Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The rap on brevity

We know that "lo bueno, si breve, dos veces bueno," for example, or "brevity is the soul of wit." The rap on brevity, though, is that it is simplistic. The idea that what fits on bumper stickers or "sound bites" represents a superficial knowledge. That the short form is authoritarian because apodictic. What can you say in a 140 character tweet? We've all heard this arguments. Whenever someone quotes Kissinger to the effect that academic politics are vicious because the stakes are low, my heart sinks. The person seems to think that the aphorism explains something (it doesn't) that K. said it first (he didn't) that this is the first time we're hearing this (it isn't) and that we will be impressed by the quotation (we aren't and won't be). As though academic politics were more vicious than, say, invading Cambodia?

The narrator of Cinco horas on Mario quotes from Proverbs but then doesn't understand the biblical verses. She speaks in a serious of idiomatic expressions, clichés, cursilerías, and proverbs in order to express a deeply conservative philosophy. The book, then, is a wonderful compendium of linguistic items. Every single page contains dozens of them. The fact her language is like this is supposed to explain something about her, her rigidity and lack of imagination.

The Celestina, the proverbs are there for there bitter cynicism.


The Argentine poet Girondo has a genre he called membretes. The word means something like "letterhead."

Great minds

think alike. A rising star in my field also has thought of giving a course in the short form.

Barthes on LaRochefoucauld

On peut lire La Rochefoucauld de deux façons : par citations ou de suite. Dans le premier cas, j'ouvre de temps en temps le livre, j'y cueille une pensée, j'en savoure la convenance, je me l'approprie, je fais de cette forme anonyme la voix même de ma situation ou de mon humeur; dans le second cas, je lis les maximes pas à pas, comme un récit ou un essai; mais du coup, le livre me concerne à peine; les maximes de La Rochefoucauld disent à tel point les mêmes choses, que c'est leur auteur, ses obsessions, son temps, qu'elles nous livrent, non nous-mêmes. Voilà donc que le même ouvrage, lu de façons différentes, semble contenir deux projets opposés : ici un pour-moi (et quelle adresse! cette maxime traverse trois siècles pour venir me raconter), là, un pour soi, celui de l'auteur, qui se dit, se répète, s'impose, comme enfermé dans un discours sans fin, sans ordre, à la façon d'un monologue obsédé.

Ces deux lectures ne sont pas contradictoires, parce que, dans le recueil de maximes, le discours cassé reste un discours enfermé; certes, matériellement, il faut choisir de lire les maximes par choix ou de suite, et l'effet en sera opposé, ici éclatant, là étouffant; mais le fruit même du discontinu et du désordre de l'œuvre, c'est que chaque maxime est, en quelque sorte, l'archétype de toutes les maximes; il y a une structure à la fois unique et variée; autrement dit, à une critique de développement, de la composition, de l'évolution, et je dirai presque du continu, il paraît juste de substituer ici une critique de l'unité sententielle, de son dessin, bref de sa forme : c'est toujours à la maxime, et non aux maximes qu'il faut revenir.

I was struck by that back in Graduate School. The idea that the short form could be read in two ways: the individual maxim for its meaning, or a whole bunch of them at once, producing a wholly different sensation that leads directly to a structuralist analysis. I discovered him through a poem by John Ashbery, that cites the maxim: "We are all strong enough to withstand the suffering of other people."

The last sentence of Barthes seems to be saying the opposite of what it is really saying.

I was also an assiduous reader of Blake's "Proverbs of Hell" in High School.

Frost Memory Test

Acquainted with the night
The road less traveled
Mending wall
Death of the hired man
Gold Dust
The master speed
Fire and Ice
"A bird half wakened in the lunar moon"
"I'm going to blah blah blah ... you come too."
The Silken Tent
"He would declare and could himself believe / that the birds there in all the garden round"
The Oven Bird: "There is a singer everyone has heard..."
Stopping by woods on snowy evening
[The poem about mountain pools that suck up all the light and water]
"Out, out..."
[The poem about the guy wanting to buy all Frost's Christmas trees]
Two tramps wanting to cut his firewood for him "Two tramps in mud time"?
"The land was ours before we were the land's"
The way the crows / shook down on me / the dust of snow
Nature's first green is gold / Her hardest hue to hold / Her early leaf's a flower / but only so an hour, etc... [Nothing Gold can stay]
Other poem about the could who have lost a child, husband's insensitive reaction?
Poem about a guy who treats his workers with disrespect, almost gets killed

Ok. That's what I got for Frost in exactly 10 minutes. I didn't think of Frost much for a few days prior to this. I think I got the majority of the chestnuts, and a few more. I have either titles, the first line, or some other identifying info for 22 poems. These results are predictable. It is always easy to come up with about 10 poems for anyone, and then... what else?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cummings memory test

Ok. So here's a test. I'll give myself 10 minutes and type all the Cummings poems I can remember (enough of their beginnings to identify them).

in just spring ... the little queer balloonman

I sing of Olaf

Mr u will not be missed

Buffalo Bill's / defunct who used to

I like my body when it is with your body

if you can't eat you gotta smoke

Little Joe Gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where to find them

Next to of course god America I love you

As freedom is a breakfast food

these little children singing

all in green went my love riding

when serpents bargain for the right to squirm

Plato told him / he didn't believe it

somewhere I have never traveled, gladly beyond all experience

my father moved through the dooms of love

if there is any heaven, my mother has one all to herself [sorry, mangled that one]

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls

Pity this poor creature manunkind / not

at McSorley's

because feeling is first, whoever pays attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you

Ok. That's 7 minutes and that's about all I can come up with. I did listen to part of a Cummings reading on youtube last week but I didn't look at anything C-related this week. I'm sure I "know" about twenty others and have read them all at some point in my life. My conclusion is the Cummings is memorable if nothing else. He reads aloud in this horribly affected voice and he was a scoundrel in many ways. I think the tricks he's known for are not what makes him good, when he is good (not infrequently) as a verse technician.

This is a good test for any poet you haven't read for a while.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


One of the only poems by Cummings I can still stand goes something like this:

If you can't eat you got to

smoke and we aint got
nothing to smoke:come on kid

let's go to sleep
if you can't smoke you got to

Sing and we aint got

nothing to sing;come on kid
let's go to sleep

if you can't sing you got to
die and we aint got

nothing to die,come on kid

let's go to sleep
if you can't die you got to

dream and we aint got
nothing to dream(come on kid

Let's go to sleep)

I'll have to clean up the text once I get the book from which it comes.