Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Form and Content

One thing about blog publishing that seems impossible to dismiss is the movement from the "form" of a draft to the "form" of a post. Traditional education in print composition teaches us that we should separate thoughts on a page with some concept of form (which might be thought of as space) in mind. This feels particularly relevant for those write creatively because the use of space is often vital to the meaning of a word or line. I think it may be true that form as a technique for developing content is integral to how we read, know, and move around in this world. Of course, the reversal of such could be investigated also: How do notions of content give force to an understanding of form?

Taking these questions, I wonder how one might understand a blog?--not only the way it appears to an observer (or reader? are we still readers?), but also the way it moves from start to finish. I must admit, I'm not exactly sure what it is I'm ever going to say on this blog. This is because I'm still very confused about the form I'm writing within. As any good blog publisher knows, the only space within text that blogs allow for (that is unless you want to play with html) is that blank (rectangular?) chunk(s) between "paragraphs." This is, of course, the appearance of "form," but I'm not sure I know the form or even like it. I open up Sarte's Nausea. So much of it entirely untranslatable here.

Perhaps the white space of a line left empty is space enough, though not for meditation, only for a quick breath.

Friday, May 29, 2009

daily life and travel guides

Haiti art. Photograph taken by Tony Wheeler, co-founder of lonely planet, upon his visit to Cartagena, Columbia.

I have been reading through a book: “europe on a shoestring: big trips on small budgets.” It’s a thick “travel guide,” 1324 pages that I began simply because I wanted to travel to europe. But my interest soon turned away from the actual (or prospective) idea of travel and toward the travel guide as an artifact of social consciousness that might teach us how to ask questions about encountering the foreign (and domestic) world. The book's like a compass, I think. But rather than helping to map geographic movement, it maps a different kind of movement, a narrative of social life and "assumed" social practices.

My favorite feature of this guide is the “Fast Facts” section that appears directly under the name of each local. “Fast Facts” includes information about the country’s size, population, languages, capital, head of state, and type of currency. But for a reader like myself, the most fascinating part of the “Fast Facts” is the daily budget estimator.

In The Netherlands, one might spend 30-60 euros a day (40-70 U.S. dollars). In Spain, at least 40 euros per day is average. In Sweden, expect to spend 600-700 S krones (about 60-70 U.S. dollars). And in Denmark, an average traveler is expected to spend 300-400 D krones per day (60-80 U.S. dollars).

What I love to think about (and what I don’t really have a clear answer for) is if other readers accept the budget approximation as an “average” example of spending, and, if they do, what steps must they take in order to accept the proposal as a possibility? What might they imagine such a budget consists of (food, shelter, something extra...)? What is necessary and unnecessary when traveling to another land? Or, to put it a bit more clearly, what is necessary and unnecessary when traveling to europe as an "other?" Are travel guides meant to be read as if one where a native or a foreigner?

Lonely Planet Publications is located in Malaysia. There are three Lonely Planet offices in each of the following countries: Australia, USA, and the UK.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What is possible

Madonna of the Evening Flowers by Amy Lowell

All day long I have been working,
Now I am tired.
I call: "Where are you?"
But there is only the oak tree rustling in the wind.
The house is very quiet,
The sun shines in on your books,
On your scissors and thimble just put down,
But you are not there.
Suddenly I am lonely:
Where are you?
I go about searching.

Then I see you,
Standing under a spire of pale blue larkspur,
With a basket of roses on your arm.
You are cool, like silver,
And you smile.
I think the Canterbury bells are playing little tunes.

You tell me that the peonies need spraying.
That the columbines have overrun all bounds,
That the pyrus japonica should be cut back and rounded.
You tell me these things.
But I look at you, heart of silver,
White heart-flame of polished silver,
Burning beneath the blue steeples of the larkspur,
And I long to kneel instantly at your feet,
While all about us peal the loud Te Deums of the
Canterbury bells.


I fell in love with this poem during my very first reading. I stumbled upon it while looking through the Norton Anthology of Contemporary American Literature for any trace of a modern "ode." I found very few titles that contained the word "ode," but found many poems that seemed to share in the sentimentality the "ode," as a historic literary form, often explores.

My very favorite part in the poem is that last, remarkably holy, image:

But I look at you, heart of silver,
White heart-flame of polished silver,
Burning beneath the blue steeples of the larkspur,
And I long to kneel instantly at your feet,
While all about us peal the loud Te Deums of the
Canterbury bells.

At once this seems like a prayer, or perhaps simply an invocation, that must understand that all-important gap between what is true and what it possible ("I long to kneel instantly at your feet"). Could it be that possibility is always in a state of longing, that the moment one stops "longing" the possible becomes another sector of the real? With this thought, then, a poem in which a bit of the real is idealized, or praised to the point of being 'holy,' is a poem that dreams in the possible, and never the real.

I tend to prefer this idealization over the "real." Might poetry achieve more honesty than living in the real does? Perhaps this means that honesty is only a version of what it possible, that honesty never enters what one might call the "real." If this is so, the unreal must be more real than the real.

To that end: what part of living is wrapped up in a poem? What world might one "live" in if the possibility of a poem were always as real as silence--could we want this?

It came as no surprise to me that one of Lowell's greatest influences was John Keats, a remembered contributor to the ode ("To a Nightingale," "On a Grecian Urn," "To Autumn," naming a few). Although Lowell's poem is not formally titled "Ode," and it does not participate in the complex rhyme and syllabic apparatus of the form, it still appears to me a sort of variation on the type. I see similarities in form between the ancient strophe-antistrophe-epode pattern, and Lowell's three stanza inquiry into the relation between the lonely and the beautiful.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Great Expectations for Media

An incredible thing happened last Thursday night on Comedy Central. The Daily Show with John Stewart aired an episode-length conversation between Daily Show's John Stewart and CNBC's "Fast Money" host, Jim Cramer. The discussion focused on the economic crisis.

What excites me about the Stewart-Cramer economic debate is that, unlike all others I've seen, this debate asks questions about the very medium through which this disaster was presented and, as Stewart alludes, even composed.

In response to the dangerous lending practices of banks like Bear Sterns and Merril Lynch, Jim Cramer says "we all should have seen it more" and "I want indictments for these guys." After Cramer makes one of these remarks, Stewart rolls a clip of Cramer speaking with a young guy about how he (Cramer) managed his hedge fund, (all of this was before his gig on "Fast Money"). The amazing thing about these clips, and their careful placement beside Cramer's response on JS, is how easily Cramer's knowledge about how one can "manipulate" the market (legally and illegally) is showcased.

Market manipulation, one element of the economic crumble, means creating a fiction, composing an elaborate game in which men like Cramer watch from the outside in, aware of the secret codes, while everyday investors--workers contributing to their 401K's--are helplessly caught inside.

Toward the close of the show, Stewart remarks "CNBC could be a tool of illumination." Stewart is right, it could be. But it isn't and was not. It is the emblem of disaster. Stewart comments better than I ever could in saying "you all know, you all know." Not only did men like Cramer know about the risk and fiction, but they propelled the game on until the disease paralysed the entire operating body.

What is left for us other than the imagination? What kind of world would one live in without the stock market? What would it take to imagine a media (a true "news" genre) that does not "sell snake oil as vitamin tonic?"

See more at huffingtonpost.com

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Something like a Sailboat

This is Nigella. A flower that grows throughout June and July in New Jersey. I can't remember whether it was myself or my father who took this photo.

In this case, it is simple to remember something like the life of these things beyond the picture representing them. It is simple to understand, first, a technical means of existence as "photo," and, second, a life as "picture." Imagining life requires some necessary movement. Who could deny memory's wandering legs as they crawl into the photo? Where could we deposit our many stories if not here?

I would not remember this picture if it had not been for the strange fascination my mother had for moths. Without such attention, this would seem no more than an attempt to recovery scenery. As a memory without a direct photographic referral (i.e. as a story that must be re-membered without a personal photo prompt), the memory of moth is elastic, and it allows me to maintain that the above photo is more than a photo. It is a picture holding onto a memory that is no more than a story.

The moths I remember flew above the Nigella like birds. And the flowers, adapting to the scene, appeared as Sailboats, casually drifting into the wind.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Yesterday, Sadie and I drove to Carnegie Lake. Because it was so early in the day, it was only the two of us on the trail. I'm always glad to walk on the trails in Princeton, mostly because it's meditatively quiet, but also because the other humans we do happen to meet are so happy and friendly. I'm sure anyone would smile watching a three-legged dog burst forward, running so fast she almost trips, until she finally collapses at the feet of her destination, and all this with her mouth wide open.

Something I continue to love about walking on the trail is the realization I have, over and over, that there can be no question of intention, or perhaps there simply does not have to be. No need to explain who you are or even why you have come. Who or what would give mind to these answers, or dare to ask such questions?

As a child wandering, the woods could be no less than a series of constellations, a landscape where meaning wrapped around the limbs of trees and lakes the way it does when one imagines a thought. If anything, such an experience (if you agree with the contention) might reveal some of the complexities that surround existence, not only within what's traditionally titled the "natural," but many different types of landscape.

My experience at Carnegie Lake led to a poem. It appears in its latest form below.


It is not enough for you to stay on the path
and today you have caught yourself in a deep trough

of thorn. It must feel only like rough leaves
as it takes shape beside your canine hair.

You look at my face.
I think you want me to come along.

I am wishful in wanting your tireless sense
of possibility,

in hoping for the estrangement you seem to know
every time the trees move,

as if this were a sign from some strange God.
Somewhere close to stasis, we sit by the water.

There is no thing holding our selves to this ground
other than a complex mass of body.

I read this in a textbook in sixth grade,
yet I only know this as I rise from bed and fall

into the heavy weight of living,
which draws itself out into shadows of thread.

For now, we are simply here,
beside a lake and some ducks.

They seem to care less about our presence
than even the light,

which can be seen with arms of dark rain
reaching over the near-by highway.