Real Men Write Poetry

If you are reading this, you have probably never been “in the fell clutches of circumstance.” You’ve likely never suffered “the bludgeonings of chance.” And odds are, you haven’t been engulfed by a metaphorical night as “black as the pit from pole to pole.”

If you have not been tested to the utmost, how can you know whether your soul is unconquerable? Or whether you really are the master of your own fate? And, more relevant for our present purposes, what good is the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley?

In his youth, Henley suffered from tuberculosis. He had a leg amputated when he was sixteen. Later, rather than submitting to the amputation of his remaining foot, Henley traveled to Scotland to be a patient of a doctor later to be known as “the father of modern surgery,” Joseph Lister. Lister’s antiseptic treatments saved Henley’s foot. During his three-year course of treatment, Henley wrote and published his famous “hospital poems,” including Invictus. Although he eventually lost the battle with tuberculosis, a disease that caused him constant pain and cost him his leg, Henley had spent his whole life with his head unbowed.

Invictus is also associated with Nelson Mandela and his time at the infamous Robben Island prison. Sentenced to life imprisonment, and consequently with no obvious hope of ever again being a free man, Mandela supposedly recited Invictus to fellow inmates. Even in a cage, Mandela remained the captain of his own soul. (As an aside, the CIA had a hand in Mandela’s arrest. So there’s your fun fact for the day.)

For men such as Henley and Mandela, Invictus appears to affirm their mettle. The poem’s value, however, is not as an affirmation, but as a bulwark. The poem is not a boast about one’s fortitude and strength of character, but a brace against the bludgeonings of chance. Just as The Quitter by Robert W. Service helped Douglas Mawson overcome the compounded difficulties of being sick and alone in the uncharted antarctic wilderness, Invictus has served as a source of inspiration for those in fell circumstances. It would behoove us all to study poems such as Invictus while we are relatively safe and comfortable, so that we can call them to mind if and when we must face true suffering.

Beer of the week: Official by Bell’s Brewery – This hazy wheat IPA pours with a white, rocky head. It has a very faint aroma, with a hint of grass. Notes of peach are followed by a dry finish and nice wheat notes.

Reading of the week: Invictus by William Ernest Henley – This poem also lent its name to the most successful rugby movie ever made. On the eve of the Rugby World Cup Final, it is worth a revisit. (By the way, this poem uses the adjective “fell”–meaning “terrible” or “ferocious”–to describe the “clutches of circumstance.” It is the only time I can think of where that adjective has been used to describe anything other than a “swoop.”)

Question for the week: In case of emergency, you may stock up physical needs such as canned foods, candles, and bottled water for disaster. But how do you prepare for your mental well-being?


Unknown Knowns

According to the Socratic Paradox, Socrates knew more than anybody else because he knew that he knew nothing. I would like to suggest that I personally have surpassed Socrates in that respect.

Since the age of Socrates, there has been an unthinkable increase in things that can be known. Among the newly knowable things are scientific facts that had been unknowable because the technology had not yet advanced sufficiently. But the universe of knowable things has also grown by production. Socrates could not have known any Shakespearean poetry, for example, because the English language did not yet exist. Similarly, Socrates could not know how to change a fuel filter on a 1987 Buick Regal. For me, however, the poetry of the Bard, and the basic maintenance of mid-sized American automobiles are well within the realm of knowable things. Socrates may know that he knows nothing, but the nothing that I know is even less!

I do know, however, six more poems than I did three months ago. In that time, as in the first three and second three months of this year, I memorized two poems per month:
Invictus by William Ernest Henley,
I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson,
The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
To Althea, From Prison by Richard Lovelace, and
Hot and Cold by Roald Dahl.

As I typed that list, I could not recall the title of Hot and Cold for the life of me. Somehow I had a poem totally memorized and yet I could not think of it. I can’t really claim to know the sixth poem if I cannot think of it. I don’t even know the things that I know. Take that Socrates!

Beer of the week: Tuckerman’s Headwall Alt – This “German style brown ale” is a handsome red-brown, with a lovely head. The aroma is of dark bread. Dark bread notes dominate the flavor as well, with a pleasant smokey finish.

Reading of the week: I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson – The flavor of “a liquor never brewed” is one of the many things that I do not know. But I know that this is a fun poem that draws on a lot of temperance imagery, including being an “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew.”

Question of the week: The sum total of human knowledge is much greater now than it was in antiquity. Consequently, each individual–even the most educated among us–knows a smaller portion of the total. So do we know more than the ancients or do we know less?


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?


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?