Teeda, Sped, Flotsam, and Twist

Mr. Teeda with tart taste
hairy-scarfy lips late but at last
arises to seize downtown bus amid
yawns and snort, sneeze and nicks
himself hie shavely in tortello
braggadocio hurry-scurry.
“Out-a-my-way, out-a-my-way,”
Teeda cocoons the mod you
low
muddle of his noggin.

Meantime, Mr. Sped, cold splash
asleep in red tide road dust,
implacable rouge shore,
weird civic bird waggles past,
rubber fins folding dreamily,
tail swerving to and fro, football
public service posters advertising
Hollywood endings posted to fuzzy
windows frozen shut with rust.

Salt shakers fill the upright oak seats,
and time passes so terribly slowly,
magazines, cigarettes, styrofoam cups
of coffee and newspapers near boiling point,
Mr. Sped grows wonky waiting,
hoity-toity, charged with C of C,
expectant umbrellas aloft as Line 15
stretches in cap and scarf
amid coughs, and heaves, and spews.

“All one needs is the fare,” Mr. Flotsam claims.
“The rest depends on the robes
and suits of one’s
sword swallowed piers.”
“Brobdingnagian egos these
competitive solicitor types,” Mr. Twist explains.
“Half a man most of them, don’t feel
whole without an opponent in their ring
to tort down their ecomanic day,” Teeda says.

The firm still self-identifies
with vocational pigeonholes,
so when the toilet stops up,
they call in a travel agent.
In the boardroom, near the whiteboard,
Teeda polishes his burgundy wingtips
with the hands-off electronic
machine, rubs cream in his hair,
hears the snake’s whir.

Abaft the Blues Fest

Red-orange earworms admonish taptoo! fashion,
now clear the drum is an old, beat suitcase
rigged with foot pedal, and, too, there they are,
tin bells on his curled toes, as literal as pencil lead,
as calloused as an oak pew hymnal.

Lavender fresh, she sang at Hop’s Hootenanny,
sipped mint juleps from a food cart pulled
by a calico cat in zither shade by a stream
under an old willow, but the bell pull string broke
under the weight of his monolog cartogram.

On top of it, academic aristocracy whizzed
by dressed in pressed berets and scholarly drafts –
what difference they followed the leader or not?
Collectors yodeled passwords, unlocking a juke joint,
and raspberry chords popped up oily fishes.

No need now to call placid plumber, three blue
hydrangeas wilting in bath humid heat,
down by the river, down by the wash,
down by the singing and the top posh posts
written with plush plumes of lacks and noods.

Safe sound spillway falls, noise overflows,
ears carp and loud lips cop bad press,
but dolce glissando this urgently close still
makes some sense, and at the first aid tent
they polish their moonstone eyes.

Paste fast food milk turns cast iron sour,
and butter curdles her chlorine-yellow hair
as they stuff bitter newspapers with trust,
dogpaddling thru pull duck old cobwebs,
but empty, golden juke boxes near finish him.

On Line 15 on the way back home, the night
quietly spinning, the river sparkling crinkly
as the bus crosses the Hawthorne Bridge,
a lone accordion pulls and lulls images only
understood asleep or listening to music.

Dear Reader: “Charming Gardeners,” by David Biespiel

There used to be a public telephone booth down on the corner from our place, the kind the caller entered through a panel glass door and dropped coins into the phone, outside the cleaners, across from the realtor’s office, the street corner just a dot of commercial activity in an otherwise residential neighborhood. The telephone booth got hit with graffiti occasionally, or a pumpkin around Halloween, and the glass was often in need of repair. The door broke and was discarded, the telephone book disappeared from its chain, and finally the box was taken away. The booth attracted activity, some locals opined of the nefarious sort. The booth might have represented to some a stranger. At night, a small lamp lit the booth. Outside the booth, a couple of newspaper stands added to the tiny urban pastoral. One day, out walking, I passed by the booth, and the phone rang.

On the corner across from the phone booth stood a blue mailbox. The mailbox got more business than the telephone booth, but not enough, apparently, for it too was taken away. The newspaper boxes that stood next to the phone booth have also been removed. The cleaners closed, and for a time the corner reminded me of an abandoned gas stop on a two-lane road bypassed by a highway. Bit of an exaggeration, that, but not much, for like the telephone booths, many of the mailboxes in the Southeast Portland neighborhoods are disappearing, and the small bookstores, like the newspaper stands, are being rooted out, also. Last year, one of my favorite small bookstores, Murder by the Book, at the west end of the Hawthorne district, met its demise.

Really? Are we to read yet another letter on the disappearance of newspapers, books, newsstands and bookstores, and poetry?

Not at all. Some things don’t change, among them, Emily Dickinson’s one way missive: “Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see.” And what better way to illustrate the stubbornness of the staying power of poetry than a book of poems in which each poem is a letter to someone? We save letters, but first we have to write them, send and receive them.

Poetry, as John Cage said of music, occurs whether we intend it or not, but we won’t have the unintended poetry of letters if we stop writing letters. The democratically accessible form of the letter is still with us, even if mailboxes are becoming scarce. Is an email not the same as a letter? An email is a phone call compared to a letter. Letters don’t have the immediacy of an email. Letters are not immediately delivered, and we don’t expect an immediate reply. We might wait weeks or months for a reply, or years. But we probably wouldn’t resend the letter, noting “2nd request” in the subject line, as we do with emails. Letters can be a bit of a hassle to write, requiring a kind of toolkit: paper, pen, table, envelope, address, stamp, mailbox. Letters, perhaps, require more of an occasion than emails, occasion to write, more of a purpose. If you really want to get someone’s attention, you don’t send them an email; you write them a letter. Letters are more difficult to forward than emails. And the letter might be returned, as emails are sometimes returned, too, as undeliverable. Or a letter might wind up in the dead letter post office, and you might never know if your letter sent was ever received or read.

Melville’s Bartleby worked in a dead letter office before going to work as a scrivener for the lawyer who narrates the tale. Where have all the scriveners gone? The poet Charles Olson’s father was a mailman. In “The Post Office: A Memoir of My Father” (1948), Olson describes how, through office politics, misunderstandings, and general stubbornness all around, his father had his mail route taken away from him. Olson explains the importance to letter carriers of personalized routes, but also explains how the letter carrier is important to the community of people on the route. Olson explains how the mail carrier becomes a confidant reader and the most knowledgable person in the neighborhood of personal affairs:

“Mail, over any length of time, will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over a coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it” (43).

Olson insists this is “not to be mistaken for nostalgia,” for the post office was akin to the military, and letter carrying is hard work, hard on the body. Yet the loss of Olson’s father’s route was both the loss of valued labor and the loss of an identity. Not for nothing does a man wear a uniform.

Another Charles and poet, Charles Bukowski, explains further, in his novel “Post Office” (1971), about his days as a letter carrier in Los Angeles, in bitter, sardonic, and laughing prose, what carrying the mail is all about:

“There were 40 or 50 different routes, maybe more, each case was different, you were never able to learn any of them, you had to get your mail up and ready before 8 a.m. for the truck dispatches, and Jonstone [supervisor] would take no excuses. The subs routed their magazines on corners, went without lunch, and died in the streets” (10).

But the point here is that bit from Olson about “how mail is received.” That’s the poetry. And try giving someone a poem, not publishing a poem, but just give someone a poem, as a letter, and see how he or she receives it. You’ll learn more about that person than you might learn sitting over coffee or beers talking about children or baseball.

I’ve often felt about poetry what the poet Marianne Moore said in her distinctive poem titled, simply, “Poetry”:

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.”

But fiddle is a perfect word to describe the activity of poetry, where the gig is a jig of restlessness, and I like to fiddle, more and more these days, if fingerpicking the Telecaster qualifies as fiddling. And I like to watch a fiddler at work, pushing and pulling the bow. In any case, we might get very little actual fiddling at a poetry reading. By the time the poet takes the mic, the fiddling part is over. He puts the bow aside and starts to talk. But the poem as letter suggests an importance Moore’s definition seems to discount. Don’t go near the water if you don’t want to get wet.

DB ReadsThe rectangular space of the swimming pool, the opening of the swimming hole, the lake or ocean cove below the cliff as a page. The poem as a dive, form, and a form of competition, an argument. The poet, a high diver, slips into the water, no splash, no wake, surfaces, swims to the ladder, climbs out, takes his seat. The poet David Biespiel has been a diver. I don’t know if that matters much to the enjoyment or understanding or getting at his poems, overall. But I thought about it as I walked down to Powell’s Books in the Hawthorne district a week ago to listen to David read for the launch of his new book of poems, “Charming Gardeners,” the poems conceived and formatted as letters. I listened, observed what I could of the audience, doodled some, was distracted by the books on stacks surrounding the podium and audience – some funny titles out of context, ironic when juxtaposed to the reading, the room holding the Young Adult category of books:

“Hideous Love,” “Wild Boy,” “How to Love,”  “Pretenders,” “Frozen,” “Sick,” “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Captain Cat,” “A Taste of the Moon.”

I need to get back over there and browse through some of them.

The last time I was at Powell’s on Hawthorne for a reading was to hear Patricia Marx, of the New Yorker, upon the launch of her new novel, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him,” (2008). There were about 12 people in the audience on a bitter winter evening. I was there with Eric in support of some high school assignment-deal. Patty tried playing a recording of some kind, but the technology failed for some reason. But I enjoyed her, nevertheless. A live reading is like live music, better than radio, but only in some ways. Because listening to the radio at home, you can get work done around the house. But in a reading you have to sit still and be polite (Biespiel’s was not a Beat reading accompanied by a jazz combo) and not fidget, sort of like being in church, the folding chairs as uncomfortable as pews. This isn’t always the case, depending on venue. The Robert B. Laughlin lecture Eric and I attended (out on another high school assignment junket) back in 2005 sported a rowdy crowd of all ages and disciplines, as the rousing Q&A following the lecture showed.

DB Notes 2Poems as letters, or letters as poems, I’m not sure which comes first, but the idea raises the hand for a question. What is the intended audience? And is the reader a voyeur, as David, perhaps jokingly, suggested? And recall Emily’s note: the writer can’t see the hands of the letter holder, not unless the writer is also the letter carrier. The epistle is an old form. David said something about the letter as poem narrowing the audience, the focus now on an individual, not a song to nobody in particular. William Carlos Williams: “To Daphne and Virginia” [his daughters-in-law], the beginning of the second verse:

“Be patient that I address you in a poem,
there is no other
fit medium” (“Selected Poems,” 1968, 134)

DB Notes 1David read five poems at Powell’s on Hawthorne the evening of the book launch reading: “To Wendy from Yellow Hickory”; “To Buckley from Berkeley”; To Wiman from Walla Walla”; “To Lenney from the Greenbrier Hotel,” and “To C. D. from D. C.” These are lengthy, traveling poems that talk and click along like a train (though most of the travel is by plane), engines full of breath. I was reminded of Whitman, the way he adds on, continually, one thought giving rise to the next, unafraid of repetition, commenting on the landscape, ideas, people, as he goes, adding comments, evaluative, reflective, and several of the poems mention Whitman. In “To Buckley from Berkeley,” for example, which begins, “Dear Bill” (as if we are on familiar terms – you see the extent to which the trope can travel), the letter goes on for 18 lines before we get a period, and what follows is this: “That, Bill, and also this:” followed by another 41 lines before the next period. (If unfamiliar with Buckley, enjoy an introduction by viewing video of segments of his TV show, “Firing Line.” Here, via YouTube, he talks with poet Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg, another Whitman influenced poet, reads a poem, which he seems to have mostly, impressively, memorized; he wrote it, he says, while on LSD, but watch Buckley’s, famous for his facial expressions, reactions. A better introduction to Buckley is his book “Buckley: The Right Word,” a book I enjoyed.) But some find Whitman an old coot, and Ginsberg, too, and, as entertaining as he was, Buckley was an old coot, too. Even as a young man, Buckley was already an old coot, conservative, tight blazer and tie. Maybe it’s hard to be a cootless poet. But a drift toward cootness was something Ginsberg and Buckley shared.

Anyway, I am very much enjoying “Charming Gardeners.” It’s an encyclopedic book, chock-full of references of every kind, both personal and general. It’s a book that strikes out to find America, an act that may or may not require preparatory reading. There’s a “Postscript” of explanatory notes. The note to the letter-poem “To Hugo from Sodo,” for example, explains that SoDo, in Seattle speak, refers to the area south of downtown Seattle, an area I’m familiar with. It’s an industrial district. From the I-5, drivers can see SoDo sprawled out along the waterfront, the new stadium now an iconic part of the scene. The Seattle Mariners used the acronym in a marketing campaign, “Sodo Mojo.” More poets should attach notes to their work. Marianne Moore often provided her readers with notes. Then again, while sometimes the notes help, sometimes we feel the bottom fall away even deeper. “Charming Gardeners” is so full of references that it will take a long time to read – if one is to track all the references down. But that’s the idea. It’s a watershed, full of names (“…the law firm / Of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy, and Corso,” for example – funny, that) and locations all around the country, and events, historical and local. Other topics: baseball, the Civil War, God, cities, politics, illness, love.

That day I was out walking and walked by the telephone booth down on the corner, and the phone rang. Are you not interested in whether or not I answered it? And if I did, who was on the other end? There’s no chance to answer it now; the telephone booth has disappeared. This is why we should continue to write letters. Whether we turn them into poems or not is a different matter. But most people like reading letters; most people like to get mail. But someone has to start the chain. For a poet, a letter ensures, maybe, at least one reader.

Related Post: Walt Whitman and a Letter of Ourself – How a letter I wrote to one of my sisters came back to me, some 40 years later.

Signs of Summer in the Offing

Last week, I saw a guy wheeling a couch down a sidewalk over near SE Woodstock. He had the full size living room couch balanced on an office chair on wheels, and was pushing the makeshift vehicle along the sidewalk, away from a garage sale, a clear sign summer is in the offing in Portland. I mentioned the couch on wheels to Susan, and she said let’s set sail for the new garage sale season come Saturday morning, foraging afield, stopping whim-whamfully, burying our treasure in the back of our little wagon. Yes, I added, and thence to the basement to add to our pile of previously purchased garage sale items that we will no doubt put out in our own garage sale later this summer. There you go again with the negative vibes, Moriarty, she replied, but come Saturday morning, off we jibed, cutting a course from Mt Tabor zigzagging northwest through uncharted garage sale waters.

Never mind, for the moment, why we keep stuff; why do we acquire the stuff to begin with? But what did we acquire on our Saturday garage sailing adventure?

Our first disembarkment came just a few blocks out of harbor. We looked at an ironing board (does anyone iron anymore? I asked Susan). We looked at a large, thick piece of glass and considered it for a table top. There was a DVD player for sale, a few books, and a treasure trove of old, vinyl albums, out of which I picked, for 50 cents, a Peggy Lee with George Shearing recording. I would have brought home a few more old, folk albums I saw, but most of them looked like they had served as scratching pads for a family of catastrophic cats. While I was thumbing through the albums, Susan picked out a shoe tree for her closet, and I wondered if this was a portent of an organized summer. Our garage sale hosts were themselves disembarking for adventures elsewhere, pulling up anchor, moving.

We stopped at a church rummage sale over on Burnside. Susan picked out a tiny, wire jeweled Christmas tree, though Christmas seems an ocean away to me. Things were half off at the church sale, and I showed Susan a lemonade sign leaning against a rail outside the vestibule. We could hang it somewhere, I said, assuring her I had no immediate plans to sell lemonade. The sign was marked $2.50, so we got it for $1.25, and Susan said churches often have the best garage sales.

But even half price was no match for Susan’s find at our next stop, an old, maple director’s chair at a garage sale off of Stark – in the free box pile. It had no seat nor back, and was missing the dowels that hold the seat fabric under the arms. If you can find any logic to buying a lemonade sign at half price, you can understand having to lug home the priceless, broken director’s chair. But on the way home we stopped by a specialty store where we got a director’s chair seat and back fabric replacement kit, on sale for three bucks. We were in favorable trade winds.

We stopped here and there, browsing more than buying, listening to a seller’s story here, a buyer’s tale there. Then we landed at the most enjoyable sale of the day, where three ladies joyfully called our attention toward multiple kitchenware items, a mirror, homemade stuffed toy animals, blankets and quilts, dishes, knickknacks, tools – these and more sundries arranged neatly on tables and blankets and leaning against a tree in the front yard. And I made my third purchase of the day. For 50 cents, I bought a little Singer box of sewing machine parts, but I got it for the tiny, specialized screwdrivers it contained.

I’m the kind of garage sailor who vows every voyage is his last, though it’s not the long run on the open sea I want, either, instead of tacking through neighborhoods, but I’ll probably sail through the summer stopping at garage sales if I see books, albums, tools, or guitars. The sailor on land wants to walk. And if I find myself some distance from the mother ship wanting to haul a garage sale item home, I can always ask if they happen to have any office chairs on wheels for sale. The garage sale offers a unique barometer of local economic conditions, windows of interest into local communities, and the stories one hears surely fill part of the void left by the disappearance of newspapers. In any case, there’s always the chance of the odd lemonade sign showing up.

Click any photo for gallery view:

…some Thoreau posts:

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

Someday, all of the telephone poles will have vanished. They are gradually, slowly disappearing from view as the wires they hold aloft are placed underground or the signals they link go wireless. Does this mean we are improving? Is the human condition better or worse or the same as we found it yesterday, or better or worse than in 1854, when Thoreau’s Walden was published?

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now?” Buckminster Fuller asked (7-8). Forgiveness, some might say, reading today’s news. Bucky invented new words. Perhaps we should come up with one that means the most important thing we can be thinking about right now.

Jaime Snyder, in his introduction to Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, suggests, remembering his conversations with Bucky, his grandfather, the most important thing we might be thinking about right now is tomorrow. Thoreau would have probably answered the question differently. He might have answered, “Today, this moment.” Thoreau probably would have said now is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now. News of right now hits so hard and quickly these days that we seldom seem to have the chance to think of anything else. Yet what passes for news today seldom seems all that new; it seems more like a rerun from something we heard yesterday. And one wonders how one might make a difference, now or tomorrow.

Fuller’s outlook regarding what we should be thinking about now was different from Thoreau’s because for the first time in our history on this planet we had reached what Fuller called, in his idiosyncratic style, “earthians’ critical moment” (8-9). This moment, which we are still experiencing, might be summed up with the title to one of Fuller’s books, mentioned in Snyder’s introduction, Utopia or Oblivion. The fallacy of the false dichotomy did not seem to bother Fuller. He seems to have believed that we are literally down to one of two choices.

Yet Fuller never lost his optimism, as his “trim-tab” metaphor illustrates. Fuller was a sailor, and sailing metaphors often serve to explain his concepts. Fuller explains that “there’s a tiny thing on the edge of the rudder [of very large ships; he uses the Queen Mary as an example] called a trim-tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim-tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim-tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, ‘Call me Trimtab'” (11).

The landscape, both urban and rural, will be improved with the disappearance of telephone poles. But the old poles symbolize communication, that we are wired, connected, ready to dial. In the past, the poles symbolized progress. Now, they symbolize retro. But there’s something, too, about the poles that I’ll miss. One finds in them symbols and signs, and the linemen are like musicians with their musical triplets connecting across the high wires. There’s a kind of beauty to the poles that only a human could have created and only a human might miss. Telephone poles and newspapers: a disappearing world. What will take their place? And how will we make a difference? Perhaps these are the questions we should be thinking about right now.

Related:

The Art, Woe, Slop, and Toe of the Book Review

In an era of sinking readership, closing bookstores, the disappearance of newspapers, and Google making us stupid, who cares about book reviews? The book review is the grownup version of the book report, the nefarious writing assignment where students first learn to plagiarize. Publishing is in a hard market, as they say in the insurance trade (rates up, coverage down), but book reviews have softened, a bummer for the pros, happily for the amateurs. We tried our hand at a book review the other day, having read the book with a review in mind, The Last Storyteller, by Frank Delaney.

Reading with writing in mind changes the act of reading, for we are no longer Salinger’s coveted general interest reader, who reads and runs sans comment. We loiter in the margins, jotting down questions we’d like to ask the author. We’re going to have to say something about what we read, or say something about how we felt while we were reading, but putting into words how we feel about a book is like putting on a tie, and we drift away from the text, ignoring the general book review rubric, if there is one.

The book review is as good a place as any to begin to think about purposeful writing. Writing with a purpose implies an audience, and if one is to stand before an audience, particularly a hostile (or perhaps worse, an indifferent) group, with any hope of persuading, some strategic plan might prove useful. To some, writing with a purpose might take all the fun out of the sails.

Ah, but what’s the purpose of the average book review – to wrestle the writer to the ground? A book reviewer might think like a reporter, an investigative reporter, even a detective of sorts, trying to solve, not a crime, but a puzzle, perhaps. Some readers don’t like puzzles. Puzzles can make one feel stupid, and, as Rene Char said, “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” But how much worse for the bird when what the reviewer wants to do is shoot her from the tree with a slingshot?

A brief summary of one aspect of contemporary book reviewing may be found in an SF Gate article by Heidi Benson (untitled, on-line version, July, 2003). I’m familiar with The Believer book reviewing philosophy she describes, having been a Believer subscriber since almost its inception, but I’d not heard of Dale Peck, quoted by Heidi as an example of a snarking, negative reviewer, so I read Peck’s review (referenced by Heidi) of Rick Moody (Moody I’ve read only in The Believer – I’ve not read his novels), which begins, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation,” and continues, later, “I mean to say only that he [Rick Moody] is a bad writer. But bad writing has consequences.”

But, in part, it’s those consequences that Peck’s review is about, not Moody. Though Peck does a professional job of explicating samples of Moody’s prose, what he really wants to argue is that the modern novel as developed by the later James Joyce and company is responsible for what Peck sees as today’s literary mess (exemplified by Moody). In short, I assumed, Peck values realism, maybe naturalism, and for a good reason: he thinks literature could be more instrumental in solving contemporary problems if it were more purposeful and accessible, if, in short, it were more meaningful, if it were about something other than itself. Peck concludes with a vengeful rant against the modern novel, as follows:

“All I’m suggesting is that these writers (and their editors) see themselves as the heirs to a bankrupt tradition. A tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses; continued on through the incomprehensible ramblings of late Faulkner and the sterile inventions of Nabokov; and then burst into full, foul life in the ridiculous dithering of Barth and Hawkes and Gaddis, and the reductive cardboard constructions of Barthelme, and the word-by-word wasting of a talent as formidable as Pynchon’s; and finally broke apart like a cracked sidewalk beneath the weight of the stupid—just plain stupid—tomes of DeLillo.”

Fine, but I’d never heard of Dale Peck, so I looked up one of his books on Amazon, but I was so appalled, nay, horrified, by the excerpt from the Publishers Weekly review showing on Amazon that I had to shut down my computer and go for a walk. I’m back now, from the walk, but I still can’t believe that the Peck who wrote Body Surfing is the same guy that wrote the New Republic review. And, of course, since I am an actual, real, natural, old-time body surfer, boogie boarder, and surfboarder, I’m more than horrified at Peck’s book, I’m annoyed and disappointed, for he has, literally, defiled the surfing term with his title over that book. (And there’s my review of Peck’s book, which I’ve not read and will not read.)

Still, though, there’s a lesson there too, for the reader and the book reviewer in me (if he’s still there, after all this), for wouldn’t we agree that Stephen King is a terrible romance comedy writer? Of course not, because King doesn’t try to write romantic comedies. But one’s preference for romance comedy doesn’t make Stephen King a bad writer. Nor does my being appalled by the Amazon review make Peck’s book a bad one. We shouldn’t criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be. But if that’s true, then we shouldn’t fault Peck for criticizing Moody’s intentions. But this is where things get hard, for we don’t have time to read everything, so what should we be reading? Some criticism can be helpful. Criticism should help us understand the author’s intentions. And, once that’s done, help us understand how effectively those intentions were carried out. Good writing then becomes that which achieves its objectives, even if we don’t happen to like those objectives. n+1 wrote something up on Peck in April of 2004 which would seem to have put the matter to rest. Once again, of course, I’m way late to the party, and I’m not sure if I’m catching up or falling farther behind.

Culturomics and Google’s Ngram Viewer: More Noise?

The other day, a few minutes of wilfing led us to Technium’s post on Google’s latest project, the Ngram Viewer. Is Google making us stupid again? But this is serious stuff, as evidenced by the Ngram Viewer introduction in last December’s Science. The Ngram Viewer is a corpus allowing users to search keywords in millions of books and to quantitatively plot the results. So what? A TED video helps explain the development and potential uses. Commentary to the Science article, and to the claims made in the TED video, questions the usefulness of the Google project.

Is the Ngram Viewer an electronic Tower of Babel? We’re not sure; what are its implications, its practical uses? It appears to be an interesting cultural anthropological tool. The corpus contains “over 500 billion words,” and “cannot be read by a human.” But anyone can access it at the Culturomics site. In the Science paper, “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” the authors provide this takeaway: “Cultural change guides the concepts we discuss (such as ‘slavery’). Linguistic change – which, of course, has cultural roots – affects the words we use for those concepts (‘the Great War’ vs. ‘World War I’). In this paper, we will examine both linguistic changes, such as changes in the lexicon and grammar; and cultural phenomena, such as how we remember people and events.”

Closing the paper is a concise definition of culturomics with a touching comment on its limitations: “Culturomics is the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture. Books are a beginning, but we must also incorporate newspapers (29), manuscripts (30), maps (31), artwork (32), and a myriad of other human creations (33, 34). Of course, many voices – already lost to time – lie forever beyond our reach.” (Not to mention the trunk of writing, molding in our basement for over twenty years, that we finally threw out – the poems were beginning to crawl out of the trunk, climb up the basement stairs, and haunt our dreams.) The Science paper concludes with examples of how culturomics might be used as “a new type of evidence in the humanities.” Yet some of the paper’s conclusions seem obvious: “People, too, rise to prominence, only to be forgotten.” Surely, that “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh” is not a new concept. But their discussion of the impact of censorship is interesting. In any case, the field of Humanities currently needs all the help it can get.

We played around a bit with the Ngram Viewer. In one experiment we plotted “silence” against “noise,” and found that noise overtook silence around 1961, even though 1961 is the year Wesleyan first published Silence, by John Cage. Cage would have enjoyed the Ngram Viewer. Our Ngram Viewer chart plotting silence and noise is shown below:

Common Earworm Remedies and the Mutant Earworm

Thanks a compost heap to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg (April, 2011) for re-infecting readers with a term we already could not forget – earworms. Earworms are snippets of jingles or songs that unwanted, uninvited, and unannounced crash the polite party of our otherwise peaceful thoughts. We now have a mutant version that has crawled through our ear producing an image of the brain as a worm farm, a compost bin of electric eels. Our previous version of the insidious virus was bad enough, a sponge soaking in brine. Our brain plays host like a seashore shell to homeless snails that worm their way in, and no Q-Tip can reach them.

It’s like the kid whose mom washes his mouth out with a washrag and a bar of soap, for she overheard him let slip with a playground ditty, a mouthworm, a dirty word, and she hopes to get to his brain by way of his mouth, but no amount of mouthwash can clean the miscreant tongue. Just so, Q-Tips cannot reach earworms.

The mutant earworm is a strain some think threatened by the current reading crisis, exemplified by the pending disappearance of newspapers. But its mutant capabilities seem to make full eradication unlikely. The very word “earworm” is a classic example. We now think of the brain as a mass of worms electronically touching ends, randomly sparking the dull slow mass to inexplicable thoughts, thoughts like thinking of the brain as a mass of worms…. The mutant earworm invades without benefit of the jingle or song. The word is enough, and it seems to infect readers more than non-readers.

Neurologists don’t know where earworms come from, and given the current health care crisis, cries for help are being ignored.

There are of course two kinds of earworms: the bad kind, and the good kind. They often travel in pairs, but it sometimes takes two or three good earworms to outwit the bad earworms. To outwit a bad earworm with a good earworm, it helps to have a ready list of songs you can stick in your ear, common earworm remedies, household cures. A few bars of any of the following should reduce your bad earworm to compost dust after a few bars:

  1. “Hear Comes the Night” (Bert Berns, 1964). Van Morrison with Them, 1965.
  2. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1949). Hank Williams.
  3. “Walkin’ After Midnight” (Block & Hecht, 1957). Patsy Cline.
  4. “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (Handman & Turk, 1926). Elvis & other versions.
  5. “Skylark” (Johnny Mercer & Hoagy Carmichael, 1941). Many versions, one of the best is K. D. Lang’s for the soundtrack to the film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
  6. “Oh Lonesome Me” (Don Gibson & Chet Atkins, 1958). Johnny Cash 1961, Neil Young 1970.
  7. “All of Me” (Marks & Simons, 1931). Many versions.

Wall Street Journal Springs Honorifics from Sports – Cut in Pay?

Messres and Mesdames: Fans at Chicago Day at White Sox Park between ca. 1908 and ca. 1925.

Mr. Jason Gay, sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal, has just announced that The Journal this week will begin dropping honorifics in its sports section pages.

This means that instead of “Mr. Piniella, after kicking his hat and dirt in the direction of the first base umpire, then pulled the first base bag from its mooring and tossed it down the right field line,” we’ll get “Piniella,” without the “Mr.,” and then the rest of it.

The timing of the WSJ decision seems right as we enter baseball spring training season, and we wonder if the WSJ editorial style change, yet another concussion to the prestige of sports, will change baseball’s position as the country’s number one sport honorific – its status as the national pastime.

We briefly entertained the idea of honorifics here at the Toads blog (Mr. Dylan; Mr. Shakespeare), to pick up the slack, but Mister isn’t much of an honorific after all if you consider that it originally was used as “A title of courtesy prefixed to the surname or first name of a man without a higher, honorific, or professional title” (OED). In other words, to designate the bleacher bums. “Hey, Mister, mind gettin’ your dog out of my beer?”

The word Mister used to refer to one’s occupation: Shortstop Mister. But that shouldn’t mean that we need to call Derek Mr. Jeter. In any case, only in some special cases is the use of Mr., or Mister, or Sir, an honorific, for Mr. adds distance and denies familiarity. More from the OED:

1722 H. Carey Hanging & Marriage 8 Squeak: Pray ye, Mr. Stubble, let me alone. Richard: Ay its Mister, is it?

1888 J. W. Burgon Lives Twelve Good Men I. 440 ‘Well, Mr. Burgon?’‥‘Mister at the end of 20 years!‥I wish you wouldn’t call me Mister’.

1993 S. McAughtry Touch & Go xxii. 174 Well, Mister Bighead, we’ve both been there, Bucksie and me both, so up yours.

We wondered too if WSJ writers get paid by the word, and, if so, if dropping honorifics means a cut in pay, yet another blow to this country’s number two waning national pastime, newspapers.

Photo “Messres and Mesdames,” at Library of Congress.