State of the Union


Supreme spirit one broad break battlefield deliver victory.

inclusive government,
proud freedom.

enemy less coalition confident confident confident
Hindsight candor.

charge pledge means
Members family,
mom memory families.

Arabia better forward efforts.

our of citizens.

hope continue dangers progress,
hopeless enemies,
Members surveillance terrorist attacks.

If there who are sit support support,
American leadership determined

tonight yours.

America great and and industrialized disasters,
like expire will welcome.

American interest competitive out-produce competitive borders.

stronger temporary costs dangerous will business that working
driving leaving petroleum-based competitive,
classrooms distinguished miscalculated:
unprecedented girls,
suffering the conscience country.


This is part of the output from running the State of the Union through Charles O. Hartman's DIASTEXT. More interesting to me in this form and still chock-full of the same truthiness.

Strange Weather Phenomenon

Snow rollers, first reported in Illinois in 2003. Now, in Minnesota.


Maria Cant

For folks in Washington State, swing by here and thank Sen. Patty Murray for voting against cloture and, thus, in favor of filibustering Alito.

While you're at it, swing by here and let Sen. Maria Cantwell know that you're no one's fool. In a stupid, transparent attempt to keep playing footsie with her DLC backers, Cantwell voted for cloture (against the filibuster) while promising to vote against the Alito nomination. Thanks, Maria, for nothing and for bailing on the only vote that mattered.

Those with longer memories might recall that she voted for invading Iraq, and then send some money to her Democratic primary opponent, Mark Wilson.

Beijing Is My Savior

...that is, if you take the results of a podcast search engine literally.

Language Log
writes about the limits of Podzinger's speech recognition algorithm.

The interesting thing is that the algorithm functions remarkably well on things included within its model of language. On things outside the model, uh, not so much.


Electronic Writing

Brian Kim Stefans has put together a great resource web page for his Electronic Writing II course at Brown. Enough links to inspire and confound for weeks.


Sign of the Apocalypse?

Am I the only one who gets nervous when a digital thermometer says 66.6?

Bush's Brown Shirts

Steve Gilliard has a post pointing to a proposed section in the revised Patriot Act that would effectively give Bush his own personal police squad. Original post is here. There's a more recent post that shows the possible criminalization of peaceful protest in the new Patriot Act.

Given the Administration's utter contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law, can anyone seriously argue that these are good ideas?


Stupid Opera Tricks

Die Fledermaus almost makes That 70's Show look like a Dostoyevskian character study. However slight it is, I did enjoy the performance last night (1/21), especially Sarah Coburn singing the role of Adele. Jane Eaglen, the Wagnerian soprano singing the lead role of Rosalinde, seemed to have too dark a voice for this bit of Viennese fluff.

But what happened during the the second act was dumbfounding. Halfway through the act (the ballroom scene), the footman announces first Slade Gorton, and then Rob McKenna, the state attorney general. And sure enough, they come down the steps and exit stage right. That's it. The act goes on.

Unless the point was to emphasize how the characters are members of a decadent and indifferent ruling elite, the point escapes me. I was hoping someone would boo.


Hey, Buy Me While I'm Cheap!

I'd heard about this blogshares stuff before, but this morning someone followed a link from there to here.

The whole blog is worth 3K, tops. Of course, everyone I know has a higher valuation (Radish King comes in a at 10X the value) and the list of links to the site is jawdroppingly long. Pretty cool, actually.

An opportunity to practice the brahmavihara of mudita.


Les McCann & Eddie Harris

In 1969, the Les McCann Trio and the Eddie Harris Quartet played the Montreux Jazz Festival. Later in the week, the two leads joined forces with some fine sidemen. The result was a live album, Swiss Movement. It is one wonderful, rockin' chunk of jazz.

When I was growing up, my brother Roland had the LP. This evening I bought the CD version and have been listening to it over and over, especially the first cut, "Compared To What." It sounds as vital and defiant now as it did in 1970, especially the 3rd verse. You can hear most of the instrumental intro in the Amazon clip. Herewith, the lyrics:

Compared to What
(by Eugene McDaniels)

Love the lie and lie the love
Hangin' on, with a push and shove
Possession is the motivation
that is hangin' up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut
Tryin' to make it real - compared to what?

Slaughterhouse is killin' hogs
Twisted children killin' frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin' logs
Tired old ladies kissin' dogs
Hate the human, love that stinking mutt
Try to make it real - compared to what?

The President, he's got his war
Folks don't know just what it's for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We're chicken-feathers, all without one gut
Tryin' to make it real - compared to what?

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin' to duck the wrath of God
Preacher's fillin' us with fright
Tryin' to tell us what he thinks is right
He really got to be some kind of nut
Tryin' to make it real - compared to what?

Where's that bee and where's that honey?
Where's my God and where's my money
Unreal values, crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortion
Kind of brings to mind ol' young King Tut
Tried to make it real - compared to what?!

(thanks to somlynn at buzznet for the lyrics)


Hugh Thompson, 1944-2006

"There is nothing more dangerous than a truly moral man."

Rest in peace.


Dr. Seuss

...was also a political cartoonist. The UCSD library has some of his WWII cartoons online here.

Whorf Hypothesis

No, not the Klingon—the linguist. The Whorf hypothesis (sometimes called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is that language shapes physical perception. It's long been abandoned, but now a neurological study turns up evidence for it.

According to an entry on the Language Log, people distinguish colors with distinct names faster than those with similar names. Turns out this is true only in the right visual field. Information in the right visual field is processed in the left hemisphere where the language centers are.

Not exactly confirmation of Whorf, but a tantalizing indication of the intertwining of physical perception and language.

UPDATE: For less high-minded language speculation, check an old entry about "the butt-crack of dawn."


Race and Law—A Belated MLK Day Post

I was searching for some of King's anti-war speeches when I came across a site that also included links to some of Stokely Carmichael's (Kwame Ture's) speeches. In the following Carmichael reminds us who does and who doesn't need the civil rights laws:

....I maintain that every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not for black people. For example, I am black. I know that. I also know that while I am black I am a human being, and therefore I have the right to go into any public place. White people didn't know that. Every time I tried to go into a place they stopped me. So some boys had to write a bill to tell that white man, "He's a human being; don't stop him." That bill was for that white man, not for me. I knew it all the time. I knew it all the time.

....[T]he failure to pass a civil rights bill isn't because of Black Power, isn't because of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; it's not because of the rebellions that are occurring in the major cities. It is the incapability of whites to deal with their own problems inside their own communities. That is the problem of the failure of the civil rights bill....

Berkeley, 1966

I miss bold, precise, and true statements like this, especially now.


Memoir and Fiction

I don't write memoir. It's always seemed to me like inviting 2,000 of your closest friends over to watch you perform brain surgery on yourself. Ill-advised and voyeuristic in a Tobe-Hooperish way.

Mary Karr has an interesting piece in today's NY Times (use BugMeNot to avoid the registration garbage). Karr says, resonably, that yes, memories are problematic, but that's not an excuse to just make stuff up. She gives an example of how her memories of conflict with her father turned out very self-serving compared to the facts.

So I wonder if Mr. Frey hasn't broken more than the contract with the reader. Given the intimacy of all writing, and the particular intimacy of writing memoir, I wonder if Mr. Frey hasn't managed to plant the seed of corruption right in the very heart of himself.


Does Poetry Matter?

Commentary in the The Boston Globe about the current direction of Poetry magazine and some questions about that strategy.

Count me among the doubtful as to the direction of the project: we don't need "more poems that do what people expect poems to do" so much as we need better educated readers. Readers who can perform sustained acts of attention, who can negotiate the intricacies of complex metaphor and who can handle the polyvocality and/or disjunction of modernist and post-modernist writing, are readers less likely to tolerate the crap that passes for politics these days.


Acker, Antin, and Marcuse

There's a nice introductory / summary article about Kathy Acker (Wikipedia entry) in a back issue of the London Review of Books. I wasn't aware of her connections to Antin and Marcuse. The article also has a little bit about her writing methods. It's all enough to get me to drag Essential Acker and Pussy, King of the Pirates off the shelves where they've been languishing since purchase.

Special thanks to Wyatt Bonikowski at The Nature of Too Bad blog for the pointer to the article.


Commodities and Prizes

Louis Menand, in a review of two books in The New Yorker, makes some observations about the circulation and the commodification of art. The argument of one of the books would mark Foetry as one of the best friends of poetry prizes. Oh, delicious and perverse irony. That makes my Friday.

Poetry, Uncertainty, and the Uncertainty of Certainty II

Peter posted the following, very reasonable question in response to the first post:

Ron: did you see this on Jonathon Mayhew's blog:

"I guess what I keep coming back to is a poetry that doesn't have any "hook" in the reader. That actively discourages any kind of engagement outside the purely poetic--however that is defined. A poetry that's almost impossible to talk about, because it doesn't offer a point of entry, a selling point. Imagine a book with no blurbs, almost no "premise." No crutches."

I think it captures a bit of what you are meaning? Or not?

The shorter answer is no because that sounds like aestheticism to me, as if the work should exist in a world of its own. If poems are things in the world, they're in the world, not in a separate universe. But I think aestheticism is more an approach to work than an operative element of the work itself.

The longer answer is a little more complex because, frankly, Peter's question stopped me cold. It stopped me because as I got to thinking about it, I wasn't sure I had anything more than an aesthetics of suspicion (or, less charitably, paranoia). I think I do, but we'll see. And I'm not sure that this idea of the work as a thing-in-the-world integrates with it. It's something I've had in the back of my mind that's been drawn out by reading Barthelme's essay, "After Joyce."

Lets go back to the late 70s and early 80s. At that point, I was very much in the "reading determines meaning" and "reading conventions are culturally determined" camp. I was reading a fair amount of Marx (mostly the early, more humanistic Marx) and Marxist theory. The most discouraging thing I read at the time was Althusser's essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." In the universe of Althusser's essay, everything was determined by ideology and ideology was determined by the structure of late capitalism. In this totalizing picture, it's hard to see anywhere where there's a crack in the system, a chance for something outside of the dominant ideology to exist. (The careful reader will note the implication that I believe that late capitalism, in its American form, was not all that it could be and is, in many respects, deeply de-humanizing. I still believe that though I remain, as I always have, in the reformist, social-democratic end of the socialist spectrum.)

It was a relief to come across Raymond Williams's Marxism and Literature. In the strictly deterministic version of Marx, the mode of production is the determining factor. Culture—literature, film, the whole ball o' wax—is an epiphenomenon, a superstructure produced by the mode of production. Williams rejected this, arguing that, no, the cultural sphere could also act against the hitherto all-determining base. It was a structure of interaction, not one of determination by the material base.

At around the same time, I had the pleasure of being in a seminar taught by Charles Altieri who now hangs his critical tools at Berkeley. The seminar was the opening salvo in Altieri's attempts to create an expression-based theory of literature. I think that's incredibly wrong-headed, for multiple reasons.* But one idea of Altieri's intrigued me, the idea that literature, as it comes down to us and as we make it, represents a repertoire of possible selves, of possible ways of being in the world. These days, I wouldn't say that literature gives us so much selves as possible modes of consciousness about that world. And we need every possible mode that we can find.

We need all the modes we can lay our hands because it's never entirely clear what has been or is about to be co-opted or what shapes what. A few examples.
  • Jonathan Culler has an extended essay about Freud's analysis of a patient popularly known as the Wolfman. What Culler points out in his essay is that, after a certain point, it's impossible to distinguish in Freud's writings about the Wolfman what is determined by Freud's perceptions of the patient and what is determined by Freud's expectations of narrative structure.
  • A television commercial: "What the World Needs Now Is Love" plays in the background, a group of people run through a field from the left, in a second scene a group of people run through a field from the right, music continues, camera pulls back and both groups are running toward a Mercedes dealership.
  • Another commercial: A man proclaims "I'm in control!" and then reveals that he now has not one, not two, but three choices of dipping sauce for his chicken nuggets.
We live in a society that is willing to colonize for profit our sense of direction in our lives, our innermost sense of individuality, and our very notions of love, that is willing to restrict all of those things to the straitened rails of product choice. And it's very, very hard to recognize what is being done when and the extent to which we are complicit in those acts.

For me, those things that are most likely to be complicit in this making of "good" individuals are the mainstream. I suspect that many forms of mainstream novels and mainstream poetry are the most likely to support or acquiesce in this restriction and/or colonization of what human beings can be.

And so, I suspect, those works that are most conscious of their ground are likely, in the long run (for shaping subsequent practice if not of immediate use) to provide the sorts of consciousness that give us the possiblity of being fully, rather than commercially, human.

This is also, I suspect, why I have so little patience with people who want to draw lines to define what poetry or literature is or isn't. (I also think it's because I find some of those folks to be incredibly lazy readers. Joan Houlihan, for example, is a phenomenally lazy and obtuse reader.^)

If you've read this far, thank you for your patience and indulgence.


*Wrong-headed because
  • It must rely on some notion of individuality. Once one moves beyond the biological fact of separate bodies, who or what is an individual is historically variable and socially determined.
  • An expression theory needs to distinguish between intended and unintended self-revelation and there is nothing that can make this distinction consistent and reliable.

^ "Lazy and obtuse" Houlihan's argument against language poetry consists solely and only of the accusation that language poets write obscurely because they are in love with obscurity. The language poets, however, have written extensively on what they wrote, why they wrote it that way, and what they hoped to accomplish. Honest arguments with language poetry can be made disagreeing with their project, that they failed in their aims, that their aims are not signigificant or culturally important, etc. The one argument you cannot honestly make is that they are obscure because they love obscurity. It is a stupid, lazy, and dishonest argument that requires deliberately ignoring the writers' widely expressed and detailed intentions; even in an undergraduate survey course, it would get an F.


Poetry, Uncertainty, and the Uncertainty of Certainty

Peter and I have been having a short exchange about Jane Hirshfield's piece, "Poetry and Uncertainty" in the most recent APR. I thought I'd post my response to Peter here as well as over at his blog.


Maybe this highlights a difference in how the two of us think about things.

If I were to put words in your mouth, I'd say that constraints, palindromes, etc. serve a subordinate purpose to the emotion. In a sense, Oulipian procedures and word-play are decorative. They may call attention to the surface, but they don't disturb what lies in the pool beneath.

For me, procedures, etc. are important because they not only call attention to the surface but also highlight the way in which that surface constructs the pool beneath. A poem (or a story or a novel) isn't something that points to the world. It is, in and of itself, an object in the world. One made of language, but nonetheless an object, and one whose relationship to that world is always problematic and always under negotiation. (If this seems totally whack, see, for example, Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar.")

To pull this back down to earth a little bit, I just finished reading Tyler's The Accidental Tourist. It's well-written, the three main characters (Macon, Sarah, and Muriel) are generally drawn with significant depth. It's a solid, mainstream novel. And I'd say I was moved by it (the subject of divorce is still a bit of a touchy thing for me). However, I don't trust a word of it.

The reason I don't trust it is because of its rhetoric of transparency. There's a narrator, but he or she is completely in the background. Things are presented as if this is simply the way things are. There is no sense in the novel that yields any self-knowledge about itself as a constructed thing.

So, if I'm moved by the novel, is it because Tyler has captured the humanity of her characters and their lives, or is it because this is what a bestseller, a consumer item of a particular kind, is designed to do and to yield?

At the same time I was reading Tyler, I was just starting to read Barthelme's Sixty Stories. Barthelme's stories wear their constructedness on their sleeve and yet, because of that, I'm more willing to trust them. They know that they are things in a world of things and don't pretend they are somehow giving me THE world. They're giving me an experience of a particular kind of consciousness and what I do with that is my responsibility.