Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Constantine Cavafy

We have a week and a half left of classes here at DePaul. Today, in my Love Poetry class, it's Baudelaire and Cavafy. In preparation for which, I turned up another lovely site: a Cavafy page, put together by the poet's estate, evidently, with translations and a fine selection of essays. I particularly liked Daniel Mendelsohn's "Cavafy and the Erotics of the Lost":
...What makes Cavafy so remarkable was not, as it is too often tempting to think, that he managed to be a poet of desire and a poet of the past, but that he was a poet of desire through the past. It is sometimes hard to remember, given the total authority of even his earliest poetic utterances, that Cavafy did indeed experiment and develop as a thinker and writer over the course of nearly fifty years of creative output; one thing that emerges when we look at the career as a whole is how well and idiosyncratically the poet learned to use the historical as a tool for exploring the personal. He began, indeed, with a poetic and personal crisis, a block: how to speak about homosexual desire. This crisis, he came to understand, could only be solved by means of his intellectual attachment to the Greek cultural inheritance.

A clue as to why this was so is to be found in the fact that it was specifically the culture of the Hellenistic and Late Antique eras that became the vehicles for the poet’s explorations of the nature of desire in time. These were, after all, ages that were themselves haunted by the past—torn (as the narrator of Cavafy’s erotic lyrics so often is) between the then and the now. That tension, in turn, was reflected by another, a geographical one: between the here and the there. Few of the poems that many think of as being about ancient Greece are, in fact, set in Greece itself. Instead, nearly all of the poems of the past are set in cultural outposts of Hellenistic Greece—Seleucia in Asia Minor, Alexandria in Egypt—places that were hybrids of local and Greek cultures. That were often divided, in other words, between where they were and what they wanted to be.

It was a Hellenistic knack for conflation, for mediating between seemingly distinct categories, that allowed Cavafy to achieve a new kind of poetry, a great modern poetry in which two key elements that were present from the very beginning— fervent desire, on the one hand, and painful absence, on the other; the erotic and what I call “the lost” (a category that includes whole civilizations as well as beautiful boys)—gradually came together over the course of some crucial years in his artistic growth in a way that created a third element, much as the simultaneous sounding of two notes will create a third, an overtone. In Cavafy’s case, the overtone was a profound self-consciousness of the power of his own art, and profound insight into the nature of poetry itself. In the end, what he united was was not merely the ancient and the modern, or the Hellenic and Hellenistic, the European and the North African, the European and western Asian; but indeed the speakable and the unspeakable, shame and pride, the latent and patent, the real and the imagined—and, in the greatest work, the subject and the object, desirer and desired, the writer and his inspiration, the act of love and the act of poetry.
Full text here; the website as a whole is now in my "links for teachers" column, to your left.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Jots & Tittles (Oblivious Division)

My dear friend Mark, the man who inspired me to start this blog in the first place, kindly stopped by to watch that Allen Ginsberg video. It's gotten him thinking about Ginsberg--the stories we tell about him, both biographically (everyone seems to have one) and academically, about his growth and decline, on dit, as a poet. I'll be teaching Howl in a couple of weeks, to end the quarter in my Modern American Poetry grad class; Mark reminds me how pat, how packaged, our accounts of so many poets become. What will be the story, I wonder, about Charles Bernstein? Ron Silliman? Will we all have Harryette Mullen and Jorie Graham anecdotes to swap, someday? (Make one up, Jones: that's an order.) At a poetry reading last week, a former student introduced me to her former boss, who gave me quite a look--evidently there was some kind of story told there! Turns out that she read this blog, or used to, years ago, and liked it. How the time goes by.


On that "time goes by" front, many thoughts tonight. I've let two sweet buys slip past this weekend, over on Ebay: a Mid-Missouri octave mandolin that would have matched my Mid-Mo M-4 perfectly, for about $800; and an American-made cittern for about $500. Tough to pass on either one, and tougher on both, but I've spent so many months now learning to watch and release, watch and release, that it's not as painful as it once was. Am I just getting old? Or is this somehow a side effect of lessons on the mando, which have taught me (if nothing else) how poorly I play it? (Play them: I have three: the Mid-Mo, a Fullerton Gloucester f-style (now sold out, alas! I should have bought two of them, at less than two C-notes apiece), and a chubby, trebly bowlback I picked up last year on summer vacation.) I also just re-tuned my oud, down to an Arabic tuning (CFadgc, low-to-high) since I'm more interested in playing Arabic than Turkish / Ottoman music on it at the moment. There are also some handy on-line video lessons for beginners, which assume that tuning. When I get the time, I'll pursue them. One of these days, though, I'm heading into CBOM country: Cittern, Bouzouki, Octave Mandolin, that is. As someone over at the Mandolin Cafe likes to say, "Just because I can't play them, doesn't mean I can't own them!"


Other than working on "Red-Haired Boy"--by ear, says my teacher, so I have to ignore sites like this--the big investment of time this weekend was putting up a website for my new poetry-teaching venture: How to Teach a Poem (and Learn from One, Too), a year-long series of monthly workshops sponsored by the NEH. (I bought the Fullerton--see above--to celebrate getting that grant.) If you live in Chicago, and teach middle school (6-8), you're eligible to apply!

That and the pool, with my kids. It was a weekend, after all.


Mark seems to be re-reading Michael Moorcock, a Zion's Friction author I missed in my boyhood. Inspired by his reflections, though, I hunted up a book of Spider Robinson stories at the library to read at the pool.

I remember Robinson as a reviewer more than a novelist; he's the one, I think, who introduced me to Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song in a review from Analog or Galaxy, maybe, back in the 70s. The stories I read this afternoon weren't any great shakes as literature, but they were fun: early stuff, Callahan's Bar stories, with lots of bad puns and quick, hamfisted asides about morality and ethics, like Heinlein somtimes threw.

What stunned me, though, were the other asides, the steady patter about worthy brands of Irish whiskey (Tullamore Dew gets the nod) and bourbon (I. W. Harper), among other tipples. Was it from Robinson that I learned to love Irish Coffee? Or was that from Larry Niven? This from years before I ever took a drink, I swear! One or two of them, anyway.

Instruction and delight.


An aside from Mark about books that are "as embarassing as the songs one danced to in 1984" brought this to mind--

Whatever's up with the (racist) hoo-doo nonsense, I miss the makeup. And the Ovation. How I once wanted that guitar!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Allen Ginsberg, "Father Death Blues"

Such a sweet, sweet poem. Worth knowing, if you don't already.

Just noticed that the Ginsberg Collected is out, in hardback at least. Maybe I should teach my 10 week course on Howl again.

Bit by bit, jot by jot, I'll keep this blog alive.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Spiffing Things Up

I've just switched to the updated layout software here at Blogger, and it seems to make posting links, etc., far easier. I lost a dozen good links for teachers when I switched to the current template; as I repair the damage, I'll also add links to other, more personal habits and haunts.

A nice write-up of one of my current classes in the school paper last week: the "Gumshoe Poetics" seminar I turned loose on Beam 10 of Ronald Johnson's ARK. For posterity, here 'tis:
Senior capstone seminar leaves impression on students enrolled
by Philip Lenczycki
Staff Writer

English professor Eric M. Selinger’s senior capstone seminar, Gumshoe Poetics, is attracting attention.

"We’re rediscovering poetry," said Greg Ritter, a senior English student.

Gumshoe Poetics is a cross between show n’ tell and "X-Files," because it is an investigative and discussion-oriented class.

Students who are studying author Ronald Johnson’s largely unknown nine-word poem, "Beam 10" from the longer work titled ARK, find themselves individually investigating leads in communal class research.

The poem reads: Daimon diamond monad I, Adam Kadmon in the sky.

"It’s no ordinary poem, the nine words that comprise this amazing work are simply mind-boggling when studied," said Erica Fernandez, a senior English student.

"[Senior capstone seminar] has been around for eight or nine years and has been taught by different professors in different forms each time," Selinger said. "My first capstone, for example, spent 10 weeks studying Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The current version is entirely new, I’ve never used Ronald Johnson before."

Students keep Agent’s Logs, to document discoveries in an ongoing and in-depth analysis. This involves teasing out euphonies and etymological searches, while finding worlds within words.

"Ronald Johnson's genius is conveyed throughout ARK, yet the deconstruction of the work is only made dynamic through the eyes of Professor Selinger," Fernandez said.

"Teaching Johnson’s ‘Beam 10’ is a little like solving a riddle," Selinger said. "It has a certain improvisational quality. It requires me to do little traditional teaching, which I like, and allows the students to go at it as they might. My job is to facilitate the discussion. ‘Beam 10’ is great because you can study it from a variety of angles: arts and literature, natural science, religious dimensions, really all of the liberal studies domains."

On any given day, the poem requires nothing less than the knowledge of a resident theosophist, a physicist, and a carpenter. Google and Wikipedia are usually the understudies in their absence, during those very few times Selinger does not have all the answers.

Topics of discussion range from "The Wizard of Oz" to alchemy, Carl Jung to chemical-composition and calculus, proving poetry to be plenty powerful and chalk-full of possibility and applicability.

"Ronald Johnson is a wonderful poet, and ‘Beam 10’ is particularly fun to study because it’s only nine words long, so the primary reading is just about nil. That maximizes the contemplation and research aspects of the class," Selinger said.

Working in harmonious conjunction, Johnson’s "Beam 10" and Selinger’s teaching style are encouraging.

Poet, Peter O’Leary, a professor at the Art Institute and a friend of Johnson and the person in charge of Johnson’s estate, has several plans for Johnson’s unrecognized work.

"[I want to] make him more visible, available, increase publication, add scholarship. Republish ARK in 2010 through Flood Editions," O’Leary said. "Next year we’ll publish Outworks…I’m not trying to rush anything, I think all of us involved in this task realize how good a poet Johnson is and we know that eventually with the right effort he’ll surface as he should."

Many students think Gumshoe Poetics is an indisputable success. They hope that one day ARK will be granted its poetic justice recognized as one of America’s great poems. Until then, however, Selinger and O’Leary will work towards realizing that goal supported by those students who have taken Gumshoe Poetics, and by those who have read and love Johnson and his bewitching poem.

"Professor Selinger’s Gumshoe Poetics senior capstone seminar is a stellar ride of Homeric proportions; and its success hinges on a delicate balance between format, content and instruction," said Jody Schardt, a senior English student.

I say, buy that man a round!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Free Emily Dickinson!

No, not a protest march, although she could probably use it.

I've just discovered that WikiSource has the collected Dickinson on line, gratis. They say that she's out of copyright, being a century dead & all. The folks at Harvard UP might disagree, since the edition that Wiki has on line seems to be the Johnson text, but who am I to argue?

The link is up now, to your right.


According to my current list, I have 22 projects underway.

Just so you know why I'm not blogging much here, or anywhere.

Like butter spread over too much bread, as Bilbo says somewhere.