Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Arts of Language: Reading vs Word-Watching

If you want to read some old school literary criticism, try Sis. Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. The book, first published in in 1947, was (for some reason, probably not a good reason) re-published in 2005. It has some devoted readers and I’m (obviously) one of it’s not very devoted readers. A very bright friend with intriguing interests recommended it recently. Apparently the catalog of “arts” provided in this text have informed a few of his writing projects. Fair enough–I can see how the many examples of linguistic forms at play in Shakespeare’s writing … especially when named … might inspire one to deliberately attempt to employ them. I have, in my own poetry, often played with the rules of grammar, so I can’t complain about the influence.

I’m bothered, however, by the book. Granted, I’m only 70 pages or so into the text, but the author doesn’t seem to have an argument–at least, not an argument that merits a book-length manuscript. The Sister was, obviously, a diligent and devoted reader of Shakespeare, but she read the “bard” as if she were bird watching. At each spotting of a linguistic device (like anastrophe) she must have jotted the quotation down on an index card. After many years these were compiled into a book–so, what we have here is a collection of favorite lines glossed by very sparse notes. Given that these lines were harvested from some of the greatest literature written in English, the reading’s not too bad. Given a choice, however, I’d prefer to do my own bard-watching. Sure, I might forget that this-or-that clever phrase from the play is actually a good example of something like zeugma, but do I really need to know these Latin diagnostics to truly digest and enjoy the writing?

As I write this, I am reminded of how much pleasure I find in knowing the names of various plants and animals … , so, I’m probably missing something here. I’ll have to revisit this question after reading another 70 pages of this text. Given my reading rate, that will be sometime next year. (May 30, 2008)

Fungus gnat

Fungus gnat. Drifting across the cornea of my world view …. What grief, that every year millions die and which one for a whiff of amber? (May 19, 2008)

The Poets

Poets are followed by erring men. Behold how aimlessly they rove in every valley, preaching what they never practise. Not so the true believers, who do good works and remember God with fervour and defend themselves only when wronged. The wrongdoers will then learn what a welcome awaits them.
The Koran (Dawood, N.J., Trans., Penguin 1997, pg 375).

Ah the “poets” … Plato expelled them from the Republic and The Koran damns them.

Of course, these are not the poets of our contemporary era — the silly horde intent on jotting down every clever turn or spilling out each mood and phase on the page. No, these are the “preachers” … those who, poets or not, use rhetoric to gain and influence their followers. The preachers (of any stripe, good and bad) are indeed “followed by [the] erring”. In this culture the protestants are the most prone to follow the rhetoricians, but every persuasion has its spokespersons … and the phenomenon is in no way limited to religious sects. Someone must keep the advertising and “public relations” industries in well-fed and (for this) the “erring” are truly well-equipped.

But, what about the “preachers” … I’m going to avoid the obvious and hopefully slip past the urge to bad-mouth the intentions of religious leaders. (That is a tiresome game in blog-land.) So, let’s just ask this question — was Muhammad a “preacher”. In practical terms, probably … I have no doubt that he exhorted his followers to be true to the message, to distinguish themselves from the unbelievers, to repent and to seek forgiveness. For believers, however, Muhammad was not a “poet”. He did not find clever ways to communicate the truth; he did not invent or imagine a new “wisdom”. Muhammad saw himself as a prophet, not a preacher. As a prophet, Muhammad served as the mouth-piece of the divine message. It was not his job to add embellishments. Nor, in the moral landscape of the Koran, was it his job to be extra persuasive … God, after all, will open the ears of those who will be saved. Those who will hear, will hear.

In fact, this passage is a perfect example of the Koran’s emphasis on orthropraxis — it’s what you do, not what you say or who you follow, that distinguishes the true disciples from the false. There are times in which Christianity (especially our dear protestants) would benefit from a good dose of orthopraxis — though it bucks hard against the ethos of grace. There are times, too, in which American culture would benefit from a similar suspicion of its “preachers”. We practice a ridiculous short-hand in this culture … one in which the disciples are judged, wholesale, on the actions of their purported “preachers”. The furor about Barak Obama‘s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is a convenient contemporary example. In this case one preacher (Obama) is judged by the “poem” of his own preacher (Wright), meanwhile the actions, the praxis, of each is virtually ignored. Praxis does not win votes, nor will it build mega-churches, nor will it solve all of one’s problems, but it will keep one rooted. And, ultimately, if we’d follow our principles and not our preachers, we’d spend less time “aimlessly … [roving] in every valley”. (May 11, 2008)

As if the Genome Wasn’t Long Enough

Having discovered it while browsing the medical literature, I am beginning to read Gillian K. Ferguson’s The Human Genome: Poems on the book of life. Although I expect to read some of it now and then, I do not expect to read all of it. Ferguson may be the only person to sincerely read all of it–all 1,000 pages. The blog version strikes me as a bit heavy on the “extra-features”. Ferguson writes quickly and doesn’t appear to look back. Consequently, everything gets plugged into the “manuscript” – notes, favorite quotes, definitions, the whole box of research papers (minus those that the mice ate). Her poetic style suffers likewise – rather than finding the one turn of words that best does the job, she will redo the job several times before she let’s it go. For example, the poem “Does God Remember” (2 May 2008) focuses on the chemical nature of life, but does so immediately following a prior poem which imagines the creator as a chemist “Who Breathed Chemicals into Life” (1 May 2008). The redrafting continues within poems as well. “Does God Remember” begins:

Does God remember the defining;
shining organic coalescence, time

when the first cell settled
– the wondrous chemistry.

What follows is a series of riffs each doing their best to imagine God’s alchemy. The poem ends, however, with little for the reader to carry away. In fact, one wants to return to the top of the poem just to recall what was to the point for taking the flight to begin with. Here’s a bit more of a micro-view of the redrafting I am complaining about:

Even God thought it was a miracle

when He had made it possible,
dreamed them into existence –

imagined the matrix, Word,
to call from Periodic Table,

list ingredients, principle, into life –
held his breath that it would work,

this calling to matter of pattern,
this holy glueing; good practise

for his trick of body and soul,
joining of irreconcilable stuff

only a god could possibly pull off –
like a magician with a miracle, or

two up his sleeve; bouquets

I think that could be profitably reduced to about 5 lines. I like the glue and the periodic table, but that should do it. And by all means, one should avoid the double reference to “miracle”. It’s kind of silly to think of God as “like a magician with a miracle”, but even worse to use this as way of describing a God imagined to be surprised by the creation: “Even God thought it was a miracle …”.

Like I said, I’m beginning to read this poem, so there’s still a chance that it will grow on me. It’s a fascinating project and I applaud the Scottish Arts Council for deciding to spend their money on such an ambitious attempt to bring import and meaning of contemporary science into the cauldron of verse. (May 2, 2008)