Sunday, December 14, 2014

Quiero laurearme, pero me encebollo

Here is a line from a sonnet by Vallejo. Laurel branches are the crown of the poet, hence "poet laureate." He wants to crown himself with this traditional award, but instead he "onions himself." He creates a reflexive verb out of the word "cebolla" following morphological rules of Spanish word formation. There is the rhetorical figure of antithesis, obviously, the verbal wit that comes with the creation of neologisms. It is worthy of Quevedo.

An old discussion of


Logopoeia and semantic prosody

The concept of semantic prosody in John Sinclair is similar to that of Pound's logopoeia:

"that is to say, it employs words not only for their direct meaning, but it takes count in a special way of habits of usage, of the context we expect to find with the word... It holds the æsthetic content which is peculiarly the domain of verbal manifestation and can not possibly be contained in plastic or in music."


Semantic prosody, for Sinclair, results from the statistical probability of finding a word close to other words. Take the word "pulular" in Spanish. It refers, often, to the swarming of insects. If we find it with people, instead of with insects, we might envision those people as insects. I guess the word swarm in English works the same way.


intr. 1. Moverse de un lado para otro, bullir en algún lugar personas, animales o cosas.

2. Abundar,multiplicarse insectos y animales semejantes:
las moscas pululaban entre la basura.]

A similar example is "enjambre," a colony or swarm of insects. If used outside of this context, it still suggests insects.

An example Sinclair uses is "budge." The word means to move a slight bit, but the semantic prosody is that of intransigence. It is almost always found in contexts in which someone refuses to budge.

But I think semantic prosody is only one device within the greater category of logopoeia. It seems that it should also encompass other kinds of verbal play, the entire "dance of the intellect among words," not merely one device of using a word against the backdrop of its normal usage. By the same token, semantic prosody itself ought to be reconceived more broadly as the linguistic study of logopoeia in its natural settings (not merely in poetry).

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Translation Book

There is a section of my translation book that will talk about melopeia. Basically, prosody meets translation.

Then there is will be a section about logopeia. The idea here, what happens to it in translation. How the prevalence of non-logopedic translation affects our perception of language.

The idea starts with Appiah ("Thick Translation.") He suggests a translation that would useful in the teaching of literature. That is a very basic idea, too basic, in some sense. But once we examine it, we realize that many standard practices of translation are not useful for the teaching of literature. For example, a translation of a very verbal poet like Quevedo or Vallejo that almost completely erases the verbalness, the languageness of the original. Call it what you want.

Even people very much into poetry do not perceive language as language. Logopeia is often a mystery to them.

There are those two sections, then, and the book will be more or less one seamless argument (with myself.) The idea is to see what an academically adequate translation would look like, and what a poetically adequate translation would look like, if we took both academia and poetry seriously enough.

The two ideals (academic and poetic) are not as far away as one might think, although they are not identical either. The first is

--translation useful in the teaching of literature

--translation that works as poetry for the reader of poetry, without any excuses

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What makes Vallejo Vallejo

One idea for translation is that the translation should convey "what makes x x." In other words, if a poet has a certain number of distinguishing characteristics, and these are on display in the source text, then these same characteristics should be on play in the translation.

Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París —y no me corro
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.

Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos
, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.

César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro

también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos...

So, without even translating this, let's look for some characteristics.

The name of a specific bone (húmeros), where most poets would talk about bones or limbs in general. Vallejo liked very precise scientific names for things.

There's a colloquialism running through the poem, but it's not simply an imitation of how people talk, but a sort of "twisting motion." The reflexive verb of "me corro" for example. It means not, "I run" but "I accelerate." It can also mean ejaculate. "I'm in no hurry to shoot my load." ??

The grammar we taught in school would prescribe "le pegagan / todos sin que él les hiciera nada." He's mixing up the verbal tenses. (The poet already has memory of the future, in the second line.) The syntax is deliberately "roughed up."

There is a linguistic patterning: a use of six reflexive verbs in the quatrains.

The deictic situation, the here and now, is very front-and-center in this poem. The particular kind of staging of the poetic "I."

The rhythms scan, but are jerky. Enjambment is prominent. There are many pauses within a verse. It is a sonnet, but the rhymes are assonantal and irregular: AABB BAAB CCD EDD.

There is neologism and verbal play: "I prose / these verses." Soga is a rope, but also a whip and a noose. There's a verbal parallelism with two redundant noun modifiers: "los días jueves y los huesos húmeros" the Thursday days and the humeri bones.

So those are some features of this poem that make it Vallejo-like. We don't even know this unless we've read other poems by him. A good rule to follow is if there is a figure of diction, like asyndeton in the final line, that the poet has used it not accidentally.

Eshleman gets most of it right. He keeps the roughness but misses a lot of small details:

I will die in Paris, with hard dirty rain [with downpour]
one day I now remember. [why not already? That's the whole point]
I will die in Paris — and I don't run — [difference in meaning with reflexive verb?]
maybe a Thursday, like today, in autumn.

Thurday, because today, Thursday, when I prose
these lines, I have forced my humeri on [by saying "these lines" you miss the prose / verse antithesis. Why not "I prose / this verse"?]
unwillingly and, never like today have I again, [unwillingly for "a la mala": not as direct or foreful]
with all my road, seen myself alone. [missing parallelism between "me he puesto" / "me he vuelto"]

Cesar Vallejo is dead, they beat him [has died; the perfective aspect. Don't you think Vallejo used a particular aspect of the verb deliberately? Also, "they used to beat him"]
everyone, without him doing anything to them;
they hit him hard with a stick and hard

likewise with a rope; witnesses are [noose?]
the Thursdays and the humerus bones, [the Thursday days...]
the loneliness, the rain, the roads...

Is this too picky? There is no such thing, unless you think that what gives x its characteristic xness doesn't matter.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


I was looking at some numbers. Suicides in this country are about 39,000 a year. Homicides, about 16,000. But actually, we used to have about twice as many murders, in 1992.

We lack the basic perspective to even understand this reality. A country like Spain has less than 1 homicide per 100,000. We have almost 5. (For perspective, there are 800 deaths per 100,000 by any cause.) I heard about an epidemic of women being killed by their partners in Spain, but the numbers do not bear that out. Spain has 47 million people. Fewer than 400 people die by murder every year, and not all of these are women, not all the women are victims of "violencia de género."


If you asked Dante or Spenser, or any other poet before 1800, whether it was more important to write good poetry or to put across a certain message, you would be met with incomprehension-- the question itself would not make sense. I think the whole dichotomy is the product of the late 19th century, and has done immeasurable damage. Even to my own thinking, at times.

There's an insidious logic here that the worse a poem is, the more effective it is at communication. We are given a choice between aesthetics and politics. The political advocates are worse formalists than the pure formalists, because they use poetic crappiness as a badge of honor. The formalists / aestheticists, on the other hand, have an allergy to only one kind of subject matter, the political. Political poems worked fine before, somehow, but at a certain point they stopped working.

There are a series of reactions and counter-reactions. It is all very mysterious and I haven't figured out yet how it works.