November 2001 Archives

The Companionship of a Poem

| | Comments (0)
Great thoughts from Billy Collins

The Companionship of a Poem

I came to realize that to study poetry was to replicate the way we learn and think. When we read a poem, we enter the consciousness of another. It requires that we loosen some of our fixed notions in order to accommodate another point of view -- which is a model of the kind of intellectual openness and conceptual sympathy that a liberal education seeks to encourage. To follow the connections in a metaphor is to make a mental leap, to exercise an imaginative agility, even to open a new synapse as two disparate things are linked. Flying a kite, say, can suddenly be seen as a kind of upside-down fishing; a flock of blackbirds may rise up like a handful of thrown, black confetti. I began to see connections between surprise and learning.

Further, to see how poetry fits language into the confines of form is to experience the packaging of knowledge, the need for information to be shaped and contoured to be intelligible. It is to understand that form is a way of thinking, an angle of approach.

. . .

Our supersonic, digital age demands rapidity. And, understandably, students want colleges to speed them toward their future goals. But the true tempo of education, and the best thing about any college, is a slowing down of things to an earlier, more human, pulse -- the leisurely pace of deliberation. Education may be the way to slow back down from the computer to the television, to the newspaper, to the essay, to the novel and, finally, to poetry.

. . .

Let us remember that poetry began as a memory system. Mnemosyne was, by Zeus, the mother of all the Muses. In poetry's most ancient form, the now-familiar features of rhyme, meter, repetition, alliteration, and the like were simply mnemonic devices -- tricks to facilitate the storage and retrieval of information, and vital information at that. In an oral culture, before it was possible to write anything down or look it up, knowledge had only one reliquary: the human memory, the library of the mind. The history of one's people, one's family genealogy, survival facts about hunting, fishing, and farming -- all were saved from oblivion by what we now call poetic devices.

Today, some may view poetry as a sport of dilettantes, despite its ability to say what cannot be said otherwise. But originally poetry was necessary for survival, for human identity, and it issued forth from the wellsprings of human memory.

While I don't agree with the idea that the important part of poetry is memory, most of the article is sound. I suppose I'm just too much of a Blakean for that. Blake sought to replace "the daughters of memory" with "the daughters of inspiration." Inspiration is of course uniquely human, and poetry is indeed it's highest manifestation. At least to me.

I think that my study of Blake has complicated lots of stuff for me. Photography once seemed to me to be a tool of memory, but now I begin to wonder if it also might better serve as slave to inspiration, rather than memory. Blake thought that the slavery to memory, to tales of past glory and conquest, was at the heart of humanity's problems. He thought that we had to replace this with a higher innocence, a sense of wonder, a fresh and new approach that did not sanction corporeal war, but rather celebrated a continual state of mental involvement, mental war to overthrow the stain of the past.

Maybe one day I'll learn to write poetry. Right now, prose gives me fits enough. But I must confess a growing fascination with the precise control over the construction of meaning that formal poetry provides. Free verse just doesn't do it for me; it's just prose with silly line breaks.

Things Pass

| | Comments (0)
the poster inside my 3-LP box was still intact to scan

Sunrise doesn't last all morning
A cloudburst doesn't last all day
Seems my love is up and has left you with
  no warning
But it's not always going to be this grey
All things must pass, all things must pass
Sunset doesn't last all evening
A mind can blow those clouds away
After all this my love is up and must be
But it's not always going to be this grey

All things must pass
All things must pass away.
All things must pass
None of life's strings can last
So— I must be on my way . . . and face
  another day

Now the darkness only stays at night time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right
No, it's not always going to be this grey
All things must pass, all things must pass
All things must pass, all things must pass

George Harrison, All Things Must Pass, 1943-2001

the unfortunate side effects of MTV

Just for Rex and Shauny, I'll revisit this guitarist who I don't even remember the name of . . . The guy was a scream. I've never known anyone who could pose quite so well. Yes, the pain of the world is in my guitar.


| | Comments (0)

I lead a seminar last night on the subject of intonation. As usual, I had to relate it to poetry and metrics. But the theories from Haliday and Brazil advanced in the textbook, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis by Mathew Coulthard, put an all new spin on how, and why, poetry works.

Brazil proposes that there are four options which we control when we speak: prominence, tone, key, and termination. Sounds like music, doesn’t it? Well, it is. These things are dependent on a notion of common ground where speakers of a language agree to interpret the meaning, for example, of a rising tone to be a question, rather than a statement. The words are the same, but the meaning is held in the music.

The woman who presented before me was a native Russian, and she spoke about the dialect of one province that used an exaggerated intonation to such an extent that she couldn’t understand what the people were saying— it sounded more like singing than speech. As I scanned the lines of some poetry, I noticed how the metrics determine these factors, and in really good poetry they act to narrow the range of interpretation for the line, making the meaning clearer. Sometimes, bending to the conventions of speech dictates the sort of metrical variations that keep poetry from being meaningless adherence to strict form, which makes it more natural and lifelike. It’s really cool stuff.

But here’s the strangeness of my mind at work. I’ve got to write a flippin’ essay about nature. I’m not a nature guy. So, I was thinking about how it took me forever to “get” Wordsworth, and how I only got it by reading it outdoors. Set and setting, as the old LSD maxim goes. Since Wordsworth’s poetry is kind of hallucinogenic anyhow, I figured I’d lead with the acid thing, and run at the essay from there. But I started thinking: what is set and setting ? Maybe it's another way of describing a common ground, a group of assumptions that allow us to extract the message from a communication. Language. It’s a wonderful thing.

Of course, that isn’t what the person who coined the phrase had in mind. Or was it? Since I need to attribute the phrase in order to use it appropriately, I tracked down what was originally meant. Big surprise, I found it in the book Drug, Set, and Setting by Norman E. Zinberg:

The two related hypotheses underlying this project were far more controversial in 1973 than they would be today, although they are still not generally accepted. I contended, first, that in order to understand what impels someone to use an illicit drug and how that drug affects the user, three determinants must be considered: drug (the pharmacologic action of the substance itself), set (the attitude of the person at the time of use, including his personality structure), and setting (the influence of the physical and social setting within which the use occurs) (Weil 1972; Zinberg & Robertson 1972; Zinberg, Harding & Winkeller 1981). Of these three determinants, setting had received the least attention and recognition; therefore, it was made the focus of the investigation (Zinberg & DeLong 1974; Zinberg & Jacobson 1975). Thus the second hypothesis, a derivative of the first, was that it is the social setting, through the development of sanctions and rituals, that brings the use of illicit drugs under control.

So, maybe I’m not that far off. It’s the common ground that determines the result, in speaking, reading, or doing drugs. Now that’s weird.

John Lennon Video Collection

| | Comments (0)
Power to the peep-hole

I've been watching The John Lennon Video Collection for the last few days. I've also been thinking about the sheer oddity of living with dead people on your TV screen. And I've been thinking about Blake's notions of a sort of higher innocence. We live in a fallen world, and can never experience the sort of innocence that exists in the mythic sense. Every moment after being born, we are gathering experiences that cannot be removed from our consciousness; even with metaphoric blinders on, the experience lurks. Religion operates on notions of letting go of the world, a sort of free fall into a world without attachments; but it doesn't seem to work for me. Just what's up with the red patent leather suit, John? But I must admit that the two-faced band members was a stroke of genius. In the live concert version of Imagine from 1975, Lennon imagines a world without immigration. A rather grounded reference, for an ethereal song, sung from inside what must have been an expensive suit, for an elite audience. The irony is rather thick.

But I've got to admire what some would call a naive search for innocence. I've got to believe that war can be over, if we want it. I've got to believe that humanity has more commonality than difference. These are prerequisites for a sort of innocence within our experienced world. I think it's an ideal worth striving for, even with all the flaws. For all my skepticism, I can embrace Lennon as a sort of child, though as an adult he, like all of us, is suspect. Some ideas, like the idea of peace, require a sort of suspension of disbelief. Looking through the peep-hole, without worrying about what's just outside the field of view.

Lily Cigar

| | Comments (1)

rock bands love attention


| | Comments (1)
Today, I couldn’t stop thinking about eye-beams.

No, not high-beams, though I must confess to a bit of a “deer in the headlights” sort of feeling as I contemplate the idea. It all started with Milton.

Throughout Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained Milton sets up some pretty fundamental tropes: God=Light and Satan=Darkness. Okay, so what makes Satan dark is the absence of light(God). He’s still visible, you see, darkness visible and all that. Don’t get confused with the inversion; hey my name isn’t Satan, I’m Jeff, and this is visible darkness.

For those (including high school English teachers, at least the ones who end up on game shows) who aren’t that familiar with Milton, he was blind when he dictated these works. Blind prophets are also a big trope in literature, besides being a factual description of Milton’s self image. In Samson Agonistes, Milton weaves his own personality tightly around Samson, who like Oedipus was blinded before the crashing conclusion of the biblical story. How do you get around the reality of that darkness in contrast with the more abstract symbolism? Eye-beams.

But Milton was too well versed in science to go for that. Milton admits that eye-beams cannot be evidence that Samson was inspired: “For inward light alas / Puts forth no visual beam.” John Donne wasn’t so scientific about it, particularly when using it as a trope for seduction:

Where, like a pillow on a bed,
A pregnant bank swelled up, to rest
The violet’s reclining head,
Sat we two, one another’s best;

Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring,
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes, upon one double string;

So to’ intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all our means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation

The Ecstasy 1-12

So, being in love is collecting the same pictures with your eyes? I really like that idea. This whole concept of eyes reaching out to get the world has been a big thing with me. I first found it in Blake.

But Blake’s conception is different (big news, eh?). In Blake not only do the eyes reach out (not take in, that’s the key difference) to the world, they create it. The key is to see the world with “poetic genius” (one of his primary ways of referring to God too, BTW) rather than the mundane organ of the flesh. So, though eye-beams aren’t visible, they also do exist as a manifestation of the “poetic genius”. For Blake, that was as good or better than real. Vision is eternal. There is a similar sense of this in the conclusion to Donne’s poem.

And if some lover, such as we,
Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see
Small change, when we’are to bodies gone. (73-6)

I want my eye-beams back, but I’m tragically uninspired. My eyes keep connecting with the world in their own way, but like most times I end up talking, it’s strictly a monologue. I don’t like that as much. But I keep collecting my pictures, and spitting them back out again. It’s not as much fun without an audience.


| | Comments (0)

People want to pose in the damndest places. He was leaving for Mexico the next day, and was celebrating and a generally happy guy. I think his name was John.

Barbie Revisited

| | Comments (0)

Bill Jay has some interesting observations in the end notes to the latest Lenswork. I don’t usually buy the magazine, because I don’t like large format snobs. The majority of large format photographers come off as die-hard modernists who don’t have a clue about what photography can really do, instead clinging to notions like “essence” and “emotional tonality”. I never have been into the still-life thing. I like my life to move, and I really only bought the magazine because of Bill Jay’s writing. I like it. Here’s his jab at the po-mo crowd:

The continuing saga of Barbie pix. A federal judge recently (August 2001) decided that photographer Tom Forsythe can, indeed, take naked Barbie pictures in spite of Mattel’s objections.

It was not only the nakedness that Mattel found “disturbing” but also the fact that Forsythe photographed Barbie in a blender and frying in a wok.

I have some suggestions for his creations: dunk Barbie in a bath of urine (Serrano); slice her head in two and arrange the two halves to kiss each other (Witkin); ram her breast into a meat grinder (Krims); cut off the limbs for rearrangement (Belmer).

Now we’re getting somewhere . . . Or maybe not. Forsythe has more noble ambitions than disturbance. He is attempting to make people think about how Barbie’s image has distorted children’s concepts of beauty. I can go along with that, although it makes me think that Mattel is delighted to have found a new market for flagging sales: art photographers

Of course, this issue of Lenswork has pointless photographs of flowers in vases, all nicely muted soft focus, and a bunch of stuff with toy cars and trash photographed in still life tableau. Yawn. I know I’ve gotten bad when I start buying photo magazines for the articles, instead of the pictures. Not much interests me in what I see on the shelves these days. I know there is a lot of good work going on out there, it just doesn’t seem to fit the critically hyped trends.

Syndicated Dreams

| | Comments (0)
Number 9 in an ongoing series

I don't know why I didn't mention it before, but the folks over at the Steve Wynn Syndicated Dreams list have put up the latest volume of live stuff as MP3s. I didn't bother with them, because I knew that the CDs would be in my hands soon enough.

What a great show this time around. Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three perform the entire Days of Wine and Roses album live, in order. While I miss Karl Precoda, it's a pretty admirable effort. And one of the encores is a song mentioned here a few days ago, Some Kind of Itch. So, if you'd like to check it out, here's your chance. I'm not sure how long these things will remain online, and if you feel the desire it's an easy matter to sign up for the tree and get goodies like this in your mailbox.

Great stuff, I think, but then I'm biased. I've been a Steve Wynn fan since Days of Wine and Roses was new.

Detachable Penis

| | Comments (1)

I accidentally stumbled on an amusing essay by John Updike. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan of his writing, I thought “The Disposable Rocket” was a really amusing piece. I’ve been scanning about looking for possible essays to assign when I start teaching, but this one might be a little bit on the edge:

From the standpoint of reproduction, the male body is a delivery system, as the female body is a mazy device for retention. Once the delivery is made, men feel a faint but distinct falling-off of interest. Yet, against the enduring female heroics of birth and nurture should be set the male’s superhuman frenzy to deliver his goods: he vaults walls, skips sleep, risks wallet, health, and his political future all to ram home his seed into the gut of chosen woman. The sense of the chase lives in him as the key to life. His body is, like a delivery rocket that falls away in space, a disposable means. Men put their bodies at risk to experience the release from gravity.

When my tenancy of a male body was fairly new— of six or so years duration— I used to jump and fall just for the joy of it. Falling — backwards, downstairs— became a specialty of mine, an attention-getting stunt I was practicing into my thirties, at suburban parties. Falling is, after all, a kind of flying, though of briefer duration than would be ideal. My impulse to hurl myself from high windows and the edges of cliffs belongs to my body, not my mind, which resists the siren call of the chasm with all its might; the interior struggle knocks the wind from my lungs and tightens my scrotum and gives any trip to Europe, with its Alps, castled parapets, and gargoyled cathedral lookouts, a flavor of nightmare. Falling, strangely, no longer figures in my dreams, as it often did when I was a boy and my subconscious was more honest with me.

From fucking to falling; what an admirable transition. I had a theory once that art was like falling. It was only great when it was accidental and disconnected, weightless and away from the cares of the mundane world, lose and unmediated. I suppose I was dreaming a lot of falling then, and I was in my mid-thirties. I never thought of my penis as a disposable rocket though. Updike goes on to give it a separate consciousness, and like the King Missile song, proposes that the penis is detachable.

An erection, too, defies gravity, flirts with it precariously. It extends the diagram of outward direction into downright detachability— objective, in the case of sperm, subjective, in the case of testicles and penis. Men’s bodies at this juncture, feel only partly theirs; a demon of sorts has been attached to their lower torsos, whose performance is erratic and whose errands seem, at times, ridiculous. It is like having a (much) smaller brother toward you feel both fond and impatient; if he is you, it is you in curiously simplified and ignoble form.

Okay, so maybe it might be a little inappropriate for freshman comp. But after reading so much feminist rhetoric in my early years in school, I for one would have welcomed such an interesting take on male sexuality.


| | Comments (0)
nosing around the netI've been having a Frank Zappa film festival

On Usenet, a bunch of Frank Zappa videos have been making the rounds. Up first, "Does Humor Belong in Music" is a gem that until recently was locked away in my ex-wife's stash of our old beta video tapes. It's a concert from 1983, and it's fun, but it's been really outstanding to finally see old gems like "Uncle Meat." I've been using a chicken to measure it every since.

Frank Zappa was a big influence on me growing up. Helped me forget a lot of the teenage angst crap with songs like "Broken Hearts are for Assholes" and the like. The most important lesson I think, is to never take yourself too seriously. It's possible to be brilliant and enjoy gutter humor at the same time. It's possible to enjoy both serious music, and fart noises at the same time.

I can remember one of the things I read in a Guitar Player article a long time ago. Zappa postulated that music needed to have at least one part that was simple, so that the audience could tolerate increasing levels of complexity in other parts. I remember how most of the people I knew couldn't get past the puerile lyrics of "Valley Girl" to hear the incredibly smoking backing track. I think that was probably what amused Zappa the most: people love a good gag, and always miss the more complex subtext of what is underneath it.

The best of the videos so far, quality wise, has been "The Video from Hell." Besides having such classic gems as "You Are What You Is" and "G Spot Tornado," it's also got footage of FZ defending rock music in front of the Maryland legislature, and conducting an audience on Australian TV from 1973.

The bird takes flight again. The gesture used to signal the band to play a high squeely note seems oddly familiar. My brother made the observation that we both attended the same university (and the same university that most of my heroes attended), Fuck U.

a good time was had by all

Of all the deaths of people before their time, I suppose it's Zappa I miss the most. Though I wasn't as big a fan of his classical music as I was of his rock and jazz, I might have been converted if he lived a little longer. The posthumous stuff that came out showed that he was not even close to losing the sort of edge that made him famous to begin with.

Small Deaths

| | Comments (1)
What is it about Australians and dead things?

While Shauna's bird story and Luke's obsession with things abandoned, along comes Small Deaths by Kate Breakey. Hand colored photographs of dead critters. Sounds, well, interesting! While you're at it, you might want to have a look at Sharon Seligman's Bird People

New Image

| | Comments (0)
Beauty Salon, Western Arkansas style.


| | Comments (0)
I’m using a chicken to measure it.

Whoever wrote the joke that said “I-40 is the best thing to come out of Arkansas” hasn’t driven it lately. Six sections of two-lane highway are funneled into one-lane nightmares between here and Ft. Smith. It took three hours to get 140 miles, compared to the usual two. But Thanksgiving with the parents was good.

I should have taken notes as I drove around, there were lots of ideas for writing. I spent some time driving around the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, and the contrasts are just fascinating. My brother lives in this sprawling shack of a house that makes you think of the TV series “Green Acres,” but the kitchen in his place is as big as my whole apartment. No one goes there though, because the roof is in severe danger of caving in on that section of the house. The garage is built of flagstone, and not in any danger. If I moved in, I’d want to live in the garage.

The town is called Rock Island (named after the railway spur that goes through) and the town hall is a 20 foot square aluminum shed. Rock Island has a population of 709. For the first time, I ventured the two miles to cross the border into Arkansas, to find the town of Hackett, with a population of 694. It freaked me out as I drove down highway 45 just outside Hackett to find palatial estates with two and three story ten-plus bedroom homes. My brother commented: “Oh, you found Beverly Hills.”

A little further down the road was a massive building of at least twenty floors tall, and twice that wide, sitting on the top of a hill. This building could hold the population of the entire county, it seemed. Turns out it’s the national headquarters of a health services company that runs nursing homes, Beverly Corporation. This cements the California-Arkansas connection: the company my brother works for manufactures stretch limousines, and their primary customers are in Hollywood. It’s such a strange combination of affluence and poverty. Sort of like California.

Stephen joked that the Arkansas highway workers needed to go to CalTrans school; in California, the roads never stay tore up longer than a couple of weeks, but they’ve been working on I-40 for about three years now and it just seems to get worse. Next time, I’m taking the backroads; they are in better repair!

another boring night

| | Comments (0)
The seminar tonight went okay, I suppose.

Night classes can be a difficult crowd, as everyone is tired and not necessarily all that motivated. I did the best I could to make some rather dry educational theory interesting to me. Of course, that meant twisting it into a linguistic theory perspective. I was amazed; the teacher didn’t interrupt to argue or complain that I was twisting it all wrong. But it’s just plain weird stuff, when you push hard on it.

The textbook, a case study of university and workplace writing called Worlds Apart argues that in order to teach effectively we need to make the motivation for writing in the university environment closer to the workplace. Drawing on activity theory, it seeks to make the case that motive is what accounts for the gap. However, if you read Leontev, the originator of this theory, he makes the claim that human consciousness does not exist outside activity. That is rather extreme. The social, according to him, is the only factor that governs activity. Marxist, and damn proud of it.

One of the conclusions of Worlds Apart is that writers in the workplace environment must inevitably lose their individuality and become alienated from themselves in order to survive. Sounds strangely like Marx’s theory of the alienation of the worker, only restated. The ultimate conclusion is that capitalism cannot survive. The workplace, because it denies the individual, would therefore be doomed. So, knowing this, we must be good Marxist teachers and teach teamwork, while accepting that it increases the misery in the world?

I don’t think so. Any model of writing that denies the power of individual motivation, of individual will, is seriously flawed to me. People write well when it fulfils a need in them to accomplish something; while “situated writing” is an important concept, it’s not the only way of looking at things. As a salesman, I know that the motivator of “what’s in it for me” far outweighs the pitch of “it’s for a worthy cause.” Teaching for me, is not much different. Making people better doesn’t mean shaping them into better cogs, it means giving them the power to make their own fucking wheel. That is what’s in it for them.

My presentation wasn’t interactive enough. I’ve got to remember to challenge people after the major points, instead of just rolling on. But I was tired myself, and the whole thing came in fairly neatly at 1 hour. We all got out early, because I just presented the contrasting points of view rather than asking people to choose sides. I think that worked out all right, because everyone was tired anyway. And this stuff just isn’t all that interesting, unless viewed in an incredibly broad context.


| | Comments (1)
Thanks Dorene

Just not feeling very communicative lately. I've had a headache for nearly a week, and when I looked in the mirror this afternoon I noticed that my face is swollen. Great, just in time for Thanksgiving I get to look like a turkey.

Got a letter from the University saying that I qualified for Magna Cum Laude. I coulda been a summa... but my grades from twenty years ago weren't that great. Too bad they still count. I didn't really need them, it's just that it saved me taking the SAT again. If I would have known that I'd do this well, I would have reconsidered that expediancy.

Now, I've got a cold to look forward to. I can feel it coming on, slow but sure. Yuck. I could blame it on Rex; when he called from California he said he had a cold. I wonder if viri can travel across wires? It seems like a nice theory, anyhow.

Tomorrow night, I've got to lead a seminar on material I really don't respect all that much. Funny how things change. In high school, I was defending Marx and now I've got to point out some difficulties with Marxist educational theories. I've been laughing at the irony that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Marxism has become firmly entrenched in educational practice— training people to become better producers for the capitalist economic system. There is just something decidedly odd about that.

Nice Words

| | Comments (0)
Thinking of nice words

One of the adjustments in reading older texts is the shift in meaning that some words have gone through. Awful actually used to mean full of awe, or awe-inspiring— not horrific, as it does now. A similar, though not as radical transition occurred with wonderful. Uh, full of wonder does not describe most people or things which this adjective is often ascribed to. On the C-18L list, a recent discussion regarding wonderful and nice has brought some cute stuff to light. A message there offered this bit, which I want to save:

There is nothing in the least bit astonishing or strange to find scholars forming opinions based in a sound knowledge of textual usage. Johnson thought himself "nice beyond needless scrupulosity" regarding his manners, though some would argue that wiping his hands, dripping with the fat of his favourite roasted duck, was evidence to the contrary. You will read with pleasure Betty Rizzo's article in the latest _ A of J_. Here she demonstrates that Johnson, and not Faulke Greville, was the better arbiter of nice etiquette. Whether standing in front of a fire and preventing the guests of the Burneys be benefit of the flame, as Greville did, or when scorning just criticism of his book on _Maxims_, poor little girls or eccentric old men could be equally nice.

Keats cautioned that the language must be "kept up," but it seems a futile effort to defend a perfectly useful word when my spell checker automatically flags "nice" with an "error message":"Weak modifier [records the nameless wit]. Consider using a more precise expression." Edmund Malone, however, could shamelessly closed a letter in 1805 with a concern that he "must not venture on another sheet, lest the postmaster should attack my frank with his NICE scales..."

Gavin Murdoch, Toronto, Ontario

This bit reminded me of a suggestion by a writing teacher that we remove “very” from our spell-check dictionaries so that it would be flagged in documents. He told us that it was better to substitute “damned” rather than very, and if it worked, leave it in. Because very, like nice, has become a rather meaningless word.

Another interesting period thought, is to contrast the 18th century method of displaying artwork from floor to ceiling, illustrated nicely by the Courtauld museum's Art on The Line exhibit with the modernist white wall. Get out the magnifying glass, and look at the artifacts, rather than live with the art. How meaningless is that?

Out of the Pink

| | Comments (0)
I have become such a sloth when it comes to e-mail lately.

Most of it isn't personal stuff anyhow, and when I last looked at my inbox today, it had over 400 unread messages. From the last three days, no less. I suppose I should cut back on the mailing lists I subscribe to.

But, so many interesting things come in that way. Found an interesting link on the Neil Young mailing list: Gilmour says that Pink Floyd is calling it quits. It's about time I'd say, when you haven't had anything new to say in about twenty years. Gilmour cites his age as one reason: "I don't want to be touring anymore. I'm fifty-five; it's a young man's game." What a load of crap.

Neil Young is around sixty; listening to a compilation CD of his latest European tour, I'd say it's some of the best work he's ever done. I really think age doesn't have much to do with it. When the creative fountain stops up, it's time to quit. But for some, the fountain erupts like a geyser periodically for many years past when the critics seem to think it's time to stop. I'd add Pete Townshend to that list; though it's been a while since he did much that was really new, I think the potential is still there.

Wired Web

| | Comments (0)

Just another Southern California view

Spinning Webs

| | Comments (0)
Things always fit together in the strangest ways.

Trying to clarify some stuff about Vygotsky for a presentation I need to do for Composition theory class, I stumbled upon a paper that really set the synapses to firing. Spinning Webs of Significance by Martin Ryder is a great piece that draws on Activity Theory to explore some implications for the web.

There is a social quality inherent in a web document which is as gregarious as a puppy in a public park. Occasionally an author may receive email feedback from interested patrons. But much more often, feedback comes in the form of referring hypertext links from other web documents. These links reveal the contexts in which the artifact has been appropriated within the work of others. By following the referring links that form around her web document over time, an author can extend her own inquiry to another level, tracing the connections that weave a networked community of interest.
Though it's not an unfamiliar argument, for some reason I never really thought of the Internet as unleashing the power of citations. The key difference, I think between citations and their variant on the web, links, is that citations are never used as an end in themselves, unlike links which are often the only thing present in web logs. It's a sort of stunted model of learning, in that respect, because if a person only links without commenting then there is no additive value to the knowledge. I never thought of writing on the web as solely a collecting activity, a sort of electronic age hunting and gathering, but some web logs really seem to be just that. However, collation has its values too, so I suppose you could think of it as a coming of age for bibliography as well. The problem is teasing out the difference between the two, because the web has joined them in a rather odd partnership. I much prefer finding original content, real human artifacts, rather than links to other content. But the rise in bibliography is striking. That is perhaps it's only real coherent structure, a natural effort to contain its incoherence.
The World Wide Web is arguably history's largest human artifact. At the Millennium it is a collection of nearly one billion electronic data objects. Web documents are extremely volatile. They are easy to create, easy to change, easy to move, and easy to destroy. Web objects can be preserved or replicated at little or no cost. The Web has no coherent structure. There are no rules governing its contents. Yet skilled users can locate any Web object within seconds using commonly available tools for searching.
The article's concluding thoughts on community are particularly insightful into the frustrations of this elaborate implementation of "distributed cognition."

Web communities of the type described here are very loosely constructed. They form naturally over time with little to bind them together beyond their common interests. The objects that attract the largest communities are likely to be boundary objects. These are, by definition, pliable and loosely constructed, and the communities that surround them are made up of people with diverse interests in related subject domains. The advantage of a larger community is the redundancy of information as a means of self correction in complex systems. The disadvantage is the obvious lack of discipline or control. Subjects admit themselves into the community often without their conscious knowledge of the affiliation. They are included without pledge or promise to add value to the collective knowledge base, but they are admitted on the sole assumption that a link they have made to your own site carries a promise of some common interest. The advantage of such informal structure is the totally uncontrived and overlapping presence of the participants and the novel contexts which they bring to the community. The weakness of this approach to collaboration is the obvious lack of organization and control. While providing information collectively, the activity system leaves it to the individual subject to assess the value and veracity of any retrieved information and to work around transactions that are incomplete.

It's so weird to find stuff about the web and rhetorical and educational theories so much one and the same. It's kind of cool though, it makes it easier to keep it all straight.

John Shields

| | Comments (0)
Went to a good lecture last night.

John C. Shields from Illinois State University lectured about matters surrounding, though not included in, his latest book The American Aeneas : Classical Origins of the American Self. Though the lecture was called George Washington: The American Aeneas, it concerned far more than George Washington.

The George Washington part was interesting enough. Shields attempted to revaluate Washington as something other than the quiet military dolt that most biographies and histories make him out to be, arguing that he had an education involving classical Latin literature. He argues that part of Washington's vision of America was built on the Roman model, best exemplified by Aeneas. However, the most interesting part was positioning this against the backdrop of the British reaction against neoclassicism.

Shields walks a fine line in teasing out the differences between the British and American perspectives; while most of the sources for the American model of "God, Mother, and Country" were contained within the British literature of the time, Shields argues that the Americans didn't just parrot back what the British writers were doing, and instead looked directly at the Roman models. It's a tough case to make really, and I can't say I'm totally convinced. Shields argues that the British model was built on notions of "empire," "King and Country," that the Americans didn't share. But in the early 19th century, I don't think the majority of British writers bought into that wholesale either. Like most things, it's complicated. Especially since, as Shields points out, that a lot of Early American rhetoric like "give me liberty or give me death" was lifted verbatim from Joseph Addison's play Cato. A Roman model, but still, a British play. Lots of food for thought though.

I especially liked seeing the slide of the painting on the Capitol dome. It's nice to know that in contrast to the media image of America as being built on the Bible, the rotunda painting is of Roman gods, with no Christian imagery present at all. I'm not sure if that's better or worse, but it is certainly different.


| | Comments (0)

Another in my major collection of Beauty Shop photographs.

Epics of Peace

| | Comments (0)

Yesterday, I watched Branagh’s Hamlet for a while before I settled down to read Paradise Regain’d. It was one of those fortunate strokes that really increased my appreciation of the book; if you read it as a sort of closet drama, the speeches just swell with intensity. An early speech by the narrator really sets the tone for the mission of Jesus, neatly superimposed over the desires of Milton:

To rescue Israel from the Roman yoke,
Then to subdue and quell o’re all the earth
Brute violence and proud Tyranick pow’r,
Till held it more humane, more heavenly first
By winning words to conquer willing hearts,
And make perswasion do the work of fear
I suppose that’s why I value writing so much. I do believe that persuasion is more effective a tool against tyranny than the gun, or blind fear.

This morning, I turned on Bravo to find Wenders' Faraway, So Close I was touched more deeply than ever by the old guy in the library who desires an epic of peace, rather than war, to propel the world. He laments the loss of the great storytellers, saying (paraphrased) that “When the world loses it’s storytellers, it has lost it’s childhood.” I agree. To cite Tom Waits:

I don’t wanna grow up.
I think that Paradise Regain’d was Milton’s effort to write an epic of peace, but it gets lost in the shadow of Paradise Lost. It should have been a play!

Some Kind of Itch

| | Comments (0)
Ideas at steak.

I was listening to the follow-up program to HBO’s Band of Brothers and a couple of things stood out. One of the original Easy Company guys said that when he got back from WWII, he took a course in ornamental horticulture. “It wasn’t worth that much, but I met a lot of nice people.” I think that’s what “art therapy” is really all about. Finding people you can talk to, about issues that may not contain much in the way of “meaning” but contain worlds of feeling.

Thinking about the Platonic “art is an imitation of an imitation” kind of thing, it seems to me that at its least, art is a representation. A re-presentation of the world right back at us, which forces us to deal with it more deeply the second time around. But it can be more than that. It creates something that has not existed in nature; it presents it with a force that was not present before. That’s what drives us forward, in a time that the positively medieval notion of a “quest for knowledge” falls short. When justice is gone / there’s always force.

Another moment in the program was the commander who talked of receiving an unfired gun from a surrendering German officer. He was proud of the fact that to this day, he has never fired this weapon. There was underneath it the hope that wars would not be fought, if only people would choose not to fire their weapons.

Got a reaction for my essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Destruction today. The teacher wrote:

Bravo — a tour de force! Very impressive work.
I don’t think I’d go that far, myself. I’d like to do some more work on it. I think she was just impressed that she was presented with a 13 page essay that didn't bore her to tears. It's hard for me not to think of it as a "work o fart".

Went out to a steakhouse for dinner. One of the waiters decided to sit down and talk to me, and it made it sort of difficult to eat. But it was fun nonetheless. He was an ex-longhair, impressed with my hair. Why is that always such a topic of conversation? When you have long hair, people always assume that you do drugs. The conversation quickly turned to the prison system:

“If I get arrested and have to go to jail, I hope they just kill me instead.”

“ I mean, I’m not a criminal, I just smoke a little dope when I get the chance. If they send me to jail, I’d be afraid of being turned into a criminal.”
I gave a condensation of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (the steakhouse waiter version), and generally had a great time discussing addiction and the penal system. I like talking to people, no matter how weird the topic.

It’s going to be weird to read Wound to the class on Wednesday. I hope I can do it with a bit of composure, but it was a difficult piece to deal with. When I got into my car today, the Steve Wynn tape I was listening to rolled around to a song that I hadn’t thought of when I wrote the piece, but I’m sure it was there rolling around in my mind somewhere.

oh those were better days
those were better days
we were sure that there had to be better days
no I'm not sure
some kinda itch

oh it all gets done anyway
but I read my life story twenty times today
still it's some kinda itch

Some Kind of Itch

I must be clear about it though: I don’t write fiction. I really was bitten by mosquitoes as described. Thank you Luke for linking to it. My site traffic doubles when he mentions me, and I hope that people weren't too disappointed by my all too frequent introspection. The fez must have a hypnotic effect; people actually do what Luke asks!

Art heals

| | Comments (0)
Watching Dr. Strangelove with the sound turned down.

Listening to "Can you Walk on Water," a Rolling Stones boot. Is a heart of stone a necessity these days? If I believed what I read on the Internet, I might think that was true. Sometimes I wonder at our penchant for turning the horrible and destructive into objects of beauty. There has got to be more than that. I do believe that art has the ability to heal, unlike art critic Christopher Knight of the LA Times.

The idea that art functions as a remedial agent—useful for the treatment of social, spiritual or emotional disorders—is positively Victorian. Popular in America in the 19th century, when the church had long since ceased to be an important and persuasive cultural patron, the sentiment sprang from a metaphysical void. It's a secular version of venerating the healing power of religious paintings and statues . . .

Still, we cling to the fantasy—even if healing in our post-Freud world is less about physical lesions and more about psychological wounds. Americans' sentimental relationship to art periodically drives us into the suffocating arms of therapeutic culture.

I don't even know where to start on this bullshit. Art began to be the highest form of prayer around, during the time of the Romantics, not the Victorians. The Victorians just ran with the idea, sometimes leaving out the god concept, and sometimes not— the basic premise was that there had to be more to life than cold reason and progress. Is this a fantasy? I suspect that those who feel it is, have never felt magical things, like love. Sorry, but I don't think that the chemical symptoms are the totality of it. Get off my cloud, indeed.

I choose to think of art as the ultimate in multi-leveled communication, and communication is indeed therapeutic. One of the graduate seminars I'm taking next semester is about the science and theory behind "Healing Narratives." A teacher I haven't had before specializes in that field, and I am glad to take his class. The idea that art functions solely as intellectual masturbation, as implied by Knight, is an idea that I think whose time has passed. Not to channel the prankster, but FUCK PRETENTIOUS INTELLECTUAL TWITS!

I learned a little more about David's last days today. His family refused to buy booze for him, so he resorted to calling cab drivers to deliver it to his door. The death of an alcoholic is not an aesthetic experience, to be studied as a case of beautiful destruction. It's a sad narrative, another story. Once it touches you, it can function as a remedial agent if you take to heart the loss of human potential it represents; it can move you to avoid the pit of wasted life. To say that the real human feelings, frailties, and failings of art have no social purpose is just a crock of shit. Artists make art because they are alive, with the intention of touching people. If that isn't social I don't know what is. Remedial? It depends on your perception I suppose. Art doesn't heal directly; it only re-presents what we are. Taking a close look at art is, to me, is at its very core remedial. We all want to be better than what we are. What therapy is supposed to do is make us better. As far as I'm concerned, art does that.


| | Comments (1)
Taking Kesey's advice, I wrote a piece about my brother David today: Wound.

By the way, my comment system still works. I was a bit sad that no one commented on my previous piece.

The passing of Kesey

| | Comments (0)
Thoughts about, and from, Ken Kesey

Another hill

| | Comments (0)
Still lost in the hills, trying to find some light somewhere.

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais 478-486

On a plain

| | Comments (0)
I'm on a plain / I can't complain

hills near where I grew up; or is that threw up?

Duty Surviving Self-Love
The Only Sure Friend of Declining Life
A Soliloquy

Unchanged within to see all changed without
Is a blank lot and hard to bear, no doubt.
Yet why at others' wanings should'st thou fret?
Then only might'st thou feel a just regret,
Hadst thou withheld thy love or hid thy light
In selfish forethought of neglect and slight.
O wiselier then, from feeble yearnings freed,
While, and on whom, thou may'st — shine on! nor heed
Whether the object by reflected light
Return thy radiance or absorb it quite
And though thou notest from thy safe recess
Old friends burn dim, like lamps in noisome air,
Love them for what they are; nor love them less,
Because to thee they are not what they were.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


| | Comments (0)

Bad day

| | Comments (0)
I'm having a bad day

Words do things

| | Comments (0)
Words do things.

Words perform functions; they accomplish work. I've been troubled by the blog name words mean things. It bothered me when I stumbled on it months ago, largely because of the haunting voice of William S. Burroughs in my head (paraphrased) "Words generate images not of things, but of other words." That was John Locke's beef with language: there is no one-to-one correspondence between word and meaning (or thing, for that matter). Words don't mean things. Robert Harris's Semantics syllabus provides a nice summary:

  1. Words are only symbols, and in themselves have no absolute or unchanging meaning.
  2. The structure of our language pushes us toward false dilemmas, toward either/or thinking
  3. All perception and expression of perception and belief is subjective at least to some extent.
  4. Almost all discourse is directive and purposeful, implies conclusions, or at least reflects a position.
  5. Discourse takes place in a context of meaning and of connotation.
My professor, Dr. Kleine, stresses that when analysing discourse, the most important criteria is not "what does it mean," but instead, "what does it do?" I agree. Dr. Kleine would remove the "almost" from the fourth part completely. Emphasis on "meaning" is deceptive, and erroneous. Making words do work is what is really the key to effective communication. Meaning is determined by context, a thing completely outside the control of the writer. Sorry to harp, but that name really bugs me. Blog names are a fun thing to keep up on though, I really liked Adam's Strange Weblog Name Awards. Of course, Pissed Off Wet Kitties is translated in my brain as "Angry Pussy." Words are such fun.

The best link on his site right now is Tales of Mere Existence. I particularly like the theory of the Good Looking:

I have a feeling that if a person is listened to no matter what the hell they are saying they are less likely to think about deep soul searching metaphysical shit.
That explains a lot for me. No one really listens to me much, so that's why the shit gets so deep around here. I have no clue what all my words mean. I only hope that they do something. I'm far more comfortable with pictures; the level of expectation is not nearly so high. They do something just by being there, even if it's only to generate the question "What the hell is that all about?"


| | Comments (0)
Slim the Drifter

Articles about Art make me cry

| | Comments (0)

There have been some articles drifting about that bug me. Wood s lot noted a rather disturbing article, The Ivory Tower of Tearlessness by James Elkins, and a troubling response to Elkins's article from Steve at Splinters. The article, and the response, seem to suggest that no one reacts with strong emotion when confronted by art or literature. Fuck that.

Tell me something I don't know

| | Comments (0)
Tell me something I don’t know.

I’ve decided that will be the first assignment I give as a writing teacher. I’m so anxious to teach I could scream. Reading a lot of Wordsworth lately reminds me why he’s so hard for me to get into. He actually liked being alone, being a spinster and all that. I don’t. I need people. I need to feel like I’m sharing something with people. Rocks and trees never did much for me.

I love learning stuff. Most of the stuff I’ve learned, I’ve learned from people. Books have their uses, because among other things they allow you to enter a place and time outside yourself. But right now is just as fascinating to me. I never seem to lose that, no matter how solitary life gets. I’ve got to go out to a restaurant or something and just watch people. It’s how I amuse myself most. People are a good thing.

Academic Instincts

| | Comments (0)
I wonder if Friedman's Cultural History of the Penis fits into Elaine Showalter's take on Academic Instincts?

Members Only

| | Comments (0)
Members Only got a rise out of me

Arkansas Jokes

| | Comments (0)
I always seem to get forwarded Arkansas jokes

Art Heist

| | Comments (0)

Batman watches the news, circa 95

What's the point?

| | Comments (0)
But the universe is expanding!

Politics and Art

| | Comments (0)
Sometimes coincidences scare me.

Walking through the fine arts building on campus today I noticed two exhibitions:

  • John Deering – Political Cartoons
  • Nancy Chunn – Front Pages
Aesthetic politics? I only had time to glance as I walked past; the Chunn works were painted front pages from the New York Times. This is just too dangerously close to the essay I just wrote. I'm really frightened about the whole thing. There is no arguing that art is political, but is politics now art?

I had this debate with Harry Wilson years ago; I am as uncertain about it now as I ever was. I remember the director of an arts agency telling me: "I don't care if there is politics in art, just as long as I like the politics." I can't buy that. I think art should at least make the attempt at universality. However, as Harry pointed out, there is nothing more universal than death and suffering— and those things, quite often, are political.

It finally reached an interesting stopping place.

Presented for your review, workofart. That is, my most recent essay: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Destruction. According to Richard Thompson, "To steal is to flatter," and I hope I have kept at least some of the feel of the original landmark essay.


| | Comments (0)
Photograph by Ken Heyman, Sketches by Saul Steinberg, from They Became What They Beheld by Edmund Carpenter

Writing an essay in the style of Walter Benjamin is harder work than I thought it would be.

Though I've read it a thousand times, I can't pretend to have the knowledge that Benjamin had. Deadline is tomorrow, and I'm still feeling blocked up. It is really hard to put on someone elses face, even for a little while.

But it's not unnatural. As Edmund Carpenter says:

When feelings & thoughts are regarded as work of the lungs, what could be more natural than the work of "inspiration": inhaling the essence of another person or spirit?

I'm having difficulty breathing!

Eighteen Seconds

| | Comments (1)

He has become incapable of catching his thought; he has retained his entire lucidity; but whatever thought occurs to him he is incapable of giving it external form, that is to translate it into the appropriate gestures or words. He lacks the words, they no longer respond to his call, he is reduced into seeing images pass inside him, a surfeit of contradictory images, unrelated among themselves. This makes him incapable of mingling with the lives of others or pursuing any activity.

Antonin Artaud— Notes for Les dix-huit secondes (Eighteen Seconds)

Here's looking at you, Kid

| | Comments (0)
at a Kiss concert, circa 1977. I always had this feeling that there was something slipping by me, but I'd catch glimpses out of the corner of my eye.

Music Hangover

| | Comments (0)
continuing the boot organizing process

First hangover I've had in a while. Note to self: When the fifth is half gone, it's time to slow down.

Started thinking about the way you used to be able to divide people up: Stones fans, Beatles fans, and Who fans. I was a Who fan, myself, primarily. It took a while to get into the Beatles, and even longer to get into the Stones.

Then it got more complex. There was another triumvirate that came after: Zeppelin fans, Pink Floyd fans, and Black Sabbath fans. I was more of a Floyd fan, with distinct Sabbath leanings. Zeppelin was just "ok".

Why do fans get rabid? Why do certain bands promote this sort of taxonomy? Hey it's all rock and roll. And I like it.

I didn't stop listening to music after dinosaurs roamed the earth. I never became so consumed with one band over another so that my taste atrophied. I spent most of the eighties thrilled that music wasn't repeating itself too badly. By that time, all these bands were like cartoons of their former selves; amusing for a Saturday morning, but hardly worthy of worship. Things change. Too bad the media, or some fans, never figured this out. At least Nirvana slapped them upside the head by the time the 90s rolled around. I'm waiting for something in this century to do the same.

Your brain’s off the hook, but you’re not

Hair Follies

| | Comments (0)
Jeff Chandler as Cochise in Broken Arrow, 1950

I was named after Jeff Chandler. My middle name comes from James Dean, and I'm fairly happy about that, but Jeff Chandler puzzled me.

I've often quizzed my mom about Jeff Chandler. I'd seen him in old war movies and such, but never seen the attraction until today. He also played Cochise in a number of old westerns, perhaps a bit over the top as the "noble savage."

I noticed today that he has a strong resemblance to my father. Mom says she thought he was handsome, and she just liked the name. I suppose that noble savagery has a strong heritage in most of my family tree.

I decided to try a test today. Is there any resemblance?

Jeff Ward as Long Hair in The Bathroom, 2001

The whole time I lived in California no one really said much about my hair. In Arkansas, it's the first thing people want to talk about. "Don't people confuse you with a girl?" Uh, no, not really. I don't see many women with moustaches.

It's kind of annoying. "Do you use conditioner?" "Do you blow-dry your hair?" Uh, I just sort of walk around in the rain and beat it dry on the rocks . . . just kidding. Nothing special, get shampoo it and let it dry normally. "Does it get in your way?" No, that's why they invented rubber bands...

At least it hasn't turned white yet. Jeff Chandler's hair was all white by age 18, my dads, by age 30. Mine just keeps growing in the same sort of dirt-brown color. "How long did it take to grow it?" It was above my ears four years ago. I'm just lazy. I hate haircuts.

More than you wanted to know, perhaps. I just thought I'd take a snap, because I may hack it off again when I start to look for work.

Frye's Diaries

| | Comments (0)
I wish I had the money to spring for Northrop Frye's diaries

Music Junkie

| | Comments (0)
Thinking about the way the world spins


| | Comments (0)

Head for sale

Pills to purge melancholy

| | Comments (0)

Impure thoughts

| | Comments (1)
Impure thoughts

Ode on a favorite cat

| | Comments (1)
It's sometimes great fun to look at poetry with the line breaks removed.

As yet another birthday tribute to one of my favorite cats on the web, here's an offering to Shauna, courtesy of Thomas Gray:

On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes

'TWAS on a lofty vase's side, Where China's gayest art had dyed The azure flowers that blow; Demurest of the tabby kind, The pensive Selima reclined, Gazed on the lake below. Her conscious tail her joy declared; The fair round face, the snowy beard, The velvet of her paws, Her coat, that with the tortoise vies, Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes, She saw; and purr'd applause. Still had she gazed; but 'midst the tide Two angel forms were seen to glide, The Genii of the stream: Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue Thro' richest purple to the view Betray'd a golden gleam. The hapless Nymph with wonder saw: A whisker first and then a claw, With many an ardent wish, She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize. What female heart can gold despise? What Cat's averse to fish? Presumptuous Maid! with looks intent Again she stretch'd, again she bent, Nor knew the gulf between. (Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled.) The slipp'ry verge her feet beguiled, She tumbled headlong in. Eight times emerging from the flood She mew'd to ev'ry wat'ry god, Some speedy aid to send. No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd: Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard. A Fav'rite has not friend! From hence, ye Beauties undeceived, Know, one false step is ne'er retrieved, And be with caution bold. Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes And heedless hearts, is lawful prize; Nor all that glisters, gold.

Just in case you wondered, yes, this is the source of the cliché "All that glitters isn't gold." No offense is meant of course, because Shauna glitters, and surely she is gold. Even if she doesn't brush her tits.

If you have a bit of patience, William Blake's illustrations for this poem are worth the loading time

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from November 2001 listed from newest to oldest.

October 2001 is the previous archive.

December 2001 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 5.12