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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, March 30, 2017


Suppose you wanted to call attention to an issue. You'd want to define the statistics up for that particular problem. One way of doing so is to expand the definition. So take these examples.

hunger vs. food insecurity

If you are serious about hunger, then you might want to define the issue in terms of "food insecurity." That encompasses many more people, not just those are suffering from famine conditions, but malnourished people or those who might have to skip meals. Some of these food insecure people might be overweight, in fact.

"at risk"

By defining a population as "at risk," then you are expanding from people who are actually suffering from whatever it is, to those who are at risk of doing so.

Racism & Sexism

By defining racism in structural terms, we find that every white person becomes a racist just by benefiting from racism.

Now this might sound like a right-wing post, and that is not my intention, but the expansion of definitions has some unintended consequences. One of these is to muddy the waters by definitional elasticity (forgive the mixed metaphor.).  Another is to trivialize real problem by throwing disparate phenomena in the same sack. Suppose we had a statistic that included both bank robbery and jaywalking, and said that "90% of respondents reported that they had robbed a bank or jaywalked in the past two years." That might be true, but you'd want to have mechanism for sorting out those two categories. Or if you asked: "Have you ever stolen money or a ballpoint pen from a bank?"

If we no longer distinguish between serious and less serious instances of the problem, then it becomes too difficult to treat the more serious offenses with the degree of seriousness that they deserve. So if we are really after bank robbers, then it makes sense to not have an expanded version of bank robbery, that also includes stealing the pen for the bank when you fill out your deposit slip.

Some Poems You can Write

The list poem is a great medium for imaginative freedom & concrete imagery.  There has to be a common element in the list, but it can be a capacious one. For example, "These foolish things (remind me of you)."  So you have "A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces / an airline ticket to exotic  places." The common element is that they are foolish things that remind me of you, but this common element is in the mind of the singer, not in the things themselves, and in a kind of associative, metonymic logic.  

Or "the way you sip your tea / the way you wear your hat."  Or "Things to do in Providence" (Ted Berrigan). Or Herrick's "The Argument of His Book." 

Little children can write list poems effectively. The tone can be anything you want, comic or serious.  The order of elements can be arbitrary & free, obeying only the invisible laws of the imagination. You can do a "chaotic enumeration" of elements, or tell an implicit story. There doesn't have to be anything dull about a catalogue.  


You can write a pantoum or another fixed form. One thing I've done is a villanelle without rhyme. It gives the feel of a pantoum, almost. 


You can get a really great title, and then try to write a poem using it. It should be a title that is misleading in its implications. So, you could take a title and interpret it too literally. Take Monk's "Brilliant Corners." How could a corner be brilliant?  Or you could make the poem unrelated to the title, totally metaphorically oblique.  

The Argument of His Book

I sing of the Tribe of Ben and the progeny of Neruda

of painted lips and of the cymbal's crash

I sing of the disappearance of small objects

not through magic but through negligence or theft

the loss of other, more significant things too

a poet of disappearance and loss of various kinds

I sing the law of lengthening limbs and the "piano tinkling in the next apartment"

I sing without a voice to sing, through the melodic quality of ink

and paper, I sing the green paper of Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares 

and I will not stop until I've sung my fill

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Losing and Finding Small Objects

I have a problem misplacing small objects, often fountain pens, which are not cheap as pens go. I don't dare get myself a really expensive one. What I tend to do when I feel myself especially prone to losing things is to clean up my environment. In so doing, I sometimes find things that have been missing, and also make it less likely for me to lose other things. Being able to keep track of small objects, then, is a kind of test of my general ability to hold everything together.

Herrick (3)

Maybe the trick of Herrick is that he doesn't take himself too seriously.  He works seriously at his poetry, but his persona is not arrogant at all.

You tube piano tricks

I have been listening to some youtube piano videos, and I have noticed that one of the qualities in the best ones is that the player knows how to play, rather than demonstrating a technique or sequence of chords without any real jazz feeling. It might seem obvious but that's my guarantee that the player will not steer me in the wrong direction. The three best instructors I have found are Marius Nordal, Aimee Nolte, and Hal Galper. When you hear them play there is a level of conviction there, even when showing a simplistic lick it will be with the right feeling. There are other guys on the net who play woodenly, whether because they think they need to to teach, or because they actually aren't very good.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Herrick (2)

I guess what I like now about Herrick is the variety of approaches to life, but all within a single personality.  You get to know him well, and the deployment of a topos like the carpe diem feels sincere, because you feel that is something he identified with when he was writing this poem. He was one of the first poets who taught me how to read him, like many other poets since. It was also probably one of my first experiences in doing this with an early modern poet.  Herrick is one of the best connectors I have to my 15 and 16 year-old self.

I don't like biographical approaches, and don't know much about his life, but I feel a very strong personality in his poetry.  

I can identify this in time with some precision, because I only attended this school for two years. Ninth grade was at a Junior High School, and I didn't ever make it to 12th grade.

Dream Poem

In my dream my colleague had given me a book of his poems, as part of a promotion process.  I opened the book and the first poem said:

Papá, what you vant for breakfast?

I vant you, Vully!

Papá, I'm twenty!

The next poems were visual poetry, with wood-like shapes.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


So I am writing this memoir of reading.  When I was in high school I used to carry around a Norton edition of the Herrick's poetry. It is now out of print, and quite expensive to buy second hand. I tried to get a cheap edition of Herrick but ending up by accident buying a critical study instead.

Anyway, I liked Herrick, who shares my birthday, and I think I was doing almost an anti-Donne gesture, with a preference for a seemingly minor poet. I carried this volume around for years, and I don't know what happened to my copy. Herrick's wrote hundreds of poems (1,400) and was extremely accomplished. I realize now that reading him, probably every poem he wrote, when I was 15 or 16 was a formative experience, because I absorbed all those renaissance / 17th century tropes and topoi.  The poem "The Vine," about the poet's dream of an erection, was quite nice to read at that age.

I was perhaps wanting a teacher to notice that I was reading something not assigned. We had those dismal English classes where I never seemed to do as well as I might have.

my new favorite chord: sharp 9 sharp 5.

I voice this chord like this:

F B in the left hand (I'm omitting the root which is G).

D# A# in the right.

It is is the G7 with #5 and #9. It would resolve down to a C maj7.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I have this book on creativity, by an artist or art teacher, you probably know what I'm talking about, that   claims the right side of the brain is more creative, since this is the visual side. Of course, this kind of crude bicameralism is scientifically incorrect. Not only that, why does only the visual get to be creative? Why not the musical and verbal?  I feel as creative when I am noodling as when I am doodling.  Even more so, since my songs are better than my drawings. I don't even try to write new songs now. I just play and once in a while something will occur to me and I will develop it into a song.

I think I need to do more song settings.  Maybe Herrick?  

I am sure that there are uncreative artists, just as there are uncreative creative writers.

Also, once creativity becomes the province of corporate culture, won't it lose any value?

Another bad poem

Ah, the altered chords of Bill Evans, they bring me back

to the days of glamorous cardinals in the trees

the female drabber than the male, but still a thing of beauty

on an overcast day like today

those rootless voicing, and maybe Paul Motian on the drums

if I remember rightly, and the tragic early end of LaFaro

they massage my memory and make me think of lovelorn lasses

of laws repealed before their time, and a sweet lyric by Mercer

didn't he write the one about "days of wine and roses"?

Monday, March 20, 2017


Next time you feel angry, ask yourself:  "What benefit am I getting from being angry?" This is not a trick question: there may actually be a benefit of some kind. If there is, then hold on to your anger. If you see that there is no benefit, though, then your anger might dissipate a bit.

This is not to say that your anger is not justified.  All emotions are justified.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


I've suddenly felt an improvement in my piano playing.  My fingers are finding better chords with both hands, and I can actually improvise a bit. I've been trying to break out of a mechanical mode in which I was always playing the root, third, and seventh in my left hand and playing a melody in my right.  That worked for me up to a certain point but it is much better to play root and seventh, and then a third and a ninth or 13th above that, or skip the root all together.  Although I've known this in theory for a long time, it is hard to break out of a comfortable habit.

For example, my E flat flat seven is Eb / Db / G / E.

I still have a long way to go.  I could tell you all the things I still can't do.  It is strange though that I feel just as positive about those things, seeing them in my future.

As kids we imagine flying, and flight in our dreams feels very real and possible.  We can also fantasize about doing other things that seem barely possible. What if there is a thing that is as fantastic as flight, but actually plausible as a human skill? That's what piano playing is for me.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Language and the flat nine

The flat nine is a cool sounding chord extension. So I have an Eflat 7 flat nine in a song, right after a Cmaj7, etc...  The flat nine of E flat would be D. [correction: E]

But those words are meaningless, if you don't know what that sounds like. I myself barely know what this sounds like, because my ears are not that good.  I couldn't sing one for you on the spot. I could sing an octave and then up one half step, that's what it is.  I couldn't recognize one listening to music.

It seems inadequate, then, to say we think in language.  We can certainly use that label for that interval, and make ourselves understood, and understood to our own selves too, writing it down for future reference. But is the manipulation of such signs without understanding their meaning thinking? To really make the flat 9 the object of thought one would have to already be thinking musically, not just manipulating the signs of another system of thought--language.

Words cannot express, we say...  But it is a fallacy to think words ever express anything. I could try to evoke this in a poem:

"Ah, the flat nines of Bill Evans make me think of magnolia trees!"

You might get the illusion of understanding here.  The language is not really evoking the music, it is just gesturing toward it, and the person reading this line won't figure out what it really sounds like.  Words have their own sounds, and I guess those will never sound the same as any flat nine either.  Even people who claim that the referent doesn't matter won't read poetry in languages they don't understand semantically.  Of course, if we already know what magnolia trees in bloom look and smell like, then we can evoke them in a poem. The reader without this knowledge can substitute a similar kind of memory and go along for the ride.


From this same brilliant poet / philosopher.  She claims that Homeric poetry had a merely utilitarian function, to unite the community through myth, and that the only function of verse was to make these myths easy to memorize. Aesthetics was an afterthought, and the function of being pleasant [placentero] represented a kind of decadence. She say that ars poetica is decadent.

It is hard to know where to begin.  With people like this among the ranks of poets, who needs Philistines?

I am not using the word brilliant sarcastically.  She actually is brilliant. This is all the more disappointing because of higher expectations for such a person.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Persistence of Memory

As I write my memoir of reading--the appendix to my "Things to do with Poems"--I am coming across a phenomenon that my friend mentioned to me yesterday: if you spend a considerable time thinking about a particular era of your life, or a place you lived, then more and more details will come back. I'm not particularly concerned with accuracy here, since I'm confident that I will be inaccurate to some degree. I just have to be careful that may lack of accuracy is not too self-serving.

I do remember having a the Norton Library edition of Herrick and bringing it to school with me in High School. I don't think that is a false memory. I looked it up on amazon and it is the same color as I remembered.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

More things I don't like

1. Writers talking about jazz improvisation without actually knowing anything about jazz except that it's improvised. Can we be serious here?

2. Writers thinking that Andy Warhol brought actual soup cans into the gallery / museum, not realizing he painted quite painterly pictures of soup cans. (Yes, I just read an article that claimed that he just brought some actual soup cans to display.)

3. Generally, these kind of second hand remarks made by people who have no idea what they are talking about and just citing these things as cultural tropes, along the lines of the "Eskimos have so many words for snow" thinking.  Be serious, people! You can't just cite Heisenberg on uncertainty if you actually have no clue.

4. Soviet symbols used as kitsch.  Like people who think it's cute to have a CCCP conference (Contemporary conference ... something poetry.) I have to admit a coffee shop I frequent uses the hammer and sickle ironically in their logo. I'm not crazy about it.


I read an article in Spanish by a poet / philosopher that spoke at length about anything seen in a museum being "decontextualized."  While true, and convincingly stated and argued, this seemed a tiresome argument because it made me realize that all reading (other than of texts produced yesterday in one's own culture) is decontextualized. That is simply the condition of reading, and the condition that makes literature possible in the first place.

We can pretend to privilege the original context, but it is our own context that really matters.

Monday, March 13, 2017

On Not Understanding

On Not Understanding
You are unlikely to enjoy reading poetry, or doing anything else with it for that matter, if you feel you don’t understand it. The feeling of not understanding can make any reader feel less intelligent, threatening the ego in a way that blocks any possible pleasure. This occurs even to intelligent graduate students when they face the reading of difficult poems. (These students are especially vulnerable, in fact, since they have much at stake in proving themselves to be bright and capable.) In reality, everyone has difficulty reading difficult texts, and expert readers disagree quite a lot about the meaning of texts, even one that are not in this category. A seemingly simple lyric by Wordworth, for example, occasioned fierce debate about meaning and authorial intention that reverberated through academia for many years.  
One way out of this dilemma is to begin with easier poets, who write in contemporary language in accessible ways about their own personal experience. After that, it is easy to expand one’s horizons more gradually with more challenging material. Poetry is a supreme exercise of the human intelligence, so it seems limiting to confine yourself to things to which you can easily “relate.” The ultimate experience of reading is to leave one’s self behind and explore new horizons, and sometimes that will involve the reading of poems that do not give themselves up so readily.
Another approach is to simply not to care quite so much about understanding. When we think about understanding a poem, we are envisioning a situation of getting the answer right to the question: what is the meaning of this poem? There is some examination looming in your future, maybe, where you will have to come up with a convincing answer to this question. But if you are reading poetry for pleasure, you won’t have to ever answer this question. There is no professor who will grade you, and your answers (or lack or answers) matter to nobody except yourself. There can be no wrong or right answers, in this scenario, because there is no institutional framework defining the legitimacy of particular interpretations.   
In the larger scheme of things, any particular way of understanding any given text is going to be less permanent and meaningful than the text itself. In other words, Hamlet is going to be more durable than any particular way understanding of Hamlet. Even interpretations developed ten or fifteen years ago might already begin to look quaint, given the inevitable shifts in fashion in literary criticism. The ability to come with an interpretation that seems legitimate by the standards of contemporary academia, then, is not going to be a meaningful measure of “understanding,”outside of this academic framework. 
The ability to paraphrase—express in other words, not those of the poem itself—what the poem is supposedly saying, is a specialized academic skill that you will need to develop for a career in literary criticism, but it is not necessary otherwise. When you think about it, a paraphrase is simply another text, in prose, that will inevitably be less compelling than the poem—more abstract, with duller language. Its only advantage over the original text might be its clarity or directness. Yet is seems a sterile exercise to come up with bland paraphrases of extraordinary works of art. Conversations about art can rise above this insipid level, of course, but only if they avoid reducing the work of art to some cliché.      
You can also immerse yourself in difficult poem for long periods of time and not worry excessively about whether you understand them. What is needed is a quality of suspension, in which the mind does not seek to understand things prematurely or resolve all ambiguities. The English romantic poet John Keats called this “negative capability”:  “it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This suspension of certainty is necessary in a poet, according to Keats, but it is also necessary in a reader of poetry—insofar as poetry is the practice of deliberate ambiguity.
There is a paradox here, though: the indeterminacy of poetic meaning is not a form of vagueness in which “everything goes.” It derives, instead, from uses of language that are extraordinarily precise, almost in a mathematical sense. Students preoccupied about guessing at the meaning the professor wants them to extract from the poem might also think—in contradictory fashion—that the meaning of the poem is completely up for grabs, that any reader’s interpretion is as valid as that of any other’s. They are correct, ultimately, but not necessarily in the way they think. Negative capability does not imply the absence of precise perceptions, but rather the absence of irritatedly premature judgments. You must allow yourself to perceive the words on the page just as they are, hear the sounds and rhythms, feel the power of the words and images. Paraphrase often fails to be interesting or compelling because it isn’t relevant to anything specific in the particular case at hand.    

What is suspended by “negative capability, then, is not the full range of human affect, intelligence, and perception, but the spurious demand for easy or clear-cut interpretations. Imagine a petulant, literal-minded child talking to you like this: “So what is the meaning of this symbol? If you can’t tell me, then what are we doing reading this text?” This inner child often seems to be wanting something that will take the form of a translation of the poem into another sort of discourse, or an explanation that uses some other set of intellectual tools, derived from some other discipline, in order to account for the poem’s strange beauty. Perhaps El Greco had a defect of vision that caused him to paint his oddly elongated figures? Maybe the key to understanding Lorca or Tsaikovsky is their homosexuality?  Of course heterosexuality can never be the interpretative key that opens up an author’s work!  In the reductionist mentality, reduction only work in one direction.

Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”  This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of “good poetry,” or to decide on the direction in which poetry has to go in the future. It is evident in the anxiety of not knowing what poets of the present or recent past will pass into the canon. (Not surprisingly, Harold Bloom, a proponent of theories of anxiety, is also the classical case of the anxious gatekeeper, eager to establish the eternal validity of his own judgments.) There are limits, of course, to what we can imagine calling poetry. But those are the limits of our own imagination, not of poetry itself, and we cannot know in advance where they might lie, and how they might shift for future generations. An eighteenth century poet like Alexander Pope would not have accepted most twentieth and twenty-first century poetry, and might have had problems even with Wordworth and Coleridge.  

We can follow Matthew Arnold, and insist on the value of touchstones, privileged examples of “the best of what has been thought and said,” without committing ourselves to Arnold’s own canon, or that of Pope, Bloom, or anyone else. In reality, nobody has the power to enforce any personal set of preferences, or impose them on others, except through the coercion of institutional power. The anxiety of gatekeeping is kept alive precisely because not even the gatekeepers can come to any agreement among themselves, let alone force their preferences on anyone else.     

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Republican Chord Changes

In my dream the Republicans had a limited number of arguments, syllogisms almost, expressed in the form of chord progressions. I had figured them out, and was able to see that they began from contradictory premises and thus were refutable. In other words, each one was logically consistent, but the entire set of them wasn't. These chord progressions fell into categories like aesthetic, political, and ???.

As I was waking up I was trying to hold fast to my memory of what they were, since they were present to my mind quite lucidly.  There was nothing imprecise here, though to the lucidity of waking life they might sound vague and I cannot reproduce them.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The re-programming continues

As the re-programming continues, I've put in place another essential element.  I will work five days a week, for at least an hour, on my current project, Things To Do To Poems. It seems like not so much, to have 5 hours in a 40 hour week, to do your actual scholarship (if you can call this anti-textbook scholarship). But that 5 hours is the difference between doing it and not doing it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Things to do with Poems

Bob mentioned my switching back between two prepositions.  I think I'm going to have to settle on "things to do with poems." I might fudge it by naming one chapter "things to do to poems," even though it sounds a little extreme.

I like the idea of uses for poetry, but as a title it sounds too utilitarian. By uses I don't mean that poetry is secondary to some other function. Take dance music. You might say the function or use of the music is to dance to. Something you do to the music is dance to it. But that doesn't quite express the proper relation between music and dance. Dance music is not a tool, with the relation to the beer bottle as the bottle opener has.