On the Moon

Moondance 1A group of moonstruck locals climbed to the top of the park Sunday night to view the rising of the super moon. In Italo Calvino’s short story “The Distance to the Moon “ (1965), the characters climb to the moon from Earth using ladders:

“Climb up on the moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.”

It’s the same moon Leonard Cohen had in mind when he sang,

“Ah, they’ll never, they’ll never ever reach the moon, at least not the one that we’re after.”

But which moon are we after?

In Buckminster Fuller’s book “Nine Chains to the Moon” (1963), he explains the title:

“A statistical cartoon would show that if, in imagination, all of the people of the world were to stand upon one another’s shoulders, they would make nine complete chains between the earth and the moon. If it is not so far to the moon, then it is not so far to the limits, – whatever, whenever or wherever they may be.”

Fuller may have climbed up to the moon to write some of his books.

When the Brooklyn Dodgers first arrived in Los Angles, they played in the Coliseum, which was not built for baseball, and the fence in left field was so close that a screen was put up so homers would not be too easy. But a Dodger player named Wally Moon cleared the fence so often his homers came to be called “Moon shots.” The Space Race was on.

For most, the dark side of the moon will remain forever dark. Apollo 8 circled the moon late in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, so there were other things on minds besides the moon. Eric Sevareid, for one, was unimpressed with the promise of pics from the dark side of the moon. From his short article, “The Dark Side of the Moon” (if following link, scroll about ¼ down):

“There is, after all, another side— a dark side — to the human spirit, too. Men have hardly begun to explore these regions; and it is going to be a very great pity if we advance upon the bright side of the moon with the dark side of ourselves, if the cargo in the first rockets to reach there consists of fear and chauvinism and suspicion. Surely we ought to have our credentials in order, our hands very clean and perhaps a prayer for forgiveness on our lips as we prepare to open the ancient vault of the shining moon.”

Of course, as it turned out, the dark side was no different than the bright side. Go figure. Speaks more to the mystery of metaphor than to the mystery of the moon.

Joyce had, in “Ulysses,” given his version of the perigee. From the penultimate episode of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” written in catechism form:

“With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.”

No, the answer is not as brief as those in the Baltimore, and we still seem to be nine chains from the moon. In any case, must it always sound so cold? Not at all. Joyce follows up with a question and answer that deconstructs the man in the moon.

Moondance 2Sevareid had acknowledged the emergence of a new moon:

“The moon was always measured in terms of hope and reassurance and the heart pangs of youth on such a night as this; it is now measured in terms of mileage and foot-pounds of rocket thrust.”

Joyce also allows for a double moon, one of science, one of metaphor, in Bloom’s catechism answers:

 “What special affinities appeared to him to exist between the moon and woman?

Her antiquity in preceding and surviving successive tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.”

081020141748Pic to left: back from the mountain, down from the moon, in the backyard, a somewhat diminished super moon over the apple tree. I picked up a guitar. There are many more songs with moon in their title than sun. The reflection is not as blinding as the reality.

How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders

How should introductory college writing be taught to today’s nonreaders? E. B. White said to “make the paragraph the unit of composition.” But the paragraph is made of sentences, so why not start with the sentence? Francis Christensen did, and his original Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 6 Essays for Teachers (1967), is today available as Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 9 Essays for Teachers (3rd Ed., 2007).  A preview of his “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” can be viewed here.

“The teacher of writing must be a judge of what is good and bad in writing,” Christensen said, but “from what sources do they say ‘Do this’ or Don’t do that?’”

Christensen used a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach based on his “…close inductive study of contemporary American prose.” In part, his work was a response to the “many English teachers [who] abide by the prescriptions of the textbooks they were brought up on. This preference is one that I cannot understand,” he said, “since it means taking the word of the amateurs who hack out textbooks that talk about language (fools like me) as against the practice of professionals who live by their skill in using language.”

Christensen’s inductive study resulted in his new method because he realized that, for example, there existed “…no textbook whose treatment of grammar and syntax could cope with more than a small fraction of its [Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man] sentences, but I would venture the claim that there is not a sentence whose syntactic secrets could not be opened by the key fashioned in the first two essays [of his Notes Toward…].”

Christiansen’s descriptive method recognized that grammar knowledge does not necessarily result in good writing. But Christiansen’s descriptive method does not ignore grammar. He said, “…the rhetorical analysis rests squarely on grammar,” but that “it should surprise no one that no experiments…show any correlation between knowledge of grammar and the ability to write. One should not expect a correlation where no relation has been established and made the ground for instruction.”

But neither should that be used, he goes on, to argue “that the only way to learn to write is to read literature [because] what is true over a lifetime is not true of the fifteen weeks of a semester. In practice, this position throws the burden of learning to write on the student. It expects him to divine the elements of style that make literature what it is and apply the relevant ones to writing expository essays about literature – a divination of which the teachers themselves are incapable. If reading literature were the royal road that this argument takes it to be, English teachers would be our best writers and PMLA would year by year take all the prizes for nonfiction.”

But why shouldn’t students be made to take on “the burden of learning to write”? And why does Christensen make the assumption that English teachers are so well-read? They have that reputation, but how much reading, in the midst of a full load and stacks of student papers to get through, are they able to get done “over a lifetime”? Consider, for example, this typical Christensen observation, made from his inductive study: “…our faith in the subordinate clause and the complex sentence is misplaced…we should concentrate instead on the sentence modifiers, or free modifiers.” But how do we know that without making the same inductive study he made? Indeed, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, in sum, while not at all ignoring grammar, recommends taking the inductive study into the classroom, reading literature to teach writing.

“Oh, teachers, are my lessons done? I cannot do another one.
They laughed and laughed, and said, ‘Well child,
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?’”

…from “Teachers,” by Leonard Cohen, 1967.


Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

Notes toward a New Rhetoric
Francis Christensen
College English
Vol. 25, No. 1 (Oct., 1963), pp. 7-18
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/373827

Gold in these pines

“We look before and after,” Shelley told his quiet skylark, “and pine for what is not.” Shakespeare would have enjoyed Percy’s pun, knowing naught comes from knot, “like quills upon the fretful porcupine,” this from the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and of Hamlet’s replies, “a happiness that often madness hits on,” follows from the bumbling fool of wise quotes, Polonius. Hamlet suffers the curse of anxiety, and one imagines the prince of plotters distracted by his Facebooking and Twittering, there staging his feigned feelings, for his mood is not hopeful.

And to what do we owe this staged post? To Jill Lepore’s “Dickens in Eden: Summer vacation with ‘Great Expectations.’” But just this, Jill quoting from one Andrew Miller, academic from Indiana, who, Jill says, “…argued that the novel [Great Expectations] is defined by ‘the optative mode of self-understanding,’ an experience of modern life, in which everything is what it is but could have been something else” (New Yorker, 29 Aug. 56). Ah, where’s a physicist when you need one? For how does one understand oneself when one’s creation is a matter of chance? But the mood of chance may be ever hopeful for a changed ending, a substitute ending, a revised ending.

And this is McTeague country, Naturalism, where Trina wins a lottery, an experience of modern life, for she might have lost, as everyone else does, and is not winning the equivalent to losing? And we were still considering the Greenblatt  (New Yorker, 8 Aug.), wondering if Rerum Natura might still come at a bargain, “By chance…By chance…By chance…” (29). But if everything happens by chance, why bother introducing any event as having happened by chance? Anyway, the chance of naught creates part of Hamlet’s anxiety, certainly, but even if he takes a Lucretius pill he still has his bad dreams – thus the not of the nutshell and infinite space.

In the pine, Shelley’s bird sings of jobs, of the disappearance of guilds, for what is not, and of winter in summer and the irony of discontent. This is the anxiety of our time, that it didn’t have to be this way; it “could have been something else.” Yet the physicist tells us that not only could it have been something else, it was something else; in fact, it was what it is and everything else. This is why we tell stories – like one of Leonard Cohen’s “lonesome and very quarrelsome heroes,” who would “like to tell my story before I turn into gold,” where gold is an antidote to anxiety.

The Rubrish of Poetry: Taming the Beast; or, Crossing the Rubric-con

There were reasons the rubicund-faced nuns ruddled our papers with red ink, for the rubric is all over red, and poetry full of rubricalities. Consider the Shakespearean sonnet: the rubric calls for 14 lines of iambic pentameter divided into three quatrains with a rhyming scheme of abab, cdcd, and efef, ending in a couplet rhymed gg. Poetry is rubric, and rubric tames the beast of language.

If language is a beast to be tamed, the poetry rubric is the whip and chair, and rubrics go deeper under the skin of poetry than the rules of any sonnet. In his 1961 introduction to Contemporary American Poetry, Donald Hall said, “For thirty years an orthodoxy ruled American poetry. It derived from the authority of T. S. Eliot and the new critics; it exerted itself through the literary quarterlies and the universities. It asked for a poetry of symmetry, intellect, irony, and wit. The last few years have broken the control of this orthodoxy.” But Hall makes it clear that he does not want to line up the old poets and blindfold them in front of a firing squad: “We do not want merely to substitute one orthodoxy for another.” Is it quaint now to read the avant-garde of the early sixties? Is poetry ruled by reigns reduced to rubrics, as Marxist thought is reduced to slogans?

Hall said that “the colloquial side of American literature – the side which valued ‘experience’ more than ‘civilization’ – was neglected by the younger poets. Melville said that the whaleboats of the Pacific had been his Harvard and his Yale College.” In the sixties, the state colleges, commuter schools filled with students who plumbed, waited, and painted moonlighting were the whaleboats of the Pacific – well, dinghies, anyway. But the 60’s overcame the fears of the 50’s. Hall drops the F bomb, suggesting a rubric of fear and secrecy: “Sometimes it seems that the influence of Senator McCarthy was stronger than that of Jung.” Then, toward a new rubric, written by William Carlos Williams: vernacular, empirical, physical. But then Hall disses the Beats. One wonders what the fear and secrecy is now, for the rubric often still seems to call for poems that Hall said “existed to prevent meaning.”

We cross the rubric to, as Wallace Stevens says in “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “Throw away the lights, the definitions, / And say of what you see in the dark…Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand / Between you and the shapes you take / When the crust of shape has been destroyed.” The crust of shape is rubric, and the rubric stands between the writer and an untamed language, between the writer and what might be discovered without rubric: “You as you are? You are yourself. / The blue guitar surprises you.” The rubric fades away, sheds its skin for a “new skin for the old ceremony,” as Leonard Cohen said, a new rubric for the old ideas, for the rubric is to tame the beast, written, of course, in red. The rubric is a con; the beast gets the tamer in the end, every time. But at least the tamer got into the ring with it. And that is poetry, the rubric of the ring.

Lord I’m 500 words away from home

Burkhard Bilger points us toward a definition of folk music: “Before 1945, Ledbetter liked to say, you could tell which side of a ridge a banjo player was from; after 1945, most just played like Earl Scruggs” (New Yorker, April 28, p. 56). Beyond that pointing, what’s folk remains unclear. Bilger argues that folk evolves to a distilled purity that is the defining characteristic (p. 55). When the music in the isolated communities where folk originates becomes watered down with outside influences, that defining characteristic of purity is lost.

Yet variation is characteristic of folk. The author of folk music is not anonymous as much as communal. Folk songs are created by a community, passed down and sent away, and come to rest in other places, changing shape to suit local needs. A key characteristic of folk music therefore includes improvisation. A contemporary example is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the lyrics augmented and modified in many covers. This is why Bob Dylan rarely sings his own songs the same way twice. When folk passes from the community to the individual, its defining characteristic of variation is lost.

“900 Miles” morphs into “500 Miles.” It’s a train song, a folk shape, and the folk musician understands the form can be filled with any number of miles, train rides, destinations, lonely whistles. Keys change to suit voice and instrument; words change to update the form to contemporary, local needs. We find examples of this morphing in literature: Huckleberry Finn turns up in Holden Caulfield; Melville’s Ishmael gets a nod from Vonnegut’s Jonah; Romeo and Juliet sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; the Henry of Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage meets Hemingway’s in A Farewell to Arms. The origins of literature are found in the origins of folk music. The individual relocates traditions. At the end of the cycle, the individual disappears back into the folk community, the folk song re-emerging as something new.