28 feb. 2011


Another curious fact about my last name is that it is the same upside down:

Draw a capital M that looks a little bit like an upside-down W.

Now draw an a that looks like an upside down e.

Now make a y and an h that are pretty much the same shape.

The final e and w should look like upside down a and m.

Finally, turn the word upside down.

There is a special name for a word like this but I don't know what it is. It's even better than a palindrome like Bob or Otto.

Digital Natives

A lot of the internet is text anyway, so you really have to be able to read text very, very well to be a good digital native. The digital environment privileges ease of use (laziness) so that the typical native goes to the easiest source possible first, usually Wikipedia. I even see this laziness in myself when I'm searching fast for information. The quickest route is the route given to you by the system. So the digital native is better at being lazy: this fact alone negates any advantage the young internet user has over Grandpa "Doesn't-Know-How-To-Use-a-Computer." In other words, it is not a system designed to reward skill.

So the most adept internet user is someone who can search as fast as any idiot, but is not herself an idiot.

The Beaches of Northern California

I wrote about a fourth of my new book of poems The Beaches of Northern California last night. Then I realized that it was all a repetition of Borges, Calvino, Sorrentino, Perec... It is amusing enough, but it has been pretty much done already. That doesn't stop other people from writing poetry in tried-and-true modes without any shame. I know better, though.

I still think it's an amusing book. Perhaps I shouldn't expect great things out of ideas that come so easily.

My book of poems Poemas con nombres propios is much more original, but it has no traction, since it was written in Spanish. My Spanish poetic voice is far more distinctive, precisely because the persona is so different from any other literary personality in either language.

27 feb. 2011


Since changing a single letter in my last name produces a word meaning "violent or damaging disorder; chaos" or "the crime of maliciously injuring or maiming someone, originally so as to render the victim defenseless," I have to laugh when students write this word on their papers they are handing in to me.


I have a new book that I came up with recently of imaginary blurbs for books of poetry. The only rule is that there will be as little self-conscious cuteness as possible. They will be, more or less, small short-stories that describe indirectly the invisible speech acts in the imaginary books. I'll have other rules, like no noun, verb, descriptive adjective, or adverb of manner will be repeated between any of the forty blurbs.

A forty-first text will be the blurb describing the other forty, in the same way that each of the forty blurbs imagines a book of forty poems each.

25 feb. 2011


I feel less bullied by clear, concise confident prose than by abstract and indirectly didactic writing, writing that tries to extort sentiment from me by dragging me into its melodrama.


The problem with accusations of bullying is that they become another tool for the bully.

23 feb. 2011

The Square

I'm writing this article about four authors and their interrelationships. I'm imagining it as a square with four sides and two diagonals, hence six possible relationships:

Umamuno - Lorca
Umanuno - Zambrano (cultural exceptionalism)
Unamuno - Valente (counter-reformation poetics)

Lorca - Zambrano (the poetics of the sacred)
Lorca - Valente (duende and irrationalism)

Zambrano - Valente (poetry and philosophy)

I'll have five sections, not six, though, because I have nothing much to say about Unamuno - Lorca, and I don't want to get redundant. So imagine the square with the top line a wavy one.

I feel that this will be a very good article, but I feel kind of strange that I am writing it at a time where I feel absolutely horrible in many other respects. How can I feel so bad emotionally but still come up with so many ideas? You would think my brain would just shut down completely in sympathy with the rest of me.

(No need to worry; I'll be ok. Unfortunately the details are not shareable on a public forum.)

22 feb. 2011

Signposting Without Signposting

I'm writing my first article in which I systematically suppress all signposting, making the organization so tight that I never need to tell you where I'm going. It will be interesting to see whether anyone that reads it objects to this. More has been going on lately on SMT than here. I'm trying to keep both blog alive and define their function a little better. This is more like a Stupid Motivational Tricks post than a Bemsha Swing one but sometimes I have a hard time knowing which is which.

Philosophy in Italian

I believe in reading in languages I don't fully understand. It stretches the brain a bit. Italian is perfect, since I understand it well enough to understand more or less what's going on, but not enough so that I can relax my concentration. Contrary to what might think, the more abstract and conceptual the subject-matter, the easier it is to understand: "Se la filosofia di un popolo è l'incarnazione del suo modo de essere, non c'è dubbio che la mistica ortodossa è l'essenza ed el vertice dell'anima castigliana..." The hardest texts are those with names of a lot of bird species and everyday household objects. Philosophy is easy, botany is hard (from the linguistic point of view).

21 feb. 2011

Reading for Style and Structure

[x-posted at SMT]

Choose a scholarly article. The topic is not important. Examine the following elements:

Introduction. How does the author fulfill the tasks necessary for an introduction. (Introducing the topic, framing the critical problem, laying out the steps of the argument, presenting a coherent thesis.) Is the introduction proportional in length to the rest of the article?

Signposting. Is the "signposting" present in the article sufficient? Is the author too obvious in telling the reader where the article is going to go? Is the signposting obtrusive? Or could the article have used even more signposting? ("In the second half of the article, I will turn my attention to...").

Thesis. What is the thesis (main idea) of the article? Is it expressed in one or two sentences? Is it sufficiently specific? Is it the answer to a question that seems significant enough?

Body of the Article. How is the article organized? How do specific subsections and paragraphs support the larger claims of the article? Is it easy to follow the overall thread of the article from one paragraph to the next?

Evidence. What evidence for the varying claims does the article present? Does the evidence come through archival work? Through textual analysis? Through the conclusions of other scholars? What is the relative proportion of these elements?

Conclusion. How does the article end? Does the conclusion merely summarize the contents, or does it provide a wider perspective? Are you convinced of the main argument at the end of the article?

Style. What are the main strengths and weaknesses you find in the style of the article? Look at clarity and grace of expression. Is the writing concise or verbose? Is this a model you would follow in your own writing? Are there stylistic flaws that would have been easy to correct? Do you notice stylistic features that might have been different if the writer was using another language (Spanish vs. English.)? Does the writer use jargon? If so, do you think this is appropriate in this particular case?

Reflection. What else did you notice that does not fit into these categories? What else did you learn from doing this assignment? If you hadn't thought about reading an article in this way, how has your perspective changed? If you already had definite ideas about how to write an article or paper, how has this exercise confirmed or modified your basic approach?

20 feb. 2011

Questions from 2005

These questions had a run in 2005. You can look a the original question and several links to people answering them. Unfortunately some of these are no broken links.

I do not even remember writing these, but I must have.

Pictures from an Exhibition

I have a recording of Claudio Rodríguez reading his poetry. On one track, you can hear "Pictures from an Exhibition" playing faintly in the background. I love Claudio's poetry, and I also am fond of this piece of classical music, but there is no connection here. It feels so random, as the kids say nowadays.

18 feb. 2011

The Twentieth Century

The 20th century really begins with the crisis of modernity, the absurdity of any kind of faith in modernity or progress. (Progress is a 19th century idea.) The Great War really means the failure of European modernity. The entre-deux-guerres period of 1918-1939 sees the rise of Fascism and the failure of the liberal idea when caught between Stalinism on the left and Fascism on the right. It was pretty clear that enlightenment Reason was not going to triumph. María Zambrano saw this pretty clearly. If reason could not prevail in Europe itself, where was it going to prevail?

We still talk about progress and "enlightened" opinion even today. Those are residual values that it doesn't make sense to abandon. Literary modernism, though, views modernity itself as Kafkaesque, whether in Kafka's own works, in existentialism or the theater or the absurd, in surrealism.

Modernity leaves humanity spiritually bereft. We can accept that condition in all of its absurdity, as in Kafka or Beckett. Or, in the case of Unamuno, Eliot, Lezama Lima, or Zambrano (or Robert Duncan), we can look for new/old forms of spirituality.

17 feb. 2011

More Dogma

Dogma cannot be disputed; it admits no argument. If a dogma is replaced by a new, contradictory dogma, then there is no argument for the change: there is simply a new party line that must be adhered to. The justification for dogma is sheer institutional authority. Because some official body (a church, a political party) says so.

Justifications for dogma always come after the fact, they are apologetics aimed to justify whatever the dogma happens to be at the moment. Apologetics are always in bad faith.

I have no authority per se. If I put forward my opinion, I have to back it up with my own reasons. My own colleagues do not agree with me, often. By definition, I cannot be dogmatic. I resent the use of the term to refer to someone with strong, well-justified opinions, who does in fact change his opinions with some frequency.

I've never imposed my agenda on a dissertation student. One wrote sympathetically on a poet whom I had criticized. All I told her to do was to at least acknowledge the debate to which I had contributed. When I review an article, I almost never let a point of substantive disagreement lead me to reject it. The exception is when I feel the writer has misrepresented the terms of the debate.

In class, I don't really care whether a student agrees with me. The problem tends to be with students willing to believe everything I say. That's frightening.


Another possibility is that I use a certain style to put forward my views. My attitude is that I will offer my opinion in a strong form, and if you don't agree you will have to rise to the occasion and present a strong counter-argument. I am not dogmatic in the sense of being unconvinceable, I just refuse to be convinced unless you have a strong-enough argument. With things I have thought a lot about, I tend to dismiss arguments I've seen a thousand times. Someone came at me with the "some abstract artists don't know how to draw" argument once and I get very angry. That argument is beyond the pale. If you use it you are defining yourself as someone who hasn't thought very much about things.

The final reason I might be perceived as dogmatic is that I sometimes allows emotions in. I have a personal stake in certain issues, so I get angry. Some people do not understand why it is profoundly offensive to allow Charles Simic a forum to condescend to Robert Creeley. They tell me it is just an aesthetic difference and that I should let it go. I cannot do that.

More Arguments

It's curious that although I think of myself as someone who argues with myself a lot, other people often perceive me as dogmatic. This shows that self-perceptions are not accurate, necessarily. A Scientologist profiled in a recent New Yorker article saw himself as a fairly open-minded person, skeptical about things, but obviously if he was a Scientologist he wasn't. We often hear people claiming to be empathetic, yet refusing to see someone else's viewpoint.

Another possibility is that I am dogmatic about some things and not others. Certain things hold fast for me, as Wittgenstein would say, and other things don't. Self-argumentation cannot be infinite or unconstrained.

Thirdly, it may be that I get over-subtle in my arguments, so that certain readers find it easier to simplify my views. With my two books recently published, I had a few uncomprehending reviews. My critique of certain translations of Lorca was simplified into "he doesn't like those translations," and my critique of the poetry of experience in Spain was taken as a wholesale rejection rather than the result of a nuanced series of arguments with myself.

16 feb. 2011

El Cristo de Velázquez

Here is a sample of Unamuno's blank verse. It doesn't convince me in the least. It seems like prose that happens to scan as verse.
"No me verá dentro de poco el mundo
mas si vosotros me veréis, pues vivo
y viviréis"-dijiste; y ve: te prenden
los ojos de la fe en lo más recóndito
del alma, y por virtud del arte en forma
te creamos visible. Vara mágica
nos fue el pincel de Don Diego Rodríguez
de Silva Velázquez. Por ella en came
te vemos hoy. Eres el Hombre eterno que
nos hace hombres nuevos. Es tu
muerte parto. Volaste al cielo a que viniera,
consolador, a nos el Santo Espíritu,
ánimo de tu grey, que obra en el arte
y tu visión nos trajo. Aqui encarnada
en este verbo silencioso y blanco
que habla con líneas y colores, dice
su fe mi pueblo trágico. Es el auto
sacramental supremo, el que nos pone
sobre la muerte bien de cara a Dios.

Milton, Unamuno's ostensible model, uses varied pauses and enjambments, but he also has individual lines and phrases of great rhetorical power and rhythmic sweep.

Unamuno considered himself a poet above all things, but I believe he was mistaken. The metaphor of the magic wand, for example: "A magic wand for us was the paintbrush of don Diego ... Velázquez." You can understand how someone who is not a poet might think that's a good metaphor. The problem is that the wand and the brush are too close to each other in shape. He would have been better off talking of the magic paintbrush, directly.

Compare this to any poem of Machado and you will see the difference. You can't achieve a supple rhythm simply by varying pauses and ignoring the internal structure of the line.


Cadence (from Latin cadere, to fall) is a resolution to a musical or poetic phrase. A musical cadence usually falls in descending notes and seems to imply ending, conclusiveness, the way a rising sequence of notes implies initiation.

The Spanish 11-syllable line has a distinctive cadence caused by the "feminine" ending and the accent on the sixth syllable. The cadence is what is most constant, whereas the beginning of the line is what is most variable.

There will typically be three substantive words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs) in each line, and the 2nd and 3rd of these words will be lined up so that their accents fall on the 6th and 10th syllables. Like this:

de la tierra que OCUPAS y ESTERCOLAS
compañero del ALMA, tan TEMPRANO.

y órganos mi DOLOR sin INSTRUMENTO,

daré tu CORAZÓN por ALIMENTO...

The cadence really dominates this particular poem by Miguel Hernández. I've hypothesized that one reason why blank verse doesn't work in Spanish as well as it does in English is because of the strength of the cadence, which tends to emphasize line-endings. Interestingly, Góngora's more fluid line-endings avoid the cadence by putting accents on 4 and 8 (the so-called Sapphic line) with more frequency, producing lines of 5 + 6 rather than of 4 + 7.

Unamuno tried to write blank verse, but it didn't quite work. If the cadence is strong, enjambment gets awkward. If the cadence is weak, then the line lacks a spine.

Arguments with Myself

I think it was Yeats who said that arguments with yourself create poetry. [JM GOOGLES YEATS, ARGUMENT, RHETORIC AND COMES BACK]. "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." The arguments with myself I have maintained have not necessarily produced much good poetry, but they have produced a lot of critical writing about poetry. People who do not have arguments with themselves are rather dull people. That's why if you disagree with me you are likely to be agreeing with another part of me, or taking my side against myself. (I go to a restaurant by myself and ask for separate checks, or drive by my house to see if I am home. Well, my car is not in the driveway, so I must not be.)

Yet at other times one of me has won the argument already. Certain questions are no longer up for debate. They are no longer poetic questions, but rhetorical ones.

Master's Exam

On the oral section of the Master's exam, I often ask a very simple question. If I showed you a poem by Lorca, by Guillén, by Salinas, that you had never seen before, how could you tell who wrote it? This tends to throw some students off. The point is not just to know a particular text, but to know how and why it is typical of its author. You could ask a student what the difference between a sentence of Galdós and Ramón Gómez de la Serna.

15 feb. 2011

Ullán / Zambrano

The late poet Jose-Miguel Ullan's husband Manuel Fierro (yes, Spain has gay marriage) gave me a book that Ullán edited: a collection of the essays of María Zambrano. This is one book that I saved after the fire in my apartment last May, that I am really happy I still own. If I understood all 500 + pages plus of this, I would be ready to write my chapter.

My colleague Roberta Johnson also sent me a pdf of a book about Zambrano that will be published in 2012, with contributions from many scholars. If I read this too, then i should feel confident.

Old Posts

I've been blogging here since 2002. I don't go back and read every day or even every year what I've written in the past. In the early stages, there was a group of us blogging and linking to each other. Silliman, Jordan Davis, Piombino, Gary Sullivan. Some of these blogs still exist in pretty much the same formate, some don't. Some have changed their function. Some bloggers have gone over to facebook.

If you go back and look at old posts, then you will see some controversies I no longer care about, some thoughts I had with which I no longer identify. Basically, though,I am still the same person, only slightly older.


I had a graduate student once, in a course on literary theory. In the course I had been explaining some basic background relating to Saussure and structuralism. We covered some Chomsky in this course: his idea of universal grammar. I am not a linguist, but I thought it would be useful to explore some of this background to see where some key concepts of modern literary theory came from. We explored the idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which most people are interested in debating. Almost everyone has an opinion about whether language influences the thoughts we have, or not. This was just basic material I thought every educated literary critic ought to know about. So this student in my office one day says "i hate linguistics." Nothing in the course had been of interest to him so far.

Thanks a lot. It really helped me to know that you were an idiot right from the beginning. Why would you think your emotions about linguistics were interesting to me? Your dislike for the discipline is a fact about you, not a fact about linguistics. It shows you are lacking in intellectual curiosity, for one thing. Some things are going to be more interesting to you than others, but I don't really care. Please keep it to yourself because nobody else is going to really going to take your opinion seriously.

You complained that nobody else cared about the one issue of importance to you. But when you wrote about this issue, you turned in a piece of crap to me. So I guess you didn't care either.

More Zambrano

To know enough about María Zambrano to write about her with confidence, I will have to know much more about her than I need to know to support my basic points. Only a small fraction of what I learn will fit in the 30 pages I am writing about her. I cannot even estimate a percentage, but let's just say I'll have to go through a few thousand pages of secondary material in addition to understanding what she is about in several of her own works. She is not a verbose writer, but she wrote quite a bit and her prose is dense. I will have know her at the capillary level just to be able to make a point confidently at the level of veins and arteries.

Now here's the interesting thing: I actually like learning more than I need to. That's one of the pleasures or luxuries of my profession. The pleasure of mastery. If I just studied and thought enough until I could barely fill 30 pages, then I my work would not have the depth that I want it to have.

I will know when I know enough because I will reach the point where everything I am reading about her falls into the category of dejà vu.

Beethoven and Unamuno, Basho and Me

Between us and Unamuno, we might count 100 years. Unamuno was active 100 years ago (and before and after too, of course). Between Beethoven and Unamuno, there are another 100 years. Here's the thing, though. For me, Beethoven occupies a different world from my own, whereas Unamuno is more or less modern. On the older side of modern, yes, but still modern. The 100 years between Unamuno and me (he was born about 94 years before me, and Beethoven 90 + years before that) is much shorter than the 100 years between him and the composer of the Eroica.

My own lifespan of 50 years is about 25% of the time span I am talking about. So in my lifetime, we have travelled half the distance between Beethoven and Unamuno or between Unamuno and me. Those fifty years seem shorter to me than the fifty years right before i was born. The perception of time, then, is influenced by one's own position within time. There is a telescoping effect. Time speeds up as it goes along.


Let's see who would be 100 years before Beethoven? We're looking for someone born around 1660. Nobody's coming to mind, so in this case the distance is so great that I don't even have easy points of reference. Someone between Calderón de la Barca and Alexander Pope? Basho? I might be interested in figures from this period, but I wouldn't see them as close to me in time or sensibility in the least. So from this perspective Beethoven is starting to look pretty modern again. His way of taking one musical idea and beating it to death in some movements of the late string quartets starts to look similar to a minimalist composer of the 1960s.


From an "orientalist" perspective I know that Basho lived many centuries after Li Po and Tu Fu. Yet I perceive them as strangely equidistant from me. We are talking about the difference between the Chinese T'ang dynasty (8th century) and seventeenth century Japan. Perhaps language creates even more distance, or a Westernizing orientalist viewpoint does not recognize the modernity of Basho.


I was a teaching my graduate course the other day, and I decided to embrace the fact that most of the students had very little experience with poetry. In the past, I would have been frustrated, thinking that graduate students, by definition, should know certain things. Once, I had a class in which not a single graduate student could give me a definition of irony. I almost just sent them home.

What I did yesterday was to decide to be open to the level the students were actually working at. I recommended some undergraduate level textbooks on poetry and I showed them how to look at a poem from a "New Critical" pedagogical perspective.

You develop a set of questions. Who is the speaker of the poem? The addressee? The tone? The relation between the metrical structure and the pragmatic function of the poem (is it an elegy, a piece of propaganda?) What kind of tropes are used? What are the dominant images? Does the poem address the nose, the eye, the ear, the tongue? There is no set list of questions, but you need enough of them to address the main stylistic features of the text.

Once you have answered the questions, you can look for anything that catches your attention and seems problematic or interesting. The result of the analysis is not the answers to those first set of questions, but the other, more interesting questions you discover in wondering why certain things in the poem are one way and not another. For example, in "Rosario, dinamitera," a celebration of female munitions worker by Miguel Hernández, we could look at the joyful, exuberant images used to describe the fabrication of an explosive substance, dynamite, used in war. We could ask why the poem is written in a series of décimas.

So the class went extremely well. I explained the meaning of metonymy, a trope unfamiliar to the majority of the students. It was fun to see them realizing that they already knew how to use metonymies in their everyday lives, but did not know the definition of the trope.

Annual Review

Even though I'm a full professor and there are no raises in my university this year anyway, I still stress out over the annual review. Having to figure out how many exes I whyed or how many zeds I doubleyoued is just not that easy for me. Nothing is at stake in the evaluation, and i did very well in some categories by any objective measure, but I still don't like to be scrutinized.

14 feb. 2011

Sound And Sense

I realized that my graduate students don't have much experience reading poetry at all. I'm recommending them some really basic books of poetic analysis, like Sound and Sense by Laurence Perrine or Western Wind by John Frederic Nims. What is the best of this genre? Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean seems a little dated to me.

There's nothing like this in Spanish that is very good. The idea of Comentario de textos literarios seems to mechanistic. I also think it would be a good idea for them to be able to do it in both languages, since they are mostly native English speakers.


In high-school French I was taught "explication du texte." This was a series of very specific questions that could be asked of any text.


Ramón is known by his first name. His most famous invention is the greguería, the short humoristic aphorism in his own characteristic style. "When a woman orders fruits salad for two she perfects original sin." or "The Y is the champagne glass of the alphabet." "The baby grabbing his foot is greeting himself.' When he writes longer works, he has to rely on this genius for short aperçus to sustain him over the course of many pages.

This gives rise to an interesting structural problem. How does the aphorism become a novel?

Novel and Poetry

Most of the best-known critics in my field write on the novel, not on poetry. Poetry is a sub-field with a few scholars of note, in contrast to the domination of narrative and, to a lesser extent, film. Most people have a much easier time writing on the novel, because it is easy to talk about characters and their actions. We all now how to talk about real people and what they do, so talking about people in books is not so hard. When faced with a poem, many otherwise intelligent students (and colleagues) throw up their hands and wonder what they can possibly do with such a text.

Poetry requires a special expertise beyond what is required for reading novels. Once you have that expertise, things tend to even out. What really distinguishes a good critic of the novel, after all, is not the capacity to talk about characters as though they were real people, but a higher degree of responsiveness and critical contextualization.

Since other people are very comfortable talking about novels, I feel I don't have to be a critic of novels too. There are enough people already doing that. I like teaching prose fiction, and have spent considerable hours reading Galdós, Beckett, Cervantes, Unamuno, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, Soseki, Virginia Woolf, Clarín, Paul Auster, Murakami, Kawabata, Tolkien, Vonnegut, Updike, Sorrentino, Flann O'Brien, and many more.


Ramón Gómez de la Serna has always been one of my favorite Spanish novelists. Today I am beginning to teach El novelista, a metanovel from 1925 featuring Andrés Castilla, a novelist, and numerous novels-within-the-novel. I think I may have taught this book in the early 90s at Ohio State. It fits my plan nicely of teaching Niebla, El cuarto de atrás, and Obabakoak.

I freely admit that Ramón is not a great novelist in the conventional sense. He is mostly known for his metaphorical inventiveness, not his mostly forgettable characters and non-existent or digressive plotting. Yet I still like him better than almost any twentieth century Spanish novelist.

13 feb. 2011

Wearing Heels and Walking Backwards

Ginger Rogers reportedly compared herself once to Fred Astaire, saying she did everything he did: “...but I do it backwards and in heels!”

Essentially, what the Spanish major does is to require students do what students in other liberal arts disciplines do, but with a certain "handicap." Analyze this novel, this poem, develop a thesis about it and write it up in a well-developed essay. Do all of this, but in a foreign language. The novel is written in Spanish, class discussion takes place in Spanish, writing takes place in Spanish.

Now a couple things might happen. The education might take place at a lower level when students are mostly concerned with figuring out the plot and looking up unfamiliar words in the dictionary. Yet I believe most students are also doing advanced critical thinking and research as well, on the level that an English major would achieve in English. This is an extraordinary achievement.

12 feb. 2011

Culturally specific

Hay guateque en el bohío
del compadre Don Ramón

Ya está en la púa el lechón,
ya está llegando el gentío.
Hoy viene abajo el bohío,
es santo de Don Ramón.

Y llegando bailadores, comay,
por los caminos atascados

El bongó, el triple y el güiro
no han cesado de tocar
porque asi son los guajiros
no tienen cuando acabar,
Es costumbre campesina
desde el tiempo colonial.

In this lyric from Cuba almost every substantive word is culturally specific. A guajiro is not just a peasant, but a "typical" Cuban peasant. They are celebrating not the birthday, but the Saint's day of this particular guajiro. They are playing instruments that would be found in that context. A guateque is not just any old party, but this particular kind of celebration with the roast suckling pig (lechón) and the music played on typical instruments.

The message of the lyric seems to be that the party is a typical one. It is a kind of metafolkloric poem, then. It is the custom of the guajiros to do this since colonial times. The lyric only makes sense, then, when sung in a particular way accompanied with these instruments.

Private Language

I don't believe poetry speaks in a private or recondite language, or that literary critics are those people better at finding deep or hidden meanings in poems. I don't believe that I am better at interpreting a text than the average critic. I wish I was even worse than I am!

A very clever critic concluded that Machado's famous line "a distinguir me paro las voces de los ecos" (I stop to distinguish between voices and echoes) meant the opposite of what everyone else has always thought. Everyone thinks that voices are authentic and echoes inauthentic, and this critic decided it was the opposite. There is only one small problem here: Machado could not have expected anyone to read the line this way. Even if he meant it in this way (which I don't think he did), he would not have expected his readers to understand him. The meaning is what the words mean, not what some investigator uncovers in some letter Machado wrote. If a poet uses private imagery, then I feel free to interpret it as I want to, according to my own private scale of values. I don't really care what the poet meant. On the other hand, if a poet is using symbols the same way everyone else does, then I have full access to those meanings because I understand what those public symbols are. The winter is barrenness, the sun is the source of life, a tree is a person, a fire is passion, up is good and down is bad, a road is a person's life, Autumn is maturity and plenitude, or the anticipation of winter, twilight is the end of something, wings are freedom of movement and other types of freedom by extension, coldness is lack of emotional warmth, the nightengale is the poetic voice of nature. These are symbols that I understand and that everyone understands equally well. The only people who don't think they do not understand are those so intimidated that they think meanings are hidden in the poem, and so refuse to believe what they are reading with their own eyes. When Quevedo writes "mi báculo, más corvo y menos fuerte," we understand that his staff is more curved and less strong. We know what his stick and sword represent.

There is a kind of poetic difficulty which is all on the surface. Take Góngora's "Repetido latir, si no vecino / distinto oyó de can siempre despierto." Take it, please! Once you've figured it out, you've figured it out and the difficulty disappears. "He heard the repeated barking (if not close by, loud enough the hear) of the always wakeful dog." The difficulty is in calling the dog can instead of perro, and some tricky syntax. He does manage to use more suggestive language: distinto is both loud and distinctive, vecino is both near and neighborly, latir is both barking and pulsating, rhythmical, but we have no problem seeing what he is saying.

11 feb. 2011

Miguel Hernández

The "Elegía" of Miguel Hernández contains quite a few uncommon (or slightly less common) derivatives from very common words.

hortelano (huerto)

estercolar (estiércol)

colmenera (colmena)

sedienta (sed)

pajarear (pájaro)

manotazo (mano)

hachazo (hacha)

desamortazar (mortaza)

angelical (ángel)

dentelladas (dientes)

And so on. There is one of these in just about every stanza.

So by figuring out this poem when I was 19, I was really giving myself a complete workout in Spanish morphology. Estiércol is dung, estercolar means to fertilize with dung. Mano is hand, manotazo is blow with the hand. Colmena is a beehive, colmenera is an adjective derived from it. Mortaza is a shroud, des-a-mortaz-ar is to unshroud, Pájaro is a bird, pajarear is to fly around like a bird. I was not just learning words, but morphological rules, how to create new derivations from scratch. If manotazo is a blow with the hand, then hachazo is a blow with an ax.

The poem has some syntactical complications as well: you have to be able to figure out some inversions and why some adjectives precede their nouns rather than vice-versa. It's written in terza rima, in classic sounding 11-syllable lines and contains many rhetorical figures. It participates in a genre (the elegy) and brings generic conventions into play as well. For example, the topos that the body of the dead one fertilizes the ground and thus produces new life, or the reference to Hamlet (besarte la noble calavera): to kiss your noble skull.

So the poem offers a wide-ranging lesson in prosody, morphology, syntax, rhetoric, poetics. By memorizing it and simply knowing what each word meant and how it related to other words in the same family, I was really learning an enormous amount and having a great time doing it. The poem is powerfully hyperbolic in its rhetorical staging of the speaker's emotional response.

it seemed to take a long time to memorize, but it was really quite time-efficient work, as it turned out. I didn't think of it that way until just now.

9 feb. 2011

Five Ideas for a Graduate Course

I found pad of paper where I had written out some ideas for the beginning of the semester:
(1) Subject-matter / theme is raw meat for the watch-dog. Once you begin studying a "theme" like violence or drugs, you don't know where you will end up. The theme is not the end-point, but the beginning.

(2) Students must bring in their ideas for each class meeting. Those are the ideas we will be discussing, not my own.

(3) Students will learn the classic form of the scholarly article, writing sestinas, not free-verse poems, in their papers.

(4) I will assign paper topics randomly. I'll come up with fourteen ideas and hand them out to the seven students. They will then trade one of their two topics with someone else in the class. The next day, they will come into class with two additional ideas for a paper, and trade one of those with another student. Each student, then, will have four possible topics for a paper. Then they can use one of those four or a fifth of their own invention.

(5) Prose style is a responsive instrument, as you might speak of a responsive musical instrument or automobile. It needs to be supple in order to allow the ideas to come out.


I never really liked Unamuno, although I like to teach his works: they are very teachable. I am not really an expert on Unamuno either, not having read Paz en la guerra and Amor y pedagogía. As a poet, Unamuno is not among the best, if you compare him to his contemporary Machado. I read his long poem El cristo de Velázquez and could not take it too seriously. He tries a Miltonic blank-verse, but it falls flat because he just doesn't have an ear for verse, sad to say. It is very innovative to do what he is doing, but it just doesn't work.

The poet Guillermo Carnero told me he has a four-part classification:

Me gusta y me interesa.
Me gusta pero no me interesa.
No me gusta pero me interesa.
Ni me gusta ni me interesa.

Unamuno has always been in the 3rd category for me. I don't like him but he interests me a great deal. His reactionary tendencies, his attitude toward women, his egoism, are very off-putting to me.

8 feb. 2011

The Reader

It was fashionable when I was young to route all of our perceptions of a literary text through "the reader," that imaginary construct. The trouble is, the better reader you are, the less you know about what "the reader" thinks. I was never "the reader." My ideas were more interesting than his, so why bother.

Breakfast of Champions

I don't remember the content of what I wrote about Breakfast of Champions in the 9th Grade. I'm pretty sure I drew on my knowledge of other Vonnegut novels and short stories. It was the work of a specialist in Vonnegut, more or less. I understood the novel completely because I knew all of his moves already. I'm not making any claims for this paper, because I no longer have it and couldn't back them up, but I remember how it felt to write the paper: I had mastered something.

I memorized Miguel Hernández's "Elegía" written for Ramón Sijé when I was in Spain for the first time, when I was 19. You know, the one that starts of "Yo quiero ser llorando el hortelano / de la tierra que ocupas y estercolas / companero de mi alma, tan temprano." Now, when I look at that poem, I understand every word. I not only remember it, but remember remembering it for the first time, parsing the syntax and figuring out each word. It has echoed with me for thirty-one years.

After I got back from Spain, the summer I turned 20, I read almost all of Galdos's novels from the 1880s and some from the 1890s. We're talking about 500-1500 page novels. Galdós published one a year on average during these decades. I innocently thought that every person I would be competing with in Graduate School would have read thousands of pages of novels. I thought I was doing the bare minimum! I also read most of Gabo, Cortázar, and Varguitas during my senior year, because at that point I was going to be a Latin Americanist. The "Boom" was big in those years.

When I got to Graduate School, I felt somewhat defrauded by the lack of seriousness in some of my colleagues and professors. Jean Franco, the big Latin Americanist there, could hardly speak Spanish and assigned three novels for an entire course. That's what I was used to eating for breakfast, a couple of difficult novels. Her entire comments on the paper I had written were: "Nice job. A-."

Maturity as a scholar takes a long time to develop, and it would be easy to go back and condescend to earlier versions of myself. Immature enthusiasm, however, is the real driving force behind all of this. If you can't get excited about it anymore, then it doesn't matter how well developed your metacritical language is. Breakfast is more important than dinner.

7 feb. 2011

Academically Adrift

Much discussion of this book at the Chronicle of Higher Education and in the blogosphere generally.

The good news is that Arum and Roska find that traditional liberal arts degrees are what continue to teach students to think about complex issues in a complex way. We already kind of knew that, but it's good to see support for that position. Of course, they judge this complexity by performance on a standardized test. I'd have to look at that test first and see what it's really measuring. I'd also have to read the book itself rather than limited excerpts I've seen here and there, before making a definitive judgment.

It also seems that the authors give short-shrift to the content of education, since this test measures reasoning and writing skills. You cannot discount the learning of actual information.

"Literature is what is taught, period."

That sentence is from Roland Barthes's "Reflection on a Manual," found in The Rustle of Language. I still remember the shock of reading it for the first time. Surely Barthes was being profoundly ironical; he couldn't really mean this? Surely real literature occurs outside the walls of academe, and the teaching of it is only an accidental by-product, an academic reduction of the real thing.

Yet I don't think he was being totally ironical in not seeing literature as lying, in any way, outside the academic subject of "literature," even as he deconstructs a manual (textbook). He wants a better textbook, a better pedagogy, not an escape from the classroom.

We could teach literature less academically, but we would still be teaching it. It would be mauvaise foi to pretend otherwise.

6 feb. 2011

One Reason

One reason I'm writing a lot on my blogs is that I am writing a lot on my book. I often interrupt myself to write a pertinent blog post or two, or put some of the spill-over ideas into the blogs. When I'm nor working as hard on it, you won't find as many blog posts. With the blizzard I also lost a day of teaching. Between last Monday and this Monday my only obligation was to go a single one-hour meeting.

The Spanish Soul

Nobody writing on Zambrano (almost nobody) seems to question the idea that there is an essence to Spanish culture, a Spanish soul that can be found in the poetry of Saint John of the Cross.

None of the American poets I studied in Apocryphal Lorca question the duende and its expression of a Spanish essence. These are supposedly postmodern poets. (Only Sorrentino when making fun of Bly.)

I think I see a pattern developing.

Low Level Material

In teaching literature, there is no such thing as low-level material. The graduate seminar and the junior high school classroom are engaged in an identical enterprise, the reader's response to a literary work. I don't feel that I am doing anything different now than when I wrote a paper about Breakfast of Champions in 9th Grade or The Cocktail Party in 10th. The works I was studying were literary works, just like the ones I deal with now. Not only was my response to them somewhat nuanced and intelligent, but it was reading literature at that age that made me what I am today. The questions I was asking then are the same i am asking now. What makes a novel work, what makes one play better than another?

So the difference is institutional. It has to do with the demands of the classroom, not with the essential activity going on there. We measure outcomes differently, since the graduate student has to produce work that meets institutional requirements (theoretical frameworks, measures of scholarly rigor and bibliography).

As brilliantly original literary critic as Barthes wrote that literature is what gets taught as such. He could not envision it apart from its pedagogy, its ideological state apparatus, as it were. I've always thought it a happy accident that I could be payed as an employee of the state to do what I like to do anyway.

5 feb. 2011


This is the idea that people's experiences are pretty much comparable with one another's. Differences exist, but not incommensurability in an absolute sense. (Between genders, nations, what have you.)

Now here's the paradox. If you erect difference or particularism into an absolute principle, insisting on incommensurability, then you create a new kind of universalism on a different scale. If women are different from men, the implication is that all women are the same. An enlightened universalism is much more respectful of differences, because it realizes that some women resemble some men more than they do other women. (Obviously the universalism that takes the white middle-class heterosexual male as the measure of all things is not tenable.)

Let's take the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines thought. I'm not interested here in weaker versions that show minuscule results, but in the strongest version of that idea. It collapses all speakers of the same language into a single category. What I know from studying poetry is that no two poets think alike in the same language. Jaime Gil de Biedma's Spanish is more like Auden's English than like Lorca's Spanish.

On the other hand, Beckett's French is not at all like his English. Yet his ability to move back and forth also shows us something.

4 feb. 2011

...and you never will

The lyric of Ellington's song "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" is curious. The idea is that the two lovers are separated but the persona singing the song wants to keep the other lover from breaking off the affair. Though I've been seen with somebody else. Another kiss might cloud my memory, etc... So the song ends: "Do nothing till you hear it from me / and you never will." The ostensible meaning is that you will never get news of my infidelity from me. But the song itself has given its message very clearly. The last line, then, means "you won't ever hear from me again, we're through."

Do nothing till you hear from me,
Pay no attention to what's said.
Why people tear the seams of anyone's dreams
Is over my head.

Do nothing till you hear from me,
At least consider our romance.
If you should take the words of others you've heard,
I haven't a chance.

True, I've been seen with someone new,
But does that mean that I've been untrue?
When we're apart,
The words in my heart
Reveal how I feel about you.

Some kiss may cloud my memories,
And other arms may hold a thrill,
But please, do nothing till you hear it from me--
And you never will


I've found that if you treat people as though you liked them (as the default position) they will tend to like you a bit more and then you will end up liking them more than you originally did. This makes it easier to give up resentments and minor irritations. Hatred become dislike, dislike becomes toleration, toleration becomes active appreciation.

I accept, too, that others might be operating on a similar principle toward me, and this doesn't bother me in the least. If someone is acting as though they liked me, simply because that is their default position in social relations, then that means that they are willing to overlook my numerous irritating qualities. Courtesy overrides sincerity. In the end, even the insincerity disappears, because you find yourself with genuinely positive feelings. Behavior overrides inner feelings.

Bibliography Rules

The book we know as Campos de Castilla by Machado was never published independently, as such, during Machado's lifetime. There was a first edition, that included about half of the "book." Then the poems were published in various collected poems of Machado under the Campos de Castilla rubric. Geoffrey Ribbans points out, however, that in the first such edition the actual title Campos de Castilla is absent.

Lorca never published a book called Romancero gitano in 1928. The actual title is Primer romancero gitano.

As Ben Friedlander notes in a recent facebook update, "bibiography rules." In other words, you can't just pull a book off the shelf and assume that the text is stable, identical to some previous edition. You can't assume that a poem you find on the internet has any textual integrity at all. Students will center each line of a poem in their papers. They will capitalize each line of a poem just because microsoft word tells them to, with no regard for the original.

A critical edition of Cernuda suppressed his capital letters, because that was the norm for that collection of critical editions.

These details are not trivial. They may be pedantic, but they are significant.

3 feb. 2011


Research 1 universities do research and also educate thousands of students at a time. What is the advantage for a student of going to an R1 university?

In the first place, you can get a very good education there if you try. You must choose a major in a department that is involved in educating students. I know extremely well-educated students who have taken advantage of their presence in a university with faculty with first-rate minds.

One of my friends on the faculty here talks about forming part of a conspiracy to educate the students. The faculty who educate and the students who want to be educated have to find one another. The process is not automatic, because students can choose majors where they can drift along without becoming educated. Alcohol and big-time sports play occupy the center of the campus culture.

My proposal is to eliminate some of the barriers to education by removing the cordon sanitaire between teaching and research.

(Liberal Arts Colleges teach very well. There is no cordon sanitaire because the emphasis falls squarely on teaching. The very smart, publishing scholars I know at such places also have to be good teachers. The ones who don't do research can devote all their resources to instruction. Most of those places lack big-time football programs.)


Religion, science, philosophy, and poetry are four ways of approaching reality in its most fundamental dimension. There may be others, but those four are the major ones.

The idea of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" developed by Stephen J. Gould affirms that religion and science do not enter into conflict with each other, because they divide up their realms of magisterium. Science gets the natural world, religion gets ethics and larger questions of the meaning of everything. Sounds good.

There are several reasons why this system does not work, however. In the first place, religion has made and continues to make claims about the natural world. The idea that it doesn't is a purely modern development, caused by the advance of science and the retreat (or reaction) of religion from these developments.

Secondly, religion does not have the same authority over ethics and meaningfulness that science can claim over the natural world. A third master discourse, philosophy, has a stake here too, and philosophy can be wholly secular. Gould's division of labors would leave a secular person with no access to the meaning of anything.

So really, any system that claims to be the master system cannot tolerate any genuine rivalry. Science tends to undermine religion. Religion's ethical teachings are contradictory and often unethical, its science unscientific.

We can imagine a system lacking secular science, secular poetry, and secular philosophy. Religion holds the ultimate magisterium, and all song and dance is religious ritual. However, that is not the world in which we live.