Aug 122006

The idea that aesthetics has a lot to do with self-similarity occurred to Benoit Mandelbrot thirty or so years before it occured to me, although if you ask Mandelbrot there are vanishingly few ideas that didn’t occur to him first. It’s Newton, Einstein, Archimedes, and Mandelbrot, not necessarily in that order.

So it isn’t original, which doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Mandelbrot’s The Fractal Geometry of Nature is one of the best-selling books on mathematics of all time, mostly because it has a lot of pretty pictures. Fractals are fun to look at. Little copies of the whole structure are buried everywhere within it. Zoom in to 10 angstroms, or out to 10,000 feet: in any part of the picture the same intricate patterns appear.

In self-similarity the part resembles the whole. Symmetry, a different affair, describes a relation between parts. Self-similarity implies some form of symmetry. If A and B are both part of C, and both resemble C, then A will also resemble B, in some sense. But the converse is false. Parts A and B may resemble each other without either resembling the whole, C, in the slightest. One tends to think of self-similarity (and symmetry) as visual, but the principle is structural. The play-within-a-play and the colloquy of the gravediggers in Hamlet are instances of self-similarity. For symmetry, take a lesser play, say Noel Coward’s Nude with Violin, in which a famous modern artist resembling Picasso dies and turns out to have hired a different person to produce the work for each of his “periods.” Each act, in which one of the period painters shows up to claim a share of the estate, resembles the others, but none especially resembles the whole. The play is symmetrical but not self-similar.

Christopher Alexander, in The Nature of Order, gives fifteen principles for “living” architecture, at least six of which can be subsumed under self-similarity. “Local symmetries,” “deep interlock and ambiguity,” “echoes,” “positive space,” “good shape,” and “gradients” are all aspects of what I’m talking about. And a lucky thing too, as one of my principles is that no list of principles should reach double digits.

Alexander also includes “roughness” in his list, which is very much to the point. Fractals fall into two categories: exact and approximate. The first known fractal (arguably), the famous Koch curve, a mathematical monstrosity with unbounded perimeter but finite area, is exact. It is also boring. When you’ve seen one level you’ve seen it all. Everyone likes to look at baby animals. What makes them “cute” is that they are copies of their parents, but inexact ones. They belong to category two.

Self-similarity is a deeply ingrained way for people to see the world. All pre-scientific theories of genesis involve self-similarity. Embryos were first thought to be full-grown animals in miniature, with tiny heads and limbs. It sounds absurd now, but if you knew nothing of cell division and had no microscope handy you might make the same guess. Lamarck precedes Darwin because he assumes that all traits are inherited, that is, that self-similarity applies in full.

If art, as is commonly alleged, speaks to our deepest selves, one would expect it to show self-similarity everywhere, and sure enough it does. Pictures, like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” which Mandelbrot reproduces in his book, are the first place to look. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings are fractal. Music, to my untutored ear, is replete with structures that repeat approximately on different scales, such as leitmotifs taken up first by the winds, then the strings, the brass, and eventually the whole orchestra. I will leave this speculation to those who know, as I do not.

Poetry, however, I do know something about, and perfectly symmetrical verse forms have never gained much traction in English. The sonnet has fourteen lines, and in neither of its standard forms do these lines divide into identical groups. The Petrarchan version has its octet and sextet, and the Elizabethan its three quatrains, along with that last awkward couplet that Shakespeare could never quite figure out what to do with. The villanelle, with its six triplets and 19th line, exhibits the same sort of approximate symmetry. Then there’s the Spenserian stanza, eight lines of pentameter with an alexandrine tacked on to the end. A while back I remarked the stupor produced by extended passages of Pope, in reams of closed, perfectly balanced heroic couplets. Neatness is not all your second-grade teacher cracked it up to be.

Great poems exhibit symmetry and, especially, self-similarity in a high degree, though this may not be obvious to the casual reader. Consider Ben Jonson’s To Heaven:

1 Good and great God, can I not think of Thee,
2 But it must, straight, my melancholy be?
3 Is it interpreted in me disease,
4 That, laden with my sins, I seek for ease?
5 O be Thou witness, that the reins dost know
6 And hearts of all, if I be sad for show;
7 And judge me after: if I dare pretend
8 To aught but grace, or aim at other end.
9 As Thou art all, so be Thou all to me,
10 First, midst, and last, converted One and Three,
11 My faith, my hope, my love; and in this state,
12 My judge, my jury, and my advocate.
13 Where have I been this while exiled from Thee,
14 And whither rapt, now Thou but stoop’st to me?
15 Dwell, dwell here still! O, being everywhere,
16 How can I doubt to find Thee ever here?
17 I know my state, both full of shame and scorn,
18 Conceived in sin, and unto labor born,
19 Standing with fear, and must with horror fall,
20 And destined unto judgment after all.
21 I feel my griefs too, and there scarce is ground
22 Upon my flesh t’inflict another wound.
23 Yet dare I not complain or wish for death,
24 With holy Paul, lest it be thought the breath
25 Of discontent; or that these prayers be
26 For weariness of life, not love of Thee.

Jonson longs for death while rejecting that longing intellectually. To understand this you must enter partly into the Christian experience. If you refuse, then a large portion of great art is partly or wholly closed to you, and the loss is not easily afforded. It may help to remember that you would likely be Christian had you been born in England in the 16th century. Human beings were no different then, you are extremely unlikely to be more intelligent than Ben Jonson was, and the number of atheists in England at the time was an engineering zero.

The poem is a prayer and an apology, and contains, in good fractal style, several prayers and apologies within itself. It is written in heroic couplets, but is 26 lines long, and naturally resists, like most of the classic English verse forms, division into equal parts. There are no enjambments until the very end, in lines 24 and 25. Every full stop ends a line. Yet the movement escapes Pope’s monotony because the argument moves forward and the syntactic unit varies. There are nine sentences (if we count the ejaculation that begins line 15 as part of the question); In line count they run two, two, four, four, two, two, four, two, and four.

The first sixteen lines deal mostly with God, the last ten mostly with man. Both sections are syntactically symmetrical. The first opens with two questions of two lines apiece and closes the same way. The second reverses the procedure, surrounding the short sentence with the two longer ones.

In lines 11 and 12 “faith, hope, and love” are exactly the qualities that a Christian might exhibit toward his “judge, jury, and advocate,” respectively — no other order would do. Jonson’s sleight-of-hand at the end of line 10, where he interposes a reference to the Trinity (“converted One and Three”) to break up his literal trinities, simply beggars praise.

The Elizabethan fondness for wordplay is employed tastefully, for once (cf. “when first your eye I eyed”). “Everywhere” and “ever here,” in lines 15 and 16, are effective; but “disease” and “ease,” in lines 3 and 4, are a masterstroke. “Ease” implies “death,” and sure enough we find “death” at the end of line 23, as distant from the end of the poem as “ease” is from the beginning. “Thee” rhymes with “be” to begin the poem, and “be” with “Thee” to end it. “Me” and “Three” and “Thee” and “me” are rhymed again almost exactly in the middle of the poem, separated by one couplet. “[J]udge me after” in line 7 balances “judgment after all” in line 20. “After all,” a throat-clearing device in most writers, including me, is resurrected here to become living language.

Despite a theme that will not resonate with most modern readers, To Heaven remains one of the most beautiful poems in the language. Can there be any doubt that it is largely the structure — the fractal — that we respond to?

Aug 202005

Camille Paglia very likely agrees with Woody Allen that 80% of life is showing up. Author, teacher, scholar, advice columnist, courageous defier of contemporary orthodoxies left and right, tireless propagandist for the rapist within, and so much more, Paglia doesn’t just show up, she never goes away.

As for the nature of this prodigious output, we have Sexual Personae; Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art; Sex, Art and American Culture; Sex in New York City: An Illustrated History; Madonna Megastar; Sex and the Single Professor. Can anyone find the pattern here?

Still, Paglia must weary of a single subject, and in Break, Blow, Burn she has ventured into poetry. The book is a “close reading” of 43 short poems ranging in time from Shakespeare to the present. One might think that so busy a woman as Paglia wouldn’t have time to learn anything about poetry. She doesn’t.

I am prepared to absolve her of much of the criticism of Break, Blow, Burn, which has been directed toward her selection. Supposing that Paglia thought these the greatest 43 poems in English — and she nowhere makes such a claim — her 43 would inevitably differ from yours or mine. Shakespeare, Donne, George Herbert, Dickinson, and Roethke have three poems each; Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Stevens, and W.C. Williams two apiece. The warhorses — “The World is Too Much with Us,” “Westminster Bridge,” “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “Song of Myself” — are out in force, but leavened with a few excellent and lesser-known choices, like George Herbert’s “Church Monuments” and Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their alabaster chambers.” The inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s pallid “Woodstock” has occasioned grumbling, but rock lyrics are what mostly passes for poetry nowadays, and it is by no means the worst poem in the book.

I am willing to overlook her tasteless attempts at relevance and titillation. (I remember reading a passage from Vamps and Tramps in praise of the “Dionysian” Rolling Stones and thinking, Whoa. The Stones. How cool is that?) She wants to use “Leda and the Swan” as an excuse to talk about swan penises? OK. She wants to characterize the worms in “To His Coy Mistress” as “gang rapists,” or the relationship between Hamlet’s father and Claudius as “male-on-male rape”? Fine. She wants to call Sylvia Plath “the first female rocker”? All right. You’ve opened a Paglia book and this is the price of admission.

What I cannot forgive is the violence she does to the poems themselves. Poetry achieves its effects through the relationship between sound and sense, and to elucidate them requires technical analysis. You have to read carefully and you have to know something. Zero for two, you may want to consider another line of work.

On Herbert’s “Church Monuments” she essays this remarkable passage:

The memento mori takes the form of an hourglass with the curvilinear silhouette of the human body: “That flesh is but the glasse, which holds the dust / That measures all our time; which also shall / Be crumbled into dust.” As the sands flow through the hourglass, Herbert makes us hear and feel faint, regular pulses (like a water clock) on the words “flesh,” “glasse,” “dust,” and “time.” Then, with the end of time, the hourglass wobbles and tumbles off the end of one line onto the next, where it smashes to powder.

….The poem is in fact structured like a fall — a formal cascade like Baroque fountain: Herbert ignores the stanza breaks and lets his sentences spill over the gap. The effect is refreshing, like soft rain dribbling off a roof. The poem’s playful, soothing rhythms distance its unsettling imagery of death and decay.

From the top: the body as an hourglass is a commonplace of the English Renaissance. It is not intended to be visualized; such resemblance as exists applies only to women, in the best case, and is irrelevant in this poem. The quoted lines sound nothing like a water clock (in part because water clocks don’t make noise). They derive their effect from variation: the heavy accents on “glasse,” “dust,” “time,” and “dust” again, come after six syllables, then four, then six, and finally ten. The famous last line of Greville’s elegy on Sidney produces a similar effect: “Salute the stones, that keep the limbs, that held so good a mind.”

Assuming the hourglass were involved, “smash” would be a singularly inappropriate verb for a poem about dissolution. But the antecedent of “which also shall be crumbled into dust” is “all our time,” not the hourglass. The thought of time itself dissolving gives this passage much of its concentration and power.

It would be difficult for a poet to “ignore” his own stanza breaks, but in any case Herbert published the poem without them; later editors added them to clarify the rhyme scheme. Yes, the stanzas are all enjambed, but the most violent enjambment of all, on which Paglia does not see fit to comment, comes mid-stanza, in the very passage she quotes, between “shall” and “be,” which splits a verb phrase and emphasizes the utter finality of the end of all things.

The rhythms in this passage, and throughout the poem, are as far from “refreshing” or “playful” or “soothing” as can be imagined, as any moderately sensitive reader can hear for himself. (Not that rain dribbling off a roof is too refreshing either, unless you’re thirsty.) Herbert does not try to “distance” his reader from death and decay; quite the contrary. His rhythms emphasize the grimness of his subject in the most effective possible way.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnet I,” though a fine poem, is metrically undistinguished in every respect. Of line 13:

Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art

Paglia writes: “Rapid, darting rhythms capture the dove’s flight as it swoops in to ‘wing’ the poet’s soul to safety.” Never mind that she invents the dove: Donne is rarely rapid, and never darting, and this line is among the statelier in the history of English literature. In each of the first three feet the unaccented syllable is longer than the accented, which slows and flattens the line. The awkward juxtaposition of a dental and a glottal in the second and third feet slows it further. How much of this is accidental, Donne being Donne, is a nice question. For “darting rhythms” try his contemporaries Campion or Greene or Peele. They are all inferior to Donne as poets but incomparably superior as metrists.

W.C. Williams, a master of tiny sound effects, she simply does not understand. The miracle of “The Red Wheelbarrow” has nothing to do with the fact that the stanzas look like wheelbarrows, though I suppose they do. It is the contrast between the red of the beginning and the white of the end, and the echoing vowel sounds, long long short, in the lines “glazed with rain / water” and “beside the white / chickens”. Paglia proceeds to claim that “This Is Just to Say” resembles an icebox, crossing over from irrelevance into absurdity. The rhythms of the poem are not “halting”; the feet vary widely, and often inversely, in length and speed, which is essential in good free verse. You can hear it especially in the two lines “they were delicious / so sweet”, where the two-syllable foot is slower than the five-syllable one.

The narrator of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” according to Paglia, “shares [Blake’s chimney] sweep’s dangerous naivete: both are cheerful, chatty innocents who meet but never comprehend the dark forces at work in the world.” There is nothing “chatty” or “sing-song” about the first stanza; its diction is exact, and “kindly,” on which she places so much emphasis, is intended ironically. The narrator shows the same intelligence from beginning to end. It is not the “Or rather” at the beginning of the fourth stanza that provokes “the hesitation or stutter”; it is the fact that Dickinson inverts her usual hymn meter of four feet followed by three to three followed by four. The line “the dews grew quivering and chill” does not involve metonymy, which is not adequately defined as “rhetorical displacement.” Paglia’s aside about “Dickinson’s archaic, Anglo-Saxon capitalizations (which were condescendingly ‘corrected’ and removed in the first posthumous collections of her work)” is a slur on Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Bianchi, who displayed more sensibility in editing her poems than her later editor Johnson did and far more than Paglia does in explicating them. (One of Todd’s greatest sins as an editor, as Paglia fails to note, was to omit the fourth stanza of this very poem. The stanza itself is bad, but integral, and it is a close judgment whether the poem is better without it.)

Wallace Stevens bears most of the brunt of her frequent abuse of biography. Often she confuses the narrator with the poet, in the traditional freshman manner. Paglia lets drop that Stevens’ wife appears in “Sunday Morning,” from which I have been unable to discern, after several dozen readings, that the man was even married. Of Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” she remarks: “The note was evidently written overnight, while the rest of the family was asleep.” Evidently: and “My Last Duchess” was evidently written by a murdering medieval duke, A.E. Housman evidently survived countless suicides to become a famous classics scholar in middle age, and as for “Piazza Piece,” I bet you had no idea that Death writes poetry and wears dustcoats. One might excuse Paglia on the grounds that the “note” that the poem purports to be is not the same as the poem itself. Unfortunately she adopts a similar technique throughout, reproducing, for instance, a speech from Hamlet’s father’s ghost as a self-contained poem and discussing it as if it were in Shakespeare’s person.

Arriving at “Anecdote of the Jar,” Paglia takes flight:

In style, the jar more resembles an earthenware pot than a polished vase on a pedestal. It rejects the elite standards of uniqueness and perfection of the European “masterpiece.” Stevens was born and raised in Reading in Pennsylvania Dutch country, where home produce was “put up” in ceramic crocks or glass canning jars and where farmers’ markets still abound. The region borders on West Virginia, just over the Mason-Dixon Line, through which the Appalachian mountain chain drops to Kentucky and Tennessee. Hence Stevens’s Tennessee jar, with its dollops of canned or sampled nature, may also be a jug for moonshine (fiery corn whiskey), that staple of the Southern underground economy… Behind his respectable facade in Hartford, perhaps Stevens in his secluded hours of poetry thought of himself as running a secret still on his own mount of the Muses.

Obliged though I am to Paglia for the definition of “moonshine,” that’s only one kind. This passage is another. It is known, in the argot of literary criticism, as making shit up. The reader may be pardoned for having forgotten in all the hubbub that all we know about the jar is that it’s “round upon the ground,” “gray and bare,” and “tall and of a port in air.” About the “secret still” the less said the better.

Everything Paglia writes about “Anecdote of the Jar” is wrong, including “and” and “the.” “This cryptic poem is about art making,” she says. It is not. It is about Stevens’ single subject, the sterility of the human intellect, represented by the jar, and the consequent necessity of hedonism. This might have occurred to her had she spent more time reading his poetry and less fantasizing about his private life. “Without human framing nature remains ‘a slovenly wilderness,’ a primeval chaos.” No again, as lines 3 (“It [the jar] made the slovenly wilderness”) and 6 (“It [the wilderness] sprawled around, no longer wild.”) make clear. (Italics mine.) Anyone who has come upon a wild scene that looks pristine at first and then spotted a piece of trash will appreciate what Stevens means. The jar makes the mess, which is why it is “gray and bare” and “did not give of bird or bush.” These details are indeed “inscrutable and intractable” when you have the poem backwards from the get-go. It is only fair to point out that most of the Stevens specialists don’t understand it either.

Blake’s “London” she treats as a catalog of the evils of the Industrial Revolution, which makes a hash of “in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” and which would have outraged its author. To interpret the “marriage hearse” as the spread of venereal disease is not only contrary to the author’s intent but illogical. Syphilitic prostitutes may blight marriages with plagues, but why “the marriage hearse”? Blake is pleading, as usual, in favor of anarchy and against law and civil society in every form. This is the man who wrote “damn braces, bless relaxes.”

I will not revisit my little dust-up about “Ozymandias” here. Suffice it to say that my severest critics and I would agree that, whatever the merits of the poem, it decidedly does not “wipe out history and humanity in a godless apocalypse that prefigures modern nihilism.” Shelley was as firm a believer in human progress as anyone this side of Robert Wright. In “Ozymandias” it is the tyrants who perish. This is a good thing.

I think I’ll buy a copy of Madonna Megastar. I hear it’s a picture book.

Jul 142005

You will recall from Part 1 that I owned a typescript of two unpublished poems by Yvor Winters and referred to my readers the question of what to do with them. Arguments were offered for selling, publishing, and burning. The arsonists had much the worst of it. Their best point was mine: that publishing them would muddy Winters’ reputation, and the reputations of poets are easily muddied. Still, even Helen Vendler can probably distinguish these juvenilia from such performances as “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight,” “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills,” “Before Disaster,” “To the Holy Spirit,” and “Danse Macabre.” Eddie Thomas suggested that burning them will spare my heirs (my girlfriend) from thinking about what they stand to gain from my death — this typescript, and a stolen eight-ball from the local poolroom. I thank Eddie for making me feel, for a moment, like the billionaire who informs his grasping nephews that everything will go to the dog shelter. Perhaps he will be mollified to know that Lisa was only kidding. You were kidding, right sweetheart?

The historians pointed out a few matters that did not occur to me. We preserve literature for reasons other than strict aesthetic merit. Colby Cosh cites the poetry of Queen Elizabeth, which isn’t much good but which we are happy to have. Colby also reminds me that as an accidental executor my responsibilities may differ from, say, Max Brod’s. Bad poetry, Michael Krantz points out, may shed light on the good, though in my own experience it tends only to obscure it. I agree, however, with George Wallace that I have hedged about them sufficiently that no one will likely take these poems for more than what they are. In short, the historians win.

The mercenaries, led by the terse Paul Frankenstein, may take comfort in the fact that publishing and selling are not mutually exclusive. But I like owning the typescript and I don’t need the money. Certainly I will sell it before I dine on dog food.

Since I’m not going to get rid of them, I see no reason to withhold them. So here they are.

The Hermit

The shaggy old man of the canyons
Was fearful for mortal to see;
But he scattered his crumbs to the song-birds,
And raised the sage flower for the bee.

All folk turned aside when they saw him,
They feared his strange eyes and long hair;
But he played with the fawns in the shadows,
And dug up sweet roots with the bear.

And so when he died no men mourned him,
For he was a stranger to men;
But the fawns stare big-eyed from the shadows,
And the old bear moaned in the glen.

And the birds gave over their singing,
And the canyons were lonely and still;
And the birds dropped leaves over his body,
And the bees hummed his dirge on the hill.

To A Coyote

Gentle pussyfooter of the gulleys,
You of the sleepy slouch,
Of the furtive tail,
And the leering eye,
With your long tongue sliding enviously
Out of one corner of your mouth,
Your coat is moth-eaten,
And your ribs show through it,

But wait,
Where have I seen you before?

–Yvor Winters

Jun 252005

Fifteen years ago I walked into the Phoenix, a poetry bookshop on Jones Street that no longer exists, and asked what they had by Yvor Winters. The proprietor went to the back and returned with several items from the library of Glenway Wescott (1901-1987), a distinguished novelist and a friend and contemporary of Winters. I promptly relieved him of them for more than I could readily afford.

Among the items was a typescript of two poems, “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote,” signed by Winters, with a note by Wescott: “I found this with poems of my own not later than the summer of 1920? (I think)”. To judge by the style he is correct. Winters’ first book of poetry, The Immobile Wind, was published in 1920, and these obviously belong to him, and to that period. They have appeared nowhere in print to my knowledge.

Winters took considerable pains with his literary estate. He issued a Collected Poems in 1952, revised it, adding two later poems, in 1960, and collected his early poetry in 1966. He was very definite about what he wanted to keep, as he was about most matters. In the introduction to The Early Poems of Yvor Winters, 1920-28, he wrote as follows:

I publish this book to provide an authorized edition of my early and “experimental” work. Some one would do this in any event, and probably some one who would sweep all of my uncollected work into a single volume, with no indication of what I had considered my best work at the time I was writing and publishing it. I include three small books [The Immobile Wind, The Magpie’s Shadow, and The Bare Hills], a group of four poems previously uncollected from magazines, and two later groups of some size… Any other uncollected material is rubbish.

Some one else has done this, regardless, although Winters has been fortunate in his editors so far. In 1978 Donald Davie published The Poetry of Yvor Winters, which included everything from Winters’ own two collections and only fifteen additional pages of what he wished to throw away. In 2000 R.L. Barth put out a fine selection of Winters’ verse, along with a well-edited Selected Letters, which are amusing and harrowing by turns.

The Complete Poetry of Yvor Winters, with the usual trappings, critical detritus, and library pricing, is surely in our future. Sooner or later an academic with more diligence than talent will get around to exhuming Winters’ literary remains. He will want to see my typescript.

I will not reproduce “The Hermit” and “To a Coyote” here. They are, in fact, rubbish. The typescript gives me great joy to possess, and I will not let it go until I die. The question is, what then? Should I donate it to a library and put the poems in the public domain? Or should I burn it? You tell me: I honestly don’t know.

Jun 092005

Now is the time on God of the Machine when I play nice with the other blogchildren, who must be exasperated by my philoso-scientific treatises. I have been tagged for a game by Agenda Bender, who sustains, practically single-handed, my diminishing belief that homosexuals are, in fact, witty. I will indulge him.

1. Number of Books I’ve Owned: Lifetime, a few thousand, more than five and less than ten. Like Alfred Jay Nock in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man — which I own — I owe a great deal of my education to reading the spines of books. My apartment has room for only 1,500 or so, and henceforward each arrival necessitates a departure.

2. Last Book Bought: The Greeks and the Irrational, by E.R. Dodds. See last book read.

3. Last Book Read: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I picked this up a few years ago and brought it to work, intending it for subway reading. My boss spotted it and called me “a Julian Jaynes homosexual.” I had to put the book down so I could think about how to punctuate that.

Jaynes’s book is interesting, if a bit off the wall, and he cites Dodds favorably, which prompted me to buy it. The portion of my education not due to book spines I owe to my habit of reading the books that the authors I admire read. A book without footnotes and bibliography is like a day without sunshine.

4. Five Books That Mean a Lot to Me: I just gave a reading list, and I hate reading lists. Instead you will get a reading history.

In my adolescence I had no mind to speak of. I read indiscriminately, remembered little and understood less. I assiduously studied Fowler’s Modern English Usage, utterly failed to discern its spirit, and became a pedant. The only books I thoroughly absorbed were about games: Bobby Fischer’s My 60 Greatest Games, Louis Watson’s The Play of the Hand, and The Baseball Encyclopedia.

At 20 my sneaking suspicion that I had been fed an awful lot of shit was confirmed by Ayn Rand, which helped to make me insufferable for the better part of a decade. Fortunately I was already a bit too old; Hazlitt and von Mises convinced me about economics before Rand made a dent. It usually begins with Ayn Rand, and usually ends there too.

At 25 I was browsing the back of the book in The New Republic and came across a reference to Yvor Winters as “being opposed to everything the 20th century stood for” or something like that. Not true — Winters believed that the 20th century is poetry’s greatest in English — but there, I thought, is the critic for me. After two years of immersion in Forms of Discovery and its accompanying anthology, Quest for Reality, I fancied myself a poet; after five, a poetry critic.

At 30 I took up computer programming. I learned how to think about programming problems from George Polya’s various books about mathematical heuristic, especially How to Solve It; how to design complex systems from Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language; and how to develop reasonable coding habits from Code Complete by Steve McConnell and Refactoring by Martin Fowler. For any bugs in my current code these four men are entirely responsible.

Now I patch the holes in my defective education as best I can. Since I forget faster than I read, I keep falling further behind, in the manner of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, who needs half an hour to write fifteen minutes of his life. And there we are.

The culturati are going at it hot and heavy over the burden of consumer choice. So much food, so much art, so little time! Jon Hastings sympathizes; Virginia “Eternal Sunshine” Postrel is having none of it:

Since different people care intensely about different things, only a society where choice is abundant everywhere can truly accommodate the variety of human beings. Abundant choice doesn’t force us to look for the absolute best of everything. It allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about, whether that means great coffee, jeans cut wide across the hips, or a spouse who shares your zeal for mountaineering, Zen meditation, and science fiction.

True, sometimes, I guess, though one wonders in passing which supermarket Postrel bought her husband at. I will readily stipulate that there are markets, like mattresses or deodorants, in which people who “really care about” sleep or smelling fresh will not be any better served than the rest of us by the hundreds of indistinguishable products on offer. Point is, the mattresses and deodorants are all pretty good, for exactly the same reason that there are so many of them. Here our choices are limited: high quality and profusion, or neither.

Also, Anne Bancroft died. I exempt myself from my recent strictures on the grounds that I often talked about her but never got around to writing, and besides, I feel like it. She triumphed as Annie Sullivan and equally, in a completely different way, as Mrs. Robinson, in a dated and overrated movie that lives only when she is on screen (excepting Buck Henry’s neat turn as the hotel desk clerk). She also managed to stay married to Mel Brooks for forty years and keep her mouth shut in public. A working definition of adulthood is the day you watch The Graduate and not only find Anne Bancroft more alluring than Katharine Ross but wonder how you could have ever thought otherwise.

(Update: Colby Cosh comments. Alan Sullivan comments.)

Mar 032005

By a feat of yogic discipline — or sloth; you choose — I managed, until now, to pass by the deaths of Hunter Thompson and Arthur Miller without dusting off my opinions of them for public consumption. I am neither man’s ideal reader, and my experience with Wordsworth and W.E. Henley has shown that it may be wiser to keep my own counsel in such cases. No eloquence can persuade the man who feels a sense of something more deeply interfused that rolls through all things that Wordsworth is a fatuous bore. Detailed analysis leaves the impenetrable head of the Invictus fancier bloodied but unbowed. I confine myself to saying that I simply lack the alpha model to appreciate these gentlemen, and that the people who have it might do better with a different model.

My favorite Hunter Thompson book is Hell’s Angels, his only book whose subject is not Hunter Thompson, which tells you all you need to know. As Cosh, his most interesting eulogist, pointed out, Thompson was one part John the Baptist and one part Jonathan Swift, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” being his Book of Revelations and Voyage to Brobdingnag, respectively. Revelations has its distinguished admirers, D.H. Lawrence for one, but as a computer programmer I object to dumping core, even in Thompson’s fine style, as a literary technique. Cosh thinks Thompson is immortal. I expect to outlive his reputation, provided I lay off the cigarettes.

Arthur Miller was a playwright. He married Marilyn Monroe. He will be read as long as there exist high school teachers charged with imparting the obvious to the oblivious, which is to say, forever.

But I wanted to talk about something else.

Why must people write of someone when he dies of whom they did not think to write while he was alive? Tom Wolfe I can see: while his obituary wasn’t very good, he was a friend of Thompson’s, and he presumably got paid. One would also expect Thompson’s long-time and only conceivable illustrator, Ralph Steadman, to say a few words. But what were the rest of you thinking?

The uncharitable explanation — monkey see, monkey scribble — has as usual a good deal in it. Thompson is a topic, Miller is a topic, and we are perennially starved for topics: such is the vital function of the newspaper. But there is something even more unpleasant at work — a ghoulish, misbegotten sense of duty, as if failing to note their passing means that our own will also go unremarked. Well, it will. Not to worry.

Occasionally the manner of exit is pertinent. Thompson’s, like Thompson, was histrionic; Mark Riebling and I’m sure many others have made the suitable remarks. Arthur Miller, on the other hand, went old, rich, and in his sleep, which didn’t seem to shut anybody up.

Obituaries fall loosely into three categories: encomium, scorn, and measured assessment. Encomium, at best, is too little too late; at worst it is breast-beating aimed at calling attention more to oneself than to the dear departed. (Many of the great fakes of English literature, like Lycidas, are eulogies. Does anybody believe that Milton gave a damn about Edward King?) Scorn is unsportsmanlike, its object no longer being around to answer back.

Measured assessment is worst of all. If you’ve ever flipped through a biographical reference book, say Harvey’s Oxford Guide to English Literature, you know what I mean. I open it at random to Prosper Merimée (1803-1870) and read, “French novelist and dramatist, a member of the court of Napoleon III, was the author of admirable novels and short stories (‘Colomba’, ‘La Vénus d’Ille’, 1841; ‘Carmen’, which inspired Bizet’s opera, 1852), of plays (‘Theâtre de Clara Gazul’, 1825), of ‘La Jacquerie’ (feudal scenes in dialogue form), and of the historical novel, ‘Chronique de Charles IX’ (1829). His well-known ‘Lettres à une Inconnue’ display his ironic and critical temperament. He was a strong supporter of the innocence of ‘Libri the book-thief’ (q.v.).” I find this heart-breaking, down to the last q.v. Poor Merimée! It’s like being buried twice.

Sir Paul Harvey, here, is just doing his job; measured assessment is not the sort of thing that anyone should do for fun. And let’s face it: Hunter Thompson and Arthur Miller had their literary deaths decades ago. You didn’t know them. You read a few of their books and you still can, any time. Do you honestly care that they’re dead? Why should you?

Jun 142004

Back from a blogging holiday, only to find that I’m a killjoy, a bully (check the comments to the last link: “fists raise to strike?” For the record, I haven’t hit anybody since 7th grade, and he hit me first), a “finely-tuned yay-boo machine,” and, my favorite, “ruler-wielding,” as if I were the evil nun from parochial school.

These bloggers are offended because I object to some work of art that they like. (Such quaint favorites too. I expect to catch grief for savaging Invictus, but Wordsworth, Shelley, Frank O’Hara, Yeats: who knew?) I understand, and I even sympathize, to a point. Polibloggers vastly outnumber artbloggers because people are less interested in politics, not more. Art is just too damn personal. What you like goes to the core of who you are.

Public discourse being what it is, you must expect to see your loves bruised a bit. Nothing personal. I do not, no matter what Ray Davis says, “argue against the possibility of taking pleasure in Frank O’Hara,” or W.E. Henley, or anyone else. The pleasure that people take in Frank O’Hara is real, I am sure, and they are welcome to it. But it is obvious to me that the Williams poem to which I compared O’Hara exploits the possibilities of free verse in a way that The Day Lady Died does not. I write in the forlorn hope that some of my readers might see this as well. It is piety, not destruction.

When I say that art is this, or poetry is that, I will happily entertain counter-claims and objections, even the objection that the questions are pointless. With few exceptions, like the estimable Jim Henley, who argues like a proper adult, these are not forthcoming. Instead it’s “but I like Frank O’Hara!” or “art is an affair of the heart!” or “poetry is magical and mysterious!” The Department of Defense has plans for a refinement of the neutron bomb, which will wipe out the humanities faculty while leaving the campus buildings and the science faculty intact. This is why.

Art is not a curiosity shop to nance about in. It is not a verdant meadow to which you hie your exquisite sensibility for a picnic and a sunbath. It is a discipline, with basic questions that remain unanswered. What is it? What use is it? What makes some works better than others? How do genres differ, and how do their peculiar techniques produce their peculiar results? One way to get at these matters is to disassemble the works, find out what makes them tick. This no more deprives of them of their beauty than knowledge of civil engineering prevents one from admiring the Hoover Dam. On the contrary, I would think.

Doubtless these questions are difficult. But progress in answering them for the last two and a half millenia — since, oh, Aristotle’s Poetics — has been near zero. Somehow, during this same time, human beings have managed to answer other difficult questions, like how blood circulates, what causes smallpox, what the relationship is between mass and energy, and whether arithmetic can be axiomatized. Is art really that hard to understand? Or are its devotees just not interested in understanding it?

(Update: George Wallace comments, generously. Jim Henley comments, estimably.)

May 252004

Hardy looks at the ocean and sees the ocean:

A distant verge morosely gray
Appears, while clots of flying foam
Break from its muddy monochrome,
And a light blinks up far away.
(The Wind’s Prophecy)

Dickinson looks in a meadow and sees a snake:

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens farther on.
(A narrow fellow in the grass)

Wordsworth looks at a landscape and sees — Wordsworth:

— Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under the dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door…
(Tintern Abbey)

A landscape presses, on most of us, thoughts of our own insignificance. Not Wordsworth: Nature puffs him up. Wordsworth beholds, Wordsworth reposes, and Wordsworth sees. Yet Wordsworth notices nothing. The scene is a blur; Wordsworth favors blurring, and there will be a great deal more of it later on. Cliffs, “steep and lofty” God help us, “connect,” oddly enough, the land with the sky; green fruits “lose themselves” in the green meadows. The one distinct feature is Wordsworth himself, who is everywhere, like Ali in the ring. Tintern Abbey would not be worth discussing except that it is commonly considered a great poem and has intelligent admirers who do not make their living exhuming Wordsworth. So here we go.

Begin with the title, which is not merely Tintern Abbey but Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798. This is lucky for the reader unacquainted with the geography of the Lake District, to whom the lines

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

might otherwise give pause. The significance of July 13, 1798, remains unclear. The unfortunate half-pun “oft, in” with “often” is characteristic. In this Bogan poem such near-repetition is used effectively. Of course Bogan had talent.

I grant that bloggers are not in the best position to criticize someone else for being deeply moved by the sound of his own voice; but this is a man who needs a line and a half to clear his throat:

Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift…

A gift, it turns out, for unintentional comedy:

Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountain…

A man whose thoughts are never interesting, for all his devotion to them. Tintern Abbey runs to 158 lines, and what thought we get is summarized in its most famous passage:

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

These elevated thoughts amount to nothing more than a very mild version of the ecstatic merger with all existence that we find later, at excruciating length, in Whitman, and still later, with tragic consequences, in Crane. I confess I find the doctrine incoherent. Thirty lines later Wordsworth complains of “rash judgments,” “greetings where no kindness is,” and “the dreary intercourse of daily life,” all surely objectionable but equally surely included in the class of “all objects of all thought.” Where’s that something far more deeply interfused when you really need it? The essence of life, as Nabokov puts it in Pnin, is “discreteness,” and we shall all be one with the sun and the flowers and the trees and the dirt and the worms soon enough. Wordsworth may mean only that God is in all things, but he never mentions Him, and the thought scarcely seems adequate to the occasion.

The experience, to be fair, must be distinguished from the doctrine. One can accept its value, or at least its intensity, and agree that “blue sky” and “sense sublime” (a pointless inversion, a Wordsworth specialty) do little to illuminate it. Again we have “deep,” often favored by people who, like Wordsworth, have trouble seeing surfaces; its derivations appear seven times in Tintern Abbey. “Living air” conveys, in a small way, what he is after; but after numerous readings of this poem I am convinced this is an accident. For Wordsworth flatness, which he calls “the real language of men,” was a matter of theory as well as practice. We are taught in English class that Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads began the counter-revolution toward simple language after more than a century of Miltonic ornament. In fact Dr. Johnson parodied this sort of thing before Wordsworth was born:

I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand;
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Wordsworth quotes this parody in the preface, and his efforts to explain it away make for amusing reading. The difference in style between this and the Lucy poems is very fine indeed.

Wordsworth owes his reputation to several happy accidents, major and minor. He wrote his best verse at the turn of the 19th century, just as the toff and the heroic couplet were going out of style and the peasant and blank verse were coming in, which has made him a convenient stand-in for wide cultural change. He wrote so much and so repetitively, in both verse and prose, that his point is impossible to miss, and scholars have dined for two centuries on his vast corpus like buzzards on carrion. His more deservedly influential friend Coleridge promoted him mightily. He uniquely has a psychiatric cure on his résumé: John Stuart Mill, better known as a philosopher than a literary critic, says in his Autobiography that reading Wordsworth helped him recover his sanity after a mental breakdown. Above all, perhaps, Wordsworth firmly believed in his own greatness, and the fact that so many people still do, after so much time has passed, testifies to the awful, the lofty, the sublime, the deep power of suggestion.

(Update: Ben H. casts the movie version of The Idiot Boy. Esme comments. David Fiore comments. Jim Henley slags Hardy for the same reasons I slag Wordsworth, by way of praising Frost. Fair enough; but note that in The Darkling Thrush, which he quotes in full, the description of the thrush itself, “frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume,” is exactly what a thrush looks like. Tim Hulsey is more generous than I am, and you should read him before you believe me. Also much, much more Wordsworth over at Bandarlog.

May 042004

Eve Tushnet posts a list of great book titles, which you ought to read, like most everything else she writes. It is surprising how scarce great titles are, once you get to thinking about it. She marks some of them “in context,” which means you have to read the book to appreciate them, and this strikes me as a bit of a cheat. A great book title, like a great wine, ought to be glorious at first and improve upon acquaintance. Still, I mostly agree — who could knock A Clockwork Orange or Pale Fire? — though she veers more toward the prolix than I might. I am mildly discomfited by the absence of Wyndham Lewis, who is responsible for probably half of the top ten book titles in English. Consider:

The Apes of God (which used to be the name of my fantasy baseball team. Not that I have a thing about omniscience.)
Snooty Baronet
Malign Fiesta
Revenge for Love
The Vulgar Streak
The Doom of Youth
Men Without Art
The Art of Being Ruled (The last three are non-fiction, so they may not be official, but I mean, come on.)

Lewis, I note impartially, can also lay claim to possibly the worst title ever, The Jews, Are They Human? His answer, incidentally, was yes.

(Update: Eve has more, noting that she meant “in context” as meaning only that you know a bit about the book, actually reading it not being necessary. So there turn out to be three categories of great titles. Hey, I’m not false dilemma for nothing!

(She also wonders if there’s a philosophy of titling. I doubt it. I looked through my bookshelves and couldn’t pick out more than a couple dozen really distinguished titles from a thousand books or so. It seems to me mostly a matter of happy chance. The best title for an autobiography, by the way, was proposed by Preston Sturges, who never finished his, and remains unused, to my knowledge: The Events Leading Up to My Death.)

Another: Ian Hamet comments. The Dancer from Atlantis? Someone wean Ian off the sci-fi already.)

May 042004

Now that David Hurwitz has blown the lid off classical music, I feel impelled to do my part.

1. Everything you liked in high school is bad. Everything your English teacher told you to like is also bad, but for different reasons. If you liked what your English teacher told you to like, you are now teaching English.

2. Donne should be hanged for his placing of the accents.

3. Blake was stone loony.

4. Reputation bloat is directly proportional to the fodder the poet supplies for doctoral theses. “Philosophical” poets are especially prized. Wordsworth leads the league in this department.

5. When browsing an anthology, skip any poet you have heard of. Only the one-offs will be any good. In fact someone ought to get around to making an anthology strictly of one-offs, like those Nuggets collections Rhino Records puts out.

6. Eliot’s scholarship is a complete fraud.

7. Pound was actually a nice guy. A traitor, but a nice guy.

8. Only about a dozen poems in English longer than 100 lines are worth reading. One of them, unfortunately, is Paradise Lost.

9. Shakespeare’s sonnets aren’t very good. The plays are pretty good, however.

10. The middle section of Leaves of Grass consists of the sentence “All work and no play makes Walt a dull boy,” repeated 3,482 times.

(Update: Alexei comments, and comments on the comments.)