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?
Suppose you are reading Levinas, having a nice Cuban sandwich, minding your business, thinking about the self, the other, the other self, the otherness of self, the selfishness of other, etc, etc, and the sun slants across the legs of a woman you pretend to have a deep rapport with—striping them apricot. What do you do? It’s a question of ethics. She is eating half a plate of seasoned fries. The meal is over priced. The Cuban sandwich is on the wrong sort of bread—the kind of bread they put Cuban sanwiches on when they are over charging you (sour dough). It is spring, or maybe it isn’t: maybe it is fall, the last truly warm day in fall. Yes. You are sitting in the wrought-iron chair, outside, on the last warm day in fall, with Levinas in your lap, and the beautful woman has Kafka in her lap. The sun has decided to place an apricot hue over her legs, legs which have been shaped by only eating half plates of seasoned fries, and nothing else until, later that night, when she is naked in the arms of a man who also reads Levinas, but is much better looking, she eats a canoli—the whole thing, and says something meaningful to him in French.
Ah, you know you are a fraud. Levinas is a fraud. The only truly genuine thing in this universe are her legs, and they are attached to her by reason of genetics, and attached to you by reason of desire. The man with whom she sleeps is surly. He can afford to be surly. His hip-to-waist ratio is perfect. His teeth are white, but not overly so. When he sprawls naked on a bed, he seems intelligent. She desires him. Even though she has him, she wants him—which makes her fairly stupid in his presense. He will equivocate. Those with the proper hip-to-waist ratios may equivocate. He is like Adonis, and she is Venus panting over his sprawled splendor. He is you in another alternate universe. He is the you who does not beg like a seal clapping for fish. She speaks:
“How is the Cuban sanwich? May I have a bite?”
Every time you meet her for lunch, she takes a bite of your sandwich. When shrikes seek a mate, they impale bumble bees, and little baby sparrows to locust thorns and allow the prospective partner to dine. A shrike has a special “tooth” inside it’s maw for tearing and rending frozen flesh from bone… or is that a wolverine? Shrikes are also called butcher birds. They inhabit Northern fens. They implae prey to thorns, barbed wire, various sharp protruding things: whatever may suffice as a skewer. By giving her a bite of your sandwich, you will be reduced to the level of a shrike. And worse… The shrike gets laid. You will show how inteligent you are concerning the self, the other, the other self, the selfless other, the mystery of the other, the aporia by which self, other, shrikes, and cuban sandwiches are utterly beside the point. You demur. You have never demurred before. You withold the immediate gratification of her biting into your lunch. You stand firm—in so many ways. You say:
“No. Finish your fries!”
Does she know what is on your mind? To what degree is Levinas an unsuccessful make out device? How many graduate students are sitting even now on the plains, and in the mountains of American Academia, attempting to seduce each other with the complete works of Levinas? Just last week, you realized you were being replicated. There were thousands of fractal “yous” inhabiting the various over-priced eateries of towns both large and small. What would Levinas think if he realized you were using him to show how smart you are?
Her hand, her pretty left hand, the one with the blue nail polish, is reaching for your Cuban sandwich. She has decided to ignore your firm resolve not to be a shrike, and she is going to taste your meat. This has become a question of ethics. She is using you. You are co-dependent with her eating disorder. For her sake, and for your own, for the sake of the genuine, the real, the authentic, you must not let it happen. You grab her hand. You have been wanting to grab her hand for two years. What sort of coward needs a show down? She has one grey eye, and one green one. Her long legs were crossed, but now they are planted firmly in the “I will have a bite of your sandwich” position. You realize now that Levinas is right. We can not know the other. We can not know the self. You say:
And so you do. You say no. She says: “Why are you being such a prick?” You say: “Did you ever think I might want the whole sandwich?” Her hand retreats: ice floes, thousands of years of approach and retreat. You pick up the check, leave an overly large tip. You are the wrong kind of shrike. The waiter will not like you any better for leaving him 25 percent. You are courting everyone. You keep hoping the universe notices that Levinas is in your lap. You are hoping they will say: “Oh… you read Levinas? Can I mate with you?”
Her name is Trudy. She has translated Kafka into Welsh. She has the sort of thick, dark hair that gets dented in the morning rather than messy. All she has to do is push out the dents, and she’s ready for the day. She is genuinely smart. You have a dream in which a poster of Simone Weil is attached to her naked legs. Her one flaw is her name. Who names their child Trudy? You certainly would never name a daughter Trudy. Perhaps you would name her Simone, or Clare, or Helen. You get an A on your paper concerning Levinas and the sociopathy of corporatism. You remember kissing a girl who liked Martin Buber. What happened to her? How did it all come down to this? Even now, as you walk away from the cafe, and Trudy heads for her part time job, and all is forgiven, and you give her the hug and perfunctory smooch they often give on talk shows, you feel terrified. This must not be your life. You will find the girl who liked Martin Buber, and kiss her again. She is somewhere in the world—perhaps in the far north. She lives in a little cabin, alone, thinking of you. The days pass, and Martin Buber brings back fond memories of your mouth on hers. You can see the little cabin in the woods. A light is on. It is dusk, and the bleak cry of the jay contrasts with the welcoming light.You have fire wood hosted on your shoulder. You are singing a merry tune in Canadian French: something about little loves who have dancing eyes. You are remembering the Robert Browning poem in which he rows a boat at night towards his love. Your heart is uplifted. Trudy is not the right girl for you. Who cares what Kafka sounds like in Welsh? You have fire wood, and six Cuban sandwiches stowed away in your back pack. There is recompense. There is salvation. You can throw Levinas away. You can build a fire, and discuss Martin Buber while lying naked in that sweet girl’s arms. What is her name? She was demur. She had heavy eye lids, and spoke in a vital whisper. You do not see the shrike. It is impaling a fox sparrow to a thorn. It lives in the brambles behind her cabin. You are too big for it to eat, utterly beside the point.
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 probably should state right off the bat that I am not a philosopher by trade. If I mess up philosophical terms and definitions, feel free to correct me. I tend to have a more intuitive approach to philosophy, rather than a systematic one. Thus, I tend to explain things by analogy. I recognize the limits of this, but I hope, nonetheless, to contribute to real discussion. Also, I am skipping ahead in Grossman significantly, past the discussions with Halliday, about halfway into Summa Lyrica. I am doing this because last week I read the passage “‘I’ in the Lyric” and was excited by Grossman articulating something I have been trying to articulate for a long time.
In this passage it seems that Grossman is attacking the idea of “otherness.” I recognize that many philosophers and critics have used the term “other” to mean many different things. Everyone from Hegel, to Husserl, to Pope Benedict have used the term to describe entities that are not the subjective self. I am mostly familiar with this term through the work of Edward Said, whose vision of post-colonialism was heavily pushed by several professors at Binghamton University, where I did my undergraduate. I initially recognized the term “other” to be a handy way to say “not me.” It also seemed to capture the sense of alienation that can exist between the self and some other object/subject.
By my senior year, however, I was quite uncomfortable with the binary of self and other because it seemed to carry the connotation of an uncrossable gulf between persons. Now, there is undeniably a gulf in many senses: you cannot make a choice for me, for example. But does that mean that another person is inaccessible to us in a meaningful way? I tend not to think so. So, you can imagine my happiness when I read the following passage from Grossman:
Consciousness of self is only possible if experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address….Here we see a principle whose consequences are spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me,” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me….It is a polarity [of persons], moreover, very peculiar in itself, as it offers a type of opposition whose equivalent is encountered nowhere else outside of language. This polarity does not mean either equality of symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible. If we seek a parallel to this, we will not find it. The condition of man in language is unique.
And so the old antinomies of “I” and “the other,” of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term…. It is in a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.
In the margins I scribbled, “*** Grossman demolishes “the other” yay!!!”
In short, Grossman is positing that any concept of subject is impossible without another subject. And not only this, but this relationship is defined by a reversible I-You, not the static self-other. Admittedly, many powerful people have tried to break this I-You. I believe it was Buber who talked about I-it dialogue (in which, I think, there can be no echo, no reversibility) as opposed to I-Thou dialogue.
I guess at the end of the day, my quibble is not with the word “other” but rather with the idea that persons are opposed in such a way that they are fundamentally alienated beings. I just don’t buy that. We are relational beings, with things that inter-est (literally, it is between) us both. This relationship could not exist unless there were some fundamental assumption about that “other” person (namely, they are a person, like us). This belief, whether we admit it or not, is a fundamental assumption with every form of discourse.
I believe acknowledging this is important; I believe it frees us in important ways. We are not gripped with the anxiety that we are the only self, among alien others that we hope are selves (but are not sure). No, we are in a relationship, and therefore, discourse is possible. The solipsistic idea of discourse with an alien other denies its own terms of possibility.
It also frees us from the desire to become one with the other, I think. When we are gripped with that anxiety, like a person drowning, we grasp desperately; we are in the pit of loneliness. This, of course, is impossible and futile (and the basis of co-dependency). However, if we recognize that we are persons who are able to engage in discourse because the relationship already exists, we are much more free to explore the capacities of that relationship.
OK…so, what’s the connection with poetry? Good question. This ended up more of a rant. I do think there is something to be said about the position we speak from as poets (and artists in general). For Grossman, the lyric, the speaking mode of the subject who is “overheard,” is based in a community of discourse (not to imply other communities could be “other”). There is no sovereign speaker. We all take on some mantle (Grossman connects this with the idea of inspiration).
Incidentally, the ideas in this post might have some interesting connection with Adam’s first post on Keat’s disputed Ode. How is address to the urn possible if the urn is not a person? Is address different than discourse?
Hopefully this all adds up to something…As always, feel free to tweak, commend, denounce in the comment section. I probably need it.
“Three coyotes turned up on the Columbia University campus on Sunday morning, prompting an e-mail alert to students and faculty.”
A coyote is sweetness itself compared to a professor—
and a professor is selfless compared to a poet—
even the meanest sculptor is not as stupid as a University—
a wild animal is gentle and tame compared to a critic—
a bobcat is meek and mild compared to any Intellectual—
the zoo containing all is a garden compared to a Department
no architecture is as fragile as friendship as vicious as love
No stepmother is as horrible as the one you are stuck with
No poem looks as good as the one you will find out is nothing
when a mother calls you up you are lucky When a teacher
calls you up you must always take out the revolver
when you see a sick raccoon look more closely and it is your art and your friend
language poets have been seen roaming near cities
when a NY poet fights boundaries become magazines
when a poet needs a job no one else can find one
if you ever need advice ask a bobcat not a Mentor
when you need support and money all humans disappear
the old poets need no prizes they have stolen them already
the young poets need something that the bobcats have teeth
when you need some more hope read Kafka in the morning
when you’re dying for champagne read Proust in the evening
when you want to put yr hand thru a window open the window first (Ron P)
The best advice is the one you give to yourself already
Let’s begin with a recording of Ode on a Grecian Urn recited by Richard Howard, which was taken on 2/12/2010 through my iPhone.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.
A very helpful article over at Wikipedia includes the following information about the mass of critical scrutiny, controversy and defense the Great Poem has caused:
The thought as enounced in the first stanza is the supremacy of ideal art over Nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfect; and this is true and beautiful; but its amplification in the poem is unprogressive, monotonous, and scattered … which gives an effect of poverty in spite of the beauty. The last stanza enters stumbling upon a pun, but its concluding lines are very fine, and make a sort of recovery with their forcible directness.
Bridges believed that the final lines redeemed an otherwise bad poem. Arthur Quiller-Couch responded with a contrary view and claimed that the lines were “a vague observation – to anyone whom life has taught to face facts and define his terms, actually an uneducated conclusion, albeit most pardonable in one so young and ardent.” The debate expanded when I. A. Richards, an English literary critic who analysed Keats’s poems in 1929, relied on the final lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to discuss “pseudo-statements” in poetry:
On the one hand there are very many people who, if they read any poetry at all, try to take all its statements seriously – and find them silly … This may seem an absurd mistake but, alas! it is none the less common. On the other hand there are those who succeed too well, who swallow ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …,’ as the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy, not as the expression of a certain blend of feelings, and proceed into a complete stalemate of muddle-mindedness as a result of their linguistic naivety.
Poet and critic T. S. Eliot, in his 1929 “Dante” essay, responded to Richards:
I am at first included to agree … But on re-reading the whole Ode, this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement … The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me.
In 1930, John Middleton Murry gave a history of these responses “to show the astonishing variety of opinion which exists at this day concerning the culmination of a poem whose beauty has been acknowledged for many years. Whether such another cause, and such another example, of critical diversity exists, I cannot say; if it does, it is unknown to me. My own opinion concerning the value of those two lines in the context of the poem itself is not very different from Mr. Eliot’s.”
We shall not feel that the generalization, unqualified and to be taken literally, is meant to march out of its context to compete with the scientific and philosophical generalizations which dominate our world. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare’s ‘Ripeness is all.’ It is a speech ‘in character’ and supported by a dramatic context. To conclude thus may seem to weight the principle of dramatic propriety with more than it can bear. This would not be fair to the complexity of the problem of truth in art nor fair to Keats’s little parable. Granted; and yet the principle of dramatic propriety may take us further than would first appear. Respect for it may at least insure our dealing with the problem of truth at the level on which it is really relevant to literature.
I entirely agree, then, with Professor Brooks in his explication of the Ode, that ‘Beauty is truth’ … is to be considered as a speech ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate’ to the Urn. I am uneasy, however, about his final reference to ‘the world-view …’ For the poem as a whole is equally an utterance by a dramatically presented speaker, and none of its statements is proffered for our endorsement as a philosophical generalization of unlimited scope. They are all, therefore, to be apprehended as histrionic elements which are ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate,’ for their inherent interest as stages in the evolution of an artistically ordered … experience of a credible human being.
Wishing to update the debate, last week I sent the following email out to poets and critics to weigh in on the matter:
Arguably the most controversial poem of 20th century literary critical debate has been Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Since Robert Bridges, I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot engaged the poem critically, poets and critics have taken all possible sides: defending its ending, dismissing it, even ignoring the rhetorical closing all together as an unimportant point. What I wanted to know, simply: What is your take on the ending of Keats’ famous ode? Do you find it successful or unsuccessful?
Below are their responses of how this Whole Business of Truth and Beauty struck them. I encourage you, reader, to leave your own comment—and let the conversation continue. Next week, I hope to bring in some other quotes, from Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others, share some other reactions from contemporary poets and critics, and attempt to formulate my own opinion on the matter.
For now, we seem to have enough riches before us to ponder. My utmost thanks to Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Frances Whistler, Dara Wier and Richard Zenith for their thoughts.
POETS, CRITICS AND READERS RESPONSES
I’ve certainly heard—and many times—critical statements to the effect that a given work of art failed because it had presented a scene or object or person as too beautiful (perfect, shapely, harmonious), thereby violating our consensus about the actual nature of experience, which we should acknowledge as being flawed, unshapely and dissonant. And that a proper understanding of beauty should insist on the inclusion of aspects of reality not traditionally considered pleasing or attractive. In short, it’s the aesthetic of “Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty.” Given that, I wouldn’t be inclined to dismiss the Urn’s statement as silly, so absurd as to ruin a great poem. To me the puzzling thing is that, in the poem, such a statement should be attributed to the Grecian Urn. Puzzling because it doesn’t strike me that what we are told about this marble vessel of great beauty (in the traditional sense) accounts for the statement it makes. So for me an important critical project around this poem should be to explain why an aesthetic stance at odds with the “character” of this object should be pronounced in its voice. The tone of the conclusion suggests that the poem’s observer and speaker does not, himself, share the view expressed by the Urn. The speaker condescends, perhaps with a certain amused tolerance, to the statement being made. So perhaps an aesthetics of imperfection and dissonance isn’t at all what the Urn is urging. Yes, perhaps that’s it: we’re meant to understand that the Urn is so far out of contact with reality it doesn’t even guess that the world is ever less than perfect, shapely, and harmonious. It thinks the Beautiful representation of reality is unfailingly True. An object made of marble, its only “task” is to continue to exist as it is and display the relief sculptures on its surface. A non-functional artwork exempted from the painful struggle of fleshly existence might indeed believe the world was lovely throughout, as lovely as the scenes represented on its surface. That’s all it knows; and all it needs to know. We, the human observers, will need to know more. We aren’t going to be allowed to remain in the unflawed cosmos of the Urn. Sad, but there is a consolation. We are not frozen in immobility. We can live and move and breathe, and even kiss our beloveds; though of course we know that to love inscribes us in the order of time, and therefore consigns us, eventually, to the order of mortality—the extinction of ourselves as perceiving, thinking subjects. The Urn will still be there, unchanged, immobile, beautiful, impervious to time and to love. I assume Keats wants us to admire the Urn, but he also shows us why we don’t want to be it.
To borrow a lovely phrase from Ian Stewart, who was writing on physics (in WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY, Basic Books, 2007), “beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.”
Yet not all truth is beautiful; some is obviously quite ugly.
A poem should not hate itself for wanting to be beautiful.
Jessica Palmer suggests that disorder is the new beauty – but allows that it could be also dereliction.
As for Eliot, we may counterpose the spirit of Kenneth Koch: One beauty conceals another. One truth may conceal another, too.
I have no anxiety whatsoever about the poem’s closing lines or whether they have, or ought to have, any truth-value.
As for beauty, as many have said, it’s in the language of the beholder.
Plainly a lot hinges on who speaks the last two lines, and whether one or two speakers. I feel most comfortable with the idea that Keats knew exactly what he was about when he created “beauty is truth, truth beauty” as something both true and beautiful, and yet circular and inadequate. (This reading suggests, though it does not absolutely depend on, the idea that the urn says just these five words, leaving “that is all … need to know” being addressed by the speaker to the urn. The absolute circularity of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” so aptly mirrors that of the urn, whose depicted story has neither a start nor an end, that I incline to this reading. However, the last line and a half also expresses and continues a strong sense of circularity, so I wouldn’t be dismayed if MS evidence showed incontrovertibly that the urn speaks both final lines). Either way, the inadequacy and yet loveliness of the idea that truth and beauty are one and the same – which creates a triteness that is presumably what Eliot disliked – seems to me to be what Keats is talking about all through the poem. The paradox is that the human mind is incapable of absorbing the idea of eternity, but also unable not to be “teased” by it: the urn is a friend to man through the comfort of its unchangingness, and yet the old age of this generation and woe of the next are not to be cured by its message, although assuaged.
Beauty is Truth
An epitaph in tone
One can see it inscribed on a deathmark
A funereal inscription
On a tombstone
On an urn filled with ashes
Ashes to ashes, and all that good stuff that never ends
Another circular instance
Keats was always dying
Keats never was not
Like Stein’s a rose is a rose
As a hope, as a denial
Would be that all were circular always
Like all poetry is
Or makes it up as if it were
A = B, and in case we didn’t get the point, B = A? I prefer to give Keats more credit. I don’t read “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as a transcendental, let alone philosophical or mathematical, equation. The statement is addressed to someone, namely those of us who admire the urn but don’t entirely understand it. To me it’s about negative capability. Nothing wrong with knowledge, but we don’t need to know everything, and if we’re not able to entertain half-knowledge, we’ll miss out. Beauty is a kind of truth, and can be appreciated as such, without understanding. The converse proposition is that truth, even when not visually or feelingly beautiful, still has the beauty of being true. This isn’t immediately obvious from the second half of the verse in question, maybe I’m reading too much in two words, but I would argue that Keats’s beholders of unheard melodies and his Lovers who cannot kiss enjoy the beauty of those melodies and that love not because of Platonic ideals but because the melodies and love exist, they’re true. Ergo, truth is a kind of beauty.