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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...

Monday, August 21, 2017


It turned out I had books by Schuyler everywhere. His art criticism, letters, novels, diaries, and books of poems. So for this reading project I am becoming an accidental expert on him.  I guess I already was.  Re-reading A Nest of Ninnies now.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


I read my first Racine, an early work reputed to be be weak called Thébaïde.  (I've read Phedre before too, but I mean with my new Racine project.) My idea is to be a silent expert on Racine. In other words, just do everything an expert would do except write about it (except on this blog).

I guess I'll have to read other neoclassical dramas, since a Racine specialist would have done this. The logical first step though would be to read the primary texts in chronological order, then figure out what Racine scholars think about it.

The characters just sit there and talk. They argue their positions. Everyone dies in the end, ignoring the incidents in Sophocles's Antigone. The women pursue peace (Jocasta, Antigone); the men war.  Creon is in love with Antigone and kills himself after she kills herself, so all the major characters are gone.  Not an elegant solution, since then you can't write another play in which Antigone tries to bury Polynices.

The vocabulary is easy. Everything is pretty clear and self-evident.

Friday, August 11, 2017


In a long interview DeBoer uses "sort of" as conversational hedge / filler more times that I can count. He is otherwise articulate, never at a loss for words, confident of his opinions. The hedge doesn't really hedge anything, since its distribution seems random; it doesn't fill time, since it is spoken very rapidly and if taken out would not reduce the duration of the utterance in any significant way. He doesn't seem nervous, so that's not the explanation. He has a few more "uh..." "right?" but they aren't intrusive like the omnipresent "sortofs."

It must be very hard to get rid of a verbal tic like that. My students, when speaking Spanish, put in the word like (in English!) constantly, without even any awareness that they are doing it.


I will read hundreds of books while writing one. Most will not not even relevant to the one I am writing. I am not complaining about this ratio: it seems correct to me.

Writing is time-consuming and intensive. I only expect to write two more books after turning in Lorca II. Seven books is a respectable career, but someone writing those will have read thousands of other books.  

Today I came across a quote by James Schuyler about Lorca's "tedious lament for a dead bullfighter, whose every second line is 'a las cinco de la tarde.'" This is hilarious to me. At least one American poet could find Lorca tedious.  What a relief!  Of course I wish I had come across the quote earlier, since it was in a book I owned the whole time I was working on Lorca's impact on American poets.  I think I'll have to worm it in somewhere in another book.


To say of the young man he is ambitious...

Yet none is able to say what those ambitions are...

Virtue as a contest

I was listening to a recent FIRE podcast, an interview with Freddy DeBoer.  DeBoer makes the point that virtue is competitive in social media. To compete with others to arrive at a more virtuous position involves evolving to ever more "ridiculous" positions. One example he uses is the idea that the phrase "I see what you mean" is "ableist" in its exclusion of blind people.

If virtue is a competition, it is a competition for social status. DeBoer also points out that contemporary "intersectionality" on college campuses tends to leave out class. Why? Because these are people who are in a privileged, largely upper-middle class cocoon.  

Another point he makes is that the university administrator's cause is not social justice, but the avoidance of conflict and legal liability. Thus the administrator might give in the social justice demands, but usually for the wrong reason.

It is refreshing because many defenses of free inquiry have been coming from the right, recently. We need to insist that freedom of speech is a left-wing cause. What good does it do to censor pro-Trump views on campus when Trump is actually the fucking president?  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Google thyself

I guess I missed this book by Stephen Kessler when it came out.  I should check out this book from the library:

Like Frida Kahlo, a perfectly good painter turned into amarketing gimmick for t-shirts, co ee mugs and other kitschytchotchkes, García Lorca—as Mayhew demonstrates—has been diminished and caricatured through his conversion into a domestic American icon, reduced to a duende-driven folksy Gypsy Negrophilic primitive hipster gay surrealist whom various factions and individuals jump to exploit at their convenience for their own sectarian and personal purposes. Lorca the actual poet and his work, meanwhile, remain unplumbed even as they are appropriated tirelessly by their admirers. While I was read-ing Mayhew’s book a journal arrived in the mail, the Coe Review,a student-edited publication from Coe College in Iowa, which included a poem by Lyn Lifshin—a prolific  small-press poet published widely over the last four decades—called “Sleeping with Lorca,” which begins: “It’s not true, he never chose women. / I ought to know. It was Grenada [sic] and / the sun falling behind the Alhambra was / aming lava...” The poem goes onto recycle “green I want you green” and “5 o’clock in the af-ternoon” and various other now-cliché Lorquismos including“gored bull” metaphors for sex, as if to illustrate the half-baked stereotypical Lorca exploitation Mayhew spends much of hisbook exposing, and which, as Lifshin proves, continues. 

Lyn Lifshin used to send us a packet of poems every week, when I was a student on the editorial board of my college literary journal, California Quarterly.  

For me, however, Mayhew’s identi cation of Frank O’Hara as perhaps the truest American avatar of Lorca—not so much in the poetry itself as in their “kinship” as charismatic, mercu- rial, gay, jazz-infused, risk-taking, elegiac, prematurely mortal personalities each at the center of a vibrant creative scene—is one of his shrewdest observations. This kind of intuitive leap makes for the liveliest and riskiest criticism. One of Mayhew’s strengths is that he’s not afraid to be wrong; he has a distinct point of view and acknowledges his personal angle of vision. For all his deeply felt conviction, he makes no Harold Bloomian or Helen Vendleroid pronouncements from the peak of Parnas- sus. His style is refreshingly free of intellectual pomposity or jargon. Not least important, for someone interested as I am in the subject, his book is fun to read. 


Counting syllables is one way of keeping track.

Some care whether you skip a beat or not.  

There are treatises.  

Others talk endlessly of measure

But don't seem to keep tally of amounts or quantities.  



I never needed mythopoetics.

It wasn't that the myths weren't real;

What's real, after all?

But that it was hard enough to believe in the reality of a shoe.

Still, I clung to the messages of dreams.


We "take a dump" but it seems more like leaving something behind.

So does language betray.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Lawn Mower

The lawn has no purpose, but the mower does.

Usefulness is a convenient fiction to hold up

The value of otherwise useless objects.

Simply by reading

Simply by reading, one can develop a secondary field. For example, I could become a Balzac expert, and all it would take is reading Balzac as my primary reading interest for a few years. I could get through a lot of novels that way, and then read the secondary literature.

I recommend finding something that is not directly relevant to your field. Otherwise it is just an extension of what you should be doing anyway. It should be a different genre, language, or period from your normal tendency in reading. The time to do this should be taken from time otherwise spent binge-watching Netflix, or whatever else you do to kill time.

The purpose?  You won't know in advance what the purpose is. You need to listen to a voice inside yourself that tells you what you need to be studying as your hobby-author.  The purpose will be revealed much later, if at all.  But the larger precept here is to be intellectually curious outside your normal zone of comfort. (It is the same idea as sleeping on the other side of the bed, as Clarissa suggested.)

The beauty of it is that all you need to do is read. If you are already reading, then you just have to redirect your reading in a particular direction, with a purpose in mind. You can get through all the plays of Racine in a year, easily, or whatever it is you want to master. Once you've read the primary texts and some secondary literature, you know about it.  You can think about it and generate ideas.

I'm going to have to think about what author to read in depth.  I think it's got to be one whom I don't know much about, in French because that is the language that I can work on most easily.  It should not be a poet, and it shouldn't be from 20th century.  


Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Is is how we verb it

But what is is?

There never was an is in the history of being.

There wasn't even a was.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Not a paradox

Here’s the paradox. Most of the consistently productive scholars I’ve known in my more than 30 years as a professor, at three different universities, have also been caring teachers and active in academic service work. And, you guessed it: Most of the angry, embittered, and problematic colleagues I’ve known have been toxically stalled writers.

Of course, this is correct, the only incorrect thing about it is that the writer frames it as a paradox. In what other profession do we assume that people must trade competence for one part of the job for competence in some other part of the job?


We think time is a sum, that getting to a higher number is somehow better.

Low numbers are "tragic" and high ones fulfillment

(Of what we'll never know).

Better to think of it as subtraction.

The result, though, in the end, is the same.

False Poems of Bronk (ii)


We hire proofreaders and copy editors;

Spelling things right is important, though somehow

things are never spelled right in the end...

Enough of them are, maybe.

Enough for government work.

They care about it, getting it right, and we do,

But it doesn't care, and never will.

Friday, August 4, 2017

A curious thing happened...

In Chicago in September I bought a notebook. I began recording all the books I read, and this, coinciding with my absence from other activities like aimlessly surfing the net, led to my reading far more books than I would normally read. I am arranging my books at home and at the office in some semblance of order and thus, of course, taking down more books from the shelves to read.

 I have finished over 80 books since the latter part of April. It is an extraordinary thing because it is unleashing a kind of controlled mania. Some of the books are extremely short books of poetry, but still it seems a dangerously high number. I'm not sure what the end result of this process will be. Perhaps a form of madness, if this hasn't set in already.

False Poems of Bronk


In book after book, poem after poem,

many of them very short, Bronk reminds us

the ways we have to keep score don't count for much.

He doesn't call them foolish; he doesn't have to.


I think I understand, but if my understanding of Bronk

is a few degrees off, say 10 in a circle of 360,

these poems will not be false poems of Bronk

but real ones of Mayhew.


Many of these poems are not great, awkwardly written

and not memorable in themselves; there are a great many of them

and they seem to be saying the same thing over and over.

Yet someone pointing this out to us would be regarded as dumb.

Whatever Bronk was after, it is not what this person thinks.


If there were such a thing as "the human condition"

you'd think we'd be in a good position to understand something about.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

What if we thought of music as the imperfect imitation of other kinds of noise

Dick van Dyck

The Dick van Dyck show is an imitation of the reality we might call the Allen Brady show. Yet the Dick van Dyck show exists and the Allen Brady show does not.
 Words create a mental image in the mind. The words are real but the images fake. Why then do we call these words imitations of reality?


Pornography is not fake sex imitating the real but real sex
acts mimicking fantasies of what they might be

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Middle Earth

Where does the represented world of the fiction exist?  In the reader's mind and nowhere else.  The is where Middle Earth is.

The Limits of my Curiosity

The first time I lived in Buenos Aires it was on Borges Street

The second time, two years later, on Lafinur

I didn't even know Lafinur was a poet

Until I came back home

and read Borges's sonnet dedicated to him

Friday, July 28, 2017


We think of a poem (or novel or play) as something unreal that imitates something real.

But nothing could be further from the case. A novel is real, it exists. What it represents is a fiction, something that does not exist in real life. Therefore it is useless to say a novel copies life.

Or a poem, it is an utterance that is real in and of itself, but that other utterance it seems to be copying never happened. It is an impossible utterance, or one whose only possible framework is the poem itself. Can we think of Keats copying copying another utterance of some other imaginary subject addressing himself to "Autumn." Does not that introduce an extra step that is wholly extraneous? Where is the model that is being copied? In Keats's head?  But it cannot be there unless he first invents it, and what we call inventing it is the same act as writing the poem.

I am not being facetious about this at all. I firmly believe that this analysis is correct, even intuitively correct. It is not even a paradox.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Teólogos y poetas

A los teólogos, incluso a los teólogos-poetas como Thomas Merton o el Papa Juan Pablo II,

les ha interesado poco San Juan de la Cruz como poeta,

a pesar de su admiración por su pensamiento.

En cambio, los poetas poco aficionados a la teología

no prestamos mucha atención a los fatigosos comentarios del Santo

a su propia obra poética, los comentarios que de hecho

forman la base de su fama teológica,

escritos para explicar el significado de estos poemas

a petición de unas monjas.  

No existe, que yo sepa, otro caso igual en recepción

de una figura tan trascendente dentro de dos campos

que al fin y al cabo no deben estar en alejados entre sí.

El realismo no existe

Lo que llamamos "realismo" son unas convenciones literarias contingentes

que poco o nada tienen que ver con lo real

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

My favorite kitchen appliance

My favorite kitchen appliance:  time

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Contra Pessoa y Aristóteles: el poeta no es un fingidor

Si hago una declaración de amor, por ejemplo,

¿qué sentido tiene decir que estoy "imitando"

la declaración de amor de un sujeto ficticio?

Ni siquiera es una paradoja concluir

que yo, poeta en carne y hueso,

soy más real que ese amante irreal que supuestamente imito.

Monday, July 24, 2017

La sed

Se me dirá que el lenguaje es insuficiente para comunicar la experiencia mística

De acuerdo, pero ¿el lenguaje acaso sirve para transmitir la frescura de un vaso de agua?

y si no, la experiencia mística no sería caso excepcional sino un ejemplo más

de la insuficiencia lingüística para cualquier experiencia

en cuyo caso se puede concluir que el lenguaje no está encargado

de transmitir experiencia alguna

That's not its job


Tuesday, June 13, 2017


I'm going to be out for a while: my daughter's graduation this weekend and then a month in Argentina.  I have plenty of time to post from there, but I just want to take a break just because I don't want to be on the internet at all except for my teaching.  I'll read your comments in my email but I won't answer them on the blog.

I'll be back on the blog by late July.


I found this encyclopedia of literary translation.  The list of authors provides a kind of approximation of the corpus someone (like me) would study. A few major omissions: Teresa de Ávila, Luis de León, Garcilaso de la Vega,  The romancero.  Pedro Salinas.


I bought this notebook to keep track of what I was reading. Of course, the act of keeping track of this changes the activity being tracked, since it makes me more likely to read and finish books.

Bee Webs

Bees weave webs of silk
trapping unwary sailors
"drunk and asleep."
Oh, you thought it was spiders

trapping unwarranted sailors
with salt in their veins?
Oh, you thought it was spiral
but the staircase was a straight shot down.

With saltpetre in their veins
they shat on virtue,
but the strums were straight thoughts.
Thus the gods of flamenco decreed.

They shat on virtual lawns,
bees warning of webelo stirs.
Thus goons of Flanders repealed,
drunk in their boots.

Monday, June 12, 2017

More virtue signaling

When the president of Evergreen began a statement by saying "I am George.  I use he / him pronouns" it rang false with me. If he is not trans, and a cis-gendered guy, then he doesn't really need to tell people what to call him. And if he uses those pronouns, why does he say "I"?  Shouldn't he say "He am George"? Don't people talking to him use "you"?

He continues the talk by mentioning how the land of Evergreen State was stolen from the Indians. Yes, and so is the apartment complex I live in. It's not like he's taking steps to give it back to them, so it's an empty gesture of virtue signaling. He said he would say this at the beginning of all his speeches.

The Human Sensory Apparatus

I came across this article on the human sense of smell. It is pretty phenomenal, almost dog-like.

This got me to thinking about other human senses, in light of the Lorquian ideas that the poet should be "profesor en los cinco sentidos corporales."  

Vision: Our vision is intensely chromatic.  We make very fine distinctions between very small variations in color.  We have a very developed ability for secondary visual representation, beginning with the cave paintings and whatever came before that. We can extend and correct vision mechanically, and we can use the part of the brain devoted to vision to "see" with other senses, as I read about recently in the New Yorker. Vision can be used as vehicle for language (reading and writing) and even for musical notation.

Hearing: We have ability to hear with great specificity, and can train the ear to recognize relative pitches. We can process extremely complex semiotic systems (language) through what we hear. A dog can hear higher frequencies, but so what? We don't pine after those frequencies far above the soprano range (I don't at least.)

Taste:  I don't know much about this one yet.  Sorry.

Touch: I don't know much about that either.

A couple of things are key: the senses are cognitively, aesthetically, and affectively rich. We can talk about small gradations of difference because they matter to us. They are the entryway for information necessary for cognition.

There are secondary cognitive tasks that take sensory information as their foundation. The way an architect designs a building for example, through manipulating space in the head. This is a visual task, but it is not mere seeing (if there is such a thing).

Even the deprivation / repression of the senses is cognitively interesting.  The ascetic poet must still talk of "mil gracias derramando."

The senses are the realm of poetry in all its cognitive, affective, and aesthetic richness. We cannot separate out these three aspects from one another. The human sensory apparatus is the base of the anthropology of aesthetics.

Procrastination as Askesis

Another interpretation:

By procrastinating, you are depriving yourself of the pleasure and satisfaction of getting something accomplished. It could be a small pleasure, like that of having a clean stove top, or a very significant one, like publishing an article.

So procrastination is a way of punishing yourself. You do not deserve such satisfactions, in your mind.

The pleasures of dolce far niente are also real ones, but can they be fully enjoyed when tinged with the askesis of procrastination?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Confident Authority

"The author projects a voice of confident authority."

That was my favorite line from my reader's reports, especially since it was from the reader who had more substantive suggestions / things sh/e found that needed to be addressed. Reading that phrase I realized that I do try to sound like that.

Saturday, June 10, 2017


A little bit of organization goes a long way.  15 minutes of getting organized is probably as productive as 2 hours of substantive work. As long as it doesn't take so much of your time that it crowds out the substantive work.

It clears and focuses the mind, makes things seem simpler by removing artificial impediments.

It is actually substantive, in the sense that these are tasks that need to be completed.

It is not inherently time consuming. For example, take the task of figuring out which dates your class meets. You can sit down with a calendar and figure this out in a few minutes.  At the same time, it frees up time later by increasing efficiencies.

It doesn't necessarily require great intensity of concentration.

The Emotions Behind Procrastination

Procrastination is rooted in emotion. It is really a fear of some other emotion. You don't want to confront the emotion that you will feel upon beginning a certain task. Will it make you feel unorganized, inadequate, guilty, foolish. You might fear the shame of having procrastinated in the first place. Maybe you dread the frustration of doing something tedious and dull. Maybe the reactions of someone else when you do something that needs to be done.

So it might work to give a  name to the emotion you are afraid of facing.  Maybe you don't want to face resuming a project you began and left in a chaotic state. Once you know what emotion you are dreading, then you can ask yourself whether it is worth it to face the emotion in question.  You might decide that no, this emotion is to scary to face.

What if it were a choice

Suppose I had a choice about how well organized I was?  I could see it as something beyond my control, thinking I'm not very well organized, but isn't that the result of choices I make? You could call them habits, I suppose, but habits are just choices repeated until they are habitual.


This does not quite correct the problem, because it is a choice that has some motivation behind it. In other words, I must be telling myself that it's ok to be disorganized, or even that it's advantageous in some way.  For example, "I can start work in the morning without wasting time getting organized and thus produce more than other people." Or I can make it my excuse: "oh, well you know Jonathan is not that well organized..."  "Imagine what I could accomplish if I were organized, if by being disorganized I've already risen to the top of my profession." Or "creative people are just not as well organized."  Or "It always works out in the end..."  If I articulate these excuses they sound very stupid.


What else is a choice, but feels like an inherent feature of one's personality? Persistence? Resilience?  Self-discipline?  I am not trying to argue that everything is a choice, but that once you decide that something is open to change, that give you the opportunity to change it.


Say that there is one number, your iq, that is invariant. You are born with it, and will die with it (if it doesn't diminish with dementia). This magic number may correlate with accomplishments.  Thus, if a composer created brilliant, long-form compositions of great complexity, or a physicist made important theoretical contributions, you might say "Gee, I bet their magic number is very high."  Yet when you think of it, this is a very strange way of evaluating accomplishments: by comparing them to an innate ability to solve certain kinds of problems, as evaluated on a timed test. For the sake of argument, I'm assuming that the test is valid, and that the magic number is invariant, but of course those assumptions are also up for debate.


If we see the magic number as invariant, then we cannot make decisions about it. It is the least important factor to consider. Why bother changing something that cannot be changed?  Yet a lot of what we take to be intelligence is the cultivation of abilities.  So the complex symphonic composition is the result of someone who's learned orchestration, harmony, the structure of long-form composition, and also has creative ideas, a knack for melody, an original musical sensibility, a sense of herself in relation to music history (what's been done already?  what is left to do? how do my ideas fit in with all of this?). None of this is possessed by a musical genius who was born two days ago.      

Friday, June 9, 2017

Something will not get done

I have the Lorca book under consideration, a third book on Lorca begun, and then like an idiot I had to start this new project on translation. This means that something will not get done this year.  I know I should first work on the revisions of the book that is actually finished, to get that out of the way.

Then, logically, I should finish Lorca III.  I shouldn't have started this other project. It would take two or three of me to do all these things, not to mention that I should also publish my poetry in book form, etc... and do a translation. I would collaborate and have other people help me do these things, except that collaborative work is more labor intensive, not less.  I guess in an ideal world I would have a research assistant.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

James Baldwin

Thousands of such tracts were published during those years and it seems to me I had to read every single one of them; the color of my skin made me an expert. And so, when I got to Paris, I had to discharge all that, which was really the reason for my essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” I was convinced then—and I still am—that those sort of books do nothing but bolster up an image. All of this had quite a bit to do with the direction I took as a writer, because it seemed to me that if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo; as long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check. Nothing would change in that way, I felt, and that essay was a beginning of my finding a new vocabulary and another point of view.
There was virtue signaling back in the day too. Here's how Baldwin responded, google the Paris Review Interview with James Baldwin for the context. See also the very funny essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" in which he skewers those social issue novels of the mid-century period.  

Good News

I got some good news about my book What Lorca Knew today, not definitive acceptance yet but two mostly positive readers reports that indicate that they will probably publish it (Routledge!).  Both say I am good and original and one has some very good suggestions; the other just says it is good.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Surrealist Veto

How could you effectively protest a speaker and not interfere with the ability of the speaker to speak?

Here are some ideas:

You get there early with large group of people, all wearing bowler hats.*  Your group fills the front rows.  Once the speaker is introduced, you all begin very quietly to sing "We Shall Overcome." Quietly singing, you file out of the auditorium one row at at time. The speaker completes his racist speech after the first 10 rows have been emptied. You have interfered a bit by delaying the speech and singing very quietly, but your opposition is symbolic. If you had enough in your group to fill the entire auditorium, so much the better.

You get there early with your group, fill as much of the auditorium as possible.  After the the speaker is introduced, you applaud sarcastically for 5-10 minutes, shouting words of praise.  Then you all take out your headphones, take off your bowlers, and listen to music while studying from your textbooks. When the speaker is done, you take off your headphones and applaud for another 10 minutes, delaying the Q and A for ten minutes. You ask all your questions in a foreign language. Or do them as knock-knock jokes or sarcastic questions: "What, in your opinion, is the most effective way of keeping black people in their place." Hand these out to your group in advance.  

If it is in a room with chairs not attached to the floor, turn them to face the back of the room.

Fill the front rows with couples kissing, both heterosexual and not.

Have some jugglers at the back of the auditorium doing tricks very quietly.

The idea is the following: protest with some amount of wit. You are not depriving the speaker of the right to speak, and someone who is there to listen will still be able to listen. You are not obliged to listen, or to listen seriously.  

Or, you could just listen and then in the Q and A put forward your best debaters.


*Why Bowler hats?  Because this is a surrealist protest; your are channeling bowler-clad men from René Magritte.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Virtue Signaling

I had never used this phrase before but it struck me that this is what I don't like in emails from the provost or chancellor.  I realize that this is part of their job description, but I just automatically delete, after reading the first few words, any message to the entire university community that is intended to verbally signal commitments to certain values. It doesn't make me feel warm and fuzzy inside to see these statements, and of course I'm not crazy about times when departments compete with one another to come up with statements of solidarity, pursuit of excellence, and so forth.

When my group of friends meet every week people start by rehearsing bad things Trump has done recently. How he is the worst ever, etc... It's not that I disagree, but come on, I know this is a social ritual and so does everyone else. And it doesn't happen to be my favorite ritual either. You won't find bumper stickers on my car.    

Right-wing virtue signaling is the same thing, except the causes are different: "life," "freedom," "the troops," "guns." Empty patriotic gestures and ritualistic affirmations of support for Israel.    

The opposite of virtue signaling is the deliberately transgressive shitting on virtues. That seems refreshing at times, doesn't it? W.C. Fields style.  What makes it refreshing is that we all react against manipulative virtue signaling even as we are doing it. Think of the children!  For anyone not old enough to know, Fields would say things like "Anyone who hates children and animals can't be all bad." We all know that the cute commercial with the happy family at McDonald's is manipulative, as morally bankrupt as the lite beer commercial with bikinis.       


Dame Alcohol and Dame Sex
are the dogs that wag me

Don Respectability and Mister Professionalism too
Lord Erudition

Madame Virtue Signaling stops by for her fee
but we don't pay it

I'd rather have Mademoiselles Shame and Guilt,
sororal twins, suck my dick

The worst, though, is Monsieur Ego
When Monsieur Self comes by, watch out!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Free Speech for the Weak and not the Strong

You often hear this argument: the speech of the weaker in society should be more protected than the speech of the strong.  So if you are powerful, privileged, etc.. your speech should be less protected.

There are a few things to consider here:

1) This means that someone, in order to be heard, must claim victim status. (The merits of the arguments aren't meaningful anymore.)  So you will find that even people belonging, ostensibly, to powerful, privileged, or influential groups, will start to claim that they are the true victims, once they figure out that that is the way to be heard.

2) In practical terms, the weak or underprivileged need freedom more, because they don't have power in other ways. Hence they have a vested interest in keeping freedom for everyone.

3) It will be the liberal professor, the one who often sympathizes with the less privileged, who will get in trouble with the censors first, before the hardcore racists. I'm sure people who have made these kind of "free speech ... but..." arguments have themselves found themselves censored, more than some conservative economics prof who just keeps his head down.

Self Interest

In the FIRE podcast with Ira Glasser (former executive director of ACLU) he tells an interesting story. The ACLU was trying to get some small political parties on the ballot in various states, and one party said:  yes, I understand why you are trying to get us on the ballot, but why do those other parties need to be in the lawsuit? Glasser says that everyone's interest in free speech is, in the first instance, an interest in their own free speech, not that of other people.

Consider the "heckler's veto."  This is when a speaker is shouted down and cannot give her speech. One way to think about it is to consider what it would mean if Martin Luther King came to your college and was shouted down by racist students. How would you feel about that? Someone might answer: "that's different. The heckler's veto is only legitimate if the speaker being heckled is a bad guy." But who gets to decide? Ultimately, it's not the students, but the administration.    

Glasser makes the point that the first use of campaign finance restrictions was against some old radicals who put an ad in the New York Times to denounce Nixon's bombing of Cambodia.  In other words, once you authorize censorship, then you have no way of ensuring that the "good guys" won't be censured too.

That's why free speech has to be a content-neutral principle.  It does no good if it only protects the speech that someone in power happens to like at any given time.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Noche oscura

I found an amazing translation of "La noche oscura del alma" without really looking: I was reading something else, a book I had from the Lorca project, and there it was! And I knew it was there, but didn't know that I knew until I saw it.  I'm not going to reveal it yet, because I have to save something for the published book.    

Friday, June 2, 2017

Errand boy of the gods

There's something you're not enjoying about being

errand boy of the gods

a wall knocked out between two rooms

abolishes both rooms, even in memory

that salty broth you thought you'd always liked.


I've spent some time with Merton. I think I had a false idea of him, to the extent I had any idea at all, because I associated him with pacifisms, civil rights, and things like that, and thought of him as some kind of hip poet-monk. He was that, I'm sure too, and his reaching out to Asian religious traditions is probably interesting.  

 In his book on St. John of the Cross, The Ascent to Truth, punished in 1951, he sounds a lot like Pope John Paul II on the same figure, in the future Pope's 1949 treatise: both emphasize the Thomistic, rational and orthodox quality of Saint John and his value to protect against "false mysticism."

Although they are both poets, neither approaches San Juan as a poet in the least. Merton's first book of poetry is called Strange Islands, a phrase from the CE (repeated twice.) So that's next on my list of things to read.    

Original Sin

Let's say a basic capacity of the human mind is to find fault with itself. A squirrel does not awaken in the morning and wonder how to be a better squirrel, or more of a squirrel, because all squirrels are basically perfect squirrels already. So to explain this anomalous fact about humans, we have a myth like "original sin." (Well, there is a myth, first, and then its interpretation.) But we can see that the purpose of the myth is to explain why there is something wrong with us, but the real feature we need to explain is not why there something wrong, but why we think there is in the first place. Why do we have a capacity to find fault with ourselves?  The oak tree presumably lacks that feature.

Another approach would be to unlearn the habit of fault finding, or to reduce it to its most banal dimension, where any observation of the self would be free from shame and guilt. Self-acceptance feels utterly foreign to me, because I am attached to certain negative ideas. These ideas are, even, a source of reassurance.  To renounce them would be to accept defeat.    

Thursday, June 1, 2017


I've found a third version of the stanza I quoted a while back, by John Frederick Nims of San Juan:  

Unready yet to mend
the havoc in this heart--so quick to break it?
Possess and not intend
ever to take it?
Have it by force and forceably forsake it? (1959)

Seeing you've wounded, dear,
this heart of mine, why never stoop to mend it?
Steal and yet leave it here?
By halves a bandit,
neither entirely take it nor unhand it? (1968)

And wounds to show. You'd cleave
clean to the heart, and never think of healing?
Steal it, and when you leave
leave it? What sort of dealing
to steal and never keep, and yet keep stealing?  (1979)

I cannot say there is any improvement from version to version.  Probably the '68 is the best of the three and the '79 the worst.  He retains very little in each successive version, not even the rhymes.

He must have been dissatisfied with the first two, since he tried a third version. I think I would not know what any of these versions is supposed to say without the original to guide me:  Why, since you wounded my heart, didn't you heal it? And since you robbed it from me, why did you leave it, and not take the robbery that you robbed? The antitheses are crisp in the original text.

The '68, though is an interesting edition because it has a preface by Robert Graves that cites Lorca!  

Barnstone is rather flat in the translation of this same stanza:

Why do you wound my heart
and then refuse to heal it?
And since you took it from me,
why do you leave it now,
abandoning the thing you robbed?


I'm always finding poems I should have known about before publishing the Lorca book.  An elegy for Lorca by Thomas Merton starts like this:  

Where the white bridge rears up its stamping arches 
 Proud as a colt across the clatter of the shallow river, 
The sharp guitars 
Have never forgotten your name. 

Stages of research

1. Read stuff and think about it.

2. Write down ideas.

3. Shape written down ideas into prose. Keep revising prose.

4. Document everything read and cited.

5. Publish.

For research days, I like to use the afternoon for 1. The next day morning I will write down ideas I got the day before, or shape written down ideas into finished prose, or revise.  Everything is basically reading, thinking, writing, and documenting. That's all there is to it.  It sounds easy this way, but nothing will happen if you don't do steps 1 and 2.  


I'm no sanjuanista, and I won't contribute anything to our knowledge of his poetry or theology. I have no interest in resolving controversies about how best to interpret his work, etc... or in contributing more to the commentary on the commentaries. But I can always find new things in the reception. Pope John Paul II defrocked the poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, for being in the Sandinista govt. The interesting thing is that both men were devotés of San Juan de la Cruz. These kind of minor anecdotes are not what I'm about, but I think if they are accumulated they start to form patterns. For example: poets interested in the Saint, but for his mysticism and decidedly not his poetry. If we count Wojtyla as poet...  


Wednesday, May 31, 2017


When I was little kid they told me that this little island called Formosa (a big island, but still, just an island) was "China." I asked what this huge country in Asia was that had no label at all on it. "Oh," said the teacher, that is "Red China." It was an early moment of skepticism. I don't know how old I was, but I'm sure it was before Nixon's opening of China in 1972.    

Dámaso on San Juan

Nada que pudiera explicar esa constante sensación de frescura, de virginalidad y originalidad que nos produce la poesía del Santo y que es como un delicioso oreo cuando a ella pasamos desde las de otros poetas, aún de los mayores de nuestro Siglo de Oro. 

Wag the Dog

All your obsessions, complexes, fetishes, syndromes, dogmas, rituals and habits, self-definitions, specializations, investments, ranks and insignias, isms, everything you are attached to, everything you think necessary to position yourself in the world, to gain an edge, to get others to see in in a certain way: all of this is a dog wagging you. You are the tail being wagged around by this dog. It's no wonder you feel helpless and unfree most of the time. It's been a lot of work to accumulate and keep track of all this baggage, so you won't willingly part with any of it.   

This is a paraphrase of what I told myself today while meditating.  I usually try not to think when I'm meditating, but I am out of practice so I could not prevent  it, and I think it is a useful insight, for me if not for you.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Gold Mine

I got a fund-raising letter from the University of California Study Abroad Programs:  Dear Jonathan, it has been 38 years since you studied abroad. That means that I have been a Hispanist for 38 years, in that I began a very systematic study of Spanish poetry at that point (really, before that, since I learned Spanish for this express purpose). I still remember poems from memory that I memorized at this point: "El alma tenías / tan clara y abierta / que yo nunca pude / entrarme en tu alma."  Yes, I was a babe in the woods. It was a junior year program but I was a year younger, since I started college at 17. I turned 19 in Spain, right after we had arrived in a group flight that went non-stop from LAX.

I am sitting atop the proverbial gold mine. I've found a vehicle, the study of translation, with an automatically generated archive: you simply have to find the translations, which isn't hard to do. There is a sophisticated body of theory that allows you to look at this material critically, and the project has a historical sweep to it, both in the original texts, and in the translations. I don't have to be an expert in every original text, either. I can rely on accidental erudition and on a store house of ideas I have been developing since before graduate school, including two papers I wrote in grad school.


I realize I am not necessarily like other people.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Dream of the Anti-Aphorism

There was a new genre discovered, in this dream. It was called scheherazade [phonetic approximation?], and I was investigating it / trying to explain it somehow.  Though short, it differed from the aphorism in that it was delicate and non-obtrusive rather than heavy-handed, axiomatic, and sententious. Most examples were much shorter than aphorisms. When I awoke I realized I myself was the main expert in this genre, because it was my dream.  I cannot quote you any examples.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Religious Differences, A Poem

Stoics and Epicureans

may not be as different as you think

We associate one group with suffering pain without too much complaint

the other with seeking pleasure

Neither group was Christian, and

Christians too have had their ideas about pain and pleasure

neither Stoical nor Epicurean

Protestants and Catholics used to be thought very different from each other too

now they live side by side in the suburbs

undisturbing each other with theological controversy

They fought horrific wars in Europe for decades or maybe centuries

I'll have to look that up

even in the 1970s there was religious war

going on

and not between factions of stoics  

Friday, May 26, 2017


An article in the CHE: a student comes into the professor's office with an official accommodation letter about panic attacks. The professor says that not showing up for an exam for a panic attack will not be very good for a number of reasons, and then asks the student what sh/e does normally to calm self in such a situation.  They have a conversation and the student ends up doing well in the class and never missing an exam for a panic attack.  

Then some disabilities specialists write another opinion piece in the CHE saying how this first article perpetuates "myths."  Like the myth of resilience, that a person can do things to manage their disability better. The professor who wrote op-ed 1 is arrogant, non-compliant with disability act (ADA), etc...

I have an anxiety disorder, let's say (I actually do), which is not PTSD or panic disorder, but something called General Anxiety Disorder.  (I've had only two or three panic attacks in my life, two that I remember buts let's say I don't remember everything.)  The best thing someone can tell you is to take steps to manage it, which I've done. So asking someone what they normally do is perfectly fine.  If the student did have the panic attack and the prof. did not accommodate, then she would be in violation, of course, but recommending coping mechanisms as first resort is nothing bad.

I've read up on these disorders, and what actually works is not avoidance of the stressors, but the realization that a panic attack is survivable and that anxiety, in general, is something normal rather than something wholly intolerable. Since no human being can avoid all anxiety in all situations in life, the anxiety sufferer goes to extraordinary lengths to do the impossible and ends up being slave to various anxiety avoidance techniques, which often end up being life avoidance techniques. The treatment ends up being much worse than the original problem. I am not embarrassed to say I have done this, because having anxiety in and of itself is not the disorder. Everyone feels it, along with the other normal range of human affect.

Resilience is basic axis of human personality. Some have more or less, but it is there, the same with other axes like the ability to introspect, to understand others, to enjoy one's personal triumphs, etc... There is no reason to believe that disabled people have more or less of this, but in general most people think it's better to more of it. Except these disability busy-bodies.


Although Borges praises one line Roy Campbell's translation, or actually just one part of a line ("when all my house was hushed") the rest of it does not live up to a high standard. Consider this:

¿Por qué, pues has llagado
A aqueste corazón, no le sanaste?
Y pues me le has robado,
¿Por qué así le dejaste
Y no tomas el robo que robaste?

Why then did you so pierce
my heart, nor heal it with your touch sublime?
Why, like a robber fierce,
Desert me every time
And not enjoy the plunder of your crime?

This is wrong on so many levels it is hard to know where to begin.  The fourth line does not even seem grammatical, and I've italicized some stuff that not only does not appear in the original, but creates a wholly false tone. Notice how the original stanza has no adjectives!    

It might be better, though, than John Frederick Nims:

Unready yet to mend
the havoc in this heart--so quick to break it?
Possess and not intend
ever to take it?
Have it by force and forceably forsake it? (1959)

Nims revised his translation years later and came up with something equally risible:

And wounds to show. You'd cleave
clean to the heart, and never think of healing?
Steal it, and when you leave
leave it? What sort of dealing
to steal and never keep, and yet keep stealing?  (1979).

This is St. John of the Cross as translated by Dr. Seuss.  With apologies to the great children's author.

A Spanish 101 student understands the original more easily than either version by Nims.  Aside from the word "aqueste," which would now be "este," the language is transparent.

So-called feminine rhymes in English have a comic quality, associated with Gilbert and Sullivan, tin pan alley, and Dr. Seuss. I guess even before that with Byron.

The wretchedness of so much translation is a great mystery.


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.