30 sept 2010

One way to write a prosodical history of Spanish would be to start with squibs like this (Saintsbury on Browning):
Often describe as a loose and rugged metrist and a licentious, if not criminal, rhymester. Nothing of the sort. Extraordinarily bold in both capacities, and sometimes, perhaps, as usually happens in these cases, a little too bold; but in metre practically never, in rhyme very seldom (and then only for purposes of designed contrast, like the farce in tragedy), overstepping actual bounds. A great master of broken metres, internal rhyme, heavily equivalenced lines, and all the tours de force of English prosody.

Then you could expand each entry into a short essay.

29 sept 2010

For a poetry guy I'm remarkably literal minded. I tend to think there's more on the literal level, the meaning of the words, that should be talked about. I liked Nabokov's approach. What kind of an insect is Gregor Samsa? What is the actual floor-plan of Borges's library. I like it when a novel puts in exact references to historical events, but very very few, so that we know when the novel is set. For example, I was telling my students that the action of a novel was probably in the 40s, and then I remembered there was a reference to the 2nd Vatican council.

There was a book about Spanish detective fiction. One novel was set in the US and featured a reference to someone named "Cid Corman." The author of the book about Spanish detective fiction, an American, made fun of the Spanish novelist for not knowing that the English-language name "Sid" is short for Sidney and is spelled with an ess. Well, what this person did not know was that Cid Corman is a real person.

There is so little real in literature that the little bit that is real has to be respected.

28 sept 2010

Suppose there's a work that is very much, on its surface, fretting about a particular problem. Then why do you need a Freudianism that somehow removes that surface worry and puts it into the textual unconscious? Then you can talk about a cultural anxiety writ large across an entire spectrum of works. What makes something visible (as opposed to concealed) in a literary work? Something are not visible until you point them out; then they become hypervisible and you wonder why nobody saw them before.

27 sept 2010

In saying that literary works are about exactly what they seem to be, I am leaving open a few options.

(1) A work may be confused, a "problem play" so to speak, where there might be a serious discrepancy about two or more possibilities.

(2) A work might be so far removed in time that we no longer understand it. We have lost the references that make it intelligible. Maybe we don't have the actual philological wherewithal to decipher the text.

(3) There are poems I've read a hundred times that have obscure passages. We might not know how to construe particular phrases in Milton's sonnets, for example. Actually parsing them syntactically can be quite difficult.


In other words, there are literary enigmas to be resolved.

So from one point of view things are pretty much as they seem to be, and from the other point of view there is very little that is settled knowledge: we can still debate the "meanings" of even very canonical works. I myself vacillate between these two positions, and on any given day might find myself anywhere on the continuum.

26 sept 2010

I'll somehow get myself in the situation of picking a fight with someone on the internet. Usually, it's one I know I'll win. It's usually, though, the expression of another kind of anger just being channeled in that direction.

25 sept 2010

Here's a guy, for example, who thinks that all the stuff Plato wrote about explicitly, all that actual thought expressed with such care, is not, maybe, quite as significant as an esoteric code beneath the surface in musical terms.

24 sept 2010

Here's a novel idea: literary works are about exactly what they seem to be about. Wallace Stevens's poetry is about the relation between the poetic imagination and reality. Ezra Pound's work is about economics and his own particular view of history. Honor plays are about honor. Homer is about Homeric heroes and their code of behavior. Unamuno's Abel Sánchez is about its announced and ostensible theme: envy. "Howl" is about how the best minds of his generation have been destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked. If I have read any poem or novel I know what it is about.

To the extent that you understand what the action of a narrative is, the plain sense of the words of a poem, you understand the literary work itself. Sure, you can talk about some themes that aren't explicitly enumerated, but that's simply a way of abstracting concepts from concrete situations. For example, in a play about two brothers fighting for succession to dynastic power, we could talk about the "theme of legitimacy." The big abstract thematic words like power, alienation, love, death, envy, are never at too far a remove from what the play or poem is actually dealing with right on the surface. There's difference between saying "It's a play about a guy who can't find a job" and "It's an examination of the limitations of the American dream." The latter sounds more sophisticated because it is more abstract.

Writers do not write in secret code. The meaning of their works is not concealed beneath the surface. If it were, then would they expect nobody to understand them until some clever dude cracks to code 300 years later? That doesn't seem very plausible. Usually, the meaning of the text is in plain sight. The clever dude with his esoteric theory is always wrong, because nobody encodes a message that deep into the text. That's just not the way literature works because it just wouldn't be viable that way.

Allegorical works Pilgrim's Progress like Dante's Commedia point us directly in the direction of their allegory. There's no mystery to what they are about.

Metaphors in poetry are very conventional. Life is a road. A human being is a tree. The night is something negative, something to be surpassed. Morning is hope. The sun is a powerful source of heat and life. 90% of poetic metaphors are of this type.

All this being said, many people are terrible readers. I would suggest that they are terrible because they are looking for a secret code and forget to look at what the text is saying on its face. This is especially true of difficult texts. If you understand a difficult text on its face, what the words are actually saying, you won't even need to find an esoteric meaning. If there is an esoteric system, it will be available, more or less, in the writer's complete works, as in the case of William Blake.


My entire profession, nevertheless, exists because things are not quite as simple as I've laid out here. They are a little more complicated and nuanced, and this little bit has made all the difference.

23 sept 2010

I want to do a book on 20th century Spanish + Spanish-American prosody. It could be very big. Sometimes a chapter of a book you're writing wants to be a book, wants to have all the other chapters be like it.

22 sept 2010

Enjambment is very different in free and metrical verse. In a metrically literate society, could have the convention that verse be written out as prose. It would make no difference, because everyone would be metrically literate enough to know where the line endings were. In free verse, the line endings make the verse: a reader could not reconstruct the lines by applying a set of internalized metrical rules.

For example, Spanish ballads are written either in lines of 8 or of 16 syllables. This creates very little difference. It's the same form no matter what. Anyone could take a poem printed as 8s and write it out as 16s with no problem. My worst student in intro to lit might make a few mistakes, but then you'd call that student not metrically informed.

Anyone should be able to write "fourteeners" out in ballad stanza typography.

21 sept 2010

This is one of my most popular posts for some reason, according to my stats. I think people are just googling innumeracy and getting to it that way.

20 sept 2010

If you want war, work for justice.

I found out that that quote about peace and justice is attributed to Pope Paul VI. This attribution doesn't make me agree or disagree any more with the sentiment, or think any more or less of this Pope.

19 sept 2010

My introduction minus the obtrusive signposting:

Receptivity, which I define as the capacity to receive and experience the greatest products of the human intelligence, is the single most significant principle for research and teaching in the humanities. Receptivity entails the fullest possible response—affective, intellectual, and aesthetic—to a wide range of visual art, music, literature, and systems of thought from any and all human cultures. Intelligence, as I employ the word here, encompasses all the possible ways in which human beings can make sense of their own experience of reality and develop forms of cultural expression. Some of these forms might not appear to be intellectual in the narrower sense of “cerebral,” but they all involve the human intelligence in this larger sense.

We need, then, a shift in focus—away from a sterile academic formalism and toward a more finely tuned receptivity to the “raw materials” of the humanities. The work of Federico García Lorca puts this argument to the test. Lorca, in my view, is an example of a higly receptive artist—in some sense a theorist of receptivity—and one whose own critical reception exposes the inadequacies of contemporary academic criticism.

18 sept 2010

Let's call the biographical man "William Shakespeare" S1.

Now let's call the real author of the works of "Shakespeare," whoever that might be, S2.

Now let's call the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere V1.

Now let's call the real author of the works attributed to de Vere, whoever that might be, V2.

So the real question of Shakespeare authorship is not whether S1 or V1 = S2, but whether S2 = V2? In other words, who wrote the works of de Vere? It is doubtful that the real author of Hamlet wrote de Vere's work, which is pretty wretched. Or, if de Vere needed a pseudonym for the works of Shakespeare, why didn't he need one for his "own" works?

Of course, we don't care who wrote de Vere's attributed work, you will say.

Exactly. We don't speculate that Marlowe wrote de Vere's work, or de Vere Marlowe's.

17 sept 2010

I've never liked that bumper-sticker "If you want peace, work for justice." I'm all for peace and justice, but the idea that you have to eliminate all injustice from the world first, before you can work directly for peace, means, in practice, that you will always have war, just or otherwise. Does this bumper sticker mean that injustice is the root cause of war? Then war seem can very "just," because it is designed to right injustices, right?

An injustice is a lack of balance. Something is out of whack, something is wrong that needs correcting. This attempt at correction can be irenic or bellicose; it can succeed or fail. There is nothing in the idea of justice itself that is pacifist.

If you want justice, work for justice.

If you want peace, work for peace.

Not very catchy slogans. "If you want justice and peace, look for peaceful means to remedy injustice" won't fit on the bumper.

Maybe someone can tell me what this bumper sticker is meant to convey.

16 sept 2010

Self-pity is a good first step because it involves recognizing that a problem exists. I usually think things are fine even when they really aren't.

15 sept 2010

I seem to be getting mini panic-attacks often around 9 p.m. Usually when I am away from the family here in Kansas and something flares up there, and/or I haven't had any significant social interactions for 24 hours or so. They pass either when some specific problem at home is resolved or when I get to a different part of the day / night cycle. At 9 anything can make me panic, but I can be asleep by 12. I'm ok in the morning too.

Maybe it's turning 50 without having resolved some problems yet. I could distinguish between the underlying problems, like being in a long-distance commuting situation for more than 20 years, feeling I don't have enough money in relation to my sheer wonderfulness, and the individual triggers, the things that actually make me panicked on individual evenings. Those triggers don't cause me to panic, they just flip a switch (a trigger). In the same way, hostile or violent thoughts are not caused by the immediate stimulus, but simply triggered, set in motion.

It would be helpful to have some clarity. I'm working on that and have achieved some, I think. But even though I understand pretty well why I'm not happy, I don't have a solution in mind that's within my own power.

14 sept 2010

San Juan de la Cruz and Modern Spanish American Poetry.

I haven't checked yet to see whether this has been done, but I think it could be productive. It sounds like a kind of dull topic on the face of it but a creative person could make it very interesting.

Once again, I am giving these topics away for free as a public service. The only thing I ask is that you do these topics justice.
From an essay by Bousoño I first learned of a technique used by Jaime Gil de Biedma and Guillermo Carnero. The normal Spanish alejandrino has two equal halves of 7 + 7. What Gil de Biedma does is take away one syllable from the line:

"Después de la muerte / de Jaime Gil de Biedma" 6+7

"un poco de dulzura / aunque no lo creo" 7+6

"Juan, María Rosa, / Marcelino, Joaquina" 6+7

"y el frío repentino / de final de agosto" 7+6

You still have the balanced phrases, but there is a little hiccup in the line. When you combine these lines with 11s, 9s, and regular alejandrinos, you really get a varied meter. So varied that is is almost indistinguishable from prose itself!

13 sept 2010

I've often been fascinated by the asymmetry of Spanish meter. Lines of 11 accented on 4 break into two syllabic groups of 5 + 6.

"Mil Guadarramas / y mil soles vienen" (Antonio Machado)

Lines of 7 breaks into 3 + 4 or 4 +3.

"La sierra / gris y blanca" (AM).

The traditional combination of lines of 7 and 11 sylables, the silva, breaks into subgroups of 3s, 4s, 5s, 6s. It's a marvelous thing. A hendacasyllable with accent on 6 tends to break up into 7 + 4, the counterpoint to the 5+6. This knowledge is almost secret.

Of course they'll tell you the 11th syllable is extra=metrical. It is, for counting purposes, but I think these extra syllables have a rhythmic function. Imagine if 90 per cent of English iambics had "feminine" endings? Wouldn't that change a lot?

If someone could fully integrate linguistic prosody with poetic prosody they would win the Nobel prize or something.

12 sept 2010

Federico García Lorca is a particularly elusive figure whose poetic achievement poses challenges to both “ideological” and “theological” approaches to literature. Surely a hermeneutics of suspicion is needed to untangle his numerous ideological contradictions: his orientalism, his Spanish nationalism, his internalized homophobia, and his sacralization of violence come to mind. Surely nothing could be worse than a naive “love of Lorca” that merely reproduced the contradictions of the poet’s own ideology! In my recent book Apocryphal Lorca I myself adopted a skeptical attitude toward Lorca’s North-American reception, finding that poets in the US were not nearly suspicious enough of their own stereotypes of Spanish culture.

And yet Lorca’s work also offers a model of receptivity itself. ...

11 sept 2010

I got a book in the mail that I had contributed to with a chapter about Gamoneda. I read about half of the book and then re-read my own contribution. I hadn't remembered every sentence, because I wrote it in 2008, but it was nice seeing it in that context, complemented by and complementing other articles not by me.

10 sept 2010

A really good study on the metrics of 20th century Spanish poetry, informed by recent phonological prosody. You could use Mayhew's theory of the prosodical "signature."

9 sept 2010

Nobody wants to identify with authority, nor with a force that is purely antisocial, so the the perfect hero of a television series is Jim Rockford, of The Rockford Files. He's a private investigator, so he's not a cop, but not a criminal either. He's an ex-con--but innocent and pardoned by the governor. He's good-looking, but rumpled and inelegant. He wears a jacket or blazer, but a cheap one, and worn with no tie. He is suave and awkward by turns. Selfish--and altruistic. Honest and deceitful. He always is reluctant to take any case, but ends up taking it anyway, in a curious blend of activeness and passivity. He charges a lot of money for his service ($200 a day + expenses, a lot for 1975), but the running gag is that he rarely gets paid at the end of the episode. He is friends with a policeman (Sgt. Becker), but every episode involves conflict with the police. Becker benefits from his involvement with Rockford (solving cases) but also gets into hot water with his supervisors for associating with Rockford in the first place. In short, everything in the series is perfectly balanced: cynicism and sentiment, authority and rebellion. Rockford is always in trouble with the police and the mafia at the same time, betwixt and between.

Since receiving violence induces more sympathy than inflicting it, Rockford usually gets beaten up at least once an episode. Yet he also inflicts violence on other in self-defense. (Nobody wants to identify with a pure victim who cannot defend himself.) When he punches someone hard, his hand hurts as much as the other guy's face. In the signature car chases of the series, he is usually the one chased. He is investigating a case, the subject presumed to know, but usually knows less than any of the other parties involved: he gather information mostly through others who seek to do him bodily harm or get information from him that he does not possess.

James Garner brings exuberance to this role: you feel his palpable pleasure, as an actor, at interacting with his costars, so that he manages to be a ham and perfectly "natural," all at the same time. There is always chemistry with the various young attractive women in each episode, as well as with his male co-stars, Noah Beery as his father Rocky, Joe Santos as Becket, Stuart Margolin as his ex-con buddy, conman Angel. Garner inhabits the role physically: it suits his body exactly.

The reluctant hero bit, self-interested but noble, is straight out of Bogart: there's a resonance to his performances, even though in filming over twenty episodes a season things becomes heavily formulaic.

8 sept 2010

Imagine an aristocrat, an enormously gifted polymath of the early 17th century. He produces two bodies of literary work: the first, under his own name, is stunningly and ineptly amateurish. The second, much more varied and extensive, exhibits great genius. The aristocrat, however, dissociates himself from this work, writing it under a pseudonym, the name of a barely literate actor and shareholder in a theatrical company. While hugely ambitious, the aristocrat is entirely egoless, allowing himself to be known as an utter mediocrity while giving credit to his work to another man. The worst part, from the point of view of someone with more ego, is not that he can never be recognized for his second body of work, but that he is stuck with inferior works in his own name. Upon the death of the actor, the leading literary lights of the day compose elegies about his (the actor's) genius. The aristocrat is already in his grave.

I can imagine this as a short story by Henry James or Jorge Luis Borges. It is a thematically rich story and I am giving it to you to write, if you want, for no charge. I certainly won't write it myself.

It's true that I'm poking fun at Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship. The weak point in this theory, I believe, is the one I've identified here: the Kafkaeque or Borgesian unreality of the story. (I don't believe others have remarked on this.) But this is the same aspect that makes the story so suggestive from a literary point of view.

7 sept 2010

Nobody has written a book yet on Lesbian poetry in modern and contemporary Spain. This would be a very good dissertation topic, because it is very obvious that there is something there, and also very obvious that critics have skirted this issue while paying a lot of attention to Lorca, Cernuda, Gil de Biedma, Gil Albert and other gay male poets. The theory is already there, ready for your creative use.

There are book about women's poetry in Spain, but almost no acknowledgment of Lesbianism, the invisible difference. In comparison, the most closeted gay male poet is not closeted at all.

You may have this topic for free. I'm not going to write this book, so you can.

6 sept 2010

"But the greatest poets are naturally, and almost inevitably, the greatest prosodists"

--George Saintsbury

5 sept 2010

I'm working on this article this month. Here is my introduction.

The argument of this article is that receptivity, which I define as the capacity to receive and experience the greatest products of the human intelligence, is the single most significant principle that ought to guide research and teaching in the humanities. Receptivity entails the fullest possible response—affective, intellectual, and aesthetic—to a wide range of visual art, music, literature, and systems of thought from any and all human cultures. Intelligence, as I employ the word here, encompasses all the possible ways in which human beings can make sense of their own experience of reality and develop forms of cultural expression. Some of these forms might not appear to be intellectual in the narrower sense of “cerebral,” but they all involve the human intelligence in this larger sense.

The first part of this essay will advocate a shift in focus—away from a sterile academic formalism and toward a more finely tuned receptivity to the “raw materials” of the humanities. The second section will use Federico García Lorca to put this argument to the test. Lorca, in my view, is an example of a higly receptive artist—in some sense a theorist of receptivity—and one whose own critical reception exposes the inadequacies of contemporary academic criticism.

4 sept 2010

Condescending to Lorca (as many critics do), treating him as someone of negligible intellect, has the paradoxical result of not rising to the level of Lorca.

Or maybe that's not even a paradox. The smallness of mind that leads to that condescension is of a piece with the inability to grasp the real problems involved.

3 sept 2010

Gamoneda establishes a unique relation between verse and prose in his work by lengthening the line to such and extent that it becomes a paragraph. I'm exploring his relation to Juan Ramón Jiménez, who increasingly turned to prose in his old age, converting free verse poems to rhythmic prose. So maybe Gamoneda is not so unique after all: he represents a culmination of a long process.

Gamoneda takes some more or less narrative prose and turns it into prose poetry, then takes those same sentences and weaves them into his autobiography many years later. The same phrase or sentence can shift prosodical contexts.

We don't experience Shakesperian blank verse in the theater as "lines" of verse, but as a rhythmic flow. Oral poets, even those composing in isometirc units, probably don't conceive of their poetry in terms of visual lines on the page. Even if they do, that visual representation is not primary.

2 sept 2010

Finishing my commentary on Varela's Libro de barro.

XIX "You rang the empty bell three times and nobody responded." Can you still make music in the absence of human throat and ear? Can you "translate silence." In other words, what is at stake here are the grounds of communication. The speaker call for god to exist and to illuminate an imaginary cavern, a blue darkness.

XX The newly born moon is a "mutilated ear of silver." The speaker and an unnamed oyente are unable to hear the music, and there is a goddess who is somehow inaccessible.

XXI We've shared a table, sat down at the table, but not at the same time. So experience is shared, but not communicated. "I don't know how to give names to these things." The sequence as an urgent, anguished tone at this point. The last three poems have been about missed chances for communion.

XXII This next to the last poem, rather than the last poem, feels like a conclusive ending to the sequence. The poem is defined as an attempt to find "the border between what isn't and what won't be." The specifically female imagery (blood between nubile legs) is surprising, since only a few poems have identified the sex of writing up to this point.

XXIII No more "anecdotes." "These were its [your life's] letters.

Now that I've taken these very sketchy notes I can write a bit about this book in a chapter I'm writing. What I've discovered here is that Varela is closer to Gamoneda than to Valente.

1 sept 2010

"Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough."

--Terry Eagleton

That's a startlingly stupid non-sequitur. It's hard to believe that Eagleton is a respected person in my own discipline. His attempt to demolish Dawkins is full of those false dichotomies, like the inquisition vs. chemical warfare (as though chemical warfare were not a product of the Christian West). If you aren't Christian, you must be some caricature of a 19th century believer in progress. Or you may be a social democrat!

But what interests me here is that Eagleton, like Girard in Violence and the Sacred, sees the way out of violence as receiving violence passively or sublimating it in religious ritual sacrifice. (I remember the Catholic Girard, when I was at Stanford, justifying nuclear war against the communists, by the way, arguing that the Christian West had to be protected.) I'm kind of interested in how Christianity inverts violence, proposing the nobility of receiving it, but then immediately turns around and perpetuates violence once again. So the exaltation of not fighting back, of receiving violence ("turning the other cheek"), and even reveling in martyrdom, doesn't have the practical effect of reducing violence in the real world. In fact, it is just a back-handed way of encouraging violence while seeming to take the high moral ground. By Girard's logic, the sacrificial solution provided by the passion of Christ should have put an end to the scape-goat mechanism, but this didn't actually happen.