nights, along with Italo Calvino, in my references that day.

A Spanish major somehow has never realized that almost all of her professors are specialists in literature...

26 oct 2010

I've been teaching Obabakoak. In case you don't know it, this is a fantastic novel or fictional creation by Bernardo Atxaga, the Basque writer. It comes right out of Calvino, in some sense, but with a more narrow geographic focus than Once on a Winter's Night a Traveler. Calvino skips around with his narrations, but Atxaga focuses on a more narrow territory, only skipping a few times to Ireland or Amazonia.

Calvino's novel was was published in 79, Atxaga's in 88. Of course that whole postmodern metafiction stuff now seems much more cliché, but that is partially because of its success, and Atxaga is quite original within the cliché, if that's not too much of a contradiction. In other words, the techniques no longer seem innovative, but he puts them to innovative use.

25 oct 2010

They say you should read some really bad poetry of the past just so you realize how good the good stuff is in comparison. With the distant past, we only read the great works, whereas in the present we are inundated with endless crap.

This is true, but a little bit of bad poetry goes a long way. You only need to read one bad poem in each style to reach that kind of realization.

24 oct 2010

Course on Prosody

I have always assumed I could never teach a course on prosody, but now it is going to happen. Almost. In the Spring I am organizing a non-credit seminar-like entity I am calling "Working Group on Prosody and Versification." I might be the only one taking the course (from myself), but if I get a few more people, I can test it out and see if it works. If it does, then it can become a real course some subsequent year.

Beginning in the Spring semester, I will be organizing a group for discussing selected topics in prosody and versification. We will meet regularly once a week in the small seminar room in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, at a time not conflicting with Graduate Courses in the Department, to discuss an article or book chapter, along with a few poems or textual examples.

The idea is to provide a time and a space where we can explore a topic that may be too esoteric for a regular graduate course, but that may be of some interest to some members of our department. Eventually, I would like to develop a new course in this area, but before doing so I need to refine my own expertise and gauge the level of potential interest.

Possible topics of discussion include generative metrics, the interface between linguistic prosody and literary prosody, and the role of metrics in literary criticism. We often relegate prosody to the lower levels of the curriculum (Spanish 340), treating it as something basic and perhaps not particularly interesting. My aim is to show that there is more in this particular subfield than many scholars realize. This group is particularly recommended to graduate students who want to specialize in poetry or theater, or who are interested in the pedagogy of literary analysis.

All interested Graduate Students and Faculty should contact me at jmayhew@ku.edu. I will be distributing materials in advance of the first meeting to those who express interest.

While the initial focus will be on Spanish prosody, the group is open to participation to interested members of the University community.

23 oct 2010

How To Read Poetry Aloud

First of all, you should always read poetry aloud even if you are reading silently. In other words, you should hear it in your mind as you read it. You should have an idea oral reading in your head before you even think about reading it outloud.

You should know what the poem is doing metrically in great detail, and then forget about this when you actually read the poem aloud. In other words, you should not read like someone who has no idea what the meter is, but there is no particular need to emphasize the meter either as though your listeners needed help in perceiving it. The same applies to any sound device like rhyme or alliteration.

The same principle goes for line-breaks. Give each break its appropriate treatment, but never act like a line-break isn't there at all. There is no need for heavy pauses when lines are enjambed, but the breaks can be observed in other ways--through split-second hesitation, shifts in pacing.

Don't use the "poet's voice," the dreaded poet's voice where intonation is trapped between three or three exact pitches.

Don't be an actor. Don't dramatize or emote. Say the words like you mean them; let them flow through you. A dry performance can be more moving than a dramatized one. Variation in speed of delivery, in length of pauses, can do a great deal.

Always memorize. Even if you are reading off the page, you should more or less know the poem.


Be a student of performance styles. Ignore all the preceding advice and develop your own damn approach. Maybe you want to just scream everything like one poet I saw once. Maybe you should sing or beat a drum. Maybe the "poet voice" is for you, or an approach modeled after Gil Scott Heron, who was rapping long before hip hop was invented. An over-the-top performative style is way better than a professorial style that shows no understanding of rhythm. I remember a lecture by Hilllis Miller about Yeat I saw when I was very young. It was obvious to me from the way he read Yeats aloud that he had no understanding of Yeats as a poet. That might seem like an extreme and arrogant statement, but that's what I thought at the time as a dumb 18-year old. I probably wouldn't jump to that kind of conclusion now, but there it is.

22 oct 2010

Can Humanities Education Be the Basis of Citizenship?

No, I don't think so. I have several objections to this whole line of thinking, however well-intentioned.

1) Not everyone goes to college; not everyone who goes to college takes a lot of Humanities courses. Citizenship has to have a more expansive base, not dependent on your choice of major, or even less a few gen ed classes. That's a heavy burden to put on a few courses in the curriculum, or the graduates of a few majors.

2) Education in the Humanities promotes critical thinking skills. Sure. But so does education in general. In sciences, social sciences, and any field of intellectual endeavor. And is that what the Humanities are really about, a set of skills abstracted from our scholarly practice?

3) Isn't this really a backdoor way of using a political alibi to save the humanities? In other words, it's not the humanities saving humanity, but vice-versa? (Society will save the English department if it realizes the English department will save society.)

4) Won't those arguments devalue any part of the humanities that doesn't have a direct pay-off (pay-out) in utilitarian terms? So if the humanities are not useful for business, they are essential to forming citizens! Once we take that step, why preserve the parts that don't seem directly relevant to civic life? (Most of it?) It's a way valuing the humanities for their closeness to the social science. The humanities become a less rigorous, more warm-and-fuzzy social science. Even philosophy, a more rigorous discipline, will be reduced to a few "relevant" subject, like ethics.

5) The argument is self-serving, when promoted by people in the Humanities (as it usually is). Sure, without the English dept. civilization will die out. Philosophy holds the key to thinking itself. Surely biology should be the master discipline, since we are living creatures. But physics holds the keys to the universe itself. And so on. In other words, anyone who has devoted their life to one particular thing will derive an exaggerated notion of its relative importance, whether it's Baroque poetry or exercise physiology.

6) There's often an appeal to the use of language in a clear way, which will in turn clear thought about politics to the nation. But no one discipline or set of disciplines owns language. Freshman composition won't prevent Bush from abusing power, no matter how good those composition courses get. Once again, there is the problem of getting from the curriculum to the real-life effect it's supposed to have.

7) Finally, there's the assumption that humanities will save the nation because humanities professors have the correct politics and can transmit that viewpoint to their students. That will probably merit a post of its own. The problem, basically, is that then it is the particular political views that matter, not the integrity of the discipline or the specificity of its content. If humanities professors turn conservative, and physics professors get consistently leftist, then will physics provide the basis of civic life?

21 oct 2010

El hereje

I was reading this novel by Miguel Delibes, El hereje. It takes place in the 16th century and the "heretic" of the novel is a Lutheran in Valladolid.

Everything in the novel is laid out for the reader in explicit detail. We get a lot of historical research almost in its raw form, with the thinnest veneer of fictionalization, and we are told what happens to the characters in chronological order. Much as I admire some of Delibes's other novels, this one has no sense of narrative mystery or suspense. We never wonder why a character is doing something. Every narrative move is telegraphed way in advance. Understanding the literal level of what happens in the plot, you would understand the novel itself.

I am impatient with my inability to tolerate this kind of fictional construct. I'm sure this kind of historical data dump would not bother many readers.

20 oct 2010

Rhyme and Line Endings

Romance languages are really rhyme happy. Some day I'd like to look at rhyme, which has several functions, in terms of one of its main uses: marking the ends of lines. For today I'll just think out loud about it:

Line endings are significant for verse, because verse is defined as a series of verse-units. The end can simply be obvious, in unenjambed verse of the "single moulded" variety. In other words, in some kinds of verse knowing where the end of the line is is unproblematic.

Blank verse does without rhyme but also tends toward increased enjambment. Those two developments are practically one and the same. Heavily enjambed verse with rhyme, then, is an interesting hybrid, since the verse marks line endings while the sense is carried over to the next line. It would be possible to have rhyme that is not all that perceptible to the ear, if you enjambed enough and didn't pause at the end of the line or overemphasize those rhyming words. Rhyme would almost be "internal."

In Claudio Rodríguez, we have a kind of "rhymed blank verse," where there is rhyme, but the movement from line to line suggests blank-verse verse paragraphs. When his verse gets freer, he rhymes more randomly. Rhyme is no longer structural. It occurs where it wants to, and is often internal rhyme. Carlos Piera pointed out to me that the silva, with its combination of seven and eleven syllable words, is really the Spanish equivalent of blank verse. He didn't say that in so many words, but that's the upshot.

Classical verse is rhymeless (Greek, Latin) and sometimes constructed in paragraphs rather in sequences of end-stopped lines (Virgil.) Why is European neo-classicism so rhyme happy?

19 oct 2010

Evaluative Criticism

Ezra Pound takes it for granted that criticism should mostly be evaluative. Figuring out where the best stuff is, why it's good, and using that as a model for one's own writing. There's a palpable excitement there when he's talking about Rochester or Calvacanti. Zukofsky does the same the A Test of Poetry. I come out of that tradition.

Northrop Frye, a literary theorist very famous in the age of New Criticism (though himself not a New Critic), argued that evaluation was not the proper function of criticism. That is only possible, however, if we already know what the good stuff is and why we should be studying it. In other words, evaluation has already taken place, but we just don't want to talk about it or justify our judgments. We just take the already existing canon as our standard of value and leave it at that.

What I find interesting is the situation in which values are uncertain. Then critical opportunity arises; we can argue again what the best stuff is, why it is good, what the stakes are. So Marjorie Perloff talking about poetry is always going to be interesting, because there's an argument there about value. Other "popular" critics like Vendler and Bloom also make arguments about what's worthwhile and why.

The idea that criticism should mostly be interpretive or hermeneutic,: telling us what the works mean, is foreign to someone like Pound. I'm not that interested in interpreting works myself. I mean, I still do derive meanings from works I read, and devise theories of what they mean, but those interpretations are not the main point of my criticism anymore.

18 oct 2010

I've pointed out before that the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism has no entry for prosody, versification, music, or poetics. It has drama theory and narratology, and Murray Krieger, and Roberto Schwarz.

To be fair, the word prosody does come up in 4 articles: Thomas Kuhn, Arabic Theory, Chinese Theory (2); versification comes up 6 times, for Poe, Jakobson, Medieval, Late 18th Century British, Spanish, and Russian Formalism, but some of these references are rather fleeting and insubstantial.

There are 8 references to rhyme.

So what exactly is "Literary Theory and Criticism"? I'd really like to know. Playing gotcha is fun. Looking at what's not visible is highly revealing.

17 oct 2010

My own termination policy would be for translators who claim to be using "loose" blank verse when they are really not using any meter at all.

16 oct 2010

Aesthetic Judgment and Its Suspension

The suspension of aesthetic judgment can be liberating. Not having to worry at every moment about "how good it is" is a foundational gesture in contemporary literary and cultural studies. The raw material for many kinds of investigation would simply not be available if it first had to pass an acid test of judgment. "First prove it's good enough, belongs in the canon, and then we'll admit that studying it is worthwhile, that it is a valuable subject for a dissertation." With that sort of logic, obviously, we limit the field to things already accepted according to sometimes rather questionable canonical standards.

That being said, aesthetic judgment is never suspended for very long, nor should it be. Even scholars who think they are suspending judgment are really not doing so: they are temporarily bracketing it, or making a surreptitious claim that this text, too, is beautiful, if you look at it in a way. Saying that value is contingent, as Barbara H. Smith does in Contingencies of Value, does not get us very far either. Ok, we know that already, now let's get back to the real work, which is arguing about value from our various contingently defined positions. John Guillory's devastating critique of Smith in Cultural Capital, it seems to me, restores the aesthetic to its rightful place.

An aesthetic sense is like the nose of a hunting dog. When writing Apocryphal Lorca, I noticed that the obvious aesthetic flaws in homages to Lorca and translations of his work were often hints about other failures, intellectual, sentimental, and ethical. And, yes, an aesthetic failure is also an aesthetic failure in its own right.

A critic without a nose cannot be trusted.

15 oct 2010

You could write a paper about work in Claudio Rodríguez. He likes words like obra, labor, tarea, jornal, oficio, taller. You could just do a nice little semantic analysis of this particular semantic region of his work.

To expand this for an MA thesis or senior thesis, you could choose four or five semantic fields and see what happens. It might look too old-fashioned for a PhD diss.

14 oct 2010

Here's a really dumb question. Why is free verse unrhymed, typically? It is dumb, but important. In your answer, an essay of 500 words or less, you may consider the following factors:

The Ogden Nash effect. Lines of unequal length, if rhymed, become doggerel.

The enjambment effect. Rhyme marks line endings strongly. Free verse is associated with two traditions: the Whitmanic one of syntactic parallelism, and the blank verse of Milton with its powerful, heavily enjambed verse paragraphs.

The association of meter with rhyme. Poets throwing out meter will also throw out rhyme, because rhyme doesn't occur unless regular meter does also? Rhyme without meter is comic?

What about Creeley? He is the main free verse poet who rhymes.

The prize-winning essayist will receive a free life-time subscription to BS and SMT.

13 oct 2010

I am a dull guy and I am not very interested in proving to anyone else that I am interesting. You don't really have to be interesting after 50, which is a great liberation. Dull subjects like prosody occupy the bulk of my attention. The most esoteric and technical dimension of poetry, which is by far the dullest form of literature. I am not only dull, but humorless, as you can see. I make sure sure I am not interested in anything anyone else cares about either. Sports, movies, tv. I only read dull poets like Robert Creeley, with his banal sentimentality.

I will tell you that moreso and thusly are not words. I am wondering right now why my browser is not underlining thusly in red since it is not a word. Surely nothing is duller than someone correcting imagined errors in English usage. If I was a bit duller than I am I would offer incorrect corrections and tell you not to use hopefully. I am dull but I'm not an idiot.

You'll argue that I am not all that dull in the grand scheme of things. I like jazz and have some other interesting interests. I speak a few languages and know a few jokes. You could argue that but then you would be profoundly mistaken. An interesting guy would not use phrase like "in the grand scheme of things" or "profoundlly mistaken."

12 oct 2010

Speaking of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, I attended a lecture recently by James Shapiro, who's written the ultimate book about this, Contested Will. His point was the the problem was an ahistorical tendency to read autobiographically in way foreign to the early modern period. It was a very good talk and he dealt with questions adroitly. Ken Irby was there and we both enjoyed the lecture.

I'm thinking of writing about Lorca in relation to this problem. Not authorship, because nobody doubts Lorca wrote Lorca. My idea is to dethrone biographical approaches even more radically than I did in Apocryphal Lorca. Romantic readings really read the work through the life. What is interesting is that some authors have lives of this sort and others don't. In other words, nobody even attempts romantic readings of certain writers, whereas with others there almost seems no other choice.

11 oct 2010

Theses for The Study of Prosody

1) It is important and not dull.

10 oct 2010

Reading Fabb and Halle, Meter in Poetry: A New Theory (Cambridge 2008). I vowed I would understand each page before I went on to the next one.

Obviously, tratándose de Morris Halle, it's a variation on generative metrics and a grid theory. The grids are composed of asterisks for syllables and parentheses facing either way for groupings of syllables. If the parentheses face one way, ))))) it's what you would call a rising rhythm, like iambs and anapests. If they face the other way, (((((( then it's a falling rhythms like dactyls or trochees. So you have (***(**( for dactyls, for example. It's basically a foot-based system then, as well as a hierarchical grid. It would have been helpful if they explained the relation between their system and more traditional metrics rather than making me figure it out.

I've long been interested in generative metrics so it's exciting to see whether or not this new theory offers just a new notation or some actually new insight. The authors are not always that good at explaining exactly why their approach is needed or superior, what it gives that other systems did not. One novelty is that it promises to be applicable to the meter of many languages. It's not just a theory of English meter, but a system that can be applied to any metrical system. That's the Chomskyan universalism in their approach.

That's as far as I've gotten. I really checked the book out to get Carlos Piera's take on Spanish meter (he contributes a chapter on Southern Romance prosody, Spanish, Italian, etc...) but since he uses Fabb and Halle's system I have to understand that first, beginning at the beginning.

The central mystery is why and how verse exists. In other words, what is the relation between linguistic prosody and literary prosody. How much of meter is derived directly and without problems from the linguistic prosody of the language in question.

Stay tuned.