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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Juan de Yepes

I've solved half of the mystery of Saint John of the Cross.  I'd always assumed that he was always a canonical figure, but he was not. I've found a dissertation (Recepción de la obra literaria de San Juan de la Cruz en España : (siglos XVII, XVIII Y XIX) / Antonio José Mialdea Baena) that shows that he hardly registered at all in literary terms and only enters the literary canon in the late 19th century with Menéndez Pelayo. So he wasn't a figure influencing any of the baroque poets, and was even more eclipsed in 18th century poetics. This explains why he isn't translated into English earlier.  

For Lorca, Salinas, Guillén, Borges, Gelman, Valente, Colinas, maybe Cardenal too, he, not Góngora, is the supreme poet of the language. Probably for JRJ too. So we have to figure out how this happened. They were born into a world in which he had just become canonical, but they were still concerned with reading him outside the purely Carmelite context.

Valente complains about the secularized readings of this mystic poet.  Guillén and Dámaso Alonso want to read him as an erotic poet, decontextualizing him completely. Yet wasn't this secular reading necessary just in order to make him mainly a figure of interest within the context of Catholic contemplative practices? We might remember that Pope John Paul II wrote his dissertation on this figure, in Rome in 1949 or so, but hardly mentions anything to do with the poetic qualities of the text, as far as I can tell.

Imagine if Neruda was one of the foremost Marxist philosophers of his day, and his poetry was almost an afterthought for 95% of readers. That reading his poetry presented a special problem of intentionality, trying to find a non-communist reading, etc...


The problem of mysticism is a false problem, I think, based on the mistaken idea that poetry takes an emotion in the poet and communicates it to the reader. It is only the reader who supplies the emotion, actually, in the sense that the poem cannot make me feel an emotion of which I am not already capable. Imagine the scary music in the horror movie.  Does the film score composer have to feel that emotion first and then convey it to us?  No. There is no need to think about the composer's emotions at all. We simply associate certain kinds of musical tension with certain emotions, and then these patterns have also become codified in the same way the open arpeggios of Western movies are codified for those landscapes. We might respond in many ways to a poem, laugh at a poem that is meant to be tragic, for example.  Of course, we rebel when we are told what to feel too explicitly.

So we don't have to get into the mystic's head, recreate his experience.  Our own heads are self-sufficient.  The proof is that everyone recognizes his greatness as a poet almost immediately.  It is immanent in the poems and we don't need all the commentary to do so.  For most of us, the commentary gets in the way, of course.  The idea that we should read the poems as though their author wasn't a mystic, of course, is profoundly off base, since it poses a false dichotomy between one theme and another: we are supposed to feel that everyone can identify with the love story, but only another mystic can feel mysticism.


I  typically have four or five books out that I'm reading at any given time. I have notebook now just for the purposes of recording everything I've read completely through.


I am looking at a translation of Reverdy, in the NYRB / Poets series, edited by the indefatigable Mary Ann Caws. It has translations by Padgett, O'Hara, Asbhery, Rexroth, and Caws herself.  Some of this is leaving me cold, in terms of the translations.  If you didn't know any better, you'd think Reverdy is writing very freely, but looks how he starts a poem with an alexandrine: "Les yeux à peine ouvertes / La main sur l'autre rive."  It looks like he will prefer units of 6, 4, and 8 syllables throughout this poem.  And he rhymes when he wants to as well, but not regularly.  Jakobson says that any grammatical feature, if repeated, becomes poetic, so "Une heure tombe / Il fait plus chaud." Two present tense verbs in two phrases of equal length [4 syllables].  Rexroth's "The falling hour / It gets warmer" manages to destroy this very simple and easily translatable passage. "The hardly open eyes / The hand on the other shore." Notice how Reverdy begins every phrase at the beginning of the poem with the noun or pronoun: les yeux, la main, et tout, la porte, une tête... "The hardly open eyes" destroys this effect.

"Et tout ce qui arrive" = "everything that happens there." Maybe arrive simply means happens, but it seems weak, flat. "Le soleil prend toute la place" = "The sun fills everything."   That is simply banal.  Prendre is take, seize.  Place could be a plaza?  So the sun seizes the entire city square. Rexroth also doesn't notice when the poem shifts to the past tense for a few lines. He translates the imperfects as present.  

There is little that is cantabile in KR's translation here.  He messes up basic syntactic parallelisms and even phanopoeia, the most translatable aspect of poetry: its visuality.  Reverdy's delicate tone is nowhere in evidence.

Granted, Reverdy leaves little space for the translator to move around in.  The simple, French 101 syntax is uncompromising, especially since he uses syntactic parallelism as a musical device.

{To be fair,  I turn the page and find a perfectly fine translation by the same poet.}

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

More on Rhythmic Perception

So aside from perception of pattern, meter, and tempo, there have to be other more nuanced perceptual qualities to rhythm.  Just off the top of my head, let's say there is expectation and anticipation, or the forward projection of where the rhythm is going, along with the fulfillment or disappointment of these expectations. There is the perception of being on top of the beat, dead on it, or a bit behind (rhythmic feel), and the sensation of a soloist floating over the meter with a broader beat.  (How broad or narrow is the beat?). There are sensations of kinetic energy (I want to dance! is the music driving forward, swinging, bouncy maybe? Is the energy more vertical, bouncy, or horizontal [forward moving]) or rhythmic interest or boredom (monotony, variety of patterns). There is harmonic rhythm (how fast the chords are changing or not changing underneath the melody), and the rhythmic phrasing of melodic ideas.  There is the complex play of symmetry and asymmetry, tension and release, regularity and fluidity, the perception of structure over longer periods of time (feeling the piece's entire structure as a rhythm.) We could say a very crude idea of perception would ask the questions of fast and slow (tempo), triple or binary pattern (meter) and repetition of patterns.  If the brain cannot perceive all of that on a basic level, then these higher level nuanced perceptions won't come into play.


The idea of perfect or near perfect identity between the translation and the original is a metaphysical ideal far more difficult than the demand that the translation be as good as the original. Logically, as Borges has shown, it is not impossible for the translation to be as good, verbally speaking, as the original.  It is difficult:  say the poet is Borges and I am the translator.  Since I am inferior to Borges as a poet, then I won't be able to match him or, even less, surpass him. It is easy to see, though, that this is a contingent fact.

But the idea of matching a poem in all its aspects, and making it virtually identical, a near-perfect simulacrum, is not a difficulty but more like an impossibility.  Doesn't translation involve change by its very nature?

Translators are always talking about sacrificing one thing for another, or balancing, compromising. The original poem (as we view it at least) is completely uncompromising. It is what it is. The mentality of the translator, horse trading some meter for some literal meaning, or some nuance for some comprehensibility, is completely different.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Out of Pound and Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhythm Perception

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017


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