Category Archives: Fiction and Poetry

Quixote and Galileo: On Being Humbled Yet Again

For context, this is the version of Don Quixote my son and I are working through (hard to be sure, looks like the cover). The more we read it, out loud, with some amount of performance for each voice, Sancho, Quixote, and the narrator, the more we like it. I have to alter some portions as they’re not meant for ten-year-old ears. Readers familiar with the novel will understand, I think.

Shelton’s translation is interesting in that I read a deep affection for Cervantes, a certain need to interpret with accuracy and meet the needs of the language and audience of his time, which is thrilling to think about in a historical sense, as we know translation must be sensitive to time.

In a section yesterday, where Sancho prevents Quixote from riding off for a new adventure, proclaimed by Quixote as tremendously dangerous, and, not wanting to let him out of his sights and troubled by nearby hammering booms, Sancho, feeling the urge, unbelts, drops his pants, and relieves himself just steps away from his “Lord.” Quixote, of course, has a nose.

I found this amazing, as the language elevated the comedic and scatological scene to carefully crafted “appropriateness,” given the situation. Kundera’s Book of Laughter came to mind then. And something else more trivial: that Cervantes, several times, takes the time to propel the human body into the fiction in a manner that is, indeed, appropriate at the human scale. As a naif, I’d ask why don’t films film the hero’s or his company’s bodies out there on the plain, the desert or in the village. The answer’s obvious: because to those stories, it matters not. For Cervantes, Quixote’s teeth, cheeks, and body matter as a matter of his condition, world, and being. Sancho’s too. It matters that a couple of human beings are out making fools of themselves (amongst other fools).

As a reader, I keep going back to Cervantes and his time and modern conceptions of fiction’s history: the Quixotic, the windmills (which are trivial in the novel, but still cool), the wine bottles (inside joke). My conclusion is this: I get it now: the fascination of Nabokov, Trilling, and Kundera. That here we have something new, a break from powerful conventions that may be interpreted purely as blinders to what’s possible given human experience at the human scale: not the scale of Hamlet. I read Cervantes and say: here’s something similar to discoveries by Galileo and Kepler (which are more human than fantasy) but from a different lens and aimed at the obvious crowds we stand beside and of which we’re members (and we should never forget that). This goes beyond Shakespeare: here’s an author who conceives of a savagery and love in different mode than Boccaccio, Chaucer, or Cao Xueqin. Cervantes punches in Don Quixote with very little reluctance or inhibition. Grand mode, shocking stuff. And now I feel even smaller than I did in the face of Mark Twain. Amazing. Wonderful.

On Reading Don Quixote Outloud

My son and I are starting up a long out-loud read of Don Quixote. I’ve taught the novel before but have to confess never having reading the whole out-loud as a performance.

Already there’s something about the work that’s reminded us of Tolkien and Daniel Handler’s Unfortunate Events Series. The travel in the first, though Quixote is famous for finding “adventure nearby,” and the narrator in the second. The first impression from us is that despite the ornamented language, Cervantes is both vast and incredibly economical: he get’s a lot said in a very short span of time. Incredible. And then there are the incredible, subtle images . . . Hopefully my students in World Literature will figure out what calls the knight to adventure and how modern this notion is.

On Enjambment and Other Horrors

My students are having horrible troubles with the notion of enjambment. Well, not really, but they think they are. It’s important for students of writing to understand the techniques of any given form not so much for the use of those techniques but to understand how meaning is made possible and how language can be shaped. Most technique is transparent. In film, editing techniques are often meant not to be noticed.

Here’s a section of Anna Barbauld’s The Epiphany

Deep in Sabea’s fragrant groves retired,
Long had the Eastern Sages studious dwelt,
By love sublime of sacred science fired:
Long had they trained the’ inquiring youth,
With liberal hand the bread of wisdom dealt,
And sung in solemn verse mysterious truth.

That first line is significant. It provides us language about place, which is a typical routine of the phrase. It provides context. But I doubt the poet is offering that first line as a complete unit of meaning, hence we can say the line is part of an enjambed unit. The punctuation doesn’t matter. The reader is meant to follow the next several lines to the noun and verb: sages and dwelt. Of course, it’s important that the sages have had a lot of time invested in Sabea’s groves. They’ve been in there a long time, which is suggested by the words “deep” and “retired” in line 1.

Enjambment as a poetic technique can be interpreted in many ways because of the way poetic lines can be conceived. If cummings could write “i thank You God for most this amazing / day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees” we have to be able to infer that he worried about the meaning of the line break and avoided placing the word “day” beside “amazing.” The metrical unit doesn’t need to matter, nor does the foot pattern, as in disyllabic (iamb) or trisyllabic (anapest). But it can matter, also, depending on the sense of lines, as in Barbauld’s poem above. In the cummings example, the speaker says “i thank you God . . . ” This, of course, is a clause, but it isn’t the unit of meaning of significance in the sense of a poetic line, though it might be fine as a church utterance. If the significant unit of meaning crosses lines, then we have enjambed examples.

In the history of poetry, the identification of the technique, calling it by name as a technique, might not really matter but then again it might, as techniques need abstraction. It depends on language, too. One of the things I don’t talk about in English Literature course are things like the greek ictus, which is the first beat or first syllable of a metrical foot. In the classic dactylic hexameter, which can be difficult to understand, because metrical types can be interchanged ( a spondee for a trochee–I think I’m recalling that right), the ictus is incredibly important. I would also suggest that the phenomenon is important to cummings and other poets who care about entering lines with something sharp and progressive (which I’m finding significant in music, but in the way of lines) but also as a means of distinguishing lines and making images with them.

When Frost writes in Mending Wall “The work of hunters is another thing:” he’s using critical method to control what the reader does with the lines that came before.

Why Write Poetry?

This semester in “school” has been all about language. I’ve been tinkering with a poem about Kansas, for example. The first part goes like this:

They say Kansas is flattest
But that just means
people see farther

The problem I’ve been treating is the word “there” and where it should be put. It’s an indicator of place. You know, as in: over there. But not really. There, in this sense, is meant as a synonym. There = Kansas. You know, that place.

But it’s not a place. It’s a word. And the problem is where it should it go.

One way of treating the problem is to use the pre tag in html to make sure that the thing goes where I want it to.

It may be true that in places with less stuff in the way, like mountains or tall trees, people can indeed see “farther.” But what does that mean? And what would people who can see farther than people in New England, who can only see tree trunks or cars, think about differently than people who interpret distances differently?

That’s a rhetorical question.

Does seeing farther imply more wisdom? Et cetera.

In New Media the students are still struggling with the difference between reality things and digital things. In the Ruby programming language we define an object class this way:

class Poem

and inside the class Poem we can manipulate or definine its elements

class Poem
def line

But nothing here has anything to do with a poem, at least as far as the computer is concerned. The computer just thinks that the class Object is expecting to extend to an object called Poem. But Poem needs something like @line to make it work. Kind of like the indefinite “there” as Kansas. In Inform, moreover, stairs give students all kinds of problems.

How do I program stairs?

John and I laugh at these kinds of questions. But we shouldn’t. The student might as well ask: how do I create a tiger in photoshop?

This is actually never done. A tiger has never been in Photoshop, just as Orcs are not really in Tolkien.

In Tinderbox, we write notes. At least we fool ourselves into thinking this, as the numerous notes we might write in Tinderbox are not really notes at all but digital representations of phenomenon we call up as notes. Let’s say we peal a yellow piece of paper off a stack and say, here’s a note.

Well, this isn’t a note either.

So, so what if

Kansas is flattest

No, here’s what I have thus far:

A Poem about Kansas (though I’ve only driven through it)

They say Kansas is flattest
But that just means
people see farther

Say in Libya
If I’m stomped on by a tank
will I feel my tibias crack
before the crushing of my skull

It’s just a question I have no answer for
It’s more a question about the pain of fossils
And empty tar field air
As I sink through, touching for the bottom
with my fingers

of words like Lybia
and Saudi Arabia
and Casuistry

and blood
wishing that flattest
might mean I could be flatter
than the width of red and blue
between stars

I want to be bigger
than the tip of a rhino’s horn

The Darkling Thrush and Corpse Metaphors

One of my favorite poems is Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush. Why: because with Hardy’s language we can think about how poets think about language in a specific historical space. Hardy has inside him an ear for language specifically bent on what he would term poetry. It’s a different poetic language than Wordsworth’s or Keats’s. Consider the famous corpse metaphor:

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

One issue that draws me here is the size of the image. It’s the “century’s corpse.” This is pretty big. 100 years. A whole of a specific time, part of which Hardy has no experiential knowledge, and his knowledge of yesterday would, of course, be as questionable as mine is. He was born in 1840. Still, he has a sense of the size of a century, as do I but not really. This a secret sense, a feeling of width, grandeur, and abstraction in the form of time span. But let’s consider the word “outleant,” which describes the shape of the century. This is a bothersome word, the kind of word poets love but dictionary writers and linguists hate. It goes with the first line of the stanza. If Hardy can say “The land’s sharp features seemed to be” and then follow this with “outleant” then he’s certainly drawing a massive image that forces our eye to edges, lines, surfaces that just don’t stop; they blend into all, which is the landscape, everything, including the speaker. Thus “outleant” is full of motion and energy: it’s going out, it’s leaning, outleaning, leaning out, spreading and stretching. This is a “compounding” term, packed with a poetic sense of compression.

And it’s a corpse. But it’s also a century. But it’s also not a century at all. It’s an impression of a moment in time. Five minutes later the speaker might be having a nice warm tea and thinking about butter or cake and or, best to him, pea soup with ham.

Why Code? On Expanding Human Possibility

Over the past several years, I’ve developed a conviction that future work in academic humanities studies should involve students and developing professionals in human and machine languages. This is a conviction not a belief. Mark Bernstein, in a recent review of Hockenberry’s iPhone App Development, writes:

The treatment of design as a separate and superior activity to programming is, I think, misguided. The author is a designer and is writing, I think, for people who are not; he urges them to hire themselves a designer and then do what the designer says. Since the book clearly envisions individual developers or very small teams, this model may be unrealistic. Design and code are not separate things, and attempts to separate them are misguided.

My experience with numerous systems has trained me to agree with Mark’s statement. A couple of significant issues come to mind here.

In learning pedagogy, whether it’s engineering or poetry, we work with a traditional Aristotelean process, working from general to specialized knowledge. This is not cut and dry. In manuscript culture, specialties existed. Scribes may not have prepped the surface for their work. The labor intensity of the scribe’s work prohibited preparation of the skin. Even more complex, the scribe may not have needed reading ability, only a visual/aural understanding of the spoken word or the ability to copy already existing work. Vannevar Bush describes new conditions for the specialist in his famous As We May Think essay, where specialties can be vast in scope but also narrow in their intensity, meaning that they provide little space for study in other disciplines even though they’ve been shaped by them.

Modern education systems, as manifest in most secondary schools, don’t concern themselves with the Aristotelean tension: questions such as: what should be “learned” become strange when testing content provides a ready framework for instruction. School systems have other pressures: testing, funding, demographics. But these school systems are still dominated by the superstructures of reading, writing, and ‘rithetic in a context of “grades” of students. I consider the question of “grade level” as a critical problem to be solved. The question “What is a fifth grader” is a strange one. If she reads and understands The Lord of the Rings is she still a “fifth grader”?

For the past few weeks I’ve been buried in the Rails framework, scratching the surface of the ruby programming language and the Rails machine that puts it into a working context beyond a compiler. But I’m a poet and fiction writer, not a computer programmer. However, the framework has provided me a means of visualizing and framing a couple of systems I’ve wanted to develop for some time, systems indescribable without understanding the “limitations” of the object: what can I “not” do is a significant question. It might be true that 15 years ago a person who regularly wrote into their journal might have envisioned a web-based publishing system. The journal or notebook, such as the Moleskin, has been supported by hundreds of years of “technology,” which provides a model–a date, a body of text, an author, and a perma surface.

The computer is still a pretty simple concept if one can understand electrons. It’s instructed to do things by people using an energy one can’t see with the naked eye. How it is instructed to do something is complex. The amount of instructional language it takes to tell a computer to turn on or to display a body of text can be mind-numbing, as I continue to relearn as I dig around the notion of MVC.

I’m not arguing that all students of the humanities should become programmers or system engineers. Nor am I arguing that all programmers should write poetry. They certainly may, if they wish. I would contend, however, that some important images and relationships require competent understanding of these disciplines for teams to be successful. The Tinderbox forum provides a peek into this team concept. People use Tinderbox, they have questions, these inspire questions back, and deeper understanding of the system and its possibilities.

It’s a nice thing to behold: the possibilities or capabilities of people not computers.

Questions Questions

I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. One: to prove that new media people read books and skim only when required. Two: for some probing into the question of youth and age. Three: because I like a window into cognitive changes over time.

Why? For one thing, the world in which Franklin grew up is both a fiction and our historical lineage, a thing against which to frame and compare ideas, such as public space and communication technology, and, sure, statements of value and political estimations of authenticity.

As kids growing up in El Paso, Texas, we had to study things like the pilgrims. We made hats, performed plays where native Americans met the English newcomers from overseas, and implanted the impressions of our little hands onto cold plaster and then turned those constructions into ash trays. Such images and the history were alien: we didn’t understand and couldn’t imagine ice storms, cold winters, and the stories of witch burnings and English hellfire. The southwest grew out of a totally different heritage than the one I experience as a fiction living in New England now, but it was Thanksgiving and who were we to question the ingrained, seasonal subjects whose symbols were dry, multi-colored corn ears and paintings of forest-surrounded picnics.

The kicker is this though. As a teacher, I wonder at what my students know and how they know it and what they should know or be able to do, whatever that may mean in context. I wonder, might they be able to read the Nicomachean Ethics at the age of twelve instead of “age-appropriate” matter. And what is the basis of “age-appropriateness” anyway: good science, logic, or fear? At the age of twelve, what did Benjamin Franklin read and how was he able to do it? What does twelve mean?

Why am I reading the bio? Because of that last question.

A Question about Interpretation and Influence

Something bugging me. It’s been bugging me since 100 Days 2008. But it’s come back since I’ve been reading Hargood and Millard on Narrative and Theme.

It’s bugging me in a good way.

But here’s the story.

Let’s say you watch John Timmons’s video perusals. Of course, a first viewing will produce an interpretation or reaction, whatever it may be.

Then read my response to it in the form of Grandfather’s Favorite Spot.

Then go back and view John Timmons’s video again. The idea is that the interpretation of the video will be permanently altered because of the fiction and the viewer can never have their original interpretation back. The video is permanently changed, even if the viewer discounts the second work. (An opposing issue would seem to be “forgetting.”)

The same phenomenon is at work in the following example:

Let’s say a viewer encounters Carianne Mack Garside’s watercolor called progress.

Then the viewer encounter a re-contexting of it in poetic form. This poem, for example. This will happen if one purchases the 2008 book which places the context for these works in juxtaposition.

If the viewer goes back to the painting after having read the poem, the interpretive context is “permanently” altered. I observed and thought about this during the gallery show of the 2008 work. Blake opens his Experience poems with a pointer to the notion, thus the theme of innocence and experience is baked into the concept.

Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;

I’m not making an argument for the degree to which the original interpretation is changed. But that original experience is lost forever. It may not be profound and in some cases it won’t matter all that much to world affairs, as when a person on the lot finds a better car than the one they first saw and might have purchased. But I am seeking a name for the phenomenon.

Summer Projects

Monday is the Solstice. 8:30 or so and dusk can still be seen. Great.

This summer I have a few projects. Some are trivial. Prep for Fall teaching, bone up some programming. Other things not so much. In May I decided to learn how to play the guitar. And 100 Days is pulsing like the desert sun. I’m, therefore, writing at mediaplay, where the summer work is stored.

Today, boosted by this film by John Timmons and loads of images by other’s in the collaborative, I learned about an old man who lives in Osaka and whose father may or may not have died in the bomb blast at Nagasaki. He’s still with me. I see him holding his photograph. And I see the mother on the porch and hear the thinking of the fictional narrator, whose thought process is really my own.

This Osaka is perpetual. It is always present, like the El Paso I still remember from my last visit or the corridor of Park Street in Hartford. I wonder where the old man is now. I wonder what he’s eating. I wonder if his mother is alive.

The last couple of days have seen graduation to a new level of guitar playing. The funny part is that I go from beginner to a little more than beginner as I have thousands of hours left to go toward mastery of something I don’t really know much about. Luckily I have friends who do. I’ve learned a piece that weeks back I couldn’t even have attempted without a lot of pain and frustration. What’s amazing about all this is that I’ve re-connected with the thrill of just learning something new, something that I’ve always wanted to do but hadn’t had the time to consider seriously.

The brain is physically changing. And that’s thrilling. I often joke that I want to connect a program to my head that will teach me to do things. It’s a joke of course. The fun part would be missed. It’s totally thrilling to learn something new.

On Going Back to School

I’m teaching myself how to play the guitar. I have the Idiot’s Guide and a Fender acoustic, whose neck is too small for my left hand but is nonetheless playable. Too small, because at the size of my fingers, it’s tough to play something like A without the index rubbing up against the third string.

This whole enterprise is 1) a humbling experience. I used to play trumpet in high school. I was pretty good, moving to first chair in the marching band and jazz band at the ripe age of 14. We traveled to Mexico city in 1979 or 80, we won lots of awards in jazz. After high school I played in a band that did a few weddings and parties, playing Chicago-like music. But tennis, computers, and a novel drew me then and I lost interest in gigs, music, and lugging around equipment. So, I must start from scratch. The first order of business was to strengthen both hands, toughen the tips of my left hand fingers to withstand razor sharp acoustic strings, and start training my brain to recognize left and right hand relationships. It’s like I’ve hit the first grade again, struggling to make sound.

After three weeks, I can pluck Clair de Lune, play a nursery rhyme (barely–I think it’s Pop Goes the Weasel), and strum a few cords. Barring’s getting easier and I have lots of interesting warmups. I know how to read notes and patterns but I haven’t yet passed my first set of self-imposed quizzes. I won’t move to brighter things until I have those basics done, though I do read ahead into the book.

2) I have that learning anxiety that everyone feels when facing the unknown: will I be able to master basics and thus move on to things more advanced, like varied accompaniment? The first impasse has been proper plucking technique, which is a brain knotter. When the player goes from first to third string with annulas and index respectfully, the player experiences one of those cognitive surprises, as in “how does one do that without going mad?” But when the movement grew easier, typically on the second day, then easier on the third day, I felt that elation people feel when what seemed impossible one day is now possible. When does a person know they learned something?

In the fiction writing (which is different from verbal storytelling), this feeling of elation may take years to experience as the ability to compress an image (or understand the arc) is one of those sneaky things. It’s important to know what sort of a learner one is. I’m an obsessive, so when I want to learn something, that particular skill will become the sole object. This is true of software, programming, gardening, wine, cooking, and Beowulf the work, which drives my wife crazy, as during the learning of something, such as “the shop saw” or some particular character in a new novel, I have a hard time “listening” to what she had to say five minutes ago. The problem is, there’s always something to learn next. The guitar should keep me going for years, as the “objective” is to learn flamenco and some tunes my wife may be able to sing a long to when we’re sitting about the fire pit (which I need to learn how to build, too).

3) As a dedicated generalist, it’s hard to always keep focused on one thing at a time, as the world is loaded with “too much to learn and too many distractions” which may tends to greed, glossing, over-confidence, and the adulteration of expertise. So, I’m forcing myself to repeat repeat repeat in an effort to fight dilution and the urge to learn a cool progression before I really know what I’m doing.

The person at the head (of course, this metaphor is misleading) of a classroom should always be reminded what challenges feel and sound like and how failing over and over again tests ambition. I feel like I’m back in the first or second grade, plinking my way through a few trivial sounds. But I also feel that sounding out the C chord to a degree better than the day before is really explosive and that moving smoothly from C to G7 is actually possible. Wow, the little things.

We can also do this with a new electrical grid and new energy forms. That’s said, then.