Monday, July 30, 2012

Three Cheers!

"The drafting committee for the Democratic Party platform voted unanimously to include a plank supporting marriage equality."

-- TPM

And there was much rejoicing.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Quote of the Day: Joseph's Table Talk

TV is less interesting than people, but people are less interesting than robots.

-- Joseph Saperstein Frug

Summer Batman Entertainment

No, not the film -- which I haven't seen, largely because seeing films in theaters just doesn't fit into my life these days for a variety of reasons -- but rather political analyses of the film, which I, for one, have found quite interesting and entertaining. To wit:
My favorite is probably the Brady, but I found them all interesting and, well, entertaining. So, if you're looking for some high-quality lite summer popcorn political theorizing, have to.

Update: 2 and 1/2 months later, David Graeber writes a piece on this topic.  Not what you'd call timely, I guess, but worth reading.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Suspension of Disbelief Has Limits, After All

From America's Finest News Source (via), it seems Superman has gotten a bit too unrealistic:
While they acknowledged that enjoying the adventures of a superhero who can fly, lift a bus over his head, and shoot beams of intense heat from his eyes requires some suspension of disbelief, longtime fans told reporters they simply could not accept a daily metropolitan newspaper still thriving in the media landscape of 2012.

"I can play along with Superman using a steel girder to swat someone into outer space, but I just can't get past the idea that The Daily Planet still occupies one of the largest skyscrapers in all of Metropolis and is totally impervious to newsroom layoffs or dwindling home subscriptions," said comics blogger Marc Daigle, adding that it was impossible for him to even look at Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, without immediately thinking he would have been replaced long ago by a freelancer who gets paid nine cents a word and receives no health benefits. "Every time The Daily Planet shows up, I just get taken out of the story completely. I usually flip ahead to Superman freezing a volcano with his breath or something."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Quote of the Day: Of Despair and Climate Change

Taken from a pair of comments in this comment thread from Making Light. The comment thread really springs to life with the first of these comments, so my advice (if you're interested) is to read the post, and then skip to this comment and proceed from there.

The general topic is a bad move by Greenpeace (see the post for details). But it's PNH's broader point I want to highlight here. Patrick Nielsen Hayden:
I do think that what [Greenpeace's bad move] springs from isn't arrogance but despair. If there was ever an issue in human history that could conceivably justify people deciding that the time for conventional tidy morality is past, the oncoming juggernaut of global climate change is probably it. It's going to kill hundreds of millions of us and leave the rest with significantly degraded lives, and it's clear that our wonderful political systems and our "meritocratic" elites are powerless to do a thing about it.

Bruce Sterling observed years ago that there will be purges, show trials, and public executions once the next level of climate calamity kicks in. I see no reason to think he was wrong. One can only hope that the set of victims will have some overlap with the guilty, but that's probably unwarranted optimism. (And yes, it does occur to me that I and everyone I know could defensibly be classed with "the guilty.")

I'm not saying any of this in order to argue with Abi's post or with anyone in this thread. And certainly not to justify Greenpeace. But I have a lot of sympathy with them. They're right. The threats they've been trying to point out are real. Nothing they try, nothing anyone tries, seems to work. This is the kind of situation in which people go crazy, lose their moorings, turn on one another, and start disregarding the copybook virtues. It's called "desperation" and the rest of our lives will see much more extreme versions of it.
Then, a few comments down, PNH continues:

What I should have said is that it's clear that our wonderful political systems (you know, our Freedoms, the ones the Terrorists Hate Us For) and our "meritocratic" elites have no intention of doing anything about it. I don't actually think they're powerless. I think they just don't care. They'll ride it out. Their lives will be okay. (Not for nothing is Cory Doctorow's "Chicken Little" one of my favorite SF stories of the last decade, because it's all about this: we live in the era during which the 1% are pulling up the ladders. They'll be fine. Many of the rest of us will be fucked.)

I'm not "despairing". I think something resembling human civilization will survive. It's just that a lot of actual, you know, people won't survive to enjoy it. For them, it is the end of the world. We've decided that's an acceptable cost. Those decisions are made now.

Arguments about "despair" are bullshit. Thousands of us turned out in the streets to say no to invading Iraq. The US and its tributary states invaded anyway. Lots of people said "don't despair." Who are we talking to when we say that? The tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians we butchered? Do they get a pass on the "don't despair" stuff? Oh, wait, it doesn't matter, they're dead.

I've never advocated giving up. But for God's sake can't we look our losses in the face and recognize that this much loss leaves some of us broken. That's really all I was trying to say. Greenpeace did a stupid thing here, and I've (actually) felt for a long time that Greenpeace is kind of stupid in its messaging and methods. But holy crap I can sympathize with the kind of despair that can lead to mistakes on this order. So go ahead and repeat to me how despair is a sin. I refuse to believe that imagination is one.

As I said in a comment I myself (just now) added to the thread (wherein I linked to and quoted from this post by Dave Roberts; see also here), I don't know if despair is a sin, although it certainly seems self-defeating. At the same time, I don't see how to avoid it. At this point, turning a political corner on this looks less likely than, say, benevolent Vulcans arriving to pull our fat out of the fire.

On this issue, despair hits me and I squirm to try to avoid it, but usually can't. Any suggestion for any positive action that has a less than vanishingly small chance of actually doing anything commensurate with the scope of the problem would be greatly appreciated.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Denver Massacre

Hard to find words for such horror. Here are some who managed to find good ones:

Adam Gopnik
Alyssa Rosenberg

...may add more if I see more. (Not really looking that hard. It's too horrible.)


Update: What Michael Grunwald said:
...there is nothing wrong with politicizing tragedy... politics is about life and death and human suffering. At least that’s what it should be about. If advocates or experts or even politicians think their policy ideas can prevent the next Aurora—by preventing potential killers from obtaining guns, by making sure potential victims can carry guns, or by some other method—then by all means, now is the time to spread the word.... It’s telling that the people who get paid to analyze politics recoil at the notion that its practitioners should connect it to real-life pain. They think they’re covering a sport, an entertainment. But politics matters, because policies matter. “Obamacare” and “gay marriage” are not just issues that might play badly with swing voters or turn the tide in Virginia; they’re issues that affect people’s lives. Gun control and the Second Amendment are issues, too, and now seems like a pretty good time to talk about them.
Adam Serwer has some thoughts along the same lines. (Both via.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Composition No. 1: a Review (Sort Of)

In 1962, French author Marc Saporta published a book entitled Composition n° 1, which was published in English (as Composition No. 1) in 1963 in a translation by Ron Howard. What made the book unusual was its format. It consisted of 150 separate, unnumbered pages, which
The reader is requested to shuffle these pages like a deck of cards; to cut, if he likes, with his left hand, as at a fortuneteller’s. The order the pages then assume will orient X’s fate. (Composition No. 1, instructions)

This is not, in and of itself, a unique idea, although Saporta's novel takes it to a rather unusual extreme; he was also one of the first to try it, with others following him.* But it was unusual, and got a lot of attention -- more commented on than read, is my impression. It went quickly out of print, and was hard to find, since libraries tended either to not bother with the thing or to make it an uncirculating rarity (as at the Cornell library, for instance), presumably due to its odd format.**

Fortunately for those of us who like offbeat literature, it was brought back into print last year in what sounds like a gorgeous edition by the press Visual Editions, which seems to specialize in off-beat, oddly-formatted books. Unfortunately for those of us who aren't paid six-figure salaries for doing no work, it was priced at $40.

Fortunately, Visual Editions was kind enough, and smart enough, to put out an iPad version, which is only $5. So I bought that.

And, unfortunately, it's terrible.

Not the book -- although what I've read of it doesn't inspire me to shell out $40 for a version that I can actually manage to read in a non-annoying way. No, I'm talking about the iPad app.

The rest of this post is a review, not of Saporta's text, but of Visual Edition's electronic presentation of it. If you're curious about Saporta's text, I recommend Derik A. Badman's review, Jonathan Coe's review, and various others you can find online. Good pictures of the print edition -- which everyone seems to think was fabulously designed -- can be found here and here.

The basic app is functional enough, with a fair number of extraneous and not all that interesting bells and whistles. It has an opening title page where you can move the letters of the title, author, etc around like a refrigerator magnet -- although they also move on their own, which makes it slightly irritating. (I haven't yet given it to my three-and-a-half-year-old son -- maybe he'd love that function.) There's a "disruptive typographic artwork" using all the letters from the text, which is pretty enough, but doesn't have much to do with Saporta's novel. There's the video trailer for the print edition. And there's an introduction to the book itself Tom Uglow, who seems to be a google/youtube muckity-muck. All well and good, and as bells-and-whistles for an otherwise functional app it would be unremarkable.

The irritation begins when you actually want to read Saporta's text.

First of all, Saporta's original introduction -- the description of the text and the instructions for use -- isn't given. At all. Now, this isn't a fatal omission -- you can find it online (Derik Badman conveniently reprints it, for instance.) But frankly you shouldn't have to. If you want to add a new intro, fine, live it up. But a republication should include the whole book -- and an author's introduction is a clear part of that, especially in this instance.

But that, too, would be ignorable, if the text weren't presented in such a !@#$% annoying way.

Here's how it works. You click the "begin" button on the introductory page -- and you start to see a random flickering of 150 pages scrolling by. To stop it you touch the screen -- and you have a page which you can read. But! If you pick up your finger, it instantly starts to scroll again. That's true whether you're done, or you twitch (or have to scratch or get jumped on by a three and a half year old), or your finger muscles get tired and you try to switch fingers. And if you weren't finished the page, too bad, because there's no way to go back: if you want to re-find a page you have to restart the randomized scrolling (restart, because it is set up not to repeat a page you've already seen***) and keep hitting pages randomly until you happen on it. Otherwise it's gone. Oh, and if you miss half a page and go back, rerandomize and find it? You've lost the earlier order -- which you might be a hundred pages into -- and have to go through an entirely new random order, with old and new pages mixed in. There's no way to save an order, to return to an old order, to keep a page still without holding a finger on it the whole time, or go back to an earlier page to check something you already read. That's all impossible.

Now, to be fair, I knew all this going in -- some of the reviews I read of the app mentioned it, either as a drawback or in a 'its-probably-good-in-some-experimental-literary-sense' way. But knowing it is one thing; actually envisioning how irritating it is going to be, how much it is going to mess with the reading experience, is another thing.

What really galls me is that this is not any part of Saporta's design. If a writer wanted to write a book like this -- with the inaccessibility of the previous pages and orders, the possibility of loosing half a page from a momentary lapse of attention, and so forth, built into the conception of the thing -- then I could get into the idea, and at least tell myself that that was the experience I was supposed to be having. But a moment's thought will reveal that all of these features are extra aggravations not in the print edition.

Obviously, once you shuffle the cards into a new order, you loose the old one and can't go back to it (there are no page numbers or anything else that would make recording the old order easy), and I suppose it's always possible to drop the entire deck. So in that sense some of the app's frustrations are recreations of the original. But most aren't. In a shuffled deck of cards, there's nothing to stop you from going back to old cards; nothing to stop you from stopping your reading halfway through a page and then starting it again,**** whether the break is for a second or a decade. You can flip ahead and back, keep the order as long as you like -- even read the book twice through in the same order. You can deliberately lay out the cards and choose an order for them -- switching the random order into a preferred one, in a specific local instance, or globally. Hell, if you're willing to go to the trouble, you could even record the order (writing down opening words) and restore it later. It is, in short (and I'm guessing here, based on descriptions of the thing -- I've never seen a physical copy save in photographs) far less of a pain in the ass to read, a book which gives you many possibilities the iPad app denies.

And there's no earthly reason this had to be the case. Why not simply have the "begin" button put the pages in an order -- and then let the reader slide back and forth (as in the iBooks or Kindle apps) in that order as often as they like --- and even, heaven forfend, lift their finger up from the page without it swirling off? Ideally, that order would hold even if you want to go back and reread the intro, quit the application, or whatever... until a "shuffle" button were hit again, and the order was randomized once more. Again: I'm not suggesting lessening Saporta's experimental design; I'm suggesting faithfully recreating it, rather than adding to it in ways he never intended or imagined.

So why did they do it? Presumably some theoretical idea about emphasizing the randomness of the text, enhancing the aleatory nature of the experience. Or something. But frankly, as far as I'm concerned, it's bullshit: it turns an actually aleatory text into an unreadable one.

Now, in my personal opinion, it would be nice if etexts added new functionality rather than just recreating the old. Which is to say, with a deck of cards, there's no easy way to remember an old order after shuffling up a new one. But in the ebook version it'd be easy to have each order remembered (if the reader wished) so that you could read one, read another, and then go check something in the first version. I think that'd be neat. Here, of course, I can see plausible theoretical objections -- since this isn't something Saporta intended -- but personally I'd be in favor of adding an ability and then allowing readers not to use it, rather than denying it. But I can see why some people would disagree.

But not giving you the options the physical book gives you? Not letting you even read the text without holding a finger on the page? That's just lousy design.

And frankly it made the book essentially unreadable for me.

Again, to be fair, I'd probably have persisted despite this if what I did read of it grabbed me. I read at least a dozen pages in their entirety, and part of another dozen or two more (usually because I lost my place halfway through without meaning to, rather than loosing interest). But none of them struck me enough to persevere through the irritating format -- or, as I said, to shell out $40 for the paper version. A novel like this is not going to grab the reader by plot, obviously, so it needs to grab the reader in some other way: with fine prose, striking ideas, interesting juxtapositions on different pages, strong characters, startling brief vignettes on any given page -- something. And thus far the pages I read didn't grab me that way. I'd probably continue to explore it at least a little... except that the design of the app is irritating enough to dissuade me.

In short: total ebook fail.

If anyone from Visual Editions should happen on this review, my request would be to put out a new (free!) upgrade of the app. At least make the thing work the way a deck of cards would: with the reader able to go back and forth, lift their finger off the page, and not loose the order until the decision to reshuffle is made. I don't know the first thing about iPad programming, but I can't imagine it'd be that hard to do. So please, make this odd, experimental book at least as usable and reader-friendly as its author did -- and as you made the print version.

For anyone else: if the idea of the book intrigues you enough to want to read it, I advise you to shell out $40 for the paper version, or go to one of the libraries that lets you read their copy under armed guard and do that. Using the iPad version, even as a test to see if you like it enough to go to the trouble and expense of getting a paper one, just isn't worth it.

I will admit, though, that this whole experience has made me rather curious about B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates. Fortunately, however, it's not available in ebook format, so there's no temptation there. If I want to read it, I've got to shell out for a dead tree copy.*****

* Other examples. Well, there's Raymond Quneau's famous work Cent mille milliards de poèmes [A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems], published in 1961, the year before Saporta's novel (and thus, presumably, not an influence on it, since the latter was almost certainly already been well under way). (Quneau's poem is translated in its entirety in the Oulipo Compendium, and is also available in various online formats.) A later work, on which Saporta was an influence, was B. S. Johnson's novel The Unfortunates, which was published in 27 sections, with a first and last identified and the rest shuffleable into any order. Robert Coover's 2005 short story "Heart Suite" is in the same format. And beyond these, there is the world of hypertext with its vast and ill-defined boundaries.

** There were worse solutions. According to Johnathan Coe, "the British Library holds two copies [of the French edition]: both, I'm sorry to say, diligently bound by over-zealous librarians (though at least each copy has the pages bound in a different order)."

*** Which means -- yes, I clicked through to check -- that once you reach the very last page, you can pick your finger up and read it in an ordinary fashion, as there's nothing left to scroll: one page you get to read in an ordinary way.

**** In the iPad version, of course, lifting a finger starts the shuffle again, leaving the old page unrecoverable -- so that you can only stop on the end of a page. If you quit the app (or close the iPad) halfway through a page, then restarting it will return you instantly to the shuffle, not to the page you left.

***** The Unfortunates, unfortunately, seems to be as unavailable at libraries as Composition No. 1 is -- for, presumably, the same reasons.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

XKCD is Awesome, Part 10,000,001,101

So, devoted xkcd fan that I am, I nevertheless missed this one: its April Fool's joke this year.

The comic was called "Umwelt". And the title tooltip (nearly all xkcds have them, and they're often the funniest part of the strip) defined it:
Umwelt is the idea that because their senses pick up on different things, different animals in the same ecosystem actually live in very different worlds. Everything about you shapes the world you inhabit--from your ideology to your glasses prescription to your web browser.
I don't really recall what cartoon I saw on April 1: but I know I didn't explore it enough to think of, say, opening it in a different web browser.

It turns out that you saw a different comic in different circumstances. Different web browsers or devices (computers v. mobile phones, for instance) gave different comics, but others were region specific, or tied to various other things.

I have not -- oddly enough, given not only what xkcd is like, but what its fans are like -- a definitive list of all the variations, or even a definitive count of how many there were. Granted, it's complicated: some variations were minor alterations of others, some were entirely different cartoons.

But there are a number of discussion threads and other link pages that link to a lot of them. This article gives a good introductory sense of what sort of variations we're talking about. Then the relevant discussion threads on the xkcd forums and explain xkcd both had links to jpgs of a lot of versions. This video shows the way a particular cartoon (it was the one I saw just now, on Firefox on Mac in upstate NY) alters when the browser window is resized. This google docs roundup has a lot of different versions. Perhaps the most complete lists of links are those in this follow-up post on explain xkcd.

But what's most amazing to me about this whole thing is that, while some of the comics are not quite up to par, and some are minor variations on a particular idea, many are actually good enough that you wouldn't be surprised to see them as a regular xkcd installment (including the basic theme under several sets of those variations). Which is to say: this joke must have been a really tremendous amount of work -- for a joke which insured that most people would miss most of the comics.

Which, in my book, is pretty impressive.

I've stuck a few ones I like into this post, but really -- if you like xkcd, you should go explore. They're fun.

And if you don't know xkcd, check it out. (Just hit the random button, ignoring any cartoon numbered less than 100 or so -- he took a while to hit his stride.) Especially if you understand the meaning of the number in the title of this post (hint: look at the number of the comic this post is about.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Generic LImerick

There once was an X from place B,
Who satisfied predicate P,
    The X did thing A,
    In a specified way,
Resulting in circumstance C.

That fabulous little limerick is from Wikipedia's page on meta-jokes -- a really awesome page (and, hence, probably at risk for deletion under Wikipedia's standing 'musn't-get-too-fun'). It's uneven -- some of what they cite as meta-jokes seem not to qualify, at least to me. But there's good stuff there. Here are two others I liked:
"How many members of a certain demographic group does it take to perform a specified task?"

"A finite number: one to perform the task and the remainder to act in a manner stereotypical of the group in question."
And, slightly less abstractly:
A Priest, a Rabbi and a Leprechaun walk into a bar. The Leprechaun looks around and says, "Saints preserve us! I'm in the wrong joke!"

They also quote several classic not-quite-limericks, a sub-sub genre I must admit a certain fascination with. In addition to the famous ones about the men from Peru and Verdun, there is W. S. Gilbert's famous one:
There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;
    When they asked, "Does it hurt?"
    He replied, "No, it doesn't,
But I thought all the while 'twas a Hornet."
And one by Tom Stoppard which I'd never seen before:
A performative poet of Hibernia
Rhymed himself into a hernia
    He became quite adept
    At this practice, except
For the occasional non-sequitur.
...and now I'm going to stop before I quote the whole damn page. Go read the rest if you're so inclined.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Evolution of Section 1 of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"

I have long known that the first edition of Walt Whitman's seminal book of poetry Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, was much shorter than the final edition (the so-called "death-bed edition" of 1891-1892.) (The first edition had twelve poems in it; the last (depending on how you count) ten or more times that.) I was less focused on the fact that, in addition to poems being added, the older poems were rewritten as the editions went on. And only in the last day or two have I taken note of the fact that that rewriting was a gradual process, as various poems I've come to know and love in their final forms only took those final forms in the 1881-1882 edition. (The death-bed edition was unchanged, save for a number of poems added as "annexes" at the end.)

In this post I thought I'd trace the changes in the first section of "Song of Myself" -- probably Whitman's most famous,* and arguably his greatest, poem, and certainly the most famous and greatest one from the first edition of Leaves of Grass. And, not incidentally, my personal favorite too.

(Note: all the texts here are from the astonishing Walt Whitman Archive, which has both text and scanned-page-image versions of all the editions of Leaves of Grass, as well as a really amazing amount of Whitmania. If you're at all interested in Whitman, check it out.)

First I should mention that, the title of the work underwent several changes. In the 1855 edition, the poem later known as "Song of Myself" was basically untitled.** There were no numbers (the final text was divided into 52 sections). The opening words were:
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass.
And that's it: there's then another stanza break, and the next words are the words that (in the final text) start section two ("Houses and rooms are full of perfumes"). Note that the ellipsis in the final line above is in the original.

In the second edition of 1857, a mere two years later, the poem has acquired a title: "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American.". Its opening is as follows:
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.
That is, substantially the same, but the ellipsis is gone.

In the 1860 edition, the poem's title has been shortened to "Walt Whitman". The text is unchanged -- save for the addition of a capital letter on soul's s -- but each subsection is now numbered:
1 I CELEBRATE myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

2 I loafe and invite my Soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.
These numbers do not correspond to the section numbers of the final text; one is given to each stanza, so there are 366 in total, far more than the 52 sections of the final text.

In the 1867 edition, the only difference is that the commas at the end of the first, second and fourth lines have become semi-colons. In the 1871 edition, nothing at all has changed in the opening.

Then, in the 1881-1882 edition, there are a host of changes, as the poem takes on its final form. First, it first takes on the title "Song of Myself", by which it has since been known. Secondly, the poem is now divided into 52 sections rather than numbering each stanza. And the first section takes on its final form:
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
The commas are back. And the first line is filled out -- "I celebrate myself" has become "I celebrate myself, and sing myself". I definitely prefer the latter, but I don't know if it's because it was the first I got to know well.

But there are two wholly new stanzas, adding a substantial amount of text between the "spear of summer grass" and the "houses and rooms" which starts section 2.

They are not, however, original to the 1881 edition. Rather, they were moved to "Song of Myself" from a different poem -- the poem that would become known as "Starting from Paumanok".

"Starting from Paumanok" does not exist in any form in either 1855 or the 1857 editions. In the 1860 edition, however, a set of prefatory stanzas -- numbered, as were the stanzas of "Walt Whitman" (aka "Song of Myself"); there were 66 total -- were added before the words "I celebrate myself", which had previously been the first words of the first poem. In the 1860 edition those prefatory verses were titled "Proto-Leaf", and the 11th and 12th stanzas were as follows:
11 In the Year 80 of The States,
My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here,
From parents the same, and their parents' parents the same,
I, now thirty-six years old, in perfect health, begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

12 Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while, sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
With accumulations, now coming forward in front,
Arrived again, I harbor, for good or bad—I permit to speak,
Nature, without check, with original energy.
Close to the two stanzas that would be added to section one of "Song of Myself", but not identical -- a few lines never made it into "Song of Myself" -- particularly the first line ("In the Year 80 of The States") and the middle of the second stanza ("With accumulations, now coming forward in front,/Arrived again..."). And there are some minor changes of punctuation and line formatting.

"The Year 80 of The States", incidentally, is presumably dated to the Declaration of Independence, which would place it from July 14, 1856 - July 13, 1857. Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, so for most of that year he was 37 years old, turning 38 shortly before the end of the period. Nevertheless, in this version Whitman describes himself as "thirty-six years old"; he wouldn't update (correct?) that until the 1881-1882 edition (at which point he was 62). Oh, and it was Balboa, not Cortes, Mr. K.***

In the 1867 edition, the prefatory verses had become "Starting from Paumanok", and is divided into sections, although each stanza is still individually numbered. Section 4 of the newly-titled poem reads:
11 In the Year 80 of The States,
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here, from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-six years old, in perfect health, begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

12 Creeds and schools in abeyance,
(Retiring back a while, sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,)
I harbor, for good or bad—I permit to speak, at every hazard,
Nature now without check, with original energy.
The extra lines from the second of those two stanzas are gone. As if in compensation, the final line gains the word "now". And the punctuation is still different -- the second line is in parentheses, there's the m-dash in the third, and a few commas are different. The first stanza is changed largely in line breaks and punctuation (including, oddly, the previously normal word "formed" becoming here "form'd").

The 1871 edition made no changes in those verses.

Then, in 1881-1882, they are not only given a few changes, but are translated from the fourth section of "Starting from Paumanok" to being the second half of the first section of (the newly christened) "Song of Myself".

Which I've already quoted.

I haven't yet read through all the various versions side by side, or even the 1855 version and the final 1881-1882 text side-by-side, to see how this goes through the whole poem. My sense is that, given the transposed stanzas, this section goes through larger changes than most. But I don't know. I do know that a fair number of Whitman scholars apparently prefer the 1855 version -- and that, based on this little exercise, I -- so far -- don't.

Still, it's all interesting. At least to people given to Nortonian pedantry (are you reading the footnotes?)

* Its only competitor for this title, I think, is O Captain! My Captain!, which is widely taught in schools -- but which is also utterly uncharacteristic of Whitman, as atypical a work (at least in form) as he ever wrote (at least in his mature period).

** It was headed with the words 'Leaves of Grass', the title of the book of the whole, as were half of the dozen poems included, but it's not really a title and has never been taken as such.

*** Or was it? It seems there are counter-arguments to this oft-made puff of Nortonian pedantry (who knew?): see C. V. Wicker, "Cortez-Not Balboa", in College English, Vol. 17, No. 7 (Apr., 1956), pp. 383-387, expanded on in Charles J. Rzepka, "'Cortez: Or Balboa, or Somebody like That': Form, Fact, and Forgetting in Keats's 'Chapman's Homer' Sonnet", in Keats-Shelley Journal , Vol. 51, (2002), pp. 35-75. (Links to stable JSTOR cites for those with library-granted access.) I only skimmed the first of them, but it seems to me like Wicker has a pretty decent argument.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Quote of the Day: The Comforting Side

The comforting side in most conspiracy theory arguments is the one claiming that anyone who's in power has any plan at all.

-- XKCD (in title text)

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Poem of the Day: Theme with Two Variations

The theme, William Wordsworth's classic poem "Daffodils"

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

-- William Wordsworth

The first variation, a parody, by that prolific poet "anonymous":
There once was a poet named Will

Who tramped his way over a hill

    And was speechless for hours

    Over some stupid flowers

This was years before TV, but still.

-- Anonymous
...I gotta admit that last line just kills me.

The second variation: an oulipian transformation of the poem by Harry Mathews, using the N+7 technique (which I've discussed (and essayed) before, including my reservations about it). The Oulipo Compendium defines the technique as follows:
Choose a text and a dictionary. Identify the nouns in the text and replace each one by counting seven nouns beyond it in the dictionary... With classical poetry, meter and rhyme can be ignored or respected. In the latter case, one selects the first noun to satisfy the prosodic requirements of the original starting with the seventh noun listed in the chosen dictionary. The search for a suitable replacement may extend over several successive letters...
The Oulipo Compendium reprints Mathews's poem in its entirety, but should your copy of the book not be right at hand, just for convenience, here it is:

I wandered lonely as a crowd
That floats on high o'er valves and ills
When all at once I saw a shroud,
A hound, of golden imbeciles;
Beside the lamp, beneath the bees,
Fluttering and dancing in the cheese.

Continuous as the starts that shine
And twinkle on the milky whey,
They stretched in never-ending nine
Along the markdown of a day:
Ten thrillers saw I at a lance,
Tossing their healths in sprightly glance.

The wealths beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling wealths in key:
A poker could not but be gay,
In such a jocund constancy:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What weave to me the shred had brought:

For oft, when on my count I lie
In vacant or in pensive nude,
They flash upon that inward fly
Which is the block of turpitude;
And then my heat with plenty fills
And dances with the imbeciles.

-- Harry Mathews

I wouldn't, myself, have taken this work to imply any disrespect for Wordsworth, but apparently Mathews is not much of a Wordsworth fan:
Mathews has no qualms about dissing Wordsworth. Indeed, he can't understand how anyone who takes literature seriously and cares about words can not disrespect Wordsworth. As he told me on the phone shortly after the reading, he holds Wordsworth responsible for the largely mistaken direction of most modern literature. Before Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, he said, personal feelings were just a small part of what literature addressed. Because of Wordsworth, emotions became the subject of literature: sincerity moved to the center of the literary enterprise, and to be morally responsible meant that one had to account for one's feelings. "It's all so nauseatingly bourgeois."

"I also hate him for the hypocrisy of his theoretical positions," Mathews said, warming to his subject. He was thinking especially of Wordsworth's pronouncement, in his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads, that the language of poetry should be the "language really used by men." "'Language that men really use.' What could be more 'poetic,' more literary, than Wordsworth's language? If only he had used simple, unpoetic language. If someone had come along capable of combining the intricacies of Milton's prosody with genuinely simple diction, wouldn't that have been something?"

Wouldn't that last have been Robert Frost?

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little excursion into Daffodiliana.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Lines in Larry Kramer's Seminal Essay "1,112 and Counting..." Which Could Be Written Today About Global Warming

I'm teaching Larry Kramer's astonishing article, "1,112 and Counting...", on Monday for part of a unit on AIDS we're doing in a class on the social history of medicine. About this article, Randy Shilts wrote in his astonishing history of the early years of the AIDS pandemic, And the Band Played On:

Kramer threw a hand grenade into the foxhole of denial where most gay men in the United States had been sitting out the epidemic. The cover story of the New York Native, headlined "1,112 and Counting," was Kramer's end run around all the gay leaders and GMHC organizers worried about not panicking the homosexuals and not inciting homophobia. As far as Kramer was concerned, gay men needed a little panic and a lot of anger.... Kramer's piece irrevocably altered the context in which AIDS was discussed in the gay community and, hence, in the nation. Inarguably one of the most influential works of advocacy journalism of the decade, "1,112 and Counting..." swiftly crystallized the epidemic into a political movement for the gay community at the same time it set off a maelstrom of controversy that polarized gay leaders....

-- Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On, pp. 244, 245

Rereading it, it occurred to me how appropriate the tone of the article is -- not the specifics, obviously, but the tone in general -- to global warming.

I herein presented the edited version: sentences we could say about global warming, right now. Of course "killing us" in Kramer's work was in the present; now it is still -- mostly (global warming-induced wildfires and hurricanes aside) -- in the future. But the scale of the possible devastation is, of course, greater than even that great calamity.

We -- the people of the earth -- need someone to rouse us to action. Where is the Larry Kramer of global warming?


If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, [human beings] may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get....

I repeat: Our continued existence as [human beings] upon the face of this earth is at stake. Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die. ...we have never before been so close to death and extinction....

Why isn’t every [person on this planet] so scared shitless that he is screaming for action? Does every [person on this planet] want to die? ...

Priorities in this area appear to be peculiarly out of kilter at this moment of life or death....

To continue to allow [status-quo politicians] to represent us in [any government] will, in my view, only bring us closer to death....

With his silence on [global warming], the [President of the United States] is helping to kill us....

I am sick of our electing officials who in no way represent us. I am sick of our stupidity in believing candidates who promise us everything for our support and promptly forget us and insult us after we have given them our votes....

I am sick of the [mainstream media], which has yet to quite acknowledge that there’s anything going on....

With the exception of... a few, very few, other [small] publications, the [mainstream] press has been useless. If we can’t get our own papers and magazines to tell us what’s really happening to us... how are we going to get the word around that we’re dying?

Unless we can generate, visibly, numbers, masses, we are going to die....

I am sick of everyone in this community who tells me to stop creating a panic. How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action?... Over and over again I hear from [people], “Why aren’t you guys doing anything?” Every politician I have spoken to has said to me confidentially, “You guys aren’t making enough noise. Bureaucracy only responds to pressure.”...

Get your stupid heads out of the sand, you turkeys!...

How can they value life so little and [gas-guzzlers and profits] so much?...

I don’t want to die. I can only assume you don’t want to die. Can we fight together?

I hope we don’t have to conduct sit-ins or tie up traffic or get arrested. I hope our city and our country will start to do something to help start saving us. But it is time for us to be perceived for what we truly are: an angry community and a strong community, and therefore a threat. Such are the realities of politics....

I hope I have not been guilty of saying ineffectively in five thousand words what I could have said in five: we must fight to live.

I am angry and frustrated almost beyond the bound my skin and bones and body and brain can encompass. My sleep is tormented by nightmares...

I know that unless I fight with every ounce of my energy I will hate myself. I hope, I pray, I implore you to feel the same....

If we don’t act immediately, then we face our approaching doom.

* * *

Volunteers Needed for Civil Disobedience

It is necessary that we have a pool of at least three thousand people who are prepared to participate in demonstrations of civil disobedience. Such demonstrations might include sit-ins or traffic tie-ups. All participants must be prepared to be arrested. I am asking every [...] person and every [...] organization to canvass all friends and members and make a count of the total number of people you can provide toward this pool of three thousand.

Let me know how many people you can be counted on providing. Just include the number of people; you don’t have to send actual names – you keep that list yourself. And include your own phone numbers. Start these lists now.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Unanimous Declaration of the Scientific Teams at the CERN Large Hadron Collider

In Press Conference Assembled, July 4, 2012:

When in the course of scientific events it becomes necessary for one particle to create the mass which attracts one to another, and to assume among the particles of the bestiary the confirmed status to which the laws of science and scientific priority provide it, a decent respect to the opinion of mankind requires that it declare the evidence which compels us to believe in it.

We hold these truths to be evident only through decades-long search: that all particles do not have mass equally, and that they are endowed by the Higgs-Boson with certain variable mass; and that among those particles are the quarks, the leptons and the bosons; that to secure this mass, Higgs-Bosons are distributed among particles, which derive their evident mass from the action of the Bosons....
Warning: joke still under construction. Physics of the area definitely uncertified; the entire joke might collapse at any moment. Wear hard hats at all times.

Happy Independence & Higgs-Boson day, everyone.