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Fine Old Thom

The poet Thom Gunn was well-established in the English department at U.C. Berkeley when I passed through it in the late 70's, but I never met or studied under or otherwise encountered him.  In fact, it was not until the last 7 or 8 years that I started reading his poetry in any quantity.  I pulled down my copy of his Collected Poems on Sunday evening, to add it to the reading/rereading stack by the bed, and learned only yesterday, as I was catching up again with a number of poetry weblogs, that he had died on Sunday at age 72.  There are any number of citations, quotations and appreciations of his work accumulating online on the occasion of his passing -- e.g., these from Mike Snider and Jonathan Mayhew.

Some poets -- Dryden springs to mind -- emerge as primary eyewitnesses to their period.  It was Thom Gunn's fate, surely unlooked for, to become one of the foremost chroniclers of the AIDS pandemic as it had its way with countless friends and acquaintances in the San Francisco gay community.  The poems from that time -- most notably in his 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats (also included in the "Collected") -- tie in to the centuries-long line of English elegists.

Gunn studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford in the late 1950s, and the two seem to have approved of one another.  Gunn recently edited the new American Poets Project volume of Winters' Selected Poems, and included a poem "To Yvor Winters, 1955" -- there are Airedales in it -- in his 1957 collection, The Sense of Movement.  More details on the Winters connection come from the Guardian's obituary:

It was primarily to be with Mike Kitay, his lifelong partner, that Gunn applied for a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University, California, which he was awarded in 1954 and where he worked with the great if wayward poet-critic Yvor Winters.

The juxtaposition of Gunn's metaphysical Englishness with Californian life and Winters' reaching is very evident in his second collection, The Sense Of Movement (1957), an exciting, deliberately provocative book whose distinctive energy comes from an apparent tension between form and content: traditional poetic structures and intellectual abstraction are deployed on subjects which include Hell's Angels, Elvis Presley, and a keyhole-voyeur in an hotel corridor.

Winters included his student compatriot Gunn in the relatively short list of contemporary poets whose work he found tolerable in his excellent study of the short poem in English, Forms of Discovery, and in the companion anthology Quest for Reality he reprinted this poem, which opens Gunn's 1961 collection My Sad Captains and is illustrated here with the painting to which it refers:

Continue reading "Fine Old Thom" »

Any Day Now

We will soon resume our broadcast day.... The woes my hard drive is heir to seem to have been cured now, but other duties are calling.

A more regular run of posting will resume as soon as can be. Meanwhile, imagine the graphic to the left as emitting a high pitched squeal, and await further developments. Thanks for your patience.

Alas, Even This Title Is Not By Me

Sure as the sun rises in some east-like direction, you are probably tired of my complaints of the state of my principal office computer. The poor machine is due for its second complete-reformatting-and-reinstall-of-this-thing-called-Windows-within-a-72-hour-period-or-thereabouts, and I can hear it whimpering. Or is that me? Whatever the case, I need to post on some other topic and today that topic is: a hodge podge of light verse by others.

I have been reading over Russell Baker's Norton Book of Light Verse and came upon this relevant commentary from Alexander Pope:

The Fool and the Poet

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

Next, for lack of a fresh double dactyl of my own, here is a favorite from George Starbuck, in a painterly vein:

El Greco, View of Toledo - Click to Enlarge!

High Renaissance

“Nomine Domini
None of these prelates can
Manage your name.

Change it. Appeal to their
Sign it ‘El Greco.’ I’ll
Slap on a frame.”

And by way of freely associating fro that painting, consider this chorus from “Toledo,” one of the better songs on the altogether fine Elvis Costello-Burt Bacharach collaboration, Painted From Memory:

And do people living in Toledo
Know that their name hasn’t traveled very well?
And does anybody in Ohio
Dream of that Spanish citadel?

Adventures in Vermiculture

The Diet of Worms

As Franz Liebkind once sighed when he ran out of bullets, "Boy, when things go wrong...."

The headaches associated with the downfall of my computer, narrated in the previous posts, continue. Here is our latest episode:

Somehow or other -- no doubt again through human error -- before my firewall and antivirus software were reinstalled, I managed to acquire a worm in my system. When I restarted the machine after firing up Norton Antivirus, that program sent me a continual series of alerts that I was playing host to the verminous W32.Gaobot.YC. Removal of the creature entailed running in Safe Mode, spelunking through the registry, strong emetics and iron fortitude. At one point, I inexplicably lost my DSL connection: it simply disappeared from the computer and could not be reinstalled without first reinstalling Windows XP Service Pack 1. Small birds and mammals were not sacrificed, but the temptation was great.

I think the tricksy wormses are gone now, but they seem to have left a peculiar side effect: My antivirus software is now unable to download updates. What is even more puzzling, I am unable to access the Web sites of the primary antivirus vendors: Symantec, McAfee, et al. are denied me. (I can access those same sites perfectly well via the dial-up connection on my laptop, so it's not a case of their servers being down.)

Googling leads me to no clues: there is no sign of this being a symptom of the worm with which I was infected, nor does my machine show signs of some other process at work. Methinks a call to the handy folks at technical support is in the cards for Monday, unless perhaps my readers can offer up wiser, less costly insights.

That's the trouble with sagas, isn't it? They just go on and on.

Hard drive, he said: A Tale of Slavery and Reeducation

Some Notes of Thanks to begin:

Thanks to Ken Arneson at the Will Carroll Weblog for succumbing to the temptations of Double-Dactylism. Ken has posted a double dactyl of his own with a politico-sectarian bent, which I commend to my readers’ attention.

Thanks as well to Evan Schaeffer at Notes from the (Legal) Underground for his link to the double-double-dactyl fast food/weight gain post below.

And particular thanks to all those who felt my pain yesterday, as I wrestled with the apparent downfall of my principal computer. Here is an update on that situation:

First, while I am no apologist for Windows operating systems, Microsoft cannot be blamed for this one. Truth to tell, it’s my own darned fault: I inadvertently interrupted the workings of a non-Microsoft disk utility, resulting in the corruption of one or more files needed to launch Windows. The result was a message telling me that the necessary file was missing and suggesting that I restart with CTRL-ALT-DEL . . . which simply produced the same error message every time.

Unable to salvage the situation myself, I entered upon a series of conversations with several helpful young women -- from Bangalore or someplace equally subcontinental -- at Dell technical support. They were knowledgeable and genuinely helpful, putting the lie to reports I had read of a decline in support quality at Dell. We ran diagnostics, for hours; we tried extracting the needed file from the Windows install disk; we tweaked and tickled, all to no avail. Faced with the prospect of reinstalling the operating system from scratch, I shuddered at the thought of losing all of the useful data that -- but of course, Mr. Murphy! -- I did not have currently backed up. At that point, Ms. Dell proved herself invaluable: she suggested that because the hard drive itself appeared to be fully functional, perhaps it could be swapped into another computer as a second, “slave” drive, permitting me to copy out the critical data.

This proposal I immediately put into effect. After overcoming my trepidation at physically fiddling about inside of a complex electronic device, I successfully extracted the errant drive, consigned it to slavery in a second machine that I had conveniently laying about and . . . Eureka!

This morning, the wandering lambs of my data are safely loaded on to recordable CDs, contentedly bleating as they await their return to the fold. (Bah!) I have liberated the hard drive from its durance vile. I have returned it to its proper place and it is running through the Windows XP installation routine as I type. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world, or soon will be. I do wish, however, that HAL would stop rubbing it in.

You Would Cry, Too, If It Happened to You

Durer's Melancolia I: Some Days You Just Can't Win, eh?  Out for two days of colossal tedium in a deposition.

Returned to discover mysterious conditions keeping principal computer from functioning.

Diagnostics in progress to see whether the situation can be salvaged without undue loss of difficult-to-restore data.

Numerous other matters requiring professional attention (by me, not yet for me).

Having no fun just at this moment. Posting from backup laptop.

Regular posting -- which will include thanks for those who linked here in the past few days -- will resume as soon as practicable. Meanwhile, as is so often the case, Albrecht Dürer says it all.

The Infernal Laughter Machine

Playwright (Noises Off, Copenhagen), screenwriter (Clockwise) and novelist (Headlong) Michael Frayn, in an interview with The Paris Review, has this to say about farce:


* * * When I first started writing farces, interviewers would ask me, “Why do you do farces? Why don't you write about life as it is?” and I couldn't understand what their lives must be like. I mean it seems to me that everyday life has a very strong tendency towards farce, that is to say, things go wrong. And they go wrong often in a very complex and logically constructed way—one disaster leads to another, and the combination of two disasters leads to a third disaster, which is the essence of classical farce: disaster building upon itself. It seems to me that the same thing happens in life, in my life anyway. I would like to live a life of classical dignity, and write plays in blank verse or alexandrines.

[omitted material omitted here]

I think what most farces have in common is the element of panic. People lose their heads. They find themselves in an embarrassing situation, and they tell a lie to cover up. The lie doesn't make things better, it makes them worse, and they then have to explain not only the initial embarrassing situation but the lie as well, and the panic escalates. In Noises Off it doesn't happen quite like that. It's about a group of actors putting on a play and things going wrong. They don't have to lie, but they have to find a way out of the difficulties, and of course the things they invent, like lies, make the difficulties worse. It is the same in Clockwise. Each solution to the central character's problems doubles them.


It was very much like a nightmare, except that a nightmare is not funny. How does one turn nightmare into comedy? Is it because it happens to someone else?


Yes! In every farce, in every comedy, there has to be an element of pain and difficulty, and we laugh as a relief that it is happening to somebody else and not to us.

The line between farce and tragedy is a fine one. In either form, the essence of the story is the manner in which forces that have gone beyond the characters' control tick along with unfeeling mechanical inevitability, with the characters in the end either mocked or destroyed. Farce differs from tragedy most often by playing for lower stakes (sex most commonly in farce vs. matters of life and death in tragedy) and by emphasizing human folly as the cause of the characters' predicaments rather than the gods or an uncaring universe. While Frayn has shown a gift for true, comic farce (as in Noises Off) he has a strong sense of how easily farce can veer toward the tragic: John Cleese's punctilious schoolmaster in Clockwise has lost nearly all his certainty in life and the narrator/protagonist in Headlong -- a novel which is not quite a farce, but which uses some of the mechanics of the form and gives a strong sense of what it would feel like for a person who actually was living in one -- is left to soldier on through the rest of his life knowing that he has lost a great deal but altogether uncertain how much.

Beyond their other appeals, the best farces or tragedies offer the satisfaction of watching a beautifully crafted engine doing the thing it was designed to do. Re-watching the complete Fawlty Towers recently, I was again impressed with how flawlessly the best of the episodes (which is to say most of them) run their course: at least two plots or circumstances -- often three or even four -- are set in motion in the early portion of the episode, any one of which might have been avoided but for Basil Fawlty's lack of self-knowledge, only to bring our hero down, mortified to varying degrees, when they collide and pile upon one another at the climax.

In each case, once the mechanism starts running the character is as doomed to his fate as Oedipus (whose fate is sealed even before his first entrance) or whichever character in Act 3 is to receive the bullet from the pistol we were shown on the mantle in Act 1. Har har har.

[Link to Frayn interview via Arts & Letters Daily]

One Liner

This phrase has been running all mantra-like through my head since I woke up this morning:

Post-prep post prep

I do not know what this means. It may have something to do with weblogs. Perhaps I should claim it as "found poetry?"

Pre-Dawn Dactyls [Homage to Stanley Kubrick]

The smoke detectors in our house are wired into the main electrical system. When power fails, as it did for several hours before dawn this morning, the detectors' batteries cause them to emit sad little beeping sounds. This was enough to rouse me from slumber rather earlier than I would have wished. When I've been messing about with double dactyls, as I did yesterday, that meter tends to lodge itself in my head -- can't fight the rhythm! -- and the result was this: a severely digested synopsis of 2001.

Yesterday's Tomorrow Today
[This film has been modified from its original form:
it has been edited to fit these stanzas.]

Odyssey, odyssey:
Meets with a monolith;
Bone = tool.

Later: computer kills
Astronaut; monolith;
Light show; French bedroom. "A
Star Child! How cool!"

Addendum: I omitted when I first posted this to mention that those who are either fans of or utterly perplexed by Mr. Kubrick's film, and those who just want to earn some extra credit, can find a thorough (and lengthy) analysis of its structure and meaning -- in Flash animation no less -- here.