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.