Blog from September, 2011


A while back, when we were discussing this "line" from Phil Rizzuto's "poem" titled "Glasses,"

You just flip the tip of your cap

I suggested that the "line" — really just words spoken by Rizzuto while calling a Yankees game — illustrates the unconscious poetry of everyday speech. To put this another way, many of the things that poets do with language are not unique to poetry but are pervasive in ordinary talk. In his description of how a ballplayer, when everything is just right, effortlessly lowers his sunglasses, Rizzuto creates the impression of ease and simplicity through simple, one-syllable words whose rhythm lays special emphasis on the key words flip, tip, and cap, as well as through the internal rhyme of flip and tip.

It would be absurd to suppose that this happy concordance of sense and sound was the result of careful craftsmanship on Rizzuto's part, but it would be wrong to suppose that it was purely accidental. Without stopping to think, we constantly take advantage of language's inherently rhythmic quality in order to underscore our meaning.

As of this writing "The Backin Up Song" has had 10,729,135 views on YouTube. This video, an autotuned version of a real interview with a witness to a bungled convenience store robbery in September 2010, merely highlights and foregrounds how the rhythms in Diana Radcliff's account of the robbery contribute to the account's vividness.

"The Backin Up Song" was created by the Gregory Brothers, who also produced the better known, and more controversial, "Bed Intruder Song" (over 90,000,000 views). As this New York Times article explains, the Gregory Brothers call what they do "songifying" the inherent music of ordinary speech. Of course, as the article goes on to point out, some people's speech is certainly more musical than others':

the best candidates for songification are usually speakers who fall into a subjective category the Gregorys call "unintentional singers."

"It's not necessarily an inherent melodic nature in their voices," Evan said, "although that can be there. It's that their use of their speaking voice is more physically akin to the way a singer would use their voice, in terms of projection and delivery and enunciation."

For example, Andrew said that when they tried to create Auto-Tune videos using Obama's debate footage or stump speeches, "he was really bad, because he's so" — he imitated Obama's clipped delivery — "He's just. So. Thoughtful."

Looking at the vice-presidential race, however, Andrew said: "Biden and Palin were not like that at all, even in front of a small crowd. They were just yelling, like, 'Gaaaawd bless America!' or 'Ten million gallons of crude oil!' "

Michael agreed. "Biden is one of the top unintentional singers of all time," he said. "I mean, like, honestly, not even an exaggeration. He's had some of the best hooks."

Art and attention

The Google group discussion about whether the Greenward Palindrome should "count" as literature has been a lot of fun. I hope people keep it going.

In his post to this discussion, Kyle drew attention to Marcel Duchamp's famously provocative 1917 "sculpture" titled Fountain, a urinal that Duchamp placed on a pedestal, signing it "R. Mutt."

Duchamp's work is the sculptural equivalent of the uncreative writing that we discussed earlier this semester, and it raises a more generic version of the What is literature? question. If literature is one of the arts, then what, more broadly, is art?

There are two very different ways that you can try to answer this kind of question. One is to offer a normative definition of literature or art (or poetry, or whatever category you're interested in defining). A normative definition sets some kind of bar (norm) that a candidate for inclusion in the category (art, literature, poetry) must meet in order in order to "count." John Boselli's post to this blog a few days ago provides an excellent example of this kind of definition. John writes that "I am able to declare with total conviction that a poem born of prose is still prose, until its structure is manipulated (to return to Plath yet again) to inform a meaning and to be informed by the subconscious forces within the poet that create the meaning."

The other way you can answer the question What is literature/art/poetry, etc.? is to offer a description of the things that people normally consider to fall in these categories. This approach doesn't require us to evaluate a candidate for the category to see if it meets certain requirements; it assumes that the things we already count under these headings ought to count, then tries to figure out what they have in common.

It was the normative approach that Duchamp seemed bent on subverting with Fountain — as well as with other examples of a kind of artwork he called "readymade." As this exhibit on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's website explains,

Trained as a painter, Marcel Duchamp made a radical break with traditional art by inventing the "readymade." A readymade is a pre-existing, industrially produced object —-- e.g. a bicycle wheel, urinal, or bottle rack --— that the artist placed on a pedestal with little or no modification.

These banal items became art simply because Duchamp chose to declare them as such and to display them in the rarified space of the museum or gallery. In so doing, he called into question art's emphasis on craft and the unique aura bestowed by the artist's hand.

One meaning of Fountain, you might say, is that any object presented as an art object — for example, by being placed in the space of a museum gallery — automatically becomes an art object. It's not what's in the object, but the way the object is presented for our attention, that makes it art.

In music, perhaps the most infamous parallel to Duchamp's Fountain is John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33", a performance of which you can watch below. (Spoiler alert: it's four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. In three movements.)

Here's a more accessible musical example: jazz songwriter Dave Frishberg's "Van Lingle Mungo." It's nothing more than the names of baseball players, put to music. In the video below, a Frishberg fan has added another layer to the composition by putting a recording of the song together with a slideshow of the players:

Of course, putting a list of names to music isn't quite the same act as framing a urinal in a gallery space or silence in a concert space. Frishberg's frame-space is music, which requires composition, so the resulting art object isn't quite as "readymade" as Duchamp's fountain or Cage's silence. (A closer parallel in words might be the "poetry" of Phil Rizutto we looked at a while ago.) You'll also notice that Frishberg has arranged the names to create rhymes and interesting rhythms, and that the nostalgic and loving tone in which he sings the names represents a kind of personal perspective on them.

Still, what all these examples ask us to consider is the possibility that any little bit of the world can become art simply by being framed in some way, and this possibility suggests that in trying to define art in general, or any particular kind of art, we might be better off thinking about how we look at art objects than about qualities or norms we would like them to contain or meet.

I Wrote a "Piece," Being Tired of Mislabeled "Literature"

"Be it in a form as simple as a rhyme

Scheme, or as drastic as Ernest Vincent Wright’s

Extended lipogram Gadsby (50,000+ words, none of which feature the letter

“E”), constrained writing ought to appear effortless.

Naturally, few authors  are endowed with the craftsmanship and ability

To avoid both the pitfalls of free

And structured composition.

When such attributes falter, and grow remiss in

Their persistence, providing a peek, as it were, behind the great divide between author and audience, constrained writing

Loses its art. A poet using a ludicrous rhyme

Scheme and rigid meter is far less profound in his act of creation

If he cannot avoid a “purple” word choice to accommodate

His structural choices, and absolutely so, if the form does not enhance

The material and its significance."


            That was written as a paragraph initially, but by chunking it, to be coarse, into lines of true and slant rhyme, without any thought as to the implications they may have, I have constructed a piece of “creative” origin. Though constrained after the fact, can this piece too be argued as a work of literature, let alone art? Grandstanding, though not specifically in reference to the piece at hand (Duncan’s “The Greenward Palindrome), to be clear, is not a feat of artistic ingenuity. 

            As one who writes poetry, I am able to declare with total conviction that a poem born of prose is still prose, until its structure is manipulated to inform a meaning and to be informed by the subconscious forces within the poet that create such meaning.

            Criticism is a practice engorged with readily accessible ways for one to misconstrue and misconceive.  The act of writing should never, ever supersede the vital product it begets. 

The truth about Barbie

I've fixed the link on our syllabus to Marge Piercy's poem "Barbie Doll". Sorry for the inconvenience. To make up for it, here's a nice graphic on Barbie's history courtesy of

In our recent online discussion about analyzing texts ("Must We Analyze So Closely?" - Google group members only), some folks expressed concern that "picking apart" a work of literature might ruin the enjoyment of it. Others responded that it's necessary to read closely if we really want to understand what's in a work. If we don't analyze, we might enjoy the work, but we might be missing something. Moreover, deeper understanding might also bring with it fuller enjoyment.

Both the complaint and the response have some merit. But both also overlook something. The fact is that whenever we care about the meaning of an utterance (written or spoken), or about why it affects us the way it does, we have no hesitation in analyzing closely. This is as true of our ordinary utterances, and of utterances that we don't ordinarily consider "literary," as it is of poetry or fiction or drama.

No one who cares about the meaning of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, would likely argue that analyzing it closely is unnecessary, or that doing so might detract from our experience of it.

Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen has written extensively about the way we analyze the things we say to each other in ordinary conversation. In "I Heard What You Didn't Say" (first published in the Washington Post on May 13, 2001), she offers this example among others:

A couple is looking over the menu in a restaurant. David announces, "I'll have the steak." Irene says pleasantly, "Did you notice they also have salmon?"

David protests, "Will you please stop criticizing what I eat?"

Irene feels unfairly accused: "I didn't criticize. I just pointed out something I thought you'd like."

Irene's question is not, on the message level, a criticism. It could easily be heard as friendly and helpful. But David knows that Irene thinks he eats too much red meat, too much dessert and, generally speaking, too much. So when Irene makes a remark — any remark — about his eating, he is primed to hear it as criticism. The impression of disapproval comes not from the message, but from the metamessage, based on their shared history.

You can imagine for yourself where David and Irene's conversation might go next, with David perhaps bringing up the things Irene has said in the past as the context in which he has heard what she "didn't say," Irene protesting that he's "reading in" to her simple, innocent remark, David countering that in addition to the context, Irene's "tone" made it clear that she was criticizing, and Irene finally throwing up her hands and saying, "This is nonsense! I said they also have salmon. I didn't say you shouldn't have the steak!"

To which David would undoubtedly respond, "I know you didn't say it. You didn't have to."

Tannen makes a distinction between Irene's "message" — what she literally said about the menu — and the "metamessage," the message floating in the air, so to speak, "above" the literal message.

But in its basic form, her distinction is no different from the one we make as literary critics when we say that there is more to a line of poetry than what is evident on its "surface" — that there is more meaning, or even a quite different meaning, available to us if we "dig deeper."

And the way we "dig deeper" when we read poetry is not, in its basic form, different from the way we dig deeper into our conversations with friends and family. We look at any given line of a poem in the larger context of the poem as a whole, and perhaps at the whole poem in the context of its author's life, or of the time and place in history that it was written, or of the relationship between the author and her readers. We look, also, for cues that can help us determine the line's tone. (Is there irony here, for example?)

Sure, there are things we think about when reading poetry that we don't think about when talking to friends and family, but that's only because we know that poets make systematic use of resources — the sounds and rhythms of words and phrases, for example — that aren't usually relevant in ordinary conversation (although they can be relevant, and probably are so more often than we recognize).

But — to come back to where we began — we are only likely to think about any of these things if we care what the line of poetry means. And we're only likely to care about the line if we care about the poem as a whole. And if we do care, then as I said above, we don't ask whether analysis is necessary. We just do it.

Pure Form

In case you want to watch it again (and again, and again), here's the video we briefly discussed in class today:

As I said in that discussion, this is a great video to watch whenever you're trying to remind yourself what form means — in the most basic sense, anyway — in the lexicon of literary criticism.

The twins don't know any words yet, so their conversation is (almost) devoid of meaning. For just that reason, though, their talk helps reveal the form of conversation. Two of the things we noted that this form involves are (1) turn-taking and (2) expressive gestures. The twins also understand some basic things about the form of the individual speech utterances that make up a conversation. Although they use no words, their strings of nonsense syllables sound like sentences and display the rhythms of sentence-speech. They know that there's a kind of sentence that ends with a rising intonation — even though they don't yet know (presumably) that the purpose of this kind of sentence — of articulating words in this particular form — is to signal that the sentence is a question.

Here are two other examples — both famous — of form-revealing utterance. The first is the linguist Noam Chomsky's "nonsense" sentence

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

The sentence has no meaning, yet we recognize it as "English." Why? Because it has the form of a sentence in English. By contrast,

*Green furiously sleep ideas colorless.

does not. (Linguists typically place an asterisk in front of sentences that are not in the acceptable form of a given language--- "acceptable form" meaning nothing more or less than the form that speakers of that language recognize and use.)

The second example is from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. It's the poem "Jabberwocky."

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!'

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Carroll's poem has not only the form of English syntax but many formal features specific to poetry (such as stanzas, meter, and rhyme). Yet it doesn't mean a thing.

Or does it? Alice will learn that Humpty Dumpty is quite prepared to analyze this poem as though he were a literary critic.

We'll look at his analysis later this semester.

The phrase as coin

About a week ago, Brian Morton, novelist and the director of the graduate program in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, published an amusing op-ed in the New York Times titled "Falser Words Were Never Spoken". It began this way:

IN a coffee shop not long ago, I saw a mug with an inscription from Henry David Thoreau: "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined."

At least it said the words were Thoreau's. But the attribution seemed a bit suspect. Thoreau, after all, was not known for his liberal use of exclamation points. When I got home, I looked up the passage (it’s from "Walden"): "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

Morton went on to discuss similar misquotations of Gandhi ("Be the change you wish to see in the world" — Not!) and Nelson Mandela, noting that in all three cases the words put in these famous people's mouths had the effect of turning originally complex ideas into simple ones that suit our present culture's simplified and self-flattering view of the world:

... ours is an era in which it's believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.

I'm naturally inclined to agree with the dim view of "our era" expressed here. You only have to spend a few minutes in front of the television to hear quotations like these, or lyrics from popular songs, or other bits of culture being used to persuade you that can indeed "have it all."

But there are perhaps other, broader reasons for the — in fact — large number of misquotations that circulate through our culture by various means (and, increasingly, at ever-faster speeds). In 2007, the historian and critic Louis Menand, reviewing The Yale Book of Quotations in The New Yorker, cited a few of the most famous things people never said (e.g., "Play it again, Sam," "Nice guys finish last") and observed that some misquotations take the speaker's original words and render them more "quotable":

Quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation. What Michael Douglas did say in "Wall Street" was "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." That was not a quotable quote; it needed some editorial attention, the consequence of which is that everyone distinctly remembers Michael Douglas uttering the words "Greed is good" in "Wall Street," just as everyone distinctly remembers Ingrid Bergman uttering the words "Play it again, Sam" in "Casablanca," even though what she really utters is "Play it, Sam." When you watch the movie and get to that line, you don’t think your memory is wrong. You think the movie is wrong.

Menand also offers some interesting thoughts about the public nature of quotations: "Public circulation is what renders something a quotation. It's quotable because it's been quoted, and its having been quoted gives it authority." And, we might add, once it's public, it's bound to be appropriated in various ways by various people.

I found my way to that Menand article through the journalist Megan McArdle's two blogposts last spring in the wake of Bin Laden's slaying. In the first, she complained about the lightning circulation via Twitter of a manufactured quotation from Martin Luther King: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." In the second, she explained what she learned subsequently about the origins of that false attribution in a Facebook user's innocent mistake, a mistake that then went viral because, as Menand might put it, what King didn't say was, in fact, highly quotable.