Title Cad
. . .

Failing towards Freedom : Footnote

Samuel Butler's most cited statement on evolution must be "A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg." But his most prescient was "The power to make mistakes is one of the criteria of life as we commonly think of it."

. . .

In the Convention of the Hustlers, the Playa Hater is Chump

To "Jane Dark" and John Emerson

I'd rather prostitute myself than those I love.

Where the fuck did I get such a stupid idea?


oh dear. it isn't worth it! really!
it is worth it because these people will be running our world. playas in, playa haters out.
pimpin ain't easy

. . .

A Generic Response

At The Valve
"It is worth adding a few notes about how early modern critics thought about genre. Most importantly, they defined many kinds at least partially by their forms, but their dominant tendency was to define kinds by their social functions."
- Matt Greenfield

That still sounds right. Genre is what we call it when function is perceived to delimit or prompt form. The difficulty is that functions vary over time while texts stay set.

Since literary scholars by definition have greater access to texts than to writers, editors, publishers, or audiences, some confusion is inevitable. I've heard academic responses to genre range from puzzled to puzzling to apalling. (English department head to Samuel R. Delany: "I don't read that science fiction shit.")

But the problems can be worked against. In a less moribund genre, the scholar can actually seek out its social context, at the risk of being absorbed.

Even in historic genres, it's possible to make a conscious effort to switch imaginative contexts. I'm guessing that's what Matt wants to do with his class. Along those lines, I liked Fowler's book more than I expected. Genre markers are (sometimes unintended) signals to a community. Spotting the markers isn't enough to tell us what they're doing there. Fowler seemed to get that.

A more recent good example is Richard A. McCabe's "Annotating Anonymity" in Ma(r)king the Text. Rather than just describing the archaisms and explanatory apparatus of The Shepheardes Calendar as pastoral conventions, McCabe shows how they took advantage of (and sometimes had to work against) the specific model of Servius's Virgil commentaries.

I'm now finishing Memory in Oral Traditions by David C. Rubin.1 (Thank you, forgotten person who recommended it to me.) Rubin explains certain generic conventions of epic, ballad, and counting-out rhymes as directly molded by the mechanisms of multi-generational verbal transmission, and backs it up with evidence.

On a more negative note, Franco Moretti's "Graphs" and "Trees" are strictly parasitic on texts which he keeps strictly at arm's length. Not what I'd call a healthy relationship. More successful 2 interdisciplinary materialist approaches go beyond the confines of the English department. And although the nora project limits itself to textual analysis, it's with the reasonable aim of noticing textual aspects missed by received opinion.

Books don't compete with each other in a closed bibliosphere. Popularity and genre are social, not strictly textual. They can only be understood by looking outside a text itself. And when you do so, I think you find something more like chaos theory than like biological evolution.


Although Rubin acknowledges that his book's body can get a bit dull and repetitive, he has a winning way with an endnote. Here's my favorite from Chapter 9: "The one inconsistency in order indicates that the pattern was not always followed. It is not an error in the epic. The claim of a fixed-order script is mine, not the poets'."


"More successful" by my lights, that is; obviously not more successful in terms of public attention.

. . .

Critics rave

An anonymous reader requests:

simile examples

Like what?


My luve is like a red red simile
let a simile be your umbrella

A brother is as easily forgotten as a simile.

The New Age Narcissist Revisited
Christ, that my like were in my arms
   And I in my bed again!
Many examples of similes, but similes of examples are more rare.

An example is like another example, and yet unlike any other example.

This post is like a really good example of smart people being funny about similes, which are like metaphors kind of and analogies.

As if!

,     ,
Excuse for intrusion, but at me not the big question. How you think how many people on the ground smoke and how many have ceased?
. . . is that from the new Cormac McCarthy?

. . .

What We Genrify When We Mean to Talk

Aimed squarely at The Valve, but what the heck

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes
by David C. Rubin

I'm no blurbing brook I think all a publisher ever fished from me was "... courageous ..."— but I'm tired of writing about stuff I can't recommend, so here goes: Memory in Oral Traditions is as good as interdisciplinary scholarship gets. That is, Rubin has shown how the mysteries of one discipline mutually solve the mysteries of another. The peculiar traits of his three poetic forms explain how they were carried across time and space, which in turn explains how we come to find the peculiar traits. And he demonstrates this correlation with full self-deprecating awareness that the job of a historical scientist is not to manufacture just-so stories but to anticipate and meet objections.

Rubin's admirably cautious with the "E" word, but what he describes and documents (through folklore collections, Homeric scholarship, field recordings, surveys, and lab experiments) can be fairly compared to Darwinian selection. Given an initial varied population, a means of reproduction, and death, natural criteria predictably influence which variations survive into the next generations, leading to local pools of convergence.

Darwinian evolution doesn't winnow the biosphere down to a single perfect specimen of a single perfect species, and Rubinian evolution doesn't reduce oral culture to a canon of one unforgettable jingle. (Although the worldwide ascendency of "Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo" now seems to me one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.) There'll always be variation, outliers, imperfect local attractors and opportunity for competition.... And, as with reading Darwin, most of the pleasure of reading Rubin comes from seeing the traits and selectors described and watching the contraption's assembly.

But prior to any notion of variation or selection, the contraption depends on reproduction and death.

Reproduction: Darwin didn't know about Mengelian heredity or DNA, but he could be fairly confident that sex was involved. We don't know much about the workings of mind, but one thing that's become clear is that behind all mental activity, including the sliver we name "consciousness", behind all human accomplishments and blunders, lies the emergence of pattern. In human culture, repeated encounters with performances drive (re-)emergence of patterns called genres. Replication of a single performance relies on those generic patterns for implicit support and implicit betrayal.

Death: As Rubin writes, "verbatim recall" without literacy just means no one notices the changes. What lasts over time aren't the most brilliant and original performances, but what's transmittable. "Oral traditions maximize memorability so that information can be stored without external memory aids for long periods of time. The cost of maximizing mnemonic efficiency, however, is in not maximizing for other purposes."

Recording changes everything. Once performance becomes artifact, it remains fixed while social context flows around it, prods, tastes, absorbs, mimics , rejects it, returns.... What was only knowable as forest becomes a collection of trees, and genre becomes the unsteadier partner in this dance.

[Shift to Jon-Stewart-end-of-interview voice:] The book is in print, in paperback. The bibliography is eclectic and deep; the endnotes hold sweet marrow. I guess I could find something to grouse about, but I don't really feel like it. If you're the author and want to know what some shlub thinks of something you wrote over a decade ago, drop me a line.

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 1

Rhyme's easily defined so long as we ignore the evidence. As actually deployed, the device is slippery.

For example, people who read silently become confused about what's supposed to repeat: the terminal phonemes or the terminal graphemes? The latter is called "eye rhyme"; when it conflicts with "ear rhyme", it's a mistake. But because English spelling began to standardize before English pronunciation, many apparent blunders were perfectly fine ear-rhymes to their original writers.

Regional and class differences continue to play merry hell with terminal vowels and consonants, as in Bunker Hill's glorious coupling of "The road was muddy" with "My toe was hurting". And so, when poems are transmitted orally (or to a particularly meddlesome editor), adjustments get made. Generally, sound wins over sense, with some startling exceptions, such as the version of "Tam Lin" which rhymed "a snake" with "your baby's father." (The reptile started as "an adder," and that rhyme could have persisted if it had been passed to Allan Sherman.)

At any rate, given free rein, English prosody seems as contented by terminal assonance or slant-rhyme as by perfect dictionary rhyme.

Certainly, I am; and I'm also particularly attracted to ear-not-eye rhymes. Which brings me to an endnote of David C. Rubin's Memory in Oral Traditions.

Rubin and Michael H. Kelly wanted to check their hunch that literate poets would tend (consciously or unconsciously) to prefer eye-rhymes, whereas traditional ballad singers would use rhymes without regard to spelling. They sampled from ballads, and from three poets who used similar rhyme sounds: Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, and James Whitcomb Riley. The ballads contained the proportion of eye rhymes expected by chance: around a third. Burns used significantly more eye-rhymes than would be expected for the number of ear-only rhymes available to him. Riley didn't; on the other hand, Riley's pool of candidates were more eye-oriented: Burns ended up with 40% eye-rhymes and Riley with 46%.

But in Dickinson's sample, only 17% were eye-rhymes. "This is the largest difference observed, and it is in the direction opposite to that expected. That is, Dickinson matches the spelling of her rhymes much less than would be expected by chance."

... to be continued ...


good methods in aprill

We can only hope, my friend. We can only hope.

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 2

I would have no newes printed; for when they are printed they leave to bee newes; while they are written, though they be false, they remaine newes still.
- Ben Jonson, Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moone
Literature is news that STAYS news.
- Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

It's traumatic when performed art becomes recorded art. (Gawd, do I really sound that whiney?) And poetry's been traumatized longest. Sure, we have all that noise; sure, we can pattern it. But what's the point post-literacy?

So, there's been the pleasure of showing off, when someone's willing to be impressed, or when we can pretend that someone is. There's been seduction and devotion and advertising, when we want our words to stick and intrude far from support of paper. There've been brief re-marriages of written word with notated music before career ambitions drove them apart again. Pound and Zukofsky sincerely believed that poetry became corrupted as it drifted from song, but that didn't make them want to become Sappho or Thomas Campion or Smokey Robinson: it made them want to become a textual version of Brahms or Bach or Webern.

And then there's nostalgia for the days when sound made sense, because it was all the sense we had, even if we usually couldn't say what it actually meant, Remember the good times? Couldn't we bring them back before they're completely lost? The familiar problem of Ossian and Wordsworth, Olson and Rothenberg....

Traditional ballads and heroic epic didn't play much part in the social life of mid-nineteenth century Amherst, Massachusetts. To take them as role models would have been a purely literary affectation rather than a return to orality.

Dickinson's community did, however, include a lyric form comparable in centrality to (say) folk songs for Robert Burns: the hymn.

Of course the Protestant hymn was a written and notated form, but it was expressed in oral performance in public, in the family circle, and presumably within the concert hall of one's skull. (Limited seating, but excellent accoustics.) Would it be possible for an atavistic poet in a literate society to take that written devotional lyric as an origin for oral composition? What might such a throwback look like?

Well, we might expect a reversal of the written lyrics' preference for eye-rhyme. We might expect a return to assonance and slant-rhyme. We might even expect hypercorrection.

We might expect the formal grammar of written sentences to be replaced by the looser, more dramatic and fragmented syntax of spoken English. Since formal syntactic punctuation then loses its function, we might expect a simpler notation of phrase breaks and emphasis dashes, say, and an occasional exclamation mark.

We might expect the literary meter to revert to some features of traditional ballad metrics. That is, a simple regular form might serve as a reference point for ear-and-mouth, perceived as a default mode even if frequently varied in practice. Again positing hypercorrection, it might be deviated from so often that irregularity became the real but imperceptible rule. (And we might expect a great deal of posthumous meddling from editors who prefer the properly regular.)

Dickinson is mostly thought of as a poet of hymnodic quatrains, and there’s no doubting she was partial to hymn meters. A survey (see appendix) of the first quatrains of the 295 poems she wrote in 1863—her most productive year, in Franklin’s dating (which I follow here), and the year that saw the creation of most of her renowned poems—yields one hundred in common meter (8686). At a distant second, comprising about one eighth (37) of the total, come the short-metered poems (6686). Another familiar meter, long meter (8888), Dickinson used only six times, each time rhyming it as couplets. There are also three poems in the sestet variation of common meter known as common particular meter (886886). But the surprising and wholly unrecognized feature of these celebrated poems is that Dickinson worked most frequently in none of the above, often inventing a meter for a poem and using it just that once. The number of poems Dickinson composed in 1863 in patterns rare or unheard of in religious or secular lyric poetry, including her own, surpasses even those in common meter.
- John Shoptaw, "Listening to Dickinson"

We might also expect a re-re-definition of "verbatim recall".

... to be continued ...


Stand not upon Formality / For it leaves an Imprint

That poet-with-swing Jonathan Mayhew writes:

Some have repeated the claim that all of Emily's work can all be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." This is clearly spurious, given the number of invented forms she wrote in.

"All" is a great exaggeration, true, but not so exaggerated historically speaking, since Dickinson's early editors mercilessly regularized her into acceptable common meter -- which is indeed singable to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and probably hundreds of other tunes. (I mean, there's a reason it's called common meter!)

. . .

Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist, 3

Wallace recorded the same four ballads about ship wrecks from a traditional ballad singer, Bobby McMillon, during two sessions held 5 months apart.... At the level of exact words recalled, there were 29 word substitutions preserving meaning; 4 changes in prepositions, pronouns, or articles that had only a slight effect on the meaning, and 2 changes in verb tense. There were 7 cases of words present in one version, but absent in the other. These cases, which had little effect on the meaning, were a, and, as she, just, only, said, and sweet. There were also four pairs of lines that differed in a way that changed the meaning. For these, the first session's alternatives are shown in brackets and the second session's alternatives are shown in parentheses.

There was another ship [and it sailed upon the sea] (in the North Amerikee)
And it went by the name of the Turkish Revelee

She had not sailed far over the [deep] (main)
[Till a large ship she chanced to meet] (She spied three ships a sailing from Spain)

Her boat [against the rock she run] (she run against the rock)
[Crying alas I am undone] (I thought my soul her heart is broke)

Go and dig my grave [don't cry don't weep] (both wide and deep)
Place [marble] (a stone) at my head and feet

- David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that Caused it
Block it up
With Other and 'twill yawn the more
You cannot [Solder an Abyss] (Plug a Sepulchre)
With Air
- Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson's fascicles make tidy manuscript pamphlets, ready to post to your local small press, save for one idiosyncrasy. (Not counting spelling and dashes —) Small crosses are inserted in some lines. At the bottom of the page, matching crosses prefix variant words or phrases.

Early critical orthodoxy took them as eccentric attempts at revision. Even given, though, that Dickinson had no training as a proofreader, plus-signs and footnotes seem vague. Were the additions second-thoughts-best-thoughts? Or contemplated changes for a second edition, but still carrying less weight than the consummated originals? What about the doubled or tripled second thoughts? What's their weight class?

Over time and a lot of heat, more scholars have shifted to admitting that Dickinson's priorities are undecidable.

Scholarly explanations, however and, my apologies, I realize this is a matter of taste have tended to the vaporous:

As Marta Werner puts it, "Writing at the far end of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson refused the limitations of a print existence and, in doing so, effectively altered the ways in which we read (receive) her encodings". ... as Sharon Cameron puts it, "variants indicate the desire for limit and the difficulty of enforcing is impossible to say where the text ends because variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem potentially limitless".
- Michele Ierardi, "Translating Emily: Digitally Re-Presenting Fascicle 16"

Let's get real. When we have some tune rattling around in our head or in our mouths, it rattles in slightly different ways now and then and later. In oral transmission, the changes might not be noticed, or some might be remembered as potential improvements and latched onto, and no one knows the diff. In manuscript transmission among (for example) the aristocratic poets of Tudor or Stuart England, the "same" poem or joke or rumor might be scribbled out to different recipients in slightly different ways.

In print culture, there's more of a tendency to think in terms of revising towards a final unique artifact which says all worth saying. Variants become competitive decisions. Should I stick with the paisley tie, or does the dark blue deliver the right message? Even believers in some external voice, like Yeats or Spicer, in their different ways treated the Muse as a problem of tuning the dial just right, filtering the static, bleaching out the bones of that amplified signal, any signal like other bards, trying to capture that perfect final take.

Then there's the approach associated with folklorists, jazz fans, and Deadheads. Each take its own thing. Comfortable with a message carried across a range of frequencies.

The poet's job is to listen hard and write it down. But the editorial aspect of that job could just as easily involve collating equally viable variants as arranging a showdown to the death. Who knows, maybe even more easily. To meet the question of lyric method in literate culture, Dickinson may have become oral poet and transcribing collector in one: her letters performances; her fascicles a record of possible performances.

Which drops me square in the middle of the Dickinson editorial wars.

As much as I respect Susan Howe and Jerome McGann, my eyes and ears tell me that not all Dickinson's edge-of-the-page breaks need to be reproduced and that Dickinson's genius doesn't lie in calligraphy. On the other hand, publication of a singular reading edition seems impossible to justify. Even though we only ever read one version at any one time, what we read needs a chance to vary, either dynamically (as in Ierardi's digital edition) or through Dickinson's own end-note approach. We're talking about only an extra line or two for a subset of lyrics; it doesn't have to be a choice between Franklin's three volume hardback monster (including all posthumously imposed variants) or Franklin's one volume of guessed-at "final versions" in a guessed-at "chronological order". The editor's soul shares every soul's privilege to - from an ample nation - choose one, then close the Valves of her attention - like stone. But the editor's Emily Dickinson, and my Emily Dickinson? Hang it all, the Trustees of Amherst College, there can be but the many Emily Dickinsons.

So whether it be Rune
Or whether it be [none] (din)
Is of within.

The "Tune is in the Tree —"
The Skeptic showeth me
"No Sir! In Thee!"
- Emily Dickinson


If he could only find that sound, that ultimate Joe Meek effect, he could wrap up his mortal session--finally get it down, with all the clarity of shattering glass.

. . .

If Winter Comes, Can Next Winter Be Far Behind?

My more journalistic fellows those twitchy meteorologists who change their forecast with every beat of a butterfly's wing seem heartened by the manifest incompetency of the Bush administration having finally manifested in the polls.

However, at this stage of the big takeover, competency isn't a requirement for the far Right coalition. All that's required is to not be outrageously, openly, and continuously more incompetent than their opponents. Otherwise? The Shining Path rolled over the speed bumps of Watergate-and-Carter and Bush-I-and-Clinton, and I don't see any masonry underway at the Bush II exit.


Not that I wouldn't welcome (and donate to and vote for) a speed bump.

. . .

Condensed Novel

Andrew Marion Ornbaun was the youngest brother of John Shipley Ornbaun. He was the one that had a double fence built & didn't speak for years. Marion, as he was called, died in 1945 at the age of 103 years. The lady was his daughter, Hattie.
- Photo caption, Anderson Valley Historical Society


What? No Pomos?!

. . .

La vita nuova e nuova e nuova

(Commented at the Valve)

Ah, the old critical exercise: Does a hard science fiction story become unreadable once the science is invalidated? Is a historical novel worthless once the evidence refutes it?

Not being a Whig historian, what interests me more than those questions are the contextual nuances around them. For example, it seems to matter whether the invalidation took place prior to or after the writing's writing there's a visceral difference between Troilus & Criseyde and The Da Vinci Code. It also strikes me that both high-risk species developed in tandem with safer alternatives: fantasy and realism. Realism's deployment of contemporary setting and free indirect discourse block any charges of perjury: "You weren't there! And besides you never saw me do it!" And it also strikes me that in this, as in so much of what's exercised the twentieth century and the century that remains, Flaubert got there firstest and mostest with an onion-skin-fictional account of serial invalidation.

Most of all it strikes me, every hour on the hour for nigh on thirty years, that the very idea of "literature" presupposes the uncomfortable indigestible unjustifiable pseudo-experience of experiences which are not ours. Experiences of lust, anger, greed, delight, and, of course, certainty what experience could be more human than certainty? which don't squeeze into our newest still-pinching off-the-rack suit of self.

There, at that point a very precarious and contingent point topping an edifice of widespread literacy, fixed canon, and shifting culture that decadent liberal nervously Monie-in-the-Middle point there is where "literature" and "philosophy" (as opposed to advancing the right and burning the wrong) begin. Where we gain the opportunity to inhabit convictions (or truths, insofar as humans can determine truths) we don't share for reasons besides refutation.

For my own historically contingent reasons, I find the experience immeasurably because incommensurably valuable. This time is my time, I admit; and what's more I like it here.

Maybe I'm a Whig after all?

I'm sure not a Tory.


This was one of my three last posts at the Valve. The other two.

An unwise follow-up.

. . .

Lit Out (or, Snuffkinship)

See, I'm what ya call an enlightened humanist. If I gotta deal with sputter, smoke, and heat, I want it to come from fully rendered humans.

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .