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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...

Saturday, April 29, 2017

In early James Tate

In early James Tate there is a fine movement of surprise.  You never know whether a phrase is going where you expect it to, or in the opposite direction. Of course, if every line was surprising, the effect would quickly become wearisome.  Enjambments are deployed in a savvy way to keep the reader guessing. You will find surprising phrases like "lachrymal glands," but they are surprising because most of the words around them are not like that.

In the later Tate, the whole poem is one more coherent parable, and the cleverness is in the entire conceit, with less subtle movements from line to line.  It can be enjoyable but I find it tedious even in small doses.

Domestic Arrangements

There is a randomness in my heart

grit between my toes

There is a precision in your tongue

molasses in the cupboard

origami alligators

in the rafters

where we seldom go

Friday, April 28, 2017

Bly vs Machado

he abierto muchas veredas / I have opened paths through brush                   17

soberbios y melancólicos / angry and melancholy                                        

pedantones / academics                                                                                 

tabernas / ordinary bars

gentes / men

que no son amargas / not really serious                                                         23

se eterno / cristal de leyenda // its eternal / fountain of story

borrada la historia / the history lost

sobre la orilla vieja / here on the beach                                                          29

criptas hondas / deep vaults                                                                            31

y quimeras rosadas / and mythological beasts, rosy ones

y las campanas suenan / bells are asleep                                                        33

Crece en la plaza en sombra / el musgo                                                        35
In the shady parts of the square, moss / is growing

nuestra sola cuita / our only concern                                                              37

el agua cantaba / the water was composing                                                   39

divino / religious

gran cantar / marvelous lines                                                                         41

los poetas míos / poets I admire

Colmenares / ¿ya no labráis / have those beehives stopped                          45

enjauladas / that were in cages                                                                       49

la voz querida / the voice I loved so much                                                     51

la mano amiga/ the hand that loved me

tu pobre huerto / the garden entrusted to you                                     57

ni vagamente comprender siquiera / 

I don’t even have a general understanding                                                                                                  

estrella / guide

el alma niña / the soul like a young woman                                                  69

y la pequeña historia / and the history not long

Incomprensibles, mudas,  /nada sabemos de las almas nuestras

We know nothing of our own souls / that are ununderstandable and say nothing

Tal vez la mano, en sueños / It’s possible that while sleeping the hand          71

 Gotas de sangre jacobina / A flow of leftist blood                                          83

la mansion que habito / the house in which I live                                           85

cabalgando contigo a tus entrañas
ride with me, as far as I go, deep into you                                                       87

quién sabe / lo que se traga la tierra

Is is certain / how much the earth actually eats                                              103

Está el enigma grave / there is a third serious puzzle                                     107

la palabra / human language

junto a su tomate / next to his darling tomato                                                147

siempre al son que tocan bailan
When the sound is heard people dance                                                            149

un corazón solitario / a heart that’s all by itself

it’s ok                                                                                                               151

es mejor soñar / then it’s better to be asleep dreaming                                    153

y reposó, que bien lo merecía
and rested, which rest it certainly deserved                                                      155

rapaz / speedy                                                                                    157

sent out for punishment to attack constantly                                                   

chopos de frío / cold poplars                                                                           165

a estos jardines de limonar  /to these gardens with private lemons                 167

I can't prove I'm right

The translation of Machado's: "Al borde del sendero un día nos sentamos."  [At the edge of the path we sit / sat down one day."

Almost all the translators construe this verb as a present tense, but I think it has to be a past.  The form is identical with this verb, but I can't understand what a present tense verb is doing with "un día."  What is the present supposed to be here? It cannot be today, since "un día" is any day except for today.  It cannot be a present of habitual action, since it is "un día," not "todos los días."  So it must be some other kind of present. It could be the historical present ("one day I sit down and ask myself, what am I doing here... etc..."). In this case, though, the past translation works just as well, though. It could be the present used to talk about the immediate future:  "Mañana vamos al cine."  I don't hear this much with "un día," where the future is much more common.

The rest of the poem doesn't help much to decide the issue.

Ya nuestra vida es tiempo, y nuestra sola cuita
son las desesperantes posturas que tomamos
para aguardar ... Mas Ella no faltará a la cita.

[now our life is time, and our only care are the despairing postures we take to wait... But She won't miss  the date.].

I know I'm right, but the translators are against me, and I cannot prove that I'm right.  I tried to google the use of "un día ..." with verbs in the present and found very little, mostly uses of the presented of repeated action.  I found a lot things like "Somos los que un día bebemos Koolroff, Barmons o Velero y al siguiente Absolut."  Willis Barnstone agrees with me at least.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Barnstone: Machado the imagist

I read all of Barnstone's first published translation of Machado yesterday.  80 Poems.  It is very good, with prefaces by JRJ and Dos Passos.  The image I got of Machado was an imagist poet, with strong visual imagery, fluent free verse. Together with Tomlinson and Levertov, some of the first Machado that got into English was very good.  

The wave of later translations was not so fortunate, in many cases, with Bly's notorious tone-deafness.  I feel the argument of this article coming on.

How to Write a Poem (ii)

VII.  The first line of a poem must be given (donnée). It must pop into your head just like that.  I have had many lines appear to me for which I found no continuation:  "My father was not beaten as a child." The first line of a poem must be great, or there is no hope for the rest of the poem.  Can you think of a poem that starts off badly and is still great?  I'm sure there have to be lines less good in "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones" than the first one. Or "Among twenty snowy mountains."

I just had one this morning:  "There is a randomness in my heart." I can imagine this as the beginning of one of my bad poems quite easily. I have no idea where it came from or where it might lead, but it sounds off-kilter enough to be a good beginning.

VIII. When you think of a line from a poem, you can think of it in two ways.  You can think of it as a phrase someone might say in real life, or as a special kind of utterance.  Now a real life sentence might not work in a poem, because you think that the poet has not taken the first step in writing poetry. He might just be incompetent, and not know that you just can't do that.  On the other hand, a poet who seems to know that a poem has to sound different will write in a pretentious diction. We ask her to write lines that someone might think of using in real life.  So there is a narrow band of language that works somehow as both special utterance and language borrowed from real utterances.  It has a poetic charge to it even though the words don't seem particularly different from what someone might say.

Duncan uses an elevated tone:

I am liable in the late afternoon
lingering to remember in the various cities
the familiar streets, clock-tower, magnolias,
to remember, reconstructing yet not 
faultlessly as then, for the singular vision
has departed, reconstructing the cities
in sand, not faultlessly, roughly,
impatiently...   ["Fragment: 1940"; The Year as Catches 15]

This works for him (not always though). His ear is musical. Even when you don't feel he writes perfectly, his poetry is true to a particular conception of what poetic ought to be. I could select lines and passages from this book of early poetry to try to convince you he is a bad poet, but he is also a poet capable of the lines I've just cited.

There is another aesthetic called "ars est celare artem."  The idea is to write without any obvious poeticism, but without prosaic flatness either.  The artfulness is concealed rather than overt. So you would have Creeley instead of Duncan.

If we look at contemporary poets, we can see that each one has to come up with an individual solution.  Some depend on the inherently poetic qualities of language in its raw state, so that they can incorporate historical documents or bits of conversation without effort. Some work with parody, deliberately muted effects, or a compressed but slightly precious diction.

IX. One way of approaching all of this is to start with poets who are obsessed with craft, like the poets of the Objectivists and Black Mountain School, with some New York School thrown in.  You should read Ronald Johnson, Ken Irby, Eigner, Levertov, Niedecker, Ceravolo. Among the poets favored by the more academic side, you need to read Jean Valentine and Elizabeth Bishop.  It is hard to imagine being a good poet without having assimilated poets like these.  Early James Tate is also excellent.

You can get an excessively strained and stiff quality to your writing, though, if you never loosen up a bit. You need to explore the forbidden side too, break some taboos. What do you fear?  Fine writing?  Sentimentality?  Pretention?  You might be paralyzed by a fear of being thought not talented, or by an avoidance of any number of things.  It is hard to hit the sweet spot where the writing is going to feel just right.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How to Write a Poem

I. My first idea here is that the Poundian / Williamsian idea is still the basis of what most people are going to think of as a conventionally good poem: rhythmically fluent free verse, with a lot of concrete visual imagery, and a lot of concentration (saying a lot in a few words). The register will be basically colloquial as well. There won't be a lot of dead metaphors or predictable sequences of words as what one might find in prose. So you can't have "I want to make one thing perfectly _____," where the reader can fill in the blank with the expected word.

This standard of writing might be historically contingent (it is) but it is still in force, in that departures from it need to be justified. This is how James Schuyler wrote, or Lorine Niedecker or Denise Levertov at her best.

This is also how we judge poetry of the past, in a sense. Though we might tolerate more rhyme and meter, elevated language and archaism, we still want that concentration of meaning and a strong poetic eye.

II. That is about 90% of it there. Most poems fail because simply because they don't follow those directions and depart from them in quite unintentional ways. Often, a beginning poet will seem to have read no poetry, and has heavy-handed prosaic effects, but with no knowledge at all that he's not supposed to do that.

III. The rest is fine tuning. The main area of fine tuning, once the poem is filled with concentrated visual imagery, is about getting the persona who is speaking the poem exactly right.  This means adjustments in register (up or down) and a really fine-tuned hearing of the language.

Everything to do with logopoeia is necessary to make the poem its own unique utterance, not merely a conventionally good poem with lots of sensorial images. You cannot make a poem sound too poetic with words like shimmering. Instead, think of using words that come from a different context: "a sodium pentathol landscape / a bud about to break open" (James Tate; emphasis added).  

IV.  The poem should seem both inevitable and unpredictable.  So if it is predictable, you see what's coming a mile away, or "telegraph" your intentions. Thinking of hitting someone (forgive the violent imagery but no better metaphor comes to mind). A boxer who telegraphs his punches signals in advance what the punch will be, and thus makes the defensive move, and even the other fighter's next offensive move, quite easy. We know the kind of poem that sets up its humorous premise early and then gives the expected answers. Notice too how the use of statistically frequent combinations of words unnecessarily telegraphs your intentions.

On the other hand, the poem should move with some degree of inevitability as well. If it is merely unpredictable it won't make much of an impression. Think of reading a poem line by line and not looking at the next line (keeping it concealed under another piece of paper). Each line surprises, but in a way organic with the rest of the poem.  The next line can disappoint by being too predictable or too far afield.

If you know what the poem is going to say beforehand, you will end up being very predictable.  You need to discover the meaning of the poem while you are writing it.

V. We want to avoid poetic devices that every other poet uses, like a simile every other line, or a first person speaking in the present tense. There is a contextual sense in which a poet has to be savvy about what the conventions are, and not see them simply as the only possible option.  Poetry will seem amateurish if it simply falls easily into certain stale patterns.

VI. If you look at poets like Robert Duncan, you will find he doesn't care about certain things.  For example, he will be turgid and abstract, archaic or pretentious in diction, etc...  He cares, but he doesn't see anything wrong with that.  Or many contemporary poets combine use the "dim lands of peace" construction that Pound condemned.  The attempt to write the conventionally good poem, then, could just be a form of timidity. When I depart from these rules, which I do in every poem, I see them as a foray into bad poetry. So any kind of bathos, deliberate use of "dim lands of peace" constructions, overt sentimentality or triviality, is what I tend to favor.  That tends to work better for me than earnest attempts to write the good poem.  In fact, I modeled myself after Kenneth Koch, who I didn't realize was writing much more in earnest, many times when I thought he was being purely parodic. Or maybe I am wrong about that.

The Passageway

We think of music and poetry as contiguous spaces. They aren't the same thing, but there is a passageway between them. So the number of poems that can be set to music (that I can imagine setting) is a rather small percentage of poems I like in other ways. And if I write a tune first, I find it extremely difficult to come up with a satisfactory lyric, so the passageway is narrow in both directions.

Imagine it were different? I suppose if I was working in a poetic genre already that was tin pan alley or madrigal, then the tunes would come easily.

Poem found in old notebook

Sonnet of the Two Visitors

The visitor leaves no trace of herself

She drinks your coffee and sleeps in your sheets

But leaves things as they were

If anything a little cleaner

She doesn't love you

That's why she comes when you aren't there

You don't love her

How could you, if you've never seen her?

I much prefer the one who leaves behind aromas

lipstick marks on wine glasses

There is something pure I can still taste

She steals the taste of my mouth when she leaves at dawn

A stirring of the loins, perfumed strands of hair on my pillow

Monday, April 24, 2017


I overheard this conversation last night between two students Northwestern university.  They talked about how an English professor would invite the students to denounce the politics in a reading they had done.  Like, he would say, "what did you think about the political appropriation in the text..."  They would take the bait...  and then he would reveal that there was no such thing happening in the text.  He would use this technique to see who hadn't done the reading. They were eager to jump in with a political denunciation, especially when they hadn't done the reading.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

my students

In my undergraduate translation class my students refer to a "change" or "cambio" when the translator deviates from the original.  Of course, I point out that translation itself is already a change, even at its most literal.  They tend to be literalists, and want translations to adhere closely to the original in all aspects except metrical.  They are adept at finding fault, and are very sensitive to register.  The don't like "girls in heat" for "muchachas amorosas," in Belitt's translation of Neruda's "Caballero solo."

I chose this poem for an in class translation exercise because it has a variety of registers that refer to sex, from vulgarity and clinical language to religious, romantic, and euphemistic discourses.  He uses the verb fornicate (its Spanish cognate rather) to refer to animals, and the adjective preñada, usually used for animals, for humans. Bly objects to Belitt's translation by claiming that Neruda's attitude toward sex is positive in this poem (it's not!) and that Belitt makes it sordid. Belitt does make it sordid, but often in the wrong places.  Even though Neruda's attitude is largely negative, it encompasses a wide range of attitudes and registers, some quite ironically.

Ear Worm

So after a choir rehearsal of more than two hours, in preparation for today's concert, I went to bed and of course the entire concert was playing in my head all night, whether I was asleep or awake.  I could switch between songs if I wanted, but I couldn't shut off the music.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Belitt Paradox

This refers to the tendency of translation not to live up to claims made for it. We might also formulate it like this: the more pretentious or grandiose the claims, the less likely the translation is to fail in quite spectacular ways.

Another formulation: when there is a claim to "equivalence," but the equivalence pulls us in the opposite direction, something is amiss. So, for example, if there were a claim that the equivalent of a baroque style was a plainspoken one...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

La trêve

I watched this Belgian series on Netflix.  It was fine.  I learned that to say you're sorry you say "Je suis desolé[e]." And that putain  is a useful swear word you can put before any noun you want, or as a stand alone curse. ça va is an all purpose expression as well, as question or answer to question. I used subtitles, but subtitles in French, which didn't exactly correspond to the French dialogue of the actors.  This was good, though,  because I could note the difference to myself as I went along.


I put together some poems from 2016 and 17; a reader of the blog has kindly offered to make into a coherent shape, something I find myself incapable of doing at the moment.

More from the climate study

9% of respondents indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual conduct while at KU.
i. 1% (n = 75) of respondents experienced relationship violence (e.g., ridiculed, controlling, hitting) while a member of the KU community.
2% (n = 104) of respondents experienced stalking (e.g., physical following, on social media, texting, phone calls) while a member of the KU community.
6% (n = 413) of respondents experienced unwanted sexual interaction (e.g., cat-calling, repeated sexual advances, sexual harassment) while a member of the KU community.
2% (n = 157) of respondents experienced unwanted sexual contact (e.g., fondling, rape, sexual assault, penetration without consent) while a member of the KU community.
  Undergraduate Student respondents, Women respondents, LGBQ respondents, and respondents with a Disability more often reported unwanted sexual experiences than their majority counterparts.
  The majority of respondents did not report the unwanted sexual experience. 

These numbers add up to 11%, not 9, but some may have experienced more than one category of "unwanted sexual conduct."  Once again, these numbers are believable, even a bit low, and more or less proportionate to what one would expect. For example, you might expect sexual advances to be more frequent than stalking. You'd expect relationship violence to be higher than that, especially if it includes non-physical "controlling" and "ridiculing."

Fewer than 3,000 undergraduates (out of 20,000) filled out the survey.  We can't know what the numbers would have been if everyone filled it out, or if a different 3,000 had filled it out.  3,000 is a large enough sample size (way more than adequate), but it is not random, since we don't know who chose to respond and what factors motivated them to respond, or to refrain from responding.

[UPDATE: I almost misread the last sentence here as "they majority of respondents did not report unwanted sexual experience." Well, yes, 91% did not report it! Actually, it means that the majority of this 9% did not report their experience to the university after it happened. Poor reading on my part, but of a sentence that is not very well crafted.]


KU is 72% white. An editorial in the paper today said that 37% of students (according to the climate survey) had considered leaving the university, and that among the main reasons was not fitting in with this majority:

According to the report, 37 percent of students have seriously considered leaving the University at some point. The top reasons cited by these individuals include diversity-related issues and lack of support. This comes after many high-profile protests that ultimately resulted in the recent establishment of Multicultural Student Government (MSG).

Now 37 + 72 is 109, so these numbers do not quite add up, especially since we can't think that every single non-white student who answered considered leaving the university for reasons for "diversity related issues." Of course, it's possible that a white student is gay, or feels so strongly about diversity issues that she wants to leave the university for that reason.  Still, this leaves me scratching my head. As I've complained before, putting several different kinds things in one sack and then telling us what the sack includes is rather uninformative.


If everything is a matter of debate, then we are essentially nowhere. We cannot even think, because we have to question every possible assertion and thus cannot make any progress.  In translation, nothing seems uncontroversial. My own views sometimes seem eccentric to me, simply because they are out of step with prevailing practices.  Yet I believe, on some level, that they should be beyond controversy.

My view is that a poet has certain stylistic features that are not open to controversy. For example, we could say that enjambment is frequent in a poet, and back it up empirically. We could say that certain poets are more concise, condensed, than others. Certain things stick out, the kind of things that would be in a parody for example.  Everyone should be able to agree on certain things.  It could be that our views are not accurate, but they are open to correction at least.

Secondly, I think that the stylistic signature should be in the translation as well. In other words, you wouldn't use end-stopped lines to translate mostly enjambed ones. Concision and concreteness should lead to concision, so that when Bly translates palabra (word) as human language, we should say he is wrong, uncontroversially.  A baroque poet demands baroque translation, a Hemingway style should be a Hemingway style in whatever language.

I know these matters actually are controversial, because translators do not do what I say they should.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


We got this email just now on the climate survey that we filled out earlier this academic year:  

"Unwanted sexual conduct: A small but meaningful number of respondents experienced a range of unwanted sexual conduct while at KU, and 2 percent, the majority of which were students, reported unwanted sexual contact. Of those students reporting unwanted sexual contact, 72 percent indicated alcohol was involved. The contact was most likely to occur during the fall semester of an undergraduate’s first year. Regrettably, only 12 percent of individuals who said they experienced unwanted sexual contact reported it to KU offices."

This, to me, is completely believable. First, that the number is 2%, that the majority of people reporting it are undergraduate students, and that the conduct occurred in the Fall semester of Freshman year.  To percentage of events involving alcohol and the reporting rate are also highly verisimilar.  A climate survey of this type is almost guaranteed to provide some bad news, and since filling it out wasn't obligatory people who have had bad experienced might be more inclined to answer in the first place.  We know that negative events are more psychologically salient.  The overall finding of the survey are not all that out of line with reality either, though I think more than 68% of the faculty has considered leaving.   

It takes some cognitive dissonance to see this findings and reconcile them with a recent display near the library that paraded the 1 in 4  / or 1 in 5 numbers for rape. 

Students also report social marginalization.  There is a large category that includes both being bullied and being ignored.  It would be useful to know what the breakdown is, since those are two quite different things. Ignoring someone is almost a default in many situations, whereas bulling is active aggression       

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


In a dinner with department members and a visiting speaker, someone asked me about versification. What was the equivalent of the Spanish romance?  I started to talk about the ballad form, its history and prosody.  I cited Robert Burns, My love is like a red red rose. I mentioned that it was the same as the stanza used in many hymns by Isaac Watts.  En fin....  They asked me about the Alexandrine...  I was like, don't get me started.  I could have lectured all night.

Machado (iii)

In Machado's classic self-portrait, he has some things about how he is financially self-sufficient:

... A mi trabajo acudo, con mi dinero pago 
el traje que me cubre y la mansión que habito
el pan que me alimenta y el lecho en donde yago

Here's the interesting thing.  He switches up to a more literary register in the parts I've italicized here.  So "I go to my job, with my money I pay for / the suit that covers me and the mansion in which I reside / the bread that feeds me and the fancy bed where I fancily lie."  He could have said "la cama donde duermo."  Yacer is a rarer verb, usually used for the dead (hic jacet in Latin). Yago is a an alternative conjugation instead of "yazco," but the verb is not frequent in the 1st person singular, since it is used of the dead. Here it is used to rhyme with pago.  

9 out 10 translators would not even notice this shift in register. Since Machado is supposedly a down-to-earth, simply poet, this simply does not register.  Another example in the same poem: he wants to be remembered not for his craftsmanship as a poet, but for his exploits as a soldier: he will leave his sword valued for the masculine hand that wielded it, not for the "docto oficio del forjador."  But in order to make this point, he does this:  

.... Dejar quisiera 
mi verso, como deja el capitán su espada: 
famosa por la mano viril que la blandiera, 
no por el docto oficio del forjador preciada. 

In other words, a virtuosic display of verse construction! The word order is unnatural, but it ends up fitting perfectly, the lexicon is at a high register, once again.  

This is the poem that made Machado's modesty a commonplace. But a poem that shouts out "look what a modest guy I am" has to have a lot of irony to it.  You'd be surprised how hard it is to get students to see this.   

I'm not saying Machado never used a less literary register: he does at time in this very poem, but overall critics are mistaken in taking his claims about his own language at face value rather than looking at the words on the page.  He railed against the baroque and put distance between himself and Darío, but there is a lot of Darío in him, and not only in the poems where he pays homage to the Nicaraguan poet.    

Machado (ii)

I'm discovering some of the richness of response to Machado that I found with Lorca, with some overlap among the translators of the two. This cannot be a book just on Machado, but I have too much to say about Machado (after 4 days!) to be an 8,000 article. I think I will have a chapter on Quevedo and Vallejo, another one a refutation of Venuti and revindication of Pound. I think a scolding of Rothenberg's Lorca suites is in order, but I don't want to single him out.  I'm thinking about the failure of modernist translation. In other words, good poets who ought to know better who produce translations that betray basic principles.

I could have another chapter on different things I've found out about translation: the wisdom of crowds, etc... Yes, I can write this book.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


I watched a Finnish and a Belgian police procedural on NETFLIX, several episodes each.  They are NETFLIX original series.

A police detective moves his family from the capital to a backwater, after some scandal or misbehavior in police work. Of course, the minute the detective lands in the new town, murders start to happen. Each detective has a sexy daughter of about 18. Each fights local corruption, etc... There is no actual difference in tone or mood between these two series, except all the plot details of the actual murders, and that one has a wife who's died of cancer, and the other's wife is recovering from cancer.

So what is NETFLIX doing? Producing subtitled series in other countries that are identical to one another?  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

It is about 9:30 a.m.

It is about 9:30, the day before Easter.  I wrote my poem in bed before I got up, got up, had coffee and took a dump. Wrote down my poem, played piano for a while, did some other blog posts, and wrote down 500 words in an article.  Basically, I have accomplished everything I need to do today.


If you type a word wrong, erase it, and re-type it, you will often reproduce the exact same reversal of letters of the first attempt.  I've sometimes done this three or four times with the same word.  You have not identified the reason for the mistake, and you are actually reinforcing it in muscle memory rather than correcting it. I live on a street called Emory, and I often type is at Emorgy, for no good reason.  My fingers just want it to be energy, perhaps.


I started a new article on Machado in English translation today. I had 500 words before I knew it.  I'm thinking this is going to be a significant article, and maybe the seed of another book. I don't want to do a whole book on Machado in English, but I think it could be a chapter of a book that included other chapters on the fates of other poets in English. I'm sure I could come up with a more imaginative organization of the material once I get ideas for the other chapters.

I. Introduction: the idea of translation as a part of poetics.
II. Machado
III. Quevedo and Vallejo: translation of logopoeia
IV.  Something else
V.  Something else
VI.  Conclusion

I saw a rather bad dissertation on translations from Spanish the other day. The guy was talking in very simplistic ways about bad and good translations, and argued that a poet's influence depended on the quality of translations.  He would have one chapter on a good translation, Borges who helped his translation, and another on a middling translation, and then one on a bad one.  It wasn't good.


Frustration and satisfaction are perfectly balanced when one is learning a new skill. The frustration is not even frustrating and the satisfaction if never completely satisfying. They are in complex dynamic. If the ego interferes too much, then the frustration tells you you are not good, and the satisfaction tell you are good, when actually both messages are kind of beside the point. What you are training yourself to do is to do more of the good stuff and less of the bad, that is true, but from that perspective all the information you are receiving is good information.

RENOUNCE / anatomy of a bad poem


There is a sweetness in your eyes

that makes me want to give up gambling and yoga

Remembering the sweetness of your eyes

I practice self-defense against tortoises,

am immune from the charms of Andalusian seductresses

I could give up salt and lime

Remembering the sweetness of your eyes

I could give up smoldering Andalusian eyes

the sweetness of kisses from Andalusian lips and tongue


A bad poem has to begin with a very bad line. In this case, I began with "There is a sweetness in your eyes."  It just sounds kind of odd and sentimental.  Then I needed to have a non sequitur.  It seemed too easy to say that the speaker of the poem would give up honey, so I thought of gambling.  But then I thought of yoga too, I'm not sure why. Self-defense against tortoises seemed like a logical "surrealist" image to put in at that point. Then the scene changes to Andalusia. Now, instead of the beloved's eyes, the speaker is fantasizing about the women of Southern Spain:  the images of things he or she might renounce are more vividly imagined than the sentimental image of the "sweetness of your eyes."  At this point I thought of the title "RENOUNCE."  The repetition of the words "sweetness" and "Andalusian" seems poetic, but not in a good way.

Modernism as Intellectual Practice

Here's a post from the past I think you should revisit. It encapsulates the best I have to offer.

Friday, April 14, 2017


I'm wondering if anyone would like to help me out.  You would have to take my poems from 2016 and 17 and construct a manuscript of poems from them.  To qualify for this job, you would have to

*Respond sympathetically to at least some of my poetry.

*Have something that you would like me to do for you that would involve more or less equal effort. Read an article for you, say.

If you are interested, email me at


If not, please don't.

My reasoning is that I am not a good judge of my own writing. I don't want individual poems editing, but simply selected an arranged in an order than makes some sense.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Illusion of a Lack of Progress

There is a cognitive bias toward adjusting one's past to one's present. So if I learn something today, then a month from now it will seem like something I've always known. For example, I learned recently the the Walloons of Belgian are Francophone, or sometimes speakers of their own, Romance language. I had never known what they were before, and somehow had it in my mind that they were the opposite: speakers of Flemish.  I'm sure a year from now I'll think that I always knew who the  Walloons were.

On the piano, I cannot really remember exactly what I was playing a year ago, so I think of it, vaguely, as more or less what I'm playing now.  Yet my teacher says I am greatly improved, and I probably have. We can shortchange our own progress by failing to remember correctly our past competence (or lack of).

On Not Doing Things in a Half-Assed Way

I was frustrated by my piano lessons. I would play all week, sometimes hours a day, and then not play very well in the lesson. So I decided to make a change. I played, all week, one song for all my practice time, working with it methodically, with a metronome some of the time. I worked out some voicings, then composed a few fills, put in some rhythms. As a result, I played better for my teacher than I had ever played before then. Of course, the undisciplined playing still has its place, but real practice is not just fooling around on the keyboard, but doing things systematically. Improvisation is great, and I am learning to improvise too, but a lot of things have to be solidly in place before improvisation even makes sense.  

I could use some time to practice jazz standards, and devote other hours to composing and playing my own music.  That's the only way things are going to happen for me.  So it is with everything else.

The Manufacture of Anxiety

Things we do to soothe ourselves, like look at Facebook, are actually the cause of the anxiety they are soothing, in the sense that the need to keep track of things that are not actually all that important or relevant is a self-perpetuating mechanism.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Really, though

Since I am in the Humanities, I think that encouraging women to study STEM fields when their interest is in the Humanities is misguided. It would like someone telling me to be a physicist.  Why should I? (Especially because I would suck at it.) Do I want my brilliant female colleagues and students to study something else instead?

It is true that men can also be brilliant humanists, but for every young boy who likes to read there are 2.5 girls (made-up statistic!) so why would you want to reapportion that?  I realize it is a problem for STEM, but it is not my problem at all.

It would be like trying to make latinos into football and basketball players when they want to be baseball and soccer players. Of course, there shouldn't be discrimination, but if particular demographics tend in particular directions, why do we want to stop them?

How to Suppress Women's Interest in the Humanities

Facetious title, I know, but really. If you want more women in STEM you need fewer women in fields that they go into because of their already existing interests.

I would start, in fact, with the most unbalanced fields, like Elementary Education, Nursing, Women's Studies, and Social Work. We need far fewer women in these fields, proportionally.  After that, we can talk about getting fewer female students to study social sciences, foreign languages, and English.

Since more women are getting college degrees, we need to re-distribute the majors, which means, essentially, taking them out of certain female-dominant fields (English, Biology), and re-orienting them towards the physical sciences, math, and engineering.

We get a kind of skewered vision in the Humanities, because feminist literary criticism is based on the idea that women's writing has not been valued. This is true, and the battles of the 70s were worth fighting. My undergraduate courses are 80% female, though, so I'm not that worried that not enough women are studying my field.

You cannot really suppress male interest in engineering and computer science, because those are the hard-core quantitative / technological nerds who are going to do those fields no matter what.

Non-facetiously, if the majority of women STEM majors are in biology, I have no problem with that. Scientifically-oriented women simply like biology better than they like other sciences. You can argue that they are socially conditioned to like this, but so what? I realized yesterday that physicians aren't considered STEM workers. So in  a way the whole category is not defined very coherently in the first place.

Pleasure of Partial Ignorance

I sing of May-poles, Hock-carts, Wassails, Wakes
(italics in original)

My claim is that you do not have to know deep background information to derive pleasure from this line.  In some cases, a reader will know what some of these things are, and less about others. The evocative pleasure for the modern reader actually derives from the penumbra of partial knowledge. Together, the items form a kind of Gestalt, where the readers' imaginations simply fills in the unknown details. Obviously, knowing nothing (not understanding a single word of the line at a literal level) is not what I mean. I understand them all, vaguely, to be examples of merry olde English costumbrismo, but I really don't care beyond that. For Herrick's contemporaries, the meanings were transparent, but did they appreciate the poem more for all of that?