apple’s “your verse?”

January 19, 2014

Yes, interesting things happen at the corner of the arts and technology. And technology can do some truly amazing things. But I can’t listen to Apple’s recent ad without a jolt of ambivalence. Watch the TV ad here; the language is below:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry, because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering — these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

To quote from Whitman,

“O me, O life of the questions of these recurring. Of the endless trains of the faithless. Of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

What will your verse be?

The language is simple and direct. And I’m even tempted to say profound. Not because my beloved Whitman is quoted — that’s part of the ambivalence, like when a believer learns that a religious verse is used to sell toothpaste — but because there’s a very clear distinction between conventional livelihoods like “medicine, law, business, engineering” and poetry. And poetry is awarded primacy, as it is associated with the life-giving powers of imagination, meaning and purpose. Like I said, I can’t watch the ad without a sense of deep ambivalence.

Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison

August 21, 2012

And again Death, ever Death, Death, Death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird, nor like my arous’d child’s heart,

But edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over,
Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.

Nine times one is the beginning of death—or life, if you read Whitman with an open, generous and healthy heart.

Unfortunately I don’t read him that way, unless I’ve drunk a glass or two of wine. Then I’m totally cool with Death. We get along just fine. But in the main, I have great anxiety over death and dying. I worry about headaches, lymph nodes, groin twinges, eye floaters and countless other symptoms, too silly to relate. Hell, sometimes I don’t even need a symptom. Once a patch of blighted grass sent me sorrowing over my mortality for the rest of the day. I’ve even abandoned a book when I learned the protagonist had melanoma on his shoulder blade. So it’s a minor miracle I persisted in reading Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison when this maddeningly stoic sentence greeted me in the first few pages, “I’m forty five and it seems I’m to leave the earth early but these things happen.”

It’s a good thing I persisted. Narrated by four different characters, the story explores reactions to Donald’s illness, his death and dying, and its aftermath. Unwilling to suffer uselessly, Donald participates in his own burial. He acquires a powerful tranquilizer from his doctor because he doesn’t want to make a mess with a pistol or deer rifle. He and his family cross the border above the Upper Peninsula and into Canada. A burial is dug beneath a granite escarpment as Donald watches on. His family lowers him into the grave. “Donald nodded to Herald, who quickly plunged the hypodermic into Donald’s arm. Clare and I got down into the grave and helped Donald stretch out on the bed of cedar boughs. Cynthia slid down and and lay beside Donald crooning softly. Within minutes Donald was dead and we helped each other out of the grave… And then we all drove home.”

Triple entendres aren’t easy to pull off, and when the landing sticks, they deserve special recognition. Donald is returned to earth; that’s plain enough. His daughter Clare, distraught by his death, struggles with his absence until she finds solace in the fact that Donald returns to earth in another form, as a plant, a tree, a bird or, as she earnestly believes, a bear. But there’s a third meaning to the phrase returning to earth, perhaps the most pertinent of all for those who struggle with the “incalculable rudeness of death.” In the end they, too, must return to earth and get on with the business of living.

I opened with Whitman. Why not close with Frost? Like Whitman and Harrison, he knows life is hard and demands toughness.

No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.

No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

don’t feed on me, quoth the spectre in the book

March 7, 2011


Or anti-poem.

Whatever else Song of Myself might be, it is — first and foremost — a gorgeous performance in self-irony. It’s a great big turbulent poem that unpoems itself.

What’s the sound of one verse clapping?

Easy, it’s the great American koan. You can quote me on that.

Song of Myself creates a vision of the world as it destroys the condition of its own possibility.


Yeah, exactly.

Drop the Kantian language and the situation is this.

If you were to model your behavior on the pursuits, trades, and activities that are represented in Song of Myself, you would skin a carcass, build a house, and go panning for gold. You would dance, laugh, and sing at a bar. You would sail on dangerous waters and climb Colorado’s 14ers. You would plow a field and even smell your own arm pits with pure, unmitigated delight. You would do just about everything in the world.

Except read a book or put words and meanings on pages.

No, you wouldn’t be a poet nor a novelist, nor a reader of poems or novels, or texts in general. At best, you’d have moments of meditative silence, like:

The youth [who] lies awake in the cedar-roof’d garret and harks
   to the musical rain…

Or engage in other contemplative acts, where the world itself, its grasses and sedges, its river banks and woods, becomes the thing to be read and interpreted, a hieroglyphic in a baffling language:

To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

Yes, you’ll read the original productions of nature but not the products deriving from the minds of men and women who write sentences and turn them around. Open your eyes to the world and close your book! That’s the great enduring lesson of Song of Myself.

A morning-glory at my windows satisfies me more than the
   metaphysics of books.

Of course, this makes matters a little awkward for Whitman. I mean, he can urge us all he wants to close our books. But in order for him to have is way with us, we have to open at least one book. His poems. He can only address us from his leaves of grass. That’s where his spectre is. It doesn’t reside atop Half Dome, as solid and magnificent and immediate as that granitic chunk of reality is.

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
   nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
   spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
   from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Sorry, Walt. I will take things at second-hand (not third, no, I’m a hygienic bloke after all). I’m listening to you, aren’t I? I will look through the eyes of the dead, gratefully. I will feed on the spectres in books, hungrily. And I will listen to all sides and filter them from my self, in part because you’ve taught me how, through your splendid and irresistible example.

So, thank you for teaching me how to read poems and books even as you implore me not to.

That is, thank you for your great American koan.

a nesting doll of marks and words

February 24, 2011

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Yes, these are very famous lines. They’ve been quoted in all manner of essays, from scientific and philosophical journals, to cultural and literary criticism. I love the parentheses. Like two firmly cupped hands, they contain the very words that speak of containment. It does what it says. A Russian nesting doll linguistically rendered. I love, too, the speed and efficiency of the second line. With only one comma, it’s like a zip line, which, in a blur, whisks you from a half-hearted apology to a devil-may-care audacity. A lot happens in that line.

At any rate.

You know these words come from Whitman and probably even know that they come from Song of Myself. But do you know the contradiction he’s referring to? I don’t, that’s for sure.

Here’s section 51 of Song of Myself.

The past and present wilt – I have fill’d them, emptied
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a
minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the
Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through
with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already
too late?

Talk amongst yourselves. And hopefully you’ll scratch my itch.

Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman

February 14, 2011

Song of Myself is both perspicuous and opaque. That is, it sees very clearly in one eye, but is very nearly blind in the other. Whitman’s great poem is, among many other things, a long list of people and their doings. Its denizens include:

A baby in a cradle, a suicide, a policeman
A fireman, boatmen, a runaway slave, and a trapper
A butcher-boy, a blacksmith, a carpenter, a pilot
First mates, a duck-shooter, a farmer, and a lunatic
A surgeon, a machinist, a conductor, a canal boy, a coalman
A chemist, a mathematician, and a geologist
A judge, a physician and a priest, among many others

The remarkable profusion of verbs that relate these selves to the world is enough to make my legs cramp, just thinking about them. They start off relaxingly enough:

Leaning and loafing
Seeing, hearing, feeling, and listening
Waiting and witnessing

But very quickly they develop an unmistakable athleticism.

Bathing, swimming, dancing
Drinking, laughing, and singing
Hunting, wandering, ascending
Weeding, prospecting, and voyaging

And of course there’s the central activity of the poem, the main “doing,” toward which the poem as a whole tends, namely:

Absorbing, incorporating, and enclosing

Now, here’s what I find utterly amazing. Not once in Whitman’s gorgeous litany of people and their doings do we catch sight of the poet. Not even a glimpse. You’ll find a prostitute, an opium eater, and even a venerealee. But you won’t find a poet at his workbench cobbling together words and sentences, forging images and meanings, and creating the very vision that enables us to see so much in the first place.

In Song of Myself, there’s no observing the observer.