Style Detection

July 14, 2010

I came across a link recently to iwl.me, a site that claims to statistically analyze your writing style and tell you what famous writer your writing style resembles. I tried it out by plugging a few posts from this blog into it.

I didn’t get exactly consistent results. My most recent post, the one about Cormac McCarthy, reported “H.P. Lovecraft.” The one about AIs reported”Isaac Asimov.” The one about Andrew Bird, the one about Robert Lowell, and the one about Wallace Stevens all gave “David Foster Wallace.” Four of my unpublished short stories gave me “Neil Gaiman,” “Margaret Mitchell,” “Kurt Vonnegut,” and “Arthur Conan Doyle.”

This all makes a certain sense; something on existential horror is by Lovecraft, something about AIs by Asimov, a story with an analytic main character is by Doyle. But this is a correlation in subject matter, not style. Which defeats the entire point of the site. I don’t write like these people, I just write about the same things. That’s far from equivalent.

Nevertheless, the repeated result of “David Foster Wallace” intrigues me. I think I know what it means — I write long, sometimes overly long, sentences with precise grammar but still casual in appearance. That’s a primarily feature of the styles of both Wallace and Lovecraft. Indeed, my style here does tend to be, long complex sentences that try to flow easily into each other. My fiction writing is considerably different though. I wonder if it wouldn’t flow easier if I wrote it like I write these posts. It probably would; it would probably be worse though.

I also wondered about what author this post would claim to resemble. The site gave “Dan Brown.” Which I find, I suppose, somewhat insulting. Ah well.


Book Review: The Border Trilogy

July 14, 2010

Over the last month or so I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s so-called “Border Trilogy,” which consists of All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). I highly recommend all three, though the second is the best of the three and the third not as good as the other two. McCarthy really is the Melville and Faulkner of the American Southwest, and these three books are among his best.

Now, the three books form a trilogy only in the loose sense of the word; they’re self-contained novels, the first and second having nothing to do with each other and the third taking the two main characters from the first two and having them both play a central role in it. I would like to be able to make something of the structure of the trilogy as a whole — the John Grady->Billy Parham->both order for the books I find suggestive — but I can’t make much of it, so I won’t try. There are, however, themes which run throughout all three, including the loss of innocence and passing away of the romantic worldview; the impossibility of free will and its phenomenological necessity; and the revelatory nature of violence, a McCarthy favorite.

An interesting aspect of all three books is their division into four sections, rather than three or five. I’ve been finding four a more and more interesting number lately; three suggests beginning, middle, end, and five suggests an act structure like a Shakespearean tragedy, but four, I think, suggests a presentation of the world, a meditation, rather than a dramatic narrative arc. There is no rising action, climax, falling action, but rather a gradual transformation of worldview. And indeed, all three of the books are quite episodic in nature (though Cities of the Plain less so than the other two). All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing both consist of the main characters wandering somewhat aimlessly (though always with a proximate goal in mind) around Mexico and the borderlands of the United States, finding themselves at the end in a similar state as when they began, but with a transformed understanding of it.

A fascinating example of this can be seen in The Crossing, where in each section can be found a long narrative told to the main character by outcast figures. In the first, the crazed old hunter whose family is all dead; in the second, the priest living alone in a deserted village; in the third, the blind man whose eyes were plucked out during the Revolution (another theme running throughout the trilogy is the Mexican Revolution, which I unfortunately know too little about to comment); and in the fourth, the gypsy transporting the crashed plane. Each of these touches upon existential themes and presents a slightly different understanding of the existential quandary man finds himself in, and there is clearly some sort of progression between them (though I have not fully formulated what it is). All four are fascinating reading; they resemble the “Grand Inquisitor” short story in The Brothers Karamazov in a lot of ways. What’s interesting is that there is no obvious movement between them; the focus is on the four different states of mind, not on how one changes into the other. The same applies to the novels as a whole; the focus is on the journey, not the turning points.

Nevertheless, there is change over the course of each book, as the main characters discover their true nature and the true nature of the world. They begin idealistically, wanting to go be cowboys because they think cowboy life to be the perfect life, the best life imaginable; they discover that cowboy life, like all life, is primarily a prelude to death. That leads to another interesting question – is Cormac McCarthy a nihilist? I think the answer is no. Certainly not in The Road; probably not in No Country for Old Men; and, I think, not in the Border Trilogy either. But it’s a hard argument to make, and in the end I’d say that, though he’s not a nihilist, he comes close. Certainly he leans existentialist. I’m currently reading Blood Meridian, the book that preceded All the Pretty Horses and which Harold Bloom calls the best novel by a living author; we’ll see whether I think McCarthy’s a nihilist after I read that.


Three Items of Note

July 7, 2010

I don’t often post links to articles rather than writing my own essays, but over the last few weeks I haven’t had a chance to write up anything and I’ve ran into two articles I find interesting, so I think I’ll make an exception.

First,  a critique of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently the book’s 50th anniversary is July 11th. I’ve never liked the book, and this article does a decent, though incomplete, job of explaining why. I like what Flannery O’Connor has to say about TKAM: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

Second, an explanation of the problems with veganism. This article is written, from what I can tell, from a liberal, atheist, perspective – the guy likes Peter Singer – but it still recognizes the inherent problem with believing it morally wrong to use animal products: “Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence. Except that there is no innocence. However delicate our moral sensibilities, it still remains that to be alive is to be a murderer.” I don’t mind people being vegans, but I do find it rather silly for them to think I am acting immorally by not adopting their eating habits.

Finally, while on vacation I had a strange dream about the nature of speculative fiction and wrote a poem about it. It’s intended to be humorous, and I certainly don’t pretend it’s great poetry. Enjoy.


    Lowell, Bishop, and Confessional Poetry

    June 4, 2010

    I was going to make posts about each of the rest of the books of poetry we read in my 20thc.  poetry class (Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Jorie Graham’s Erosion, and Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things), but then my computer started freaking out and I spent most of my free time the last week trying to figure out what was wrong with it. The class is over now, and I don’t want to go back and talk about each book individually, but I do want to briefly compare two of them.

    Both Lowell and Bishop have been called “confessional poets.” This means, roughly, that their poetry includes details from their personal life and sometimes has a “tell-all” feeing to it that can make it kind of awkward to read. I’m fairly skeptical about the idea of confessional poetry, but neither Lowell nor Bishop can be entirely characterized as confessional, and I find something worthwhile in both of them.

    But strangely, though on the surface Lowell is the more confessional of the two, I prefer him to Bishop. I’ve been thinking about it, and I now have a theory as to why that is. Lowell at his worst makes references to events in his life we have no way of knowing about and no reason to care about, and expects us to find that meaningful in and of itself. But at his best, he ties in personal experience to broader philosophical, ethical, and political questions. Bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t give us as much irrelevant detail from her life, but nevertheless, every poem she writes is about herself, and the reader is supposed to accept her as an everyman.

    The best way to illuminate the contrast is to look at their different uses of location. Lowell will mention place-names and allow the names themselves to carry weight. He’ll set a poem in Washington DC, or Maine, or Boston, or Rome, and in doing so make the poem be about  a wider historical issue. The poems “For the Union Dead” and “July in Washington” are clearly about the idea of America; the poem “The Neo-Classical Urn” is a response to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and is about nature v. artifice; “Beyond the Alps” is set in Rome and is about Catholicism.

    But Bishop, though her book is called Geography III, doesn’t set poems in places we all know. She has a poem about the objects sitting on her desk; she has a poem about sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room; most indicatively, she has a poem with the complex setting of “on a bus going from Canada to Maine at night when all the passengers are falling asleep and then they stop because there’s a moose in the road.” She doesn’t give us a setting that makes the poem immediately have meaning beyond just the anecdote; she gives a setting with no meaning of its own, and thus the anecdote itself is the only source of meaning.

    I think Bishop does this mostly because she’s actually less interested in what’s in the places she writes about than in how people interact with them. She’s interested in the idea of liminality, but not in what it is that one shares a border with. Lowell, on the other hand, is greatly interested in place, in time, in history, in the world.

    So why do I prefer Lowell? It’s not because I think Bishop’s too abstract. I love abstraction. It’s because neither of them is abstract – both write primarily about themselves – and if you’re not going to be abstract I think it’s better to talk about things everyone can talk about than to talk about things only you know about because only you have experienced them.


    Yeat’s The Tower, Auden’s Another Time

    May 27, 2010

    The next two books we’ve read for my 20th century poetry-by-the-book class are W.B. Yeats’ The Tower and W.H. Auden’s Another Time. These are, to say the least, very different works, but I like both of them.

    Yeats’ main strength is his prosody and use of imagery. He’s one of the few poets for whom metrical variation actually means something most of the time. Just read “Leda and the Swan” out loud to see what I’m talking about. Then there’s his philosophical and spiritual beliefs, which, though bizarre and confusing, are occasionally fascinating. His idea of “gyres” is, as far as I can tell, your standard cyclicism, but cyclicism is a powerful concept; that’s what gives the annunciatory poems in the center of the book (“Two Songs from a Play” through “Among School Children,” roughly) their strength. I don’t agree with his interpretation of Greek or Christian history, but he makes an interesting argument. What I like most about Yeats, though, is just the feel of certain lines; he has a certain enchanting quality. He’s a very mythical poet.

    Auden, on the other hand, is extremely analytical, cerebral, even sarcastic at times. He reminds me in a lot of ways of T.H. White (what’s with all these initials?), who wrote The Once and Future King. Both gay liberal but ethically minded Englishmen who worried about the dangers of tyranny and democracy and thought love was the way to unite… yep, it fits. Unfortunately, a lot of the good qualities of Auden’s poetry make him uninteresting to talk about literarily; conversations about his poetry tend to turn into conversations about the nature of ethics. Which is, of course, kind of the point, but it’s not what I’m trying to do here. Anyway, the most well-known and probably best poem from the book is “Musee de Beaux Arts,” but other good ones are “Law like Love” and “As I walked out one evening.” I personally was interested by “Herman Melville” (for obvious reasons – for the record, I’m not sure I buy Auden’s reading of “Billy Budd,” though I’d like to) and “Roman Wall Blues,” which isn’t a complex poem, but a quite fun one.

    What I find strange about all this is that though Yeats is the imagistic one and Auden the cerebral one, Auden is the one to focus on love and community and Yeats is the more egotistical one focused on his own poetic genius. I guess it isn’t that incongruous, but it seems somehow backwards.

    Next up for the class (actually, started today): T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Of course, I’ve already read them (it? I’m always unsure about how to refer to plural titles like this), and it’s too long to do justice to in a reasonably-sized post, so I’ll just say now: it’s excellent, read it.


    Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium

    May 22, 2010

    After Frost’s North of Boston, my Mayterm poetry class moved on to Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. If the former was a book for which it was easy to identify the underlying structure and its implications (though the significance of those implications are by no means simplistic; one can have organization without giving up nuance), then for the latter it is almost impossible. For a book called Harmonium, there is little in it that appears harmonious, on the general or specific level. The collection is at first glance a cacophonous jumble of metaphysical ramblings and random sensory impressions, but this is primarily because the individual poems are difficult to understand.

    Many of the poems, like the first one of the book, “Earthy Anecdote,” provoke interesting imagery and aural sensations, but have no deeper meaning. Some longer ones, like “The Comedian as the Letter C,” elaborate Stevens’ poetics and philosophy, and others, like “Six Significant Landscapes” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” offer sketches of his poetics in action, showing us Harmonium in microcosm. Yet, since Stevens’ poems are not typically long narratives, “The Comedian as the Letter C” is not a good exemplar of his poetry, and since it is an outline of a book of poetry, not the book itself, “Thirteen Ways” is better at showing how to fit his poems together than at being a good example of one of them.

    I think “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” a poem of moderate length, comes fairly close to such an exemplar. Like the ephemeral “Earthy Anecdote,” it uses the sound of language and metaphor to convey a simple image, yet here the image fits with Stevens’ metaphysics and poetics and offers a vision of the general, not only the specific. The poem focuses on white as real yet defined by negation. The empty whiteness, akin to the winter of “The Snow Man,” is what man sees when he rationally examines the world and realizes it is unsympathetic to humanity. At the same time as this negative image is built, however, an idea of color is created that takes on a life of its own; the green and purple and yellow and blue merge with the beads and baboons into an idea of something like a rainbow. And “an old sailor,” reminiscent of the comedian Crispin, “Catches tigers / In red weather.” Through the power of the imagination he does not dream of catching them, he does catch them; imagination creates the variegated world anew.

    This understanding partially explains the apparently haphazard ordering of Harmonium; it is intentionally disordered (indeed, originally grouped poems were dispersed throughout the book) because Stevens, who as a poet paints with sound, is interested in color/sound for its own sake, and to order the poems would have been to subordinate those colors/sounds to some other idea. Instead, he gives them no continuity at all in order to emphasize their uniqueness. Stevens searches for as many ways as he can to emphasize the importance of the imagination’s rainbow, and as no color in rainbow has precedent over any other, he can give no individual approach pride of place.

    That’s my understanding of Stevens’ poetic project. And I can respect it, and the fact that he does a good job achieving it. But I still find it difficult to actually like his poetry. It’s not so much that I find his philosophy mildly disturbing (though I do); my reasons are mostly pre-rational. I can only describe them by saying that he writes with a faded pastel palette, full of watermelon green and mango and off-white. I like  some of his darker work, his winter aesthetic, e.g. “The Snow Man” and “Thirteen Ways,” but I find no beauty in his usual tropical aesthetic.


    Robert Frost’s North of Boston

    May 18, 2010

    The first book we read for my 20th century poetry “by the book” class was Robert Frost’s “North of Boston.” I found it surprisingly excellent; Frost is quite a good writer. I do think some clarification is needed, though; in most of the poems in this volume, Frost isn’t writing lyric poetry; he’s more writing short narratives in verse form. This doesn’t mean it’s not poetry, but it’s very different from the lyrics of Shakespeare or Keats or Hopkins or Eliot, to name a few of my favorite lyricists. He’s working more with characters than images. (Note that this applies to varying degrees to the rest of his poetry; A Boy’s Will, for example, contains a great deal of lyric, and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a very imagistic poem. Not that they’re distinct categories anyway, more different qualities that can be possessed to greater or lesser degrees.)

    Indeed, the subtitle to North of Boston, “this book of people,” demands we approach it as a dialogue between Frost’s characters not participated in by Frost himself. We must find Frost’s meaning in the complex interplay between different speakers’ perspectives. This dialogic approach (c.f. Bakhtin for a more detailed explanation) is more characteristic of the novel or short story than of lyric poetry. For example, the second poem, “Mending Wall,” repeats twice two aphorisms through the mouths of two distinct characters: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and yet “Good fences make good neighbors.” The naïve reader reject one of these sayings or the other or both, but Frost rejects such an easy solution; he finds each view valuable but inadequate alone, and his own view must be sought in the sum of all of them.

    This dialogic informs even the arrangement of poems within the book. The last responds to the first, the second-to-last to the second, and so on, in a manner reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. If we leave out “The Pasture” and “Good Hours,” in which Frost himself gives the keys to the book as a whole, we find seven pairs of poems and the lone, central, enigmatic “A Servant to Servants.” That poem discusses one who “was crossed in love, / Or so the story goes.” This bizarre juxtaposition of insanity and love forms the theme of the book; from there, it moves out concentrically, taking as its subject at every level the absurd yet lovely nature of our shared human condition. It focuses on original sin (“Blueberries,” “After Apple-picking”); human dignity (“The Black Cottage,” “The Code”); family life (“Home Burial,” “The Generations of Men”); societal perceptions (“A Hundred Collars,” “The Housekeeper”); poetic inspiration (“The Mountain,” “The Fear”); mortality (“The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Self-Seeker”); and humanity in nature (“Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile”).

    Consider the use of dialogic in the last of these poems. Its counterpart “Mending Wall” suggests that building walls, though an act of violence against nature, is necessary to establish a community, for men define themselves by division. In “The Wood-Pile,” the speaker recognizes nature, by itself, as generalized and anonymous; it offers only “tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by.” These trees remind us of the pine and apple in “Mending Wall,” but are different because homogenous; they represent man by himself in nature, where he is nowhere in particular, “just far from home.” The wood-pile, however, an artifact akin to the mended wall, offers to connect man to nature by distinguishing him from it, through community. On seeing a pile of wood the speaker sees that though the wood-pile was made by man out of nature, it does not sit outside of nature; “what held it though on one side was a tree / Still growing.” The later poem thus recasts imagery of the earlier one to suggest a different position – though not exactly a contradictory one. It is more that they are two halves of an answer.


    Homelesness and Uprootedness

    May 8, 2010

    Unsurprisingly, given that this semester I’m taking one course about the works of Herman Melville and another about those of William Faulkner, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about “America” as a culture distinct from that of Europe. America’s relationship to its cultural heritage is, to put it nicely, ambiguous. Now, I don’t have a grand theory of America to propound here, but I do have two concepts that I think are important to understanding how America understands itself.

    First, I want to discuss “transcendental homelessness,” a term Georg Lukacs invents in his Theory of the Novel and defines as “the urge to be at home everywhere.” My professor used this term often to describe Melville, and I think it applies well to America as a whole (incidentally, Melville seems to me in many ways the quintessential American author). Americans are transcendentally homeless, because they want everywhere to be like America. Compare this to the concept of “American exceptionalism” that we hear so much about. “Exceptionalism” means that America believes it is somehow special, the culmination of history, but I think it is more the case that America has a hard time coming to terms with itself as a specific place in a specific time, preferring to see itself as an incarnation of a universal ideal to which all other countries ought to aspire. I am reminded of Melville’s constant references to Anacharsis Cloots, a participant in the French Revolution who said that the Revolution had to apply not only to France, but to all the world.

    The other concept I want to apply to America is “uprootedness.” I mean for this to stand in opposition to the idea of “rootlessness” that sees America as a complete tabula rasa, placing man anew in the state of nature (credit to Therese of Inklings, who talked about this earlier this week). If “rootlessness” means America is cut off completely from the Old World, and represents a new beginning, then “uprootedness” means that America is based in the Old World, but because it was transplanted to the New, continuity could not simply be taken for granted. Every continued tradition had to be consciously continued, and that consciousness implied a reevaluation and modification. Look, for example, at the American South (the focus of Faulkner’s work). Its traditional structure was an attempt to remain in continuity with the aristocratic Old World, but it was necessarily a conscious imitation, not an unconscious continuation; while it “died” with the Civil War, it had hardly existed before that. Or look at the attempts to create a “city on a hill” in Puritan New England, a subject Melville is interested in; it was in some ways a conscious break from the Old World, but in more important ways a continuation of certain Old World religious ideas.

    These two concepts are complementary, I think; one deals with America in relation to the rest of the contemporary world, the other with America in relation to its heritage. And both of them involve not a separation of America from the rest of the world, but an uneasy connection, an ambiguous bond. What I find really fascinating is that both Melville and Faulkner lead me to this same thought. It’s perhaps the strongest common thread I can find running throughout America, both North and South.

    ***

    Incidentally, these are the books we read in the two respective classes; I highly recommend everything on this list, but italics I use to indicate particular noteworthiness, and the most important work on each list I bold.

    Melville:

    • Moby-Dick
    • Pierre
    • The Piazza Tales: The Piazza, Bartleby, Benito Cereno, The Lightning-Rod Man, The Encantadas, The Bell-Tower
    • The Confidence-Man
    • assorted poetry (mostly from Battle-Pieces; particularly good are “The Conflict of Convictions” and “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”)
    • Billy Budd

    Faulkner:

    • The Unvanquished (not Faulkner’s best, but a particularly easy read)
    • Absalom, Absalom!
    • As I Lay Dying
    • The Hamlet
    • Go Down, Moses

    Poetic Flow Charts

    May 2, 2010

    For the last month in my Early Modern Literature class we’ve been reading 17th-century poetry. One of my favorite of the poems we’ve read so far has been John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet #5″:

    I am a little world made cunningly
    Of elements, and an angelic sprite ;
    But black sin hath betray’d to endless night
    My world’s both parts, and, O, both parts must die.
    You which beyond that heaven which was most high
    Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,
    Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
    Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
    Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more.
    But O, it must be burnt ; alas ! the fire
    Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
    And made it fouler ; let their flames retire,
    And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
    Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.

    One thing I find really fascinating about this poem is how complex a poetic image is developed over the course of just fourteen lines. Equally fascinating, though, is how diagrammatical it all is; one could, and I have, write up a flow chart showing the movement of imagery in the poem, for it proceeds in an exquisitely logical way. Observe:

    (1-2)      |  mind/body (air/earth)
    (3-4)      |  -> sin
    (4)          |  -> death
    (5)          |   ; bible
    (6)          |  -> knowledge
    (7)          |  -> voyage (water)
    (8-9)      |  -> water (drowned/washed)
    (10-12)  |  ; fire (sinful)
    (12-13)  |  -> fire (purifying)
    (14)        |  -> fire (pentecostal; sacramental)

    Almost all of the major ideas of the poem are here. Now, the chart is not itself poetic; it’s just a flow chart, after all. But the fact that the chart is possible, and is so interesting in and of itself, is one of the reasons it’s such a great poem. Poems that don’t have this kind of complex thought going on – that just go on  and on about the same thing,  trying to evoke a mood – can be good, but I almost always find much less pleasure in them than intellectually stimulating poems like this.

    I suppose that’s probably my mathematical instincts showing through. But come on – even if you like the ambiguity poetry can offer (and I do), don’t you need some structure before there is anything there to be ambiguous with?


    Leviathan or Whale-God?

    April 14, 2010

    No, no, no, no, no. Just, no.

    Here’s another person arguing for the reading of Moby-Dick where it is a sort of “anti-Bible,” heralding a new, post-Biblical, post-theological worldview. I find this reading simply perverse, and not true to the text. Unfortunately, it seems popular on both sides – with the Christians who dislike the book because they see it as atheist, and with the secularists who want to turn the book into another weapon against Christianity.

    It’s true that the Whale at first appears to be an evil, impersonal force, the Leviathan, and Ahab to be justified in his quest to destroy it. But by the end of the novel Ahab is revealed as a demonic figure, and the Whale has been transformed, if not into the Christian God, at least into a benevolent one; perhaps that of the Old Testament. I don’t want to call Moby-Dick a Christian novel, because I couldn’t defend that claim and I’m not sure it’s true, but it has significant Christian themes running through it, and seriously, not parodically. And I really can’t see a way to read it as atheistic.

    Melville does use Moby-Dick to create a new set of sacramental images – the whale, the doubloon, the tattooed cannibal – which he uses in place of those of Christianity, but even this, I think, is not a rejection of Christianity so much as an attempt to re-describe it (even if it is not entirely Christian in the end; like I said, Melville seems to me an agnostic). Actually, it reminds me more than anything of various imagery used by Tolkien in his writings on Middle-Earth. Consider the Silmarils, Galadriel’s phial of light, the rings of power, the sword that was broken. These are not Christian, but they’re not anti-Christian. Moreover, they help build a world that is compatible with Christianity but carries new meaning, and are able to do so I think partially because they are so new and startling in some ways, yet so old and deeply resonant in others.

    It’s what literature is all about, really – finding new metaphors.


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