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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Outrunning the Bear

There's that old joke about two guys running away from the grizzly bear in the woods. One says, why are we running, there's no way we can outrun this bear! The other guy says, I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.


So it is. Your book doesn't have to be the perfect book about its subject matter. You don't have to out-Lorca Lorca, just compete with other equally imperfect scholars.

To do that, you just have to see what needs to be done. What is the task that you need to accomplish? What do you need to do to accomplish it? What steps are needed?

I know I'm making it seem easier than it is. The point is that the talent and intelligence in scholarship is in figuring out what needs to be done and how you're going to do it. After that, it's just sitting down to do that.

Knowing what you're talking about

In the shower today I was thinking: I don't know Arabic, have never travelled to the Middle East or North Africa.

I am an American, with a pretty fine-toothed knowledge of American poetry, culture, and jazz.

So when I talk about Lorca's influence in the US, I still miss things if I don't research well enough, or if something simply never comes to my attention.

If I find in 20 minutes on the internet that Lorca is a big deal in modern Arabic poetry, and gather a few references, I pretty much don't know what I'm talking about. Everything comes to me in translation, and even someone with an in-depth knowledge of those milieus could miss a lot, the same way I might in my own milieu.

Jorge Riechmann, the Spanish poet who translates Char, says that you should know the exact way in which Char uses a certain word in order to translate. So "humidité" might have a particular connotation for Char that is particular to him. The language within the language, or idiolect of a poet, Riechmann calls it. A lot of French readers of Char don't probably have that level of intimacy with his language, so it goes deep than "native speaker" knowledge.

I think it is important to simply say: you have to know what you're talking about. These are just examples of that.


Where I am going with this is a talk about Celan I have to give in Spain in May. I guess I am going after that "translation as deep reading" theory that I found implicit (and explicit) in the book of translation essays I am reading. I have to start my talk by saying I'm not a Germanist, but that Celan is a poet that can only be approached from a Comparative Literature perspective. I might look a bit at his Rumanian poems.


The deep knowledge goes both ways. You have to know the literary language & traditions into which you're translating as well as the literary language and traditions of the source. Just like, to write my books on Lorca that deal with American culture, I have to know both Lorca and American culture.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


I was reading a book by Spanish poet-translators talking about their work, editing by my friend Jordi Doce. I was profoundly moved by their devotion to the poets they translated and toward translation itself. Jorge Riechmann toward René Char, for example. Andrés Sánchez Robayna with Wallace Stevens. Many statements in this book moved me almost to tears or made the hairs on my forearms stand on end. What gives me this response usually is not a great poem by itself, but a moment in which I become conscious once again of the depth and beauty of the poetic tradition itself. I always know this, but having it become so clear to me again is very moving.

It was very humbling to see how these poets saw translation as a deep part of their own art form. I gathered many quotes and observations that I will use somewhere, somehow.

(One of the scholars who contributed to this book (not a translator or poet, afaik, but a scholar) noted that poets who saw the avant-garde as a living tradition translated more than those who saw it as a historical period that had come to an end.)

I remember the first two poems I tried to translate from Spanish when I was 17 or 18: "Mariposa de luz" by Juan Ramón Jiménez and "Casida de la rosa" by Lorca. I'm amazed that I still remember this. I also remember, somewhat earlier, trying to translate William Blake's poem "The Fly" into French and attempting to get the right number of syllables in each line. I couldn't make it work! It's even more amazing that I remember that, since I'm not in French nor a Blake scholar, and I was attempting this in High School. "Petite mouche..."

If I am sometimes critical of translation (and translators, and their translations) it is not for lack of respect. It is more from an excess of respect. A guy on Facebook I don't know objected to my judgment that Robert Bly was a disastrous translator. This is not just my "opinion." I actually know what I'm talking about and could quote you chapter and verse. I've been studying this since 1975 or so, in a serious way.


After finishing my conclusion (yeah!) and while I was writing a poem I invented a new word: themebait. This must refer to the gravitational pull (to mix a metaphor) of certain subject matters.

Friday, November 28, 2014


My seminar was in a cavernous room, with about 35 students; I was happy to have so many; I asked a question and got several responses simultaneously; the answers reverberated through the room so I couldn't hear anything; I got the room quieted, finally, but the same thing happened with the next question; I stood up on my chair and clapped my hands to get people to be quiet; finally, I thought it was fine for everyone to discuss Lorca loudly with people in their area of the room. Wasn't this the best kind of class participation?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Highbrow Monroe

Aside from a few gardening, travel and cookbooks, and odds and ends like a biography of herself, Marilyn's library had mostly serious literature (novels, plays, poetry) & and intellectually serious essays: Plato & Aristotle, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Edmund Wilson, Einstein; some popular science books. I'm gratified by not surprised. Despite worries in the 50s about the spread of middle-brow culture, even the middle-brow literary culture of then seems much more high-brow than our present day's, when some people with PhDs read mostly Young Adult fiction & detective novels. Leaving out the fact that it is Marilyn Monroe's library, and thus belies dumb "dumb blonde" clichés, it provides a glimpse into the cultural history of a particular time and place. Of course, she was married to one of the best-known playwrights of the period.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I hate voice-overs

Just saying. I hate voice-overs because they are insulting to your intelligence. Some voice off-screen telling you what you are seeing and adding superfluous narration and explanation. While at least one film I like, "Goodfellas," uses voice-over, this does not make the film any better than it would be without it.

There are these other gangster films that rip Scorsese's film. Those are doubly worse, because they are voice-overs and they are lame imitations of "Goodfellas." One of these lame imitations, I think, is by Scorsese himself. He should have used it only once.


Just learned I will be director of Study Abroad in Buenos Aires this summer (winter there).

Marilyn Monroe & Lorca

Cuando Marilyn leía a Lorca.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Saura / Picasso / Unamuno / Lorca / Lope

“Detesto ‘las sangrientas entrañas aurorales’ del Guernica de Unamuno pintadas sobre ‘el muro blanco de España’ de Lorca, demostrando con Lope de Vega ‘que suele dar gritos la verdad en lienzos mudos’.”

This is just too good not to share with you. It is the "smoking gun" quote that you might find once per chapter at most in your research. I haven't chased down the Unamuno quote yet. It might be from "El Cristo de Velázquez" since it is a perfect hendecasyllable.

Saura (not Carlos but his brother the painter Antonio) complaining about the kitsch surrounding Picasso's Guernica, quoting Unamuno, Lorca, and Lope de Vega.

There ought to be a name for what Saura does here with the Lope quote: the quote seems a perfect way of talking about Picasso: "truth often screams out from mute canvases." But, of course, Lope was not taking about Picasso for obvious reasons. Maybe: "anachronistic de-contextualization."

Monday, November 24, 2014


Juan Goytisolo has won the Cervantes prize, which is kind of the "Nobel" for Spanish language writers. It hasn't always been distinguished, but Borges, María Zambrano, and Juan Gelman have won it, Gamoneda, etc... Serious people. In any given year, the winner of the Cervantes can kick the ass of the Nobel prize winner. This year the Nobel was won by an obscure French novelist, and the Cervantes by ... Goytisolo.

He is one of the most prominent Spanish novelists and essayists of the 20th century, with few rivals in his heyday--the 60s through the present. If I had been a novel specialist, I would have written about him. Brad Epps cut his teeth by grappling with him.

When I first read Señas de identidad I wasn't too impressed. But now I think I was wrong. He is the same generation as the Latin American Boom of García Márquez and Vargas Llosa (Nobel prize winners) and I think he can hold his own with the best of them. He'll never be popular, but that's a good thing.

One of the things Goytisolo did, as a public intellectual, was to turn against Communism and the Cuban revolution. Being gay probably gave him a head start in this regard. He has been one of the only prominent writers to recognize the Muslim contribution to Spanish culture.

His two brothers were also prominent writers: Luis and José Agustín. He was friends with Gil de Biedma and Valente.

Laws of Composition

A chapter cannot have two disparate elements. It can have two sections, if the point is to compare the two things head to head or to a third thing, but it needs to have either one central focus, or at least three. You can have one-act plays, or three to five; or string quartets with any number of movements, but not two. A painting can have three panels or one, but two is more awkward. (There are exceptions. Don't be giving me 100 examples of musical pieces with two movements. I know they also exist but I feel they aren't as typical.)

The reason is that two elements seem to demand two separate chapters, one for each element. So I could have a chapter on Lope, Tirso, and Calderón, or a chapter on just Lope, but not one on Lope and Tirso.

Twins & Wedding

Now that I am writing down my dreams I am remembering them more.

Last night, two twin men, one apparently a clone of the other, needed the same knee operation. The clone graciously allowed the original man to have the operation. He would be married immediately afterwards, the surgeon, a man with short-red hair, rushing downtown, downhill toward a kind of bay to perform the ceremony himself. In this religion, the groom had to be exactly eleven years older than his bride.

This summary cannot do justice to the length and confusion of the dream itself. I don't know whether this is one dream or two, for example. Adding details, up to a certain point, makes the summary more accurate; beyond that, it is pure falsification.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crime Doesn't Pay

Ok, so I am almost done with the conclusion of the book, so here's something completely irrelevant (to that).

The fictional motorcycle gang depicted on "Son of Anarchy" are gun-runners. They have a highly lucrative business distributing guns from the IRA to other criminal organizations.

Yet they drink Miller Lite, not single-malt scotch. They live in ordinary-looking California ranch houses. They don't take European vacations or drive elegant cars. They don't have nice clothes, wearing instead their leather and denim motorcycle gear. Most of the time, they just ride around on Harleys in order to intimidate or kill people from other gangs. They have power and money, but these are only relevant in relation to their criminality. For example, their power is relative power, in relation to that of the black gang, the Mexican gang, other white gangs (neo-nazis, etc...), and the IRA itself. If they were to stop being criminals, they would not need this power. They have power by bribing local law enforcement, but they only need to bribe the police because they are criminals.

Their possibility of meeting a violent death is quite high. They are also frequently kidnapped, as are their family members. They derive no enjoyment from their supposed wealth, living instead the perfect lower-middle class life-style when they aren't killing or getting killed. Sometime they can't even sleep at home because they have to lock themselves in the clubhouse for protection. They get to ride their motorcycles around, which might be fun, sure, but they could do that in the same exact way if they simply ran their "front" organization, which is an automobile and motorcycle repair shop. I suppose they could do their other hobbies on the cheap too, like getting into fist fights with one another or getting tattoos.


The leader of the gang has the noble ambition of getting it out of serious crime, or at least making its "legitimate" businesses semi-legal escort services and pornography, instead of arms trafficking. It turns out that getting out of crime is just as dangerous, because it upsets the balance of power, so the plan to go straight leads to further violent deaths and dismemberments. Members of his MC are killed, and they have to kill others as well. The conceit is that one last massacre is needed in order for the Sons to go legit. Of course, the violence just gets worse.

The show has you identify with the leader of the gang because he is "nobler" than anyone else in a similar position, and because the other gangs are more brutal than his own. He is modeled after Prince Hamlet, in a pretty obvious way, and like Hamlet leaves carnage in his wake.

"This is a book which complains about bad writing in the Social Sciences."

That, not unexpectedly, is the first sentence in a book about bad writing in the social sciences. (H/t to Leslie.) It is itself an example of execrable writing, although the author was probably proud of it, since he avoids the passive voice and is clear in his ideas.

What is hideous about it is its utter tone-deafness. It sounds robotic and unidiomatic, and the third person verb weirdly places the authorial voice off to one side. It is his book after all! The author is probably the victim of Orwellian advice about avoiding extra words and forms of the verb to be.

The rest of the first paragraph is just as bad. He switches from "the author" to "I" to "somebody," to "anybody," back to "the author" with no rhyme nor reason:
The author is not someone who is offering criticisms as an outsider looking in upon a strange world. I am an insider, a social scientist, and I am publically criticising my fellows for their ways of writing. Anyone, who does this, can expect to have their motives questioned. Readers may wonder whether the author is embittered, having seen younger colleagues overtake him in the race for academic honours...
The "anyone" with singular "their" is ok, I guess. Pullum and Liberman have convinced me so. Still, it seems infelicitous in this context, with all the other shifting going on.

What is lacking in such writing, very simply, is the "ear." If he had read the paragraph aloud to himself the "author" would have been struck by the awkwardness of "ways of writing"; he would have eliminated the commas around the phrase "who does this." He might have been struck by the stark contrast between a too-pithy opening and a wordy, redundant restatement of it a sentence later: "I am publically criticizing my fellows for their ways of writing." Fellows sounds off to me, but that might be a Britishism.

The concern with false motives is distracting. First, the hypothetical reader thinks that it is written from the perspective of an outsider. Once that concern is dispelled, the reader will think that it is an embittered insider. I guess this is another British strategy of self-effacing humor that I don't appreciate. Why not go directly to the point?


The ear, then, is the writer's inner guide to rhythm, tone, perspective. It might be the grammatical ear of the native speaker, the prosodic ear of the poet or master prose stylist.

My revision?
Writing in the Social Sciences is notoriously bad. The aim of this book is to diagnose this malady and suggest some possible remedies. My perspective is that of a veteran insider in the field...

Bible Interpretation

In this dream I was at a table in a restaurant or coffee shop and I explained quite eloquently to a small group of people I didn't know why Christians did not know how to interpret the Bible, especially those involved in "Bible Study" groups. I said that they imposed their theology unto it in a way they had been taught and used Bible passages as "proof texts," without reading in context. They didn't know how to read.

This is really what I think, and my explanation of it in the dream was correct and coherent. The group of people neither accepted nor rejected my explanation, since my dream took another turn after that.


I believe conventional interpretations of "Pierre Menard" are mistaken. The point was that creativity belongs to the reader rather than the writer. (This was what we were taught in the 80s.) Menard's version becomes more interesting than Cervantes's because it comes from an early 20th century writer. This is what we learn from Rodríguez Monegal and other interpreters, but it is utterly wrong.

(The reproduction or "transcription" of the text is a narrative device that Borges needs to explain that Menard does not copy the text, but somehow comes up with it through another, unexplained method. This device is necessary to the story, since otherwise the Quijote of Menard would be dull copy with no interest at all. It is not true, as Thomas suggests, that "The point (I thought) was that he writes it in the ordinary way after having gotten his own mind exactly where Cervantes' had been." The point is that his text is identical to that of Cervantes's but his "mind is completely different. In other words, he does not "become" Cervantes.)

The first thing people miss is that the narrator is not "Borges," but an anti-semitic Frenchman. He makes nasty remarks about the other interpreter of Menard's legacy, a woman who has had the misfortune of publishing in a journal known for its philosemitism. This is the France of the Dreyfus affair.

Menard himself is a minor follower of the poet Paul Valéry. The list of his publications is quite extensive and interesting. Curiously, the standard interpretations miss the fact that his "visible" publications are a kind of compendium of Borges's own translation and author theory.

Anyway,the overt argument of the anti-Semitic narrator is that Cervantes's own text is somewhat dull. The example used is the discourse about the superiority of arms over letters. This conventional early modern wisdom is turned on its head by Menard, who certainly cannot hold these beliefs ironically. Voilà, the text means something different when ascribed to a different authorial subjectivity.

This is wholly wrong, though. Cervantes's characters already speak ironically, even when they spout conventional wisdom, since Cervantes is engaged in satire or the skewering of this wisdom. Of course, the discourse on the superiority of arms to letters is put in the mouth of a fictional character, so it is not "Cervantes" saying this.

Furthermore, Borges is a great admirer of Cervantes and, especially of Cervantes's metafiction. See "Magias parciales del Quijote." The choice of a seemingly conventional part of his discourse, the explanation of why it is more noble to bear arms than to read books, is a deliberate misdirection.

To really understand "Pierre Menard," you have to be more Borgesian than Borges, in other words, don't accept the facile interpretation of the text. He was a man unfit for military action whose works evince a strong nostalgia for the violent exploits of his compatriots and ancestors. That places the conflict between arms and letters in a different context.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Writerly Ego

I'm collecting all my dreams in a sort of chapbook. In doing so, I realized that quite a few of them are manifestations of the writerly ego in its pure state. I have either childish success presenting my writing in public, or abject failure. Really, the dreams of success and failure are not any different in their relation to the ego.

The book of dreams is itself a manifestation of the same ego, I now realize. For the reader, someone else's dreams can't help sounding inane.

Here's a typical example:

I was walking down the street and a woman approached me and said: “you have a good chance of getting the violoncello seat in the orchestra now. There has been a lot of attrition.” I tried to tell her I didn't play the cello. She had confused me with someone else.
The double play of the ego is 1): the fantasy (playing in the orchestra) 2) the embarrassment (of course I could not do this). How transparent this all is. (That's a further embarrassment.)

I found this poem on my blog from 10 years ago; I think I wrote it

Homage to An Eastern European Poet

The annals of my idiocy would require multiple volumes--
my symphonic flatulence, not to mention I was a fucking commie for a spell.

And that's just volume I (and half of II.) Like a moth to the flame--
if you'll permit me that cliché--I sinned against self-awareness.

Even if I'd known, I'd have done it the same way.
I encouraged leaden-footed translators

named Bob, for Nobel dreams, and all because of desire.
The same desire you have, hypocrite lecteur,

mon semblable, mon frère
. Actually I won't write this
prologue to a 20-volume suicide note.

The plumbers are here, destroying my house to save it.
It's late and I'm tired. And what good would it do anyway?


A fragment of a long series of dreams I had last night.

I was taking a walk in the countryside with the Spanish poet Claudio Rodríguez. I was trying to communicate with him but he was walking fast, ahead of me. I told him that he had told us in class that someone's profession, being a carpintero or a torero, would mark his body. I told him that I did not recognize the significance of this observation at the time, but that recently I had re-remembered it. I wasn't sure of his response to this, but he seemed to acknowledge it in some way.

Now this much is true: he did talk to us in class one day about this, using the bullfighters way of walking as one example. I did realize the significance of this within the past two years or so, after not thinking about it too much between 1980 and 2012. Rodríguez did take long walks in the countryside and composed his poetry in his head on his walks.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Avec les enfants

This is not a dream either, but often when I am doodling or taking notes in pen, I write down the phrase "avec les enfants." I don't know what this means. (I know what the words mean, of course, but I don't know what it means for me to have this phrase in my memory.)


Claudia Rankine's book, Citizen, seems interesting. It is, in part, a chronicle of
"micro-agressions," those things that white people say to non-white people on an everyday basis.

(My daughter, for example, has people say "What are you?" when she meets them. On the first day of the summer camp she might be chosen last in team sports, as short half Asian girl. The next day she will be chosen much more quickly, since she is very athletic.)

I have found the chronicles of such grievances unconvincing, in the past, but I think I have been wrong. You cannot consider the micro-aggression in isolation. After all, if I am a black woman and have had one insult in my whole life, that it not very realistic. It is the constant litany of them that get obnoxious, I would imagine.

Three examples.

She reports that a friend said "I didn't know black people got cancer." Rankine cites this as de-humanizing. I don't doubt it. Does the person think that black people have some special gene that makes them immune from cancer? Probably not. Rather, the person is just not thinking at all, but falling back on an image of the "cancer patient" as a white person. It is not racism as hostility, but racism as pure stupidity. Of course, the white person who says this is probably an intelligent liberal who would never be racist in a deliberate way.

Rankine goes to her therapist's house for her first appointment. When she rings the doorbell, the therapist yells at her to get off her property. Why? Their conversations have been by phone, and the therapist is not expecting a black client. Once again, the therapist is not a KKK racist, but somehow did not have the image of an African-American woman in mind as a potential client of hers. This example is very similar to the "cancer" anecdote. What comes into play is the "universal" image of someone with a particular situation. If I ask you to think about an alcoholic, maybe you will picture a white male.

A third anecdote: Rankine is in a car with someone, presumably a dept chair, who says that he is forced to hire a person of color, even though there are great writers (presumably not "of color") that he could hire instead. Here, the interlocutor assumes that the white male is universal, even when he is talking to the non-male, non-white person.

It doesn't even matter whether the category is positive or negative. The cancer patient, the person in need of therapy, the "great writer" are prototypically white. The mistakes here are cognitive, intellectual. They don't stem from overt racism, but from a kind of stupidity. We might all fall victim to moments of perfect idiocy like this, but I am thinking that intelligence itself might be a kind of ethical imperative.


Baudelaire's friend (in one of his prose poems) gives a counterfeit coin of considerable face-value to a beggar, thinking that this is a win-win. The privileged individual doesn't lose anything, since the coin is worthless, and the begger gets something: the possibility of passing the coin along without being detected. B. has a fit, thinking that this act of beneficence / malice is completely stupid. The problem is that the supposed act of charity could bring the beggar unforeseen consequences:
Je le regardai dans le blanc des yeux, et je fus épouvanté de voir que ses yeux brillaient d'une incontestable candeur. Je vis alors clairement qu'il avait voulu faire à la fois la charité et une bonne affaire; gagner quarante sols et le coeur de Dieu; emporter le paradis économiquement; enfin attraper gratis un brevet d'homme charitable. Je lui aurais presque pardonné le désir de la criminelle jouissance dont je le supposais tout à l'heure capable; j'aurais trouvé curieux, singulier, qu'il s'amusât à compromettre les pauvres; mais je ne lui pardonnerai jamais l'ineptie de son calcul. On n'est jamais excusable d'être méchant, mais il y a quelque mérite à savoir qu'on l'est; et le plus irréparable des vices est de faire le mal par bêtise.

Two Views of Elite Culture


The instrumental view of elite culture views it, simply, as class privilege. People who have been the right schools, with the right cultural references, etc... will have access to the upper echelons of society, etc...

By definition elite culture belongs to the elite. Knowing literary references makes one more cultured and polisished. Those who don't have it, by the same token, are marked as less than elite.


Elite culture, in the second definition, is a resistance to conventional attitudes. It is not identified with any particular class position, and is in fact opposed to conventional "bourgeois" attitudes. Elite culture is the last bastion against the dumbing down of everything. A dumbing down that will serve corporate interests.


Take the example of Samuel Beckett. His prototypical protagonists are tramps or institutionalized homeless people. So we can take the example of an elite ivy-league graduate who knows who Samuel Beckett is, condescending to the community college graduate who doesn't.

But the experience that Beckett is describing is one of absolute social abjection, not social privilege.

It is easy to see that there are periods in which social privilege corresponds, unproblematically, to access to cultural capital. This does not apply, anymore, to modernist literature. Or it does, but unevenly. The divorce between a certain "class" position and the access to cultural capital might become complete at a certain point. We still see Virginia and Marcel as both upper class and culturally privileged at the same time; but not James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, or Beckett.


Most leftist literary intellectuals are going to be invested both in a non-elitist politics, and in an interest in high-brow literary modernism as well. We know what the standard positions will be, already. The easiest cases are going to be those of marginalized but avant-garde subjects. Canonical writers of the avant-garge who come from socially marginal position, like César Vallejo. Just about everyone I most respect who knows anything at all about Latin American poetry thinks that Vallejo is the greatest Latin American poet. I think so too, obviously.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Here is a post I wrote a while back. I had no memory of it, but it came up as a post with some hits on my stats. The comments are good too.

I no longer remember who my colleagues were in this conversation. That is fine. The fact is, I have more than a few brilliant colleagues who might have been my interlocutors in this particular conversation.

Meeting of the Minds

Let us consider, further, the "meeting of the minds" theory of translation.* As I suggested in a post below, a good or great poet translating another good or great poet might lead to a happy synthesis of poetic talent, or a meeting of the poetic minds. So we might welcome a translation by Celan on Dickinson because we are interested in Dickinson, or Celan, or in the meeting between them.

This seems plausible on its face. One idea would be that the poet-translator could produce a remarkable poem in the target language, using his own poetic talent. A second, that the poet-translator has some special insight into the poetic art of Emily herself, and can "translate" that understanding into the German poem he is writing.

The second theory, then, is based on a kind of Bloomian notion that poets have special insight into other poets, even (or especially) when this insight is based on error. We can see this in some literary criticism by literary geniuses, like Beckett on Proust. Beckett's insight is extraordinary, but it might end up telling us more about Beckett than about Proust himself.

Another parallel might the idea that we might want to hear a great performer playing the music of a great composer. We get great music twice over, and we get to also consider what particular aspects of the great music come out in that particular performance, with that added intellectual pleasure of the analysis. This is a richer experience than simply reading the score on the page or listening to an indifferent performance to remind ourselves of how the music goes. This analogy is inexact.

To translate poetry, one must be a poet. In the first place, one able to produce the poetic utterance in the target language. Translation is a decoding, yes, but it is also a re-encoding. Secondly, there must be a meeting of the minds, a relation between two poetics (assuming the two poets never share the exact same poetics).

Defenders of translations undermine translation by being less exigent with the second poem, the translation. People will say, well, "that's difficult to translate so give him / her a break." My position ends up being extreme but based on very sensible reasons as well. In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to say that translations should be good poems in the target language, and almost everyone agrees with that. But if you actually have that expectation with real translations you will come off sounding extreme and intransigeant.


*That came out sounding stuffy. Sorry! My prose is off-kilter today.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Beckett on Proust

The identification of immediate with past experience, the recurrence
of past action or reaction to the present, amounts to a participation between
the ideal and the real, imagination and direct apprehension, symbol
and substance. Such participation frees the essential reality that is denied
to the contemplative as to the active life. What is common to present
and past is more essential than either taken separately. Reality, whether
approached imaginatively or empirically, remains a surface, hermetic.
Imagination applied—a priori—to what is absent, is exercised in vacuo
and cannot tolerate the limits of the real. Nor is any direct and purely
experimental contact possible between subject and object, because they
are automatically separated by the subjects’ consciousness of perception,
and the object loses its purity and becomes a mere intellectual pretext
or motive. But, thanks to this reduplication, the experience is at once
imaginative and empirical, at once an evocation and a direct perception,
real without being merely actual, ideal without being merely abstract, the
ideal real, the essential, the extratemporal.
I've been posting a lot. I am not teaching, my amiga is in Japan, and it is cold outside. Plus I am also actively researching and writing the conclusion of my book.

Anyway, I was reading a guy's book on Gamoneda to blurb it, and I found this quote. I've read Beckett's great essay on Proust before, but I'd forgotten how brilliant it is. I don't have time to explain it yet, even to myself, but one way of getting smart (i.e. the "whetstone") is to read things like this.

Dream-meditation of Coleman Hawkins' "Picasso"

This is not a dream. Meditative states are not dream-like, though they might be interesting because they are not simply normal wakefulness either.

Listen to "Picasso" with your eyes closed. Put it on a loop so you can listen to it two or three times. Observe your own breathing as you do so. Don't try to do anything special with your breath, just watch it. The music, an unaccompanied tenor sax solo in rubato, is constantly creating and releasing tension. Notice how the tension in the music might increase at a moment when you would have otherwise been feeling particularly relaxed. The music might create anxiety in you. Or you might be feeling anxiety at a moment when the music seems to be diffusing tension. Get used to this disparity between the music and your breathing. There is a particular phrase that occurs at 1:21 that I have named "settling in." It is very confident and masterful. There are other phrases that mean "pay attention" or "this is the emotional climax of the piece thus far" or "I am winding down now" or "this is an interesting tangent in my argument you might also want to consider." You don't have to adjust your own mood to these moments. You will feel and recognize them. After you have finished this meditation, write this poem.

Bad Postmodernism

Back in the day, the promise of theory was that we could read things more complexly. Many of us had the feeling that literature was a complex thing, and that poststructuralist theory was a way of accounting for that complexity, or giving us a critical meta-language adequate to the object of study. The theory was a theory about how literary language actually worked. It promised some "rigor" and certainly did not exist to make things easier for anybody.

Some people, though, used the theory in another way, as a kind of hermeneutic loosening. If meaning is indeterminate, in its complexity, then this means that everyone's interpretation is equally valid.

Meanwhile, social science also got wind of something called "postmodernism." What they really meant was poststructuralism, but for reasons unknown to me they called it postmodernism. (This postmodernism bore some resemblance to postmodern fiction, but really those are not the same thing.)

A lot of the thinking in postmodern social science is like a parody of the "permissive" branch of poststructuralist interpretation. It promoted sloppy thinking as in this example provided by Basbøll. It turns out that the laziest, least intelligent and literate undergraduate students are like folk postmodernists! This idiot anthropologist simply descends to the level of the typical intellectually indolent student whom we've all taught in class. Clear, easy to understand distinctions are lost amid straw-man demonstrations and caricatures, glib deployments of jargon and half-understood concepts. In Blum's article, we are given a false dilemma between a naive theory of authorship that nobody every held (the writer as absolutely original creator of every idea) and a seemingly more sophisticated idea held, seemingly, both by smart postmodern anthropologists as well as know-nothing backwards-baseball-cap wearing frat boys. Something is amiss here. What is missing, of course, and as I pointed out in a comment to Thomas's post, is the idea that there are many gradations of originality between the simple idea of using your own words and ideas rather than copying or paraphrasing, and the absolute, existential originality that is almost impossible.

The Ten Habits of Highly Productive Writers

There was a CHE article with a title like this recently, maybe today. I would condense the habits of productive writers into one ...

They write.

Translation and Originality

Translation would seem to be an "unoriginal" form of writing. What Jakobson called "intralinguistic translation" is paraphrase, or the writing of a text that translates within the same language. The only thing more unoriginal than that is transcription. We know from Pierre Menard that transcription can itself be "original."

(Paraphrase does differ from translation, though, in that, curiously enough, it cannot be as exact. As Carlos Piera points out in "Sobre traducción, paráfrasis y verdad," we can translate César Vallejo's word "oxígeno" with a high degre of exactitude as "oxygen." But to paraphrase, we need to find our own words.)

I'm assuming that translation is original because, for example, we cannot simply take a translation, change a few words, and call it our own. Even for a literal translation, we assume that the translator can claim the translation as her own, copyright it, complain if someone copies it verbatim (or even almost verbatim.) Translation might look like semi-plagiarisms of one another by coincidence, of course. There may be one solution to a short line or sentence that occurs independently to various translators.

So called "creative translations" will, of course, look different from other translations, by the same measure that they differ from the original. So one way of looking at the problem would be to say that the originality of the translator lies in not always using the word "oxygen" when that is the most logical choice. In other words, translation as paraphrase and interpretation. In a way, a paraphrase depends on an understanding, whereas a translation can be a transfer of ill-understood signifiers (if we follow Piera's logic.)

The translation of poetry results in more poetry. In other words, the translated text stands before us as a poem. The poet is the translator. So instead of saying that we're reading Adonis in translation, we should way that we are reading poems by name of translator, poems that just happen to be translations of other texts that we are unable to read.

That this is not satisfactory solution suggests that our notions of authorship come into play. What we attribute to the original poet, in a translation, is the poetic self itself. Poetry is (usually understood as) the expression of a self, of personal experiences, even if the speaker of the poem is not (easily identified with) the biographical poet.

So the standard model of translation is that the two functions of the poet are split between two authors. One, the translator, provides the poetry itself, where "poetry" is understood as the formal structure, the use of language, etc... The other, the "author," provides the self, the experience. The translator would be the ego-less writer, the one without self or experience, the writer with nothing to say. Not surprisingly, this resembles the function of the ghost writer, or what in Spanish they call, a bit racistly to my ears, the negro.

The problem is that this split seems to reinforce an "unpoetic" way of thinking, since it separates "form" from "content." Anyone who claims to think these are inseparable should have no business closer than 100 feet from the translation of poetry.

One way around this is the translation of poetry where nothing much is going on. In other words, the translated text itself reads as flat prose, without any charge or electricity. The translator might say that the translation was easy, because the original is like that too. I have noticed this a lot in translations of Eastern European poetry. This poetry is read, indeed, for its content; its political positions or value as "human" testimony. I don't get much out of this kind of poetry or poetry-translation. I'd rather read a memoir if what I'm after is the recounting of personal experience in narrative form.

Another way is for the translator to be a poet and use his or her own "poetry" as the poetry of the translation. When we want to read a translation by a famous poet, we want to do so because we think that the target language text will be good in the same way that famous poet's poems are good.

What is more, what we really want to see is a kind of meeting of two great poetic minds. In other words, we want to see poetry 1 (the original poet's genius) meeting up with poetry 2 (the translator's genius) in a marvelous way. This will be an original event because it has never happened before between these particular two poets. Celan translating Dickinson, say. Now this might not always occur, or we might over-value the result. While I appreciate that Ashbery has translated Rimbaud, and have nothing to complain about in his translations, I don't think I feel any great frisson there. Without the name of Ashbery I would simply see these as competent translations.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


When I first decided to be a poet, I was 11 and we had to write a poem in school. At that moment I decided to be a poet, without really understanding anything of what that entailed. I suppose my first idea was that a poet wrote poems for other people who needed them but did not know how to write poems themselves. Maybe a kind of Cyrano idea of poetry? (I didn't know that story then.)

Anyway, I got some books about poetry, and a few poems struck me, like Wallace Stevens' "Disillusionment at 10 O'Clock." I still think a poem has to be that same thing, a poem that grabs you somehow. I still feel it in the Cummings poems I used to like, and still do to some extent. It is in Vallejo, like "A veces doyme contra todas las contras." Or Ceravolo: "like cellophane tape / on a schoolbook." Let's call it electricity. A poem without it is worthless.

There are two ways of disagreeing with me about this (at least two). You could disagree about what poems have lightning, and how much lightning they have. Or you could disagree with me that this is even a meaningful way of talking about the problem. The first form of disagreement is not troubling to me, because we expect individual differences of response. I am shocked when someone doesn't respond to Vallejo like this, and often doubt whether the person has any feeling for poetry at all. But after I calm down I just chalk it up to individual differences. The second kind of disagreement is more crucial, because then I don't understand the point of studying or reading poetry at all. The rest of poetry, aside from the electricity in it, is a dull and worthless thing.

Dream Diary

I am thinking my dream diary will form a book of prose poems. I dislike dream imagery in (other people's) poems, though. A dream can be dull, like my own "dull mafia" dream, but a much worse problem is the spurious narrative cohesion of a linguistically transparent and symbolically portentous dream. Is there anything more insufferable? Someone whose dreams come out as perfectly written absurdist fables? The interpretation of dreams is equally misguided: a search for religious or psychoanalytic symbols, a disregard for the real importance of the dream, its textures. Most writers will use the same wispy, "dream-like" texture for all their dreams, or recount them deadpan. The idea that someone would associate me with that vile genre of literature is intolerable to me.

One uses the fragments of memory one has, the few phrases that one remembers, with no illusion that they are true to the dream itself. The dream should not be too well written, too well remembered.

Ozma of Oz / Jailhouse Talk

In the first dream, I was on the phone with my publishers. They said that the owners of the copyright for The Wizard of Oz wanted a fifty-eight hundred dollar fee for my referring to the movie or somehow using it in my book. I said that I would simply return the copy of the movie I had and not use it at all but apparently it was too late. I took the movie out and began to watch it and it turned out to be a black-and-white film from the 1930s called Ozma of Oz instead. I assumed that they had the rights to that too so this did not resolve our problem. (There really is a Baum book called Ozma of Oz, but I doubt there's a movie version from that period.)


A little later in the night, we were going to a talk in the jail. I was walking very fast and got ahead of the group, arriving there 15 minutes early. (There was a woman also walking fast but I accelerated and left her behind.) I walked into the jail, which was unlocked and deserted. I peed in the bathroom, wondering for a moment about my safety. I went down the corridor and saw nothing; the jail resembled a locker-room, or more accurately the showers of a locker room. {After I woke up I realized there were no cells.) It occurred to me that this is not the right place, since the women would not be able to attend a talk in a men's jail, so I walked out the corridor, passing a slightly-built inmate smoking a cigarette. We made no eye contact. When I emerged there was a staircase to go to the main floor. There was a sign at the bottom that said "guns, library, school." I climbed the stairs and saw the heavily locked gun room on my right, with shotguns or rifles. To the left a little ways down was the auditorium where the talk would take place. The seats sloped downward from the stage, in reverse of the usual arrangement. I was exactly on time, but I thought I had been really stupid to think the talk would take place in the jail part of the jail.


Emotionally, the two dreams are about feeling stupid and out-of-it. Maybe that's not it exactly: in dreams there is often a "Kafkaesque" element of accepting things as correct or legitimate that are actually not. What is strange is not the strangeness itself, in other words, but our acquiescence to it. My mind was hard at work all night sorting through legitimate and illegitimate conditions.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hazo / Adonis

I checked out three translations by Samuel Hazo of the Syrian poet Adonis, without looking very closely at them. I was reading them just now and I noticed something odd.

The first is from 1971.

The second, from 1983, by a different publisher, is almost identical. It includes only 2 or three additional poems. At least it makes transparent its relation to the first volume, but ...

A third, from a third publisher, from 1994, makes no mention of the first two, and includes the same exact poems, in the same translations--with about 10 additional poems.

So I could have just checked out the '94 volume. (Maybe I missed a 2007 one with the same poems and a few slight additions!) It seems a bit questionable to publish a new book that is really just a slight revision of a previous one. If he had kept at least the same title it would be clear that it is essentially an expansion of an earlier book. I am calling him out for resumé padding--or something. I wonder if the publishers noticed or cared?

Adonis sur Lorca

Il y'a des poètes qui conservent, même traduits, leur force mais ils sont rares. On peut citer le poète espagnol Lorca. Même traduit, on sent toujours qu'on est face à un grand poète. Mais c'est rare de trouver parmi les poètes espagnols traduits une présence aussi forte que celle de Lorca.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Arab Lorca

There is a lot of Arab Lorca, meaning modern Arabic poets who pay explicit homage to Lorca. This is not obscure or unknown, but can be discovered in a few minutes by googling. Lorca is the major poet of Andalusia, and El-Andalus is a major place / era in Arabic culture. Also, there's the Andalusian / Palestine parallel: two places Arabs were kicked out of. Any left-wing Arab poet in the 50s and 60s was going to be hugely into Lorca.

I cannot really cover this in my book. I don't know the language, and it would take at least another chapter which I could not write. I'd like to at least gesture toward, along with Latin American Lorcas.

Lorca in Persian

Derrida Schiff

In my dream last night a woman was recorded on tape saying the phrase "Derrida Schiff," but indistinctly, not loudly enough. I was involved in tracking down this error, somehow. I was angry either at her or at a male individual who was citing her. At stake was the transmission or citation of this message, or its original conceptual erroneousness.

Later, we were involved in a shared car service and were supposed to pick up someone, possibly my friend Bob Basil, on a street corner to go to a bar. I was driving my own car, but in exact parallel to another car driven by a woman, maybe not the same one earlier misrepresenting Derrida.

The emotional tonality here is indignation and frustration, the correction of error. Schiff, as far as I know, is a German surname with no other meaning for me. As I woke up I made sure to make a mental note of the spelling, as though that were important.

I must resist the temptation to make my account of the dream more coherent than the dream itself.

The Prosodic Brain

I was reading that a violinist's left hand is not as special as the part of the brain that feels what the hand feels. That can grow to much more than the corresponding part of the brain of someone who doesn't use those fingers for any particularly specialized task. In blind people, the part of the brain that the sighted use to process visual signals is repurposed for other activities: it doesn't just sit there unused.


There is a prosodic brain. For example, I can hear a hendecasyllable as such, before I even speak it aloud. The analysis happens immediately. I am not counting syllables but adjusting the line to a set of paradigms.


I guy at the Córdoba conference, an American living in Spain for many years, presented on Prufrock. When he read aloud he made sure to over-emphasize the metrical pattern as much as he could.


The 11-syllable line in Spanish combines fluently with the 7. One common patter for the 11 is

7 + 4

That means that you can take any seven syllable line, and turn it into an 11 by adding four. Conversely, the first seven-syllable phrase of an 11 is indistinguishable from a 7. This is because the 7 has its accent on 6, and the 11 (in one of its major variants) has its major accents on 6 and 10.

A 7-syllable phrase will often fall into the patter of

3 + 4

de hierbas / agostadas
anude / la corbata
los muros / de verano


4 + 3

de su sueño / de siglos
done el árbol / arraiga
los muchachos / sestean

So the 11 will often take the pattern

3 + 4 + 4


4 + 3 + 4

If we throw the major accent from 6 back to 4, then we get lines in the pattern

5 + 6

Follow that with 7, as in a silva and you find

5 + 6 + 7, where the 7 can be 3 + 4 or 4 + 3.

People think of metrics as a set of rigid constraints. Thoughtless people. I think of a process of a kind of conquest of fluidity. The fluidity of English blank-verse is a marvelous thing, and the equivalent in Spanish, as Carlos Piera has pointed out to me, is the baroque silva. Free verse in Spanish is essentially a rhymeless silva with some verses of nine thrown in from time to time.

The paradox, of course, is that the perfect model of fluidity is prose itself. Verse moves toward a prose idea as is gets looser and more fluid. Juan Ramón Jiménez wrote out all his marvelous free verse as prose poetry in his later life.

Someone once said that you couldn't tell Milton from prose unless you saw it on the page. That is at once profoundly dumb and very astute, because it all comes down to perception. If we are reading verse on the page we know to tap into the prosodic brain. If we are reading prose we tend not to. Perhaps wrongly, but there it is.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dull Mafia

I dream a lot, and sleep badly in the early hours of the morning, waking up frequently mid-dream. My dreams can be emotionally intense but are not very vivid: last night's had to do with living in dull town and forming part of a dull mafia of a sorts. We were a criminal organization but relatively unexciting, that's all I can say. Our souvlaki was insipid; that's another detail I can remember. We ate souvlaki but it had no taste. The others with me in the dream had no real identity, but I formed part of that community, that mob.

The feeling of the dream is in those phrases: dull mafia / tasteless souvlaki. I cannot say anything occurred in the dream.


One of the main components of an "emotional style" that one might have is how long a positive feeling persists. If you give a talk that goes well, for example, how long does that "afterglow" last? For me, it is quite long. Even minor positive things can keep me in a good mood for a long time. At one extreme would be people who have good things happen to them and do not register them as positive at all, who immediately discount them, looking for the negatives.

Anyway, what a lot of people mentioned to me after my talk in Córdoba (which I am still in an afterglow about), is that what came through is my passion for Lorca. This was a surprising result, because it was not my conscious intention at all. I thought that what would come through was my iconoclasm. Nevertheless, I have to accept what the audience said. This was a conference of about 40 people, and I think about 90% of them congratulated me individually on the talk.

A little passion goes a long way, in a medium in which passion is not the most expected element.

Monday, November 10, 2014


I would advise against the kind of conclusion that is virtually useless to the reader of your book, a summary of the chapters, a mere repetition of an earlier summary of the chapters in a prologue, preface, or introduction. Instead, the conclusion must draw out implications that are not fully spelled out anywhere else.

It is better to have no conclusion at all than one that is a mere placeholder.

As I Was Writing...

As I was writing just now I heard a voice in my head, the voice of a book reviewer who was saying "Mayhew tries to do several, incompatible things in this book, but manages to do none of these things very well. Parts of the book contain some insight, but the project is self-indulgent." I'm sure I will get reviews like this, as I did with AL as well. Even when reviewers are wrong, they are right, to the extent that they are giving their honest viewpoint. I try to imagine myself writing a book that would be airtight, with no possible negative reaction, and I am not at all excited by the prospect. I'd rather be doing what I am doing. Of course, I can anticipate some objections and try to forestall them, but not infinitely.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Chantal Maillard has something that I might use as an epigraph.*
Siempre me ha llamado la atención la facilidad con la que reducimos una persona a unos pocos datos. Una persona es una multitud de fragmentos, su vida no es una historia sino un mapa o, mejor, una retícula o rizoma que ofrece itinerarios diversos, cada uno de los cuales daría pie, si lo siguiésemos, a construir una una historia distinta de las otras.
[I've always been struck by the ease with which we reduce a person to a few data points. A person is a proliferation of fragments, her life is not a story but a map or, rather, a reticle or rhizome offering multiple paths, each one of which, if we followed it, would create a story distinct from the others.]

*I used to love epigraphs, but am using them less and less. More than one or three in a book would be excessive.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Faculty Friday / piedra de afilar

My chair started a thing where we share our research over lunch on Fridays. It is wonderful, another "whetstone." Just explaining my project for five minutes to my colleagues made things come into sharper focus.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What's your anti-whetstone?

It could be alcohol. For me, that is a way of shutting my mind down from time to time. Otherwise, the weight of intelligence could be overwhelming.

It could be the ease of not having to struggle very much to have your ideas accepted. You don't have to be sharp because you are in a mediocre environment.

Maybe it's a social thing: you can't be as sharp as you want because that would make it socially uncomfortable for you. It's easier not to be the asshole and just go along with the flow.

The anti-whetstone is what dulls your mind, over the long term.


In my everyday life there is nobody I can talk to who knows more (or even close) about Lorca, contemporary Spanish poetry, or anything else I am supposed to know about, to be a big expert on. When I am in Spain, though, I get to talk to people like José Antonio Llera, Andrés Soria, Carlos Piera, Julián Jiménez Heffernan, Margarita García Candeira, José Manuel Cuesta Abad, Ada Salas, and Jordi Doce. I get to do this in Spanish, too. Of course, I can talk Spanish with my colleagues and students too, but it is not quite the same.

I also got to talk a bit with Attridge and others, too, in Córdoba.

So Spain is my whetstone. Maybe one of my whetstones, because the blog is too; other conferences I might go to. My Thursday tertulia can act like that as well, though the conversation tends to be more social than intellectual there.

Without this one has "one thought less, each year," so to speak. The scholarly base is still there, always, but the sharpening of the mind is something else.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


My Córdoba paper went well. The conference was on modernism, mostly in the English-speaking world, with scholars from Spain and other European countries. (Derek Attridge gave the other keynote, on Kafka and Coetzee. He is a very nice man.)

Anyway, I spoke in English and engaged the audience (something not very expected apparently) with my take on Lorca. I spent some time and Granada, and spoke with Andrés Soria, one of the main Spanish critics of Lorca, but really it seems that the place to study Lorca is the US. As always, Spain is energizing for me. I get to remind myself about the continuing existence of the actual country whose literature I study. Apparently the traditional parties are in crisis, with a new political formation "podemos" overtaking them in the polls.

It is warm here; it has been 80 degrees wherever I've gone, even here in Madrid on the 2 of November.