Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Odds & ends ...

The Elegant Variation links to best books of 2005 lists here and here. The latter link has much else besides that is more interesting than the lists.

Joel Weishaus, a poet and co-author (with David Rosen) of The Healing Spirit of Haiku has begun a series of digital critiques. The first takes a pretty thorough and imaginative look at David Budbill's Moment to Moment and While We've Still Got Feet. I read While We've Still Got Feet this past summer, thinking to review it. But I disliked it intensely. Joel -- who, by the way, has reviewed for The Inquirer -- evidently thinks better of it.

Finally, here is a link to the blog of Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Symbols and reality ...

According to the late neurologist Russell Brain (see previous posts), "the receptive function of the brain is to provide us with a symbolical representation of the world outside it." I find this an intriguing notion, especially when one thinks of it in terms of what physics tells us about the nature of the "material" world.
I am six feet tall. According to Eddington, if you eliminated the spaces between the molecules and atoms of which I am composed and reduced me to "matter" and nothing but, I would be a speck just large enough to be seen with a powerful magnifying glass. I am, in fact, a galaxy of electrical impulses.
If Brain is right, then everything we know is a symbolical representaion of energy configurations. The schoolmen and the ancients thought in terms of matter and form. Perhaps it would be more correct to think in terms of energy and form. What we call matter is, to use Brain's formulation, a symbolical representation of those energy configurations. Indeed, the energy units themselves that we speak of -- atoms, protons, electrons -- would also be symbolical representaions.
This leads, I think, to a key question: What is the basis of the symbology? From what does it derive?
I have a hunch that Plato's theory of ideas might be usefully looked at in this regard -- though I can't begin to say how just yet. But I'll keep thinking about it. After all, the brain itself would be a symbol also. If what we are dealing with are symbols and energy, then it would seem that mind is the fundamental reality. And that would seem to suggest that intelligence is a concomitant of reality as well. Of course in Eliot's words, "These are only hints and guesses,/Hints followed by guesses ..."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Photo tapas ...

Eric Mencher, blogging from Spain, has some wonderful shots of trees.

Fiction enters reality ...

Bill Peschel raises some issues with the L.A. Times's David Ulin. "I would love to know what time Ulin thinks that the bottom line didn't matter," Peschel says. Me too.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

News and a blog discovery ...

Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind is a blog I hadn't come upon before, but seems very interesting. I certainly was interested in this item about John Banville. My review of Banville's Man Booker winner, The Sea, runs in The Inquirer tomorrow.

A priceless review ...

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit links to Protein Wisdom, which links to a review in the Sacramento Bee of a one-man show put on by Michael Newdow, the guy who wants to remove God from the Pledge of Allegiance. Bee staffer Blair Anthony Robertson has written a classic.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Missing in action ...

I spent most of Wednesday and yesterday cooking, and today I was one of only two assigning editors in the features department of The Inquirer. It was a fairly busy day and a fairly long one -- 9 a.m to 8 p.m. But my desk is back in order, and so, to a large extent, is the book room. Two bins of mail are yet to be opened, but we are making progress.
In any event, no serious blogging tonight, though I do want to note something I should have yesterday: On Nov. 24, 1990, Dodie Smith died, age 94, in Doylestown, Pa. In case the name doesn't register, Dorothy Gladys Smith, born in Lancashire, England, on May 3, 1896, was the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Considering how we know (Pt. 3) ...

An email correspondent has suggested that the subject of these posts regarding neurologist Russell Brain's Mind, Perception and Science is wearisomely abstruse. And he may well be right. So I have decided to take the advice Brain himself offers in his Introduction and skip ahead a bit, to Chapter 4 and beyond, wherein he discusses the philosophical implications of the technical matters discussed earlier. In doing so I can actually get around to showing Bill Peschel where Brain was going with those of his observations I quoted in my original post.
Brain differentiates between two "worlds" -- the perceptual "world" and the physicl "world." (This is strictly a verbal distinction, made for the sake of argument; as he points out later, there is really only one world.)
The two "worlds" differ from one another in various respects. One of the most important of these is that events in the physical "world" occur "at different times from those at which the observer perceives them." This is obvious when one considers looking at an object light years away. But as Brain notes, the observer's perception of his own body also is "awareness of its immediate past, for he is not aware of the prick of a pin until after the interval of time necessary for a nerve-impulse to travel to his brain from the part of the body which has been pricked." That is because "what determines our awareness of a sensation, and also its nature, is the arrival of a nerve-impulse, or more probably a series of nerve-impulses, at the appropriate end-station of the brain."
This brings us to what Bill was interested in:
... if at least what the philosophers call secondary qualities, such as smells, sounds, colours and so on, are quite unlike the physical stimuli which give rise to them, then we must regard them as symbols of physical reality and say that the receptive function of the brain is to provide us with a symbolical representation of the world outside it, not only distinguishing objects by their qualities, but also conveying to us the spatial relationships which exist between them, and at the same time giving us similar symbolical information about our own bodies and their relation to the external world. (Emphasis mine.)
I think I'll leave it at there for now. That's a Thanksgiving Day's portion of food for thought.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Skipping again ...

A long day, and I have only just got home and had some dinner. So no serious blogging tonight. But I do want to note that tomorrow is the birth date of James Thomson, the Scottish Victorian poet who wrote The City of Dreadul Night, quite un-Victorian in its pessimism. Here is an interesting site devoted to him.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Duty calls ...

I have a deadline to meet tomorrow morning, so no blogging tonight.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Considering how we know (cont'd) ...

Bill Peschel attached a very interesting comment to my previous post, noting that "in dealing with the outside world, there needs to be some way for the brain to translate the signals it receives into a 'language' it can understand, so the inability of the cochlear and the nerve impulses to vibrate at the exact frequency of the noise doesn't prove bothersome," adding that he'll "be interested in seeing where [Russell Brain is] going with this line of thought."
Actually, I should have pointed out what the first chapter of Mind, Perception and Science has to do with, which Brain explains at the outset:

Epistemology seems to me to be the cardinal problem of modern thought, for we cannot separate our conclusions concerning the nature of perceiving from our conclusions as to the nature of what we perceive. As a neurologist I shall be chiefly concerned with the causal aspects of pereception. I make no apology for that, for it is much neglected by philosophers, who mostly concentrate upon perception as presentational immediacy. No theory of perception can be adequate which does not fully account for both.

He then goes on to examine, first, physiological idealism and then the varieties of critical realism, adding that "I find both ... equally unsatisfactory."
My previous post quoted from the section on physiological idealism.

In his comment on my post, Bill mentioned "the triangulation developed by the noise level from the two ears, as well as the subtle change in noise one ear receives when the head rotates slightly," and Brain also points out that "in our awareness of our own bodies we are directly aware of a three-dimensional object. The position of this object can be changed in relation to the external world and the position of its parts can be modified in relation to the body as a whole. Thus the body serves as a primary model of three-dimensional space."

Brain cites two main objections to physiological idealism. The first involves applying the idealism to the idealist himself: "... if all sense-data are states of his brain, this must also be true of the sense-data derived from his own body; and his brain itself, if, as is not impossible, he could see it in a mirror in the course of an operation, must be reduced to an activity of itself." He may insist that the sense-data provide information about things existing independently of his awareness of them, but, as Brian points out, it's hard to see how he can arrive at this conclusion if the sense-data are "nothing but states of his own brain."

The second objection is that "if physiological idealism is true we might expect to find that there is something circular about the events in the cerebral cortex, for it is these, we are told, which are 'projected' on to the outside world when we perceive a circle." But "nothing of the sort is true."

As it happens, "when we perceive a two-dimensional circle we do so by means of an activity in the brain which is halved, reduplicated, transposed, inverted, distorted, and three-dimensional. ... the circle which is said to be projected from the cerebral cortex never existed there at all."

So here is the mystery, thus far: The nature of the stimulus as transmitted differs entirely from the nature of the stimulus as received. Yet any number of people receiving the same stimulus will perceive the same thing. Our agreement regarding the terminus a quo is grounded in our shared experience of the terminus ad quem. So , one might ask, is reality a consensus?

Next: What Brain says about critical realism.

By the way, the idea behind this series of posts is that by taking a close look at a couple of interesting, related books by the same author, blogger and readers can together try to arrive at the sort of understanding one would hope to find in a really thorough review. That is the experiment I referred in the previous post.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Considering how we know ...

Today I begin an experiment. And it shall be a modest beginning. I mentioned awhile back two books by the late British neurophysiologist W. Russell Brain -- Mind, Perception and Science and Tea with Walter de la Mare. What I plan to do over the next few days -- even weeks, if necessary -- is go over each in some detail, a bit at a time. I begin with a passage from the first chapter of Mind, Perception and Science:

A tuning fork is struck or a whistle is blown, or in some other way the air is made to vibrate, and a series of waves with a frequency of, say, 4,000 vibrations a second is propagated through the air. It strikes the observer's ear and a portion of the cochlea, attuned to this particular frequency, is caused to vibrate at the same rate. So far the subject has heard nothing. The vibration of this part of the cochlea starts a series of nerve-impulses in a certain fibre or fibres of the auditory nerve. No nerve-fibre in the body can carry impulses at so fast a rate. The frequency with which nerve-impulses can follow one another along a nerve depends upon the electrochemical structure of nervous tissue and is never more than 1,500 a second, and often much less. ... The auditory nerve-fibre therefore conducts impulses at its accustomed rate, and, by a series of relay paths, the impulses reach the auditory area of the cerebral cortex in the temporal lobe. Electro-encephalography enables us to detect its arrival there and in the experimental animal we can record simultaneously the frequency of the sound-stimulus, and the electrical response which it evokes in the auditory cortex. These are entirely dissimilar. (Emphasis mine.)

Brain goes on to note that "the difference in pitch of two sounds is correlated with a difference in their frequencies, but no such difference is to be found in the events in the nervous system upon which the discrimination of their respective sense-data depends. These have neither the frequencies of the stimuli nor do they differ from each other in frequency (emphasis mine). They differ only in that the nervous impulses travel by different paths and reach different destinations in the cerebral cortex; and this seems to be true not only of the difference between one sound and another, but also of that between nervous impulses evoked by auditory, visual and olfactory stimuli."

I think it will be obvious that the "facts" of the matter indicate, as Brain puts it, "that sense-data are 'really' located in the cerevral cortex or in the mind of the observer." The question is why they appear to be located outside the observer. Presumably, it's because that's where the original stimulus is located. But the absolute dissimilarity of the stimulus and the response makes the whole matter problematic, to say the least.

I throw this out and invite comment. I'm certainly going to be thinking about it -- and this is only the beginning of what is a very interesting little book.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A critical crisis ...

Last summer Scott Timberg wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times called "Critical Condition." I linked to it and commented on it here (the link to the LA Times no longer works).
Now, in Prospect, Michael Coveney writes about Critical Clowns. "The long, slow haul of a career as a critic," Coveney laments, "with its period of apprenticeship, dedication and accumulation of wisdom and experience —as exemplified by [Andrew] Porter — is suddenly becoming a thing of the past."
Yet he notes that "the feeling persists that theatre is yesterday's news, though yesterday's news has paradoxically become the stuff of contemporary theatre ... every other play in London seemed (and seems) to be about the war in Iraq, or detainees in Guantánamo bay, or the collapse of the railways, or problems with multiculturalism ..." He also takes The Spectator's Toby Yong to task for leaving "the first night of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh at the interval. [Young]defended his behaviour by saying that he had every right to be as bored as the average punter." Coveney thinks that "McDonagh is trying to push some envelope of extremity in the theatre and the critics have to work out whether or not it should remain sealed."
I haven't seen McDonagh's play, but I've seen enough contemporary drama to know I am tired of seeing the stage taken up with simple-minded editorials about "yesterday's news." A couple of years ago I saw Jesus Hopped the A Train. The production was very fine, the actors extremely good. But the play barely rubbed elbows with reality. The playwright's knowledge of life in prison seemed derived entirely from HBO's Oz and the public defender's grasp of the law was for all practical purposes non-existent.
I think one problem in theater today is that not enough classic plays are staged. If you see something like Ibsen's The Master Builder or Maugham's The Constant Wife, you get an idea of what real theater can do, of how effective well-drawn characters can be. And great drama is rooted in character, not ideology or, worse, policy positions. Even composers and painters nowadays feel they must use art to editorialize. Hasn't anybody noticed that editorials are about the most worthless thing in the newspaper?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

One of the odder anniversaries ...

I must get on with reading the book I am reviewing for Nov. 27 -- John Banville's The Sea -- but want to note that today marks one of the more unusual literary anniversaries: It is the date in 1849 on which Fyodor Dostoyevsky was sentenced to be executed. A month later, as the sentence was about to carried out, he was saved by a last-minute reprieve. Thanks to Today in Literature.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Writers, sex, and passion ...

Adam Gopnik has a characteristically fine piece about C.S. Lewis (tip of the hat to Arts & Letters Daily). But I do not think it is altogether fine. There is, for instance, this:

Lewis writes about his last school, Malvern, at such length, and with such horror—with far more intensity than he writes even about serving on the Western Front—that it’s clear that the trauma, coming at a time of sexual awakening, was deep and lasting. It seems to have had the usual result: Lewis developed and craved what even his Christian biographer, Jacobs, calls “mildly sadomasochistic fantasies”; in letters to a (homosexual) friend, he named the women he’d like to spank, and for a time signed his private letters “Philomastix”—“whip-lover.”

Interesting enough, perhaps, but Gopnik's next sentence strikes me as rather a stretch: "A bright and sensitive British boy turned by public-school sadism into a warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert." How do we get from "mildly sadomasochistic fantasies" to "warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert"? Pornography played a significant role, apparently, in the life of Philip Larkin. So that has to be taken into account in trying to figure the guy out. But there doesn't seem to be much evidence that Lewis was epecially preoccupied with sexual fantasies. Everybody has such, I presume, from time to time, but most people do not obsess over them.

I happen to be one of those people who thinks that, thanks to the pernicious silliness of Dr. Freud, a burden of significance has been placed upon human sexuality -- in its strictly physical manifestation -- that is far greater than it can comfortably bear. I've had my share of sexual adventure -- for which I am quite grateful -- but I really can't say that sex has been much of a determining factor in my life or on my character. Moreover, for all the importance conferred upon it in modern literature, after four decades of book reviewing, I am here to report that it usually doesn't come off very well on the printed page.
The ribald -- Henry Miller at his best -- often comes off quite well. But I can't be the only one who finds Lady Chatterly's Lover risible. And Lawrence is better at describing sex than most.
It isn't sex, in the sense of physical coupling, that makes for great literature; it's passion. There's a wonderful story by A.E. Coppard called "Judith." Here is its opening sentence: "This is the story of a great lady who did a great wrong to a mere man, a man so nearly insignificant and uncouth as to be almost unworthy of the honour." Coppard's is a story of passion. Of course, sex is involved, as it could hardly not be. But the story would not be so grand were it just about sex.
A good example of what I mean can be found in the films of Eric Rohmer, in particular My Night at Maud's and Chloe in the Afternoon. If you're up for swimming against the brackish current of Freudian cliche, rent them.

Something to ponder ...

Here is an interesting article at Broadcasting & Cable. What is interesting specifically is what NBC Universal President Bob Wright had to say about cable news:

Despite all the media attention given to cable-news programming—from Bill O’Reilly’s histrionics on Fox to Anderson Cooper’s exhibitionistic empathy at CNN—American viewers are not all that interested. Wright pointed out that the cable-news networks combined draw fewer unique viewers all night long than a single half-hour of NBC Nightly News.
“You’d think it would be 25 million people. It’s smaller than that, it’s 5 million-6 million,” Wright said. “It’s not a very large group.”

Two valid inferences, it seems to me, can be drawn from this. One, news junkies form a distinct minority of the population, period. And a significant majority of that minority prefers Fox.

Perhaps newspapers could reverse their declining numbers by finding out what most people are interested in -- books, for example -- and writing about that, rather than assuming that the world of readers is made up of policy wonks (and liberal policy wonks at that).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

As it happens ...

... my wife and I went off to the Wissahickon this afternoon, she to paint watercolors, while I just sat and read some poetry -- Elizabeth Jennings, Kay Ryan, HD -- and looked at the changing woods. Some of the trees were already without leaves and much of the underbrush had withered entirely, leaving things much more open to view. The upshot is I haven't time to blog. So I'll simply post the little poem that came to me while I was sitting there watching.

Breaking Off

Notice the sprightly wind
Lightly divesting the trees
So that, bare, they may please
Courting winter, and invite embrace,
Disdaining any trace
Of summer’s leaving.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

This is what I driving at ...

... in a post last month, when I wondered if books such as Evolution in Four Dimensions : Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life, by Eva Jablonka and Marion C. Lamb or Lamarck's Signature : How Retrogenes Are Changing Darwin's Natural Selection Paradigm by Edward Steele, Robyn A. Lindley, and Robert V. Blanden would be banned from classrooms because they challenge what historian Paul Johnson calls Darwinian orthodoxy.

Yesterday, over at Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds posted the following:

I'M DEEPLY UNIMPRESSED WITH "INTELLIGENT DESIGN," but this NPR story on the harassment, firing, and intimidation of scientists and academics who support intelligent design, or even seem like they might, is pretty appalling. (More accurately, the story is very good, but what it reports is appalling). This is pretty much scientific McCarthyism, and it ought to be stopped.

Listen to the story, and read this letter from the office of Special Counsel on the Smithsonian Institution's behavior in a particularly disgraceful episode.

Of course, with with friends like Pat Robertson, Intelligent Design hardly needs enemies.

Evolution, considered as a process of directional change in nature, from simpler to more complex, seems to me pretty much indisputable (though I know there are some who dispute it). But the mechanism of change, how such change has taken place -- and presumably continues to -- seems far from settled. One problem with intelligent design is that it doesn't address this. It isn't enough to say that an intelligent entity of some sort or another caused something to happen. What we want to know, to the extent that we can, is how it was caused to happen. The best that ID proponents have to offer, it seems, is that it was not caused to happen the way Darwinians say it was.
Now, like it or not, Darwinism is not without problems of its own. The theory of punctuated equilibria proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould to explain, among other things, abrupt appearance of species after long periods of biologial stability, amounts to positing a theory of evolution that doesn't involve evolution, if by evolution one means gradual, incremental change.

Over at Tech Central the other day, Uriah Kriegel had a very interesting article pointing out the unfalsifiability of intelligent design theory:

To win in the game of science, a theory must be submitted to many tests and survive all of them without being falsified. But to be even allowed into the game, the theory must be falsifiable in principle: there must be a conceivable experiment that would prove it false.

If we examine ID in this light, it becomes pretty clear that the theory isn't scientific. It is impossible to refute ID, because if an animal shows one characteristic, IDers can explain that the intelligent designer made it this way, and if the animal shows the opposite characteristic, IDers can explain with equal confidence that the designer made it that way. For that matter, it is fully consistent with ID that the supreme intelligence designed the world to evolve according to Darwin's laws of natural selection. Given this, there is no conceivable experiment that can prove ID false.

I think this is pretty sound myself. But I have just sent an email to Professor Kriegel, bringing to his attention these two papagraphs from Robert Winston's new book The Story of God:

It is possible that strong levels of belief in God, gods, spirits or the supernatural might have given our ancestors considerable comforts and advantages. Many anthropologists and social theorists do indeed take the view that religion emerged out of a sense of uncertainty and bewilderment - explaining misfortune or illness, for example, as the consequences of an angry God, or reassuring us that we live on after death. Rituals would have given us a comforting, albeit illusory, sense that we can control what is in fact ultimately beyond our control - the weather, illness, attacks by predators or other human groups.

However, it is equally plausible that the Divine Idea would have been of little use in our prehistoric rough-and-tumble existence. Life on the savannah may have been in the open air, but it was no picnic. Early humans would have been constantly on the lookout for predators to be avoided, such as wolves and sabre-tooth tigers; hunting or scavenging would be a continual necessity to ensure sufficient food; and the men were probably constantly fighting among each other to ensure that they could have sex with the best-looking girl (or boy) or choose the most tender piece of meat from the carcass. Why would it be necessary, in the daily scramble to stay alive, to make time for such an indulgent pursuit as religion?

It looks to me as if you could use this to demonstrate the unfalsifiability of Darwinism. If Professor Kriegel sends me a reply, I'll ask him if I can share it here.

In the meantime, my own inchoate notion is that intelligence is a concomitant of life and has evolved and adapted along with the organisms in which it is -- in varying degrees obviously -- always present.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Scenes in the city ...

Continuing with my fondness for the visual poetry of the urban scene, here's a blog by another colleague of mine, Ted Adams. Ladies and gentlemen: Heudnsk Log.

A chat with Anne Rice ...

The other day I spoke on the phone for an hour or so with Anne Rice about her new novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. My review of the novel will run in Sunday's Inquirer, but you can listen to the interview here.

The voice of the poet ...

Yesterday afternoon I took a cab out to Penn Bookstore to hear poet Daniel Hoffman read from his new book, Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets, which I reviewed last Sunday. It proved to be a wonderful experience.
Many poets, especially American poets, do not read their work well at all, either for lack of a resonant voice or an effective reading technique, or both. Hoffman has no problem on either score. Hearing him read poems I had become pretty familar with actually enhanced my understanding and appreciation of them. Humor, drama, sentiment -- Hoffman's reading brought it all out.
One poem that he read, a longish poem whose title escapes me, which will be included in his next collection, is especially worth mentioning. It's about a fellow in rural Maine who gets his own back from the tax man. It's quite, quite funny. Hoffman said it should be read with Maine accent, which he declined to attempt (though the Maine inflections could be sensed as read). The late Marshall Dodge could have done wonders with this poem, which would make great movie. A poem made in to a movie? Well, why not? Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" was made into a movie, and so was his "Dick Turpin's Ride." Dan, call your agent.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Take a look ...

Maybe it's because I spent the first nine years of my life among factories and railroad yards, but cityscapes always delight me. My colleague Eric Mencher, currently loafing in Spain with his wife, Kass, is especially adept at catching the formal beauty of the urban scene, as this and this nicely demonstrate. The ship, by the way, is the S.S. United States, which, on her maiden voyage in 1952, crossed the Atlantic in a record-breaking three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. She now sits forlorn and neglected at a dock on the Delaware.
And that will be my blogging for today. Tomorrow, back to Russell Brain, the nervous system, and Walter de la Mare.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Hmm ...

Over at Crime Fiction Dossier, David Montgomery ponders an important question: Can you trust book reviews?.
I certainly know what he means about having second thoughts later on, especially since the review column I write is specifically designed to recommend books. I recommended Ian McEwan's Saturday, but found I liked the book less and less the more I thought about it after the review appeared. I still think it's worth reading, because there's something interesting about it. I just don't think it's that good.
I can name, off the top of my head, one book that I reviewed this year that continues to resonate in my mind: William Nicholson's The Society of Others.
As for book blurbs, I too can think of at least one comment of mine that was not meant favorably but was edited to appear as such on the paperback edition of the book.

An odd but interesting pair of books ...

A few weeks ago I ordered from, a book by W. Russell Brain called Mind, Perception and Science. I had read about it years ago in an article in the Sewanee Review about Teilhard de Chardin's theory of the within of things, and I was thinking of reading up again on Teilhard. While looking through the list of books by Russell Brain, I noticed another called Tea With Walter de la Mare. Had to be the same guy, I figured, and de la Mare is a favorite of mine. So I bought both books and, sure enough, they were indeed by the same author.
Why should that be so odd? Because W. Russell Brain was best known as one of the greatest neurophysiologists of his day. Brain's Diseases of the Nervous System remains a key text in the field, as does Brain and Bannister's Clinical Neurology (co-author Bannister is Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run the mile in under four minutes -- I can still remember the day it made the news). But Brain was more than a brilliant scientist. He was a broadly cultured human being, and his book of reminiscences about his visits to the elderly poet makes for fascinating reading. Moreover, there are interesting points of comparison between that book and the other. In the coming days I shall provide some details.

Monday, November 07, 2005

John Fowles (1926-2005)

I am deep into reviewing Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, but must take moment to note the passing of John Fowles. Here is the Times of London's obituary. Here's an even better one in the Telegraph.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Some very nice words ...

Rus Bowden, who does Poetry and Poets in Rags over at the Interboard Poetry Community, sent me a very nice email this morning, which he has graciously said I could quote from. Specifically, he wrote that "In the announcements, I have referred to you as our friend, especially that you came though for us, and the way you have. Thank you, friend." I am honored to be thought of as friend of the IBPC. It's one of the best things that's happened to me since I became The Inquirer's book editor five years ago. It's the sort of thing that makes the job worthwhile.
This connectionm that can take place between and among people who communicate over the Internet is one of those things the mainstream media has failed to notice much, let alone appreciate. It comes, I think, from the simple satisfaction you get from encountering others who are passionate about the things you are passionate about yourself. I actually didn't think I was doing the IBPC a favor by judging their competition; Ithought they were doing me a favor in asking. In a sense I learned more about the contemporary poetry scene from reading the poems they sent me than I could have from going through all the books of poetry that are in my office.
Martin Heidegger was a dubious man and, in my view, an overrated thinker. But he did say at least one thing that is worth pondering (because it's true), that poetry is the essential form of speech. To write a poem means to use the full potential of language -- using a word in such a way that its different senses apply simultaneously, arranging the syntax in such a way as to maximize the meaning, shaping images that resonate both emotionally and intellectually -- and maybe even viscerally. All of that and more. If more people studied and practiced poetry fewer people would be taken in by cheap rhetoric and specious arguments. More might also come to realize that there really are sins of thought and word, as well as deed.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

And the winner is ...

Actually, there are several winners -- and a clutch of runners-up. What am I talking about? The InterBoard Poetry Competition. I was asked to judge last month's entries, and those I chose as winners have just been posted here. If you're interested in why I picked them, my commentaries are here. It was not an easy assignment. All of the selections that were sent me had merit, often a lot of merit. Some people wonder why I review so much poetry in The Inquirer. Well, take a look at this site: A lot of people are writing it and a lot of what they're writing is good.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A night off (sort of) ...

I've got to hunker down with Anne Rice's new novel tonight, so I can ask her some intelligent questions Tuesday afternoon. And I got home late, so not much in the way of a post tonight. But one little note: Borrowed from my colleague David Stearns today a collection of CDs called The Sammy Davis Jr. Story. I borrowed it because I found it included the studio version of Davis singing the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse song "What Kind of Fool Am I?" from Stop the World I Want to Get Off. It's the best version of it that anyone has ever done. And there is much else besides by a guy who, in addition to having some the greatest pipes ever, was just spectacularly talented.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A curious (and pleasant) surprise ...

A couple of years ago I wrote a little essay about what constituted success in poetry. My point was that if you succeed in writing a couple of poems that are widely and routinely anthologized you are in a very select group of poets and, as such, a success in the field. I now realize that in the age of the Internet this notion may have to be modified. I recently found that a poem of mine called "Craft Warnings," which was published a few years ago in First Things, can be found on the Net. But one of the places it can be found intrigues me. I'm not even sure I know what Supernating Superdudes is. So I was both surprised and pleased when I found that someone there who goes by the name of Dragon *Etain* had posted my poem here (you have to scroll down to find it) -- and in a particular context to boot. I like the idea of the poem being out there adrift in cyberspace. Supernating Superdudes seems a youthful undertaking and I'm glad the poem is reaching whoever the people are who frequent the site.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Writing a review ...

Once again, I haven't much time, but -- since one of the points of this blog is to give a look at what goes on behind the scenes in my professional life -- I thought I'd write briefly about my latest experience of writing a review for my Sunday column. The book I reviewed for this coming Sunday is Daniel Hoffman's Makes You Stop and Think, a collection of sonnets written over the past 50 years.
After I blogged last night, I set about reviewing it. I had what I thought was a good lead, but then I got stuck. I knew what I wanted to say, but couldn't quite figure out how to say it, especially since nowadays there is premium on space and whatever you say you have to say as economically as possible. So, after trying on thing and then another, I took a long walk -- and things started to sort themselves out in my mind. By the time I got home, I was able to wtite the next few paragraphs. And then, as Pepys would say, to bed.
But if you start writing before you retire you are likely to have a restless night: The writing continues even while you sleep it seems. When you sleep, because you wake up often with ideas drifting through your head.
What made this book so hard to review is that it is so good. Good reviews are much harder to write than bad ones. If you don't like a book, there are usually any number of ways of taking aim and firing. But to get across why a book is good demands that you be as precise as you can -- and there's that problem of space: You can't begin to be thorough.
At any rate, I returned to the review at various times throughout the day and finished it this afternoon. Now, you would think that such a piecemeal approach would lead to something choppy. Actually, it turned out rather well, if I do say so myself, and Jeff Weinstein, my editor, seemed to get through it quicj=kly and easily.
And so, though I've had a long and difficult day, I also have a sense of accomplishment. Now I have to settle in with the next book I'm reviewing: Anne Rice's Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A cool site ...

Learned today about a blog I didn't know about, Jerry Jazz Musician, which offers lots of things besides jazz -- though jazz will do. Being a Bobby Darin fan, I especially enjoyed this interview with David Evanier, author of Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin.