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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...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Out of Pound and Williams

We get technical tradition of free verse. Olson and Creeley, Levertov, and Ronald Johnson, Eigner, all the rest continue this technical obsession. What I mean is that there is a lot of talk about the technique and the measure, the breath, etc...  This is fine, and it's a tradition that I myself am in, though I think poets like O'Hara have an ear as fine as those who seem more "technical."

There are a few problems.  One is that with all the talk of technique, the actual analysis of this verse is metaphorical rather than technical in any precise sense. The poets prided themselves on their ear, but they wouldn't explain what they were doing, with a suspicion of actual metrical analysis.  Or they couldn't explain very well.

The "Variable Foot" was a disaster. Both as a theory, and because many of the poems written in the three-step line are full of abstract language.  Some of the poems are ok, but not necessarily because of his prosody.

With this problem came the use of free verse without any prosodic intention at all.  It's hard to prove a negative, but we've all seen these poems. I can't give examples because then you'd take issue with my examples, so provide your own.  

Here's a poem you might want to take apart, "The Counter" by WCW.  You'll notice the ear here is finer than in the variable foot poems.  The poem doesn't rely on enjambment very much, and each line as 2-3 stresses. The "refrain" is placed at different points in each stanza, and broken up a bit. The two lines in this refrain (the first two of the poem) differ in only one syllable. Likewise the lines "quietly the flower / opens its petals." 2 of the twelve lines end with a single syllable accented word, and the other ten end with trochee words. The rhythm feels regular, and that is the reason for the effectiveness of the final stanza, with its less symmetrical phrasing: "lost / to its own fragrance / indifferent, idle--"  This is just brilliant stuff.  That line, "indifferent, idle,"  has the same pattern as "my days are burning" but it sure feels different.

You could do the same kind of analysis with "The Lonely Street" and many other WCW poems, like "If I could count the silence I could sleep, sleep, but it is one, one, no head even to gnaw, spinning"  They feel deliberate and skillful and don't over-rely on line breaks.  The breaks are there to lay bare the prosodic structure that is already there.

Many people haven't read these poems, because they have only read a few that are in all the anthologies. I studied these poems intensively for many years, memorizing them, in order to teach myself to write poetry, but I remember a famous feminist theorist telling me that Williams was a bad influence when I was in college.      

My days are burning
My brain is a flower
Hasten flower to bloom
my days are burning

Quietly the flower
opens its petals
My days are burning
My brain is a flower

My brain is a flower lost
to its own fragrance
indifferent, idle--
my days are burning

Rhythm Perception

So far I've found a scholarly article on rhythmic perception that breaks it down to meter, tempo, and pattern, taking pictures of people's brains, some musicians and some not, as they do various perceptual tasks. It is an incredibly complex process that is not located all in one place in the brain.

Of course, telling us where it is in the brain is important, but I need to find out more.  

Monday, May 22, 2017


I saw the Jim Jarmusch film "Paterson," featuring poems by Ron Padgett.  It is sweetly comical and inoffensive, with some cute visual and literary motifs running through, and proposes an easy relation between poetry and everyday life. There's a very sweet little poem written by the character of a young girl the main character, a bus driver named Paterson who lives in Paterson, runs into on the street.  The movie lacks dramatic conflict, and the few times it moves in that direction, the conflict is defused. For example, the gun in the bar scene turns out to be a toy.  There aren't many movies about poetry, and this one is different from all other ones because poetry here is not tragic, pretentious, or stentorian.

Accidental Erudition

Usually, research takes us in accidental directions and we end up learning about things that we hadn't intended to.  It is impossible to have such tunnel vision (which wouldn't be desirable either) as to avoid getting some accidental, incidental erudition. But then those secondary fields can become primary.

I wasn't intending to look at St. John of the Cross very much, but I have discovered a mystery, or maybe an anomaly.  Although now seen as one of the greatest if not the greatest Spanish poet of all time, he wasn't translated into English until the 19th century, and he was seen almost exclusively as a religious figure. Ticknor, in a history of Spanish literature published in the 1860s, devotes less than a page to him, and puts him in the category of "didactic prose," with only a single sentence on his poetry: "His poetry, a little of which is printed in some editions of his work, is of the same general character {as the prose}, but marked by great felicity and richness of phraseology." The English (or Welsh I guess) translator of SJ did so in a religious context, and it seemed that this author did not lend himself to poetic or semi-secularized readings until much later. Yet he was hiding in plain sight, because of his ecclesiastical prominence, having been beatified 75 years after his death or so.

And now I realize I have become an accidental expert in the reception of him, but that I still don't know something very fundamental.  Why was he obscure (obscured) and how did he emerge in reputation to surpass everyone else? Was it Unamuno, maybe?  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Category Mistake

We wouldn't praise Homer for Alexander Pope's rhymes (in a translation of Homer). Nor the balance and symmetry of his couplets. What about Chapman's fourteeners? Those seem closer to dactylic hexameters in syllable count, at least, which max out at 17.  But we couldn't credit the Greek author with a renaissance guy's handling of that meter either. Suppose a translator wrote in Homer's meter, dactylic hexameters?  That would still be the skill of the translator, though.  We would give him credit for trying (if that's the kind of thing we approve of!) but it would a category mistake to think that those were Homer's dactyls and spondees.  They are no more Homer's than Pope's rhyme was Homer's rhyme, when you really think about it.

The entire relationship between the signifier and the signified is what is at issue, not simply the technical requirements of the meter. Of course, linguistic considerations come into play as well, like the predominance of stress over vowel quantity in English, but the main issue is not even linguistic, except insofar as translation involves two languages.  

I've had a hard time explaining this to people in the past, and have struggled to come up with an easy to understand explanation.  One way of getting people to see this is by quality: suppose the meter is the "same," but the translator has a "tin ear" and the original poet an exquisite one. But that implies that a good enough translator would produce a good result. Well, yes, the result could be good, but it will not have anything to do with the metrical prowess of the original.  In fact, the translator needs his or her own skill to get up to a level that we think is good, so that proves that this effort comes from the translator alone and is independent of the original.

If we think of translation as the transfer of semantic meaning, we can see that it takes no skill at all to translate the word pájaro as bird. We think that that simply is the translation.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Money as Speech

Ira Glasser in the interview cited in my post below on freedom of the press makes some pretty good points.  All my liberal friends (and all my friends are liberal) think that the idea that "money is speech" in the Citizen's United Supreme Court decision, is ridiculous. Glasser says that suppose the government says that you can only spend $100 to travel someplace.  Wouldn't that restrict the right of travel considerably? Freedom of speech is not the freedom to mutter to yourself in a closet, say Glasser, but the right to disseminate a message more broadly.  Otherwise the freedom doesn't travel very far.

My friends also say that it is ridiculous to say that corporations have rights like people do, according to this same decision. But the ACLU is a corporation, as is the New York Times. Passing restrictive campaign finance measures is "handing your enemies the tools to oppress you."  

New Look

Dream of Piano Teacher

I was having a piano lesson, in my dream. My teacher was not an actual teacher, but a young woman, but not a woman I actually know.  As we were ending the lesson, I realized we were in her bedroom. She changed the top layer of her clothing, some kind of flannel shirt, and took me to task for waking her up so early for our lesson, instead of letting her sleep. She kissed me goodbye, which surprised me because she never had before. I let her kiss me a few more times, reasoning that it was ok because she was moving out of town very soon and this would be the last time I saw her so my girlfriend would have no reason to object.  Then I was out on the street, a broad, deserted city street somewhere. There was some narrative continuity between these two parts of the dream, but I cannot reconstruct it now.

Why is Freedom Good?

So I've been listening to some podcasts from FIRE. I was thinking, why do we think freedom of speech, of the press, and academic freedom, are valuable things? There are some great interviews here, including a fascinating 2-hour one with the former director of the ACLU Ira Glasser, and another by with Jonathan Rausch, the author of Kindly Inquisitors. Yes, there are conservative and libertarian defenses of free speech along with moderate, liberal, and left-leaning ones here. Actually, it won't kill you to hear a defense from the opposite side of the spectrum from where you are. When was the last time you learned from someone that you completely agreed with?  

So why are these good things?  That the question actually needs to be answered, rather than taken for granted, is the first thing I learned from these conversations. So this is not a dumb question.

1. First of all, freedom itself is a good thing, in general. We know this because restrictions have to be justified. For example, if Congress passed a law to say that composers could not compose in Db Minor, you might object because there is no compelling interest for the state to do this.  Someone telling you what to do has to have a good reason for doing so.  We value freedom because we hate arbitrary constraints, and even justifications of constraints have a paradoxical cast to them: "Nuns fret not..." (Wordsworth). Also, people have great urges to restrict other people's freedom in numerous ways, so it not just that freedom is good, but that it must be protected.  

2. Freedom of thought and its expression seems very a basic kind of freedom, because it encompasses almost everything basic to human life. It includes religion, politics, literature, and almost everything else.

3. My father once told me that freedom of the press was originally based on the idea that the king could not execute an advisor who gave him advice he didn't like. I don't know if that is true, but freedom seems key to healthy politics of any kind, not just good governance, but the freedom to participate in it. Just imagine saying, "yes, you can participate in politics as actively as you want, but just not through expressing an opinion."

4.  Civil Rights movements gained their gains by talking about their causes, making persuasive arguments.  This is what Rausch, who is gay and Jewish, claims in his interview. Arguments against gay rights were not suppressed by the government, but just lost out to better arguments.  Other kinds of freedoms, then, resulted from a debate in which those reactionary arguments were allowable.    

5.  The scientific method itself, the idea that we can learn things about reality, depends on the ability to correct other people's opinions (this is also a paraphrase of Rausch).  Freedom of expression is an epistemological principle, not just a mere convenience or feel-good idea.

6. The idea that freedom of speech only protects powerful white males is not true. As one of the interviewees points out (Alice Dreger) a woman who resigned from Northwestern due to censorship), many feminists have been targeted by the kind of witch-hunts we've seen recently with Tuvel. This is because a white male doing some boring research on a medieval poet and raising no controversy is not as likely to draw attention as someone doing edgy work on contemporary identity politics and making a perceived misstep. Dreger's case was about publishing an article in a journal she edited about a disabled man getting a blowjob from a nurse, for example.  Restrictions on speech are more likely to affect disability studies than medieval poetry.  

7.  We shouldn't, then, concede issues of academic freedom to the right, and on the left be mostly perceived as anti-freedom. We don't really need censorship if our arguments are good enough. The argument against political correctness once seemed a mere vestige of the culture wars, and many of the notorious cases seemed cooked up. But freedom of expression should be a value held by everyone interested in healthy politics and the pursuit of knowledge, whatever their political persuasion.    

Preface to New Book

This is pretty much first draft writing. I woke up and started to write this in my head before even getting out of bed. I showered, drank coffee, did a few kenken puzzles, then wrote for about an hour.  

In the spring of 2017, I began to look at translations of Antonio Machado, to see if I could study them in the way I had looked at Lorca in my 2009 book Apocryphal Lorca. Many of the usual suspects were involved in translating Machado, a poet who is Spain itself is more canonical and influential than Lorca himself. I quickly found more material on Machado than I needed for an article, yet I did not think another book that paralleled my earlier one, substituting one figure for the other, was a very imaginative idea. My next thought was to combine my analysis of Machdo with a critique of translations of César Vallejo that I had developed a few years earlier, and find perhaps some other interesting case studies in the American reception of Spanish language poetry in the twentieth century. I wanted to do a critique of Jerome Rothenberg's translation of Lorca's Suites as well. My curiosity about Longfellow's translations led me to ask myself who else had translated Spanish poetry in the 19th century, and I came across a half-buried tradition of ballad translations beginning in England the latter half of the 18th century and stretching forward to the Victorian era. 

At this point, I knew I had enough material to write a book. I also wanted to look at renaissance norms of translation through a Latin poem that had been rendered into Spanish by Quevedo, and by equally prominent poets in other European languages. My topic, then, would not be the reception of Spanish-language poetry in the English-speaking world, but shifting norms of verse translation in Europe and the Americas, linked to a defense of the figure of the poet-translator and a critique of some ideas put forward by the brilliant and influential theorist of translation Lawrence Venuti. My basic objection to Venuti is that he overgeneralizes, placing many theories of translation to which he objects in broad, unhelpful categories like "empiricism," "Belle Lettres," and the regime of "fluency." My approach is to reverse Venuti's emphasis on hermeneutics by looking at the poetics, aesthetics, and erotics of translation.  My guiding lights are Ezra Pound (a key figure for Venuti as well) and Jorge Luis Borges, who is a major theorist of translation as well as one of the main figures translated into English as part of the mid-century twentieth-century explosion of interest in Hispanic literatures. 

From Pound, I take a conception of translation as part of the poet's toolkit. Pound did not invent this idea, which I take to be present already in Latin poets, but he took it further. From Borges, I take three key idea that the audience for the translation can be radically different from the original audience, that the authority we accord to the original text over the translation is a metaphysical superstition, and that the translation can offer deliberate and accidental beauties that in theory could surpass the original.  

The hermeneutic tradition in translation theory that extends from Schleiermacher to Venuti is not to be scorned. Yet, for someone interested in reception, as I am, it has the disadvantage of turning its back on the reader.  Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator," perhaps the most well-known essay in this tradition, famously begins by asserting that consideration of the receptor is never profitable in considering the work of art, and ends by asserting the interlinear translation of the scriptures as the ideal to which translation should aim. Against this explicitly sacralized poetics of translation, I propose a more  dynamic, vibrant, and skeptical view, one that takes into account the poet-translator's creative powers as well as the reader's variable responses.  

The critique of translation usually involves the side-by-side comparison of translation to original, with an assessment of what the translator has been able to carry over from the left hand page to the right. I will be doing some of this analysis here as well. Appiah describes "thick translation" as a translation that “that aims to be of use in literary teaching,” and I think that such a translation would need to preserve or reproduce the values that we ascribe to the original. Nevertheless, the truth is that such translation is surprisingly rare....     


Friday, May 19, 2017

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