Trust your Fear

Note: This is the last of the “On Writing” columns that I have been writing for the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly since September 2014.  After writing more than fifty columns and receiving the Alaska Press Club’s 2016 Suzan Nightingale Award for Best Columnist, I cannot continue writing the column because Morris Publishing Group, the owner of the Empire and CCW, is requiring columnists to sign a new contract that gives the publishers rights over a columnist’s work beyond publication in the newspaper.  I cannot agree to such conditions, so I’m out.

But it has been a good run, and I end this last column with some words of appreciation to Juneau’s readers.


For most of the 1980s I was a poor graduate student, but thanks to two of my mentors I had the cultural life of a prince.  My dissertation director loved George Balanchine and the ballet, and would sometimes invite me along with him to the New York City Ballet.  (And I was surprised to find myself growing to love the ballet and appreciating the talent of dancers like Darci Kistler and Jock Soto, who made the most strenuous dancing look like a walk in the park.)

Another friend and mentor, the late Father Thomas Coskren, O.P., a Dominican priest and professor of Humanities at Providence College, loved the opera and had a millionaire patron who always bought him season tickets to the Mets—I mean, a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera (my sensibilities lean more toward baseball than toward opera).

Now and then, Coskren would invite me along to the opera, and we’d go into the City, catch a little Verdi, a late dinner, and then wander the streets of Manhattan, since we shared a love of the City.

Coskren had a formula, a mantra, for surviving the streets of modern cities like New York and Boston—a formula that I am sure he derived from the theology of his fellow Dominican, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who thought highly of our senses’ ability to know the world and who himself had survived the streets of 13th-century Paris. (Not all Medieval theologians did.)

Coskren’s formula was this: Trust your fear. If your Spider Sense tells you that you might be in a dangerous situation, you really are, and you had better get your ass out of there fast, any way you can.

Don’t let your fear keep you from enjoying the city, but trust it to keep you safe when you’re there.

And that is my formula for writing: trust your fear.

Trust the fear that you’re saying something everyone already knows.

Trust the fear that your reasoning is unsound and your prose incomprehensible.

Trust the fear that everyone’s going to misunderstand everything you say, anyway.

And trust the correlative fear that readers will understand everything you say.

Trust the fear that nobody gives a damn.

Trust the fear that you’re going to seem like a pretentious ass or a pedantic bastard or both (although with me this is not so much a fear as an act of bemused resignation).

These are some of the danger zones of writing; there are more.  But trust your fear to let you know you’re wandering where you shouldn’t, and then get the hell out of there.

The fears sometimes keep us from trying, from committing our true thoughts to the page, but we can’t let them.  Not anymore.  Be like Thomas Aquinas and Peter Parker.

Trust that your sense of fear is real and true, that what smells bad is bad, that what sounds suspicious really needs to be viewed with skepticism.  Let your fear keep you safe when you’re fighting crime or Albigensians in the perilous byways and back alleys of English prose.

Jean-Paul Sartre, whose notions have informed so much of my thinking about writing, says that “there is no art except for and by others.”  What’s interesting about this statement is that it leaves the artist’s self out of the picture.  There’s no room for ego in art.

It’s all about community. Writing is like the city.  Dangerous and beautiful, strange and distressing, bright and alluring. Worth all the risks.  It’s where we come together.

It’s where we live, a city we share, a community we build.   Like Juneau.  Writing is Juneau.

Which is to say that it is not Atlanta.

This is the last “On Writing” column.  The stars have been aligning to tell me it’s time to stop, so I’m going to listen to the stars, for a change.

Some thank yous are in order:

Thanks to my editors at the Capital City Weekly, first Amy Fletcher and then Mary Catherine Martin.

Thanks to the numerous friends whose names I have taken in vain and whose ideas have given me a clue what I’m talking about.  Thanks to Clint Farr for responding to a challenge and serving as a guest columnist.

Thanks to Paul McCarthy for the good work we do together teaching writing at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, and to the other friends I’ve made there, like Sherman Pitt and guest columnist Byron Benedict.

And thanks to my friend and guest columnist Lowell Ford, in the hope that we will someday sit down together over a few beers, both of us free men.

Thanks to my twin sister Judy and my son Harry, who have helped in more ways than they can know.  Thanks to all my kids, actually—Jamie, Harry, Katie, Ben, and Mary, for being models of fearlessness and irreverent good humor.

And thanks above all to Michelle. In addition to serving as a guest columnist, Michelle has been the most constant presence in these columns; if I had time and space, I could take you through each column and point out the observations that came directly from her wisdom and acuity and the conversations we have every day.

Finally, to all of Juneau’s readers, my deepest gratitude.  To borrow some great words from A. A. Milne’s preface to The House at Pooh Corner: this column would have been my gift to you, were it not your gift to me.

Reason and All (or How I Learned to Write Badly)

At some point in our education, most of us had the experience of learning to write the “five-paragraph” essay.  You know the drill: your first paragraph introduces a subject and raises three points you intend to develop in your essay; your following three paragraphs then take each of those three points in turn; and finally, your essay concludes with some sort of peroration that sums everything up and restates your thesis.

Of course, no one actually writes like that.  I can’t remember ever reading a “five-paragraph” essay in print in the real world—in what W. H. Auden calls “The world of work and money / And minding our P’s and Q’s.”  And I’m not just talking about the number of paragraphs.

We see the five-paragraph essay only in schools, and I suspect (full disclosure: I haven’t actually done the research necessary to claim this as more than mere intuition, but sometimes we just have to trust our sense of smell)—I suspect that the five-paragraph structure was introduced by teachers as a pedagogical tool for introducing students to the rudiments of logical analysis and expository structure.

Logical analysis—like its cousin, chemical analysis—consists of breaking down a subject into its constituent elements.  The subject, however, isn’t a chemical compound but an argument, a position, or a phenomenon, and we’re breaking it down into its constituent premises and assumptions, its antecedents and consequents, to see whether or not a conclusion is valid, well founded, based on facts and reasonable premises.  In other words, we want to know whether an argument is reasonable and, ultimately, whether a conclusion is tenable.

(The tragically castrated medieval philosopher Peter Abelard distinguished between logic and science: science, he argues, is the means by which we discover new things about the world, things we don’t already know; conversely, logic is the means by which we discover whether what we think we already know is actually true.  Logical analysis is working backward from a conclusion to see if it’s reasonable.  Abelard was a pretty ballsy thinker—up to a point.)

What we commonly see in print is an analytical and expository structure that people in the western world have been using successfully for the last two millennia, and we see it virtually everywhere we look: in newspaper editorials and in papers in academic and scientific journals; in legal briefs and in movie reviews;  in sermons and homilies ; even in environmental impact statements written to conform to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

It’s a five-part structure, too, but the structure has nothing to do with the number of paragraphs or the number of points you make.  Rather, the structure is based on conveying information and explicating a sound argument for readers.  For readers is the operative phrase here: this structure is based on what readers need to know and when they need to know it. Apart from having an introduction and a conclusion, it’s completely different from the five-paragraph essay.

It goes like this:

We introduce our subject and state our thesis.  After our introduction, we give readers all the facts that they need to know in order to understand our argument.  (This second part of our essay is known traditionally as the “Statement of Fact.”  In a scientific paper, this is where we explain our methods—how we went about gathering our data—and where we present the data that we actually gathered.  We don’t start presenting our argument until after we have finished giving readers all the pertinent facts—and only the pertinent facts.)

Then, in the third part of our essay, we present our argument, the reason we’re writing.  We have given readers all the pertinent facts, so now they are in a position to fully understand our thesis, our interpretation of the facts or the data.

The fourth part of our essay is reserved for a refutation of other positions.  Having given readers our positive interpretation of the facts, we can now carefully but honestly show our readers other reasonable interpretations of the data and show how our interpretation of the data is the more tenable.

The fifth and final part is the conclusion, which, of course, is where we sum things up, restate our thesis (with more confidence now that we have shown readers how we arrived at that thesis), and address any further issues that may need to be resolved.

This is a perfectly good model for teaching analytical thinking and expository writing, and it has the benefit of being the way students will be asked to write once they get out of college.  For some years now, university writing teachers have been using it more and more and moving away from the five-paragraph model.

But I was taught to write using the five-paragraph model (and that’s one reason I learned nothing about writing from my college writing instructor, who was a Marxist and seemed less concerned about my prose style than about the plight of the proletariat) (which is okay—I don’t mean to suggest that my prose style is somehow more important than proletariat plight, but I was already learning about proletariats, both plighting and not plighting, in my poli-sci class) (where, incidentally, I wasn’t learning anything about my prose style either).

And I know that the five-paragraph model is still being taught in high schools and community colleges.  And it’s still an acceptable form for essays submitted for Advanced Placement tests.

So why do we teach students a model that virtually no one uses?

Because it’s self-contained, the five-paragraph model seems easier to teach, easier to learn, and easier to assess.  The internal, formal structure doesn’t require any reference to the messier world of real phenomena; it doesn’t worry students and teachers over facts, over the process of logical analysis, which requires some basic understanding of inductive and deductive reasoning and demands greater scrutiny of premises and assumptions.

Which is precisely the problem: it doesn’t worry students over facts, over the process of logical analysis, which requires some basic understanding of inductive and deductive reasoning and demands greater scrutiny of premises and assumptions.

Rather like our beloved Messrs. Strunk and White, the five-paragraph structure promotes a view of writing as an entirely formal exercise, the turning our faces toward the keyboard, rather than as an ethical act, our turning to face the world and one another.

And maybe—maybe—maybe this is one little piece of the puzzle of how and why we have become so averse and, indeed, so immune to facts and causality, to reason and all.

Requiem for a Heavyweight

(Published November 15, 2007)

I saw Carmen Basilio take one of Paddy De Marco’s best punches, go out on his feet, start to sit down on the canvas, and then with his butt three inches from the ground, Basilio did a one-legged knee stand, pushed up, avoided a knockdown … and went on to knock out De Marco in a few rounds. … Basilio, when asked why he didn’t take an eight-count and get some rest, answered, “I didn’t want to start any bad habits.”

– Norman Mailer.

I’ve been trying to write something about Norman Mailer since Saturday, when the news came that he was dead at 84. His writing had a great impact on me in my 20s.  It still does, and I thought it would be easy to get something down, since ideologically his works are pretty much of a piece. But it’s a big, complex piece and not easy to get a handle on.

Mailer once told an interviewer he thought it more important to be a good man than a good writer. Whatever his public persona might suggest, for Mailer that was the great responsibility of writing: to make us better people. He defined communication as necessarily leading to action, and he reviled communication that didn’t. His initial dismissal of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as “the literature of impotence” points the case. The struggle to understand, communicate honestly, and act accordingly – these were the things that separated the “Hip” from the “Square,” those two great opposing forces in Mailer’s Manichaean universe. Maybe what drove Mailer’s writing to greatness was his sense that the Squares – the willful misapprehensions and facile rhetoric – were winning.

In his short story, “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” a married couple waste so much energy psychobabbling about the relationship that, in the end, they have no energy left for taking a riskier, more painful path that might bring them closer to find greater pleasure and happiness together. Finally, they fall together in a kind of exhausted embrace that passes for love simply because they have nothing left in them for anything more strenuous. In a sentence that’s pure Mailer, the story ends with Sam, the husband, going to sleep:

So Sam enters the universe of sleep, a man who seeks to live in such a way as to avoid pain, and succeeds merely in avoiding pleasure.

The psychobabble Mailer indicts in the story is a bad habit – of thinking, of talking – that consumes the energy needed for communication, in Mailer’s ethical sense of that word. A closed system that lets in no light, the language of psychobabble (and all our other prevailing babbles) uses experience merely to confirm its own validity. It has communication backwards. Instead of seeking language that might give honest expression to experience, illuminate it, and provoke some response that makes us better people, psychobabblers mine experience for whatever will shore up their jargon. In the place of understanding, they offer only lies.  They make stuff up to fit their language. Like the creationists who don’t care to investigate the natural world for whatever truth it might have to offer, they look only for what can be twisted to prove conclusions they’ve already arrived at.

My son Jamie once remarked that Dylan’s lyrics seem to be rifling the language to see if words have any meaning left at all – which is as good a description of Dylan’s art as any I’ve heard. And Chaucer’s, and Shakespeare’s, Whitman’s, Joyce’s, all the greats, slugging it out with meaningless, prevailing jargons.

The Squares are still winning, probably always will be. But Mailer’s works will always be out there fighting: vigorous, strenuous, pugnacious because they have to be, because their goal is understanding, and it’s never easy to understand another human being, and harder still to act accordingly. (Witness how Mailer himself struggles – successfully – to abandon his own homophobia in his essay “The Homosexual Villain.”) His great works – “The Naked and the Dead,” “Armies of the Night,” “Of a Fire on the Moon,” “Executioner’s Song” – poise us too for the tough philosophical battles, and steady us, like Carmen Basilio about to fall down, to push back up on one leg and stay in the ring.

We don’t want to start any bad habits.

Sunday afternoons with Georges Enesco

When Georges Enesco and I were boys in northern Romania, we spent our summers exploring the soft Moldavian hills and plains that spread out from the banks of the Siret.  On Sundays after Mass, after the family dinners, a group of us boys with Georges in the lead would wander out to where the itinerant Romani traders camped, and we’d sit under the great walnut trees out of sight beyond the camp’s makeshift corral and talk and play cards and wait for the long summer light to shade into evening.

Then, as Venus emerged, the Gypsies began building their campfires and the music started: low at first, some distant guitar chords, a violin tuning up, some people singing. And as the fires drew the night down around the camp, the fiddles and accordions began whirling in earnest, guitars galloping in staccato rhythm, singers and horns wailing — all reeling out into the dark, the wildness of the music accentuated by whinnying grace notes from the corral.

I began listening to Georges Enesco’s own music by accident in my early 20s.  Browsing a discount record bin in some department store, I discovered West Meets East, a collaboration between Indian composer Ravi Shankar and American violinist Yehudi Menuhin.  Side One comprised three Indian ragas with Shankar on sitar, his sideman Alla Rakha on the tabla, and Menuhin on violin.  Menuhin’s violin seemed out of place in this music, making only for interminable cacophony.  Imagining Side Two to be more of this unlistenable stuff, I slid the record back into its jacket and slipped the LP onto the shelf where it languished for years somewhere between the Rolling Stones and the Who.

Then, one lazy Sunday afternoon in the mid-1980s when my wife and young sons were out visiting in-laws, I found myself alone at the apartment and needed some music.  Bored with my other LPs, I pulled out the dusty dust jacket of West Meets East.  The jacket listed only one piece on Side Two: Georges Enesco’s Sonata No. 3 in A Minor for piano and violin, with Hephzibah Menuhin accompanying her illustrious brother on piano and Ravi Shankar nowhere in sight.  I put on Side Two and stretched out on the sofa.

I woke up to late afternoon sunlight streaming in the window and the music still playing, this music exquisitely classical in form (Enesco studied classical composition with the master of French song, Gabriel Fauré), but with Romanian folk music’s wild temper.

I woke up to this music that sounded like my life, hurrying to begin, hurrying to end.  Timeless and mercilessly ephemeral: as Yeats says, “eternal beauty wandering on her way.”

After that, I looked for more of Enesco’s music and found a recording of the man himself playing violin — on Poéme, a piece for piano and violin by French composer Ernest Chausson.  On that recording from 1929, the “background noise” isn’t in the background at all; even on CD, contemporary noise-reduction technology hardly makes a dent.  But as a friend once quipped in comparing the sound of old analog recordings to modern digital, clean is over-rated.  Enesco’s violin emerges brilliantly through the noise.  And, truthfully, over the years that I’ve been listening to this record, all the snap, crackle, and pop of that old 1929 recording have come to seem as much a part of the accompaniment as the piano.

Years flash by without an afternoon listening to Enesco.  But sooner or later I find my way back and spend another afternoon lost in music as moving as ever, though more and more distant from those Sunday afternoons when the kids were young and time seemed far away.

Time seems nearer now.  But sometimes still on a lazy afternoon, I put Enesco on the stereo and relax, and nap, and wake again to my imagined friendship with this foreign and feral music.  And in those short waking moments, Georges Enesco and I are forever at play in the long summer light of those long-ago Sunday afternoons.


My second year in Juneau I was working as a regulation writer for the National Marine Fisheries Service, and I was drafting the preamble to a proposed rule explaining the whys and wherefores of some new fisheries regulation. For one reason or another I was dragging my feet and not getting the draft written in a very timely fashion.

Then one day at work I looked up from my computer to see the boss standing in the doorway of my office.

“You know how people always say that the wheels of the bureaucracy move slow?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I replied.

“It’s you they’re talking about.”

Full disclosure: I am now retired from federal service. But part of me still considers myself a brother-in-arms with everyone who has ever worked in the bureaucratic trade. And the boss’s quip was a good reminder that the bureaucracy isn’t some Rube Goldberg contraption badly in need of being oiled, but all of us whose day jobs are getting done the work of government.

And as with the bureaucracy, so too with our cherished concept of transparency in government, the notion that democracy requires that we be able to see into the government’s inner workings and to understand (and approve or disapprove of) the policies and regulations by which we govern ourselves.

Transparency isn’t some abstraction. If you work for the city or the state or the feds: when we talk about government transparency, we’re talking about you.

Your writing is the front line in keeping the government transparent. That’s why it’s so crucially important that we jettison all our preconceived notions of what a government document must sound like and, instead, start writing (and thinking) like people, like human beings speaking to others of our kind.

After 21 years of working for the feds, my thoughts about writing are often oriented toward public service. And that’s where this column began: my trying to think about all writing as a public service, as something we do for others. We write for readers. We write to serve others. Even if you only write in your private journal, your intended reader is someone else—some future you, some self who will invade your privacy to discover the self you aren’t any more.

Looking at writing that way, we can begin to explore ethical considerations that we tend to ignore in our focusing almost exclusively on the formal, mechanical characteristics of written language.

For instance, we talk about omitting needless words but not about why this word or that might be necessary for readers. Brevity may be the soul of wit, as Shakespeare’s Polonius tells us, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of writing. Comprehension, readability, understanding: these are values greater than brevity.

I spent the last decade of my career pushing back against flabby, uncommunicative bureaucratic bologna in all its forms, against all the acronyms and the bureaucratic jargon, against all the faux legalisms and stilted diction, against anything and everything that makes the writing hard to read, anything that comes between the readers and a clear and immediate understanding of what they’re reading and why.

That’s the job of writing for the public: ensuring that readers can read easily and clearly grasp the import of what they’re reading.

It’s good, meaningful work, and it’s more important than ever that we recognize our personal responsibility for getting it right. We have to write as clearly and precisely as possible, because if people can’t easily read and clearly understand what we’re writing, then the government is not transparent. And if it’s not transparent, it’s invisible.

Whether you’re writing an economic analysis or an environmental impact statement—

Whether you’re writing a preamble explaining a new proposed regulation or a letter to a stakeholder—

Whether you’re writing a newsletter or a memo to the boss—

Whatever it is you’re writing, you’re the writing. You’re the bureaucracy; you’re the transparency. It’s all up to you. Your writing is the only thing keeping the wolves of invisible government at bay.

And, baby, the wolves are at the door.

Bob Dylan, American Idol

(First published in the Capital City Weekly, February 25, 2015)

In his new record “Shadows in the Night,” Bob Dylan covers a collection of pop standards drawn from the Sinatra catalog. It’s not the first time Dylan has released a record entirely of other people’s songs. His 1992 album “Good as I Been to You” gives brilliant new life to folk standards like “Sittin’ on Top of the World” and the improbable “Froggie Went a-Courting.” I expected him to do the same for the Sinatra repertoire in “Shadows in the Night.” This should have been a remarkable record. Instead, it’s unlistenable.

In most pop music, songs are merely manifestations of the singer’s ego, platforms for exhibiting the singer’s musical talent. The song is a palimpsest for each new singer’s signature: Look at me, listen to how well I sing this song. Countless beautiful songs have been desecrated by pop vocalists who think they’re improving a song by subjecting it to voices that are tonally perfect, full of passion, and without a soul. The songs are all ego.

It has never been that way with Dylan. I hear a lot of people dismiss his singing as bad, but that’s to judge his singing by standards that are alien to what he’s doing – like judging Ray Charles by standards for Luciano Pavarotti, or vice versa. Dylan’s singing is expressive in ways few others can match. He can put a spin on a word as it leaves his lips that turns the lyric into poetry. And no one else can do that with a Dylan song. (Well, almost no one. Hendrix does it, of course; the Band does it with “When I Paint my Masterpiece,” but they almost don’t count; and Richie Havens finds in “Just Like a Woman” a tenderness that Dylan himself missed.)

Dylan’s singing has never been about himself. And this is what distinguishes him from most of the pop crowd. When Dylan sings, whether it’s his own song or someone else’s, it’s never about mere vocal virtuosity.

It’s not even about the song. The song is always in play. In concert, Dylan keeps changing his own songs; the rhythms, the melodies, sometimes even the lyrics change as a song comes at you from a whole new direction, as Dylan searches again for the heart of whatever loveliness or ugliness or just plain weirdness generated the song in the first place.

Even with someone else’s song, you can hear Dylan working to get at what the song is about. Dylan’s not so much a singer as an archaeologist or a surgeon, digging around in the song to find its heart, searching for that thing that – as Dylan says of Petrarch’s poetry – makes the song sound like it was written in your soul.

What’s distressing about “Shadows in the Night” is how far Dylan seems from all that. He’s a mere crooner here, turning out something like the official “BOB DYLAN” versions of Sinatra’s hits. Dylan does one of my favorite songs, Irving Berlin’s 1924 hit, “What’ll I Do?” – a hit revived for my generation by Harry Nillson’s beautiful rendition in “A Little Touch of Schmillson in the Night.” I couldn’t wait to hear Dylan’s.

It’s terrible. His voice is off-kilter and off-key. You can hear him trying to “sing” the song instead of trying to find its reasons. (If you want to hear a poet do this song, listen to Nillson. Or to Willie Nelson: Willie finds in the song the kind of nostalgia that paralyzes you and leaves you sitting in an empty barroom staring into your beer.)

There’s one song on the new record that Dylan has wrestled with twice before, the 1949 Frankie Laine hit “That Lucky Old Sun.” He performed this lovely song in concert with Tom Petty in 1985 and turned it into a bitter complaint, resentful and struggling for relief. He did the song again in Madison in 1991, this time singing it alone and with the wistful defeat of an older man who realizes that there’s only one way out.

Those tussles are not completely lost on him here, but he has given up trying to find the song. He holds an understanding of the song at arm’s length to … to do what exactly? I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing. Pinning it on the wall and labelling it “BOB DYLAN’S VERSION,” I suppose.

I have been a Dylan fan since 1965 when “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” first drifted over to New Jersey on the airwaves from New York City. In my mind, being alive in the time of Bob Dylan is surely what it must have been like to be alive in the time of Shakespeare. Dylan’s not just the greatest singer in rock & roll; he’s our greatest living poet.

But on this record he sounds like a mere vocalist, some pathetic hopeful waiting backstage to audition for American Idol.


The Scattering Afield: A Personal Essay

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—W.B. Yeats


Neil Young’s 1996 album Broken Arrow (with his garage band, Crazy Horse) ends with a live cover of Jimmy Reed’s 1959 rock classic, “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Neil and the boys are playing a small club, some secret venue where they can let down their famous hair and rock out in a space where they can feel it.

It’s a brilliant ending to an album that seems scattered at times, but maybe that’s the big idea behind the album. One of the songs is even called that: “Scattered.” Neil sings:

I’m a little bit here a little bit there

a little bit scattered everywhere

I’m a little bit up I’m a little bit down. . . .

Just like Jimmy Reed:

I’m goin’ up I’m goin’ down

I’m goin’ up down down up

Anyway you want to let it roll

Yeah yeah yeah

You got me doin’ what you want,

Baby why you want to let it go?

But the best thing about this live recording isn’t the band. Or it isn’t just the band. The recording itself seems scattered, unfocused, made from a single audience mic that gathers up all the scattered noises of the barroom. You can hear everything: the music, the band, the whistles and applause, the random conversations, laughter, clinking bottles and glasses, chairs and tables. You can even hear the size of the room. Everything.

And then, about four minutes into the song, Neil lays into his 1953 Les Paul—loud, raw, beautiful. The band is really cooking now, and the scattered noises fall into the rhythm, into a natural sympathy with the music. You can hear the audience listening intensely.

As the music starts to happen, the audience starts to happen too. In an epiphany-like moment we hear the audience suddenly become part of the song—not just passive auditors, but a necessary part of the equation, something the music doesn’t happen without.

Baby what you want me to do? The song answers its own question. How could I not be here for you? How could I happen without you?


In the early 20th century, American musicologist Frances Densmore traveled around the nation with one of Thomas Edison’s newfangled wax cylinder recording devices, lugging the bulky equipment with her to record Native American songs in their tribal settings. Recordings thousands of songs from scores of tribes from Panama to British Columbia, Densmore’s achievement is formidable all the way around, but she recorded one song that stands out as emblematic of all the rest and of culture generally—a sacred song of the Red Lake Chippewa tribe in Minnesota that Densmore titles “The Noise of the Village.”

The words of this remarkable song are frequently anthologized as a poem in collections of Native American poetry and represented as if the song were a kind of haiku—the short imagistic poem that American poet Ezra Pound popularized in modernist poetics:

 Whenever I pause,

the noise

of the village

But the song is nothing like haiku, and making it look that way is an unconscionable act of literary colonialism where Anglo-European literary culture (itself appropriating an Asian tradition) imposes itself on Native American song. (Representing the song like this also exposes some dubious parochial assumptions about what’s poetry and what’s not.)

On Densmore’s recording, the song’s words are repeated over and over, interspersed with what jazz singers call “scat singing” and linguists call “non-lexical vocables”: rhythmic nonsense syllables à la hip hop, do-wop, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and even Shakespeare with a hey nonny nonny, and rhythmic expletives à la Jimmy Reed’s “yeah yeah yeah.”

In her book Chippewa Music (1913), Densmore transcribes the original Chippewa words phonetically with non-lexical vocables–the yeah yeah yeahs– in parentheses, followed by a gloss for each separate word.

a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) (a bu) de bwewe odena a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan

a’nina’nibawiyan ……whenever I pause

de’bwewe ……………the noise

ode’na ……….………of the village

However the song is represented, the words are stunning.  We can imagine the sacred songwriter, busy at some task, but then pausing to take a break.  And as his concentration relaxes, all the sounds of the village around him come rushing back into his consciousness, all the scattered noises of the community that engenders his labor and his songs—and his identity, too.

Busy at his task, engrossed in what he’s doing, he’s invisible to himself. But as he relaxes he becomes aware of himself again—in the same moment that he becomes aware of all the noises of the village around him. He couldn’t miss the connection. How could I happen without you?

The songwriter then takes this epiphany and turns it into a song that, in the singing, becomes another one of the noises it celebrates.  And that’s culture—poetry, music, writing, all of it: the sound of the village celebrating the sacred, scattered sounds of ourselves happening.


And I think I’m a kind of scattering, too. I know I feel that way sometimes, some days more than others. A little bit here, a little bit there. Michelle will tell you.

And writing this column scatters my scattered self around. Jimseed. Me scattering myself into the world and becoming myself in the scattering. This is me happening.

And isn’t that all of us? We scatter ourselves around, things that happen. We don’t happen for long—“Poor passing facts,” the poet Robert Lowell calls us; “Poor foolish things that live a day,” says Yeats—but we do happen.

In his recent, posthumously published book on Heidegger, the late American philosopher John Haugeland contends that, paradoxically, we only emerge as individuals when we take responsibility for a collective way of being in the world. We happen to each other and for each other. And we don’t happen without each other.

We’re becoming ourselves in scattering ourselves afield, Johnny Appleseeds all.

How could I happen without you?

Naming the Sun

Published February 14, 2016
                  For Amy Fletcher

The poet,

Admired for his earnest habit of calling

The sun the sun. . . .

—W.H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone”

All writing should aspire to the condition of poetry.

The condition of poetry: I’m not talking about poetry’s reputation for being difficult or roundabout or cagey, or about poetry’s affinity for metaphor and wordplay, for riddles and puzzles and puns. And, sadly, I’m not talking about poetic rhythm and the music of words.

Poetry and prose have each their own distinctive gifts that writers ignore at the reader’s peril. But in the epigraph above, Auden identifies a fundamental poetic pursuit that all earnest writers share: the desire above all to be accurate, to say the thing that’s true. In all our writing, poetry or prose, we strive to call the sun by its right name.

Auden knew that poetry sometimes seems less than accurate, that poets often call the sun anything but. A quick turn through Dante’s poetry (as if any turn through Dante could be quick) shows the sun called by many names other than simply “the sun.” Either Dante calls it by one of its classical mythological names—Apollo or Phoebus or Helios—or he refers to it periphrastically as “the greatest minister of nature” or “the lamp of the world” or “the chariot of the light,” etc.

And when Dante does call something “the sun,” he’s often talking not about the sun, but about something else—either his beloved Beatrice or God. This is another earnest habit of poets: to name something with metaphors.

Or with puns: in Hamlet, when Claudius asks the young prince why his mood seems so dark, Hamlet retorts with a pun on his filial sentiments: “Not so, my Lord, I am too much in the sun.”

How are such poetic devices accurate ways to name the sun? I think that it all depends on the degree of accuracy we’re looking for. Just as the “right” name of the sun depends on what language you’re speaking, it also depends on the genre of your writing, the idiom, and the purpose.

Poetic idioms change from age to age, from culture to culture, and poetry can take many forms, from an analytical overview of the human condition (Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man”) to a medieval dirty joke ostensibly about a rooster (the anonymous “I have a gentle cock”). But the one constant we see in poetry is the poet’s search for a different kind of accuracy, a kind of hyper-accuracy.

The notorious difficulty of poems arises from poetry’s attempt to achieve this hyper-accuracy, to create a name that is less static and more fluid, more vital. In the last poem published during his lifetime, “Epilogue,” American poet Robert Lowell writes:

We are poor passing facts,

warned by that to give

each figure in the photograph

his living name.

Sounds good, but what, exactly, is a “living name,” and how does it differ from, say, Barney or Sylvia or Sam? And why does Lowell make it sound so imperative?

Maybe a “living” name is one that is itself alive and changing: changing with the changing nature of a thing that changes even as we try to name it: a name that shifts beneath us and around us like the earth and sky. We have a name for that kind of name. We call it poetry.

The language poets use, with all its literary devices and tropes, chases an accuracy that acknowledges that things are never as static as the names we give them. Poets try to name things in ways that reshape and sometimes disturb how we apprehend our lives.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger defines two ways of looking at something, a hammer, for instance: we can look at it and describe it (and name it) by some analytical process. This thing has a head and a claw and a handle and a grip; let’s call it a hammer.

Or we can pick it up and use it. And as we use it skillfully, Heidegger says, an interesting thing happens: the thing itself disappears into the task at hand. We no longer focus on the hammer but on the hammering, on the nails-being-hammered-in. This “disappearing into the process” sounds to me like the accuracy poetry tries to discover.

Elsewhere in the poem “Epilogue,” Lowell implores himself:

Pray for the grace of accuracy

Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination

stealing like the tide across a map

to his girl solid with yearning.

Lowell doesn’t call the sun the sun; he names it in action: an “illumination stealing like the tide across a map to his girl solid with yearning.” Now that’s accuracy—a name for the sun that we can see and hear and feel commingling with our eyes and the image of the girl. This kind of accuracy names the sun by the role that sunlight plays in creating the beautiful, in creating beauty. That sounds to me awfully close to a definition of God. Maybe Dante’s metaphor hits the nail on the head.

So, about that analytical report you’re writing at work right now: it’s probably not the place to go all existential and poetic on your reader. Readers have other expectations from environmental analyses and the like. But you share with poets the struggle to craft a piece of writing that is true, that elucidates the subject as accurately as possible, with no word or phrase that doesn’t help get you where you want to go.

Poetry in good working condition uses all its linguistic resources as intelligently as possible to express the many things we turn to poetry for: to evoke a sensation or tell a story or say a prayer; to recount a common experience that’s hard to apprehend or to recall a moment too ephemeral to be lost—all those things immune to our more prosaic consultations.

And when our prose is in good working condition, it too uses all the appropriate linguistic resources to communicate in clear, concise language the things we turn to expository prose for—an understanding of logical relations, causality, consequence. To say a thing clearly, succinctly, and accurately: for most of our writing, that’s poetry enough.

Words part 2

Published December 23, 2015


When we left off talking about Hamlet in our last column, the Danish prince was speechless. He was also dead, but this latter condition seemed almost irrelevant, since no one knew what it was like to be Hamlet anyway. When he was alive he was never able to tell anyone, and even when he tried, they didn’t get it.

Hamlet and Shakespeare’s other characters use words the way we all do: sometimes for communication, but just as often to obstruct communication: as bluster to hide behind, as sales pitches for trash, as disguises to cover up deception. And, of course, sometimes we simply lie.

(Sounds a lot like American politics, doesn’t it?)

Sometimes the meanings of our words aren’t as important as just saying something, anything. Think of being in an elevator with others and no one’s talking: there’s always that little tension that fills the air until someone speaks. And then everybody else chimes in, and that tension dissipates. Sure, it’s always the same insipid small talk — the weather, the traffic this morning, need another cup of coffee, thank God it’s Friday: you know the drivel.

But it’s not drivel, and it’s only insipid to linguistic puritans. Those words have a meaning, even if that meaning lies only in the act of their being said: in the need to break the tension that arises whenever creatures that talk gather in a small room and don’t.

Like human behavior itself, words are subtle and nuanced things. Shakespeare knew this, and shows us language in all its different shades, all the different ways we use words, the different uses that words can be put to. (That’s why his plays need actors like Richard Burbage and Robert Duvall, and emphatically not like Mel Gibson — actors who can portray all the complexities of human behavior that inform Shakespeare’s words.)

Any given word contains so many different meanings and suggestions that a dictionary cannot possibly identify them all — not just a word’s numerous denotations (its strict dictionary definitions), but all the different connotations (the idiomatic meanings a word acquires in common usage), and all the countless ways a word can be spun in the speaking or stretched in a metaphor or twisted by irony and sarcasm.

And in puns: 18th century poet Samuel Johnson called the pun Shakespeare’s “fatal Cleopatra,” a dangerous attraction Shakespeare could never resist. A lexicographer himself, Johnson knew all the different ways a word can “mean,” but he thought of Shakespeare’s puns as literary flaws and so never bothered to gauge what use Shakespeare makes of them.

Today we see Shakespeare’s puns not as flaws but as characteristic of an incredibly fertile literary mind that ignores formal literary conventions to see all possible ways that language can be used to convey meaning.

And in “Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s puns run at an all-time high, at least half a dozen varieties of pun and wordplay, all to suggest the complexities and duplicities and ambiguous motivations of human behavior, from Hamlet’s retort that Claudius is more closely related than natural (“more kin than kind”) to his harsh treatment of Ophelia when he teases that she always has sex on her mind (“country matters”).

(It occurs to me just now that Hamlet is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of Ophelia’s entire family: her father, her brother, and herself. He’s really a dangerous acquaintance. One thing I love about this play is that after reading and teaching and writing about it for almost 40 years, I’m still discovering new facets and a new appreciation of its depth. How cool is that?)

To bring this all back to our own writing: This almost unwieldy capacity of words to carry meaning makes it so important that when we write we weigh each word carefully, for all its meanings and all its idiomatic and unidiomatic uses; that we try to see all of a word’s different colors and hues; that we listen to whether a word sounds like other words and hints at other meanings that might complicate or contradict what we’re trying to say.

This is true even of little prepositions like the word “in.” Lately I’ve noticed that bureaucratic writers resist using the word “in.” They prefer the word “within” instead. But there’s a big difference between these two words. When you talk about fishing boats “within the Bering Sea,” you make it sound like they’re at the bottom.

“Within” has a definite idiomatic use — such as when we’re talking about being inside certain boundaries. But writers who use “within” when they simply mean “in” think of themselves too highly. It’s not more sophisticated to use the word “within” when you just mean “in.” It’s a kind of BS intended to make the writer sound more sophisticated but really just sounds stupid.

It’s never enough to grasp a word’s dictionary definition alone. Webster’s is a good place to start, but the dictionary is just a snapshot in time of what a word looked like when it was younger. But just like people, words change over time, and like us they tend to accumulate stuff (pounds, possessions, occasionally wisdom).

The rest is not silence, as Hamlet says. As Shakespeare’s works themselves attest to, words may change but they live on. And that is as true for us as for greats like Shakespeare. Our words have meaning, have impacts on others, take on lives of their own beyond us. That’s why it’s important that we try to write as deliberately — and as ethically — as we can.

And that begins with finding the right word. And finding the right word begins with our being aware of all the different ways that a word carries meaning.

Context, as we say, is everything: the audience we are writing to, the reason we are using a particular word, the words around it, the idiomatic context — all these things contribute to the meaning of any given word and can quickly and easily and sometimes unnoticeably change what a word means.

And in this search for the right word, there’s our rhetorical triumvirate again, those three questions we need to ask continually when we’re writing: who am I writing to? what am I trying to say? and why?

Words part 1: Acting Like Hamlet

Published December 9, 2015


At the end of the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Robert Duvall makes his screen debut as Boo Radley in a scene that lasts three minutes at most. But in that brief scene the young Duvall turns in a performance that stands as the epitome of great acting.

Radley, the mentally ill recluse who never leaves his house, risks being caught in public to save Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell’s attack. He carries the wounded boy back to Atticus’s house and hides behind the door in Jem’s room until he’s discovered by Atticus, Sheriff Tate and Scout.

When he’s first discovered there behind the door, Radley recoils in horror, in his eyes a look of sheer terror. But then he sees Scout. Their eyes meet, Scout smiles, and slowly the look on the face of this poor frightened man changes from terror to tenderness and to a love that overcomes his fear.

It’s a beautiful moment, but the incredible thing is Duvall’s performance, which is nothing short of amazing. He effects this transformation from terror to tenderness without moving a muscle on his face. Nothing changes in the features of his face, not the mouth, the eyes, the brow — nothing. But somehow everything changes.

It’s all in the eyes. The eyes: windows of the soul, right? Duvall has discovered Boo Radley’s soul and shows it in his eyes. But even Duvall’s eyes don’t seem to move or change in any empirical way that analysis can describe. I don’t know how he does it. Some kind of magic, I think.

I compare Duvall’s performance to what I call the Mel Gibson School of Acting, where Hollywood celebrities try to fake (and end up falsifying) real human emotions by gesticulating wildly and contorting their faces.

Mel Gibson is not alone in this approach, of course, but our subject at hand is Shakespeare’s Hamlet (we’re getting there, trust me). And it tickles me to no end to recall that Mel himself played Hamlet, in a manner of speaking, in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film of the play.

Zeffirelli’s film unintentionally brings these two different acting styles face to face when Mel as Hamlet meets the ghost of Hamlet’s father, played by the great British actor Paul Scofield. On one side of the screen we see a real, tormented ghost—fearsome, deeply aggrieved, and back from the dead to spur his son to revenge. And on the other side of the screen is Mel Gibson making faces.

I draw this distinction between real acting and the Mel Gibson School of Facial Contortion, because Shakespeare drew it first — in Hamlet’s instructions to a troupe of actors about how (and how not) to imitate human nature.

I’ve been thinking about Hamlet a lot since last month when Gold Town Nickelodeon presented the film of the British National Theatre’s production, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. But, really, as my wife Michelle will tell you, I’m always thinking about Hamlet. It’s that kind of work: once it gets under your skin, it’s always there, just below the surface. The trick is to let it get under your skin — like life itself. This play has become germane to how I think about writing, philosophy, life and all.

But back to this acting business: like a good critic, Hamlet presumes to tell the actors how to do their job. Don’t rant and rave, he tells them, and don’t gesticulate wildly and make faces like Mel. (Well, he doesn’t actually mention Mel, but he may as well have: we all know who he’s talking about.) An actor should represent even the most tempestuous passions in modest and measured tones — like a real human being, not a caricature.

And as Hamlet reminds the actors of the purpose of acting — to portray real human behavior — Shakespeare lets his audience see how that’s really done.

With the play “Hamlet,” Shakespeare and his friend Richard Burbage (the first actor ever to play Hamlet) were quietly effecting a revolution in the art of acting — a revolution needed to stage a new kind of play, the kind of play Shakespeare was writing, a play like “Hamlet.”

It’s a play where the plot has very little to do with people’s actions — “actions that a man might play.” The plot focuses instead on the characters’ inner lives, the very stuff that, as Hamlet says, cannot be seen on the surface: “that within which passeth show.”

And that’s the problem: in so many ways, Shakespeare suggests that language is not a very good tool for communicating our inner lives. In “Hamlet,” it’s quite the opposite: words are more often used to hide the truth, to cover up the real, to disguise the way a character apprehends his or her experience. Sometimes a character’s words hide the truth from others, sometimes a character’s words hide the truth from himself.

In the few instances where a character speaks honestly, speaks as clearly and sincerely as possible, other characters think he’s talking about something else anyway.

“Hamlet” is a play about words, and it doesn’t have nice things to say about them. As Hamlet lies dying, he pleads with his best friend, Horatio, to stay alive to tell Hamlet’s story — which Horatio does, but he gets it all wrong.

Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy concludes that our problem is that we don’t know what comes after death. Toward the end of the play, as he commits himself to the play’s closing act of violence, Hamlet reaches a different conclusion: we don’t know what comes before death either. The truth of Hamlet’s experience, so strenuously sought after throughout the play by others and by Hamlet himself, is a truth no one ever grasps. In the face of this fundamental ignorance, aren’t all words pretty much useless? Hamlet’s final words are perhaps the most honest of all. “The rest is silence.”