Thursday, January 29, 2009

An alternate praise song

Maira Kalman's take on the inauguration. Which is, perhaps, closer to my particular odd sensibilities.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A final word on Updike

Thomas Mallon:

Perhaps the keenest compliment one can pay him as a man is to say that his life will make for a lousy biography: Just about no scandal; precious little feuding; almost no phony contretemps and posturing. He was deeply interested in sex and God, but more than anything he was interested in working—steadily and prodigiously.

(Via Sullivan, whose post also includes links to online archives of Updike's writing.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

The end of history

The British library addresses the too-often-overlooked issue of digital archiving.

Historians have become increasingly concerned that while the Domesday Book, written on sheepskin in 1086, is still easily accessible, the software for many decade-old computer files - including thousands of government records - already renders them unreadable.

There is already one stark warning from history. The BBC's Doomsday Project of 1986, intended to record the state of the nation for posterity, was recorded on two 12inch videodisks. By 2000 it was obsolete, and was rescued only thanks to a specialist team working with a sole surviving laser disk player.

Friday, January 23, 2009

More Silliman

The man himself on poetry at the inauguration.

Favorite moments: Silliman cites the close of Joseph Lowry's benediction as an instance of poetry (I agree), and goes on to observe that

[a]t the one inaugural party we attended later in the day – really more of a “Get outa town, George Bush” affair – I found that the suburban progressives of Chester County had not recognized the Johnson quote [early in Lowry's benediction] and were divided on Lowery’s later contribution, depending on whether or not they thought that humor was appropriate for an inauguration. (It was my favorite moment of the whole inauguration, if that tells you anything.)


One of my sons, tho, who has heard quite a bit more poetry than most of my suburban friends, was more interested in Alexander’s stilted delivery which paused. After. Every. Word. He wanted to know if Alexander had had a stroke. I had to explain to him that there is a kind of poetry in which writers do read. Like. That. It’s intended, I added, to underscore the thoughtfulness and urgency of the poem. “Shouldn’t the text do that?” he asked. I didn’t have an answer for that, at least beyond my Cheshire-like grin.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Other voices, other blogs

Via Silliman's Blog, Edward Byrne's sensitive but "disappointed" take on the inaugural poem, a snarkier take, and an alternative offering.

Yes, but did you like the poem, or the fact that there was a poem?

Randy Malamud, from Georgia State University, has a more positive take on Alexander's poem and reading, although by "reading" I mean the fact that a poem was read at the inauguration as opposed to Alexander's delivery.

I find it interesting that Malamud spends a good amount of time on the same images I do, and he makes a good observation on the nature of the work described in the present participle section:

There are lots of lines and devices that I find inspired: "A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin." I like the way Alexander here parallels the incredibly difficult challenge Obama confronts today and the smaller challenges we all faced every time we took a test. It's as if she's saying: Just as we have all done that, so he (and we) can do this, too.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

In those lines, Alexander delicately conveys how profoundly broken American society has become, what a mess President George W. Bush has left his successor, but she chooses the quiet metaphor over the caustic political accusation, making this poem more unifying (as befits a "praise song") than partisan.

Perhaps even better, Malamud appears to have access to Alexander's actual line breaks for the whole poem, which he includes.


A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration
By Elizabeth Alexander

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minn. A chapbook edition of "Praise Song for the Day" will be published on February 6.

(Via the Chronicle, subscription required)

Update, 10:33pm: Thanks to Randy Malamud for information on Alexander's use of italics in lines 15 and 34-36 of the printed version of the poem.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The first poem

I have watched it again. I have read it again. It's an odd little poem, and I wish that I meant that as the complement it should be.

First, I agree with the masses and disagree with Salon. Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” wasn’t great, but the delivery was terrible. I was willing to entertain the idea that Alexander was trying to estrange the language, and do something with poetic meter in the delivery, but she’s not. The reading is actually deeply conventional, even if that convention is “open mic night.” The fact that the delivery was less than perfect is actually, on its own, not that much of a criticism. Many poets are not performers. Many poems work better on the page than in person. (And the opposite is often true as well. I had a discussion over beers recently as to the merits of slam poetry, which I defended, even if when I was an editor I didn’t find much to put on the page.)

The NYT describes their text of the poem as coming from a transcript service, so my inclination is to treat it as a record of the verbal poem and not the author’s specific text. It’s a strange transcript, though. There are no less than five semicolons, and while my experience with Alexander’s writing is less than extensive, I have yet to find a poem where Alexander uses a semicolon more than once in a single poem.

I have a less-than-stellar reading. I have a tentative text. I am left with only the words.

There seems to be a broad sense that “Take out your pencils. Begin.” is the best moment in the poem, and I would tend to agree. I initially wanted to put a colon between “pencils” and “begin,” even though I figured that a period was probably intended. I actually want to put a line break there now. "Begin" is powerful enough to stand on its own, and is the best single-word summation of the spirit of the inauguration.

The "pencils" line follows a section written in the present participle:
Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

This is followed by a move to the present simple:
A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky;

The present participle is an active tense, and this sense of activity was a good fit for the inauguration, the gesture of which was the movement from potential to realization—“(yes,) we can [do]” to “we are doing.” The present simple tense is much more passive, and this is emphasized by the verbs themselves: “wait,” “considers.”

The clause following the first semicolon in the NYT transcription, however, is an imperative, a command, a call to action. It is a powerful follow-up to the continuing action of the present participle. It is organization, direction, and it would be better without the more passive present simple passages.

is stitching
up a hem, darning
a hole in a
patching a tire,
the things in need of

is trying
to make music somewhere
a pair of wooden
spoons on an oil drum
with cello,
boom box,

A teacher says
take out your pencils

I want to be nitpicky with the rest of the poem, but the violence I’ve done at this point suggests that there’s really little else I can say responsibly without the poet’s actual line, in the absence of which I have inflicted my own. I’m not satisfied with the image of words as being “spiny or smooth.” The invocation of various credos—the golden rule, the physician’s primum non nocere—is shallowly done. There’s even a dangling preposition, and I was waiting for her to start talking about chickens when she mentioned “others who said, ‘I need to see what's on the other side.’” And what if the mightiest word is love? Don’t leave us hanging! Twist that cliché!

There is good news. I’m actually much more impressed with the poetry Alexander makes available on her official web site. And she even seems to address some of my most petty complaints:

Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

It's an impossible task to write a poem for an event like this, and if Alexander's attempt was less than perfect it in no way diminishes the interest and power of her other writing. I would love to see the poet's actual line in this work, and I would love to see whether she writes a second draft.

Can micro-blogging be blogging?

I have been twittering the inauguration today.

I'm not going to do a full recap. High points:

  1. Elizabeth Alexander's poem wasn't great, but had great moments—"Pick up your pencils: begin." (I'm sticking with my colon, even though I'm sure that "begin" is probably written as a single-word sentence.)

  2. Including the word "non-believers" was a huge rhetorical moment, even though I apparently misheard it as "unbelievers."

  3. Joseph Lowery's closing benediction was really good. And even Warren's invocation wasn't bad, even if it was from Warren.

  4. Gene Robinson's invocation at the "We Are One" concert last night was even better. HBO didn't air it, but I don't have HBO anyway.

  5. Aretha Franklin owes me money. I said it, it must be true.

  6. Wow. Just wow. :-)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why should everyone else have all the fun?

Call for nominations: The Doorstop Prize for physically largest single-volume book.

Weight, as listed on will be used to determine winners.

Nominees sought in Fiction and Nonfiction. Both 2008 and all-time. Please specify title, author, publisher, and whether you have read at least 30% of the nominated book. ("Read" and "Non-read" books will be divided into separate categories.) Boxed sets will be considered multi-volume works. Single-author multiple title collections will considered, but may receive their own category.

The prize will be bragging rights, especially for the nominator of the winner in the "Read" categories.

Please make nominations by using the comments section.

Addendum, 11:51a.m.: Titles nominated must be currently in-print, as determined by "In Stock" or "Temporarily Out of Stock" status at (Which is an implicit requirement anyway, since I can't make a judgment on a nominee if Amazon doesn't list a weight.) Sadly, out-of-print works are at this point excluded from consideration. (Perhaps we'll do a real "all-time" competition sometime in the future, when we'd have more time to do the research that would be necessary.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Stranger than fiction

Graphical representation of the official (and, weirdly, almost certainly true) narrative of the birth of Sarah Palin's fifth child.

(Via Sullivan, as you might have guessed.)

Would somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in?

Even though deluxe two-disc versions were released in 2005 of the 1989-1997 Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman films, none of those four films is currently available on DVD.

The 1966 Adam West/Burt Ward Batman, however, is available on both DVD and, as of this Friday, Blu-Ray.

What's up with that?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Yes, he did

Andrew Sullivan:

When one contemplates what president Bush has bequeathed - from $2 trillion deficits as far as the eye can see to a war without end in the Middle East to an intelligence capacity poisoned by torture - the jaw still drops. Did he really do this much damage to America and the world? Yes, he did.

The challenge now, at least for a person like me, is to find a language sufficient to talk about it, and to describe the ways in which this was not and is not inevitable.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Identification and participation

When I was starting college, the person who would become my favorite blogger wrote an email. I'm using the word "email" in this sentence not in the singular, but to describe a medium, like "magazine," "newspaper," or "blog." He wrote an email regularly and sent it to a selected list of acquaintances. He didn't really know any of us all that well at the time, but he was (and is) a good writer, with a mind that worked in interesting and unexpected ways, and the group of us was small enough that we could respond and start a reasonable conversation. Some of us participated more than others, and some of us just enjoyed getting something fun to read delivered to us every so often.

It both was and wasn't a nascent blog, and it was the first sign that this was going to be a person I was going to be able to talk into taking writing seriously as a thing in itself and not just something he did for fun in between the other things that he did. He's still one of the most interesting people I read, but there are a lot of things he writes about that I wouldn't be interested in coming from anyone else, and only a part of it is his skill as a thinker and writer. Part of it is that he and I have an ongoing conversation, so I've been built up as a reader. I know the context and the thought processes. Often (but not always) I know specifically what prompted his interest in a seemingly random subject.

In the sense that our conversations allow me to participate in his thinking and writing, his posts are written for me in a way that makes me feel almost like they've been addressed and delivered directly, like the old emails.

I realized this morning that I hadn't checked my RSS feed in a week, and what's more, I didn't really want to read most of what was waiting for me. Now the cranky generalist in me would try to conclude that most of the web is uninteresting and fails to direct itself usefully to specific audiences (in this case, me), but it seems terribly problematic to blame the web for my dissatisfaction with my own selections for my RSS feed.

The real lesson from all this may be that the sort of communication available through the web troubles the idea of identification as a member of a particular group or community without active participation. I have memories of having been fed an argument as a student that there was a certain civic responsibility involved in reading a newspaper. That argument, as I recall, went something like this: living in Lansing, I should be interested in the Lansing newspaper, and reading the local newspaper was itself a form of participation in the community. By reading the newspaper, I became an informed citizen and being an informed citizen was itself a way of interacting with the community. This was, in its own way a sort of social contract between the newspapers and its readers.

This argument was easier to make when the vast majority of a newspaper provided local coverage and was written in a way that seemed to speak to a particular community. I would argue that increasing reliance upon wire services invalidated that argument in the mind of many readers. While the use of cheap national wire services over expensive local reporters has been in large part necessitated by the rise of 24-hour televised national news in the early 80s, which allowed individuals to identify primarily as "participants" in national instead of local events, and the ability of the web to enable individuals to identify as more and more specific subgroups, the result has been disastrous for the newspaper industry.

But perhaps just as important was the decline in classified advertising, which not only cut revenues, but eliminated many readers' most direct interaction with both the newspaper and with the wider community facilitated by the newspaper. Readers used the newspaper to find a car, a job, or a place to live; to sell unwanted but valuable items; and both directly and indirectly to meet people. This may have been far more important to many readers than the news itself. The classifieds were the way in which the newspaper was for you. Identification through participation. In this way the old media may actually be not all that different than the new media. The civic responsibility/social contract argument was not only invalidated, it was largely fatuous to begin with. It failed to describe the way in which many readers interacted with their newspaper and used the newspaper to interact with their community.

I'm finding myself uninterested in a number of conversations because I'm not involved in the issues under discussion. This doesn't mean that the discussions are bad. It means that I need to find discussions of subjects that I engage more actively.

The second realization that I want to read more emails and fewer blog posts, but that's another problem that a blog post isn't going to solve.

Monday, January 05, 2009

What if you built a democracy and nobody came?

According to a study by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales:

over 50% of all the edits [to Wikipedia] are done by just .7% of the users—524 people. And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits.

Of course, this could all be a non-issue, but how may people contributed to the last edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica? Was it more or less than 524? Or 1400? Is it essential to the value of Wikipedia to have a large number of active contributors? Or is it enough that potentially anyone could contribute to Wikipedia?

(Via Sullivan)