Featured Post

Dreams are Confused

Dreams are confused, yet men seek clarity there Oracles speak with twisted tongues; men trust them and do not despair From confusion--do...

Friday, April 25, 2014

Formative (4)

So the one missing piece in my early education was language. Because of my interest in prosody and poetry generally I became a very good language learner. That, and my exceptionally robust memory. My junior year abroad in Spain was a formative experience. I learned the language by reading hundreds of pages of literature while I was in the country and speaking only Spanish as much as I could. While my Spanish wasn't perfect on my return, it was good enough to be a Hispanist.

***

In Spain I studied with Claudio Rodríguez. That was a formative experience, because I had never been in the presence of pure poetic genius before. I quickly left Bousoño's class. Whatever the opposite of poetic genius is, that is Bousoño.

***

Naively, I thought I needed to be better prepared for graduate school, so I read most of the boom novels the summer before. Oddly, I found when I arrived that I had read more than a lot of other people. It was odd that we were to read Roa Bastos, whom I found to be a mediocre writer. Maybe I was wrong but I haven't returned to him.

***

Another formative experience was the discovery of the periodical room at the UC Davis library. I used to go there before I was even in college, and it was fascinating to discover that there was a journal just for works of William Blake. That seemed a marvelous thing, simply that that existed. I have spent many hours in periodical rooms and bookstores. Library stacks are wonderful too.

***

I read the introduction to O'Hara's collected poems, by JA. He had a list of writers that O'Hara read, so I read those writers, especially Henry Green and Flann O'Brien. I had invented a technique that might be called backwards reading. You start with Borges, say, and then you read everything that Borges thought important. I tried Ronald Firbank too, but I didn't get it at all.

***

At Cornell, where I lived for a time, I systematically trained myself in my field, by reading all the individual books of poetry I could find by the novísimos.

***

I am sorry that my formative experience did not consist of sitting in the classroom and learning from some charismatic professor. I did learn from the British poet Thom Gunn, and from a guy named Richard Coe, a French professor who was also a specialist in autobiography. I took a class from a noted Beckett scholar, Ruby Cohn, and found her a mediocre mind. I liked Elliot Gilbert, a Victorianist married to Gilbert, of Gilbert and Gubar fame. Elliot later died tragically due to hospital incompetence. I did study a bit with Sandra too. Still, I am mostly an autodidact.

***

I would go to all the poetry readings. I saw Richard Eberhardt and Stephen Spender, and many others. In Spain I saw Rafael Alberti and Luis Rosales.

***

While preparing to write my dissertation, I came across a new book by Debicki, Poetry of Discovery. I was really shocked that a third-rate mind like this could be the big name in my field. That meant, in my arrogant opinion at the time, that I could be an even bigger name. Later I became friends and colleagues with him, and even taught the rest of his course once when he had cancer.

***

The Nobel prizes for Neruda and Aleixandre in the 1970s really motivated me to go into this field. Naively, I expected that this would be a normal kind of thing to have happened, but I have never met a colleague who entered the field for that reason. The journals were filled with translations of Neruda, so I thought that it would be cool to read him (and others) in the original. There are many Spanish professors for whom poetry is a complete mystery. They do not read it (aside from what they read for exams in grad school) or teach it. There are others who specialize in it, but have a very rudimentary understanding of it.

***

We talk about experiences that are formative. Formación in Spanish means professional training & education. Bildung is a similar concept: culture, development. We might also look at Greenblatt's concept of "self-fashioning," or my own idea of the "scholarly base." If we look at the idea of "cultural capital" that is another approach to this question, from a sociological perspective. I don't like the idea of capital as much, because it makes it sound like it is a mere birthright, something you acquire effortlessly just because of your social class. Of course I did inherit a good deal of this "capital," in the sense that the materials for study were always right there.

***

I play congas and bongoes. An analogy might be a Cuban whose whole family plays percussion. The kid might be playing at age 5 or so, and never have to wonder what the clave is. The drums will just be around in his house. The kid might grow up to the Changuito, or might never become a player of that caliber.

3 comments:

clarissasblog.com said...

This is fascinating. I now want to write such posts about myself, too.

Jonathan said...

Yes, you should. I think I've found something here I want to say.

Andrew Shields said...

I also basically learned German by reading. When I got to Germany in 1991 (not having been there since 1985), it was the mountain of reading (of Kafka, Mann, Goethe, Schiller, Celan, Kleist) that provided the foundation that made it possible for me to talk to people. Maybe I talked a bit funny at first, and I was uncertain for a few weeks about everyday things (I could order rolls at the bakery, but it took me a bit to understand the questions people asked about what kind of rolls). But all that passed quickly.

Later, students in Saarbrücken said they got to the UK knowing how to talk about literature in seminars but not knowing how to order beer in the pub. But it only took a week to learn the latter on the basis of the former, and they admitted that if they had known how to order beer, it wouldn't have helped much with talking about lit in seminars!