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Micah Towery

There’s been a bit of back and forth about questions of translatability (here and here), and I thought it was worth some observations.

I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?

Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.

Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:

The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
Of visual phenomena
(a film without intertitles)
(a film without script)
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.

McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:

“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”

Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:

“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”

The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.

I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.

To celebrate the forthcoming ¿What Where? Chapbook Series from The Corresponding Society, there will be a reading at Unnameable Books featuring Anselm Berrigan, Ryan Doyle May, Christie Ann Reynolds, Ben Fama, and Robert Fitterman. The event will be hosted by Lonely Christopher.

Details: Wednesday, November 17th, 8pm.
600 Vanderbilt Ave (at St. Marks), Brooklyn, NY.

More details/Facebook event.

Adam Fitzgerald has been up to some crazy shit lately. Not only is the man a teaching, (Maggy) magazine editing, (Monk) book publishing maniac, he’s also managed to put together a 100-page, 6-part poem collage in all that spare time he has. It’s called “The Life of Gorgias.”

This is how Adam describes this piece:

“The Gorgias” will have the first of six installments to be posted online. It incorporates poetry, collage, pornography, emails, Gchats, Facebook, and something I’m very excited about — music by STARS OF THE LID (an amazing ambient drone band that I’ve listened to for the past year when writing).
The work is debuting in the newly-minted Fortnight Journal today. Check it out.

This month Metro Rhythm is proud to present five outstanding poets: Meghan O’Rourke, Eleanor Lerman, Sarah V. Schweig, Zachary Pace and Jay Deshpande.  The reading will be held at Blue Angel Wines in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


In a recent blog post, Stanley Fish proclaims that the humanities crisis has officially arrived and takes George Philip, president of SUNY-Albany, to task for axing the French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs. Fish claims

it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.

Fish’s strategy is political: take the debate to the floors of state senates. Yet allow me to tentatively posit that perhaps our Modern Liberal Democracy (MLD for brevity) itself may be to blame. Whether we like it or not, MLD—the American one in particular—has a hard time understanding the value of something apart from its utility, its instrumentality—McLuhan called this “know how” (for a fuller, if occasionally simplistic, explanation of this idea, check out Neil Postman’s Technopoly).

Before continuing, I probably should define “Modern Liberal Democracy.” I’m only a poet who reads political philosophy sometimes, so be nice. I also realize I’m speaking broadly, and perhaps that makes me sloppy. But I hope the general gesture of this essay will out-merit its limits. Briefly, by MLD I mean modern democratic societies which have roots in Enligthenment (particularly “state of nature”) philosophy—liberal in the classical sense.

These democracies generally value individual freedom above all: I don’t disagree with your viewpoint, but I’ll die for your right to have it. Necessarily, whatever common values there are tend to be (problematically) vague and non-threatening: equality, justice, freedom of speech, etc. And even these values are not absolute; they are held in tension with prevailing political demands of the day: torture sometimes mitigates the assumed innocence of the accused; hate crimes legislation allows justice to take off the blinders; freedom of speech covers many things, but not exposing your genitals publicly. You find MLD throughout Europe & North America, primarily, but is being strenuously exported to other continents (along with the market system).

Initially, MLD seems to be the perfect environment for the Liberal Arts: freedom of speech, no midnight raids to arrest thought criminals or moralistic politicians jockeying for votes in a culture war (well…maybe not)—even the name similarities suggest a proper convergence of values. Yet in America and other governmentally  similar environments (h/t: Daniel Silliman), the sky has been falling on the liberal arts for years.

But we should note that this is not necessarily a new thing in history. In the last few days I’ve been reading through the history of Argentina. One thing that historian Jonathan Brown points out is that as soon as Argentina transitioned from an oligarchy of political elites to a MLD, the public universities shifted focus from the liberal arts to the sciences. This makes me want to ask, are the humanities an elite interest? Do professors of the humanities work at the indulgence of the privileged? Are the humanities a societal indulgence?

I don’t think the correlation between here is accidental. It might even be causal. Consider that the sciences and related disciplines are easily justified to the public in the type of discourse allowed in a MLD: remember, no absolute claims to ultimate values systems allowed—free speech, freedom of belief/conviction, and all that. But the liberal arts are much more difficult to justify in a MLD. As Fish states, “What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, ‘What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?’” Fish goes on to say

…it won’t do to invoke…pieties…— the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.

Interestingly enough, Fish (bleakly) hopes that this very defense will work with politicians who “like to think of themselves as crackerbarrel philosophers and historians.” (Talk about jaded!) And yet we live in an age when state (and probably federal) politicians refuse to use standard accounting practices and keep kicking the can of financial reckoning down the road. Unfortunately for these politicians, there are literally no more pieces of the state to sell off and rent back in order to keep the budget balanced; there are no more pension funds to borrow from. Thus it seems to me that the voters are the very people that must be convinced to sacrifice certain services and pay more taxes in order to keep the humanities—not the politicians. But how do we do that?

This emphasis on a useful education leaves little room for a more or less utilitarian education (though MFA programs flourish, interestingly) and has forced literary studies to become more scientific in their approach; college administrators expect the same kind of research from the local Miltonist (if she or he is not dead yet) as we get from a chair in research science. Robert Pippin sums this shift up well in his recent “Defense of Naïve Reading” from the New York Time’s Philosopher’s Stone series:

Philology, with its central focus on language, was once the master model for all the sciences and it was natural for teachers to try to train students to make good texts, track down sources, learn about conflicting editions and adjudicate such controversies. Then, as a kind of natural extension of these practices, came historical criticism, national language categorization, work on tracing influences and patronage, all contributing to the worry about classifying various schools, movements or periods. Then came biographical criticism and the flood gates were soon open wide: psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies. And so on.

Similarly, other authors like Patrick Deneen have pinned the decline of the liberal arts on the imitation of the German Research model of education, which divided disciplines “into specialized disciplines and [placed] stress on expertise and the discovery of new knowledge”:

When conservative critics of our universities nowadays lament the decline of liberal education, they usually decry its replacement by a left-leaning politicized agenda. But the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally displaced by scientific education buttressed by the demands of global competition.

This certainly helps frame the perennial American media’s anxiety about American students falling behind the Chinese in math & science (seriously: just Google “American students falling behind”). But it is important to note that Deneen defines the “humanities” in a way that is crucial to his argument. Deneen takes the classical understanding of “the humanities,” which stands in direct contradiction to the modern era’s desire to escape “all forms of power and control, [which implies] that the ideal human condition [is] one of complete liberty—even the liberty from what was once understood to be human.” Deneen skewers modern conservatives (read: culture wars), but Deneen’s impulse is itself deeply conservative.

For Deneen, the liberal arts are the study of humanity and is aimed at making students into better people—not better citizens, mind you; there’s a difference: they’re related, but not interchangeably. Such enlightened people respect the limits of what it means to be human. (Side note: This view of human limits dovetails interestingly with Wendell Berry’s 2008 essay in Harper’s “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.”)

There is something fundamentally conservative (in a way that would baffle most Republicans and Tea Partiers) about Deneen’s (and Berry’s) ideal of limits. But this ideal also baffles modern liberals. This ideal implies that there should be a singular and definite understanding of humans and how they relate to both nature and each other. Somewhere the “Fascist alert” is going off in our heads. It must be said, however, that while nobody (except a fascist) admires Ezra Pound’s dedication to fascism—especially since it was probably motivated by Pound’s racial anxieties—his politics are brought into better focus if we believe that MLD inevitably dismantles the humanities.

None of this is an attempt to justify Pound’s despicable politics. Rather, it should highlight that the humanities and modern liberal democracy may be fundamentally at odds. Thus, we should expect the actions of someone like President Philip when state budgets get tight. And in the coming “age of austerity,” it’s something we should probably get used to.

In fact, if Deneen is right in his genealogy of the humanities—and I suspect he is—then the humanities are conservative in the most radical way. Ironically, it is the modern liberals who take up the cause in the state house. Deneen’s claims rattle all our categories. Perhaps this is why so many professors who recite Fish’s “pieties” don’t actually believe it themselves. The crisis of the humanities is not external, then, it’s internal. Humanities programs aren’t being attacked because the voters are cretinous philistines (though we poets & writers prefer to stroke our own egos in thinking so). The humanities are suffering an identity crisis and are being picked off as the weakest competitors for state funding.

Let’s say, however, that we accept Deneen’s genealogy, that the humanities and our modern liberal democracy are invariably at odds; does that mean that we should return to the classical understanding of humanities? Deneen is obviously suspicious of things that most poets & writers (a diverse & liberal bunch to be sure) would enthusiastically embrace. Deneen notes with palpable disgust that

one is…likely to find [in the modern university] indoctrination in multiculturalism, disability studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, a host of other victimization studies, and the usual insistence on the centrality of the categories of race, gender, and class.

I personally tend more towards understanding things through the lens of technology (as opposed to race, gender, and class), and I wonder whether Deneen would list this category in his anathema of “victimization studies”? I’m not convinced of Deneen’s charity in this statement, and I think he engages in the very culture wars rhetoric he wants to skewer (plus there are better ways to tackle  “diversity” in the modern—particularly elite—university). But I do appreciate Deneen’s skepticism. And even one who vehemently disagrees with Deneen must admit that his characterizations of academia are eerily spot on in disturbing ways.

I suppose it boils down to this question: Is there a robust way to preserve the humanities against modern liberal democracy’s instrumental values system? Certainly in the last 50 or so years there have been valiant attempts to affirm the usefulness of the humanities in our modern political environment. But this effort is clearly failing, and before long we might not have any humanities courses left in which we are able to debate this very question.

And there is another question: are we trying to have it both ways? Both MLD and the liberal arts? Do they jive as well as we have always thought?

I’m sure many of you read Stanley Fish’s articles on the topic What Should Colleges Teach? from a year or so ago. I came from the “great tradition” tradition, the Mortimer J. Adler mindset of reading all the great books in the Western canon. I also got my dose of composition advice, much of coming from the slightly pushy Strunk & White. Some of my professors knew Strunk & White so well that they would underline sentences and cite the pages from the revered style book that I needed to consult in order to fix my sentence. Thus I followed Strunk religiously until I read Geoffrey Pullum’s extensive bitchfest in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Strunk & White, and in recent years I have reconsidered my devotion.

First I should say that Strunk & White definitely made a difference in my writing for the better. But what has improved my writing even more has been teaching it in the last year or so. Not just teaching it to college students, but teaching it to grad school bound ESL students. Teaching ESL students made me realize that Strunk & White is aimed at native speakers, and that while ESL students could benefit from some advice in that handy little book, Strunk & White doesn’t actually help readers understand what makes prose clear and direct.

For example, I can tell a native Mandarin speaker to “avoid a loose succession of sentences,” but a Mandarin speaker doesn’t have any clue what an English speaker considers to be a “loose succession of sentences.” While I cannot speak or read Mandarin, I get the impression that almost all sentences in Mandarin would come across as a “loose succession” clauses and modifiers to an English speaker (if any Mandarin readers could enlighten me about the truth of this impression that would be fabulous). This is not a judgment on Mandarin, but a recognition that different languages consider different writing habits to be stylistically virtuous.

Take the Korean as another example. Again, I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read and been told, complex levels of cultural subtleties that would baffle the mind of most native English readers are built into the Korean language itself. Implication is always preferred; topics are spoken around. In an English essay, it is usually considered anathema to “drop in” a quote without any context or explanation. In Korean, I’m told this is preferred. You have no idea how frustrating this made me the first time I read some of the essays written by my Korean students. Thus, the wise advice of Strunk—“Use the active voice”—does not help a Korean learn how to satisfy the English desire for directness of speech and ideas. And let’s be honest, the jargon of most academics is not a good example, either.

So I switched tactics and started using Joseph William’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Williams believes that writing becomes clear when we can see our sentences from the perspective of a reader. I’ve found that his principles have not only helped me as a writer, but also as a reader. Moreover, his style rules help non-native speakers understand what English speakers want when they read English.

Williams has even helped me get over my comma issues. When I was in second grade, I had a teacher that taught me to “use a comma wherever I paused in speech.” This was helpful enough until eleventh grade when I had a grammar Nazi English teacher who made me cower at the thought of a comma splice. My college professors continued to drill this into my brain to the point where I would use “Ctrl+F” to check every comma in my essays before I turned them in. So until recently, I have thought of comma placement as determined by relatively strict rules. Williams’ Style, however, helped me realize that…it’s actually both. Pauses, yes, and rules. That might upset some of you, but I’ve found it to be true. I could explain, but it’s probably worth another blog post.

Anyways, the point of this blog post was to ask readers a question: what is your preferred style book? Do you stick with Strunk? Do you like Eats, Shoots, & Leaves? None at all? Leave your thoughts in the comments box.

Continuing some thoughts from my previous post…

Marshall McLuhan once said that modern industrial man is like a turtle who is blind to the complex and incredible designs that are “growing” on his own back. We all know that we are undergoing rapid changes as we (continue to) shift from a pre-electronic industrial world to an electric industrial world, yet often it seems impossible to step back and understand the times.

Articles like this, however, jar us out of our unspoken assumptions, make us realize that we are proceeding down history that will be determined by the clash of two completely contradictory impulses: controlling our own situation and being controlled by the technology that we use. (Postman, of course, claimed that we became a “technopoly” long ago.)

…preservationists are routinely met with so much criticism: Who are we to encourage communities to preserve their heritage if it means preventing them from gaining access to the amenities of the industrialized world? It’s not as if there’s a cost-to-benefit spreadsheet we can draw up to assess what is lost versus what is gained when it comes to human values like knowledge, tradition and beauty.

Unfortunately, these very values are what’s at stake.

I tend to believe that we don’t realize that technology is (always already?) an assumption about the world (as one philosopher called it “an account of the good”), not only a tool. Ironically, this writer is lamenting the disappearance of languages via the internet, which has become battering ram of English domination. The more I read and learn, the more I think that questions of technology and how man relates to nature are primary questions (not economics, race, sexuality, etc.—in many ways, the controversies over these can be directly traced to questions of technology).

(For example, consider how the hyperlink has changed the way I wrote the above sentence: “articles like this” would have been a vague and completely useless phrase—yet you readers know what I’m referring to because your mouse pointer changes to a finger when you hover over it).

As far as the concerns of this article…I suspect that as languages built around physical communities (i.e., nations) die out, new electronically influenced dialects will emerge. A strange (but instructive) example of this is LOLcatspeak/IMspeak. To me, these bear the hallmarks of pidgin languages, which I think are the seeds of future languages (though I’m no linguist).

Read the rest of the article. It’s very interesting.

Marshall McLuhan once said that modern industrial man is like a turtle who is blind to the complex and incredible designs that are “growing” on his own back. We all know that we are undergoing rapid changes as we (continue to) shift from a pre-electronic industrial world to an electric industrial world, yet often it seems impossible to step back and understand the times.

Articles like this (, however, jar us out of our unspoken assumptions, make us realize that we are proceeding down history that will be determined by the clash of two completely contradictory impulses: controlling our own situation and being controlled by the technology that we use. (Postman, of course, claimed that we became a “technopoly” long ago.)

We don’t realize that technology is an assumption about the world (as one philosopher called it “an account of the good”), not only a tool. Ironically, this writer is lamenting the disappearance of languages via the internet, which has become battering ram of English domination. The more I read and learn, the more I think that questions of technology and how man relates to nature are primary questions (not economics, race, sexuality, etc.—in many ways, the controversies over these can be directly traced to questions of technology).

(For example, consider how the hyperlink has changed the way I wrote the above sentence: “articles like this” would have been a vague and completely useless phrase—yet you readers know what I’m referring to because your mo

Marshall McLuhan once said that modern industrial man is like a turtle who is blind to the complex and incredible designs that are “growing” on his own back. We all know that we are undergoing rapid changes as we (continue to) shift from a pre-electronic industrial world to an electric industrial world, yet often it seems impossible to step back and understand the times.

Articles like this (, however, jar us out of our unspoken assumptions, make us realize that we are proceeding down history that will be determined by the clash of two completely contradictory impulses: controlling our own situation and being controlled by the technology that we use. (Postman, of course, claimed that we became a “technopoly” long ago.)

We don’t realize that technology is an assumption about the world (as one philosopher called it “an account of the good”), not only a tool. Ironically, this writer is lamenting the disappearance of languages via the internet, which has become battering ram of English domination. The more I read and learn, the more I think that questions of technology and how man relates to nature are primary questions (not economics, race, sexuality, etc.—in many ways, the controversies over these can be directly traced to questions of technology).

(For example, consider how the hyperlink has changed the way I wrote the above sentence: “articles like this” would have been a vague and completely useless phrase—yet you readers know what I’m referring to because your mouse pointer changes to a finger when you hover over it).

As far as the concerns of this article…I suspect that as languages built around physical communities (i.e., nations) die out, new electronically influenced dialects will emerge. A strange (but instructive) example of this is LOLcatspeak/IMspeak. To me, these bear the hallmarks of pidgin languages, which I think are the seeds of future languages (though I’m no linguist).

use pointer changes to a finger when you hover over it).

As far as the concerns of this article…I suspect that as languages built around physical communities (i.e., nations) die out, new electronically influenced dialects will emerge. A strange (but instructive) example of this is LOLcatspeak/IMspeak. To me, these bear the hallmarks of pidgin languages, which I think are the seeds of future languages (though I’m no linguist).

Oh hai.

For those of you who missed it the first time around (myself included), The Story of English is an excellent documentary on the history and nature of the English language. One enterprising YouTuber has posted the whole series on his channel. The videos seem quite dated, but much of the topics discussed are still relevant.

There’s another great series called The Adventure of English that’s worth checking out also.

Now for a spin on the story of English from the internet age…LOLcats. In particular, the LOLcat Bible Translation Project. Many linguists depend upon the work of Bible translators deployed around the world in remote (to us, at least) regions of the world. I happen to know a man who worked as a Bible translator and created the only existing dictionary in the world for his regional dialect. Concerns about dictionaries (and their purpose) aside, the LOLcats Translation begs a question: is LOLcats a true pidgin English? It has a history, it has its own grammar and rules, and now it has its own Bible.

Here is the Lord’s prayer in LOLcat:

Ceiling Cat Prayerz n stuffs
9 u pray leik dis: Praise Ceiling Cat, who be watchin yu, may him has a cheezburger.10 Wut yu want, yu gets, srsly.11 Giv us dis day our dalee cheezburger.12 And furgiv us for makin yu a cookie, but eateding it.13 An leed us not into teh showa, but deliver us from teh wawter. Ceiling Cat pwns all. Him pwns teh ceiling an flor an walls too. Amen. (sum aweforehtehz ad “srsly”)
14 if u sais sry Ceiling Cat will be leik s’ok iz kewl.15 if u donut sez sry Ceiling Cat will pwn u.

Long live the Cartographer Electric!

After almost a year or two of putting it off, I and the other editors have posted the final issue of The Cartographer Electric! This was a magazine we started back as seniors at Binghamton University. Along with the issue, we created a reading series at the Belmar that still continues to this day.

After graduating, we quickly ran out of steam to continue putting out issues. This was a true community magazine, and it fed on the energy of the readings and was inspired into existence the other poets we knew and were excited to read. It was a great experience, and I think that everyone should start a small community rag like this. It doesn’t have to be big or ambitious…just something that you share between you, your friends, and their friends. I don’t spend lots of time reading the latest issue of Ploughshares, but I was always interested in reading local indie rags like the one we were putting out.

During grad school, I had the idea to start an accompanying online press that gave ebooks away for free. We put out a fantastic copy of Joe Weil’s poems that is still available (lovely typos and all–some day I’m going to fix that), a half-chap of poems by Eric Kocher (who is currently kicking ass down at Houston), and Gene Tanta. Gene’s book is currently unavailable as he is editing it for another edition (more on that later!).

The Press Electrrrric! is on the back burner for me right now, but some day I’d like to revisit it. Until then, I hope you enjoy all the archives of material (I know the website is not a looker right now–I’m gonna go back to that some day too!). I want to give one last shout out to my fellow-editors-in-crime Joel Davis and Adam Pelligrini. It was a good time while it lasted, bros.

I hope you’ve been watching Mary Karr and Chris Robinson’s excellent Poetry Fix YouTube Series. It’s the perfect-sized portion of poetry and comment to get you thinking, your poetry juices flowing. Mary Karr is also a great reader/interpreter of the various poems.

I just watched Episode 5 on Louise Gluck’s poem “Mock Orange.” I don’t often remember my first encounter with a poem or poet, but I distinctly remember reading Gluck for the very first time (her book The Seven Ages, and then later Ararat, perhaps my favorite). The power of her voice was overwhelming, and after I got out of my “try to sound like T.S. Eliot phase” I progressed into a “try to sound like Louise Gluck phase.”

Primarily, I tried to imitate Gluck’s minimalism. Minimalist art in general is one of those things that makes people stare in confusion for a few moments before moving on (especially public minimalist art). It seems potent, but also has a sort of inert stoicism. It draws you in by a straightforward opacity. Where exactly, though, does the power lie if there is literally nothing to hang a “message” on? As you might expect, its power lies in the fact that it says so little. Let me explain.

There is a minimalist sculpture I have in mind. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find it on Google image…so I shall have to describe it. It was three parallel blocks that leaned to the right about 30 degrees. That was it. My first impulse was to scoff. But I stared at it, intent to figure it out.

And I stared some more.

Eventually in frustration I slumped my head in my hand (it so happened) at about 30 degrees to the right. Suddenly, I realized that these three columns were not holding a message in and of themselves, but trying only to get me to tilt my head to the right at about 30 degrees. Then I looked behind the columns at the background and realized that I was seeing things from a different perspective: what the world would look like when your head was tilted at 30 degrees.

Minimalism is not about powerful messages about the nihilism or poverty of the human condition (though it’s certainly easy to think so!). Instead, minimalist art creates a framework through which you view the world. It gives you the bones of the skeleton and then you fill out the flesh. But watch out! The minimalist artist still controls the bones (and hence the body that you have put on them). Minimalism is as silent as the movie frame.

Anyhow, if you haven’t watched the first 6 episodes yet, check it out. It’s poetry for the average human!

In a recent post, I based a discussion about the relationship between the poetic line and print culture on some of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas. I was recently listening to the below lecture by McLuhan and he discussed the effects of the phonetic alphabet. He said that the phonetic alphabet divorced the visual sense from the other senses by emphasizing it above the others. This separation creates the possibility of linearity, the space for “logicians, analysts, classifiers, the individualist pattern of Greek life.” The phoenecian alphabet made possible Euclid, who revealed that visual space is continuous and connected and homogeneous and static. All the other spaces created by the other senses–of touch, acoustics, kinesthesial–all these other senses are discontinuous, resonant and dynamic.” He gives an interesting example to demonstrate this. A boy is on his first flight and asks his dad, “When do we get small?” The “canopy” of the plane limits the field of vision, creates a static environment. The moment a man with a parachute jumps out of the plane, he feels one inch tall.

When McLuhan described linearity (I think he actually used the term lineality…not sure if there’s a difference? Spell check doesn’t recognize the latter, if that means anything!), I couldn’t help but think about the poetic line and the way it is changing. As print culture (and hence the divorce made by the phonetic alphabet) ends, we move from the line, back to the field, back to non-linear, acoustic space.

In my experience, poetry workshops speak about how a poem looks on the page much more often than how the lines work. Perhaps this is describing the move from line (poetic line) to field (the page)? I think this line (!) of thought might yield much as we think about the developments of modern poetry (beginning with Baudelaire and the symbolists/high modernists), though I don’t have much time to chase it down the rabbit hole at this moment. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comment section.

Watch the video. It’s worth your hour.

Wendell Berry recently decided to pull his personal papers from the University of Kentucky, and it got me thinking.

While I know this news story isn’t directly related to the topic of poetry (and this is–loosely–a poetry blog), I can’t help but feel it connects on some other level as we (poets) think about the relationship of our poetry to the world around us. Most of my exposure to the world of modern poetry has taken place through the university system. And while I know there are many poets writing and thriving outside the university system, it seems to me that the relationship of modern poetry is hopelessly enmeshed with our modern universities. Let’s admit it, the modern university (as well as the various foundations, titles, etc.) gives us poets the prestige we desperately desire. Would we be satisfied reading in bars the rest of our lives? Some of us would, but many of us would feel cheated. We want, as it were, to be “overheard.”

Most modern universities are “research universities.” I find even explicitly “liberal arts” universities cast their value in scientific terms. If you’ve been to a grad conference recently, you know as well as I do that academics dutifully toils away in a very narrow slices of their field, increasing knowledge (wherever that is stored…), writing books, gaining tenure. The language of conferences and academic panels has become scientific, calculated, professional. When you are asked about your studies, you must cast it in “pitch” it, so as to demonstrate the entrepreneurial value.

How much of this has seeped into the world of modern poetry?

Does the modern university ennoble (if I may use such an unfashionable word!) those of us (I’m still there!) who dwell in its halls? Consider Berry’s excoriation of the “research university”:

At a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Berry railed against “the great and the would-be-great ‘research universities.’ These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the ‘industrial model,’ no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. … The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.”

There is little doubt also that the modern university is, as one thinker put it, “the handmaiden of the military-government-industrial complex.” Certainly the poet can be the voice of conscience on the campus, but at what cost? Berry has the strength of his convictions (and the status to sustain them).

Then again, he also has a farm if it all goes to hell.

My good friend, Chris Robinson, has started a YouTube series with Mary Karr called “Poetry Fix.”

I’ve been reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan in the last several months. I know he’s not the most fashionable critic anymore, but I admire his attitude toward culture. I’ve heard some call him a “futurist” but this seems to run directly counter to McLuhan as I read him. If anything, McLuhan is a medievalist who has adapted himself to our futurist culture in order to bring a rather old timey message.

McLuhan created what he called a “tetrad.” The general idea is that for every new medium, four things always happen.

1. The new medium enhances some aspect of us or our life.
2. The new medium obsolesces some aspect of us or our life.
3. The new medium, when pushed to its maximum, ultimately reverses some aspect of our life.
4. The new medium retrieves some past aspect of us or our life.

For example, the car:

1. It enhances speed.
2. It obsolesces the horse and buggy.
3. When there are many cars on the road, it ultimately ends up reversing that speed (in the form of traffic jams)
4. It retrieves the “knight in shining armor” in the form of the boy with the bitchin’ car.

Now pondering on the advance of the press (and now the digital age), I’ve been thinking about the effects of various mediums on poetry (which is itself a medium). When poetry was primarily oral, it was filled with mnemoic devices of all sorts that allowed for it to be memorized easily. Even during the manuscript era, poetry was necessarily oral poetry. Yet with the growth of the printed manuscript, one didn’t have to memorize as much anymore.

I have not done any formal research, but I suspect that as the written/printed word gained ground, the formal constraints on poetry (which were originally there to allow for oral memory) began to fall by the wayside. They were no longer necessary, though it seems the inertia of tradition kept these conventions in place for a while. Once the instrumental use was gone, it was only a matter of time before poets began exploring less oral-friendly forms.

Now, of course, we are entering the digital age, and I suspect the next thing to go (indeed has already gone) is the poetic line itself. Words no longer need the inertia of the line to carry them forward if digital animation can do so. WC Williams (with his visual foot) was already pushing in that direction, as has prose poetry. Is it possible that the poetic line as the bread and butter of poetry may be on its way out?

I would not be surprised if anyone has advanced this thesis before.  Could anybody point me to another author who has written on this topic?

CBC has an excellent radio show called Ideas, which is surprisingly high brow stuff. In particular, Ideas has been running a series based on McGill University’s Making Publics Project. CBC’s series of the same title has been tracing for listeners the origin of the modern public. It’s worth listening to from the beginning, but if you’re short on time, the last three episodes on Dutch painting, Elizabethan/Jacobean theater, and the formation of public through theater have all been especially worthwhile.

The last in particular is worth a listen if you’ve followed some of my blog posts on Allen Grossman’s The Sighted Singer. Grossman uses J.S. Mill’s idea that the speaker in lyric poetry is “overheard.” He is alone in his own mind, his own reverie, yet the lyric poet allows himself to be overheard by the audience, his readers. Compare this with the discussion in the Making Publics podcast about Hamlet’s famous soliloquy which begins “Now I am alone…” . In this, too, Hamlet self-consciously reveals his inner thoughts to an audience he does/n’t know is there. Perhaps this soliloquy is a proto-modern lyric?

V. Art Appreciation

Have you heard the Taoist tale of the Taming of the Harp?

Once in the hoary ages in the Ravine of Lungmen stood a Kiri tree, a veritable king of the forest. It reared its head to talk to the stars; its roots struck deep into the earth, mingling their bronzed coils with those of the silver dragon that slept beneath. And it came to pass that a mighty wizard made of this tree a wondrous harp, whose stubborn spirit should be tamed but by the greatest of musicians. For long the instrument was treasured by the Emperor of China, but all in vain were the efforts of those who in turn tried to draw melody from its strings. In response to their utmost strivings there came from the harp but harsh notes of disdain, ill-according with the songs they fain would sing. The harp refused to recognise a master.

At last came Peiwoh, the prince of harpists. With tender hand he caressed the harp as one might seek to soothe an unruly horse, and softly touched the chords. He sang of nature and the seasons, of high mountains and flowing waters, and all the memories of the tree awoke! Once more the sweet breath of spring played amidst its branches. The young cataracts, as they danced down the ravine, laughed to the budding flowers. Anon were heard the dreamy voices of summer with its myriad insects, the gentle pattering of rain, the wail of the cuckoo. Hark! a tiger roars,—the valley answers again. It is autumn; in the desert night, sharp like a sword gleams the moon upon the frosted grass. Now winter reigns, and through the snow-filled air swirl flocks of swans and rattling hailstones beat upon the boughs with fierce delight.

Then Peiwoh changed the key and sang of love. The forest swayed like an ardent swain deep lost in thought. On high, like a haughty maiden, swept a cloud bright and fair; but passing, trailed long shadows on the ground, black like despair. Again the mode was changed; Peiwoh sang of war, of clashing steel and trampling steeds. And in the harp arose the tempest of Lungmen, the dragon rode the lightning, the thundering avalanche crashed through the hills. In ecstasy the Celestial monarch asked Peiwoh wherein lay the secret of his victory. “Sire,” he replied, “others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp.”

This story well illustrates the mystery of art appreciation. The masterpiece is a symphony played upon our finest feelings. True art is Peiwoh, and we the harp of Lungmen. At the magic touch of the beautiful the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognise, stand forth in new glory. Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.

The sympathetic communion of minds necessary for art appreciation must be based on mutual concession. The spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving the message, as the artist must know how to impart it. The tea-master, Kobori-Enshiu, himself a daimyo, has left to us these memorable words: “Approach a great painting as thou wouldst approach a great prince.” In order to understand a masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic once made a charming confession. Said he: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgement matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.” It is to be deplored that so few of us really take pains to study the moods of the masters. In our stubborn ignorance we refuse to render them this simple courtesy, and thus often miss the rich repast of beauty spread before our very eyes. A master has always something to offer, while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of appreciation.

To the sympathetic a masterpiece becomes a living reality towards which we feel drawn in bonds of comradeship. The masters are immortal, for their loves and fears live in us over and over again. It is rather the soul than the hand, the man than the technique, which appeals to us,—the more human the call the deeper is our response. It is because of this secret understanding between the master and ourselves that in poetry or romance we suffer and rejoice with the hero and heroine. Chikamatsu, our Japanese Shakespeare, has laid down as one of the first principles of dramatic composition the importance of taking the audience into the confidence of the author. Several of his pupils submitted plays for his approval, but only one of the pieces appealed to him. It was a play somewhat resembling the Comedy of Errors, in which twin brethren suffer through mistaken identity. “This,” said Chikamatsu, “has the proper spirit of the drama, for it takes the audience into consideration. The public is permitted to know more than the actors. It knows where the mistake lies, and pities the poor figures on the board who innocently rush to their fate.”

The great masters both of the East and the West never forgot the value of suggestion as a means for taking the spectator into their confidence. Who can contemplate a masterpiece without being awed by the immense vista of thought presented to our consideration? How familiar and sympathetic are they all; how cold in contrast the modern commonplaces! In the former we feel the warm outpouring of a man’s heart; in the latter only a formal salute. Engrossed in his technique, the modern rarely rises above himself. Like the musicians who vainly invoked the Lungmen harp, he sings only of himself. His works may be nearer science, but are further from humanity. We have an old saying in Japan that a woman cannot love a man who is truly vain, for their is no crevice in his heart for love to enter and fill up. In art vanity is equally fatal to sympathetic feeling, whether on the part of the artist or the public.

Nothing is more hallowing than the union of kindred spirits in art. At the moment of meeting, the art lover transcends himself. At once he is and is not. He catches a glimpse of Infinity, but words cannot voice his delight, for the eye has no tongue. Freed from the fetters of matter, his spirit moves in the rhythm of things. It is thus that art becomes akin to religion and ennobles mankind. It is this which makes a masterpiece something sacred. In the old days the veneration in which the Japanese held the work of the great artist was intense. The tea-masters guarded their treasures with religious secrecy, and it was often necessary to open a whole series of boxes, one within another, before reaching the shrine itself—the silken wrapping within whose soft folds lay the holy of holies. Rarely was the object exposed to view, and then only to the initiated.

At the time when Teaism was in the ascendency the Taiko’s generals would be better satisfied with the present of a rare work of art than a large grant of territory as a reward of victory. Many of our favourite dramas are based on the loss and recovery of a noted masterpiece. For instance, in one play the palace of Lord Hosokawa, in which was preserved the celebrated painting of Dharuma by Sesson, suddenly takes fire through the negligence of the samurai in charge. Resolved at all hazards to rescue the precious painting, he rushes into the burning building and seizes the kakemono, only to find all means of exit cut off by the flames. Thinking only of the picture, he slashes open his body with his sword, wraps his torn sleeve about the Sesson and plunges it into the gaping wound. The fire is at last extinguished. Among the smoking embers is found a half-consumed corpse, within which reposes the treasure uninjured by the fire. Horrible as such tales are, they illustrate the great value that we set upon a masterpiece, as well as the devotion of a trusted samurai.

We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our very individuality establishes in one sense a limit to our understanding; and our aesthetic personality seeks its own affinities in the creations of the past. It is true that with cultivation our sense of art appreciation broadens, and we become able to enjoy many hitherto unrecognised expressions of beauty. But, after all, we see only our own image in the universe,—our particular idiosyncracies dictate the mode of our perceptions. The tea-masters collected only objects which fell strictly within the measure of their individual appreciation.

One is reminded in this connection of a story concerning Kobori-Enshiu. Enshiu was complimented by his disciples on the admirable taste he had displayed in the choice of his collection. Said they, “Each piece is such that no one could help admiring. It shows that you had better taste than had Rikiu, for his collection could only be appreciated by one beholder in a thousand.” Sorrowfully Enshiu replied: “This only proves how commonplace I am. The great Rikiu dared to love only those objects which personally appealed to him, whereas I unconsciously cater to the taste of the majority. Verily, Rikiu was one in a thousand among tea-masters.”

It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamour for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful. To the masses, contemplation of illustrated periodicals, the worthy product of their own industrialism, would give more digestible food for artistic enjoyment than the early Italians or the Ashikaga masters, whom they pretend to admire. The name of the artist is more important to them than the quality of the work. As a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago, “People criticise a picture by their ear.” It is this lack of genuine appreciation that is responsible for the pseudo-classic horrors that to-day greet us wherever we turn.

Another common mistake is that of confusing art with archaeology. The veneration born of antiquity is one of the best traits in the human character, and fain would we have it cultivated to a greater extent. The old masters are rightly to be honoured for opening the path to future enlightenment. The mere fact that they have passed unscathed through centuries of criticism and come down to us still covered with glory commands our respect. But we should be foolish indeed if we valued their achievement simply on the score of age. Yet we allow our historical sympathy to override our aesthetic discrimination. We offer flowers of approbation when the artist is safely laid in his grave. The nineteenth century, pregnant with the theory of evolution, has moreover created in us the habit of losing sight of the individual in the species. A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school. We classify too much and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.

The claims of contemporary art cannot be ignored in any vital scheme of life. The art of to-day is that which really belongs to us: it is our own reflection. In condemning it we but condemn ourselves. We say that the present age possesses no art:—who is responsible for this? It is indeed a shame that despite all our rhapsodies about the ancients we pay so little attention to our own possibilities. Struggling artists, weary souls lingering in the shadow of cold disdain! In our self-centered century, what inspiration do we offer them? The past may well look with pity at the poverty of our civilisation; the future will laugh at the barrenness of our art. We are destroying the beautiful in life. Would that some great wizard might from the stem of society shape a mighty harp whose strings would resound to the touch of genius.

DOWNLOAD AND READ the rest of The Book of Tea here.