Monday, April 25, 2011


On April 23, 2011, Charles McGrath's "Why the King James Bible Endures" appeared in the online New York Times.  In the article, McGrath argues that a major cause of the text's endurance is specifically in its removal from everyday language.  He comments that the language chosen by the fifty-four member group that initially produced it chose wording that was deliberately archaic--though accessible to the readership of the time--so that even on its first printing, the text would have been different from the presumed common speech of the readership.  McGrath also voices annoyance at the tendency of more recent English transliterations of the Bible to assume a conversational tone, commenting that "Not everyone prefers a God who talks like a pal or a guidance counselor."  The article effectively articulates and provides support for one view of why the KJV endures, although more could be done to support its assertions and there is certainly room for debate.

In my readings yesterday, I was glad to see the article.  It gives voice to a position similar to one I have held for some time (and yes, I know that I sound like I'm saying "Me, too!").  That position arose at the church my wife and I attend.  I am quite fond of my fellow congregants and of our clergy, but I do not agree with all of the choices they make.  For example, I abhor the use of The Message.  It purports to be a rendition of the canonical Biblical texts in current English, but every time I look at the text, I am struck by its insipidness.

I well understand the desire for inclusivity, and I am aware of the arguments against the phallogocentric patriarchal gender-norming that is evidenced in referring to the Almighty as "Our Father."  And I understand that a desire exists to get people away form rote recitation in pursuit of deeper engagement with a text.  I do not disagree with them, and I do not disagree that corrective measures need be taken.  But I do disagree that in seeking to approach the divine we ought to treat it as though it is no greater than we and is not special--which such pallid--and, frankly, intellectually insulting--language as is found in The Message represents.

While I do subscribe to the idea that, as a man of faith, I ought to seek to involve the Almighty in all my doings, I do not presume to speak to God as though the Most High is my peer.  The Wielder is most certainly not my peer, and it is more arrogant than even I am willing to be to act as though the Shaper were.  It trivializes the relationship I have with the Measurer to have Scripture not so much made contemporary as made the same as chatting with someone in an elevator.

I suppose that the point is that I view my relationship with the Almighty as a special thing, and that special things deserve special treatment.  I know that there is in the United States a prevailing attitude that seeks to break down the kind of differentiation I enjoy (see McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing), and I know that I am of an older mode in my treatment of it.  That is to be expected, I think, given what I do for a living; that I am a student of older literatures is no secret, and shows up in my references to God in the preceding paragraph.

Even so, I do not know that simplest is best.  After all, Jesus himself taught in parables.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Happy Easter, y'all.

That is all.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


I have a few times mentioned that there are stories that inform blog posts I have made.  Referring to stories that are not themselves under discussion is a time-honored tradition in writing.  Tolkien does it in The Lord of the Rings, noting in Sam's pudgy hobbit mouth the tale of Beren Erchamion or having a comment come out of Aragorn's about the "cheek to make verses about E√§rendil in the house of Elrond" or some such thing.¹  Milton does it all over the place in Paradise Lost, opening the poem with a lot of stuff about Mount Sinai and an Aonian mountain.  Malory talks about "the French book."²  Even Beowulf mentions other stories within its own story, some of them not told directly but strongly, strongly hinted at.

Those who will see a disjunction among Tolkien and the other authors and works listed--though they are all dead English white guys--will be pleased to know that I have a reason for including him.  That is, I have a reason other than that I am a nerd who likes to read "that fantasy crap" for including him.  You see, in "On Fairy-stories," Tolkien makes the comment that references to stories understood as common cultural referents by the characters involved in a given story increase the correspondence of the literary world with the directly observable world in which the reader exists.³  The closer that correspondence, the more believable the literary world, and the easier therefore the immersion in the story that is necessary for literary enjoyment.

There is some of that going on in what I write in this blog.  As is necessarily the case with writing, the voice or persona that presents these words is a fiction.  It is not me, even though it is me; really, it is a particular view of me that I want you to see.  This does, of course, make it total bullshit (ask Harry G. Frankfurt in his On Bullshit).  The references, then, are ways to further the perception of the persona; they make it look like my blogging persona has some kind of family life and experience, even though it really is something that I just come up with as I sit in front of one computer or another with more time than sense.

But there is also something else going on.  The communicative act is one which creates an ephemeral community; that is, the community only exists in the moment during which the communicative act occurs.  It is a commonplace that communities are concerned in part with defining themselves, and that one way a community defines itself is by articulating what it is not.  By making references to other events, I tacitly delineate what the community is not: those who do not understand the references are left outside of the community.  They are denied the full meaning of the posts, and thereby are not completely included in the communicative act.

This is, of course, because I do not like them, as they are jerks.

1. As this is not a formal essay, I am not going to bother pulling up the specific page number.  So there.*
2. He does so in late Middle English, which I do not reproduce here.
3. Provided, of course, that a reader exists.  This is not always the case, however.

*It's Fellowship of the Ring, page 285.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Due to some shenanigans involving evidently wrongful termination of one of my colleagues, I am renaming my boss Scott Summers.  Many of my other coworkers are hoping that he finds some ruby-quartz and has it stapled to his head.

No, I am not going to explain.


As I was reading, I was reminded of something: the need to avoid clich√©.  Case in point: "needless to say."  Really, if it is "needless to say," then why utter it?

I see this getting taken up by the philosoraptor.

Also, yay! post 100.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


One of the glories, as well as one of the problems, with doing dissertation reading is that it leads to yet other reading.  For example, I am working on a part of my dissertation that requires me to go into some biographical data--I am trying to make the case that because certain people were famous, their decisions exerted influence on the decisions of others, which in turn helped a specific text get taken up as an important piece of work.  Those who know me know which piece I'm talking about; the rest of you get to wait until the dissertation is done.

Anyway, as I have been doing the reading, I have been finding that at least one of the people I am dealing with right now ran around with some other famous people.  Not being a specialist in the period where these people are situated, I was not aware of the awesomeness of those other people, and so I went to do some reading-up on them.  And so, hours later, I found that I was looking at something entirely different and not really helpful for the work, but damned interesting.

I often field the question of why I study what I study.  My stock answer is "the jokes," and it is not at all untrue.  I like to laugh, and there is something funny about there being penis jokes in the "romantic" poems called Shakespearean sonnets or in Anglo-Saxon riddles, or even, as my graduate advisor pointed out to me, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (maybe I'll explain sometime).  Another answer, though, and one that makes sense only to some, is that studying what I study forces me to study other things, as well, so that I end up learning quite a bit about quite a few things.

The reason I do not usually offer the second answer to people is that many of those who throw the question at me do not have a well-developed love of learning.  That I would study just so that I can study confuses them, probably because they have not had much success in "learning" in other parts of their lives.

In that I have, as in a great many other things, I am fortunate, and I am thankful to be thus fortunate.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Most mornings, there is enough time between when I wake up and when I have to leave for work that I can linger over two or three cups of coffee.  As I do so, I do a bit of light reading to get my mind working, and I plot out my day as best as I can.  It is quite enjoyable, really, a taste of the leisurely life of the mind that is often extolled as being the great compensation for the relatively low social status to which those who teach are consigned.

Some mornings, though, require me to leave the house in short order; my teaching schedule does bring me in in at an hour close to the business hours of "the real world" once or twice a week.  When it does, I cannot linger over the cups of coffee.  I am often awake well into the night, and although I tend to do well in the mornings, there is a certain amount of sleep that is obligatory.  And I need the coffee in any event.

On those mornings, as on this morning, I pour a generous amount of bitter black brew into a thermos that I have had since my first year studying English at college.  It goes with me on the subway, sealed against the crowd and the weather and the smells--o! the smells!  When I get to my classroom, enjoying the brief quiet before my students start to arrive, I open it again and pour it from thermos to cup and thence into me.

Something about the taste of coffee from a stainless-steel bottle soothes.

Friday, April 8, 2011


One of the things that I have noticed people have trouble with in the humanities is poetry.  Something about grouping words by lines rather than sentences and paragraphs gives a great many people pause; verse provokes in people an "I just don't get it" reaction.

In part, I understand why.  I have seen and done a fair bit of teaching.  Not all of it, either seen or done, has been good.  A lot of what has been less good has been about poetry.  Many teachers feel that poems, to be well and truly understood, have to be dissected, flayed out so that their inner workings can be intimately viewed.  And it is true that there is much to be gained from doing such a thing; just as much of our knowledge of anatomy derived from cutting people open (not always after they were dead), much of how we understand poems comes from what we find when we pick them apart.

The problem comes about when teachers--and I have fallen into this trap myself--drop their students into full-on scansion and explication.  Early on, students are not equipped to be able to do to poetry what a detailed scansion or in-depth explication require; they are students for a reason.  The matter is not aided by people teaching who themselves lack significant skill in performing scansion.

I like to think that I do not fall into that group.

Still, inexperienced or insufficiently-experienced teachers often turn their students loose trying to pick apart one of Shakespeare's sonnets (rewarding reading, really, and with lots of good jokes) or one of Milton's, or else some postmodernist poststructuralist poetry with no rhyme and little reason.  The students get frustrated, the teacher gets frustrated, and everyone is left feeling hatred for the material.  And that is a bad thing.

Scansion and explication are not just applicable to "high art" poems.  Light verse, such as the limerick, can also be usefully and effectively critiqued, although this is rarely done.

I suppose I should give the NSFW warning here.

A limerick is a five-line poem, rhyming aabba (lines 1, 2, and 5 rhyme together, as do lines 3 and 4), and maintaining a largely anapestic rhythm (a foot of two unstressed syllables and a stressed syllable, like two pick-up notes and a downbeat) of two lines of trimeter (three feet to a line), two lines of dimeter (two feet to a line), and a final line of trimeter.  Limericks are almost always humorous, and they are often obscene, from which their humor typically comes.

An example of the form with which I became acquainted early in life (I think I was six when my great uncle first told it to me) is
There once was a man from Abas
Whose testicles were made of glass.
They'd tinkle together
And play "Stormy Weather,"*
And lightning'd shoot out of his ass.
It is an impure example, however.  Certainly, the poem does have five lines, and those lines do rhyme aabba.  The poem is humorous; the absurdity of glass-made genitalia and excretion of lightning resulting from said genitals percussively playing a jazz standard tends to provoke laughter.  Also, the poem is obscene; explicit reference to genitalia is generally considered impolite, and the word "ass," when used other than to refer to a donkey, is typically regarded as being mildly profane--enough to result in detention when I was in middle school, but not enough to be sent to the principal's office.  The poem is, if not necessarily suitable for a kindergarten-age child, not unexpected from the near-archetypal lecherous uncle with which life generously provided me.

The deviation from full limerick form is rhythmic.  The trimeter lines, rather than consisting of three anapests, are each composed of an iamb (unstressed syllable followed by stressed, familiar to many from Shakespeare and sonnets, generally) and two anapests.  The dimeter lines, rather than being the fairly common anapest or the extremely common iamb (like the trimeter lines), are composed of amphibrachs; that is, they each have two instances of two unstressed syllables divided by a stressed syllable, as "They tinkled together / And played "Stormy Weather," where the italics represent emphasis.

What the deviation does is promote interest--subtly.  Standard forms are useful in that they provide structure and common reference points.  Relying entirely upon them, however, results in dullness, and dullness is eminently forgettable.  Deviations from standard forms are memorable in their very divergence from those forms.  This is certainly true in history; those who are remembered are those who act other than as expected.  That the equally--if not indeed more fully--human exercise of poetry would act similarly is far from unreasonable.

My doing a short scansion on a short poem does tend to raise the question of whether or not it is true that performing analysis on a thing kills it.  Have I not, in such a question, drained the fun out of a nice little laughable verse by subjecting it to examination?

I rather think not, actually.  Indeed, I believe that it is necessary to do good academic work to enjoy that which is subjected to it, something I have noted.  Just as taking an engine apart to see what is going on with it does not preclude enjoying driving, taking a poem apart to see what is going on in it does not preclude enjoyment of the poem.  Indeed, it can well enhance it; knowing more about things well-liked is often a source of pleasure itself.  And, unlike the engine, which must be reassembled to function, the poem does not cease to be a coherent whole when analyzed; the text remains there to be seen, read, perhaps even eaten.

A poem is a tasty dish, indeed.

*"Stormy Weather" looms large in the mythos of my mother's family.  I may tell the story sometime...

Monday, April 4, 2011


My commute today gave me a couple of typically New York moments.

On the train in, a man, dirty and dressed in denim, carried a jambox from which came blaring pop tunes from the 1980s. Predictably, another man, swathed in a smooth-cut suit, piped up to get the dirty man to pipe down. It did not work, but instead prompted ethnicity-based complaints about some of the performing groups that go up and down the trains, playing songs and passing well-made hats around.

When I came out of the subway, I saw a man in a security service uniform ride a bike across 35th Street. That is not unusual in itself. That the bike was intended for a different rider than the man--being a child's model in pink with white tires and wickerwork basket--was a bit odd. So, too, were the man's rose-patterned galoshes, Peruvian knit cap, and green foam Liberty crown.

Only in New York...