A Fool in the Forest

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.

As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7

L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Les Fleurs du Mal, “Correspondances”

Saturday, August 16, 2003
Ode to Gioia: Writing About Poetry Done Right

Last week Aaron Haspel launched off more than a few pointedly disapproving remarks in the direction of "visceral" critics:
Of all critics possibly the most irksome is the visceral. He won't tell you why something is great, he just knows when he sees it, or more precisely, when he feels it. Along these lines we have Emily Dickinson, better-known, of course, for poetry than criticism: 'If I feel physically as though the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.' Or most famously, A.E. Houseman: 'Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that my razor fails to act.' Experience has taught me never to use a phrase like 'shaving of a morning.'
The catalyst for this outpouring of scorn was this piece by Terry Teachout, in which he describes his personal responses to a repeat viewing of choreographer Mark Morris’ dance, V. The dance is a masterpiece in Teachout’s opinion -- to his credit, he links to fellow dance critic Toby Tobias' dissenting view -- and he knows it is because he feels it to be so with such intensity:
Instead of analyzing V, I read its quality off myself, the same way you can read the seismographic chart of an earthquake and know how strong it was. Or—to put it more simply—I knew how good V was because of the way it made me feel.
Now, I tend to think that the criticism leveled at this particular piece was a trifle unfair, because Teachout really wasn’t writing a review or critical article on the dance. Rather than offering his personal, visceral response as a reason why you, the reader, should agree with his high opinion of V, his apparent intent was to make that response in itself the subject of the post, with the dance simply providing a concrete example of a work that produces that sort of response in him. As criticism, the piece is very nearly as unhelpful as Haspel says it is -- as is the entire school of “visceral” reviewing, exemplified by the avalanche of film writing each summer that describes one costly strip of celluloid or another as “a thrill ride,” as though that were a term of praise -- but it didn’t set out to be criticism. It set out to be a commentary on a blog, making it almost by definition a personal rather than a critical essay.

All this is by way of introduction to a counter-example that I have been enjoying (there, now I’m doing it too) this past week, a critical writer who manages to both convey his strong personal approval or disapproval of an artist or work and to provide concrete examples and cogent descriptions of the basis for those opinions. The subject under discussion is poetry -- which is far easier than dance to reproduce on a page -- and the writer is Dana Gioia, poet, critic and current Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Gioia’s essay collection, Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture has been republished in a ‘tenth anniversary” edition and it has been my principal non-Web reading for the past few days. In addition to the title essay, famously printed in the Atlantic Monthly back in 1991 and still available online here, the book includes essays on individual poets (subjects include Robinson Jeffers, Great Plains regional poet Ted Kooser [of whom I knew nothing previously], Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop and no less than three takes on Wallace Stevens; Robert Bly comes in for a not-entirely favorable appraisal as well) and broader issues (such as the presence or absence [nearly always the latter] of references to business in the work of poets who make a living in business [Stevens again, among others]). The essays on individual poets are particularly good at offering clear descriptions and convincing examples of the reasons that Gioia intends to praise them, none moreso than Gioia’s long consideration of 40’s poet Weldon Kees, who may or may not have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955. (He may also have disappeared to live anonymously in Mexico, thus setting an example for the rumors attendant to musicians such as Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley.) The Kees essay passes at least one test for effectiveness: it has convinced me that I really want to track down and read as much of Kees’ poetry as I can manage. (The Kees essay itself is not available online, but another long appreciation, “The Cult of Weldon Kees” is available at Gioia’s wide-ranging Web site.)

In the title essay, Gioia contrasts the primarily academic writing about poetry today with the more public writing on poetry of fifty years ago:
The reviewers of fifty years ago knew that their primary loyalty must lie not with their fellow poets or publishers but with the reader. Consequently they reported their reactions with scrupulous honesty even when their opinions might lose them literary allies and writing assignments. In discussing new poetry they addressed a wide community of educated readers. Without talking down to their audience, they cultivated a public idiom. Prizing clarity and accessibility they avoided specialist jargon and pedantic displays of scholarship. They also tried, as serious intellectuals should but specialists often do not, to relate what was happening in poetry to social, political, and artistic trends. They charged modern poetry with cultural importance and made it the focal point of their intellectual discourse.
This is the standard to which Dana Gioia appears to have held himself, and it makes his book well worth the time of anyone who is interested, or would like to be interested, in poetry in our time.

Elsewhere: A review of Can Poetry Matter? by Sunil Iyengar, placing Gioia solidly in the main line of poets and poetic thinkers leading back through the Modernists to the Romantics, is also available at Contemporary Poetry Review. A view of contemporary poetry not inconsistent with Dana Gioia's, but couched in slightly more spicy and provocative terms, can be found in Thomas Disch's delicious essay collection from 1995, The Castle of Indolence: On Poetry, Poets and Poetasters. Disch takes particular pleasure in undercutting "workshop" poetry and poems that are actually just prose with odd line breaks. Definitely worth a look for that same audience I cited above.

Friday, August 15, 2003
The L.A. Times: Monetized for Your Protection

Kevin Roderick's L.A. Observed provides a link to a Mark Glaser article at Online Journalism Review analyzing the L.A. Times' decision to wall off all of its cultural coverage and to require a paid subscription to reach it. My earlier low growl in the direction of this policy is here.

Being a paid subscriber to the paper myself, I can get around the wall if I only remember to bring my account number along to the office some day. Still, the new policy irks me as a blogger for at least two reasons:

First, the Times' pay-to-view means that I cannot provide a service to my readers by linking to cultural content. In that earlier post, for instance, I had been intending to refer you all to some Really Good Articles that had appeared in last Sunday's Book Review section. (You can see a directory of last Sunday's articles here, but you can't actually read them unless you cross the Times' electronic hand with silver.) The upshot is that I, or any other blogger, can no longer drive traffic to the Times. I assume they have analyzed the trade-offs in lost readership, but I'm not convinced they have the balance right.

More troubling: walling off this material essentially renders it immune from criticism by bloggers. It is accepted protocol that when one makes a representation about an article in a blog, and particularly when one is intent on leveling criticism or mockery (or praise, for that matter), one will link to the source material. That's one of the essences of blogging, and whenever one of us gets up on the high horse to declare the Web's superiority to Old Fashioned Print Journalism, that is one of the virtues in which we wrap ourselves. If that source material cannot be linked -- because the non-paying blog reader won't actually be able to read it if he or she clicks on through -- that material becomes essentially invisible, unavailable for testing in the marketplace of ideas, and able to continue along blissfully unaware of the errors (or virtues) of its ways.

Now, if a blogger really felt compelled to critique or commment upon a CalendarLive item, and that blogger had access to the item either through being a paid subscriber to the paper or through paying for online access, the critique or comment could still be written by the simple expedient of quoting a large excerpt from the article in question. But wait: That means that the reader must take the blogger's word for it that the text is being presented unaltered. Worse perhaps, it means that the blogger can only bring the information to the reader by flirting with copyright infringement, i.e., by reproducing the copyrighted material on the blog rather than sending you to the Times' own version. (Yes, most excerpting would seem to fall squarely within the bounds of fair use, but what is to be done with a long article whose intricacies and merits can only be weighed by Reading the Whole Thing? Infringement or silence seem to be the only options in that case.)

So there we have it: this blogger's initial view is that the Times' new policy is questionable as a business move and actively hostile to the spirit of intellectual inquiry and Web-based puffing and panning. To the barricades, citizens! This cannot stand!

FOLLOW-UP: L.A. Observed also links to an L.A Times article on the fate of the long-closed, still legendary Perino's restaurant, which is to be torn down to be replaced by upscale apartments:
In its glory days, Perino's set the standard for sophistication and high style. For nearly four decades, it was a place where socialites lingered over chicken quenelles and steak Diane as violins played softly in the background. Celebrities of all stripes dined at Perino's: Eleanor Roosevelt, Cole Porter, Bugsy Siegel.

Surrounding them since 1949 was the epitome of postwar decorating elegance, shades of pink and peach that architect Wade Killefer called 'Rat Pack modern.' Indeed, Frank Sinatra and other entertainers of that era fooled around on the Steinway grand piano in the bar, developer Tom Carey said.
You can actually read the entire article because it is in the Business section of the paper, still freely available to all. Is it logical that you can read this story there, but that you would not be able to get at it if it were published in the Calendar section and couched as, say, a nostalgic reminiscence or an architectural appreciation? Such fine distinctions are too much for this Fool to fathom.

Thursday, August 14, 2003
MacArthur's Park is Melting in the Snark

Apropos of today's big East Coast power failure, Mickey Kaus crows:
Kausfiles comes to you uninterrupted from California, where we always have power, thanks to the farsighted leadership of Gov. Gray Davis and about $40 billion.
[That's the whole thing, so you don't necessarily have to click through and scroll and scroll and scroll to find it on Kaus's permanently permalink-free site.]
Brussels Bureaucrats in Fermented Curd Caper!

Feeling a mite peckish, Michael Jennings of Samizdata infiltrated a place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles, to wit, some grated parmesan to be applied to his ham and mushroom tagliatelle. Thereby hangs a tale of European Union regulation and the naming of names. Follow along now as Michael poses the musical question: "Who renamed my cheese?"

UPDATE: Deep down in the comments to Michael's post, you'll find a complete list of the EU-protected names of wines, meats and cheeses, along with a link to a tale of unhappy Greeks [see the bottom-most story on that page].
Answering the Call of a Fellow Blogger

Over at the Conspiracy, Professor Eugene Volokh was soliciting examples of fictional characters with the names of real people. Read down to his Update, and you will see that we were happy to oblige him. (My e-mail cited the Archibald Leach example as well, but I must not have been the first.)
Dictionaries and Razor Blades

Planned obsolescence -- designing and building a product specifically to wear out in order to drive demand for replacements -- is a well known phenomenon in consumer goods. Razor blades, light bulbs, DVDs, all can be and have been built to fall apart. It's not a bug, it's a feature.

Writing crankily in the Weekly Standard, Robert Hartwell Fiske of The Vocabula Review finds the phenomenon spreading to dictionaries, particularly the slang-filled new Eleventh Edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:
Merriam-Webster's laxicographers, further disaffecting careful writers and speakers, assign the meaning 'reluctant' to the definition of 'reticent.' 'Reticent' means disinclined to speak; taciturn; quiet. 'Reluctant' means disinclined to do something; unwilling; loath. Because some people mistakenly use 'reticent' to mean 'reluctant,' dictionaries now maintain 'reticent' does mean 'reluctant.' There are other examples of Merriam-Webster's inexcusably shoddy dictionary-making. According to the dictionary's editors, the spelling 'accidently' is as valid as 'accidentally'; the verb 'predominate' is also an adjective meaning 'predominant'; 'enormity' means the same as 'enormousness'; 'infer' means the same as 'imply'; and 'peruse' means not only to examine carefully but to read over in a casual manner. The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary actually promotes the misuse of the English language.

Of course, it's in the financial interest of dictionary makers to record the least defensible of usages in the English language, for without ever-changing definitions--or as they would say, an evolving language--there would be less need for people to buy later editions of their product.
Link via Arts & Letters Daily.
All the Action's On My Other Blog So Far Today

In between catching up with all the paper that washed across my desk while my back was turned, I've managed to post reports on two new court decisions to the legal blog, Declarations and Exclusions.

New material will appear on this blog soonishly.
Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Off to that U.S District Court hearing, but not before posting to my legal site, Declarations and Exclusions, which I have to declare officially public because other legal bloggers have begun to notice and link to it. I thank them them there, I thank them again here, and I commend them to your attention.
Tuesday, August 12, 2003
Live from SFO, a Late Night Blog Post

This is not, typically, a What I Did With My Day sort of a blog, but circumstances compel me again to make an exception. It is late evening in a hotel near the San Francisco International Airport, and the first opportunity I have had to obtain anything in the way of a reliable connection today. Hardly anyone ever talks about what it is Really Like in the practice of law -- particularly the extent to which it often involves just sitting around waiting for things to happen. Perry Mason and all those other fictional advocates never seem to sit around waiting, but real attorneys do it all the time.

Today did not involve waiting so much as it did the difficulties of getting from point A to point B. After a day of reviewing files in Crescent City (worth the trip for that purpose), I had to make my way back to San Francisco for a hearing in the U.S. District Court tomorrow morning. Getting to Crescent City was an easy direct flight, but the requirements of my schedule were such that coming back entailed a more roundabout route, via Eureka and Sacramento. This was a series of short hops, and each went off as efficiently as one could ask, but the process as a whole took over four hours.

Since I was last through the San Francisco airport, construction has been completed on the long-awaited extension of the BART System, as well as a light rail/shuttle running to all terminals and out to the distant rental car facility. It seems to work well, and I would have been posting earlier this evening but for . . . the evacuation of the rental car facility for half an hour or so as a result of a never-identified emergency. The crisis ended, I found myself saddled with a minivan rather than the humble economy car I had reserved. No increase in the rate, but now I’ll have to worry about being in the bad graces of Arianna Huffington, scourge of the Hummer. (To my credit, though, back home I drive an environmentally friendly Prius, just like Arianna and all those Big Stars. But I digress.)

So there we are. Final preparation and a bit of shuteye await me, followed by the eventual return to southern California following tomorrow’s hearing. Something like regular blogging resumes by Thursday morning, I would guess. Thanks, gentle readers.

Monday, August 11, 2003
Greetings From Crescent City

As reported below, I am blogging tonight from a slow dial-up connection in a hotel room in Crescent City, California, along the rugged and beautiful northernmost coast of the state, where the redwood forests slope to the sea. It was a fine clear day to be flying here in a modest turboprop. It is also, I'm pleased to say, some 30 degrees cooler here than back in Los Angeles.

Be that as it may, the reason for this post is to recommend appropriate reading matter. Although set in a somewhat more remote stretch of the coast than Crescent City occupies, the book that seems most appropriate is nonetheless Thomas Pynchon's Vineland. Funny and paranoid in the usual Pynchon proportions, and surprisingly linear into the bargain. It's our Recommendation of the Moment, for the moment.

Arnold's Rising Tide Initiative

Arnold Schwarzenegger, to the extent he has committed to anything, has said that he thinks the return of business to California is a goal he will pursue if he becomes governor. Daniel Weintraub at California Insider has done the numbers on Arnold's own tax returns -- showing a significant drop in income, and thus a substantial drop in tax payments, from 2000 to 2001 -- and seemingly agrees. It's The Rich whose taxes were keeping the state afloat in the first place:
I am not suggesting that you feel sorry for Arnold, or for others in his class. But remember this: in the tax year 2000, California had 44,000 people who earned $1 million or more. They earned 21 percent of the state's income and paid 37 percent of the income taxes, $15 billion in all. The following year, 29,000 people earned more than $1 million. Their incomes represented 12 percent of the money earned in the state, and they accounted for 25 percent of the tax paid, or $8 billion. That $7 billion drop was virtually all the decline in state taxes, the very decline that led to the deficit, since the state kept spending as if the money would keep pouring into the treasury.

Arnold's personal income drop between 2000 and 2001 cost the treasury $700,000. That's about 15 school teachers, or 10 firefighters at top pay. In California, when the rich get richer, government programs do better. And when they get poorer, the public sector takes the hit.
Gray Davis and, seemingly, Official Democratic Alternative Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante are aiming their actions (Davis' incilinations to sign legislation) and their rhetoric (Bustamante's critiques of Schwarzenegger over his pro-Prop. 187 vote) at the presumed lower end of the economic continuum (recent immigrants, legal or otherwise). It seems to me that, even if you take it as a given that policies favorable to those groups are in themselves Good Policies -- as indeed they may be -- you still need to have companion policies that are helpful to those who are going to have to Pay the Bills for your Good Policies. In other words, you need to have policies that will actually encourage the making of [taxable!] profits at the same time you are looking to send state-sponsored assistance to non-profitmakers; and on that score, there is little but silence from the Davis and post-Davis Democratic camps.

In related news, Micky Kaus seems to be the source authority for specific policy decisions demonstrating that Governor Davis actually deserves the recall. (Just click through, scroll down and read it all. Pretty darned damning, in my view.)
Clau-Clau-Claudius Had It Right

Don't you enjoy it when science confirms the conventional wisdom? Now archeologists are reporting evidence that the emperor Caligula really was a ‘maniac’.
A Fool on the Road

This Fool will be traveling on business through Wednesday, so blogging will probably be a sometime thing at best. It will probably include a report on hotel internet access in far distant Crescent City, California (about as far north as one can go along the coast and still be in California), which is among my destinations.

I was hoping to commend to you several worthy items from this weekend's Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, but the Times itself prevents me. In their dubious wisdom, the Powers at the paper have placed all of their 'Calendar Live' content -- film, theater, music, art and, yes, books -- on to a pay/subscription-only basis. 7-day subscribers to the paper can access this material as part of their subscription (if they dig up their account number and register); everyone else gets to pay $4.95 per month. Unlike many papers, which have articles up for free on the day they appear and then move them to a pay archive, the L A Times now stands by the noble principle that No One Reads for Free. Harrumph.