In honor of the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome is hosting the most major exhibition of his work in, well,—ever.
Caravaggio settled in Rome at the age of 21. There he soon earned a notorious reputation, constantly brawling and womanizing. In 1606 he stabbed and killed his opponent in a game of royal tennis and fled Rome a wanted man. He escaped to Malta then back to Italy—to Sicily and Naples—where his troubles continued. In July of 1610, still in exile, he died in Porto Ercole, a peninsula on the Tuscan coast.
The exhibition (open until June 13th) has brought Caravaggio’s most important works that have been scattered about the world back to Rome, including Bacchus from the Uffizi, the Musicians from the MET, the Lute Player from the Hermitage, Amor Vincit Omnia from the Staatliche Museum, Supper at Emmaus from the National Gallery in London, and The Taking of Christ (“The Lost Painting”) from The National Gallery of Ireland.
Some of Caravaggio’s paintings cannot be exhibited, as they are permanently placed in various churches, but if you’re in Rome you can visit them easily. The Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo (in Piazza del Popolo) houses The Crucifixion of Saint Peter. And The Calling of Saint Matthew is tucked away in the Contarelli Chapel at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi (also there: The Inspiration of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew).
In short, if you can make it to Rome before June 13th, do it. (I just found cheap tickets on bing.com). And in preparation for the trip The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr is recommended.
Forgot to post yesterday. To compensate, I am typing a poem “by heart”—you may know it already, by Ms Jorie Graham…
THE WAY THINGS WORK
is by admitting
or opening away.
This is the simplest form
of current: Blue
moving through blue;
blue through purple;
the objects of desire
opening upon themselves
the objects of faith.
The way things work
is by solution,
resistence lessened or
increased and taken
The way things work
is that we finally believe
they are there,
common and able
to illustrate themselves.
Wheel, kinetic flow,
rising and falling water,
ingots, levers and keys,
I believe in you,
cylinder lock, pully,
lifting tackle and
crane lift your small head—
I believe in you—
your head is the horizon to
my hand. I believe
forever in the hooks.
The way things work
is that eventually
On our way back from the Sand Paper Press reading at Adobe Books in San Francisco, Arlo Haskell and I drove through Big Sur on our way back to Los Angeles. Arlo had never been before; this was my fourth visit, my third in six months. I never stay longer than twenty-four hours. I don’t know why. As someone who doesn’t normally feel a primal connection to a place, I ought to take advantage of the stirrings when they occur. Certainly I wouldn’t have been the first to feel them in this place. Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller,
Jack Kerouac, California pioneers, assorted Hollywood moguls, and migratory whales have all experienced Big Sur’s poweful pull.
The other day the ambience at Big Sur was particularly dramatic. There was mist in the air from everywhere – from the mountains to the west, where fog was stuck; from the ocean, which was pounding the rocks with particular force. And the sun stuck the mist similarly everywhere, so that the air glowed yellow, the fabled gold of California.
When you drive south through Big Sur, you must stop and see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. There were huge males on the beach on Tuesday, maybe 15 feet long, with doe-like black eyes and crumpled snouts that look like a baby bird has perched on their faces.
This reminds me of a poem by the wonderful Argentinian poet Hector Viel Temperley, whose work I have been translating for some years. It’s from Legión extranjera (1978), a breakthrough volume in which Viel’s surrealist and visionary Christian impulses begin to catapult one another, and the reader, into vertiginous orbit. The poem is ‘El verde claro’ (The Luminous Green), and in it the poet listens to a woman (perhaps a naturalist?) as he stands on the shore: ‘Between the lighthouse and the spray and the green crags / one of the women explained it all: / She explained how old elephant seals / are forced to stop pursuing the females and so / They rub their penises on the baby / elephant seals / and with their flippers keep them still // I told her a different story : / Not so long ago I met a young monk fresh from the cloister / who writes hymns for the services / And not only does he write music and lyrics / But he signs his name and sings them / He’s got a good voice / and can play the guitar / But this isn’t getting us anywhere! / I dreamed about closer, more likely things / My other and I are two bags of luminous green / connected by an umbilical cord / And sharks flee from our luminous / green shadows / while we tread water in a luminous green sea / in the luminous / Green breath of an African sea.’
Viel deserves to be better known even in his native country, and certainly in this one as well, a situation I am hoping to soon improve.
In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”
I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…
On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):
[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.
Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:
Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.
Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”
On “immanent” confessionalists:
There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.
…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.
Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”
…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.
…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.
OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.
I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.
I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:
Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.
Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.
My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.
This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:
Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.
We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??
What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.
Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.
Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.
Two last points:
1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.
2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.
3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?
Above is painter Sean McElroy’s “So Just Be It.” I have known Sean a long time, and I admire both his art and intellect. I was reminded of his work yesterday as I settled down with Ben Lerner’s new book of poems, Mean Free Path (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)—a book I’ve been excited to read since, well, Lerner’s last book of poems. If I tried to say too much about these paintings and poems, I’m sure my reach would exceed my grasp, so to oversimplify I’m trying to tell you that Lerner’s new poems and McElroy’s paintings are interesting because of their appropriations of geopolitics, war, pop culture, the lexica and imagery we take for granted—I’m trying to say they get me really worked up in my thinking about our world.
Below is a Lerner stanza that reminds me of a McElroy painting:
All these flowers look the same to me
Night-vision green. There is nothing to do
In the desert but read Penthouse and lift weights
My blood is negative. That’s all you need to know
Sophisticated weaponry marries the traditional
Pleasures of perspective to the new materiality
Of point-and-click. I’m writing this one
As a woman comfortable with leading
A prisoner on a leash
To offer just a stanza doesn’t do Mean Free Path justice, of course. This is a mere snippet of a sequence of intellectually rigorous, often strange and surprisingly beautiful fragments in a composite formation. But the idea behind the piece reminds me of McElroy’s art. In a world of militarized language and images, how do we say or present our experience in a way that doesn’t slip into a Daily Show-esque mode of ironizing? Or a mode of superirony? Or something else? See McElroy’s “Looking for Fun, Outgoing, Spontaneous” for something else:
What I’m trying to say is that these two artists make a great pair, and their work is great individually as well. See this from Lerner (I’m trying to mention his new book favorably, to be clear, and suggest that there’s much more to be gained by experiencing the sequence):
Birds were these little ships that flew and sang
There were some cool pics online. Funny
Strange, not ha-ha funny, how the black
Canvas grows realistic, a bird’s-eye-view
Of their disappearance. Wave after wave
Of déjà lu. After the storm, the sky turns
Night-vision green. The color of murder
I can hear the soldiers marching in my
Pillow. Even in Canada
Even when Lerner is hard to swallow, sometimes even off-putting, he’s at least interesting. See McElroy’s “A Brick is Drawn out of the Great Tomb for Thee” for such masterfully composed disturbance:
So what do you think? I’ll try to more coherently explain myself next week, when I attempt to more carefully review Lerner’s new book. In the meantime, I want to know if anyone else has paired a particular contemporary poet and visual artist (apart from Bianca Stone, who is enviably both in one), and I want to know what you’re excited to be reading.
You can see more of Sean McElroy’s work at: http://www.goldensplinter.com/SEAN_MCELROY
“Growing up in the environment where any notion of gay sex was immediately associated with danger, I learned from the early age how to make the best of it and even enjoy it. I’m not a vanilla person and I’m not into vanilla sex, so naturally role-play and various fetishes are a big part of my aesthetics.”
“GET YOUR VILE TENTACLES AWAY FROM ME! – I whispered, surrounded by cretins and fuckheads. — I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING!!! I AM TREASON!!! INFIDELITY IS MINE!!!!”
“They say that in order to become a real artist you have to kill your parents. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my family in general and my Dad in particular. I did a lot of things in order to overcome the complexes that my parents planted into my mind. I haven’t talked to my father in years, but recently he was interviewed for a documentary about me that was just broadcast on the Russian TV, and he was talking about me as a total failure, the biggest failure of his life… Luckily, I don’t need or expect his praise or approval anymore!”
“I never made a secret that porn is one of my major inspirations, especially internet porn. So, in a way, it’s only fair that my photos are now posted all over various fetish and porn sites. It means that my work has gone a full cycle and is now back in a public domain, for everyone to enjoy. It’s also a great compliment for me because I feel like in my photography I’ve managed to achieve a certain level of intimacy and honesty that can only be seen on some amateur porn sites. Even if some of my photos were staged, the final result looks totally natural and spontaneous.”
I have nothing to say today, or nothing specific, only miscellany, no fashion thing has occurred to me. Here you have an image of Ferula scorodosma, the plant whose dried sap is used to make asafoetida, a rather pungent spice. I received a packet of asafoetida in a box of spices given to me as a gift on my recent birthday – it tasted quite good in a stew of lamb’s neck and potatoes, simmered with orange juice and zest and some milk that had been heated up for coffee earlier in the day and left on the stove.
Speaking of nothing to say, I have been thinking this week about ‘Nothing To Say,’ an intensely sprawling poem from Ann Lauterbach‘s latest collection, Or To Begin Again. The poem takes its title from the opening of John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing.’
But where Cage seems to calmly meditate his absent predicament, Lauterbach tears into hers, into the failings and possibilities of language, deeply felt failings and possibilities.
I have long been a fan of Lauterbach in this mode. ‘N/est,’ an overlooked poem in On a Stair, moves through variations and meditations on finding a home in the world, and preparing one’s body to be a home, i.e. pregnancy, abortion, figuring out how to speak, figuring out how to write. Ethical considerations.
These texts, with their prose-like presence on the page, but broken, or rather with verse breaking into them, breaking the prose apart, approach poetry from the outside, expecting everything of it formally, emotionally, musically. They are not easy to grasp, and are perhaps not meant to be fully grasped, rather read, and deeply felt.
Enough from me, now some ‘Nothing to Say,’ after this 1977 portrait of Ann Lauterbach by Alex Katz:
the excess of a dream, we who had been speaking mildly to each other following collapse, sipping tea in the tearoom, there, sequestered against those others and their meridians on the char, it was difficult in this setting to notice, although the waitress was an actress, her lips scarlet, but this was only the lure of
glamour, toned muscles of the arm, cleft above the thigh. Found her there again, walking the horizon, where what was alive and what not alive almost touched, as moments touch, walking now with her sister on the other side of the line which is an illusion, the line, not the sister, she was there, among all the sisters, their chorale in the meadow, now turning now following the path
I also couldn’t resist posting this wonderful footage of Lauterbach in conversation with Grace Paley in 1975.
PROFESSOR: Mary Ann, would you mind reading your poem aloud so that we can hear it in your own voice?
MARY ANN: Absolutely. Ahem.
Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
Ya damn right!
Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
Can you dig it?
Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother
SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft.
THEN WE CAN DIG IT!
He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
PROFESSOR: Thank you, Mary Ann. Ok, class, let’s start with the things we like. Then we’ll move on to the things we think could be improved.
AMERICAN STUDIES MAJOR [pensively]: I really appreciate how the poem argues with itself, even contradicts itself—“If I contradict myself,” it seems to echo Whitman, “I contradict myself.” In fact, I find a lot of parallels between the chief persona in this poem and the Whitman/ Emerson/ Thoreau American Transcendentalist milieu, if you will. This man, this John Shaft, I think we can all agree, would not exist without Emerson’s tenets so formidably outlined in “Self-Reliance,” am I right? Am I right? [Flashes a toothy white smile toward Romanticist.]
[Modernist glares at Romanticist.]
SWAG (Studies in Women and Gender) MAJOR: I disagree. I think the most provoking contradiction in this piece is when the speaker asserts that Shaft is a ‘bad mother.’ This bends all our preconceptions of male/female roles in a domestic space. That is the main dialectic at work here, not the juxtaposition of popularity versus existential alienation.
MODERNIST: Really? So you’re saying that one gender-bending line overshadows the obvious post-modern Prufrockian slant in the entire piece? I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that when the speaker asserts that no one understands Shaft but his woman, the speaker is being ironic, using indirect discourse to suggest that this is what Shaft has to tell his woman to assuage her concerns regarding her insecurities as a lover.
ROMANTICIST: [gasps, incredulous]
[Modernist glares at her.]
SWAG MAJOR: Um…well, considering where the line comes in the piece…
ROMANTICIST: Well, I for one don’t think [air quotes] His Woman [air quotes] is [air quotes] insecure [air quotes] about her abilities as a [air quotes] lover [air quotes] at all! I mean, Mary Ann says—
PROFESSOR: The speaker says….
ROMANTICIST: [air quotes] The speaker says [air quotes] that John is a bad mother—can’t we consider what this means in terms of what kind of man John really is? Mother…mother-love…lover…bad mother/bad lover…bad mother lover…bad mother-fuc…
SWAG MAJOR [continuing]: …the line is clearly the poem’s volta—yes, I would say this is the crux of the entire poem. And I think it’s unfair to assume that Shaft is the most secure lover just because he’s male. I mean, if that were the case, why all the verbal overcompensation in the poem?
ROMANTICIST: Exactly. That’s what I was [air quotes] saying [air quotes].
SYSTEMS ENGINEERING MAJOR [louder than necessary]: See, I read that line, line 13 differently; it seems to be street slang that is then cut off by the secondary voice—or voices—that bring the refrain in each quatrain, those responsible for the majusculated expostulation, “SHAFT!” and the like. I feel quite strongly, given the way Mary Ann read her piece, that “mother” is part of a longer phrase that undergoes interruption by the voices of the refrain. This is why it is absolutely imperative that this issue of punctuation be fixed, and the problem can be remedied quite easily by “mother” being followed by an em-dash.
CLASSICS MAJOR: I mean, I think we can all agree that it’s pretty obvious that the secondary voices interacting with the primary lyricist compose the chorus of the piece, yes? I think Mary Ann need be praised for reinventing this age-old tradition in an entirely fresh way.
MARY ANN: Thank you.
PROFESSOR: Ok, before we move on, any last comments?
ROMANTICIST: Well, I just want to praise the quite visceral interjection we get in the end—[air quotes] “John!” [air quotes] Mary Ann—excuse me—[air quotes] the speaker [air quotes]—cries out. [air quotes] “John Shaft!” [air quotes], as though, before, we the readers, as well as the populace of the poem, did not know this impervious persona—never really knew him—until this ultimate line, coming after the penultimate, which is also incredibly moving. Who can possibly understand this [air quotes] “complicated man?” [air quotes] [air quotes] “No one understands him but his woman.” [air quotes] [Looks imploringly at Modernist. Trembles.] No one! [air quotes] [Weeps.] [Flees classroom.]
SLOW IRONIC HIPSTER GUY [to no one in particular]: Hey, ya know what? I think I’ve—yeah, I’ve definitely heard this somewhere before….
Canada, it’s spring-break time. We’ve already got trees budding. Actually, many schools have gotten the whole Winter Olympics off for two or three weeks of extended spring break drunkenness. I’ve been glued to CTV for the last week or so, watching my new favorite sport: curling. No joke, this game is intense. It’s the skill of bowling with the strategy of chess. Not to mention, curling and hockey are two of the few things that get Canadians riled up (they go from passive agressive to just plain aggressive).
In the spirit of breaks from routine (are two weeks of blog posts long enough to be considered a routine?), I figured it would be good to take a break from the Grossman inspired posts and do a little reflection on a recent article in Wired magazine: “How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web.” And in the spirit of Spring, I want to see if I can connect it to W.C. Williams.
Ever since I read an article on cloud computing and Google’s ability to translate web pages based upon its database alone (that is, nobody programmed the various language rules in it; it literally translates via algorithm), I’ve been interested in Google’s relationship with language. Now, any of you who have used Google Translation know it’s pretty awful, but the idea alone is impressive, and there’s no telling where improvements will take it.
This particular article goes under the hood of Google’s search engine, and we find out the real difficulties lies not so much in web crawlers, page ranking, or any of the stuff Google is known for (although, that is certainly a feat), but rather interpreting the desires of the Googler:
“We discovered a nifty thing very early on,” Singhal says. “People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.”
But there were obstacles. Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”
Did you catch that? Google uses Wittgenstein…Holy Mother of all snake-eating-its-own-Postmodern-tail!
Google, of course, is probably at the forefront of product innovation. Google has created an environment where failed ideas are OK, a sort of decentralized and messily creative workplaces that capitalizes on an excess of time and resources. Knowledge workers rejoice! (See here and here)
But that wasn’t what caught my attention most of all. It was this:
One unsuccessful search became a legend: Sometime in 2001, Singhal learned of poor results when people typed the name “audrey fino” into the search box. Google kept returning Italian sites praising Audrey Hepburn. (Fino means fine in Italian.) “We realized that this is actually a person’s name,” Singhal says. “But we didn’t have the smarts in the system.”
The Audrey Fino failure led Singhal on a multiyear quest to improve the way the system deals with names — which account for 8 percent of all searches. To crack it, he had to master the black art of “bi-gram breakage” — that is, separating multiple words into discrete units. For instance, “new york” represents two words that go together (a bi-gram). But so would the three words in “new york times,” which clearly indicate a different kind of search. And everything changes when the query is “new york times square.” Humans can make these distinctions instantly, but Google does not have a Brazil-like back room with hundreds of thousands of cubicle jockeys. It relies on algorithms.
The Mike Siwek query illustrates how Google accomplishes this. When Singhal types in a command to expose a layer of code underneath each search result, it’s clear which signals determine the selection of the top links: a bi-gram connection to figure it’s a name; a synonym; a geographic location. “Deconstruct this query from an engineer’s point of view,” Singhal explains. “We say, ‘Aha! We can break this here!’ We figure that lawyer is not a last name and Siwek is not a middle name. And by the way, lawyer is not a town in Michigan. A lawyer is an attorney.”
This is the hard-won realization from inside the Google search engine, culled from the data generated by billions of searches: a rock is a rock. It’s also a stone, and it could be a boulder. Spell it “rokc” and it’s still a rock. But put “little” in front of it and it’s the capital of Arkansas. Which is not an ark. Unless Noah is around. “The holy grail of search is to understand what the user wants,” Singhal says. “Then you are not matching words; you are actually trying to match meaning.”
My current job is teaching upper level writing to ESL students who are entering graduate school. Most of them will go on to do MBAs, but I try to give them a heavy dose of the liberal arts, which many of the students (especially ones from China) are lacking. It’s an incredibly frustrating process, at first, but it has turned into the best kind of reward, as I get a glimpse of my own language and system of thought from an outside (alienated?) perspective. For as many discernible, overarching truths and rules about the language, I often find the same number of beguiling nooks and crannies, particularities that indicate a long history of human choice and situation enshrined in our very words. Almost everyone knows this about language, but to actually encounter it on a regular basis is a bizarre experience.
I think my experience teaching is the same experience that Google’s engineers must deal with: Why do we associate certain things, and what complex process takes place in our brain that allows us to instantly recognize them? The question of lines in poetry adds a layer of complexity to this question. Grossman says that “lineation” is one of the defining qualities of poetry (even prose poetry is defined by its lack of lines, isn’t it?). As I was attempting to write poetry for the first time in high school, I remember obsessing over my lines. I could never understand why I wanted to break a line here one day and there on another day. As I write, I feel pretty confident about cutting my lines. That isn’t to say I still don’t play with line breaks, but I have a pretty intuitive sense of when to hit the Enter button. Sometimes I break a line for the sake of a playful slight rhythm, but usually it comes as a sense of whim–it just seems right. Is this an intuitive sense that has a core? Or is it really just whim?
This leads me to my question: How would Google parse a poem like W.C. William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow?” It reminds me of a passage from a paper I wrote in the beginning of grad school:
Even though this poem is essentially a sentence, each image is carefully isolated by means of juxtaposition. Each stanza contains images that are a juxtaposition within itself according to the line breaks: “depends” versus “upon” (two directional words going in opposite direction), the particulars of the wheel barrow (its redness and wheel[ness]) versus the wheel barrow in its wholeness, the glaze of rain versus the rainwater, the chickens versus their own whiteness. The details of the things are pulled apart and highlighted, bringing out a rich multi-faceted view of each object. Williams’ accomplishment is almost that of the cubists, allowing the reader to see these objects in many different ways, from the different angles of detail. Yet despite this almost excessive juxtaposition, the poem has a unity. It does not communicate the same fractured nature that a painting like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Rather, this poem explores the unity of objects, their interconnectedness, while also evoking the particularities of objects and, in some sense, how they vie with one another. What is even more striking about this poem is how commonplace it is. These are objects that many Americans in Williams’ time could see on a regular basis. For Williams to find so much juxtaposition and still unity, to be so common and yet absolutely metaphysical is a feat. More important here, we can see the way he perceives language. Each word is isolated either visually or by juxtaposition in the same way each imagistic object in the poem is isolated. This is one thing Williams does often in his poetry: isolate each word visually, either through an extreme sparseness of form or by simply leaving a word on a line by itself. What would today be considered gimmicky by most MFA students, Williams accomplishes with verve in a way that is not gimmicky in the least. This is because Williams largely helped pioneer this technique, but also because the reader senses the whole power of idiom behind Williams’ language. Its commonality is the source of its power. The idiom arises from the commonplace here. And more importantly, Williams communicates this idiom through objectness.
That passage contains perhaps one of the most absurd phrases I’ve ever written: “the chickens versus their own whiteness.” (No post-colonial analysis, that!) But no matter what you think of my analysis, the question of where these words are “broken” from one another and why is a question that I suspect Google could never answer in the form of an accurate search. Google can tell when “little rock” means the capital and not a small pebble (or some sort of midget music genre), it’s true, but humans are capable of something even more complex than that: breaking things apart and still recognizing the relationship. As the passage from my paper indicates, I believe this ability stems out of idiom (in William’s case, the American Idiom).
Ironically, Google sees everything as fractured. When you search johnny cash hurt, Boolean logic looks for johnny and cash and hurt. Google uses modified Boolean logic and has accomplished the ability to tell when certain words probably go together.
Now for the second order language intelligence of poetry: can Google understand line breaks? Could Google help us become better writers?
We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)
MORE RESPONSES FROM POETS AND CRITICS
That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.
If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.
That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.
And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.
Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.
All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.
Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.
I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.
—Robert Kelly, February 2010
The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway. For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:
They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.). No one was going to out-sophisticate them! Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency. Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.
Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.
Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense. The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn. This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all. What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”
Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed. But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.
The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time. It’s the execution that makes the poem special.
The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato. Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds. Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art: the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.
It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras). Yeats couldn’t have said it better
“Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending. Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson. The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold. So much for sentimentality. And so:
The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.” This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.
One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:
If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.” In other words: real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.
I don’t much care for flarfing, spoetry, or any of the pedantic ballyhoo and giggling that attend these “avant-garde” or rather more absurd, “post-avant-garde” little poetry-world eddies, but I am interested in the arrival of a message in my “Spam” folder that does not clearly connect to a commercial aim—text that is literary, in some sense, but displaced from its usual context in a way that makes my thoughts teeter and bend toward sublime confusion for a moment. For example, on a whim I recently checked an email address I’d abandoned to find an inbox full of Spam messages advertising prescription drugs, West African swindles, on-line casinos, virility aids, etc., yet also the following, without any immediately transparent commercial purpose:
Says that the Russians once anchored here and hunted sea-otter before the first Yankee trader rounded the Horn, or the first Rocky Mountain trapper thirsted across the “Great American Desert” and trickled down the snowy Sierras to the sun-kissed land. No; we are not resting our horses here on Humboldt Bay. We are writing this article, gorging on abalones and mussels, digging clams, and catching record-breaking sea-trout and rock-cod in the intervals in which we are not sailing, motor-boating, and swimming in the most temperately equable climate we have ever experienced. These comfortably large counties! They are veritable empires. Take Humboldt, for instance. It is three times as large as Rhode Island, one and a half times as large as Delaware, almost as large as Connecticut, and half as large as Massachusetts. The pioneer has done his work in this north of the bay region, the foundations are laid, and all is ready for the inevitable inrush of population and adequate development of resources which so far have been no more than skimmed, and casually and carelessly skimmed at that. This region of the six counties alone will some day support a population of millions. In the meanwhile, O you home- seekers, you wealth-seekers, and, above all, you climate-seekers, now is the time to get in on the ground floor. Robert Ingersoll once said that the genial climate of California would in a fairly brief time evolve a race resembling the Mexicans, and that in two or three generations the Californians would be seen of a Sunday morning on their way to a cockfight with a rooster under each arm. Never was made a rasher generalisation, based on so absolute an ignorance of facts. It is to laugh. Here is a climate that breeds vi
This message’s subject was “, who has started to g,” and it was sent by “Allcock” <[email protected]>. A quick Googling of the first line suggests it was culled from Jack London’s story “The Human Drift,” available in ebook form at Project Gutenberg. The attached file, which I have not opened, is probably a virally infected advertisement for something related to the moniker, “Allcock,” but we will never know, as it has been permanently deleted.
In this same scan of spam missives, I noticed that “Jerome Alford” sent me the following message, attached to an ad to get Cialis on-line without a prescription:
He had heard that before. This is a dream bridge. The orders on this are very clear. Pilar has got in trouble there. There is bound to be much firing. He put his hand on her shoulder. But why should they bring planes? You couldn’t do it. Maria is with thy material. El Sordo did not hear them. That is for a doctor to say. No one should ask him anything. No matter what. But you can’t take them both. I’m very proud of your family. Much more than likely. There is where the true evil lies. It irritated him a good deal. It is very simple. Daughter of the great whore of whores. Their reward was at hand. Who is ready now? Have you heard aught of this? It is not true? Open at All Hours. That it should start. That is _really_ nonsense. Take care not to vomit. Is not this manifest? The _civiles_ looked at one another. Gredos is safer country than this. Floyd do next? Pablo for that. That is all. We go when he comes. He is very smart.
It appears to be chopped up bits of text readily available on the Internet, a collage of verb tenses, registers of diction, and so on. Now, I’m no flarfer, no spoet, certainly not a part of any ridiculously dubbed “post-avant” or “post-avant-garde” or “avant-post” movement, but I’m fascinated by the mind’s process when facing such unconventional texts in unconventional contexts. As opposed to the new best-selling novel, the predictable, measured sentences of a fine memoir, the easy pleasures of most poems in the New Yorker, sometimes the textual composition without commercial aim is just what I need to revive me from the narcotic effect of conventional language. Really, is it possible that there is joy in the struggle to make meaning of language that perhaps has practically no meaning at all? I can’t wait to check my Spam folder again in a month in order to ask myself this question again.
Friends, please post any good Spam you’ve received below, and please resist flarfing.