Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Elvis Costello with Furthur

I've been on a serious Elvis Costello kick for several months now, and I am even using four of his albums as material for a course this term. And I have been avidly following Furthur, the band started in the fall of 2009 by Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, to the point where I have listened to every show they have played (from the Live Music Archive and the digital downloads of their shows that they are selling).

So of course I was thrilled to hear that Elvis had sat in with Furthur on Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall. His wife Diana Krall even sang "Ripple," and that's Larry Campbell on violin in the photo (whose wife Teresa Williams also sat in).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

From Tennyson to today

Robert Archambeau has just posted a long discussion of tensions between aestheticism and morality (or politics) in Tennyson, Yeats, and Eliot. He starts with a discussion of a tension in Tennyson's work between "cryptic, symbolic, ambiguous poems ... that resist being converted to moral messages" and poems that "told the bourgeoise reader what he wanted to hear about decency, self-sacrifice, and the keeping stiff of the upper lip." By the end of the 19th century, then, the market for the latter kind of poem had dried up, and Symbolist poets and their Modernist successors focused their attention on aesthetic issues, while still being drawn to such extra-aesthetic issues as Irish politics (Yeats) and the renewal of community (Eliot; through a return to pre-twentieth-century Christian values).

Archambeau's discussion of these issues is fascinating, and it led me to ponder the extension of his point about tensions in the work of these poets into the contemporary era. These days, many poets in North America, Great Britain, and Ireland have put a lot of energy into pondering how the audience for poetry can be increased. Since the loss of the market for moralistic poetry in the course of the nineteenth century and poetry's subsequent aestheticist turn, very little poetry has managed to reach a wider audience. Those poets who want to do so could theoretically try returning to the kind of moralism that characterizes "The Charge of the Light Brigade," but given developments in poetry since then, it is highly unlikely that they would find such a project at all interesting—and in any case, as Archambeau makes clear, there's little or no market for such work anymore anyway.

The main aestheticist strains of contemporary poetry tend to be pretty disdainful of those poets who do achieve modest success (meaning more sales than most poets, but still very small blips on the radar of whole culture), such as Billy Collins and Mary Oliver in the United States and Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy in the United Kingdom. (With Armitage, at least, I could provide a defense of the aesthetic quality of all of his work, as I could with parts of the work of Collins and Duffy—neither of whom I have read all of—but that is something for another day.) But what is there for them to do, the poets who feel tensions like those felt by Tennyson, Yeats, and Eliot while also finding that the work of Armitage, Collins, Duffy, and Oliver lacks such productive tension between aesthetics and some kind of public voice? The very fact that I use the vague phrase "some kind of public voice" points toward a solution and highlights the problem at the same time: poets need to create a market for poetry to have a public voice, but it is not clear what kind of public voice that ought to be.

But here is where I return to a point I have made frequently over the years (probably somewhere on my blog, but definitely often in conversation): even if there is little market for poetry in the contemporary English-speaking world, there is a huge market for verse—it's called pop music. Now some might immediately dismiss this point by saying that song lyrics are not poetry, but I hope they would at least agree that "page poems" and song lyrics are both examples of "verse" in a broad sense that is completely consistent with the traditions of both poetry and popular song (written in lines, often with meter and rhyme). And it is worthwhile for poets to consider what it is that makes the verse of popular music so popular.

Generally, pop music does not aspire to the kind of moralism that shaped one side of Tennyson's work (although it does contain a strain of that moralism in such songs as "We Are The World"—things that make you feel like a good person when you sing along with them). And of course it is hard to generalize about all pop music without people jumping in with counterexamples. But one relatively consistent feature of pop music is that it does not impose itself on its listeners: the lyrics tend to be simple, even vague, so that they are open enough for listeners to relate them to their own lives in general and their own particular experiences.

In contrast, one relatively consistent feature of contemporary poetry in English is that it does impose itself on its readers: it makes the reader listen to the voice of the poet, instead of providing, as pop lyrics do, a space for listeners to fill with their own voices, as it were. This focus on the poet's voice is in keeping with the Romantic-aestheticist tradition that Archambeau discusses, and I am all in favor of being imposed on by poets, since I am part of that tradition. But poets who feel tensions between the privacy of aestheticism and the possibility of a public voice might well consider the ways in which pop lyrics, the contemporary verse with the broadest popular appeal, relate to the audience that consumes them.

Monday, March 21, 2011

There was / were a huge number

I was preparing a grammar exercise from a book, and I came across the sentence "there were a huge number of mosquitoes." The sentence was not actually testing the number of the verb, but I stumbled over it, as I would spontaneously say "there was a huge number of mosquitoes." But I also noticed that I would say "a huge number of mosquitoes were there."

So I spent a few minutes digging around in grammar books and found several confirmations of the latter point ("number of" + plural verb) but no discussion of the number of the verb in such a construction with "there." So there's always a nice Google test:

"there were a huge number of" = 381k hits
"there was a huge number of" = 15.5m hits

You can't always count on Google to do your linguistic research for you, but this one seems pretty clear! Over 40:1 in favor of the singular "was" here, even though the reverse is true without "there" (though only just under 9:1):

"a huge number of people were" = 1.36m hits
"a huge number of people was" = 156k hits

Take out "huge" and the ratio is over 100:1 in favor "there was a number of", but about 20:1 in favor of "a number of people were."

So the descriptive conclusion is that in contemporary English, "number of" usually takes a plural verb, but "there X a number of" usually has a singular verb.

(Just trying my hand at a little linguistics.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Lacks a concept of lack"

In one of the prose poems in his book Angle of Yaw, Ben Lerner puts a new twist on the popular "No Word for X" meme when he refers to "a culture that lacks a concept of lack." The wonderful irony of that phrase is something to keep in mind whenever you come across a claim that a particular language "has no word for" a particular concept, such as the recent claim that "Japanese has no word for 'looting.'" (For a discussion of that, see this Language Log post; for a list of the many LL posts about the issue, see this post.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

White Egrets

Derek Walcott can spin out a long phrase as well as anyone, as in this poem, number V of part 10 of White Egrets, "In Italy":

Those hillsides ridged with ramparts and bell towers,
the crests of olives, those wheat-harvested slopes
through glittering aspens, those meadows of sunflowers,
with luncheon napkins like the mitres of popes,
lanes with long shadows, wide open retreats
guarded by leaping cypresses, shade-splashed ochre
walls, then the towns themselves with streets
as close as chain-mail, named after some mediocre
saint, coiling as one road down to the hazed sea.
All of those little ports, all named for saints,
redeem the sadness that was Sicily
and the stupidity of innocence.
It is like Sicilian light but not the same
sun or my shadow, a bitterness like a loss.
Drink of its bitterness to forget her name,
that is the mercy oblivion allows.

Look how the first nine lines play out phrases of varying length against the relatively even lengths of the lines. Look how the nouns that are the heads of those phrases run through those lines: hillsides, crests, slopes, lanes, retreats, walls, towns. Look how the feel created by the incomplete sentence of the first nine lines contrasts with the much shorter, complete sentences of the last seven. It's a poem that always knows where it is—in Italy—and yet it begins with a breathlessness that leaves you hanging somewhere before it sets you down there. White Egrets is full of writing like this.

But it is also full of poems that stumble rather than take off. Contrast the above with this poem, part III of section 13 of the book, "The Spectre of Empire":

The docks are dark and hooded, the warehouses
locked, and his insomnia rages like the moon
above the zinc roofs and spindly palms; he rouses
himself and dresses slowly in his small room:
he walks to the beach, the hills are brooding whales
against them drift the flambeaux and the lanterns
of the crab fishermen, the yachts have furled their sails,
he goes for this long walk when guilt returns;
indifferent to a constellation's Morse,
his resignation no longer sends
out fleets of power, an echo of that force
like dissipating spume on the night sand.
To the revolving beam of the Cyclopic lighthouse
he hears the suction of his soul's death-rattle,
but his is a history without remorse.
He hears the mocking cannonade of battle
from the charging breakers and sees the pluming hordes
of tribesmen galloping down the hills of sand
and hears the old phrase "Peccavi. I have Sind."
Think of the treaties signed by the same one-ringed hand,
think of the width its power could encompass
"one-seventh of the globe," we learnt in class.
Its promontories, docks, its towers and minarets
with the power that vanished as dew does from the grass
in the rising dawn of a sun that never sets.

Many of the things I am going to say in what follows could be dismissed as quibbles, except for the fact that there are so many of them.

The poem begins with a simple sentence, and then a simple elliptical phrase that implies the use of the same verb: "The docks are dark and hooded, the warehouses / [are] locked." This is perfectly fine, of course, but I find it quite clumsy to continue with an "and" after that ellipsis, followed by a clause with a new verb.

Eith that elliptical construction and then a longer, complete main clause, the semi-colon in line three (instead of a new sentence) makes things even more imbalanced. All the phrases in the long sentence fragment that begins the first poem I quoted balance beautifully; here, in contrast, the four clauses of the first lines do not build up toward something but instead head off in a variety of directions, semantically and syntactically.

That fourth line ends with a colon. What should follow a colon? Some sort of explanation or clarification of what came before. But what follows this colon is simply the next step in a narrative of what "he" is doing. And after a short clause about him comes a short clause that shifts the focus to the hills, so that the first five lines have six different clauses. Not only are the relationships between those clauses unclear, the sentence is not even finished yet.

Now take a look back at the punctuation at line breaks in the first poem I quoted: every line that could end in a comma does end in a comma. (The next-to-last line could have a semi-colon instead, but it works fine with a comma.) But here, as line five moves to line six, there is no comma. If we take the absence of a comma here seriously, then the enjambment across the line makes no sense: "the hills are brooding whales against them drift the flambeaux" is grammatical nonsense. "Against which" would work, but it doesn't say that.

Things settle down a bit for the next few lines, but it's worth noting that the first eight lines here contain nine main clauses. It's possible to write a compound sentence with nine main clauses over eight lines without getting clumsy, but these eight lines begin with clumsy syntax and are marred by sloppy punctuation—and the sentence is still not finished!

The next four lines are one main clause, but there are several problems here, beginning with my on-going question as to why this is all one sentence. In passing, I would also note that the semi-colons are used inconsistently here. (Note that I am not trying to tell Walcott how to use punctuation marks; I am just expecting from him what I would expect from any writer: that the y be used consistently in a way that serves the poems well.)

Then there's the question of the reference of "indifferent": it's easy enough to attach it to "his" so that we read "he is indifferent," but there is a moment of hesitation when it is the resignation that seems indifferent, which doesn't quite make sense. (I am not one to make too big a deal about "misplaced modifiers" that modify a possessive like this, but it's another infelicity to add to the list.)

Then there's the question of just what it is that "an echo of that force" is supposed to be doing syntactically: I guess it is supposed to be either a clarification of "fleets of power" (an appositive) or a second complement to "sends out" (with no coordination between the two complements). But neither of those options makes much sense to me.

The next sentence is mercifully brief, but even here a syntactic problem arises: in effect, the sentence says that "he hears the suction ... to the revolving beam." The introductory prepositional phrase with "to," that is, simply has no place in the main clause that follows.

The following sentence picks up on "he hears" and adds a "sees" and another "hears." It's actually fine in terms of the flow of points and the overall grammar, syntax, and punctuation, but even here, the verb phrases are connected clumsily: "he hears ... and sees ... and hears ..." ("Everything only connected by and and and," as Elizabeth Bishop would put it.)

The two lines that begin with "think" are lines 20 and 21 of the poem; as with the end of the section of "In Italy," it would be possible to use a semi-colon at the end of line 20, but it is unnecessary.

But some punctuation mark is necessary at the end of line 21—a colon, perhaps? That would introduce an explanation or clarification of "the width its power could encompass." Or perhaps a dash? That would be more emphatic; it would make the movement to line 22 less a matter of logic than a leap of memory, in a sense. — Even a comma would be better than the nothing that is here! (Here, though, a semi-colon would be nonsense, completely inconsistent even with Walcott's own somewhat haphazard use of semi-colons in the rest of the poem.)

The last three lines are not a complete sentence, which is not a problem (see the beautiful incomplete sentence I first talked about above). But there are still problems here: the promontories, docks, towers, and minarets in line 23 are not presented as a simple list along the lines of the one I just presented them in—a straight list of four items with a final "and" before the last item and no repetition of the initial "its." I could also imagine doing this: "Its promontories and docks, its towers and minarets." That's a relatively conventional rhythm for a list of four items. (I think there's even a term for that in classical rhetoric, but I can't remember what it is.) Yet once the list is established as not using "and" and not repeating "its," the introduction of "its" before "towers" makes me stumble.

And finally, there's the question of what the prepositional phrase "with the power" is supposed to be connected to. Should this be read as "its minarets with the power that vanished as dew does from the grass ..."? What does that mean?

Why go into this poem's infelicities at such great length? Two reasons: first, there is a great deal of beautiful writing in White Egrets, as beautiful as the first poem I quoted. But there is also a great deal of clumsy writing, where I find myself having to ask basic questions about the intended grammar and syntax. If these poems had no punctuation, I would expect to be doing that work, but they are punctuated, and the poems that work wonderfully succeed in part because they carry me along in a poetic trance in which I do not have to worry about syntax and grammar. So it is extremely surprising to find the trance repeatedly broken by such questions.

Secondly, Walcott's book won the T. S. Eliot Prize in January. I was happy to hear that, as I had read all but one of the shortlisted books and I had not thought that any of the others contained any poems as downright beautiful as some of the poems in this book (like the one I began with). But Anne Stevenson, the chair of the judges, was quoted (here) as saying that the book was "moving and technically flawless." Many of the poems in White Egrets are indeed both moving and technically flawless, but as I could show with a significant number of other poems in the book besides the one I dissected here, the book is full of technical flaws—and those flaws make it harder for the poems to be consistently moving.

Perspectives on nuclear reactors

A few days ago, this article about the design of the Fukushima nuclear reactors got a lot of attention. I appreciated it for its clear, careful description of the design of boiling water reactors. When I posted a link to it on my Facebook page, the comments began to fly, and I saw many of my Facebook friends linking to the same article (and even to a German version of it).

One thing I wondered in the comment stream on my posting of the link was whether a nuclear skeptic who understood the design might also provide an analysis of the situation. Well, it turns out, according to this article in today's New York Times (and International Herald Tribune) that such an analysis has been made—and not only has this reactor design been criticized, it has even been criticized right from its earliest days. And the NYT article cites several people who clearly have the credentials to understand the Fukushima design but have also long identified potential problems with the design that are the very problems that are now causing trouble in Japan.

Given that the author of the first description of boiling water reactors linked above apparently wrote the description in an email to his family to reassure them that things were okay, it's not surprising that he did not mention the existence of long-standing criticisms of the safety of such reactors.

But once the article went public, it's too bad that the MIT people who offered to host the article did not provide that information. This is a case where the "two-sides-of-the-story" ethic of contemporary journalism (which so often leads to a "balanced" presentation of a situation where one side is, as an FB friend put it recently in a different context, "batshit") actually does serve a purpose.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Just One

So I wanted some chocolate with my cup of coffee after lunch, but we're out of chocolate, in part because I intentionally did not buy any so that I would not overindulge.

But we have a box of Walker's Belgian Chocolate Chunk Cookies, so I thought I would eat just one. Then I wondered whether I would be able to resist eating another after eating the first one.

It seemed like that would be a really hard thing to do, as these cookies belong to the category of "you can't eat just one" (one of the many old advertising slogans still slithering around my brain). So I thought about giving myself a reward if I managed to eat only one.

But all I could think was this: "If I manage to eat just one, then I'll give myself another as a reward."

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Garden in Dream

Here's a stanza from David Harsent's "The Garden in Dream" (from his new collection Night):

This flower's baby blue seems almost bland
except, when you hold it close, you get the true
depth; and when you look away, you're blind.

I'm struck by how this stanza seems to summarize the logic of a great deal of poetry. Perhaps if I highlight a few words, I can make my point clear:

This flower's baby blue seems almost bland
except, when you hold it close, you get the true
depth; and when you look away, you're blind.

The logic is that something seems to be one way, but a closer look reveals that it is not what it first appeared to be. (And as I type up this note I wrote the other day, it strikes me that I am using the same logic when I highlight those phrases: look closely and you'll see something else.)

What takes this stanza beyond the logic of "look deeper and you'll see the truth" is this: what is revealed is not something about the flower. In fact, what is ultimately revealed is not "the true / depth" but one's own blindness—as if the result of revelation were the impossibility of further revelation.

So maybe what this post reveals is also not something about the poem but something about me: I am always seeing the ways in which seeing becomes indistinguishable from blindness. (So what it reveals is that I read Paul de Man back in the day? Blindness and Insight and all that.)