Page 2 of 4

Rows sans end

El Porto, 1969A sentence, this one, for example (though another might do), the one you are now reading, backlit, for some purpose, presumably (your body like a house in disrepair, suit fraying, limbs sagging, glasses missing one temple, pads bent, joints crooked, hair crinkled dry moss, green going grey, a bird’s nest), late summer as the sentence gets started, lolling, dozing, without antecedent, no foreshadowing, no shadows at all, no dashes, noon, then, the beach clear, the water shipless and shapeless, but shiftless still, then suddenly awakening and rising, like a quick second wind, and just as quickly a third wind, the afternoon slop now upon the coast, the water rougher than it looked from the beach, sudden, swell upon swell following the sleepy noon lull, and you are not ready for this, each new wave an and, followed by another and, and another and, until, caught now in a riptide, a rebuttal that has the stylish lifeguards proofreading for drowning readers, and when they find one, they click on the swimmer and go, click and go, click and go, sweeping the sentence down to the water clear of this sort of thing, fragments, wave fragments, ripples from where they sit high in their tower

A row is a row is a row is a row,
a row a row a row a row.
A paddle is a paddle is a paddle is a paddle,
and we are out past the break,
out to sea,
so to speak
is to speak is to speak is to speak.

No matter      what we do (rules)      where we go (directions)
there are margins,                                            edgeswe come up against.
                        The world is flat
after all,
                  the flat earth squaring us in,
switchbacks,               zigzags              away from intuition. 
For the world wants style:
                  8 & ½ x 11, 3 hole punched,
the thin red vertical line creating a margin,    a double edge.

“Sometimes a thing is hard because you are doing it wrong” (Don DeLillo, “Point Omega, p. 27).

|||||| * The Believer * Ninety-First Issue: The Music Issue * July/August 12 * ||||||

The ninety-first issue, the annual “Music Issue,” July/August 12, of The Believer magazine arrived via snail mail yesterday. The snail was slower than usual. The music issue always comes with a CD, a surprise I look forward to, but this year there’s a cassette tape (no, not an 8 track tape, though that would really have been a surprise), and there were apparently a few problems with the tape, the tape taped to the cover, the cassette tape taped to the cover of the magazine, coming off in route. (Remember when cassette tapes got eaten by the player?). Anyway, my copy never came, so I sent a polite email, asking “what’s up?,” and the good folks at McSweeney’s sped a special delivery of the issue, which, as I said, arrived yesterday. I’ve not subscribed since the beginning, but almost. There’s a stack of them (I never toss them out) on the top shelf.

I was reading Silence by John Cage when the issue arrived. The tape is titled “The 2012 Believer Tape: Love Songs for Lamps.” At first I thought it said, “…for Lambs.” But no; it’s, “…for Lamps.” I was reading John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” from Silence. In the “Notes and Apologies” section of the magazine, I read, “In the event that you don’t own a Walkman….” But I have a tape player in the old used car, so no worries, but I did pause when taking out the Dylan tape (“Highway 61 Revisited”) that’s been playing non-stop for months, as if I’m going for some sort of record. But I did also download the “Lamps” songs to iTunes, feeling somewhat with it, it being conversant with contemporary technology. And then I listened to the first “Lamps” song, “Leave Me Alone,” by Hysterics. My first reaction was that it’s a mercifully short song. But I was listening to it on my computer.

Today, Eric and I were heading out, and I told him about The Believer cassette. I had the magazine open, and I read him the list of bands included on the tape: Hysterics, The Memories, Shana Cleveland and the Sancastles – you get the idea, and he had not heard of any of them. And his antennae are never retracted when it comes to this sort of thing. So I was surprised. Then I read, in the magazine, that these bands “…release their work as cassette-only.” How cool is that? I said, cooly. Eric’s the one who ejected the Dylan. And as we headed out, the Hysterics yelling “Leave Me Alone,” I thought, this is a perfect cassette, perfect for the car. Cassettes should have short songs – it makes it easier to find them if you’re searching for just one. But we let it play, and then we heard The Memories doing “Higher,” and I’m sold. Good issue, the ninety-first issue of The Believer. There are also some good articles, an interview with Lucinda Williams, for example.

To Whom It May Concern: An Invitation to Silence and Composition

John Cage dedicated his lectures and writing collected in Silence “To Whom It May Concern.” As it turns out, it concerns everyone, though most of us do our utmost to ignore it. Yet Silence is still in print, and the amorphous, variable audience Cage invoked in his dedication continues to grow. But if we can’t ask anything specific about Cage’s intended audience, can we at least ask, what is it that may concern us? When asked what Cage’s Silence is about, I usually say it’s about composition, the way we arrange things.

A recent neighborhood atlas project by students in the CAGE Lab (no relationship to John) contains a noise map of San Francisco neighborhoods. The atlas is a form of composition, an arrangement of nouns and verbs and objects, labeled to “tell different stories.” A map is a composition. Noise is usually heard symmetrically, but some in the audience may hear asymmetrically; concentric noise, proceeding in wave-circles, gets confused, as sound bounces and ricochets (gives and takes), pouring into one ear, squeezing into another. Composition is dynamic; silence is static. Sound is not linear (line-ear).

jOhN cAGE was born in 1912, and there’s much ado about his 100th birthday year at the John Cage site.

Related Post: On the Noise of Argument, where John Cage meets Seneca; or, There is No Silence – Bound to Sound

On the Doodle

Is doodling an art form? The true doodle only appears when the doodler is preoccupied, listening to a lecture, sitting in a staff meeting, caged, drawing absent-mindedly. While the doodler is distracted, the doodles escape. But, as John Cage said, music occurs whether we intend it or not, and when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, it is a pleasure. And Basho said, whatever we may be doing at any given moment, it has a bearing on our everlasting life (physicists are in the process of proving this as we doodle on, on the doodle). Here are some doodles for your mid-week doodle viewing pleasure:

Some might argue this last piece may not qualify as a doodle. “This guy’s trying to do art, and failing.” But yeah, it’s a doodle. The critics said to Picasso, of his painting titled “Woman Sitting in a Chair”: “We don’t get it: no woman, no chair.” Picasso replied that it is a painting of what it feels like to be a woman sitting in a chair. That last doodle appears to be a drawing of what it feels like to doodle, to watch the doodles escaping.

John Cage, Basho, Picasso, Delmore Schwartz…now here’s some doodling post. Some might argue that blogging is like doodling. In doodles begin responsibilities.

HAPPY NEW EARS!

“There are no aesthetic emergencies,” John Cage said, in A Year From Monday (1969, p. 28). Above that, same page, Cage typed:

“Complaint: you open doors; what we
want to know is which ones you
close. (Doors I open close auto-
matically after I go through).”

Later, on page 30, Cage gets to a point:

“What is the crux of the matter as far as a listener is concerned? It is this: he has ears; let him use them.”

And then, in all caps:

“HAPPY NEW EARS!”

The years close behind us like automatic doors.

And Jesus said:

“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.
For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see
what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear
but did not hear it” (Matthew, 13:16-17).

Remember when cell phones and email converged? “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” … “I just sent you an email! Did you get it?”

Who can hear the door closing?

“There are no aesthetic emergencies.”

Let the doors close
automatic
ally,
as they will,
and have a Hap
py Nap
py New Year
at The Coming
of the Toads.

Peccadilloes; or, The School of No Sestina

Peccadilloes; or, The School of No Sestina

In the School of No, every word
sounds a peccadillo,
every class closes a cage,
every cage captures a rule,
every rule regards no
with gusto.

No bites yes with gusto
behind a fence of words.
No, no, no
peccadilloes;
that’s the rule
in the land of cages.

Explained John Cage,
what cage you’re in, escape with gusto.
Well, that was anyway John Cage’s rule.
Silence was for the rule his word,
though he broke records of silence with every chance peccadillo
he got in the School of No.

No No knows
a Yes one day came selling out of a cage
peccadilloes,
from a food cart stuffed with gusto,
apples falling and rotting for a code was worded:
no Nos can know – the candy apple red rule –

a committee of Nos ruled.
So life is slow in the School of No,
for a world wrapped in rules needs no words,
and all the world’s a cage
where the only gusto
blows in from the occasional peccadillo

by some picaroon poet acting alone,
against tide and rule,
all hopped up on some street grade gusto,
but soon runs into a posse of nos,
and is put back in the cage
without a word.

So with a bit of tempered gusto we suggest this peccadillo:
every word should break a rule
to escape a School of No cage.

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:

On Poetry

Some days ago, Susan suggested a book I’ve finally opened, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. “It is always quietly thrilling,” Bryson says in the introduction, “to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” He’s discovered a rooftop vista accessible through a hidden door. The experience causes him to realize that he’s a stranger to his house, an English rectory built roughly 150 years ago. He’s had an epiphany, for he decides that “it might be interesting, for the length of a book, to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they were important, too. Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me.”

I’d just opened the book, and already I had a bit of an epiphany of my own, for I realized that Bryson’s “quietly thrilling” experience resulting from a new perspective on an old thing is a practical definition of poetry. At least, that is what successful poetry often accomplishes, an image of a familiar thing viewed in a new light, in such a way that we feel a stranger to the thing, as familiar as it might be, and we want to research its origins, its purpose, and to revalue its uses – now that we’ve a new realization of the thing’s importance, as revealed by our newly found perspective; we want to get to know the thing all over again. We want to save it, rescue the thing from the rummage sale, for in poetry we find our own hidden door. Perhaps this revaluing of things, of changing our minds about what we want, is what all successful art accomplishes, and also explains John Cage’s silence as a place to find hidden sounds.

The poet practices legerdemain; he’s a sleight of hand man, as described in Wallace Stevens’s “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”: “…So bluish clouds / Occurred above the empty house and the leaves / Of the rhododendrons raddled their gold, / As if someone lived there….”  And, as Ferlinghetti added, “…and all without mistaking / any thing / for what it may not be.” For, as Stevens goes on, “The wheel survives the myths.” And finally, “It may be,” concludes Stevens, “that the ignorant man, alone, / Has any chance to mate his life with life.”

Blues Bus to the Blues Fest; or, The Blues Concert as Lecture

“I am here, and there is nothing to say,” John Cage said, in his “Lecture on Nothing” (Silence, 1961). “If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment.” So we boarded Line 15, ancient music now turned summer, for the 2011 Portland Blues Festival. The bus in summer is different than the bus in winter. The bus in winter is a lecture on nothing; the summer bus is a lecture on something. Yet Cage also said, on the flip side “Lecture on Something,” “This is a talk about something and naturally also a talk about nothing.”

We went down to hear a lecture by Lucinda Williams, who sings in a laconic voice, lips tight but arms open, looking like some hair-tired but blessed mom who’s just thrown a gutter ball. Singing on an outdoor stage close by the river spotted with yachts, Lucinda appeared to be glancing at notes loose on a music stand, and during “Born to Be Loved,” a breeze up from the water blew the notes off the stand and onto the stage, reminding us of a paper we recently read on the Norm Friesen blog: The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form: A Historical Analysis.

Friesen, whose publication set-list rivals a Dylan discography, and whose research funding rivals a branch of the military, argues that the lecture is “a remarkably adaptable and robust genre that combines textual record and ephemeral event.” Thus Friesen tries to save the lecture as a meaningful pedagogical tool: “The lecture, I argue, is most effectively understood as bridging oral communication with writing, rather than as being a purely spoken form that is superseded by textual, digital, or other media technologies….”

Lucinda first appeared to want to rescue the fallen notes, then turned to face the born to drum Buick 6 drummer Butch Norton in cowboy hat and Bermuda shorts and banged a clinched fist against a desperate hip, for, as Friesen explains, “…the ideal for the lecture is to create an illusion. Parts of the lecture may be memorized, but in a long-standing tradition, it is generally read aloud. And in reading aloud, what the lecturer strives to create is the illusion of spontaneity and extemporaneity.” I started to jot down some notes, Joe Mitchell style, and the woman next to me (we were standing at a beer garden table behind the seated crowd, with a panoramic view of the Hawthorne Bridge to the north, the river, the water turning from blue to silver as the evening spread, dappled with the playful yachts, and Lucinda’s serious stage to the south) asked me if I was working on a set-list.

When we were in school, pre-e-hysteria, pre-WeakPoint, there were two kinds of teachers, those who lectured and those who ran discussion classes. Discussion classes were often popular for their freewheeling possibilities, yet many students avoided them, for they often filled with students who themselves seemed to want to lecture. My favorite lecturer was Abe Ravitz. There was never a syllabus, just a list of books we’d be reading, a set-list. Dr. Ravitz walked purposefully into class, book in hand, and started talking. He had no notes, just the text, which he referred to, quoting frequently. We took notes. This was not an illusion. We wrote in-class essay exams, in blue books.

Larry Cuban, commenting on the Friesen paper, asks, “if lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around?” Amiri Baraka explains in his groundbreaking lecture on the blues, Blues People (1963): “With rhythm & blues, blues as an autonomous music had retreated to the safety of isolation. But the good jazzmen never wanted to get rid of the blues. They knew instinctively how they wanted to use it, e.g., Ellington.” This is in the chapter titled “The Blues Continuum.” Just so, the best lecturers are part of a continuum, and don’t want to get rid of their roots, and know how they want to use them, and the worst lecturers are those who are self-satisfied, and who might lose their cool if they lose their notes. Yet there are always breaks in the texts, as we learned from the French scholars (Barthes, for example). Lucinda’s notes blowing off her stand was a break in her text, revealing that she is a blues lecturer, but not a self-satisfied one.

Now Playing at Plato’s Cave: “The Reel World”

Plato opened the first movie theatre, the audience chained to seats, unable to see the projectionist, and there were no refreshments or intermissions. You really had to be a movie buff to enjoy a film at Plato’s Cave.

McLuhan (Understanding Media, 1964) explained that we must be trained to see movies, for “movies assume a high level of literacy in their users and prove baffling to the nonliterate [the unlit].” If a man disappears from the screen, the nonliterate wants to know where he went. “But the film audience, like the book reader, accepts mere sequence as rational.” And perspective is gravity, gravitas. The nonliterate will not sit still and be quiet in a movie theatre. They lack the requisite cultural-etiquette training, which requires the natural, balanced sensorium (the five senses tuned so that no one sense dominates another) to be dominated by the sense of sight. “For those who thus fix their eyes,” McLuhan explains, “perspective results.” This is why hot buttered popcorn is so popular in movie theatres – the nose is hard-pressed to go two hours with nothing to smell. The movie theatre is the new voting booth, where we learn both what we’re missing and what we want. “What the Orient saw in a Hollywood movie was a world in which all the ordinary people had cars and electric stoves and refrigerators…That is another way of getting a view of the film medium as monster ad for consumer goods,” McLuhan said.

There are things we don’t want to see, movies we’ve no interest in, TV shows we channel surf away from, books we self-remainder to the rummage sale. We avoid certain conversations, too, closing our ears now to the sacred, now to the profane; there are things we don’t want to hear. Yet touch is the most involving of the senses, and the sense of smell is stronger than the sense of sight, and is tied to taste. Thus we say of a bad movie that it stinks. We instinctually avert our eyes from the ghastly, but when we want to see what we don’t want to look at, we go to the movies. “It is a spectacle,” Wallace Stevens said (“Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion,” 1945), “Scene 10 becomes 11 / In Series X, Act IV, et cetera. / People fall out of windows, trees tumble down, / Summer is changed to winter, the young grow old, / The air is full of children, statues, roofs / And snow. The theatre is spinning round,….”

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John: 20-29). Blessed today might be those who have seen and yet still believe. Yet “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake said in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (and which the neuroscientists are busy trying to explain). What should we see; what should we read? What are our choices? “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else,” John Cage said, in his “Lecture on Nothing” (Silence, 1973). Just so, Cage gives us 4’33” of silence, but not silence, for we hear what we hear, note what we note, for we have eyes to see, ears to hear. McLuhan predicted YouTube: “Soon everyone will be able to have a small, inexpensive film projector that plays an 8-mm sound cartridge as if on a TV screen. This type of development is part of our present technological implosion.”

The blogger gets McLuhan’s argument: “The typewriter…has caused an integration of functions and the creation of much private independence. G. K. Chesterton demurred about this new independence as a delusion, remarking that ‘women refused to be dictated to and went out and became stenographers.’” Just so, academics are beginning to refuse the traditional forms of sanctioned publishing, for the potential to blog brings about, as McLuhan said of the typewriter, “an entirely new attitude to the written and printed word.” Back inside Plato’s Cave and McLuhan’s (via Joyce) “reel world,” some critic tries to discern what we’re actually seeing and hearing, as if we don’t have eyes to see, ears to hear. Well, yes, but we can’t see the real thing. Behold, human beings living in an underground cave, blogging. This is a world of appearances, through a glass, lightly shuttering.