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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Barnstone: Machado the imagist

I read all of Barnstone's first published translation of Machado yesterday.  80 Poems.  It is very good, with prefaces by JRJ and Dos Passos.  The image I got of Machado was an imagist poet, with strong visual imagery, fluent free verse. Together with Tomlinson and Levertov, some of the first Machado that got into English was very good.  

The wave of later translations was not so fortunate, in many cases, with Bly's notorious tone-deafness.  I feel the argument of this article coming on.

How to Write a Poem (ii)

VII.  The first line of a poem must be given (donnée). It must pop into your head just like that.  I have had many lines appear to me for which I found no continuation:  "My father was not beaten as a child." The first line of a poem must be great, or there is no hope for the rest of the poem.  Can you think of a poem that starts off badly and is still great?  I'm sure there have to be lines less good in "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones" than the first one. Or "Among twenty snowy mountains."

I just had one this morning:  "There is a randomness in my heart." I can imagine this as the beginning of one of my bad poems quite easily. I have no idea where it came from or where it might lead, but it sounds off-kilter enough to be a good beginning.

VIII. When you think of a line from a poem, you can think of it in two ways.  You can think of it as a phrase someone might say in real life, or as a special kind of utterance.  Now a real life sentence might not work in a poem, because you think that the poet has not taken the first step in writing poetry. He might just be incompetent, and not know that you just can't do that.  On the other hand, a poet who seems to know that a poem has to sound different will write in a pretentious diction. We ask her to write lines that someone might think of using in real life.  So there is a narrow band of language that works somehow as both special utterance and language borrowed from real utterances.  It has a poetic charge to it even though the words don't seem particularly different from what someone might say.

Duncan uses an elevated tone:

I am liable in the late afternoon
lingering to remember in the various cities
the familiar streets, clock-tower, magnolias,
to remember, reconstructing yet not 
faultlessly as then, for the singular vision
has departed, reconstructing the cities
in sand, not faultlessly, roughly,
impatiently...   ["Fragment: 1940"; The Year as Catches 15]

This works for him (not always though). His ear is musical. Even when you don't feel he writes perfectly, his poetry is true to a particular conception of what poetic ought to be. I could select lines and passages from this book of early poetry to try to convince you he is a bad poet, but he is also a poet capable of the lines I've just cited.

There is another aesthetic called "ars est celare artem."  The idea is to write without any obvious poeticism, but without prosaic flatness either.  The artfulness is concealed rather than overt. So you would have Creeley instead of Duncan.

If we look at contemporary poets, we can see that each one has to come up with an individual solution.  Some depend on the inherently poetic qualities of language in its raw state, so that they can incorporate historical documents or bits of conversation without effort. Some work with parody, deliberately muted effects, or a compressed but slightly precious diction.

IX. One way of approaching all of this is to start with poets who are obsessed with craft, like the poets of the Objectivists and Black Mountain School, with some New York School thrown in.  You should read Ronald Johnson, Ken Irby, Eigner, Levertov, Niedecker, Ceravolo. Among the poets favored by the more academic side, you need to read Jean Valentine and Elizabeth Bishop.  It is hard to imagine being a good poet without having assimilated poets like these.  Early James Tate is also excellent.

You can get an excessively strained and stiff quality to your writing, though, if you never loosen up a bit. You need to explore the forbidden side too, break some taboos. What do you fear?  Fine writing?  Sentimentality?  Pretention?  You might be paralyzed by a fear of being thought not talented, or by an avoidance of any number of things.  It is hard to hit the sweet spot where the writing is going to feel just right.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How to Write a Poem

I. My first idea here is that the Poundian / Williamsian idea is still the basis of what most people are going to think of as a conventionally good poem: rhythmically fluent free verse, with a lot of concrete visual imagery, and a lot of concentration (saying a lot in a few words). The register will be basically colloquial as well. There won't be a lot of dead metaphors or predictable sequences of words as what one might find in prose. So you can't have "I want to make one thing perfectly _____," where the reader can fill in the blank with the expected word.

This standard of writing might be historically contingent (it is) but it is still in force, in that departures from it need to be justified. This is how James Schuyler wrote, or Lorine Niedecker or Denise Levertov at her best.

This is also how we judge poetry of the past, in a sense. Though we might tolerate more rhyme and meter, elevated language and archaism, we still want that concentration of meaning and a strong poetic eye.

II. That is about 90% of it there. Most poems fail because simply because they don't follow those directions and depart from them in quite unintentional ways. Often, a beginning poet will seem to have read no poetry, and has heavy-handed prosaic effects, but with no knowledge at all that he's not supposed to do that.

III. The rest is fine tuning. The main area of fine tuning, once the poem is filled with concentrated visual imagery, is about getting the persona who is speaking the poem exactly right.  This means adjustments in register (up or down) and a really fine-tuned hearing of the language.

Everything to do with logopoeia is necessary to make the poem its own unique utterance, not merely a conventionally good poem with lots of sensorial images. You cannot make a poem sound too poetic with words like shimmering. Instead, think of using words that come from a different context: "a sodium pentathol landscape / a bud about to break open" (James Tate; emphasis added).  

IV.  The poem should seem both inevitable and unpredictable.  So if it is predictable, you see what's coming a mile away, or "telegraph" your intentions. Thinking of hitting someone (forgive the violent imagery but no better metaphor comes to mind). A boxer who telegraphs his punches signals in advance what the punch will be, and thus makes the defensive move, and even the other fighter's next offensive move, quite easy. We know the kind of poem that sets up its humorous premise early and then gives the expected answers. Notice too how the use of statistically frequent combinations of words unnecessarily telegraphs your intentions.

On the other hand, the poem should move with some degree of inevitability as well. If it is merely unpredictable it won't make much of an impression. Think of reading a poem line by line and not looking at the next line (keeping it concealed under another piece of paper). Each line surprises, but in a way organic with the rest of the poem.  The next line can disappoint by being too predictable or too far afield.

If you know what the poem is going to say beforehand, you will end up being very predictable.  You need to discover the meaning of the poem while you are writing it.

V. We want to avoid poetic devices that every other poet uses, like a simile every other line, or a first person speaking in the present tense. There is a contextual sense in which a poet has to be savvy about what the conventions are, and not see them simply as the only possible option.  Poetry will seem amateurish if it simply falls easily into certain stale patterns.

VI. If you look at poets like Robert Duncan, you will find he doesn't care about certain things.  For example, he will be turgid and abstract, archaic or pretentious in diction, etc...  He cares, but he doesn't see anything wrong with that.  Or many contemporary poets combine use the "dim lands of peace" construction that Pound condemned.  The attempt to write the conventionally good poem, then, could just be a form of timidity. When I depart from these rules, which I do in every poem, I see them as a foray into bad poetry. So any kind of bathos, deliberate use of "dim lands of peace" constructions, overt sentimentality or triviality, is what I tend to favor.  That tends to work better for me than earnest attempts to write the good poem.  In fact, I modeled myself after Kenneth Koch, who I didn't realize was writing much more in earnest, many times when I thought he was being purely parodic. Or maybe I am wrong about that.

The Passageway

We think of music and poetry as contiguous spaces. They aren't the same thing, but there is a passageway between them. So the number of poems that can be set to music (that I can imagine setting) is a rather small percentage of poems I like in other ways. And if I write a tune first, I find it extremely difficult to come up with a satisfactory lyric, so the passageway is narrow in both directions.

Imagine it were different? I suppose if I was working in a poetic genre already that was tin pan alley or madrigal, then the tunes would come easily.

Poem found in old notebook

Sonnet of the Two Visitors

The visitor leaves no trace of herself

She drinks your coffee and sleeps in your sheets

But leaves things as they were

If anything a little cleaner

She doesn't love you

That's why she comes when you aren't there

You don't love her

How could you, if you've never seen her?

I much prefer the one who leaves behind aromas

lipstick marks on wine glasses

There is something pure I can still taste

She steals the taste of my mouth when she leaves at dawn

A stirring of the loins, perfumed strands of hair on my pillow

Monday, April 24, 2017


I overheard this conversation last night between two students Northwestern university.  They talked about how an English professor would invite the students to denounce the politics in a reading they had done.  Like, he would say, "what did you think about the political appropriation in the text..."  They would take the bait...  and then he would reveal that there was no such thing happening in the text.  He would use this technique to see who hadn't done the reading. They were eager to jump in with a political denunciation, especially when they hadn't done the reading.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

my students

In my undergraduate translation class my students refer to a "change" or "cambio" when the translator deviates from the original.  Of course, I point out that translation itself is already a change, even at its most literal.  They tend to be literalists, and want translations to adhere closely to the original in all aspects except metrical.  They are adept at finding fault, and are very sensitive to register.  The don't like "girls in heat" for "muchachas amorosas," in Belitt's translation of Neruda's "Caballero solo."

I chose this poem for an in class translation exercise because it has a variety of registers that refer to sex, from vulgarity and clinical language to religious, romantic, and euphemistic discourses.  He uses the verb fornicate (its Spanish cognate rather) to refer to animals, and the adjective preñada, usually used for animals, for humans. Bly objects to Belitt's translation by claiming that Neruda's attitude toward sex is positive in this poem (it's not!) and that Belitt makes it sordid. Belitt does make it sordid, but often in the wrong places.  Even though Neruda's attitude is largely negative, it encompasses a wide range of attitudes and registers, some quite ironically.

Ear Worm

So after a choir rehearsal of more than two hours, in preparation for today's concert, I went to bed and of course the entire concert was playing in my head all night, whether I was asleep or awake.  I could switch between songs if I wanted, but I couldn't shut off the music.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Belitt Paradox

This refers to the tendency of translation not to live up to claims made for it. We might also formulate it like this: the more pretentious or grandiose the claims, the less likely the translation is to fail in quite spectacular ways.

Another formulation: when there is a claim to "equivalence," but the equivalence pulls us in the opposite direction, something is amiss. So, for example, if there were a claim that the equivalent of a baroque style was a plainspoken one...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

La trêve

I watched this Belgian series on Netflix.  It was fine.  I learned that to say you're sorry you say "Je suis desolé[e]." And that putain  is a useful swear word you can put before any noun you want, or as a stand alone curse. ça va is an all purpose expression as well, as question or answer to question. I used subtitles, but subtitles in French, which didn't exactly correspond to the French dialogue of the actors.  This was good, though,  because I could note the difference to myself as I went along.


I put together some poems from 2016 and 17; a reader of the blog has kindly offered to make into a coherent shape, something I find myself incapable of doing at the moment.

More from the climate study

9% of respondents indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual conduct while at KU.
i. 1% (n = 75) of respondents experienced relationship violence (e.g., ridiculed, controlling, hitting) while a member of the KU community.
2% (n = 104) of respondents experienced stalking (e.g., physical following, on social media, texting, phone calls) while a member of the KU community.
6% (n = 413) of respondents experienced unwanted sexual interaction (e.g., cat-calling, repeated sexual advances, sexual harassment) while a member of the KU community.
2% (n = 157) of respondents experienced unwanted sexual contact (e.g., fondling, rape, sexual assault, penetration without consent) while a member of the KU community.
  Undergraduate Student respondents, Women respondents, LGBQ respondents, and respondents with a Disability more often reported unwanted sexual experiences than their majority counterparts.
  The majority of respondents did not report the unwanted sexual experience. 

These numbers add up to 11%, not 9, but some may have experienced more than one category of "unwanted sexual conduct."  Once again, these numbers are believable, even a bit low, and more or less proportionate to what one would expect. For example, you might expect sexual advances to be more frequent than stalking. You'd expect relationship violence to be higher than that, especially if it includes non-physical "controlling" and "ridiculing."

Fewer than 3,000 undergraduates (out of 20,000) filled out the survey.  We can't know what the numbers would have been if everyone filled it out, or if a different 3,000 had filled it out.  3,000 is a large enough sample size (way more than adequate), but it is not random, since we don't know who chose to respond and what factors motivated them to respond, or to refrain from responding.

[UPDATE: I almost misread the last sentence here as "they majority of respondents did not report unwanted sexual experience." Well, yes, 91% did not report it! Actually, it means that the majority of this 9% did not report their experience to the university after it happened. Poor reading on my part, but of a sentence that is not very well crafted.]


KU is 72% white. An editorial in the paper today said that 37% of students (according to the climate survey) had considered leaving the university, and that among the main reasons was not fitting in with this majority:

According to the report, 37 percent of students have seriously considered leaving the University at some point. The top reasons cited by these individuals include diversity-related issues and lack of support. This comes after many high-profile protests that ultimately resulted in the recent establishment of Multicultural Student Government (MSG).

Now 37 + 72 is 109, so these numbers do not quite add up, especially since we can't think that every single non-white student who answered considered leaving the university for reasons for "diversity related issues." Of course, it's possible that a white student is gay, or feels so strongly about diversity issues that she wants to leave the university for that reason.  Still, this leaves me scratching my head. As I've complained before, putting several different kinds things in one sack and then telling us what the sack includes is rather uninformative.


If everything is a matter of debate, then we are essentially nowhere. We cannot even think, because we have to question every possible assertion and thus cannot make any progress.  In translation, nothing seems uncontroversial. My own views sometimes seem eccentric to me, simply because they are out of step with prevailing practices.  Yet I believe, on some level, that they should be beyond controversy.

My view is that a poet has certain stylistic features that are not open to controversy. For example, we could say that enjambment is frequent in a poet, and back it up empirically. We could say that certain poets are more concise, condensed, than others. Certain things stick out, the kind of things that would be in a parody for example.  Everyone should be able to agree on certain things.  It could be that our views are not accurate, but they are open to correction at least.

Secondly, I think that the stylistic signature should be in the translation as well. In other words, you wouldn't use end-stopped lines to translate mostly enjambed ones. Concision and concreteness should lead to concision, so that when Bly translates palabra (word) as human language, we should say he is wrong, uncontroversially.  A baroque poet demands baroque translation, a Hemingway style should be a Hemingway style in whatever language.

I know these matters actually are controversial, because translators do not do what I say they should.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


We got this email just now on the climate survey that we filled out earlier this academic year:  

"Unwanted sexual conduct: A small but meaningful number of respondents experienced a range of unwanted sexual conduct while at KU, and 2 percent, the majority of which were students, reported unwanted sexual contact. Of those students reporting unwanted sexual contact, 72 percent indicated alcohol was involved. The contact was most likely to occur during the fall semester of an undergraduate’s first year. Regrettably, only 12 percent of individuals who said they experienced unwanted sexual contact reported it to KU offices."

This, to me, is completely believable. First, that the number is 2%, that the majority of people reporting it are undergraduate students, and that the conduct occurred in the Fall semester of Freshman year.  To percentage of events involving alcohol and the reporting rate are also highly verisimilar.  A climate survey of this type is almost guaranteed to provide some bad news, and since filling it out wasn't obligatory people who have had bad experienced might be more inclined to answer in the first place.  We know that negative events are more psychologically salient.  The overall finding of the survey are not all that out of line with reality either, though I think more than 68% of the faculty has considered leaving.   

It takes some cognitive dissonance to see this findings and reconcile them with a recent display near the library that paraded the 1 in 4  / or 1 in 5 numbers for rape. 

Students also report social marginalization.  There is a large category that includes both being bullied and being ignored.  It would be useful to know what the breakdown is, since those are two quite different things. Ignoring someone is almost a default in many situations, whereas bulling is active aggression       

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


In a dinner with department members and a visiting speaker, someone asked me about versification. What was the equivalent of the Spanish romance?  I started to talk about the ballad form, its history and prosody.  I cited Robert Burns, My love is like a red red rose. I mentioned that it was the same as the stanza used in many hymns by Isaac Watts.  En fin....  They asked me about the Alexandrine...  I was like, don't get me started.  I could have lectured all night.

Machado (iii)

In Machado's classic self-portrait, he has some things about how he is financially self-sufficient:

... A mi trabajo acudo, con mi dinero pago 
el traje que me cubre y la mansión que habito
el pan que me alimenta y el lecho en donde yago

Here's the interesting thing.  He switches up to a more literary register in the parts I've italicized here.  So "I go to my job, with my money I pay for / the suit that covers me and the mansion in which I reside / the bread that feeds me and the fancy bed where I fancily lie."  He could have said "la cama donde duermo."  Yacer is a rarer verb, usually used for the dead (hic jacet in Latin). Yago is a an alternative conjugation instead of "yazco," but the verb is not frequent in the 1st person singular, since it is used of the dead. Here it is used to rhyme with pago.  

9 out 10 translators would not even notice this shift in register. Since Machado is supposedly a down-to-earth, simply poet, this simply does not register.  Another example in the same poem: he wants to be remembered not for his craftsmanship as a poet, but for his exploits as a soldier: he will leave his sword valued for the masculine hand that wielded it, not for the "docto oficio del forjador."  But in order to make this point, he does this:  

.... Dejar quisiera 
mi verso, como deja el capitán su espada: 
famosa por la mano viril que la blandiera, 
no por el docto oficio del forjador preciada. 

In other words, a virtuosic display of verse construction! The word order is unnatural, but it ends up fitting perfectly, the lexicon is at a high register, once again.  

This is the poem that made Machado's modesty a commonplace. But a poem that shouts out "look what a modest guy I am" has to have a lot of irony to it.  You'd be surprised how hard it is to get students to see this.   

I'm not saying Machado never used a less literary register: he does at time in this very poem, but overall critics are mistaken in taking his claims about his own language at face value rather than looking at the words on the page.  He railed against the baroque and put distance between himself and Darío, but there is a lot of Darío in him, and not only in the poems where he pays homage to the Nicaraguan poet.    

Machado (ii)

I'm discovering some of the richness of response to Machado that I found with Lorca, with some overlap among the translators of the two. This cannot be a book just on Machado, but I have too much to say about Machado (after 4 days!) to be an 8,000 article. I think I will have a chapter on Quevedo and Vallejo, another one a refutation of Venuti and revindication of Pound. I think a scolding of Rothenberg's Lorca suites is in order, but I don't want to single him out.  I'm thinking about the failure of modernist translation. In other words, good poets who ought to know better who produce translations that betray basic principles.

I could have another chapter on different things I've found out about translation: the wisdom of crowds, etc... Yes, I can write this book.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


I watched a Finnish and a Belgian police procedural on NETFLIX, several episodes each.  They are NETFLIX original series.

A police detective moves his family from the capital to a backwater, after some scandal or misbehavior in police work. Of course, the minute the detective lands in the new town, murders start to happen. Each detective has a sexy daughter of about 18. Each fights local corruption, etc... There is no actual difference in tone or mood between these two series, except all the plot details of the actual murders, and that one has a wife who's died of cancer, and the other's wife is recovering from cancer.

So what is NETFLIX doing? Producing subtitled series in other countries that are identical to one another?  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

It is about 9:30 a.m.

It is about 9:30, the day before Easter.  I wrote my poem in bed before I got up, got up, had coffee and took a dump. Wrote down my poem, played piano for a while, did some other blog posts, and wrote down 500 words in an article.  Basically, I have accomplished everything I need to do today.


If you type a word wrong, erase it, and re-type it, you will often reproduce the exact same reversal of letters of the first attempt.  I've sometimes done this three or four times with the same word.  You have not identified the reason for the mistake, and you are actually reinforcing it in muscle memory rather than correcting it. I live on a street called Emory, and I often type is at Emorgy, for no good reason.  My fingers just want it to be energy, perhaps.


I started a new article on Machado in English translation today. I had 500 words before I knew it.  I'm thinking this is going to be a significant article, and maybe the seed of another book. I don't want to do a whole book on Machado in English, but I think it could be a chapter of a book that included other chapters on the fates of other poets in English. I'm sure I could come up with a more imaginative organization of the material once I get ideas for the other chapters.

I. Introduction: the idea of translation as a part of poetics.
II. Machado
III. Quevedo and Vallejo: translation of logopoeia
IV.  Something else
V.  Something else
VI.  Conclusion

I saw a rather bad dissertation on translations from Spanish the other day. The guy was talking in very simplistic ways about bad and good translations, and argued that a poet's influence depended on the quality of translations.  He would have one chapter on a good translation, Borges who helped his translation, and another on a middling translation, and then one on a bad one.  It wasn't good.


Frustration and satisfaction are perfectly balanced when one is learning a new skill. The frustration is not even frustrating and the satisfaction if never completely satisfying. They are in complex dynamic. If the ego interferes too much, then the frustration tells you you are not good, and the satisfaction tell you are good, when actually both messages are kind of beside the point. What you are training yourself to do is to do more of the good stuff and less of the bad, that is true, but from that perspective all the information you are receiving is good information.

RENOUNCE / anatomy of a bad poem


There is a sweetness in your eyes

that makes me want to give up gambling and yoga

Remembering the sweetness of your eyes

I practice self-defense against tortoises,

am immune from the charms of Andalusian seductresses

I could give up salt and lime

Remembering the sweetness of your eyes

I could give up smoldering Andalusian eyes

the sweetness of kisses from Andalusian lips and tongue


A bad poem has to begin with a very bad line. In this case, I began with "There is a sweetness in your eyes."  It just sounds kind of odd and sentimental.  Then I needed to have a non sequitur.  It seemed too easy to say that the speaker of the poem would give up honey, so I thought of gambling.  But then I thought of yoga too, I'm not sure why. Self-defense against tortoises seemed like a logical "surrealist" image to put in at that point. Then the scene changes to Andalusia. Now, instead of the beloved's eyes, the speaker is fantasizing about the women of Southern Spain:  the images of things he or she might renounce are more vividly imagined than the sentimental image of the "sweetness of your eyes."  At this point I thought of the title "RENOUNCE."  The repetition of the words "sweetness" and "Andalusian" seems poetic, but not in a good way.

Modernism as Intellectual Practice

Here's a post from the past I think you should revisit. It encapsulates the best I have to offer.

Friday, April 14, 2017


I'm wondering if anyone would like to help me out.  You would have to take my poems from 2016 and 17 and construct a manuscript of poems from them.  To qualify for this job, you would have to

*Respond sympathetically to at least some of my poetry.

*Have something that you would like me to do for you that would involve more or less equal effort. Read an article for you, say.

If you are interested, email me at


If not, please don't.

My reasoning is that I am not a good judge of my own writing. I don't want individual poems editing, but simply selected an arranged in an order than makes some sense.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Illusion of a Lack of Progress

There is a cognitive bias toward adjusting one's past to one's present. So if I learn something today, then a month from now it will seem like something I've always known. For example, I learned recently the the Walloons of Belgian are Francophone, or sometimes speakers of their own, Romance language. I had never known what they were before, and somehow had it in my mind that they were the opposite: speakers of Flemish.  I'm sure a year from now I'll think that I always knew who the  Walloons were.

On the piano, I cannot really remember exactly what I was playing a year ago, so I think of it, vaguely, as more or less what I'm playing now.  Yet my teacher says I am greatly improved, and I probably have. We can shortchange our own progress by failing to remember correctly our past competence (or lack of).

On Not Doing Things in a Half-Assed Way

I was frustrated by my piano lessons. I would play all week, sometimes hours a day, and then not play very well in the lesson. So I decided to make a change. I played, all week, one song for all my practice time, working with it methodically, with a metronome some of the time. I worked out some voicings, then composed a few fills, put in some rhythms. As a result, I played better for my teacher than I had ever played before then. Of course, the undisciplined playing still has its place, but real practice is not just fooling around on the keyboard, but doing things systematically. Improvisation is great, and I am learning to improvise too, but a lot of things have to be solidly in place before improvisation even makes sense.  

I could use some time to practice jazz standards, and devote other hours to composing and playing my own music.  That's the only way things are going to happen for me.  So it is with everything else.

The Manufacture of Anxiety

Things we do to soothe ourselves, like look at Facebook, are actually the cause of the anxiety they are soothing, in the sense that the need to keep track of things that are not actually all that important or relevant is a self-perpetuating mechanism.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Really, though

Since I am in the Humanities, I think that encouraging women to study STEM fields when their interest is in the Humanities is misguided. It would like someone telling me to be a physicist.  Why should I? (Especially because I would suck at it.) Do I want my brilliant female colleagues and students to study something else instead?

It is true that men can also be brilliant humanists, but for every young boy who likes to read there are 2.5 girls (made-up statistic!) so why would you want to reapportion that?  I realize it is a problem for STEM, but it is not my problem at all.

It would be like trying to make latinos into football and basketball players when they want to be baseball and soccer players. Of course, there shouldn't be discrimination, but if particular demographics tend in particular directions, why do we want to stop them?

How to Suppress Women's Interest in the Humanities

Facetious title, I know, but really. If you want more women in STEM you need fewer women in fields that they go into because of their already existing interests.

I would start, in fact, with the most unbalanced fields, like Elementary Education, Nursing, Women's Studies, and Social Work. We need far fewer women in these fields, proportionally.  After that, we can talk about getting fewer female students to study social sciences, foreign languages, and English.

Since more women are getting college degrees, we need to re-distribute the majors, which means, essentially, taking them out of certain female-dominant fields (English, Biology), and re-orienting them towards the physical sciences, math, and engineering.

We get a kind of skewered vision in the Humanities, because feminist literary criticism is based on the idea that women's writing has not been valued. This is true, and the battles of the 70s were worth fighting. My undergraduate courses are 80% female, though, so I'm not that worried that not enough women are studying my field.

You cannot really suppress male interest in engineering and computer science, because those are the hard-core quantitative / technological nerds who are going to do those fields no matter what.

Non-facetiously, if the majority of women STEM majors are in biology, I have no problem with that. Scientifically-oriented women simply like biology better than they like other sciences. You can argue that they are socially conditioned to like this, but so what? I realized yesterday that physicians aren't considered STEM workers. So in  a way the whole category is not defined very coherently in the first place.

Pleasure of Partial Ignorance

I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes
(italics in original)

My claim is that you do not have to know deep background information to derive pleasure from this line.  In some cases, a reader will know what some of these things are, and less about others. The evocative pleasure for the modern reader actually derives from the penumbra of partial knowledge. Together, the items form a kind of Gestalt, where the readers' imaginations simply fills in the unknown details. Obviously, knowing nothing (not understanding a single word of the line at a literal level) is not what I mean. I understand them all, vaguely, to be examples of merry olde English costumbrismo, but I really don't care beyond that. For Herrick's contemporaries, the meanings were transparent, but did they appreciate the poem more for all of that?

The Return to Analysis

I read a review that Marjorie Perloff did of a recent study of Empson, and then I got to thinking that poetic analysis is not so bad after all.  All that great richness of verbal wit, paradox and ambiguity: that is all really great stuff, perhaps.

Really being able to read analytically makes you a kind of master of all kinds of intelligence and critical  thinking. The problem with analysis is that it is done badly, by pointing out the obvious or by trying to make points that are clever but actually incorrect. Instead of close reading, I would suggest deep reading, based on a deeper engagement.

I was in class and telling my students to tell me what the word despojo meant. They would give me the English translation. Then I had to say, when I ask you what a word means, I want you to explain it in Spanish, not give me another word in another language. Secondly, don't give me an equivalent, but explain what it is doing in the text.  Thirdly, look at all the dictionary definitions, not just the first that you find:  

1. m. Acción y efecto de despojar o despojarse.
2. m. Presa o botín del vencedor.
3. m. Vientreasaduracabeza y manos de las reses muertasU. m. en pl. con el mismo significado que en sing.
4. m. Alonesmollejapataspescuezo y cabeza de las aves muertasU. m. en pl. con el mismo significado que en sing.
5. m. Aquello que se ha perdido por el tiempopor la muerte u otros accidentesLa vida es despojo de la muerte. La hermosura es despojo del tiempo.
6. m. Col. Extracción de los minerales de una vena o filón.
7. m. desus. espolio1.
8. m. pl. Sobras o residuosDespojos de la mesade la comida.
9. m. pl. Minerales demasiado pobres para ser molidosque se venden a los lavaderos o propietarios de polveroslos cuales aprovechan el poco metal quecontienen.
10. m. pl. Materiales que se pueden aprovechar de un edificio que se derriba.
11. m. pl. restos mortales.

In the case of the poem we were reading, 2 is the primary meaning, but 5 is also relevant, perhaps 8 and even 7 or 10.  So if you were thinking the spoils of war (despojos), you might also realize that the word spoil is there (something rotten).  If you have the word courtesy, you would be thinking of its origins in the behavior or courtiers.  Even if you throw away some of the definitions as irrelevant, you have to make that decision.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A new microstory

He spent the greater part of each day making a meticulous plan for his activities for the subsequent day.

Microsoft ad on Girls in STEM

That microsoft ad is infuriating. Someone seeing that ad and thinking they have little chance in STEM fields because only 6.7% of women graduate in those fields ignores the fact that women get more STEM degrees then men in biological sciences. You know, like medicine, the field the little girl in the ad wants to study, to find a cure for cancer.

The biggest gap is in engineering and computer science. There is a gap in physics and other hard sciences too, but hardly anyone majors in those in the first place, of either gender.

The 6.7% figure, if not wrong, is meaningless, because psychologically it seems like a deterrent (those are my chances!) while ignoring the higher female college attendance rates (and graduation rates among existing students) in a wide variety of fields, some of them within the STEM rubric. STEM in fact is an arbitrary social construction, taking the scientific fields of the Liberal Arts colleges (chemistry, physics, math, biology) and linking them to the engineering school.

Monday, April 10, 2017


I was googling Herrick and found an article that suggested that students did not know what a maypole was, and suggested that they look at source texts in which the word appeared, from some database.

And I was thinking: wouldn't a search from google images or google images give a kind of semantic / visual field that would be much more immediate, showing what a maypole actually looked like?

The article suggested a very laborious approach to something that ought to be intuitive and direct. The author of the article even admits that the other source texts are more opaque than Herrick's poem.  Part of the evocativeness of poetry is in not knowing, exactly, what the referents are.  That vagueness makes it better for the reader, in a way.  Ambergris can seem an almost mythical object.

The article has this very irritating, condescending tone to it.  Contrast to Kenneth Koch's use of the same poem.  Koch seems to think that even little children will grasp the Maypole, something that this other professor thinks is opaque to college students.

2 for 1

I often find myself working on two songs that are virtually mirror images of each other.  One will be a 2-5-1 with a sharp five and sharp 11, the other a 2-5-1 with a similar movement, but the 5 chord will have a 13 and flat 9 instead.  When I first began to write music I was worried about my songs sounding the same, since I used the same ideas (the only ones I had at the time!). Now I realize that working like this makes a lot of sense and is an efficient way for me to develop ideas. I had three or four songs that all contained F maj 7 going to an F min / maj 7.  Now, all my songs could still sound similar to one another in the larger sense, simply because I am working with the ideas that I have for some fairly standard progressions.  I am writing what I can hear and nothing more.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Two Dreams

In the first, I was on some kind of mass transit thing in Buenos Aires. I had to ask the driver where to get out to buy a transit ticket, but he was helping someone in wheel chair.  He tried several places to let her  out, saying: not there, it's a ditch, not there, it's a tunnel.  Then letting the person out, finally, I tried to ask the driver but he didn't know. I wondered why I was speaking English. We got out the same place as the wheel chair woman(I was with someone else, first my daughter and then someone else) and had made some calls. Wayne P showed up with some other friends of ours.  I was still trying with no success to read some kind of transit map.


In the second, a  forty-year old man appeared somewhere at the university and we began to talk. When he found out I was in the Humanities, then he made some remark about me being not political.  I said, no, I like to debate politics, as long as you hate Trump like I do. Then he got out some kind of memorial object about his beloved president Reagan. I gave him some speech about how I would love to debate him and be his friend. I said something like, "I don't care that you're wrong, I'm not going to judge you for that." I felt quite sincere and actually thought it would be good to know this person.

Thursday, April 6, 2017


So consider there are two uses of the adjective:  

The verdant hills of Ireland

A pathetic drunk

A loud-mouthed frat boy

Wise Athena...  

A privileged white dude...  

In these cases the adjective adds information we already associate with the rest of the noun phrase.  So we think of the hills of Ireland as being green,  drunks as being pathetic, etc...  We call this the epithet, and in Spanish, in these cases, we put the adjective before the noun.  

I find this use unsettling, because we can smuggle in a judgment simply with an adjective. If I say "a screaming infant" or a "callow youth," I am making a judgment about an entire category. 

The other uses of the adjective is to distinguish part of the class of nouns from other parts.  So I if I said:

"Contemporary Egyptians knows little about the ancient Egyptians" the adjective is serving that purpose.  In Spanish we put that kind of adjective after the verb. We know this is different because we can omit the epithet and the meaning of the sentence doesn't really change:  

"How I remember the verdant hills of Ireland"

"How I remember the hills of Ireland"

"You are a drunk!"

"You are a pathetic drunk!"  

But if the adjective fulfills the function of distinguishing the meaning is not preserved if the adjective is omitted:  

"I was married to a stingy man" // *"I was married to a man" //. *"The Egyptians know little of the Egyptians." 

There is a technique in which  the poet will put one adjective before and one after:  "rugosa piel inmóvil" (Vicente Aleixandre).  Both adjectives are descriptive, and don't really differ in their function all that much.  It is more of a literary flourish. 


More Herrick

I've rebought the Herrick Complete Poetry, a book I owned in high school and lost track of at some point. It contains more than a thousand poems, many of them very short, over the stretch more than 500 pages. Did I read the entire thing when I was 15?  It is very likely.

It is likely that I assimilated vast amounts of knowledge from this poetry, of conventions and tropes, genres and subgenres.  In the brevity and variety of the poems there is an encyclopedic quality:  foods, flowers, articles of clothing, rituals and folk beliefs, customs, political attitudes, mythological tropes, metrical forms. There are metaphysical conceits, but they aren't Donne-like.

The easy shifts from sacred to profane are most enjoyable, and from pagan myths to conventional Christian devotion.


I liked saying in a poem exactly what I mean, directly.  This is problem,  since indirectness, ambiguity, are seen as poetic virtues. So what I've taken to doing is to speak directly after all, but in a tone that suggests I may not be serious.  So this is not ironic, in the sense of saying the opposite of what I mean, but just a moderation of tone sufficient to let the reader know that I know you aren't supposed to be that direct.

Otherwise it's a bald statement of something too ridiculous to state.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

You Condescended to me for Years

You condescended to me for years

explaining to me the simplest things as though I were some kind of idiot

If you had any imagination you would have appointed me Inspector of Chickens, like Borges

but you lacked the wit even for that, I suppose

You swooned to the Rilkean excesses of my colleagues

You named buildings after mass murderers

and filled fútbol stadia with the Spectacles of Kitsch

In such a climate I could only be a non-entity

Invisible in my own continent

Though recognized in the North as a voice significant as McKuen or Bukowski


I got theses in my last essay from my students that took the form: "these two poems are both similar and different from each other."  Not explaining or even mentioning what these differences happen to be.  They had to compare the "Arte poética" of either Neruda, Borges, or Huidobro to an "Arte poetica" of a poet they had invented.

This thesis is merely the restatement of the "compare and contrast" paradigm, with no actual content. It was quite interesting to see what they came up with. At the very least they had to have a name of a poet and some quotes from the imaginary poem, which became a not imaginary poem because they had to write it, or at least enough of it to be able to cite it.  I thought this was a brilliant assignment, but it turned out a bit less brilliantly than I had wanted for many.  

Some broke the illusion in the paper and told the reader that the poet was imaginary. For me, that takes the fun out of it.  Few invented any juicy details about the poet, like what country they were from, or that they died in an insane asylum.  I was allowing them to make one half of the comparison into an exercise of the imagination, and they wouldn't take the bait.  Some didn't seem to realize that the genre had to have a meta quality to it, although that was all we had discussed in class.

Poem containing a line by Rimbaud

Here am I, Mateo, caught in this particular stretch of time and wanting to be in another moment instead

Moi, l'autre hiver, plus sourd que les cerveaux d'enfants

Somehow a better time, free from the dullness of hearing this guy

Read aloud from his self-absorbed memoir

Why should we care about this?  I'm thinking

A moment from the past? That's not possible.  To skip forward to the future?

That will happen anyway if I wait long enough

That's the nature of the passage of time

Like complaining that life is crappy, but also too short!

We'll get there soon enough, and it won't necessarily be pretty

Me, in another Winter, deafer than the brains of little children.

Working From Home

Working from home means:

*You never leave the office. When you are home you can always work, but you are also never truly away from the work.

*You can never leave behind the home environment to be in one devoted exclusively to work. Why do people go to writers' colonies? To get away from home.

*You don't have all your work materials in one place, since you have to bring them home, and might forget some of them.

*Time is elastic. For example, it is 9:46 and I am at home.  Am I working?  I'm not sure. I've done some work related things this morning, but I am not fully committed yet.

Like virtually all academics, I do some work at home, but I don't necessarily see this as ideal. It is great for night owls and super early risers. If working at home were that great then my colleagues who are rarely at the office would have published two more books each.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Class Discussion

We had an interesting discussion today. Various translators of a Lorca poem translated his line "Violador enfurecido" as

ravisher / ravager / violator

The question was whether you could translate it as rapist. For some, this was not "poetic" enough. For others, it was the correct translation. I had a hard time making up my mind.


We want more flexibility in working hours, but is flexibility a good thing? Most people cannot handle it very well.

Did you ever have a period when you were consistently behind in deadlines, where you never had a weekend, evening, or spring break free? Did you ever have a sabbatical where you ended up not getting things written? Did you have a period when you noticed that you weren't publishing as much.

It is likely that these period were both flexible and busy, but the time use was bad. It would have been better to have a less flexible attitude toward time. I was in the coffee shop in Saturday morning and sat at a large table with some women in the university who were timing themselves in 25 minute increments, then would take a nice break to talk to each other.  If flexibility is so great, then why were they doing this?  Because they understood that the key is not flexibility, but limits.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Good / Bad

I've decided to structure my book on writing poems in two parts: good poetry and bad.

In the first part, I will talk about how to write poems that are good. My idea is that everyone agrees that a good poem has musicality, concrete images, etc... This is not true, but I think I ought to write about how to compose poems that everyone ought to say are "good." So much poetry fails simply because it doesn't do this.  I'm pretending there is a consensus here, of course, where there's not.  That is part of the fun.  

In the bad poetry section, I will tell you how to write bad poems. Not truly bad poems, but ones that have an oblique or contrary relationship to the aesthetic ideals of good poetry. There is a difference between poems that try to be good and simply fail, and those that have a savvy relationship to both good and bad aesthetics.

So a reader can decide to work with both / either.  

Friday, March 31, 2017


I'm thinking I should write a guide to writing poems as well. I was going to do it once. I remember someone, an MFA Graduate, being outraged at the idea. You cannot have a textbook about writing poems. That seemed sacrilegious to him, somehow.  That's not why I abandoned the project, but I remember thinking, if it is sacrilegious to have a textbook, why is it also not sacrilegious to have an MFA program?  He refused to see my point, and got defensive: why was I attacking MFA programs, he wanted to know?

Of course, this would bring me back exactly to what I don't want to do in my other anti-textbook: tell them what good and bad poems are. I just get frustrated with other people's poems and want them to write better ones.  This almost always happens to me at poetry readings. I never say anything, of course, but I am thinking they should study with me and I would help them write better.

This is a curious delusion on my part.  I don't know quite how to abandon it, though I'm sure I should.  When I find poetry written the way it ought to be, I know that immediately too.    

As a kid...

As a a kid I dreamed of kissing a beautiful woman

of my fingers flying over the keyboard to make music

of publishing a poem in a magazine

These things have come true in my life

and others unforeseen earlier

seeing the falls at Iguazú

the miracle of ejaculation

I didn't realize then that being alive itself was a thing of awe

filled with these other things of awe, yes

but miraculous even in their absence

Thursday, March 30, 2017


https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44371here is another list poem.


Suppose you wanted to call attention to an issue. You'd want to define the statistics up for that particular problem. One way of doing so is to expand the definition. So take these examples.

hunger vs. food insecurity

If you are serious about hunger, then you might want to define the issue in terms of "food insecurity." That encompasses many more people, not just those are suffering from famine conditions, but malnourished people or those who might have to skip meals. Some of these food insecure people might be overweight, in fact.

"at risk"

By defining a population as "at risk," then you are expanding from people who are actually suffering from whatever it is, to those who are at risk of doing so.

Racism & Sexism

By defining racism in structural terms, we find that every white person becomes a racist just by benefiting from racism.

Now this might sound like a right-wing post, and that is not my intention, but the expansion of definitions has some unintended consequences. One of these is to muddy the waters by definitional elasticity (forgive the mixed metaphor.).  Another is to trivialize real problem by throwing disparate phenomena in the same sack. Suppose we had a statistic that included both bank robbery and jaywalking, and said that "90% of respondents reported that they had robbed a bank or jaywalked in the past two years." That might be true, but you'd want to have mechanism for sorting out those two categories. Or if you asked: "Have you ever stolen money or a ballpoint pen from a bank?"

If we no longer distinguish between serious and less serious instances of the problem, then it becomes too difficult to treat the more serious offenses with the degree of seriousness that they deserve. So if we are really after bank robbers, then it makes sense to not have an expanded version of bank robbery, that also includes stealing the pen for the bank when you fill out your deposit slip.

Some Poems You can Write

The list poem is a great medium for imaginative freedom & concrete imagery.  There has to be a common element in the list, but it can be a capacious one. For example, "These foolish things (remind me of you)."  So you have "A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces / an airline ticket to exotic  places." The common element is that they are foolish things that remind me of you, but this common element is in the mind of the singer, not in the things themselves, and in a kind of associative, metonymic logic.  

Or "the way you sip your tea / the way you wear your hat."  Or "Things to do in Providence" (Ted Berrigan). Or Herrick's "The Argument of His Book." 

Little children can write list poems effectively. The tone can be anything you want, comic or serious.  The order of elements can be arbitrary & free, obeying only the invisible laws of the imagination. You can do a "chaotic enumeration" of elements, or tell an implicit story. There doesn't have to be anything dull about a catalogue.  


You can write a pantoum or another fixed form. One thing I've done is a villanelle without rhyme. It gives the feel of a pantoum, almost. 


You can get a really great title, and then try to write a poem using it. It should be a title that is misleading in its implications. So, you could take a title and interpret it too literally. Take Monk's "Brilliant Corners." How could a corner be brilliant?  Or you could make the poem unrelated to the title, totally metaphorically oblique.  

The Argument of His Book

I sing of the Tribe of Ben and the progeny of Neruda

of painted lips and of the cymbal's crash

I sing of the disappearance of small objects

not through magic but through negligence or theft

the loss of other, more significant things too

a poet of disappearance and loss of various kinds

I sing the law of lengthening limbs and the "piano tinkling in the next apartment"

I sing without a voice to sing, through the melodic quality of ink

and paper, I sing the blue paper of Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares 

and I will not stop until I've sung my fill

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Losing and Finding Small Objects

I have a problem misplacing small objects, often fountain pens, which are not cheap as pens go. I don't dare get myself a really expensive one. What I tend to do when I feel myself especially prone to losing things is to clean up my environment. In so doing, I sometimes find things that have been missing, and also make it less likely for me to lose other things. Being able to keep track of small objects, then, is a kind of test of my general ability to hold everything together.

Herrick (3)

Maybe the trick of Herrick is that he doesn't take himself too seriously.  He works seriously at his poetry, but his persona is not arrogant at all.

You tube piano tricks

I have been listening to some youtube piano videos, and I have noticed that one of the qualities in the best ones is that the player knows how to play, rather than demonstrating a technique or sequence of chords without any real jazz feeling. It might seem obvious but that's my guarantee that the player will not steer me in the wrong direction. The three best instructors I have found are Marius Nordal, Aimee Nolte, and Hal Galper. When you hear them play there is a level of conviction there, even when showing a simplistic lick it will be with the right feeling. There are other guys on the net who play woodenly, whether because they think they need to to teach, or because they actually aren't very good.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Herrick (2)

I guess what I like now about Herrick is the variety of approaches to life, but all within a single personality.  You get to know him well, and the deployment of a topos like the carpe diem feels sincere, because you feel that is something he identified with when he was writing this poem. He was one of the first poets who taught me how to read him, like many other poets since. It was also probably one of my first experiences in doing this with an early modern poet.  Herrick is one of the best connectors I have to my 15 and 16 year-old self.

I don't like biographical approaches, and don't know much about his life, but I feel a very strong personality in his poetry.  

I can identify this in time with some precision, because I only attended this school for two years. Ninth grade was at a Junior High School, and I didn't ever make it to 12th grade.

Dream Poem

In my dream my colleague had given me a book of his poems, as part of a promotion process.  I opened the book and the first poem said:

Papá, what you vant for breakfast?

I vant you, Vully!

Papá, I'm twenty!

The next poems were visual poetry, with wood-like shapes.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


So I am writing this memoir of reading.  When I was in high school I used to carry around a Norton edition of the Herrick's poetry. It is now out of print, and quite expensive to buy second hand. I tried to get a cheap edition of Herrick but ending up by accident buying a critical study instead.

Anyway, I liked Herrick, who shares my birthday, and I think I was doing almost an anti-Donne gesture, with a preference for a seemingly minor poet. I carried this volume around for years, and I don't know what happened to my copy. Herrick's wrote hundreds of poems (1,400) and was extremely accomplished. I realize now that reading him, probably every poem he wrote, when I was 15 or 16 was a formative experience, because I absorbed all those renaissance / 17th century tropes and topoi.  The poem "The Vine," about the poet's dream of an erection, was quite nice to read at that age.

I was perhaps wanting a teacher to notice that I was reading something not assigned. We had those dismal English classes where I never seemed to do as well as I might have.

my new favorite chord: sharp 9 sharp 5.

I voice this chord like this:

F B in the left hand (I'm omitting the root which is G).

D# A# in the right.

It is is the G7 with #5 and #9. It would resolve down to a C maj7.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I have this book on creativity, by an artist or art teacher, you probably know what I'm talking about, that   claims the right side of the brain is more creative, since this is the visual side. Of course, this kind of crude bicameralism is scientifically incorrect. Not only that, why does only the visual get to be creative? Why not the musical and verbal?  I feel as creative when I am noodling as when I am doodling.  Even more so, since my songs are better than my drawings. I don't even try to write new songs now. I just play and once in a while something will occur to me and I will develop it into a song.

I think I need to do more song settings.  Maybe Herrick?  

I am sure that there are uncreative artists, just as there are uncreative creative writers.

Also, once creativity becomes the province of corporate culture, won't it lose any value?

Another bad poem

Ah, the altered chords of Bill Evans, they bring me back

to the days of glamorous cardinals in the trees

the female drabber than the male, but still a thing of beauty

on an overcast day like today

those rootless voicing, and maybe Paul Motian on the drums

if I remember rightly, and the tragic early end of LaFaro

they massage my memory and make me think of lovelorn lasses

of laws repealed before their time, and a sweet lyric by Mercer

didn't he write the one about "days of wine and roses"?

Monday, March 20, 2017


Next time you feel angry, ask yourself:  "What benefit am I getting from being angry?" This is not a trick question: there may actually be a benefit of some kind. If there is, then hold on to your anger. If you see that there is no benefit, though, then your anger might dissipate a bit.

This is not to say that your anger is not justified.  All emotions are justified.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


I've suddenly felt an improvement in my piano playing.  My fingers are finding better chords with both hands, and I can actually improvise a bit. I've been trying to break out of a mechanical mode in which I was always playing the root, third, and seventh in my left hand and playing a melody in my right.  That worked for me up to a certain point but it is much better to play root and seventh, and then a third and a ninth or 13th above that, or skip the root all together.  Although I've known this in theory for a long time, it is hard to break out of a comfortable habit.

For example, my E flat flat seven is Eb / Db / G / E.

I still have a long way to go.  I could tell you all the things I still can't do.  It is strange though that I feel just as positive about those things, seeing them in my future.

As kids we imagine flying, and flight in our dreams feels very real and possible.  We can also fantasize about doing other things that seem barely possible. What if there is a thing that is as fantastic as flight, but actually plausible as a human skill? That's what piano playing is for me.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Language and the flat nine

The flat nine is a cool sounding chord extension. So I have an Eflat 7 flat nine in a song, right after a Cmaj7, etc...  The flat nine of E flat would be D. [correction: E]

But those words are meaningless, if you don't know what that sounds like. I myself barely know what this sounds like, because my ears are not that good.  I couldn't sing one for you on the spot. I could sing an octave and then up one half step, that's what it is.  I couldn't recognize one listening to music.

It seems inadequate, then, to say we think in language.  We can certainly use that label for that interval, and make ourselves understood, and understood to our own selves too, writing it down for future reference. But is the manipulation of such signs without understanding their meaning thinking? To really make the flat 9 the object of thought one would have to already be thinking musically, not just manipulating the signs of another system of thought--language.

Words cannot express, we say...  But it is a fallacy to think words ever express anything. I could try to evoke this in a poem:

"Ah, the flat nines of Bill Evans make me think of magnolia trees!"

You might get the illusion of understanding here.  The language is not really evoking the music, it is just gesturing toward it, and the person reading this line won't figure out what it really sounds like.  Words have their own sounds, and I guess those will never sound the same as any flat nine either.  Even people who claim that the referent doesn't matter won't read poetry in languages they don't understand semantically.  Of course, if we already know what magnolia trees in bloom look and smell like, then we can evoke them in a poem. The reader without this knowledge can substitute a similar kind of memory and go along for the ride.


From this same brilliant poet / philosopher.  She claims that Homeric poetry had a merely utilitarian function, to unite the community through myth, and that the only function of verse was to make these myths easy to memorize. Aesthetics was an afterthought, and the function of being pleasant [placentero] represented a kind of decadence. She say that ars poetica is decadent.

It is hard to know where to begin.  With people like this among the ranks of poets, who needs Philistines?

I am not using the word brilliant sarcastically.  She actually is brilliant. This is all the more disappointing because of higher expectations for such a person.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Persistence of Memory

As I write my memoir of reading--the appendix to my "Things to do with Poems"--I am coming across a phenomenon that my friend mentioned to me yesterday: if you spend a considerable time thinking about a particular era of your life, or a place you lived, then more and more details will come back. I'm not particularly concerned with accuracy here, since I'm confident that I will be inaccurate to some degree. I just have to be careful that may lack of accuracy is not too self-serving.

I do remember having a the Norton Library edition of Herrick and bringing it to school with me in High School. I don't think that is a false memory. I looked it up on amazon and it is the same color as I remembered.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

More things I don't like

1. Writers talking about jazz improvisation without actually knowing anything about jazz except that it's improvised. Can we be serious here?

2. Writers thinking that Andy Warhol brought actual soup cans into the gallery / museum, not realizing he painted quite painterly pictures of soup cans. (Yes, I just read an article that claimed that he just brought some actual soup cans to display.)

3. Generally, these kind of second hand remarks made by people who have no idea what they are talking about and just citing these things as cultural tropes, along the lines of the "Eskimos have so many words for snow" thinking.  Be serious, people! You can't just cite Heisenberg on uncertainty if you actually have no clue.

4. Soviet symbols used as kitsch.  Like people who think it's cute to have a CCCP conference (Contemporary conference ... something poetry.) I have to admit a coffee shop I frequent uses the hammer and sickle ironically in their logo. I'm not crazy about it.


I read an article in Spanish by a poet / philosopher that spoke at length about anything seen in a museum being "decontextualized."  While true, and convincingly stated and argued, this seemed a tiresome argument because it made me realize that all reading (other than of texts produced yesterday in one's own culture) is decontextualized. That is simply the condition of reading, and the condition that makes literature possible in the first place.

We can pretend to privilege the original context, but it is our own context that really matters.

Monday, March 13, 2017

On Not Understanding

On Not Understanding
You are unlikely to enjoy reading poetry, or doing anything else with it for that matter, if you feel you don’t understand it. The feeling of not understanding can make any reader feel less intelligent, threatening the ego in a way that blocks any possible pleasure. This occurs even to intelligent graduate students when they face the reading of difficult poems. (These students are especially vulnerable, in fact, since they have much at stake in proving themselves to be bright and capable.) In reality, everyone has difficulty reading difficult texts, and expert readers disagree quite a lot about the meaning of texts, even one that are not in this category. A seemingly simple lyric by Wordworth, for example, occasioned fierce debate about meaning and authorial intention that reverberated through academia for many years.  
One way out of this dilemma is to begin with easier poets, who write in contemporary language in accessible ways about their own personal experience. After that, it is easy to expand one’s horizons more gradually with more challenging material. Poetry is a supreme exercise of the human intelligence, so it seems limiting to confine yourself to things to which you can easily “relate.” The ultimate experience of reading is to leave one’s self behind and explore new horizons, and sometimes that will involve the reading of poems that do not give themselves up so readily.
Another approach is to simply not to care quite so much about understanding. When we think about understanding a poem, we are envisioning a situation of getting the answer right to the question: what is the meaning of this poem? There is some examination looming in your future, maybe, where you will have to come up with a convincing answer to this question. But if you are reading poetry for pleasure, you won’t have to ever answer this question. There is no professor who will grade you, and your answers (or lack or answers) matter to nobody except yourself. There can be no wrong or right answers, in this scenario, because there is no institutional framework defining the legitimacy of particular interpretations.   
In the larger scheme of things, any particular way of understanding any given text is going to be less permanent and meaningful than the text itself. In other words, Hamlet is going to be more durable than any particular way understanding of Hamlet. Even interpretations developed ten or fifteen years ago might already begin to look quaint, given the inevitable shifts in fashion in literary criticism. The ability to come with an interpretation that seems legitimate by the standards of contemporary academia, then, is not going to be a meaningful measure of “understanding,”outside of this academic framework. 
The ability to paraphrase—express in other words, not those of the poem itself—what the poem is supposedly saying, is a specialized academic skill that you will need to develop for a career in literary criticism, but it is not necessary otherwise. When you think about it, a paraphrase is simply another text, in prose, that will inevitably be less compelling than the poem—more abstract, with duller language. Its only advantage over the original text might be its clarity or directness. Yet is seems a sterile exercise to come up with bland paraphrases of extraordinary works of art. Conversations about art can rise above this insipid level, of course, but only if they avoid reducing the work of art to some cliché.      
You can also immerse yourself in difficult poem for long periods of time and not worry excessively about whether you understand them. What is needed is a quality of suspension, in which the mind does not seek to understand things prematurely or resolve all ambiguities. The English romantic poet John Keats called this “negative capability”:  “it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This suspension of certainty is necessary in a poet, according to Keats, but it is also necessary in a reader of poetry—insofar as poetry is the practice of deliberate ambiguity.
There is a paradox here, though: the indeterminacy of poetic meaning is not a form of vagueness in which “everything goes.” It derives, instead, from uses of language that are extraordinarily precise, almost in a mathematical sense. Students preoccupied about guessing at the meaning the professor wants them to extract from the poem might also think—in contradictory fashion—that the meaning of the poem is completely up for grabs, that any reader’s interpretion is as valid as that of any other’s. They are correct, ultimately, but not necessarily in the way they think. Negative capability does not imply the absence of precise perceptions, but rather the absence of irritatedly premature judgments. You must allow yourself to perceive the words on the page just as they are, hear the sounds and rhythms, feel the power of the words and images. Paraphrase often fails to be interesting or compelling because it isn’t relevant to anything specific in the particular case at hand.    

What is suspended by “negative capability, then, is not the full range of human affect, intelligence, and perception, but the spurious demand for easy or clear-cut interpretations. Imagine a petulant, literal-minded child talking to you like this: “So what is the meaning of this symbol? If you can’t tell me, then what are we doing reading this text?” This inner child often seems to be wanting something that will take the form of a translation of the poem into another sort of discourse, or an explanation that uses some other set of intellectual tools, derived from some other discipline, in order to account for the poem’s strange beauty. Perhaps El Greco had a defect of vision that caused him to paint his oddly elongated figures? Maybe the key to understanding Lorca or Tsaikovsky is their homosexuality?  Of course heterosexuality can never be the interpretative key that opens up an author’s work!  In the reductionist mentality, reduction only work in one direction.