A Poem of Fire and Ice

Back at in the beginning of April, I wrote a post about memorizing poetry. Over the first three months of this year, I memorized six poems. I am proud to report that I have kept up the pace, and memorized another six poems during Q2.

To celebrate the beginning of baseball season, I started with Casey at the Bat. Then, to go with the return of Game of Thrones, I memorized Fire and Ice by Robert Frost. For those not in the know, the book series that Game of Thrones is based on is known as A Song of Ice and Fire. Frost’s poem about the world ending in either fire or ice was an obvious poem to ponder as GOT wrapped up.

For Mothers’ Day, I memorized Morning Song by Sylvia Plath, a charming poem to her newborn baby. I finished May with We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks. I had been meaning to read more Brooks ever since I attended a lecture by the archivist who is painstakingly working through the poet’s extensive personal notebooks. (Among other things, Brooks recorded everything she ate every day.)

After some thought about what poets were most interesting to me as a child, I decided to memorize Shel Silverstein’s Sick in June. I have always loved humor, and the ability to tell a joke in verse is a tremendous skill. Harlem by Langston Hughes rounded out the first half of the year. And the beginning of summer seems as good a time as any to ponder “a raisin in the sun.”

Compared to the poems I memorized in the first three months of the year, these poems are generally more modern and are mostly shorter. (Casey at the Bat is by far the oldest and the longest of the six.) I certainly have a soft spot formal old poetry, but the structural variety of the poems from these past three months has been a very fun change of pace.

In the first quarter of this year, I memorized three British poems, one Mexican, one Canadian, and one Australian poem. The second quarter accidentally became a study of relatively modern American poetry. The first five poems of the quarter were only American by happenstance. But once I realized what had happened, I specifically chose Harlem as the sixth straight American poem to memorize.

Beer of the week: The Big O – This cloudy wheat beer is brewed by Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Co. It is bready and delicious. The label made me expect more citrus flavor, but there is not much to speak of. The beer is neither especially sweet nor especially tart. Not that that is a problem; The Big O simply tastes like a very good wheat beer.

Reading of the week: Fire and Ice by Robert Frost – There are a lot of considerations that go into the choice of this poem for this week’s reading. As alluded to above, the end of Game of Thrones was culturally significant, even if you hated how it ended. The battles of ice versus fire and desire versus hatred are deeply embedded in the way we think of the world. Secondly, the weather is finally hot after a cold, wet spring; fire has finally asserted itself over the ice. Lastly, and most importantly, Fire and Ice is not under copyright. With the exception of Casey at the Bat, which was a reading of the week a couple months ago, none of the other poems that I memorized this quarter are in the public domain.

Question for the week: Who is your favorite American poet?

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Joy In Mudville

My current job forces me to think of the year in terms of quarters. I am glad to report that Q1, which ended this past week, was very productive. Not at work, necessarily, but in the ways that matter.

For one thing, the Major League Baseball regular season started during Q1. This year was the earliest opening day yet. (To be honest, I still believe that March baseball should be played in either Florida or Arizona. I shouldn’t be able to watch a regular season ballgame and then have to shake snow flurries from my hair the same night.)

More importantly, I have stuck with my new year’s resolution though the first three months of the year. This year, I resolved to memorize two poems a month. It has been an enriching and very pleasurable experience. And, because I have made a habit of reciting the poems to myself as I walk to and from the train during my work commute, the project has not been a drain on my time.

January, I memorized Ozymandias by Percy Shelley and Clancy of the Overflow by Banjo Paterson. In the 2018 film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, there is a character who performs dramatic recitations of Ozymandias. I’m not sure that is why I chose to start with that poem, but it seems possible. I chose Clancy because Banjo Paterson has been a favorite poet of mine for a long time.

In February, I memorized Dos Cuerpos by Octavio Paz and The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld. After January went so well, I wanted to stretch myself a bit by memorizing a poem in Spanish. I consulted with a bilingual friend of mine who studied poetry in college. My requirements were that the poem be good, short, and have a manageable vocabulary. (After all, it is well over a decade since my last high school Spanish test.) Dos Cuerpos fit the bill. I read The Mouse’s Petition for the first time last year, and was very taken with it. Aside from the obvious merits of the poem itself, I have been very interested in Joseph Priestly and his experiments since my freshman chemistry classes.

To end the first quarter of the year, I memorized If— by Rudyard Kipling and The Quitter by Robert W. Service. If— is probably my favorite poem of all-time. And as a new father, it has taken on additional significance to me. (Also, The Simpsons did it!) The Quitter was chosen as a follow-up to If— because it is very similar in both tone and message. In fact, if I were to call Robert Service “the poor man’s Kipling,” I would probably not be the first.

Overall, I am very pleased with myself and my choices. I cannot help but believe that memorizing poetry is good for the mind and the soul (if those are different things.) I like to think that I have made a good start on a habit that I will keep for years to come. Maybe next year I will memorize famous speeches. But there is no need to get ahead of myself now; I’ve still got three quarters of 2019 to go.

Beer of the week: Son of a Peach – This unfiltered wheat beer from South Carolina’s RJ Rockers Brewing Company is brewed with Carolina peaches. It is peachy, but not overly sweet. The wheat and a hint of vanilla in the finish reminds me of peaches & cream oatmeal. I rather enjoy this beer.

Reading of the week: Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer – Now that baseball season is upon us, I’ve decided to memorize Casey at the Bat. It is undoubtedly the best poem ever written about baseball, and arguably the greatest piece of American comic verse ever written.

Question for the week: Excluding song lyrics, what is the longest written work you have ever memorized?


A Drink With A Shade

This is the twenty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXII: English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay

This blog is more than seven years old, yet somehow, the ultimate “question for the week” has not been asked: if you could have a beer with any author, who would you chose? And, to take it to another level, what beer would you order for the two of you? A few answers suggest themselves to me.

Helen Keller – Keller wrote in her autobiography, “I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, ‘love.'” Because she only began to learn language at the age of 7, she had distinct memories of her first words and her first exploration of language as a method for abstract thought. It would be amazing to converse with her about the nature of language and how it shapes thought. Because she is from Alabama, I would pick a light and refreshing kölsch. Unfortunately, I’d be worried about our ability to actually communicate. Although she learned to speak, she never could speak clearly enough to be understood by most people. And as for her understanding me, she’d need a translator or to feel my mouth move as I talk. Either way, it seems like a bit much to manage while having a drink. (Also, check out this video of her talking; it’s pretty wild.)

H. L. Mencken – I would love to hear Mencken apply his caustic wit to all of our modern inanities. With our current political and social climate, he would have a near limitless supply of zingers. Moreover, his humor may be a guide to truths that I might otherwise have missed. “The final test of truth is ridicule,” he wrote. “Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived. Huxley laughed the devils out of the Gadarene swine. Not the laws of the United States but the mother-in-law joke brought the Mormons to surrender. Not the horror of it but the absurdity of it killed the doctrine of infant damnation. But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth. How loudly the barber-surgeons laughed at Huxley—and how vainly! What clown ever brought down the house like Galileo? Or Columbus? Or Darwin?” Because Mencken was such Teutonophile, I would order a German-style dark lager. It is possible, of course, that he would be too caustic (or just too big a fan of Nietzche) to be good company.

Benvenuto Cellini – Cellini is definitely my wildcard pick. On the one hand, if his Autobiography is half true, I’d be in for a night to remember. On the other hand, if his Autobiography is half true, I’d stand more than a passing chance of getting stabbed by the end of the night. For Cellini, nothing but the strongest malt liquor would do. He’d tell great stories over a beer, but it is probably not worth the risk.

Francis Bacon – So many of the names that jump to mind in response to this question are people of whom I’d have a hundred questions. But I would want to drink with Bacon to hear what questions he has for me. Bacon revolutionized the way we think about inquiry in science and philosophy. I think I could learn a tremendous amount just hearing what he is curious about. (Also, I would try to suss out whether he was the real Shakespeare.) Because of Bacon’s interest in technology, I’d order something new and experimental. Perhaps a beer brewed with oysters or a beer “hopped” with cannabis.

Beer of the week: Brooklyn Naranjito – Like several beers from Brooklyn Brewery, Naranjito is only getting limited releases around the world. This is a very pale and slightly hazy beer with a nice head of small white bubbles. The aroma of citrusy hops and orange zest is backed by that same citrus bitterness in the flavor. By the end of the sip, the bitterness is balanced by the malt, so the bitterness doesn’t hang in the throat as much as with some other beers. Because it is brewed with orange peel rather than orange juice or flesh, Naranjito’s orange notes are not especially fruity or sweet. Overall, a very nice beer.

Reading of the week: Of Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen by William Hazlitt – Although this essay is somewhat longer than the usual weekly reading, it is certainly worth the time. Hazlitt’s good friend (and fellow literary luminary) Charles Lamb scoffed at Isaac Newton, John Locke, William Shakespeare and John Milton as possible answers to this week’s question. Newton and Locke, he opined, were not personally interesting beyond their written works. And he’d gotten enough of an impression of Milton and Shakespeare from their portraits. The other suggestions in the essay range from Voltaire to Genghis Khan.

Question for the week: Who would you share a beer with if you could pick anybody? Tell us in the comments below.


Scoundrel Worship

This is the twenty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXV: Autobiography, Etc., J.S. Mill; Essays and Addresses, T. Carlyle

It is clear from a review of the titles in the Harvard Classics that Dr. Eliot was a firm believer of the importance of role models and the possibility of learning from experience. His “five-foot shelf” includes a seemingly disproportionate share of biographical works. In addition to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and biographies by Izaak Walton, the set includes autobiographical writings by Franklin, Woolman, Augustine, Mill, Dana, and Cellini.

If the purpose of studying biography is to learn from positive role models, most of these selections are totally understandable. Franklin’s Autobiography is full of folksy wisdom and Puritanical morality. Augustine’s Confessions describe the path to faith and virtue from a dissolute youth. Johns Donne and Woolman were humble and pious preachers whom one would do well to emulate. Excellent role models, they.

But Thomas Carlyle suggests in his essay on Sir Walter Scott (another biographical work) that the value of biography is more than just an appreciation for role models, but an instinctive attraction to people of distinction. “Such is hero-worship; so much lies in that our inborn sincere love of great men!” If we are to emulate the subjects of biographies, we are to emulate them for their greatness rather than any moral virtue they happen to have. And more likely, we are to find that we are incapable of emulating them and should worship them all the more for doing what we could not.

What’s more, Carlyle claims that the attraction to prominent figures is more important than finding truly great heroes to worship. For even in the hero-worship of merely “noted men” is the seed of the value of following the truly great. “Find great men, if you can; if you cannot, still quit not the search; in defect of great men, let there be noted men, in such number, to such degree of intensity as the public appetite can tolerate.”

Here, I think Carlyle misses the mark. His version of history is a string biographies of a few great men who, by power of personality and virtue (in the Machiavellian sense,) were able to drag society upward. In truth, we give far more credit to “great men” than they deserve. It is the toil of the multitude, and the choices of the many that have led to the tremendous material improvements in society. From the spontaneous order of the market to the physical production of the food and widgets that we need and desire, the actions and decisions of each individual has always better provided for the material needs of society than the dictates of any “great leader”. There is plenty to learn from biographies of notable people, but it is a mistake to assume that their lives alone have brought us here.

Beer of the week: Wells Banana Bread Beer – The name says it all. This not-quite-copper-colored ale is banana bread in a can. The aroma is of bananas and spice. Without being too sticky or sweet, this really does taste a lot like banana bread. It is very smooth with enough spicy hops in the finish to make sure that it tastes like beer as well. And delicious beer at that.

Reading of the week: Sir Walter Scott by Thomas Carlyle – Later in the essay, Carlyle writes, “there is no heroic poem in the world but is at bottom a biography, the life of a man: also, it may be said, there is no life of a man, faithfully recorded, but is a heroic poem of its sort, rhymed or unrhymed.”

Question for the week: How does biography compare to other forms of nonfiction? Is it even fair to call biography a subcategory of nonfiction?


Mother of Mercy

This is the fourteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XIV: Æneid

DISCLAIMER: This blog post treats Greek and Roman mythology as interchangeable. There are, of course, reasons to differentiate between the two traditions. However, at least part of Virgil’s project was to co-opt Greek mythology for Roman purposes. So for the present blog post there is no need to differentiate between the Roman gods of his Æneid and the Greek gods of Homer.

Mothers are remarkable beings. Not least because even those who regard motherhood as primary to their identity are never merely mothers. Mothering requires a wide range of skills and tasks. Keeping a child alive (to say nothing of keeping it happy, healthy, well-fed, safe, etc.) is a tremendous feat which deserves special recognition.

The idea of mothers as multi-taskers is nothing new. Consider the goddess Venus. Venus is primarily thought of as a lover. But, like any mother who’s ever kissed a boo-boo, comforted a crying babe, or taken marriage vows, Venus is also a healer, a nurturer, and a wife. (And, like every mortal wife, she has not always been a perfect helpmate. But that is another post for another time.)

The Romans regarded the goddess as Venus Genetrix, “Venus the Mother.” Her son was the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas escaped the fall of Ilium and led the remnants of his people to Italy. When the Trojans established themselves in that new land, the groundwork was laid for the eventual rise of Rome.

This great project, however, would not have succeeded without the love and attention of Aeneas’ mother. In his final battle against the native Italians, Aeneas is badly wounded. Although he has an arrowhead lodged deep in his flesh, Venus will not let his injury prevent him from fulfilling his destiny:

“But now the goddess mother, mov’d with grief,
And pierc’d with pity, hastens her relief.”

She goes to work healing him with herbal medicine and divine skill.

“Stanch’d is the blood, and in the bottom stands:
The steel, but scarcely touch’d with tender hands,
Moves up, and follows of its own accord,
And health and vigor are at once restor’d.”

Aeneas’ recovery allows him to return to the fray, slay the Italian foe, and establish the colony that is to become Rome.

And this is not the first time that Venus came to the aid of her beloved son. During the battle for Troy, Aeneas was nearly killed by Diomedes, son of Tydeus. Again the goddess came to his rescue.

“Aeneas sprang from his chariot armed with shield and spear, fearing lest the Achaeans should carry off the body. He bestrode it as a lion in the pride of strength, with shield and on spear before him and a cry of battle on his lips resolute to kill the first that should dare face him. But the son of Tydeus caught up a mighty stone, so huge and great that as men now are it would take two to lift it; nevertheless he bore it aloft with ease unaided, and with this he struck Aeneas on the groin where the hip turns in the joint that is called the “cup-bone.” The stone crushed this joint, and broke both the sinews, while its jagged edges tore away all the flesh. The hero fell on his knees, and propped himself with his hand resting on the ground till the darkness of night fell upon his eyes. And now Aeneas, king of men, would have perished then and there, had not his mother, Jove’s daughter Venus, who had conceived him by Anchises when he was herding cattle, been quick to mark, and thrown her two white arms about the body of her dear son. She protected him by covering him with a fold of her own fair garment, lest some Danaan should drive a spear into his breast and kill him.”

Although Venus is not a warrior like Minerva or Mars, she descended to the field of battle and was even wounded by Diomedes for the sake of her child. So great is the goddess’s love for her son. And to whom did Venus turn to heal her own wound? Her mother, of course.

“Venus flung herself on to the lap of her mother Dione, who threw her arms about her and caressed her.”

So cheers to the comforters, healers, lovers, and heroes whom we call “mother” for short.

Beer of the week: Two Hats Pineapple – To trot out a tired metaphor, mothers wear many hats. And so, this reading is paired with the new Two Hats beer. This is advertised as a “crisp light beer with natural pineapple flavor.” The marketing for Two Hats is aimed at young drinkers. The tag-line is “Good, cheap beer. Wait, what?” Advertising copy also includes “Quit wine-ing!” and “Beer for people who are ‘meh’ about beer.” Clearly, they are trying to recapture early twenty-somethings who have turned to wine and spirits over beer. And, although the name “Miller” does not appear on the can, this is a product of the MillerCoors family, brewed by the Plank Road Brewery division of Miller.

As much as I hate the advertising and transparent attempt to appeal to “millennials,” I think it is actually a decent alternative to flavored seltzer. Two Hats is very, very pale in color and smells of pineapple. The amount of pineapple flavor is actually about right, but the beer itself is too light. This tastes more like a flavored seltzer than a beer. There is a bit of malt in the finish, but not quite enough to balance out the pineapple. Basically, this comes across as an alcoholic La Croix, which is fine if you want alcoholic flavored seltzer rather than a beer.

Reading of the week: The Æneid by Virgil – At the end of this excerpt, Aeneas has a moment with his own son Ascanius. “Thou, when thy riper years shall send thee forth / To toils of war, be mindful of my worth;” / he tells him, “Assert thy birthright, and in arms be known, / For Hector’s nephew, and Æneas’ son.” Aeneas doesn’t bother to mention Ascanius’ mother or grandmother. Typical.

Question for the week: What have you done for your mother lately?


Skill and Judgment

This is the ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IX: Cicero, Pliny the Younger

“None but those who are skilled in painting, statuary, or the plastic art,” writes Pliny the Younger, “can form a right judgment of any performance in those respective modes of representation.”

This statement can be reduced to the universal statement that the ability to perform is a necessary prerequisite for the ability to judge a performance. To some extent, this claim seems intuitively true. But it is not necessarily so.

Roger Ebert was an extremely popular and well-respected film critic. But did his ability to judge acting and filmmaking come from his own skill as an actor and filmmaker? I think not. Clearly, a great deal of effort was put into studying the art of film, but not necessarily study of the practice of film.

Similarly, one could imagine a great student of the visual arts who, due to some physical disability, is unable to paint. Without ever putting brush to canvas, such a student could still know well every theory of color, composition, and aesthetics. What could keep such a person from being a great judge of paintings?

Even if it is not strictly necessary, at least some practice in any given art is helpful for truly appreciating all of the skill required to excel therein. Knowing first-hand how difficult it is to become competent may provide valuable perspective on what must go into works of real genius.

My single attempt at brewing beer was not exceptionally successful, though it was far from a failure. I would not claim to be skilled in brewing. Yet I consider myself competent to form a judgment about beers brewed by others. At the very least, I can form the most important judgment of all: do I like it enough to have another?


Beer of the week: Citradelic Tangerine IPA – The aroma of this New Belgium IPA is overwhelmingly of tangerine. The flavor is much the same, but with the lingering tingle of citrusy hops. It is enjoyable, but you have to really like tangerines.

Reading of the week: Letter to Attius Clemens by Pliny the Younger – This letter is primarily a glowing recommendation of a contemporary philosopher known as Euphrates the Stoic. Unfortunately, none of Euphrates’ work has survived.

Question for the week: Pliny’s statement about judging the arts assumes that there actually is “a right judgment” of art. Is that a valid assumption?


Tint in Translation

This is the sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VI: Poems and Songs, Burns

One obvious observation about the Harvard Classics is the very heavy Anglo-American bias. This is evident even from the very first volume: Franklin, Woolman, Penn. None of those authors are indispensable in a set that purports to be a collection of essential readings for a basic liberal education, but all are Anglo-American. Whether Dr. Eliot’s reliance upon American and British authors is reasonable, it is at very least explainable.

The Harvard Classics was published for an American public, with the intent to provide the framework of a liberal education. As such, at least twa considerations favor American and British works over others.

In the first place, it makes sense that an American liberal education should focus on American thought and literature. If a similar project were undertaken in France, it would be shocking if more French authors and works were not included. The same would be true of Russia, or China, or any other nation or region. British authors similarly feature heavily in the Harvard Classics because the history of American thought and literature is inextricably linked with that of England. (William Penn is an instructive inclusion on this point; he is American in the sense that he is the founder and namesake of Pennsylvania, but he was an English gentleman his entire life.)

In the second place, the inclusion of American and British works avoids the serious problem of translation. The books, intended for an English-speaking public, must needs be in English. To the extent that Dr. Eliot was able to select works already in his native tongue, he was able to avoid the serious, and occasionally impossible, task of finding a good translation.

This consideration brings us to this week’s volume: the poems and songs of Robert Burns. On the one hand, Burns is an important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. On the other hand, his most famous works were written in Scots. (The debate over whether Lowland Scots is a distinct language or merely a dialect must be put off for another day. For now, it is enough to note that it is has limited mutual intelligibility with English.) Although much of Burns’ Scots writing is clear enough for the average American Reader, his vocabulary often requires notes or a dictionary. For example, in The Twa Dogs, (the title of which, itself, is in Scots but is readily comprehensible,) some lines are practically straight English:

“Love blinks, Wit slaps, an’ social Mirth
Forgets there’s Care upo’ the earth.”

Some lines, however, are all but unintelligible without aide:

“At kirk or market, mill or smiddie,
Nae tawted tyke, tho’ e’er sae duddie,
But he wad stan’t, as glad to see him,
An’ stroan’t on stanes an’ hillocks wi’ him.”

And Burns is but one example of this sort of problem. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English can be a real struggle to understand. Even American authors who write in dialect can be a tough read. Consider this quotation from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

“Oh, it’s de dad-blame’ witches, sah, en I wisht I was dead, I do. Dey’s awluz at it, sah, en dey do mos’ kill me, dey sk’yers me so. Please to don’t tell nobody ’bout it sah, er ole Mars Silas he’ll scole me; ‘kase he say dey AIN’T no witches. I jis’ wish to goodness he was heah now– DEN what would he say! I jis’ bet he couldn’ fine no way to git aroun’ it DIS time. But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s SOT, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when YOU fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”

Difficult to understand, perhaps, but fun.


Beer of the week: Magic Hat #9 – This Vermont beer is a very solid choice. It is clear and amber. The aroma is of malt and some sour, dark fruit. Apricot is certainly the star of the flavor, backed by bready malt. Even so, the beer is not overly sweet, just darn good. And I really dig that the 12 oz. bottle is labeled as “3/4 pint”.

Reading of the week: The Twa Dogs by Robert Burns – This poem is a great piece of satire by Burns. The dogs, one a farmers collie and the other a lord’s Newfoundland(?), discourse about how different the lives of the rich are from those of the poor.

Question for the week: Is it better to have copious notes, explaining even obvious words or analogies, or to have too few notes, requiring lots of guesswork?