Have you ever heard of E-Prime? I hadn’t, until this afternoon, when a friend dropped off a photocopy of an article about E-Prime by Cullen Murphy in a 1992 issue of The Atlantic.
E-Prime stands for English-Prime. It is (according to this evening’s Wikipedia) “a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be, including all conjugations, contractions and archaic forms.”
It sounds like an Oulipian exercise, but no. In serious circles, it’s taken much more seriously than Oulipo is. Avid supporters and avid detractors of E-Prime can be found in any field that requires the regular publication of academic papers.
E-Prime is based on the work of Alfred Korzybski, who in 1933 founded something he called general semantics. To its supporters, general semantics is a discipline, to its detractors it’s a linguistic cult. No matter, when it comes to the verb “to be,” Korzybski was on to something. “Is” creates equivalences that don’t exist – it’s obvious, if you think about it.
George Santayana noticed the problem ten years before Korzybski’s book, as Cullen Murphy notes in The Atlantic piece.
"The little word is has its tragedies," George Santayana wrote in 1923, in a passage that general semanticists quote frequently and fondly.
"It names and identifies different things with the greatest innocence; and yet no two are ever identical, and if therein lies the charm of wedding them and calling them one, therein too lies the danger. Whenever I use the word is, except in sheer tautology, I deeply misuse it; and when I discover my error, the world seems to fall asunder...."
Santayana's complaint had to do with locutions like "Mary is a woman" and "Mary is cold," in which the verb is implies the tight coupling of equivalent things, whereas in fact in the first instance it joins nouns that have different levels of abstraction and in the second it joins a noun to an adjective that neither completely nor permanently qualifies it. Transgressions like these may seem trivial, but in fact they pose fundamental problems of logic, and they greatly bother critical thinkers.
Korzybski’s prescription, to eliminate the verb “to be” from the English language, was not meant to be a new English language; it was a template for clear and precise communication.
Some teachers use E-Prime as a writing exercise. Its use as a teaching tool was promoted in a 2003 article in English Teaching Forum, a journal published by the State Department’s Office of English Language Programs: “English Prime as an Instructional Tool in Writing Classes,” by John C. Herbert.
Herbert’s opening paragraph:
Accomplished teachers of English composition can offer a variety of ways to guide students through the writing process, ranging from mind maps to peer critiques with numerous pre-writing, writing, and post-writing activities in between. For students, one of the more challenging and useful steps in the revision stage of the writing process surfaces in the removal of prosaic sentence formations that include clichés, simple narration, and vague expressions. Despite their efforts to cleanse students' essays of ambiguous and trite language, many students and teachers overlook the lack of originality and clarity inherent in an over-reliance on the verb to be. An introduction to English Prime, commonly referred to as E-Prime, can remedy this oversight and can compel ESL [English as a second language] and EFL [English as a first language] students to improve their language learning within the process of writing.
After an hour of googling, I’ve put together this summary of the origin and apotheosis of E-Prime.
1) George Santayana incidentally, and Alfred Korzybski pointedly, identify overuse of the verb “to be” as a source of confusion, misdirection and fuzzy thinking.
2) In 1938 Korzybski, two Chicago psychiatrists, and the heir to a plumbing fortune, establish the Institute of General Semantics. ISG’s purpose is to the practical implementation of Korzybski’s theory that language imposes limitations on the psyche that hobble understanding and restrict human potential. The sloppy overuse of “to be” is only one of the problematical intersections between language and psychology identified by Korzybski and his General Semantics colleagues.
3) In 1966, D. David Bourland, Jr., in the General Semantic Bulletin, proposes a new, “is”-free language, which he calls E-Prime.
4) Bourland’s suggestion remains dormant until 1987, when "Speaking in E-Prime", by E. W. Kellogg III, appears in another ISG publication, ETC: A Review of General Semantics.
5) Kellogg’s article catches the attention of some of the people in academia who, now that deconstructionism has begun to smell bad, have been looking for other fish to fry. 6) In the early 1990’s replacing English with E-Prime becomes the main preoccupation of the ISG.
7) In the 21st century, the linguistic principles of Alfred Korzybski are subsumed in a virulent battle between grandiloquent partisans of E-Prime and its equally fustian scoffers.
After all that, I am still in a quandary: Is E-Prime a linguistic discipline, a better language than plain English (with its pesky “is”) to communicate in, or is it the esoteric lingo of a small academic coterie?
A glance at Google News makes it look like E-Prime is a coming thing. Within the last two months E-Prime was mentioned twice in articles for general consumption.
Once, in February, Jeremy Clarke wrote about E-Prime in his regular column in The Spectator, “Low Life”. The lead-in for “Dinner with Enoch Powell's Postman” was “It was a blessed relief after the Doc's conversational barrage about the joys of E-prime, Crispr and LSD.”
In March, E-Prime was mentioned in reviews of a memoir, Scoundrel Days, by an Australian writer, Brentley Frazer. From a review in The Saturday Paper:
The early passages in which [Frazer] navigates a rough-as-guts childhood, fighting his way through school and avoiding the sexual predator tramp preachers who have raped his friends, are compelling, doubly so because Frazer has chosen to write the text in English Prime. This literary affectation, which eschews all use of the verb “to be”, is a staggering undertaking for a memoir writer. It works admirably, as it denies the opportunity to excessively navel gaze, and lends the narrative a novelistic feel.
The fact that E-Prime was compared to LSD in The Spectator and called a “literary affectation” in the Sidney Morning Herald does not diminish the possibility that E-Prime is trending in the zeitgeist. Quite the opposite: just look at the first portrayals of existentialism in the popular press.
The most convincing evidence that E-Prime is a cult is its genesis, which conforms to the usual cult origin narrative: an enthusiastic disciple (Bourland) raises deifies a dead master (Korzybski) and presents his theories as absolute truth. Actually, the origin narrative of E-Prime is similar to that of Christianity’s, in that there are three individuals involved: Korzybski, in the role of Jesus; Bourland, in the role of Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John; E. W. Kellogg III as St. Paul. The Institute of General Semantics plays the role of Rome at the time of Constantine.
The fact that D. David Bourland, Jr. does not have a Wikipedia entry, while any twelve-year-old with a garage band whose parents paid $300 for 100 copies of a CD to sell on CD Baby can make it into Wikipedia, points to an anti-E-Prime cadre in the vast Wikipedia editorial community. That, in turn, casts doubt on the Wikipedia article on general semantics which denigrates it from an academic discipline to “a self improvement and therapy program.”
In its relentless efforts to establish E-Prime as standard written English in academia, the Institute of General Semantics may be stripping E-Prime of its raison d’être and turning it into an Oulipian exercise. For academic writers who might otherwise be bored by writing, once again, about some same old thing, it can provide the excitement of having a puzzle to solve. Then, if you do write your next paper without using the verb “to be,” there is a chance that it might be accepted by ETC and look swell on a CV.
“Something” is the best I can do, because general semantics is described as one thing in one Wikipedia article, and as quite another thing in another.
According to the Wikipedia article on Korzybski, “Korzybski's work culminated in the initiation of a discipline that he named general semantics (GS). This should not be confused with semantics. The basic principles of general semantics, which include time-binding, are described in the publication Science and Sanity, published in 1933.”
According to the Wikipedia article on general semantics: “General semantics is a self improvement and therapy program begun in the 1920s that seeks to regulate human mental habits and behaviors. After partial launches under the names human engineering and humanology, Polish-American originator Alfred Korzybski (1879–1950) fully launched the program as general semantics in 1933 with the publication of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.
Santayana wrote, “It marries and identifies different things with the greatest innocence; etc.” not – as Cullen has it – “It names and identifies etc.”
That sentence, from Santayana’s Skepticism and Animal Faith, appears almost as a non-sequitur in the middle of a paragraph that begins with an elaborate Hoffmanesque metaphor (for “transitive knowledge,” which Santayana discusses in the preceding paragraph) of a child who believes that people are animated clothing, and then, in a tailor’s shop, is traumatized by seeing lifeless clothes hung on manikins.
In its article about E-Prime, under the heading “Criticisms,” to a 10-point critique contra E-Prime by “James D. French, a computer programmer at the University of California,” Wikipedia appends:
“According to an article (written in E-Prime and advocating a role for E-Prime in ESL and EFL programs) published by the Office of English Language Programs of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the State Department of the United States, ‘Requiring students to avoid the verb to be on every assignment would deter students from developing other fundamental skills of fluent writing.’”
Without coming right out and saying so, the paragraph makes it seem that E-Prime was official United States State Department policy. The thrust of this misleading impression is Machiavellian. Set against James D. French’s ten sensible objections to E-Prime, the insinuation that the State Department promotes E-Prime adds a political dimension to the E-Prime controversy: Now the government jackboots are telling us we have to teach the damn thing.
From Wikipedia, with editors' notes:
"The essay quickly generated controversy within the general semantics field, partly because practitioners of general semantics[who?] sometimes saw Bourland as attacking the verb 'to be' as such, and not just certain usages."
The Spectator, Feb. 17, 2017:
Another conversation revolved around E-prime, a radical new method of writing English that abjures the verb ‘to be’ because it deifies the writer’s identity and opinions. Instead of writing, say, ‘A fetus is a person’, under E-prime rules I should put: ‘In my system of metaphysics, I classify a fetus as a person.’ This seems po-faced and long-winded to me. Evangelists for E-prime believe, however, that changing the structure of language can alter the structure of the human brain as radically as a psychedelic drug. Doc is very excited about E-prime and hopes it takes hold.
Sidney Morning Herald, March 15, 2017:
In the early 2000s, not long after this book's close, Frazer would become publisher and editor of cutting-edge literary magazine Retort, and as a "bareknuckle poet" he was a founding member of the Speed Poets events in Brisbane. Scoundrel Days is written in E-Prime, the discipline founded by Alfred Korzybski that rejects the use of the copula (the verb "to be") in order to combat literary laziness.
Hey, Hey! I’ve discovered a great new CD – a set of two CD’s, actually.
I love Baroque keyboard music; but I can’t stand the harpsichord. (The notable exception being Yannick le Gaillard’s set of Duphly’s keyboard works.)
I’m a purist by nature and by confession so, let’s see... How can I rationalize my predilection for harpsichord music played on the piano?
What is called “world music” makes me gag. I regard musical fusion, such things as – and I really saw these on Youtube – a trio of folklorically attired middle-aged Balkan women singing one of those close-harmony Slavic folk songs so old that you can hear its pagan roots, accompanied by a digital drum track, or a flamenco guitarist accompanied by a bass player, as a crime against the culture akin to rape and battery.
Yet, I seem to have no objection to any re-instrumentation of classical music. One of my favorite CD’s is Satie played on medieval instruments. I enjoy hearing orchestrated chamber music and orchestral music arranged for chamber ensembles, and I was perfectly able to judge on its own merits a recording of Haydn played by a saxophone quartet. (Its merits did not amount to much.) I am breaking no personal taboo by listening to harpsichord music played on the piano.
The primary art of folk music is its performance; the music itself – its melodies, its harmonies, its text (if there is any) – is secondary. The primary art of Western classical music is its composition (in the big meaning of the word, as well as the narrow one) – melodies, harmonies, text; its performance is secondary. The Goldberg Variations is the same Bach composition, whether it is played on a harpsichord, a piano, or an accordion. (It is not the same composition if an attempt is made to render it on an instrument which plays only one note at a time.) That is my rationalization for accepting re-arranged classical music. It’s a pretty solid one, if you ask me.
Not so easily explained is my dislike of the harpsichord. It’s just a matter of taste, I guess. The harpsichord is, to my ears, just too plinkety-plunk.
The keyboard music of some of the big boys of the baroque has become standard piano repertoire.
There’s Bach, of course. My favorite all-round Bach performer is Ivo Janssen. Perahia’s Bach is lovely; his Goldberg Variations is a masterpiece. Kempff’s performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier is my favorite right now. Angela Hewitt’s Bach, which everyone was so excited about a few years ago, is pedestrian. Glenn Gould does not wear well.
There is so much Bach on piano out there that a stylistic outlier like Samuel Feinberg’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the soaring romanticism of which would be excoriated if it were applied to the one and only piano recording of Duphly, let’s say, can be savored as a lush and profound marvel.
The usual piano repertoire also includes Scarlatti – who’s as delightful to hear as a virtuoso bluegrass banjo – and Handel’s suites, and... I think that’s about it. Thanks to the cornucopian Naxos label, the collected Scarlatti-like keyboard music of Antonio Soler is available on piano. Angela Hewitt has recorded Couperin – nothing to complain about, since it’s the only game in town.
Searching the internet for more Baroque keyboard music on piano, I came up with the keyboard works of Rameau performed by Marcelle Meyer. Amazon sells the digital download, so I was able to preview bits of it. It sounded good so, for what the download would have cost me, I ordered it used on CD.
Marcelle Meyer playing Rameau is my newly discovered great CD. Her piano has a little something of the sound of Feinberg (who taught his students at the Moscow Conservatory that the piano is not a percussion instrument, but a string instrument), but Meyer plays with the definition which Baroque music requires (for German music, we call it clarity; for Italian and Spanish music, we call it animation; for French music, we call it delicacy) and has a marvelous knack, which I’ve not heard so clearly before, of suggesting the differing qualities of three registers – low, middle, treble – of an elaborate pedal harpsichord.
Meyer, who lived in Paris, recorded eleven pieces by Rameau in 1946, at the end of the occupation. Those were released on 78 rpm, of course. With the advent of the 33 rpm record, she returned to the studio and recorded all of Rameau’s keyboard music. The recording – in a easy-to-come-by Erato set or as a download – includes Meyer’s 1946 recording as well as the later one.
Meyer’s Rameau has brought a little joy into an otherwise fairly gloomy spring.
Yesterday, I downloaded the keyboard music of Giovanni Benedetto Platti played on the piano by Abelardo Galang II. I haven’t listened to it yet. I did sample it and can confidently say it will not make my short list of great performances. But it will have what I look for in baroque keyboard music played on the piano: an emotionally resonant expression of enlightenment wit.
How objective can you be? Here is a test.
Sometimes, late at night, when I’m too tired to read any longer, and I have watched my limit of one or two spy or detective shows, I browse through Youtube. Lately, I have been watching documentaries and home movies from the early 20th century. It started with my searching for old movies from Joseph Conrad territory and found a bunch of movies shot by a serious amateur cinematographer in Malaysia between the wars. Youtube, of course, noted my interest so each time I pull up Youtube on my Apple TV, there are new suggestions for vintage movies, many of them the kind of travelogues that, along with cartoons and newsreels, once were shown in movie theaters, before the main attraction.
A couple of nights ago I watched a 30-minute color (or colorized) silent film of Germany in 1938. The first ten minutes were of Berlin on the day of Hitler’s speech in the Sports Stadium, in which he declared war on Europe over Czechoslovakia.
Nazi flags are everywhere. Large flags and banners drape down from the roofs and windows of office buildings, smaller ones festoon the entranceway and windows of almost every shop and flutter from streetcars and taxis. A little boy being pulled in a wagon holds what looks like a flag with a crisscrossed square instead of a swastika, then you realize that the sun is shining through the flag and you are seeing the shadow of the swastika on the other side.
From every lamppost on Unter der Linden hang long red banners, the black on white swastika positioned about one-third of the way down. The position of the swastika on the banners seems to have been carefully considered, and the design of the banner as a whole is classic, simple, discrete. (After all, why not a swastika at the top and another in the middle? Why not make the swastika as large as it can be in that space?)
As soon as I began thinking along those lines, it dawned on me that the Nazi flag was a beautiful example of early art moderne design: the bold colors; the abstract, yet evocative symbol; the audacious simplicity.
I wonder if Raymond Loewy – born in France, with a Jewish father, who had fought in WWI against the Bosch – had allowed himself to be impressed?
If you are having trouble reaching the requisite state of objectivity to appreciate the aesthetics of the Nazi flag, perhaps an injection of schadenfreude will help.
The same city, Berlin, in 1945:
I love Handel. In fact, his Nine German Arias are at the top of my list of favorite classical music. They are delightful. (As long as they are not performed as if they were arias in a ponderous oratorio or in one of his Italianate – that is, stylishly heartfelt – Italian cantatas.) Delightful, yes; humorous, no. Unless I am missing something, Handel is unique in having no sense of humor – or rather, in whose music there is not the slightest hint of a sense of humor.
In Marian Van Til’s George Frideric Handel – A Music Lover’s Guide (thank you, Google Books), the author writes, “If Handel could be irascible, he was fundamentally kind, compassionate and generous, and had a brilliant sense of humor.” Van Til cites the following passage. from Charles Burney, as “[describing] Handel’s penchant for humor:”
His countenance, which I remember as perfectly as that of any man I saw but yesterday, was full of fire and dignity; and such as impressed ideas of superiority and genius. He was impetuous, rough, and peremptory in his manners and conversation, but totally devoid of ill nature or malevolence; indeed, there was an original humour and pleasantry in his most lively sallies of anger or impatience, which, with his broken English, were extremely risible. His natural propensity to wit and humour, and happy manner of relating common occurrences, in an uncommon way, enabled him to throw persons and things into very ridiculous attitudes. Had he been as great a master of the English language as Swift, his bons mots would have been as frequent, and somewhat of the same kind... Handel's general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humour, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly ever saw in any other.
Well, Handel may have been a funny guy, but I get the sense from Burney that he was at his wittiest when lambasting someone or something and that it was his broken English which got the most laughs.
With Haydn being the exception that proves the rule, humor is not an important component of classical music.
(It is an essential element of literature, where it appears even the least comic works – the darkest and most tragic dramas and novels and such dry non-fiction as philosophy and history. It often is used as comic relief, a leavening agent when things get too heavy. Usually, humor appears simply because something funny occurred to the author while writing which, after some deliberation, was deemed suitable for inclusion.)
Despite its minor role in classical music, every composer – except Handel – occasionally composed a humorous work or a humorous movement or a humorous passage, or at least a work, movement or passage intended to be humorous: the use of an incongruously plebian melody (Mahler’s funereal minor-key Frère Jacques in the First Symphony), a slapstick rhythm (Scarlatti’s Fugue in G Minor, L.499 which, so the legend goes, is based on the notes played by Scarlatti’s cat, Pulcinella, as she walked across the keyboard), parody (Ravel’s La Valse), self-parody (many of Beethoven’s Bagatelles), or some other comic trope.
Much of classical music humor is lost on us. Schubert’s Der Geistertanz (Ghost Dance), D.116, was a macabre hoot back in 1814, but we don’t get the joke. Both Schubert’s music and the poem he set, which describes the grotesque antics of some frolicking ghosts, chortle-making back then, seem now to be just some less distinguished examples of the predominant sensibility of early romanticism: genteel swooning.
Handel’s music can be joyous or bucolic (as in the German Arias) or bumptious or brazen or, occasionally, sweet as honey; but it is never funny. It is never intended to be funny.
(Or perhaps I am missing something. I’ll happily change my mind, if someone were to point out to me a humorous passage in Handel.)
Of course, the fact that Handel did not write any humorous music doesn’t mean that Handel’s music is never funny. It’s trenchantly funny here.
Giulio Cesare, in an early production by Peter Sellers.
(Unfortunately, for some viewers the brash humor of this production – so inimical to Handel – gets in the way of their enjoying an absolutely beautiful performance. The singers are brilliant. The countertenor who sings Caesar, Jeffrey Gall, is twice over a virtuoso – not only is his singing exquisite, his presentation of the character, Caesar, is impeccable: he is “presidential” -- present president excluded – to a T, ramping it up, just enough, with a dash of farce.)
A lot of it can be found here (with a case of disappearing subtitles, unfortunately).
There are geniuses, and then there are unimaginable geniuses. In the arts, we (as in “what you mean ‘we,’ white man?”) have had two, for sure – Shakespeare and Bach – and, maybe, three.
It upset my sense of balance, whenever I voiced this opinion, to leave out the visual arts. I would make a triad by including Rembrandt, while knowing deep down that, although Rembrandt is stupendous, he is not on the level of the other two. While Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings do synthesize the human condition and the universal – a synthesis which, when we find it, we call beauty – they do not range across the spectrum of human emotions and intimations as does the work of Shakespeare or Bach.
You may scoff, but having recently seen some of Picasso’s less familiar work, instead of just the permanent collection warhorses – a show in London of pieces he did in Antibes and last year’s sculpture exhibit at MOMA – it occurred to me that Picasso probably is the third in my trinity of unimaginable geniuses.
We’re too close to Picasso to see it, of course. Three hundred years after Shakespeare and a century after Bach, the early Romantics, busy discarding classical traditions but not yet effected by incoming restraints (the 19th century’s rapturous gentility), were open to recognizing that Shakespeare was not just another Elizabethan playwright and Bach not just another northern baroque composer.
Shakespeare was “discovered” slowly – first by the Germans, the sturm und drang writers, in a search for genuine folk artists. Bach was “discovered” in one swell foop, with Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829. Someday our Picasso – that sly little dynamo of modern art – will become only a figure of biography. Then – possibly when the culture is going through a transition of some sort – someone in the visual arts will take a fresh look at Picasso and realize that, taken all together, his work presents the same unimaginably comprehensive compendium of the human made universal as do the plays and poetry of Shakespeare and the music of Bach.
To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
Theodor Adorno: "Cultural Criticism and Society"
“Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she told an interviewer after the publication of “Aftermath,” her memoir about the demise of her marriage, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”
Monica Ali: “Rachel Cusk’s Risky, Revolutionary New Novel” New York Times Book Review, Jan. 23, 2017
“Once you have suffered sufficiently,” he told an interviewer after the publication of “La Vita Nuova,” his memoir about dealing with the death of his beloved Beatrice, “the idea of making up Giovanni and Gianna and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”
“Once you have suffered sufficiently,” he told an interviewer after the publication of “Notes from Underground,” his memoir, in the form of fiction, about the painfulness of his Siberian exile, “the idea of making up Ivan and Ivana and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”
“Once you have suffered sufficiently,” he told an interviewer after the publication of “Lycidas”, an elegy for his closest friend, who died in a shipwreck, “the idea of making up Adam and Eve and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”
“Once you have suffered sufficiently,” he told an interviewer after the publication of “Good-Bye to All That,” his memoir of World War I, in which he was wounded and left with long-lasting post-traumatic stress disorder, “the idea of making up Claudius and Messalina and having them do things to other people seems utterly ridiculous.”
A long time ago, one Spring in the early 80’s, I was strolling up Fifth Avenue through a sidewalk art festival past one uninteresting display after another. It was the same-old same-old; even the artists who felt that their best bet, without anything else worthwhile to offer, was an engaging or spectacular or revulsive originality, were the same-old same-old.
Then my eye caught this:
or something like it, or like this, or this:
The artist was a guy named David Itchkawich. Just type Itchkawich into Google Images.
Itchkawich was pleased that I liked his stuff, although like many visual artists, he did not have much to say about it. On a gallery website, he is quoted thus: "My work represents invented situations which look believable at first glance. I feel it is almost a test to see whether I can create a believable, interesting situation with a good composition.” That succinctly sums up his work.
I didn’t buy an Itchkawich that day. I’m not sure why. The prices may have been a little too rich for me. I later bought a book, When Men Were Animals and Animals Were Men: A Study of the Graphic Work of David Itchkawich by John R. Mattingly, with eighteen Itchkawich etchings, published in 1976.
Mattingly’s admiring critique of Itchkawich in When Men Were Animals is one of the most pretentious things I have ever read. Mattingly’s pretentiousness is so naive that one feels for him, as one feels for a hopelessly naive character in a work of fiction. (Prince Mishkin comes to mind.)
For example, in his notes on the etching, “The Hearing” Mattingly says, “Though the etching is called ‘The Hearing’, there appears nothing to hear. Why was it not called ‘The Waiting’ or ‘Attendance at Court’?” Mattingly’s cluelessness takes flight in the paragraph before that: “Though four of the participants are standing, there is no explanation of why they are standing. They appear to be tired rather than deferential. And if it were respect that they show, it would have to be for a series of banisters set on top of a partition so high that it would be barely possible to see through them.”
Like an unreliable narrator, whose skewed sensibilities are a poignant lens through which we can more deeply experience a work of fiction, Mattingly is an unreliable critic, whose skewed sensibilities are a poignant lens through which we can more deeply experience the art of David Itchkawich.
Discussing "Vergebliche Besserwisserei [Futile Knowledge] – Here’s to You, Martin Schwab" Mattingly, in his customary tone – that of a wise child explaining that the sun only looks as if it is moving – says, “Whether the participants are peasants or workmen or both is unclear. Only the name ‘Martin Schwab’ suggests that the ethnicity of the picture may be thought of as German.”
I assumed that, in his clueless way, Mattingly was missing some significance in the name Martin Schwab. I assumed, in my own clueless way, that Martin Schwab was a figure in the political landscape of early 20th century Eastern Europe – someone Mattingly could have looked up in a library, if he could have spared a moment from his alloted task of scattering seeds of Levi-Strauss throughout the plains of Western philosophy.
Wrong. Pre-Google, Mattingly would have had a hard time discovering the identity of Itchkawich’s Martin Schwab. (He could have asked Itchkawich, of course; but consulting the artist is something no respectable art critic can be expected to do.) It turns out that Martin Schwab was a fairly obscure German movie actor. (Fairly obscure = just a short entry in German Wikipedia.)
There is no question that, among Google’s many Martin Schwabs, this one is Itchkawich’s dedicatee.
The meaning of Itchkawich’s etchings (like the meaning of any successful artwork) is more than language is capable of expressing. Even whatever meanings Itchkawich, himself, might come up with would be only be fragmentary – one layer of innumerable layers of meaning that can be drawn from the same-old.
There’s nothing wrong with the same-old. It is the same-old same-old that is a bore. The same-old is what makes a created work – a poem, a piece of music, a painting, an embroidered handkerchief – a work of art. To unconscionably generalize: the same-old for the Greeks was myth; then the Romans added history; these were cast aside for a millennium, during which the same-old was the worship of Jesus; when that worship began to be regarded as nothing more than that old workhorse, myth, the human condition, primarily that of love, joined myth and history in the magnificent same-old of the 19th century; then came the modern age, and the elevation of style to the rank of same-old. In that sense, Itchkawich’s same-old is the same-old of Bosch, of Piranesi, of Fuseli, of Ensor.
Somewhere in his book Mattingly protests that Itchkawich is not Kafkaesque. Of course, Itchkawich is Kafkaesque. Kafka has become part of The Great Same-Old on High, which we know as our culture.
That is Itchkawich’s real medium: our culture (his and mine; I don’t know if its yours if you’re under forty). His palette is a profusion of cultural references, which he combines in subtle ways. For example, the array of headgear in “A Few of the Hundreds” evokes a specific, yet imaginary, cultural moment, like a bank of flowers in a Monet might evoke a specific, yet imaginary, hour in a specific season.
Now, to add to the villainies practiced by Islamic fundamentalists when they gain authority somewhere – forcing women into bourkas and men into beards, destroying precious ancient monuments of Eastern and Western civilization, rigorously punishing the slightest infraction of a narrow code of permitted expressions of tender affection, stoning to death suspected adulteresses (and occasionally adulterers), executing enemy combatants with an exhibitionistic sadism beyond the imagination of Mel Gibson – there are rumors that fiercely aniconic fundamentalist cadres in some parts of Pakistan are trying to curb the tradition of truck painting, which has been responsible for thousands of masterpieces of ornamentation (ironically, Islam’s great contribution to the visual arts).
For a while I had the bright idea that it would be informative to compare the use of the first person singular in contemporary poetry and in poetry up to, oh, mid-20th century.
I was sure that the ratio between now and then would be astoundingly steep, demonstrating, once again, how narcissistic and selfish is the Geist of this particular Zeis.
To test my theory (to prove it, I was sure) I decided to use the winners and two runners-up of the Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry over the last three years. I would take the first poem I could find by each poet and start counting the I’s and me’s.
Hmmm – it didn’t work out. In the poems of the nine Pulitzer poets there was not a whole lot of narcissism, nor a lot of I’s and me’s. I’m still convinced that most of the poetry being written today is more therapeutic than poetic; I just assume that Pulitzer Committee is as contemptuous of that stuff as I am.
It wasn’t a waste of time, though.
I don’t read poetry often, and not much contemporary poetry – the one or two poems in each London Review and whatever poetry I come across while I am thumbing The New Yorker for cartoons. So my little survey of contemporary poetry was enlightening.
Since my expectations were low, I was pleasantly surprised. (A good formula to remember in many situations.) Four of the nine were good poems – in other words, if I were the professor of an advanced graduate course in writing poetry, I’d give them an A. Two moved me.
These are the poems I found. And what I have to say about each.
Driving Route 20 to Syracuse past pastures of cows and falling silos
you feel the desert stillness near the refineries at the Syrian border.
Walking in fog on Mecox Bay, the long lines of squawking birds on shore,
you’re walking along Flinders Street Station, the flaring yellow stone and walls
of windows where your uncle landed after he fled a Turkish prison.
You walked all day along the Yarra, crossing the sculptural bridges with their
the hollow sound of the didgeridoo like the flutes of Anatolia.
One road is paved with coins, another with razor blades and ripped condoms.
Walking the boardwalk in January past Atlantic City Hall, the rusted Deco
ticket sign, the waves black into white,
you smell the grilled ćevapi in the Baščaršija of Sarajevo,
and that street took you to the Jewish cemetery where the weeds grew over
the slabs and a mausoleum stood intact.
There was a trail of carnelian you followed in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem
and picking up those stones now, you’re walking in the salt marsh on the
the day undercut by the flatness of the sky, the wide view of the Atlantic, the
Your uncle stashed silk and linen, lace and silver in a suitcase on a ship that
docked not far from here; the ship moved in and out of port for years, and
your uncle kept coming
and going, from Melbourne to London to Kolkata and back, never returning to
the Armenian village near the Black Sea.
The topaz ring you passed on in a silver shop in Aleppo appeared on Lexington
the shop owner, a young guy from Ivory Coast, shrugged when you told him you
had seen it
before; the shuffled dust of that street fills your throat and you remember how a
coins poured out of your pocket like a slinky near the ruined castle now a disco in
Thessaloniki where a young girl was stabbed under the strobe lights—lights that
sky that was the iridescent eye of a peacock in Larnaca at noon, when you walked
church where Lazarus had come home to die and you forgot that Lazarus died
because the story was in one of your uncle’s books that were wrapped in
newspaper in a suitcase and
stashed under the seat of an old Ford, and when he got to the border
he left the car and walked the rest of the way, and when you pass the apartment
on 116th and Broadway—where your father grew up (though it’s a dorm now)--
that suitcase is buried in a closet under clothes, and when you walk past the
at the big glass entrance door, you’re walking through wet grass, clouds
clumped on a hillside, a subway station sliding into water.
Although written in the second person, Peter Balakian’s “Home” seemed to confirm my fear that poetry was becoming just another patch of monstrous narcissi emerging from the fetid swamp of art-as-self-expression. (Remember when it used to be “the universal?”) The you of Balakian’s poem seemed, at first, to be a shorthand for I, but then I, itself, appeared and I wasn’t so sure.
Maybe you is one of the poet’s numerous Armenian cousins. (Armenians have lots of cousins; I’ve read my Saroyan.) If that was the case, or even with an ambiguity about whether or not that was the case, it became a better poem.
Sure, Balakian plays the Armenian card, but that’s okay. Great things have been written using the Irish card, the Jewish card, the New England Wasp card, the Welsh card, and the Armenian card (I happen to think My Name is Aram is pretty super).
Unfortunately, the tone of “Home” is Robotic Narrative, in which the impassivity of the recital of incidents and sensations is meant to contrast with, and thus accentuate, their emotional content. It doesn’t work in “Home”.
Eight Untitled Sonnets
I liked this. I enjoyed the leaps across meaning, the skewing of expected junctions and the little jolt that comes when you see where you have ended up at the end of each “sonnet.” But if there is any meaningful connection between Willis’ personal world and the world we all share in common, I don’t see it.
Song in my heart
If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it, canary at the bottom
of the cage I bury it, like God tromping the sky
in his undershirt carrying his brass spittoon,
raging and sobbing in his Hush Puppy house
slippers with the backs broke down, no Mrs.
God to make him reasonable as he gets out
the straight razor to slice the hair off his face,
using the Black Sea as a mirror when everyone
knows the Black Sea is a terrible mirror,
like God is a terrible simile for me but like
God with his mirror, I use it.
Yes, and I liked this, too. The I stands in for everyone, not just the poet; the lament is universal, not particular.
Too bad the wonderful analogy at the end is not made with the same panache that strikes sparks at the beginning of the poem.
The girls turning double-dutch
bob & weave like boxers pulling
punches, shadowing each other,
sparring across the slack cord
casting parabolas in the air. They
whip quick as an infant’s pulse
and the jumper, before she
enters the winking, nods in time
as if she has a notion to share,
waiting her chance to speak. But she’s
anticipating the upbeat
like a bandleader counting off
the tune they are about to swing into.
The jumper stair-steps into mid-air
as if she’s jumping rope in low-gravity,
training for a lunar mission. Airborne a moment
long enough to fit a second thought in,
she looks caught in the mouth bones of a fish
as she flutter-floats into motion
like a figure in a stack of time-lapse photos
thumbed alive. Once inside,
the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods
who’ve lain in the dust since the Dutch
acquired Manhattan. How she dances
patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing
its travels in scale before the hive. How
the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope
slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.
Her misted skin arranges the light
with each adjustment and flex. Now heather-
hued, now sheen, light listing on the fulcrum
of a wrist and the bare jutted joints of elbow
and knee, and the faceted surfaces of muscle,
surfaces fracturing and reforming
like a sun-tickled sleeve of running water.
She makes jewelry of herself and garlands
the ground with shadows.
Too many words, too much detail, too much thought and not enough poetry to describe the inherent loveliness of girls jumping rope. I’m not saying that Pardlo should get it down to the bare bones, like William Carlos Williams does, but at least he should try.
A man hauling coal in the street is stilled forever.
Inside a temple, instead of light
a slow shutter lets the darkness in.
I see a rat turn a corner running from a man with a chair trying to smash it,
see people sleeping at midnight in a Wuhan street on bamboo beds,
a dead pig floating, bloated, on water.
I see a photograph of a son smiling who two years ago fell off a cliff
and his photograph is in each room of the apartment.
I meet a woman who had smallpox as a child, was abandoned by her mother
but who lived, now has two daughters, a son, a son-in-law;
they live in three rooms and watch a color television.
I see a man in blue work clothes whose father was a peasant
who joined the Communist party early but by the time of the Cultural Revolution
had risen in rank and become a target of the Red Guards.
I see a woman who tried to kill herself with an acupuncture needle
but instead hit a vital point and cured her chronic asthma.
A Chinese poet argues that the fundamental difference between East and West
is that in the East an individual does not believe himself
in control of his fate but yields to it.
As a negative reverses light and dark
these words are prose accounts of personal tragedy becoming metaphor,
an emulsion of silver salts sensitive to light,
laughter in the underground bomb shelter converted into a movie theater,
lovers in the Summer Palace park.
No, sorry. Polemics in the form of cool observation. Similar to Balakian’s poem, but Balakian’s poem is poetry, Sze’s (despite its form) is prose.
Alan R. Shapiro
Old court. Old chain net hanging in frayed links from the rim,
the metal blackboard dented, darker where the ball
for over thirty years has kissed it, the blacktop buckling,
the white lines nearly worn away. Old common ground
where none of the black men warming up before the basket
will answer or even look in my direction when I ask
if I can run too, the chill a mutual understanding,
one of the last we share, letting me join them here,
if nowhere else, by not letting me forget I don’t belong.
Old court. Old courtesy, handshake, exchange of names,
in the early days of bussing, between assassinations,
before our quaint welcoming of them had come to seem,
even to ourselves, the haughty overflow of wealth
so thoroughly our own we didn’t need to see it.
Old beautiful delusion in those courtly gestures
that everything now beyond our wanting just to play
was out of bounds, and we were free between the white lines
of whatever we assumed we each of us assumed.
Old court, old dream dreamed by the weave, the trap,
the backdoor pass. Old fluid legacy, among the others,
that conjures even now within our bodies and between them
such a useless, such an intimate forgetting, as in the moment
when you get a step on your defender and can tell
exactly by how another man comes at you
where your own man is and, without looking, lob the ball
up in the air so perfectly as he arrives that
in a single motion he can catch and finger roll it in.
Old court. Old dwindling cease fire, with no hope of peace,
that we silently turn away from when the game is over,
hurrying back (as if believing contact meant contagion)
to our separate tribes, to the cleansing fires of what,
despite ourselves, we momentarily forgot:
old lore, old news, old burning certitudes we can’t
stoke high or hot enough, yet won’t stop ever stoking
until whatever it is we think we are anneals
and toughens into an impenetrable shield.
Polemical poetry that I find moving, which is rare. I know the feeling, Alan R. Shapiro. I too mourn that loss, and I’ve never played basketball.
Bright Copper Kettles
Dead friends coming back to life, dead family,
speaking languages living and dead, their minds retentive,
their five senses intact, their footprints like a butterfly’s,
mercy shining from their comprehensive faces--
this is one of my favorite things.
I like it so much I sleep all the time.
Moon by day and sun by night find me dispersed
deep in the dreams where they appear.
In fields of goldenrod, in the city of five pyramids,
before the empress with the melting face, under
the towering plane tree, they just show up.
“It’s all right,” they seem to say. “It always was.”
They are diffident and polite.
(Who knew the dead were so polite?)
They don’t want to scare me; their heads don’t spin like weather vanes.
They don’t want to steal my body
and possess the earth and wreak vengeance.
They’re dead, you understand, they don’t exist. And, besides,
why would they care? They’re subatomic, horizontal. Think about it.
One of them shyly offers me a pencil.
The eyes under the eyelids dart faster and faster.
Through the intercom of the house where for so long there was no music,
the right Reverend Al Green is singing,
“I could never see tomorrow.
I was never told about the sorrow.”
This is a poem, a real poem. It makes poetic sense of the journey of a mind. To put it another way, it maps, or diagrams, a sequence of consecutive thoughts and sensations – something which, usually, is patently unmappable and undiagrammable. Only poetry can make sense of our synapses.
If it’s a map or a diagram, the finishing curlicue of the last quatrain, turns it into a work of art.
(The website where I found this poem had an audio player, with which you could listen to it being read. Why not? I thought. I had assumed that Seshadri would be the reader. Perhaps he was; but it sounded like a twenty-something-year-old. Moreover, he read in that robotic monotone that, unfortunately, so may writers use when they read in public. Sometimes it sounds like modesty – yes, I wrote it, but I don’t want to make a big thing about it; sometimes it sounds like boredom; sometimes embarrassment over having to say aloud what had been written in private for the eyes of just one person at a time. Lately, I’ve gotten the feeling that stories and poems are read that way because that’s how it’s done these days. That was my feeling about the reading of the Sheshadri poem.
I switched it off immediately. I can confidently say that if I had listened to the entire poem read like that I would have decided that it was a bad poem – instead of the good, very good poem, I ended up reading for myself, to myself, at my own pace, pausing whenever I wanted, and free to go back and read something again, and again perhaps, before moving on.)
"Gymnopédies No. 1”
That was the week
it didn’t stop snowing.
That was the week
five-fingered trees fell
on houses & power lines
broke like somebody waiting
for payday in a snowstorm.
That snow week, my daughter
& I trudged over the broken branches
fidgeting through snow
like hungry fingers through
an empty pocket.
Over the termite-hollowed stump
as squat as a flat tire.
Over the hollow
the fox dives into
when we open the back door at night.
That was the week of snow
& it glittered like every
Christmas card we could
remember while my daughter
poked around for the best place
to stand a snowman. One
with a pinecone nose.
One with thumb-pressed
eyes to see the whole
picture once things warm up.
Who cares? This is just the kind of poem I expected to find. So, you went out for a walk in the snow with your kid. So what? It could be the subject of a lovely poem, but not just by making it look like poetry. Matejka should listen to Satie again.
There is one wonderful stanza:
Over the hollow
the fox dives into
when we open the back door at night.
“Over” refers to the trudging of the father and daughter "over the broken branches... Over the termite-hollowed stump... Over the hollow.” But the stanza, on its lonesome, especially with “Over” indented (which it is not in the stanza above), seems to refer to the fox, as if the fox dives “over the hollow.” But then “into” bumps into “when” and we realize we have read it wrong. I find pleasure in reading it right to myself: not “Over the hollow the fox dives” but “the hollow the fox dives into when we open the back door at night.”
If I wanted to develop an aesthetic based on curlicues – which I don’t – I could include this stanza as an example, as well as Vijay Seshadri’s Al Green quatrain, above.
The Wife of Job
Well, now, I never heard the whirlwind speak
to me—though I did lose
my children to a windstorm, saw the lightning's sleek
flame have its way,
scorching the servants and the sheep,
and though I won't deny
that my husband here—the most pious man in Uz--
still claims an angel whispers in his sleep,
a plain fact that I don't discuss in mixed company.
You've seen such men, eyes dazed with righteousness,
who think they catch a whiff
of sin in everything: a neighbor's Sunday dress
hitched just above
the ankle, or a child's stray smile
when pies cooled on the stove
or a few idle hours, say, tempt him to mischief.
Such men may fast, or pray; all the while
salt loses its savor and milk sours in the pail.
And wives grow tired. Oh, not that I complain,
mind you—but certain nights
Job prayed above me as if Jehovah lay between
the sheets with us:
his breath in my hair was like a psalm,
each spasm a new promise
heaven might fullfill. Job's ways were just and right,
no doubting that; though later, in the calm,
I'd listen to him snore and know we were alone.
Still, who would strive to be more just than God?
My husband, I suppose.
And everyone knows that saints are first to feel the rod
and lash of grace
descend upon their lives, to bear
the blade of sacrifice
above their squirming sons, or as the future grows
in their daughter's wombs, to know they've sown it there--
needless to say, their wives and children share that grace.
We've sheep and sons to spare now, true enough;
and I've long salved the sores
that once blistered my husband's skin. But I've no love
or patience now
for piety. I do my chores,
—darn clothes or mend the plough--
and try not to think how such foolishness could stir
whirlwinds and voices, storms and random fires,
or draw down on us the thunder of the Lord's error.
Nothing wrong with adopting a classic form: in Creech’s case, WPA Vernacular. Look at Edgar Lee Masters. My parents had Spoon River Anthology on their bookshelves. I read it again and again. When I first opened Faulkner, I already knew where I was.
Creech’s poem catches the old Appalachian spirit (the literary one, anyway), which is its intention. It’s a Spenserian impulse, with the Bluegrass Mountains of Americans' dreams taking the place of the Arthurian England of the Elizabethans' dreams.
A Little Something Sweet for Afterward
(Or The Three Lives of Morri Creech)
By the time I got to Morri Creech, I had learned that the best place to find a poet and their poetry was on the Poetry Foundation website.
Here is Creech’s photo there.
I took to him at once. He was so familiar: he was one of those romantic boys with dreamy eyes and tousled hair and supple minds who could charm any girl in the White Horse or the West End home with him, and you couldn’t blame the girls.
Then I went to Creech’s own website.
Whoa! Is this the same guy? this haggard academic with the brave smile that, at last, becomes a resigned one?
Ah, well. It happens to the best of us.
The Aging Hippy Movement (AHM) is a professional secret society for the large population of aging hippies who are forced to live undercover and in disguise. Every profession has its chapter – museum curating, the cinema, nursing, computer programming, electrical engineering, even dentists – whose aim is to further the aging hippy agenda in its respective arena.
The AHM has had its greatest triumph in book publishing. Book publishers may assure investors that they are just as greedy as any other industry; they may even believe it; but a look at how publishing houses are run makes it clear that they are, to a great degree, pursuing the AHM agenda. For example, no other industry consistently and purposefully, without embarassment and even sometimes with a sense of triumph, manufactures products which it knows will not sell.
The continuing success of The Jack Pack, AHM’s chapter in the book publishing world, is based on coordinated efforts on many fronts. For example, aging hippies in book marketing will factor into their market studies an asset they call “prestige,” and assign a value to it that, supposedly, will be realized in future profits. The widespread belief that if you share drugs with an author he will settle for a cheapo contract is due to the diligent efforts of aging hippies in book publishers’ editorial departments.
Of course, The Jack Pack has the advantage that publishing is more tolerant of aging hippies than other industries. Many aging hippies in publishing have found that they are able to come out, to a certain extent, without negatively effecting their jobs, allowing them openly to promote the aging hippy program.
For example, when asked by a youngish editor pressing buttons on the coffee machine in the staff lounge, who did he think they’d choose to take Arthur’s place if he retired next year, which he’s suppose to, an aging hippy in publishing might feel perfectly safe in replying, “I don’t think about that stuff. It’s the Now that counts.”
Other AHM chapters, however, while not yet defunct, are seriously moribund. The Tennessee Jarheads, AHM’s chapter in the insurance industry, met with such fierce antagonism in 2009, during the battle over health care, that it was forced completely underground. Aging hippies in insurance have found that the only safe way to communicate with other aging hippies at work is through picture postcards sent while on vacation. While the greeting will be the same on every card, something like, Wish you were here? Well, you’re not, there will be subtle differences in the pictures on the postcards which a vacationing aging hippy sends to colleagues who are and are not fellow aging hippies.
I have to boast here that my own AHM chapter, for academics, The Paper Pushers, also has had some remarkable successes – and in the face of a much more formidable resistance than The Jack Pack has had to put up with.
One of our neatest little tactics, known as the birdsong program, is to insert into academic papers, either our own or those of others, the sentence, “You can’t think and listen to the birds at the same time.” The effect is subliminal, granted, but our hope is that it will prove cumulative, as well.
The aging hippies of The Paper Pushers also have been active in Wikipedia. For example, take a gander at the Wikipedia article on the Viduidae bird family.