Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Course Correction?

My Modern American Poetry course isn't going as well as I'd like. In fact, I'm downright discouraged about it. The format--lots of poems, thematically organized, followed by a free-range, rambling discussion--worked wonderfully the last time that I did it, but with this group, and with me, this year, it seems haphazard and unsatisfying.

I just sent an email to the students, checking in with them. Often my sense of a course is darker than theirs. But when I look around the room and see the students who are, themselves, poets--the ones who know the most coming in--looking pained or bored, I get worried. Not what I'm used to, folks.

Here's what the email said:
Good morning, everyone! We're a few weeks into the quarter, and I wanted to write and check in with all of you about how the class is going.

Our current format--vast amounts of reading, arranged thematically; unpredictable and open-ended discussion--doesn't work every for every student or every group, and I want to give you the chance to give me feedback on it.

Would you prefer a smaller number of readings, or more explicit instructions in advance about which ones to focus on? Would you rather cover fewer themes, and spend more time on each? Would you like me to assign (or at least recommend) some secondary readings? Or is everything fine so far?

Please let me know what's going well, and what you'd like changed, as we head toward the middle of the term!
Two responses so far:
Good morning! Thanks for the check-in. The class is going really well for me at this point. I'm really enjoying the reading, and I like the format. The fact that there are so many readings assigned really opens things up, I think. (Not to mention the fact that it increases the likelihood that there'll be something in there that appeals to everyone in some way.)

The one thing I do think would be helpful though is if one or two secondary readings were assigned/recommended. I think it helps frame things out a little more, and also gets the wheels turning for final projects.
And this:
I appreciate the inquiry. I like the sort of open ended structure. I don't feel overwhelmed because I know we're not expected to be experts of every poem and I appreciate at least being exposed to them, especially thinking about them in a thematic context.

I would like some more suggestions/information about the "expectations" for the short papers . I know that too is also pretty open ended, but I'm not sure if it's supposed to be a long response to the reading and class discussion or involve research, etc.
I'll hear more tonight, I suspect, from students who work full time during the day. Will let you all know how it goes.


Today's song, a neotango from Italy, danced here by an unknown couple (unknown to me, anyway). Note to self: Romance Conference in Argentina--investigate!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Modern Poetry: Portraits & Ladies

Last night was the second meeting of my MA-level Modern American Poetry class--the first in which we've actually had some poems on the table to discuss. As we did, I noticed what might be a promising new unit tucked inside my syllabus, which I'm noting here for three reasons:
  1. so I don't forget it
  2. so other teachers can steal it
  3. so other poetry readers can suggest additional texts, contexts, and resources.
The reading assignment for the week was this:
In Vol. 1, read the selections from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; also “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “Calvary Crossing a Ford”; read Dickinson, poem 657 (“I dwell in Possibility”), Masters, “Petit, the Poet”; Stein, from “Tender Buttons,” read “A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass,” the four poems called “Chicken,” and “Susie Asado”; Amy Lowell, “The Pike” and “Venus Transiens,” Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” Stevens “Thirteen Ways…” “The Poems of Our Climate,” “Of Modern Poetry,” Loy, “Songs to Joannes” parts 1 and 2; Williams, “The Young Housewife,” “Portrait of a Lady,” from Paterson (302-307), Pound, “The Return,” “A Pact,” “In a Station of the Metro,” Cantos I and II; H.D., “Epitaph”; Jeffers, “Ave Caesar” and “Carmel Point”; Moore, “To a Steam Roller,” “Critics and Connoisseurs,” “Poetry,” Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Geronition,” The Waste Land, PART ONE; Reznikoff, “The Shopgirls Leave their Work,” “About an Excavation,” Niedecker, “New-Sawed,’ “Poet’s Work,” “Something in the Water,” “Popcorn-Can Cover”
That may seem like a crazy quantity of reading. OK, it is a crazy quantity of reading, deliberately so. I like to immerse my students in a lot of poetry right away, partly so that they can begin to find poets and poems that they like (Robinson Jeffers? Who knew?), and partly so that I can see, as this course goes on, which poems particularly jump out to me as interesting, teachable, and fun.

Two main topics framed our discussion: first, questions of form (i.e., organic and constructivist varieties of free verse, a first taste of collage poetics and other experimental forms, etc.); and, second, some of the modernist unsettlings of the lyric speaker, whether through irony and persona or through the fracturing of syntax and paraphrasable meaning.

These went...OK. What I need to do next time is group the poems with those goals in mind, and make them more explicit right from the get-go; also, I may need to sift out a secondary goal that I had in mind--namely, to introduce students to Imagism and some other literary schools--and do that on a separate night.

(NOTE TO READERS: what American poems would you suggest for teaching about Symbolism--the school, not the technique? When I'm doing an international class I can bring in early Yeats or French poets in translation; who among my compatriots, though?)

But I digress.

The little mini-unit that went best, and that might make for a fun assignment or lesson on its own, centered on three poems: Williams's "Portrait of a Lady," Amy Lowell's "Venus Transiens," and Gertrude Stein's "Susie Asado." All three are "portraits of ladies," but fractured and surprising. They let you talk about different sorts of free verse, about issues of gender and representation, about uses of allusion, about the lives and careers of the poets.

But why stop at three? If I were to do this again, I'd want to add, at the very least, Ezra Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" (in the Norton already) and T. S. Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" (not in the Norton, but readily available, thanks to the Poetry Foundation). What else is out there? I can think of others by men--say, Wallace Stevens's "So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch," although that's from several decades later, well into the '40s, if memory serves:
So-And-So Reclining on Her Couch

On her side, reclining on her elbow.
This mechanism, this apparition,
Suppose we call it Projection A.

She floats in air at the level of
The eye, completely anonymous,
Born, as she was, at twenty-one,

Without lineage or language, only
The curving of her hip, as motionless gesture,
Eyes dripping blue, so much to learn.

If just abover her head there hung,
Suspended in air, the slightest crown
Of Gothic prong and practick bright,

The suspension, as in solid space,
The suspending hand withdrawn, would be
An invisible gesture. Let this be called

Projection B. To get at the thing
Without gestures is to get at it as
Idea. She floats in the contention, the flux

Between the thing as idea and
The idea as thing. She is half who made her.
This is the final Projection C.

The arrangement contains the desire of
The artist. But one confides in what has no
Concealed creator. One walks easily

The unpainted shore, accepts the world
As anything but sculpture. Good-bye
Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks.
Any other late-Victorian or early-modernist portrait-poems come to mind? Would love a few more by women, whether of women or of men. I think this has legs, as they say, as a teachable unit--especially since it gives me the chance to show some nifty slides of actual art if the conversation flags!


Since I'm writing a piece about Midrash and Mashups, here's an oldie but goodie from DJ Earworm. Enjoy!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Slumps & Silences (coda)

A kind note from a friend reminds me that brooding over the past isn't all that useful or interesting, ultimately. And a whisper from my subconscious reminds me that there's a poem I used to love that's all about such matters, at least in one of its echoes and allusions.

The poem is James Merrill's "Lost in Translation," which you can find here, with partial audio. the echo is of Paul Valery's "Palme," which comes up at several points in Merrill's narrative and reflections.

As my former Rebbe (i.e., dissertation director) Stephen Yenser explains:

Merrill has absorbed much of "Palme" in "Lost in Translation," and lines especially relevant to this constellation of puzzle pieces occur in Valery's seventh stanza:

Ces jours qui te semblent vides
Et perdus pour l'univers
Ont des racines avides
Qui travaillent les deserts.

Merrill quotes Rilke's translation as his epigraph:

Diese Tage, die leer dir scheinen
und wertlos fur das All,
haben Wurzeln zwischen den Steinen
und trinken dort uberall.

And here finally is Merrill's own rendering, published several years after "Lost in Translation":

These days which, like yourself,
Seem empty and effaced
Have avid roots that delve
To work deep in the waste.

More on what's now blossoming from those roots next week.

Slumps & Silences (SMT)

So I haven't posted in a week or so.

In part this is because my wife's been in Haiti, which means that I've been holding down the fort, domestically speaking: more a matter of extra schlepping (home, work, home) than extra work. I wanted to boast, at the end of the week, that I'd gotten all my work done AND taken care of the kids, but in fact I've been scatter-shot on both fronts. Particularly unimpressed by my cooking, or lack thereof, and by my flat-out forgetting my son's first guitar lesson of the season yesterday. Wasn't on the calendar, so it didn't happen. Ah, well.

I was struck, this morning, by a post at Stupid Motivational Tricks called "Slump." Here's how it begins:
I was in a bit of a slump between about 1998 and 2005 or so. You wouldn't really know it from looking at my cv, though. I continued to write and publish. There are no gaps, periods of more than 2 years without significant publications. From my perspective I was in a slump, because I was writing more than I was publishing and having a hard time putting together a book manuscript. I wasn't having a very good time in my job and suffered from mild to moderate depression. What I did, essentially, is write myself out of it. Now it is clear to me that the work I did during this period wasn't wasted in the least, but I went 15 years without publishing a book.

I still bear some ill effects from that period. It took me longer than it should have to become a full professor, and my salary is still far below where it should be in relation to my accomplishments and those of comparable people in my department. I was barely hanging on in terms of living a satisfactory life, but I was still able to write, somehow.
What interests me here is the fact that I went through a similar slump during those years, but handled it differently. Rather than keep writing and publishing, I gave a big push up through the tenure year (2000-2001), then stopped cold: no published essays, no conference papers, even. The gap shows up pretty vividly on my CV--there's activity, including all those NEH seminars, but there's no writing or publishing.

On the other hand, unlike Jonathan (at SMT), I was having a very good time at my job in those years. And not just at my job. At home, in my marriage, as a father, I used that time to go (slowly, slowly) from "barely hanging on in terms of living a satisfactory life" to having a very happy one, not least as I recovered from the sadness of my father's death and the worries involved in some other family medical stuff.

If I bear some ill effects from that period--certainly it's taking me longer than it should to become a full professor!--I also bear some very good effects. More good than bad, on the whole.

This makes me wonder. If it weren't for the money, could I go without writing and publishing entirely now, and just read, give papers, and teach?

Most of me says "yes," to be honest. But the flash of upset I felt in a conversation yesterday--someone said I was a major figure in popular romance studies, and I thought "no I'm not; I haven't published anything yet!"--suggests that maybe there's writing and publishing that I really want to do, now. Internally motivated, not externally, I mean.

And there may be some poetry work I really want to do as well. The poet's I've been reading recently--Lawrence Joseph, Mike Heller, Harvey Shapiro, Stanley Moss--are reaching me emotionally in a way that poetry hasn't for a while. Not sure what that shift will lead me to write about them, but it's interesting to observe.

When I think about those years and these questions, two songs come to mind. I'll put one in another post; with my wife coming home this evening, here's the one for today:

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

New Year

The new school year has begun, here at DePaul--just in time for the Jewish new year, which kicks off just after my first class, as it happens. My syllabi are ready, my assignments written and printed, and I have...what, five hours left before I get to the classroom? Hard to buckle down and get something done in that time; my inclination, I'm discovering, is to toss everything else to the wind and focus on my classes--just as, when I'm writing, I toss everything to the wind and do only that.

What to do? Stop, breathe, step away from the computer, look at my lists, get something done.

Sadly, I'll have to pass the picket line of a rather nasty organization to get to services tonight. They're protesting at a bunch of local synagogues (God hates us, for various reasons) as well as at the local Holocaust museum (God hated them, and the next one will be worse) and a local high school (God hates gays, whatever their religion). Sigh. At least these folks don't blow themselves up or kill anyone. They bring this little poem to mind, from Alicia Ostriker's the volcano sequence:
One of these days
oh one of these days
will be a festival and a judgment

and our enemies will be thrown
into the pit while we rejoice
and sing hymns

Some people actually think this way
Yup. Some of them do--and I'll be seeing a few, albeit briefly, tonight.

Today's song, in honor of the New Year, a hymn from Leonard Cohen. "There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in."

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Stupid Motivational Tricks (Ongoing Series?)

I've decided to browse old posts periodically at Stupid Motivational Tricks, both to get motivated and to find some provocations--ideas or tricks of the trade that I can use to put my writing back on track. When I have groups that interest me, I'll post them here, with or without commentary.

(The present / future tense is a Mayhew mode. It interests me.)

Since there are several clicks involved in linking each of these to its parent post, my inclination is to go without. If you want to track one down, go to the SMT blog and search for a phrase from the passage you like, or simply start at the top and scroll down. (I'm working my way backwards--am only around August 15 at the moment.)

I may change my mind about linkage as this goes on. And I may repost bits of these as questions I'll answer--writing prompts, in a sense--as the weeks go by.

Writing, unfortunately, is highly dependent on states of mind. That is kind of a curse, because having to be "in the mood" can eliminate 90% of times when you have a spare moment or a free afternoon to write. Moods can be triggered, however. The best way to enter a state conducive to writing is to begin writing. The right mood will kick in--or not--after you've started.
You want to seek out those flow states of intense concentration, cultivate that ability in yourself. But you don't want to be so dependent on those states that you can't work unless you are in the flow. The flow can't be your fetish. The flow comes more from habitual action than from random, muse-like inspiration. On days when the flow is completely absent, there is still plenty to do: correct format and bibliography, read over completed drafts of other chapters.
Do you want to be known as X's disciple, or as the Y's teacher? Do you see yourself as a theorist, a critic, or a scholar? Are you mainly an expert on Joyce or Twain, or on Ireland or Sweden? Do you define yourself by period or by theoretical approach?

In my case, I don't want disciples, nor to be known for whom I worked with. I'd like to be thought of as someone who defined the terms of the debate in my field, someone who raised the standard for what excellent work is in my subfield, and made this subfield relevant to those for whom it would otherwise not be so important.

I'm intrigued by this 16-Week Challenge, which was linked to on the SMT blog. It's designed to spur research and writing productivity, not least by making the progress systematic. Not sure the math is right for someone like me, on a quarter system. (10 week challenge?) Worth thinking about, however. What would my challenge parameters be?


If there's housework going on, I can't do academic work (writing, reading, you name it). When I hear housework, I stop what I'm doing and go clean, vacuum, tidy, scrub a bathroom, etc. This isn't a conscious decision; it's visceral. Years of training go into it, including a childhood of watching (and helping) my mother clean house while my father was off in his study, smoking and grading or reading.

This leaves me at the mercy of everyone else in the house, of course. But it's the bed I've made, and by god, I'm going to sleep in it. Or, in this case, go change the sheets.


Song o' the day? A lovely one by a short-lived "supergroup," Little Village:

Of Necks and Brows

As most of you know, I belong to a proudly stubborn and stiff-necked people, celebrated as such in Howard Nemerov's delightful "Debate with the Rabbi":
You've lost your religion, the Rabbi said.
It wasn't much to keep, said I.
You should affirm the spirit, said he,
and the communal solidarity.
I don't feel so solid, I said.

We the people of the Book, the rabbi said.
Not of the phone book, said I.
Ours is a great tradition, said he,
And a wonderful history.
But history's over, I said.

We Jews are creative people, the Rabbi said.
Make something, then said I.
In science and in art, said he,
Violinists and physicists have we.
Fiddle and Physic indeed, I said.

Stubborn and stiff-necked man! the Rabbi cried.
The pain you give me, said I.
Instead of bowing down, said he,
You go on in your obstinacy.
We Jews are that way, I replied.
Unfortunately, as of yesterday that metaphor has taken on a "stubbornly" literal meaning for me. Can't turn my head to the right, or lean my right ear down towards my shoulder. Not sure if this is from over-turning it at some point the day before, or from spending too much time looking to the left while typing up notes and quotes for an essay. In either case, it'll be a week or so before I have my range of motion back--and in the mean time, reading, writing, driving, web-surfing, etc., run the gamut from just-a-tad-awkward to sharply, gaspingly painful.

Ah, middle age!


If you're one of my handful of regular readers, you may have noticed a small change to the site two days ago. Under the picture of me getting hugged by Jeepers, Koala of Love (tm), I've added a tag line: "Proud Members of the Middlebrow Network."

What's the Middlebrow Network, you ask?

According to their website, the Middlebrow Research Network is
an AHRC-funded project that provides a focus for research on the loaded and disreputable term 'middlebrow' and the areas of cultural production it purports to represent. The network is both transatlantic and interdisciplinary: we work to foster discussion and collaboration across geographical and disciplinary divides.
Their Very Useful Website offers a range of materials, including a database of researchers (you'll find me there), links to events and publications (which I've just begun to browse), and some handy descriptions of "middlebrow" art and its audience from critics past and present.

Several of those definitions quite struck home for me:
"The B.B.C. claim to have discovered a new type, the 'middlebrow'. It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like." Punch, 23 December 1925.
(Hey! That's my birthday. Kismet.)
"It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel - the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel - seems to exist only for women." George Orwell, 'Bookshop Memories.' (The full citation is on their website.)
At this point, I mostly read a branch of fiction that men avoid. Not sure what "Galsworthy-and-water" means, but the rest seems apposite enough.
"The broad working definition I employ throughout this book is that the middlebrow novel is one that straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller on the one hand, and the philosophically or formally challenging novel on the other: offering narrative excitement without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort. It is an essentially parasitical form, dependent on the existence of both a high and a low brow for its identity, reworking their structures and aping their insights, while at the same time fastidiously holding its skirts away from lowbrow contamination, and gleefully mocking highbrow intellectual pretensions."Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 11-12.
There's something quite negative about the details of Humble's description ("parasitical"? "aping"?), but I don't know the texts she's discussing, and don't want to assume that she's wrong. By the late 20th century, however, in the texts I know and love, there's a lot less primness in the middlebrow, while its mix of "narrative excitement" and "intellectual stimulation" remains intact.

I have a hunch--and it's just a hunch, so far--that this network and this term of inquiry will be quite useful to me in the years ahead, not just for my work on American romance fiction (which is often considered "lowbrow," but includes a large number of middlebrow texts as well, at least by Nicola Humble's definition), but also for my work on the pleasures of poetry. On which note, I look forward to reading Jane Dowson's conference presentation on "Poetry and the Middlebrow" over at the Network's Resources page, and posting on that in the future.

What's the brow-line on that Nemerov poem, after all?


Today's song: a little Hebrew qawwali for you, by Shye Ben Tzur. The lyrics (translated by someone on YouTube, so these may not be quite right) suggest that it's a devotional love song: "The Rose of my heart has unfolded / To you I shall sing / When I sing to you / The Rose of my heart unfolds / On my breast you have struck one beat / And within it you have planted endless rhythms / On the sail of my lungs you blow your breath / And within infinite compositions echo," etc. Enjoy!