Feb 082003

Of the many intelligent replies to the New York Sun’s editorial advocacy of censorship, Arthur Silber’s gets nearest to the heart of the matter:

In effect, the Sun announces its own, newer version of preemption: let’s destroy civil liberties now, and with absolute certainty, so as to avoid the possibility that those same civil liberties might be destroyed later. To identify the nature of this argument, is to realize how truly ludicrous it is, and it would be laughable if the matter were not so serious. Yet certain conservatives make this same kind of argument with profoundly disturbing regularity in connection with a compulsory draft, for example. They say: “But if we don’t forcibly conscript people, how will we be able to save our free country?” — thus ignoring the fact that by establishing the precedent of slavery yet again, and by establishing the principle that no one has the right to his own life, they have destroyed the very concept of a free country at its core — and that once this was accomplished, there would be nothing left to save.

(Update: Silber comments on the comments.)

Feb 082003

Sam Hamill was right. He had no business at “Laura Bush’s tea party” — not because of his fatuous politics, but because of his fatuous poetry.

State of the Union, 2003

I have not been to Jerusalem,
but Shirley talks about the bombs.
I have no god, but have seen the children praying
for it to stop. They pray to different gods.
The news is all old news again, repeated
like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie.

The children have seen so much death
that death means nothing to them now.
They wait in line for bread.
They wait in line for water.
Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.
We’ve seen them a thousand times.

Soon, the President will speak.
He will have something to say about bombs
and freedom and our way of life.
I will turn the tv off. I always do.
Because I can’t bear to look
at the monuments in his eyes.

I’m not sure how you repeat cheap tobacco, I’m quite sure I don’t want to investigate the question, and I’m 100% sure that’s not what Hamill’s repeating here. This is actually worse than Andrew Motion, worse even than Harold Pinter: those were still possible to parody. Give me the actors against the war. Some of them can actually act.

(Update: Emperor Misha and Cinderella comment. Frederick Glaysher protests to The New York Times, which predictably sided with the poets, and maintains a useful list of links on the whole sorry affair.)

Feb 072003

if god had an answer machine — Then you could leave a message, cupcake. But He’s in conference right now.

thomas kinkade lawsuit — Can you really sue for that?

top-down and bottom-up terror theory of Richard Rubenstein — You might want to ask Richard Rubenstein.

how much is an ounce of weed — It’s pricy. But it’s really good shit.

CRACK MACHINE — Look buddy, weed is one thing. What kind of blog do you think this is?

you have nothing to lose but your chains — You using those chains?

And not just f–k machine, oh no, but

how does a f–k machine work — You really need to come here to figure that out?

(Update: They improve! Today alone brings provocative ill-timed and internationally illegal actions and new economic policy lenin lesson plans, to which no comment of mine could do justice.)

Feb 072003

Suppose that you’ve set your comments up to email you each time one is posted, and you post a comment yourself. Suppose further that an email shows up in your box two minutes later, marked “New Comment,” and you open it excitedly, only to realize that it is, in fact, the comment that you yourself posted two minutes ago. Are you entitled to laugh at your cat when he chases his tail?

I don’t think so.

Feb 062003

It looks from my reefer logs that several people have tried to comment and not gotten through. If that’s you, or if you’ve had any trouble of this sort in the past, please email me (aaron at godofthemachine dot com or here), and advise. I’ve been thinking about switching from Greymatter to Movable Type anyway, and this may be the last straw.

Feb 062003

Turns out Canada has a “notwithstanding clause,” “a rarely-exercised legislative veto allowing some individual rights to be suspended, explicitly, where a statute conflicts with them.” (Cosh: it’s not just hockey and Canadian football any more.) Hey, great: just like Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution! You remember, that was the one Hitler used to suspend the Constitution and declare himself dictator. I propose to christen these “Wormer clauses,” after Dean Wormer’s classic line in Animal House: “There’s a little-known codicil in the Faber College Constitution granting the Dean unlimited powers in times of campus emergency.”

Feb 052003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
(This article should probably be first, not fourth, which is what happens when you embark on a series without any idea where you’re going.)

There are, fundamentally, two ways to read a poem: privately or publicly. A popular but bad poem best illustrates the difference. Since I have an especially persistent correspondent defending it, W.E. Henley’s “Invictus” will serve:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Let’s look at this poem closely. In the first stanza, why would night, a normal enough event, inspire the poet to give thanks for his unconquerable soul? The night may be metaphoric — one hopes so, since literal night is never black from pole to pole unless you’re sleeping in a tent — but still, one wonders, what is the trouble exactly?

In the second stanza we have the cliché “fell clutch.” “Winced nor” is both unnecessary and impossible to pronounce. Chance, not usually very thuggish, more a burglar than an armed robber, appears in the next line to do some bludgeoning, of all things. The last line is deservedly famous and is by far the best line in the poem.

The third stanza confronts us with “place of wrath and tears” as if the contemporaneous “vale of tears” weren’t bad enough. “[T]he Horror of the shade” or a phrase very like it appears in every third poem of the period.

The last stanza introduces the customary Heavenly machinery of gate, punishment and scroll. The poet, who is agnostic (“whatever gods may be”), imagines the afterlife as a possibility, and then asserts, curiously, in the famous close, that he is the master of his fate and captain of his soul regardless. Yet this surely depends on whether this imagined afterlife is real. I don’t think so, but the poet, on the evidence, isn’t sure.

“Invictus” is a bad poem, bad in detail and bad in execution, with one excellent and two other memorable lines. It is bad chiefly because motive is ill-adjusted to emotion. The poet is considerably wrought up about his unconquerable soul and defiant attitude, but he never provides a motive for this emotion, beyond some vague allusions to night, circumstance, chance, and the fact of his mortality. I am unconvinced by the phrase “the place of wrath and tears” that this world is so awful to inhabit. The reader who enjoys this poem supplies his own motive. Many readers are willing to do so, and the pleasure that they take in this poem is genuine. Popular poems are frequently on the “Invictus” model: they contain a couple of famous lines and a lot of unspecified motive for the reader to fill in. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” are all of this type.

The reader who enjoys this sort of poetry indulges in a private reading. He is interested in his own feelings, not what is written on the page. Those feelings may be profound, but they have nothing to do with the poem. Suppose the first time you kissed a girl was at a junior high school dance and the band was playing “Desperado.” Now “Desperado” is your favorite song, God help you, for reasons that have nothing to do with any actual merits it may possess. Same thing here.

When you insist on a public reading, on restricting yourself to what’s on the page, you sacrifice a certain amount of immediate warmth and sympathy, a visceral appreciation for poems like “Invictus,” for the ability to enter completely into greater minds than your own, operating at their peak. You sacrifice heat for cold. It’s worth it.