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?