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kottke.org posts about poetry

The experience of time in Dante’s Inferno

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 25, 2017

The Map of Hell by Sandro Botticelli.
"The Map of Hell," by Sandro Botticelli. Wikimedia Commons.

1.

It was either shortly before or just after November 8, 2016 that I began to wonder whether I had died and gone to Hell.

This reads as a joke, and I may have originally said it as a joke. But as the days and weeks went on, I started to reconstruct the events. I had nearly died in an accident in September 2009. The events between that date and November 2016, both good and bad ones, did not always seem to have the clear and distinct feeling of reality I’d experienced beforehand. Normally, most traditional conceptions of the afterlife suggest, the soul moves from a purgatorial or threshold state to a final reward. Was it possible that I had done this in the opposite direction, and crossed from Purgatory into Hell?

America’s history of white supremacy, gender chauvinism, and reactionary counterpolitics was clearly the most likely explanation. But an individual or collective journey through Hell was a hypothesis I couldn’t completely rule out. It was a decent enough joke, but I was no longer so sure I was kidding. So I began to read.

2.
If you really want to read about Hell, you’ve got to go back to Islam and Catholicism in the Middle Ages. That was a time, a place, and a set of overlapping cultures that truly knew how to thoroughly, carefully, and beautifully discuss intellectual topics without any positive knowledge about the subject whatsoever. They turned scraps of text and groping attempts at reason into fully imagined traditions. And all of these traditions come together in the person of Dante Aligheri.

Dante draws on everything. Classical literature, obviously: his guide through Hell and Purgatory is Virgil, author of the Aeneid, whose Aeneas likewise visited the land of the dead. The best theology and philosophy available to him, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or pagan, including knowledge of the Earth’s geography and history, and the movements of the celestial spheres. European vernacular poetry, from Italy and France to Scandinavia and the British Isles. And — while not everyone agrees — Dante seems to have borrowed heavily from Muslim narratives of the prophet Muhammed traveling from Hell to Heaven, probably via Italian and Sicilian scholars who were fluent in both traditions.

But Dante is also innovative. I’ve always been interested in the history of time travel stories and the different mechanisms writers and artists use to try to understand how it might work. (In Back to the Future, the key technologies are cars, mechanical clocks, nuclear energy, videotape, and Polaroid photographs.) Last year, I started to wonder whether you could think of the Commedia as a time travel story. Dante didn’t have a plutonium-powered DeLorean or a Newtonian conception of spacetime. He had Hell, Heaven, Purgatory, and the stories we told about them. He used the materials at hand. And even H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine involves a journey underground.

3.

It’s generally agreed that Dante was inventing all-new theology when he populated the Inferno’s antechamber Limbo with virtuous non-Christians. Before the Commedia, Limbo was reserved for unbaptized infants and Jewish kings and prophets (whom Jesus rescues after the crucifixion). But how else was Dante supposed to meet Homer, Ovid, Aristotle, and all the poets, heroes, and scholars of the classical and Muslim worlds? How else could he meet again his friends and enemies, teachers and rivals, from before his banishment in Florence? How else could meet Beatrice, who transforms into the personification of Christian love and virtue? Dante built a machine.

In Dantean time travel, you can’t change the past or the future. It has all in some sense already happened. But you can greet the dead, gain wisdom from them, know their love, and maybe redeem your soul.

Limbo, like the other circles of Dante’s Hell, is not wholly separate from time, but unmoored from it. He describes it as a place of blindness:

in the dark (where only hearing told)
there were no tears, no weeping, only sighs
that caused a trembling in the eternal air -
sighs drawn from sorrowing, although no pain.1

The souls in the Inferno suffer, but they do not experience the passage of time. Somehow, though, they remember the past, both on Earth and in Hell. Virgil can tell Dante about Jesus’s rescue of Noah, Moses, David, Rachel, and the Jewish prophets. Others can tell Dante exactly how many years, months, and days ago they died. Some offer to prophecy Dante’s future. It’s as if Hell has History, but not Time.

In a famous scene in the tenth Canto, Dante asks his fellow Florentine Farinata degli Uberti to explain this contradiction:

‘Well (may your seed find sometime true repose!)
untie the knot for me,’ I now besought,
‘so tightly twined around my searching thoughts.
You see, it seems (to judge from what I hear)
far in advance what time will bring to pass,
but otherwise in terms of present things.’
‘We see like those who suffer from ill light.
We are,’ he said, ‘aware of distant things.
Thus far He shines in us, the Lord on high.
But when a thing draws near to us, our minds
go blank. So if no other brings us news,
then nothing of your human state is known to us.
You will from this be able to deduce
that all our knowledge will be wholly dead
when all the doors of future time are closed.’

This is the feeling I cannot seem to shake, before the election and after. Like the shades of the Inferno, we suffer; and like them, we are desperate for change, for respite, for news, and for something new. Yet everything new is a calamity. The present seems further away from us than the past and future. Every day is a week, every week a month, every month a year. Our memories and our dread have a sudden clarity. But the present… the present is somewhere else. Dante, too, is in his own country, but in exile. And so are we.

4.

Erich Auerbach, my favorite Dante scholar, explains the representation of time in Hell in this way in his great book Mimesis:The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Farinata’s and Cavalcante’s lives on earth are over; the vicissitudes of their destinies have ceased; their state is definitive and immutable except that it will be affected by one single change, their ultimate recovery of their physical bodies at the Resurrection on the Last Day. As we find them here, then, they are souls parted from their bodies. Dante does, however, give them a sort of phantom body, so that they can be seen and can communicate and suffer (cf., in this connection, Purg., 3). Their only link to life on earth is memory. In addition they have—as Dante explains in the very canto with which we are concerned—a measure of knowledge of past and future which goes beyond the earthly norm. Their vision is hyperopic: they clearly see earthly events of the somewhat distant past or future, and hence can foretell the future, but they are blind to the earthly present. (This explains Dante’s hesitation when Cavalcante asks him whether his son is still alive; Cavalcante’s ignorance surprises him, the more so because other souls had prophesied future events to him.) Their own earthly lives, then, they still possess completely, through their memories, although those lives are ended. And although they are in a situation which differs from any imaginable situation on earth not only in practical terms (they lie in flaming tombs) but also in principle by virtue of their temporal and spatial immutability, the impression they produce is not that they are dead — though that is what they are — but alive…

[Here Auerbach gives the quote in the screenshot above.]

The reality of the appearances of Farinata and Cavalcante is perceived in the situation in which they are placed and in their utterances. In their position as inhabitants of flaming tombs is expressed God’s judgment upon the entire category of sinners to which they belong, upon heretics and infidels. But in their utterances, their individual character is manifest in all its force. This is especially striking with Farinata and Cavalcante because they are sinners of the same category and hence find themselves in the same situation. Yet as individuals of different personalities, of different lots in their former lives, and of different inclinations, they are most sharply contrasted. Their eternal and changeless fate is the same; but only in the sense that they have to suffer the same punishment, only in an objective sense. For they accept their fate in very different ways. Farinata wholly disregards his situation; Cavalcante, in his blind prison, mourns for the beauty of light; and each, in gesture and word, completely reveals the nature proper to each, which can be and is none other than that which each possessed in his life upon earth. And still more: from the fact that earthly life has ceased so that it cannot change or grow, whereas the passions and inclinations which animated it still persist without ever being released in action, there results as it were a tremendous concentration. We behold an intensified image of the essence of their being, fixed for all eternity in gigantic dimensions, behold it in a purity and distinctness which could never for one moment have been possible during their lives upon earth.

Achewood Police Blotter.png
5.

Zito Madu is a writer at SB Nation, where he heroically mixes high literary references into smart, funny, passionate stories, mostly about soccer and basketball. He’s also a former pro soccer player and a devoted reader of Dante. I asked him what he finds most noteworthy in the Inferno.

I was reading a paper called “Dante’s definition of life” when I encountered this amazing little passage about the crime of seeing the human body as merely a material thing. It explains one of my favorite things about The Inferno, which is that all the condemned souls still have their spiritual capacities. They are not reduced in death, they still maintain their self even after the great terror. Even in their eternal punishment. There’s a death of the body, but not of the soul:

“As Christain Moevs notes, sin is self-identification with the body. Inflicting two deaths upon themselves, the death of the body and the so-called death of the soul (the condemnation to hell), they have taken a terrifying slide down the great chain of being, revealing the infernal nature of seeing that chain as continuity.

“Pier delle Vigne explains: ‘L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gutso, / credendo col morir fuggir disdegno, / ingiusto fece me contra me ingiusto .’ He has understood his existence as something material that can be away with. He has divided himself, “me contra me,” in turning his soul against his body. In doing so, he has radically misunderstood the nature of his being.”

This comes after an explanation of Dante’s “Trinitarian thought” on the human soul. That the soul is a product that’s a combination of nature, the parents, and of God. “The human soul possesses components that are both meditated and unmeditated…it is a point that reveals itself eventually to be a trinity.”

To think that the soul is immediate and refined in the body at conception then is to err by conflating them. “To conflate them is to commit to a materialistic understanding of life.” And the opposite, to think of the soul only as separate from nature, is to have a dualistic vision of life. Each failing to understand the “distinction between, and union between, body and the spirit, nature and God.”

I think this is such a wonderful thing and a great way to look at human existence. The view asserts that human beings have a natural godliness. So that, if someone were at their lowest, when they have nothing at all, when they’re a Job, they are still divine. A person is never nothing. Not even the worst of us. “Easy to know that diamonds are precious. Good to learn that rubies have depth. But more to see that pebbles are miraculous.”

6.

Generally, Dante is stricken with pity at the souls he encounters in the Inferno. It’s Virgil, the symbol of reason, who explains the justification for the sufferings they undergo. He borrows from established Christian theology the notion that the saved benefit from seeing sinners suffer justly.

I don’t believe in God, Paradise, Purgatory, or Hell, or prisons and most forms of punishment, except as figures for human experience. There are times, though, when the thought that traitors, the corrupt, thieves, hypocrites, warmongers, gluttons, and those incapable of keeping themselves from inflicting their lust on others have been weighed, measured, and found wanting — that their evil is elemental, ancient, but far from eternal — is some consolation for this half-real mockery of life.

03_dante_inferno_punishments.png
Circles and Punishments in the Inferno. Via Lapham’s Quarterly.

  1. All quotations of Dante in English are from Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation of the Inferno.

Snowflakes

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2017

And now, a poem from my daughter.

Minna Snowflakes

To play
play
Play

Yes play!
So if i have not made that clear,
I will make it clear.
Play!

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Whitman, Alabama

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2017

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall has spent the past two years travelling all around Alabama, collecting short video vignettes of people’s lives — “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?” — and now she’s posting the videos on the Whitman, Alabama site.

I believe in listening and I believe in creating spaces intimate enough for voices to be heard. I believe in Alabama and her people. So I wanted to try to amplify her voices. To do this, a patchwork team of us set out and began to make a 52-part documentary film.

We crisscrossed the state, made acquaintances with strangers and asked: “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?”

And people said yes! (This still surprises me every time.)

And then we said: “There’s a catch. Can we do it while you read some poetry?”

I have to say, you Alabamians stepped up to the plate. You said, “Yes, I believe that’d still be all right.”

Each of her 52 subjects recites a verse from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself. Why Whitman and not a poem by a southern poet?

I like the idea of cheekily co-opting the work of a dead white Yankee and re-envisioning it through contemporary Southern voices. I think we’ve found a neat way of mixing DNA here by joining these voices with Whitman’s. We’ve taken Whitman up on his offer to be co-creators, co-authors, of “Song of Myself.”

The Sullivan family read verse 16:

Some people just hit you in the heart. I was at Yen Restaurant in Mobile, looking for a hit of comfort food—Vietnamese food — and Cathy, Samantha and Brandon walked in.

Samantha reminded me of myself — half-Asian, half-white, sort of a tomboy. I approached them. Immediately they were open and warm. I asked Cathy if they might want to read for the project.

She said sure. No hesitation. She appreciated art and music. Samantha did, too. Cathy stenciled boats for a living. Samantha wanted to be an illustrator or graphic designer someday.

Sometimes if people think something isn’t going to look good to other people, they won’t let you see it, let alone film it. But Cathy threw open the doors in full welcome.

Spend some time with the project, meet some of your fellow Americans you might not know that well. (via @alainabrowne)

Update: Jia Tolentino interviewed Crandall about the project for the New Yorker.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”

Map showing the homeland of every character in Homer’s Iliad

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2017

Homer Iliad Map

This is a map showing where all of the characters originated in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. I know Greece is small by today’s standards, but it was surprising to me how geographically widespread the hometowns of the characters were. The Iliad is set sometime in the 11th or 12th century BC, about 400 years before Homer lived. I wonder if that level of mobility was accurate for the time or if Homer simply populated his poem with folks from all over Greece as a way of making listeners from many areas feel connected to the story — sort of the “hello, Cleveland!” of its time. (thx, adriana)

Update: I’ve gotten lots of feedback saying that not every character is represented in this map (particularly the women) and that some of the locations and hometowns are incorrect. Seems like Wikipedia might need to take a second look at it.

Update: The map was made using the Catalogue of Ships, a list of Achaean ships that sailed to Troy, and the Trojan Catalogue, a list of battle contingents that fought for Troy. That’s why it’s incomplete. An excerpt:

Now will I tell the captains of the ships and the ships in their order. Of the Boeotians Peneleos and Leïtus were captains, and Arcesilaus and Prothoënor and Clonius; these were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis and Schoenus and Scolus and Eteonus with its many ridges, Thespeia, Graea, and spacious Mycalessus; and that dwelt about Harma and Eilesium and Erythrae; and that held Eleon and Hyle and Peteon, Ocalea and Medeon, the well-built citadel, Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe, the haunt of doves; that dwelt in Coroneia and grassy Haliartus, and that held Plataea and dwelt in Glisas; that held lower Thebe, the well-built citadel, and holy Onchestus, the bright grove of Poseidon; and that held Arne, rich in vines, and Mideia and sacred Nisa and Anthedon on the seaboard.

(via @po8crg)

What are we but a fire?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

An excerpt from Elisa Chavez’s poem “Revenge” in the Seattle Review of Books:

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.

I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

This is a powerful poem, and I laughed out loud so hard to the “This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw” line.

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2016

In this video, American poet Maya Angelou recites her poem Still I Rise, which was published in 1978. The recitation includes some opening remarks…the poem begins like so:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Wonderful. That little chuckle after “Does my sassiness upset you?” — amazing. And it’s interesting to see how she deviates from the written text in her performance, a reminder that even the finest things in the world — like freedom, like liberty, like democracy — need to be refreshed and remade anew in order to remain vital. (via swiss miss)

The adjective word order we all follow without realizing it

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2016

From Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence, a reminder of the rules of adjective order that fluent English speakers follow without quite knowing why.

…adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

The Cambridge Dictionary lists a slightly different order: opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, colour, origin, material, type, purpose. A poem by Alexandra Teague explores the topic in a creative way:

That summer, she had a student who was obsessed
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when

Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering

streets.

Did anyone learn this in school? I sure didn’t. How do we all know then? My daughter’s kindergarten teacher had a great phrase she used when things got a bit tricky as her students learned to read: “the English language is a rascal”. (via @MattAndersonBBC)

Update: Language Log’s post on adjective order is worth reading. (thx, stephen & margaret)

Kanye West’s poem about McDonald’s

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2016

Kanye

Frank Ocean dropped his long-awaited album the other day and to go along with it, he gave away a magazine called Boys Don’t Cry for free at four pop-up locations in LA, NYC, Chicago, and London. Kanye West contributed to the album and magazine, penning a poem about McDonald’s for the latter. Here’s the poem:

McDonald’s man
McDonald’s man
The French fries had a plan
The French fries had a plan
The salad bar and the ketchup made a band
Cus the French Fries had a plan
The French fries had a plan
McDonald’s man
McDonald’s
I know them French fries have a plan
I know them French fries have a plan
The cheeseburger and the shakes formed a band
To overthrow the French fries plan
I always knew them French fries was evil man
Smelling all good and shit
I don’t trust no food that smells that good man
I don’t trust it
I just can’t
McDonald’s man
McDonald’s man
McDonald’s, man
Them French fries look good tho
I knew the Diet Coke was jealous of the fries
I knew the McNuggets was jealous of the fries
Even the McRib was jealous of the fries
I could see it through his artificial meat eyes
And he only be there some of the time
Everybody was jealous of them French fries
Except for that one special guy
That smooth apple pie

Man, I can’t help but like Kanye. Just when you think he takes himself way too seriously, he does something like this and you can’t tell if he’s taking himself way WAY too seriously or not seriously at all. McDonald’s, man. Kanye drawing courtesy of Chris Piascik. (via @gavinpurcell)

I Am - Somebody

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2016

From 1971, here’s Jessie Jackson on Sesame Street doing a call-and-response with the children of the poem I Am - Somebody.

I Am
Somebody
I Am
Somebody
I May Be Poor
But I Am
Somebody
I May Be Young
But I Am
Somebody
I May Be On Welfare
But I Am
Somebody

It’s difficult to imagine something like this airing on the show now. Sesame Street was originally designed to serve the needs of children in low-income homes, but now the newest episodes of the show air first on HBO…a trickle-down educational experience. (via @kathrynyu)

The Human Family

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2016

A new commercial from Apple pairs photos & videos shot on iPhone 6 with a poem from Maya Angelou called Human Family.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

You can hear Angelou recite the entire poem here:

The Epic of Gilgamesh grows by 20 lines

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 30, 2015

Gilgamesh Stone Tablet

The Epic of Gilgamesh just got more epic. A recent find of a stone tablet dating back to the neo-Babylonian period (2000-1500 BCE) has added 20 new lines to the ancient Mesopotamian poem.

The tablet adds new verses to the story of how Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, gets the idea to kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, in Tablet II. He thinks accomplishing such a feat of strength will gain him eternal fame. His wise companion (and former wild man) Enkidu tries to talk him out of it — Humbaba was set to his task by the god Enlil — but stubborn Gilgamesh won’t budge, so Enkidu agrees to go with him on this quest. Together they overpower the giant. When the defeated Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh forever and give him every sacred tree in the forest, Gilgamesh is moved to pity, but Enkidu’s blood is up now and he exhorts his friend to go through with the original plan to kill the giant and get that eternal renown he craves. Gilgamesh cuts Humbaba’s head off and then cuts down the sacred forest. The companions return to Uruk with the trophy head and lots of aromatic timber.

How the tablet was discovered is notable as well. Since 2011, the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was been paying smugglers to intercept artifacts leaving the country, no questions asked. The tablet was likely illegally excavated from the southern part of Iraq, and the museum paid the seller of this particular tablet $800 to keep it in the country.

Erotic poetry about the iPhone 6

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2014

This is glorious: an erotic poem by Chris Plante constructed from snippets of iPhone 6 reviews.

I have really big hands
Would be an understatement.
This is quite helpful.
When the tips of your fingers are grasping on for dear life,
Your fingers need to secure a firm grip.
I can still wrap my fingers around
Well…
More of everything.

No lines from John Gruber’s review, but Linus Edwards made a short poem just from that one:

Makes itself felt in your pants pocket.
Ah, but then there’s The Bulge.
I definitely appreciate the stronger vibrator.

(via @sippey)

Legend of the Black Perl

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2013

Black Perl is a poem written in valid Perl 3 code:

BEFOREHAND: close door, each window & exit; wait until time.
open spellbook, study, read (scan, select, tell us);
write it, print the hex while each watches,
reverse its length, write again;
kill spiders, pop them, chop, split, kill them.
unlink arms, shift, wait & listen (listening, wait),
sort the flock (then, warn the "goats" & kill the "sheep");
kill them, dump qualms, shift moralities,
values aside, each one;
die sheep! die to reverse the system
you accept (reject, respect);
next step,
kill the next sacrifice, each sacrifice,
wait, redo ritual until "all the spirits are pleased";
do it ("as they say").
do it(*everyone***must***participate***in***forbidden**s*e*x*).
return last victim; package body;
exit crypt (time, times & "half a time") & close it,
select (quickly) & warn your next victim;
AFTERWORDS: tell nobody.
wait, wait until time;
wait until next year, next decade;
sleep, sleep, die yourself,
die at last
# Larry Wall

It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s not bad for executable code.

Seamus Heaney, RIP

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 30, 2013

Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died at 74. The Guardian has a brief account of his life; The Telegraph grapples more directly with the work There’s also his long, insightful interview with The Paris Review, from 1997.
.
“Heaney’s volumes make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain,” the BBC wrote in 2007, calling him “arguably, the English language’s greatest living bard.”

One of his best-known poems, “Digging,” compares his trade to that of his father and grandfather, who were farmers and cattle-raisers. These are its last two stanzas:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

One of Heaney’s great later achievements was his translation of Beowulf, which I bought and read along with his Selected Poems when I was in college.

Heaney’s take on the Anglo-Saxon most reminds me of the first of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a weird mix of old epic and contemporary free-verse imagery and meters, a translation of a translation of Homer that begins “And then” and ends “So that:”

When Swinburne died, W.B. Yeats is said to have told his sister, “Now I am King of the Cats.” When Robert Frost died, John Berryman asked, “who’s number one?”

I note this not to pose the question “who’s number one?” now that Heaney has died, but to observe that just as champion boxers and sprinters often have outsized competitive personalities that seem like caricatures compared to other athletes, even among writers, and even when they resist, as Heaney did, being drawn into literary feuds or political debate, great poets are often magnificent and terrible and troubling and glorious and weird.

Toy stories

posted by Tim Carmody   May 03, 2011

One thing I will be doing from time to time this week is pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet. Here’s the second installment (you can read the first here).

One of my favorite writers, poets, and teachers is Susan Stewart. She’s just one of those people who radiates intelligence and fun.

She also helped show me that you could put both of these things into critical writing — that plain, everyday language and willfully studied, obscure language were both traps.

Here is an audio recording of her reading one of my favorite of her poems, “Apple,” which begins:

If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.

This poem also includes a Twitter-worthy quip: “If an apple’s called ‘delicious,’ it’s not.”

And here is an excerpt from one of my favorite of her books (which I’m pretty sure was originally actually her doctoral thesis), On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection:

Problems of the inanimate and the animate here bring us to a consideration of the toy. The toy is the physical embodiment of the fiction: it is a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative. The toy opens an interior world, lending itself to fantasy and privacy in a way that the abstract space, the playground, of social play does not. To toy with something is to manipulate it, to try it out within sets of contexts, none of which is determinative… The desire to animate the toy is the desire not simply to know everything but also to experience everything simultaneously…

Here is the dream of the impeccable robot that has haunted the West at least since the advent of the industrial revolution. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mark the heyday of the automaton, just as they mark the mechanization of labor: jigging Irishmen, whistling birds, clocks with bleating sheep, and growling dogs guarding baskets of fruit. The theme of death and irreversibility reappears in the ambivalent status of toys like the little guillotines that were sold in France during the time of the Revolution. In 1793 Goethe wrote to his mother in Frankfurt requesting that she buy a toy guillotine for his son, August. This was a request she refused, saying that the toy’s maker should be put in stocks.

Such automated toys find their strongest modern successors in “models” of ships, trains, airplanes, and automobiles, models of the products of mechanized labor. These toys are nostalgic in a fundamental sense, for they completely transform the mode of production of the original as they miniaturize it: they produce a representation of a product of alienated labor, a representation which itself is constructed by artisanal labor. The triumph of the model-maker is that he or she has produced the object completely by hand, from the beginning assembly to the “finishing touches.”

It’s a kind of writing that’s totally within the boundaries of the historical and theoretical conventions of the academy, but is also always rhetorically and imaginatively precise and correct, from the individual syllable to the grouped processions of images.

I can’t tell you how rare that is. Probably you know already.

Fuck you, pay me (Simonides of Keos)

posted by Tim Carmody   May 02, 2011

One thing I will be doing from time to time this week is pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet. Here’s the first installment.

According to tradition, Simonides of Keos was the first Greek poet who composed and sung poems for money, rather than being kept by a patron. He was also famously stingy and liked to pose riddles:

They say that Simonides had two boxes, one for favors, the other for fees. So when someone came to him asking for a favor he had the boxes displayed and opened: the one was found to be empty of graces, the other full of money. And that’s the way Simonides got rid of a person requesting a gift.

Simonides’s world was one where old relationships of gift-exchange and patronage were breaking down in favor of what for Greeks was a fairly new invention, coinage. And all of his poetry and the stories around him seem to play with this: how the old world mythic heroes and Gods (Homer’s subjects) gave way to Olympic champions and rich merchants (Simonides’s subjects), the way value can be real but invisible, how words can be things that you exchange, like gifts or cash. This is one thing that helps make Simonides unusually modern.

That, at least, is poet/critic Anne Carson’s take in her terrific book Economy of the Unlost, which juxtaposes Simonides and the equally staggering twentieth-century poet Paul Celan:

Simonides of Keos was the smartest person in the fifth century B.C., or so I have come to believe. History has it that he was also the stingiest. Fantastical in its anecdoes, undeniable in its implications, the stinginess of Simonides can tell us something about the moral life of a user of money and something about the poetic life of an economy of loss.

No one who uses money is unchanged by that.

No one who uses money can easily get a look at their own practice. Ask eye to see its own eyelashes, as the Chinese proverb says. Yet Simonides did so, not only because he was smart.

Another argument Carson makes is that because Simonides was willing to write for anyone who would pay, his epigraphs — literally, writing that would be inscribed on a gravestone — is the “first poetry in the ancient Greek tradition about which we can certainly say, these are texts written to be read: literature” (emphasis mine).

The Personism moment

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 12, 2010

I always liked the way poet Frank O’Hara walked up to the manifesto:

Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man’s Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can’t be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.”

But what do we call it, Frank? We need a name.

Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about… was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did. Poetry being quicker and surer than prose, it is only just that poetry finish literature off.

LeRoi Jones eventually changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Alain Robbe-Grillet was an proto-postmodern French novelist associated with the nouveau roman, or “new novel.” It’s probably better if I let you figure out what a Lucky Pierre is for yourself.

Because O’Hara dated his poems, we know what poem he wrote between lunch with Jones and picking up the telephone; appropriately, it’s called “personal poem”:

Now when I walk around at lunchtime
I have only two charms in my pocket
an old Roman coin Mike Kanemitsu gave me
and a bolt-head that broke off a packing case
when I was in Madrid the others never
brought me too much luck though they did
help keep me in New York against coercion
but now I’m happy for a time and interested

I walk through the luminous humidity
passing the House of Seagram with its wet
and its loungers and the construction to
the left that closed the sidewalk if
I ever get to be a construction worker
I’d like to have a silver hat please
and get to Moriarty’s when I wait for
LeRol and hear who wants to be a mover and
shaker the last five years my batting average
is .016 that’s that, and LeRol comes in
and tells me Miles Davis was clubbed 12
times last night outside BIRDLAND by a cop
a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
disease but we don’t give her one we
don’t like terrible diseases, then
we go eat some fish and some ale it’s
cool but crowded we don’t like Lionel Trilling
we decide, we like Don Allen we don’t like
Henry James so much we like Herman Melville
we don’t want to be in the poet’s walk in
San Francisco even we just want to be rich
and walk on girders in our silver hats
I wonder if one person out of the 8,000,000 is
thinking of me as I shake hands with LeRol
and buy a strap for my wristwatch and go
back to work happy at the thought possibly so

Here is a photo of Davis after being beaten:

Miles Davis Birdland 1959

One reason Davis’s assault and arrest alarmed O’Hara as much as it did was the increasing police violence at bars and clubs where gay men gathered — which culminated in the Stonewall Riots, five years after his accidental death in 1964.

O’Hara’s poetry got a boost in sales and pop-culture recognition recently, when it was prominently featured in the Season Two premiere of Mad Men. Don Draper reads from Meditations In An Emergency’s “Mayakovsky”:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

I don’t know why I always think of this mode of literature in terms of media history. Maybe that’s just the way I think. Or it’s O’Hara picking up the telephone, that black-and-white photo of Davis’s blood-spattered suit, Don Draper dropping his copy of a book into a suburban corner mailbox.

Elsewhere in Personism, O’Hara says, “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.” Maybe if he were writing today, he might say, “only ___ and ___ and ___ are better than playing video games.”

His poem “Lines for the Fortune Cookies” shows O’Hara would have completely understood (and ruled at) Twitter. Here are just three samples (all well under the character limit):

  1. Your walk has a musical quality which will bring you fame and fortune.
  2. You may be a hit uptown, but downtown you’re legendary!
  3. You are a prisoner in a croissant factory and you love it.

Poets ranked by beard weight

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2010

How do Tennyson, Longfellow, and Thoreau stack up in terms of the thickness of their beards? Surprisingly, that question has been asked and answered.

That “exalted dignity, that certain solemnity of mien,” lent by an imposing beard, “regardless of passing vogues and sartorial vagaries,” says Underwood, is invariably attributable to the presence of an obscure principle known as the odylic force, a mysterious product of “the hidden laws of nature.” The odylic, or od, force is conveyed through the human organism by means of “nervous fluid” which invests the beard of a noble poet with noetic emanations and ensheathes it in an ectoplasmic aura.

(via stamen)

DNA poetry

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2010

Poet Christian Bök wants to compose a poem and encode it into the DNA of the Deinococcus radiodurans bacteria — “the most radiation-resistant organism known”.

He wants to inject the DNA with a string of nucleotides that form a comprehensible poem, and he also wants the protein that the cell produces in response to form a second comprehensible poem.

AGGCGT GCCACC AAT
TCT TACC GATTT CT
CA CTCTAG ACC CTG
AGCCCA CGC GGTTCA

(via mr)

Thread poets society

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 18, 2010

At the newly renovated Bygone Bureau, Darryl Campbell investigates the small but vibrant poetry community that has formed in the comment threads on the NY Times website.

Tiger, Tiger burning bright
In the sex clubs of Orlando
Guess it’s time you took a break
And lived life with more candor
Must’ve been weird, your secret life
Never an unserviced erection
Shouldn’t you, though, have taught the wife
Some proper club selection?

Levi’s (sponsored by America)

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2009

This is a 36-second wax cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading a few lines from his poem, America. You may recognize the recording from its use in Levi’s new ad campaign:

I thought for sure that Ryan McGinley had directed this and the O Pioneers! commercial but it turns out he just (just!) did the photos for the print campaign. (via slate)

Update: The audio clip used in that commercial might not be Whitman after all. From the inbox:

The Walt Whitman recording that is being used by the Levi’s commercial that you posted on the 28th is actually not Whitman, and is now considered by most audio archivists to be a hoax.

More information about this most interesting recording can be found in Vol. X, No. 3 of Allen Koenigsberg’s Antique Phonograph Monthly magazine from 1992, pages 9-11.

Among things pointed out, one is that the speech on the soundtrack ends with the quote, “Freedom Law and Love,” whereas the original printed version of the poem ends with “Chair’d in the adamant of Time.”

Koenigsberg also points out that Whitman’s last years were chronicled on a daily basis by his personal secretary, and being wheelchair-bound, such a visit for Whitman would have been difficult, unprecedented, and undoubtedly noted.

(thx, jack)

Flarf

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2009

Flarf is a form of poetry made by combining together phrases from random web searches. Here’s an early example:

“Yeah, mm-hmm, it’s true
big birds make
big doo! I got fire inside
my ‘huppa’-chimp(TM)
gonna be agreessive, greasy aw yeah god
wanna DOOT! DOOT!
Pffffffffffffffffffffffffft! hey!”

Flarf started off as a joke but then these joke poems that people were coming up with “evolved from ‘bad’ to ‘sort of great’”.

Edge Books publisher Rod Smith, a poet himself, says he feels the [Flarf] collective is prompting a bit of anarchy in the poetry world by widening the vocabulary of what is permissible. “Aesthetic judgments about what’s bad in a very hierarchal society are usually serving upper-class people with a certain amount of privilege,” he says. “So for a bunch of poets who are very well schooled in a variety of traditions of American poetry to take what’s considered bad and throw that at people is a very interesting maneuver. It’s not simply bad poetry; it’s quote-unquote bad poetry written by people who know how to write poetry.”

A dogcow makes a moof

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2009

Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies, a poem by Heather McHugh.

Designs succumbing
to creeping featuritis
are banana problems.
(“I know how to spell banana,
but I don’t know when to stop.”)

Famous poet zombies

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2009

I can’t decide if this is creepy or cool: a bunch of videos of dead poets reading their poems. The effect is achieved by warping photos to make it look like their mouths are moving. Here’s Poe reading The Raven and Robert Frost doing The Road Not Taken.

Williams Poems

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2008

Inspired by Emmett Williams, a practitioner of concrete poetry, Rob Giampietro has written three poems: Wastebasket, Snowflakes, and Spraypaint.

Spraypaint poem

Giampietro has put out a call for someone to develop a Williams Word Generator. Drop him a line if you can help out…shouldn’t be too much different than the many “words within words” generators scattered around the web.

Love is a ballfield

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2008

A poem in which each instance of the word “love” is replaced by “Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame Catcher Carlton Fisk”.

“And know you not,” says Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame Catcher Carlton Fisk, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”

(via hodgman)

Newspaper blackout poems

posted by Jason Kottke   May 02, 2008

Austin Kleon makes Newspaper Blackout Poems by blacking out all but a few choice words of newspaper articles.

A Woman’s bust is the host of Romance, so Don’t deplore my fondness for It

The One Day Poem Pavilion uses the

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2008

The One Day Poem Pavilion uses the sun to display a poem one line at a time over the course of an entire day. (via stingy kids)

The Virginia Quarterly Review analyzed their poetry

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2008

The Virginia Quarterly Review analyzed their poetry submissions for use of poetic cliches and found that the cliches do get published more often than not. Also of note is that “darkness” is an undervalued poetic cliche…it was in only 4% of submitted poems but in 17% of published poems. Poets, “darkness” is your way into VQR.

“I Was Walkin’ Along The Street”

posted by Choire Sicha   Jan 14, 2008

I’ve gotten totally re-obsessed with Kathy Acker, the East Village writer who died in 1997. It started with this recording of Acker reading a poem [Warning: audio, 2 minutes, 28 seconds, and not really safe for work!] that was released in 1980 on the LP “Sugar, Alcohol & Meat” by Giorno Poetry Systems and recently digitized by UbuWeb. Her New York accent is one that has largely disappeared since; she sounds amazing. Then I found this, which is an incredibly long mp3, the first 3/4s of which is a Michael Brownstein reading. The end, though, is a monologue which then becomes a stageplay by Acker about a woman, her suicide, her grandmother, and her psychiatrist. It is absolutely not safe for work, what with its endless use of a certain word for ladyparts that goes over well in Scotland but not at all (yet!) in the U.S.