31 mar 2010

Poetic excellence is both more rare and more common than we know. It just kind of depends on your perspective. For example, if were going to choose the 1,000 most amazing poems I know, it would take a while. I'd be choosing from about 10,000 poems. Still, 1,000 or 10,000 is not much as a percentage of all poems existent, or even all poems I've read.

So rarity in abundance. This might be an example

De los álamos vengo, madre,
de ver cómo los menea el aire.

De los álamos de Sevilla,
de ver a mi linda amiga.

De los álamos vengo, madre,
de ver cómo los menea el aire.

So perfect, but so ordinary. There's a beautiful setting by Rodrigo.
Never been better.
Taste has always seemed a limited and limiting category. Things that are not to my taste, personally, might still be immensely rewarding. Taste is a little box you have to think yourself out of.

30 mar 2010

Are there two Kerouacs, the sociological one and the the real (literary) one? Discuss.
The purpose of teaching high modernism is to construct the students as high modernist subjects, to subject them to that. In other words, the benefits of the Humanities are largely those internal to the Humanities themselves, rather than those general feel-good notions about citizenship and open-mindedness. The habitus of the high modernist subject (as presently constituted) does, in fact, include a series of political beliefs, etc..., some ideas of not being ethnocentric. We are teaching that habitus along with the texts, though the texts themselves might not necessarily embody these ideals.

The contemporary university professor is not likely to be a high-modernist subject. Or rather, he or she is taught to view that part of hir / hes formation with suspicion. The professor is thus a divided subject, teaching the students to be divided too. To be suspicious of their own elite status.

Yet reading that literature changes you, writes its codes all over your soul. In fact, that's most of what reading literature does: it makes you over in its own languages / images. Do you speak high modernism? It is a language of complexity, nuance. It is completely useless outside its domain. Or maybe almost completely, because don't we then apply those habits of mind to everything else too? That is our professional deformation.

When the modernist professor studies Madonna, as he used to do in the 1980s early 90s, he does so as modernist professor, with a great self-consciousness of studying something else. There is a forced quality there.

I'm not sure quite where I'm going with this. I know what the right answers are in terms of the habitus of my field, but these right answers often feel wrong to me. At the same time, my answers seem baldly self-serving. Don't I just want to keep the world comfortable for people like me?
A new post at Arcade.

29 mar 2010

Arguments the Catholic Church Really Doesn't Want to Make (But Will Anyway)

1. It's the secularism. The secularism in society has such an influence that it makes the poor priests into molesters. The Pope has actually made this argument. I guess he himself was influenced by secularism when he ignored and covered up abuse. Bad Pope!

2. Not all priests are abusers / Only a small portion of priests are abusers, etc... It doesn't really matter what the exact percentage is. Even a few can do immense damage. Anyway, what would be an acceptable percentage, except for something as close as humanly possible to zero? Sending priests to other places where they can abuse again does not show a good faith effort to reduce the number of priests who abuse.

3. Not all child abusers are priests. True. But shouldn't priests be, you know, better than other people? Send your kid to the pool hall, maybe he will pick up some bad habits. Don't they want their churches to be better than a pool hall?

4. People criticizing the church on this front are motivated by anti-Catholicism, atheism, etc... True, in some cases, but the victims are Catholic. Shouldn't you care more if you believe that what was betrayed was something real?

5. We are a forgiving church. Therefore we have a duty to forgive the molesters and give them a second chance, and then a third. This is so cynical it doesn't merit a response.

6. At least it's not abortion.

7. The church is a human institution, therefore imperfect. This is cynical in the extreme. We're not talking about some minor failings, but a major pattern of corruption.

8. Nothing to see here. We had this problem in the past, but now we're taking steps to remedy it. That would be fine, except that the rhetoric is still one of making these cynical arguments.

25 mar 2010

I can't really do the" ten most influential books" meme, because I don't think primarily in terms of books but rather of authors. In terms of influence i think about influences on my poetry, my scholarship, and my thinking generally. I have no idea how to choose 10 books. I also don't want to choose the books that I wish had influenced me. I'm wary of how such lists could be aspirational. I'd rather list books that I have tried to memorize word for word at certain points of my life. If I've memorized a good portion of a book maybe you could say it was important to me.

Claudio Rodríguez. Don de la ebriedad; Casi una leyenda. Writing my dissertation on CR is memorized a lot of the first book. I found it convenient to work on poems in my head without having to have the text in front of me. Later, when the second came out, I memorized quite a bit of it. From other books by him too, I know quite a few poems still.

Shakespeare. The Sonnets. I've never memorized all the sonnets, but maybe a good third to half of them at one time or another. I could probably only recite you three or four today.

Lorca. Romancero gitano. Those poems are so easy to remember it's almost hard to forget them. Of the 18 poems in the book I've memorized at least half at one time or another. I can look at one and rememorize it quickly.

Salinas. La voz a ti debida. I had a manic idea of memorizing the 70 poems in this book at one time. I don't really know it today, but I could probably learn some of them again if I wanted to. Typically, I would memorize a poem simply by teaching it, and then move on to other poems that I wasn't even teaching. I don't know that I memorized the whole thing. I forget.

Hernández. Cancionero y romancero de ausencias. That's my next project. Very memorable material.

It's interesting that only one of these books is in English. I've memorized a lot of Keats, WCW and several other poets writing in English, but not whole books. I've memorized a few of Keats's Odes, but they aren't a book, are they?

I know there are memorizers and non-memorizers--among poets and students of poetry. I've always been in the former camp. That also means, of course, that I am a prodigious forgetter of poems. I'm pretty good at that. Memorization really shapes my view of the poem. The poem becomes a part of me. When I say it out loud it is as though I were speaking my own words, or as though the poets were speaking through me.

I have to respect the non-memorizers because they work without the advantage of having the poem in their head. They must feel very sure of themselves, without that crutch of having the poem accessible at all times in the memory--in case it is ever needed.

24 mar 2010

Someone (Joseph H.) asked a very, very good question in a comment on a previous post. If poetry is so close to music, then what do I do with translation? How do I explain the need for translation? Let me think out loud for a moment about this question and see if I get anywhere.

Music doesn't need to be translated. Can't be translated. You do have to know the particular musical language in which it is composed to really understand it, but it can't be translated into another language because there is no musical message detachable from that language. Bach would rewrite pieces for different instruments. You can arrange a piece for Tuba for string bass. So sonority (timbre) seems detachable (to some extent) from melody. Not totally, because the piece might not really work for its new instruments.

Vallejo said poetry is not translatable, because it depends on its tone. Robert Frost said poetry is what gets lost in translation. In other words, the elements we think of as poetic are exactly those elements lost in a translation: rhythm, tone, linguistic particularity. On the other hand, poetry does get translated; many people get enjoyment out of poetry in translation, including me.

It's absurd to say, though, that what you're getting out of translation is the poetry. You might be getting the poetry of the translator; that's what Pound did, but you're not getting the poetry of the original. You're getting the "literary" dimension of the poem, some visual imagery, some ideology maybe. You're not getting the organic whole. Imagine a plate with some salt on it in a small pile, next to a larger pile of flour; there's a glass of water standing by the plate, with some yeast fermenting in it. You wouldn't call this plate "a loaf of bread." I couldn't convince you it was a loaf of bread simply by saying that it has everything needed to bake a loaf of break. What's missing from my plate, I argue, but you just shake your head.

Imagine a reader for whom reading the original and the translation was basically the same experience. We'd conclude that this person is not really a reader of poetry at all. It would be like a person trained to read a musical score but who didn't know what music was. The person would be able to tell you what the notes of the musical score were, "that's an 8th-note rest followed by a b flat quarter note." This person can read musical notation but cannot read music.

Even very good translations can be very bad from the point of view of the poetry. Our standards of judgment are so low that we are content with very little.

23 mar 2010

I've been asked whether I only study poetry. "That's all you do?" My feeling is that there are plenty of people who study the novel. The novel doesn't really need me: it will sink or fall on its own. It outnumbers poetry by a huge margin. Poetry, however, does need me. I can make an actual difference here, even if on a very modest scale.

I read Catch-22, Robert P. Warren's The Cave, and The Lord of the Rings over and over again as a kid. I've read thousands of pages of Galdós. I have my prose loves too, like Forgetting Elena or At Swim-Two-Birds or Visions of Gerard. I've paid my prose dues. Show me the prose specialist who's read as much poetry as I've read prose, and then we'll talk.
I've been toying around for a while with the idea of a book that would put forward a certain vision of poetry, my own. It's never quite come together but now it's starting to.

What Lorca Knew: Poetry, Pedagogy, Performance

Introduction: Teaching Receptivity

Here I talk about my theory that what we should doing in the humanities: teaching a kind of receptivity, as I tried to outline in my recent post for.Arcade

Chapter II: The Grain of the Voice: Barthes, Lorca, and the Poetics of Performance

In this part I would develop a reading I did once of Barthes's essay of the same title and Lorca's duende essay.

Chapter III: What Claudio Knew

Here I would study the two most significant poets of the twentieth century, Lorca and Claudio Rodríguez, from the point of view of poetic knowledge. Their prosody, their deep involvement with music.

Chapter IV: ????

I don't know what this chapter is going to be about yet. It's got to have jazz in it somehow, though. The experience of listening to jazz as a poet? Something along these lines.

That's all I got for you. There could be other chapters. At least I have enough to think there might be a book here.
I just got my copy of The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin. I actually paid for this book rather than trying to finagle a free copy. I'm sure this will be relevant to the line of inquiry I'm opening up here. I also got a copy of Kyle Gann's book about John Cage. No time to read them now I have to go upstairs to teach.

The project I'm developing will be called something like Poetry, Receptivity, and Performance. It will be a fun project like Apocryphal Lorca, not a boring scholarly work like my other three books.
From the idea that poetry is closer to music than it is to "literature" as conventionally defined, I draw four areas of study that might be fruitful. Maybe these areas will help clarify what I mean by this statement.

(1) Poetry can renegotiate its relation to literature. If poetry were the major subject, and the novel was seen as marginal, there would be a de-emphasis on longer narrative structures. The relation of literature to society would not be centered on the mimetic portrayal of society on the broad canvas, but on the social function of music and poetry.

(2) Poetry would renegotiate its relation to music as well. There would be a new interdisciplinary field called "song studies."

(3) Performative aspects would take center stage, as they do now in the study of theater.

(4) If music, why not visual art too? Or dance. Poetry would be one of the arts.

Tomorrow, I will break down each of these ideas.

My basis for making the assertion in the first place relies on

(1) Historic connections between poetry and music. Lyric poetry arises historically as the words to songs.

(2) Even after the great divorce between the music and the words, there are still songs with words. Words not meant to be set to music are still set to music. The poem can still aspire to be a song. Poets still think musically; there is no good poet I know who doesn't have a fairly deep interest in some genre of music. Hell, there's not even a bad poet I know who doesn't have a deep interest in music. Poets think musically. The more you think about this subject the righter you'll realize I am.

(3) Poetry and music are the only two things that have meter, and they have meter in analogous ways. Sure, a bouncing basketball has a rhythm, but poetry and music have a rhythm in a way that's closer to one another than either is to the bouncing ball or the movement of the tides.

(4) Sure, there are areas of poetry less connected to music. You can have those. In other words, I'll give you those and I'll keep the musical part. If you hesitate to make this bargain, then you know deep down I'm on to something here.

22 mar 2010

Poetry is closer to music than it is to "literature."

21 mar 2010

Extreme complexity (Lezama Lima) or extreme simplicity (the red wheelbarrow; the medieval cancionero). I'm attracted to those two extremes more than to the middle ranges. A text so simple there is seemingly nothing to be said about it. or a text so complex that there is everything to be said about it.

19 mar 2010

Arts or humanities? It seems to me that arts and humanities are pretty much the same thing. To call them "arts" implies an approach from the creative direction, the creation of the humanities. Humanities implies the scholarly study of them.

Of course humanities can also include history, philosophy, and the study of "culture" in its non-artistic manifestations. Here's what's interesting to me: where does literature fall? In the area of the humanities as the study of history, philosophy, and culture in its non-artistic dimension, or among music, art, dance, and film? Writing literature is a fine art, if the name MFA means anything, but studying literature is often not considered the study of an art form.

Maybe the most important word to debate is culture. It is interesting how the word pulls us in two directions at once, away and from the arts. Cultural studies can gut itself by not being about culture any more, in the artistic sense. Or by simply defining culture as everything except literature, or by interpreting literature itself as the manifestation of "cultural" forces defined entirely in political terms.

18 mar 2010

Wish I'd been there; I hve an article in this book.
I think there are lessons in receptivity to be learned from Harold Bloom, T.S. Eliot, and Jorge Luis Borges.

From Bloom I took, at an early age, the idea that it was possible to be something called "a great reader." In other words, that there could be greatness in reading in the first place. It's not at all a self-evident concept. We're not talking about competence in an analystical procedure like New Critical textual analysis, but the ability to re-envision the work of a writer. Bloom's descriptions of certain poets as great and profound readers of others was very influential in my thinking. One of the problems in his theory, though, is his emphasis on strength. It seems like a great reader has to be an egotistical misreader, because he (usually he for Bloom) is so threatened by the power of the precursor. He has to win the battle. Wouldn't a weak reading be more receptive, hence stronger in some sense? Where's the negative capability? The division into strong and weak means that the critic already knows what's weak and strong, and hence limits the scope of receptivity.

Another problem is that there can never be a poem that simply is itself--every meaning attributed to a poem ends up being another poem, so we get an infinite reversion. Finally, Bloom could convey the sheer excitement of receptivity but usually could not say anything all that useful about particular texts: you just had to take the depth of his reading on faith.

Bloom's own precursors are Pound and Eliot. They showed how a single powerful reader could reorient the entire canon of Western literature in a different direction.

About Borges, more later.
When I am feeling extraordinarily receptive, almost everything I turn to ends up saying what is on my own mind. For example, yesterday I wrote a blog entry for Arcade and later turned at random to Ray Davis's blog, where I found the statement that "art-making is certainly more universal than the justifications offered for art-making". This is what I had been trying to say in a more roundabout way in an article I was trying to write. Putting the justification ahead of the thing itself is the wrong end of the object to grab hold of.

We try to justify paying attention to the greatest and most awe-inspiring products of the human intelligence. How can the humanities be justified, gee, I wonder how we can justify something like the study of great art, music, literature, and philosophy? Endless effort to justify something that is simply wonderful on its face. What good are the arts, what good are the humanities?

Sports never have to justify themselves. The appeasement of various deities never has to justify itself. War has to justify itself, but never has much trouble with that. (Even if it can't be justified, it goes on just the same.) But the humanities, what good is all that? Humanists are the worst offenders, of course, because we will worry anything to death, look for its other side.

17 mar 2010

Here's the prevalent view of the humanities:

(1) Everything is the humanities, right? We are human, so nothing is off-limits.

(2) No intellectual rigor. Humanities should be accessible to anybody, since we are all human.

(3) If it isn't science, it's humanities. So invite some creationists in for a debate.

(4) Make the humanities into social science, make them serve socio-political ends.

So the humanities are hopelessly vague, cannot defend themselves except in the most vague terms. What is means to be human, what it means to be American. It's all "significance" to some larger cause which turns out to be ... "the human condition." The right wants to do this to the humanities, the left wants to do this to the humanities, and the liberal center of the humanities wants to do this to the humanities.
What I'm trying to do is find a theory of receptivity that doesn't reinscribe the binary opposition between things that are worth listening to and things that aren't. Receptivity implies openness, but in practice there are things I don't even want to be open to.

For example, I am very interested in John Cage. He seemed someone who wanted to open up his ears to hear things differently, with fewer preconceptions. Yet being open to Cage, and Cage's message of openness, is itself a choice that distinguishes me from other people. I also might be guilty of being closed to Mary Oliver, for example. Cage was interested in some things and not in others.

I have to figure out whether it means stretching the limits of my tolerance, or going in one direction toward a receptivity to what's truly significant, however I define that. Almost everyone seems to need a whipping boy. Maybe I shouldn't worry so much about that, but I've made part of my career by denouncing a certain kind of mediocrity. That seems to be necessary in my psychological equilibrium.

16 mar 2010

Is it really true that modern art, modernism in the arts generally, rejects beauty? I don't think so. If anything, it expands the purview of beauty to include things that are not pretty in a narrower sense. Ornette (or his producers) uses a phrase from Pound, "Beauty is a rare thing" as the title of the box set of his Atlantic recordings. So Pound must have cared about beauty, and Ornette too.

The paintings of DeKooning, Rothko, and Matisse are gorgeous. So too are the poetry of Reverdy and Lorca and the music of Stravinsky and Ornette himself. There is an oxymoronic quality in Thelonious Monk's tune "Ugly Beauty." In other words, a consciousness that new forms of the beautiful must be at the edge of mere taste, the limits of where a previous generation would have wanted to go.

Of course you can find examples of deliberate ugliness and overt condemnations of beauty too. There is a whole spectrum in modern and contemporary art, from very unproblematic prettiness to works that challenge anyone's limits. It seems very odd to me that, given this spectrum, anyone would want to make a one-sided and unnuanced argument.

11 mar 2010

Julia got her first paid gig playing trumpet; she'll be playing in a church on Easter for a few hundred bucks. Not bad for a 14-year old. I thought they'd just hand her a twenty or something.

10 mar 2010

Suppose there is a room that nobody has ever been to, whose very location is unknown. It may or may not exist. Some people claim to have privileged knowledge about the room; there is a great deal of discussion about the room, but nobody has ever been there.

Naturally, statements about the contents of the room have to be made with great caution, since nothing in it, or even its very existence, can be verified in any way at all. But what makes a "moderate" statement about the room more acceptable than a "fundamentalist" statement? The moderate says: 'I don't know much about the room, my statements are subject to correction, I could be wrong, but the room is probably divided into three parts, even though it is actually one room in essence." The fundamentalist says "This is what the room is like." It is easy to see why the fundamentalist cannot know what he thinks s/he knows, but the moderate cannot know anything either. Qualifying statements weaken the degree of certainty and thus make the moderate seem a more reasonable person, but really all statements about the room are equally meaningless because there is no way of knowing anything about it in the first place.

Some would say, "It doesn't matter what you believe about the room, as long as you believe in the room. That makes you superior to someone who simply denies the relevance about all conversations about the room."

This seems like the most respectable position. After all, you can't be a good person without paying some allegiance to the idea of the room, whatever its shape or size or contents. You are not being a fundamentalist, because you admit that the room might not be triangular in shape. A noted literary theorist is known for saying that "My ancestors believed in this version of the room; are you calling my ancestors ignorant dolts?"

In fact, the people who claim that the room has a definitive, knowable dimension are the same as those who say that all comments about the room are equally meaningless. The only "moderate" position is to say that you must believe in some kind of room, adjusted to your own personal emotions, and that all other versions of the room, based on any else's emotions, are equally valid.

9 mar 2010

I'm teaching an advanced undergraduate course. It is supposed to be a capstone to their experience as Spanish majors. The problem: many of them are not prepared to do research and writing at a high enough level. In principle, they should be able to do everything an English major can--but in Spanish, a language foreign to them. In practice, they fall short of this. It's difficult, because it's like Ginger Rogers said: she danced everything that Fred Astaire did, but walking backwards and wearing heels.

Today I am going to try something different. I came up with ideas for 14 research projects relevant to the course. I will hand out these today, one for each student. they will take a few minutes to look at the idea that they each received, then will compare their ideas with those of other students. They can make as many trades as they want, or, if they really like their original suggestion, they can stay with it.

On Thursday, they will come to class again, with two new ideas of their own plus the professor's idea they came home with on Tuesday. Now they will trade their 2nd best idea with that of another student. At this point they will have 3 ideas apiece: one from the professor (me), one of their own, and one from another student. They will rank those in order of preference, and discard the 3rd best idea, whether it's from the professor, themselves, or another student. They will go home and write a paper using one of the two best ideas.

Now this might not work. The worst case scenario is that they will all be working with my ideas or with one another's worst ideas, but I'm hoping the exercise of developing and trading ideas will be useful in its own right. If they fail to develop two good ideas, then nobody will want to trade their second best idea for one of their own.

I'm asking them to imagine that we are writing a book together: Pervivencia de la tradición. I am the editor and they are the contributors. This book will never exist except in my imagination, but it is something that I might use to share the results of my course with a colleague at another university, for example.

I am going to judge my teaching in this course not by my teaching evaluations--a measure of consumer satisfaction--but by the quality of the contributions to this imaginary book. In other words, by the concrete results I achieve at actually teaching the students to learn what they are supposed to be learning. I'm a full professor, and there are very small raises in the university anyway, so I can afford a set of poor evaluations if my idea bombs.

3 mar 2010


*Miguel Suárez. La perseverancia del desaparecido. Madrid: Hiperión, 1988. 57 pp.

Taking advantage of the window of receptivity I'm experiencing now, I read this book by Suárez which I recently purchased. I may have another copy of this book in my office already, but reading it now it seems new to me so maybe not. Anyway, it has a very distinctive tone despite being close to poets like Ildefonso Rodríguez and Miguel Casado.

*Ada Salas. No duerme el animal (Poesía 1987-2003). Madrid; Hiperión, 2009. 246 pp.

This volume includes four separate books of poetry. Every poem is extremely short, written in the "essentialist" style which I ought to like in theory. Some poems I find too slight, almost inconsequential, but she does hit it right once in a while.
Gerald Graff makes an argument in the 2008 or 2009 issue of Profession that it doesn't matter what we read so much as how we read: in other words, texts of little or no intrinsic value lend themselves just as well to formulating acceptable academic-style arguments as works of great literature. He develops a rather trivial argument about Vanna White's autobiography in order to prove his point. He does concede that trivial texts cannot serve the purpose of learning to make such arguments. In other words, literary critics can make sophisticated arguments about trivial texts because they have first learned to make sophisticated arguments about sophisticated texts.

Now anyone who knows how I think will predict that I will disagree strongly with Graff. The main point is not to make an argument that might count as acceptable to the academic community, but to transform our reactions to the best products of the human intelligence into meaningful arguments that actually contribute to the appreciation of these products. In other words, it's what we read, or listen to, or look at, that is fundamental. Almost any serious reception of a great work is worthy of being transformed into a scholarly argument. It doesn't matter *how* we read in this sense, as long as we follow the general principle of receptivity: being available for the work to make an impact on us. Works of art teach us how to receive them, so we don't really have to worry about how we read at all.

We do have to worry about how we construct our arguments about our reception in order to make them meaningful and convincing in the academic environment--or wherever they are received. In other words, we can't just appeal to the meaningfulness or our response. As scholars, it is our responsibility to articulate these things.

This is not an argument for studying or not studying any particular thing. The ethos of receptivity entails a potential openness to everything. It does mean, however, that the value of the work is in the response to the work itself--not in the trivial fact that you can develop an argument about a work while conceding no value at all to it. Otherwise, literary criticism is just an exercise in making arguments about anything, or nothing in particular.

This is the difference between cultural studies that views its products as shit, essentially, but argues that there is relevant information to be found in this shit (there is nothing wrong with this approach, except that it leaves the hierarchy between high culture and popular shit wholly intact; It's Hamlet or Vanna White) and the approach to popular culture that is actually receptive to the aesthetic value of popular culture.

2 mar 2010


Marco Antonio Campos. Viernes en Jerusalén. Madrid: Visor, 2005. 94 pp.

Campos is ok. I didn't like this book the first time around, but now I do quite a bit because I'm able to hear its tone.