A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Category Archives: Books, Literature, the Arts

Eliot, Causley and Reading Poetry

There is a new iPad application out, a multimedia presentation of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. I’ve only just begun to explore it. It seems to have its oddities, as all things do, I suppose: two pictures of Bob Dylan in the photo section, but only one of Eliot himself. But I’d never seen pictures of young Ezra Pound, and I thought—I know that guy, the confident artiste completely sure of his editorial prowess, more than willing to slash his way through the manuscript of The Wasteland; his edits are also included.

And then there is a video of Seamus Heaney discussing Eliot and his poetry. Among other things, he talks about growing into Eliot’s work, having first read him prior to university, then teaching him as a lecturer, then later as a working poet, and now, it appears, it is simply part of the Heaney’s mental furniture. When I read Eliot as an undergraduate, I knew I needed a vade mecum—how else would I understand a poem whose inscription is a Latin one which itself quotes Greek? I could never read him on my own. And so, I delighted as much in knowing about the poetry as the poetry itself. Still, I always thought myself a lesser scholar; marginal notes were what I had, but what I needed was an Oxbridge education. I was no Pound. To change the metaphor and crib from Prufrock, I was an attendant lord.

An attendant, anyway—and, in any case, eventually, not even that, except to pull down a copy of Eliot’s Collected Poems (now, alas, gone missing from my library), or to pull out a half-remembered quotation from my memory. Heaney’s stages of poetry ring seem familiar enough: we might read poetry in school, we might teach poetry at school, but, unless you have some kind of professional interest, it’s unlikely that you be reading, discussing, or enjoying much poetry at all. So, I hope that the iPad application will be a good way to enter into this great poem, anyway.

During Lent, I discovered the poetry of Charles Causley, a Cornwall poet who wrote during the second half of the last century—in other words, after Pound and Eliot and the like. The poem that caught my eye—and ear, due to a marvelous musical setting by a group called Antiphony, is “I am the great sun,” a cri de coeur of Christ from the cross:

I am the great sun, but you do not see me,
I am your husband, but you turn away.
I am the captive, but you do not free me,
I am the captain you will not obey.

Causley’s poetry is a little hard to come by, legally, at least: he was known, I think, mostly in Great Britain and by professional poets. I found a used copy of his Collected Poems 1951-2000 on Amazon.com. He wrote poetry that children liked, though, and he had some fame at that. Causley’s poetry is fairly accessible, especially compared to Eliot. He often writes in ballad-like forms. His poems usually rhyme, and fit on one page. They make use of the old stock of English poetry: repetition, assonance, alliteration, familiar imagery, meter (but often subtle meter for all that). A fair number of his poems are war poems—he was a soldier in the second world war. And many of his poems speak of spiritual realities. Here is an odd one:

Infant Song

Don’t you love my baby, mam,
Lying in his little pram,

Polished all with water clean,
The finest baby ever seen?

Daughter, daughter, if I could
I’d love your baby as I should.

But why the suit of signal red,
The horns that grow out of his head,

Why does he burn with brimstone heat,
Have cloven hooves instead of feet,

Fishing hooks upon each hand,
The keenest tail that’s in the land,

Pointed ears and teeth so stark
And eyes that flicker in the dark?

Don’t you love my baby, mam?

Dearest, I do not think I can.
I do not, do not think I can.

Yes, well: simple words, classic images, short, rhyming lines; perhaps easy enough to dismiss as a child’s poem. But the images and rhymes have a staying power; it’s a poem you can take with you.

I don’t have a vade mecum for Causley; perhaps I need one to tell me whether this is one of his children’s poems, but I think not. I can enjoy it, live into it, even “be read by” it without an apparatus, just as I can enjoy singing without performing, or programming for the joy of it. I don’t quite know how well I will come to know Causley’s poems, but I’m glad to have a few in my mind and heart.

Interesting weblog: Aristotle's Feminist Subject

Aristotle’s Feminist Subject: interesting weblog:

This blog has been a way to interact with some of you around “subjects” that Aristotle has taught too many of us in the west, even today, to disparage: females, rhetoric, and translation. Until we’ve recovered, I guess I’ll blog a bit more .

Also: The WOMBman’s Bible

Michigan: A Primer

Fun Michigan poem in the May 19, 2008 issue of the New Yorker by Bob Hicok, entitled “A Primer.”

You never forget
how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.
It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.
The Upper Peninsula is a spare state
in case Michigan goes flat…

The entire poem: A Primer.

Golden Gate Singing 2008 &c.

I enjoyed the Golden Gate Sacred Harp Singing this past week in San Francisco, and even managed to record the afternoon session (not a great recording, but not terrible either; the altos were strong, but perhaps not as strong as they sound in the recording). The singing was chaired by Natalia Cecire, who is working on a PhD in English at U.C. Berkeley.

I found a great quotation, by the way, in Natalia’s draft of a MLA presentation she gave, “From Stone Tablet to Pensieve: Media and History in Children’s Fantasy“:

[J.K.] Rowling [in the Harry Potter books] fashions a world of superior hypermimesis, an information culture enhanced by the magic, which, when sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from technology.

It’s great fun to sing in a convention organized by Natalia. Not only did it run like clockwork, she’s apt to lean over and point out that the images in the 19th century text of Peace and Joy also appear in the Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood:

Peace and Joy:

From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds more luster to the day.

The Dream of the Rood:

Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
which came as a dream in middle-night,
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,
brightest of beams.


I like (parts of) this poem, which I found in the “Hutchinson’s Republican Songster, for the Campaign of 1860” on Google Books. The ‘Hutchinson’ is question is a member of the Hutchinson Family, a famous singing family of the mid-1800s. This is from Lincoln’s first campaign for president.

By J.J.H.
I LOOKED to the South, and I looked to the West,
And I saw old Slavery a comin’,
With four Northern doughfaces hitched up in front,
Driving Freedom to the other side of Jordan.
Then take off coats, boys, roll up sleeves,
Slavery is a hard foe to battle, I believe.

Slavery and Freedom, they both had a fight,
And the whole North came up behind ’em,
Hit Slavery a few knocks, with a free ballot box,
Sent it staggering to the other side of Jordan.
Take off, etc.

If I was the Legislature of these United States,
I’d settle this great question accordin’;
I’d let every slave go free, over land and on the sea,
Let ’em have a little hope this side of Jordan.
Then rouse up, ye freeman, the sword unsheath ;
Freedom is the best road to travel, I believe.

The South have their school, where the masters learn to
And they lord it o’er the Free States accordin’ ;
But sure they’d better quit, ere they rouse the Yankee grit,
And we tumble ’em over t’other side of Jordan.
Take off, etc.

Pennsylvania and Vermont have surely come to want,
To raise such scamps as Buck and Stephen,
And they’d better hire John Mitchell
with shillalah, club, and switchel, D
rive ’em down to Alabama, and leave ’em.
Then take off coats, boys, roll up sleeves ;
Slavery is a hard foe to battle.

But the day is drawing nigh
that Slavery must die,
And every one must do his part accordin’ ;
Then let us all unite to give every man his right,
And we’ll get our pay the other side of Jordan.
Then rouse up, ye freemen, the sword unsheath ;
Freedom is the best road to travel, I believe.

The Young Geek, Mocked by His Crush, Fantasizes About Future World Domination, When He'll Have Cyborg Raping Powers

Jonathan Coulton is “a musician, a singer-songwriter and an internet superstar.” He wrote a sweet, goopy song called Code Monkey that I like, as well as a song about the Mandelbrot set. But he also wrote a song called “The Future Soon.” It it, the protagonist sings:

Last week I left a note on Laura’s desk
It said I love you signed anonymous friend
Turns out she’s smarter than I thought she was
She knows I wrote it, now the whole class does too

But I know that I’ll forget the look of pity in her face
When I’m living in my solar dome on a platform in space.

Ok; this is garden variety young geek fantasy; perhaps even socially and emotionally useful, in that it might propel him to greater things:

I’ll probably be some kind of scientist
Building inventions in my space lab in space
I’ll end world hunger I’ll make dolphins speak

But then the fantasy turns, and he’s training a ‘warrior robot race’ and becoming a cyborg himself. And regarding Laura:

I’ll see her standing by the monorail
She’ll look the same except for bionic eyes
She lost the real ones in the robot wars
I’ll say I’m sorry, she’ll say it’s not your fault
Or is it?
And she eyes me suspiciously
Hearing the whir of the servos inside
She will scream and try to run
But there’s nowhere she can hide
When a crazy cyborg wants to make you his robot bride

This is “beyond creepy,” as a friend wrote.

I guess I just want to go on record to say that, as much as I music by and about my fellow geeks in general, and Coulton in particular, this song is “beyond creepy” in its male misogynist revenge fantasy. In many ways, [male] geeks really are taking over power, and you know, like geek hero Spiderman says, with great power comes great responsibility. The least we can do (and it is not very much) is to disavow rape fantasy songs.

Why the New Yorker cartoon caption contest winners are not especially funny

Here’s a QA with the primary gatekeeper to the New Yorker cartoon caption contest:

Q. Did your predecessor or Bob give you any advice when looking through the responses?
A. My predecessor stared me in the eyes and warned me that reading too many captions in one sitting could make a man crazy. Oh, and also to “pick the funny ones.”

Q. After a while isn’t it difficult to decide what’s funny? Do you say to yourself—“#4,347, sort of funny. #4,348—sort of but not quite funny enough?”
A. I’ve developed a system of sorting algorithms that allows a laptop to pick the finalists without any human input.

Q. Really?
A. Yes and no. What actually happens is that when each entry is received it’s sorted by keywords. The keywords are grouped into 5 or 6 categories. Then I sort through all the one-liners, zingers, gags, goofs and gaffes, looking for the very best—which I pass on to Bob.

Q. Uh…you had me, and then you lost me.
A. Take, for example, a recent contest cartoon depicting crash test dummies. All entered captions were broken into keyword groups like “insurance,” “driving,” “crashing.” So at that point it’s easier to read them and make the best choice.

Q. What if I decide to send in a caption in Esperanto?
A. All the unique captions are grouped together in a category we call “Huh?” “Huh?” captions have indeed made the finals. No Esperanto yet, though.

In other words,

  • There are too many entries to sort through,
  • They are sorted by an intern (who also has to do a lot of photocopying, as he says elsewhere in the interview),
  • A keyword based sorting algorithm does the first sorting.
  • Yep, that seems like a recipe for caption mediocrity.

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be better just to randomly select, say, fifty captions and choose the funniest of these.


An interesting idea: Ficlets. Anyone can write a 1k story portion (a “fictlet”); anyone can write prequels and sequels to any ficlet. All under a Creative Commons 2.5 license.

Is this a “bite size medium,” or will a chains of ficlets (or the entire space of probabilities for a ficlet chain) become a “full meal medium?”

Somewhere in academia, a PhD thesis is waiting to be born.

(via boingboing.net)

Onomastical poem

How do all things with names combine?
Words are but nests, the meanings are the birds,
Body the bed through which the spirit-river flows.
The surface of this mental watercourse
Is not without its chaff of good and bad repute:
It flows, but you would say it stagnates;
It moves but you would say it stays;
From place to place were there no motion
Whence these renewed supplies of floating chaff?
That chaff is but an image of the mind,
Assuming every moment a new shape;
Like chaff its likes and dislikes float away;
The husks upon the surface of this watercourse
Come from transmundane garden’s fruits,—
The kernels of those husks in yonder garden seek.
The water from that garden to the river flows;
If you your life’s departure cannot see,
Behold in the waters this floating of the plants.

Rumi, excerpt from “Need or Purpose,” Selections from Rumi (II), translated by Edward Rehatsek.

I’m not a big Rumi fan, but I came across this by happenstance today, and I liked the images. And the word ‘transmundane’ is perfectly other-worldly.

Is there really a controversy regarding "The Higher Power of Lucky"?

The blogosphere is abuzz with discussions about the controversy about censorship of the Newbery Medal winning children’s book “The Higher Power of Lucky,” because it contains the word ‘scrotum’ on the first page, especially after an article about the controversy appeared on the first page of The New York Times (the article in question, soon to be behind the Times’s paywall).

The New York Times says:

On electronic mailing lists like Librarian.net, dozens of literary blogs and pages on the social-networking site LiveJournal, teachers, authors and school librarians took sides over the book. Librarians from all over the country, including Missoula, Mont.; upstate New York; Central Pennsylvania; and Portland, Ore., weighed in, questioning the role of the librarian when selecting — or censoring, some argued — literature for children.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, librarians “held about 159,000 jobs in 2004.” Compare this to the ‘dozens’ of blogs mentioning it, including a post on librarian.net–which, is definitely not an electronic mailing list, the Times’s unfact-checked assertion to the contrary. I suppose by now this story has been parishiltoned–it’s now famous for being famous. But I wish that the media (both mainstream and alternative) would do the simplest of facts before calling something “controversial” there should be considerably more than a few dozen people are upset on either side of an issue. Sure, the Lucky story was a story–but it was a local story, not worth national exposure. This is no evidence of a vast conspiracy or vast stupidity or vast anything.

And the ‘blogosphere is abuzz’ is a hackneyed phrase, but this story is a hackneyed story. Please put it to rest.