Poetry Corner

I've always been a huge fan of the work of Paul Henning, but I wasn't expecting to find this gem featuring Dennis Hopper. It gives me an excuse to work on the problems of hosting/embeding flash video.

I can generate .flv files with no problems, but the player part of the equation had me stumped until I happened on an easy solution. Now full screen video is within reach: more experiments below the fold.


Posted by Jeff at July 5, 2008 1:02 AM

Storytelling (1)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem of storytelling, particularly about the way that technology impacts the way that we tell stories. There’s a lot to say about it, but it seems like some throat-clearing is in order.

Over the last few days, a couple of rhetoricians have weighed in on Doris Lessing’s Nobel prize acceptance speech—seemingly without bothering to read it first. This tactic reminds me of the sort of snap judgments that first-year composition students make—they accept the consensus of their peers without question. I suppose it’s one of the hazards of the rapid-fire atmosphere of electronic discourse—it’s easier to twit than to perform any sort of analytic work.

Lessing's speech is also a wonderful example of the classic solitary originary proprietary model of writing, which might provide an interesting contrast to the newly emergent models of distributed collaborative authorship if more close reading were applied. But there isn't space or time for that at this moment; I'll press on with the reactive component, hoping I can return at a later date to the analytic problem.

Dennis Jerz and Clay Spinnuzi are not stupid people. I wouldn’t normally expect this sort of knee-jerk. I remember months ago, rr linked to a video of Lessing being ambushed by journalists when she won the prize. She couldn’t think of anything to say, apparently, and ended up asking the reporters to tell her what to say so that she could repeat it back to them—a tactic first suggested by Andy Warhol in one of his books as I recall. Jerz and Spinuzi didn’t misread the speech as far as I know, they simply parroted back the critique of Techcrunch and Ars Techica—which read Lessing as claiming that the internet makes you dumb or that it was the cause of our fragmented culture. Really? That’s not what I read. Here is the pertinent section, as printed by the Guardian:


Posted by Jeff at December 12, 2007 9:34 AM

There is an eloquence in true enthusiasm

. . .a few of the articles suggested that the great man’s brain had been visible to onlookers during the procedure.

The first of these was an undated letter to the editor of The Baltimore Gazette, which claimed that “a medical gentleman” had seen “that the brain of the poet Poe, on the opening of his grave … was in an almost perfect state of preservation,” and that “the cerebral mass, as seen through the base of the skull, evidenced no signs of disintegration or decay, though, of course, it is somewhat diminished in size.”

The second was an 1878 article in the St. Louis Republican, noting that “the sexton who attended to the removal of the poet’s body” had lifted the head during the exhumation and reported seeing the brain “[rattling] around inside just like a lump of mud.” The sexton reportedly thought that “the brain had dried and hardened in the skull.”

“What I realized was, if that was the case, it would be the only physical evidence we have of what Poe’s condition was at his time of death,” Mr. Pearl said.

Intrigued, Mr. Pearl asked a coroner for an expert opinion. “I read her the description,” Mr. Pearl said, “and she said, ‘Well, that person is just wrong. Unless you embalm the body, the brain is the first thing to liquefy. There’s no way it would still be there 25 years later.’”

Poe’s Mysterious Death: The Plot Thickens!

Posted by Jeff at October 18, 2007 7:04 PM


Our modern science, abandoning the search for the Absolute, has been scrutinizing every atom, to weigh and name it, and to discover its relation with its neighbors. “Relativity” has been the watchword. Science literally knows neither great nor small: it examines the microbe and Sirius with equal interest; it draws no distinction between beauty and ugliness—having no preference for the toadstool or the rose, the sculpin or the trout: it is impartial; it seeks only to know. By observation and experiment, by advancing from the known to the unknown, science has begun to make the first accurate inventory of substances, laws, and properties of the worlds of matter. Its achievements have already been stupendous. Its methods have dominated all other works in our time; it was inevitable that they should encroach on the sphere of art and of literature.


Posted by Jeff at August 15, 2007 10:02 AM


Actors, called upon the stage, put on a mask so that we cannot see the blush on their faces. So, as I am about to mount the stage of the world where I have been a spectator so far, I advance masked.

In my youth, when I was shown ingenious discoveries, I used to ask myself whether I could not invent them myself even without reading the author. In this way, I gradually came to notice that I was using determinate rules.

Descartes, Preliminaries and Observations (1619)

Raymon noticed The Uses of Invention. The tagline “The novelist and Nobel laureate VS Naipaul has said that fiction is dead, vanquished by our need for facts. But, argues Jay McInerney, imaginative storytelling has the power to reveal underlying truths in a turbulent world” is chillingly familiar.


Posted by Jeff at September 17, 2005 10:00 PM


Henry Fox Talbot, The Oriel Window, Lacock Abbey, seen from the inside c. Summer 1835
Could the window picture be read as an emblem of itself, the very photogenic drawing process that has made its own existence possible? When you think about it, Talbot has set up his camera at exactly the point in the South Gallery where the sensitive paper once sat in his own modified camera obscura. His camera obscura looks out at the inside of the metaphorical lens of the camera of his house (which he later claimed was “the first that was ever known to have drawn its own picture”). He is, in other words, taking a photograph of photography at work making this photograph. (9)

Geoffrey Batchen offers expansive and creative readings of early photogenic drawings by Henry Fox Talbot. I find his exploration of the “desiring production” of photographs in Each Wild Idea and Burning With Desire to be compelling. But the closer I look at his essays, the more I wonder if he is really exploring his own desire rather than the desires of early photographers. Many of his assertions seem quite astute on the surface, but as I think them through they sort of dissolve.


Posted by Jeff at March 5, 2005 1:57 PM

Author > Text > World

Though in one breath Yeats claims the William Blake was an author uniquely concerned with the future, in the next he claimed that the relationship between author, text, and world was not one of obligation. In his preface to the Modern Library edition of Blake’s works he edited, Yeats finds nothing troubling about Fredrick Tatham’s burning of Blake’s manuscripts after his death:

Blake himself would have felt little anger, for he had thought of burning his MS. himself, holding perhaps as Boehme held, and Swedenborg also, that there were many great things best unuttered within earshot of the world. Boehme held himself permitted to speak of much only among his “schoolfellows”; and Blake held there were listeners in other worlds than this. (xl-xli)

Yeats makes a bold move in severing the text from the world, given his corpus of politically activist poems. He holds a different perspective on philosopher/poets such as Percy Shelley. Yeats viewed Shelley as a philosopher who communicated through poetry; citing Mary Shelley’s observation that Shelley’s meanings “elude the ordinary reader by their abstraction and delicacy of distinction, but they are far from vague” (Essays 66). Further appropriating Mary Shelley’s words, Yeats assumes that “It was his [Shelley’s] design to write prose metaphysical essays on the nature of man which would have served to explain much of what is obscure in his poetry” (Essays 66). Indeed, Yeats himself seemed to follow Shelley’s design, providing copious prose to illuminate otherwise obscure poetry. The poet’s duties were not necessarily to the future of this world, but perhaps to some other. But the philosopher has a duty now for the future.


Posted by Jeff at February 7, 2005 1:09 AM


There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake was one of these men, and if he spoke confusedly and obscurely it was because he spoke of things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world he knew. (W.B. Yeats, Essays, 111)

I do not agree with Yeats’s appraisal. David Erdman’s Prophet against Empire makes a compelling case the Blake was indeed moved by the politics of his age to model much of his poetry against it. The world he knew was a world of conflict, and part of that conflict was the contest between reason and observation. Writing not quite a century later, for Yeats, the two had collapsed together.

The reason, and by the reason he [Blake] meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts. (112)

What Yeats calls “imagination” was what Blake labeled “reason.” Observation and deduction, as typified by Newton, were not equivalent with reason. Reason, for Blake, is more closely allied what might be called “self-evidence.” Beauty is the self-evident concept used by Yeats and Eliot to “bind us to eternity” through imagination. The future is a cruel mistress, for beauty seems hardly self-evident to me. The cult of Life with its capital L, with its pleasures endlessly deferred, seems hardly more than a fairy tale used to overlook the engagement and embodiment represented by each person’s struggle to make sense of it all. And yet, we cannot live without this fairy tale:

No matter what we believe with our lips, we believe with our hearts that beautiful things, as Browning said in his one prose essay that was not in verse, have “lain burningly on the Divine hand,” and that when time has become to wither, the Divine hand will fall heavily on bad taste and vulgarity. (112)

Posted by Jeff at February 6, 2005 2:17 PM

The Yea Nay Creeping Jesus

MGK has pointed at an interesting reading that posits T.S. Eliot as the discursive founder of the hierarchy of data, information, and wisdom. I’m not so sure. The roots of this hierarchy are deep and twisted, and I think better explained by the rhetoric of science.

Alan Gross argues that there was a shift between the science of Descartes which valued reason over observation, and the science of Newton placed observation as the final arbiter of fact. Reason, in this context, seems allied with wisdom and belief rather than information. I don’t think contemporary readers see the true nuances of the split easily. William Blake plays on the duality of “reason” which functions as both a descriptor of belief and a descriptor of logic in this notebook fragment:

You dont believe I wont attempt to make ye
You are asleep I wont attempt to wake ye
Sleep on Sleep on while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Lifes clear streams
Reason and Newton they are quite two things
For so the Swallow & the Sparrow sings
Reason says Miracle. Newton says Doubt
Aye thats the way to make all Nature out
Doubt Doubt & dont believe without experiment
That is the very thing that Jesus meant
When he said Only Believe Believe & try
Try Try & never mind the Reason why

Blake actually had high respect for Newton and the rational belief of Descartes. He thought answers and errors were to be found in both. The indications of this are well illustrated in his letter to an editor regarding the persecution of an astrologer:


Posted by Jeff at February 5, 2005 12:58 PM

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