Archive for September, 2011


September 30, 2011 Leave a comment

This collage of portraits demonstrates how varied the appearance of people of Indian descent can be. I have experienced this myself in the time that I’ve lived in West Virginia; I have heard that WV has more people of Indian descent than any other state east of the Mississippi, and I personally have met a wide range of folks with Indian blood in Martinsburg and its surroundings. In fact, the Cherokee nation is by far the largest of the Indian tribes–it numbers about a million members–half of all Indians in the United States. A remarkable people and a remarkable survival.   RT


Photo: Collage; Wikipedia; Public Domain.

What’s on my Reading Table right now

September 26, 2011 2 comments

Maybe it’s because I’m a night-owl, maybe it’s because its hard to beat a good book for chasing away the blues, but my bedside table is perennially overburdened with books. Here is a list of books that have kept popping up recently in the wee hours. 

1) Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. Miranda Seymour. Robert Graves did a ton of living (not to mention writing) and explored some of the most radical perspectives of the 20th Century. In a world moving rapidly away from Victorian certainties and restrictions, Graves steered a course dictated by his relationships with, and perspectives on, women. But, then, Graves was a soldier-poet (nearly losing his life near the Somme in 1916), and the lingering horror of the fighting adds a further dimension to his writing. But what makes this biography stand out is the picture of Graves that emerges–brilliant, haunted, tenacious–and the close attention it pays to the poet’s development and the way his environment affected his poetry. Buy it, savor it–what a moment in history to have been a poet!

2) The Other Bible. Willis Barnstone, editor. Other visions, other voices. Thick enough to challenge the bible, this compendium of resources on religious alternatives (most from the period surrounding the life of Jesus) provides a welcome look at texts that were left forgotten on the back shelves of libraries, buried with monks in Egypt, or offered up in mainstream texts as examples of how not to think. The collection is particularly strong on gnostic texts, and helps readers understand some of the finer (but still important distinction) between such sects as the Cainaites and the Carpocratians.

3) Listening to Prozac. Peter D. Kramer. What is the goal of psychotropic medication? What do you say about a person who’s live is not only healed by the pills they take, but is even transformed–the wall-flower who becomes a successful politician, the agoraphobic housewife who go goes back to school and gets a professional job, the workaholic who suddenly discovers that there are things called vacations. Above all, who are we when we transform ourselves? Kramer, a psychiatrist, summarizes the development of modern psychotropic medications and reflects on his experiences with clients to give us his interpretation of what is and is not possible with the revolution in his field’s pharmacopeia.

4) Genesis, A New Translation of the Bible Stories. Stephen Mitchell. Stephen Mitchell, widely read freelance translator and poet, gives us a lively, accessible version of the stories that form the heart of Genesis. His work, deeply informed by the Documentary Hypothesis, ranges farther afield and takes advantage of scholarship that you may not have heard of.

5) The Five Books of Moses. Robert Alter. A careful translation that pays close attention to the diction and rhythms of the Ancient Hebrew, this book helped open my eyes to the pleasures of the Hebrew Bible as a received text. The introduction and notes are excellent, and Alter has a fine ear for the subtleties of English. Recommended for readers seeking a translation that does not focus on the Documentary Hypothesis.

6) Aspects of the Novel. E.M. Forster. A classic, pure and simple. Each chapter, originally delivered as a lecture at Oxford University in the 1920s, examines an essential characteristic of the novel such as story, fantasy, and prophecy. Forster’s lively wit and powerful intelligence guide us from the heartbeat origins of storytelling up through the more transcendent qualities of a the best novels. The chapters offer a sadly unfashionable perspective on a genre that has survived competing demands on readers’ time –hopefully to emerge revitalized in world culture.

7) The Gift, Poems by Hafiz. Daniel Landinsky, Translator. When I read Coleman Bark’s selection and translation of Rumi’s verse, Open Secret, I was so swept away that for some time I ignored other masters of Sufi/Medieval Islamic poetry. The Gift is correcting this oversight. Hafiz, who lived in Shiraz in the 13th century, devoted his life to the craft/art and for many years wrote a poem a day. Somewhere between 500 and 700 of his poems survive, written in Farsi, a demanding language for English speakers–but Landinsky does an admirable job of bringing out the joy and zaniness of the poet’s experience of God. Superb poetry, superb translation.


Photo: Alt Buecher; WikiCmns; User, Gnosos; Public Domain.

Equinoxes & Happy Thoughts

September 22, 2011 10 comments



“Years are the voyagers of time…”  —Narrow Road to the Far North

Here is a bit of beauty from France–autumn is here, dreamy and tinged with thoughts of the passing year. The season of travellers, also, I’d say, reflecting on Basho’s Narrow Road to the Far North. Enjoy the leaves and cool weather!   RT


Photo: European Beech; Jean Pol Grandmont; WikiCmns; CC3.0 Unported.

Idiolects, Poetry, And Why You Need Time Off for Writing

September 21, 2011 5 comments



This is a vast topic. The subject of this post is nothing less than the genius of the human spirit: our need to compose poetry.

Let’s put it another way: poetry is what makes us human. You heard me right: the silly little past-time of love-besotted teenagers and ivory-tower types looking at a pile of eviction notices on their desk is actually something that everyone needs to know if they are to master the intricacies of living a happy life.

Here’s why:

To see how this might be, we should remember the distinction the Rag Tree has made in a previous post between the first mind and rational mind. The first mind is the mind that we inherited from the animals and is capable of intuition, the wordless understanding of what is happening in our immediate surroundings. The rational mind is capable of reason and deduction, the manipulation of abstract concepts and ideas to solve generalized problems.

Unfortunately, intuition doesn’t have the best reputation; we associate it with guessing—that is, making deductions without enough information, or with hard-wired responses acquired in childhood. But in producing a mute feeling, intuition often winnows out the background to arrive at the most important facts of our surrounding—Gosh, it’s a warm night, but what about the shadow that’s moving over there?

The world is music. One need only listen to trees rustling in a breeze or watch deer in a field to know this. Of course, individual events and moments in nature can be highly distressing, but every action is intricately bound to all the rest. It is this balanced music that the intuition listens to.

Being human means harmonizing the rational and first minds—this harmonization is poetry. That is to say, language bridges the gap between the rational and the intuitive. It makes the rational beautiful and the intuitive reasonable. Every poem lies somewhere on the spectrum between music and meaning.

Every thought is a compromise between our need to abstract pattern and to respond physically to the environment—to remain part of the world’s movement. Language creation happens when someone’s intuition of the world differs from most people’s—possibly there is something physically different about him or her, or they grew up somewhere else. Their native sense of things is different, and so they begin using an idioglossia (i.e., they create and speak their own language).

Yes, idioglossia is relative. After all, there is no such thing as perfect communication. But, at the more creative end of the spectrum, an idioglossia will begin to attract listeners by its beauty and clarity. Especially in a situation where there are rival cultures and languages warring for control, an idioglossia can evolve into a Creole (and all languages, at bottom, are creoles).

Poetry, on the other hand, is a kind of idiolect—a person’s unique use of the common language. Idiolects are always evolving because people constantly experiment with their words and speech. When the process proceeds undisturbed, it will produce a local dialect. But poetry is closer in spirit to idioglossia—it is a more radical rehandling of speech and is closer to outright language creation—just look at all the phrases that Shakespeare bequeathed to us. (And think of the competition between Anglo-Norman and Middle English that produced the variety of dialects available to the Bard).

Every act of language creation is a moral act intended (at some level) to help people understand themselves and the world more clearly—and to enjoy it more. There is something deeply intentional in this act of intuiting the right words. A great poet deserves her (or his) laurels.

True to its intuitive roots, language flourishes best in a restless or transitional society. Too many rules, although intended to help preserve the language’s clarity, have the paradoxical effect of stifling speakers. Words, and the thoughts and experiences they represent, are spontaneous. Perhaps this is why so many cultures have had a language of literature and study and a language of daily use. Poetry belongs with the quotidian, the music of the moment. Keep your ears pricked on any street corner, and you may hear it.   RT


Photo: Alaskan Mask, Tunghak–Yupik; WikiCmns; Dallas MOA; Public Domain.

Pragmatics: the Fuzzy Dragon

September 10, 2011 3 comments

Poets thrive on ambiguity; without it, there would be no simile, no metaphor, no pleasure of discovering hidden connections. But for the rest of the species, fuzziness can be a headache.

Consider a sentence as straightforward as “I love you.” Depending on the situation, tone of voice, and accompanying body gestures, it could mean everything from abiding affection and companionship to the end of a relationship!

Pragmatics is the study of holistic communication, and can help disambiguate people’s messages.

Other ways to think of pragmatics include 1) The study of the speaker’s meaning, not focusing on the phonetic or grammatical form of an utterance, but instead on what the speaker’s intentions and beliefs are; 2) The study of the meaning in context, and the influence that a given context can have on the message. It requires knowledge of the speaker’s identities, and the place and time of the utterance; and 3) The study of implicatures, i.e. the things that are communicated even though they are not explicitly expressed.

Hmmm. If you’re beginning to think that Pragmatics is a broad field (and difficult to pin down exactly), consider this–it has its own category in Wikipedia. In this category, we find such items as abstraction (the tendency of a word for an specific kind of thing to eventually represent a broader concept–i.e., “through” comes from a Gothic word meaning “gate); aizuchi (the frequent interjections during conversation that indicate the listener is following the speaker); gradience (the degree to which a speaker claims that his or her statement is true); an illucutionary act (in which a speech act of one kind–such as question–can stand for another kind of speech act–such as “Can you pass the salt?” meaning “Please pass the salt.”); and politeness maxims (which describe the ways that we make our conversation more polite or sympathetic).

WoW! I’m beginning to feel a little fuzzy. I think that what this all boils down to is that pragmatics is the subtlest of the dragons of grammar. Here we are concerned with getting behind the mask of ordinary speech to a speaker’s real meaning and attitude. Reflection and a knack for fine distinctions can be required.

The abstractions of grammar do exist in the real world.


Image: 18th century Korean ink and color painting. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

Making a living, dead languages, and why so many pros write so badly

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment


Fellow writers–watch those words!  RT

Making a living, dead languages, and why so many pros write so badly.

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment


Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

–from Locksley Hall (1835); Alfred, Lord Tennyson

As someone who has believed in democratic, limited world government since the IMF riots at the end of the 90s, I think this is a good moment to raise the possibility of something that most people think is impossible.

Certainly, getting there won’t be easy–the many, many differences between cultures, faiths, and political systems guarantee that. But the world is full (the decline in birthrates demonstrates that), and why fret about the possibility of global conflict when we could release our pent-up energy in the construction of space elevators and the settlement of the Moon and Mars? Soon enough, we will be getting a substantial fraction of our energy from space…

World Government & Liberty. Could our hopes and skill reach higher than these columns of light? I think so.


Photo: Memorial of Light to 9/11–WikiCmns–Denise Gould–Public Domain.

No purpose, the highest purpose

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Folks: fellow blogger Cross-ties strikes again. Enjoy!  RT

No purpose, the highest purpose.

Eggs & Bacon

September 8, 2011 2 comments

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the great intellectual lights of Elizabethan and Jacobean England and the father of the essay in English. Though his essays are famous for their wisdom and elegance, he is best known for his establishment of the Baconian Method, a way of scientifically deducing the cause of a phenomenon. His Idols of the Mind listed common causes of error in human reasoning.

Bacon was born into an aristocratic family and attended Cambridge University, where he impressed Queen Elizabeth with his wit. After studying in France, he practiced law and then served in Parliament. Subsequently, he served as both Attorney General and Lord Chancellor before resigning in disgrace (merited or not) in 1621. The rest of his life was devoted to study and writing.

Here is one of Bacon’s most famous essays, “Of Studies”:


STUDIES serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores (that is, Any activity practiced with diligence becomes a habit.). Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.

(1597, enlarged 1625)

Photo:  Dejeuner, Boite Gourmande; WikiCmns; Author: Justin Quintal; License: CC3.0 Unported.