Summer Gardens: Poetry

A few lines from the close of “A Summer Garden” by Louise Glück:

She sat on a bench, somewhat hidden by oak trees.
Far away, fear approached and departed;
from the train station came the sound it made.

The sky was pink and orange, older because the day was over.

There was no wind. The summer day
cast oak-shaped shadows on the green grass.

The ornamental kale at the
The ornamental kale at Hillwood in Washington DC (taken late summer 2014).

Commonplace Book: People and Pianos

piano_shopReading a sweet book about coming back to pianos and piano playing in mid-life (a story I, a perpetual musical ‘advanced beginner’ can relate to). Thad Carhart turned his back on corporate life, and wandered into The Piano Shop on the Left Bank where an enigmatic, brilliant piano technician and dealer (he calls Luc) puts him together with a baby grand, with cinematic results.

This time at the atelier I did bring sheet music, and Luc nodded approvingly when he saw me set it on the music stand. I’ve never been comfortable playing in front of others, but somehow this was different; his presence seemed encouraging as we listened together to the particular voice of this instrument among so many other pianos. I played for perhaps ten minutes, pieces I knew reasonably well and could listen to while I sight-read: some Beethoven bagatelles, a few of Schumann’s pieces for children, an early Mozart fantasy. I was not disappointed The Stingl’s resonance filled the room with tones at once clear and robust, and a sharp sense of pride welled up at the prospect of owning this distinctive piano, of seeing and playing it daily, of living with it. Good God, I thought, this is a kind of love; and, as in love, my senses amplified and enhanced the love object, all with an insouciance and willing enthusiasm.

A magical performance of the Arabeske in C major by Wilhelm Kempff (with less than magical camera work).

Poetic Words: Prosody Uncertainty Principle?

Two favorite poets and their somewhat cracked take on ars poetica.  Wendy Cope is mostly known for her humorous verse (she has a wonderful collection called “Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis”) and Frank O’Hara for his personal New York-y testimonials, (the “I do this, I do that” poems that in his hands in are often droll wonders, but have a low success rate for others).  But these two suggest you could switch views around: Wendy as the serious one, offering the testimony of a closely observant outsider, and Frank going for grin and giggle.


The Uncertainty of the Poet
—Wendy Cope

I am a poet.
I am very fond of bananas.

I am bananas.
I am very fond of a poet.

I am a poet of bananas.
I am very fond.

A fond poet of ‘I am, I am’-
Very bananas.

Fond of ‘Am I bananas?
Am I?’-a very poet.

Bananas of a poet!
Am I fond? Am I very?

Poet bananas! I am.
I am fond of a ‘very.’

I am of very fond bananas.
Am I a poet?

Why I Am Not A Painter
–Frank O’Hara

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

A orange juice squeezer in the collection of MOMA (where Frank O'Hara once worked).
A orange juice squeezer in the collection of MoMA (where Frank O’Hara once worked).

Odd Worlds: Robots in Opera

Possibly a first in alternative casting, Komische Oper Berlin, has built an opera around a robot who is learning about opera.  The Guardian has a video report.

robot_operaAnd there is more info on KOB’s site about the piece, My Square Lady. While you are there, check out the imaginative production of Magic Flute they recently had on. This was staged by the innovative London-based outfit 1927, a group that, among other things, integrates animation and film into live theater. Judging from this Flute, this is an approach that makes for sophisticated theatrical dazzle. Da Ponte (and Brecht too, for that matter) would be pleased I bet.



Die Zauberflöte Trailer from Komische Oper Berlin on Vimeo


Fact Checking, Online Communities and Journalism

check_and_x graphicA few tidbits about fact checking that caught my eye recently:

First, here’s a shocker! algorithms can do it. Tipped via the National Science Foundation’s Science 360 site

Indiana University scientists create computational algorithm for fact-checking

  • June 17, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Network scientists at Indiana University have developed a new computational method that can leverage any body of knowledge to aid in the complex human task of fact-checking.

As a former professional fact checker, I smiled a bit at their “complex human task” description. Sometimes, but many facts you check for publication in a daily newspaper, for instance, people’s names, titles, addresses, spelling, dates, quotations, are pretty straightforward and sources are fairly structured etc. If you think about the sources as in one part of the network, and the query in another, it’s basically a (geometric) math problem. So makes complete sense that an algorithmic approach could, in principle, do this work, and following paths to explore where the fact “lives,” and if it can be located in multiple sources, with different axes to grind, is what a resourceful fact checker will do–computer or human.

I wonder what is next for these researchers, and I hope it involves not just checking facts fed in but also finding a way to determine what facts (and biases) in a document need to be checked. Although there is often misinformation at the root of factual errors, more pernicious and harder to automate is smoking out persistent bias, a problem of sense-making, in which true facts are nonetheless marshaled to dubious or faulty ends, or less balefully, just not applicable to the question at hand. (Insert old pirates and global warming joke here.) If such tests were computerizable it might end, or at least put a dent in  blog commenting as we know it. Not a bad outcome. Fact checking is also a notoriously unoptimized activity, at least when done by humans. The more obscure the fact, and honestly, the less relevant, the more heroic and inefficient the quest (microfilm anybody?).  That works for sleuthing in the stacks for that telling citation, but on the web, bad facts spread like wildfire, and catching them fast and correcting them decisively would be a real service.

Second Poynter, a resource for journalists, has an interesting piece about using “gossip communities” (their term) as sources for journalists. Writer Ben Lyons pegs his story to a now-debunked social science study about whether people became more open to gay marriage based on in person canvassing). He sheds light on the issues of what happens when a journalist needs to enter a subculture,  abrasive and unreliable though they sometimes are, to get or check a story.

Complications abound with such “online community beats:” real names are rare, verifiable sources likewise, and the details can often only be checked against the comments of other people in the same world. But, in the case of the  Nonetheless, in the case of the gay marriage canvassing story, the community did raise doubts about the data long before it unraveled  more publicly. I suppose a modern day Woodward & Bernstein team wouldn’t be meeting in a parking garage, but in a chat room in TOR!

The next bite, “fact checking, are you doing it at all?” comes from the  science journalist (and inventor of dance your PhD thesis!) John Bohannon, who explains that results from his fake study linking chocolate to weight loss was an all too easy sell to the media, who didn’t bother to sniff out that the results (and the publication they appeared in) were rubbish.  From his lively explanation at io9:

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.

It was a perfect storm of problems: p-values, a very small n, and then to top it off a “pay to play” journal that published it two weeks after submission, without changing a word, and for the low low cost of 600 Euros.

The experiment was craptastic, but the news coverage was a dream. And are now his “results” are probably part of the corpus of facts that the IU researchers’ computers have to untangle. Maybe they will factor in the questions from commentators, who, unlike professional journalists raised questions.

And as a bonus, Priceonomics has a timely entry about scientific retractions, with the point that the increase in number is possibly due to better policing than to an epidemic of cheating (although that remains a possibility).

Words of Advice: The Tragedy of Theme Addiction

WordPress, despite my carping about it, is a wonderful platform. It pulls together underlying technologies, provides workflows, and establishes standards & conventions that bridge the gap between flexibility and ease of use fairly well, with the result that a wide range of people can use it successfully (not just coders, or designers, but even writers).

But of course, it has a dark side, a scourge that you rarely hear mentioned: I’m talking about “theme addiction” something that even the Jesus-like Matt Mullenweg himself cannot offer salvation from.

Matt Mullenweg, the fount of all things WordPress. (
Matt Mullenweg, the fount of all things WordPress. (“Matt Mullenweg 01” by Ronny Siegel – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

What’s a theme anyway? WordPress, like most modern software, separates the guts (for instance, the database engine that manages all the content) from presentation to the user, that is, the visual design. If you have ever customized your browser to have a sports logo, or a kitten, or like mine with the Royal Opera House you’ve used a theme. They show up in operating systems, programs, and mobile devices just to name a few, and they are an integral part of WordPress.

WordPress themes control the visual appearance of your site, layout, color, type, etc., and also have big implications for the functionality–themes work with (or don’t) key features (e.g, responsive design, sidebars, animated backgrounds, featured images, whatever). All that is to the good, and themes are even fairly easy to build from scratch, also on the whole a good thing.

But here comes the problem: there are now many thousands of these buggers. There is a whole “theme ecosystem” with themes for every purpose under http (although rule 34 of the Internet does not seem to yet apply, there is no porn about WordPress themes, at least not yet). offers 359 just for their hosted service. Themeforest (which admittedly handles more than just WP themes) boasts over 19,000; put “unique” in as a search term for WordPress themes and you get a cool 978. WooThemes, now part of the WordPress mother ship Automattic, has 50 odd, and Elegant Themes, of which I’m particularly fond has more than a dozen. And this is just the beginning.

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If you are not surfeited with this, you can always build your own theme based on one of the many, many frameworks. It’s not hard if you know a little CSS, and even if you don’t the world is full of themes and variations (technically called “child themes”) to explore.

It’s the web in classic form: solutions in search of a problem. Faced with the simple task of starting a blog, it is easy, nay almost inevitable, to get sucked into theme shopping and never return. (If this is combined with Battlestar Galactica addiction, the results could be dire).

Now, the sane thing to do with this paradox of choice, is to follow the advice on the WordPress codex: if you are thinking about starting a blog, start with your content goals, think about your audience, pull together some sample content (photos, posts, whatever), work through that, spending the majority of your time planning and doing content (be that writing, taking pictures, doing your podcasts, whatever.)

The graph should look something like this.

Content V. Theme
Good! More time planning than theme shopping.

But instead, this happens: you say to yourself, “I’m going to do a travel blog, yeeessss!” which pretty much counts as your entire planning phase and you immediately plunge into a whirlwind of theme shopping. You find the “Adventure ” theme, the “El Greco” theme, there’s “Magellan,” and “Voyage,” and, as Mrs. Lovett says, “I’ve only just begun…”

And your graph suddenly looks like this.

You have been sucked into the theme shopping vortex, beware.
You have been sucked into the theme shopping vortex, beware.

Once you have been sucked in there is very little escape, for you see even after you have “chosen” a theme (or themes, you can download as many as you like and test them out), then a whole new hall of mirrors opens up and you can start dicking around, oops I mean “configuring” your themes because almost any theme comes with seemingly endless bobs and bits that you can customize. If that’s not enough to feed the craving–born of the delusion that you are actually doing productive work–you can probably often mess around with the CSS too, download some fonts, work out a background image…

This, like infinite scroll, can go on and on, and at the end of it, you are naturally too exhausted to write, photograph, or record a podcast, so you step gingerly away, and “Hello, World!” is all your blog has, and may have, for days.

Reader, I have been there. I have a ‘sandbox’ WordPress installation on my laptop using MAMP, which I tell myself is just my little safe test bed for screwing around with all things WordPress, but in truth, it’s my little “theme meth lab” where I can download theme after theme, those I buy, the freebies, frameworks for child themes, tools for building your own, and tinker away and away and away. (I do this for my blog, even though I’m hosted on, which gives you perfectly good themes, many for FREE, and in any case limits you to those that are safe and compatible with the current release.)

And safe too…this is another little dark chapter of theme addiction. There are some themes that are easy to hack, (and it’s wise to consider any site on the web fodder for pretty much constant automated attack). There are also some that come pre-loaded with malicious code, programmed to use your site as a zombie, harvest user info, or worse. So this adds a soupçon of spy thriller to the hunt, what lurks behind that glamorous and oh-so-responsive slider? Could it be a dark past and back end that will send your users’ data to Minsk or a dank basement in Cleveland?

The mind, or at least, my mind, reels. In truth, you shouldn’t get any free theme from a sketchy site, or one without a user community and support. If you don’t understand how to use the theme checker, you shouldn’t fool with any but the built in themes or those on to start with.

So that’s a taste of theme addiction. If you’ve been involved in WP and avoided it, congratulations! We won’t be looking for you at the next Theme-aholics Anonymous WordPress Meet-Up. But if you have fallen prey to this timewaster, here is advice courtesy of a graphic designer I know. Now in his 80s, Mo Obermann taught and practiced graphic design in NYC for many years, running his own firm in the Mad Men era. One summer, I helped the now self-styled “artist in reticence”  get Photoshop on his computer, and when we looked at the long list of typefaces available he asked me how many fonts I thought he used in his 40 plus year career. Before I could answer, he shouted, “Four!” “Pick a type face, learn it, and do your work with it.”

So follow Mo’s advice, slightly updated for the WordPress world: do your content plan first. (Really, don’t do anything until you have your plan down in some kind of form that makes sense to you–the codex recommends ink and paper, something I endorse. At a minimum write out what your editorial goal is and who your audience is.) Then make a list of characteristics and requirements for the way you want your site to appear and what you need it to do. (For example, clean type design, light color-neutral background, display photos and texts, work on mobile etc.)

Now take a deep breath, and search on one source ( is my recommendation, even if you are self-hosting, you can generally still get those themes, and you know Automattic has blessed them so the hacker in Cleveland is out of luck), and pick three. (Okay okay, if you really can’t help yourself, go for four.)

With your three (or four) give yourself a day or two total to audition all of these, working with your sample content. Then commit to one and implement it by the end of that week. Make a deal with yourself that it will be on your site for at least 30 days. Sign “the pledge” that you will not have “a drink from the theme shopping bar” during that period.

(It’s also really good to commit to posting something every day for the first thirty days. I’m a little erratic now, but the fact that I’m able to keep up my blog at all is due in no small part to making sure I posted regularly in the first few months).

Then, if you get to the end of the month, and you are thinking, “jeez-o-flip, I really wish I had a better theme,” then write down what “better” means in practical terms, and, with this in hand, go search for no more than three more candidates. Audition, then implement within the week, just as before.

Whatever happens, do as I say, not as I do: don’t spend time theme shopping that you could be writing, photographing, producing video, or whatever it is that floats your blogging boat. WordPress is a content management and publishing tool, give it some content to manage and publish! Don’t give in to that siren song of … wait, just a sec, I just got an email about a new theme called Cyanotype…gotta check it out, it’s got this ‘old photo’ vibe going, and I love that….

Poetic Words: Don Chiasson on John Ashbery

A good review of John Ashbery’s latest book of poems in the New Yorker caught my eye.

Dan Chiasson on the quality of “things almost being said” in his work.

Ashbery’s style prizes such mistakes and misapprehensions, as though looking for the word on the tip of the tongue. William James described consciousness as the “alternation of flights and perchings,” suggesting that we tend to overvalue the “perchings,” the nouns or the primary verbs in a sentence that steal the spotlight from the little words, like “in,” “and,” “but,” “or,” and “of.” It was James, a profound influence on Ashbery, who coined the term “stream of consciousness,” and who insisted on what he called a “reinstatement of the vague and inarticulate to its proper place in our mental life.” James’s “flights” and in-between zones find, in “Breezeway,” a breezeway: a structure between structures, a place to rest that is not a resting place, a “long Q & A period” before the big event is adjourned—a period marked, as in the title of one poem, by deliberate “Andante and Filibuster.”

I love the title of Ashbery’s volume: Breezeway is a term I previously associated with things like corridors in an airport parking lot or walkway in a high school (there were bleak ones in mine). The kind of flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict word that Ashbery spins his poetry out of.

From the Boston Public Library's Flickr Stream
From the Boston Public Library’s Flickr Stream

The Tonys

The Tonys are tonight, and, unlike many years, this one is chock full of worthy winners (particularly in the musical category).

To get you warmed up, here’s a short with nominee Tony Yazbeck singing “Lucky to be Me” on the streets of New York from On the Town, the great show by Bernstein, Comden, & Green. (How many sights can you recognize?)

Another nominee is On the Twentieth Century, a revival of the 1978 show, which is getting raves, and which features a role Kristin Chenoweth was born to play. (This show was also written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with a glorious score by the much-missed Cy Coleman.)

onthetwentiethcentury Also worth noting: Fun Home, based on the moving coming-of-age memoir written & drawn by Alison Bechdel. I loved the book but would not have predicted that it would translate effectively to the stage, much less a musical. It has, and features an extraordinary performance by Sydney Lucas as the young Alison.
Check her out in a NYTimes Tony preview:


(Another nominee is an even less likely book to stage transition, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.)

The Times is the place to go for more info on the rundown on the broadcast of what is sometimes called “The Gay Superbowl.”

Happy Theater Sunday!



Books and the Seasons of Life

“Every book its reader” counts as one of the Laws of Library Science  and there is, I suppose a corollary, about reading the right things at the right time. Sometime in my 20s, I encountered advice that you probably won’t get much out of Henry James before 40. So I of course promptly tried one of the “tough” ones, maybe The Golden Bowl, grinding out after a few pages. Years later I read The Aspern Papers (because it had been made into an opera) loved it, and still do, and Washington Square (also adapted for the stage, with an astonishing Cherry Jones in the Catherine Sloper role), and that one has stayed with me too as pitch perfect.

So there are definitely novels and writers you grow into, and there are others you grow out of. This was brought home to me by reading a sharp piece by August Kleinzahler in the LRB on a new e. e. cummings biography.

E.E. Cummings is the sort of poet one loves at the age of 17 and finds unbearably mawkish and vacuous as an adult. But in the mid-20th century he was the most popular poet in the United States after Robert Frost, and from early in his career, among the most admired by writers and critics. It wasn’t just the usual modernist suspects like Pound, Williams, Stevens and Marianne Moore who sang his praises, but other, very different kinds of poet too: Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, Octavio Paz, Louis Zukofsky and Charles Olson. As did any number of critics: Edmund Wilson, Harry Levin, Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Guy Davenport. Were all of them hornswoggled, taken in by the surface polish and acrobatics of Cummings’s style and, those who knew him, by his great personal charm, unable to register the paucity of content, limited range and shallowness of his work? The short answer is yes.


e.e. was pretty dear to me at 17, and even into college. But he fell off my radar and I didn’t know about his streak of anti-Semitism. There are some song settings of his works that are appealing, but the little balloon man is too far and wee, and sensibility somehow now seems twee, not sincere.

Hard on the heels of reading that I found a parallel bit on Tolkien in a book of Terry Prachett essays. He was smitten with Middle Earth at 13, and read Lord of the Rings every spring thereafter for quite a while. “I started with a book, and that led me to a library, and that led me everywhere.”
But he goes on,

“Do I still think, as I did then, that Tolkien was the greatest writer in the world? In the strict sense, no. You can think that at thirteen. If you still think it at fifty-three, something has gone wrong with your life. But sometimes things all come together at the right time in the right place–book, author, style, subject, and reader. The moment was magic.

And I went on reading; and, since if you read enough books you overflow, I eventually became a writer.


Start here, go anywhere. (Image from the DPLA).
Start here, go anywhere. (Image from the DPLA).

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