April 13, 2011

For Posterity's Sake: An Update to an Old Post

As this post comes nearly two years since my previous one, I've long since assumed that this blog was officially defunct. Maybe it still is. I tweet and facebook and generally publicize my thoughts to the virtual world in 140 characters or fewer. Blogging is dead, anyway, isn't it?

But as I trudge through the final pages of my dissertation, I've again been thinking a lot about the writing process. Part of this has involved revising and updating my previously posted Thirteen Theses for the Writer. For posterity's sake, if no other, the shiny, new, 2011 version is below.

16 Theses for the Writer

1) Advanced thought in accessible prose. As often as possible.

2) Always write as if a larger audience - one that consists of intelligent non-specialists, especially a multidisciplinary group of people you know personally - will read what you've written. All explanations later deemed unnecessary can be edited out and will have served to bolster your knowledge and credibility.

3) Write about subjects that interest you. Truly.

4) How you feel about the writing, the subject, the audience, etc. will get embedded in your prose. So will how you feel when writing.

5) Beyond emotion, body matters: exercise increases blood flow to the brain, meditation stills the mind and facilitates focus, sleep restores both mind and body while promoting the most creative, human endeavor (dreaming), and so on. But the occasional glass of bourbon helps, too.

6) In three versions:
6.1) Be who you want to articulate. Then, write.
6.2) Ontology first. Composition second.
6.3) Compose your self first.

7) A writer's mantra:
Every day.
No matter what.
[Note: But you can define "every day" how you like. For me, it means 5 or 6 days a week]

8) If possible: Write First.
[This does not contradict number 6]

9) "Nulla dies sine linea" – Plinius

10) "Nulla dies sine linea - but there may well be weeks" – Walter Benjamin
But if you find yourself having gone weeks without writing, start writing.

11) Embrace a healthy obsession with both your subject material and writing about it.

12) Revision is generative. Even destruction, as Marx tells us, is a creative process.

13) Keep your scheduled writing time sacrosanct. Protect it from intruders, interlopers, and yourself.

14) Writing attracts inspiration; waiting prolongs its absence.

15) Rest and relaxation can be as useful for your work as work itself. Moreover, taking a long enough break from work will enable you to return to it as both a reader and a writer. [But if you find yourself having taken too much time off, see number 10]

16) No single approach to writing is 100% effective 100% of the time. Switch it up as often as necessary.

April 15, 2009

Drone: Three Hearts

Anyone who's talked to me about music lately knows that I've been listening to tons of Animal Collective and field recordings (like Geir Jennsen's field recordings from Tibet). I listen to lots of music (can I call field recordings music?) in general, but just as AC and field recordings might seem strange to most people, after listening long enough, most of what "most people" listen to sounds strange to me.

Today, I discovered that WFMU publishes a podcast called "Airborne Event Dronecast with Dan Bodah," which they describe as "Your weekly ticket to droneland. Field recordings of waters, machines, subways, drums, frogs, ice, etc, and then those same recordings spindled, folded, or mutilated. Don't worry, that ticket will still get you through the phantom tollbooth."

Oh. My. Goodness.

I've had a few friends recommend checking out WFMU before, and like most occasions when friends make recommendations, I haven't followed through (even though they're usually right about my tastes, I insist on being a precious snowflake). And like most good things, WFMU is best discovered on one's own. But, man, it's good.

I'll admit it: Listening to 25 minutes of beating hearts might seem like a little much. And I understand that there are those who would question the necessity of this type of (re)mediation. In other words, why do I need a radio station podcast to give me the opportunity to just listen? Why don't I just put my ear on D.'s or Mojito's chest and enjoy? Or get a stethoscope, even?

Maybe, like my friend and fellow blogger David at ad vertiginem has recently suggested, this is further evidence of the "zombification" of the common "diePodder." In other words, maybe it's another example of the ways technology has further distanced us from each other and from the real world.

But I don't think so. I'm sure in Alexander Graham Bell's day, people were making similar arguments about the telephone: As in, "no one ever just sits down together for a good chat anymore." And, really, such sentiments are good at the level of intention, but at the level of practice, they just look like neo-Luddism to me.

But enough of that. Why not give a listen to those beating hearts yourself and see what you think? I'm not recommending it. I'm giving you the opportunity to discover it for yourself.


What do you get when Moby (yes, Moby) meets David Lynch?

"Shot in the back of the head."

April 10, 2009

ToW: A Hawk and a Hacksaw

On Tuesday, D. and I saw Andrew Bird give a stunning performance at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Music Hall (not to be confused...). Equally stunning and, to us, delightfully surprising were the opening act: A Hawk and a Hacksaw (who take their name from a line in Hamlet: "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw" (Act II, scene ii).

Fronted by former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes on accordion, bass drum, and tambourine; and backed by Heather Trost on violin and other strings as well as a couple folks (whose names I didn't catch) on sundry horns and woodwinds, these guys were amazing. Captivating.

I'll admit, some of it - including the this week's track - sounds like it could be the soundtrack for a fast-motion montage in a Guy Richie film (circa-1990's, Lock, Stock style), but not at all to its discredit. I've been listening to them all morning, and I can't get enough.

A Black and White Rainbow

And while I'm at it, one from Andrew Bird:



April 5, 2009

Got Poetry?

Published: April 2, 2009

A few years ago, I started learning poetry by heart on a daily basis. I’ve now memorized about a hundred poems, some of them quite long — more than 2,000 lines in all, not including limericks and Bob Dylan lyrics. I recite them to myself while jogging along the Hudson River, quite loudly if no other joggers are within earshot. I do the same, but more quietly, while walking around Manhattan on errands — just another guy on an invisible cellphone.

This may seem eccentric, not to say masochistic. If you are a baby boomer like me (or older), your high school English teacher probably forced you to learn some poetry by heart for class recitation. How we howled in protest! What was the point of memorizing Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” sonnet or — in Middle English, no less! — the first 18 lines of “The Canterbury Tales”? Our teacher could never answer this question to our satisfaction; the best she could do was some drivel about our feeling “culturally confident.” But memorize them we did, in big painful chunks, by rote repetition. (There is torture lurking in the very word “rote,” which is conjectured to come from the Latin rota, meaning “wheel.”)

A few lucky types seem to memorize great swaths of poetry without even trying. George Orwell said that when a verse passage “has really rung the bell” — as the early T. S. Eliot invariably did for him — he could remember 20 or 30 lines after a single reading. Samuel Johnson, according to Boswell, had a similar mnemonic gift. Christopher Hitchens — who carries around in his head a small anthology of verse, all of which, as his friend Ian McEwan says, is “instantly neurologically available” — also seems to absorb poems by osmosis. (Or maybe he swots them up late at night after his dinner-party guests have all passed out.) Richard Howard once told me that he eased into the memorization habit as a child, when his parents rewarded him with a dime for each poem he learned.

For the rest of us, the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast, hooking them onto what I’ve already got. At the moment, I’m 22 lines into Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” with 48 lines to go. It will take me about a month to learn the whole thing at this leisurely pace, but in the end I’ll be the possessor of a nice big piece of poetical real estate, one that I will always be able to revisit and roam about in.

The process of memorizing a poem is fairly mechanical at first. You cling to the meter and rhyme scheme (if there is one), declaiming the lines in a sort of sing-songy way without worrying too much about what they mean. But then something organic starts to happen. Mere memorization gives way to performance. You begin to feel the tension between the abstract meter of the poem — the “duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA duh DA” of iambic pentameter, say — and the rhythms arising from the actual sense of the words. (Part of the genius of Yeats or Pope is the way they intensify meaning by bucking against the meter.) It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within. (The act of reading tends to spoil physical pleasure.) It’s the difference between sight-reading a Beethoven piano sonata and playing it from memory — doing the latter, you somehow feel you come closer to channeling the composer’s emotions. And with poetry you don’t need a piano.

That’s my case for learning poetry by heart. It’s all about pleasure. And it’s a cheap pleasure. Between the covers of any decent anthology you have an entire sea to swim in. If you don’t have one left over from your college days, any good bookstore, new or used, will offer an embarrassment of choices for a few bucks — Oxford, Penguin, Norton, etc. Or you might try ESSENTIAL PLEASURES: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud (Norton, $29.95), edited by the former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky.

But which poems to memorize? I started with Auden’s “This Lunar Beauty” — a little lyric that Stephen Spender once said was the most beautiful thing in all of Auden. Next I tried Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” — a Nabokov novel compressed into 56 lines. Browning, although not quite a first-rate poet, proved to be especially fun to memorize because of his exotic vocabulary and jaw-breaking diction. For sheer length, the most ambitious poem I’ve tackled is Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (a favorite, as it happens, of Stephen King). At 204 lines, it takes 10 minutes to get through — just the time it takes me to walk from my apartment to the Chinese laundry.

By now, my mental treasury of verse pretty much spans everything from Chaucer up to the present. (Tennyson was the last major gap, which I’m just now plugging.) There’s a heavy concentration of Shakespeare, Keats and Yeats (whose symbolic hocus-pocus finally makes some sense to me), plenty of delightful warhorses like “To His Coy Mistress” and “Kubla Khan” and a good bit of light verse (like a long poem about a duck-billed platypus that becomes a brilliant diplomat only to resign in disgrace after laying an egg). Although I’m a little thin on contemporary verse, one of the best poems I’ve learned by heart is Richard Wilbur’s “Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra.” Its delicate rhythms at first proved rebarbative to my memory, but when I finally got it down I was so delighted with it that I wrote Wilbur a fan letter. He wrote back, saying that he always advised his students to memorize poems: “If one is delayed in a bus terminal, or sitting in a foxhole, it’s wonderful to have an inner anthology to say over, yet again, in one’s mind.”

One should be skeptical, though, of some of the alleged advantages cited by champions of poetry memorization. “I wonder if anyone who has memorized a lot of poetry . . . can fail to write coherent sentences and paragraphs,” Robert Pinsky once said. Well, responded David Bromwich, just take a look at the autobiography of Marlon Brando, who memorized heaps of Shakespeare.

Are there cognitive benefits? I sometimes feel that my mnemonic horsepower is increasing, but that’s probably an illusion. “Memorizing poetry does seem to make people a bit better at memorizing poetry,” Geoffrey Nunberg has observed, “but there’s no evidence that the skill carries over to other tasks.”

Nor, as I have found, will memorizing poetry make you more popular. Rather the reverse. No one wants to hear you declaim it. Almost no one, anyway. I do have one friend, a Wall Street bond-trader, who can’t get enough of my recitations. He takes me to the Grand Havana Cigar Club, high above Midtown Manhattan, and sits rapt as I intone, “The unpurged images of day recede. . . .” He calls to one of the stunningly pretty waitresses. “Come over here and listen to my friend recite this Yeats poem.” Oh dear.

The grandest claim for memorizing poetry is made by Clive James, himself a formidable repository of memorized verse. In his book “Cultural Amnesia,” James declares that “the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.” A noble sentiment. I just wish that James had given us some reason for thinking it was true.

I don’t have one myself, but I hope that I have at least dispelled three myths.

Myth No. 1: Poetry is painful to memorize. It is not at all painful. Just do a line or two a day.

Myth No. 2: There isn’t enough room in your memory to store a lot of poetry. Bad analogy. Memory is a muscle, not a quart jar.

Myth No. 3: Everyone needs an iPod. You do not need an iPod. Memorize poetry instead.

- - -

The good folks at Norton have, in conjunction with the Essential Pleasures collection, created the Poems Out Loud site. Well worth checking it out.

March 27, 2009

A Yak Caravan is Coming

Geir Jennsen. Field recordings from Tibet. Listen.

A Yak Caravan is Coming

Neighbors on Oxygen

March 20, 2009

Track of the Week: "If I Had a Heart" by Fever Ray

Jeez oh pete! '09's shaping up to be a great year for new music from some of my old favorites.

Yep, Bob Dylan.

But also, Wilco's got a new one slated for June.

Andrew Bird just released a fine album Noble Beast.

In addition to the remastered reissues of Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head, word on the street is that the Beastie Boys have a new one in the works (my prediction: a "punk" album).

Animal Collective are relentlessly assaulting us with good stuff: beyond the truly excellent Merriweather Post Pavilion, they're re-releasing nearly everything they've recorded on Direct Metal Mastering vinyl (see, for example, the reissue of Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished) as well as a long-awaited vinyl-only, live box set from Catsup Plate Records.

And that says nothing of the newer bands busting out on the scene.

Dreijer Andersson may not be new to the scene, but her solo project Fever Ray is. I'll admit it, I picked this one up thanks to Pitchfork's "Best New Music" section: So sue me (and, haters, just have a look at their 10 most recent best new albums and disagree with them. I dare ya).

"If I Had a Heart" is the haunting opener from Fever Ray's self-titled album.