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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· A Well Thought-Out English Paper ·

It's amusement time. Having two sets of papers to grade, I thought you might be in need of some amusement. "Waste Not and Want Not" is my theme today. Relief is near.

It comes from Karl Smith — "The Yellow Dart" — a good guy with a great future — likely political. I mean Karl's got promise . . . style . . . even sound. Although his "Englilsh" may be off, you'll be moved, as I was, by his "Hustle and Bustle." In any event, here's Karl "The Yellow Dart" Smith's A Well Thought-Out Englilsh [sic] Paper.

P. S. Note the budding political power of Karl's $2.13 "cash advance."

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· On Parsing English Justice ·

Justice: The Hope of All Who Are Just. The Dread of All Who Wrong.

These few words appeared in the court I sat in Wednesday. They brought to mind an old writing maxim; you've heard it: "prefer active verbs." The injunction invites verbal action from stylish English writers. Indeed, the best handbooks repeat it, zealous E-primers fetishize it, and alert, really competent writers follow it — maybe more dutifully than religiously. I know I do.

But Wednesday, asked by a judge to be his appointed tool of local justice, I knew I was in trouble. For I'd hoped I couldn't be, and when I wasn't, I dreaded I'd in fact wronged someone. I felt an essential guilt weighing, metaphysically, on anyone standing before the old bar of English justice.

It wasn't a matter of identity politics. For I'd not been asked if I was rich or poor, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, or a host of other oppositions bedeviling thought today. All I'd been asked was one question: could I be just? The categories figuring in my oath — "facts," "truth," "evidence," "reason" — were all good metaphysical abstractions, but when taken from me by a "peremptory challenge," I felt myself then pleading at the bar. For I couldn't be a juror, since I'd been judged and, indeed, found wanting.

Although I've known that's crucial to our system, today I thought to pass the explanation on to a better writer, G. K. Chesterton. Since Chesterton became an English juror (and I just a reject), I thought you might like his Twelve Men. By the way, consider me Chesterton's "bicycle thief."

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· Compromising Style: Malcolm Cowley on Socspeak ·

I'm sure you've seen what I call compromising style. It follows from delivering what's wanted, not what's needed. The compromiser typically writes worse than he can, promising to go along — to get with the program: toeing someone else's line toward a presumed, predicted, pompously prescribed point. Although it necessarily marks a favored way to bureaucratic perdition, it does of course pay one's bills.

 · Malcolm Cowley ·

I got to thinking about all this Friday though prudence begs me skirt specific circumstances, but I thought to share the literary generics. And who should come to my aid but Malcolm Cowley, the literary chronicler of "The Lost Generation." From 1948 to 1985 Cowley regularly advised The Viking Press and, in 1956, wrote an impressively witty piece called "Sociological Habit Patterns in Linguistic Transmogrification." I thought to share it today. Although I can represent it only partially, it is an instructive tale of "compromising style."

I have a friend [Cowley begins] who started as a poet and then decided to take a postgraduate degree in sociology. For his doctoral dissertation he combined his two interests by writing on the social psychology of poets. He had visited poets by the dozen, asking each of them a graded series of questions, and his conclusions from the interviews were modest and useful, though reported in what seemed to me a barbarous jargon. After reading the dissertation I wrote and scolded him. "You have such a fine sense of the poet's craft," I said, "that you shouldn't have allowed the sociologists to seduce you into writing their professional slang — or at least that's my judgmental response to your role selection."

My friend didn't write to defend himself; he waited until we met again. Then dropping his voice, he said: "I knew my dissertation was bady written, but I had to get my degree. If I had written it in English, Professor Blank" — he mentioned a rather distinguished name — "would have rejected it. He would have said it was merely belletristic."

Perhaps it's well to recall that — as Robert Frost once said "belletristically" — "I was educated by degrees." What Frost really meant, etymologically, was, of course, "by degradation." You can bet Cowley knew the derivation. But I'm happy to report that Cowley himself turned to the grammatical rather than rhetorical implications of Socspeak, summarizing in his final paragraph the sort of "degradation" (or "transmogrification") grammar undergoes in Socspeak. It's a matter, you might note, of "conquered" parts of speech.

The whole sad situation leads me to dream of a vast allegorical painting called "The Triumph of the Nouns." It would depict a chariot of victory drawn by the other conquered parts of speech — the adverbs and adjectives still robust, if yoked and harnessed; the prepositions bloated and pale; the conjunctions tortured; the pronouns reduced to sexless skeletons; the verbs dichotomized and feebly tottering — while behind them, arrogant, overfed, roseate, spilling over the triumphal car, would be the company of nouns in Roman togas and Greek chitons, adorned with laurel branches and flowering hegemonies. Malcolm Cowley, 'Sociological Habit Patterns in Linguistic Transmogrification,' Reporter, Vol. 15, No. 4, September 20, 1956.


Today, alas, I feel "robust" enough — but a little "yoked and harnessed." I feel like a "February adjective" to an October post.

And tomorrow, I have jury duty.

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· Valentine's Day Music ·

 · Three Centuries Old · It's fortunate the instrument Bartolomeo Cristofori invented some three hundred years ago is known nowadays only as the piano. Pianoforte better marks its real appeal, of course — soft and loud — and its proper achievement, hammering home (literally via a technical trick called an "escape mechanism") a new musical experience, one I suspect Prince Ferdinando de'Medici of Florence recognized: the sounds of love and war at once.

I got thinking about all this at my son's piano concert tonight. I'd earlier been following the news. Between Blix and Bush, of course, I'm glad my escape mechanism was just musical. I couldn't help thinking, though, that the distance between love and war — between Debussy's "L'Isle Joyeuse" and Liapunov's "Lezginka," say — isn't really that far. In my generation making love not war seemed the thing, but today "studying war no more" isn't quite our forte.

Still, I'm hopeful that like Suave's encore, we might in fact rest in the piano peace of Grieg's "Arietta."

It really is heartening Valentine's Day Music.

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· Space and Transcendence in Bach's Fantasia in G ·

You might recall the imagined high note I ended on two weeks ago. In Art, Thought, and Technology on Nicholson Baker's "Up" Escalator, I fancied a metaphorical "tenor" (foot)noting his "vehicular ride" on an ordinary escalator through the third movement of a musical sonata. The form, of course, was my thought not Baker's, so my idea employed Baker's The Mezzanine effectively to transpose "notes" in virtual space with a still larger, deeper significance. Today I thought to mark such "notes" directly — indeed, in musical form itself.

 · Johann Sebastian Bach ·

Actually, since I can only represent the "sounds" indirectly, I'm forced here to be metaphorical, especially so since the musial thought I've in mind is actually my son's, and the "note" he would mark is a profounder one of J.S. Bach's. What I particularly have in mind is a brief essay written in appreciation of Bach's Fantasia in G (perhaps Bach's greatest organ work). What captured Suave's imagination, however, is only found in the score, not in the sound of Bach's work, and so I'm permitted a wider meditation on themes and variations fit to the still larger space of Bach's own musical imagination. For the theme is space itself — and how music marks its very transcendence. You'll see that very idea expressed in Bach's music.

Insofar as it depends on the related concepts of boundary and limit, the word space seems to suggest the reciprocal ideas [my son writes] of expansion and contraction. Metaphorically, we can perhaps see as much in music. When a performer employs rubato to make a steady beat more flexible and interesting, he actually makes the music more understandable by expanding or contracting upon the representational limits of the composer's score, drawing the listener's attention to what we call musicality — to the very essence, that is, of live performance. The printed score can only suggest it.

Likewise, in order to make the most of the spaces of our lives, we must also expand and contract our sense of existence, weighing and considering especially our sense of freedom and responsibility. Personal and social realities are ever changing, always flexible. Bound by spaces we inhabit, we struggle to maintain balance between what is possible and what is impossible. But the very things that are possible can be defined only through the bounds we set on the imagined worlds we choose to live in. To lead a full life, a satisfying life, a human being must strive to transcend the many personal spaces he occupies, expanding his chances, opportunities, and possibilities in life.

Although I cannot fully represent the scope of Suave's essay — which turns successively from music to photography to literature to life and to music again — its concluding paragraph catches perfectly the essence of the point (the stylistic "note") both he — and I think Bach and Baker, too — would suggestively sound. Indeed, you might even hear it in Bach's music.

We must learn to travel [Suave continues] in a new dimension of space, an intellectual dimension. That dimension has never been better or more artfully represented, I think, than in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I am thinking particularly of his great organ work, Fantasia in G. It is a magnificent piece, exploiting all the intricately complex resources of the instrument. Opening with a playful toccata-like figure, it slowly develops into a methodical five-voice Grave section, gradually crescendoing to a shaking thunder, where it falls off abruptly into a serene, reflective meditation. Whenever I listen to this piece, I am ecstatic. It is today my favorite piece. But what most fascinates me about it is not necessarily heard, but rather seen. Bach wrote in the score an impossible low B in the pedals, a half step below the range of the instrument then or now. I learned this on the dust jacket of my recording; Claire van Ausdall, commenting on that low B, wrote: "It is not so much a case of Homer's nodding, one suspects, as of the composer's contrapuntal vision momentarily effacing such earthbound restrictions as the limits of a mere mechanical boundary." Bach's reaching to that low B, pushing at the boundaries of musical space is, I would add, still very much with the space of music itself. For in reaching beyond the space of his instrument, he is, I like to think, approaching there the more mysterious essence of music itself.

You should know that as I've been writing this, I've been listening to my son's own fine music. He's practicing for a Valentine Day's piano concert. One work, triply distant from the Fantasia in G, is Bach's great Partita No. 2 for violin, BWV 1004 — called "Chaconne" — arranged for left hand by Johannes Brahams. But on whatever instrument — and by whatever hand — it goes ("Andante," say), marked also in Suave's essay, "only by the grace of God."

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· Here, Here: Where Have You Been There? ·

Last week, from Tuesday to Sunday, I met with a group of academics from around the country interested in literary style. Their interests, if you know such academics, were pretty dull. There's not much to say (literally), of course, of folks given to reading papers in hotel ballrooms, discussing them aloud, and passing judgments upon them in terms sometimes so substantively reductive as to suggest imaginative incapacity. Such folks are, at least, mostly harmless. After all, can academics earnestly looking for "clear, concrete, comprehensive, coherent, and concise" writing be all that bad?

The group I was with — numbering around seventy — has even developed a happily elaborate and often insightful code enumerating their concerns. They've figured out how to figurate style — just a couple of points shy of a "proper" ideal maybe — so as to make time for still more substantive matters like eating and drinking. Indeed, the group last week styled things so well as to make time for a night on the town Thursday (we were near New York) and at a local mall Saturday (I fancied even Stanley Fish would have been lured by the $359,000 Bentley convertible I saw).

Anyway, all of this falls quite naturally under the rubric of "The Leisure of the Theory Class" — though I suspect Thorstein Veblen would say (observing me returned from "Back East"): "Vatch out! Dat's a T'ree, Styles."

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