What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?


Ask her about known unknowns. I don't it's clear still.

H.L.H 434 J.L.D 190 : Psalm 82

Historically, why did people start telling each other stories about made up events?
Is free verse actually the application of graphic design to prose?

I don't think the events were altogether made up considering the fact that most of the very early stories (be it Greek epics, Indian epics, Old Testament) are legends transmitted through an oral tradition as opposed to imaginative fiction.

I can talk from the Indian experience here. The earliest literature in India (outside of the Vedas which predate them) is actually the two epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata - which the Indian tradition nevertheless regards as "Itihaasas" (histories).

So these epics were not "made up stories" but transmissions of actual events in a very distant past, which no doubt got embroidered and exaggerated as time passed by.

The earliest works of "pure fiction" emerged within the context of this epic tradition, where a poet outside of the epic tradition would pick out a specific episode in the epic - and blow that up into a totally standalone work of imaginative fiction (Eg : Kalidasa's Abhijnana Shakuntalam).

I suspect that's how the earliest works of imaginative fiction came about - as offshoots of the epic tradition (which has some claim to being partly fact)

Nobody knows - do they? - whether the crucial OT stories were Judahite legends passed on as folklore, or cribs from the legends of Mesopotamia accumulated during the Exile, or just inventions of the 6th century BC and later.

Hindus are now claiming plastic surgery, airplanes, and the internet to all have been known in the Vedic past. So this Hindu commenter, a brown counterpart to white supremacists who frequent the comment sections, is all agog to discern empirical reality in mythic past.

It is likely that no white supremacist frequent this blog. It is likely there are incredibly few of them. Most so-called white supremacist are just people with opinions you disagree with and in your mind deserve to be slimmed.


Even the most strident conservatives on this board are seldom racist. In fact not even unabashedly conservative. Very often my own views are more to the right than most white right-wingers in this space.

"White supremacist" is another one of those words that can mean completely different things to different people. By some definitions none of us are, by others, all.

"Hindus are now claiming plastic surgery, airplanes, and the internet to all have been known in the Vedic past."
And genetic science!! Satan is ridiculous. How can people be so fooled by Satan? http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-in-school/genetic-science-existed-in-ancient-times-modi/article6545958.ece

It is unfair to say that "Hindus" claim such outrageous things just as it is unfair to say that "Americans" claim the earth is only 6000 years old and that the dinosaurs were contemporaneous with humans. For many Hindus such claims are embarrassing

He is the leader of India and of Hindu nationalism. He represents Hinduism as well as Stalin represented communism or Obama ewpresented Democrats.

Thiago, no one "represents Hinduism:" it is not an organised faith like the semitic religions. And Hindu nationalism is politics misusing religious sentiment, not Hinduism as a collection of theologies and rituals. Hinduism is unique in that it has no pontiff to excommunicate people nor is there a Hindu mulla with God given right to issue fatwas. That is why when the most respected group religious heads among Hindus, called the Shankaracharyas, the closest one comes to pontiffs, said Hindus should not worship a saint called Baba of Shirdi since he was a muslim, Hindus continue to patronise this saint. Typical of the majority of Hindus, they did not criticise these "pontiffs"; in fact I was amused to see people pay obeisance to these guys and simply ignore them. In other words even these reverend spiritual heads don't "represent Hinduism" the way the Pope represents catholicism. Incidentally the priest of even of the most important temples temple is only for rituals and is not analogous to the pastors, priests and mullas. In case you wondered, I am not an apologist for Hinduism as commonly practiced and I stopped practising mainstream Hinduism ages ago.

Again, he is the leader of a country who elected him on the basis of his ultratradionalist/xenophobic credentials. He is as representative of Hinduism as Hitler was of pan-Germanism.

freethinker - Don't bother to respond to Thiago. He is trolling.

At any rate, the way guys are hijacking the thread after a harmless comment of mine shows how deep Indo-phobia is in the West.

By the way, not "all" of those claims are ridiculous as is being made out here. There is good evidence to show that some early forms of "reconstructive" surgeries were performed in Ancient India as indicated in the texts of Sushruta and Charaka.

dearieme - There is no way any of the OT stories are merely inventions. No way. Made up stuff cannot fascinate people for this long.

Clearly these stories belong to a certain historical past. And they have been embroidered over time for sure. But they are NOT myths.

The Cyrus Cylinder which was discovered in 1879, clearly showed that the OT "myth" of Babylonian captivity of the Jews and their freeing by Cyrus the Great - belongs to history. It is NOT made up. The cylinder proved that.

So the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is not made up?

Made up not in the sense of an author getting up early in the morning, sipping a drink, and writing up a story as he imagines it.

These are legends that have come down through the oral tradition - that doesnt make them true. But a grain of truth in many of them cannot be denied.

I don't think one can totally deny there is a grain of truth in the Exodus or in the Babylonian captivity many centuries later.

Every culture's creation story is made up. I'm talking about novels, fairy tales, movies, and the like. Why do people dream them up? What's the point?

I don't understand why you even are asking that question. Seriously. Who have you met that didn't have a story? Our brains are pattern matching devices that try to put together the various things that life throws at them into some story. Over time groups of people build stories that describe their experience. Sometimes they get written down.

Why did Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn write A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

I understand what you're saying, but there are many stories that do not describe anybody's experience. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Tarzan of the Apes," "Finnegan's Wake," and the Mother Goose Stories. Why were they written? And why do we love them so? (Well, not Finnegan's wake.)

While the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden, as written by Moses, leaves out almost all the details ( one reads, sometimes, well written poetry that reflects what Adam and Eve talked about in those countless moments that were not recorded, and in reading such lines of poetry - Blake tried but failed, Jonson and Stevens, particularly in his "Credences of Summer" phase, tried and succeeded) - sadly, leaves out many of the best details, in other words, the "story" of Adam and Eve is no such thing as a "story" it is something that happened, just like your first day at college is something that happened unless you did not (or have not yet) "gone to college", as we used to say back in the day, anyway, their ("their" meaning Addzers and Eveez, as they called each other in the original Hebrew, transliterated by me, no Hebrew expert but I try) real story would have taken approximately eighty thousand lines of iambic pentameter ("Jack" Milton, bless his heart, gave it a try with about a thousand or two) to be satisfyingly (albeit nowhere near realistically) told, with sufficient details for us to understand that they two, were just two people, with all the individualized details people have (remember the way you were unsurprised the first time you saw someone with red hair different than the red hair you were previously used to? - that sort of detail).

Or maybe a civilization such as ours that can only explain the mathematical consistency of 4 percent of whatever it is that makes galaxies rotate the way they do can boast people who can tell me that God, who created everything, would have any problem producing evidence of Adam and Eve, if asked in some imagined court of law.
Yes I know that there is a museum or two with lots of old bones in it.
And I am aware of the DNA statistics. Well, we are more likely to see Kodachromes, in our lifetimes, of Adam and Eve in the first days of their marriage than we are to see a good explanation of that other 96 percent or of how DNA explains how good that pear tart you had the other day tasted, and why it reminded you of some arias from some operas by Mozart and not of others.

Or maybe I have no idea of what I am talking about. Before you draw that conclusion, though, feel free to double check the observations on Blake and Stevens, and compare your impressions to what you earlier thought about what Adam and Eve might have said to each other, in those long unrecorded conversations in their long forgotten (by most of us) languages.

You seem to be very well versed in everything. I only wish you knew how to write. Would it be too big an imposition to ask that you diagram your first sentence above and post it. That would help me understand. Thanks.

speaking of Kodachrome, you would think the internet would make people more empathetic - for example who would have known, before the internet, that Hermione Gingold, the famous "grand old lady actress" of the 50s and 60s, when young, had been heartbreakingly albeit uncontestedly awkwardly cute, sort of like Cyndi Lauper with a good hair day and without the weird hair coloring, just a normal attractive brunette, that any man could have fallen in love with (these little things remind me of you is a song that could have been, and has been said to have been (incorrectly, I think, but still) written for her...) and, knowing such things, how can one not feel more compassion for others? Yes, the internet is a tool for greater compassion, when looked at properly.

1. Does Larry Summers waste time at all reading English literature?

2. Why do English departments lean so much to the Left? More so than any other department if I am not wrong.

Psycology and history are 17 to 1 Left, but sociology and English have even fewer conservatives.

Scale of 1 - 10, how big of a con artistry is it to take in 40 MFA or Doctoral candidates when you know there are jobs for 1 or none?

What differentiates work she finds of critical value as opposed to of personal/emotional value?

What does poetry tell us about human connection that can't be illustrated in prose?

Does she like Robert Service?

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I've oft struggled to explain why I like poetry
How about you?

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I'm a Trump supporter,
ARE YOU A {{{ just kidding }}}?

Ask her, quite seriously, why English is a professional discipline at all. Why do the humanities require "professionals."

I'd like you to do the overrated / underrated question with some of the writers I had to read in school. Mark Twain, Flannery OConnor, Whitman, Faulkner, Robert Frost, Edith Wharton, etc.

Ask her the name of any famous poet who is also an economist.

I read somewhere the Gary Snyder wished that he had paid more attention to economics as a student. Does that count?

How dire is "the academic captivity" of American letters?

The connivance of print publishers with university MFA programs and college "writers' retreats" seems incapable of producing anything but works of soulless academic fiction and soulless academic verse. Simultaneously, these academic programs (with publisher participation) close access to publishing industry gatekeepers for anyone deemed not to possess the taste for lame fiction and lame verse that MFA programs most commonly yield.

The MFA degree coveted by untalented writers keen to network their way to critical acclaim and publisher laudation has helped ruin American fiction and American fiction publishing. Who is chiefly responsible for the MFA being so over-rated as a tool for vetting "serious writing"?


Yes, yes, yes. All of this is achingly true. But since it is a 'closed system' what you and I think doesn't matter. The usufructs have secured their income (paltry as it is) and so far they've kept the market ('literary fiction') rent controlled. This situation can continue far longer than you think, because the streams of income are less fragile than you might think. (Government grants via institutions, but also a set of publishers who have cleverly found markets for whatever hideously hyped up (and superbad) 'new fiction genius' they find.

Yes! Why is there a great stagnation in literature?

I used to remember when this was known as an economics blog. Now we have to sit through conversations with former tennis players and Camille Paglia.

It was an economics blog in its early days. I think within a few years I guess TC discovered his metier - his comparative advantage lies not in writing economics posts, but in using his "economic" way of thinking to assess cultures / histories / politics.

Plenty of economics posts. In fact there are more than enough posts on this site to please anybody. It's why the site is so popular. Don't understand why speaking with intelligent athletes is a problem.

Sure. It is not a problem.

But sometimes Tyler does not critique his guests enough when they err with highly emotional arguments.

Eg : When Navratilova cribbed about being paid less than McEnroe for commentary, Cowen did not rebut her. I thought that was disappointing.

She's not paid less? Can you elaborate?

Ofcourse she is paid less. But that's because McEnroe is a more vaunted figure. Not merely for his reputation as a player (which Navratilova also possesses), but as an analyst of the game.

McEnroe is legendary for his analysis. Which is why he gets paid more. Not all analysts are equal.

Give me a break! Navratilova was a far greater player than McEnroe. Can’t believe people think he deserves that much higher pay.

I believe shrikanthk's comment was in regard to McEnroe's higher pay as an analyst/commentator. [He is the best.]

He was a better player than her, not controlling for gender. She was a much better player, controlling for gender. They were both significant figures for the sport in other ways.

Whose matches would I pay to watch reruns of? McEnroe's, no question.

Yes! Cowen is essentially using his critical tools like a classical Marxist might use Marxist theory to apply to history (which is one of its chief uses - viewing history through a Marxist crit lens is absolutely a cool use of Marxism -- Cowen's crit tools are similarly good.

Yes. But Marxist history is a BIG fail.

Few people today continue to repose faith in our ability to understand the past using "social context" alone and by giving inordinate importance to groups and class struggles.

The more old fashioned "Great man" theory of history has made a fine comeback.

1. Does she regard Beowulf as an English work? Or as being composed in a language which is a distant precursor of English?

2. Related to Question 1, is English a language that originates with the earliest Saxon immigration to UK, or is it more accurate to regard it as a highly latinized tongue that emerged in the centuries following the norman invasion?

Thoughts on the Bob Dylan nobel prize? Does she consider him a poet? Or at least worthy of consideration for an appearance in Poetry in America?


And while you're at it - how about Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer. Deserved or not? And what are her views on rap music as the newest form of poetry?


What living English writer she expects to be still read in 2118?

I wonder if we've come to underrate rhyme and rhythm in poetry. Has this contributed in part to the popularity of hiphop or perhaps instead to the culture's increasing willingness to take it seriously?


If you could require all US students to memorize a poem, which poem would it be? If they could pick one from a set of poems, which poems would be in that set? And why?

This is good. Also, how about for new parents: which poems does she recommend reading to your kids?

What are her thoughts on poetry in translation? Am I getting as much out of Dante in English as I think I am?

Ask her:

If a poem
Stops in the woods
On a snowy evening
Is it heard?

Which state in the US is the holiest?

1. How has scholarship in English been affected by the decline in the relative importance of English as a field since the 1990s (I might have read that on this blog). Not in some exogenous sense, but in an endogenous sense (I don't quite know what I mean, but you are the smart one around here).

2. Are the digital humanities overrated or underrated? What does she foresee as the role of AI in poetry?

I like Brain Pickings – An inventory of the meaningful life

Is there a bohemian website that you visit that is or source of unending inspiration?

Ask, "Nu, what's new?"

Do you honestly believe that you are contributing anything to the world?


very well played.

Tis not the first time that, dreaming of freedom, we build a new prison.
-- poet Maximilian Voloshin

Why are poets always so good at reading the human nature ... what is in their DNA?

Does Elisa view SY Agnon's A Simple Story as Yiddish literature or Israeli literature?

What does Elisa think are the main differences between Israeli and Yiddish literature?

Does she agree that IJ was the best writer in the Bashevis Singer family?

It might be interesting to ask her about what her Lithuanian roots mean to her, if anything. Haven't read Jacob's Cane, but am curious if Lithuania is anything more than just a place her Jewish ancestors lived. For example, does she feel any bond with Czeslaw Milosz? What does she think of The Captive Mind? Has she ever had lunch with Bernard Lown?

Setting aside his cruelty as a person, one of the more interesting academic takes I've seen on the intersection of economics and poetry is David Galenson's breakdown of innovation into the early lifecycle conceptualists (apply transformative outside the box thinking early in the careers, then usually go downhill from there; work is about ideas) vs later lifecycle experimentalists (gradually develop craft over a lifetime of incremental improvements; work is about reproducing experiences and emotions). Does she see this as a valuable tool for poetry criticism / how so? More broadly, is there any place for economic tools in academic English, or is that a tack that has little to contribute?

Underrated or overrated: John Ashbery

ask her to make the best argument she can for voting for Trump in 2020.

1) Ask her if she approves of the view that in reading a poem what matters is what the readers discern in it and not what the poet had in mind
2) Does she believe in a canon, poems all should read?
3) are there criteria to sift good poems form rotten ones.
4) do poems regarded as "great" have their "greatness" innate in the texts or is it what the community of poets believes? If one day Milton is no longer deemed a great poet by the majority, will he case to be a great poet?
5) Harold Bloom thinks it is important to learn poems by heart while Paglia says understanding the meaning is more important . What is her view?
6) would she agree that cultures with "great" poems are superior to cultures without them ?

On a related note -

What are her thoughts on the centrality of meter / rhyming to great poetry?

There are cultures like England which have had a very rich tradition of poetry in blank verse. In contrast you have cultures like India, where blank verse would not even be regarded as legitimate poetry, as there is an extreme emphasis on meter and rhyming.

Where does she stand on this divide?

What does poetry really bring to the table, if it doesn't rhyme or adhere to a meter? One might as well write prose.

Ask her how much damage to poetry as a field has been done by colleges turning it into an extension of the civil rights/social justice movement.

Jim Harrison - overrated or underrated?

Why is there a great stagnation in poetry? Ask her to explain why poetry is awful in America despite there be more "poets" than ever and more poetry published every year than in any time in history. How come quantity leads to decline, corruption, and decay?

Gordon, her answer to your query about why poetry is awful in America would depend on her answer to my query whether there are criteria to distinguish awful poems from good ones or if the value of a poem depends on what the readers think. If it is upto the readers to decide what poems are to be deemed good ones, the answer to your question would be "well, this is the kind of poetry Americans demand, period."

Is lack of interest in poetry a problem to be fixed or merely a reflection of diverse avenues of expression and diverse interests?

Contemporary verse, unpublished (borrowed). What might be said?

hendecasyllabic café

beckoning with citrus streaks blue cobbled streets
and stuccos lit with gold lamps guide strollers here
to Place du Forum in Arles and this café:
late summer's night (as a painter depicts them),
drawn in short spells beneath the gold awning hung
where life and loafing cohabit, tables, chairs,
absinthes and brandies, cognacs and café noir,
tobaccos in lungs, noses, cigars, and pipes,
soft powders and sweet scents, perhaps the apt smile—
the terrestrial portrayed in this small square:
so say these stars that closer than people loom.

You might think that the age of the internet and social media would be particarly conducive to poetry — poems are often short, and can be shared in a screenshot. They require much less time than many other written forms like novels or short stories. But it doesn’t appear that the internet has brought poetry more into the mainstream, the limited success of the instagram poets notwithstanding. What gives?

It often strikes me that a new scientific or technical discovery can benefit people who haven’t learned about it, because it can be implemented — you don’t have to know how pharmaceuticals work to benefit from them, for instance. In the humanities, though, it seems more to me that the benefit to society has to come more from direct experience — you sort of have to read Goethe to benefit from him, or to benefit from essays about him that are on the equivalent of the humanistic cutting edge. So The benefit of the humanities seems to me to be more wrapped up in dissemination. Given that (or, maybe you can dispute all that), what is the relative value of teaching, or writing for a popular audience, versus research or writing for a narrower audience, when it comes to the humanities?

Is there life after deconstruction?

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