Ed Newman fed some lines of his poems to an A.I. program as part of a collaborative project. What happened next…well, yeah, I’ll admit, I was kind of impressed.
Anyway, November gets the big nix from me. It has the ethos of winter without the manifestations, usually, so you don’t feel as if you’re getting through anything. It’s the waiting room. Thanksgiving? Oh, I do love it, but Daughter’s not coming back this time, and it’s one of those years where the usual elements that assemble have been tossed to the wind. At least we’ll have a new, working stove for the turkey we’re not making.
You know the phrase, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step? The journey is winter. The single step is the first of November.
I suppose that’s understandable if you live in Minnesota, as James does. Still, speaking as someone privileged enough to live in the more moderate Mid-Atlantic region rather than the suburbs of the Arctic Circle, November is my favorite month of the year. October is great too — I still retain my childlike love of Halloween, and it obviously stands as the exemplar of autumn, but it also starts off a little warm for my taste, not really cooling down until the middle of the month. December, of course, enough said. But November is overlooked and underrated. In our hyper-political age, it’s become known as the month where we’re expected to break bread with our politically offensive uncles. I find that more often than not, it’s the month where the autumn leaves are at their peak, providing a perfect contemplative backdrop for the month which serves as a calm midpoint between the two commercial monsters, the pumpkin-spiced Scylla and the tinsel-bedecked Charybdis. Savor it, wherever you are, and enjoy this wonderful poem from Linda Pastan:
It is an old drama
this disappearance of the leaves,
this seeming death
of the landscape.
In a later scene,
the trees like gnarled magicians
out of empty branches.
And we watch.
We are like children
at this spectacle
as if one day we too
will open the wooden doors
of our coffins
and come out smiling
all over again.
The widest prairies have electric fences,
For though old cattle know they must not stray
Young steers are always scenting purer water
Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires
Leads them to blunder up against the wires
Whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.
Young steers become old cattle from that day,
Electric limits to their widest senses.
— Philip Larkin, “Wires”
And yet, even bovines can find themselves possessed of the Promethean spirit:
cow has learned how to open an electric fence pic.twitter.com/tlzHNyoz7S
— Susan Metcalfe (@susanamet) February 20, 2021
Remove your hats, gentlemen. We’re in the presence of greatness.
So what, exactly, does a cancellation consist of? And how does it differ from the exercise of free speech and robust critical debate?
At a conceptual level, the difference is clear. Criticism marshals evidence and arguments in a rational effort to persuade. Canceling, by contrast, seeks to organize and manipulate the social or media environment in order to isolate, deplatform or intimidate ideological opponents. It is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity and reduce the scope for forms of criticism that are not sanctioned by the prevailing consensus of some local majority.
You will be walking some night
in the comfortable dark of your yard
and suddenly a great light will shine
round about you, and behind you
will be a wall you never saw before.
It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one. And you will know
that they have been there all along,
their eyes on your letters and books,
their hands in your pockets,
their ears wired to your bed.
Though you have done nothing shameful,
they will want you to be ashamed.
They will want you to kneel and weep
and say you should have been like them.
And once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness,
and they will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.
When their light has picked you out
and their questions are asked, say to them:
“I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon
will come around you. The heron will rise
in his evening flight from the hilltop.
— Wendell Berry, “Do Not Be Ashamed,” Openings
As for On Solitude, applied to our current predicament, I’d roughly translate it thus: stop seeking approval from others. Don’t feel the need to communicate 24-7. Don’t fall into lazy habits. Get to know yourself. Or, more simply: get off Twitter. Get off Houseparty. Stop watching that shit series on Netflix. Go read Montaigne for a bit instead.
Speaking of whom, one passage in his “Of the Education of Children” caught me recently:
History is more my quarry, or poetry, which I love with particular affection. For as Cleanthes said, just as sound, when pent up in the narrow channel of a trumpet, comes out sharper and stronger, so it seems to me that a thought, when compressed into the numbered feet of poetry, springs forth much more violently and strikes me a much stiffer jolt.
I agree, and I’ve resolved to read more poetry henceforth. It’s strange, though, because while I would also claim to love poetry “with particular affection,” I seem to love a Platonic ideal of it more than most actual examples. I don’t just mean formless, navel-gazing contemporary poems. A lot of classic poems likewise fail to move me, even as I can appreciate their technical qualities. As Dom DeLuise’s Julius Caesar said in History of the World, Part. 1, “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling, but nice.” Maybe that’s the problem, though. The truly thrilling examples of poetry have made me insatiably hungry for more. No amount will ever be enough.
Middle age is miserable, according to a new economic study which pinpoints 47.2 years old as the moment of peak unhappiness in the developed world.
Let’s see — point-two…one-fifth of twelve months…starting from X, add Y…hmm, it looks like my life was at its utter nadir…last week? Well, if this is the worst, then the worst is not. In fact, I have to agree with Robert Browning:
Have you found your life distasteful?
My life did and does smack sweet.
Was your youth of pleasure wasteful?
Mine I saved and hold complete.
Do your joys with age diminish?
When mine fail me, I’ll complain.
My experience being other,
How should I contribute verse
Worthy of your king and brother?
Balaam-like I bless, not curse.
I find earth not gray but rosy,
Heaven not grim but fair of hue.
Do I stoop? I pluck a posy.
Do I stand and stare? All’s blue.
Against much historical evidence to the contrary, Wilson asserts that capitalism destroys personal autonomy and prevents people from developing their intellectual capacities. Lost in Wilson’s blunt assertions is how Epicurean thought could offer any insight into the modern complexities of labor markets, gun control, abortion, tax rates, medical research, nuclear energy, and affirmative action. She remains unfazed, sprinkling policy proposals on these issues throughout. By the book’s conclusion, this ancient philosophy’s values seem to coincide perfectly with those of today’s Democratic Party.
Epicurus established his Garden to avoid politics. “Do not get involved in political life,” he warned his followers. Wilson would have done well to heed his warning.
Indeed. I think the essence of Epicureanism, at least as I understand it, would be better expressed in poetry. The joy to be found in particular moments, the wistful heartache of knowing their transitory nature, the feeling of what it is to live a humble life, unconcerned by important people and important events — that’s poetry’s jurisdiction, not philosophy’s. I wonder if there are any poets who specifically think of themselves as Epicureans? I’ll have to make a mental note to ask Stephen Pentz.
Stephen Pentz informs me that the poet Sam Hamill died this past April. As I’ve mentioned several times here over the years, his translations, especially of Chinese and Japanese poetry, were truly life-changing for me. His book Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry was the first poetry book that inspired an almost-religious devotion from me. It’s also the only book I’ve read so many times that the binding has cracked and the pages are literally falling out.
I would usually Google him every year or so to see what he’d been up to. Obviously, I hadn’t done so since the spring, at least. It used to be that new articles were hard to come by, but there were several obituaries, including one in the New York Times. Most of them focused on his political stances, especially his “Poets Against the War” initiative from 2003, which I suppose might be the closest he ever got to the mainstream. One remembered him spending a lot of time on Facebook in recent years, issuing political updates concerning anti-racism, Donald Trump, Palestine, and “contempt for the ‘Repugnicons’.” I have to admit it’s a little disappointing to have my memories of his work now diluted with images of him ranting on social media like a million other tedious bloggers in a hyperpolitical age, but I still have a happy memory of reading a Buddhist magazine in a Barnes & Noble and seeing a letter to the editor from him, making fun of a recent article about Buddhists whose Gnostic-like contempt for earthly existence manifested itself in disdain for a meditation center located above a sex shop in NYC. From Hamill’s Zen perspective, life is the sex, blood, filth and suffering of everyday life, not an otherworldly realm of intellectual abstractions. His poetry was visceral like that too.