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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...

Saturday, April 30, 2016


I'm not a textual editor, so take this cum grano salis, or with several. Textual editing can be oriented toward

*the creative process. Here the interest is in the process of the text before the definitive version, or the revisions among several editions.

*the final product, representing the author's final say about what the text should be.

(Other factors can also intervene, like readability or textual convention.)

My interest in primarily in the text's reception, so I tend to gravitate first to the text that the first readers would have seen, or to editions that have had a wide diffusion. Maybe that's why I'm not a textual editor.

More monk

I remember reading in a book on Monk, by a German scholar (whom I should forgive because this was one of the first serious books on Monk) that Monk wanted to look at the sheet music before recording his Ellington album. The author thought that this was an indication that he didn't know Ellington's music very well. It wouldn't occur to him that Monk would want to study Duke's music, one serious composer to another, before recording it. Here's the thing. Monk would play the same songs over and over, not just his own, but also the standards that he liked the most, at any given time. I doubt he would just go into the studio without studying the music he was going to play, and just jam on Caravan or Sophisticated Lady.

Friday, April 29, 2016

"If you're a theory nerd, Jonathan Mayhew's Apocryphal Lorca rocks"

Or, I hope, even if you're not a theory nerd.

In writing a series of poems that entered into dialogue with Lorca, whose work has been so been so instrumental to me as a poet, I considered the boundaries between reading and writing, and history and myth. How has Lorca’s biography intersected with interpretations of the dynamic body of work he left behind? Furthermore, how does my own cultural and historical perspective inflect my engagement with his work? As a PhD student at Florida State University, I read Jonathan Mayhew’s Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch, which makes a pretty convincing case for the invention of ever-shifting “American Lorca(s)” via 20th-century English language translations, apocrypha, and the claims made on his legacy by the purveyors’ aesthetic and theoretical movements like Ethnopoetics, Queer Theory, the Black Arts Movement, the New York School, the Beat Generation, and Deep Imagism. Through the Lorca persona poems in Spectator, I try to get at the unstable boundaries between emulation and imagination, and influence and invention.

Kara: Historically and culturally, Lorca’s sexuality was taboo, but to the contemporary reader, it seems so evident, I think. I’m fascinated with ways in which self and (social) world intertwine, and Lorca seems to me an embodiment of this overlap. So yeah, it also became a question of how to enter into Lorca’s persona while still making the mask obvious. I mean I can’t and didn’t want to mime Lorca (who did it first and best). So the whole thing was a challenge.

Brian S: He’s someone I wish I’d read more of. I’ll have to make time for it. You’ve re-piqued my interest in him.

Kara: Excellent. Poeta en Nueva York is a great place to start.

Jennifer: Those were some of the most powerful poems in the book for me… maybe because they speak so well to the other poems that wrestle with desire in more contemporary situations.

Kara: If you’re a theory nerd, Jonathan Mayhew’s Apocryphal Lorca rocks, too.

I find it wonderfully gratifying when I find poets and dramatists who have continued the tradition of engagement with Lorca after reading my own book about the subject.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

More Monk

Very simple forms, and sing-song, singable melodies. Kitschy stride patterns. Percussive, repetitive patterns. Physicality. Humor.

Intellectual eccentricity. Harmonic complications. Dissonances. Weird vacillations.

So complexity and simplicity. It's cerebral on one level but deeply moving, with emotional depth and a variety of other emotions, humor, tenderness, melancholy.

The melodic gift is undeniable. That is primary, with distinctive approaches, as well to harmony, rhythm, and timbre. A lot of original compositions by jazz players, well, they are not melodically distinctive. You wouldn't remember them. I saw on you tube part of a concert, and the leader announced that they would play an original composition called ... and then they proceeded to play "Sophisticated Lady" with a disguised melody.

The Recovery

I played a wrong chord on my recording, in one the better takes so I had to use it. What I did was to play another chord right after, making it seem like the wrong chord was an intentional dissonance that led to a resolution. The trick is to make even wrong notes seem appropriate in their context. Similarly, a hesitation before a chord, I prefer to see as Monk-like, even though it was actually the result of my inability to remember what the chord was supposed to be.

I also find that my playing does not swing. In fact, I don't hear most of my songs, even in my own head as I imagine others might play them, as swinging. That might be too bad, because I like swing in music I listen to, but I don't really want to force the issue either. I have rhythmic patterns in my head that are simply not those. You will notice in Monk's playing that he doesn't use the same bebop rhythms as Bud Powell, or the countless Bud Powell knock-offs. Each player, whether Oscar Peterson or Monk, or Powell, or Evans, has a kind of template for how they are hearing and producing rhythms. When you hear someone say that a musician does not swing, it could be that they are like me (incompetent) or else maybe they do swing, but in a way different from the template you associate with swing. For example, one jazz critic was driven crazy by Peterson's rhythmic conception. Many think Bill Evans couldn't swing, although they are obviously wrong. Swing is not the most evident quality of Duke Ellington's piano playing for that matter.

Monk had several rhythmic conceptions. For example, a deadpan, singsong stride imitation that he would use to play "Lulu's Back in Town" or "Sweet and Lovely." A hesitating, halting, vacillating style that I hated the first time I heard, that he would use in solo work especially on his own tunes and slower ballads. And a bebop style.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


In addition to being able to hear the flaws in my playing (at least I can hear those with come clarity), when listening to a song I've recorded I can also hear the chords as chords, without the intervention of my fingers which play individual notes. I know what the chords are, because I came up with them and played them, but I couldn't identify them as such if someone else were playing them, so I can hear them more purely, as colors.

If I can hear what I'm doing wrong with some precision, then I can correct it. I can hear that connections can be more legato, or that I rush in certain places, or hesitate too long for a fermata. Isn't listening a more important skill than playing, then?


My playing should be much more legato, I noticed. I never use pedal even when I play a real piano, because I have a hard time coordinating that, but I should be able to play very legato even without that. I need good phrasing, dynamics, and articulation. I don't need to worry about speed, though. I'll inflict this first effort only on close friends and family.

I should work on two songs at once, and then record them.

Monday, April 25, 2016


I went into the studio today. In our public library there is a free music studio, which is nice. I find it interesting to analyze the mistakes I made.

*I was too eager to record and should have practiced a song at least five times there in the studio before I even started to record.

*I should have deleted more bad takes and saved myself time later on.

*I should have just recorded three songs and done them perfectly rather than six or seven badly. I needed to have rehearsed those songs for a week at home, playing nothing else. Things I play perfectly every time at home seemed difficult to play with the tape rolling (well, no actual tape was involved.)

*Not hiring an engineer was smart (not a mistake) because it allowed me to make a fool of myself with no observers. I know that when I hire an engineer for the final project, I will by then know a little better what I am dong.

*It wasn't a mistake to go into the studio before I was ready, because I needed to see what it is like first. If I had gone in thinking I could get final takes I would have been more disappointed.

*Hearing my songs played back at me, I realize that they are better than my playing of them is. That is good, in a way.

*I thought I'd use a metronome to keep my time steady. That was brilliant. (Except for the fact that I hadn't practiced with the metronome, so having to do this for the first time while recording produced a cognitive overload. I lasted less than one take with a click in my ear.)

Still, these mistakes mean that the next time I will come up with better results. I'm glad I didn't try to record anything more than piano for the first time I tried this. The vocals and drums will have to come later. I realize that practicing on a keyboard that has no dynamics is not great, because it took me a while to get so I could play phrases with musical-sounding dynamics. My playing is missing a whole dimension. I also learned, though, that I know what the dynamics are supposed to be even if I can't execute them well. By the end of the three hours, I was playing how I wanted to be, within my modest limits.

I have been playing for less than a year (after the usual childhood lessons I mean) so I shouldn't be hard on myself.

I will send you my cd, if you want to pay for the postage. It is an amateur effort so it might not even be worth the postage and price of a blank cd, but I will be willing to share.

Friday, April 22, 2016


Anxiety, old friend,

feel free to come and go, but not to stay




Here's my idea for the day. IWell, I really had it yesterday but will tell you about it now. I will take about half an hour and develop it as much as I can.

A critic (Bonaddio) uses as epigraph to a chapter on Lorca's early poetry (Libro de poemas), Oscar Wilde's quip that "all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling." Right. This is funny, it rings true and implies that poetry is bad because it stems from an excess of sincerity. Nevertheless, my idea is the opposite (Mayhew style). Sentimentality is a form of emotional dishonesty. Lorca's problem in this book is that he wears a literary disguise, inherited from poetic styles not his own, the inheritance of the turn of the century. I'm sure he is sincere, in the sense that he is not saying the opposite of what he means, but he is hiding behind a mask. To the extent his poetry here is "bad," it is bad in precisely that way. The aesthetic response we have, insofar as it is negative, is not an embarrassment at too sincere a confession of personal details, but rather a vergüenza ajena (the embarrassment we feel for someone else) stemming from the highly artificial nature of this literary construction. So I take it back when I said that Lorca's poetic speaker in this book is confessional. What he is doing is dressing up his emotions in a costume that he thinks will be appropriate. He hasn't yet found the aesthetically honest language for his poetry. Of course, if we want to read him as being closeted at this point in his life, that is true as well, and perfectly consistent with his need to don a mask. I now will argue that the poetic speaker here is not "Lorca" but Lorca's idealized and fictive literary speaker.

I know the speaker is fictive because the scenes of enunciation are fictive, as in the poem where he is talking to the children in the square and he says he will go find Jesus Christ to ask him to restore to him his childlike soul, or when he is talking to the ocean and the ocean answers him. All lyric speech is fictive, actually. Poetry is a genre of fiction, and its fictional nature is seen mostly in the fact that the speech act depicted is invented. Nobody could actually say it outside of a poem. This is super obvious, poetry 101 analysis.

The mistake is in thinking that sincere poetry is an unbearing of the self, when it is really the encounter with an honest, unsentimental poetic language.

Aesthetic feiglures (I typed that word wrong and then liked the way it looked, the g is silent)... Failures of this type are indices of other kinds of deficiencies, other kinds of dishonesty. Oscar Wilde's irony is more sincere because we know that it is reflection of an honestly earned position.

There, that is half an hour's work. Tomorrow I will add these ideas to my chapter in a more academic style of writing.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


At the poetry reading the other night I began to compose my own poems in my head. One was going to be titled "The future is a foreign country." It was about how the future had a spurious clarity to it, and would send back simplistic messages to our shifting, shiftless present. How the main flaw of the future was its reverence for the crappy wisdom of a past more distant than our present, a past which, after all, in its own time had only been a shiftless present of its own. There is more to it than that, various twists on the relation between past, present, and future, that I could reconstruct if I wanted, though in a different configuration. I do remember the phrase "shifting, shiftless present," which I was quite proud of at the time. I liked how those two adjectives seemed to both negate and complement each other.

The second poem was about how I could weave fictions of my own while listening to a superb poet read her work, but that these fabrications would dissipate once the reading was over. I would never write these poems. The electrifying creativity I would experience was a form of resistant listening, that would never have been possible without that poet's voice. The third poem I have forgotten.

I thought afterwards that I should have turned off that counter-narrative, listening only to the voice of the poet I was there to hear, rather than weaving my own poems in and out of hers. It was a failure of reception. Or maybe not. Maybe mine was the proper response. Would I want my listeners to turn off their mental monologues and attend only to my insistent voice? I don't think so.

Realizing what you know

Even as a little kid, I knew

The blues progression (I, IV I, V IV I).

The so-called "50s" progression. (I, vi, ii, V) ("Heart and Soul")

With that one, I also absorbed the ii V I itself.

The Andalusian progression of I, flatted seven, flatted six, and V. ("Hit the Road Jack")

I knew that a lot songs were just I, IV, and V, in various combinations, and that you ended on the tonic, that if you played any triad with only white notes you could just improvise freely using white note melody notes as well, or do the same in any other set of notes from any other major scale. I knew what AABA form was, or ABAB. These are not complex structures to understand.

So when I started to write songs at age 55 I was basically putting together things I had known my whole life. I threw in a few recently acquired chords and substitutions, and just added ninths to everything in a facile and amateur way to make it sound sophisticated. My first songs all had the same progression, going ii, V, iii, iv, ii, V, I, with minor variations. For some reason I liked to have the subdominant be minor chord rather than a major, and to use the tritone substitution for V freely, and to substitute iii for I.


Not realizing what you already know can be an obstacle. Maybe you really don't know much, in which case it will hard for you to be a scholar, but you might know more that you think.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Routes of Egotism

I was looking at something on JSTOR. The routes of egotism led me put my own name as author in the search box. I wondered what I had to say about a book of conference papers on Machado I reviewed in '95. From this review I discovered a very good article that begins with the premise that the speaker of Machado's poem is not Machado. This is great. I was impressed enough by this to note its excellence in my review, but I had completely forgotten it. (Ricardo Senabre).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A few clichés,,,

"Could it be a coincidence that...?" [It could hardly be an accident that just at the same time as blank, also blank.]

This asserts that a coincidence is not quite a coincidence, but actually a stronger form of correlation or even causation. But it does so covertly, not by demonstrating what is causing what, but simply by relying on the skepticism of the reader, who presumably doesn't believe in coincidences.

"Blank is the general case, and blank is no exception."

This one goes from the general to the specific by asserting that the specific is no exception to the general case.  There are more interesting ways of moving from the general to the particular, though.  Do we expect this case to be an exception, or not? Is it a particular kind of embodiment of the general case that is noteworthy.

"... does not happen in a vacuum..."

Here the appeal is to context and nuance, but no specific context is invoked. What you really want to say is that the best context for understanding the phenomenon under consideration is this one.

You might want to avoid these particular kinds of reasoning.


I got this book of kind of simple Oscar Peterson etudes. I should be able to play the one this little girl is playing in maybe a few months.

Heartbreakingly literal

I was reading a heartbreakingly literal-minded article on Lorca. The author said that Bernarda's "no ha de entrar en esta casa el viento de la calle" was meant "literally." Well, no. This is what's known as figurative language. This author also thinks that Bernarda shoots Pepe (well, he shoots at him, but misses, not quite the same thing). The article is not completely wrong, and does make some legitimate points. It is clearly written and informative, even. But there a couple of things like that, in the phraseology and the accuracy of representing the texts.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


It's nice to know that this exists. I am composing a song in D that uses one of these cliché progressions (I vi ii V), but the song does not sound cliché at all, I'm hoping. One of the elements of learning a language is to be able to use clichés effectively. While the native speaker is slave to cliché, the second-language learner struggles to speak in them naturally and effectively.

Friday, April 15, 2016



“‘What does it matter who is speaking,’ someone said, ‘what does it matter who is speaking.’”


"What matter who's speaking, someone said what matter who's speaking."

Yes, it matters. Look at the difference between 1, the way Beckett is quoted in the translation of Foucault's essay "What is an author?" and (2) the punctuation as this sentence in Beckett's Stories and Texts for Nothing. The translation of Foucault rationalizes Beckett, by adding quotation marks and a comma. It also destroys the characteristic Beckett phraseology: what matter. Of course, he wrote it originally in French: "Qu'importe qui parle, quelqu'un a dit qu'importe qui parle." But of course the translation into English is Beckett's own.

This rationalizing translation undermines the connection between Foucault and the avant-garde literature of his own day. Well, his lecture was given in 1969, and Beckett started to write these texts in 1950, publishing them around mid-decade. They weren't super recent, but it takes a while for literary theory to catch up with creation.


I realized that I have tended, from my earliest songs, to make the main melody notes the 9th degree of the chord. So if I start the song on D min, say, the note will be an E. This might be why all my songs have the same distinctive tonality to them. It's kind of a cheap trick, but I'll take it.

I was reading a book about Duke Ellington that emphasized his use of color. It is called The Ellington Century by David Schiff. I recommend it. I am increasingly drawn to music that has that visual, chromatic quality to it. Ellington and Strayhorn, Bill Evans & Gil Evans. Of course, everything has a color, even non-chromatic music. That color is just different.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Talent Show

I love the department talent show. I will be playing drums behind some others and then playing and singing a song on the piano. Corny, yes, definitely. The instigators are the graduate students but the faculty also gets into the act, a few of us at least.


I once read a book about Duke that claimed that he did not know how to play stride piano.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


To bad translations of Rilke that made us fall in love with Rilke

To fountain pens I don't know how to use and soap that slips through my fingers

Clumsy fingers that nevertheless manage to fold the omelette

And figure out all by themselves the fingering to a scale

To amateur talent shows with their unexceptional beauties

To the twenty-thousand breaths of a day and other pointless calculations

Let us not redact or renege, refute or renegotiate

The warmth of April evenings or the taste of a pear


To walking bass lines and shaving brushes

The pathos of ear-wax and small misplaced objects

And pepper-mills two feet tall!


To "the winds of March that made my heart a dancer"

To "the cold and rook-delighting heaven"

To "young cherry trees secured against hares"

To "precious friends hid in death's dateless night"


To Belle Lettres (whatever they are!)

To the literati and their harmless pretentions

To kitsch and schlock, and their countless cousins

To exclamation points and other signs of unearned exuberance

Everything we were taught to hate by the snobs of yesteryear

But also to you, the despisers of sentimentality

Hard-nosed artisans of the word who know how things are supposed to be said and done


We will toast to "Lulu's back in town"

But not to small resentments and sore throats

Tell me what else you would like me to include and I will go on longer


To cast iron and batting cages, to everything percussive and pure--

Nothing half-assed, half-cocked, half-baked,

Nothing out of kilter, out of whack, off center,

Nothing under the weather, under advisement, under review.

There is a time for murkiness, another season for fussy nuance

But now we must dance to a broad, comfortable beat

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

2016 diary so far

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


Rosemary and thyme
a professor's dinner
or popular song?



Little golden rooster,
tell me your secret

The Rooster

Lift up with your cry
the tombstone of night



One day on the keyboard

my right hand knew what to do


To be professor

I don't need biceps


Two accidents happened at once:

I melted a spatula in the frying pan

I wrote a new song


There is a season for being pedantic

but this is not it


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


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


I relearn the bass line to "Bemsha Swing"

My stubby fingers play fast scales

I buy a notebook for these poems but write them down in the computer instead

Prednisone makes the world seem unreal




Two sprigs of rosemary plucked
from the sidewalk, squeezed
between fingers. Its smell.
It lasts still, I say every time.

[Miguel Casado]


Vile coffee shop smooth jazz mix
interrupted by Bach's cello
or Monk!



To bad translations of Rilke that made us fall in love with Rilke

To fountain pens I don't know how to use and soap that slips through my fingers

Clumsy fingers that nevertheless manage to fold the omelette

And figure out all by themselves the fingering to a scale

To amateur talent shows with their unexceptional beauties

To the twenty-thousand breaths of a day and other pointless calculations

Let us not redact or renege, refute or renegotiate

The warmth of April evenings or the taste of a pear




Anxiety, old friend,

feel free to come and go, but not to stay

Holding Myself Back

It is strange that I hold myself back in so many ways. This pattern might be familiar to you. You make an assumption about yourself. "I don't really know how to, so..." Of course, one's incapacities are very real. The mistake lies in falling back on them as excuses.

There are several things I haven't done yet. Publish a book of poems, or a book of translations. I haven't recorded a cd, etc... I can make all kinds of excuses.
Hating tourist poems
I fall silent

Monday, April 11, 2016


The conformists are them / never us.


Vile coffee shop smooth jazz mix

interrupted by Bach's cello

or Monk!

New email rules

I've decided to check email at 8, 12, 4, and 8. This means I can clear my box out four times a day, and still keep up with actually important mail.

Matching pitch

When you're singing, you can play a note on the keyboard and then sing that note. That's fine. But what I'd like to be able to do is to sing a note in my head and then match it on the keyboard.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Speeding up

It just took me one using a metronome play once of my songs to realize I have a tendency to rush. That was very useful information delivered in very simple and useful way.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Bemsha Swing

I had the chord changes to the Monk tune BS playing in the background and improvised (singing) over them. I came up with some ideas though they were a bit repetitive.

Then I tried to do the same on the piano. Now my ideas were more simplistic. I could come up with something to play and a few felicitous phrases, but not nearly as good as I was singing, and the rhythms were not bebop enough. The idea would be to bring those two things closer together. There was a satisfaction in doing something badly because I was gathering significant information about my ear.

Translation Workshop Update

My workshop is going incredibly well. The students are doing what I ask and the results justify my methods, and making me a smarter person too just by studying with me.

My newest idea is that you might want to hear the translation in your head as a melody before you write it. That will be the basis of assignment four, which is going to be a translation of the poem into something cantabile.

The next time is going to be more formal. I want to give it as an online class through the university, and there will be tuition money involved. Or maybe not. I think I could give it again just on the side, if I had more students. It is a lot of work, and each student adds work, but I also think if what I'm offered is valuable it should have a recompense.

Practice Tip

Study something difficult for one day of practice, something that you are struggling with.

Then the next day go back to something easy. You will find that it is even easier than before.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Two sprigs

Two sprigs of rosemary plucked
from the sidewalk, squeezed
between fingers. Their smell.
It lasts still, I say every time.

[Miguel Casado]

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


I saw Branford tonight. The reaction of my companion: this music is more fun for the performers than for the audience. My reaction: there were a lot of scales played up and down, but the solos did not tell a story.

I enjoyed the concert, because the level of musicianship was super high. Yet I know why people don't like jazz. That story telling aspect is missing.
One day I remember hearing something on the radio and thinking: oh, I didn't know there were recordings with Art Blakey and Paul Chambers together. I like this story because it makes me look more of a jazz expert than I really am. The point, though, is that there is a level of granularity in one's knowledge that is essential.


I invented this hack called leapfrogging. The idea is to write three sonnets (or songs, or whatever) and then go back and revise the second two. Now write a fourth and a fifth Then rewrite the third and fourth, etc... When you have written 10 this way, then go back and choose the best two and revise those. Start again with a new sequence.

The idea is to improve by two ways: doing more writing, and going back to revise. A new piece will be better because you've written more, and because you are also going back to revise. The idea is that the first one will not need to be revised: that's just to get your feet wet.

123 write
23 revise
45 write
34 revise
56 write
45 revise
78 write
67 revise
9 10 write
7 8 revise
9 10 revise

Choose two poems to revise from among 1-10.

Repeat entire process 5 times

or something like that.

A revision should be complete: every line should be different.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

There was a time

There was a time in college where I had what I thought were very good ideas, but I struggled to formulate and express them. Writing itself was arduous. I often got A minuses, in English classes, especially, whereas in every other class I would get an A or A+. I definitely had a vision that I wanted to articulate, but I didn't identify very much with the way literature was taught. I'm sure the profs were correct in not thinking these papers were extraordinary.

In Grad school I still struggled, but now I could articulate my ideas in a way that other people thought was good. After that I simply knew what I was doing and did it.

So the formative stage was the first two years of grad school.

Can you hear it?

I found out something significant recently: if you can't play something on the piano, it means you aren't hearing it correctly. So it is incorrect to say "I can't play what I am hearing." You should say: "I can't hear what I want to hear."

Monday, April 4, 2016

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Can I Get Good?

Can I really get good at jazz piano? I really have no idea. If I think I can get good, then I will just keep playing.

Right now my idea is this:

Learn six of my own songs so that I can play them perfectly each time. I will record these at the studio in the library, first doing just the piano version, with no vocal or drums and not even any improvisation. I need to have an aim that is as modest as possible.

Then, for my next recording I will redo these songs with vocals and drums added. I need to develop drums tracks for them, then play piano along with the drums (in headphones), then add vocals.


Sorry, this prednisone is making me angry. Here's one more thing:
Pound’s essay is filled with intriguing ideas, but it is the statement of a practitioner, not a theoretical formulation, and he does not make explicit exactly what the standards might be.
Venuti is condescending to Pound, one of the great theorists of translation. The idea that Pound did not make wholly explicit his aesthetic standards is risible. Surely the entire prose works of Pound do nothing but this. That is his entire aim in all his writing about poetry. To see him as some vague and impressionistic practitioner of "belles lettres" is just dumb.

There's another thing missing. Pound translated to get at specific elements in the source text that he wanted to us as / for his own poetry. He didn't just translate every text into some generic "Pound poetry." So Cathay is different from the Seafarer. He held translation to a higher standard than anyone else.

More Belles Lettres

Venuti says:
The belletrism stretches back to the early twentieth century: it originated in modernist literary practices, particularly in the insertion of translations or adaptations in original compositions, but also in the polyglossia that characterizes many modernist texts, the use and quotation of foreign languages, whereby the reader is turned into a translator. These practices erased the distinctions that can usually be drawn between first- and second-order creations, permitting a translation or adaptation to be regarded as an original composition.
I don't think this is right. I think there is a long tradition of holding the translation to the standards of contemporary literary production. In other words, when Dryden translated Virgil, he was writing Dryden-type poetry. When Campion translated Catullus, he came up with a nice Campion poem:

My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love;
And though the sager sort our deeds reprove,
Let us not weigh them. Heaven's great lamps do dive
Into their west, and straight again revive,
But soon as once is set our little light,
Then must we sleep one ever-during night.

This has a functionality for the poet: he can set this poem to music and sing it along with the lute.

What is new, I think, is translation that is not belletristic, that holds itself below the standards of what poetry ought to be (according to whatever taste prevails). Of course, no translator thinks they are doing this! The reason why this happens is that these are just not very good poets & translators.

One of the reasons for not being good is a kind of half-assed assimilation of sophisticated translation theory. This theory infects translation practices, as when a half-assed translator cites Benjamin in his introduction. You shouldn't even be citing Benjamin's task of the translator unless you understand it and how it relates to the translation you are doing.


One more thing that irritates me about Venuti's argument. He uses his own rejection as evidence. An editor said that his translation of a minor Catalan poet didn't blow his head away (citing Emily Dickinson.) "Editor X was kind enough to reply, explaining that the poems 'didn’t make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.'" Well, no. These are kind of run-of-the-mill ekphrastic poems about Hopper. They are not wonderful, and in translation they aren't either. They are mildly interesting, that is all. For the editor to say, well, they didn't blow me away, is an honest response. It has nothing to do with the editor's supposed lack of translation-theory-sophistication.

Vent doesn't seem to realize that there are readers for whom poetry is this amazing transformative powerful thing, and that look for those effects even in translation. He call, quite explicitly for a different standard!
I pressed further: had Editor X ever considered that translations, by their very nature, should be judged differently from original compositions in English, or that the standard might include but should nonetheless differ from a visceral reaction that is evidently rooted in a homegrown sensibility? [emphasis added]
He digs the hole even deeper for himself, I feel:
Yet I could have taken it much further. Should an English translation of a twenty-first-century Catalan poet, I would have asked, be judged according to a concept of poetry formulated by a nineteenth-century poet in the United States? Why should we hold a poet who writes in a minor language and whose literature is underrepresented in English to a standard articulated by a poet who, after a shaky initial reception, now occupies an unshakeable position in the canon of American literature? Are the values enshrined in that canon inimical to Catalan and possibly other foreign poetries? Can a poem that took the top off the head of a reclusive, self-absorbed woman in nineteenth-century New England do the same to an anglophone reader today? How appropriate or fair is the application of that metaphor to translations of poems written by a Catalan man who works as a cultural editor for a Barcelona-based newspaper?
What does the fact that this poet is Catalan have to do with anything? Are Catalans incapable of writing great poetry? Does working at a newspaper make one incapable of mind-blowing art and poetry? Do we have to call Emily "self-absorbed"? Finally, is Venuti really so literal minded as that? Clearly the citation is meant to be a hyperbolic way of saying, nice but no thanks: the work you have translated is a bit underwhelming. It is cool that this Catalan poet wrote about an American painter, and that an American translator found it and brought it back to English. Other people published Venuti's translation of this work, and it all worked out fine. Why make someone's lack of enthusiasm symptomatic of something else?

Another argument for "belletrism"

Here's another argument: a translation of a novel is a novel. A translation of poem, if it is in verse, is a poem. Translated literature, then, is, in fact, "belles lettres." A reader of a novel in translation is reading a novel, and does what a reader of an untranslated novel does: she follows the plot of the story and keeps the characters straight in her head. The spectator at a play in translation does what other theater spectators do. A reader of poetry-in-translation is a poetry reader. Translation is meant for such purposes.

Are translations a separate category of text? Yes. Should a reader know that he is reading a translation. Yes. But translations are written for translation theorists, but for readers. Readers need to feel that the version they are reading has real autonomy.


I could still accommodate a few more people in my workshop. It started yesterday but there is still time. The students really hit home runs on the first assignment. Don't you want to be part of this?
I relearn the bass line to "Bemsha Swing"

My stubby fingers play fast scales

I buy a notebook for these poems but write them down in the computer instead

Prednisone makes the world seem unreal