“I couldn’t imagine a life in which I would not be surrounded by music. It shelters you from the world, which protects you, which keeps you at a certain distance from the world. Because I think that the only advantage that any artist has, the only thing that any artists can really write about, and all artists do write about it, whether they know it or not, is that distance from the world. I do realize it, and I know that I obtain it through media, and I know that I would be very unhappy as a 19th-Century man.”
The embedded video is from nowness.com. For some reason — probably some intellectual property law absurdity — only Canadians can view video on the promo site for the film, even though it’s now playing in the US.
As I fell into the rhythm of the words, as I savored the way Dickens was planting his signposts for the development of the plot, as I watched him create unforgettable characters in a page or two, I felt a kind of peace. This wasn’t hectic. I wasn’t skittering around here and there. I wasn’t scanning headlines and skimming pages and tweeting links. I was reading.
What I am going to do, is take some time every day to read. I believe I’ll make it a practice to read in the room without the computer and the Wi-Fi.
I interpret “…the room without” as the rest of the world. My first daily read for the summer: Moby Dick. (It’s my first time.)
But the present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action; we can not avoid living it through a project; and there is no project which is purely contemplative since one always projects himself toward something, toward the future; to put oneself “outside” is still a way of living the inescapable fact that one is inside; those French intellectuals who, in the name of history, poetry, or art, sought to rise above the drama of the age, were willy-nilly its actors; more or less explicitly, they were playing the occupier’s game. Likewise, the Italian aesthete, occupied in caressing the marbles and bronzes of Florence, is playing a political role in the life of his country by his very inertia. One can not justify all that is by asserting that everything may equally be the object of contemplation, since man never contemplates: he does.
– Simone de Beauvoir, from The Ethics of Ambiguity
On April 1st, US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan held a video discussion with a handful of community colleges to kick off National Poetry Month, known on Twitter as #napomo — or #napowrimo to those celebrating the month by writing poetry.
I kept an ear on the conference while doing some busy-work. Here are a few partial quotes and paraphrases I managed to capture:
“In order to write well, you must write a lot.”
It’s important to have a defended space in which to write: people walk through a garden without fences, even if they didn’t mean to.
“We’re not hearing from you. Have you answered?” (She was addressing technical difficulties with the link to one of the colleges, but I heard something deeper in it.)
You need to read — read a lot — the entire spectrum: “It’s useful to read things that irritate you as well as what you like…It’s important to read outside your taste.”
Think of your brain as a fish tank, and the fish are ideas and thoughts. For those fish to be well, the water has to be aerated all the time. Reading everything and anything plunges oxygenated language into the tank of your brain.
“Our brain tissue is stained by really powerful voices like Emily Dickinson.”
“Are you hungry to speak?”
Don’t be impatient to know too much about your voice — have a lot of tolerance for yourself and your experiments.
Eventually, one is kind of reduced to one’s voice: “Sandblasted enough, the shape of you starts coming out.”
When you sit down to write, don’t worry about inspiration — “it’s a dirty trick to think you have to wait for inspiration.”
You have to start, and inspiration may find you, or it may not at all.
“I always find disagreement particularly provocative, to take exception to something.”
Editing and Revision
She read her poem The Other Shoe:
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the midair
collusion of the
unpaired above us
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.
“A short poem, but it took a lot of work to get to it…”
Unless you are Rimbaud, you better figure that you are going to be doing a lot of re-writing.
The Other Shoe had nine or more previous versions. (She flipped through them quickly; one included an illustration.)
“In order to make a poem look unworked, I have to work at it a lot.”
“I don’t find necessarily that my first thought is my best thought at all. Just a first thought…out of which a good thought might grow.”
She immediately forgets what she writes, which allows her to re-read as a stranger: “I have a bad memory, and have always thought of it as a great advantage.”
“This is a patient art, in order to gain some excellence in it.”
Student question: “What role do other readers play in your revision process?” Kay Ryan: “Excellent question! None!”
She keeps her own counsel.
Her partner, who died recently, had been the only one to read pre-publication versions of Ryan’s poems: “If she didn’t tell me the bad things, I couldn’t trust her when she said something was beautiful.”
It’s dangerous to listen to other people and their feedback.
Working through errors yourself can take you in the direction you need to go.
On workshop poems — “good in some sense that is incredibly boring.”
Don’t court obscurity, don’t be consciously intentionally obscure.
“We have plenty of confusion and ambiguity in this world…Try to get something important across…Try to make clear points.”
“Publishing is an act of communication…to make someone else feel or think very much as I do.”
When writing a poem, make sure the substance is in the poem, and not stuck in your mind.
“Is everything you need to understand the poem available in the poem?”
Poetry — the most exciting, exacting, demanding work she’s ever found to do with her mind.
“Every sort of experiment can be a useful experiment.”
Note: If it’s in quotes, I’m 99% sure it’s something Kay Ryan actually said. The rest is stitched together from my short- and mid-term memory.
Note #2: I know, I know: bullet points. Sorry! I’m just trying to get this published quickly, and crafting it into a better format will just delay that.
…the tactile disadvantage extends to the conceptual domain. That is, we seem to be slower at recognising when a word is tactile in nature than we are at recognising whether words are visual, to do with taste, sound, or smell.
The researchers had dozens of participants look at words on a screen, presented one at a time, and press a button to say if they were related to the tactile modality (e.g. ‘itchy’) or not. Some words were tactile-related whilst others were fillers and related to the other senses.
The same task was then repeated but with participants judging whether the words were visual-related, auditory and so on, with each sense dealt with by a new block of trials. The key finding is that participants were much slower at this task in the tactile condition than for the other senses. This was the case even when words were presented for just 17ms, which is too fast for conscious detection but long enough for accurate responding.
Connell and Lynott say their findings provide further evidence for the tactile sense having a processing disadvantage relative to the other senses. They think this is because there’s little evolutionary advantage to sustaining attention to the tactile modality whereas there are obvious survival advantages with the other senses, for example: ‘…in hunting, where efficacious looking, listening and even smelling for traces of prey could afford an advantage.’ You may think of pain and damage detection as reasons for paying sustained attention to the tactile domain, but remember these are served by spinal reflexes. ‘We do not wait for the burning or stinging sensation to register with the attentional system before responding,’ the researchers said.
I can think of lots of reasons for sustained attention to tactile sensation, but they probably don’t have any evolutionary purpose.
Video footage of musician and artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s installation of electric guitars and zebra finches at London’s Barbican Curve gallery, 23 February – 23 May 2010
I’d like to hear a longer version of this, without the camera crew chasing the finches from guitar to guitar.
A proposed sequel: finches in a room full of lid-less grand pianos, with cement blocks on the damper pedals to let the strings sound. Why didn’t Henry Cowell ever get animals involved? Other than human animals, that is.
Ebert is waiting for a Scottish company called CereProc to give him some of his former voice back. He found it on the Internet, where he spends a lot of his time. CereProc tailors text-to-speech software for voiceless customers so that they don’t all have to sound like Stephen Hawking. They have catalog voices — Heather, Katherine, Sarah, and Sue — with regional Scottish accents, but they will also custom-build software for clients who had the foresight to record their voices at length before they lost them. Ebert spent all those years on TV, and he also recorded four or five DVD commentaries in crystal-clear digital audio. The average English-speaking person will use about two thousand different words over the course of a given day. CereProc is mining Ebert’s TV tapes and DVD commentaries for those words, and the words it cannot find, it will piece together syllable by syllable. When CereProc finishes its work, Roger Ebert won’t sound exactly like Roger Ebert again, but he will sound more like him than Alex does. There might be moments, when he calls for Chaz from another room or tells her that he loves her and says goodnight — he’s a night owl; she prefers mornings — when they both might be able to close their eyes and pretend that everything is as it was.
Ebert, describing what his journal means to him:
When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.
On ephemeral reactions:
Anger isn’t as easy for him as it used to be. Now his anger rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down.
On crime, and joy:
I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
Roger Ebert is a great example of what the so-called New Atheists have never understood: that living well is a far better way to ‘evangelize’ freethinking than pedantic and vitriolic argument, however rational it may be.
To the extent that humanists might imagine having saints, Mr. Ebert is surely one of them.
“Goya was one of those uncommon artists who had the daring, or the folly, to take on the whole scale of human fate. It was a huge scale, and nobody works on it today, because our sense of the possibility of art — what it can do, what it can say, and why it can matter — is so depleted. But it never occurred to Goya that art might not be able to say anything and everything about our nature, our desires and our fears. He just assumed that it could, and he went ahead. And by assuming it, he left us with the difficult task of living up to his peculiar intensity. And if we can’t, as is likely, at least he shows us that. Nearly two hundred years after he died, to meet Goya, is still to meet ourselves. “
Goya and his doctor
At the bottom of the painting:
“Goya agradecido á su amigo Arrieta: por el acierto y esmero con q.e le salvo la vida en su aguda y peligrosa enfermedad, padecida á fines del año 1819, a los setenta y tres años de su edad. Lo pintó en 1820.”
Google’s attempted translation:
“Goya grateful to his friend Arrieta: for the wisdom and care with [...] saved his life in his acute and dangerous illness suffered at the end of 1819, at seventy – three years of age. It was painted in 1820.”
And a reminder:
From sometime in the last four years of his life
The translation of Aún aprendo: “I am still learning.”