Small Demon
May 122010
 

I’m getting ready to teach an online course, Modern American Poetry. The course requires junior standing and at least one previous literature class, but it is open to all majors. That is, I think I can expect a certain amount of reading savvy and engagement with the material, but not a lot of background in poetry as such, especially modern poetry. The last time I taught the class, in the flesh, as it were, I used Cary Nelson’s fat and inclusive anthology, which I like — it also has a good web-based supplement that includes critical statements about the poets, which I use as a way of getting students to enter into a “conversation” or on-going argument about a particular writer or text. But I had fourteen weeks during the regular semester, with class seventy-five minute class meetings twice a week. With the summer course, I can go as long as ten weeks, but students usually prefer a more compressed schedule in the summer, so I’m going to schedule eight weeks, with a couple of weeks of non-required start-up time during which the site will be live and I’ll be posting some general thoughts; students can also of course use this time to get going on the reading, which will not be voluminous, but will require close attention. So I’m going to abandon the Nelson anthology for the two, much more conservative, anthologies edited by Joel Conarroe, Six American Poets and Eight American Poets. Rather than assign a text about poetry — I like Terry Eagleton’s How to Read a Poem — I will link to online resources and create a few pdf files of commentary for students.

Conarroe’s six poets are Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Williams, Frost, and Hughes. I will put all six on the syllabus; his eight are Bishop, Merrill, Plath, Ginsberg, Roethke, Berryman, Sexton, and Lowell. Of these, I will drop Sexton, who wrote very few good poems, I think, and Merrill, to whom I’ve never warmed, whatever virtues he possesses. And then I’ll add Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” — he was born in St. Louis, after all. Along the way, I’ll try to link to less mainstream poets as a supplement. For instance, I’ll use Hughes to link to a bunch of good online material about the Harlem Renaissance. I’ll expect about as much reading and writing from students each week as I would expect in a week & a half (three class meetings) during the regular semester.

Week 1: What is Modernism & what do we mean by “modern”?

Week 2: Dickinson & Whitman as the inventors of American modernism.

Week 3: Stevens & Eliot

Week 4: Williams & Frost

Week 5: Hughes & the Harlem Ren

Week 6: Bishop & Lowell

Week 7: Plath & Berryman

Week 8: Some contemporary poems / the reaction against the personal

Jan 052010
 

Attended the opening ceremony of the translation conference this morning — hundreds of people in the new, monumental National Convention Center.  There was dancing and singing and speech-making and then lunch. I met a lot of the writers — American and Vietnamese — that I’ve corresponded with over the years, or seen in passing on one of my trips. I’m not crazy about being stuck out at the West Lake compound, but I’ve been able to get off on my own enough to get some work done on the classes I will begin teaching next week. And I’ll spend the last couple of days of my trip back down town, so it’s all good. I feel energized and excited about developing some translation projects, work that will begin tomorrow when we begin doing small-scale workshops.

Nov 232009
 

pc3 Sometimes the world hands you a gift. I just found out that I will be spending Christmas and the first ten days of the new year in Hanoi. I’ve been invited to participate in a conference on the translation of Vietnamese literature and its reception abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world. When I came back home from my trip to Vietnam last spring, I thought it would be at least a year before I returned, perhaps longer. I’d been a little disappointed in my failure to make more contacts and get more projects going during my spring trip, but apparently I was planting seeds that will now begin to germinate. I hope so.

I spent Christmas of 2000 in Hanoi, which is when I took the picture of the boy selling Santa Claus decorations. Christmas is not a holiday of central importance in Vietnamese culture except to the 10% of the population that is Catholic, but as in the West it has begun to be a commercial holiday even for non-believers. (In general, Catholics in Vietnam are probably more intensely religious that the followers of Tam Giao, or “triple religion,” the combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that most Vietnamese at least nominally subscribe to and that overlies an even deeper level of animism.)

I am delighted to return to Vietnam, however briefly, and to meet others interested in the diffusion of Vietnamese literature around the world. And as soon as I return, still jet-lagged, I will begin teaching my course, Understanding Vietnam, at Clarkson. Though the course focuses on the history and culture of Vietnam, we use literature to illuminate and illustrate those subjects, so the conference discussions will certainly inform my teaching next semester.

Oct 272009
 

Haiku in translation often require a fairly extensive set of notes or even scholarly apparatus in order for the reader to “get” the insight payoff that is the point of the form. For instance,  in this poem by Kikaku (1661 – 1707)

At a grass hut
I eat smartweed —
I’m that kind of firefly

the Western reader really needs the note provided by the editors of The Classic Tradition of Haiku: “Tade is smartweed, knotweed, or knotgrass. Thorny and stinging, it is spurned by insects, except for summer fireflies. Kikaku, who was a rich doctor’s spoiled son, debauched with heavy drinking and whoremongering, here likens himself to the brilliant firefly that stays up all night enjoying the bitterness and dangers of overindulgence and promiscuity. The poem refers to the proverb “some prefer nettles. . . ”

Another poem by Kikaku, though, comes across the spatial, temporal, and cultural distance without any additional information:

“It’s my snow”
I think
And the weight on my hat lightens

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about haiku lately because I’ve been writing short poems. My old teacher Donald Justice once told me he thought I was best with longer forms, but when I’m busy or preoccupied as I have been lately I resort to short poems. And what I’m looking for in a short poem is the condensed essence of the lyric or the joke — a setup and a pay off. A lot of Western haiku read like translations in need of notes, not because there is a cultural obscurity but because the poet hasn’t understood the need for the snap at the end of the whip. Sometimes this fault is excused, I think, as subtlety, but I don’t buy it. a successful haiku (or haiku-like poem) performs a delicate balancing act between closure and openness, between wit and mystery.