Monday, December 29, 2008

Welcome to the Working Week

Counting down, here, to the end of 2008. A tough year for this blog; here's to a better, more interesting one in the months to come.

It was warm enough to run today, so run we did, R & I. (She's following the blog now--hi, love!) Took a pitchfork to my in-box, which is more of an in-tower at the moment, a desktop Barad-dur. Got some very anxiety-provoking emails from editors and impending campus visitors; literally shrieked in frustration at one point, scaring my poor daughter silly. Took my son to the library in search of histories of rock and roll, and a stack of CDs. Not, shall we say, the most productive day, but for the first day back to work, not altogether a failure.

In fact, one success: a sheaf of paperwork I should have filed last June (you read that right, alas) for my How to Teach a Poem workshop series is now done, done, done. Scoring high on the guilt-o-meter, that was. Three days left to finish--well, why commit myself? This & that.

Time to sign off & clean up. More tomorrow.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday Morning

We open the week with a "this just in," via the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog. It seems the editors of Max Planck Institute's journal, in Germany, wanted to grace their cover with something poetic--and hey, what could be more poetic than this graceful bit of chinoiserie?

Of course, it might have helped if someone at the Institute knew WTF the characters said. Quoth the Independent:

There were red faces on the editorial board of one of Germany's top scientific institutions, the Max Planck Institute, after it ran the text of a handbill for a Macau strip club on the front page of its latest journal. Editors had hoped to find an elegant Chinese poem to grace the cover of a special issue, focusing on China, of the MaxPlanckForschung journal, but instead of poetry they ran a text effectively proclaiming "Hot Housewives in action!" on the front of the third-quarter edition. Their "enchanting and coquettish performance" was highly recommended.

The use of traditional Chinese characters and references to "the northern mainland" seem to indicate the text comes from Hong Kong or Macau, and it promises burlesque acts by pretty-as-jade housewives with hot bodies for the daytime visitor.

The Max Planck Institute was quick to acknowledge its error explaining that it had consulted a German sinologist prior to publication of the text. "To our sincere regret ... it has now emerged that the text contains deeper levels of meaning, which are not immediately accessible to a non-native speaker," the institute said in an apology. "By publishing this text we did in no way intend to cause any offence or embarrassment to our Chinese readers. " (My emphasis.)

This seems to be a much more reputable site for Chinese poems, useful for teachers and such--it has the originals, a transliteration, a prose crib, and a sample verse translation. Ah, but what about those "deeper levels of meaning"?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Poor Guy; Product Placement;

Not me, although I felt pretty sorry for myself when She Who said it was time to get up. (It was 5:45, which an hour or more early--but she'd been up for God knows how long, and needed a quiet room to try to catch some Zs before the client meeting this morning.)

No, the poor guy is my son, who woke up sick to his stomach at 4, got up at 6, threw up, and needs to stay home from school. Not the best end to the week, or start to the weekend!

(A virus? Something he ate? We'll see how my daughter feels when she gets up. They had carry-out pizza last night, which we didn't touch.)

One of those days I'm very glad to have a big ol' bottle of Cucina hand-soap at the sink, olive oil & coriander scent. I'll be using it a lot today, and--so far, at least--it makes me happy every time.


Speaking of happiness, mille grazie to Laura for her reminder, yesterday, that a new instrument will probably end up making me feel as much guilty as happy. It's funny: I know a fair amount about what makes me happy in the short & longer term by now, but that conscious knowledge doesn't seem to get me out of the rut of hankering after the same things, year after year, even when others might make me happier. Two gifts in the past few weeks--a new pair of zip-up, nicely insulated boots and a new under-the-counter radio-cum-mp3 player for the kitchen--have brought me more pleasure, dollar for dollar, than my last two mandolins. Having the funds to buy my wife a pricey sweater last summer on Inis Meain was a joy, and the fact that the sweater was lost before we got home actually doesn't spoil that memory at all.

Isn't there a poem like that? Hmmm... Not exactly, but here's the one that came to mind, by Wendy Cope:

Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.

The shop was closed. Or you had doubts -
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up instantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.

It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while.


I moved on to a second Crusie essay yesterday, editing. Actually, I moved on to the second essay twice: first in an early version, on which I assiduously wrote comment after comment, and then in a later version, once I realized (right about lunchtime) that the author had already rewritten it. Mr. Efficiency, that's me.

Today I need to spend a few hours curled up with another project, reminding myself at regular intervals that my own flickers of nausea are psychosomatic, not to be trusted. (Black coffee + empty stomach / sick son = get back to work & stop fretting!) Actually, the first thing I'll need to do is clean house, so that my wife's client feels reasonably confident when she shows up at 10. After that, the real work begins.


Since I probably won't be posting more later, I'll sign off and get this up on line. Here's a morning song--at least, it starts off with something about getting up every morning, which is probably what brought it to mind. Haven't heard this one in years, and it feels quite good to to cue it up again.

Rustlings upstairs. Off to work, then. --E

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wednesday Mix

This played in my head last night, and came back just now, after shoveling and such. I rediscovered Leonard Cohen thanks to the poet Alicia Ostriker, whom I'll blog about one of these days; for now, let me just post this, with thanks, and grab a cup of chai.

(Note: there's a typo at 2:40, where the video-maker types "firm commitments" where it should be "first commitments." Other than that, it's more or less accurate.)


Broke ground on the Darwish / Muhammad Ali piece this morning. Slow work, as expected. Trying to do it with these new contact lenses? Not worth the extra trouble--they're out now, but have left me chemically grumpy, even so. Funny how that works; as my college roommate taught me, once the bad chemicals get into your bloodstream, it takes a while for them to work their way out, no matter what else is happening. (Maybe a run or something would speed that along? Or a rum!)


From the delightful Bemsha Swing, via Mark's blog, this inspiring / intimidating list of "principles":
(1) Be smart [Be brilliant]. It always helps to start out with that basic advantage of being smarter than the next person. What this really means, though, is to work smart. Be intelligent about the way in which you go about doing things. Think things out.

(2) Read more. Be the kind of person who has read more than the people in any given room. That's what the 9,000 book of poetry project is really about.

(3) Out work (everyone else).

(4) Stake out (your territory). Define a few areas in which you are a specialist. Within those areas, you want to have a fairly dense, saturated knowledge. You want to have read the Collected Poems, not the Selected Poems. If you are in Graduate school and reading only the works assigned, or only the reading list for an exam, you are probably not going to be very well read.

(5) got prose? Basically, as a critic you are a kind of writer. The writing is not a secondary activity ("writing up" the results of something else) but a primary one. Not every publishing academic writes all that well, so that is a way to set yourself off from the crowd right there. Assuming you have 1-4 covered, you've got to have prose.
What would my five be--and how embarrassing would it be, I wonder, to put them in writing?


For the first time in ages, today, I found myself hankering for a new instrument: a "music tool," as the off-shore posts on ebay sometimes call them. Too many options! A bevvy of beauties in the bouzouki / octave mandolin / cittern category, all of them achingly affordable. If I could get my hands on a few, to get the actual feel of them in my fingertips, the decision would be easy. Staring from afar, they all appeal.

(This new Trinity College Deluxe took me by surprise just now. Drop dead gorgeous--but not more lovely than three or four other options, alas!)


Laura, your comment yesterday (about reviewing) raised an interesting point. I do indeed "enjoy dissent and negotiation, at least at some level, and would feel a bit uncomfortable thinking of yourself as an authority figure whose opinions should never be challenged." Heck, I dissent from myself more often than not! (You should see me trying to decide who's in, who's out in a syllabus.) My Parnassus pieces are almost all arguments with myself about a poet or school of poetry, rather than ex cathedra pronouncements about the art. Hmmm... come to think of it, I quite like reading such pronouncements--but writing them, I'm perpetually haunted by exceptions.


Did someone say "Haunted"? Cue it up, Shane & Sinead:

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Two for Tuesday

Woke up with this in my head (the song, not the video):

I bought Street Legal when it came out in '78--my last year in Hawai'i, was it? (Quick calculation: I graduated from high school in '82, so '78-'79 was freshman year, which was Hawai'i, not Michigan. Punahou, not Cranbrook, to be precise. I liked it, but as I recall, it got savaged by reviews, which robbed me somewhat of my pleasure in it. Our house, you have to understand, was a house of reviews, not of dings-an-sich, with the New York Times its sacred text. My father's greatest dream for me, professionally speaking, was to have me write for one of the News: The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, the New Republic, the New York Review of Books. By the time I had the chops to go for them, I no longer wanted to, which caused him a certain amount of puzzlement, if not actual disappointment. But you see, I didn't read them anymore--and if I didn't care enough to listen to the conversation, why would I join it?

(These thoughts occasioned by a post from Mark, a few days back, about some piece by Adam Kirsch in Poetry--and, more generally, by a piece about Kirsch from Poetry itself back in May ["The Plight of the Poet-Critic."] On some level I suppose I'm wondering how long I want to write essay-reviews, which have been my major body of work since tenure, rather than other forms of criticism. More on this as the ideas begin to simmer.)


I'm on my department's MA Exam committee, and have spent the last week or two emailing colleagues about what texts we should require for the next two exams. Always a fretful negotiation: am I the only person who thinks Saul Bellow's work is dreary, misogynistic, borderline racist, and generally over-rated? Am I wrong about this? It's not as though I'll invest the time to learn otherwise at this point, at least without some very compelling reason. (Pay me and I'll read him, as I read Cynthia Ozick's Puttermesser Papers last fall. What a mean and dreary book!)

But I get ahead of myself: it looks like this year's list will be Midsummer Night's Dream (huzzah!), Middlemarch (ulp!), the Four Quartets (all four? Yes, dear, all four), Henderson the Rain King (oy), and Rita Dove's Mother Love (which I pushed for, so that we'd have at least TWO women and ONE author of color--and my colleagues felt that she'd fit the bill for our students better than Harryette Mullen).


Sent out my comments on one Crusie essay by noon, which was a Goal For the Day. Now what? Something poetry related, I think, to keep the scales balanced. Oh, but first I have to call Sarah. And before that, have lunch. (And so, my friends, the days go by....)


As my son approaches 13, I've been revisiting the music I listened to at his age. Here's the second song for today: a "good bad song" from my own ill-favored youth. Almost enough to make you believe in progress, ain't it?


Monday, December 08, 2008

Monday & Everything After

Monday morning: a new week, and since last week was devoted mostly to a religious holiday (my wife's birthday), a week when much more work will get done.

Work on what, you ask?
  • The Jennifer Crusie book: editing essays, and wrapping up my intro and own essay for it
  • The New Approaches to Popular Romance volume: ditto
  • My Darwish / Muhammad Ali essay
  • Conference planning (PCA, Princeton, Brisbane)
  • NEH work (old and new)
  • Campus visits (Ostriker and Hoffman)
  • A book proposal (don't ask--more on this anon)
  • My poets' biographies essay (still at the earliest stage, but on my mind)
  • A book review I can't talk about publicly yet
That's the list that comes to mind--if you're out there, and I owe you something, let me know!


But wait--there's more. Jewish stuff, which I seem to store in a separate file, mentally. (And blog about elsewhere, too.) But they're intertwined, at I discover when I work on the Darwish essay. Hard to read him, or Taha, as anything but an Ashkenazi American man of a certain age. I'd read them both differently were I a few years older or younger, or living in Sderot rather than Chicago.

Who wrote that book on "contingencies of value"? Barbara Hernstein Smith. Any good, anyone? (And how, one wonders, would we judge? Contingently, I guess.)

*** being the low point of the afternoon (3:40--the kids home, sun almost setting, every cell in my body crying for a nap), what got done today? Worked on the Crusie intro until I realized I really couldn't do any more until I got the essays fresh in my mind, after which I re-read and re-formatted (as a Word doc) K's piece on Crusie as a feminist author, which will help with the next chunk of the intro, certes.

(Dr. Laura, an email of response will be winging its way to you shortly.)

That's it? Well, and some phone calls, emails, etc. Not the most productive day, but not the worst, by a long shot.


Today's theme song (ending abruptly after a couple of minutes, but the best I could find):


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Guilt, Grading, MacDiarmid

Why do I post so little? Guilt, I think. I stopped posting regularly as the projects began to pile up last year, and although the stack is down considerably--from a high of 27, if memory serves, to a manageable 10 or dozen or so--I still owe essays and editing work to some very patient comrades-in-arms (Laura, Sarah, Herb), and that makes it hard to steal time for blogging.

Now that I have a few weeks off from teaching, though, I'm going to throw myself hard at those projects, try to break a few logjams. And, en route, to post a few things here--the usual mix of personal update and professional musing.


Finished grading Tuesday, down at the office, & left the papers and grade sheets there on my desk, glad to be rid of them.

By the time I got home, this email was simmering in my inbox:
Hi Professor Selinger,

I'm just wondering if I could have a rundown of why I received a B plus in your class. I was anticipating a higher grade after re-writing my papers and attending every class, participating, and never leaving early.

If you could let me know where I went wrong, I'd appreciate it.
A few years back, this would have sent me through the roof. And I'm still a little miffed. Rewriting the papers got this particular student into sight of the B+; one of them was a C+ paper to start with, raised to a B after I changed the syllabus to allow for revision. ("No good deed," as Elphaba says.) As for attendance, the syllabus said that missing classes would lower your grade; the converse isn't necessarily true, is it?

But, as I say, this time the complaint didn't send me through the roof. I just wrote back, explained what I said here, and promised to take another look at the student's final exam on my return from winter break. *Shrug* Maybe I'm just too old to fret about such things the way I used to. (Or to care?)

Something sad about the "never leaving early" bit, on reflection. It's as though the student really wanted to cut out halfway through--as some did, it being a night class--but forced him / herself to stay in order to get that top-notch grade. This is supposed to move me?

(Anyone else out there remember the old essay about "cow" and "bull"? It seems on point, somehow.)


My "Modern Poetry" survey this quarter--the one that B+ email comes from--was, I fear, less successful than I'd hoped. My plan was to give the students oodles and oodles of reading, drawn each week from both volumes of the Norton Modern and Contemporary Poetry anthologies. I organized the class thematically, rather than chronologically or by author or movement: a week on war, a week on gender, etc., with some poems (like The Waste Land and Mina Loy's Songs for Joannes) showing up repeatedly, in several contexts. Why? Partly because I'm tired of telling the same old stories about Modernism, stories that I'm no longer sure that I entirely believe; partly to try and restage, on the undergraduate level, the thrills of my recent graduate courses, in which I've simply assigned whole anthologies, reading them at about 100 pages a week. (This way, my students don't simply imbibe my own interests or biases--they get to, have to discover the poets and poems and movements that interest them.)

Most of the students seemed happy enough with the results, and I got some lovely notes from a few about how much they liked the class. Me? Not so much--I would dearly love to find a good prose guide to modern poetry, something as well written as Hugh Kenner's venerable introductions but a bit more inclusive. (Suggestions, anyone?) Still, a few highs and lows are worth noting:
  • Pound is getting almost impossible to teach, here at DePaul, at least without devoting several weeks exclusively to him. The student resistance and fear needs to be a subject all its own, and I'm not passionate enough about the work itself these days to carry me over those shoals. We'll see whether the grad students do better with him next quarter, taught out of Cary Nelson's Modern American Poetry antho, with the companion website.
  • Lorine Niedecker, on the other hand, taught extremely well, as did Yeats, Robinson Jeffers, May Swenson, and Adrienne Rich.
  • Ginsberg remains extremely popular--enough so that I should probably go back and teach him at length again, since he's surrounded by a lot of very vapid cliches (about history, form, and the like) that I might enjoy dispelling. I'm not sure, though, that I want to spend 10 weeks with students who want to spend 10 weeks on Ginsberg anymore.
  • Denise Levertov's "Song for Ishtar" was a big hit early in the quarter:
The moon is a sow
and grunts in my throat
Her great shining shines through me
so the mud of my hollow gleams
and breaks in silver bubbles

She is a sow
and I a pig and a poet

When she opens her white
lips to devour me I bite back
and laughter rocks the moon

In the black of desire
we rock and grunt, grunt and
Students liked that more than Mina Loy's "hoggerel," although we did well with Loy by the end of the quarter.

The big surprise, to me? I'd never taught Hugh MacDiarmid before, but took a swipe at teaching "O Wha's the Bride" on the day I called "Against Empire as Such," which focused on modernism and insurgent regional / ethnic / post-colonial poetries. My accent needs work, but the sheer melodious strangeness of the piece carried me through. Since most of my students have never encountered ballads as such, or at least not recently, they struggled a bit, but I was quite enraptured--here's a poem, and a poet, I'll need to come back to:

O Wha's the bride that carries the bunch
O' thistles blinterin' white?
Her cuckold bridegroom little dreids
What he sall ken this nicht.

For closer than gudeman can come
And closer to'r than hersel',
Wha didna need her maidenheid
Has wrocht his purpose fell.

O wha's been here afore me, lass,
And hoo did he get in?
-A man that deed or was I born
This evil thing has din.

And left, as it were on a corpse,
Your maidenheid to me?
-Nae lass, gudeman, sin' Time began
'S hed ony mair to gi'e.

But I can gi'e ye kindness, lad,
And a pair o' willin' hands.
And you shall he'e me breists like stars,
My limbs like willow wands.

And on my lips ye'll heed nae mair,
And in my hair forget,
The seed o' a' the men that in
My virgin womb ha'e met....

Anyone out there ever teach MacDiarmid? What, how, why?

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Quarter over.

Or, at least, all over but the grading. Time to throw some Ds on that card, as my son advises, or maybe something higher. Tis the season, after all.

Done with the Larry Joseph piece, & now at work (again, at last!) on Darwish & Taha Muhammad Ali.


Jonesing for a Gretsch, as I say on my new Facebook page. Just what I need: another electronic venue not to post to--and another instrument I can't quite play! Still, performing with the Alte Rockers, our synagogue's parody band, is a highpoint of my life these days. You can find our Obamarama sessions here; I promise, I'm practicing, & sounded better at the rabbi's 10th anniversary roast. If video surfaces, I'll send it along.


Last week, in Boston, I spoke on "Poetry and Prayer" at a liturgy panel for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. Piece by piece, I'm posting the texts I discussed (and those I simply handed out) over at my Big Jewish Blog. Amichai and Milosz, so far, and more to come.

(Too much travel, recently. R or I out of town nearly every weekend for the past month or more, and we're not much for separateness. No more, I think, 'til April. My sympathies to all of you heading to MLA this year; someday I'll ship off again, I'm sure, but not this time, not this year, as Obama used to say.)


Meg a decade old now. Damn. Cue the Sandy Denny--or, since I linked to her version for my last post at Romancing the Blog, let's go with Kate Rusby instead:

NEH news tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

--Robert Hayden, "Frederick Douglass"

Sunday, August 31, 2008

'Nuff Said

`In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in

political terms' - Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Grumpiness; Darwish

Glum this morning, or at least exhausted. My son up most of the night, my daughter from 1-3, my wife afflicted with kicking, twitching nightmares. I blame Hillary, although I suppose the real culprits are the start of school (for the kids) and a slough of new client work (for the missus). Either way, I'm done in, and it's scarcely 9 o'clock.


After 17 days of heaven in Ireland, earlier this summer, the rest of the season has been hard. Too many projects (heard that before?), too little sleep, a summer class that thrilled me while I taught it, but had me scrambling to keep up with my own syllabus, reading-wise, for the past five weeks. I have until the 10th, thank God, before my own courses begin, but so much to read, write, think about before then, it's a bit harrowing.

I've also been suffering from a serious case of the blues these past few weeks--unusual for me, and a bit disconcerting for the wife & kids, as well as for me. I blamed the work, my insomniac family, and other outside sources, but the real culprit, I've since decided, was my ill-conceived notion that to deal with all this stress I had to cut back on caffeine. En vacances I could get away with little more than mugs of Irish tea, but trying to do that here at home left me in a horrid state. Since I ramped up the dosage, I've been feeling better. Embarrassing, how easy that was--a tribute to how little the conscious, deliberative self is really in charge of one's life.

"Not I, not I, but the joe that blows through me," as D.H. Lawrence would say.


So, anyway, I need to go work. Here's today's poem--actually a few parts of a longer poem, but the work comes in numbered sections, and although it's best as a whole, each part works well on its own. The poem is "Ruba'iyat" ("Quatrains") by the recently deceased Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; I don't know whether the original Arabic followed the AABA quatrain form, but the translation I have in hand, done by Noel Abdulahad and collected in The Adam of Two Edens, leaves that Persian form aside and gives us free verse stanzas like these instead.
I've seen all I want to see of the field:
tresses of wheat combed by the wind.
I close my eyes:
this mirage leads to the music of Nahawand--
this silence leads to a blue twilight.

I've seen all I want to see of peace:
a deer, a pasture, and a stream.
I close my eyes:
the deer is asleep in my arms--
his hunter is asleep in a faraway place
near his children.

I've seen all I want to see of death:
in love, my chest splits open
and the white horse of Eros bolts out of it,
gallops above infinite cloud,
races with the eternal blue.
Don't stop me from dying!
Don't return me to an earthly star.

I've seen all I want to see of poetry:
we used to wear garlands of flowers
and follow the funeral processions
of our martyred poets, then come back
safe and sound to their poems.
But in this tabloid age of cinemas and loud buzzing noises
we jeer as we bury their poems in heaps of dust
then see them waiting in doorways
when we get home.

I've seen all I want to see of people:
their nostalgic desire for anything and everything,
their slow pace going to work,
their fast pace coming home,
their incessant need to hear the words:
Good morning!
I love that last one, so deliciously grumpy. A good poem to get this morning out of my system, so that I can get some work done--or at least begun.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Two Short Poems

Two short poems by Samuel Menashe, both good for dictation, I think.




The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds


Hey! Who knew? He's on YouTube, too. This could be useful in class, or just for your own enjoyment.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Little Han Shan (ish) for Your Classes

We've been watching the Olympics here pretty much non-stop since Friday. Four years ago, when my kids were younger, they were inspired to stage their own "games" in the family room, which was about as adorable as it gets. This year they slump on the couch, but who can blame them? Exhaustion aplenty, chez nous: insomnia here, a virus there, lassitude and ennui.

And that's the pre-teen set! We grown-ups have our own crosses to bear, more on which (no doubt) anon.

In honor of the Games, here's a Chinese poem--or, rather, a poem written "after" one by the great Chinese poet Han Shan. Like some of you, I read him first in Gary Snyder's translations, which you can find (with an introductory essay) here; more recently the poet Red Pine has published a set of translations (well, Copper Canyon did the publishing, but you know what I mean), and there are other respected versions in English, most of which you can find linked here. (To show your students variant translations of another poem, check out the essay on the challenges of translating Han Shan here.)

The text this poem is based on comes from Burton Watson's Cold Mountain: 100 Poems, which came out back in the 1970s. In that collection, it's number 28, a little riposte by Han Shan to a scholar who's dissed his efforts. (Specifically, it's all about an error in prosody.) In his version, which was published in the endlessly heartening "Bliss" issue of Poetry East (number 60), James P. Lenfestey turns the text into a debate over what is of value in poetry, and by extension in literature more generally:

Making Poems

I laugh when I make a poem, I go to bed
at night chuckling to myself, reading and writing.
I wake in the morning chuckling to myself, reading and writing.
Years later I wonder: Why no prizes, why no money?
Maybe it's true, only sighs and tears make critics smile.
Must I now grieve for the joy I feel every day,
the fern dripping with dew,
the basket of sunshine placed every day before me?

Lenfestey has a book of these responses: A CARTLOAD OF SCROLLS: 100 POEMS IN THE MANNER OF T'ANG DYNASTY POET HAN-SHAN. Worth a look--there's probably more to be mined for classroom use, as well as for simple enjoyment.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Another Dictatable Poem

Here's one I've liked for a while, by the Jewish American modernist Charles Reznikoff:
Scrap of paper
blown about the street,
you would like to be cherished, I suppose,
like a bank-note.
Plenty to do with this in terms of sound and diction and lineation, as with most of Reznikoff's limpid short poems. If you like it, the complete Poems came back into print a couple of years ago now, and his harrowing volume Holocaust, which condenses poems out of testimony at the Nuremburg Trials, came back into print last year.

Good stuff, worth knowing, and great in the classroom.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Dictatable Poem: Yeats

Here's an early short poem by Yeats: a lovely boast, if you want to talk about it via Kenneth Koch's ideas about the "inclinations of poetry language" (of which boasting is one). The repeated phrase ("the great and their pride") might spark an interesting discussion of how much novelty, line by line, a poem demands--or, conversely, about how much repetition it can sustain. (Easier to memorize something with repetition in it, natch. Ask Homer.)

He Thinks Of Those Who Have Spoken Evil Of His Beloved

Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children's children shall say they have lied.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Dictatable Poems

Many of the teachers I worked with last year had great success with a classroom strategy based on dictation. It comes from the invaluable book A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by Baron Wormser and David Cappella, which I've praised here many times. When Wormser and Cappella came out to Chicago for a two-day workshop at DePaul last August--ye gods and little fishies, that was nearly a year ago!--they started out with this approach, and it dazzled the middle and high school teachers who took part.

For a full description of the strategy, you'll want to look at the book--the first 15 pages will give you a few examples, along with some robust, reflective discussion of how and why it works. But the gist of it is this: you (the teacher) dictate a short poem to your students, who then write it down, line by line, word for word, comma for comma, etc. You make sure they know the details: "Title--each word capitalized..."; "First line, first word begins with a capital letter"; "does everyone know how to spell [this word]? No? it's [...]." In the book, they say that they tell the students to double-check any spellings they're unsure of in the dictionary before they turn in their poetry journals at the end of the week. "Sometimes they check, sometimes they don't," they write. "When their grade comes back a 'C,' they tend to start checking."

By dictating the poem, the book explains,
I can slow time down and get the words into my students' bodies. Poetry is physical and I want them to experience that physicality. By writing the words down--and I make allowances for students who are challenged in various ways, such as being hearing impaired--they have to grapple with the physical nature of each word. I told them today how "apparition" is spelled [they were doing Pound's "In a Station of the Metro"] but sometimes I let them write down a word and then we check on it as a class to determine how to spell that word. It's not that I am on a crusade about spelling; it's that I want them to have to apprehend words in various situations--some more structured that others. I want them to be alive to words, and spelling is part of that alive-ness. (7)
Notice how this approach differs from the more subject-matter-focused, linguistically insouciant poem-to-prompt approach I wrote about yesterday, or two days ago, or whenever the hell that was. (Sorry--my son has insomnia and woke me up at 1, and again at 5, this morning. Am a bit fuzzy on details.) In that prompt, there was much less "aliveness to words," or at least that aliveness was limited to attention to meaning, not to sound or graphic elements. But I digress.

Once the poem has been dictated and taken down, the discussion can begin. You can start with a general question: "I ask them what they noticed as they were writing the poem down. (Dictation is not mechanical; it's focusing.)" Or you can start by asking specific questions about the words in the poem. "Poems are not hierarchical," Wormser and Cappella write: "every word matters. This means the doors into a poem are as numerous as the words in the poem" (12). Here are ten questions they list that might be useful to spark discussion, from page 12:
Ten Questions to Ask About Words
  1. What word intrigues you most?
  2. Is there a word that confuses you?
  3. What word surprises you?
  4. What word seems most metaphorical?
  5. Is there a word that seems unnecessary?
  6. What word is most important?
  7. What is the most physical word in the poem?
  8. What is the most specific word in the poem?
  9. What is the strongest sound word in the poem?
  10. What is the most dynamic verb in the poem?
These questions aren't aimed at getting at "the meaning" of the poem--a clumsy, reductive question, as you know if you're reading this! Rather, they're aimed at getting the students to "think about the near-infinite particularities of this one poem" (14) so that they begin to appreciate "the poem's deep individuality" (15). Here's a passage from the book that sums this up quite nicely:
If you make students aware that literature is art they respond to it as art. They come to see that art is a process, and that once upon a time the great poet was scratching out words and putting in new ones just as they do in their own writing. If you teach literature as knowledge then they start looking for the write answers. If you teach literature as art what they come to understand is that there aren't right answers; there are thoughtful and articulate and intuitive answers, but a poem can't be solved; it isn't a problem. It's a form of being and we would no more ask a poem what it means than ask a friend what he or she means by existing. (14)
I haven't done justice to these sections of the book, and there's much more to be found there, but this will give you the gist of the approach. If you've used it yourself, please drop a comment about what you've done and how it worked! In the mean time, I'm going to start posting short poems here that are useful for the dictation exercise: poems that aren't too long, and seem to me the sort that would spark useful discussions of literature as art.

Starting tomorrow. Enough for today.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"Where I'm From" Assignment

"Make yourself useful, and try to have fun." That was my dad's idea of a family motto, or so he told me, late in his life. (I wonder how it would sound in Latin? Properly impressive?) Anyway, it's time for me to make this blog a bit more useful--at least to the teachers I work with, and who read it. Maybe in the process it will be more fun again, too.

Last winter Eileen Murphy came to visit my workshop series "How to Teach a Poem (and Learn from One, Too)." She's a Say Something Wonderful alum--the NEH seminar, not the blog--and the two or three-time coach of Illinois state champions in the Poetry Out Loud competition. A master teacher, in short, who always brings great stuff to my attention. This time, she taught me (taught us) an assignment that works well for the early days of a Language Arts or English class--or, come to think of it, for the later days, especially as a substitute for the old "personal narrative essay." It's not her assignment: I've found many versions of it on line, including here and here and (as a thoughtful article from New York City) here, and again here, a West Virginia site which pegs it to a teacher from rural North Carolina. (Go Appalachia!) Now it's here, for you.

The assignment begins with a poem by George Ella Lyons called "Where I'm From," which was featured in the United States of Poetry video series a decade or so ago; as she says in a lovely piece on her website (with audio) it's travelled a long way since then, especially as a writing prompt.

Where I'm From
by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I'm from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I'm from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from perk up and pipe down.
I'm from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments-
snapped before I budded-
leaf-fall from the family tree.

You can read different versions of the discussion that ensues at the links above--obviously it's a chance to talk about what can be inferred about the speaker from the specifics she gives, but really there are a number of ways you can go with it, which I don't have time to detail right now. (See the links above, or suggest them to each other in the comments!)

You can then turn it into a prompt like this--a sort of poetry mad-lib, if you like:

I am from __(specific ordinary item)____ from __(product name) and (?)

I am from the __(home description)___. (adjective, adjective; sensory detail.)

I am from the __(plant, flower, natural item)___, the __(plant, flower, natural item)___ (description of the natural item).

I’m from ___(family tradition)___ and ___(family trait)___, from ___(name of family member)___ and ___(another name).

I’m from the ___(description of family tendency)__ and __(another one)___,

From ___(something you were told as a child) and __(another)__.

I’m from __(representation of religion -or lack of it) (further description)

I’m from ___(place of birth and family ancestry), ___(two food items representing your family)___.

From the ____(family story about a specific person and a detail) the ___(another detail of another family member)___.

I am from (Location of family pictures, momentos, archives, and several more lines indicating their worth).

That's it, as she taught it to us, and as you'll find it on line. Google the search terms ["I am from" "(specific ordinary item)"] to find an array of instances, drawn from any number of cultures and community groups.

What's missing from this prompt, of course, is any sense of langauge as such: sound, rhythm, wordplay, the line as a unit (as a frame for language). That could be brought into a revision, or could be discussed as a lacuna: i.e., "what's in the poem that's missing from the prompt?" So adapt this, tweak it, and let me know how it goes!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Kevin Coval, Live!

Hello, everyone. Long silences have been the norm here for a while, and I make no promises--but there's a party going on here in Chicago this week, and if you're in town, you're invited.

Jewish Hip-hop poet Kevin Coval, a former student, first-class mensch, and visiting faculty member last year at my "How to Teach a Poem (and Learn From One, Too)" workshop series, has a book-launch party for his new collection, Everyday People . It's going to be at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater on July 31 and August 1, at 7:30 pm each night. The theater is at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; you can find their website with more info here.

Tickets are $15 (includes a free CD of poetry); $25 gets you the CD and the book. Buy them online at the Victory Gardens website or call 773.871.3000.

Special Guest performers will appear from Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival. There will be a "talk back" after the show, hosted by Natalie Moore of Chicago Public Radio (on the 31st) and by Rick Kogan of the Tribune (on the 1st). Reception to follow, with music by The Tim Lincoln Trio.

Here's a Kevin Coval Promo Video I found on YouTube; it takes a minute to load, but give it time, and if you're in town, come to the show!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Endings, Beginnings

In a few days, this blog will go on official "hiatus," not that you'll probably notice the difference! Well, it's been a hard year: I started with 24, maybe 25 projects in the works and have slowly but surely crossed them off the list. The challenge has been not to add more, or at least not too many more, as the year went by. I've done well enough--better than usual, for me.

One short-term project that came up this spring was the chance to work as a "poetry consultant" for WGBH in Boston. For years, they've had a wonderful website for math, science, and technology educators: Teacher's Domain. With help from the Poetry Foundation they've introduced a new poetry section (realm? province? what's part of a domain?) with streaming videos, background essays, discussion questions lesson plans, and the like. You can find it here; I didn't actually write the material myself, or at least not most of it, but I was involved in the brainstorming and editing, and I'm proud of the results.

Ten days ago I wrapped up "How to Teach a Poem (and Learn from One, Too)," a year-long series of monthly workshops for middle school teachers. Sponsored by the NEH, the workshops featured a great mix of guest speakers, including Baron Wormser and David Cappella (authors of the indispensible A Surge of Language), John O'Connor (author of the lively, jam-packed Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom), master teacher Eileen Murphy (coach of several Illinois state champions in the Poetry Out Loud recitation contest), and Danielle Filas, a splendid improv / drama teacher and alumna of my Say Something Wonderful summer seminar a few years back. Dani has a blog of her own now--Mission Improvisational; swing by and ask her about staging The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with nothing but desk chairs and a handful of wooden coat hangers.

Finally, kismet: this afternoon's mail brought my advance editor's copies of Ronald Johnson: Life and Works, now beautifully published by the National Poetry Foundation (on sale at their table at the Orono conference!--I'll get you a link when I can), and also the contract from MacFarland press for my next co-edited collection, a book of "new approaches to popular romance fiction" which I wanted to call The Mind of Love, but they've balked. Ah, well. Any suggestions?

Off to the End of Year Party. Then, I think, to buy some strings for all five of my mandolins. At the end of a year like this one, we all deserve a treat!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Zukofsky Biographer Comes to Town

If you're reading this and live in the Chicago area, there's a poetry event coming up this Sunday, June 1, that will be more than worth your time.

Poet / critic / blogger / biographer Mark Scroggins, whose "splendid" biography of the modernist poet Louis Zukofsky got a rave review from Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (and cudos from the New York Times, etc., etc.), will be speaking at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies on "Louis Zukofsky: The Modernist Poet as Jew."

I helped put this event together, and a good turnout will do a lot to help me bring more poetry events to this gorgeous new space. I hope that you'll be able to come--and, in addition, that you'll help me spread the word about the talk!

Here are the details:

Louis Zukofsky: The Modernist Poet as Jew
Mark Scroggins, author of "The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky"

Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, 610 Michigan Ave.

Sunday, June 1 at 2 pm
Tickets are $20 | $15 for Spertus members, and $10 for students.
Call 312.322.1773.

As the unbelieving child of immigrants, Louis Zukofsky (1904 – 1978) sought to study his way out of his father’s Lower East Side sweatshop and to write his way into Western literary history. He did so by placing himself among the "high modernist" poets, whose conception of culture was often covertly or explicitly anti-Semitic. Dr. Mark Scroggins’ new book explores Zukofsky’s growth into one of his century’s most fascinating and complex poets, growth paralleled by his navigation of poetry and Jewishness, and his discovery of Jewish-inflected modernist poetics, which continue to influence and inspire contemporary poets.

Mark Scroggins holds an MFA and PhD from Cornell University and teaches literature and creative writing at Florida Atlantic University. A widely published author of poetry, essays and reviews, he has written on a broad range of writers, including extensive writing on poet Louis Zukofsky.

"terrific new biography"
—The New York Times

Verse by Voice

Here's a curious project: people call in, and record themselves reading a pretty good poem aloud. Some have the text linked, some don't; my favorite in the "someone had to do it, maybe" category is the recording of Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man" in bits and pieces via cell-phone voice mail; my favorite for sheer listening pleasure (so far--I haven't heard them all) is Yeats's "Adam's Curse" read by a hushed female voice, the tone enforced by the phone connection.

Remember Barthes on "the grain of the voice"? "The pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning of language."

(Ah, youth! Bought that book, The Pleasure of the Text, in 1981, I think; it came out in '73 in France, '75 in translation. Mais ou sont les jouissances d'antan?)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

One Last Joaquin Aftershock

This, by email, today:

Mr. Selinger, I debated responding to your email, but since I'm in a more
relaxed environment, vacationing for the first time in five years, with
friends and family in Seattle, I thought I would at least acknowledge your
say, but please let's make it clear that this is not an invitation to a
conversation or a debate and that any and all emails or comments from you
will be left unread and duly deleted. I never wish to hear from or about
you after this. And boy, do I have a long memory, so please, never come up
to me and introduce yourself.


You do not need to apologize to me or anyone else because apologies do not
suffice. The damage has been done, the anger has been generated, the
memory of one ignorant critic enabled by one inept editor has been set in
stone. However, you will recover, you will survive and thrive in whatever
field you pursue, I trust. You seem young enough. The rest of us old
horses, and I do mean Aragon and myself, will probably never change our
errant ways.

If anything, be careful who you associate yourself with in the future.
What might look like the shining glimmer of a connection might result the
fool's gold of a dead lead.

[I've added the link, in case you want to get to know his thoughts on Chicano poetry and related topics. I suspect I won't be writing much about him now myself!]

So what do you think of this email, folks? This part, especially: "I never wish to hear from or about you after this. And boy, do I have a long memory, so please, never come up to me and introduce yourself."

Do I feel this way about anyone? Maybe one--but there are years behind that, and I'm not proud of the feeling. Am I proud of not feeling this way about anyone? No--more reminded of my good luck.

So, how not to brood over this for the next few days? Let's think the best of it, in manner of my grandmother, perhaps. Maybe the "never introduce yourself" is meant to keep me from trying to suck up to him or curry favor, as a rising poet or grad student might, rather than simply as a slap in the face. And at my age, it's nice to be thought of as young.

Hmmm... That's all the spin I can think of so far. Let me know if you come up with more.

In the mean time, Lord, please continue to spare me insults too deep for apologies and memories set in stone.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I am not Joaquin, cont.

Laura, over at Teach Me Tonight, just posted this in a comment:
When readers reject a book as "poorly written," they often mean that the book was successfully written to achieve an effect that they personally dislike - too sexually arousing, too scary, too sentimental, too full of verbal effects, too descriptive, or too literary for them. A fan of the stripped-down Hemingway style might dislike the sensuous language of romance and declare that all romances are "poorly written." (53)
The source is Sheldrick Ross, Catherine and Mary K. Chelton. "Reader’s Advisory: Matching Mood and Material." Library Journal (February 1, 2001): 52-55.

I'm struck by how illuminating this simple idea proves when I think about my experience reading (and writing about) the Gonzales poem. Rather than calling it poorly written, I'd have been better served thinking about how it succeeded in doing something that unsettled me.

As the song says, I should have known better!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spanked! (Or, "Properly Humbled")

A couple of weeks ago, the Latino Poetry Review went live on line. In its inaugural issue, my big essay from Parnassus: "Gringo with a Baedeker, Cortez in Kevlar." Just go to the main page and click "essays"; you'll find it. After you do--or maybe before--click on "Letters to the Editor." There you'll find a long response by Javier Huerta, a poet and graduate student who was deeply offended by my dismissal (on aesthetic grounds) of the seminal Chicano poem I am Joaquin by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales. Huerta's letter began as a post to his blog, which you can find here, followed by 20+ comments. He's since posted another meditation sparked by the piece; more blog responses to the essay-review show up at the Blog of Many Names by C. S. Perez, and I've gathered them for you (the ones so far) here.

[PS: just found this, another blog response, considerably more pissed off. "Save your empty gestures," this poet says of my apologies. Sorry, Mr. Corral--still a few of those to go.]

Now, as you'll see in the comments on each of those posts, as well as in the Letters page (soon) and over at Romancing the Blog, I've responded several times to the controversy, each time with an apology. Huerta, you see, has me dead to rights: I did a lousy job writing about the Gonzales poem, failing not only to question my own first impressions of it, but also to be the sort of "chameleon critic" that I've always tried to be. As he puts it in his most recent post on the fracas:
David Hume says this in his essay concerning the standard of taste.

"A person influenced by prejudice, complies not with this condition; but obstinately maintains his position, without placing himself in that point of view, which the performance supposes. If the work be addressed to persons of a different age or nation, he makes no allowance for their peculiar views and prejudices; but, full of the manners of his own age and country, rashly condemns what seemed admirable in the eyes of those for whom alone the discourse was calculated. If the work be executed for the public, he never sufficiently enlarges his comprehension, or forgets his interest as a friend or enemy, as a rival or commentator. By this means, his sentiments are perverted; nor have the same beauties and blemishes the same influence upon him, as if he had imposed a proper violence on his imagination, and had forgotten himself for a moment."

Ultimately, I believe Eric's criticism of Corky fails because he does not forget himself and all his preconceived ideas of what accomplished poetry is and does. The judging of Corky's poem on the standards of taste learned in the workshop or the poetry classroom suggests an investment in Arnoldian disinterestedness. This "violence on [the critic's] imagination" recommended by Hume resembles Keats's chameleon poet. We need, then, a chameleon critic who can adopt the values of the poem's audience. All I am saying is that Eric's acknowledgment of the importance of Corky's poem to Chicanos should have led to an inquiry into the reasons for this importance instead of to a quick dismissal in the form of "well, I just don't get it."
Hats off to Huerta for engaging me at such a thoughtful level when the piece clearly pissed him off. Like Mr. Darcy, I find myself properly humbled.

In his most recent post, Huerta sheds a bit more light on what angered him in my piece. It wasn't simply how I took some cheap shots at Gonzales, whom he (and others) deeply admires, as a poet and as a man. In the process, I seem to have given voice--smug, self-satisfied voice, a "workshop" voice--to a pressing generational tension in Chicano poetry. Here's part of how the new post closes:
Eric's essay publicly raised some questions that I've been privately asking and attempting to answer for a while. I think, or I think that I think, that our generation--that is, Chicano (Mexican-American) poets who have published or are going to publish first books in the 21st century; let us call ourselves "the scrubs"--respects Corky's generation--those involved in the Chicano movimiento; let us call them "the elders"--only for their political and cultural importance. I think that there is an unvoiced opinion among the scrubs that our work is "sublter and more accomplished" than the work of the elders. Workshop tells us so, and we believe it.

I intend, have always intended, to write a second blog post on Selinger's comments on Corky. The second post is to focus on the use of Corky as a foil for younger poets. In praising later poets, Selinger keeps reminding readers of the flaws of Corky's poem. He even adopts the metaphor used in Pound's "The Pact." The elders broke the wood; our time is a time of carving. My point is that this narrative of progress doesn't originate with Selinger. What exactly do we, as scrubs, think of the works of our elders? This is an inquiry that our respect for our elders does not allow us to undertake. In the end, I think that our focus on the social, cultural and political concerns of our elders keeps us from recognizing and acknowledging the intriguing and innovative ways they engaged formal (aesthetic) questions.
No doubt my piece would have gone over better had I written in a more gentleman-like manner. But no matter how I put this "narrative of progress," it probably still would have grated on Huerta's ear. For an outsider to come along and say, "Yes, younger poets, you're right that you're better than your elders" isn't just to express an aesthetic opinion; it is--at least potentially--to advance what the Jewish leaders of my youth called an "assimilationist" case, or even to divide and conquer.

But does Huerta mean that he and his contemporaries must find some way to admire their elders' aesthetics, even if they prefer their own? Must keep silent, if they disagree? That strikes me as quite a burden--but on the other hand, I'm fascinated by an ethos that would set other values and duties on an equal level with the aesthetic, or (to put it another way) that would refuse to give the aesthetic a separate sphere. What would it be like to think that way, to feel that way, about a group of poets?

To quote one of my landsmen: "Fascinating."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Home Stretch

Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the last day of the winter quarter here at DePaul. It's been a hard one: too many projects, too many students, the classes new or revised almost beyond recognition. As always, I end the term with a profound sense of failure, of missed opportunities, but oh, friends, I am happy to be done.


One highlight of the last week: the new issue of Parnassus: Poetry in Review is out! It's a splendid collection, this 30th anniversary volume. 700 pages, more or less, featuring--let me cut & paste from the website--

Eric Ormsby on La Fontaine
Mark Polizzotti on Surrealism
Eric Murphy Selinger on Latino and Latina Poetry
Cathy Park Hong on Asian-American Poetry
Mark Scroggins on Ronald Johnson
Daniel Albright on Shakespeare's Songs
Gordon Rogoff on Verdi's "Falstaff"
Joy Ladin on Yona Wallach
Wes Davis on Karl Kirchwey
Tom Sleigh Moosehunting with Robert Duncan
Shusha Guppy on the Persian epic poem the Shahmaneh
William Logan on Robert Frost
Roger Gilbert on First and Second Books
Leonard Barkan on Ekphrastic Poems
Paul West The Shadow Factory (Memoir)
Matthew Gurewitsch on Das Nibelungenlied, Wagner's Theatre, and The Ring Cycle
Adam L. Dressler on The Homeric Hymns
Willard Spiegelman on Robert Fagles's translation of The Aenied
Stuart Klawans on Argentine Film Director Fabian Bielinsky
Richard Wilbur's translation of Act I of Pierre Corneille's "The Liar" (Le Menteur)
Jeremy Axelrod's The Kings Are Boring: Courtney Queeney
Mark Halliday on Kenneth Koch
It's lovely to be listed so near the top there, and my piece will be up on line in the next few weeks. (I'll let you know when that happens.) Here's the opening paragraph, just to whet your appetite:

Call me Cabeza de Vaca. Like my namesake, washed ashore near Galveston five centuries ago, I find myself hoofing it across terrain I’d planned to rule. I still hanker to hoist the flag of reading for pleasure—the Castle with Bookmark Rampant—over Hispanic American poetry. But the time I’ve spent with a coastal shelf of anthologies and collections has left me feeling less the conquistador and more the castaway. To read page after page, book after book, of verse con sabor latino is to sense temblors, tiny shifts in what Eliot might call the “whole existing order” of American poetry, whether that order previously began with Bradstreet, Wheatley, Whitman, or Anonymous Poet of Pick-Your-Native-Nation. Like Eliot’s “mind of Europe,” the “mind of the Americas” changes, is changing, making room as we speak for the tejana erotica of former Houston cop Sarah Cortez, the hip-hop décimas of Urayoán Noel, and the Morocco-Rican improvisations of Victor Hernandez Cruz.

To some readers, those floricanto blossoms and their roots will seem as familiar as salsa—the music or the condiment, as you prefer. For gringos of a certain age, however, it can be hard to navigate the traditions we loosely group as “Latino poetry” without some sort of Baedeker...
That guidebook, of course, is what I then try to provide.


The real treat for me in this issue, though, lies at the end of Mark Scroggins' piece on Ronald Johnson. There's a wee addendum, the kind I use to thank the academy for funding me, but this one strikes a more personal note:
"Fifteen years of talking about Ronald Johnson with Eric Murphy Selinger have left me unsure as to whom I should attribute any given Johnsonian insight. No doubt the good ones are Eric's."
Mark and I met through Johnson's work: he came to a talk I gave at the MLA on Johnson and Palmer (later published, and available here) and struck up a conversation afterwards. When we exchanged addresses, it turned out we lived about 10 minutes away from one another: my first taste of Johnsonian Kismet. I was living on the other side of the country from my graduate program, grinding out a dissertation chapter by chapter in a new city, with family but no colleagues, no comrades in academic arms, no friends. Meeting Mark saved my intellectual life, and his friendship kept me going through the hard times of the job search, and later ones, too, particularly after my father's death. When it comes to Ron's work, I too don't know where his ideas leave off and mine begin. We're the Lennon & McCartney of RJ studies, or maybe the Strummer & Jones.

Speaking of which, Mark, here's one you might enjoy:

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dear Angel of Stud

(And you know who you are!)

Did you notice that there's a piece about Louis Zukofsky in the February Writer's Chronicle (40.4, February, 2008), pp. 24-29: "Louis Zukofsky's Vision of Natural Beauty in 80 Flowers," by Leon Lewis.

A certain book on LZ and the Poetry of Knowledge, by "the leading Zukofsky scholar," is mentioned in paragraph four, albeit as having perhaps offered a "counter-productive warning" to potential readers, "rather than an acceptance of manageable difficulties."

The times, they have a-changed, old friend.

Next! Next!

Finished the NEH application--it's in at the Office of Sponsored Programs to be reviewed, etc.

A stack of papers from the Jewish lit class now to grade, an essay to finish, poems to think through.

I need a good title for a project on romance fiction and American culture. "Perfect Unions and Others"? Not quite right. Something snappy, memorable. When the project was about romance and the academy I had a great title in mind, but now will have to save it for another day. Any suggestions?


Dear Dr. Laura,

Did you know that there's an odious, arch-conservative American advice columnist who shares your name? Can I call you Dr. V? Dr. L? Ooh, I like that: L for love, L for literature, L for life, L for all sorts of lovely things. But V gives me life in French, and is a fine allusion to the work of James Merrill, a favorite poet who writes of art as "V-work" (vie-work; victory-work; as in victory over entropy; the work of the numerological 5 in a system he's constructed).

Then of course Nathaniel Mackey has an epistolary novel comprised of letters to the "Angel of Dust." "Dear Angel of Dust": such a fine opening gesture. Hmmmm...

In any case, I took out two of the mandolins on Monday and started to play. It was awkward at first; Whiskey Girl, my oldest, pouted and wouldn't stay in tune as we worked through a page or two of sight-reading. Yesterday Two Shafts, the bluegrass F-style, shrugged things off more easily; we played for a half-hour or so while we watched the Obama / Clinton debate. Good times, and more to come.

You mention optimism--and I've been thinking about it for my next romance paper, as you know. I re-read Anyone But You on Monday night, and was struck how deeply the subplot about Charity, the author, fits my hunches about romance as a genre that models optimism for its readers. I've added it to my upcoming syllabus, which I'll post about on TMT as soon as I can.

Is there a poetry of optimism, too? Musing on that last night, as I drove home from work, I thought of the last two sections of "Ode to the West Wind." Allen Ginsberg told me, the one time that I met him, that these final stanzas were a magic spell of sorts--as you chanted them aloud, you'd find yourself heartened, transported, transformed.

(If you're a teacher, and have read this far--and these are public letters, after all, I tell my students to go first to these stanzas when they read the poem, since they house the heart, the emotional core, the instigation of the piece. Then you can double back and read the rest: the set-up, the hedgings, and finally the payoff.)

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
But enough of these fine thoughts! Back to work! Next!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Letters to Friends

Dear Dr. Laura,

I see what you mean about my singling out the doumbek. I'd muse on that awhile here, but want to get a minute or two of music in today, so this will be the briefest of notes. Can I play for half an hour a night now? No. Can I play for ten minutes? Five minutes? One minute? Perhaps if I set my sights low enough--say, one song on one of them every day, no matter how briefly or badly--we'll reconcile, the instruments and I.

Nothing but good times ahead,


Dear Mark,

Just a joy to see you in Louisville! It sounds like you had a grand time on Sunday, after I left--post those pictures over at your blog for me, and I'll swing by for a look. Since you're here, let me make good on that promise to introduce you to Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand's fourth most popular folk-parody duo. To most of the conference they were very old news; I'm glad I'm slightly ahead of someone, even if I haven't heard any Radiohead (yet).

Here's one song, just to whet your appetite. You can swing over to YouTube and find more, but it might be more fun to let me post them here, and mediate the introduction. (That way, when in doubt, I'll have something to post, no?)

So, without further ado, it's Business Time:

Love to P, D, & J,

Sunday, February 24, 2008

I Think They Hate Me

My instruments, that is.

The oud, the two guitars, the mandolins, even the doumbeks.

I moved them upstairs to safety last weekend, tucked in their cases, for fear that the toddlers visiting would do them harm, but they know they haven't been played in a month. Not a lick, a doum, a bek, or a kah.

Whenever I think about moving them home to the living room, they say, "But are you going to play us again? If you're not, just leave us here. Really. It's OK."

Papers to grade, an essay to write, a grant proposal to file. How will I ever get back to them before they hate me forever?


Back yesterday afternoon from the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900: an odd event, as the title suggests, and perhaps as many conferences in one as the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association shindig I'll be going to in March. My one point of comparison, that: I've been off the circuit for nearly a decade. Much talk, in L'ville, of middle age--when last I went, then too to speak of Ronald Johnson, I was 36 and coming up for tenure. Now I'm 44, and unlike my friend Mark, biographer and sage, I have no book to show for all those years. Even the Ron John collection is still "forthcoming," although we're counting down to lift off on it. (Three weeks to the index--huzzah!)


Feeling oddly free of angst.
Settled, busy, happy.


Much talk, at the conference, about my love of popular romance fiction. I need to write up a "conversion kit" for fellow academics, clearly, especially the male ones. (More talking with men at this conference than I've done in many a year. A different dynamic, somehow. I have a female colleague who said to me, recently, honestly surprised, "You really like dealing with women, don't you?" Or was it "working with women"? Anyway, she found this surprising. Am I so rare in this?)


I write this while walking: a new twist, compositionally, and somewhat hard to manage at first. Perhaps if I go slower? Yes--there we go. Came home to find R had set up a treadmill for me in the study, with the laptop balanced on a desk across the handlebars. It's the stand-up desk I'd wanted all fall plus the chance to put in some hours of exercise while clicking, surfing, and (yes) writing. Will it change my prose? Let me think more clearly? "When you go walking, Bob does the talking," saith the Sub-Genius book of my youth--Bob the Sales God and surrogate deity of this system, he of the pipe and grin. We'll see if there are any changes; for now, I simply know that I've clocked an hour or more of walking so far today without even noticing it. Sweet!


"More soon": my favorite sign-off, learned from someone (Stephen Yenser?) who learned it from James Merrill. More work on the horizon, but I'll try to keep this up, too.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Poetry Workshops

Tonight's meeting of my poetry workshop for middle-school teachers will be sparsely attended, it seems. A number of emails already to cancel, and I've just learned that we're due for six inches of snow tonight--in fact (checks window) it's already begun to fall.

A pity! Tonight's guest is an amazing teacher, here to talk about bringing the Poetry Out Loud model of teaching poetry through recitation--teaching everything about it, close-reading style--to the middle school arena. (POL is a high school program.)

I will not be discouraged. This is a wonderful program, and if the logistics have turned out to be more complicated than I'd expected, I'll just do them differently next time. (In retrospect, maybe a week or two in the summer would have been better than monthly meetings all year long. But I can't do this in the summer of '08, or '09, and I won't wait until '10 to do it again. So I'll need a new model. School visits? A ten-week "course"?)

If you have ideas, I'd love to hear them! In the mean time, I'm off to learn, to teach, and to enjoy a few poems while the woods (and streets) fill up with snow.

April showers bring May flowers; what do February snows bring?

Why, the waters of March!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Good Poetry News!

Not fish news, but heck--there's more to life than pets (and kids, and lessons in mortality, etc.)--

I just got word that A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by Baron Wormser and David Capella, has gone into a third printing. There are a number of good books about poetry out there, but none quite as inspiring as this, and precious few as chock-a-block with lessons and approaches. Not a textbook, it's the fictional journal of a grade-school English teacher who has put poetry at the center of his classroom practice.

"What if we said to any educator," the authors ask near the start,
that he or she had a resource within his or her grasp that would improve reading skills, verbal skills, and writing skills; that would require no additional outlays of money; that would make students better performers on standardized tests; that would provide daily inspiration in their lives; that would increase their self-esteem; that would help them enormously with the nuts and bolts of literacy, such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar; that would connect them with the multi-ethnic nature of democracy; that would improve vocabulary in meaningful and enjoyable ways; that would dramatically improve their listening skills; that would honor the integrity of their feelings; and that would be a solace and joy they could carry through their whole lives? Chances are any educator would say, Where do I sign?
If you're a teacher--in school, or at home--you should know this book.

But wait! There's more!

You can also study poetry and how to teach it with Wormser and other top faculty this summer, from June 30 to July 4, at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. I've seen Wormser and Capella in action--they kicked off my own NEH program for middle school teachers last August--and I can testify that it was a remarkable, transforming experience, not to be missed.

Good news all around.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


My son's lizard hangs on, but tonight one of my daughter's fish--the newest one, a few days in our care--was lying on the floor of the tank, dead, when she came upstairs to bed. Was the tank too dirty? Probably, which makes it our fault, at least in part, which makes it harder.
"Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?"

A hard night ahead of her, poor dear, and a long day tomorrow.

On Sitting Down to Read Myself Again

Spent the last hour re-reading my old piece (nearly 5 years old, now) on Jorie Graham, from Parnassus (24.1).

Heck of a piece, Brownie.

Seriously, I could have turned it into a book, if events hadn't intervened. (What events? Damned if I can remember.) Maybe I still could.

Anyway, I was reading it to get fired up about my new piece, the one on Larry Joseph, but I was particularly taken with this quote in it, from the poet Alice Fulton:
“Write about the pleasures of attainment, having, holding,” Fulton dares herself in a passage from The Poet’s Notebook. “A poetry that doesn’t desire but delivers. Satiation being part of what it offers. […] A poem praising the boundless intensity of attainment (rather than longing).”
No wonder I ended up working on Romance Fiction. (Was I already? I can't remember...maybe a bit, just for fun?)

This, for old times' sake:

Now back to work.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


On the drive in, this thought: since today is Super Tuesday, why not have the students practice scansion and writing in meter by working with the candidates' names? They know the names and how they should be pronounced, and if we use the names to fill in parts of metrical lines, the rest of the line might fall into place more easily.

Possible complication: I'll need to explain that three syllable words w/ the accent on the first syllable (i.e. "HI-lla-ry") can also take an accent on the final syllable, if the meter demands it (i.e., "I think that I shall never see / A candidate like Hi-lla-ry").

Is there a handy list of rules-of-thumb about prosody anywhere on line?

A quick search turns up these, from the remarkable Interactive Tutorial on Rhythm Analysis at Reed:
  • Syntactically speaking, words are either content words or function words. "Content words are words which operate with a certain degree of independence, conveying a full meaning by themselves. They are nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Most of the words in the dictionary are content words. Function words are words that depend on other words for their meaning, usually indicating some kind of relation. They include prepositions, articles, demonstratives, conjunctions, pronouns, and auxiliaries" (PR 27-28).

  • Most monosyllabic content words have a stress (e.g., clock, red, run).

  • Simple polysyllabic words may have only one stress, e.g., rabbit, but more complicated words may have more than one stress.
    1. This is particularly the case when they have four or more syllables, like "polysyllabic," or when the meter of the poem "promotes" the final syllable of a three-syllable word whose usual accent comes at the beginning of the word: yesterday can also be yesterday, if the meter demands it. ("I don't know why you pout that way. / I said 'I love you' yesterday!"

  • Monosyllabic function words like "a," "the," "but" or "and" are generally unstressed.

  • Polysyllabic function words have relatively stronger and weaker stresses within them, for instance in such prepositions as "before," "after," and "against."
The site also offers this advice about scanning phrases and lines:
  • In English, there is a strong preference for alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. We tend to avoid both too many unstressed syllables in a row and consecutively stressed syllables. We are more likely, for example, to say "a free and easy manner" rather than "an easy and free manner" or "bright and shining eyes" rather than "shining and bright eyes" (Attridge, REP 71). In both of the preferred forms of these phrases, stressed and unstressed syllables alternate. In the non-standard forms, the double unstressed syllables followed by double stressed syllables feels awkward to our mouths and ears.
  • Indeed, as we say whole phrases we will often unconsciously shift how we accent words in order to produce this alternation.
  • For instance, "Tennessee" normally has its strongest stress on the last syllable. But in the phrase, "Tennessee walking horse," the strongest stress in "Tennessee" retracts to the front of the word to produce an alternating pattern.

  • Other examples of this pattern can be seen by comparing the differences between "thirteen" and "thirteen blackbirds" or "unknown" and "unknown soldier" (Attridge, PR 39).
Now, how can we put those to use? Hmmm...

I think I'll have them write some lines in the meters of poems we read--just couplets, rhyming, to start. First we'll scan the candidates' names--some first and last, some just last) and then have them available to plug in to our lines.

Hillary Clinton (dactyl, trochee)

Barrack Obama (iamb, amphibrach--although the BBC insists on calling him "BA-rrack," a trochee, instead)

McCain (iamb)

Romney (trochee)

Huckabee (dactyl)

Ron Paul (spondee)

In the right metrical context, Hillary and Huckabee could have their final syllables "promoted": "Both Hillary and Huckabee despise / The pundits who repeat their pretty lies." (Sorry--not much of a heroic couplet, but you get the idea.)

I'll let you know how it goes!