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?


Day Drinking

One of the very best things about beer is that it is a suitable drink for all seasons and all times of day. Ten in the morning is not too early for a beer under the right circumstances. I recently had brunch at a restaurant that had a dedicated section on the menu for breakfast beers. As I recall, the list included an oatmeal brown ale, a milk stout, a nitro stout, and Pilsner Urquell.

Part of the lure of day drinking, however, is that it cannot be a frequent activity. Most people of drinking age are obliged—by convention, contract, or law—to refrain from imbibing during business hours. For us working stiffs, a daytime beer is out of the question five days a week. Gainful employment has a way of darkening the bright and merry daytime. Consequently, we celebrate the end of the day, gladly giving up the warm sun for the cold, dark night and a cold beer to go with it. Some of us, anyway.

As for me, I’ll take an afternoon beer over an after-dark beer any day that I may. Nighttime just isn’t as cheerful as the day, and I drink cheers.

Beer of the week: Cross of Gold – This golden ale from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing is very good. It is very pretty, with a nice fluffy head. There are some nice fruity hops in the aroma. The hops and malt are nicely balanced. Cross of Gold is a solid beer for any time of day.

Reading of the week: When the Garden’s sweet with rose-bloom by Zeb-un-Nissa – Not everybody agrees that day is merrier than night. The princess poet Zeb-un-Nissa wrote that “the sadness of day with the daylight ends.” Of course, she wrote about drinking wine rather than beer, and I think most red wines pair best with the darkness.

Question for the week: What’s your favorite time of day for a cold one?


Read Widely

Eva Brann, for those who are not familiar, is the former dean and currently a tutor at St. John’s College. I recently read a speech given by Ms. Brann about the “great books” education. In it, she reminds her audience that reading nothing but the classics is untenable and undesirable:

I am not, incidentally, for a reading regimen of exclusive greatness. It is too rich, like a diet of “white soup,” the cholesterol-laden concoction served in Jane Austen’s well-off houses at dinner parties. I am for reading a lot of stuff: adventure, mystery, travel, cookbooks, westerns (my favorites), historical fiction, fantasy, space and science-fiction—from fine to terrible. They are all supplements to life, experiences I could not possibly live through but would dearly like to have—vicariously.

One might even make the argument that reading Twitter feeds has some value. Say what you will about social media, but you have to admit that people staring at their phones are at least reading. (Well, some of the time, anyway.)

Ms. Brann is not the first person to advocate reading widely in addition to reading the classics. It is no surprise, of course, that the very notion is practically one of the tenets of classical liberal education.

In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, the titular narrator describes her formal education under her aunt. It is a stifling mixture of pious theology, German, classical French “(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)”, music, domestic arts, and “a dozen books on womanhood.” The “liberal education” of a lady is circumscribed to a few particular fields that would prepare her for a life of agreeing pleasantly with her husband when his conversation is not completely over her head.

On her own, however, Aurora engages in a private and personally guided course of study. She starts with the Greek of Theophrastus and the Latin of Aelian, but she eventually devours all manner of books. Bad books, good books, “some bad and good at once.” She reads moral books, genial books, merry books, melancholy books. She, like Ms. Brann, has a firm grounding in the classics, but is eager and able to see the value in all manner of writings.

Beer of the week: Semedorato Premium- In honor of the half-Italian protagonist of Aurora Leigh, this week’s beer is the 100% Italian Semedorato Premium. Semedorato is also brewed with 100% malt, rather than with adjunct grains. This lager is pretty much what I expect out of a Mediterranean beer. It is crystal clear and quite pale. The aroma is faint and slightly sweet. The flavor is understated, but pleasant. It is a very drinkable, if unremarkable beer.

Reading of the week: Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – This excerpt is from Book One of the nine-book poem. The orphaned title character has come to live in England with her aunt. Very much in spite of the aunt’s attempts to raise Aurora to be a proper lady, Aurora becomes obsessed with literature and decides that she wants to be an author.

Question for the week: Ms. Brann’s favorite “non-classics” are westerns. What is your favorite “non-classic” genre?


Vital Air

Science and beer go together like philosophy and beer. Or art and beer. Or pretzels and beer.

Around the time of the American Revolution, brewing played an important role in the early study of chemistry. Dr. Joseph Priestley was one of the first people to isolate oxygen and identify some of its remarkable properties. He wrote a six-volume work entitled Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in which he describes a number of different “airs” – “gasses” in modern English – and his experiments with them.

His “fixed air” – our “carbon dioxide” – was readily supplied by a nearby brewery. The fermenting beer provided such a great and steady supply of the gas that it became a favorite subject for experimentation. Dr. Priestley found that in fixed air, “a candle would not burn, and a mouse would have died presently.” He even used an upside-down beer glass for his make-shift gas chamber:

If I want to try whether an animal will live in any kind of air, I first put the air into a small vessel, just large enough to give it room to stretch itself; and as I generally make use of mice for this purpose, I have found it very convenient to use the hollow part of a tall beer-glass… which contains between two and three ounce measures of air. In this vessel a mouse will live twenty minutes or half an hour.

For the purpose of these experiments, it is most convenient to catch the mice in small wire traps, out of which it is easy to take them, and, holding them by the back of the neck, to pass them through the water into the vessel which contains the air. If I expect that the mouse will live a considerable time, I take care to put into the vessel something on which it may conveniently sit, out of reach of the water. If the air be good, the mouse will soon be perfectly at ease, having suffered nothing by its passing through the water. If the air be supposed to be noxious, it will be proper (if the operator be desirous of preserving the mice for further use) to keep hold of their tails, that they may be withdrawn as soon as they begin to show signs of uneasiness; but if the air be throughly noxious, and the mouse happens to get a full inspiration, it will be impossible to do this before it be absolutely irrecoverable.

If that description made you feel bad for the mice, you should know that you are not the first to have that reaction. At least part of the time he was making these experiments, Dr. Priestly was a tutor at the Warrington Academy. A colleague of his at Warrington had a daughter named Anna Laetitia Aikin, later Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who grew up to be a prominent woman of letters. One of her early works was a poem, dedicated to Dr. Priestley, called The Mouse’s Petition. The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse that had been trapped by Dr. Priestley and lamented it’s prospective demise on the alter of scientific research. As the story goes, Anna placed the poem in the trap with the mouse, and when Dr. Priestley found it in the morning, he set the mouse free. Scientists, after all, are not completely heartless.

Beer of the week: Rusty Red Ale – Building on the work of Dr. Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that respiration and combustion are forms of oxidization: oxygen bonding with other elements. Like respiration and combustion, rust forming on iron is a form of oxidization. This red ale is from Wisconsin’s O’so Brewing Company. It pours a dark red-brown with a head that dissipates very quickly. The aroma is mostly of roasted malt. The beer is bready, and the flavor follows. It is pleasant and malty, but I’d like a little more flavor. Even more caramel malt or more hops bitterness. Or both.

Reading of the week: The Mouse’s Petition by Anna Laetitia Barbauld – Barbauld’s narrator mouse makes compelling appeals that are both philosophical and sentimental. The poem also has a line that makes me curious about how intimate the author was with Dr. Priestley’s work. The mouse claims that “The cheerful light, the vital air, / Are blessings widely given.” The term “vital air” was one of the names given to oxygen, so it is possible that Barbauld was making a specific reference to Dr. Priestley’s experiments with different gasses. Also, lest the reader get the wrong idea about the good doctor, Barbauld added a note to this edition of the poem to say that she did not mean to attribute any cruelty to Dr. Priestley, of whom she maintained the highest regard.

Question for the week: The use of animals in scientific research is a touchy subject. Some extremely important discoveries have resulted from the death and suffering of countless animals. Is there anything like a clear line that can be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable animal testing? For example, might we agree that testing cosmetics on animals is never ok, or that testing prosthetics on animals is always ok?


A Little Bit of Conversation

One of the great joys of reading widely is seeing how authors and ideas respond to each other. This referencing, refuting, and rephrasing done throughout history that has led some to think of the entire development of literature and philosophy as an ongoing conversation. Take, for example, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. That didactic poem was an exploration of the teachings of Epicurus, who lived and wrote some 300 years before Lucretius. In it, Lucretius writes:

Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters,
to gaze from the land on another’s great struggles;
not because it is pleasure or joy that any one should be distressed,
but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortune you yourself are free.
Sweet is it too, to behold great contests of war in full array over the plains,
when you have no part in the danger.

Some 1,800 years later, the poetess Charlotte Smith responds Lucretius. She also describes the pleasure of looking watching the sea from a safe spot on the shore, but watching men suffer and die takes all of the sweetness out of it:

The upland shepherd, as reclined he lies
On the soft turf that clothes the mountain brow,
Marks the bright sea-line mingling with the skies;
Or from his course celestial sinking low
The summer sun in purple radiance glow
Blaze on the western waters; the wide scene
Magnificent and tranquil seems to spread
Even over the rustic’s breast a joy serene,
When, like dark plague-spots by the demons shed,
Charged deep with death, upon the waves far seen
Move the war-freighted ships; and fierce and red
Flash their destructive fires–The mangled dead
And dying victims then pollute the flood.
Ah! thus man spoils glorious works with blood!

Where Lucretius perceives the suffering of others as a sweet reminder of our own relative security, Smith sees the suffering of others (particularly the human-inflicted suffering) as a great mar on the otherwise awe-inspiring world.

This reading of Smith as an answer to Lucretius is supported further by her poem The Emigrants. The poem begins on the cliffs of the English coast, facing France, a country in the midst of a bloody revolution. Shortly before encountering refuges from the conflict, the narrator announces:

For never yet could I derive relief;
When my swol’n heart was bursting with its sorrows,
From the sad thought, that others like myself
Live but to swell affliction’s countless tribes!

Again, where Lucretius finds sweetness in knowing that others suffer more than he, Smith derives no relief. In fact, it seems to make her own suffering even worse; not only must she endure her own sorrows, but also the knowledge that others seem to live only to suffer.

Despite these differences in perspective on the afflictions of others, Lucretius and Smith have a similar opinion about what life would be most enjoyable: one of isolation. For Lucretius, this isolation is found in philosophy, where he would “dwell in the calm high places, firmly embattled on the heights by the teaching of the wise.” For Smith, the desired isolation appears to be more literal:

How often do I half abjure Society,
And sigh for some lone Cottage, deep embower’d
In the green woods, that these steep chalky Hills
Guard from the strong South West; where round their base
The Beach wide flourishes, and the light Ash
With slender leaf half hides the thymy turf!—
There do I wish to hide me; well content
If on the short grass, strewn with fairy flowers,
I might repose thus shelter’d.

Nearly two thousand years separate Lucretius and Smith, and yet they each appear to play a part in the ongoing conversation. The common inquiry into the human condition makes each text richer, and the whole of the Western canon that much grander.

Beer of the week: Optimator – This doppelbock comes from Munich’s Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu. It is a pretty, dark brown with a quickly dissipating head of small bubbles. The aroma has hints of ripe, dark fruit. Optimator is not syrupy, exactly, but it is very rich and full. This is a good beer to sip on over a longish period of time; not just because of the 7.5% alcohol content, but also because the flavor opens up a bit as the beer warms.

Reading of the week: The Emigrants by Charlotte Smith – The French Revolution must have been a very perplexing event for the English. To side with the monarchy was to side with England’s perennial adversary. To side with the revolutionaries was to oppose the very notion of divine right. But the countless victims of such a regime change, no matter their allegiance, are worthy of our pity.

Question of the week: What works do you see as responses to earlier writings?


Woman’s Ornament

In my experience, people tend toward one of two extremes when analyzing the writings of the ancients (and, to varying degrees, those of other bygone eras.) The one extreme is to assume that the authors, as products of a primitive time, have nothing to offer. We are so much more enlightened now; all of the ancients must be regarded as quite ignorant. The other extreme is to ignore the faults of the ancients, or, if they cannot be ignored, to make every possible contortion to explain them away. The ancients could not err when it came to thinking because, as Homer’s heroes could single-handedly lift boulders that a dozen modern men could hardly budge, the philosophers of old possessed intellectual powers far beyond those of any modern genius.

Take, for example, the treatment of women by Aristotle and Plato. Our modern understanding of the differences between men and women is very much at odds with the apparent opinions of Aristotle and Socrates on the subject. What do we do in the face of these problematic ancient texts?

One approach is to throw out Aristotle and Plato entirely. Sexism is so embedded in their thought, some opine, that their writing can have no value in our modern world. Even as early as the 15th century, William Caxton wrote that “if [Plato] had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, ne should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings.”* (As we will see shortly, Caxton does not actually find fault with Plato’s treatment of women.) Likewise, Aristotle was extremely wrong about the role of the female in sexual reproduction, so his philosophy on humans generally can’t be trusted. These “dead white men” are so out of touch with our modern knowledge and sensibilities that they can hardly be considered authoritative on any philosophical question.

(I pause to note that the bland dismissal of these thinkers as “dead white men” always amuses me. The ad hominem attack itself adopts the language of racism, implying that the value of the authors is somehow related to their skin color. At the same time, it ignores the fact that classifying Aristotle and Plato as “white” should certainly raise a few eyebrows.)

On the other side, there are those who would wave away the apparent sexism of the ancients. The easiest way to do that is to simply call them a product of their times and move on. But some offer more convoluted explanations in an effort to keep the ancients from ever being “wrong”. Caxton wrote, “I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as [Plato] was should write otherwise than truth.” And because Plato must have been right, Caxton was forced to come up with a way to reconcile the apparently sexist writings of Plato with the more enlightened views of his own day. He did so by concluding that if Plato ever said anything derogatory about women, he was only speaking of Greek women. “For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of [England] be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” So if Plato says, for example, that teaching a woman to write is multiplying evil upon evil, that may true of ancient Greek women, not of modern English women.

A more modern defense of that same type is to find esoteric meanings that are different from the ancients’ explicit meanings. So when Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, says that “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he actually means nothing of the sort. The line is actually a quotation from Sophocles’s play Ajax. In the play, Ajax has gone insane by the time he utters the line. Obviously, Aristotle would have been familiar both with the play and the context of the quotation. So when Aristotle says “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he is slyly hinting that only a mad man would actually believe what he is saying. See? Aristotle was never sexist in the first place!

As usual, I favor the course of moderation. We should neither discard the ancients (or any author, really) out of hand, nor should we engage in mental gymnastics to defend the position that any author is always right. There is untold value in studying our intellectual predecessors, but nothing is gained by accepting their writings uncritically.

Beer of the week: Furious IPA – This aggressively-hopped ale from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company pours with a nice fluffy head. The piney hops certainly dominate, but there is a good balance with caramel malt notes. The label says that this beer defies categorization, but the IPA label seems right to me.

Reading of the week: Hymn To Aphrodite by Sappho – Here’s a crazy idea: if you want to know the ancients’ views on women, how about reading the poetry of an ancient woman? This is the only complete poem that has survived from Greece’s greatest poetess.

Question for the week: Is there any extant writing older than, say, 1,000 years that is actually not worth studying? Is it possible that anything has survived that long without some serious merit?

*Caxton actually discusses the sayings of Socrates as if Socrates himself was the author of the Socratic dialogues. I have substituted Plato into the quotations to give Caxton the benefit of the doubt; surely he meant to discuss what Socrates said and what Plato wrote.