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Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Role-Playing Game

(A fool's anthem)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I should begin my journey to lay siege to your heart
(a trebuchet, a catapult, mines beneath the walls
armor seared in boiling oil, charges into pitfalls)
but my forces seem to scatter before I make a start.

I will have died a thousand deaths before I reach your door
I'm not the hero of your heart, I'm just the fool you've seen before.

But I'll speak up for the fools who came before me
and I'll speak up for the fools we've yet to see
those who cawed like crows instead of cooing like a turtledove
the ragged voices that have never found a way to speak of love.

I should begin my journey from my battered high redoubt
(tumbled stones from fallen towers, broken wheels from ruined carts
a clock whose hands forget the hours, ashes in abandoned hearths)
but my forces melt around me before I can remount.

I must endure a thousand deaths before I reach your door
to be the hero of your heart, or just the fool you've seen before.

And I'll speak for all the fools who came before me
and I'll speak for all the fools we've yet to see
those who cawed like crows instead of cooing like a turtledove
the ragged voices that have never found a way to speak of love.

(The image is one of Dore's illustrations for Don Quixote.)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Life is precious, and I bear it away

by John MacBeath Watkins

The man lay on 45th Street, a score of pedestrians
bearing witness from the sidewalks
his bald head and ruddy face weathered
from too many nights sleeping rough
the army blanket around his shoulders adorned with twigs.
The medic speaks softly to him, gently, can you move your leg?
Try to move your foot.  Follow my finger with your eyes.
The shattered driver sits
not knowing how to leave after the cops are done.
A siren screams from an ambulance
the light bar's red eyes glare all around
Beware, beware
Life is precious and I bear it away
But life wasn't precious
when the pedestrian light held up an orange hand
Don't Walk
But he Did Walk
wrapped in the invisibility of the unwanted.
And now a woman gently speaks,
follow my finger with thine eyes
and the siren sings
Life is precious, and I bear it away.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Eugenics: The Opposite of Natural Selection

by John MacBeath Watkins

Lately, I've heard a couple people try to connect Darwin's work with eugenics, and even environmentalism. While there have been advocates of eugenics who referred to Darwin, it should be blindingly obvious that eugenics is the opposite of natural selection, the mechanism that makes evolution function.

It is unnatural selection, and with its most notorious offspring, the German program for 'racial hygiene,' it is something more closely related to breeding purebred chiguaguas than the 'survival of the fittest.'

Natural selection is just that.  If you believe in it, you don't treat people like domesticated animals to be bred for characteristics you desire.  You let nature take its course.  It's like the difference between laying out all the pathways on a campus the way the experts think they should go, and letting desire paths emerge from the paths chosen by the students and staff as they walk about.  Desire paths work because they are designed from the way a campus is used, not from how a designer thinks it should be used.  And fitness emerges from the way creatures live, not the way experts think they should live.

William Jennings Bryan was one of those who connected Darwin to eugenics.  "...Darwinian theory represents man reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate -- the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn backward to the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love. I choose to believe that love rather than hatred is the law of development," Bryan said in a 1905 speech.

Of course, that's a complete misrepresentation of how Darwin said natural selection worked.  In his famous example of the Galapagos finches, no finch had to kill another finch, or even be stronger, to be fitter to survive.  It had to adapt to eat the available food.  Hate and murder had nothing to do with natural selection in this case, eating and reproducing did.

Eugenics has been practiced at least since the time of Sparta, where each newborn was inspected by the city elders to determine whether it was strong enough to live. More boys than girls were exposed to the elements to die, so perhaps they needed stronger male than female citizens. Plato, in The Republic, advocated eugenics.  Yet despite the fact that the idea of eugenics predates the theory of natural selection by a couple of millennia, current commentators are more likely to connect the concept to Darwin than to Plato, who actually advocated it.

Eugenics combines a misinterpretation of natural selection with a Hobbesian view of the state of nature and that remnant of aristocracy, a reverence for breeding. Its moral consequence is to admire strength, economically expressed as wealth. It's linked with social Darwinism, another perversion of Darwin's thought. There is a school of thought that links social Darwinism with German militarism.

During World War I, Vernon Kellogg, an American naturalist whose pacifist and humanitarian leanings led him to take part in Belgian relief work, wrote Headquarter Nights, an account of his conversations with the German General Staff, published in 1917.  In it he recalls:

'Professor von Flussen is a Neo-Darwinian, as are most German biologists and natural philosophers.  The creed of the Allmacht ‘all might’ (or omnipotence) of a natural selection based on violent and competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals; all else is illusion and anathema.

'This struggle not only must go on, for that is the natural law, but it should go on so that this natural law may work out in its cruel, inevitable way the salvation of the human species. That human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage should win in the struggle for existence, and this struggle should occur precisely that the various types may be tested, and the best not only preserved, but put in position to impose its kind of social organization - its Kultur on the others, or, alternatively, to destroy and replace them.

'This is the disheartening kind of argument that I faced at Headquarters. Add the additional assumption that German social and political organization is the chosen type of human community life, and you have a wall of logic and conviction that you can break your head against but can never shatter - by headwork. You long for the muscles of Samson.’

The experience changed Kellogg, and he became an advocate of using all necessary force to crush German militarism. Like Petr Krapotkin, Kellogg was an entomologist. He was probably aware of Krapotkin's book on natural selection, Mutual Aid, a Factor of Evolution, in which Krapotkin argued that cooperation among animals, even of different species, played a key role in natural selection. Being aware of other interpretations of natural selection, he was better equipped than most to see through the rhetoric of social Darwinism.

Note that Kellogg states that most German biologists were Neo-Darwinists.  Scientists are not immune from junk science, because they are creatures of their own cultures, prone to all the bigotry available to others of their culture if they fail to examine their own motivations.  This is why science is only strong so long as it continues to engage in rigorous debate.  Intellectuals have two functions in society:  Finding the truth, and justifying things powerful people want to do. The former appeals to what's best in intellectual inquiry, the latter offers sponsorship by wealthy and powerful people.

Consider the Holocaust, the most notorious application of eugenics.  The first recorded pogrom in Germany and France took place in 1096.  The first such incident recorded in England was about a century later.  Antisemitic riots took place in most of the places Jews lived, even Cordoba, Spain, under Muslim rule that was usually tolerant of Jews.

Pogroms spread through Europe in the wake of the Black Plague, as people exposed to a disaster they could not understand looked for a scapegoat.  So when Germany suffered her worst defeat in war in 1918, followed by the misery of the Depression, it didn't take long for someone to look to the Jews for a scapegoat.

And it didn't take long to find intellectuals willing to manufacture justifications for the policy.  Traditionally, religion fueled antisemitism.  Martin Luther was among those who advocated burning Jews' places of worship and sacred books.

Europe was by the 1930s becoming increasingly secular, so instead of looking to religion for the raw materials for manufacturing these justifications, the complicit intellectuals looked to science.

How would the situation of the Jews look in terms of the actual theory of natural selection?  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, their population was increasing faster than the rest of the German population, and increasing assimilation and the economic opportunities it opened was allowing them to achieve greater wealth than they had enjoyed before.  In other words, the average Jew was out-competing the average German.  In natural selection terms, they were doing quite well.

But the old prejudice had not died, and the success Jews achieved when freed from some of the bars that had prevented them from participating in the economy engendered envy.  And the old prejudice, the old willingness to use violence against an identifiable minority, clothed itself in the 'science' of eugenics to commit mass murder on a scale those who participated in the old pogroms could only have dreamed of, done in the modern style on an industrial scale.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Doggerel Award?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Since I've broached to topic of poetry, let me add that one of the things we've lost with the death of bad, schmaltzy poetry is the opportunities it presented for satire.  Here's a verse I learned from my father as a child:

The boy stood on the burning deck
His feet were full of blisters
He could not find his own shoes
So he had to wear his sister's.

The ocean was deserted
Not a streetcar was in sight
The forest fires were burning
For it rained all day that night.

Fans of bad poetry will recognize this as a satire of Casabianca, a poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans.  The original starts like this:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames roll'd on...he would not go
Without his father's word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard. 

The entire dreadful thing is here: 

Much of Lewis Carrol's best poetry was satires of Victorian childrens' verse.  There are excellent examples in The Annotated Alice, like this one:

Speak gently! It is better far
To rule by love than fear;
Speak Gently! let no harsh words mar
The good we might do here!

Which, in Alice in Wonderland, becomes:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

Isaac Watts, an English theologian, wrote the following in Divine Songs for Children:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day,
For every opening flower!

Moralistic Victorian poets were fond of exclamation points!  Carrol's parody:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

Surely we could tolerate some bad poetry for such fine parody.  One of the more pernicious notions that has come from having poetry become a plaything of the arts community is that people think it must be good, in the sense of being artful.  There were plenty of people who enjoyed Casabianca for its sentiment and the story it told, without asking that it be an example of eternal beauty.  They thought it was good, in the sense that it appealed to their morality, and because sentimental people like sentimental poems.

Let's call it what it is: Doggerel.

G.K. Chesterton said that "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."  He was arguing for the amateur in areas such as writing one's own love letters.  "These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly," he said in Orthodoxy.

I would go further.  If there is demand for a good or a service, there should be demand for the ordinary example, not just the work of genius.  If there is really a demand for poetry, there should be a demand for doggerel, that is, verse that has the form of poetry without being especially good.  When there was demand for poetry like Casabianca, poetry was a healthy medium.  Having a market only for the best poetry has not, in fact, improved poetry's place in our culture, because it has made the form less playful.  It will continue to have this flaw as long as it is a prisoner of the intelligencia.  Poetry once was a plaything for everyone, but an effort to professionalize poetry has alienated it from its audience.

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Gary Cooper's character is not taken seriously because he writes poetry for greeting cards.  Must we give awards for greeting card poetry to rescue the form?  At least, perhaps, a Doggerel Award for popular poetry.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Songbirds of the Primate Species and the Poets Who Fail to Sing

by John MacBeath Watkins

Humans are the songbirds of the primate species. We are the only primate that can choke on its food, because our vocal abilities are more important to the perpetuation of our genes than the ability not to choke on our food. The human larynx has been shaped by our need to vocalize, and that need must have been great to produce, as a side effect, a tendency to die in a way no other primate does.

With songbirds, we assume sexual selection is the main force here, although clearly some vocalizations are warnings, or communication between parent and child. When discussing the reasons for human vocalization, we focus on language, and the ability to coordinate our actions through communication.

I don't doubt that is an important aspect of selection now, and for hundreds of thousands of years. But before we could have language, we had to have the vocal abilities that made language possible. You don't need language to express pain, longing, affection, or to make those little gruntled noises when you're happy. Our voices can express all those things without language. This sort of pre-linguistic communication would be useful for the seduction of mates, bonding with offspring, warning the tribe of danger, expressing pleasure at the discovery of a source of sweet fruit, warning a rival away and otherwise organizing a society. Such sounds could lead to songs before the invention of language. Perhaps this is why a baby experimenting with its vocal aparatus sounds more like scat singing than like someone talking.

Daniel Leviton has written about this sort of thing in The World in Six Songs, which I intend to read when I get the opportunity. My own feeling is that song preceded language, and the combination of song and language created lyrics. Lyric poetry is the next step, with rhythm and rhyme contributing to its beauty, but with a less musical approach to the vocalizations. In the oral traditions of some cultures, such as that of ancient Greece, rhythm and rhyme also were used as mnemonic devices, helping the poets to preserve the traditional stories with a minimum of change over time.

But we now live in a world of visual language, in which much of our tradition is passed on through the written word. This changed poetry. It no longer needed to be remembered, because we could look it up; consequently, it is written in ways that are harder to remember. Consider one of my favorite sonnets, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Although the rhyme and meter are correct, the line breaks are in some cases not at the end of phrases, which makes the poem harder to memorize. No nursery rhyme would do this, because nursery rhymes are an oral tradition. Compare this nursery rhyme to Shelley's sonnet:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean,
And so betwixt the two of them
They licked the platter clean

Clearly, this is meant to be read rhythmically, and each phrase is defined by a rhyme; leave off the rhyme and you don't have the poem or the story it tells.  This connects to memory in a very different way than Ozymandias, actually a stronger and deeper connection than Shelley's great poem. We now teach students to read poetry conversationally, not rhythmically like a child. Once that line is crossed, the poetry does not read as a lyric, so what are the meter and rhyme there for? The step to free verse is a small one.

The Fog

THE fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

--Carl Sandburg

The sentiment could be a nursery rhyme, but the poem is entirely visual. It relies on the written word to be remembered, and on its imagery for its beauty. It is poetry entirely divorced from the oral tradition that was once the purpose of poetry. It is good literature, but it is not poetry in the sense a nursery rhyme is. Because it does not lend itself to an oral tradition, its connection to memory is more tenuous. This means its relation to our culture is entirely different than the connection the long of the long oral tradition. It has become, in fact, academic, Art with the capital A, an object to be admired rather than a way of telling a story that resonates with memory in a peculiarly effective way.

This has had the effect of removing poetry from popular culture and setting it in the realm of high culture. Ogden Nash once said that he chose to be a good bad poet rather than a bad good poet. He meant that he chose to do poetry as a part of popular culture. Our one remaining form of oral tradition is jokes, and it is certainly not accidental that Nash committed to popular culture through humor.

Casey at the Bat first ran in a newspaper, at a time when poetry was still considered one of many ways one could tell a story. Like photography, opinion columns, editorial cartoons and the funny papers, it was one aspect of the storytelling traditions embraced by newspapers. Can you imagine a newspaper running a poem today?

When I was in high school, I wrote a sonnet that won me a scholarship to a creative writing class taught by three University of Washington professors at the Cornish School of Allied Arts. I enjoyed the class, and learned from it, but the most important thing I learned from it was that I did not want to be like these professors, striving to be published in incestuous poetry journals read almost entirely by people who wanted to be published in them. I chose instead to study journalism, where I could tell stories that mattered to regular people who had no interest in the high culture of poetry. I had no wish to belong to a world in which poets rely on academic institutions to certify them as poets, or one in which the publications that try to foster poetry rely on patrons of the arts.

This removal of poetry from popular culture is decried by some poets. On the blog PoemShape, an essay begs us to "Let Poetry Die" so that it can be reborn. John Barr, president of the National Poetry Foundation, argues that something new is needed in poetry, and describes the stultifying effects of careerism as one who has seen it close-hand:

"They operate on a network of academic postings and prizes that reinforce the status quo. They are sustained by a system of fellowships, grants, and other subsidies that absolve recipients of the responsibility to write books that a reader who is not a specialist might enjoy, might even buy."

As a bookseller, I can tell you that people will read poetry and are willing to pay for it. But how will it ever transition from a form intended to appeal to grant committees -- a sort of literary grant application -- to the once vibrant form of storytelling it should be? It might help if the academics and foundations who now dominate poetry come to recognize what has happened to it, and to look back to the historic roots of poetry.

The primal voice of poetry is the nursery rhyme, not the arid, delicate dried flowers arranged for the foundations. That is the first lesson. The humor of Ogden Nash, the nonsense of Edward Lear, and Lewis Carrol's satires of sanctimonious Victorian children's verse all have greater appeal than the forms of poetry supported by academia and  foundations. Poetry must get off its high horse, stop trying to be Art, and start telling stories in a way that sings.