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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.

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“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.

“Tinker not with that which runs apace”: Notes on a poem by John Ashbery

July 9, 2014
John Ashbery in 2010 (photo by David Shankbone).

John Ashbery in 2010 (photo by David Shankbone).

The Helsinki-born composer Robert Kajanus (1856-1933) wrote two works known, in English, as “Finnish Rhapsodies,” the first in D minor (1881), the second in F major (1886). John Ashbery made shorter work of it by writing two poems at once, also under the title “Finnish Rhapsody.”

Here is a poem that is at once itself and itself in other words, as if settling on the right and clarifying words were either unnecessary, or perhaps an exercise in which, for once, a poet might simply decide he’s not obliged to engage. Poets have been giving us single poems at once for millennia; many have revised, or overhauled, poems once written (and published) into other words (as Yeats, Marianne Moore, and Robert Lowell did). But if a weirdly stereophonic poem like “Finnish Rhapsody” exists, in which the lines come to us as though simultaneously in two channels (put on your headphones), I’m unaware of it (a signal exception: Ashbery’s “Litany”).

The effect is strange and funny. The second half of each line restates what’s said in the first half, often in higher (even preposterous) diction, sometimes in phrasings a bit more idiomatic, sometimes in terms that don’t differ much as to diction or idiom, and once in another language altogether (French). Not that “Finnish Rhapsody” is without some precedent. In John Ashbery and You: His Later Books (2007), John Vincent points out that the poem is “composed in paraphrastic hemistitches, a form borrowed from the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish oral epic poems,” wherein “the first half of each line in a paraphrastic hemistich is paraphrased in the second half.” Borrowed, to be sure, but also adapted to quite different purposes, because as Mr. Vincent suggests, the poem may be meant to forestall, or simply make a mockery of, efforts to “paraphrase”—or make stolid sense of—Ashbery generally. A shot across the bow of the USS Vendler, say, or a surface-to-air missive aimed at that literary-historical balloonist nonpareil, Harold Bloom. Maybe. I’m not so sure.

Whatever the case, “rhapsody” once designated an epic poem, or long part of one, suitable (as the OED has it) “for recitation at one time.” The term also refers (again, as per the OED) to “a literary work consisting of miscellaneous or disconnected pieces; a written composition having no fixed form or plan.” This latter sense Ashbery may (mischievously) have in mind, with the ingratiating difference that nothing could be more evident, here, and better fixed, than the “plan” or “form” this poem takes: Ashbery has written a rhapsody that is also anti-rhapsodic. It is its own weird double, its own twin (neither identical nor quite fraternal); it is both phrase and paraphrase (and a parody of paraphrase). It’s a queer reflection of itself, not as in a convex mirror, but as in a fun-house one. Ashbery has written a “rhapsody” to end all rhapsodies, a rhapsody to finish rhapsodies (I’ll not say the title doesn’t double itself in a pun).

Given that “rhapsody” may also mean (the OED, again) “the joining together of miscellaneous unconnected literary pieces,” Ashbery may have written, here, his most exemplary, most Ashbery-like, poem. Most readers, with good enough reason—after all, Ashbery translated Rimbaud’s Illuminations, and his affiliations with the French symbolists are manifest and on the record;—many readers, as I say, properly regard his poetry as generally in this happily deranged line.

I’ll discuss in detail only the first two verse paragraphs, given that this entry already exceeds 5,000 words. Some may wish to read the opening fourteen lines of “Finnish Rhapsody,” scroll down for the commentary, such as it is, and then return to the poem for a complete reading. After I’ve had my say, I will print the two halves of the poems, so to speak, one after the other, for whatever that exercise may reveal. One more note: WordPress doesn’t like long lines of verse, and, depending on how your browser works, some of the longer lines may “wrap” as we’d prefer they not.

“Finnish Rhapsody”

He managed the shower, coped with the small spattering drops,
Then rubbed himself dry with a towel, wiped the living organism.
Day extended its long promise, light swept through his refuge.
But it was time for business, back to the old routine.

Many there are, a crowd exists at present,
For whom the daily forgetting, to whom the diurnal plunge
Truncates the spadelike shadows, chops off the blades of darkness,
To be rescued, to be guided into a state of something like security.
Yet it falls off for others; for some, however, it drops from sight:
The millers, winnowers of wheat,
Dusted with snow-white flour, glazed with farinaceous powder,
Like Pierrot, like the white clown of chamber music;
The leggy mannequins, models slender and tall;
The sad children, the disappointed kids.

And for these few, to this small group
Forgetting means remembering the ranks, oblivion is recalling the rows
Of flowers each autumn and spring; of blooms in the fall and early summer.
But those traveling by car, those nosing the vehicle out into the crowded highway
And at the posts of evening, the tall poles of declining day,
Returning satisfied, their objective accomplished,
Note neither mystery nor alarm, see no strangeness or cause for fright.
And these run the greatest risk at work, are endangered by their employment
Seeing there can be no rewards later, no guerdon save in the present:
Strong and severe punishment, peine forte et dure,
Or comfort and relaxation, coziness and tranquillity.

Don’t fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace,
Otherwise the wind might get it, the breeze waft it away.
There is no time for anything like chance, no spare moment for the aleatory,
Because the closing of our day is business, the bottom line already here.
One wonders what roadblocks we’re set up for, we question barricades:
Is it better to time, jot down the performance time of
Anything irregular, all that doesn’t fit the preconceived mold
Of our tentative offerings and withdrawals, our hesitant giving and taking back?
For those who perform correctly, for the accurate, painstaking ones
Do accomplish their business, get the job done,
And are seldom seen again, and are rarely glimpsed after that.
That there are a few more black carriages, more somber chariots
For some minutes, over a brief period,
Signifies business as usual, means everything is OK,
That the careful have gone to their reward, the capable disappeared
And boobies, or nincompoops, numskulls and sapheads,
Persist, faced with eventual destruction; endure to be confronted with annihilation someday.

The one who runs little, he who barely trips along
Knows how short the day is, how few the hours of light.
Distractions can’t wrench him, preoccupations forcibly remove him
From the heap of things, the pile of this and that:
Tepid dreams and mostly worthless; lukewarm fancies, the majority of them unprofitable.
Yet it is from these that the light, from the ones present here that luminosity
Sifts and breaks, subsides and falls asunder.
And it will be but half-strange, really be only semi-bizarre
When the tall poems of the world, the towering earthbound poetic utterances
Invade the street of our dialect, penetrate the avenue of our patois,
Bringing fresh power and new knowledge, transporting virgin might and up-to-date enlightenment
To this place of honest thirst, to this satisfyingly parched here and now,
Since all things congregate, because everything assembles
In front of him, before the one
Who need only sit and tie his shoelace, who should remain seated, knotting the metal-tipped cord
For it to happen right, to enable it to come correctly into being
As moments, then years; minutes, afterwards ages
Suck up the common strength, absorb the everyday power
And afterwards live on, satisfied; persist, later to be a source of gratification,
But perhaps only to oneself, haply to one’s sole identity.

The first verse paragraph works as do all that succeed it, the inaugural foray gets itself off in such a mode as characterizes the motive principle of its progeny. As I say, this is a highly patterned and planned “rhapsody,” which is to suggest (again) that as a rhapsody it is neither here nor there, both at one with itself (it’s wilder vagaries are certainly rhapsodic), and at sixes and sevens with itself (no “rhapsody” worthy of the name would be built with such transparent machinery).

Anyway, here’s the first paragraph, un-twinned:

He managed the shower,
Then rubbed himself dry with a towel.
Day extended its long promise,
But it was time for business.

He coped with the small spattering drops,
Then wiped the living organism.
Light swept through his refuge,
But it was back to the old routine.

The stanza’s first version of itself is straightforward enough. Its second version of itself is slightly bizarre and, without its twin, partly unintelligible: we don’t know, for example, that it describes a man taking a shower, and of course it may not, or anyway may only appear to when joined to its more demotic counterpart. The second half of line one (taken whole) is a slightly obscure paraphrase of the first. “Coped” stands in for “managed,” though its connotations differ; “small spattering drops” opens “shower” out into something much less precise. “Rubbed himself dry with a towel” is as prosaic as “wiped the living organism” is not. The latter has a faux biological air about it, and wiping and rubbing, though in the same denotative bin, stand quite apart. You wipe to clean something up, you rub to dry or polish. On the other hand, “it was back to the old routine” seems at first simply a jaunty way of saying “it was time for business,” but then, at second glance, not: both are perfectly idiomatic, of course, but they do not mean the same thing. “Time for business” means “time to stop fooling around” (which “Finnish Rhapsody” never does—unless). And then, with line three, we find two very different things indeed. “OK. Get out of bed, shower up, and then consider the day’s long promise, as you turn to your business.” But “light,” though of the day, is not identical with it, and the shower from which you emerge, after towelling down, is no “refuge” (though the house of which it forms a part may be). The first visitation of the four lines is coherent, in diction and in theme, the second visitation is not, wavering, as it does, from what seems like bad writing (“wiped the living organism”), to something Paul Chowder (narrator of Nicholson Baker‘s The Anthologist) might slap his thigh and say (“back to the old routine”), to something that seems to ANNOUNCE itself as “poetic” (“light swept through his refuge”). Each line is a swinging double-door the right half of which comes unhinged as we pass through it. The method isn’t at all mad, but the results are often madcap. Read more…

The Natural History of Frost’s Poetics

May 30, 2014
Frost, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Middlebury, Vermont.

Frost, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Middlebury, Vermont.

N.B.: I’m likely not learned enough to make the following arguments, which I offer here “on spec.” Henry will tell me where I err.


On October 8, 1919, Robert Frost wrote to Katherine Lee Bates, a family friend, professor of English at Wellesley College, and author of the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” (the lines first appeared as a poem, titled simply “America,” in 1895). Frost had been arranging for a series of talks on “vocal reality,” one of which was to be given at Wellesley on October 31:

Do you get excited about all the nonsense that is being said about free rhythms? Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature; meters are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature.

The “free rhythms” in question are those of what Frost, in 1913 and 1914, had been calling the “sounds of sense.” As here, in a July 4, 1913 letter to John Bartlett: “The sound of sense, then. You get that. It is the abstract vitality of our speech. It is pure sound—pure form. One who concerns himself with it more than the subject is an artist.” Frost offers up a number of examples of the “abstract vitality of our speech,” “abstract” because the sounds he has in mind may be abstracted from, withdrawn from, the words that embody them. He explains, again in a letter to Bartlett: “Suppose Henry Horne says something offensive to a young lady named Rita when her brother Charles is by to protect her. Can you hear the two different tones in which she says their respective names, ‘Henry Horne! Charles!’ I can hear it better than I can say it.” A simple exercise shows how the tones are independent of, and may be abstracted from, the vowels and consonants of the words that convey them. Substitute “Paul Ryan!” for “Henry Horne!” and “Krugman!” for “Charles!” The sounds remain, every bit as clearly marked. That they are language-independent, and so abstractable from English, is also easy to show: “Satoshi Torada! Koji!” works every bit as well for a young lady named Yasuyo to whom Satoshi Torada has said something offensive.

Frost puts the matter another way in a 1915 letter to Walter Prichard Eaton, at the time an eminent drama critic:

All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book. I dont say to make them, mind you, but to catch them. No one makes them or adds to them. They are always there—living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were.

“Real cave things” that “were before words were,” “living in the cave of the mouth”: the anthropological nuances are intentional, and they take us back to the letter to Bates: “Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature; meters are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature” (italics added). Frost is sketching out nothing less than the natural history of his poetics, and therefore also of his poetry. Pound understood that the slogan “make it new” meant also “re-new it”; hence his recourse to literary traditions, and to poetry, centuries old and continents apart. Frost went him one better to make poetry new, and also to renew it: he went all the way back to the cave, to sounds that were before words were. The sounds we hear in “Henry Horne!” and “Charles!” could be made with a homo habilis, early Palaeolithic grunt-snarl (say) and a cry (beseeching in all but words). During the Palaeolithic (to carry my point forward, playfully) “human nature” arose out of “nature”: homo sapiens sapiens supervened upon homo habilis (and its other antecedents), and, in the Upper Palaeolithic, what we properly call “culture” made its advent (cave paintings, quasi-religious ritual, ceramics, and so on). Free rhythms (of whatever kind) as disorderly as nature were made orderly in culture (and in agriculture).

The analogical way Frost goes about his business in the 1919 letter to Bates anticipates what he says in his 1935 “Letter” to The Amherst Student: “There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it. We people are thrust forward out of the suggestions of form in the rolling clouds of nature. In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself.” As Frost elsewhere says, “this is no literary mysticism.” In fact, it is sound Darwinism—of a sort anyway. Consider certain remarks Richard Dawkins makes toward the end of The Selfish Gene:

It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity 
for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other … The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to 
simulate the future in imagination—

Say, in novels, poetry, legal codes, monetary policy, treaties, what have you—

could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination [into such things as monotheism, American exceptionalism, and the idea that taxes on capital gains are an abomination]. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

“Something that has no place in nature”: altruism, for example—or art, poetic art included. This is what Frost has in mind in speaking of nature supervening upon and “exceeding” itself in and through us: out of “suggestions of form,” we get “form,” in a strictly cultural sense; out of (untamed) “free rhythms,” we get “meter.” Blind replicators (molecules called DNA) account for homo sapiens well enough, but not (say) for “humanity,” and certainly not for any possible “conspiracy of doves.” And this notwithstanding the weak attempts, by some evolutionary psychologists, to account for “altruism” in Darwinian ways—tribal and contingent altruism, yes, but not pure, disinterested altruism of the kind Dawkins has in mind.† For this great desideratum to come into being, nature must exceed itself in us. Note that the movement is from the bottom up: nothing at all about this supervention need be supernatural. We have to do with cranes, not skyhooks, as the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett likes to say. Read more…