Posted tagged ‘poetry’

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?)

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:

More on Richard Dawkins’ Peculiar View of Science Writing.

May 22, 2008

In a recent post, I complained about the deeply conventional-wisdom cast to Richard Dawkins’ selections for The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing.

Now I want to get to the point where the current incumbent of Oxford’s Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science makes it personal.

In his introduction, he writes

“This is a collection of good writing by professional scientists, not excursions into science by professional writers.”

Ah, that exquisite tone of disdain with which so many properly educated Englishmen and women seem to acquire as part of their birthright. Scientists are capable of good writing; writers may merely make their excursions into science, as befits those who travel steerage in the oceans of the intellect.

Now, obviously, the editor of an anthology gets to make whatever decisions they want. Read the various Best American….series of collections of science writing (and much else), and you’ll see the difference in character year over year as different editors take on the annual task — I’d guess with systematic variation depending on whether the editor that year is more a writer than a scientist or the other way round.

But one thing you expect — or at least I do — is some editorial rationale for the choices, and some grasp of the actual landscape you are, or claim to be covering. Remember that Dawkins is editing a collection that asserts its grasp of “Modern Science Writing.”

Speaking as a science writer and film maker of a quarter of a century of effort, some of it at least not entirely risible, when Dawkins asserts that the world of science writing excellent enough to be beatified by the Oxford University Press is wholly the province of professional researchers with the capacity to achieve “good” writing — he’s talking rot, pure nonesense

To illustrate the silliness here: Dawkins himself is, at this point in his career, much more writer than scientist. He certainly trained as a biologist, and went a considerable distance into a professional career as one, but he has been essentially a full time communicator of science, a popularizer and polemicist, for decades.

He’s brilliant at it, of course — don’t think that this attack is aimed at his own claim to be included in someone else’s more sophisticated survey of the best of modern science writing. It would have to be.

But one could make the argument that if he meant that modern science writing was best understood as writing for the public by working scientists, then much of his own writing more recent than The Selfish Gene could be excluded from consideration. The absurdity of excluding the later Dawkins from a collection of good science writing is, I hope, obvious to everyone reading this.

That of course gets to one of the real points to be made about Dawkins blinkered view of who can — or should write about science. If you take seriously the method of induction (as Isaac Newton, for one expressed it in Opticks) then the existence of several articles and (my favorite) Richard Preston’s first book, First Light would provide the required contrary evidence to shatter Dawkins’ position.

So would — and this is nothing like an exhaustive list, just some of the folks I’ve read with pleasure, pulled out of my head quickly enough to suit a blog post — Jonathan Weiner, again with a wealth of choices, not least The Beak of the Finch. And if Weiner’s work did not convince, you could go on to Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park. I’m reasonably proud of some of my own work for that matter — but better leave that to others to weigh or nay.

And so on and on and on; I haven’t mentioned any of the Brits I admire, nor any of the novelists who express elements of the experience of science. (For one example: the scene in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, in which he captures the extraordinary difficulty of making the mental shift from pre-modern understanding to modern science through a narration of an evening at one of the Royal Society’s earlly meetings.

At times, Dawkins himself seems to realize the problem he’s created for himself with his view of science writing as scientist’s writing. Roughly half way into the book, he complains “I have long thought that science should inspire great poetry, but scientists have published disappointingly few poems.”

Even so, Dawkins chose to shoehorn into the collection at least one bit of verse from a one-of-us background, a dreadful offering from Julian Huxley on the topic of God and Man. If ever there was a “don’t try this at home” moment in modern letters, here it is. Dawkins would have done a kindness to a man he once admired greatly by passing over what he says is the best of Huxley’s poetry in discreet silence.

And that’s my point. Dawkins is right. Science has inspired good poetry — by professional poets. I often quote Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” as a cautionary tale, but however much I think Whitman misses his target, it is still good poetry inspired by science.

And if you want to travel down a wonderful thread at John Wilkin’s place, see just for a few examples, the one at number 20, or the wonderfully rich reference to Tycho Brahe at 29 — and/or you could check out this blog’s nod to national poetry month. Some of it is slight, some richer — but it’s there, if only one’s blinkers let one see it.

So here’s one point to be made about Dawkins view of science writing: by asserting (or at least, strongly implying) that only scientists can usefully write about science (at least, usefully enough for Oxford), he has forced himself into a corner where he has to pick inferior stuff, rather than go outside the chapter-house for better.

More broadly, Dawkins’ collection, however grandly titled, is easily ignored — or rather, read for the interesting material it does contain, rather than pilloried for all that it does not. I suppose I need not get too shirty. My work and that of the best of my colleagues is its own defense. Either you find it useful, engaging, intellectually and aesthetically stimulating – or you don’t, in which case, go read something else.

But – and I’ll expand on this in another post, as this is already too long — scientists’ dismissal of non-scientists’ writing about science is not confined to Richard Dawkins, to the detriment of our public culture.

The short form:

For every genuine example — many written by Dawkins himself – of scientists’ writing about science that is both smart and elegant, there are at least two phenomena that ensure such writing is not enough: all that great work performed by researchers who do not possess Dawkins’ ability to convey its meaning to a broad audience; and the fact that much of the best of science writing crosses disciplinary boundaries in ways that are difficult for expert practitioners within disciplines to express themselves.

To be continued….

Image: Frontspiece to Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton, 1738. I do hope the rhetorical point of the image is as blunt as a cudgel to the head.* Source: Wikimedia Commons.

*A little piqued, me? Naah…couldn’t be.

Integers we have loved — in honor of National Poetry Month

April 15, 2008

This blog talks a lot about the importance of quantifying things — using numbers to abstract from the details of experience. What I rarely add in sentences like that is that there is a purpose to such abstraction: to find meaning deeper than the surface impressions with which we begin.

Well — you take insight where you can get it, and this morning, I got up early to attend my son’s Second Grade class Poetry Cafe. There each of the sixteen kids got up and recited a favorite poem from memory. One of my son’s friends, Sparky, got up and declaimed about four stanzas of Mary Cornish’s “Numbers.”

Soulless thug that I am, I had never come across it. Hearing it in that squeaky seven-year-old voice, I found it captured precisely the idea I have labored to express. Numbers are generous, in that “they are willing to count anything or anyone.” All I’m asking is that we embrace such kindness.

National Poetry Month it is…so enjoy.

Numbers

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition–
add two cups of milk and stir
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

–by Mary Cornish.

Originally published in Poetry magazine, Volume CLXXVI, Number 3, June 2000.

Image Person Scott Foresman, “Abacus,” copyright donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.

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.”