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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...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Trust II

This post is one of the most popular ever on SMT, at number 3 or 4. In it I said I was memorizing "Tintern Abbey" by W. Wordsworth, but had no idea why. I had to trust Jonathan's instincts without second guessing them. He had to know what he is doing, even if he didn't know what he was doing, wasn't able to offer a conscious justification

Well today, I realized why. I came across a summary of Schiller's "Naive and Sentimental Poetry" in a book by Valente. Now today I realized that my entire book is structured around this opposition. And "Tintern Abbey" is one of the most poignant reflections on this dichotomy. The poet returns to the banks of the Wye river and can no longer experience nature directly, "as in the hour of thougthless youth." Rather, nature becomes a source for aesthetic and moral reflection, to be enjoyed at one remove. Yet he sees his sister's "bright eyes" as a reflection of his own former self. Then he goes on to projects his sister's future, when her unmediated contact with nature will be "matured" into a more sober reflection, like his own. Naive reflection seems superior, from one perspective, but ultimately the "sentimental" view wins out.Thought over thoughtlessness.

Ok, so maybe I didn't have to memorize the entire poem and spend several weeks doing so!

But here, too, we see the dichotomy between conscious thought and the sort of unconscious thought processes necessary to produce truly creative scholarship.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Pomodoro Notes

I thought I would be smart and increase the pomodoro sessions to 35 minutes rather than 25. Of course, I got less done. Three sessions of 25 is more than two of 35 (75 vs. 70). And you can get much more done in those 75 minutes divided 3 ways than in those other 70 divided in half. Yesterday I put in in 7 sessions of 25, working on some translations. That is 175 minutes. I doubt I could have done as much in increments of 35 minutes.

Sacred (ii): translation as therapy

I have been doing some translation work this summer. Almost by accident, I picked up a book by Andrés Sánchez Robayna (a poet from the Canary Islands) that I had lying around. I memorized a few poems, then realized that some might be good candidates for translation. I posted one or two on my blog, and a friend of mine who happens to be poetry editor for The Nation wrote me that he liked it and wanted to see more. About the same time, another internet friend, Matt, asked me for translations for another journal that he is involved in. I translated some more from this book.

Then I decided to send some more of these translations to The New Yorker and Poetry, as my friend from The Nation suggested. Now I have a good number of poems translated and am thinking about a Selected Poems in English by this poet. I'll be presenting some of this material in a reading at The Raven next Thursday.

What I find therapeutic about translation is the lack of ego. I can be the medium for the work of another poet. Unlike criticism, the point is not how smart I am. I do think I have considerable "chops" as translator, in all [lack of] modesty, but nothing really depends on this talent. In some sense, it is the missing piece of my scholarly career.

I consider the act of translation to be sacred, in the sense that the poetry itself is. The other poet speaks through me. In the [relative] egolessness of translation there is a kind of purity that I find attractive, in days in which the scholarly enterprise seems to be lagging behind. I'll always do scholarship, but I could see myself being mostly a translator for the next 20 years.

Friday, June 15, 2012


One significant part of my scholarly base is a group of people with whom I meet most Thursdays for drinks. It includes some very eminent people, such that I am not by any stretch the most distinguished. It is more social than intellectual, but it is a group with which I can be myself and talk about my research if I want to.

One guy from that group organized a reading group for the summer, in which we are reading Zukofsky's A. I haven't made it to the group yet, but I am going on Monday. Yes, we read difficult modernist poetry for fun over the summer.

Another group that meets on Friday has a slightly different cast to it, with an even larger and more diverse cast of characters (though with some overlap). In both groups there are writers, poets, artists, academics from KU as well as "townies."

You can google the title of this post to see what it refers to. Basically, I need to feel surrounded by other intelligent people as much as humanly possible. Once again, what is not work, per se, but keeps me connected to the sources of my work, is essential.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Follow up on "consumatory"

See this post by Thomas for a follow up on the discussion of scholarship, working hours, and leisure.

He suggests we don't want our creative scholars producing scholarship, teaching, and serving on committees for 60 hours a week. We need to factor in some creative leisure time for the regeneration of the soul and intellect.

What if someone was a composer of music on the university faculty. I personally wouldn't care whether the composer spent 5, 10, or 20 hours a week actually writing music. There are vastly different personal rhythms involved in work like this. As long as the composer could show that, within a two-year period, music had been written, that would be fine. Maybe the composer needs to do 10 hours a zen meditation a week, or take walks out in nature. We shouldn't really question that.

Now maybe scholars aren't "creative types." Maybe they need more regimentation. If they have teams of researchers and labs and grants, then they need to be held accountable. My own work, though, is much more like the music composer's than like the lab scientist.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


This guy has come up with a concept similar to my "scholarly base." In my opinion, this article is on the right track in some ways but flawed in others.

1. The word "consumatory" itself is unfortunate, in my view. It comes from "consume" but also suggests a kinship with "consummate," a word from a different Latin root. (You can see the commentators spell it as "consummatory.") A scholarly base is not, primarily, consuming things, using them up. If this is to be a defense of what professors do, then you don't want to emphasize the passive, consumer-like consumption of knowledge.

2. My concept of the scholarly base is much broader. It does not consist, only or even primarily, of reading other scholarship. For me, it involves reading primary texts of literature and philosophy, or listening to music and looking at art. Only a small part is reading journal articles in my own field. If that's all it is, then it wouldn't take too much time.

3. He emphasizes that scholars in non-research institutions spend a lot of time working on their scholarly base. That is true, but the best way of developing the base is to use it to produce more scholarship. You can't just "consume." If you are keeping up the scholarly base in a serious way, you will get ideas of your own you will want to publish.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Day 13

In 13 days of sabbatical and Seinfeld chain, I've done 37 pomodoro sessions, in numbers ranging from 2-4 a day. I've never done more than 4, or fewer than 2. Could I be working harder? I'm sure I could, but I am in a good groove the way I am.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Eaves-dropping on your own thoughts

Chances are you have a lot of thoughts related to your own project. You can listen to those thoughts and write them down as they occur.

A few things might happen. Sometimes the thoughts will be too inchoate or inarticulate. You can write them down, sure, but they won't make very much sense. To make sense of them you will have to write them in coherent sentences of prose, but this process is often very laborious.

If you spend too much time worrying about the shape of the sentences, you might misplace the ability to eaves-drop on your own thoughts. You have to develop some quickness here, some agility or flexibility in order to surprise yourself thinking, or to recognize a thought in your head as being an idea that you need to write down.

We've all been at the stage (in life, or in a particular project) where we seem to have suggestive ideas, but they can't quite make it to the page. I've seen it in myself and in my colleagues and students. I'm optimistic, though, that you will find a way to get the ideas down.

You are the person listening to your own ideas, taking dictation. The work is not having the ideas, but interpreting them, making sense of them. We say "It occurred to me that..." Ideas pop into one's head. Light bulbs flash. If not, it means you are not engaged enough in the subject matter, or perhaps not a good enough listener.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Inside Baseball

Scholarly inquiry is specialized by its very nature. The "inside baseball" nature of the questions we are considering often enters into conflict with the claims that what we are doing is vitally important to civilization. In other words, the specific debates seem trivial to an outside observer, the research questions rather insignificant.

Yet we can't just research vague things like "the human condition." There is nothing there to be had. Few scholars can bridge the gap between the triviality of the specific and the vagueness of the non-specific.If you can do that, even just a little, you can be very successful.

Where I see this conflict most acutely is in grant proposals. I reviewed one that ended up being successful, on some fairly obscure manuscripts of a major modernist poet from a Southern European country. The inverted pyramid that might justify the significance of this project might run from the importance of modernism as a literary movement, to the centrality of this particular poet, to the significance of these manuscripts in understanding the work of this poet.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Bad Brain

I never have a "bad brain day" when I manage to actually sit down to my work. I realize that days when I don't write are not only inevitable but necessary, but I don't really like them, except for what they teach me: that without producing scholarship I gradually become stupider and less myself. My chosen field of study emphasizes rich inner experiences, the kind that only happen when the subject engages deeply and intelligently with other rich subjectivities. It is almost impossible to have a bad day for one's brain while doing this.