October 29, 2009

Today I finished the most important part of the Junior Poet project: an annotated bibliography of the criticism on Gerard Manley Hopkins (for which I read and commented on 6 books and 22 articles). It wasn’t actually that much work – maybe 2000 pages of reading spread across two months, plus writing a paragraph about each work read – and was certainly amusing at times. I do feel sorry, though, for those who are only halfway done, given that it’s due on Monday – that gives them four days to read 1000 pages. Doable, but not fun.

One strange fact: I actually enjoy reading deconstructionist literary criticism. It is often absurd, yes, but also often has fascinating insights; and they often talk about how language can convey meaning, a subject I find fascinating. Wikipedia describes deconstruction as “rigorously pursu[ing] the meaning of a text to the point of undoing the oppositions on which it is apparently founded, and to the point of showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex, unstable or impossible”; what exactly is wrong with that, done well? It can result in absurd theories, but is often more insightful than the other two main types of criticism I saw, those being “just read the poem and closely analyse the metaphor and language used so that we can rephrase the poem in philosophical language” and “look at the philosophical/literary/cultural influences on the poet and then try to find evidence of their having influenced the poet in the poems themselves.”

So, uh, yeah. Anyone else have anything insightful to say about different types of literary criticism? If not, you probably won’t be hearing about JPo from me until I get around to writing a post analyzing “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves.”



October 23, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about the finitude of the world recently. What I mean by that is this: While we interact with the physical world as if it were infinitely variable – everything can be subdivided, including time and space – it seems scientifically quite likely that this is not in fact the case, that rather the world is finite, that there are finitely many particles in the universe, that each of them has finitely many positions, and thus that the universe has finitely many possible states – an absurdly large number, but still finitely many.

This possibility disturbs me, and I think I’ve figured out why. Mathematically speaking, if we have infinitely many points, we can find only one equation that fits it, for it is a smooth curve, a definite function – the universe would have only one explanation. But if we have finitely many points, there are infinitely many equations that would fit the given data – for example, if we just have the points (0,0) and (1,1), the equations y=x and y=x^2 both equally well describe the data. If we have (0,0), (1,1), and (2,0), both y=-(x-1)^2+1 and y=-(x-1)^4+1 work. Et cetera. And those were all just polynomials – there’s lots of other kinds of equations out there. So a finite universe means that the universe has many possible explanations, and even at the end of time, when all is said and done, there’s no way to know which one was correct.

So finitude somewhat scares me. Then again – if the universe is finite, there are many possible explanations, but one will, I hope, be much more elegant than the others, and that will be the “true” one… that, or, since by “the universe is finite” I really mean only the physical world, the atoms and quarks and leptons and dimensions of space and time, meaning will in the end be found not in the physical, but the metaphysical. That is, I suppose, what I believe – but I’d would like to be able to find meaning in both.

Does finitude scare anyone else, or is it just me?

Difference and Indifference

October 15, 2009

I’ve become aware of an interesting phenomenon over the past month or so regarding the reading of argumentative non-fiction. It’s probably because of the JPo project, in which we read a bunch of literary criticism about our focal poet, but I’ve experienced it regarding other subjects as well, including philosophy and politics.

What I’m talking about without naming is essentially an experience that I’ve had multiple times, in different forms: I read a book. I disagree with the argument of the book, and “officially” declare that to be my response to the book. I go about my life. Days, weeks, or months later, I encounter something related in some way to the argument the book made. I then approach the new situation in the light of the book I previously read, whether explicitly or implicitly, and treat it as providing me a unique insight into the new situation, regardless of the fact that I completely disagree with the book when I originally read it.

I have a theory as to why this happens. Essentially, I think, when I read something, I’ve invested several hours, perhaps days, into reading and thinking about what it is I’ve read; that time spent has created an emotional bond with the material. I may disagree with what it says, but I disagree with it; I don’t just vaguely not like that way of approaching the subject, I have grappled with a particular person’s argument and formed an emotional bond with it – perhaps negative, but still, an emotional.

After writing that last sentence, it occured to me that this seems related to something I’ve written before, I don’t remember where, about interpersonal relationships. To dislike someone is still to have an emotional connection to someone. To actively dislike someone – rather than simply ignoring them – is to have a closer bond with someone than to just vaguely not mind their being around.

Also, I think, a strong enmity is more likely to turn into a strong friendship than into nothing at all; and, in fact, I think it is more likely to turn into a strong friendship than is a weak friendship, by which I mean one where the two people are not good friends not because they don’t know each other well, but because they just don’t particularly like each other, even if they don’t particularly dislike each other. The former case, after all, is just one of changing the type of emotion felt; the latter is one of changing the intensity of emotion, a more difficult proposition.


October 10, 2009

“Spell” is one of my favorite words. It relates language and magic; to spell a word is to describe what phonemes it is composed of, to cast a spell is to say a word of power and thus control reality. It also just means “word” or “news,” as in “Gospel” = “Good News,” and its German cognate “Spiele” means, in  addition to everything the word means in English, “play” and “game” –  “Ich spiele Cello,” “Die Baseball-Spiel hat Spaß gemacht.”

This is just one of the reasons that the poem I’m almost certainly going to choose for my “exemplary poem” in Junior Poet (we choose one poem by our poet, memorize it, recite it at the beginning of our panel, then give a reading of it; at that point the professors start asking questions and other poems come into the picture) is “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” supposedly the longest sonnet ever written in the English language (there are eight stresses per line).

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ‘ vaulty, voluminous, … stupendous
Evening strains to be tíme’s vást, ‘ womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ‘ stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ‘ her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ‘ self ín self steepèd and páshed—qúite
Disremembering, dísmémbering ‘ áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ‘ whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.

Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ‘ Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined variety ‘ upon, áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; ‘ right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ‘ twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ‘ thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

I don’t want to give a detailed reading of this poem right now – perhaps in a month or so. But keep it in mind. It’s one of my favorite poems in the English language, and one of the main reasons for that is its incantatory quality – Hopkins said it was meant to be “almost sung” – and howo the word “spelt” is there in the title. What does it mean? That the prophecy of the Apocalypse (this poem is about the end of the world) is there to be read in the Sibyl’s leaves? Or that the prophecy is spelt out, caused, by the fact of it being prophesied? I think both connotations are meant to be present. And that’s what’s great about the word spell – it takes many distinct but related concepts and gives one word to the entire set, so you can use this one word “spell” and evoke an entire backdrop of meaning – “language,” “magic,” “news,” “game,” etc.

Worlds of Wanwood Leafmeal Lie

October 2, 2009

So, it’s October now. Isn’t it supposed to be… at least cool, rather than warm, outside? Ah well. I suppose this is Texas.

The title of this post is from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Spring and Fall.” It runs as follows:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

A beautifully written poem, though not terribly complex in its meaning. It comes to mind for two reasons, both of which are interesting but unrelated: it is now fall, and so (in theory) I should still be seeing “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie”; also, I’m doing Gerard Manley Hopkins for my Junior Poet project.

Regarding JPo; it seems fitting to reference Hopkins this month, of all months, since my annotated bibliography is due November 2nd and thus I will this month finish Paul Mariani’s biography of Hopkins (I have about 70 pages left), read three books of literary criticism (I have two done, and need five), and read sixteen articles (I have four done, need twenty). That is a lot of reading to do over just thirty days; it comes out to about thirty pages a day, actually. So that’s what my life for the next month will be about, for the most part.

And regarding the fact that it is now fall; I find fascinating the question of seasonal preferences. Hopkins’ poem seems implicitly to say that fall is depressing, it being the dying of the natural world, and spring being its rebirth. But I actually prefer fall, as a season; that was the main reason I went to Rome Fall ’08 rather than Spring ’09. I’ve already explored the question of what it means for me to prefer winter to summer; it means I think of myself as being in combat with the world, rather than allied with it. What does it mean to prefer fall to spring?

It’s not that I like the fall holidays better than the spring. I’m not a big fan of Thanksgiving, Christmas (technically winter, but a lot of the buildup is in fall) is just OK, and I love Easter. Nor, I think, is it just that I dislike summer so much I want to be as far from it as possible – if that were the case, fall would be my favorite, since it leaves nine whole months until summer comes again, but I prefer winter to fall. But I don’t want to say it is because I hate nature, either, even though that seems a reasonable answer (my favorite season is when nature is dead, my second favorite is when it is dying)…

I think the answer, in the end, is that I prefer mourning to rejoicing. It’s not that I have a problem with nature being reborn, but I am more fascinated with its going away. It has a bittersweet feeling to it; spring is more triumphant, and a triumphant attitude seems out of place in this so fallen world.

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