Saturday, September 17, 2005


All's askew this morning, albeit deliberately. I've been battling something nasty in my wrists for about a year now--first the left, which had me out of typing action for almost a month in the spring, and now the right, after a day of mousing around with my Reading Poetry syllabus--

Hang on. Worth noting that lovely verb: "mousing." The term of art, I gather, for using one of those Microsoft rodents, but doesn't it conjure up images of tiny red-coated hunters galloping across the kitchen floor, horns calling, hounds belling (is that what hounds do?), etc. In any case--

so I've been battling syndromes, Mr. Incredible-style, on and off for about a year now, and have decided to try a few new tactics, including what feels to me like a teetering-tall elevation in my desk chair (look, Mom! Up here!) and passing the mousie to the left-hand side, where I grope for and fumble with it like a teen-ager again.

Quite fun, really. So far. In fact, I keep thinking, however inappropriately, of Marilyn Hacker's little poem "Self": "I did it / differently," and so on. (If you don't know the poem, look it up. "Nerves whose duty is delight." Yum.)

In any case, if anything about the blog feels, ahem, different in the next few days, that's what, and that's why.

Mousing sinister,

Friday, September 16, 2005

On the Earbuds

Today's post over at Culture Industry features smart (if implicitly excoriating) notes on William Carlos Williams, a dandy (if glum) paragraph from Adorno, and word of a Sonic Youth DVD with videos galore.

I missed Sonic Youth--had turned, by their arrival, up other alleys, Tin Pan and otherwise. I fear it's too late for me now. Rather as it is with Language poetry, I suspect, and possibly with Adorno, too. A sad thought, buoyed though I am by the fun of re-reading Northrop Frye, The Boyfriend School, and E. M. Hull's The Sheik this weekend. Oh! And, lest I forget, a new muse on the earbuds: Savina Yannatou, a Greek diva unknown to me this long, but no longer. On the earbuds currently, a live CD with her ensemble, Primavera en Salonico: Terra Nostra. She just finished a lovely Lebanese lullaby--too short by half!--and has pitched into a Spanish seaside ballad that threatens, throughout, to spin just slightly out of control, as though the ensemble wanted to wrench it away from her and spin her back to the rockier, Balkan terrain she sang from a track or two before. Good stuff. Worth the wait.

Update (at last!)

Home from a haircut, I stopped by the computer for a moment to check my email before heading off to the market--and there it was, waiting in my inbox, the sweetest comment (forwarded from here): "Update! (please)."

How can I resist?

My plans to "blog my classes" haven't panned out yet, as you can tell. It may take another week or two to get a rhythm here; frankly, last week I was in a state of panic over the new courses, trying to scrabble the syllabi together; and this week, on a crazy, over-caffeinated high over being back in the classroom in three very fun classes. Let's see: by way of update, then, what HAVE I been up to?

In my Reading Poetry class, as I said a few posts back, we started off with Matthews' "A Major Work." I've been mulling the poem over ever since, not least because its first stanza sums up Zukofsky's three main categories of poetical pleasure--"the test of poetry is the range of pleasures it affords as sight, sound, and intellection"--and then adds the fourth, which I've called a "pleasure of character," too. Reading (intellection), seeing, hearing, and loving (moving out of yourself, deploying your sympathetic imagination, that sort of thing): that could frame a class, or the opening chapter of a book, come to think of it. The other thought that haunts me, which I haven't returned to in class, has to do with the final verb of the poem: "the great sloth heart may move." That "movement" makes me think of metaphor, which is a mode of "carrying across" or (to break down the etymologies) meta-("sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change of place, order, condition, or nature") plus carrying or transfer. Metaphor moves, puts things in motion, etc. As does love.

We hit the issue of metaphor again yesterday--I'm skipping the second day, the Mary Oliver day, for the moment--when reading "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." Hmm... Let me backtrack a minute.

My thought was to start the class with a couple of days on poems that divide nicely into sections, so that we could get up to speed, collectively, on how to "divide and conquer" a poem. (I posted at length on the "divide and conquer" approach last spring--you can search it with the Google link above.) Thus, in the Mary Oliver, we tugged a little to see what sections it would split into, and then found the repetitions and variations that held the poem together: the paired adjectives, for example, that apply to the grasshopper's eyes ("enormous and complicated"), and the speaker's sense of herself ("idle and blessed"), and then, with an additional term, to the "you" the poem addressses: "Your one wild and precious life"). We also attended to the structural logic of the piece: that is, to what motivates each turning point and transition.

After about 45 minutes on the Oliver, we turned to "They Flee From Me," which also works nicely as a "poem in sections." (Better than the Oliver, probably, but I've taught it many, many times before and wanted a change!) This one divvies up by stanzas, and gives you the chance to see the speaker "change his tune," as I put it in class, at each transition: the cocky boasts of the first stanza, where the time frames are evenly split between past & present and the women are plural and implicitly like animals, eating from his hand; the wistful erotic reminiscence of the second stanza, where it's all in the past, and all about one woman, and she catches him and gives him a punning animal name ("Dear heart," with a pun on "hart," natch); the spite & linguistic collapse of the third, which clings briefly to the past ("it was no dream; I lay broad waking") and then gives up and joins the present, unable to muster a single memorable figure or elegant phrase. Good stuff, and a nice reminder for the students that not every speaker is as endlessly sincere as Oliver's!

(I'd meant to follow that last bit up with "The Road Less Travelled," but ran out of time. I'm used to my 3-hour seminar from the summer, and the 90 minute class session--80 minutes by the time the roll gets called--leaves me gasping, always.)

So, yesterday, to wrap up the "poems in sections" unit, we did "Adam's Curse" and the Dylan Thomas. Just briefly, for the moment, I'll say that teaching the Thomas reminded me that most of my students don't have any sense, really, of how to "unpack" a metaphor. They guess and fudge when you ask them to tease out what a phrase like "because their words had forked no lightning" or "how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay" might mean. I'm always reluctant to spend time on such things in class, except when I can frame them historically, in terms of the various ways various periods and poetics have treated the use of figurative language. But I think I need a few good exercises for outside of class to get the students more comfortable, precise, and confident when they tangle with a highly figurative passage.

WHICH I will post here, along with much else, sooner than this came, and more regularly. Really. I promise. But for now, I must, must, must go shopping, or the pre-Sabbath crowds will strip the shelves before me!

More soon,

Thursday, September 08, 2005

One for Next Week

Kate, over at the SSW Yahoo Group, suggested a group of poems for first-days-of-class. One I hadn't seen before was this, by Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
I'm not a big Mary Oliver fan, for a variety of reasons--maybe I'll blog on those later--but I found myself quite taken with this. Anyway, a bunch of us on the listserv are all going to teach the poem and report on our class discussions. Come join the party, or listen in here, and I'll keep you posted!

Back to Classes!

My first day back in class today--first day teaching at all, aside from the NEH seminar, which hardly counts (those were colleagues, not students), since last spring. I felt eager and nervous pulling up to the office this morning, only some of which jitters could be explained by the fact that I hadn't entirely finished either syllabus for either class I was about to teach. Does anyone else out there have such a hard time picking poems, or choosing assignments? Is this a poetry thing, or just a me thing? (Thinking of Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge there: "is this a men thing, or a him thing?" Or words to that effect.)

(By the way, if you're the student who ran off, a year or two ago, with my signed copy of Muse & Drudge, I'd love to have it back. No questions asked.)

In the morning, my Romance class--35 students or so, three of whom were men, two of whom are English majors. It's a 200-level "popular literature" class, so the lack of majors doesn't entirely surprise me, but I'll have to adjust my plans a little here and there to respond. My history of the course--how I got interested in Romance fiction, how no one in my department wanted to teach the class, year after year, etc.--was entertaining enough, I think, as was my little sketch of 3rd-4th century Greek romances (erotika pathemata, as Anne Carson teaches me to call them: "erotic sufferings," or "sufferings of desire," played out in plots as extravagant and sentimental as anything in Bertrice Small's capacious Skye O'Malley).

I doubt I can say the same about the last little bit I tried to squeeze in. The rise of companionate marriage and affective individualism in the 17th century, and the concurrent rise of laws restricting or erasing women's property rights at marraige: these proved harder to follow as set-up for the books we're going to read. Maybe I can loop them back in more effectively later. (Both ideas borrowed from Pamela Regis's useful recent Natural History of the Romance Novel, which I plan to draw on a lot in the first couple of weeks of class.) Now it's on to The Boyfriend School, and topic 1: "What is 'Romance,' and why do people say such nasty things about it?" Some good new links on that subject on Jennifer Crusie's website, which I'll draw on in a later post.

In my Reading Poetry class, I spent so much time setting up the class--the new book, new syllabus-in-progress, newly-recovered-from-burnout professor, newly non-systematic approach--that we didn't have a whole lot of time for actual poems, alas! We got through one, ONE poem, in the 90 minute period: this little one by William Matthews:
A Major Work

Poems are hard to read
Pictures are hard to see
Music is hard to hear
And people are hard to love

But whether from brute need
Or divine energy
At last mind eye and ear
And the great sloth heart may move
I framed the discussion in terms of "the poem as life" and "the poem as art"--my version, this latter, of Helen Vendler's "the poem as arranged life," which I find too cumbersome and hard to remember. I like the way that the first stanza gives you a taste of both: that is, it gets you to consider poetry as art (we encounter it like a picture or a piece of music) and then slips you that little left hook about the poem as a surrogate or represented person, after which thought you have to respond somewhat differently.

My favorite moment in the poem, though, has to be the sudden arrival of that "great sloth heart," which reminds me of a wonderful paragraph about reading near the start of Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets:

"The best reader needs the seven deadly sins in double measure. Pride makes us equal with specialists and professional critics and impervious to their attacks. Lechery puts us in tune with the varied passions and loves that we encounter. We feel envy when a reader who has gone before preempts our response; this only spurs us on to fresh readings. Anger overwhelms us when injustices occur, and it should be disproportionate: when a poet dies in destitiution or is lost for a generation or a century. We experience covetousness when we encounter poets we are prepared to love but their books are unavailable in the shops, so we covet our friends' libraries or the great private collectins. Gluttony means we will not be satisfied even by a full helping of Spenser or the whole mess of The Excursion; we feed and feed and still ask for more. Finally, dear old sloth has us curled up on a sofa or swinging in a hammock with our books piled around, avoiding the day job and the lover's complaint. These are necessary vices." (11)

Say Amen, somebody! Me, I'm off to get back to work on some Bach for mandolin.

(P.S. The oud countdown has begun...)

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Breakthrough, of Sorts

...on my Norman Finkelstein essay, after a bad night--woke up, sat up, and pouf! There it was: the structure that would let me talk about all of the topics and poems I've thrashed out and worried over for the last week or so.

Have I ever mentioned that I love it when that happens?

So--now I can get back to other things, like my Reading Poetry and Teaching Poetry classes, while the piece more or less writes itself. Yeah, right. But it will be easier, and I can stop griping, which will be fun for everyone.

Two unrelated notes:

1) I've spent a lot of time over at the other blog recently, thinking through some issues about "secular Jewish culture" and its intersections, such as they are, with something called "radical poetry." If you're interested in either side of that equation, you might check it out.

2) I also received, a few days back, the most gorgeous, but gorgeous chapbook I think I've ever seen: Peter O'Leary's A Mystical Theology of the Limbic Fissure, from Dos Madres press. I'll post more on the poems in the next few days; a little Catholic poesy for diversion during my ongoing sojourn through Reb Finkelstein. For the moment, though, let me just say that the icons and little graphic touches throughout this book are like ocular baklava. I knew Dos Madres did good work; in fact, Finkelstein has his own Dos Madres chapbook, An Assembly, which inspired me to write on him when I re-read it this spring. But my goodness--they've outdone themselves this time.

Hats off to Robert J. Murphy, executive editor of Dos Madres. We who are about to read salute you!