The Goals of Poetry

A beer is for drinking. A sofa is for sitting. A poem is for… enjoyment? Edification? The imagination and expression of the indestructible order of the universe? Fart jokes?

According to Percy Shelley’s essay A Defense of Poetry, poetry “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Stated another way, the work of a poet is to “imagine and express [the world’s] indestructible order.” The problem with trying to create a definition based on these statements is that they are both over and under-inclusive for what we commonly think of as poetry. They are over-inclusive because Shelley means that any expression of eternal truth is poetry regardless of form; he includes the the essays of Francis Bacon and the histories of Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy as poetry. The content, rather than the form defines the poem according to Shelley. The definitions are also under-inclusive because a dirty limerick, lacking any spark of eternal truth, appears to fall outside of the category of poetry. This sort of content based, distinction seems inappropriate for an art form that includes some very strict formal categories.

Although content based distinction between poetry and non-poetry may not be appropriate, content based criticism of poetry makes a lot of sense. Aristophanes makes a particularly appealing case study for this analysis for two reasons. In the first place, the content of Aristophanes’ plays is superficially very sophomoric; he peppers his work very liberally with scatological and sexual humor. Secondly, despite the ceaseless stream of crude jokes, Aristophanes clearly thinks that there are much bigger things at stake. In an earlier post, I noted that he used the chorus in The Wasps to chide the Athenian audience for not appreciating the good advice that he had provided the city in his plays.

In The Frogs, Aristophanes has the character of Euripides state that the most important trait of the poet is his ability to improve the audience through his wise counsels. This point is taken up by the character of Æschylus and seems very much in line with the tone of the chorus in The Wasps. In the play’s contest between Euripides and Æschylus for greatest all-time tragedian, Æschylus gets the win based not on the beauty of his verse, but on the superiority of his practical advice.

Like the analysis of Shelley, this seems to over-emphasize poetry’s content at the expense of its form. But it is important to note that Aristophanes couches all of this within a work of poetry rather than in a lecture or treatise. He is adamant that he has some very important things to say, but he does so within the structure of his verse. The key, it seems, is the proper balance between form and content. Even the most important and valuable content, if not presented beautifully will not be well received. And the most beautiful verse, without some substantial content, will ring hollow. If the characters in The Frogs are right that the true measure of quality of a poet is his ability to improve his audience, it is clear that the greatest effect on the audience will come from the most skillful combination of form and substance.

Beer of the week: Grolsh Lager – Grolsh is best known in the US for its iconic swing-top bottles. It is also available, it seems, in more standard long-necks. Aside from the bottle, this Dutch macro is unremarkable. It is clear, pale gold with lots of carbonation. Light aroma of toasted grain. Not much to it, but not bad at all.

Reading of the week: The Frogs by Aristophanes – A large part of the disagreement between Æschylus and Euripides in this play is whether characters should be realistic or idealized. Æschylus argues that idealized characters make for better role models, and are therefore better suited to improve the audience. Euripides, on the other hand, favors realistic characters because they are more relatable.

Question for the week: Does even the most shallow or juvenile poem deserve the title of “poetry” by virtue of its form alone?

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Paradoxical Poetry

An original poem on some of Zeno’s paradoxes:

I.
Traverse a line? Don’t make me laugh!
Each segment’s segment’s cut in half.
One cannot simply walk the line,
‘cross infinite halves in finite time.

II.
Swooping down from high above
The eagle catches fleeing dove,
Yet swift Achilles, to this day,
Cannot o’ertake his tortoise prey.

III.
We see the arrow fly through air,
But surely there’s no motion there.
The arrow, ne’er before it’s caught,
Moves where it is, nor where it’s not.

IV.
In the hippodrome they run their course,
Speeds are measured in length of horse.
Opposing directions they fly past,
Each to the next seems doubly fast.

At the risk of over-explaining, a quick note on the four paradoxes mentioned in the poem:

The first verse deals with a paradox known as the “dichotomy”. This is probably the most well known of Zeno’s paradoxes. For a runner to reach the finish line, he must first reach the midpoint. In order to reach the midpoint, he must first go half way to the midpoint. And so on. As a consequence, before any distance can be traversed, an infinite number of smaller distances must be covered. And to take an infinite number of steps must take an infinite time. Therefore, the runner cannot possibly run even a short distance.

The second verse deals with the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. It is actually quite similar to the first. Although Achilles is much faster than a tortoise, he can never catch it because in the time that it takes him to reach where the tortoise was, the tortoise will have moved a little further away. Therefore, before Achilles can ever catch up to the tortoise, he must first reach all of the infinite points where the tortoise had already been.

The third verse is the paradox of the arrow. An arrow, just like any other physical body, always takes up a space equal to itself. So at any given instant the arrow cannot move inside that space because the space is exactly the size and shape of the arrow. But it also cannot move outside of that space because it is perfectly contained. Therefore, motion is impossible.

The final verse treats the paradox of the stadium. If two teams of horses, four horses long each, pass each other in opposite directions, an observer will notice that in the time that the lead horse has covered a total distance of two horse-lengths, it will have actually passed all four of the other team’s horses. Therefore the chariot, despite its constant speed, travels two different distances in the same amount of time, which is absurd.

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Beer of the week: Cerveza Monterrey – The term “Corona knock-off” gets thrown around a bit, and this isn’t the first beer I’ve reviewed that might merit that description. This extremely pale Guatemalan lager is very carbonated. On its own, it is fairly watery and tastes of corn. The addition of lime and sea salt, however, makes this a reasonably palatable hot-weather drink. With a lot of lime, it is rather refreshing.

Reading for the week: Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno of Elea – Zeno’s own writings are lost to us. However, Diogenes Laërtius (among others) preserved some of his ideas. Diogenes also relates the gruesome details of Zeno’s death, including the part where Zeno bites off the ear (or nose) of a tyrant. To help give context to Zeno’s life, this reading includes the lives of his teacher (and lover?) Parmenides and his contemporary Melissus.

Question for the week: Are the paradoxes mere logic tricks, or do they point to some more profound truth?


I Spy

“The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: It is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty. It would surprise no impartial observer if the motto “In God we trust” were one day expunged from the coins of the republic by the Junkers at Washington, and the far more appropriate word, “verboten,” substituted. Nor would it astound any save the most romantic if, at the same time, the goddess of liberty were taken off the silver dollars to make room for a bas-relief of a policeman in a spiked helmet. Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.” – The American Credo (1920)

In the nearly 90 years since George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken published The American Credo, the country has changed quite considerably. It seems worthwhile to make note of some of the ways that their predictions have turned out:

  • “[T]he dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious” has been a staple of American foreign policy since the book was published. The whole of the Cold War was dedicated to the proposition that American-style “democracy” is morally superior to Soviet-style “communism”. Our latest military adventures have likewise been sold as “spreading democracy” to countries that have “bad” governments. (Even as the United States has actively participated in propping up violent dictators, so long as they were adequately pro-American, if not pro-democratic.)
  • It is more true than ever that virtually all actions violate some law or other. Federal laws alone are now so numerous that literally nobody can say how many there actually are. Additionally, many federal regulatory bodies have the power to enact rules and regulations that carry criminal penalties. So while there may be as many as 4,500 federal criminal laws, there may also be as many as 300,000 federal regulations with criminal penalties. Consequently, it remains nearly impossible to do anything “without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty.”
  • “In God we trust” is subject to more or less constant attacks, but so far without any success.
  • The goddess of liberty has been removed from our dollar coins. Her first replacement was Dwight Eisenhower, former general and chief executive. Not quite a “policeman in a spiked helmet,” but not too different either. Eisenhower gave way to more peaceful images of Susan B. Anthony and then Sacagawea. Now we are back to the presidents, although the mint now has such an insane supply that they have stopped releasing new presidential dollar coins into circulation. More important than the image on the coins, however, is the fact that in the middle of the 1960’s the United States officially reneged on the promise to pay silver on demand for its notes, paving the way for unprecedented manipulations of the supply of money.
  • The “swarms of spies, letter-openers, informants and agents provocateurs” are still at work in this country, but with more power than ever. Whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden have helped to highlight just how vast and pervasive American government spying is. And, true to Mencken’s observations, the vast majority of Americans do not put up any real protest.

The more things change, so they say, the more they stay the same. But it is hard to believe that even Mencken and Nathan could have been so cynical as to foresee the world as it is today. Surely the constant, and actually accelerating, decay of freedom must have a breaking point. How vast our freedom must have been if we are able to have lost so much.

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Beer of the Week: Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) – Although I have been aware of this Slovakian beer for quite a while, I never tried it until now. When I saw Golden Pheasant for sale in the past, it was always brewed under contract in the Czech Republic. This bottle, however, is the real deal from Hurbanovo, Slovak Republic. The beer is pretty and golden, with a nice white head that leaves decent lacing. It seems very much like any Czech lager, but there is something about it that seems a bit off, particularly in the aftertaste. It really is an ok beer, but there is just something about the Golden Pheasant that I don’t care for.

Reading of the week: The Spy by Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský – Hurbanovo, Slovakia, as it turns out, is named for Jozef Miloslav Hurban, a prominent Slovak freedom-fighter against the oppressive Hungarian regime. His son Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský was a poet and also a prominent Slovak nationalist. So a Hurban-Vajanský poem seems like a good pairing for Golden Pheasant. — The extensive use of spies and secret police against citizens is a sure sign of trouble for all freedom-loving peoples. It has been repeated through history, and the rulers who use those tactics number among the most notorious names in the annals of human society. This poem is a parody of the creation of man from Genesis. The devil forms a body of clay (and spit) and breathes life into it. And the result is not an ordinary man, but something far more evil: a spy.

Question of the week: There is an expression, the origin of which I cannot locate: “agent provocateur is a job so despicable that there is no word for it in the English language.” Do you know who said that? And is the agent provocateur really the worst sort of spy?


Women’s Studies

What an embarrassment! By my count, this is post #199 on this blog. And yet, there has not been a single weekly reading written by a woman. (I honestly thought that I had included a reading by Baroness Orczy, but it seems that I mixed up The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda.) What can account for such a tremendous oversight? A number of factors probably play a part.

One fairly innocuous factor is that the women authors that I am familiar with wrote novels. It is much harder to find an appropriate reading for this blog from a long form book. Prefaces, essays, and the like are much easier to dip into for an excerpt. However, there are quite a few readings on this blog from novels, so that cannot account for much of the disparity.

Additionally, many of the readings on this blog come from so-called “great books” lists. In particular, the Harvard Classics (partially pictured below) has been the an excellent resource. However, a quick review of the index confirms that the editor of the Harvard Classics totally omitted any female authors. It seems that I’m neither the first nor the most prominent curator of readings to do so.

For similar reasons, my reliance on public domain and ancient works certainly skews this blog away from female authors. The vast majority of older works, particularly from antiquity, are by male authors. Aside from Sappho, I am not sure that I could name an ancient Greek woman, let alone an ancient Greek woman author. Although the balance shifts somewhat as we approach modernity, there are simply a lot more readily available works by men than by women.

But perhaps the biggest reason is my own biases and flaws. I gravitate toward authors with whom I am familiar and with whom I perceive common interests and ideas. And those authors are almost exclusively men. (They are also predominantly American or Western European, but that is another bias for another day.) It is not that I don’t believe that women are capable of producing great works; Jane Austen and George Eliot would have wiped out that belief in me if I’d ever held it. But a combination of my experiences, resources, and my own narrow world view has resulted in a reproachable lack of appreciation for female authors. One that I hope to remedy.

To be clear, the solution is not inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Reading anything simply because it was written by a woman is patronizing. It does a disservice to the author by neglecting her merits in favor of her sex. And it does a disservice to the blog and its readers for the same reason. Our time is valuable, so what we read has to have its own worth independent of its author.

The solution, it seems, is to cast a wider net. To seek out new readings from other resources. Rather than relying on my past experience with authors or on their interactions with each other, I need to find a way to encounter a greater variety of writers of quality. I hope not to overlook any truly great books, regardless of who wrote them.

One valuable resource that I have found (at a thrift store for 69¢ per volume) is the Heath Anthology of American Literature. The Heath has the stated goal of publishing the under-appreciated works of women and minorities alongside the established literary canon to present a broader view of the development of American literature. An unsurprising inclusion in the Heath is Anne Bradstreet, the first New World poet of either sex to have her work published in England. Her poetry is clearly of the finest quality, and more than worth the reading. Bradstreet rightfully scoffed at those who would look down on a work because its author wore a dress:

“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.
A Poet’s Pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.”

Writing, too, is women’s work. And a woman’s work is never done.

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Beer of the week: Dundee India Pale Ale – This New York IPA is pretty amber. The smell is of sweet biscuits and marshmallow. The malt is definitely dominant in the flavor. The beer is hoppy, but it is not overly bitter, and certainly not as strongly hopped as many American IPAs. Dundee makes quite a serviceable beer.

Reading for the week: In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659 by Anne Bradstreet – What could be a better reading for Mother’s Day Weekend than this touching poem about a mother’s dedication to her children? Bradstreet does well to portray the pride and joy of motherhood, as well as the bittersweet experience of watching her children grow up and start their own independent lives.

Question for the week: Who are other female authors that would be good readings for this blog? Comment below.


One Last Winter Warmer

“We each of us fill a very small space
On the great creation’s plan,
If a man don’t keep his lead in the race
There’s plenty more that can;
The world can very soon fill the place
Of even a corner man.” – Banjo Paterson

Last week, some parts of the country got hit with a spring snow storm. Judging by the long-term weather forecast, that storm was old man winter’s last gasp. Another season has come and gone. Of course, this winter hardly showed up at all for some of us. (Standing outside in a t-shirt on Christmas Day was a first for me.) But seasons pass on to seasons, and each year is more or less the same as the last.

The same can be said for seasonal beers. Apparently the Boston Beer Company that has driven the demand for seasonal beers. I was told by an employee at the Red Hook brewery that everybody in the industry has started producing more seasonals, earlier (respectively) in the year to keep up with Sam Adams. As a big fan of beer variety, I can’t complain. However, the earlier seasonal beers are released, the earlier we give up on a season and move on. The calendar may say that it is spring, but I am not ready to quit on winter. And just because the days (and beers) march on, each one very much like the last, doesn’t mean we should give up on taking our time and enjoying the moment.

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Beer of the week: Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout – Unless there is a deep, dark corner of my refrigerator that has been left unexplored, this is my last winter seasonal for the year. Narragansett Brewing Company’s milk stout is mixed with Autocrat brand coffee to create a brew that pours with a creamy dark tan head. The aroma is of mild coffee, which is not surprising. The lactose (another unusual ingredient) does not ferment, so it remains in the beer to sweeten it. Between the coffee, the lactose, and the dark roasted malt, this beer tastes almost like an iced mocha. Only the slight hoppy finish reminds one that this is a beer. And a delicious one at that.

Reading for the week: The Corner-Man by Banjo Patterson – This poem’s conclusion is that the world will “jog along just the same” after we die. In some respects, it is a very disheartening idea for those of us who think much of ourselves. On the other hand, it may be regarded as a liberating prospect. Oh, and I suppose that I ought to mention that the poem includes a minstrel show. I had no idea that there were minstrel shows in Australia.

Question for the week: What is the best season for beer?


The Irish Don’t Keep Their Lovers Waiting

Earlier this week, there was a post in celebration of Casimir Pulaski Day. This post is meant to be a head-start on celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

The Irish are a prolific people in some ways. There are plenty of jokes about the leporine breeding habits of Irish Catholics, but I am more interested in their prodigious writing. The first reading on this blog was by Oscar Wilde. Subsequent readings included works by Shaw, Oliver ByrneLord Dunsany, and Jonathan Swift. American writers of Irish descent have also been featured on this blog; Poe, Twain, Fitzgerald, and James all inherited the Irish way with words.

But it is not just in literature that the Irish excel. So prolific are the Irish in America, that no fewer than half of this nation’s presidents were of Irish descent. It may be unfair to hold that fact against the Irish as a whole, but it is not clear what that fact tells us.

The aspiration to public office in America is often maligned as merely seeking to suckle from the public teat. Or, as H. L. Mencken put it, the politician under democracy “is a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole, aim in life is to butter his parsnips.” This is perhaps unfair to the politician; it could be that there is something more noble driving him.

Even if there is a righteous impetus for the politician, he still must suffer for his efforts. Every effort put toward political success in a democracy has its price in the form of effort that cannot be exerted elsewhere. The question of whether one can be a good politician and a good man is still unclear to me. It seems possible that one cannot rise to any reasonably high level in government without compromising everything that makes one noble. For Mencken, of course, the answer was more clear: even if a good man could get elected to high office, he’d soon either turn bad (because of the company he’d be forced to keep) or jump out of the window.

Though many an Irish-American has sought and found political success in this country, perhaps they would have been well to consider the words of fellow son of Ireland, William Butler Yeats:

The Muse is mute when public men
Applaud a modern throne:
Those cheers that can be bought or sold,
That office fools have run,
That waxen seal, that signature.
For things like these what decent man
Would keep his lover waiting,
Keep his lover waiting?

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Beer of the week: O’Shea’s Traditional Irish Stout – Surprisingly, I have had relatively few Irish beers, so I was happy to find this one at the store. This stout is very dark brown with a quickly fading tan head. The aroma is slightly sour, of dark bread with hints of vanilla. The body of the beer is surprisingly thin. The finish is pleasantly smokey. This is not my favorite style of beer, but as far as dry stouts go, this one isn’t bad.

Reading for the week: A Model For The Laureate by William Butler Yeats – The first time I read this poem, it was part of an essay denouncing Yeats for his “anti-democratic philosophy.” The poem compares “good and great” kings, strong-armed tyrants, and democratic politicians. The more I read it, the more I am convinced that Yeats considered the last of these three to be the worst.

Question for the week: What is the greatest Irish contribution to our culture?


The Happy and The Wretched

“No man can know a happy man
From any passing wretch;
If Folly link with Elegance
No man knows which is which,”

William Butler Yeats, The Old Stone Cross

Four and a half years ago, one of these blog posts brought up the age-old question: when can a man be called “happy”? The reading for that week was from Herodotus, who related the story of Solon and Croesus. Solon enraged Croesus by refusing to call him happy. Happiness, Solon claimed, could only be determined after death. Sure, on any given day a man may seem happy. Or even for an extended period of time. But until a man has breathed his last, it is impossible to tell whether his life was happy or not. After all, “to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”

The above-quoted passage from Yeats looks like a similar claim: it is impossible for anybody to tell who is truly happy. But he goes even further; one cannot even tell happiness from wretchedness. He also says that it is impossible to tell folly from elegance. (An outsider’s view of fashion seems to confirm this notion. High-heeled shoes and all sorts of other fashionable attire appear to be equal parts folly and elegance.)

However, Yeats’s lines need more context. Solon apparently believed that it was never possible to say who was happy until after death. Yeats, however, qualified his claim. According to the man under the old stone cross, it is particular to our place and time that happiness cannot be discerned from wretchedness, nor folly from elegance. Such seemingly obvious distinctions cannot be made today “Because this age and the next age — Engender in the ditch”. Unlike Solon, Yeats seems to think that the happy should be easy to sort from the wretched. The reason that we cannot do so is the vulgar origins of our present society.

Society and Solitude #5

 

Beer of the week: Society and Solitude #5 – Alchemist Brewery may have all of the hype, but their neighbors at Hill Farmstead give them a real run for their money. This experimental imperial IPA pours cloudy and pale. The aroma has lots of mango and citrus. The beer is eminently smooth and there is hardly a hint of the high alcohol content. The hops are not overpowering, but they are perfectly balanced with the malt and the fruit notes. This is really a stellar beer.

Reading of the week: The Old Stone Cross by William Butler Yeats – Perhaps the driving factors in the degradation of society are modern politics and what passes for journalism. This poem starts with the statesman “who tells his lies by rote,” and the journalist who “makes up his lies.” This distrust for the political circus and the news media that foster it results in (what I consider) very sound advice from the poet: “stay at home’ and drink your beer — And let the neighbours’ vote”!

Question of the week: What would Solon say about the inability to distinguish folly from elegance?