Archive for the ‘poetry’ category

La Lucha Continua…With A Sideways Reason To Keep Fighting From The (A) Good Doctor

November 6, 2014

Serendipity works sometimes.  My friend David Dobbs publishes a near-daily newsletter of three or four fascinating essays or articles to read.  (You can sign up here.) Today he took me to a writer I’ve only occasionally glanced at in the past, Sadie Stein, (may have to change that)  for a piece that comes to a climax with a vision of a young, fictionalized Joyce Carol Oates, TA-ing her first class.  Trust me; it’s worth a look. (It’s over at the Paris Observer, itself a venue I chance upon more than seek out — might want to change that too.)

Contemplating the various joys of full-body immersion in student fiction was fun, enough so that I clicked through to Stein’s archive, and there, just below the bon-bon of a post to which David had directed me, I came upon her entry for Tuesday.  Mostly (though not entirely) she hands the microphone over to William Carlos Williams, and a poem, which, thus acknowledged, I herewith steal:

Election Day

Warm sun, quiet air

an old man sits

in the doorway of
a broken house–

boards for windows
plaster falling

from between the stones
and strokes the head

of a spotted dog

George_Wesley_Bellows_-_Man_and_Dog_(1905)

The dog and the man deserve better.  The struggle continues. It will not end easily, as Tuesday’s results remind us.  But to mix references and speakers of very different histories, the arc of the moral universe is long.  But that we can conceive of the idea of justice allows us to bend that arc towards the just end.  (And yes, I’m feeling my Anselm just a bit today.)

Image:  George Wesley BellowsMan and Dog, 1905.

Not All Harvard Cocktail Parties Are A Waste of Time

October 7, 2013

We can’t just live on a diet of alternating snark and rage at the feral Republican children trying to burn down the House.  Rather, we could — but that’s like suffering the health effects of a day-after-day Super Size Me diet of political high fructose corn starch and a bucket of Krispy Kreme’s — and I, at least, need some happier stuff from time to time just to remind me that the world isn’t simply a playground for the worst of us.

Hence this delightful tale, via my science writing friend David Dobbs, who led to this gem from David Quigg, proprietor of the Two Many Daves blog. The link takes you to a post ostensibly about Quigg’s ongoing pursuit of Ernest Hemingway’s FBI file — in which he’s making progress, but still faces G-manned roadblocks between him and what he really wants to know.

Quigg (deliberately, I suspect) buried the lede.  Hemingway’s a side show.  The really sweet tale he’s managed to extract from the Great Redactor introduces a new character, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley.  Shapley had a mixed record as an astronomer — he picked the wrong side in the famous Curtis-Shapley debate on whether or not the spiral nebula that had been observed by 1920 lay inside or outside our Milky Way galaxy, and he rather unfortunately thought Edwin Hubble had committed junk science.  But he had the right enemies.  A political liberal and friend of Henry Wallace, he was targeted by Joe McCarthy,* which is what landed him in the FBI files that Quigg received.

Seeing a now rather obscure name in the history of astronomy turn up in the file led Quigg to the magical Google machine — and that’s where this story goes from curious to great:

According to Dr. Shapley, he and Frost met at an annual faculty get-together during one of Frost’s stints as poet-in-residence at Harvard. Frost sought Shapley out, tugged at his sleeve–figuratively, if not literally–and said something like, “Now, Professor Shapley. You know all about astronomy. Tell me, how is the world going to end?” [1] Taken aback by this unconventional approach, Shapley assumed Frost was joking. The two of them chatted for a few moments, but not about the end of the world. Then they each became involved in conversations with other people and were soon in different parts of the room. But a while later, Frost sought out Shapley again and asked him the same question. “So,” said Shapley to his audience in 1960, “I told him that either the earth would be incinerated, or a permanent ice age would gradually annihilate all life on earth.” Shapley went on to explain, as he had earlier explained to Frost, why life on earth would eventually be destroyed by fire or ice.

Francisco_de_Goya_y_Lucientes_016

“Imagine my surprise,” Shapley said, “when just a year or two later, I ran across this poem.” He then read “Fire and Ice” aloud. He saw “Some say” as a reference to himself–specifically to his meeting with Frost at that gathering of Harvard faculty.

I should add that the anecdote comes from Tom Hansen, who recalls hearing Shapley lecture about (inter alia) his conversation with Frost.  Hansen doesn’t dispute Shapley’s memory of the encounter, but he does point out that the poem itself is not a versification of cosmology, and hence, that Shapley’s puff of pride at his muse’s role is very likely (IMHO too) misplaced.

In any event one may — I do — kvell at the thought of those two mutual incomprehensibles sipping sherry whilst thinking such different thoughts fashioned out of the same words.

Beats trying to deal with the Repblican’s Boehner problem, that’s for sure.

*Shapley’s line on McCarthy’s accusations:  “the Senator succeeded in telling six lies in four sentences, which is probably the indoor record for mendacity.”  Not bad for an ivy covered professor, I’d say.

Image:  Francisco Goya, The Snowstorm (Winter), 178-1787. (This is a bit of Goya juvenalia, as far as I’m concerned — but even before Goya became GOYA, he still could paint a bit, wouldn’t you say?)

Belated New Year’s Fun: Star Wars, Programming Poetry, MIT folks with too much time on their hands Dept.

January 2, 2009

For a bravura display of fandom, quirky programming chops, and a genuinely distinctive sense of the form and future of poetry, check out my esteemed, and occasionally obsessive colleague Nick Montfort‘s New Year’s Poem.  It’s an animated retelling of Star Wars, Ep. IV (the real first one to those of us of a certain age.)

Image:  Obi Wan Kenobi Street in Grabowiec, Poland.  Photograph by Łukasz Młotkowski, reproduced under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later. 

Veteran’s Day — nee Armistice Day — poem and remembrance

November 11, 2008

Update: Check out Lovable Liberal’s remembrance too.

Michael D. over at Balloon Juice has dredged up the inevitable In Flanders Fields as a token of memory on this sad day.

I have to confess I hate John McCrae’s poem because of the third verse, with its appropriating of the dead to keep the torch burning that consumed so many young men in a truly pointless and brutally mis-led war.  It’s home-front poetry, for all that it was written by a man who fought and died in the conflict — by which I mean that it plays on the familiar tropes of glory and honor deemed suitable for the consumption of those gentlemen and ladies then a-bed safely removed from the horror and squalor of the trenches.*

In the comment thread, one reader offers up Owen’s equally famous Dulce et Decorum Est as an antidote — and it certainly does offer the honest soldier’s counter argument:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

For my part, two thoughts:  first to McCrae himself.  The poem was born of his direct experience that was fully immersed in the bloody and in-the-moment pointlessness of the war as anything Owen wrote.  Read the story of how the poem came to be here.  The third verse that so offends me?…I have no doubt that it was truly felt, the more so that the poem was written in the spring of 1915 — the first full campaign season in the trenches — and before the grinding fact of the four-year meatgrinder could fully crush its schoolboy bravado.  In any event, he was there, he saw what he saw and felt what he felt, and he gets to express that emotion any way he damn pleases.

It’s the use of the poem by those who have not earned that authority in the same way that gets me, especially now, in the wake of five years of war when my friends on the other side of keyboard wars have so often called for sacrifices as long as others make them.  Maybe I’m the one fighting old battles here, in the new world after November 4, 2008, but I don’t think so.

(Note that I haven’t even begun to write about the collective criminal folly that permitted the trenches to consume so many men for so long.  For a lucid professional’s take on that question, the best place to start is the classic:  B.H. Liddell Hart’s seminal work Strategy.  My own take on it can be found in, interspersed with other stuff, in chapters 3-12 of this book.**)

Second thought:  here is one more poem just to make sure that I  drive home the point about the cost of stupid decisions in war.

This is another by Wilfred Owen, much less well known, perhaps less well made than Dulce…. but in its own way yet more wrenching:

S. I. W.

“I will to the King,
And offer him consolation in his trouble,
For that man there has set his teeth to die,
And being one that hates obedience,
Discipline, and orderliness of life,
I cannot mourn him.”
W. B. Yeats.

Patting goodbye, doubtless they told the lad
He’d always show the Hun a brave man’s face;
Father would sooner him dead than in disgrace, —
Was proud to see him going, aye, and glad.
Perhaps his Mother whimpered how she’d fret
Until he got a nice, safe wound to nurse.
Sisters would wish girls too could shoot, charge, curse, . . .
Brothers — would send his favourite cigarette,
Each week, month after month, they wrote the same,
Thinking him sheltered in some Y.M. Hut,
Where once an hour a bullet missed its aim
And misses teased the hunger of his brain.
His eyes grew old with wincing, and his hand
Reckless with ague. Courage leaked, as sand
From the best sandbags after years of rain.
But never leave, wound, fever, trench-foot, shock,
Untrapped the wretch. And death seemed still withheld
For torture of lying machinally shelled,
At the pleasure of this world’s Powers who’d run amok.

He’d seen men shoot their hands, on night patrol,
Their people never knew. Yet they were vile.
“Death sooner than dishonour, that’s the style!”
So Father said.

One dawn, our wire patrol
Carried him. This time, Death had not missed.
We could do nothing, but wipe his bleeding cough.
Could it be accident? — Rifles go off . . .
Not sniped? No. (Later they found the English ball.)

It was the reasoned crisis of his soul.
Against the fires that would not burn him whole
But kept him for death’s perjury and scoff
And life’s half-promising, and both their riling.

With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the Mother “Tim died smiling.”

*There is no shortage of great prose accounts of the disasters of the Western Front.  The first I read were by two of the War Poets — Robert Graves, in Goodbye To All That, and Siegfried Sasoon in his trilogy collected under the title George Sherston’s Memoirs, now out of print.  The central work of the trilogy, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, can still be found.

**Here’s a passage from my attempt to capture the relentless pointlessness of the so-called Great War at the level of the battlefield.  The incident described took place 90 years ago to the day.

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence.  At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet.  He died instantly.  The man who killed him remains unknown.  That man made a choice.  He was a marksman, a skilled soldier.  He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill.  There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him.  If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home.   Instead, the shot rang out.  Two minutes ticked past.  The war ended.  George Price lay dead.

Image:  Red Poppies at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium.  Photograph taken on March 11, 2006.

All the John McCains I Thought I Knew Are Dead.

October 27, 2008

There is a video that kind of came and went in the flurry of last week’s election noise, the wardrobe that cost three times the median income for a US family and all that.  It’s a French interview with the then young John McCain as a POW.

He’s clearly still hurting — a lot — from his injuries and he struggles to express himself a lot of the time.  He can muster up a little humor:  prisoner’s food “isn’t Paris” and more sense of loss and lonliness.  The passage at the end of the video where he tries to come up with a message for his wife would move anyone with a pulse, even as committed a partisan and McCain ’08 loather as myself.

Watching it, having just turned fifty myself, with, as President Clinton said, the awareness that I now have more yesterdays than tomorrows, and watching my own eight year old son, I was reminded of these lines from a poem I read just a few days ago.

Children vanish.

Adults — specters

of dead children.

(From “Children, Always Dying” by Aaron Zeitlin, translated from the Yiddish by Richard J. Fein in his upcoming collection With Everything We’ve Got:  A personal anthology of Yiddish poetry.)

I do not wish John McCain well at all in his current endeavor.  He has run a scurrilous, disgraceful campaign, putting the country at risk not just with his meretricious selection of Gov. Palin as his running mate, but in the way he has surrendered his candidacy to worst impulses of his party in recent weeks.  He lacks the temperament, the judgment, and even, this blog has argued, the right kind of experience to lead the United States.

But, but, but….

…he was a child once, a young man.  He suffered, and he had then a clarity, brutally enforced, about what does and does not matter.  While I fear for the country for McCain’s actions over the last few months, what saddens me most about his campaign is not the damage he is doing to the rest of us, but  the destruction his pursuit of this prize has done to that younger McCain.

That man died in the birthing of the catastrophically diminished one that we now see.

Here’s the video for those that missed it:

Sunday blogging: On the Nature of Things — Philip Pullman edition

April 6, 2008

So I’m late to the Pullman party. I only picked up The Golden Compass after the publicity surrounding the movie — which makes me a full ten years tardy, in fact.

But read that book I did, and then, following a course plenty of folks have travelled before me, devoured the next two books in the trilogy as fast as I could.

The best thing about the book is that Pullman’s argument about the horror of dogma self-perpetuating by force runs through just about every plot event, but almost always does not displace the glories of the work: its realization of a marvelously realized alternate world and a human story told through the lives and actions of recognizable individuals.

There is a polemic reading of the trilogy, that is, but the characters are human, not types. (Mostly human, of course. Iorek is one of the most astoundingly complete characters I’ve found in fiction for a long time, to name one among many.) Pullman’s argument against revealed religion works, in fact, because it plays on the emotions brought into play only when you care about the individual lives and deaths he has made so imaginatively real.

But a bit of pop criticism of a book that I imagine most readers of this blog found long before I did is not why this post comes into existence. Instead, I want here to bring to the surface the root of perhaps the most powerful and beautiful passage in the entire trilogy — the moment (spoiler alert) in Book Three, The Amber Spyglass when Lyra tells the multitudes of the dead what will happen if they follow her and Will back up to the world of the living.

This entire episode is infused with classical sources; the tale of living men or women descending to the underworld to seek insight or to beg favors of the dead is one that originates deep in our past, and recurs again and again in the great literary investigations of human experience. Think of Hercules seeking Persephone, or Oddyseus in pursuit of knowledge…and then Dante, accompanied by Virgil examining the taxonomy of sin and human vanity in the greatest of all such stories (IMHO, of course).

Pullman’s version speaks to that tradition, locating the center of its terror in the direct confrontation between his heroes and their own deaths.

But then, in a brief set-piece, Pullman makes the single most direct and powerful claim of the whole work for his secular vision of transcendence in death. It is the necessary affirmative statement to balance his negative argument about the anti-human qualities of revealed religions. Lyra and Will have offered to lead the dead out of the grim, hellish experience of sense-less eternity. The dead ask what will happen, and Lyra tells them this:

She took out the golden instrument. The answer came at once. She put it away and stood up.

“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the aprticles that make you up will loosen and float apaqrt, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that look like. But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms taht were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. theyre just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you. I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true. But you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

And then there is this, as glossed by me in an earlier book of my own:

“For that which once came from earth to earth returns back again…Nor does death so destroy as to annihilate the bodies of matter, but it disperses their combination abroad, and then conjoins others with others…” But though atoms traipse through an eternal dance, coming together and falling apart, the human soul did not. Lucretius wrote, “Even if time shall gather together our matter after death and bring it back again as it is now placed, and if once more the light of life shall be given to us, yet it would not matter to us that even this had been done, when the recollection of ourselves has once been broken asunder, and to us now, no memory, no anguish remains from those who we were before.” Therefore, Lucretius concluded: “We may be sure that there is nothing to be feared after death”–for both sensation and memory are lost forever. Life is lived once, now, and that is all.

Lucretius wrote that in what I think is the greatest poem of science, Of The Nature of Things, written before 50 BCE (i.e. in the last decades of the Roman Republic).

Thus one of the foundational ideas of humanism:

This world matters; this time in which I write and you read is all in all. Our atoms may be eternal (though modern physics would say protons, whose claim on eternity has a current lower bound of 10 to the thirty fifth years) but our consciousness is not.

This is exactly the argument that runs all the way through Pullman’s trilogy. One chance means one chance to get it right. (Contrast this with the morally repugnant claim that commitment to a revealed religion is an essential precondition for leading a moral life. Scroll down to Sharon Soon’s quotes if you have a strong stomach.)

Back to Pullman. This moment comes and goes quickly in the rush of action at the end of the trilogy. After all, Pullman is writing a inversion of the battle for command of heaven and earth that typically ends with the triumph of God and the banishment of the dissident angels. There’s quite a campaign to manage, and the detour to the underworld is here, as in most epics, a subplot, a moment to pause the action, and perhaps (as here) to stand on the soap box for a while.

But this passage contains more than a skeptics credo. Instead, it is essential, I think, to the idea that Pullman wants to leave at and after his long work’s end.

As the trilogy closes, it seems, rather oddly given all the tumult of the last thousand pages or so, that everything returns to normal.Lyra in her world finds that the Church is still there, powerfully contending for allegiance and belief. It is, we are told, somewhat changed, a little less inclined towards the total intellectual dictatorship that threatened at the beginning of the book. The warring factions within and outside the church remain. Life continues.

Lucretius lived more than two millenia ago. It remains something of a mystery how his great poem survived most of those years, given the hostility of this world’s Church to his uncompromised materialism, his denial of the immortality of the individual soul.

This is an old argument, that is, one which, despite the advance of the most successful materialist program of discovery in history — the scientific revolution which began to take on its modern form just a few centuries ago.

There are communities within the science blogosphere that rage against this fact of life, this eternal return of the same battles. (See, e.g., almost any comment thread at Pharyngula.)

I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But I am saying that Pullman got it.

He explicitly presented the titanic struggle of His Dark Materials as but one campaign in a more or less endless war — not so much one between reason and folly (h/t Erasmus) as between the claims of this world vs. those of a notional next. His use of the language, imagery, even the elegance of Lucretius reinforces the point. The Greeks fought about this (as did the Jews, in an interesting way to be blogged another time.) The Romans did. Christian believers have, on both sides of the trenches. We do too. It’s better — more relaxing, certainly, and probably more conducive to tactical clarity — to take the long view. Or so, at least, I read Philip Pullman.

Image:  Luca Signorelli, “The Damned,” 1499-1505. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Friday Poetry Break

March 14, 2008

Warning: just a glancing encounter with science content below, but some value anyway, I hope.

Woke up today to Molly I’s command over at Atrios’s shop: “Read some poetry!”

She’s got class — and a thought to evoke. She sent her readers over to Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.” Consider lines like these:

 That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
   Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Poetry that has consequences was also the theme of a delightful thread a while back evoked by John Wilkens’ memories of Marlowe — and he in turn was prompted by Shelley Batts at her then-blog Retrospectacle.

I’m going to blog a bit about perhaps the most important poem in the history of science in a post this weekend — Lucretius‘ “De Rerum Natura” — “On the Nature of Things.” But it was hard going this morning, and the cogs and gears upstairs just aren’t turning that well yet, so when I hit Auden’s terrifying poem on the sorrow and horror of war, I did not flash on the World War I poets, nor Walt Whitman’s “Come up from the fields, father.

No — I recalled instead the voice and accent — posh English, Girton-polished — of my mother, now gone and sorely missed, roaring with gusto the lines of one of the most happily belligerent bits of high-class doggerel a more or less proper English poet ever produced: Thomas Love Peacock’s “The War Song of Dinas Vawr.” You have not lived until you hear someone declaiming, with happy bloodthirsty gusto, the opening lines: “The mountain sheep are sweeter/But the valley sheep are fatter;/We therefore deemed in meeter/To carry off the latter….”

Go. Wince. Enjoy yourselves. You have been warned.

Image: “Achilles killing a Trojan prisoner in front of the Etruscan demon of death, Charun.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.”