Poetic Words: The Printer’s Error

Will all my fussing about copyediting and usage, good to give the opposite view a chance…there is indeed something wonderful about errors, which this poem catches nicely.

Some of the world’s oldest printing presses, from the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp, one of the first commercial printing companies in Europe and now preserved as a world heritage site.

The Printer’s Error
by Aaron Fogel

Fellow compositors
and pressworkers!

I, Chief Printer
Frank Steinman,
having worked fifty-
seven years at my trade,
and served five years
as president
of the Holliston
Printer’s Council,
being of sound mind
though near death,
leave this testimonial
concerning the nature
of printers’ errors.

First: I hold that all books
and all printed
matter have
errors, obvious or no,
and that these are their
most significant moments,
not to be tampered with
by the vanity and folly
of ignorant, academic
textual editors.
Second: I hold that there are
three types of errors, in ascending
order of importance:
One: chance errors
of the printer’s trembling hand
not to be corrected incautiously
by foolish professors
and other such rabble
because trembling is part
of divine creation itself.

Two: silent, cool sabotage
by the printer,
the manual laborer
whose protests
have at times taken this
historical form,
covert interferences
not to be corrected
censoriously by the hand
of the second and far
more ignorant saboteur,
the textual editor.
Three: errors
from the touch of God,
divine and often
obscure corrections
of whole books by
nearly unnoticed changes
of single letters
sometimes meaningful but
about which the less said
by preemptive commentary
the better.
Third: I hold that all three
sorts of error,
errors by chance,
errors by workers’ protest,
and errors by
God’s touch,
are in practice the
same and indistinguishable.

Therefore I,
Frank Steinman,
for thirty-seven years,
and cooperative Master
of the Holliston Guild
eight years,
being of sound mind and body
though near death
urge the abolition
of all editorial work
and manumission
from all textual editing
to leave what was
as it was, and
as it became,
except insofar as editing
is itself an error, and

therefore also divine.

Musical Sketchbook: Danny Boy

A while ago, a concert series I volunteer for presented baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan. They gave a memorable concert focused on music of the World War I ear (which they have subsequently released as a recording).

One of the most compelling moments was their arrangement of Danny Boy.

And that tune!  Just two more versions because I’m like that, first Bill Evans:

And the beloved, and much missed Oscar Shumsky (who gave maybe the best violin recital I ever attended).


Index of American Design

One of the interesting byproducts of my visit to the Outliers show at the National Gallery was learning about the “Index of American Design.” This was a Works Progress Administration project to document objects. It was accomplished by sending watercolorists all over the country to find design examples and create images. (Photography might seem a better medium for this kind of work, but in fact, the watercolors, with their detail and color, probably did more than photography could have offered in the 30s and 40s. And there is the practical possibility that more painters, rather than photographers, were the ones out of work. Certainly the results are beautiful.)

Here are a handful of images from the Index. More at this link.

And here’s a bite from a documentary on the Index.

Would be wonderful to have them all digitized sometime, although there are 20,000 so would be a formidable undertaking.


Outliers and American Vanguard Art

Took in the first day of a new show at the National Gallery of Art, Outliers and American Vanguard Art–outliers being a term broader than outsider art, and bridging a vast range of styles and people, Horace Pippin to Martín Ramírez, and Sister Gertrude Morgan to Zoe Leonard (who was there, and answered questions from curator Lynne Cooke in a fascinating Q&A).

It is fascinating, intriguingly curated show. Fosters lots of pondering of what an outlier is–which boundaries are being crossed, and the relationship of this show to the museum overall. You don’t always get a sense of adventure (sometimes a confounding adventure) in NGA shows, but you certainly do with this one.

A few shots from my visit.

And that wonderful tunnel under the East Wing…


Library Battles

Enjoying Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, by Wayne A. Wiegand.

In addition to documenting the value libraries have for their communities, Wiegand describes the perennial battles in libraries over their collections and what literature is suitable, particularly for children.

In the 1850s, the director of the Astor Library in New York was railing against the tastes of the youth of his era, who, in his view, preferred “the trashy…like Scott, Dickens, Punch, and The Illustrated News,” presumably instead of serious improving works like the classics. No Tale of Two Cities on the shelf for you.

Series fiction, be it Horatio Alger in the 19th century or the wildly popular Nancy Drew novels first published in the 1930s, have always been particularly vexing. Children clamored to read them,  caring not one whit whether they were literature, but librarians were undecided about whether to offer them.

Wiegand relates,

“Not censorship, but selection” masked other traditional cultural and literary biases within the profession. Despite the fact that the ALA revised the Library Bill of Rights in 1967 to include “age” as another group having the right to access all public library collections, many children’s and young adult librarians persisted in shunning series fiction. Those who did otherwise sometimes paid a price. For her first major acquisition as Rhinelander, Wisconsin children’s librarian in the mid- 1970s, Kris Wendt, who read Nancy Drew as a child, purchased three complete sets of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins mysteries. Word of her transgression spread quickly. Several months later a forceful colleague—”incensed that Rhinelander broke ranks to acquire such ‘trash,’ … accosted me in the ladies room during a regional children’s services workshop… Arms folded across her ample monobosom and glowering as though she would like to alphabetize my internal organs,” she “cornered me against the sinks. In a voice like a silver dime she declared, “You have lowered the standard of children’s literature for the entire Wisconsin Valley!’ ” Wendt held her ground; Nancy stayed in the stacks much to the delight of Rhinelander’s children.

I’m glad she and many others held her ground. Nancy and the Hardy Boys were not my series, I read “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” and the Encyclopedia Brown ones. Great literature they weren’t, but they were part of a habit that paved the way thereto–and the ability to enjoy the occasional trashy mystery to this day.

Critical Words

Tom Rachman reviewing A World Without Whom : The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age by Emmy J. Favilla

From “List of proof-marks, corrected proof-sheets and suggestions in regard to proofreading” by A.M. Smith. As cryptic as cuneiform to a modern writer?

As if to immunize herself against criticism, [Favilla] begins by announcing her paucity of qualifications; she is neither a lexicographer nor an expert in linguistics. Previously, she worked at Teen Vogue. “I am constantly looking up words for fear of using them incorrectly and everyone in my office and my life discovering that I am a fraud”, she says. But despite the tone of chirpy self-satire, what follows is a small revolution. “Today everyone is a writer – a bad, unedited, unapologetic writer”, she says. “There’s no hiding our collective incompetence anymore.” Unlike the language scolds of yore, Favilla embraces the new ways, punctuating her writing with emoji, inserting screen-grabs of instant messages, using texting shortcuts such as “amirite?” Hers is a rule book with fewer rules than orders to ignore them. Humans are gushing out words at such a pace, they can’t be expected to bother with grammar, she says. More important is to be entertaining, on trend, popular (neatly matching the corporate goals of BuzzFeed). “It’s often more personal and more plain-languagey, and so it resonates immediately and more widely.”

Rachman, a reporter turned novelist, wrote this for the TLS, which still has copy-editors (although it is a less pristine publication than it was when I first started reading it as a library worker 30 years ago).  Favilla  started as the copy editor for Buzz Feed (singular verb on purpose). They may now have a few more. Honestly, a bit hard to tell.

The review also covers Harold Evans latest book, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why writing well matters,  one of many to shelve in the bookstore section labeled “grumpy state of the language jeremiads.”  Evans, retired editor of The Times of London, is of course a grandee of old school journalism (imagine starting your career when writing for a newspaper meant manual typewriters, hot lead type, and Gregg shorthand for interviews). He is not sanguine about the state of the English language.

Rachman summarizing Evans’ case,

[Evans is] correct to diagnose trouble. Public opinion is frighteningly confused today, with many citizens opposing what they support. They’re for health care, but against the policy providing it. Bewilderment also warps discussion of gun control and Brexit and global warming, leaving those without scruples to spin, while earnest news sources mount their factual cases – and are snubbed. Manipulative language has been around as long as public debate. But today’s lies linger because the internet has scuttled credibility, placing heaps of alluring junk beside small piles of dry honesty.

I think he’s right, but I have a harder time believing it can change, or hasn’t always been latent in news biz. Freedom of the press, as William Randolph Hearst is rumored to have put it, belongs to those who have one. Now everybody does.

Listen to this: Albina Shagimuratova

Tipped by an Opera News profile, I spent a pleasant hour hunting down YouTube videos of the Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova. The hunt confirmed that David Shengold in ON rightly praised her staggering technique, and noted that she is building a career as a stylish artist. Listen for yourself.

Three samples:

1. Bits of Ah! fors’e lui … Sempre libera from La Traviata. (Very strange filming, seems like a pops concert?) But spot on, affecting singing.

2. “Regnava nel silenzio… Quando, rapito in estasi” from Lucia di Lammermoor (again chunks of it, in a performance at WQXR). It’s a coloratura showpiece, and she nails that, but she has found some inward character too (and high notes for days.)

3. Finally, the Queen of the Night’s Vengance Aria. This piece usually comes off as party trick to me–notorious for its difficulty, maybe better known for its ring tone appearance than its place in the opera. And of course, boasting the highest note generally required of an operatic soprano (F above high C). Although that has been topped this season at the Met. Generally people can sing it or they can’t, and many who can don’t really seem to be able to do  much else. She can! Even the La Scala audience agrees.

One to watch.

Writers on Writing

“The Writer” from Fragonard, The Fantasy Figures at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. I always blog in a tunic like that.

A round-up of some quotes on writing (no certainty that these are all accurate). I found them nosing around the web looking for a Peter De Vries quip–always one of my favorites.

“Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted.”
Jules Renard

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
Kurt Vonnegut

“I love being a writer, what I can’t stand is the paperwork.”
Peter De Vries

“If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I’d type a little faster.”
Isaac Asimov

“Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”
W. H. Auden

“I always write a good first line, but I have trouble in writing the others.”

“The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”
John Steinbeck

“Hard writing makes easy reading. Easy writing makes hard reading.”
William Zinsser

“You can fire your secretary, divorce your spouse, abandon your children. But they remain your co-authors forever.”
Ellen Goodman

“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”
Robert Benchley

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
E. L. Doctorow

“I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.”
Steven Wright

“Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”
Don Marquis

“When you’re writing, you’re conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you’re inviting into the room. ”
Tom Waits

“Novelists are no more moral or certain than anybody else; we are ideologically adrift, and if we are any good then our writing will live in several places at once. That is both our curse and our charm.”
Andrew O’Hagan

“If you know what you are going to write when you’re writing a poem, it’s going to be average.”
Derek Walcott

“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
Joan Didion

“Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”
Bernard Malamud

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”
Graham Greene

“I never attended a creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy.”
Zadie Smith

“I’m never, I hope, stupid enough to believe that Twitter or blogging or any of this stuff is a substitute for actually doing the work of writing a book.”
Neil Gaiman

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
Richard Ford

Commonplace Book: Lament for the Blogging & The Internet

Tipped by the always readable Farhad Manjoo, a NYTimes tech writer (with  a good twitter name), I checked out Jia Tolentino’s lament for blogging, in The New Yorker, pegged in part to the closing of The Awl, sort of the blog equivalent of an alternative daily.

It’s a nice piece, although perhaps a bit impredicative in that it (I assume unwittingly) embodies some of the reasons people might not be so interested in blogs any more. Although it oversells a golden age” of the Internet that has been lost (such vanished Edens have always been with us, although perhaps they are disappearing over the horizon faster and faster), there is a sense of fun that has diminished (even for somebody who barely even qualifies as a blogger, like me).

In passing she quotes Alex Balk, writing in 2015. He was a founder of The Awl, and his update to the ‘lament for the makers‘ is bracing:

I have previously shared with you Balk’s Law (“Everything you hate about The Internet is actually everything you hate about people”) and Balk’s Second Law (“The worst thing is knowing what everyone thinks about anything”). Here I will impart to you Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” The moment you were just in was as good as it got. The stuff you shake your head about now will seem like fucking Shakespeare in 2016.

Perhaps true, but also perhaps ever so, for more than just the Internet. Somewhere I recall a Mark Twain quote, “no matter what the show, the golden age seems to have ended the day before I bought my first ticket”

Poetic Words: Natalie Diaz

No More Cake Here

When my brother died
I worried there wasn’t enough time
to deliver the one hundred invitations
I’d scribbled while on the phone with the mortuary:
Because of the short notice no need to RSVP.
Unfortunately the firemen couldn’t come.
(I had hoped they’d give free rides on the truck.)
They did agree to drive by the house once
with the lights on— It was a party after all.

…. continue at Poetry Foundation.

Enter a caption

Discovered this remarkable poem via the Poetry Foundation website. It is from her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec.

Love how she takes a serious, zany tone, and speeds you through a scene that is familiar, personal, yet heads someplace totally unexpected.

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