Reasonable Words: Commonplace Book

A few nice bits encountered in this week’s reading:

First, the opening bit from Jorge Luis Borges “This Craft of Verse” (the book form of his Norton Lectures on poetry from 1967-68, once thought lost, but lovingly transcribed from audio tapes and published by Harvard University Press).

“1. The Riddle of Poetry

At the outset, I would like to give you fair warning of what to expect–or rather, what not to expect–from me.  I find that I have made a slip in the very title of my first lecture. The title is, if we are not mistaken, “The Riddle of Poetry,” and the stress of course is on the first word, “riddle.” So you may think the riddle is all-important. Or, what might be still worse, you may think I have deluded myself into believing that I have somehow discovered the true reading of the riddle. The truth is that I have no revelations to offer. I have spent my life reading, analyzing, writing (or trying my hand at writing), and enjoying. I have found the last to be the most important thing of all. “Drinking in” poetry, I have come to no final conclusion about it. Indeed, Every time I am faced with a blank page, I feel that I have to rediscover literature for myself. But the past is of no avail whatever to me. So, as I have said, I have only my perplexities to offer you. I am nearing seventy. I have given the major part of my life to literature and I can offer you only doubts.”

Echos of Mark Strand‘s

“There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.”

If Borges thought he was “trying his hand at writing,” there’s not much hope for the rest of us.


and a great lead to James Wade’s TLS review of Lawrence Warner’s THE MYTH OF PIERS PLOWMAN, a sort of bibliographic true-crime thriller about the brouhaha over medieval text Piers Plowman and its questionable provenance.


If Piers Plowman offers a vision of human life in its entirety – a “fair feeld ful of folk” – Lawrence Warner’s study The Myth of Piers Plowman veers towards humanity’s rougher edges: insane scholars, hapless librarians, drunk students, depressed antiquarians and tyrannical monarchs, not to mention rebels, prostitutes, con men, forgers, heretics and, perhaps worst of all, very dull academics.


Warner assembles this motley crew of rogues and oddballs to serve up a rollicking tale of how an entire field of study came to be created, or rather, fabricated. This latter term is one Warner shies away from in the book’s subtitle, but its range of connotations is fundamental to his understanding of archive formation. When it comes to the long history of amassing the raw material of “Langland Studies” or “Piers Plowman Studies”, a history this book traces (or fabricates), it turns out to be neither possible nor necessarily productive to always distinguish between those who created, those who copied, those who corrected and those who just made things up.


Turns out life (or at least literary life) is more like Borges than perhaps even he suspected.

“Drunk history” is an internet meme (even a TV show), but drunk bibliographic collation? Could be the next big thing…


A page of a Piers Plowman manuscript from the British Library's site. Love those pilcrows!

A page of a Piers Plowman manuscript from the British Library’s site. Love those pilcrows!

Reasonable Words: Poetry

Today a poem by David Slavitt, a member of the “100 Club” and a writer with a wide range (from Latin translations to potboiler best-sellers) and impish sense of humor.


A tryma is a nutlike drupe.
No one in your playground is likely to respond
to such an observation in any reasonable way, but
you can always explain that a drupe has a single endocarp,
which is true but not, perhaps, helpful.

A pneuma is, by extension, a breathlike trope?
That, we may agree, would be horsing around, but
a drupelet, which is a small drupe, as, for example the pulpy grain of the blackberry,
would have, logically, an endocarplet.
When it rains, as it may, from time to time,
I can imagine you running through the meadow exclaiming,
“Ah, see the droplets on the drupelets!”

You will be an exquisite child,
or, rather, are already but you will proclaim it
in such a way as to defy the world.
And will they call you on the carplet?
Defy them, defy them.

The trauma of the tryma
is with us always, as are the poor
in spirit, who will stare at you blankly
on in resentment ask,
“Wha’? Who?”
Answer them smartly and tell them
the wahoo is a kind of Euonymous
(which is also a good name)
with arillate seeds.
Tell them your grandfather said so.

If that doesn’t work, and it won’t, you can take some comfort
from knowing that the false aril originates
from the orifice instead of the stalk of an ovule,
as in the mace of the nutmeg, which is an arillode.

It follows, I suppose, that a true aril is a false arillode,
although people seldom say so,
but never let that stop you.

David R. Slavitt

John Dunstall Walnuts and Hazelnuts 1666

A little song: Raindrops

The rain is coming down cats and dogs in DC today, so two pieces come to mind:

The “Raindrop” Prelude of Chopin (Op. 28, #15) played by Martha Argerich (as the comments note, a force of nature).



The third movement of Brahms’ First Violin Sonata, based on his rain motif, a gentle romantic patter, here played by Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy (who is successful in keeping Itzahk from over egging the cream).


Perspectives: Jason Stanley on the Middle East

Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale, has written a thought-provoking and personal essay about the issues swirling around the Middle East.

An excerpt…

Professor Jason Stanley

Professor Jason Stanley

I have heard those with similar family histories say this about all groups: that each group is safe only among its members. It is understandable that those who experienced what my mother and her family experienced would take away from history the lesson that everyone hates the Jews, and therefore that Jews are only safe in a nation of Jews. But this is nothing less than a repudiation of the conception of citizenship at the heart of liberal democracy. Democracy has two chief values, autonomy and equality. In a democracy, citizens have the freedom to pursue their own life paths. The choices they take cannot compromise their political equality, that is, their equality as citizens. The test of a democracy is how it allows difference to flourish; this shows that political equality does not depend upon taking a particular life-path or following certain religious beliefs. The basis for political equality is equal respect. A democracy is a state in which equal respect flourishes among its members.

Worth reading in its entirety.

This also ran in  German, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Beautiful Music: Liszt’s Pilgrimages

Lots of Wagner, Liszt, and Strauss listening of late–for some reason summer is prompting an appetite for overheated romantic music. But here are two non-excessive bits of Liszt from his set Années de pèlerinage Years of Pilgrimage. This was a musical travel diary for him, with sketches evoking sights, landscapes, artworks headed by bits of related poetry (often overheated bits of Byron).

Here are two from the first volume, Switzerland, “Au lac de Wallenstadt” and “Au bord d’une source,” beautifully illuminated by the gentle artistry of Wilhelm Kempff.



Lake Walenstadt, Switzerland. Perhaps Liszt had this very view. Wonderful photo from Martin Fisch’s flickr stream. CC 2.0

Americans and Math

To my surprise, Elizabeth Green’s sensible article about math education reform in the NYTimes has become a “most emailed” hit. Certainly several people have emailed it to me, one not knowing that I’ve done a fair amount of work doing online courses on math education and have a strong interest in the subject.

Although it’s got an unfortunate headline, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” points out that we haven’t had the follow up to train teachers in new approaches, even when they are promising–and have yielded great results in other countries. Instead, we get stuck in some kind of paradoxical nostalgia. We may have had bad math experiences at school, but we would prefer our children have those to new ones that we don’t understand or trust, we also let everyone off the hook, students, our teachers, and perhaps most importantly ourselves, when we categorize math competence as an immutable characteristic.

In a broader piece, I’ll vapor on about my speculation that fighting over curriculum is really ideological battle by other means, but in the meantime recommend reading the article which sites the baleful effect of giving the same bad old experiences to students in classrooms: places where using time tested methods that don’t work is the preferred way of doing most things wrong.

The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.


Wolfram Alpha, an amazing website I used to fool with an Algebra I problem last week (for work, yes, but it was fun too). The Wolfram tool is a hell of a lot more interesting and educational than Mary P. Dolciani’s books ever were for me at least–I know they worked for some.

Proms Time is back

This weekend is the start of the Proms–the biggest (mostly) classical musical festival in the world, and all freely available on Radio 3 on the web (and on television for some lucky viewers, not in the U.S., alas.)


Lots of potential high points: Rattle and the Berlin Phil in J.S. Bach, continuing 300th birthday celebrations for his imaginative son, CPE Bach–fiddler Rachel Podger a likely magician in this rep. We’re also getting Kiss Me, Kate, and from silly to serious, Stravinsky’s oratorio, Oedipus Rex (not in the same concert, I hasten to add).

The opera offerings are probably not as likely to be as jaw-droppingly wonderful as the Barenboim Ring last year, still there are good line ups for Salome, Elektra, and Rosenkavalier.

Lots else, including Rufus Wainwright on the popular and jazz track. (They seem to be fixing links, so bear with them.)

More recommendations, musings, brickbats and praise as the concerts unfold. For music lovers, it really is the most generous of feasts. Thank you, BBC.