Thursday, January 07, 2010

Afternoon Inquiry

Hi Dr. Selinger!


I took your Modern American Poetry grad class last winter, and I am now teaching a class on poetry and would really like to bring in a poem we read and discussed last year, but I cannot, for the life of me, find the poem in our anthology. 


Would you by chance recall the poem about the woman sitting on the park bench eating the rotten peaches?  It describes how she eats the peach, and I believe she doesn't have any teach.  Anyway, it basically illustrates how people can find beauty in the simplest things, even items that the general public would find rotten (aka the peaches). 


If you can think of this poem it would help me out greatly because I have been flipping through the pages of the anthology for hours and it's been driving me absolutely nuts! 


Thanks so much!






Dear J:


Was it possibly the William Carlos Williams poem about plums, not peaches?  That wasn’t in our anthology; I put it on screen, via the Poetry Foundation’s archive.  Here’s a copy—let me know!



To a Poor Old Woman


munching a plum on   

the street a paper bag

of them in her hand


They taste good to her

They taste good   

to her. They taste

good to her


You can see it by

the way she gives herself

to the one half

sucked out in her hand


ComfortedComforted When originally published in the journal Smoke (Autumn 1934), the line read: “Comforted, Relieved—”

a solace of ripe plums

seeming to fill the air

They taste good to her





Morning Exchange (Pre-Coffee)

From: Ben
Sent: Wednesday, January 06, 2010 1:40 PM
To: Leah; Joseph; Bob; Selinger, Eric
Subject: Shihab Nye poem

What do you all think of this poem? I think I like it, but I kind of get confused in the middle. And not sure if the title makes sense to me. Even still, I think I like it. I do miss the poetry discussions, for sure. I keep looking for a summer seminar for 2010, but nothing's going to be as good. Let me know...and Happy New Year!


By Naomi Shihab Nye

I have made so many mistakes

you might think I would sit down

Here when it rains

the streets fill up like rivers

A woman swirls away in her Italian car

and the whole city mourns

They say she could sing

till something that might not have happened

had a chance again

You know, that gift we give

one another

How can we help someone else

want to live?

The man who sprays trees

stands beneath his hose

bathing in poison

He says a mask gets in his way

Here the roses stay on the branch

till sun steams their petals

like blackened collars

I miss the evenings

we walked among train tracks

reading messages in the weeds

even the strangest parts of ourselves

growing dear

A child awakens crying for candles

Those little tiny skinny ones he says

meaning incense sticks

He wants to clutch them in his bed

I have slept so many times

you might think I would really be awake

by now


Dear Ben,


The last stanza clues me in that I should take what came before it as a sort of dreamy mood piece, or at least that’s how it strikes me this morning.

Like a late-60s Dylan song (or Eliot’s “Preludes”), this gives us some glimpses of “here,” or at least what “here” is like through the speaker’s eyes. She introduces herself (someone who’s made so many mistakes, but who keeps standing, looking around); her gaze and her interest go out those around her, and we get her sense of what the community (“we”) around her contains—and we get a little hint of her back story, of a time when “we” would interpret just the sort of elusive signs that the poem offers us, together. Then to the child, then back to herself, w/ a repetition & variation of the opening stanza. She’s not a mistake-maker, or not that alone; at the end, she’s a sleeper who isn’t quite awake, but who’s seen, and offered us, a bunch of sights that might well wake us up to something.

Speaking of which, I’m going to get some coffee. More later, maybe, when it’s started to kick in. But you get the idea: I’d treat this as a mood-piece, and one that gives us a character to inhabit who has a bit of an emotional arc across the series of stanzas, although not a terribly clear-cut or dramatic one. And I’d look for the lines & phrases where the poem seems to describe its own moods & methods, its interest in capturing and inviting us to consider “the strangest parts of ourselves.”

Wednesday, January 06, 2010



Mary Jo Salter, “Lullaby for a Daughter”


Someday, when the sands of time

invert, may you find perfect rest

as a newborn nurses from

the hourglass of your breast.




William Matthews, “A Major Work”


Poems are hard to read

Pictures are hard to see

Music is hard to hear

And people are hard to love


But whether from brute need

Or divine energy

At last mind eye and ear

And the great sloth heart may move.



Lorine Niedecker, “Poet’s Work”

    advised me:
            Learn a trade

I learned
    to sit at desk
           and condense

No layoff
    from this




Tuesday, January 05, 2010

ENG 220: Vendler

Finished Sherry Thomas's Delicious last night: book #2 of the year, both of them romance novels. Have abandoned re-reading the Niven, for now.


Prepping tomorrow's ENG 220 (Reading Poetry). This year, for the first time, I've given the students a couple of excerpts from Vendler's "Instructor's Manual" for the textbook. Not sure why, other than a desire for them to get these ideas first and foremost from her. Whether that's to give credit where credit is due, or whether it's because I no longer feel as much the Poetry Man as I did when I came to DePaul, nearly 15 years ago, now, I'm not entirely sure.

In case you don't want to read all the way through, here's the bottom line--the actionable summary, to use bureaucratic language.
Putting first things first, I want students to see, above all, how the mood in question has been freshly imagined. Second, I want them to see how this fresh imagination has been enacted structurally. How does the scene open? Where does it continue? How does it end? Third, I want them to see the elements of drama--changes in sentence structure, syntax, linguistic register, imagery, focus, stance, distance, rhythm. Fourth, I want them to see elements of pattern: repeated syntax, figures like anaphora or alliteration, repeated structures (parallelisms, catalogues, rhythms).
Sounds like a checklist to me! Imagination, structure, linguistic drama, pattern. They can do that. Now I just have to find some fun poems for them to work with.


"The television speech by a candidate for political office has metaphors and similes, imagery and rhythm, lead-in and climax, alliteration and assonance, personification and division into parts. None of these aspects has any special relation to poetry; all utterance (even ordinary conversation" tends to exhibit figures of speech and features such as sound-repetition, rhythm, and imagery. It seems to me a mistake to teach, as a way in to poetry, aspects of language that are equally common in sermons and letters" (Poems, Poets, Poetry, Instructor's Manual, 2)


Another idea that could be put into action, as an assignment:
A word in a poem is used because it 'fits' the overlapping schemes of the poem better than any other word. From one angle, it fits because it is a word the speaker of the poem might 'really' use.... From another angle, it fits because it has the right number of syllables for that place in the line. From yet another, it fits because it begins with the same letter as a word closely allied to it nearby in the poem. From yet another, it fits because it disrupts the expected rhythm and therefore introduces force into the line. From yet another, it fits because it inserts semantic surprise, on the one hand, or semantic confirmation, on the other, into the semantic configuration of the poem or stanza. Substitute another word for this one and you have a loss of force, a loss of surprise, a too-short line, an inappropriate diction for the envisaged speaker, or an absence of a binding phonetic link beween a given word and another 'belonging' to it (as, say, an adjective 'belongs to' its noun). Neither orators nor letter writers take such care with every word as poets do (PPP, IM, 3)
Take a poem, and have the students identify as many ways as possible that some key word "fits" into it--which means, in practice, to identify as many "schemes" (structures, patterns, etc.) as possible within the poem as a whole.

Would probably work best with a shortish poem.


Even more important, more "fundamental," though, is this: lyric poetry isn't a "linear" form. The primary focus isn't in recounting the plot, nor in espousing an idea or persuading us of an argument. "The poet uses arguments and ideas as one might use ingredients in a recipe: they are handy items to include, but they recombine to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts." Rather, the goal in lyric is "utter centripetal coherence."

"Instead of a firmly linear progress through successive events, we see a progressive deepening of understanding of a single thing."

"At the end of a poem, that [instigating] emotional confusion has not been abolished; it has been clarified"--poems end with what Frost called a "stay against confusion," albeit only a momentary or temporary one.


"It is important that students become accustomed to ask, 'What is the succession of feelings conveyed by the poem?" rather than 'What does this poem mean?' or 'What is the speaker saying?'"

A lyric, then, is a minutely organized whole that represents--by its imagination, its diction, its syntax, its sentences, its structural units--one or more emotions. It uses the standard resources of rhetoric (images, figures of speech, climax) but is not defined by them. It is defined, first of all, by its putting a new spin on an old emotion. We call this new spin 'imagination.' [...]

But lyric is also defined, structurally, by its concentric or radial tendencies, its aversion to a simply linear movement, its relative lack of interest in plot or character, and -- most conspicuously -- its intense interest in presenting linguistic drama. [...]

The most important revolution in attention induced by a poetry class is the student's return to the 'surface' of language after he or she has perceived the 'depth' of feeling. [...]

Students should be guided to return to the surface--to pay attention to the words--not so they can extract 'meaning,' but so they can see the linguistic drama."

"Most daily discourse, spoken or written, is relatively predictable. Poetry is not predictable. It can begin in complacency and end in terror; or it can begin in boast and end in apology. Almost no poem closes where it began. For that reason, a poem cannot have a 'meaning.' Instad, it has many 'doings.'"


"The point of the study of any art is to be able to see what to appreciate, to be able to distinguish the well-made from the inept, and, at the furthest point of understanding, to admire the incomparably imagined and superbly accomplished."

I like that. And I like even more that the examples she gives are all from fashion: a skirt cut on the bias, a gusset under the arm, silk facing, etc. Henry Tilney would approve.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Brand New Start

Kids off to school--one syllabus done (or done enough to distribute)--one more to write, and then off to teach 'em.

My second syllabus, which I'm finishing on the fly, is for ENG 220, Reading Poetry. The was the course that DePaul hired me to teach, more or less, and I've done it 24 times now--but not in a year, so I'm feeling rather excited about getting back into the groove of it.

I've ordered the new edition of Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry for my textbook, but haven't spent enough time browsing it to see which of the poems I like to teach have been cut, or to decide which of the poems she's added I want to assign. Most weeks, therefore, just have a bare-bones assignment on the syllabus (e.g., "Vendler, chapter 5")--I'll have to choose poems as the quarter goes on, and get the word out to my students by email or something like that.

(I've also warned them, right on the syllabus, that I'll be having them read poems in class for the first time, in order to train them in on-the-spot analytical moves. To be fair, I'll also let them assign me poems right in class, so that I can model unrehearsed close reading for them. Keeps me young, that.)

So: it's 10:45, more or less, and I don't teach until 4:20 pm. The challenge for me this Winter Quarter will be to use these blocks of pre-class time, and not simply for classes. Logging off to mull over the lists, then, and get something done. Maestro Weller, send us out:

Sunday, January 03, 2010


Thanks to new reader Clasificados for this tip: a fun tribal rock band (in manner of Australia's Yothu Yindi) from the Philippines. Sadly, not on Rhapsody, so I can't add it to the 2010 mix, but it's catchy--and in the 8 degree weather here (about -13, for everyone outside the US), it's also deliciously warming. Enjoy!


I had the alarming sense yesterday that the day would be taken up by errands, maintenance, etc. In the end, it didn't work out that way: dry cleaning, a bit of shopping for dinner, checking & re-flating the minivan tires, but R did most of the busy-work, freeing me up to work on my syllabi for Monday.

I'm working, first, on English 469: Topics in American Literature: Popular Romance.

At the moment, our Required Texts are:
Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer
Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm
J. R. Ward, Dark Lover
Joey Hill, Natural Law
Victoria Dahl, Talk Me Down
Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander
Beverly Jenkins, Captured
Nora Roberts, Montana Sky
I say "at the moment" because I've just heard that the Victoria Dahl may have been hard for the bookstore to come by. NOT that I heard this from the bookstore, mind you--but I've called to follow up, and won't rest easy until I know for sure that it's in stock. (If it isn't, I'll use another Dahl--but the topics I wanted to pursue with Talk Me Down don't come up the same way in the next two books in that series, so I'll be thrown off, just a little. "Recalculating," as the GPS unit likes to say.)

Of those, I've taught five before (SEP, Kinsale, Ward, Hill, Herendeen); three are new, although I have a ringer in my class to help with the Roberts: a Fulbright scholar writing her dissertation on NR, who's come to Chicago to work this year. (I'm co-director of the diss.)

Here's the tentative Course Description:

American academics began to study popular romance fiction seriously in the 1980s, with the publication of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance and Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, by Tania Modleski. The conventions, genres, and readership of romance fiction have all evolved dramatically since this time, however, and critics have not always kept pace with them. In this course, we will explore some of the varieties of popular romance fiction (and of romance criticism) currently published in the United States. Using tools from cultural studies, feminist psychoanalysis, the philosophy of love, and aesthetic analysis, we will learn to read popular romance from a variety of contemporary authors and subgenres; in the process, we will get to know something about the lively, reflective on-line romance community. Our challenge, week by week, will be to make the novels as interesting as possible, by any means necessary.

As for the Course Requirements:

All students in this course will be expected to do three things:

  • Come to class with the books and / or articles read, and contribute to class discussion;
  • Deliver a thoughtful, well-organized in-class presentation on one of our novels—think of this as a succinct mini-lecture, about 10 minutes long, with an accompanying handout of quotations from critics, discussion questions, or anything else that can provoke subsequent discussion; and,
  • Write a scholarly or creative nonfiction essay (12-15 pp.), probably based on the presentation, that uses critical approaches studied in class to analyze one of the course texts.

My next big task is to assemble the secondary texts we'll read in the first couple of weeks. Here's the list I have so far--but it's more or less the same list I used two years ago, which leads me to believe that I've missed a few things. If you can think of anything for me to add, let me know!

Week 1: Introduction to the class, to each other, and to the novels we will study. Initial assignment of presentations. Discussion of "romance" as a literary term, especially in American literary history, with passages from Hawthorne, James, and Northrop Frye.

Week 2: Introduction to some of the critical debates surrounding popular romance fiction.

  • Germaine Greer, selection from The Female Eunuch (1970)
  • Tania Modleski, “Mass Produced Fantasies for Women” and “Harlequin Romances” (Loving with a Vengeance, 1982)
  • Janice Radway, “from New Introduction” (1991), “The Readers and their Romances,” and “The Act of Reading the Romance: Escape and Instruction” (Reading the Romance, 1984; rpt. 1991)
  • Laura Kinsale, “The Androgynous Reader”; Linda Barlow, “The Androgynous Writer”; Susan Elizabeth Phillips, “The Romance and the Empowerment of Women” (Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz, 1992)
  • Tania Modleski, “My Life as a Romance Reader” (Paradoxa, 1997)
  • Jennifer Crusie, “Romancing Reality: the Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-vision the Real” (Paradoxa, 1997), “Defeating the Critics” (1998), and “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women” (1998); available on line at
  • Pamela Regis, “The Romance Novel and Women’s Bondage” and “In Defense of the Romance Novel” (A Natural History of the Romance Novel, 2003).
  • Eric Selinger, “Re-reading the Romance” (essay-review of recent criticism, 2008)
  • Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, selections from Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels (2009).

After that, we turn to the novels themselves. Here's the order so far:

Week 3: Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Natural Born Charmer (Contemporary)

Week 4: Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm (Historical)

Week 5: J. R. Ward, Dark Lover (Paranormal)

Week 6: Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander (Historical—mmf)

Week 7: Victoria Dahl, Talk Me Down (Contemporary)

Week 8: Joey Hill, Natural Law (Erotic—BDSM)

Week 9: Beverly Jenkins, Captured (Historical—African American)

Week 10: Nora Roberts, Montana Sky (Contemporary)

If anything occurs to you about the sequence, let me know that as well! I'll begin assembling ideas for secondary reading, topics, questions, etc., as the next week proceeds.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Reading & Watching

First book read of the new year: Lead Me On, by Victoria Dahl.

First movie watched (on DVD): Paperback Hero, with a young, very cute Hugh Jackman & Claudia Karvan as a truly delightful Aussie heroine.

In lieu of music this morning, here's a teaser from the latter, thanks to someone at YouTube:


Back on the 29th I spent some time reading "Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other," by Andreas Huyssen (1986), which you can find over at Google Books. An oldie but goodie--ideas I've known, vaguely, for a very long time, but crisply expressed, and potentially useful both in the classroom (my students don't know this stuff) and for my current work on popular fiction.


Modernism: "an aesthetic based on the uncompromising repudiation of what Emma Bovary loved to read" (Huyssens, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, 45). And, again, this: "the repudiation of Trivialliteratur has always been one of the constitutive features of a modernist aesthetic intent on distancing itself and its products from the trivialities and banalities of everyday life" (47).

Williams? Reznikoff? Joyce? Hmmm.


"Mass culture and the masses as feminine threat--these notions belong to another age..." (62). Hmmm. In my classrooms, I still encounter it from students (male and female). Shall I blame older colleagues?

"After all, it has always been men rather than women who have had real control over the productions of mass culture" (62). True for popular romance fiction?


"None of this is to claim that the distinction between high art and mass culture no longer exists, either in Western societies or elsewhere, as some might argue, for it very much does. Differences will always remain in quality, ambition, and complexity between cultural products, in demands on the attentiveness and knowledge of the consumer, and in diversely stratified audiences. But what used to be a vertical divide has become in the last few decades a horizontal borderland of exchanges and pillagings, of transnational travels back and forth, and all kinds of hybrid interventions. Complexity does not reside only on one side of the old binary." (Huyssen, “High/Low” 370)


Also stumbled on this, from Bourdieu: “the ‘popular aesthetic’ is defined in relation to ‘high’ aesthetics and that reference to legitimate art and its negative judgement on ‘popular’ taste never ceases to haunt the popular experience of beauty” (Distinction 32).

I think I need to revisit Mr. B. This little scrap (found in the pages of someone else's dissertation) feels relevant to Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Natural Born Charmer, which we'll probably start with in my graduate romance class this quarter.

Friday, January 01, 2010

10 Years Ago...

There's a mini-meme floating around Twitter, with folks posting who they were or what they were up to 10 years ago.

As soon as I asked myself the question, I winced. You see, I celebrated Y2K at a big family gathering out in California, a long-time dream of my father. At the time, I didn't realize that he didn't expect to live much longer, but evidently he'd assumed for many years that he wouldn't much outlive his own father, who died in his sixties--and, it turned out, he was right.

Once that sadness subsided, though, I got to thinking: where was I, other than that, ten years ago? What did I do with this decade?

Well, let's see.

2000 was the year I went on a four year publishing / conferencing hiatus, more or less, in order to invest more of my energy in family matters. That hiatus didn't start until the end of spring term, though; until then, I was busy flitting from conference to conference, mostly giving papers that year on Ronald Johnson. (Mark, Joel, Peter, remember that panel in Louisville? The Buffalo conference?) Ten years later, the book that grew out of that work has finally appeared, and although sales have little slow (will we break 100 this year?), Ronald Johnson: Life and Works has already shown itself to be the foundation for future scholarship on the poet. (I can't tell you how I know this, but I do.)

What else was I up to? I had a fellowship from the DePaul Humanities Center to work on a project I called "Delight in Disorder: The Theory and Practice of Pleasure in Post-war American Poetry." I never did write that book, but the conference on poetry and pedagogy that I put together as part of the fellowship turned into five NEH grants to work with small groups of K-12 teachers. Last month, I realized that the theoretical and literary-historical research I began back then is actually the underpinning of my popular romance scholarship, so that what seemed like a sharp turn in my professional trajectory now looks like a calmer, more natural progression.

Ten years ago I was writing an essay on poets' memoirs for Parnassus: Mary Karr, William Corbett, Thylias Moss. Gosh, I haven't thought about that piece in ages, but I sure remember writing it, painfully, night after night in the upstairs study of my brick Chicago house. Oh, and I was editing, too: Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections, a book that still brings me little royalty checks every year or two, God bless it. I'd meant to follow up on that book with a monograph on the subject, but never quite pursued that, either. Maybe this decade.

Ten years ago, I was gunning for tenure, pumping up the CV, writing and planning and plotting each move to reach that goal. I was up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning, as often as not, writing or prepping my classes. I remember waking up, head down on the kitchen table, and staring at the laptop in disgust. Glad to be past that. Ten years ago, I had a three-year-old and a one-year-old. Toilet training. Getting up, night after night, to give Thing Two her bottle, change a diaper, and the rest. Glad to be past that, too--although as my friend the koala will tell you, I still have a knack for charming & calming small creatures.

Ten years ago, I didn't play mandolin--hadn't picked up any instrument in ages. Ten years ago, I hadn't started having a cocktail (like my father before me) before dinner. At which thoughts, I think I'll end this little ramble, mix a couple Manhattans, and practice a song or two before the slow-cooked beef is done. And since that phrase is in my head ("ten years ago"), here's the first outro of the new year. Rick Danko swallows the line, but that's how it starts--enjoy. And thanks for listening to an old man reminisce.