Monday, November 26, 2007

Quick now, here, now, always…

It's just that this is so cool. It makes me want to write a poem -- except I'm at work. Oh yeah. And they just gave me a nice token of appreciation 'cause they like me.


I would give my two front teeth -- and more! -- to hear something (preferably something positive) about my manuscript, especially before having to send out another half dozen competition submissions before week's end.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Not So Fast, Eye of the Beholder!

Before reading any further, look at the images of the three sculptures and decide which one you find most attractive. No, this isn’t an offshoot of C. Dale’s caption contests—or is it? It’s from a study done in Italy (of course) on people’s responses to works of art. Actually the study itself may be somewhat less interesting than a comparison of the original study to a somewhat popularized summary in LiveScience.

The LiveScience story emphasizes the study’s implication that human perceptions of beauty—specifically, human responses to the classical “golden ratio”—may be genetically hard-wired, because most people pick the same image as their favorite. (Well, it’s not really “most people”; rather, it’s a majority of 14 Italian college students “with no experience in art theory.”)

The study itself focuses more on the different responses of the subjects (as shown by brain scans) to the three questions they were asked—whether they “paid attention” to an image when it was shown to them, whether they “liked” it, and whether they found it “proportional”:

In the condition in which the viewers were asked to indicate explicitly which sculptures they liked, there was a strong increase in the activity of the amygdala, a structure that responds to incoming information laden with emotional value. Thus, instead of allowing their nervous centers to “resonate” in response to the observed stimuli (observation condition), when the viewers judged the stimuli according to their individual idiosyncratic criteria (explicit aesthetic judgment), that structure was activated that signals which stimuli had produced pleasant experiences in the past.
This raises a lot of interesting questions! Were people’s responses to the images more spontaneous and honest when they were merely asked to observe them “as if in a museum” than when they were asked if they “liked” them? Were their responses more “conservative” when they were asked to shift into critic mode and pass judgment on the images, because then they applied the criteria they had developed from looking at other works of art that “had produced pleasant experiences in the past”? Were their responses more “romantic” because of activation of the amygdala, which “responds to incoming information laden with emotional value”? When I picked the same image as most people picked in the study, was I really responding to the “golden ratio” of the distance from his head to his navel to the distance from his navel to his knee, or was I just responding to the cute little swivel of his hip?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Riding to Moscow on Chairs

The current New Yorker has a wonderful review by James Wood of a new translation of War and Peace. The whole review is worth reading: it captures some of the novel’s most vivid, and “poetic,” moments, and the fact that they're poetic and what we mean by that are what interests me. The young man Petya is killed in battle, and his comrade Denisov “approaches the body and, as he looks at Petya, ‘irrelevantly’ recalls him once saying, ‘I'm used to something sweet. Excellent raisins, take them all.’ I think that “irrelevance” is of the essence of poetry.

One passage about the variety of translations seems particularly relevant to poetry:

In the novel’s epilogue, Marya enters the nursery: “The children were riding to Moscow on chairs and invited her to come with them.” That is exactly what Tolstoy writes, because he wants us to experience a little shock of readjustment as the adult meets the otherworldliness of childish fantasy. But Garnett, the Maudes, and Briggs [earlier translators] all insert an explanatory “playing at,” to make things easier for the adults. As the Maudes render it, “The children were playing at ‘going to Moscow’ in a carriage made of chairs, and invited her to go with them.”

This might seem like a trivial point, but it is a little clue to the vision of the whole novel. Tolstoy sees reality as a system of constant adjustments, a long, tricky convoy of surprises, as realities jostle together and the vital, solipsistic ego is affronted by the otherness of the world. Nikolai Rostov thinks that warfare is a glamorous business of “cutting people down.” But warfare is nothing like that, and when he finally has the chance to cut down a Frenchman he cannot do it, because the soldier’s face is not that of an enemy but “a most simple, homelike face.” He gets a medal and is called a hero, but can think only, “So that’s all there is to so-called heroism?” By the time Prince Andrei fights at Borodino, he has lost any sense he once had that a battle can be successfully commanded, and applauds General Kutuzov for at least knowing when to leave well enough alone. On a trip home, he sees two girls stealing plums from the estate’s trees, and is comforted, feeling “the existence of other human interests, totally foreign to him and as legitimate as those that concerned him.”

That difference between the alternative translations of “riding to Moscow on chairs” and “playing at ‘going to Moscow” in a carriage made of chairs” seems to capture perfectly what poetry is all about—as Wood says, the ego “affronted by the otherness of the world”—and also captures perfectly why language that is too “accessible” does not always serve the poem.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tofu Stir-fry

I'm posting today because I haven't posted for ages. I've seem to have had things to say, but my sluggish brain has not been ready to follow through. I'm still not certain how successful this post will be, so you might as well lower your expectations. Regular visitors to this blog already know that the posts that have meat in them are Robert's. Yeah, this is a tofu post. Tofu stir-fry.

Wanted to post this link to an interview Zack Rogow did with Bob Hass. (I feel obligated to my fellow po groupers, to wave their flags, having been one who started our workshop way back. Way back. Yes, once upon a time we even met in John's studio across from the ball park when the ball park wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eyes and the neighborhood was dumpsterville. Way back Bob Hass came to our group too -- only once, and it was on his side of the Bay, in Orinda. I remember the poem he brought. I remember the poem I brought.)

We are sick, sick, sick about the oil spill in the Bay! How can you crash into the Bay Bridge? Isn't it big enough? Oh, it was foggy. Well, duh. I am so upset about this, my brain starts to sputter when I think about it. I cannot look at the wildlife-coated-in-oil photos.

I am off from work today, thank you, veterans. As a pacifist, that's about the extent of my gratitude. I know most people think some wars are necessary or inevitable, but I don't understand how you solve anything by killing X number of people.

I have not been writing a lot. I don't want to make excuses. Even my reading has been sporadic. But I read a very interesting essay on Creeley by Charles Simic, published in NY Review of Books, October 25. Now Creeley never really did much for me, was just sort of on the periphery of my vision. But Simic totally impresses me as a poet who can talk about poetry in a way that is more interested in substance than in impressing you with his erudition -- a rare and totally welcome breath of fresh air -- and yet who doesn't look to get extra points for folksy ways, like some other poets laureate. (Not talking about BH. Bob is the best!) Anyway, what he said, by way of preamble, was "Unless one is an inmate serving a life sentence in a state penetentiary, a book of a thousand poems is nearly impossible to read... More to the point, there are not many poets, even among our best ones, who are likely to have more than eighty pages worth reading."

I personally, don't want to argue the point -- it is the emperor's-no-clothes attitude of the statement that impresses me. He also said -- and here I'd like to get input, if you have any opinions on the matter -- that "They [Creeley's early poems] were almost all about love, a subect of considerable interest to a vast number of human beings that for some curious reason is absent from the work of many of our poets today, who, unlike poets in other cultures, generally stay away from any overt expression of erotic feelings, as if love and sex were of little concern to them."

Do you think this is so? Not whether or not love and sex were Creeley's early subjects, but that many of our poets today shy away from this?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bronze by Gold

The more I read, the more I come back to James Joyce. Radically innovative in both form and content, Joyce also wrote language unrivaled for sheer beauty and told moving human stories. He was both radically traditional and revolutionary. I really can’t think of a 20th Century poet who came anywhere close to Joyce’s success in creating the literature of the future without sacrificing the artistic values of the past that deserve to be saved. William Carlos Williams? Please. Eliot, Pound, Stein, Stevens …? If there had been such a poet, I suspect more people would be reading poetry now.

Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing.
Imperthnthn thnthnthn.
Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips.
Horrid! And gold flushed more.
A husky fifenote blew.
Blew. Blue bloom is on the.
Goldpinnacled hair.
A jumping rose on satiny breast of satin, rose of Castile.
Trilling, trilling: Idolores …

—James Joyce

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fear of the Past

I fear this will be one of those posts that will interest no one but me (they come so fast and furious), but I’ve been thinking about my feelings about the future and the past. Readers of Ron Silliman’s blog will have noted his recent use of the term neophobe to refer to poets “afraid of the new.” That argument doesn’t particularly interest me at the moment, but I’ve been thinking about whether there’s a corresponding “fear of the old” (perhaps we could call poets who suffer from it senaphobes).

What interests me is the idea that there really is validity to this observation about the relationship of different poets to the past and the future. If we avoid derogatory terms like neophobe and talk in less loaded terms like “postromantic” and “postmodern,” there are clear differences between the typical interests of postromantic and postmodern poets. It is a cliché, but a valid one, that “romantics” are interested in love, beauty, imagination, and nature. I think it is equally true (if less noticed) that romantics are typically interested in the past, both historical and mythological. Of course this is not the same as saying that romantic poetry is of the past. If anyone is still reading anything five hundred years from now, chances are good they will still be moved by a poem like Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us,” because if human beings survive that long, they will probably feel all the more that the world is too much with them and will long to hear the sound of that old horn:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.