Jun 082003

Homework help continues apace, as the search strings grow increasingly, and suspiciously, specific. IP wants to know “what does no man moved me mean in Emily Dickinson’s poem I started early I walked my dog”? He further inquires “what does frigates in the upper floor mean in Emily Dickinson’s poem I started early I walked my dog”?

Well,, the poem begins, “I started early, took my dog,” not “I walked my dog.” You might want to reread it a couple times before resorting to Yahoo. As for “frigates,” consult the dictionary: they’re ships. The “upper floor” is the sea’s surface; you will note that mermaids are in “the basement.” You’ve heard of rats deserting sinking ships? Rats (and mice) board them the same way, on ropes. That’s what “hempen hands” are.

“No man moved me” is more difficult. The sea in this poem represents, most generally, destructive power. It is death, and has elements of male sexuality as well: the tide goes “past my bodice” and “made as he would eat me up.” She is saying that she was untouched by, and even unaware of, this power until she experienced it; and having done so, she flees to the safety of “the solid town.” The sea withdraws, like a proper gentleman, but its latent power remains, and we shall all confront it eventually.

I trust you can write your term paper now, and next time you have questions, just ask, OK?

Jun 062003

It was beautiful biking weather today, roller-bladers were scarce, and to top it off, so to speak, I saw a guy with a Kid ‘do, a bit wilted from basketball but a good ten inches tall in its full glory. Or maybe it was a Play ‘do, who can remember?

Anyone who bicycles in New York will eventually encounter a Mexican man, in his 50s or 60s, riding sedately on a low bicycle — usually with a front basket, a banana seat, and a sissy bar — festooned from end to end with bells, lights, horns, streamers, and occasionally pictures of the Virgin Mary. Lacking a camera I can’t do this justice, but it is one weird subculture, and there’s a paid article in it for someone more industrious than I am.

And while I have been failing to fill what Spinal Tap called a “much-needed void,” have a look at Alan Sullivan’s seaworthy new design, one of Sekimori’s better efforts. You should of course be reading him anyway. He’s a real poet, I just talk about them. Stumbling Tongue has a stirring defense of ignorance. Colby Cosh, who embarrassingly posts more when he says he isn’t blogging than I do when I say I am, discusses the politics of Witness, that Amish movie from the ’80s, but fails, oddly, to note how remarkably thick Kelly McGillis’s neck is.

Jun 032003

Special thanks to AC Douglas, for flagging this bitter little resumé of the state of poetry. And extra-special thanks to “Abiyah,” “a locally acclaimed hip-hop artist,” for touching, in one ill-written paragraph, on everything that has gone wrong with aesthetic theory in the last couple of centuries:

Certainly, there are basics of poetry that may need to be learned, but the learning of these techniques may inhibit rather than enhance the Hip Hop poets ability to express himself or herself. Academia or academic settings tend to discourage the Hip Hop poet, especially those who are innovative and experimental. Poems cannot and will not be created by recipe. In a classroom setting, particularly one focusing on creative writing, pre-emptive judgment calls by an instructor on the validity of a students poetry can be extremely detrimental. The instructor must be well-versed in cross-cultural contexts in order to fairly interpret each individual students poems.

Put aside the question of how one is to know that one is original by cultivating a studious ignorance of the history of poetry. Like Keynes’s proverbial madman who hears voices in the air, Abiyah assuredly has no idea what a profound debt she owes to academic scribblers, a bunch of late eighteenth-century German and English aestheticians in her case. “Innovation” and “experimentation” did not spring, like Athena, fully armed from Zeus’s breast. Until quite recently poetry was generally conceded to give words to the familiar: “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” Folk poetry like The Iliad is this way practically by definition.

The Elizabethans did not especially prize originality. They often rewrote each other’s poems, trying to improve them. (This tradition, ironically, survives in hip-hop in the remix, although for rather different reasons.) One of Ben Jonson’s best lyrics, “Drink to me only with thine eyes,” is a translation of Philostratus, an accurate one, the scholars say, though lacking Greek I cannot judge. The theory of the organic imagination originated, probably, with Herder and Schelling at the end of the eighteenth century, and was popularized, plagiarized, and jargonized by Coleridge — “esemplastic imagination,” “assimilative power,” “coadunating faculty,” and the like. The mind of the genius was supposed to be not like a mirror, reflecting an agreed-upon external reality, but like a plant, taking mere nourishment from reality and recombining it in strange and wonderful ways. (Shakespeare, its best illustration, largely owes this theory his exalted reputation.) Hence originality is the true mark of genius. It is a small distance from originality to shock, and from this theory to épater les bourgeois.

Our locally acclaimed hip-hop artist is certain the purpose of poetry is to express oneself. I’ve got a news flash for you, cupcake: nobody cares about your precious personality except your mother, and maybe not her either, if she’s anything like my mother. Self-expression, too, is a relatively recent development in aesthetic theory, heralded by the ever-grandiose Wordsworth in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which he defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” which makes it sound a good deal like road rage. The more spontaneity, the better, according to J.S. Mill: Natural poetry, the best kind, “is Feeling itself, employing Thought only as the medium of its utterance.” Naturally technique and study are positive hindrances to spontaneity; our hip-hop artist reminds us that “poems cannot and will not be written by recipe.” This whole business so irked T.S. Eliot that he called for “the extinction of personality”; too late. The spiritual descendant of Wordsworth and Mill is Picasso, with his “Whatever I spit — that is art.” And here we are.

*The definitive work on the evolution of these ideas is M.H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp, although Abrams appears not to recognize the disastrous consequences of the ideas that he chronicles so thoroughly.

Jun 022003

I just finished Michael Lewis’s terrific book about Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who consistently fields a great team with one of the lowest payrolls in the major leagues. The A’s are baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s particular albatross. Selig harps on the need for more baseball socialism (“revenue-sharing”) because of the alleged “inability of small market teams to compete,” when in fact it is only incompetently managed small market teams who can’t, Selig’s own Milwaukee Brewers prominent among them. Beane must drive him to drink. Now to anyone who has played fantasy baseball and read Bill James, which seems to be half of the male portion of the blogosphere, how to put together a winning baseball team with little money is no secret. You exploit inefficiencies, which is to say, you take advantage of the fact that many baseball executives are stupid. Certain traits are overvalued by other teams, like sculpted physiques or blazing speed or cannon arms. These don’t translate very well into on-field success anyway, and you ignore them. Other, more useful traits, like a deceptive pitching motion or the ability to draw walks, are undervalued, and these are what you look for.

The golden rule is that past performance indicates future performance, and ugly doesn’t count. Essentially you work from the spreadsheet instead of the scouting report. Scouts hate that. So do fans, stat geeks like me excepted, because it slights any knowledge of the game that comes from actually watching it. When I played in a fantasy league I would regularly tell other owners that they watched too much baseball, and that they needed to stop believing their own eyes. I was delighted to note that Beane often tells his scouts the same thing.

Beane himself is a former major-league player and hot prospect of exactly the type that he has trained himself, and his staff, to ignore. He was a high-school “tools” player, the type who looks better playing than he actually plays, and so highly regarded that many scouts and executives wanted to draft him first in his class, ahead of such future luminaries as Darryl Strawberry. But Beane’s tools never translated into major-league success. By his own account, his temper destroyed him as a player: he couldn’t cope with failure, and one bad at-bat would wreck his game, or his week.

In other words, Beane, instead of hiring in his own image, has become a brilliant success by doing the opposite. If there are other executives who have done this, I don’t know who they are.

(Dr. Manhattan reviews the book at greater length.)

(Update: Floyd McWilliams comments.)

(Update: Robert Birnbaum has an interesting interview with Lewis.)