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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...

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In Favor of Belletrism

In an article by Lawrence Venuti I re-read recently, "Towards a Translation Culture," the author rails against what he calls "belletrism" in translation. The idea of belletrism, as he defines it (he uses the word over and over again in his chapter, is that the translated text should be autonomous, that it should stand in its own feet. He traces the idea back to Pound:
Remarkably, Pound makes no mention of the source text when he describes the sort of translation that is “original writing” or aspires to be such through adaptation. He assigns it an aesthetic autonomy from the source text and judges it not according to a concept of equivalence, but according to the “standards” by which he judges original compositions.
One objection he makes is that belletrism is a-theoretical or even anti-theoretical: it cannot articulate the standard of taste which invokes. This standard is taken for granted: it is merely the standard literary taste of the target culture. Or, perhaps, the taste of an individual translator. But this is in fact a debasement of Poundian ideas about translation. What Pound was trying to do was to use translation in order to get into English the main achievements of what he felt were the greatest poets in all languages. The translations had to be good poems in the same way as the originals were good originally. So it wasn't a matter of achieving "fluency" in English, or satisfying existing taste, but of forging new kind of taste. There are ways that poets charged language with meaning, and translation had to live up to that ideal.

Venuti's critique is on target as far as it goes, but it falsely implies that there is a theory of translation that can resolve issues of aesthetic value. There are, in fact, many ways of theorizing translation, but there is no ultimate word, no way of deciding what the most valuable ways of translating are. It also subordinates poetics to translation theory. If translation theory is at the service of poetics, and not vice-versa, then we cannot appeal to a translation theory in order to sidestep issues of poetics.

Implicit in Venuti's critique is the idea that there should be another standard, perhaps not belletristic or tied to such a standard in the target culture. In some says, he already has his way, since I could demonstrate that translations often don't achieve results that would be acceptable to the literary culture: the culture of translation in fact makes allowances for texts that are not as aesthetically satisfying. In other words, if we took the idea of belletrism seriously, we might have much better translations (from this perspective at least).

Venuti claims that the absence of a theory means that translators cannot talk insightfully about their own work. Well, maybe not. Can poets talk insightfully about their own poetry? About poetics? Wouldn't it depend on the poet?

Venuti seems to think that negative reactions to his own translations have to arise from a lack of theoretical sophistication. In other words, since he has an elaborate rationale for what he is doing, his translation must be compelling.

Another bugbear here is the idea of fluency. For me, the idea that translation is autonomous does not imply that all translation should be have the same, fluent style. The problem seems to be in the lack of rigor of translations, that they are not belletristic enough, not Poundian enough in their commitment to poetics. Vent has been railing against the idea of fluency for decades now in a kind of tiresome way.

I want to play jazz piano and have a girlfriend who wears lipstick.

Classical Guitar

The last in a series of many dreams, early in the morning: someone was playing classical guitar with a tone so sweet and pure that I wanted to go to a music store and buy a guitar with that exact sound. I rejected this idea because I don't play guitar.


Here's how I might analyze my jazz piano / composition skills.

Coming along:

I have a good sense of song structure & voice leading, and I know chords in several keys. I don't just voice every chord as I, III, VII in the left hand as I used to (naively). I can put thirds in my right hand. I have a nice ear for cool sounding harmonies.

I am getting to where I can voice each chord exactly how I want to, and decide intelligently among voicings.

There is some agility in the fingers and a proprioceptive sense (I can play fine with eyes closed.)

Not very good:

Comping rhythms are stiff. I can't construct a nice sounding walking-bass line. I cannot improvise convincingly flowing lines in my right hand.

I don't know sus chords and never use augmented fifths. My vocabulary is missing some tonal registers. I use 9ths but not flatted 11ths and all those other alterations. I tend to overuse tritone substitutions. I can't play even one standard tune all the way through.


If you are good at anything, you will have analyzed yourself in similar terms. Even if you are not so good at something and want to get better. If you can't self-analyze, where are you?

Having someone else edit you is fine, even necessary. But editing is a final check once you've already got your shit together.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


I was just reading something to the effect that the ii-V-I progression actually just goes down two fifths in a row. Duh. I guess I should have realized that after working with this every day since last August, aside from a few travel days.

Monday, March 28, 2016


Walking out into the street two middle-aged Spanish novelists recall the elegant women of their youth,

movie stars, their mothers and aunts photographed as movie stars

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Son montuno

It occurred to me that I could probably learn a son montuno on the piano. That opens up other possibilities.


It's not inherently that hard but my fingers barely reach on octave and the whole thing is voiced in octaves.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Version iv: toward the B- version

The Dark Night of the Soul

He who hoards the night under the covers once again denies me entry to his quotidian love

and the word--a faint whisper of breath signifying almost nothing--at the day's first lark

weaves the fragile web of despair: the shadow boxer argues only against himself.

Most difficult of lovers, whom I chase till dawn: in your void my poem finds its craft.


It's a B- not because it's bad, but because it isn't consistently a poem yet. I haven't even begun to work on its metrics. The most challenging line is about the aphorism that if you are punching at the air, your real argument must be with yourself. Or something like that.


My daughter told me how she evaluated her own recording. She listens to herself several times analytically, each time focussing in on a specific factor: intonation (using a tuner), consistency of articulation, phrasing, metrical accuracy of subdivisions (are all the 16th notes even?), and general style. Then she records the piece again. Could a student do that with a paper before turning it in? Proofread for grammar and spelling, then look at each sentence for grace and comprehensibility, each paragraph for structure? etc...

The athletes on our number 1 rated basketball team also have to refine their skills analytically.


There is a season for being pedantic

but this is not it

Two accidents

Two accidents happened at once:

I melted a spatula in the frying pan

I wrote a new song

Friday, March 25, 2016

Noche oscura (version III)

The Dark Night of the Soul

He who muffles the night under the turned-down sheet once again denies me entry to his quotidian love

and the word--a faint whisper of breath signifying almost nothing--at the first lark

weaves the fragile web of despair: he who debates himself becomes his own enemy.

The most difficult lover, whom I chase until dawn: in your void my poem finds its handiwork.


I think I've gotten to a C+ version here. It remains pretty literal. I decided to go with a long-lined format, and to use the cognate quotidian. I decided to make explicit the reference of the title (Saint John of the Cross.) A translation might never get any better than a C. That doesn't mean that its worthless, just that it is not at a higher level than that yet. I found a translation of "embozar" as muffle. This verb does not occur in the poem, but the noun "embozo" does. Apiñar means stuff or cram. "He who cram night under the turn-down of the sheets."

I can't get anything out of "Amante el más difícil..."


I was reading the introduction of a volume by an eminent translator of T'ang dynasty poetry today. He states that he only wants to translate the "content" of the poetry,not any of that linguistic or formal stuff. He says that he aims to come up with versions of what famous Chinese poet would have written if he were a contemporary American poet. This cliché saddens my heart. What would Mozart do if he were a bebop drummer circa 1947? Probably he would not be much like Mozart. We can debate whether he would be more like Kenny Clarke or Max Roach, I guess.


March will be the all-time most popular month for this blog. I've already beaten the previous number of hits and it is only the 25th. It is probably nothing more than the fact the I have been sharing individual posts on twitter, google, and Facebook.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Everything matters

In a poem everything matters. The sound of words, typography, etymology. A grammatical category that might be inert in a non-poetic use of language comes alive in a poem. (By inert, mean that it is grammatically functional, but essentially meaningless.) Take the example of gender: a noun can have a grammatical gender, but that gender is essentially meaningless in everyday language, where we don't think of "el sol" as male in any but the grammatical sense. But in a poem, the gender signifies maleness. The sun is male, not just grammatically "masculine."

My idea for translation (one of my ideas) is that in a translation of a poem, everything should matter, just as it did in the original. By this I don't mean that it should matter in the same way, but rather that it should have that same feeling of necessity. I should think of the etymology of word, even if it is a different etymology than that of the corresponding word in the original text.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the translation should be a poem. You know it's not a poem when the translator starts justifying questionable choices with reference to the original text.

Noche oscura (Atencia)

The one who squeezes the night under the sheets once again
denies me as a guest of his everyday love,
and the word--the tenuous whisper of the breath
that barely signifies--with the first lark
weaves the fragile plot of despair:
against himself debates the one who battles by himself.

The most difficult lover, whom I pursue until dawn:
in your void my poem finds its making.



That would be a very rough version. Here's a second attempt:

He who bunches up the night in tangled sheets once again
denies me as a guest of his ordinary love,
and the word--a faint whisper of breath
signifying almost nothing--at the first lark
intertwines the fragile weave of despair:
the solitary combatant debates only against himself.

That most difficult lover, whom I chase until dawn:
in your void my poem finds its handicraft.



Still not very good, is it? Lines two, six, and seven, are very bad. The whole thing lacks any kind of satisfying rhythm. I discovered that "trama" means "weave" as a noun. It is also a plot (conspiracy) a plot (in a story). "Hechura" is the "confection" of a piece of clothing. I came up with "handicraft." I could come up with a C- version with a little more effort. It is lacking precision and musicality. It is not yet a poem. Only a few lines might survive:

and the word--a faint whisper of breath
signifying almost nothing--at the first lark
intertwines the fragile weave of despair


The next version would try to evoke some of the resonance some of the words have in English:

"Like to the lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate." "Full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing." "Oh what a subtle web we weave..."

He who hoards night under the fold of the sheet once again
denies me as a guest of his habitual love,
and the word--a faint whisper of breath
signifying almost nothing--at the first lark
weaves the fragile web of despair:
he argues only with himself who combats alone.

That most difficult lover, whom I chase until break of day:
in your void my poem finds its handiwork.


A good poem cannot have a hideous first line. tbc

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Roberta Quance, a while back, sent me her fine version of María Victoria Atencia's poems. This is her translation of one poem:

The hermits of Saint Jerome

The wounding light of the South, unkind to acanthuses,
comes to a halt as daylight reaches the door.
For an instant I am blinded as I step through the dark;
then the cool order of silence accepts me.
Beneath the ancient stone, of prayerful inscription,
a rumour of ashes quickens at my feet.

Here is my version:

Stretching through the day, the South's piercing light, contrary to the acanthus, halts at the door

I go blind an instant in the dark transit and the order of silence welcomes me with its cold

Beneath the ancient stone, praying in inscriptions, a murmur of ashes heartens with my steps

The original goes like this:

Los jerónimos

Por el día extendido hasta la puerta cesa
la hiriente luz del sur, contraria a los acantos.
Enceguezco un instante en el tránsito oscuro
y el orden del silencio me acoge con su frío.
Bajo la piedra oscura, orante en inscripciones,
un rumor de cenizas alienta con mis pasos.

Melissa Dinverno has spoken of "versioning" in the textual editing of Lorca. The idea is not to present one definitive text, but several, with a less fixed idea of what the text should be. In my first Lorca book I spoke of this in relation to translation. I would rather have more than one translation of a text: that is the advantage of translation: in German we can have only one version of a Rilke poem (unless he left us different versions himself), but in English we can have multiple Rilkes.

Here are some of the things I thought I needed for my translation:

There are places where Quance's version seems unnecessarily wordy. She has light and daylight, and a passive voice "I am blinded." She has "comes to a halt."

Preserve the paradox of "welcomes me with its cold." We think of welcomes as warm, not cold. Keep the parallelism of "con su frío / con mis pasos."

Quance in her introduction talks about the importance of the concept of transience / the transitory in Atencia's poetry. I thought it valuable to translate this concept with a cognate. I also thought the sound of acanthuses is ugly in English, but I wanted to keep the cognate of "contrario."

I thought the fluidity of the lines would be better served by less punctuation, and by three lines rather than six.

I used a present participle because "orante" is a word derived from a Latin particle.

I am not happy with the last line of my translation. Alentar is a transitive verb, but it is not clear who the subject or object is in the Spanish original. I've reproduced that effect, but a reader might think that this is translationese. Quance's line "a rumour of ashes quickens at my feet" is quite beautiful. Alentar means encourage. I looked in a thesaurus and found the verb hearten. Alentar comes from aliento (breath) and I like the fact that hearten derives from heart.

Neither of us is rigid about preserving the number of nouns, since I don't like the sound of acanthuses.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


I told a student who wanted to work with me: you have to be a reader of poetry first in order to be a critic. I would never criticize someone for not having read any particular author, but you should have pursued some reading interests.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Harvard Talk


Here's an exercise. Take this poem by Frost:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Now come up with a linguistically rigorous explanation, for each noun, crow, dust, snow, tree, change, mood, day... of why you have either: indefinite article, definite article, no article at all. You can skip my heart and some part. In absence of that, just explain in non-technical terms what is going on. For example, you can't say "the crow" at the beginning, because that assumes the interlocutor knows what you're talking about already, but you can say "the dust" because ... why? This is difficult... You have to say "The way" because that's always followed by some specification. I love you "just the way you look tonight." You can never say "I like a way that you say things..."

Now translate the poem into a language you know well enough that you have an intuitive or technically precise enough knowledge of its use of articles. Maybe it's Chinese and the poem would be crow, me, snow-dust, hemlock, heart... whatever, without any articles at all.

Now translate it back into English, but make it not a Frost-ish poem at all. Use the style of a different poet, one as unlike that one as you dare. It should be recognizable, but not parodic.

Now translate it into your own poetic style. This should be as different from Frost as Frost is from Pound.

I see translators all the time who don't understand that articles work differently in different languages. If you think this is easy then you aren't paying attention.

This is Just to Say

I prefer my own mediocre poems

to yours
How much Calvinism

seeps into the water supply?
To be professor

I don't need biceps


I saw a young woman in a Barnes & Noble in St Louis years ago with a t-shirt with some Calvinist slogans on it.

"Utter depravity" was the first one. I didn't get beyond that! Though she wasn't attractive it was suggestive, those words printed right over her bosom, even though the theological meaning is not very much fun, as I understand it. Sure, there are blander formulations of it, but those aren't much fun to make fun of.

How much of that Calvinism seeps into the water supply? What does it mean that a theological principle could also be the title of porno? Belief in human goodness does seem idiotic too. The belief that one is a good person seems absurd when there is much evidence to the contrary. Yet self-acceptance seems necessary, because it is better to say fuck it, this is as good as it's going to get, than to engage in self-flagellation. In other words, the self-flagellation might be justified, but it does no good and in fact makes things worse all around. And Jesus as a little escape valve from innate human depravity? Let's not even go there. It is dumb and repugnant in so many ways that would take me days to explain.

So why are academics Calvinists? Or are they Rousseau, Jesus-as-nice guy Christians? I'm talking not about someone's professed beliefs, but about the underlying theology that drives them. Are they actually Jesuits, Calvinists? What's going on there? When I figure it out I'll let you know.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


Anyway, this diary of poems I am writing was inspired by Haryette Mullen's Urban Tumbleweed, though I anticipate that what it will express has nothing to do with that admirable book. The idea is a simple one: to simply write down short poem-like things as they occur to me throughout the year, then select those I think are meaningful to me at the end. They can be snippets of a translation, or whatever. It might not last all year, because attention span.

For me, worrying about whether I am a good poet is counter-productive. In the first place, it's not for me to say, or for anyone to say about their own work. Let's just say there is a high probability of error, because few poets are any good. It doesn't improve your work to think about that too much, anyway. It's a kind of egotistical game. Of course, deep down I know I am a better poet than a lot of people who think they are ok writers. And here I am doing the exact thing I've said is useless: thinking about that at all.


I read this article once asking jazz critics to say what musicians they thought were over-rated. After reading it, I decided I knew who was over-rated: jazz critics.

Right Hand

One day on the keyboard

my right hand knew what to do

Friday, March 11, 2016

Lowering expectations

I mean this in the best possible way. I don't need to record 8 songs, 4 will do. I don't have to improvise great right hand lines or have swinging comping rhythms: I just need my piano playing to be unobtrusive, tasteful, and to be able to give me a tonal base so that I can sing to it. I don't need a bass player, or to have drums on all my tracks.

Golden Rooster


Little golden rooster,
tell me your secret

The Rooster

Lift up with your cry
the tombstone of night


The concrete image

The concrete image seems to be the thing: with that, the poem is likely to have something. Without it, it swims upstream to be heard (mixing my metaphors). But the image always says something about the person who's observed it: who noticed it, and why? Is the image self-consciously poetic ("gossamer wings") with the intention of making the observer seem like sensitive soul? Clever wordsmith? What then? Even humility is a pose.

Rosemary & Thyme

Romero y tomillo
¿aroma de champú
de la cena del profe
o de una canción popular?


Rosemary and thyme
the aroma of shampoo
a professor's dinner
or a popular song?
Thought I was a poet
but couldn't write
simple lyrics for my song
Inane anecdotes

maybe a turn of phrase

thought up in the shower

Lost, magnetic money clip--

I saw it after several months

as I stooped to fill an air mattress--

clinging to the metal side of

glass top desk
Scent of fresh meadow--
minus the manure--
the promise
never kept for long
of toilet bowl cleaner

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Funny Thing Happened

I started to learn the chords for some standards, starting with "Dedicated to You" and "Alice and Wonderland." A funny thing happened: I realized my songs were not as good as those. Of course, this is obvious and expected. I am not a professional songwriter. Moreover, to become a standard, one of the 400 or 500 songs in the canon we might call "the great American songbook," a song had to rise above the level of thousands of other songs that were written by professional songwriters. So to even compare what I can do to even a lesser "standard" is a kind of category mistake. I like my songs because they are mine, and because I put in them melodic hooks and cool-sounding chords that I like.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Busy Brag

Don't busy brag. The message you think it conveys is that you are hard-working and important, but it really conveys the message that you don't manage your time well and that you commit to things you can't finish.

Don't failure brag. This consists of thinking your setbacks are worth of respect. We've all had grant proposals rejected, so there's nothing particularly meritorious about it.

Don't complain about the low level of your students. What you think it means is that you are a great intellect giving pearls to the swine. But anyone can teach good students: it is almost effortless. Teaching actually means meeting students where they are. The easiest thing in the world to do is pitch a class above the heads of students and then complain about them.

Don't humble brag. The humble brag consists of complaining about something bad in order to brag about yourself. "I'm so mad at myself because I've only published three articles this year."

Suffering doesn't ennoble you, it is just suffering.

Monday, March 7, 2016


I had an image of myself as not a very good teacher or service person. While there was some basis in fact for my low image of myself, in my performance long ago, I have decided that these beliefs about myself are no longer very useful to me.

These beliefs must have had some utility for me to have clung to them, but they are actually not as useful as I thought. Paradoxically, to believe that one is bad at something is a form of egoism. It is actually more obnoxious and damaging than falsely believing one is good at something. Both are forms of egoism, but the negative form is more damaging.

I could think of myself as a bad piano player. It is very true that I know a small fraction of what I need to know (in the sense both of knowing and knowing how), to play what I want to be able play. The consequence of this is that I can learn something new every day. Instead of being bad, I can think of myself as in the learning-very-fast-because-didn't-know-much-before phase.

Or I could think of myself as a good songwriter because I wrote songs with no formal training and they were ok, but taking the good and bad judgment out of it is actually the most helpful thing. Being able to write a song at all is an amazing thing for me.


I decided to learn a song from a fake book. I chose "Dedicated to You." I actually know, at some level, hundreds of jazz standards, so I already have a good starting point.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Dimiinshed chord

I dreamed that the position my body was in while sleeping corresponded to the intervals in a diminished chord. So I was on my side and that corresponded somehow to a minor third, a flatted fifth, and a minor seventh. If I shifted onto my stomach to sleep that would be the maj7 chord. Yes, it makes no sense.

María del Reposo

I set this to music: "María del Reposo / te vuelvo a encontrar / en la fuentefría / del limonar."

I had done it before, and didn't like it, but since I still remember the melody it must not be too bad. I didn't remember the chords or even what key it was in, so I am re-inventing it.

The chords are tricky for this. I seem to remember a diminished 5th. It was either in Ab or Eb.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Jazz piano

Every thing begins with an idea. I have always wanted to play jazz piano, and now I am doing it, albeit at a lowish level. I see no possibility of getting worse with practice. There will be a plateau or two, with steady progress between the plateaux, and then a point at which I won't get better.

It strikes me that the key with these kinds of things is neither to underestimate nor to overestimate the difficulty of it. If you think it is going to be easy, then it is easy to get frustrated. If you think of it is impossible, then you won't even imagine doing it. My approach is just to get lost in it when I am doing it. I could spend 15 minutes trying out variations of a few chords. The other day I closed my eyes and I could still play some of my songs fine.

Most things, you can probably do. Ride a bike, make ceramics, or grow plants. If you are interested enough in it, that is. I am quite sure that I could be a crossword puzzle constructor. Some day I'll want to do this, though not now.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Mystery Solved

I bought a fountain pen and promptly lost it. It was not expensive. as they come, about $70, but I scoured my apartment and office, intermittently, for months. I was mad at myself. I had an idea of where it might be, but it wasn't there or anywhere close.

A few days ago, in my office, I glanced down at the floor under my desk, and there she was.

Some Steps

I am taking some steps to correct things in my life that are amiss. Some of them are too private to mention here, but they include:

*Running every other day
*Improving sleep
*Piano playing and music making / composition (every day)
*Not reading random blog posts and comment threads
*Keeping my apartment cleaner
*Working at work and not working not at work


The translation workshop is taking shape. I have a few students who have signed up and I have designed the first part of the course, with the first three assignments. I want people to work with me in very specific ways, taking particular steps in their work rather than randomly giving me translations to critique.

Spread the word! This is going to be awesome.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


My keyboard playing is improving, though I can't see progress every day. My voicing have been rather boring up to now, with the left hand playing root, third, and seventh. Right now I have to get my playing and improvisation to the level that my composition is at, rather than trying to write many more songs. The left hand patterns have to be more fluid and dynamic, in voicing, movement, and rhythm. I have to be able to play right hand chord extensions in between melodic improvisations.

With things like this, you can't see progress from day to day, but from week to week or month to month progress should be evident.


I read one book that said: first learn the melody, then the bass line, then add the thirds, mostly in the right hand, then the sevenths, mostly in the left, and finally other color notes. That allowed me to change up my voicings right away, though it was not easy at the start.