Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Viral poems; reading Zagajewski in Poland

I've been teaching at the Pomeranian University in Slupsk in Poland this week, my second week here after a week in March. One of the courses I have been asked to teach is on contemporary literature, so of course I made it into a course on contemporary Anglophone poetry. 

I gave the students a collection of 20 poems published in the last 20 years, from Seamus Heaney's "The Rain Stick" to Danez Smith's "Dinosaurs in the Hood." I chose two of the poems not just because I find them worth pondering but also because they are poems that went viral: Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke" and Maggie Smith's "Good Bones".

Today, we talked about "Good Bones" and what features it has that contribute to its having gone viral. It was a combination of its simplicity (a fairly clear message) and its complexity (the message highlights the difficulty of communicating something simply and honestly). In addition, the poem's repetitions and variations amount to looking at its issues from a variety of different angles, which adds to its effectiveness.

We also discussed another poem that has often been shared after traumatic events around the globe, Adam Zagejewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" (trans. Clare Cavanagh). I don't speak Polish, but we looked at the Polish original as well, and I considered how someone who knows only what the title means might be able to piece together something about the poem. 

In particular, I noticed the repetition of a line from the title through the rest of the poem:
Spróbuj opiewać okaleczony świat.
Musisz opiewać okaleczony świat.
Powinieneś opiewać okaleczony świat.
Opiewaj okaleczony świat
It's cheating a bit, of course, since I am familiar with the English translation, but I was struck by how much can be said about the Polish original just by paying attention to these lines. Each of the lines ends with the same three words, and the first line means "try to praise the mutilated world," so though I didn't remember which modals are used in the repetitions of the line, I was able to remember that the poem's variations are on the line are variations in modal verbs, and I concluded that the final repetition must (musisz?) be an indicative "I praise" or an imperative "praise". As with Smith's "Good Bones", Zagajewski's poem works as a theme with variations that provides multiple angles on a simple message. As a result, neither poem can be reduced to its message, and both can appeal to a wide range of readers, which offers a kind of explanation of what it is that makes a poem go viral.

A final note: the students in the course are studying to be translators, and they were all very impressed by Clare Cavanagh's translation.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The first paragraph of "Persuasion"

This is the first paragraph of Jane Austen's Persuasion as it appears in the Norton Critical Edition that I am using with my students:
            Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt. As he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century – and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed – this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:
And this is the first paragraph as it appears in various online versions that I have come across, including whatever version it was I downloaded a few years ago for me and my students to work with:
            Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:
The anaphora with "there" is much more effectively handled in B than in A, in which the last "there" is not part of the previous list of constructions beginning with "there".

The Norton Critical Edition says it is based on the first edition, but it makes me wonder about the punctuation of the first edition! And it also makes me wonder where B comes from!

Still, to my mind, the pattern of the words in this paragraph points towards punctuation along the lines of B, whose rhetorical structure is much more like Austen than A is.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


The following poem is an erasure of the Grifter's part of an interview by David Muir on ABC on 25 January 2017; it is based on the transcript here.

a tremendous magnitude   the – the size of it The size
The top great   tremendous   the size   the size    these big
Ultimately    relatively    absolutely 100 percent
very stable very solid    Even more solid    a good thing
better than ever    much better    very serious   very simply
never said    make a deal    make a new deal
clobbered   nice and easily    immediately    I wanna
As soon    As soon    physically    I would say    Yeah I would say
Certainly    immediately   some really good really solid
They shouldn't be very    They shouldn't be very
a big heart    very strong    very solid    great   a good job
far less   I'm gonna tell   I will tell   the whole    great heart

criminals    really bad people    people    getting out
gonna get them out    gonna get 'em out   number one priority
We're gonna be talking    fantastically well    very proud
very very unfairly    brilliant    very good    fantastic
I'll be speaking    We will be talking    So let me tell you
so misrepresented    supposed to    you weren't supposed to
Sure And I do – and I'm very     and I mean it
But just so you – it was supposed to   Number two    somebody said it
It wasn't It was hardly even   I said it And I said it strongly    horrible
number one Number two I would've    if I was
I would've    I would've    I would've    And I would've
But as you know    It doesn't   So I would've
different   much differently    totally different

So but    you're just   I would've    much easier   I ended up    I got it by the way
But it turned out    You and everybody    said and almost everybody said
So I went   I went   And that's the beauty    
With that being said if you look    you look   you look   you look
You take a look   you're gonna    and we're gonna   Well we're gonna
But it could very well be    Absolutely   But we're gonna
In fact I heard    they were saying it's not    It's not    I said   He said
They don't wanna talk    You have people    You have people    in my opinion

David David David    Of course and I want    Sure Sure Sure   Sure done
No it hasn't Take a look    Really Then why    Excuse me then why
then he's – then he's    You know I always talk    when they wanna    you wanna
but not    wanna     or have to    We're gonna   And then the next time – and I will say
none of 'em    None of 'em    They would all be    None of 'em    
But when you look   a lot to look   There's nothing bigger There's nothing bigger

Let me just tell you you know    millions of people    when I say that if you would’ve
they're saying We agree    We agree    very smart people   people
people are saying they saw    I heard    But you're not talking about
But it's a small little    I will tell you     we're gonna have an idea
Now you're telling me    all of a sudden
But you have other    and you have other    You take a look    how many
Take a look     And you're gonna find    I didn't say there are    
But I think there could very well be    That's right   And I also say    and I also say    
I would've    But I would've    I wouldn't have    I wouldn't have
I wouldn't have   I would've    I would've    I never even

That’s true   That's true   very much   not at all   Not at all    No not at all
Believe me    And if you look at it they all    They all    They didn't    
I don't believe I got one    it would've been different
Now you have to understand I – I    Maybe she didn't She should've
She thought    in the bag She should've    she thought
you're talking about    you know   But they didn't I went   I went   I went   I went to all
That's all I    No no We're looking at it    No no    a tremendous
one of the great    ever In terms of    the most ever or just about the most ever
When you look at    One of the greatest    ever But again I    I didn't

What I'm saying is    if there are    there might be Look    if you look back
Chicago    Chicago    laughing    You look   you look
But take a look   very beautiful   Very beautiful And I    But look   Look
It's not    It hasn't    believe me   look what's going on    It's only
But    smiling and laughing    Now once    didn't do    All of a sudden
So here's the point    a lot of stuff    possibly I say probably But possibly
We're gonna    And then we're gonna    If people    I don't know
We're gonna    we talk about    we're gonna    so important
Now I'll say    I think   first of all would – would be a great thing

But I believe    And I believe    would've been    Well we're gonna   We're gonna
And – and by the way when I say you're gonna    You can never really
you know there are gonna be – no matter what    there are gonna be
But we will    OK so I'm glad    So I went    I have great    I'm – I don't have
But that's    But I have    speech     speech if you look   OK
we see    They said    one of the great    and – and    There was – somebody
paid great homage    paid great homage    In fact they said    the biggest
and they said    equal I got    a long    take – take out your    probably
I know    I know    a total    I could've     gotten
Absolutely   loved it    loved it    a long    They never even

very inaccurately I hate to say    you and you probably
but turn on    and see how    And see how    speech   speech
good speech And you and    speech    very very    speech
If I    there were like    wanted    but    couldn't They were all
I would say I would've    would've    speech    big   big success – success
And then I    and I    And they    Excuse me   Not you
but    – and they    speech And I know    speech    extraordinary
loved it Loved and liked And it was    extraordinary
No because you    Well you just    I didn't    I didn't wanna – talk about
speech But I think I did    really    You saw    I didn't

a massive    very unflattering   unflattering   a massive
In terms of a total    supposedly the biggest    And I    you would even
They say I had the biggest    speeches I'm    But I didn't    You just
Part of my whole    who have been    will never be    Part of that is when
unfairly    a massive    a crowd – I looked over that    Wow
And I've seen    Big big    That was some    When I looked
all of the various    the biggest    speeches I said    I was talking
I won't    demean    and    demean    faraway
more importantly    I'm saying   No I think you’re    talking    talking
I think you're    And that's why I think    And that's why you    pretty bad

Right   carnage    speech    tremendous – from certain    carnage
It is carnage It's    carnage This is    – is not like    being shot
Thousands    over a period – over a short period
This year   worse    last year   catastrophe  
want help   love to help    send in    send in
Maybe they're not gonna    Maybe they're being overly    Maybe there's
But you can't    Chicago   Chicago is    Chicago is worse
report    report about every    fix    shot in a city in a country
Maybe it's okay if    I want     fix    very easily fixable
They're gonna have to    But they gotta fix    I don't want
essentially    Chicago    Chicago And Chicago    a great
can be a great    can't be a great    Excuse me    can't be a great
a loaf of bread Can't be a great   But so far they have been    And I wasn't
So look    speech very nice speech    shot and killed    speech
You can't have    weren't shot    speech But    shot    speech What – what's

So all I'm saying    I say You have to    and you have to    because you can't
I want   It's a big    Well I'll be talking about that
So you'll be there and you'll be able to see    You're gonna see
Well I have    I have great respect    said – I was a little    said he's not
torture As you know    gonna be    as opposed to    who didn't
And he will I think    And he is – you know I haven't
But I will tell you I have    intelligence And they are big    waterboarding
Because they say it does    It does   I would do    I would do – I wanna    I wanna
When they're shooting – when they're chopping    people and other people
when they're chopping    people    nobody has ever    Medieval
would I feel    waterboarding   As far as I'm concerned    fire    fire
Now with that being said I'm going    I'm going    
I think    gonna be     I'm gonna    But I have spoken    the highest    intelligence
And I asked    Does it    Does    absolutely   I don't want people    or anybody's heads

Okay    or    or anything else I don't want – look    to have seen
much different You never saw    Now they    and they    and they
So we have    and we're not    We're not    even    I will say   I will
and    and my    And if they don't wanna    If they do wanna    I will
I wanna do    But do I feel    Absolutely I feel    Have I spoken    I haven't seen
But I think    Have I spoken    feel strongly    Absolutely
I wanna keep     no I wanna – I will    And I'm gonna    And if they don't wanna
100 percent    Do I think    Absolutely   Right   We're talking about – no it's not
But it's    tremendous    It's    we're going to    speech And it's    tremendous
in many cases or in some cases are looking    tremendous

You look    you'll be hearing    a whole    You'll be very
You're looking   in many cases in some cases    I don't want
They're    They're coming    I don't want    I'm gonna be
Now I'll absolutely    I think that    a tremendous    and various other
And all you have    take a look It's – it's    I don't want    have and    have
more    than ever    They – and it's from    So look look    Believe me I know
even better    They're deep    they're serious    We don't
You're going to see – you're going to see We're going to    extreme
And    extreme And we're not    we think    even a little
we're gonna    It's going to be    It's gonna be very very
I don't want    You look   You look   You look

Okay I mean take that    Anger   anger    How can you    Look David     David
I mean I know you're    The world    The world What You think this is gonna    The world
We went    We shouldn't have    We shouldn't have    The world
Take a look   Take a look    Take a look    And    and    and    The world    David
Well we should've    And you know it's very    you wouldn't
they got the money They got the money    leaving – when we left we left
which wasn't    It's not    And by the way and I said    And they were essentially
And    and    forever And    and it would go – it was just    We got in
I said    That's essentially    We should have    You wouldn't
Now I wasn't talking about    But had we   would've very good happened
They would not have    rather unbelievable    the world   Wait wait can you
Who are    who say    Fools   call    call    fools   We should've
excuse me We should've    you wouldn't    And we would have    We have

And    falling apart   Our roads – excuse me Our roads our    our     falling apart
We have    And    we can't    or we can't    And we can't    fix    We can't
Look    We've been    Nobody even knows    they don't really know
But it's time It's time   Well don't let it    we'll see    I mean we're gonna see
You know I told    and I told    wants to talk    I don't wanna
I wanna let – I wanna    take place    the talk takes place I watched
Then they'd say    Okay and I kept saying to myself    All right
I don't wanna do a lot of talking    I wanna talk after    not before
It's going to be – what my plan is is that I wanna    I'm not gonna    
Just so you understand people talk about    And I told    the best thing    nothing

And then we'll    and we'll    and – and    Believe    you'll have
And I told    except    I wanna get it fixed The best thing I could do
if I didn't do anything    begging me to do something But I don't wanna
So just so you   disaster   It's    It's    It doesn't    It's
You know    I know    And I said    terrific folks   I said Look
and I'm okay    We wanna    I said    They're gonna    it's gonna
That's the thing    But the right thing    So I wanna    Nobody's gonna
gonna be terrific And    very very happy    And now    don't even
They don't even    Remember    keep    keep    Remember    Remember

I mean you do admit that I think right    We are going to    if you look
We're gonna    So nobody ever    No no    here's what I can    we are going
a better    much better    much better    you can have    you want and    you want
We're gonna    much better    much less   And remember    I said
very good at this stuff    And why not    We're gonna    But I don't wanna
I wanna give great    much lower   You know when you     say no one I think no one
you’re talking about    And then you know knowing    on television saying how
Okay We want    We want the answer    But I will say millions
millions and millions and millions    It's too    and it's no
And    unfortunately    very very sad    very nice
but –    he said that    no longer   He's a staunch
He said    no longer    He made that    campaign trail
he said    is crazy It's crazy And you know what they were both right
Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Mumbai? Kissmiss?

Here's a poem I wish I had read before Christmas last month, but a good poem is a good poem anytime. It's from Imtiaz Dharker's 2014 collection Over the Moon (Bloodaxe).

Mumbai? Kissmiss?

Of course! Who is not knowing this,
that after Happy Diwali comes Merry Kissmiss!
Impossible to miss, when allovermumbai,
Matharpacady to A to Z Market, rooftops
are dancing in chorus

and alloversky
is fully full with paper stars.

Hear! Horns are telling at midnight on every street,
Happy Happy Happy! We know very well
to make good festival, and Saint Santa is
our honoured guest in Taj Hotel.
We are not forgetting.

And allovermumbai alloversky
is fully full with paper stars.

See! Tree is shining and snow (cotton-
wool but looks good, no?) Small child also
face is shining, licking icing, this
must be what snow tastes like
under the paper stars.

And allovermumbai alloversky
is fully full with paper stars.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

A Note about Philip Levine

In Philip Levine's poetry collections up to A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988), the "Note About the Author" included the phrase "a succession of stupid jobs" to refer to what he spent his time doing in Detroit before he "left the city for good."

But starting with What Work Is (1991), that part of his biography had been rephrased as "a succession of industrial jobs."