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March 5, 2019

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March 5, 2019

For the moment, I have moved whatever remains of my operations here to a page at Medium.

Crisis Actors

July 25, 2018

I started writing another poem yesterday. In this one I’m teaching. I enter the lecture hall and boot-up my PowerPoint, but, wouldn’t you know it in a poem about teaching, “technical difficulties” arise: what appears on the screen is not my PowerPoint at all but a film of myself, naked, standing in front of another lecture hall. Clearly I’d forgotten there was to be an exam. The film is black and white and silent, with inter-titles, but somehow the score for the The Third Man, by Anton Karas, is audible, the one with the zither (a word I’ve always hoped to type). The students, the real ones, not the ones on screen, start to take notes, because I’ve apparently begun a lecture on Ring Lardner’s “Haircut.” (Why does Lardner type “of” for “have” when no difference in pronunciation is audible? Did the barber write this? Of course not!) No one in the lecture hall acts as if anything strange is happening, and maybe nothing is, just a normal day at school. Jimmy Cagney appears on screen with me, but then he’s Steve Buscemi; they’re phasing in and out of one another; and at a moment of recalibration, they offer me a gift of fear, which I accept. And now onscreen I’m in an orange jumpsuit and zip-cuffs––for cause. Buscemi gives chase, corners me in an alley shouting, “Lust is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame!” and then he gut-shoots me twice––and then I wake in a hotel bed, sweating from the nightmare. All this happens onscreen, as I expound on Lardner’s “Haircut.” And still the students take notes, nothing amiss at all, no sleeper cells in the hall today, not a one. A word formed in my mouth, “Water-board”; and I said it twice more, “Water-board, water-board,” and it sounded like birdsong and twilight. But then the kids start levitating. One, a young white whale, exits a window, rises to an altitude of 600 meters and detonates; the school I’m in is gone, nothing left but insult, blood, and ashes. I come to, swaddled in yellow police tape: someone was looking out for me (everything happens for a reason). And now we are on the set of the school, and the cameras roll, and the powers point, and I notice again, as for the first time, that I’m wearing no clothes; and then the crisis actors arrive and send me to wardrobe, and I choose an Ermenegildo Zegna shirt, blue jeans, and a chalk-white Glock. I feel ultra-safe. Back home, my wife says, phatic and perfunctory, “How was your day?” I reply in kind and switch on the TV. First comes a story about the latest summit––incalculable heights and crags. There follow tales of honey traps, Samatha Bees, and of the latest baseball shootings, but the young white whale who leveled my school, whom I lied to my only wife about;––of him, not a word. I reach into the freezer by feel, and bring out some Stouffer’s french-bread pizza, which, after preheating the city, we eat. And of that evening I recall nothing else but dreamless sleep, and “getting back in the saddle” the next morning, because nothing beats getting back in the saddle. By the time I reached the lecture hall, everyone was seated again, and though the hall is now a quonset-hut with green-screens, no one minds, certainly not me; and I find myself lecturing on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and everyone on earth is taking note; and then, naturally, I point out how his real-estate speculations in Chicago led Stephen A. Douglas to frame the Kansas-Nebraska Act, opening up a vein in Lawrence that neither William Quantrill, nor Sam Brownback, nor Thomas Frank would ever staunch. Satisfaction overwhelms me. I feel called.

“Opportunities That Disappointed”

April 26, 2018

Mark Scott

My father never called me “son.” He never said, “Son, why do you want to be a poet?” He never said, “Son, what do you want poetry to do?” He did say, “You’ll never make money as a teacher, but I’ll always be here for you.”

I think what people want to know, or hear, more than how the perfect crime was committed, is how it was come up with, which always happens after the planning and the execution of it go wrong. Audiences are interested in why a poet wrote a poem, or why poetry. Motive is interesting. Means are also interesting, and maybe opportunity. But being the criminal, the best, what that’s like, that’s what interests us—me, anyway. And I should know something about that. Let’s see if I can tell.

“It’s not the right way to do that,” someone says.
“But it’s my way,” says another.

View original post 461 more words

“We already have a perfectly inadequate language for talking about ourselves.”

June 21, 2017

Wendell Piez, a founding editor of Digital Humanities Quarterly, has prepared for publication, via the internet, a book by the poet Mark ScottEpigram Microphone. I commend it to anyone this weblog may reach. Read it on the web, or download a copy in ePub format to keep on your iPad (or cognate device). Publication of this book is part of a larger project Piez has undertaken: Pause Press. There you’ll find also a new, electronic edition of Charles Woodbury’s Talks With Emerson, a book published first in 1890. I mention that book for its own sake, but also because several of the essays gathered in Mark Scott’s Epigram Microphone concern Emerson. You’ll also find, in Epigram Microphone, an essay singularly faithful to the teaching life, “The Normal Load,” and more than one gathering of aphorisms: here, here, and here, for example (the observation that heads this page is among those aphorisms).

Following is a paragraph from Epigram Microphone. It appears in the essay “On Desultory Questions“:

There are two functions of style—or, of form: the second is to teach new dogs old tricks, and in this Emerson excelled. He put his books together by breaking up his journals; he put his journals together by breaking up his life, his friends’ lives, and the books he read. He was not independent of creeds, institutions, and tradition—who is?—but relied on them, to his great annoyance. What else can individual consciousness and energy rely on? If one is part of all, everything is built-in, factory-equipped, and no serious after-market options exist but More and Less. To which Emerson says: “It is in the nature of the soul to appropriate all things.” If you don’t believe in the soul, this statement is bland at best; if you do, you should know what Emerson means. If you think you know what it means both to believe and not to believe in the soul, as most literary persons think they do, you’ll find that the sentence sharply sums up everything that’s wrong with Emerson—or with your friend the writer, who uses you for material. Some write out of scorn for anything having to do with the soul; Emerson wrote out of scorn for everything but the soul. Henry James assumed that Emerson’s life in Concord lacked “passions, alternations, affairs, adventures”—but it wasn’t so. (Substitute you for Emerson and your address for Concord, and see if it isn’t so.) How would Henry James have known, anyway?

Admirable Achievements

February 3, 2015
Jacket copy, hardcover edition of Anand Gopal's "No Good Men Among the Living" (Metropolitan Books, 2014).

Jacket copy, hardcover edition of Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living” (Metropolitan Books, 2014).

My copy of Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes (2014) arrived today. I find this inadvertently ironic blurb on the back:

No Good Men Among the Living is a masterfully told narrative of how, after 9/11, the Americans defeated the Taliban only to revive them. An admirable achievement. —Jon Lee Anderson, author of The Fall of Baghdad and The Lion’s Grave

Couldn’t have said it better myself, and I haven’t even opened the book.

Is the copyeditor in Henry Holt & Company’s marketing department a wag? I’d like to think so, but I doubt it. (Holt, incidentally, is now a subsidiary of the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.) Nor would I chalk any mischief up to Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer at The New Yorker.

In any case, the book was issued by Holt’s Metropolitan Books imprint. And the first sentence of the blurb, omitted as I quote it above, is also inadvertently good: “If you read one book on Afghanistan today, make it this one.” So much for Tuesday, which it is here it in Kyoto. I’ve got my work cut out for me. It’s already 4:31 PM. And as it happens, I’m in the middle of Guantánamo Diary.

Postscript, 5:02 PM: 

In an email, my friend Mark Scott notes also the redundancy in “told narrative.” I’m tired today. Didn’t see that. (Why not “masterful narrative”?) The formula “masterfully told” is so familiar as to obscure whatever flies under its colours. I Google Ngrammed the phrase: index case, circa 1900. Upward arc ever since, as you see in the screenshot below. Interesting that the epithet really got launched, like the masterfully told Apollo program, in the 1960s. By the way, “masterfully told narrative” doesn’t return any instances at Ngram. And, of course, I’ve penned a few thousand unhappy phrases myself.
Google Ngram Viewer

Post-postscript: I append here, at random, and run together for a lark, instances of the bloc “masterfully told” to which Google Ngram directs me (almost all from the last 15 years or so, the majority of them blurbs). There are more master tellers among us than I knew. NB: The penultimate example is a rare early one, from 1916, and the last is from 1903 (as its syntax might suggest).

The story of the manifold vagaries that travel with the modern preoccupation with the epistemologically defined problems of meaning and reference has been masterfully told by Richard Rorty in his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The stories of the Biblical women who have been pained by men are masterfully told by a man who “has sought to befriend women in our struggle for identity, liberation and wholeness.” Besides being a masterfully told story, full of wit and humour, it is an assault on absolute values, racial prejudice, and authoritarian arrogance. Many of Harold Talbert’s masterfully told reminiscences evoke small-town America, both North and South, but many more carry special Southern accents. This detailed account of Joseph and the dreams is masterfully told. It provides the background to understand the pivotal event toward which the narrator was moving. The tale has been masterfully told by Clifford Geertz in his brief, durable book, Islam Observed, which appeared in 1968. The exploitation of the migratory agricultural worker, masterfully fictionalized in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, is equally masterfully told, chronologically and factually, by Carey McWilliams in this book. Andrew Gulliford has masterfully told the story of how Exxon’s sudden departure affected both the landscape, which is marked by abandoned projects and empty buildings, and the residents. Gene Edwards has crafted a masterfully told and profoundly moving story. Gripping. Authoritative. Masterfully told. I cannot praise this book highly enough. The revelation that the younger son Keith was not dead but actually disguised as hippie Jonah Lockwood was masterfully told. In order to keep his secret, Keith/Jonah sent many a character to an early grave. A great story, masterfully told. There are, just as in a dynastic novel, revelations in every chapter. We Called Each Other Comrade is a classic work in the history of American media and the American left. Allen Ruff has masterfully told this extraordinary story about a book publisher at the heart of our nation’s most important struggles for social justice. This richly nuanced look at the Charles Kerr Company has stood the test of time … This outstanding novel is masterfully told, richly textured, and deeply moving. It deserves to stand in the front ranks of Christian classics for young people. This section is masterfully told in Rose Annie’s confused and crazy voice. A beautiful story, told simply in a few words—only three short pages—and yet it is so masterfully told by a gifted teller of tales. Rereading it this past week refreshed my ageing memory … A poignant story, masterfully told with heart, Minka’s journey comes to light in this beautiful work. And it is a story to be treasured. The story of the narrow route kabuki of the pre-World War II years had to navigate is masterfully told by James R. Brandon in Kabuki’s Forgotten War: 1931-1945. Her coast-to-coast reputation for masterfully told, spine-tingling tales is hailed by critics, storytellers, and ghost story lovers alike. I re-analyze an account of the incident as masterfully told by Stephan Wilkinson … Success kept eluding him, and he is virtually known nowadays solely as the composer of I Pagliacci, a one-act opera in which a story of love, jealousy, and murder is masterfully told in a matter-of-fact, veristic style. Language added to the legislation in 1996 by Expansionist Senator Spencer Abraham dramatically narrowed its application. It was a task completed by subsequent INS administration—a story masterfully told in Jessica Vaughan’s “Bar None,” CIS Backgrounder (July 2003). Masterfully told with the sensuality and drama that Brenda Jackson does best, this is an unforgettable story of relationships at their most complex … Carefully researched and masterfully told, The Colony is a searing tale of individual bravery and extraordinary survival, and stands as a testament to the power of faith, compassion, and the human spirit. In the finest tradition of Christian story telling, which dates back all the way to the Lord’s parables, this masterfully told tale contains the very heart—the highest truth of the gospel as it pertains to living the Christian life. Internationally bestselling author Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace is a meticulously researched, masterfully told account of these extraordinary events and their profound historical consequences. Masterfully told, immensely ambitious, yet also immensely moving, A Desert in Bohemia deserves to follow Walsh’s last novel, Knowledge of Angels, on to the Booker shortlist. Thought-provoking, life-affirming, triumphant and tragic, this is a novel of breathtaking scope, masterfully told. This series is described as the biggest motion picture story ever written, being masterfully told and lavishly illustrated—an epic of the new art, plus the human charm of a supreme personality. There is about his style a delicate balance and restraint which give to the work a rare fascination, the fascination that comes from a story that is masterfully told rather than inherently good.

Rhymed Blank Verse: Thomas Hood

October 26, 2014
Thomas Hood (1799-1845), artist unknown.

Thomas Hood (1799-1845), artist unknown.

Thomas Hood penned the following bit of whim.



SIR . — In one of your Annuals you have given insertion to “A Plan for Writing Blank Verse in Rhyme”; but as I have seen no regular long poem constructed on its principles, I suppose the scheme did not take with the literary world. Under these circumstances I feel encouraged to bring forward a novelty of my own, and I can only regret that such poets as Chaucer and Cottle, Spenser and Hayley, Milton and Pratt, Pope and Pye, Byron and Batterbee, should have died before it was invented. The great difficulty in verse is avowedly the rhyme. Dean Swift says somewhere in his letters, “that a rhyme is as hard to find with him as a guinea,” — and we all know that guineas are proverbially scarce among poets. The merest versifier that ever attempted a Valentine must have met with this Orson, some untameable savage syllable that refused to chime in with society. For instance, what poetical Foxhunter—a contributor to the Sporting Magazine—has not drawn all the covers of Beynard, Ceynard, Deynard, Feynard, Geynard, Heynard, Keynard, Leynard, Meynard, Neynard, Peynard, Queynard, to find a rhyme for Reynard? The spirit of the times is decidedly against Tithe; and I know of no tithe more oppressive than that poetical one, in heroic measure, which requires that every tenth syllable shall pay a sound in kind. How often the Poet goes up a line, only to be stopped at the end by an impracticable rhyme, like a bull in a blind alley! I have an ingenious medical friend, who might have been an eminent poet by this time, but the first line he wrote ended in ipecacuana, and with all his physical and mental power, he has never yet been able to find a rhyme for it. The plan I propose aims to obviate this hardship. My system is, to take the bull by the horns; in short, to try at first what words will chime, before you go further and fare worse. To say nothing of other advantages, it will at least have one good effect—and that is, to correct the erroneous notion of the would-be poets and poetesses of the present day, that the great end of poetry is rhyme. I beg leave to present a specimen of verse, which proves quite the reverse, and am, Sir, your most obedient servant,
John Dryden Grubb.

The Double Knock

Rat-tat it went upon the lion’s chin,
“That hat, I know it!” cried the joyful girl;
“Summer’s it is, I know him by his knock,
Comers like him are welcome as the day!
Lizzy! go down and open the street-door,
Busy I am to any one but him.
Know him you must — he has been often here;
Show him up stairs, and tell him I ‘m alone.”
Quickly the maid went tripping down the stair;
Thickly the heart of Rose Matilda beat;
“Sure he has brought me tickets for the play—
Drury—or Covent Garden—darling man!—
Kemble will play—or Kean who makes the soul
Tremble; in Richard or the frenzied Moor—
Farren, the stay and prop of many a farce
Barren beside—or Liston, Laughter’s Child—
Kelly the natural, to witness whom
Jelly is nothing in the public’s jam—
Cooper, the sensible—and Walter Knowles
Super, in William Tell—now rightly told.
Better—perchance, from Andrews, brings a box,
Letter of boxes for the Italian stage—
Brocard! Donzelli! Taglioni! Paul!
No card—thank heaven—engages me to-night!
Feathers, of course, no turban, and no toque—
Weather’s against it, but I’ll go in curls.
Dearly I dote on white—my satin dress,
Merely one night—it won’t be much the worse—
Cupid—the New Ballet I long to see—
Stupid! why don’t she go and ope the door!”
Glistened her eye as the impatient girl
Listened, low bending o’er the topmost stair.
Vainly, alas! she listens and she bends,
Plainly she hears this question and reply:
“Axes your pardon, Sir, but what cl’ ye want?”
“Taxes,” says he, “and shall not call again!”

Hood has thrown down a gauntlet, here. If we can shift the rhyme from the 5th position in a purportedly pentameter line to the first, then why not to the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th? For that matter, why not call for a poem in pentameter in which the rhyming foot slides, in a regulated way, from position to position? I speak of pentameter lines, because that’s what blank verse is said to entail (five feet, five beats). But his mischief runs further than the shifting of (almost entirely) two-syllable trochaic rhymes, and we shouldn’t take him prima facie in this jeu d’sprit.

Nicholson Naker

Nicholson Baker

As is the case with so much light verse, Hood’s lines, here, tend rather toward triplet meter, falling out of step with “five-foot” lines, and, in fact, bearing out an argument made in Nicholson Baker‘s charming novel, The Anthologist. Narrating that book is Paul Chowder, a poet, and he’s at work on an anthology titled Only Rhyme. Threading its way in among plot-lines to do with Chowder’s personal misfortunes (his girlfriend, Roz, has left him), or to do with his dog Smacko, or his neighbour Nannette, is a running debate as to the nature of the pentameter line, and as to the real locomotion of poetry in English:

And yes, of course, there are things that should be said about iambic pentameter, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. I don’t want to slight “the longer line.” I hope we can get to that fairly soon. My theory — I can’t resist giving you a little glimpse of it here — my theory is that iambic pentameter is in actuality a waltz. It’s not five-beat rhythm, even though “pent” means five, because five beats would be totally off-kilter and ridiculous and would never work and would be a complete disaster and totally unlistenable. Pentameter, so called, if you listen to it with an open ear, is a slow kind of gently swaying three-beat minuetto. Really, I mean it.

Thomas Hood inadvertently bears Paul Chowder out, because although all lines in “The Double Knock” have ten syllables, and many can be laid on the Procrustean bed of the five-stress line—”Rat-tat it went upon the lion’s chin”—the real motive here is a four-beat rhythm with a little anapestic motive as its subroutine, or, as The Anthologist has it, the minuet, or waltz, that Chowder hears in all but the most programmatic pentameter lines:

Rat-tat it went upon the lion’s chin,
“That hat, I know it!” cried the joyful girl;
Summer’s it is, I know him by his knock,
Comers like him are welcome as the day!
Lizzy! go down and open the street-door,
Busy I am to any one but him.

Hear that? Four beats, carried off with triplet-anapests tossed in, as for a waltz. Paul Chowder is dancing, up in his barn. Perhaps The Anthologist is among the happier contributions to poetics published since Derek Attridge published The Rhythms of English Poetry in 1982—a book, by the way, that Chowder commends.

Incidentally, a Mr. Heyward Smith once googled Hood’s poem in 1906. Edward Rankle googled back:

From The New York Times, September 1, 1906.

From The New York Times, September 1, 1906.