Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gullible Dolts?

The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit, writes Charles Simic in "Age of Ignorance."

But I wonder about how his discourse comes across to those who hold the beliefs he condemns as examples of ignorance (see the list at the end of the article, including "Global warming is a hoax"). They will most likely see him as yet another liberal elitist (like me, presumably) who is talking down to them and not treating them with respect.

As an American living abroad who has little contact with the kinds of people who hold such opinions, I wonder about how I would talk to them if I did have contact with them. Simic tries so hard to say "we" throughout the essay when he talks about who is being "ignorant." But at the end of the essay, even that approach breaks down: "Despite their bravado, these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest." I know for myself that I react very negatively when people suggest that I am being duped in some way (say, by acting like I am a fool for not agreeing with them that vaccination is a bad thing); I can imagine that such a remark will simply end any chance of conversation.

Still, Simic is right: the ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state is a gullible dolt. But the real problem here is not the production of gullible dolts; it is the cycle of political corruption.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, part 5

Dulce ridens, dulce loquens,
she shaves her legs until they gleam
like petrified mammoth-tusk.

(Adrienne Rich, "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," part 5)


A woman makes her legs "gleam" like ivory. This makes her beautiful, but the resulting beauty is "like petrified mammoth-tusk." The ivory this gleam is compared to comes from a mammoth (an extinct pachyderm) and is petrified (turned to stone by the passage of time). The gleam is uncanny in its lifelessness.

This tercet begins with a bit of Latin that is often translated as "sweetly laughing, sweetly speaking" and identified as a reference to Horace (Ode XXII, from the first book of the Odes). This makes the woman here more lively, vivacious and charming in her laughter and speech. If the words used to describe her are from a dead tongue, and a man's words, they still carry the magic and charm of beauty, for in the poem in question, Horace claims that a song he had written about his beloved kept a wolf from attacking him.

Yet even as the three lines celebrate the woman's beauty, they act out how the ideal of that beauty traps women in ancient patterns (represented here by Latin, the mammoth, and petrification). The woman in the middle line of the tercet is vividly present, but she is framed by terms that she has not defined for herself.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

But go slowly if the old dog wakes up

In A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum pose the following problem:

Leaving aside interjections, the eight parts of speech (as defined by H and P) are nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, determinatives, coordinators, and subordinators. Is it possible to construct a sentence that contains one and only one of each of the following parts of speech?

As many of my students figured out, the key problem is the "subordinator" (traditionally, a "subordinating conjunction"): a sentence with a subordinator will necessarily have two verbs (one in the main clause, one in the subordinate clause).

I have come up with a sentence that contains two verbs and one of each of the other parts of speech:

But go slowly if the old dog wakes up.

Some people might argue that the coordinator "but" should not be at the start of a sentence like this, and the presence of a coordinator in a sentence does raise difficulties for the problem stated above, precisely because coordinators mostly coordinate two things with the same form (noun and noun, verb and verb, etc.). But a sentence-initial coordinator overcomes this difficulty, and, as Huddleston and Pullum argue in their book, their is no descriptive justification for the "rule" that says you cannot begin a sentence with a coordinator.

In class, though, I discussed a different problem: which parts of speech can appear in one-word sentences? I assumed that the answer is that only verbs can stand by themselves as sentences, and then only in the imperative form: Stop! But students made two other proposals that intrigued me:


This is not the verb "fire" but the noun: it's what you shout when there's a fire in a crowded theater (or what you don't shout when there isn't one).

At first, I wanted to say that "a sentence has to be a main clause with a finite verb in it, or it's not a sentence." But I was immediately suspicious of this: that's a conventional definition, but perhaps there's a more interesting definition that takes the two possibilities above into account.

I had hoped that Huddleston and Pullum's Cambridge Grammar of the English Language might help me on this score, but they make short shrift of the concept of "sentence" and instead focus their attention on the concept of "clause" (as is always the case with their unconventional moments, the discussion of the point is lively and fascinating).

So I turned where we all turn these days, to Wikipedia. The page is called Sentence (linguistics). The first definition there focuses on something that had crossed my mind: a sentence is a grammatical unit of one or more words that bears minimal syntactic relation to what comes before and after it. To me, that implies that "Fire!" in the above sense can be considered a sentence, because it can stand on its own without any other context, and it will still be understood. In contrast, "So?" might not be a sentence, as it cannot really be fully understood unless you know what it calls into question (that is, what preceded it). — But that argument is not very satisfying.

The second idea of the sentence provided on the Wikipedia page is that a sentence is anything that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period/full stop. This pretty much wipes out the whole issue of which parts of speech can be one-word sentences, because now anything can:


Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A Winter Night

Here's Robin Fulton's translation of Tomas Tranströmer's "A Winter Night" (which I have in New Collected Poems, Bloodaxe, 1997):

The storm puts its mouth to the house
and blows to produce a note.
I sleep uneasily, turn, with shut eyes
read the storm’s text.

But the child’s eyes are large in the dark
and for the child the storm howls.
Both are fond of lamps that swing.
Both are halfway toward speech.

The storm has childish hands and wings.
The Caravan bolts towards Lapland.
And the house feels its own constellation of nails
holding the walls together.

The night is calm over our floor
(where all expired footsteps
rest like sunk leaves in a pond)
but outside the night is wild.

Over the world goes a graver storm.
It sets its mouth to our soul
and blows to produce a note. We dread
that the storm will blow us empty.

I came across this poem today (thanks to my friend Allen) and was struck by how it takes up issues of inside and outside that I addressed recently in my post on Adrienne Rich's discussion of Wallace Stevens's "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm." Tranströmer approaches the issue from a completely different angle, of course: "the night is calm" but the world is not.

Any time I think about Tranströmer I also love to recall this.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Lure of Lyrics

I'll be teaching this songwriting workshop in Basel on Saturday, March 17, as part of the BScene Festival's new workshops.

The Lure of Lyrics: A Songwriting Workshop 
A workshop on lyrics and songwriting from a "creative writing" perspective. (In English)

17. March, 10 am - 4 pm (with lunch)

To be announced

For whom?
Songwriters, Lyricists, Rappers, Poets, Writers of all kinds and every age. A group of six to twelve participants is hoped for.

Register by March 9 at: