Thursday, April 24, 2014


Twain ad you should not use the word "very."

But he used it 79 times in Tom Sawyer.

So to be like Twain, you shoud use it.

But say you don't / you shouldn't.


A guy at the faculty senate meeting, a business professor, speaking to real college professors about how to teach better, put up power point slides and explained them in a sleep-inducing way. He advocated "flipping" and "hybrids," but he himself just lectured us and showed us the damned slides. Eventually, the room erupted. He lost us and the group just started raising objections for the next 15 minutes. Paradoxically, we were already doing what he was telling us to do, and in fact, were better at it than him. He was way out of his league. My students earlier in the day had better pp slides.

Formative (3)

So the decision to be a poet took root in me and determined the rest of my life. I continued to read fiction assiduously, but studied poetry quite intensely. I wrote, of course, but I had this naive notion that you also had to know about the art form itself. I was already a little professor. I studied X.J. Kennedy's textbook. My dad had some anthologies like Oxford Book of American Poetry and English Poetry. I wore out a copy of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

I went through an intense Cummings phase, like probably every other kid who likes poetry. I bought the paperbacks, individual books that were not expensive. Then I saved up to buy his collected poems, which I think cost all of 12 dollars in the early 70s. I moved on to WCW, Berryman, and then to all the New York School poets.

By Junior High I no longer read children's books very much. (The "Young Adult" category did not yet exist, thankfully, or existed but held little interest.) Our class would in elementary school would order books from scholastic. I would be given the box to carry my books home in, since I would have 15 or 20 compared to one or two for the rest of the class. Soon, though, I put aside childish things. I devoured Bradbury & Vonnegut.

So you could say I was "formed" by about 14. The entire stage from ages 8-16 was when I taught myself what I would need to be a professor. The missing element was language study. I actually learned the rules of French prosody in High School from a very traditional teacher, but my French was unsteady. I began Spanish in college, starting with a summer course slightly before my 17th birthday. I had a selected Neruda at home, that I had read before I knew a word of Spanish.

Many people are talking now of GGM being a formative influence in getting into this field. In college those of us who were interested in Spanish wanted to read all of García Márquez, Cortázar, etc... This was close enough in time to the boom that the boom was still actually occurring. It was not until I went to Spain that my interest shifted to peninsular. I would have been a Latin Americanist, but I went to Stanford and the Latin Americanists there were dogmatic Marxists with a deep contempt for literature. I was forced back into peninsular, because it was what I already knew. I had read most of Galdós, except for the 36 historical novels.

I could have been a classicist. I excelled at Latin in college, then took an intensive Greek workshop. I promptly forgot ancient Greek because I was going to be a modernist, so my timing was off. I didn't care for grammar-translation, the method for teaching classics that still persists today. I could have been an English professor too, but it seemed to me that I already knew that tradition. German was not attractive to me, though I was a great reader of Kafka. Italian seemed to small and narrow. I knew modern French poetry fairly well, but I didn't like the ethos of French students: they seemed more ethereal to me.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Formative (2)

The notion of not sinning anymore proved to be rather difficult. The problem was not bad actions, but bad thoughts. God could see inside your head. This idea produced, in me, an almost unbearable self-consiousness bordering on obsessive-compulsive disorder. After all, if you could sin by thought, and thoughts appeared in my mind without my conscious intention, there was no way around it. It seemed unfair and obtrusive.

I read most of the Old Testament. I enjoyed the Hebrews kicking ass on the inhabitants of the land they wanted. It was exciting but not very conducive to religious belief. It didn't make too much sense, because these were God's chosen people, but they kept messing up every time. Once God saved them again and they were righteous for a time, they would just screw things up for themselves again.

When we moved to Davis my obsession shifted from history to mythology. I liked to read about classical myths, and knew all 12 of the Olympian gods. That was my intellectual life for a few years, from 9-11 or so. I read Of Human Bondage, my first adult book. I became a reader of fictions. By about now I had given up religion. I tried to believe in it very hard, but I couldn't. I guess the idea of belief being a voluntary act is difficult for me to understand. For example, I couldn't believe that Michigan St. where I live now in Lawrence KS, is East of Mississippi St, since it is actually West of it. No matter how hard I try, I cannot force myself to believe that the streets are differently arranged than they are. Now I might not know where streets are arranged in some other town. I can believe that your are telling me the truth about streets in your town, but I can't believe something that I don't really believe, just by willing a belief in it.

Anyway, religion made me smarter because I had to reason all this out myself. I was incapable of belief in that sense, so I had to make do with the cognitive dissonance. Now I realize most kids just tune it out or believe in a kind of minimalist way without worrying too much about it. My mistake was taking it seriously.

I did ok in elementary school, without being excited about it. Our 5th grade teacher read The Hobbit to us out loud. I read it myself, then the complete LOTR. It was of a piece with my mythological imagination. Tolkien, after all, created his own mythology.

One day in sixth grade we were to write poems. I decided I would be a poet. All the energy that had gone first to history and then to mythology went to poetry. At one of my Grandmother's house there was a book of Poe's. I thought it strange that Poe was poet without the t, and that he had two poems for Helen and Lenore, who happened also to be the names of my aunts who were also writers. I had Babette Deutsche's Poet's Handbook, learning about forms like villanelles and sestinas.


When I was 8, we moved to Piedmont, a wealthy Oakland suburb, occupying my Aunt's house while they were in Guam for a year. The school had a library, which I don't remember my Ann Arbor school having. I checked out some books on history there, short books for children I'm assuming, but they purported to tell the history of the entire world. I was hooked on history for several years, and on reading. I had learned to read, of course, and read children's books like those by Milne, but this was qualitatively different. I had an actual intellectual interest for the first time. I had been a slow student in Ann Arbor, doing laborious worksheets at a snail's pace. Now it was as if a switch had been flipped in my mind. They played basketball in California, a game I had never played before, and I was conscious of being unathletic for the first time. In Michigan we had skated, played around in the snow, etc... but I had not even played catch with my dad. He realized very late and started teaching me sports, but it never really took with me. So being unathletic and also a bit bookish seemed to go well together.

I still didn't excel at classroom schoolwork, but I didn't need to. All I had to do was read books.

Around the same time I was baptized. Something great was going to happen right after the baptism: you were to feel the holy spirit descend on you. For me, it didn't happen, although I naively expected it to. So all of a sudden I also doubted religion too. Baptism washed away your sins, so of course I decided not to sin anymore...

The rap on brevity

We know that "lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno," for example, or "brevity is the soul of wit." The rap on brevity, though, is that it is simplistic. The idea that what fits on bumper stickers or "sound bites" represents a superficial knowledge. That the short form is authoritarian because apodictic. What can you say in a 140 character tweet? We've all heard this arguments. Whenever someone quotes Kissinger to the effect that academic politics are vicious because the stakes are low, my heart sinks. The person seems to think that the aphorism explains something (it doesn't) that K. said it first (he didn't) that this is the first time we're hearing this (it isn't) and that we will be impressed by the quotation (we aren't and won't be). As though academic politics were more vicious than, say, invading Cambodia?

The narrator of Cinco horas on Mario quotes from Proverbs but then doesn't understand the biblical verses. She speaks in a serious of idiomatic expressions, clichés, cursilerías, and proverbs in order to express a deeply conservative philosophy. The book, then, is a wonderful compendium of linguistic items. Every single page contains dozens of them. The fact her language is like this is supposed to explain something about her, her rigidity and lack of imagination.

The Celestina, the proverbs are there for there bitter cynicism.


The Argentine poet Girondo has a genre he called membretes. The word means something like "letterhead."