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· Hindsight / Foresight / Eyesight ·

I'm looking backward and foreward simultaneously. Yesterday was the start of spring, March 20, a brilliant, sunny day — my last of classes. Today is cloudy and cold, the start of finals, and while I'm looking forward now to spring, I'm reviewing an entire winter's worth of work. So it goes here.

So what am I to make of this "one-step-forward, two-step-back" season? Seeing as T. S. Eliot says "April is the cruelest month," only A. R. Ammons's

Eyesight



 · 'Am I coming through all right? -- A. R. Ammons ·     It was May before my

attention came

to spring and

my word I said
to the southern slopes
I've

missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see:

don't worry, said the mountain,
try the later northern slopes
or if

you can climb, climb
into spring: but
said the mountain

it's not that way
with all things, some
that go are gone

I know here that June will always go with spring. Summer, anyone?

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· This — Norwegian-Style — February 14th ·

If you've been reading long, you'll agree that I'm seldom rhetorically "demonstrative." It goes with the territory of my being Norwegian. Rarely given to emotional outbursts, I'm ever prone to letting others inject literary hyperbole. The "literal" is my game.

Take, for instance, my This — By Accident — July 4th (wherein you may recall my concluding summer shed-cleaning tasks).

I thought today to revive their warm memory by turning things over to someone with much sharper language skills, William Shakespeare. Who better, in English, to ventriloquize — on this St. Valentine's Day — rhetorical things sufficiently "demonstrative"?

        Shakespeare's Sonnet LV

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
   Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
   But you shall shine more bright in these contents
   Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.
   When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
   And broils root out the work of masonry,
   Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
   The living record of your memory.
   'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
   Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room,
   Even in the eyes of all posterity
   That wear this world out to the ending doom.
     So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
     You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

Tomorrow I just might, of course, be turning things over to more wintry chores — like log splitting.

They go, too, with still more stylish poetic tasks — themselves undemonstrative in "Norwegian-style."

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· In Memoriam, John Lovas — Our Windhover ·

It was with profound sadness that I learned today of the death by cancer yesterday of John Lovas. John's comments to my postings, beginning with Mark, Mark, that Exclamation and ending with Veni Vidi, Vici, led to our visiting, in 2003, at the Modern Language Assoication meeting in San Diego, and to our collaboration, last March, at a meeting in San Francisco of the College Conference on Composition and Communication. John's lively intelligence, his dedicated professionalism, and his humane sense of justice, as those who knew him can attest, were inspiring.

To mark his passing, I thought to share today — from what he thought his own "inspiration" — Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "The Windhover." In marking, with three rousing exclamations, what all those who have read A Writing Teacher's Blog saw in John, Hopkins shows us — students, colleagues, and fellow bloggers alike — what it really means to "take wing."

The Windhover
To Christ Our Lord


I CAUGHT this morning morning's minion, king-
  dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
  Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
  As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
  Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!


Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
  Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!


  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
  Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

John Lovas, 1939 - 2005.

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· Historical Drudge Report — Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary ·

"Lexicographer*, a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."

So did Samuel Johnson after eight years of hard work mark himself aptly in his great Dictionary published on April 15, 1755. Though its appearance came late by six years, what's the difference, especially for those given to lasting work? For when it's done well, work can bring official or even officious credit-takers to account. Consider Johnson's way with Philip Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield):

 · Samuel Johnson's Dictionary · Is not a Patron, My Lord [he pointedly sneered], one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known, and do not want it.

You've got to admit, Johnson had style (Grub-Street honesty, I'd call it). But he was also attentive to what it takes to work truly in others' debt. Consider how he wrote of John Milton's Paradise Lost, considering that Johnson's dictionary was not our first:

The highest praise of genius is original invention [Johnson judged]. Milton cannot be said to have contrived the structure of an epic poem, and therefore owes reverence to that vigour and amplitude of mind to which all generations must be indebted for the art of poetical narration, for the texture of the fable, the variation of incidents, the interposition of dialogue, and all the strategems that surprise and enchain attention. But, of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is perhaps the least indebted. He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. From his contemporaries he neither courted nor received support; there is in his writing nothing by which the pride of other authors might be gratified, or favour gained; no exchange of praise, nor solicitation of support. His great works were performed under discountenance, and in blindness, but difficulties vanished at his touch; he was born for whatever is ardous; and his work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first. Samuel Johnson, 'Life of Milton,' Lives of the English Poets, 2 Vols. (London/New York: Dent/Dutton [Everyman's Library]), I, 113-114.

Of such work, one sees no private or personal account taken just for itself, however much one sees the real measure of its judicious certainty. Maybe it's for this reason that Adam Kirsch, by chance writing in Slate in 2003, happily concluded with this thought:

Finally, Johnson's own writing is a model of style. Instead of Fowler or Strunk and White, writers might want to turn to Johnson for lessons in good writing — above all, how to convey the most information in the fewest and clearest words. Johnson's dictionary may not be perfect, but it's still the greatest work of literature in the reference section.

*"I am not so lost in lexicography," Johnson also wrote, "as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven."

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· Whose Words These Are I Think I Know ·

You should maybe hear in my title a poetic line from Robert Frost. It's changed, of course — his "woods," from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," turn (without acknowledgement) now into my "words."

I begin this way because, poetry notwithstanding here, my subject today is history — especially this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We Americans celebrate it each January, of course. My own day I've spent preparing for a writing class tomorrow, one King has long figured in. Of interest has been a scholarly essay noting King's quoting of black clerics, but citing white, in My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence (Keith Miller, "Composing Martin Luther King, Jr." PMLA, January 1991).

Miller's claim is interesting. He explains how in borrowing from black preachers, King is not rightly to be charged, thoughtlessly, at least, with plagiarism. My students always take his essay to heart.

My purpose, however, is neither to commit nor commend such borrowing, but rather, in the interest of study, to inform solid, scholarly reading — which, as I tell my students, necessarily includes three key tasks:

  • abstracting the main ideas,
  • noting any ordered figures of speech,
  • and observing the main divisions of topical organization.

Here I thought to note just the second, implicitly giving you the gist of Miller's essay. Fit to the task is an email I wrote Friday to a student who, down with an incipient cold, asked me for a short study update. Here is our exchange.

Student: I will not be able to attend class today (1/14), and I sincerely apologize for this. I have been trying to fight off a bad head cold (even though it's just beginning). I would greatly appreciate any information you could give me as to what the class read or discussed today, granted no new hand-outs were given. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Styles: My thanks for your note. Since not everyone finished it, we had a conversation today about Miller's essay. I stressed only his use of figures, ignoring everyone's suggested titles and Miller's topical divisions. We'll do them Tuesday.

His main concerns are three: the key word "borrowing" (which when critics quote it may be ironical), his two phrases "shared treasure" (suggesting money and coinage) and "the black folk pulpit" (preachers preaching, literally, at Ebenezer Baptist Church), and, last, his key claim that King's discourse is whole-cloth weaving not quilt-making ("tapestry" not "patchwork" [p. 75]). You should note, however, Miller's prior use of "mine," "weld," and "alloy" — metallurgical terms — which he does not, of course, stress so much.

This reading, though technical, is really quite helpful in understanding Miller's argument. We all began, by the way, saying whether we agreed or not with his claim, however much we really understood it.

Do get well. I'll start analyzing his text and thought more Tuesday. Then you can share your own suggested title.

This short title, a classroom heuristic I use, will take the form tomorrow of "_____________, _____________, and the Idea of _________________." It helps my students inform their understandings of what I call an author's "conceptual topic." But tonight my topic is just bedtime, or, as Frost might say (echoing a prayerful rhyme), "Now I lay me down to sleep."

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· Wing to Wing and Oar to Oar ·

Today's title comes from Robert Frost's "The Master Speed," the final lines of which are inscribed on his and his wife Elinor's gravestone:

Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar.


Frost's three lead sentences are rather the real reason, however, for my marking the lovely phrase:

No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the steam of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still —
Off any still or moving thing you say. Robert Frost, 'The Master Speed,' The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem, New York, Holt, 1969, 300.


I say this because we are "Oar to Oar and Wing to Wing" with wedding preparations here. Just in case you've missed a word or two recently, the true radiance of my week's work can now best be seen off-line.

If "proper words in proper places" defines style, some words are best left unsaid.

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· Returned from California Sun to Washington Snow ·

I've just returned home to what the romantic poets have sometimes styled the "fierce art" of a hard snow storm. After driving from Washington to California and back, I pulled into my garage late Saturday night with renewed respect for John Keats' old weather line, "O for a beaker full of the warm South."

Naturally, San Diego was everything I had hoped for, sunny days spent partially out-of-doors, romantic street-side dining on each of three nights there, and MLA sessions graced indoors with sparkling, occasionally stilted, literary wit and wisdom. The Modern Language Association chose well its 2003 Convention.

But 2004 has already begun with a blast of frigid air here, an icy spirit having bumped my three classes back two days now and making me think (bundled up in my fleece and Merino wool) only of Emerson's romantically compensatory take on

The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Though I like Emerson's point, sometimes I'd rather have Percy Bysshe Shelley's more famous line, one riding on the prophetic spirit of a single thought trumpeted at the end of Ode to the West Wind:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

At least I'm glad to announce (from the local TV news) a warming wind now rising from the far South Pacific.

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· A Saving Imagination: The MLA's "Necessary Angel" ·

A year ago I shared an image in a holiday post entitled Christmas Light. The implied relationship expressed there between imagination and reason I thought to develop more fully today. I have marked it earlier in other posts, especially in Wilsonian Democracy, but I thought to define it with the explicit words of the twentieth-century American poet Wallace Stevens, this from his book The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination. His words seemed particularly apt today.

 · Wallace Stevens · The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things. . . . We cannot look at the past or the future except by means of the imagination. . . . [The imagination] enables us to live our own lives. We have it because we do not have enough without it. . . . The imagination is the power that unables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos. . . . The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them. If this is true, then reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination. It may be that the imagination is a miracle of logic and that its exquisite divinations are calculations beyond analysis, as the conclusions of reason are calculations wholly within analysis. If so, one understands perfectly that "in the service of love and imagination nothing can be too lavish, too sublime or too festive." Wallace Stevens, 'Imagination as Value,' The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and Imagination, New York: Random House, 1951, 136, 144, 150, 153, 154.

I mention this because I'm off to one such "festive" occasion, the annual meeting, December 27 to 30, of the Modern Language Association in San Diego. This lavish professional conference annually draws thousands of teachers, readers, critics, and scholars who celebrate imaginative poetry, fiction, and drama in various forms of the critical-scholarly essay. You may ask how such folks add to the creative mix of such fare? Simply by sharing such loving "Festivals of Light" as wisely, generously, enthusiastically, and imaginatively as they can.

Naturally some will scoff at this view, saying with Scrooge, "Bah, Humbug," but even they are effectively open to the hope of "Peace on Earth, Good Will to All."

Why else would MLAers have chosen Christmas-time to say that poetry, fiction, and drama are among our age's saving human graces!

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· "Earth" from Bryant Park to Ground Zero ·

I was moved to learn of Richard Drew's story two years ago today in New York. The AP photographer who chanced to take "The Falling Man" photograph at the World Trade Center, Drew began that fateful day at Bryant Park, rather preparing to shoot a maternity fashion show. What had Bryant Park to say to Ground Zero, I asked myself, earth to man, birth to death, maybe past to present? And then I answered, recalling two brief lines from a little-known Bryant poem in fact called "Earth":
 · William Cullen Bryant ·

O Earth! dost thou too sorrow for the past
Like man thy offspring? Do I hear thee mourn?

Bryant's meditation on the question, though in a style we'd today call unfashionable, ends on a note still apt to our circumstances. Mr. New York of the nineteenth century, Bryant queried his own country at last from a much larger perspective,

What then shall cleanse thy bosom, gentle Earth,
From all its painful memories of guilt?

and wrote,

My native Land of Groves! a newer page
In the great record of the world is thine;
Shall it be fairer? Fear, and friendly Hope,
And Envy, watch the issue, while the lines,
By which thou shalt be judged, are written down. William Cullen Bryant: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes, ed. Tremaine McDowell, New York: The American Book Company, 1935, 77-80.

Today we all know Bryant at least got his personified abstractions right.

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· Brent, In Memoriam ·

Today with friends I marked the sad loss recently of a dear colleague and former student. He was possessed of the gift of poetry and had the added gift of teaching it well, always communicating his love not only of the arts of language to students but the arts of life's own shaping. At his service we heard read "After Apple Picking" and "Birches," two favorite Frost poems. But for me, caught more subtly in the twenty-four lines of one stylish sentence was Brent's own "Fugal Flight":

Ablaze,
bumbelbees
around the rose
ring and weave
in threads of flight
a cosmos
tight,
awash with
petal's color
trailing just behind
spring's redolence
wrapped around the bush
as pivot
for bees'
sweet songs
sung in round,
glancing off,
complementing
one another
like a fugue played
from a central line —
when a rose
unfurls,
flashes forth.

You see what all who knew him well can still see in his absence, the rare presence of gifts gone but not forgotten.

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· Dem Bones — T. S. Eliot Style ·

 · T. S. Eliot · I just helped edit an essay, a med-school student's. It set me to thinking here, in a roundabout sort of way, of T. S. Eliot's famous "Four Quartets." A residency application essay in orthopedics, it captured in every phrase and sentence something of the leading theme in "Burnt Norton,"

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
and time future contained in time past

and of the closing point in "Little Gidding,"

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything).

It took as its theme my son Suave's girlfriend's rearing aboard a 65-foot ketch, happily sailing on the theme, steadily, swiftly, and simply, through eight paragraphs toward "the challenges, the hard work, and the demands of excellent service" — "all three," Savvy says, "in my salty upbringing, possibly my genes, and probably my soul."

Having seen the essay take shape, I think Eliot's lines apply:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909 - 1950, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1962, 117, 145, 144.

You might also try singing "Dem Bones" here.

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· Extreme Unction ·

If you're looking for religion today, you've come to the wrong place. My title implicitly says as much already. Only wine happily escapes the pejoratives of an "unctuous style" — certainly not preachers, undertakers, and others given to lubricious applications of high spirits. And I should know.

I pressure-pumped shingle oil on my roof Saturday. Ugh! Talk about extreme unction and dirty hands! The experience was doubly compounded by Coppertone Sunblock #15, too. Even Dialectizer would have trouble doing justice to my "redneck."

Which is why I thought to share a short poem from Down Under. You'll appreciate Jeffrey Sears' aptly high umbrage — like mine, Saturday — at what he calls Rubbery Words.

Think of what modern petrochemicals have done for such substances today and you'll understand.

Meantime, I've a new category to start called "Diction."

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· The Lone and Level Sands ·

Today's war word is — for friend and foe alike — Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias."

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things.
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Behold all my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

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· Teach Us to Sit Still ·

Because I do not hope to turn, as T. S. Eliot says in Ash Wednesday, "Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope," today I offer from the poem a small part without added comment:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

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· Wilsonian Democracy, Finnish-Style: To the Finland Station ·

You may recognize my allusion to Edmund Wilson's 1940 text, To the Finland Station. It marks Lenin's 1917 return to St. Petersburg and Wilson's stylish examination of philosophical-historical utopianism in the West. It's fair to say, of course, that such utopianism is still with us. Some advocate "regime change" and "nation building" in the interests of poltical democrary now, not of proletarian dictatorship. So if Czar Nicholas has become Saddam Hussein, maybe Lenin has today become George W. Bush (though I'm aware of the danger of this analogy).

What interests me today, though, is Wilson's contrastive approach to utopianism. Tipping his philosopical hand by nodding to Giambattista Vico's The New Science, Wilson invokes early an intellectual figure bearing on my subtler, even deeper allusion: Finnish-Style Wilsonian Democracy. But what I've in mind, in the words of historian Paul Hazard, is a still deeper question:

If Italy had listened to Giambattista Vico, and if, as at the time of the Renaissance, she had served to guide Europe, would not our intellectual destiny have been different? Our eighteenth-century ancestors would not have believed that all that was clear was true; but on the contrary that "clarity is the vice of human reason rather than its virtue," because a clear idea is a finished idea. They would not have believed that reason was our first faculty, but on the contrary that imagination was. Paul Hazard, La pens饠europ饮ne au XVIII譥 si飬e: de Montesquieu ࠌessing, Paris: Boivin, 1946, as quoted at www.vicoinstitute.org/Giambattista.htm.

What is significant here, of course, is the distinction between reason and imagination — between the political hardening of "state" arteries, as Vico would say, and the proper heartening of the "body politic." For Vico of course considered poetry, not dialectic (either material or otherwise), as the source of a people's unique national identity. That's the deeper idea underlying Edmund Wilson's book and the political emergence of another nation from Vladimir Lenin's storied 1917 trip: Finland.

 · Kalevala ·

Yesterday, February 28, was Finland's "Kalevala Day," the day Finns celebrate not the bloody start of their modern state, but their emergent, consciously democratic sense of national identity as prompted by a book of poems, Elias Lönnrot's Kalevala (1835). A compiled book of transcribed epic poems, Kalevala is called "The Finnish National Epic." Though I won't say what you can read about here, Lönnrot's significance to Finland's 1917 "regime change" and to its "nation building" before and after should not be underrated. To revise Shelley's great line, rather than being "unacknowledged legislators of the world," Finnish poets became — with Lönnrot's help — "the acknowledged legislators of a world."

Theirs, of course, is an an ongoing work, an unfinished work.

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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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· A Lost Eloquence ·

An op-ed piece in The New York Times prompts my post. A creative writing teacher makes a case for our memorizing and reciting poetry in public school. What has attracted me to her piece, "A Lost Eloquence," is the example Carol Muske-Dukes makes of her own mother, "who can recite, by heart, pages and pages of verse by Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow and Dickinson." She writes:

She is 85, a member of perhaps the last generation of Americans who learned poems and orations by rote in classes dedicated to the art of elocution. This long-ago discredited pedagogical tradition generated a commonplace eloquence among ordinary Americans who knew how to (as they put it) "quote." Poems are still memorized in some classrooms but not "put to heart" in a way that would prompt this more quotidian public expression.

Muske-Dukes' recollection has put me in mind of my own father's example. Though he didn't get a high school education "on the prairie of North Dakota during the Great Depression," he did get, on the prairie in Alberta during World War I, schooling enough to make an elementary difference. I recall with delight his reciting Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal" over his morning breakfast — this when his short-term memory from multi-infarct dementia was nil. During his last three years with us (till 88) Dad "quoted" just enough to make a good case for Muske-Dukes' larger implication, perhaps best expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Quotation and Originality":

We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote.

Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York: Wm. H. Wise, 1929, 781.

Of course, Carol Muske-Dukes recommends here what Emerson only observes, that, indeed, "we all quote."

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· The First Grace of Style ·

Marianne Moore has given me my title. I've alluded to her before, but she deserves direct quotation since my subject today is compression, well illustrated in her clever, short poem

To a Snail

If "compression is the first grace of style,"
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, "a method of conclusions";
"a knowledge of principles,"
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

Given the value of compression — Miss Moore's quote comes from Democritus — I thought to share an apparently true story from Harvard University, though I'm a bit doubtful. (Anyone who knows the story of "veritas" there should, of course, be a skeptic.) But regardless, the anecdote is amusing.

Students in a Harvard English 101 class were asked to write a CONCISE essay containing four elements: religion, royalty, sex and mystery.

The only "A+" in the class read:

"My God," said the Queen, "I'm pregnant! I wonder who did it?"

Alas, I don't have any A+ essays in the sets I'm reading today — at least by Hahvahd standards.

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· Metaphors \ Methods \ Models — Dirty-Hand Style ·

If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that three times in these posts I've alluded to the subject of dirty hands. I thought to reflect today on the subject, and the seeming inconsistencies in my three takes.

You may recall in Wetting a Line \ Whetting the Points that I first approved of Thoreau's view that getting one's "hands" dirty knocks the "palaver" out of one's writing. I still believe that, yet in Jacques Barzun "Takes On" Wayward Educationists, I confessed, I'm afraid — somewhat contradictorily — my regret in not literally "washing my hands" of educationists' styles. Now if you're like my philosophy students, you're likely asking with Martin Heidegger some question like this: "Hey, what gives?" since I ignored in Gardening and Writing the Point-Defiance Way how Marianne Binetti's style is, necessarily, if also insufficiently so, dirty-handed too. I mean: "How are you ever going to garden otherwise?"

So as not to be evasive, I'm going to go straight to right stuff on this question and cite Thomas DeQuincy, the great English writer and — in his treatise Style, published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1840-41 — a thoughtful student of style. DeQuincy focused on "pursuits" he thought "favorable to a culture of style" — that indeed "force[d]," he believed, "that culture . . . drawing much from our own proper selves, [but] little (if anything) from extraneous objects."

DeQuincy marks for us, it should be noted, an important philosophical difference, one drawing on a Kantian vocabulary implicitly tuned to such concepts as subjectively- and objectively-defined pursuits — that is, those drawn between ordinary common sense on the one hand, and modern science on the other: wherein a topic like "dirty hands" is considered metaphorically stylish in literature, but methodologically not in science. Although I admit it is a helpful distinction, I would add, too, it is indifferently spelled, in either case, "dirty hands" — and so may model, explicitly, like my italicized words, a slipperier, still more important truth.

My point turns on DeQuincy's common, but I think too-simplistic assumption that

[a] man who has absolute facts to communicate from some branch of study external to himself . . . is careless of style; or at least he may be so . . . for what he has to communicate neither readily admits, nor much needs, any graces in the mode of communication; the matter transcends and oppresses the manner. The matter tells without any manner at all. Thomas DeQuincy, Style, in William T. Brewster, Representative Essays in the Theory of Style, New York: Macmillan, 1905, 142.

Although initially tempting, DeQuincy's main assumption fails here since, though a scientist may of course find his point in matter, he must nonetheless communicate it still in words. Indeed, one of the most celebrated dirty-hand stories in history illustrates my point. Dr. Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis, the Hungarian discoverer of microbial pathogens, failed at first to report his discovery and so, for a time at least, lost public credit for it (although his discovery did happily save many lives, as anyone familiar with the story knows). But my real point lies deeper, for it can be argued that Dr. Semmelweis's reticence came not so much from his literary shyness as from a deep, subtle, stylishly philosophical understanding of the point of scientific discovery: namely, that it is less a matter of finding any "matter" as such than a "method" by which that matter's existence can be suggested but never proved per se (or an sich, as Kant would say).

What's called the Hempelian model of the scientific method explains as much. Attributed to philosopher Carl Hempel, it turns, simply, on the analysis of logical inference in scientific inquiry, wherein the results grasped by its research must rely on invalid formal arguments (on affirming the consequent, to be precise), yielding practical benefits but revealing theoretical traps, too. So whenever good scientists report results, they usually say: "The data suggest [but don't 'prove'] the matter in hand." So in a manner of speaking, we have, in such phrasing, scientific style modeled — though Semmelweis had it, of course, in the extreme.

In extremis, indeed, if you followed my link above, for you know he finally died of the "matter in hand." So in a manner of speaking, not only did he show that getting one's "hands" dirty knocks the "palaver" out of one's writing, but suggested, too, that not till we discover "'imaginary gardens with real toads in them'" — to borrow a different Marianne's words (Marianne Moore's in "Poetry") — can we ever hope to learn how to knock the "palaver" out of our lives. Perhaps that's the matter Thoreau also had in mind.

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· T. G. I. Friday's Mourning ·

The sentimental fastidiousness of Wednesday's Midweek Sunday Morning — where a few words framed an "Osgood" scene emotionally moving but ironically mute — puts me in mind today, as Wendell Berry might say, of something more messy, poetry.

Today's title marks it as Friday's work, the work of mourning, I like to think, not of morning, of darkness, not sunshine, trouble, not peace. Thank God I have time today to consider it here.

I have in mind a particular poem written to acknowledge the loss by miscarriage last winter of a relative's child — Wren Marie — a girl who will never spread wings westward from Minnesota to see the rugged Washington Coast nor eastward ever to visit her grandparents in Rockville, Maryland, where, recently in the news, we have all mourned deaths even more terrible still.

"Flight Song for Wren Marie" is my daughter-in-law's poem, and when I wrote her last winter to mark its pointed achievement, I knew — as you should now — that it came from a woman whose own father took flight when she was just thirteen. As Yeats knew ("a terrible beauty is born"), poetry lives at the hard edges of experience, and people do too:

Hard surfaces handily softened by such warm consideration. You tread lightly, dive deeply, soar hopefully, alert to new songs of spring this winter. I'm reminded here of Frost's "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be The Same." Like Frost's Eve, you find, even amid mortal loss, a songbird's gift of life to share.

Flight Song for Wren Marie

Winter wren, you've left my fields too early
These days only lengthen in
your absence, shadows long
across the stubble, dry grass rustling, stirred
by my blindly seeking hands
(no answers in the frozen earth)

You do not flit
from root to root along the icy stream bank
(no answers in the frozen water,
burbles hushed to silence) yet

Sweet warbler, your trills
are high on the January wind
I hear each spiraling, sweeping song burst
with unencumbered joy

Still I keen my lullaby, chase each
departing echo, while spring remains
a fickle promise.

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