Tidbits from Around the Web: Memento Mori Edition

Happened on a fascinating data animation by Nathan Yau,
Years You Have Left to Live, Probably.


In addition to being cool to play with, it’s a great example of mathematical representation, as the data it uses comes from this table.


Same content, different form and experience. (A lot of projects I have worked on as an educational media producer have focused on helping teachers figure out how to get kids comfortable moving among mathematical representations, from a table, to a graph, say, or from a function, to words. Grasping the power inherent in the idea that one phenomenon can be represented in these varied ways. How neat would it be if kids today are adding animation to that list: a calculus text book with examples that show accelerations as animations that, um, accelerate!).

But back to planet morbid: After fooling with this for a while, I remembered The Death Clock, which terms itself “The Internet’s friendly reminder that time is slipping away.”


I assume this uses more detailed actuarial data, and gives a specific day rather than a probability, and a helpful count of the number of seconds until you shuffle off either to Buffalo or “this moral coil” depending on your religion. My appointment with “dust to dust” is 2050.

Finally, a poem by W.S. Merwin on this theme. An angle that many have considered, I’d bet.

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Seaside Words

A last shot from vacation….

Early morning, Provincetown, MA

an excerpt from

Corsons Inlet

by A. R. Ammons

in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of
       more or less dispersed;
disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows
of dunes,
irregular swamps of reeds,
though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all …
predominantly reeds:


I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,
shutting out and shutting in, separating inside
          from outside: I have
          drawn no lines:


manifold events of sand
change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape


so I am willing to go along, to accept
the becoming
thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish
         no walls



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).

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

Poetic Words: Jill Osier’s Snow Poem

Snow Becoming Light by Morning

by Jill Osier

In case you sit across from the meteorologist tonight,
and in case the dim light over the booth in the bar still shines
almost planetary on your large, smooth, winter-softened
forehead, in case all of the day—its woods and play, its fire—
has stayed on your beard, and will stay through the slight
drift of mouth, the slackening of even your heart’s muscle—
. . . well. I am filled with snow. There’s nothing to do now
but wait.

Boston snows of yesteryear (from the BPL Flickr stream.)
Boston snows of yesteryear (from the BPL Flickr stream).

Monday Morning: Winter Rain

Snow promised, but only rain so far in DC. Not quite Dickensian, but still poetic, as rain always seems to be (when it’s not dire, that is):

The Fitful Alternations of the Rain
By Percy Bysshe Shelley

The fitful alternations of the rain,
When the chill wind, languid as with pain
Of its own heavy moisture, here and there
Drives through the gray and beamless atmosphere.


"Alleys; Pedestrians; Umbrellas; Boston (Mass.)" from the BPL's great Flickr stream. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)
“Alleys; Pedestrians; Umbrellas; Boston (Mass.)” from the BPL’s great Flickr stream. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)


And for musical rain: Horowitz playing the “Raindrop” Prelude of Chopin, Op. 28, No. 15…although there seems to be some doubt about whether the “Raindrop” nickname really came from the composer or not.

Fall Words

mums at Dumbarton
Chrysanthemums at Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Getting ready for their last act death scene in the opera called “autumn.”

Nice news all around…back in DC after long, but stimulating, work trips. Happy World Series results, and a true fall day in DC. Misty morning, with bright fall leaves through cool damp. Calling forth Keats “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”

And Wallace Steven‘s lines from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” come to mind, (looking forward to December).

The last leaf that is going to fall has fallen.

The robins are la-bas, the squirrels, in tree-caves,

Huddle together in the knowledge of squirrels.

The wind has blown the silence of summer away.

It buzzes beyond the horizon or in the ground:

In mud under ponds, where the sky used to be reflected.

The barrenness that appears is an exposing.

It is not part of what is absent, a halt

For farewells, a sad hanging on for remembrances.

Happy Halloween!

Poetic Words: Jack Spicer

To start off the week, here’s a poem by the Bay Area poet Jack Spicer, whose selected has the wonderful title: My Vocabulary Did this to Me.”

A brief bio of Spicer is available: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/1656
Helped me get past thinking of him as a West Coast Frank O’Hara, although they do have some traits in common.

“Any fool can get into an ocean . . .”

By Jack Spicer

Any fool can get into an ocean
But it takes a Goddess
To get out of one.
What’s true of oceans is true, of course,
Of labyrinths and poems. When you start swimming
Through riptide of rhythms and the metaphor’s seaweed
You need to be a good swimmer or a born Goddess
To get back out of them
Look at the sea otters bobbing wildly
Out in the middle of the poem
They look so eager and peaceful playing out there where the
    water hardly moves
You might get out through all the waves and rocks
Into the middle of the poem to touch them
But when you’ve tried the blessed water long
Enough to want to start backward
That’s when the fun starts
Unless you’re a poet or an otter or something supernatural
You’ll drown, dear. You’ll drown
Any Greek can get you into a labyrinth
But it takes a hero to get out of one
What’s true of labyrinths is true of course
Of love and memory. When you start remembering.
Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 6.31.29 AM
High tide at Ocean Beach, San Francisco

Poetic Words: Two War Poems of Robert Graves

Goodbye to All ThatI’ve just finished Good-bye to All That, the autobiography of poet and classicist Robert Graves (an anchor paperback purchased for a book club meeting 26 years ago. Didn’t go to the bc meeting as I hadn’t read the book–book clubs are too regimented for me usually.) Groves wrote it in 1929, when he was in his early 30’s, and much of it is candid, unvarnished description of his WWI service.  Like Siegfried Sassoon, his good friend and fellow war poet, he came to see the war, its aftermath, with a grim patriotic disgust. He was a good soldier, and proud of his service in some ways. But also thought it was a terrible waste, and resolved nothing.
It’s  an engrossing read, like opening up a box of photos from your great grandparents, and sent me looking for his poetry–which it seems he wrote even while in the trenches in France. Here are two.



He had met hours of the clock he never guessed before—
Dumb, dragging, mirthless hours confused with dreams and fear,
Bone-chilling, hungry hours when the gods sleep and snore,
Bequeathing earth and heaven to ghosts, and will not hear,
And will not hear man groan chained to the sodden ground,
Rotting alive; in feather beds they slumbered sound.

When noisome smells of day were sicklied by cold night,
When sentries froze and muttered; when beyond the wire
Blank shadows crawled and tumbled, shaking, tricking the sight,
When impotent hatred of Life stifled desire,
Then soared the sudden rocket, broke in blanching showers.
O lagging watch! O dawn! O hope-forsaken hours!

How often with numbed heart, stale lips, venting his rage
He swore he’d be a dolt, a traitor, a damned fool,
If, when the guns stopped, ever again from youth to age
He broke the early-rising, early-sleeping rule.
No, though more bestial enemies roused a fouler war
Never again would he bear this, no never more!

“Rise with the cheerful sun, go to bed with the same,
Work in your field or kailyard all the shining day,
But,” he said, “never more in quest of wealth, honour, fame,
Search the small hours of night before the East goes grey.
A healthy mind, a honest heart, a wise man leaves
Those ugly impious times to ghosts, devils, soldiers, thieves.”

Poor fool, knowing too well deep in his heart
That he’ll be ready again if urgent orders come,
To quit his rye and cabbages, kiss his wife and part
At the first sullen rapping of the awakened drum,
Ready once more to sweat with fear and brace for the shock,
To greet beneath a falling flare the jests of the clock.


(From Frise on the Somme in February, 1917, in answer
to a letter saying: “I am just finishing my ‘Faun’s
Holiday.’ I wish you were here to feed him with

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Good-bye to All That also has some good writing advice (for which I’m always on the lookout, of course).

“My last memory [of Charterhouse School] is the Headmaster’s parting short: ‘Well, good-bye, Graves, and remember that your best friend is the waste-paper basket.’ This has proved good advice, though not perhaps in the sense he intended: few writers seem to send their work through as many drafts as I do.”

Lovely that “send their work,” as if each paragraph was going on a little walk, or more likely a rafting trip.

Poem of the Season: Keats

Yes, it is  one of the “the most anthologized poems in the English language” but still worth a visit on a crisp September Day:


John Keats (1785-1821)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


Dumbarton Oaks, a museum and garden in Washington DC. A photo I took last fall on a visit when I had the place to myself. No lambs were bleating, however.
%d bloggers like this: