In Praise of Limestone

A Theory of Poetry

Words are not stones and very few of them are carved into marble; they last, when they last, on perishable paper pages and in the fallible minds of men and women. So when you get a chance to write an epitaph, you’d be advised to consider carefully. One of the best is Yeats’—Cast a cold Eye/ on Life, on Death./ Horseman, pass by—who put it in a poem and on his grave stone. The best intentions, though, don’t guarantee you’ll get what you want. Keats asked for a simple nameless stone that read, Here lies one whose name was writ in water, and what he got was: This Grave/contains all that was Mortal/ of a/ Young English Poet/ Who/ on his Death Bed/ in the Bitterness of his Heart/at the Malicious Power of his Enemies/ Desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone/ “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”


Shakespeare presumably got what he wanted when he wrote (to modernize slightly)—Good friend for Jesus sake forbear/ To dig the dust enclosed here!/ Blest be the man that spares these stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.—though it does seem unworthy. Even the Bard can get trapped up in a bad rhyme scheme.  Sure ‘stones’ rhymes with ‘bones’, but why not write: He’s a good man who spares these rocks/ and she’s a good woman who darns my socks?

An epitaph is the time for your best writing. Will, you can do better than this!


When Gary Snyder starts his poem “Riprap”—Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.—he’s on to something. Writing is like laying stone—stacking stone for a wall, building a cairn, defining and strengthening a riverbed—and the rhythms of both poem and prose might be seen to mimic the huff and puff of a man shifting stone—a translating of the body’s movement to the words. I am a little worried by the manliness of the activity, however. Writing can also be likened to weaving or cooking. While the men folk were out building the Acropolis, Arachne was at home weaving an impiety to the gods. Riprap of things/Cobble of the milky way…Each rock a word/ a creek washed stone/ Granite…all change, in thoughts/ as well as in things. Yes, it sounds like a man’s work, but let’s do the manly thing here and admit women—and the subterranean—to the practice.

Besides, cobble is such a good word; it would be a shame to give it up; very lapidary; it feels like stone—at least as a noun it does. As a verb, though, it’s a little more problematic. While you can cobble a road or a pair of shoes with considerable skill, cobble together a plan at the last minute and you’re likely in the process of bungling things. There has always been a potential conflict between the sound of a word and its meaning; I wonder what the meaning of ‘to cobble’ is when the object of the verb is ‘the milky way’.

Lay down these words before the mind. All change in thoughts as well as things. There is an old Zen koan, which Gary Snyder was surely aware of:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, “The flag is moving.”

The other said, “The wind is moving.”

The Sixth Patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them, “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”


Koan’s work as poetry, don’t they? The same concision; you could put one on your gravestone quite successfully—though it might be appropriate to say that a good poem works as a koan too, that this stone has two sides. Suppose the monks were arguing—“The granite is moving.” “The earth is moving.”—would the passing Patriarch say, “Not granite, not the earth. The milky way is moving.”?


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Silent Night


Silence Caged

In his book Silence, John Cage tells the story of a curious inspiration for one of his compositions. It seems he went to Harvard to sit in an anechoic chamber, which is a room designed to destroy sound—‘anechoic’ means not having or producing echoes—in the hope of finding genuine silence. Instead he heard two sounds, one pitched high, one low. A friendly engineer explained he was hearing his nervous system and the circulation of his blood through the veins and arteries, which was probably nonsense, but the experience resulted in an iconic piece of music, 4’33’’—you know the deal with 4’ 33’’, a musician sits down at the piano and we listen to the sounds in the air: your neighbor clearing his throat, a baby crying in the back row, a shout in the street. 4’ 33’’ may be a lot of things, aleatoric music or an expression of Zen Buddhism—it may be a lot of hooey— but it isn’t something you can’t hear. As a presentation of silence it bubbles with trouble; as a piece of music, only the truly philosophic will walk away whistling. We have a strange relationship with silence; we associate it with something you hear—a sound of silence—and we think it exists. The real problem with this notion of silence is that it may be the province of the dead.

There are a lot of other songs and music that make use of the concept of silence. The Sounds of Silence, Silence is Golden, and Silent Night are a few that come to mind, and of course philosophers are attracted to the idea. There is that Pensée by Pascal: The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Wittgenstein also weighs in with his concluding sentence in the Tractatus: What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence. And speaking of conclusions, remember Hamlet’s curtain ringer: The rest is silence… But we are back to the dead.


If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it…?

It seems we need three things for sound, a source of vibration, a medium to conduct the sound waves—like the atmosphere, like the oceans—and someone to be listening, ‘auditing’ in the best sense. The problem comes when we flip over to not-sound—is this silence?

Thomas Nagel raises a parallel issue in his essay Death when he wonders if death can really be a bad thing for the deceased. It’s not that he thinks you’re kissing the angels’ feet in heaven or anything; he presumes it’s over for you as a person, and asks if you are no longer in existence, how can death be bad for you? ‘Dead’ is not a state you inhabit.

The point that death is not regarded as an unfortunate state enables us to refute a curious but very common suggestion about the origin of the fear of death. It is often said that those who object to death have made the mistake of trying to imagine what it is like to be dead. It is alleged that the failure to realize that this task is logically impossible (for the banal reason that there is nothing to imagine) leads to the conviction that death is mysterious and therefore a terrifying prospective state.

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The Metaphysicals

Shhh… I’m doing some auditioning for The Metaphysicals using One Look. It’s this new dictionary search engine. Should be interesting. Listen in, if you want…

Ladies and gentlemen, today’s first contestant is commute, a nice common word, easy to pronounce, a good solid two syllables, seems pretty stable—and One Look finds him in 29 different sources, which is 24 more than Google using the ‘define:’ special syntax pulled up. Pretty impressive, Commute. I just hope you’re not going to be too repetitive.

No, not at all.

Sure, we all know commute can mean more than a meaningless shuffle between two points in order to earn a living…

In addition to ‘travel back and forth between work and home’, I can also mean ‘transpose and remain equal in value; exchange a penalty for a less severe one; change or replace with another’.

So, if you’re on death row, you’re kind of hoping the governor does a lot of commuting, right?

(The audience laughs here.)

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A Thanksgiving Tale


“Now let us pray,” I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold,” I said.

Ray Carver




“Look, he practically begged me to invite him. He’s alone, he’s lonely, but in truth, he’s a nice guy, we shoot the breeze now and then, he’s very smart. Once you get past the silly mustache…

“Yes, I did know he can be contentious…

“Yes, I did know he can be overbearing…”

“And he brought those horrid sausages.”

Well, yes.

“And that beer….”

Okay, yes.

“…which incidentally had everybody so blitzed there was no one to drive me to the hospital.”

Yes, true, but…


A short segment of a very long conversation I had with my sister after I committed the enormous faux pas of inviting Friedrich Nietzsche for Thanksgiving dinner.

Yes, I should have told her I was inviting a stranger, but it was a last minute thing. The man’s a famous philosopher, after all. Okay, a philologist. I still think it was more about turkey gravy in his mustache, then about what probably is a stupid idea—that which does not destroy me, makes me stronger. Sure, everybody had a little too much to drink, but that whole ‘grace thing’ my cousin May does every Thanksgiving set him off. It doesn’t mean that much to me. May wants to pray; I’m cool. But Friedrich Nietzsche…it’s obviously… you know, he’s made a name for himself, Mr. Anti-Christian.

“Father Sprit, blessed Jesus, Lord of the land, sea and air—please bless this table and those who sit in common communion at its portals…”

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Cathedrals in Spain

Pancake people?

The image is arresting: Pancake people. Yum. Melting butter, syrup dripping off the edge of the plate, coffee, sausages, the Sunday paper cracked open, Dick and Jane playing with Spot on the front lawn… Such an attractive metaphor—W e are pancake people. Doodle a little face with chocolate sauce and dig in.

mount-mike3aOkay, this is not what Richard Foreman has in mind when he writes about his new play The Gods are Pounding My Head in Edge. (New in 2005; and new to me; ideas are eternal, right?) Rather, he has something perplexing to tell us. ‘Pancake people’ is being contrasted with ‘cathedral people’ and it is the thinness of the pancake that he is emphasizing, not the sweetness of the experience. We as a people, he suggests, are being spread too thin by the very wealth of our resources, spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button. Does this make sense? Pour water into an 8 ounce glass and the water will amount to a cool refreshing drink. Pour it into the ocean…

I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.

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Out of Sight

Okay class, there’s a surprise quiz today. Click here and no talking.

Time’s up. How did you do?

Now, I don’t know about you, but I ran out of common words rather quickly. Come, but, can, the, and, how, have…  I did okay for a while concentrating on the modal verbs, but my mind kept going to zebra and tilly—and ‘tilly’ isn’t much of word at all, is it? It can be a slang word for utility and it can refer to one Johann Tserclaes von Tilly, who was the general who commanded the Holy Roman Empire’s forces during the Thirty Years’ War. The Wikipedia has a nice article on the man, but I’m going to have a hard time working ‘tilly’ into my conversation. It ought to be a verb in any case.

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Black President

You know about Fela Kuti? In 1979 he ran for president—of Nigeria. He didn’t win, but in 1981 released one of the great albums, Black President. Itunes has it listened at The Best of the Black President. It might make a nice download today. Listen to Sorrow, Blood and Tears, and I.T.T. (International Thief Thief).

And congratulations to our first Hawaiian President…

The World as Meditation

The Sun, on the Horizon…

Wallace Stevens was fond of writing and speculating—and (if I may) poetizing and philosophizing—about ‘the poem’. Inscribing a copy of his Collected Poems to one of Holly Stevens’ English professors, he wrote:

When I speak of the poem, in this book, I mean not merely a literary form, but the brightest and most harmonious concept, or order, of life; and the references should be read with that in mind.

Stevens also wrote about ‘the poem’ in Reply to Papini, that it was:

 The growth of the mind .

Of the world, the heroic effort to live expressed

As victory.


And from Notes towards a Supreme Fiction, a statement of origins:

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place

That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves

And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.


The brightest concept of life, the most harmonious concept of life. The growth of the mind of the world…

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Poetry about poetry and poetry about hunger

I too, dislike it, Marianne Moore writes in a poem she simply called Poetry: as if sensing the ensuing fate of poetry is to be genuinely ignored—but offers a quick apologia: poetry is a place for the genuine, she insists. It is useful.

One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not pretty,
nor till the poets among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, shall we have


 One is tempted to discount such things despite the good writing. Yes, an imaginary garden with real toads is one of the better characterizations of a poem, but we have real problems in this world, why spend a single iota of time worrying about, you know, meta-poetry? Like, if you can’t find something serious to write about…

Listen however to what William Carlos Williams is telling his wife:

My heart rouses

          thinking to bring you news

                    of something

that concerns you

          and concerns many men.  Look at

                    what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

          despised poems.

                    It is difficult

to get the news from poems

          yet men die miserably every day

                    for lack

of what is found there.


Landing fresh on the planet from Mars, one would want to know more about this thing called a ‘poem’—despised or not. Let’s try another one:

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Expanding the Classroom

Fast Eyes

Talk about amazing. The other day I turned on my computer. I got on the Internet, went to a webpage, sat there, put on my glasses…there was a lot of text swimming before my eyes…but I sat there and I read the whole thing! I read it slowly; I read it carefully; I highlighted portions of the text using Diigo; I made some notes (Diigo again). I read it through a second time: an article that was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and now is in residence on the Web.

Of course, I was also IMing, and twittering, and blogging and wikiing, and I had some music in the background—Moby—and I was playing solitaire, and answering questions on Yahoo, and working on a vocabulary game called Free Rice—but my primary focus was on this article by Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, called Online literacy is a Lesser Kind. Might be interesting, I thought.  Oh, and I had Photoshop going, just to fool around with when I was bored. I’m thinking of creating an avatar.

The article did not start off auspiciously. Referencing Jacob Nielsen, the guru of web usability, usually puts me off. He can be a little pompous. And as I glanced down the page his name jumped up at me. I was tempted just to scan and move on, but I am interested in literacy and Professor Bauerlein should have some interesting points to make.  

So, Jacob Nielsen. I read on.  It seems he’s done this study on the way people ‘read’ material on the Internet, testing some 200 plus people, and it turns out the vast majority of them don’t read at all. Not line by line, word for word anyway. Rather, they scan the page looking at the text in an F pattern: read across the top, move your eyes halfway down the page, go across again, and then zip to the bottom.

‘F’ Mr. Nielsen opines, ‘for fast.’

One is tempted to use another ‘f’ word here, but this is a family oriented blog.

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