Category Archives: Literature

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A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

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Words of Solace, Words of Action

d510962f696c5b1a77bf1a42fcad5846Votes did not save us from the precipice last week. Yet, so often, language has buoyed us — given us wings, or perhaps simply currents of warm air, to carry us onto steadier ground. I have no such words of my own, but in the past 10 days I’ve been hearing some wise voices, from other dark times. Here are a few:

From W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose building…

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How Does It Feel?

ows_147681816330759I feel that today is a day when it’s incumbent on me to be newsworthy, so I’m writing about …

Bob Dylan. When the announcement came last month that he had been selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the ensuing hue and cry was, as my Lingua Franca colleague Bill Germano has noted, predictable.  The notion of Dylan-as-poet had been controversial for more than 50 years. Bobby Zimmerman, of Hibbing, Minn., adopted a poet’s last name and over the years published a book of verse (Tarantula), a s…

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Literary Judgment, Literary Luck

0179f6077adad6796a3eac8bfd6cb67aTwenty years ago this month, I was in New Orleans to receive an award for my writing. I’ve been thinking about that moment as we return to classes. Whatever subject you teach, you most likely find yourself in the position of judging the quality of students’ prose. Indeed, for most of us, the grades we award at the end of the term will depend largely on how well our students express themselves in writing.

Here’s how the award I received in 1996 came about. I had published a couple of books in t…

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That in Aleppo Once …

Othello

Shakespeare’s Othello recalls having killed an enemy in Aleppo.

 

When, in an MSNBC interview with Mike Barnicle on Morning Joe, the Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson tripped and fell over Aleppo — “And what is Aleppo?” — he provoked a mystified response, “You’re kidding!” and then Johnson’s fate-sealing “No.” High-minded groans.  Twittersphere code red. Facebook posts asking whether Johnson thought Aleppo might be, say, an acronym. Americans Like Excusing Po…

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Foul Things of the Night

dracula

Eula Biss was a featured author last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And from her I learned something horrifying about certain vile creatures of darkness.

My bibliophile friend Melinda, a visitor from Hawaii, wanted to attend the session on Eula’s much-praised study of vaccination, On Immunity (Graywolf Press, 2014). It was sold out. Demand for seats is intense. Cognoscenti book their choice of events (only four per person allowed) on the day in spring when the program is ann…

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Colonialism in U.S. Spanish Departments

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Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas

While Las Meninas is perhaps the world’s most famous selfie, and Miguel de Cervantes’s edits on Cide Hamete Benengeli’s novel mapped metafiction centuries before it was in vogue, there’s an argument to be made that the cultures of Spain should appear considerably less in U.S. curricula. In a recent study, I found some disturbing trends: Despite efforts toward cultural democratization in the 1970s, nearly all Spanish-language departments in the United States are over…

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Input, Output, and Literature

Timeline_0978_WordStar_2Generations pass so quickly these days, as my colleague William Germano noted, that the responsibility to record certain changes falls rather suddenly on those of us about to pass away. I am referring here, not to sports or to actual mortality, but to the modes of writing inflected by the advent and wide adoption of the personal computer.

I’ve just finished Matthew Kirschenbaum’s eye-opening Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, and it’s sent me down memory lane. I’m older th…

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Ars Poetica

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Jake Adam York reading one of his poems in 2007. York died of a stroke in 2012 at age 40.

I like listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac with my daughter. She is in seventh grade. We catch the day’s broadcast on my phone while waiting in the morning at the bus stop. Keillor first offers a bit of literary history, listing the name of writers whose birthday falls that day, and he ends by reading a poem.

I wait for my daughter to say, on occasion, “I liked the poem.” The moment tha…

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Transadaptation

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Emily Dickinson

Efforts to translate a text within the same language, from, say, the French of Molière to the present-day language of immigrants in Paris, are common today. Not long ago, I got a copy of  Andrés Trapiello’s faithful modernization of the entire Don Quixote, all 126 chapters. His argument is that today’s readers, especially young ones, no longer read Cervantes’s novel. Since its antiquated language might be one of the causes, why not render it it in 21st-century Iberian Spanish?

Ev…