Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, & the resolute doubt
Last night, to find my way to sleep, I opened my bedside poetry anthology at random and found a dozen poems by Marianne Moore. They puzzled me -- they are odd, metrically, and odd in their images, but clearly the work of an intelligence that sees something beyond the words. Then I remembered that Sunday's New York Times Book Review had her picture on the cover, and I fetched and read Brad Leithauser's review of a new edition of her work. He confirmed my impression of the oddness, and got me to re-read those he said were among his favorites, "What Are Years?", "Nevertheless" and "The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing." I too like "What Are Years?", especially "... And whence/ is courage: the unanswered question,/ the resolute doubt..."

It is perhaps the same "overwhelming question" in T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
"Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" J. Allen asks (or is asked; it's never clear who's speaking here). Yes, we dare, if we have resolute doubt.

My bedside anthology, by the way, is the 1955 edition of Modern American & Modern British Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company). It was given to me as a prize "as winner of the English Usage Contest" my senior year in high school, 1959. The teachers who gave it to me are now long dead. But the book is still alive, and still surprises me.


Happy Three Kings Day!
Traditionally in Hispano- and Luso-America (that is, before they were totally overwhelmed by U.S. Santa Claus-ism), January 6 has been the day of final celebration of the long Christmas season, the day that children leave out hay for the camels of the Three Wise Men who will leave them gifts. To get the reyes magos in the mood, children dress up to represent them and go house to house serenading in joyous beggary (you're supposed to give them something sweet when they sing at your door). So here's hoping that Melchor, Baltasar and Gaspar have been good to you today! (Did you remember the hay for their camels?)
Recent reading: Rubén Darío
Rubén Darío (Nicaragua, 1867-1916) was a literary movement all by himself, as was his somewhat older contemporary the Cuban poet José Martí (1853-1895). An essential notion of modernismo (as Darío described his style) was that each poet must be himself (if there were any women poets in this literary world, they seem to have gone unnoted). Therefore each was his own movement, or rather, his own unique burst of feeling. Reading Darío is to travel to another time, when the litterati of Spanish-speaking America made peace with the litterati of Spain, seeking a republic of letters that would transcend the petty little terrestrial republics from which they came and find universal harmony above a world that was in turmoil from the introduction of electricity, the gatling gun, the telegraph, the motorcar.
Rubén Darío, Antología poética


Recent reading: Ann Cummins
I've enjoyed the 12 stories in Ann Cummins' collection, and recommend them. Half appeared earlier in either McSweeney's (the weirder stories) or The New Yorker, the others in smaller journals. The p.o.v. character is usually female, often adolescent -- either "white" or Navajo -- and the landscapes of desert and mountains of Arizona are sharply observed. The power dynamics involve older males (sometimes just an older brother, sometimes a more sinister, more powerful figure, in one a goofy, hapless victim) and younger females, "Indians" and "whites," bosses and flunkies. I thought about these stories again this morning when I read the NYT article headlined "Unruly Students Facing Arrest, Not Detention" -- about how the ordinary rebellion of ordinary kids gets criminalized because the school systems are so starved for funds they can no longer afford guidance counselors or other services, and because there are no decent jobs for those kids who would rather not be in school anyway. Ann Cummins knows this territory. For my further comments, see the note in my "Fiction Readings" page on Ann Cummins, Red Ant House.


New Year's Resolution 2004: more focus
Resolved: To keep this blog on topic, i.e., "literature & politics." By "politics" I mean the power dynamics in a society, whether the actors are classes, races, genders or clans, even when these forces don't consciously organize themselves as parties. Mainly what interests me is the politics assumed by or implied by poetry and fiction, and the poets and narrators who most interest me are those who are aware of those implications.

So I'm going to try to refrain from sounding off about politics without literature, or literature without mentioning its politics. And that's why for now I'm replacing my old slogan (which was an inversion of a passage from Marx) with these famous verses, from William Carlos Williams:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
For a longer excerpt from the poem, see Asphodel, That Greeny Flower

P.S.: For those of you who read Spanish, acabo de reorganizar la Pequeña Biblioteca Comentada, y de agregarle otra narrativa de Mario Vargas Llosa.

The year that was: a blog-by-blog review

Getting this weblog up was one of my New Year's resolutions for 2003.


One of my first blogs, on January 2 was about the turmoil in Venezuela. I still think I was right then, about the general lines of the conflict. One of my resolutions for 2004 is to analyze that situation in greater depth. (You can view the original if you click on "Archive" on the left and go to 2003/01/02. See also Hugo Chávez' triple struggle).

World literature

Another of my 2004 resolutions is to learn more poetry "by heart" (which is much better than learning it "by head") -- if not a poem a day, as close as I can manage. It's a wonderful exercise -- even if I later forget a line or a stanza, the process of repeating it and listening to the poem's music and its several meanings helps me understand it, and in the longer run may build my confidence to commit poetry myself. I started a couple of weeks ago with Robert Frost's "Birches" -- a joyous poem about, I think, mortality and bouncing back. Then I picked up a book I had looked into many times but never before tried to read with care, seeking something that sang to me so that I would want to learn it: Pablo Neruda's Canto general (1949), which is a whole history of Latin America in verse. Then T. S. Eliot (so far, about half of "The Lovesong of J. Allen Prufrock," which is delicious), William Carlos Williams, "The Poor" -- not my favorite of his, but I had only a scanty selection available in an anthology on my shelves. Next I turned to one of the most famous voices of the late 19th century, Nicaragua's (and the world's) Rubén Darío. I'm sure every second adult and school child in Nicaragua has learned by heart much more of Darío than I aspire to, but when next I'm there I'll be able to join in on the choruses of "Juventud, divino tesoro,/ ¡Ya te vas para no volver!/Cuando quiero llorar no lloro,/ y a veces lloro sin querer." (Venezuelan writer Miguel Otero Silva assumed everybody would get the reference when he titled a novel Cuando quiero llorar no lloro -- I didn't get it in 1987, when I read the novel.)

For 2004, I resolve to include more fiction and poetry in Spanish in my reading. In 2003, I commented on Gabriel García Márquez' memoir, Vivir para contarla (in "Archive," 2003/01/04). In English, you can find my blogs on Richard Powers, Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance (01/13); Stephen Crane, Red Badge of Courage (01/20), and several others -- but just go to my Fiction Readings page for a compendium.


During the year, I made brief comments on several movies. You can find them all gathered at Film & Theater Notes.

Ecological disaster

Horrible oil spill in Galicia noted 01/07; we were in Spain (though on the opposite coast) when it happened.

Wars on terror (or to promote it?

I first "blogged" against the then-pending war on Iraq on 01/12. I'm still agin it.

Ground Zero, memorial, reconstruction

See Susana Torre's entry in the memorial contest, and my blog of 2003/12/10.

My fiction

I started the year with great expectations for publishing my novel, A Gift for the Sultan; for a description and how I came to write about Constantinople in 1402, check out blog for 01/08. I did give a reading from it in Brooklyn, and published two chapters as stories in Copperfield Review. Several agents asked to see sections, and one requested and eagerly read the whole thing -- but she was disappointed by the ending. I now think she was right, and I'm planning to add a 4th section before sending it out again. (That's another of my 2004 resolutions.) Meanwhile, besides the two publications in Copperfield, I have unrelated stories in Small Spiral Notebook and forthcoming in InkPot, and a couple of others submitted and pending response at other journals. An addendum to my novel-finishing resolution, I also want to revise or write and send out more stories to more journals in 2004.

My journalism and analysis

I don't believe there is any such thing as "nonfiction." All writing is fashioned deliberately by an artist or artisan of words (fiction derives from the past participle of Latin fingere, "to touch, form, mold").The difference is that when I present my work as journalism or analysis, I'm claiming that I didn't make the whole thing up (even though I did make up the form, the emphasis, the structure of the article). But to the matter: I began the year with an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, blog 01/24. Later in the year, I also landed a contract to write articles for Monster.com; the first one is due Jan. 7, 2004, so I'd better get busy. However by far the biggest "analysis" writing project that I have going is the book on Latin American architecture and urbanism, co-written with architect Susana Torre and to be published by W. W. Norton. It's a very challenging, wide-ranging book touching on many disciplines, many centuries (I start with the Olmecs of A. D. 500 and we go on to the present day and beyond), over an enormous territory with two dozen countries. I made less progress on it than I'd planned; my resolution for 2004 is to finish the drafts of my parts of the book and help Susana edit her parts (as she will help me).