04/20/14

The difficult art of reading poetry


Metonymy cartonSynecdoche. Metonymy. Not exactly words that trip lightly off the tongue. Unless, I suppose, you’re Harold Bloom. Those are two of the four fundamental tropes in literature, Bloom tells us. Identified originally by Kenneth Burke, who, as Bloom calls him, was a “profound student of rhetoric.”

Bloom references Burke in his introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language (Harper Collins, 2004), which he both edited and selected. I’ll get back to that book, in a separate post, and discuss whether they are actually the “best” or in fact whether anyone can make such a claim for another reader.

What I was looking for was how others – scholars and writers in particular – define what is good, moving or important in poetry. Like most art, we believe know what’s good when we see/hear/experience it. But that’s just a personal, subjective and very ambiguous definition. What are the underlying structures, the rules, the guides to look for?

Think about pop music and the cycle of popularity: you first hear a song and love it. Just fall all over it. Can’t get enough. Have to listen to it over and over. And then one day you can’t stand it. You are weary of turning on the radio and hearing it played over and over and over. What changed? Not the music, not the lyrics. What changed is your perception of it.

Of course, pop music, with its predictable cycle from introduction to over-play and its commercial exploitation driven by corporate financial goals well outside aesthetic ones, may not be the best model in which to frame an artistic discussion.

What are the standards for art, for music and – what I was particularly looking into: poetry – that stand above and outside personal perspective? Finding those requires me to look more deeply into the nature and structure of poetry; the vertebrae that give a poem its posture. So I started with Bloom. Who in turn starts with Burke.

Burke’s essay on tropes was published in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, Autumn, 1941 (available to read on Jstor) and in his book, A Grammar of Motives (1945). It’s a might dry.

The other two tropes he says are irony and metaphor. Burke himself wrote,

For metaphor, we could substitute perspective;
For metonymy we could substitute reduction;
For synechdoche we could substitute representation;
For irony we could substitute dialectic.

See? Doesn’t that make it clearer?*

Burke wrote that his primary concern with these master tropes is “not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of ‘the truth.'” By which I gather he’s also trying to define those same, steadfast rules and standards. Burke’s tropes seem the cornerstone for an entire literary debate, so I will have to keep them in mind as I progress. But Bloom is all over the figurative aspect of poetry.

Apparently I have also to learn a new glossary like this one, before I progress into the next Circle of this Dantean labyrinth. And here’s another. Personally I look forward to the day when I can confidently use words like zeugma, erotema, meiosis and prosopopoeia in everyday conversation.**

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02/23/14

Lucretius and the Renaissance


WikipediaIt’s fairly clear, even after reading only a few verses, why Lucretius’s didactic poem, On the Nature of Things – De Rerum Natura –  made such an impact on thought, philosophy, religion and science in the Renaissance. It must have been like a lighthouse in the dark night; a “Eureka” moment for many of the age’s thinkers.

For others, especially the church leaders, it must have arrived like a mortar shell among their intellectual certainties and complacencies; shattering walls and window. An act of war that threatened to tear down whole schools of thought and belief.

While today his descriptions of atoms, void, and immortal substance may seem obvious and even a little quaint, they were revelations then, in the Renaissance. They shook the comfortable world picture of the Renaissance and challenged both faith and science.

Yet Lucretius wrote his poem in the time of Julius Caesar, before the Christian church even began. Then it was lost for more than 1,400 years, to be rediscovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Poggio was hunting lost manuscripts through European monasteries, trying to copy them so he could restore the lost words of the Romans for everyone to read. His discovery of On the Nature of Things was serendipitous in the extreme,* but it opened a Pandora’s box of effects.

Stephen Greenblatt, in his excellent book, The Swerve, about the fortuitous discovery and its impact, opens Chapter Eight with this:

On the Nature of Things is not an easy read. Totaling 7,400 lines, it is written in hexameters, the standard unrhymed six-beat lines in which Latin poets like Virgil and Ovid, imitating Homer’s Greek, cast their epic poetry. Divided into six untitled books, the poem yokes together moments of intense lyrical beauty, philosophical meditations on religion, pleasure and death, and complex theories of the physical world, the evolution of human societies, the perils and joys of sex, and the nature of disease. The language is often knotty and difficult, the syntax complex, and the overall intellectual ambition astoundingly high.

So it’s a tough, challenging read, as much so today as it ever was. I’m reading it, but have to admit it’s a bit of a slog, even in the modern Penguin edition.

Omnis cum in tenebris praesertim vita laboret.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Book II, line 54.

It’s astounding how anyone in Caesar’s day could by reason, logical, analysis and inference alone – no highly technical equipment, no advanced mathematics, no electron microscopes, no particle colliders, no Hubble telescope – deduce the structure of the universe was based on atoms. And then to infer that those atoms were constantly in motion, indestructible and timeless.

That’s what the Epicurean philosophers did. Lucretius, perhaps the last of them (or certainly at least the last outstanding Epicurean) put their theories and ideas together into one long, rhetorical poem to teach his fellow Romans what Epicureans stood for.

In doing so, Lucretius deconstructs and dismisses the theories of his contemporaries about the nature of the universe, using the same tools of thought and reason. Those theories – now long dismissed –  fossilized into accepted dogma for many centuries before his book was rediscovered. On the Nature of Things had no less an impact on Renaissance thought than On the Origin of Species had on modern thought.

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11/27/13

The Weird World of Plotto


PlottoI came across Plotto a few years back – references to it in other works, rather than the actual book. it sounded strange, complex and wildly over-reaching. I couldn’t find one – it was long out of print. It wasn’t until I got my own copy that I realized how really odd, clumsy – and delightful – it is.

Plotto was first published in 1928, and not reprinted until recently as far as I can tell, which is why it’s not been readily available to read and comment on. But it has been lurking in the background, a collector’s item. The young Alfred Hitchcock was one of the early adopters of the work. So was Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason books. It’s been  referred to, with a combination of reverence, humour and skepticism, by many other writers about writing.

In 2011, it was reprinted by Tin House Books, and finally made available to the general public again. My recently-received copy is the 2012 second printing (another edition was released in 2011 by Norton Creek Press). And I’m gobsmacked by it.

What’s all the fuss?

Plotto was the brainchild of a wildly prolific, early 20th century pulp writer, William Cook (he also wrote screenplays for silent films). Cook was a writing machine: he pumped out the paperbacks, sometimes more than one a week. But he was also passionate about the process of writing itself. He made it his goal to catalogue all types of plot and create a mechanism for writers to be able to create their own novels by selecting from a menu of plots, activities and characters.

And we was obsessive about it, drilling down deep into levels of minute detail. On its own site, Tin House says:

In the first stage, Cook demonstrates that “a character with particular traits . . . finds himself in a situation . . . and this is how it turns out.” Following this, each Master Plot leads the reader to a list of circumstances, distributed among twenty different Conflict Groups (these range from “Love’s Beginning,” to “Personal Limitations,” to “Transgression”). Finally, in Character Combinations, Cook offers an extensive index of protagonists for what serves as an inexhaustible reservoir of suggestions and inspiration.

Once you have the skeletal structure chosen, all you need to do is fill in the blanks – the verbs, the adjectives, the dialogue, and voila: your own novel. Sort of. It’s not that easy, of course, but Cook wanted to take the guesswork out of the cogitation part of the formative process that often led to writer’s block. So he catalogued and indexed and outlined like crazy. And ended up with a combination encyclopedia and rebus puzzle.

The result is stunning – and confusing. As Brainpickings tells us:

In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.

That’s a lot more than the three or four I learned about in school! And more than the 36 basic plot situations the French writer, Georges Polti, described.*

Here’s a sample (see here for some follow-up numbers):

Plotto sample

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10/28/13

The Circuitous Path from Bulge to Budget


If tinkers may have leave to live,
And bear the sow-skin budget,
Then my account I well may, give,
And in the stocks avouch it.
Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale,  Act IV, Sc. III, Shakespeare

These lines got me thinking about the town’s finances. Sow-skin budget? What does that mean? And how does that relate to the financial plan for the coming year staff is preparing for council’s review? I did some reading (of course…).

In Shakespeare’s time, the online etymological dictionary tells us the word budget meant something quite different:*

“leather pouch,” from Middle French bougette, diminutive of Old French bouge “leather bag, wallet, pouch,” from Latin bulga “leather bag,” of Gaulish origin (cf. Old Irish bolg “bag,” Breton bolc’h “flax pod”), from PIE *bhelgh- (see belly (n.)). Modern financial meaning (1733) is from notion of treasury minister keeping his fiscal plans in a wallet. Another 18c. transferred sense was “bundle of news,” hence the use of the word as the title of some newspapers.

The use of budget as a verb comes from much later – 1884. But for the Bard, a budget was a leather purse (or pouch or wallet). The annual budget is also a fairly new invention, as the Telegraph tells us:

It was not until the early 18th century that a version of the annual Budget emerged. The origins of the word Budget lie in the term “bougette” – a wallet in which documents or money could be kept. While at first referring only to the Chancellor’s annual speech on the country’s finances, the word quickly became used for any financial statement or plan…
Budget Day has historically been held during Spring because the collection of the Land Tax took place in April, and much of the country’s wealth derived from agriculture.

There’s a great description on World Wide Words of the convoluted path the word took to get to today’s usage:

Its first meaning in English indeed was “pouch, wallet, bag”, and followed its French original in usually implying something made of leather…
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word could refer to the contents of one’s budget as well as to the container itself. People frequently used this in the figurative sense of a bundle of news, or of a long letter full of news, and the word formed part of the name of several defunct British newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Budget…
The connection with finance appeared first only in 1733, as the result of a scurrilous pamphlet entitled The Budget Opened, an attack directed at Sir Robert Walpole… It probably also echoed the idiom to open one’s budget, “to speak one’s mind”, which was current then and continued to be so down into Victorian times…

Marina Orlova, the entertaining and pulchritudinous word lady at Hot for Words.com, gives us a more amusing etymology in the Youtube video at the top of this post. Who says learning has to be dull?

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10/23/13

Survival of the Fittest


Herbert SpencerCharles Darwin has long been associated with the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” For a century and a half people have used it to refer to their understanding of his explanation of how species evolved.

But it wasn’t his. And it has obscured the understanding of Darwin’s own theory.

It came from a contemporary, Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a contemporary of Darwin – an English polymath:  philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, economist liberal political theorist, utilitarian – and, by some accounts, an early libertarian. His ideas came from people like Malthus and Adam Smith (read more about his philosophy here). Wikipedia tells us:

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature’s laws, including the social struggle for existence. Spencer desired the elimination of the unfit through their failure to reproduce, rather than coercion or state intervention to initiate their physical annihilation.

He wrote his interpretation of Darwin’s ideas in an 1864 textbook of biology:

“This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

Spencer was really trying to apply Darwin’s ideas to his own ideas about economics, class struggle, competition and politics. He also believed in Lamarckism – the inheritance of attributes gained in one generation by the next – which has long since been discredited. But whether you agree with Spencer’s views, his reduction of Darwin’s theory to a convenient axiom did the theory an injustice.

In the public mind, Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were confusing and challenging. They became conflated with Spencer’s ideas and somehow the phrase stuck – the Victoria era equivalent of a bumper sticker phrase. It became wildly popular, and was soon applied to social and political phenomena, not simply biological.

It was so popular as a catch phrase that in the 1869  fifth edition of his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin – unfortunately – added this line:

“But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”

The problem is really in how the word “fittest” is defined. Like its sister term, theory, it has both a common and a scientific meaning.*

Survival of the FittestFittest, in Darwin’s sense, doesn’t mean the biggest, best, toughest, strongest or even the most competitive. It’s not the macho concept of superiority. It isn’t about power, control or brute force.

It means the “best suited for the immediate environment.” It has also been described as a “property of the relationship between the organism and the environment.” That might be a different colour, smaller size, less active. Whatever offers the best opportunity to survive and breed. Having offspring is key.

It’s a far more subtle notion than commonly used. As Wikipedia says:

Modern evolutionary theory defines fitness not by how long an organism lives, but by how successful it is at reproducing. If an organism lives half as long as others of its species, but has twice as many offspring surviving to adulthood, its genes will become more common in the adult population of the next generation.

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10/1/13

The (sometimes violent) urge to write


Scribble, scribbleAs of this writing, I will have published 253 posts since I began this blog at the ending week of December, 2011. Two hundred and fifty three posts in 21 months. Just over one post every two-and-a-half days, on average. Plus 30 or so still in draft mode. Another half-dozen scribbled in word processing notes or notebooks.

And that doesn’t include the six years of blog posts – a list of 91 pages – on my previous blog site (still available in archive format, although some formatting issues have developed after some code updates).

“Scribble, scribble, scribble,” as Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh said to Edward Gibbon. *

Approximately 500,000 words on this blog as published, public material. Uncounted numbers on my other sites, forum and blog, in draft or other formats.

That’s a lot of writing – and it still doesn’t include the writing I have done for my Municipal World articles or books (more than 75,000 words in two published books, one submitted and in editing at 45,000, and the fourth still being written – about 20,000 so far), my Machiavelli book (more than 75,000 words), and a novel I started more than a year ago (approx. 50,000 so far).

Or the writing I’ve done for an upcoming convention talk, my websites, and the innumerable Facebook (and the pages I maintain), Twitter, LinkedIn and forum posts. The ukulele and harmonica reviews, the motorcycle essays, the blog pages, and pre-blog material, the tequila guide. Or numerous emails to staff and fellow councillors, the work I did for a local political party – including crafting their newsletter.

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09/7/13

Three Archy poems by Don Marquis



pete the parrot and shakespeare

Archy & Mehitabel 1933i got acquainted with
a parrot named pete recently
who is an interesting bird
pete says he used
to belong to the fellow
that ran the mermaid tavern
in london then i said
you must have known
shakespeare know him said pete
poor mutt i knew him well
he called me pete and i called him
bill but why do you say poor mutt
well said pete bill was a
disappointed man and was always
boring his friends about what
he might have been and done
if he only had a fair break
two or three pints of sack
and sherris and the tears
would trickle down into his
beard and his beard would get
soppy and wilt his collar
i remember one night when
bill and ben jonson and
frankie beaumont
were sopping it up

here i am ben says bill
nothing but a lousy playwright
and with anything like luck
in the breaks i might have been
a fairly decent sonnet writer
i might have been a poet
if i had kept away from the theatre
yes says ben i ve often
thought of that bill
but one consolation is
you are making pretty good money
out of the theatre

money money says bill what the hell
is money what i want is to be
a poet not a business man
these damned cheap shows
i turn out to keep the
theatre running break my heart
slap stick comedies and
blood and thunder tragedies
and melodramas say i wonder
if that boy heard you order
another bottle frankie
the only compensation is that i get
a chance now and then
to stick in a little poetry
when nobody is looking
but hells bells that isn t
what i want to do
i want to write sonnets and
songs and spenserian stanzas
and i might have done it too
if i hadn t got
into this frightful show game
business business business
grind grind grind
what a life for a man
that might have been a poet

well says frankie beaumont
why don t you cut it bill
i can t says bill
i need the money i ve got
a family to support down in
the country well says frankie
anyhow you write pretty good
plays bill any mutt can write
plays for this london public
says bill if he puts enough
murder in them what they want
is kings talking like kings
never had sense enough to talk
and stabbings and stranglings
and fat men making love
and clowns basting each
other with clubs and cheap puns
and off color allusions to all
the smut of the day oh i know
what the low brows want
and i give it to them

Herrimann cartoonwell says ben jonson
don t blubber into the drink
brace up like a man
and quit the rotten business
i can t i can t says bill
i ve been at it too long i ve got to
the place now where i can t
write anything else
but this cheap stuff
i m ashamed to look an honest
young sonneteer in the face
i live a hell of a life i do
the manager hands me some mouldy old
manuscript and says
bill here s a plot for you
this is the third of the month
by the tenth i want a good
script out of this that we
can start rehearsals on
not too big a cast
and not too much of your
damned poetry either
you know your old
familiar line of hokum
they eat up that falstaff stuff
of yours ring him in again
and give them a good ghost
or two and remember we gotta
have something dick burbage can get
his teeth into and be sure
and stick in a speech
somewhere the queen will take
for a personal compliment and if
you get in a line or two somewhere
about the honest english yeoman
it s always good stuff
and it s a pretty good stunt
bill to have the heavy villain
a moor or a dago or a jew
or something like that and say
i want another
comic welshman in this
but i don t need to tell
you bill you know this game
just some of your ordinary
hokum and maybe you could
kill a little kid or two a prince
or something they like
a little pathos along with
the dirt now you better see burbage
tonight and see what he wants
in that part oh says bill
to think i am
debasing my talents with junk
like that oh god what i wanted
was to be a poet
and write sonnet serials
like a gentleman should

well says i pete
bill s plays are highly
esteemed to this day
is that so says pete
poor mutt little he would
care what poor bill wanted
was to be a poet

archy

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