Nov 172002

You hate poetry, like all self-respecting people who remember the English teacher’s pet in high school, the girl who liked rainbows and Christina Rossetti. As Marianne Moore said, “I, too, dislike it.”

Besides, most of the stuff you had to read was lousy. If your education in lyric poetry was anything like mine, it consisted largely of Milton, Keats and Shelley and a swath of second-rate Elizabethans like Sidney and Spenser. The Norton Anthology of English Literature is an undifferentiated and indigestible mass of mediocrity.

That’s why you need this top five list. There are only five because if I posted ten you wouldn’t read any. They are all under 30 lines long because the attention required to read great poetry properly is difficult to sustain. You never had to read them in school. You probably never read them at all. And they’re far better than anything you did have to read. (Full Disclosure: I wouldn’t know most of these poems myself if not for the great poet and critic Yvor Winters, who formed my taste.)

To Heaven, Ben Jonson (1572-1637). This is a Christian poem that one need not be a Christian to appreciate. Jonson addresses the real issue, which is that in middle age people often grow tired of life; Donne, with his neurotic and overdramatized fear of death, seems phony by comparison.

“As imperceptibly as grief,” Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Only Stevens, in The Snow Man, which I recommend to anyone who thinks vers libre is a contradiction, and in the fourth and eighth stanzas of Sunday Morning, another great poem but too long to make the list, conveys nature’s alien majesty nearly as effectively. This poem also exploits off-rhyme more brilliantly than any poem ever written in English.

“My spirit will not haunt the mound,” Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Hardy speaking from beyond the grave again, which he does in his poetry quite often. Note the placement of the caesuras in the last line of each stanza. First between the third and fourth syllables, then between the first and second, and finally between the second and third, resolves the poem the way a musical note resolves a chord. Hardy, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Campion are the best metrists in English.

Exhortation, Louise Bogan (1897-1970). The necessity of hatred.

To the Reader, J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985). On one level this poem is about textual scholarship; on another, about the relationship between experience and the wisdom that can be drawn from it.

Nov 172002


Give over seeking bastard joy
Nor cast for fortune’s side-long look.
Indifference can be your toy;
The bitter heart can be your book.
(Its lesson torment never shook.)

In the cold heart, as on a page,
Spell out the gentle syllable
That puts short limit to your rage
And curdles the straight fire of hell,
Compassing all, so all is well.

Read how, though passion sets in storm
And grief’s a comfort, and the young
Touch at the flint when it is warm,
It is the dead we live among,
The dead given motion, and a tongue.

The dead, long trained to cruel sport
And the crude gossip of the grave;
The dead, who pass in motley sort,
Whom sun nor sufferance can save.
Face them. They sneer. Do not be brave.

Know once for all: their snare is set
Even now; be sure their trap is laid;
And you will see your lifetime yet
Come to their terms, your plans unmade,
And be belied, and be betrayed.

–Louise Bogan

Nov 172002

I’ve been banned by the government of China! I have! Alas, it isn’t because Jiang Zemin decided my imperialist running dog propaganda was too dangerous for the masses to read. They got themselves a list of authorized sites, see, and my friends and I aren’t on it, and you and your friends aren’t either. But don’t let me keep you from enjoying that frisson of dissidence while it lasts. Oddly, the official Chinese Government site is reported as inaccessible in China. A prize, or something, to the first person who finds a site that isn’t blocked in China. (Link from OxBlog.)

(Update: The Declarer, Floyd McWilliams, comments that he was in an Internet cafe in China last week and pulled up The Washington Post, Drudge and Instapundit, all of which are reported inaccessible by the Harvard site. The apparently universal faith that if software returns results then the results must be correct is touching. Really.)

(Further Update: Looks like Harvard ironed out a few kinks. I’m now reported as accessible in China, and so is blogspot, and so, I suspect, is everyone else who was so pleased about being banned. Which indicates that I was wrong, and that they do, in fact, maintain a list of banned domains rather than authorized ones.)

Nov 142002

Grace, or my idea of Grace? Agenda Bender posts a righteous tribute to that unique 80s classic, the mother of all remix albums, Grace Jones’s Slave to the Rhythm.

It’s easy to forget what pop music was like in 1985. Punk had long since killed off AOR, only to choke on its own vomit (or maybe someone else’s vomit; the inquest was never clear). The huge albums of the year were the Miami Vice soundtrack, Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits and No Jacket Required by that short bald guy who used to be in Genesis. The critical favorites were mopey bands like Hsker D, Sonic Youth and R.E.M. before they learned to play their instruments. And then along come Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson, with beats, and crystalline production on which you can hear the triangle on the 64th track, and trancy spoken-word raps like, “Rhythm is both the song’s manacle and its demonic charge…it is the original breath, it is the whisper of unremitting demand…” And you don’t have to be gay to appreciate, “That night, [Grace] was singing her hit song, ‘I Need a Man,’ to a room full of shrieking gay bobby soxers…the ambiguity was that she herself looked like a man…a man, singing ‘I need a man,’ to a bunch of men.”

Horn and Lipson made many memorable records on their imprint, Zang Tuum Tumb Records, even better ones, like Propaganda’s A Secret Wish and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Liverpool. But Slave to the Rhythm was first and still fabulous.

Nov 142002

This week I did jury duty, for the first time in my life. The highlight of the first day is a brief film on the history of the jury system, narrated by Diane Sawyer and Ed Bradley, who were presumably chosen for their long experience dispensing impartial justice on 60 Minutes. On the second day I am empanelled, which is a curious experience.

Twenty of us are chosen to make up a jury of six, with three alternates — which seems like a lot for what is expected to be a one-week trial — for a medical malpractice case.

We are numbered and directed to a tiny room with just enough space for 20 numbered theater seats, plus two chairs and a desk in the front for the plaintiff and defense lawyer. I take my seat, #16, and fill out the form. It asks for name, years of residence, occupation, employer, family members’ occupations, hobbies (hobbies?), and then whether you’d sued or been sued or served on a jury before.

The plaintiff’s lawyer collects the forms and tells us about the case. A child, now 20, has had a kidney transplant and is on hemodialysis. The plaintiff maintains that none of this would have been necessary had his pediatrician diagnosed his ailment much earlier; so the central question is whether the doctor was negligent in failing to diagnose it, or, as the lawyer puts it, “fell below the standard of care.” In other words, twelve laymen will pass judgment on whether a doctor’s treatment was adequate to the standards of the profession fifteen years ago. The usual.

The plaintiff’s lawyer asks each of us to describe our lives in sixty seconds. It’s not a roomful of idiots by any means. There is an Israeli immigrant who owns a chain of a clothing boutiques, a health care stock analyst, a social worker, two Goldman Sachs investment bankers (one retired, although he appeared to be no more than 45 or so), an Argentinian immigrant who is a school principal, two librarians, a nuclear medicine technician, a vice president of personnel, a customer service representative, three marketing executives and a couple of software developers, including me. Nearly everyone speaks in complete, parseable sentences. Most of the men state their ages; none of the women do.

The lawyer follows our summaries with a few questions. He asks what our experience is with the medical profession — long-term illnesses, doctors in the family, health care clients, that sort of thing. He asks some of us about our hobbies again. He asks three panelists whether they would set an absolute ceiling on damages; all say no, which I suppose is how $28 billion judgments are entered against Philip Morris. He asks several panelists if his inability to present the case elegantly — and it is true, he is not a notably elegant speaker for a trial lawyer — will affect their decisions. They all deny it, of course.

The panelists divulge their biases scrupulously, so far as I can tell. The social worker admits to having an attorney for a husband; the school principal confesses to being an attorney, back in Argentina. One of the librarians has a close friend who’s had a kidney transplant. The two attorneys question her in another room for a few minutes. Three or four of the panelists volunteer to confer with the lawyers privately, presumably to disclose private biases.

When my turn comes, I mention that I’ve written about tort law. (I favorably reviewed Wally Olson’s book, The Litigation Explosion, many years ago.) I am promptly removed to be questioned in private by the two attorneys and the judge. The plaintiff’s lawyer asks if my views on tort law will affect my judgment of this case. I say no, since the jury would apply the law, not rewrite it. The defense lawyer asks a more interesting question: whether my desire to “see my theories play out” by serving on the jury might induce me to suppress any biases I have. I say no again, that my interest is in how the law ought to be, not how it is applied in a particular case. This concludes my private interview.

Finally we all finish our biographies, the plaintiff’s lawyer sits down, and the defense lawyer, who has been nearly silent to this point, rises. He reminds us that we can’t go back in time, and that we have to try to imagine what the pediatrician knew in 1988, when the disputed treatment took place, and now what we know today. He questions three or four jurors individually. He asks one woman, who has two retarded sons, if she can separate her feelings about her sons’ medical treatment from her feelings about the plaintiff’s. Unfortunately yes, she says. Why unfortunately? Because, she says, it means she might have to serve on the jury.

The defense lawyer then makes a circuit of the room, asking each of us if we are willing to award no damages if the plaintiff’s lawyer fails to prove his case. We all say yes. The two lawyers leave the room to confer with the judge. Ten minutes later a clerk comes in and announces the jury.

Open bias disqualifies a few of us. The health care stock analyst and a woman whose brother is a doctor, both of whom confess to favoring doctors, don’t make the jury. An AOL/Time-Warner marketeer whose mother died of cancer and who admits to being dissatisfied with her treatment doesn’t make it either.

Knowledge of or experience with law or medicine appears to be a disadvantage, though not an absolute one. The nuclear medicine technician is dismissed; so is the woman with the two retarded boys; so are the social worker with the lawyer husband and the Argentinian ex-attorney. But the librarian whose friend had a kidney transplant makes the jury. So does the vice president of personnel, even though she used to work for a health care company and frequently arbitered disputes involving doctors.

Neither of the investment bankers makes the jury, though neither showed an obvious bias or had any medical or legal connections. Maybe plaintiff’s lawyers in medical malpractice cases just don’t want investment bankers. I too am dismissed, wisely I think.

On the whole I was impressed with the process, and with the jury that results. Of course this jury will be called upon to decide whether a doctor met “the standard of care” that prevailed for pediatric kidney ailments in 1988, which is a matter far beyond their competence. But that has nothing to do with the process, or the participants, and everything to do with the state of the law. Next time you’re called for jury duty, go. I recommend it.