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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Math and Lit By Artful Dodging ·

It's clear Scott Buchanan's Poetry and Mathematics (1929) isn't turning up today. I've been looking for it here. "What are the odds of its lying low in my shop, office, bedroom, or study?" I have thought. Maybe I'll have to kiss it goodbye, then buy another. "What are my odds?"

I'm in such a quandry because, as Mr. Buchanan claims, the rational world of math and the analogical world of lit are together cut from the same pattern, with technology and text — ratio and analogy — being "necessary reciprocals." Although I'm in fact a bit skeptical, I understand his point — one even made implicitly by his rivals.

Take James E. Miller, Jr., for example:

[P]recision and exactness [Miller writes], if it ever exists at all, is more likely to turn up in mathematical equations or chemical formulas [note here his two number disagreements]. This is not to say that there can never be some kind of clarification of meaning by a shifting and changing of language. But it is to say that any suggestion that there can be an absolute precision or a final exactness in language is doomed to lead to frustration and disappointment. The equation or formula, reduced to an arrangement of precise symbols, has the character of the simple, prolonged sound of a pitch pipe, striking all ears with equivalent wavelengths of sound. A sentence in words, even of the simplest nature, has the character of a series of chords, offering a medley of sounds, vibrations, nuances and subtle combinations, unpredictable resonances — all sending out varying wavelengths of sound, striking different eardrums differently, and arousing different responses, some minor, others major. As other sentences are added, and paragraph piles on paragraph, the complexity multiplies geometrically, and countless reverberations sound and resound. Meaning in language conceived in this way is not, then, a matter of precision and exactness but a matter of resonance and reverberation, around, below, above, as well as in the words and linguistic structures. James E. Miller, Jr., Word, Self, Reality: The Rhetoric of Imagination, New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972, 77.

Now Miller has it right, of course — and we shouldn't really encircle his odd numbers — but it is ironic that in defending linguistic imprecision he leans so on the language of music and mathematics. It's as though of necessity his textual substance here begs for support technological style. What he really needs, maybe, is the more artful linguistic aid of my helpful friend Odd, The Norwegian Mathematician.

Do enjoy!

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· Laughter and the Love of Friends ·

Last weekend a wedding shower brought my wife and me to Seattle. The wedding, coming Memorial-Day weekend, might be less memorable perhaps — not that we are not looking forward to our son and his fiancée's wedding.

It's just that Saturday night we had a special evening, a feast hosted by long-time friends of our future in-laws. The memorable image of the enduring love among couples there we might someday recall as the presence in microcosm of the wedding itself.

Here's what we found ourselves writing to the feted couple:

Our best to you for the joy you have brought us both, a joy so obviously shared by the new friends you have also taught us to value. Our best today and for the long future.

     Mom and Dad

What I think we really meant to say was better marked in Hilaire Belloc's famous "Dedicatory Ode":


From quiet homes and first beginning,
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There's nothing worth the wear of winning,
But laughter and the love of friends.

We think all might be glad to learn today that the pair have just bought their first home. May friends and family fill it now with love and laughter.

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· Good, Better, Best ·

"The following passages, though differing some in substance, differ widely enough in style to merit critical ranking — say, good, better, best."

With those words, I have long asked my English students to pass critical judgment on three short passages included below. A colleague years ago introduced me to the helpful classroom exercise, and my mother — everyone should have one so judicious — to my chosen criteria: "Good, Better, Best," she said: "Never let it rest, till your good is better and your better best."

Good,   Better, Best Since La Rochefoucauld once remarked that "everyone complains of his memory, none of his judgment," my students typically disagree on their styleful choices, but after brief discussion they come at last to some agreeable consensus. Today I thought to share my exercise. You might even be willing to share your own opinions:

Three Passages

Judgments:   Good # ___   Better # ___   Best # ___

  1. A formal course in writing can be a revelation to an undergraduate, opening up new powers of thought and expression, as if one were given new eyes for keener sight and a new tongue for more fluent speech. But it can also be a futile exercise in the degrading art of conformity. Students can learn to create sentences that flow in rhythmic patterns, or to avoid grammatical errors; they can be encouraged to discover the solid shape of real ideas, or to follow mass-produced blueprints for paragraph development; they can find how to make sense, or how to make an end at 500 words.
  2. What's the use of English 101 anyway? More often than not you'll find a frustrated teacher droning on about participles and non sequiturs and deadwood and stuff. While the class is thinking: this guy is the deadwood and I wish he'd sequitur his participle somewhere else. Keeps interfering with my serious dreaming. True enough, sadly, more often than not. But occasionally, just every once in a while, some kid in the back row thinks: "Hey, I get it! Sentences are sounds that make sense, that make sense gracefully. That's all. Like a good song or a good joke or a great Ted Williams' homerun." And that, that moment of revelation, is one of the uses of English 101.
  3. The process of learning how to write is one of the unique facets essential to a successful career in college. Because of this fact, it is important that the purpose and motivation for a course in writing be made perfectly clear at this point in time. Sometimes this is not done with adequate thoroughness, with unfortunate consequences for the one who is involved in the problem. Therefore the unique purpose of the course should be clearly stated at the beginning, so that every student is motivated to succeed in this important aspect of his career.

Naturally, Mom — paleo-matriarch that she was — could have nixed my final pronoun here, but she might also have overlooked, I think, such obviously politically-incorrect behavior. Of course, I'll leave that substantive judgment to you. It's judicious style I'm after now.

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· The Art of Solace ·

It's good, I tell my students, to have varied interests. Their advantage is clear: if you're ever fooled or frustrated by one, you can perhaps pursue another for support. Take, for instance, my own Seattle Mariners. They blew their annual opener yesterday by losing 10-5 against the Angels, so what I needed today was solace. And who should offer it but my stylish, poetry-writing daughter-in-law, whom you first read in Flight Song for Wren Marie. She also happens to be a very talented artist.

Last Friday night at her latest opening she drew many who declared, over wine and hors d'oeuvres, how she'd hit the artistic equivalent of a grand slam. She sold all but one of her new art works. But as the title of her show makes clear, "Solace" is in fact her larger interest, and I thought to say so here by sharing her "Artist's Statement":

My works [she writes] derive from the physical beauty of natural landscapes and/or the emotional landscapes of literature. They are intended to evoke a sense of those physical and emotional spaces — "windows" into transformative views.

 · Broken and Mended, 13 x 14, 2004 · The process of creating them is, in part, a meditation. Elements of watercolor, colored pencil, and fine papers are juxtaposed, cut or torn, layered and reworked. Seemingly disparate "bits" are assembled into a unified whole, much as glass tesseræ combine to form a mosaic, much as the snippets of one's existence are woven together and transformed to shape a life.

Perhaps somewhere between the luminous washes of color and the obsessive rigidity of the rectangular bits, one finds a balanced hush, a safe and quiet space of solace.

"Broken and Mended" is but a sample of her art, yet more to the point is the quiet substance of her style. Note how in three short paragraphs she moves deftly from a personal to impersonal vision, from "My works" to "one finds." Then focusing on elemental things inbetween, she gives precise meaning to the subtle use of the passive voice: "are intended," "are juxtaposed, cut or torn, layered and reworked," are assembled," "are woven." We feel wrapped in the warm embrace of truth and beauty, goodness, solace, and (perhaps) soul.

As I was saying, if baseball just doesn't work for you today, maybe give art a chance tomorrow.

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· My Foolish Old Baseball Passions ·

If you've been paying attention, I've been wavering between first and last things here, apparently never quite hitting them solidly. But now, I thought, maybe I should try.

Yet here, alas, I'm somewhat off in my old swing and stance — for opening-day baseball at least. I mean April 1st seems already that day to me, so I'm just waiting foolishly for my real baseball passions to appear.

Consider:

  • The Yankees and the Devil Rays have already gone overseas to Japan.

  • And some harborview games are being played today in California.

  • Major League Baseball's main web page says Opening Day is the 4th.

  • And here I am, teary-eyed and waiting, foolishly, for the 6th.

 · Play Ball! · So What Kind of Fool Am I?  Welcome, friends, to the Seattle Mariners and their own famed Ancient Mariner, Edgar Martinez.

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