My understanding of what a poem is has been formed over a lifetime by the memory of the poems I love; the poems, or fragments of poems, that got into my head seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. I discovered early on that a scrap of language can be like a tune in that respect: it gets into your head no matter what. In fact, I believe, that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.
And here’s James, reading his transcendent “Japanese Maple,” written after he was diagnosed with leukemia.
I feel much the same about presidential debates as I do golf: It’s time that I’ll never, ever get back.
For one thing, they’re no longer debates. You know, with argument and discussion and context and logic and, um…facts. If I wanted to watch Kabuki theatre, I’d watch Kabuki theatre—not a couple of septuagenarians preening and posturing in front of a ridiculously self-serious audience while simultaneously dodging every question raised.
Do it Thunderdome-style, though, and I’m down to clown:
So obviously I’ll be skipping tonight’s performance. That doesn’t mean, however, that we won’t mark the occasion. After all, it was only sixty years ago that the very first televised debate was broadcast to the American people. (That’s the one in which, legend has it, those who listened on the radio proclaimed Vice President Richard Nixon the winner, while those who watched it on TV thought JFK had prevailed.)
More important though, it that it’s also the sixtieth birthday of Nixon’s half-eaten sandwich—one of our greatest, if largely unsung, national treasures:
But I digress. If, like me, you miss the days when candidates practiced the gentle art of persuasion—when it wasn’t so hard to tell the difference between a presidential debate and a WWE Smackdown—maybe tonight you should watch this instead:
As the decades have come and gone, I’ve had my hands on a majority of the projects that have passed through these walls. But I have done my best to steer clear of one domain: writing. That’s Aaron’s kingdom.
Per the rules, however, I am supposed to write at least two blog posts per year. And apparently I completely forgot 2019. (Maybe all the chaos in 2020 is my fault? Nah, I’m not that powerful.)
Hopefully, this should make up for this gross oversight. So grab a cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy.
But honestly, I’d be happy if more people took the opportunity of this glorious holiday to repent and forswear the comma splice—by far the most common punctuation crime committed in these parts. (I, um…may have ranted about this from time to time.)
Change can only begin with awareness, after all. And awareness, wrote zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.”
Apparently the editors of Rolling Stone have decided that the American people aren’t quite divided enough. They’ve released a list of what they’re calling “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”—and it’s (predictably) laughable.
“The old man the boats.” “The prime number few.” “Fat people eat accumulates.”
There’s a clever linguistic term for these sentences, which, though grammatically correct, are deliberately constructed so as to mislead the reader: garden-path. (My personal favorite? “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”)
The key to a good garden-path sentence, in other words, is intentional ambiguity through shrewd wordplay. It’s a puzzle.
Bad writing, on the other hand, is just…bad writing. And it usually comes from strict adherence to imagined rules.
A lot of folks, for instance, eschew the use of that in sentences such as “I know [that] you love me.” They believe it’s understood and therefore redundant. (That these are the same barbarians who refuse to employ the serial comma is probably not a coincidence.) But in a sentence like “I know the words to that song about the queen don’t rhyme,” you end up with what amounts to an accidental garden-path sentence. What was thought to be implied—that before “the words”—turns out, in this case, to be quite necessary.
When you understand that the rules of grammar, whether real or imagined, are a means of ensuring not consistency but clarity, it’s easier to know when and how to break them.
Shot: “I sometimes wonder if there have not been two great disasters in the history of modern letters: the first when literature began to be a full-time profession, with writers like Dryden and Lesage, instead of remaining a by-product of more sanely active lives; the second, when the criticism of literature became likewise a profession, and a livelihood for professors.” – F. L. Lucas, Style: The Art of Writing Well, 1955
Chaser: “[I]n all my years in and out of university English departments I never met a freelance reviewer who couldn’t give a better sense of the average novel in 800 words than an assistant lecturer at the University of Uttoxeter.” – Anonymous, “Who Let the Dons Out,” The Critic, September 2020
Forget, for a moment, the lazy and amateurish “to many” construction, which can be applied to any particular axe the writer wants to grind. Like, I dunno, “To many, CK is a merciless tyrant.” See what I did there? I led you to believe that CK is a terrible person without actually having the courage to say that he’s a terrible person—and without any evidence whatsoever.
This isn’t journalism. This is projecting.
But even if it were true—even if there existed a nontrivial number of self-absorbed a-holes who see a piece of music as “a symbol of elitism and exclusion”—so what? That’s their problem, not the music’s. Any idiot can, in the amount of time it takes to type “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” in the search field, find literally hundreds of performances on YouTube. FREE.
Who, exactly, is being excluded here? Only those who want to be culturally illiterate. (And those, like Vox writers, who want in on the intersectionality racket.)
So. Want to experience transcendent beauty? Give Beethoven a listen. Rather listen to “WAP”? That’s your prerogative. But for God’s sake don’t go blaming the white patriarchy for your benightedness. That’s just dumb.
I may have mentioned that I’m reading my way through The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro’s (currently) four-volume biography of our 36th president. The fifth and final volume, which will deal with LBJ’s actual presidency, is apparently in the works, with 600 typed manuscript pages completed as of January of this year.
In an era in which purity reigns supreme—when ignorant thugs are toppling statues of famous people who once had Bad Thoughts—we would do well to recall that Johnson, a lying, cheating, opportunistic dirtbag who apparently believed that the end justifies the means, rammed through some of the most important and effective civil rights legislation ever enacted in this country. And he had to go against his own party to do it.
All this is not to say that politicians are corrupt—they are, obviously—but that people are complex, and that the motives of even the worst of us can sometimes be honorable. Something worth remembering.
According to Open Culture, Ursula K. Le Guin had the best work schedule:
I don’t know the degree to which this routine “fueled her imagination” so much as it simply afforded her nearly five hours of uninterrupted time every day to actually write. And that’s not nothing.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with my own work schedule, which I’ll be submitting to the suits upstairs for approval and immediate implementation.
5:30 a.m.—wake up and lie there and think.
6:15 a.m.—get up and drink coffee (lots).
7:15 a.m.—arrive at the office and get to work writing, writing, writing.
1:00-3:00 p.m.—reading, music.
3:00-5:00 p.m.—email correspondence, tea, maybe meetings.
5:00-8:00 p.m.—Netflix and chill dinner.
After 8:00 p.m.—walk the dog and retire with a good book.
My back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that this schedule will increase my productivity by a factor of 3 and the quality of my output by a factor of, well…it’s already pretty much optimal, so I don’t want to make any promises.
Speaking of music (see yesterday’s post for some of the year’s notable recordings), winners of the 2019–20 Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of American Music have been announced. First place in the college/university ensemble division went to William B. Drury and the New England Conservatory Symphonic Winds for their performance of Whitman Tropes by Richard Toensing.
The reason I mention this today is not to say “I told you so”—even though I most certainly did—but to point out that, in addition to being a long-time friend and former bandmate, Bill is a proud Hillyard native, Rogers High School grad, and Gonzaga University alum. And because, well…I told you so.
I think we can all agree that, by and large, 2020 has sucked wet dog fur.
There’s been some brilliant music released so far this year, so it’s not all bad. I mean…yet. It could always get worse, right?
Herewith, then, ten recommended albums—released over the last eight months or so—to remind you that beauty and creativity still exist. Or, if nothing else, to help take your mind off the coming hellstorm.
• Ambrose Akinmusire, on the tender spot of every calloused moment
• Mino Cinelu & Nils Petter Molvær, SulaMadiana
• Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
• Yair Elazar Glotman & Mats Erlandsson, Emanate
• Roger Eno & Brian Eno, Mixing Colours
• The Necks, Three • Pantha du Prince, Conference of Trees • The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth
• Max Richter, Voices
• Gil Scott-Heron, We’re New Again: A Re-Imagining by Makaya McCraven
“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”
“Rather than a neat evolutionary line,” writes Florence Hazrat, “imagine punctuation developing as a rhizome, a horizontal mesh of practices, explorations and loosely understood conventions whose overlapping branches sometimes do the same thing but look different.”
Turns out Francis Fukuyama was right all along, argues Aris Roussinos: “Where Huntington and Kaplan predicted the threat to the Western liberal order coming from outside its cultural borders,” he writes, “Fukuyama discerned the weak points from within, predicting, with startling accuracy, our current moment.”
Speaking of “weak points within,” Graeme Wood has some thoughts on Vicky Osterweil’s In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. “Easily my favorite line in the book,” he notes, “was written not by the author but by her publisher, right under the copyright notice: ‘The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property,’ it says. ‘Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.'”
Christopher Bray reminds us that now has no objective meaning: “If you’re talking to a friend across the room, you see him not as he is at this precise point in time but as he was a moment ago — to be precise, at that moment when the light you are seeing bounce off him began travelling from him towards you. However infinitesimally different, that is, your ‘now’ is his ‘then.'”