Another amazing poetry translation course

My spring-quarter 2016 poetry translation seminar brought together the most varied group of students and languages I have had in many years of teaching the course.  (The reading list, etc., is in the March 1 post, below.) I thought that last year’s 2015 group, which included two speakers of Icelandic (!)–we ended up translating a poem by Stefán Hörður Grímsson–the first time this language had ever been available to the course.  This year in the course there were native speakers of Spanish, Greek, Korean, and Thai, and we did poems by the neglected Venezuelan poet Rafael José Muñoz, the very active and esteemed Greek poet Kiki Dimoula, and the South Korean poet Kim Chi Ha–the poet Muriel Rukeyser tried to visit when he was imprisoned as a dissident, decades ago. We even looked at a Chinese T’ang Dynasty poem and a contemporary Thai poet, Somying, in addition. And we read a mix of essays critical, practical and theoretical on translation.  The extraordinary range of the paper topics of the students (names in parentheses after each summary), will show how much we were able to at least map out for ourselves and *use* in our brief 10-week quarter:

~~ A consideration of how Fernando Pessoa’s heteronymic poetry presents special problems for a translator, who must decide how to regard each of this poet’s alter-poets in terms of both language and poetics, on the one hand, and in terms of psychic relationship to Pessoa himself, a tremendously elusive mind and spirit, which his poem “Autopsicografia,” published under his own name, exemplifies. (Noam Shentov)

~~A critique of two different English-language translations of one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poems, “Les Fenêtres,” looking especially at the kinds of French-to-English issues implied by the reverse process, English-to-French, that have been analyzed by Yves Bonnefoy, and also pondering how far a source text can be “adapted” rather than followed more closely before it becomes simply a new poem in the target language. (Leah Kimball)

~~How the necessity of translating Rafael José Muñoz’s neologisms opens up an interesting problem: Should the translator’s English-language neologism reflect *how* Muñoz created his Spanish-language coinage?  And what does the translation of neologisms reveal about poetic translation more generally? (José Delpino)

~~The complicated and rich process of decolonizing the mind (to quote Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o) arises again in translating the poems of Congolese poet Kama Kamanda’s “Pays d’espoir,” which is written in the colonizing language, French.   How should the translator approach the use of the target language, English, in such a case?  (Rachel Girty)

~~What might be in the elusive in-between linguistic space suggested by Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator”–the space between the original poem and its translation, the space that at least conceptually and paradoxically might overlap a little with Benjamin’s idealized total language that consists of all the expressivity of all languages together?  If what’s there cannot be known to us, and therefore can’t be expressed, could it be at least suggested by some sort of translation making use of interlinear typographical spaces and multiple translations of the same poem? (Katharine Cavanaugh)

~~How does the translator try to solve the problems of the missing cultural context of a translated poem? (We read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay on “Thick Translation” and Michael Riffaterre’s essay on “intertexts” and “presuppositions.”  Test case: the Korean poem “Azaleas” by Kim Sowol (1902-1934).  (HyoJin Park)

~~How does one approach translating the most Afro-Cuban-inflected poems of Nicolás Guillén in such a way as to incorporate into the process and the translation itself the strong decolonizing dimension of this poet’s work?  To what extent, and how, can the target language, English, get hold of these dimensions of the original poem in Spanish?  “Presuppositions” and “thick translation” at issue, again.  (Alison Stenclik)

~~And yet again, problems of “thick translation” and “presuppositions” arise, this time in an unusual and fascinating way, as the focus of thinking about how might one translate a poem into video, providing on screen both the original text and a translation, while the visual imagery addresses historical, cultural and literary context. The result: a video translation of a poem (English title: “Soon”) by the Thai poet Somying. (Urasa Burapacheep)

~~A critique of Robert Bly’s translation of “Vuelta de paseo” by Federico García Lorca, as “Home from a Walk,” with particular attention to connotations of the Spanish words and the phonetic texture of Lorca’s lines. (Sam van Loon)

~~An unearthing of the Tantric and Buddhist imagery and concepts in Octavio Paz’s poem “Blanco,” and a critique of existing English-language translations as being insufficiently attuned to the importance, indeed the centrality, of these images and concepts in their translations. (Miranda Smith)

~~A critique of an existing translation of the poem “Holy Thursday” by Kiki Dimoula–again, on the basis of an insufficient awareness of the connotations of words–presuppositions and thick translation, once more. (Eleni Dima)

~~Almost everyone made use of Vermeer’s essay on the translator’s “commission” or (as he calls it, using a technical term of his own invention,” the “skopos.” That is, so much depends on the translator’s sense of why, for what purpose, s/he is translating a particular text.  There are so many different literary purposes for translation, especially.  Another case study: what happens if one wants to translate the *form* of a T’ang Dynasty poem?–specifically, Li Bai’s “Song You Ren”–into English? (Maximillian Rowe)

Reading list for my seminar on translating poetry

Revising my syllabus, as the spring quarter approaches.  Here’s the reading list of critical articles that we’ll use.  Well, in fact, I really have to cut this down–we’ll never be able to use even half of this…, as I know from experience, but then this annual course comes around again and I collect pieces like this as if they were translation-candy:


Some of the essays are from Lawrence Venuti’s The Translation Studies Reader, others are from Rainer Schulte’s and John Biguenet’s Theories of Translation and The Craft of Translation, and we’re also reading some chapters in my recent book How Poems Think.


From Theories of Translation (listed here in the order in which they appear in the book): John Dryden, “On Translation”; Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Language and Words”; Friedrich Schleiermacher, “From ‘On the Different Methods of Translating’ ”; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Preface to The Early Italian Poets”; Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”; Ezra Pound, “Guido’s Relations”; José Ortega y Gasset, “The Misery and Splendor of Translation”; Vladimir Nabokov, “Problems of Translation: Onegin in English”; Roman Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”; Octavio Paz, “Translation: Literature and Letters”; Yves Bonnefoy, “Translating Poetry”; Michael Rifaterre, “Transposing Presuppositions on the Semiotics of Literary Translation.”


From Translation Studies Reader: Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Thick Translation”; Robert Eaglestone, “Levinas, Translation, and Ethics”; Steven Rendall, “A Note on Harry Zohn’s Translation” [of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator”]; George Steiner, “The Hermeneutic Motion”; Hans J. Vermeer, “Skopos and Commission in Translational Action.”


From The Craft of Translation: John Felstiner, “ ‘Ziv, that light,’: Translation and Tradition in Paul Celan”; Margaret Sayers Peden, “Building a Translation, the Reconstruction Business: Poem 145 of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz”; Edward Seidensticker, “On Trying to Translate Japanese”; William Weaver, “The Process of Translation.”


And some extras:

Yves Bonnefoy, “Shakespeare and the French Poet”; Lera Boroditsky, “Lost in Translation” (2010); Lera Boroditsky, “How Language Shapes Thought” (2011); David Crystal, “How We Mean”; Dick Davis, “All My Soul is There: Verse Translation and the Rhetoric of English Poetry”; Haroldo de Campos, “Translation as Creation and Criticism”; Reginald Gibbons, “Notes on Literary Translation”; Reginald Gibbons, “Poetic Form and the Translator”; Jackson, Virginia, “Lyric” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics); Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism: “Translation Studies(2005; includes bibliography; online); Jan Mukařovský, “Standard Language and Poetic Language”


Reading Anna Wierzbicka’s IMPRISONED IN ENGLISH (2014)

“English is not a neutral instrument or one that, unlike other languages, carves nature at its joints; and… if this is not recognized, English can at times become a conceptual prison.”  Perceptions of environment, animals, human relations and emotions, and more, may all be seen differently by speakers of different languages.  The rationalism, empiricism, kinship words, color words, and much more in English disable it as a means of understanding (translated) aspects of experience and the world as it that experience and perception are lived by peoples speaking other languages–especially languages outside (so far) (or at least partly) the re-categorization of so much, imposed by English.


Wierzbicka quotes Emile Benveniste (try buying a copy of his Problems in General Linguistics, 1973–an amazing book that is nearly impossible to find):


For the speaker there is a complete equivalence between language and reality.  The sign overlies and commands reality; even better, it *is* that reality […] [T]he point of view of the speaker and the linguist are so different in this regard that the assertion of the linguist as to the arbitrariness of designation does not refute the contrary feeling of the speaker.


By “the linguist” he must mean Saussure.  Back in the years of “theory wars” when it was so often claimed that there is no thinking outside language and that the arbitrariness of the word (the sign) is absolute, when language is looked at as a system, it was nearly impossible to be heard if one said that for the *speaker* of a language, there is very little that is arbitrary–perhaps almost nothing–in how one *feels*, which is to say, how one thinks at least somewhat holistically, in everyday life, using language.  (And of course there was all that other thinking too that was going on without language: numerical, geographical, visual, etc.


Another great example examined by Wierzbicka is politeness.  “How to be polite–in Anglo English,” turns out (as many travelers have experienced) how not to be polite at all.  Being with other people in a language that has no word for politeness is part of the dissonance; insisting on an English-language idea of politeness in such a context is another part.


And only bilingualism begins to disclose the hidden assumptions in us all about the relationship of thinking and speaking.  Here’s one of Wierzbicka’s quotes from Edward Sapir, who saw this in the early 20th century (her own research is very up-to-date!):


To pass from one language to another is psychologically parallel to passing from one geometrical system of reference to another.  The environing world which is referred to is the same for either language: the world of points is the same in either frame of reference.  But the formal method of approach to the expressed item of experience, as to the given point of space, is so different that the resulting feeling of orientation can be the same neither in the two languages nor in the two frames of reference.  Entirely distinct, or at least measurably different, formal adjustments have to be made and these differences have their psychological correlates. 


An example, quoted by Wierzbicka from Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language:


The words I learn now [in English] don’t stand for things with the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue.  “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essences of riverhood, of my rivers, of being immersed in rivers.  “River” in English is cold–a word without an aura.  It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation.  It does not evoke. 


Hoffman’s bilingualism allowed her to see *English* words as arbitrary, as a linguist would, but this enforced arbitrariness is linguistically enervated as the language of daily life.  Learning English teaches Hoffman was it *not* arbitrary about her native language, in her being–in a writer’s being, I would say.


Which is not to argue that a writer can’t become immersed in a new language and remove the cold arbitrariness of its naming, and gradually inhabiting a new language in which words have gained their “aura.”  Conrad in English, Nabokov in English, Beckett in French, and others….


Getting toward the end of a course on very short fiction, and looking ahead to one on translating poetry

In the spring quarter, which begins in early March, when I’ll be teaching my annual seminar on translating poetry.  I always begin with a poem in Spanish, because it’s the language and the poetic tradition I can handle best, myself, outside English, but on the first day I also find out what languages students have brought in with them.  Last year the great surprise–a first in the many years I have taught this course–two students had terrific Icelandic, one because she is bicultural and has lived in Iceland for years, and the other–who took my course as a member of the staff at Northwestern–because she has been studying it and has been to Iceland several times.  (That student, after completing the course, decided to apply to graduate programs in Icelandic or Scandinavian studies–languages and cultures–for fall 2017 and just received her first admission, so she’ll leave her university staff position and return to school for more study.  A very happy story.

We’ll translate three short poems together–going as deeply into each poem as we can, with the help of a literary scholar who visits our course and takes us through the poem’s linguistic, poetic and cultural dimensions.  So everyone must translate from a language not known (including me).  While this doesn’t always produce finished translations by everyone, it does open up poetry itself in a way that is possible only when working in two languages–in that situation, we see much more clearly the differences not only in the linguistics of a language and its expressive strengths but also in its poetic traditions.  And when I say, “a language,” I mean of course English too.  Nothing so clarifies what English-language poetry has been, in all its astonishing variety, as comparing it to poems in other languages.  One becomes, even if it’s only a first step, aware of how what seems “natural” (or not) in poetry is just what the English language does and doesn’t do, and what English-language poets have chosen to do–and chosen not to do.  My friend the poet Ilya Kutik has mentioned to me that it would have been amazing to see what the English-language Modernists might have done, in the early 20th century, if they had known the poetry of Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Blok, and other Russian poets.  But evidently they did not know of this work, or did not have access to it through Russian-language fellow poets or at least through (very good) translators…

I’m now in the last weeks now of the winter quarter, and have been teaching a graduate course in our MA/MFA in creative writing–a course on very short fiction.  Not only free-standing very short pieces, but also stories made of very short chapters.  One classic contemporary example is Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” (first published in TriQuarterly).  Another is the much earlier, but much further out story by Leonard Michaels, “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could.”  We’ve been reading around in several anthologies of very short (“flash,” as many now call it) fiction, and I also put on our website such stories as the Hempel and Michaels, and also these:

Kobo Abe, “The Red Cocoon,” “The Stick”

Isaac Babel, “My First Goose,” “Dolgushov’s Death,” “The Kiss”

Anton Chekhov, “Anyuta”

Stephen Dixon, “Down the Road”

Eugene Garber, “The Oddment Man and the Apocalyptic Beasts”

Nadine Gordimer, “Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?”

William Goyen, “Arthur Bond”

Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried”

Franz Kafka, from Blue Notebooks

Clarice Lispector, “A Chicken,” “Temptation,” “Covert Joy,” “Remnants of Carnival,” and

“The Servant” “Praça Mauá”

Thomas McGrath, “Used Up”

Leonard Michaels, “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could”

Marga Minco, “The Address”

Grace Paley, “Midrash on Happiness” and “Wants”

Katherine Anne Porter, “Magic”

Jean Toomer, “Karintha,” “Rhobert”

What’s that McGrath, you might wonder.  No, not a story.  It’s a short poem in sections, but it narrates the life and death of a whole farm culture and I couldn’t resist putting it in.

Here’s what the undergrad students do…

Our quarter is only 10 weeks long.  Here’s a list of the assignments (but not in sequence–I’ll post that later).  Each poem is written to specific prompts (these too, I’ll post later) as we go week by week.  And as I mentioned in my last post, the only textbook I use is a little anthology that I’ve created myself, over the last five years.  (That’s coming, too.) It’s a requirement of teachers of this course (of which there are a number of sections taught by different faculty) that students must come out of it able to read poetry written from the Renaissance/Early Modern period to the present, and that means being able to hear the rhythms and scan the meter of iambic pentameter.  We instructors all use modern and contemporary poems, too, and in those cases, must teach students how to pick up nuances of typography, movement, structure, torqued and broken syntax, diction, etc. etc. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

• You have only one textbook: our anthology.  It’s your sourcebook, your reference collection, your portable gallery of poems.  It’s certainly not comprehensive, but it does exemplify a great variety of poetic techniques and kinds of poems.  Your favorite poems will tell you that they would welcome your conversation with them—in the form of your own poem. 


• You’ll compose 7 new poems (based on prompts), and you’ll revise 2 of them during the quarter (including a sonnet); then for your final portfolio you’ll revise 4 of them (which may mean that you again revise in a substantial way the two poems you have already revised during the quarter).  Take the writing of poems seriously and do not compose parodies, mock-versions, jokes, etc.


• You’ll learn how to read and to write iambic pentameter and to recognize the technical aspects of a few major poetic structures—several stanza forms and in particular the sonnet.


• You’ll write 3 annotations—in each, describing one element of poetic technique. It’s extremely important that you grasp the nature of this exercise. Detailed instructions are below.


• You’ll “workshop” each other’s poems (one poem per person, this quarter) in class.


• You’ll write 4 brief word studies.


• You’ll memorize and recite (in class or privately) 20 lines (or more, if you wish) of your own choice from our anthology (no other poems permitted)


• You’ll take a few brief quizzes on poetic technique.


• You’ll participate in an in-class reading at the end of the quarter: reading aloud one of your own poems written and revised during this quarter (no longer than 20 lines) and you’ll answer the question of what you want to write next (in any genre).


• For extra credit, you may turn in (and post to Discussions on Canvas) one or more responses to poetry readings that you attend during the quarter.  There are many in Chicago, presented by the Poetry Foundation (, the Guild Literary Complex (, and many other organizations at various venues in the city.  In such a response (400 words), you will describe the poet’s way of reading (i.e. the performance), the kinds of poems read (i.e. the subject matter and the style), and your own response to poet, poems and performance—and add other observations, and ask questions


• For your end-of-quarter portfolio you will (substantially) revise (again, if you have already revised a poem during the quarter and turned it in to me) 4 of your poems (you must revise your sonnet again) and write a double annotation (1000-1500 words, counting quoted passages from poems; you must double-space this).  The double annotation must focus on either two elements of poetic craft/technique in one poem (or part of a poem), OR one craft element in two poems (or parts of two poems).  The first option is simply more extensive and detailed than a single annotation (see the next paragraph, below); the second option is a comparison and contrasting of two poems regarding how they use the same element of poetic craft/technique. 

Beginning again with poetry

The fall quarter begins on Sept. 21 at Northwestern, and I’m teaching–as I do almost every year–a section of our beginning poetry writing course for undergraduates.  It’s a prerequisite for students who want to take the beginning-level courses in fiction or creative nonfiction, so for some of the students in the poetry course, their enrolling is not what they would move have wanted to do.  But I always emphasize to them as we go through the quarter how useful the poetry writing course will be for all their future writing.  And there *are* some who really do want to write poems.  

I have been revising my syllabus yet again, as I have done every year I have taught the course.  In my experience, nothing has been more tedious, frustrating, impossible to perfect, and important, than getting the syllabus right.  But I never have gotten one completely right. What do I do each year?  I change some of the specifics of writing assignments and also can’t help seeing how to say thing better in a short introductory essay with which my syllabus begins, and also in my detailed explanation of the kinds of writing assignments they’ll do.  

Among other things on this blog, I’ll post some comments on the course as we go–as I did once before, a few years ago–and I’ll also provide the major documentation, which may be of interest to other poets and to some of those who teach poetry writing.  To readers of poetry, too, because first of all, this is a course which by design begins with reading. The title in fact is Reading and Writing Poetry.  Each of my fellow instructors on the faculty in the English Department creates his or her own syllabus and focus; what we have in common is that we all want to teach the students how to read for everything that good poems do, in their multifarious modes of meaning-making, how to heighten their awareness of the language they use, how to revise their poems, and how to begin to master the reading of the historical trove of poetry in English.  

To show them how to read pentameter–which I think most of the textbooks, essays, and poets’ guides over-complicate in the way they present it–I teach how to listen first of all for speech stresses, and then how to hear the interplay between these and a metrical scheme, since it’s that interplay that makes metrical verse interesting and powerful, not meter in and of itself.  

I have created my own short anthology, typing out the poems, correcting the typos in them each year as I continue to discover them, pulling some poems out and putting others in each year, and adding notes here and there, or clarifying the ones I had already put in place.  And I have written my own short glossary of poetic/literary terms, which I put at the end of the anthology.    

For today, I’ll use this post to provide the introduction to the course that I put at the head of my syllabus.  Soon I’ll post the table of contents of the whole anthology.  And I’ll post a number of the prose comments by poets and scholars that I have fitted into white space on pages not occupied entirely by a poem or the end of a poem.  One collects such things and finds them useful.  Or better, challenging. Taken together, all these comments are a wonderfully, perhaps hopelessly, heterodox view of poetry.  But I’m for heterodoxy.

It has taken me weeks off and on to produce this revision.  The result may not show the value of my efforts.  And I’m sure that if I look at it on screen again, I’ll see more to revise….

ENGLISH 206: Reading and Writing Poetry

(Introductory paragraphs of the syllabus:)

As you read and reread poems, pay close attention to the sounds and rhythms of words and the shapes of sentences and sentence fragments and of lines.  The shape of a sentence (or fragment) is created by its length, rhythm, order of clauses, word choice, and anything else about the syntax that catches our attention; the shape of a line is created by its length, its rhythm, and its relation to the sentence—whether it ends a sentence (or fragment) at line’s end or within the line, whether it completely contains a sentence (or fragment) or constitutes only part of it (see “enjambment” in the Core Glossary at the end of our anthology.)


As you work, listen to your own lines carefully, attentively. Think of yourself sometimes as a composer. You arrange words, not pitches, but words have a great variety of sound, and like a composer you too will repeat sounds and also vary them.  You too will create rhythms, but with words, not musical notes. 


Notice how a poet may use stanzas (and white space) to achieve some of the effects of the poem on us, as we absorb the poem’s pace, its sound, its sense, and especially its movement from idea to idea, image to image, feeling to feeling. 


What excites you (passages, whole poems)—can become an artistic model for a poem of your own.  Can you yourself use something from that model?—qualities of language, shapes and rhythms of lines and sentences, tone of voice, even word by word, line by line, stanza by stanza, as aspects of structure?


As you write and rewrite poems, enjoy discovering how your draft of your poem moves, from beginning to end.  Then work with the arrangement and sequencing of sections and lines to make the poem move in a more exploratory way. (In part, writing is exploring.) When you are revising, you will find a more decisive structure (i.e. movement).


Writing a poem, you bring particular realities (personal, social, historical; reasoned, speculative, emotional, spiritual, imaginative) into a highly deliberate choice of words and a vividness of language which in turn evoke for and in the reader (as for and in you) a lively imagining. 


In fact, those realities are discoveries that you bring more fully to light by drafting and revising the poem.  This is because what we have written is not likely to be what we think we have written, or what we thought (consciously) we wanted to write.  The intuition from which we may start has to be helped on its way to articulation.  The poem has to be real-ized.  As the Roman poet Horace wrote, “The string does not always return the sound that the hand and mind desire” (neque chorda sonum reddit quem volt manus et mens—Ars Poetica 348)


Of course, different poets work in different ways.  Those who have read deeply and listened closely to poems will have a better technique and sense of structure.  Some who have the unusual gift of rich and even cohesive spontaneity may work for a while by only making notes for a poem, and in their minds collecting materials for it (the “materials” of a poem are everything that’s in it—particular words, events and places, ideas and feelings, people, experience, research, and sometimes most important: other poems).  Some may do research—to inform themselves and retain key information in notes, while they begin to find their way toward what the poem will be.  Some may formulate phrases before they write; some may get a sense of how to structure a poem before they write.  Some have described composing in their minds, drafting and revising in memory; then they write down the poem in finished, or nearly finished, state.  Many poets in our day prize inventiveness and surprise and quick movement over all other poetic values, but the aura of spontaneity that they give a poem will often have been achieved in fact by revising. 


You offer your reader an inner experience that will arise out of your poem, not an explanation of your experience or of where it came from.  You offer the reader the aptness and memorability (and perhaps wit) of your language.  You offer the freshness of your perception and imagination, and the specific qualities of your feeling.


You also write to discover what language itself can do, and you may have the sense that it wants to make some of your decisions, some choices of its own, when you write a word that perhaps you did not consciously intend to write.  If that word (or phrase) is ready-made, then language is not in play in a creative way but is instead enforcing conformity.  It’s not  easy to listen to language keenly enough to hear what’s ready-made, but a good poet practices such listening, and puts awareness of ready-made language into practice.


You write poetry not only because you wish to put words into especially meaningful sequences of sound and movement, of thought and feeling, and not only because you want to express or depict something deeply important to you, but also—and without this you can do very little—because you have read poetry.


~ ~ ~


You must try to write with as little ready-made language (of perception, feeling and thought) as possible.


Different social groups have somewhat different senses of what’s “ready-made” in the language we use, and thus in our attitudes, ideas, opinions, beliefs, and responses to nearly everything.  No one is exempt from this aspect of our formation as language-using beings.   


We need and we feel deeply and unconsciously our allegiances to social groups.  Aristotle wrote that “by nature man is a political animal”—meaning a creature whose life is lived with others in a town or city (Greek polis—i.e., a community). Since he did not live in modern America, he could never have foreseen how each of us as an individual must guard against being principally identified by our American social identities, which are so often treated as “demographic” segments of “the market.”  (In Aristotle’s time, “media” meant almost entirely … speech.) 

As a poet you aren’t describing or opining on a large topic—such as religion, race, gender relations, women’s pay and rights, failed systems of education, American attitudes toward sports.  Yet any of these topics or others may be the “background reality” of a poem. After all, we are inescapably inside our attitudes when we notice and ponder and write about a person, an event, a memory, an experience, an idea, an allegiance, a painting, a horse, a tree, a feeling.  We have big topics on our minds, but in a way these concerns and realities hold us within them, since we adopt most of our attitudes from others.  So it’s no surprise that there’s ready-made language available for all of this.  It comes into our own words very “naturally.”  We are susceptible to its appeal because it is consensual—after all, we do want to communicate with others.  But ready-made language, by definition, has already been shaped—not only by everyday speech, but also by the goals and effectiveness of the media that we have been unable to escape and that we have internalized; we have spent thousands upon thousands of hours (unwittingly) practicing that language, which means practicing a way of thinking that is at least partly determined by that language—even though we never thought of what we were doing as “practicing” (as if to perform better).  But we’re social, “political” animals. 


In our responses to experience (including our experience of reading), we are caught somewhere between volunteering our social and linguistic conformity (or rebelling against one kind of conformity only in order to join another) and finding words that will convey something of individuality.  After all, “it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own path, to die his own death” (Oliver Sacks).  Making art involves individual choices about where to locate oneself between one’s uniqueness and one’s shared formation, experience, values, and language.  What each of us enacts in the language, what each of us uses when writing is partly who each of us is, both in intimately individual ways and willingly social ones. 


Yet while genetically and biologically each of us is indeed a unique being, and in us that genetic and biological identity does not change, nevertheless our identity as whole beings also includes many aspects that do change.  Some of that change we create in ourselves.  Making art is one of the ways we do that, although we don’t necessarily make art with that as our primary goal.  William Butler Yeats wrote a famous quatrain: “The friends that have it I do wrong / Whenever I remake a song / Should know what issue is at stake: / It is myself that I remake.”  (American culture is now thoroughly saturated with the idea of self-remaking—but not in the sense Yeats meant.) 



In writing a poem, the language we use is ideally what we come to with the most freedom of choice, and yet also with the most knowledge of poetry.  And there’s one more important thing: in a poem, we may want to create a space that includes what we (almost?) cannot say because of the nature of language itself—or at least a space for what we do not say in conversation, because of social constraints.


Please go back during this quarter and refresh your thinking about these instructions.  They should look much more recognizable to you by the end of the quarter than they do at the beginning. And so the same with the paragraphs below!



Reading, discussing, writing and revising


Our study will be primarily on poetic technique.  But poetry is not only a technique; it’s a particular stance toward language, and it’s an art.  So your existential task is to get a feel for what it’s like to take a stance of your own toward language itself, as well as toward poetry and all creative writing.


I’ve created a small anthology—about 140 poems which together exemplify many elements of poetic technique and poetic purposes.  We won’t have time to discuss even half of these remarkable poems together, but the full range of our anthology can equip you to write better, and in fact to get a sense of what writing well really means, in poetry and in prose.  In class, we’re going to read poems together to see and hear everything we can in each of the ones we discuss.


It will always be very helpful during classroom discussion for you to mention specific poems that are relevant to whatever our topic may be. 


Learning how to read a poem means listening to the rhythms in the lines, the sounds of the words, repetitions of various kinds (from a mere phoneme to much larger chunks of language or formal shapes).  Repetitions are a form of emphasis and an aspect of how a poem creates artistic justification for what it says and where it goes.  Repetitions are also simply a way of marking the language as poetic.  Pay attention also to patterns of various kinds that may be either expected, because they are related to traditional structures (like a stanza or a rhyme scheme), or ad hoc, if the poem, while its whole shape may be unique, creates its own internal patterns.  And reading a poem means getting a sense of the shape of the poem as a whole—of how the steps it takes as it moves forward in time create meanings beyond definitions of the words (their function of “representation,” their “semantic” value).  Simply put, a poem does this by giving language the opportunity to be more fully meaningful.  (See “Language Functions” at the end of the Core Glossary.) 


One analogy for rapid poetic thinking is montage: the way film creates meaning by jumping from one shot or scene to another.  The effect is created by what film shows but also by what we imagine between the shots, or rather, by jumping from one to the next without transition.  That is, what we “fill in” with tremendous speed in our own minds.  (Montage as mere “jump-cut” has been enormously speeded up in all visual media over the last 30 years.  Presumably, different speeds of montage create different kinds of imagining, and we can assume that the faster the cuts come, the more our brains have to process.  Think about a Hollywood movie from the 1950s or earlier versus a music video.  The acceleration of “jump-cuts” has happened in poetry, too.  But there’s a substantive and imaginative difference between the montage in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a small portion of which is in our anthology, and the jump-cuts of a TV ad.  Eliot’s not trying to sell us anything, literally.)  Our minds can move very fast; some poetry, even in antiquity, has taken advantage of this speed of mind to create a sense of simultaneous different meanings in even short passages of a poem.  We’ll learn some ways in which this is done.


We have to learn how to see and hear as much as we can of what we have actually, really, put into the poem—not what we think we have written there, not what we were thinking and feeling while we wrote the draft of the poem or the first revision or the second, not what we wish were there. 


We revise in order to make a poem more meaningful, poetically eloquent, and powerful and in order to think with poetic technique rather than in a conversational or straightforward prose way; but ust as important—perhaps more!—is that we revise also to discover what we ourselves have written in our drafts, so that we won’t leave important elements of it hidden from ourselves and unused in the poem.


Likewise, a musician must be able to hear what s/he actually plays or sings, not an idea or assumption or belief about it—s/he must be able to hear it, to recognize it, technically (oh!—I’m not playing those bars clearly; oh!—I’m not phrasing those words properly as I sing) and also must be able to hear (and recognize) it emotionally


In terms of poetic technique, you’ll learn to recognize the shape and variety of sentences and sentence fragments (syntax); the shape of the rhythm of a line; imagery (especially visual imagery, but also imagery related to other bodily senses); the differences between concrete language and abstract or discursive language.  Just as composers use the different qualities of instruments and voices, and visual and sculptural artists use different qualities of their media and their materials, poets often use the different qualities of words.  For example, we’ll learn to perceive the contrast in qualities between the two major etymological families of words in English: those with Old English roots (i.e., Germanic words) and those which derive ultimately from Latin (mostly through French, in England, and then through Spanish, in America).  (There’s a third category of words in English: all the rest!  These have been gobbled up by English and have helped fill the biggest linguistic belly in the history of human beings, with words derived from Greek, Arabic, every language that the British Empire so aggressively confronted, and other languages, too, as well as new technological terms and other neologisms.)


The two most important figures of speech, or tropes, are metaphor and metonym.  These we use abstractly for thought (when, as in Shakespeare’s sonnets, words are often more symbolically than concretely evocative) but we also use them very concretely to convey a keenly perceived physical world (as in many poems in our anthology).  Does your choice of words (diction) bring the reader to see the physical world in its concreteness?  (This is a capacity that is tremendously strong in the English language, not only because of the qualities of English but also because of the social and cultural and even technological history of speakers of English, from the Renaissance to the present day.)


You’ll write with increasing understanding of poetic technique, and you’ll also achieve a degree of freedom of thought and feeling for yourself.  You’ll choose your own words (aided by what other poets have chosen—that’s how art-making works).  You’ll write with independent-minded noticing of language and the world.

How Poems Think: Sugar Cane


In his ode “To Autumn,” Keats personifies the season as a goddess presiding over the harvest’s fruit, nuts, grains, honey, flowers; like a gleaner with a load of grain on her head, she steps carefully over a brook, “Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, / Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.”  The nostalgia in this poem for a season that seems to have already passed is enacted subtly in that the apples that were still on the trees in stanza one are by stanza two not there any longer–they’re in the cider press.  Nostalgia, the longing for a feeling of home, even if not the place of one’s own real home, is the mood of much Romantic poetry.  I have felt it, and still do, for places that were never my home, as when I recall now that my father, who spoke very little of his childhood on a small, poor, Mississippi farm, told once or twice of how when the family harvested their sugar cane they loaded it on a wagon pulled by mules (the one whose name I learned Spencer) and took it over to a neighbor a half mile away.  The neighbor had a cane press, also powered by a mule, this one harnessed to a long pole and walking round in a circle.  And as the heavy rollers crushed the juice from the cane, the boy who would become my father would hold a jar at the side of the press to catch dripping juice and would drink it down.

“You couldn’t drink too much of that at a time,” said my Uncle Mack, “it was so sweet.”  I called him once to ask about that little cane press.  Mack told me that the Gibbons cane patch was enough to produce several big loads of the ten-foot-tall cane for their wagon, which was pulled by a two-mule team; in turn, the pressed cane yielded enough juice, which the family hauled back home, to boil down to two to three hundred gallons of molasses, which they put in one-gallon buckets and sold.  That is a lot of labor.

Keats (1795-1821), a young man of the urban working class, was apprenticed in medicine and then pharmacy from the age of 14, having been taught until that time by a literary schoolmaster—a man who was his mentor in later years.  Keats did not have equal advantages of birth, legacy, education, or connections, compared to those of the other major Romantic poets; and perhaps with better physical constitutions than his, they also outlived him (even Shelley, who drowned shortly before he would have turned 30, and Byron, who had ten years more than Keats, before dying of illness).

Did Keats wish not to draw too much attention to his own origins?—which were above those of field laborers but nevertheless weren’t privileged.  It has always struck me that Keats wrote a poem to an imagined goddess of the harvest and put not a single human being into it.  (John Clare, the other odd man out, in terms of social class, among the Romantics, and far less privileged even than Keats, wrote many poems that evoke grain fields and physical labor.)  Keats’s harvest has no reapers, pickers, or gleaners, no children snatching up scattered nuts or a half-crushed apple or holding a tin cup to the side of the cider press.  As for Autumn, Keats in a way substitutes her for the real laborers, even though as a goddess she will suffer no damage, as they do from their lifetime of exertion: “And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep / Steady thy laden head across a brook“—as with her head piled with gleaned grain a woman steps carefully across a stream on her way back to the barn or to… a word that suddenly comes back to me—the byre.

But I’m thinking of the wrong word, since when I look up “byre” I see it means a barn for cattle, not a granary.  Grain has to be winnowed (Keats mentions that in the same stanza, but no one is actually doing it) and has to be put in sacks and stored for seed or sold or carried to a mill for grinding….  For “byre,” the Indo-European root word is bheu-.  “To be, exist, grow” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots).  This root word has had an wonderful range of progeny in English.  “BYRE, from Old English byre, stall, hut, from Germanic *burjam, dwelling.”  (Whereas “barn” comes from another root and means a place for keeping barley.)  Ultimately, as the meanings of derivatives have proliferated through various languages and come into English, and then developed within English, bheu- produced BE, FOREBEAR, BONDAGE, HUSBAND, BOOTH, BUILD, FUTURE , BOWER, BYLAW, BEAM, BOOM, and BUMPKIN (a partial list).  To be is to have forebears, and with luck, a future; it is at its best to husband resources, to be free of bondage, to build spaces for safekeeping, to establish rules of fair treatment, to use trees and to suffer bumpkins.  Many a word brings with it a tiny history of human beings and our conflicts, purposes, desires, and fate.  (For words in other languages that derive from bheu-, see root #146, at, where an expanding lexicon of Indo-European roots is being built, based on the foundational work of Julius Pokorny in the first half of the twentieth century.)

The sugarcane juice in Mississippi ran from the press till the work was done, the wagon mules stood impassively after the last load of cane, the last oozings drip.  Keats’s poem opens an inner space into which pour recollections, associations, word histories, human stories, because it is a space of inner life and of time lived in the imagination.

History itself pours in, too—here, especially in BONDAGE.  The slaves who worked the cane fields in the US and the Caribbean were mercilessly expended, did hot, horrible, dangerous work with sharp blades on swampy ground.  New Orleans, which despite an arbitrary state borderline is in fact the principal city of both Louisiana and Mississippi, was in the nineteenth century the capital of cane sugar.  (The brutal labor of cane field workers is oppressive to this day; in Africa, to the hard work of tending the crop is added the terrible poverty of workers and the danger of the frightening, fatally venomous black mamba snakes that drape themselves in the top leaves of the thickly growing cane, with which owners have replaced their natural habitat; in the cane leaves, the snakes are hard to see till it’s too late to avoid one.)  Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807; Spain in 1820.  It seems that where sugar cane went, there went slavery–from Haiti after its revolution to the American south and to Cuba…

Keats’ autumn, though, shows no trace of that; instead it celebrates harvest at a temperate latitude.  And at a time when the consumption of sugar was nothing like what it would become, fruit–not sugar–is what’s sweet, the “sweet kernel” belongs to a nut, and bees and flowers imply sweetness, as does the cider-press.   My Northwestern colleague Emily Rohrbach told me once that Leigh Hunt called Keats by the nickname “junkets,” because this is what Keats’s Cockney pronunciation of his name sounded like to Hunt (See the photo of Keats’s signature, above).  It seems Keats did not at all like the nickname; “junkets” is the name of  a sweet milk pudding.  And Keats had a sweet tooth–the sweet tastes in his ode to autumn are not the only trace of sugar in his work: Emily sent me to look at “The Eve of St. Agnes.”  There I found Keats naming many “cates [sic] and dainties” (line 173): “candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd; / With jellies soother than the creamy curd, / And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon; Manna and dates” (lines 265-68; “soother” means “softer” or “smoother”).  (That “creamy curd” would be, I suppose, a “junket.” Anyway, the two lovers of the poem do not pause to taste these sweets, which are merely figures for the sweetness of Madeline and of love itself; they escape the violence and darkness that make up anti-love.)

Nor is there any question that Keats had the sweetest tooth for words of any poet in English, savoring the rich compound of syllables he could concoct (in Cockney, whatever it sounded like in his time).  In one rhyme sequence, he enacts a progress of action and thought: “thy hook [i.e. scythe] / Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers: / And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep / Steady thy laden head across a brook; / Or by a cyden-press, with patient look, / Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.“  The hook is the tool of perhaps the hardest labor of the harvest, scything the grain all day—mens’ work; the brook is a physical obstacle to carrying in the last of the grain—what has been gleaned by women after the sheaves have been bundled in the field and loaded on a wagon; the look is a passive taking in—evidently in a daze (which can’t, in the case of the goddess, be from physical exhaustion)—of a slow, late, perhaps inconsequential dripping of apple juice from the press, “hours by hours.”

The last stanza of the poem is about sounds and sights; the eyes of the reader rise with those of the poet up to the clouds, then gaze across the stubble-fields, and down to the river; all that lives is mild and sweet.  That work is done. The invisible laborers are at rest, we hope. 

(This is a slight revision of an earlier post.)

Language evolution and poetry

A few ideas pulled from two books–not to argue anything, but simply to hold them close to the idea and practice of poetry, and wonder what they might suggest about it:

Christine Kenneally (all quotes from THE FIRST WORD, 2007):

“Swearing […] uses parts of the brain that support language and also parts of the brain that are used when laughing or crying.  Often people with severe brain damage remain able to swear even when they are unable to produce other language.” (116)

[I don’t agree with the inference that Kenneally draws from this fact, about similarities between animal languages and human language.  I think Derek Bickerton’s proposal (see quotes from his book below) is much more persuasive: that language evolved originally from a set of words (no syntax) that improved the ability of human beings to survive.]

“Is it true that the complexity of human language is without parallel. […] But […] it implies that anything can be expressed by human language, when we don’t know if this is in fact the case.” (116-17)

“John McWhorter […] emphasizes the way that, like biological evolution, language change results from accretions or acumulations of struture.  In this sense language is an artefact of the collective mind of history.  It has imperfections and odd quirks, and makes peculiar demands of its speakers.  Its textures and patterns have been created over a long period of time as it has been dragged through millions of mouths, expressing their individual agendas.” (165)

“The most exciting implication of the language-as-virus metaphor is the finding that some features of language have less to do with the need of individuals to communicate clearly with one another than with the need of the language virus to ensure its own survival.[…] the features of language structure reflect its struggle to survive in its environment–the human mind.” (234-35)

[Citing several researchers, Kenneally askes “why language is learned so readily by children.”  But anyone who has watched a child learn a language over time, and who might have read Steven Pinker on much sheer brain power that requires, over a period of several years (THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, 1994), would wonder what she can be thinking.  It’s hugely difficult and takes so many brain cells, Pinker says, that after language has been consolidated in the brain, the brain has to shed huge numbers of those brain cells because it can not afford to support them now that their job is done, and there’s so much more that it must develop over the coming years.  The most interesting point that Kenneally does take from the researchers she cites on the “language-as-virus metaphor” is this:]

“If language is driven to survive, and the language learners of the world are children, language must be adapted to the quirks and traints of the child’s mind.  As Deacon puts it,language is designed to be ‘particularly infective for the child brain.” (236)

“What about the evolutionary processes of adaptation, where a trait evolves for a particular purpose, and exaptation, where a trait that is used for one function becomes co-opted to serve another purpose in later generations? What role have these played in language evolution? For all the furious words expended on the subject, everyone agrees that both processes have had a role.  And everyone has acknowledged that communication has to have something to do with language evolution.  Regardless, the rapid spread of the human mutation of the FOXP2 gene is definitive evidence that there has been a positive selection for a form of the gene that had major consequences for language.” (268)

[What I think of, reading this passage, in the midst of a much longer argument that Kenneally is presenting, is… the possibility that in some such terms poetry is an exaptation of language itself.  That is, having evolved, at least culturally, but perhaps even in biological/neurological ways, too, language (like living creatures and like cultures) continues to evolve not only to develop from a vocabulary to a syntax, etc., but also from one use to other uses.  The elaborate musical and other *formal* aspects of the earliest poetry we can recover suggests that language developed uses associated with different human activities–one of which emphasized a seeming power of language over reality.  (Reality means not only what we can touch, see, small, harvest, and eat, etc., but also storms, mountains, oceans… i.e. concepts of the divine.  Poetry is not only associated with the divine in religious practice, but in fact is a kind of co-evolutionary relationship with it.  I write about this in HOW POEMS THINK (coming out Sept. 2015).]

“Researchers have shown that humans consolidate spoken language during sleep.  It’s known that many different memory tasks are improved by sleeping, and the complications of speech are no exception. […]  Other researchers have monitored the brain of songbirds during sleep and discovered that the parts of the brain activated while singing while awake were reactivated during sleep, suggesting that in the way we dream of speech, songbirds dream of singing.” (314)


Derek Bickerton (from ADAM’S TONGUE, 2009):

“A concept is something in the mind.  Once it exists, it can affect behavior.  Before it existed, it couldn’t. All that natural selection can see is behavior.  So concepts could only have been visible to natural selection once they existed, once they’d begun to affect behavior.  But they couldn’t exist until they’d evolved, and they could only evolve if they were selected for. So human-type concepts couldn’t have evolved by themselves.  They could only have evolved if some other thing had been selected for, something that *was* visible to natural selection–in other words, some overt behavior that gave an adaptive advantage to those that had it.[…]  The fact that language is by now the main engine of thought doesn’t have any implication for its status when it began. That’s the fallacy of first use, the idea that whatever a thing started doing will be what it does mostly nowadays–and vice versa, naturally.  It was the fallacy of first use that led Robin Dunbar to propose gossip as the engine of language evolution, just because gossip is what (spoken) language is most used for today. […] Certainly, language is now the means by which we structure the world of thought, but it would never have gotten off the ground, never developed into what it is today, and certainly never have raised thought to a new power if it hadn’t first entered the real world in the tangible form of communication.”  (184-85) 

“that beginning where the Word was”

Joseph Brodsky: 

“Poetry is not ‘the best words in the best order’; for language it is the highest form of existence. In purely technical terms, of course, poetry amounts to arranging words with the greatest specific gravity in the most effective and externally inevitable sequence. Ideally, however, it is language negating its own mass and the laws of gravity; it is language’s striving upward—or sideways—to that beginning where the Word was.” 

We are permitted to think of “that beginning where the Word was” in many different ways. That beginning does not belong only to beliefs figured in the beginning of the Tanakh, the Bible (at the beginning of the book of Genesis). “That beginning where the Word was” is the beginning of language use, and our use of language (as well as its use, with us, by Yahweh and other gods) is one event (as we imagine it) by which we may define the beginningness of a human way of being. 

A quote from Cixous

Language is always looking for things to do within the rough boundaries of what someone says with it, and it slips over those boundaries—sometimes sloppily, sometimes to speak a marvel. >>>>>>>

Hélène Cixous: “It is in the poem, hybrid of music and language, that something of mysterious and unstoppable life can be produced, with subverted grammar, with liberties in the bosom of language, in the law of genders, in dance, the darts (in), the dancing of the poem, minimal world in movement, the poem speaking French, the tongue, very differently from prose, the poem playing with language more than it speaks, changed expression of drives—but here I am evoking only the poem that invents the other tongue within the tongue, the dreamtongue […]”