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part of the preface

When students only have read a few poems, in exclusively academic contexts, they often approach poetry with what the li...

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.

Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”  This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of “good poetry,” or to decide on the direction in which poetry has to go in the future. It is evident in the anxiety of not knowing what poets of the present or recent past will pass into the canon. (Not surprisingly, Harold Bloom, a proponent of theories of anxiety, is also the classical case of the anxious gatekeeper, eager to establish the eternal validity of his own judgments.) There are limits, of course, to what we can imagine calling poetry. But those are the limits of our own imagination, not of poetry itself, and we cannot know in advance where they might lie, and how they might shift for future generations. An eighteenth century poet like Alexander Pope would not have accepted most twentieth and twenty-first century poetry, and might have had problems even with Wordworth and Coleridge.  

We can follow Matthew Arnold, and insist on the value of touchstones, privileged examples of “the best of what has been thought and said,” without committing ourselves to Arnold’s own canon, or that of Pope, Bloom, or anyone else. In reality, nobody has the power to enforce any personal set of preferences, or impose them on others, except through the coercion of institutional power. The anxiety of gatekeeping is kept alive precisely because not even the gatekeepers can come to any agreement among themselves, let alone force their preferences on anyone else.     

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Republican Chord Changes

In my dream the Republicans had a limited number of arguments, syllogisms almost, expressed in the form of chord progressions. I had figured them out, and was able to see that they began from contradictory premises and thus were refutable. In other words, each one was logically consistent, but the entire set of them wasn't. These chord progressions fell into categories like aesthetic, political, and ???.

As I was waking up I was trying to hold fast to my memory of what they were, since they were present to my mind quite lucidly.  There was nothing imprecise here, though to the lucidity of waking life they might sound vague and I cannot reproduce them.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The re-programming continues

As the re-programming continues, I've put in place another essential element.  I will work five days a week, for at least an hour, on my current project, Things To Do To Poems. It seems like not so much, to have 5 hours in a 40 hour week, to do your actual scholarship (if you can call this anti-textbook scholarship). But that 5 hours is the difference between doing it and not doing it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Things to do with Poems

Bob mentioned my switching back between two prepositions.  I think I'm going to have to settle on "things to do with poems." I might fudge it by naming one chapter "things to do to poems," even though it sounds a little extreme.

I like the idea of uses for poetry, but as a title it sounds too utilitarian. By uses I don't mean that poetry is secondary to some other function. Take dance music. You might say the function or use of the music is to dance to. Something you do to the music is dance to it. But that doesn't quite express the proper relation between music and dance. Dance music is not a tool, with the relation to the beer bottle as the bottle opener has.

part of the preface

When students only have read a few poems, in exclusively academic contexts, they often approach poetry with what the linguist Geoffrey Pullum (in a different context) has called “nervous cluelessness.” According to Pullum, educated native speakers of English are often so intimidated by misunderstood rules of prescriptive grammar in books like The Elements of Style that they longer trusts their own intuitions about their native language, ending up with “a vague unease instead of a sense of mastery” (Pullum). We hear of students uncertain about their ability to scan a line of poetry because they don’t know which syllables are accented—even though they can speak their native language with infallible accentuation (Ferris). Students who know they are not expert readers read tentatively—unsure, even, of their own basic ability to understand the literal sense of words on the page. They have learned in High School that the denotations of words will be misleading, that the real meaning of the poem is concealed behind a largely irrelevant façade of literal meaning. As a consequence they will sometimes ignore the plain sense completely, even if it is the shortest path to understanding the poem. Since poetry will form a very small part of their education, many students will suffer through a few weeks of poetry analysis before moving on to the more familiar terrain of the novel. Even some English and foreign language professors, with minimal training in poetry themselves, bequeath attitudes of nervous cluelessness to subsquent generations of students.