Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Recommended Reading for President Obama

I was in Montpelier, Vermont, our state capital, when Obama was inaugurated. I was watching the event on a big screen with about 200 or 300 other Vermonters (the only state George Bush did not visit as President). When Obama gave his inauguration speech, a cheer went up among many of us with his reference to nonbelievers.

That was a historic first. Only Lincoln, to my knowledge, came this close to a public statement accepting, if not atheism, a kind of agnostic theism. However, President Obama, I encourage you to refer to us as Free Thinkers rather than non-believers. We are all, after all, believers in one thing or another, but we are not all Free Thinkers.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Scalpel and the Soul - Part II

A while back I wrote a post reviewing The Scalpel and the Soul by Allan Hamilton.

Here's what I wrote"

In the final chapter of the book, he recalls the experience of a woman who underwent hypothermic arrest to remove a basilar tip aneurysm after a nearly lethal intracerebral hemorrhage. "I was not the only one asking to see [the patients records]. Other doctors, researchers, and experts on concsciousness were making similar requests as word of the case spread through the local medical community. Few of us, as doctors, suspected we might encounter something altogether new or unique.... We came with the purpose of explaining it away."

What they were investigating was the woman's memory of the surgury during hypothermic arrest. She could remember conversations as well as the the appearance and jewelry of the attending staff, along with OR procedures.
After this I added.

By the way, this patient wasn't Pam Reynolds. This patient was killed a year later in a traffic accident.
As it turns out, the patient was Pam Reynolds with amalgamations of other patients. This information comes from Gaia. com. While it's not a tremendous disappointment (Hamilton states at the outset that he changed names and identities) there is something more than a little disingenuous about it.

First, Pam Reynolds' case was public knowledge. As far as I know, Reynolds herself made no effort to conceal her identity. On this basis alone, there was no acceptable reason why Hamilton should have concealed the case he was discussing.

The reason he did so is obvious. Reynolds' case was already well-known and controversial. Hamilton wanted a knock-out punch for his final chapter - a real clincher. Reynolds' episode, already under the hot light of scrutiny, was no longer the knock-out punch he needed. So he fabricated another case, like Reynolds'. He called the new patient Sarah Gideon. Just to be certain the case would be differentiated from Reynolds', he claimed the this Sarah Gideon was killed in a car accident sometime after surgery.

Now, to me, this smacks of dishonesty. He cannot, on the one hand, claim that he's neutrally presenting his experiences and on the other fabricate a story with the sole purpose of manipulating readers. Remember, there was no reason for him to conceal Reynolds' identity. There was no one to protect. Hamilton was only protecting himself and the agenda of his book. His manipulation of Reynolds' case was entirely self-serving.

What I find particularly distasteful is that this sort of deception undercuts the very real experiences of real people. It teaches all of us who have had experiences like these (and I am one of them) that we should keep them to ourselves.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem

inauguration-picDon't read this post if you're looking for an explanation of this poem's meaning. Daniel Klotz has written a top-notch and favorable analysis of the poem's meaning. I debated analyzing Alexander's Poem since this isn't normally the kind of poetry that interests me - not that I think free verse isn't capable of great poetry. But being a poet, and having an interest in the art, my own perspective is that of a poet who prefers form and meter to none at all.

Here's Alexander's poem as lineated by the New York Times. I've seen lots of "versions" on the net, but Newsweek and the New York Times both seem to agree on this lineation. The fact that no one (except, presumably, those who have recieved a copy of the poem) can agree on a lineation tells us that there's no difference between this and a paragraph of prose. (There's no formal reason to lineate free verse poetry - it more or less serves as a sign that a given piece of writing should be read and treated like a poem written in a meter or a form.)
Praise Song for the Day

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

An article in the Guardian wrote about her: "She is smart, deeply educated in the traditions of poetry..." She may be deeply educated in the traditions of poetry, but none of that education is on display in her inaugural poem. Not knowing who wrote the poem, I would have considered it the work of a dilettante. I still do. One can be deeply educated in the traditions of poetry and still write amateurish poetry.

Her reading of the poems sounded affected to my ears - school-marmish. There was no sense of drama, content or development. Each section was read with same enunciated intonation. So many poets, nowadays, read like this. I don't know where they learn it (except each other), but it seems to be a free-verse affectation. If any0ne were to buy a book on tape, with reading like this, I suspect they wouldn't make it past page 2.

The skill of the poem itself was woefully dilettantish. 33 of her lines are end-stopped. The poem consists of 43 lines. That means that 76% of her lines are end-stopped. If she were writing using meter, such a ratio would be immediately considered amateurish - even among amateurs. It shows a lack of imagination even in free verse poetry. 400 years ago, poets like Shakespeare, Johnson and Donne left such inflexible verse far behind.

This perhaps only reflects my philosophy, but a poem is more than its subject matter. A paragraph in any given book can be poetic but that doesn't make it poetry. Likewise, Alexander's poem is little more than a lineated paragraph - poetic but not poetry.

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

The poems begins with quotidian language and imagery. The phrase "catching each other's/eyes" is shopworn - evoking nothing beyond the familiarity of the phrase itself.
All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

The images are clichéd at best - trite at worst. Bramble is mildly more evocative than thorn, but the use of thorn in this context is clichéd - hardly worthy of an inaugural poem. The mirroring syntax (noise<---bramble) (thorn--->din) is meant to be rhetorical but is vacuous. The counterpoised nouns, adding nothing in the way of insight to each other, sound pretentious rather than elegant. The phrase "ancestors on our tongues" might turn out to be the poem's most memorable image.

patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

This is mere rhetorical padding. If the 'things' weren't "in need of repair", then they wouldn't be "repairing the things". The repetition of the phrase sounds satisfying and 'poetic' but it's redundant. We always repair the things in need of repair, otherwise we wouldn't be repairing them. Alexander's rhetorical gloss conceals a vacuity of thought.
make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box...

The fact that one doesn't "make music" with a boom-box has already been mentioned at other blogs. The missing articles are a poetic affectation - a mannerism that has itself become clichéd. Besides that, the lines evoke nothing. There is no sense of sound despite the reference to music. Alexander creates a sort of bland poem of enumeration - a watered down Praise Song. Interestingly, a Praise-Song is an African poetic form. Brittanica states: the form consists of "a series of laudatory epithets applied to gods, men, animals, plants, and towns that capture the essence of the object being praised." This partly explains the feeling that the poem is a poem-of-enumeration, but Alexander's use of the form is unimaginative.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

Again, there is no poetry in these lines. No color. No smell. No touch. No taste. The only sense, arguably, is that of sight. Changing evokes nothing. It's hard to even call this "poetic". The enumeration begun in the stanza before is continued and the tone verges on the pedantic - only reinforced by the unfortunate reference to teachers and the taking out of pencils.
We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth,

Spiny is one of the only glimmers of poetry in the entirety of the piece.

From this point on, between the lines beginning "Say it plain..." and ending with "pre-empt grievance", there is not a single evocative image. There is no sense of touch, taste, smell, etc... The images are all nominative. The only descriptor that hints at something poetic is in "glittering edifices " - but even this image verges on cliché. This isn't poetry. It's prose and flavorless prose at that. It might be suitable, as others have said, for an essay.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

"Sharp sparkle" is another stab at poetry but barely rises above the mundane. She falls back into cliché with brink, brim and cusp - offering us nothing novel but another asyndetic list. Referencing back to Brittanica, the Encyclopedia offers the following example of an African Praise Song.

He is Shaka the unshakeable,
Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi.
He is the bird that preys on other birds,
The battle-axe that excels over other
He is the long-strided pursuer, son of Ndaba,
Who pursued the sun and the moon.
He is the great hubbub like the rocks of
Where elephants take shelter
When the heavens frown. . . .
(trans. by Ezekiel Mphahlele)
Even in translation, and as an extract, there is more poetry in this praise song than in Alexander's.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

This is what I see

This is what I see, everyday, up in Vermont.

Pictures never do justice to actually being there. Nonetheless, this is a pseudo panorama scanning from left to right. The first picture faces due north, looking into the north country. It's hard to tell, since blogger has reduced this image to a thumbnail, but one can see about 60 miles to the North.

The next picture is one turn to the right (or Eastward). The thin line of white on the horizon are distant mountains. They're almost a hundred miles to the North and East.

Another small turn to the right and East. The snow capped mountains in the center of the picture are some of the Presidentials and if the resolution were better, you could see Mount Washington - the most dangerous Mountain Top, weather-wise, in the world. The highest wind speeds on the surface of the Earth have been recorded on Mount Washington - well over 200 miles per hour. The top of Mount Washing literally brushes against the Jet Stream. Also, the tops of the mountains are bare. Trees can't grow there, conditions on the top of the White Mountains being equivalent to the arctic tundra. It's possible to ski atop Washington even into July.

The last picture, another turn to the right and facing East, is of Moosilauke. This picture simply doesn't do justice to the mountain. The top spends most of its time in or above the clouds. Moosilauke is a massive mountain by East Coast standards. I'm about 20 miles, as the crow flies, from the Mountain (I think) in this picture. It's a great climb in the summer but the mountain, as with the Presidentials, is deceptively dangerous in the Winter.

This is what I see, everyday, up in Vermont.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Crawlspace Flooded Again

It flooded once, shame on the weather. It flooded twice, shame on me. My sump pump failed... kind of. I was totally unprepared. I thought the first flooding was due to the broken pipe alone. The fire department said two years ago that snow melt and rain would not be enought to flood the space, it was all due to the broken pipe. I believed it. But after two days of virtually non-stop Noah's ark downpouring like I don't recall ever seeing before in my life, it flooded due only to the rain and filled yet again after the first pumping.

Someone said it was the worst since 1917 but I don't know how they come up with that number. Something like 40,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes who lived near rivers. I called the fire department and they could not come to my house because all their rigs were out and there was nobody left to come. They said to call back later. I was soaked to the bone and got 2 hours of sleep that night then worked the next day and came home and continued pumping after work. I am exhausted. Got the remaining water out today, but my furnace is not going to be turned on until I have it inspected. So it is in the 40's inside my house right now. I am staying with my parents.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Out and About

Here is my second home movie made with the Kodak Zi6 and apple imovie '08. Youtube now supports 720p HD, but there are some special tricks to get it to upload correctly that took me awhile to figure out. This is from a pocket camcorder. Yes, pocket camcorder are now in HD. I got mine for $160 and there are comparable ones I saw today for only $120. they work amazingly well in good outdoor light, run on 2 AA batteries and require only a cheap SD memory chip. imovie '08 came with my imac but I didn't expect to ever use it until I realized I could get a cheap camcorder. The downside of the pocket camcorders are pretty serious if you are looking for quality video making. The high def doesn't work well indoors unless you use a ton of lighting. There is no image stabalizer built in so you can't really even walk while filming unless you want it to bounce all over the place. But for what it is, this is amazing. 

You can't watch it in HD from this website (there is a way to embed it but I don't know how yet). Double click the image and go to youtube. Click "watch in HD" in the bottom right of the movie.