Wednesday, December 31, 2008

pile of reading

Free Lunch #40, a poetry magazine

Watchword #10, a magazine of poetry & prose, published in Berkeley

Bat City Review #4, a magazine of poetry, art & prose, published out of the University of Texas at Austin

Berkeley Poetry Review #39, a publication put together at UC Berkeley

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs – I find myself gradually getting more into the Beats

Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman – the sexism is dated but his critique of the meaninglessness of American consumer culture is not

New European Poets edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer – still hoping to find a poet in this anthology to really love

Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss – stalled in this and lately put it back into the active reading pile

The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton – she’s good

The New Yorker, April 16, 2007 – working my way through a batch of 2007 issues that I fished from the donations box at work

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Left Behind – it’s a good thing!

Garry Wills takes a look at the biblical sources of the Rapture. Remember the Left Behind series, the batch of novels that dramatizes the Fundamentalists’ End Times? The Rapture stuff was ginned up by a man named John Nelson Darby in the 19th century (although the Darbyites greatest influence took the form of a “reference Bible” authored by Cyrus Scofield – “the book is dry, pedantic, and certain – a kind of printed papacy, where an infallible meaning is given for any verse in the Bible” – a book which sold in the millions). Darby’s (& Scofield’s) reading of the Bible updated prophecy – those biblical authors weren’t writing about their own ages but ours.

The phrase “left behind” (wherein the nonChristians are left behind by the saved who rapture up to Heaven) has its source, says Wills, in “Matthew 24.40-41: ‘Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.’” Yet the context of the passage reveals another meaning. “Describing all the people who refused to hear Noah and join him on the ark, [Matthew] says, ‘And [they] knew not until the flood came and and took them all away.’ The section speaks of destruction, not deliverance. To be taken away is to be destroyed. Being left behind, like Noah and his family, is the desirable thing.”

source: Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills

Friday, December 19, 2008

hypocrites, loudly

With all the supposed faith in the Bible as inerrant, especially these days in regards homosexuality and abortion, it is hard to see people who profess such as anything but hypocrites for their selective readings. Most ridiculously there’s the resort to the Old Testament laws that forbade as abomination men lying with men as with women, while willful silence is maintained over the old book’s equally adamant dietary prohibitions. Shellfish, anyone?

Somehow over time slavery has become unacceptable – contravening traditional Biblical morality! In reference to early America Garry Wills illustrates how obviously:

“Much had been staked on following the Bible literally where morality was concerned. The Bible, after all, was the Puritans’ warrant for executing witches (Exodus 22.18) and for many other details of their penal system. One reason that so many godly people owned slaves, even in New England, was that slavery was permitted in both the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures. … How could you attack slavery when God allowed it, even commanded it in the case of conquered women (Deuteronomy 20.14; Numbers 31.18)? Fellow Jews should be enslaved for only six years (Exodus 21.2). Jewish law let a man sell himself into slavery (Leviticus 25.39) or sell his daughter as a slave, but only to a fellow Jew (Exodus 21.7). Jews are forbidden to covet another man’s slaves or envy him because of them (Exodus 20.17; Deuteronomy 5.21). One might well be tempted to envy Abaraham, who had at one point 318 slaves (Genesis 14.14).

“The New Testament is no better on slavery. Jesus nowhere criticizes the holding of slaves. In fact, slavery is accepted as a normal part of life in Jesus’ parables (Matthew 13.27; Luke 17.7-10; and many other places). Paul tells slaves to be content with their lot (I Corinthians 7.21-21). I Peter 2.18 tells slaves, ‘Obey your masters.’ The pseudo-Pauline letters say the same thing (Colossians 3.22; Ephesians 6.5-8; I Timothy 6.1-2; Titus 2.9-10). Paul requests (not commands) special treatment for one slave who helped him in prison (Philemon 16), but this is clearly a special case, not a general judgment on slavery.”

source: Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills

Thursday, December 18, 2008

the only nonpersecuting Christians

In discussions of early versions of Christianity in the United States Garry Wills makes this striking statement about Quakers:

“They were, said Jefferson, the only nonpersecuting Christians …”

source: Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

word of the day: chiliasms


context: “Miller preached the less popular and pessimistic premillenial idea that the world as currently constituted was irredeemable except by God’s punishing intervention – an idea that would become powerful in the twentieth century, but which went against the triumphal chiliasms of the early Republic.”

Looking for a definition in the MS Word dictionary I find: “see millenarianism”

Under millenarianism are three definitions, the first of which seems to match the doctrine Garry Wills has Miller preaching: “1. belief in Jesus Christ’s Second Coming, a final conflict between good and evil, the end of the world, or similar doctrines, especially based on the book of Revelation”

But from the context I’d guess Wills has this second definition in mind:
“2. belief in a future utopian age, especially one created through revolution”

source: Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

tradmar v. sasemar

left as a response to Newsweek cover story about the positives of gay marriage:

I've been reading Garry Wills' discussion in American Christianities of James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments", in which Madison argues against the role of the state in enforcing religious policies. One bit that's always struck me, and that Madison addresses, is the idea promulgated by the evangelical anti-gay activists that if the state doesn't step in and "protect" us from that which they abhor, we will all go to hell. Is what they advocate so fragile that it can only be sustained by intervention of the state and all that implies -- courts and police force and mandated school curricula? Madison contended that if religion was so weak that it required the intervention of the state to sustain itself then it is best rejected rather than made more suspect via state dictate. Surely, says Madison, the right religion's "innate excellence and the patronage of its Author [God]" is adequate to sustain it. If it needs the state then this need serves only "to foster in those who still reject it a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits."

Is "traditional marriage" itself not strong enough to withstand sharing the world with "same sex marriage"?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Little Emily wading barefoot after a Cardinal flower

In February I compared two poems Emily Dickinson wrote about the Abyss. In one she worries about the fate of her shoe:

Is Bliss then, such Abyss,
I must not put my foot amiss
For fear I spoil my shoe?

After her mother’s death Emily wrote: “Two things I have lost with Childhood, the rapture of losing my shoe in the mud and going home barefoot, [after?] wading for Cardinal flowers and the mother[‘]s reproof which was more for my sake than her weary own for she frowned with a smile.”

The muddy feet of the little girl certainly give a homey backstory to a contemplation of the Abyss (or was that Bliss?).

source: My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: the Life of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger

Sunday, December 14, 2008

“bell” by Valerie Worth

After praising a poem by Abhilash Munnangi that proved to be plagiarized from a book by Valerie Worth I thought I ought to read Valerie Worth. After all, if I liked her poem when I thought it was written by a 7-year-old I ought to like her poems anyway.

When I saw one cross the desk at the library I picked it up. Worth writes an imagistic, skinny poem. She capitalizes the first letter of every line, which, when the line consists of a single word, can be an insistent visual choice. Oddly, the titles are never capitalized (the book designer’s choice?). Her books are marketed to children. The poems can be sophisticated; the poems can be simplistic. “Bell” is one of my favorites.


By flat tink
Of tin, or thin
Copper tong,
Brass clang,
Bronze bong,

The bell gives
Metal a tongue –
To sing
In one sound
Its whole song.


Sometimes the first stanza with its bell-sounds strikes me as so frontloaded it’s overbearing; other times I think, well, it sounds like bells, don’t it? It really does sound like bells.

The second stanza makes a metaphorical statement. The bell’s song is limited, but it sings with the commitment of its whole body and every word in its vocabulary. The bell sings its heart out.

source: All the Small Poems by Valerie Worth

Saturday, December 13, 2008

relaxing her rule

Larry McMurtry says Buffalo Bill Cody “was all for suffrage” for women “and argued with” Annie Oakley “about it. … Annie … thought she might be for suffrage if only the good women would vote. But she was never particularly indulgent about her sex and worried about what might happen if too many bad women voted.”

Never particularly indulgent about her sex? But she was about the other? If women don’t vote, only men vote. How many bad men voting is too many? How many good women voting is too few?

“Part of [Annie Oakley’s] objection to feminism seemed to be an aesthetic objection to bloomers. She hated them and, so far as is known, never wore them. In her day all real ladies wore skirts, and that was that.”

“On the other hand she was adamant in her belief that women deserved to be, and should be, armed. … She thought that every school ought to have a rifle range and that both boys and girls should receive adequate instruction about how to use a firearm. When World War I broke out Annie even toyed with the idea of organizing and leading a women’s regiment, even though it might mean relaxing her rule on pants for women.”

What an odd mix of ideas we are.

source: The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America by Larry McMurtry

Friday, December 12, 2008

millions might not have lost their lives

Buffalo Bill Cody took his Wild West show through Europe more than once. “The 1891 tour through northern Europe involved ten stops in Germany alone, with only occasional mishaps or alarums. One occurred while Annie Oakley was giving shooting lessons to a Bavarian prince – a horse broke loose and came charging their way, forcing Annie to wrestle the startled prince to the ground.

“Kaiser Wilhelm saw her shoot a cigarette out of her husband’s mouth and demanded that she try it with him, which she did, though she didn’t like the Kaiser and later remarked that he was just the sort of man who would start a war.”

“When World War I broke out … Annie remembered how much she had disliked the Kaiser – after all, millions might not have lost their lives if she had just shot the Kaiser rather than his cigarette.”

source: The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America by Larry McMurtry

Thursday, December 11, 2008


When I attended Geof Huth’s San Francisco reading three months ago I bought two of his books, Ampersand Squared: an anthology of pwoermds, and Texistence which is a collaboration with mIEKAL aND.

The most famous pwoermd (poem/word) in the anthology is probably Aram Saroyan’s:


That one had the distinction of being denounced on the floor of the Senate as an example of the sort of degenerate art taxpayers were being forced to subsidize through the National Endowment for the Arts.

Huth also includes a poem by Marlene Mountain that I mentioned myself in my 2005 LuvSet post on pwoermds. That poem:

sn wfl k s

The other book, Texistence, is a collection of pwoermds Huth & mIEKAL aND created. Huth said one would write a few letters down then hand it to the other who would mess with it and vice versa until they were satisfied or tired of it. There are 300 pwoermds in the book. It’s a collection of contextless words, one to a page, none defined. You can make up definitions for them yourself, if you’re so inclined. Or you can just contemplate them. I marked several for rereading. Curiously, there are only four placemarks in the book now. Did I do a cull? The one I remember as my favorite is not marked. … Oh. There’s the explanation. As I removed the marks I wrote out favorites on a slip of paper in the back. A few:








That last one. Favorite!

Huth, by the way, has recently uploaded video of the reading on his dbqp blog.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Yesterday I mentioned Imre Galambos’ website. He has a page featuring subtitles he saw on DVDs he bought in Beijing. These subtitles, supposedly in English, are of what the actors are saying -- in English. Of these, he says, “by far the best was this:

Subtitle: ’Simone has the voice of young clone flouter, the body of safalaring, the grace of well grace Kelly, and the face of Artyphapen combined with in angle.’

Actual voice: ’Simone has the voice of the young Jane Fonda, the body of Sophia Lauren, the grace of, well, Grace Kelly, and the face of Audrey Hepburn combined with an angel.’

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

“Chinese Alphabet Now!”

While doing some research for Oracle Bones Peter Hessler came across Imre Galambos, a polyglot he found so interesting Hessler decided to profile him in a sort of parenthetical to the main text (Hessler calls such chapters “artifacts).

Galambos has his own website. The site he created featured short essays on the origins of Chinese and Greek writing, a history of Russia, and a blog about living in Budapest. But what seemed to bring most visitors were searches people made for “the Chinese Alphabet.” Even after coming upon his essay on the matter, visitors weren’t quite getting the difference between Chinese characters and an alphabet. Not that they wanted to know. All they really wanted was a cool-looking way of writing, “Jesus.” (He would even get resentful emails calling him to task for misleading the search engines: “Your sight SUCKS! Iwant the Chinese Alphabet Now!”.) So, bowing to the needs of the market, Galambos set up an order form. You can buy the Chinese character(s) for what you want to say. He calls the page, “Chinese symbols for tattoos.”

As of the interview (Oracle Bones was published in 2006) Galambos was making $2000 a month. He said, “’The most popular ones are “love,” “faith,” “fate,” “friend,” “brother,” “elder brother,” “younger brother,” “sisters” – this sort of thing. Sometimes “God” and “Jesus.” I had the Holy Ghost up, but nobody bought it so I took it down.'”

Some Chinese themselves “’are starting to do the same business on the Internet. But the Chinese cannot sell the characters by themselves. They have to put the character on a cup, or a pen, or a T-shirt, or whatever. They cannot seem to grasp the idea – people don’t need the cup or the T-shirt; they just need the fucking character. It doesn’t make sense to the Chinese. It’s like you selling the letter B to Mongolians.’”

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Monday, December 08, 2008

American Country Music

Peter Hessler introduces one of his former students, a Chinese woman, to a Chinese-American friend. He gets a letter from the former student:

“We chatted about a lot of things, including ‘Country Music,’ which I found quite different from what I had imagined. I had literally taken it for granted that Country Music was about flowers, grass, brooks, sunshine, country people and their plain love, and everything beautiful and happy.”

The cheatin’, drinkin’, and shootin’ surprised her?

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Sunday, December 07, 2008

a common United States tactic

I was reading Peter Hessler’s book when the Russians invaded the Republic of Georgia. Senator John McCain, trying to show what a tough guy he was up against the Russians, demanded they withdraw or the U.S. would invade … or something. In coverage I saw the Georgians seemed to have overestimated the amount of support they’d be receiving from America.

Apparently in the mid 90s Jesse Helms pushed for a Uighur language broadcast from Voice of America. “A scholar of Central Asian studies told me,” says Hessler, “that the RFA Uighur broadcasts were far more radical than anything on the Mandarin or Tibetan services … He was … concerned that the Uighurs overestimated the support of leaders like Senator Helms. In Central Asia that was an old story: A common United States tactic had been to encourage ethnic or religious groups that resisted bigger powers like the Russians or the Chinese. Once the geopolitics shifted, the support ended, and the resistance groups were forgotten.” Forgotten, defunded, at the mercy of the stronger power the U.S. had been hoping to antagonize.

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Wok N Roll

Visiting with a Uighur friend who has emigrated to the U.S. author Peter Hessler steps into the Chinatown of the District of Columbia. Being bilingual Hessler can read both the English and the Chinese versions of the restaurant names on their street signs. “The jokey racism of the English names vanished in translation: in Chinese, the China Doll Restaurant blossomed into ‘Beautiful Chinese Garden,’ and the China Boy Delicatessen gained a measure of dignity (as well as an entirely different product line) with ‘Chinese Child’s Fresh Noodles.’ The Wok N Roll Restaurant transformed itself into ‘Hall of Precious Flavor.’”

But the most radical difference between English and Chinese is on “Chinatown Gifts.” The Chinese: “Service Center for Personnel Leaving the Country.”

Observes Hessler’s Uighur friend, “’On that sign, when they say “country,” they mean China. Why would anybody need any help getting out of America?’”

The Uighur are an ethnic minority in China and look more Middle Eastern or Turk than Han. Hessler even meets one blond enough to be used to impersonate a bad guy American in Chinese action pictures.

Friday, December 05, 2008


China is a big country. Though we bandy about the word “Chinese” for its language, Chinese is actually many languages, oftentimes not mutually intelligible. The longer a people sits in one place, the greater their language diverges from the people sitting in the next valley over which diverges from the people on the mountain which diverges from the people across the gorge. Thus, even in supposedly ethnically homogeneous China when travelling from point A to point L one crosses language zones wherein the languages gradually become less and less like each other.

Author Peter Hessler was a peace corps English teacher in China. He has kept up with some of his former students. Used to be people pretty much stayed where they were in China but these days people more readily pick up stakes and move. Sometimes when you go where the jobs are you find yourself moving to a place where the locals speak a language you don’t understand, one that might be as different from your own as German from English.

“Mandarin is the native tongue for people in Beijing and other parts of northern China, and it’s the official language for schools, government bureaus, and most television and radio stations. But hundreds of millions of Chinese grow up speaking something entirely different. The Chinese call these tongues fangyan: often the word is translated as ‘dialect,’ although literally it means ‘speech of a place.’ In fact fangyan are often different spoken languages. … Among the Chinese, Wenzhou is notorious for having some of the most difficult fangyan. Within the city, different regions have distinct sub-fangyan, and none of these tongues is similar to Mandarin. Even somebody like [Hessler’s former student] Shirley – a young woman naturally gifted with languages – could only pick up the basics.”

In a letter to Hessler Shirley recounts cultural differences between herself and her new neighbors, some of which she emphasizes as much as the language problems: “’[After] many months … I can understand some of the simple sentences the natives say. I can basically deal with the trouble happened when I went to the food market.’” The “trouble” seems to include the natives’ weird tastes. “’I don’t like food from the sea although it has high nutrition. I taste it strange.’”

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Thursday, December 04, 2008

the voice of the turtle

“Oracle bones” is the name given to the artifacts that preserve the earliest known samples of Chinese writing. The writing was inscribed on “cattle scapula and turtle plastrons. These objects were probably used because they provide a flat surface for writing (the plastron is the undershell that protects the turtle’s belly).” The bones were then purposely cracked with heated brands in order to get divine responses to what had been written. “In subsequent ages, this kind of scapulimancy was sometimes described as ‘the voice of the turtle.’” Nobody knows exactly how the cracks on the recovered bones were interpreted in their time but many of the messages have been deciphered, for instance:

The king goes hunting in the field; the whole day he will not encounter great wind.

One might suspect confirmation was hoped for. Reassurance, perhaps.

This one, a common theme apparently, is my favorite:

Tonight there will be no disasters.

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Shakespeare in translation?

I learned a Shakespearean word twenty years ago or so, one that’s stuck with me. I was watching The MacNeill/Lehrer News Hour and Jim Lehrer introduced a gray-haired academic who had gingerly produced a slightly modernized version of Shakespeare. He had switched out some words that we just don’t use anymore with words that one might find familiar. Naturally this sacrilege called up storms of protest. In general I’m not a one for the bowdlerized or condensed or abridged version. Give me what the author wrote. I trust the author. So I was suspicious of the academic. On the other hand, I was no fan of Shakespeare at the time and the fardel of forcing myself down the Shake’s page was not one I looked forward to bearing. Which is maybe the reason that’s the word I remember: fardel. It means burden or trouble. The academic had switched out fardels for troubles, and that, it seemed to me, was not a bad deal. Still, once in awhile, just to be cheeky, when it comes time to say troubles, I use fardels instead.

I found a translation on the web of the famous bit in MacBeth where the old boy imagines a bloody dagger. Here is the original, authentic, uncorrupted, pure Shake:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings, and wither'd murder,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

Got that? Now here is Kent Richmond’s version:

Is this a dagger that I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Here, let me clutch you.
I do not have you, yet I see you still.
Are you not, fatal vision, evident
To touch as well as sight? Or are you but
A dagger in my mind, a false illusion,
Emerging from an overheated brain?
And yet this form looks just as tangible
this one I now draw. [draws his dagger]
You guide me down the path that I was going
And are the instrument I was to use.
My eyes are either fools or worth more than
My other senses. I can see you still,
And on the blade and hilt are clots of blood,
Which were not there before.—There’s no such thing.
It is this bloody business which has done
This to my eyes. Across the world’s dark half,
Nature seems dead, encased in sleep, deceived
By wicked dreams. The sorcerer’s goddess Hecate
Receives the witches’ offering, and gaunt Murder,
Alerted by his sentinel, the wolf,
Its howl his timepiece, at a stealthy pace,
Moves ghostlike, with a rapist’s wary stride,
In on his prey. O, firm and stable earth,
Don’t hear my steps, or how they walk, for fear
These stones of yours will leak my whereabouts
And break the ghastly silence of this hour,
Which suits this deed. While I make threats, he lives.
Cold wind to cool hot deeds is all talk gives.

I don’t know about you but that middle bit in the superShake original where he goes on about “halfworld” and “Pale Hecate” and “wither’d murder” and “whose howl’s his watch” was a pretty puzzle that I’d as soon leave asparkle on someone else’s wrist. Richmond’s version gets some suspense going, moves the story forward. And, much as I like me a difficult poem, I don’t have to like it.

Frankly, whenever I hear how it is that Modern Poetry has forsaken its audience to toddle off into obscurity, how accessibility is so important if we’re going to bring the masses back to the poem (or, you know, sell a book or two), I’m put in mind of the difficulty of Shakespeare. Shakespeare the Divine. I can grok Modern Poetry but not turn of 17th Century English? Maybe so. (‘Course, I’m baffled, too, by the utterly conventional, stick-in-the-muds who proudly list Emily Dickinson among their favorites – Dickinson, one of the most mystifying of American poets.)

I read a lot of poetry in translation and I like the opportunity to read more than one translator’s take on the same poem. (One can read Sappho’s oeuvre via three or four different translators in just an evening.) It wouldn’t hurt to have three or four Shakespeares in contemporary translation. But maybe there are already. It’s not like I’ve been paying attention.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I don’t like Shakespeare because he doesn’t write in English?

William Shakespeare was writing in “the late 1500s” – closer in time to the age of Beowulf than to us. Beowulf is written “in Old English [which] is a different language to us.” It may be a version of English but the English of Beowulf is not our language. Language change has continued apace, slowed by literacy, it’s likely, but refusing to remain static or “pure”. Says linguist John McWhorter, “At what point do we concede that substantial comprehension across the centuries has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists? … The common feeling that Shakespeare is simply a matter of ‘adjustment’ is understandable – so much closer to us in time than Beowulf, with so many of the same words and sentence structures, much of the foreignness of the language is subtle but profound, rather like the differences between standard English and Jamaican patois.”

McWhorter gives examples: wherefore used to mean why, thus Juliet’s famous “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” meant “Why are you Romeo?”, not “Where are you, Romeo?” Or, rather, “Why did I have to fall in love with one of my family’s sworn enemies, dammit! Why couldn’t it have been some nice Jew, say, or a dyke from Zanzibar?” Context does help with the wherefore, but line by line word after word appears that just isn’t used anymore the way Shakespeare had it. We are required to translate constantly, but often don’t know it because the word Shakespeare uses is one still in use – only now we use that word to mean something a bit different. Wit, for instance, didn’t mean humorousness in Shakie’s day, it meant smarts – knowledge or intelligence.

“Yes, some might say, but the ‘knowledge’ meaning of wit isn’t completely lost to us today. Not only does it survive in the frozen expression to wit, but also in the old expression mother wit, which refers to innate common sense … Even dictionaries still include the ‘knowledge’ meaning. But today, this is clearly a peripheral meaning …”

McWhorter gives a bunch of examples. I’m not going to copy them out. But I get his point. Maybe it’s not that Shakespeare isn’t the great writer that everybody says. Maybe it’s not that he’s howlingly overrated. Maybe it’s that I’ve been led to believe he’s writing in English – and he just ain’t. And maybe that’s what messes with me. I don’t get him cuz I need a translation.

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter

Monday, December 01, 2008

I don’t like Shakespeare

I’ve never been a Shakie fan. How can one help but feel defensive saying that when we all know Shakespeare is the reason we are lucky to speak English? The language in which Shakespeare wrote! Shakespeare, the bard, the literary giant more looked up to than Jesus. (OK, Jesus got out some tart parables but he’s pretty much left out of lit class.) “We all esteem Shakespeare,” says linguist John McWhorter. Anything less and “one’s refinement [is] put … into question. … [A]s an avid theater fan [I] can say that while I have enjoyed the occasional Shakespeare performance and film, most of them have been among the dreariest, most exhausting evenings of my life …”

So what’s with me and McWhorter? Are we philistines? Merely honest? Iconoclasts? Insufficiently educated?

“Shakespeare’s comedies are in general somewhat less of a chore than the tragedies,” McWhorter continues. “This, however, is in spite of the language, not because of it. Because comedy lends itself to boffo physical pratfalls, outrageous costumes, funny voices and stock situations, an evening of Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors is usually easier on the derriere than one at Julius Ceasar or Henry V. However, … even the comedies would be infinitely richer experiences if we had more than a vague understanding of what the characters were actually saying …”

Though Shakespeare’s plays were often performed in early America it wasn’t until “the late 1800s [that] the development of a ‘high culture’ intended for the ‘refined’ segment of society rather than the ‘masses,’ [required] the ‘sacralization’ of Shakespeare.” Up to then Shakespeare’s texts were considered suggestions or treasure chests to be looted for the shiniest bits – the language that had since Shakie’s time become incomprehensible was ignored (as were the unhappy endings). But for culture’s sake Shakespeare had to be unfunned – had to be pure, original, authentic, educational. “Shakespeare presents us with the extra processing load of unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure.” Isn’t that good for us? Makes the brain work, don’t it?

“No, the problem with Shakespeare for modern audiences is not that the language is simply highbrow. … English since Shakespeare’s time has changed not only in terms of a few exotic vocabulary items, but also in the very meaning of thousands of basic words and in scores of fundamental sentence structures. For this reason, we are faced with a language that, while clearly recognizable as the English we speak, is different to an extent that makes partial comprehension a challenge, and anything approaching full comprehension utterly impossible even for the educated theatergoer who doesn’t happen to be a trained expert in Shakespearean language.”

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter