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the master-blaster

my eyes have just come across a review of a new translation of Rubén Darío (the granddaddy of latin american 20th century poetry)...and it´s not pleasant!

the first 80% of the review is a nothing but literary history. it recounts what anyone who has any working knowledge of latin american poetry knows. though people like paul theroux dismiss Darío as a poet of no consequence in the old patagonian express, Darío is a great poet…what does that rail hopping writer know about spanish anyway?)...and one wonders…wasn´t this supposed to be a book review, not a brief biography of the poet.

the actual review starts on the last page

here i reproduce only the best…and pray that nothing i write ever falls into his hands. bobby g, as i affectionately call the reviewer, was a ghost of my doctoral program. 70% of the faculty, at that time, were yalies. they all loved and hated the man and no semester would go by without them mentioning him, his sins and their hopes to be different…all the while reproducing those self same sins.

Darío’s circulation and reputation in English will not be helped by the publication of this carelessly conceived and executed anthology of his prose and verse. The selection of the poetry is particularly poor, leaving out some of Darío’s most important poems…includes few of his long poems in their entirety and organizes the collection in a manner that is more confusing than enlightening....no sense of Darío’s poetic evolution, as if his work were created in a timeless void. The subdivisions draw their headings from the lines of a poem whose translation is particularly appalling...This terrible assemblage of words not only completely misses the rhythm created by the repetition of sounds; worse, it hardly conveys what the Spanish says…It would be embarrassing and painful to compile such mistranslations.

Stavans’s introduction lacks scholarly credibility or academic reliability. It is riddled with clichés (Darío is a “man for all seasons”), lacks a single new idea worth considering and does no justice to the considerable body of Darío criticism. Like the translations, it contains elementary mistakes, some laughable. For instance, Stavans attributes the famous line encouraging poets to reject Darío by twisting the swan’s neck to the Mexican Modernista Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, when it was written by his compatriot Enrique González Martínez. this is particularly egregious since the first, a precursor/contemporary of Darío died in 1895 and the poem written by EGM (1871-1952) was published in 1911. He also blithely declares that “Latin America never had a Romantic movement per se,” an elementary error that he could have avoided by reading any history of Latin American literature or one of those academic critics Stavans derides with unearned, comic self-assurance. Stavans even writes that Darío’s “health deteriorated rapidly in the years following World War I,” when the poet had been dead for two years at war’s end in 1918. His health could hardly have gotten worse. There are poets condemned to remain within their own language. Because of its many failings, this anthology cannot possibly help Darío overcome this fate.

and now, the biographical/panegyric of Darío makes sense, he’s trying to make up for what he percieves to be a lack of information contained in the introduction, while burying the book at the same time.



Ouch. That’s smooth reviewing, but hard, hard, hard! It reminds me of the Harper’s review of nearly a year ago which accused an e.e. cummings biographer of plagiarizing half the biography. It went through an extensive section about the poet’s life, and I kept wondering why, until bam! the last several pages pulls dozens of quotes from the new bio and previous ones, lays them side by side, and crushes the latest biographer between the covers like an unwary worm.

And in deference to this post’s title…


i must confess that i have reviewed submissions for a handful of journals, and i always feel a little too much like a weenie at the end. my reviews err on the side of too nice. i wish i were a little more confident and hardcore, but i can at least take comfort that i err on the side of nice.

on the other hand, i have received some pretty harsh reviews of some of my own work, so maybe my positively spun reviews are based on the hope for some good karma later on.

I don’t often see much point when reviewers go all Kakutani on a writer’s ass. I realize that academic reviewers, particularly the big fish, are staking their fields. On one hand Stavan might feel honored that he has attracted his attention enough to merit a review; on the other hand, does he need this kind of attention; on still a third hand, what compelled Echevarria to review such a poor translation, anyway? Is Stavan really worth his time? It’s at this level of questioning that these kinds of smackdowns stop making sense. Still, there’s a certain bravado here, that I can’t help but admire.

i will soon be writing my first review…and i, too, am not much about undressing and flogging people…but, then again, the book is really good.

also, the relationship is more complicated than a new dog being slapped down and peed on by the big dog.

stavans is rather well known himself.

actually, he’s the nation’s typical go to guy. which, could explain the vehemence. also, he’s an advocate for spanglish, which echevarría decries. and, most likely there´s the professional disdain of the critic who feel himself to be mocked by the pseudo-critic, the broad ranging, fluffy intellectual essayist (who is most definitely not a literary critic or literary historian and only an occassional novelist).

Ah, that says a lot. (Including that I haven’t yet read your links.) Establish oneself infield, then one may rip others’ heads off in reviews, but preferably only those who get more pub than you.

Shifting to the value of reviews, I opened my big mouth about this one yesterday (e-mail list), and was both fairly and ridiculously marked because of it. Reviews tend too often to the cliché. To wit, this one argues that the movie in question shortchanges family, which seems to be a common critique of the movie from some corners, but it can only say so on the merit of a bad reading of the movie.

Which isn’t to say much except that I’m annoyed I opened my mouth.