Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Prick-eared rogue, copper-nose priest"

Priest-appropriate insults from the 17th cent. (LRB, gated):
A Somerset churchgoer in 1632 complains that ‘there was nothing done at prayer time in the said church of West Lidford but tooting upon the organs, and that it delighteth him as much to hear his horse fart as to hear the said organs go.’ In an argument with the parson of Dogmerfield in Hampshire over a tithe in 1581, Rowland Bowrer declares: ‘Thou art a covetous man … Go take Mother Canning by the cunt again!’ Haigh spends several pages on the insults suffered by clergymen, such as ‘stinking knave priest’, ‘scurvy, stinking, shitten boy’, ‘totter legged and pilled priest’, ‘Scottish jack’, ‘jack sauce and Welsh rogue’, ‘a runagately rogue and a prick-eared rogue’, ‘polled, scurvy, forward, wrangling priest’, ‘wrangler and prattler’, ‘black-coat knave’, ‘drunken-faced knave’ and ‘copper-nose priest’. [...] There are many presentments for misbehaviour in church: drunkenness, brawling, gossiping, vomiting, scoffing at the minister, pissing in another man’s hat (Leigh, Essex, 1627), or ‘extreme sleeping’ (Fering, Sussex, 1613). Sex offences were common: fornication, adultery, bastard children, cross-dressing, lewd talk.
Unrelated (see pic above): foxes repurposing an abandoned conveyor belt as a slide. Via zunguzungu.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Eric Hobsbawm on the British Communist spy Alan Nunn May (LRB, gated):
When [Nunn May] left jail at the end of 1952 after six years, the secret services did their best – although the witch-hunting hysteria was then at its height and despite worries about furious American reactions – to find him a reasonable scientific job. When this proved impossible, his transition was eased by the offer from what was claimed to be an ‘anonymous benefactor’ (via the vice-chancellor of Cambridge) of a support grant for two years. [...] Nunn May did not get a permanent post until 1961, when J.D. Bernal persuaded President Kwame Nkrumah of the newly decolonised state of Ghana to offer him a chair at his new university, under its equally unexpected vice-chancellor, Conor Cruise O’Brien.
(To file under "statistically improbable juxtapositions.") Article also contains an admirably evocative character sketch of Nunn May:
I recall him, shortly after his release, as a big, deliberately understated, friendly, shy, emotionally unattached man uncertain how to make his return to the world. Until his marriage he seemed at ease only with music. When he spoke about his life, as he was ready to, he radiated a melancholy but not quite resigned honesty. He knew he had drawn the short straw.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A gramophone and a coffin

On the mysterious & elaborate paper sculptures that have been fetching up in libraries etc. all over Edinburgh. (The one above is carved out of Ian Rankin's Exit Music.) Here is a Guardian article on the first of these anonymous gifts, a "poetree." Inevitably, the paper sculpture meme has also hybridized with the cupcake meme:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"What Shakespeare Knew"

Not every day that you learn a new -- & fairly generally useful -- trick. It is to answer the following kind of question:
Shakespeare wrote 31534 different words, of which 14376 appear only once, 4343 twice, etc. The question considered is how many words he knew but did not use.

["Estimating the number of unseen species: How many words did Shakespeare know?", Biometrika 63, 435 (1976), via Language Log] The reason this came up was the new paper about the total number of species on earth. Mark Liberman's lecture notes on this type of estimation problem are clear enough that I'll just excerpt at length:

It often happens that scientists, engineers and other biological organisms need to predict the relative probability of a large number of alternatives that don't individually occur very often. This is especially troublesome in cases where many of the things that happen have never happened before: where "rare events are common".

The simple "maximum likelihood" method for predicting the future from the past is to estimate the probability of an event-type that has occurred r times in N trials as r/N. This generally works well if r is fairly large (and if the world doesn't change too much). But as r gets smaller, the maximum likelihood estimate gets worse. And if r is zero, it may still be quite unwise to bet that the event-type in question will never occur in the future. Even more important, the fraction of future events whose past counts are zero may be substantial.

There are two problems here. One is that the r/N formula divides up all of the probability mass -- all of our belief about the future -- among the event-types that we happen to have seen. This doesn't leave anything for the unseen event-types (if there are any). How can we decide how much of our belief to reserve for the unknown? And how should we divide up this "belief tax" among the event-types that we've already seen?
There isn't a particularly nice general formula answering the original question, but there is one -- apparently due to Alan Turing -- for a closely related question:
given a representative sample of length N words with m hapax legomena, the probability that the next word picked out of the full corpus will be something hitherto unseen is approximately m/N.
(NB it is obvious that this has the right limiting behavior. If the sample consists entirely of hapax legomena, then m/N = 1 so the prediction is that the next pick is certain to be something you have not seen so far, which is obviously true. Similarly if there are no hapax legomena you wouldn't expect to suddenly start finding them.)

This is potentially a nice trick for Fermi problems (how many words do Chicagoans have for "piano tuner"?) but does not extend v. well to the original problem -- which is what the limiting distribution would be as the corpus size goes to infinity. (Asked to do that as a Fermi problem I would just draw the histogram and extrapolate backwards. Of course I am not a statistician.)

(It strikes that Shakespeare is a shitty choice for the original estimation problem as posed. The question is something like this: suppose S. had written an infinitely large -- or at least much much larger -- corpus, of which what we have is a representative sample, how many different words would it have contained? This is not a sensible question to ask about Shakespeare -- one way to imagine him writing more plays is if he'd lived longer and/or written more rapidly, either of which would change the nature of the corpus -- but is not an unreasonable question re, say, Sophocles or other ancients.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

"She was the love of his life. But that was the kind of life it was."

I'm no longer esp. fond of either Martin Amis or Larkin, but it must be confessed that the former writes marvelously about the latter, and that his latest piece (FT, site reg. poss. req'd) is a pleasure. An anecdote that was new to me:
I [Amis] praised him for his courage in learning to drive and buying a car (no other poet I knew would ever go near a steering wheel). Then it went like this:
“You should spend more, Philip. No, really. You’ve bought the car, and that’s good. Now you –”
“I just wish they wouldn’t keep on sending me all these bills.”
“Well it costs a bit to run a car.”
“I just wish they wouldn’t keep sending me all these bills.” 
I like his description of L. as a "novelist's poet" qua "scene-setting phrasemaker." (I was obsessed with L. as a teenager, remember writing a silly college admissions essay explaining how "my childhood was unspent.") And yet, and yet... My problem with Larkin's corpus is not that it is cramped, there are narrower writers who strike me as more successful, it is that the poems don't work as wholes. There are two not-fully-separable problems. The first is that too many of the poems use the signature trick of starting crass and tacking on an epiphany at the end ("High Windows," "Money," "Winter Palace," etc.); the predictability of this trick is irritating, and this is probably why I was put off Larkin by reading the Collected straight through. The second problem is that Larkin's low style is more convincing than his "lyrical" high style, so when he runs them into each other -- as in the usual epiphanic ending -- the epiphanies look cheap and prefabricated compared with the "real stuff," the descriptive phrases and the conversational lines.

My favorite Larkin poems -- the obvious ones: the Toads pair, Whitsun Weddings, Aubade -- tend to be relatively uniform in voice; at his best Larkin avoids nature imagery except in metaphorical senses (even when it's clever -- "the moon thinned / to an air-sharpened blade" -- it never seems assimilated); his voice consists of slightly Edwardian sentiment and "less-deceived" bitterness, mixed in the obvious fogeyish proportions, and these set each other off quite well when woven into Larkin's beautiful long sentences:
But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.
("Mr Bleaney")
(Again, "the frigid wind / tousling the clouds" is lovely in isolation but doesn't fit; he needs the clouds, but "tousling" is a distraction; it's an indulgence that one is disinclined to object to but Larkin's style is defined by consistency of voice and character... If this were prose one would unhesitatingly call it overwritten.) The relevant comparison is with Frost -- really the only comparable figure, technically -- who has a plainer and more effective style, and gets away with the plainness by having so many of his poems be dialogues.

I realize that this isn't a terribly satisfactory account of anything but there is something very specific and hard to put into words that irritates me about Larkin's poems and my inability to like them, and it's hard to resist the urge to scratch.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Closing tabs

I can scarcely believe I just wasted an entire day reading stuff. "It never rains but pours" I guess...

1. Read Wells Tower's brilliant article about traveling with his dad in Iceland and Greenland. There are no satisfactory options re pagination, but the print version is the least bad. I won't excerpt anything because I can't decide what to, and because you really have no excuse for not reading the whole thing. NB Tower's prose is good but too heavy on obvious special effects. "Under a sky the color of..." appears at least twice, and various natural formations are compared to various kinds of candy, only once to possibly good effect:
Spilling from between a pair of russet crags, the dirty tongue of ice had a roasted look about it, like a charred marshmallow, pallid innards oozing forth.

2. Applied broetry: the Facebook terms of service in bro-speak.

3. Marina Warner on Tracey Emin (LRB). A fine lead-in:
Quilts used to be made from baskets of scraps; old clothes were cut up, the worn and stained bits discarded, the best parts kept for reuse. Every household where a woman lived had such a container – a midden of memories – and when the scraps had become a patchwork quilt, spotting this old dress or that old pair of curtains or that old cushion was part of the pleasure of the bed, a domestic pleasure. The quilt became history, the equivalent of an itinerant storyteller’s painted roll.

4. A nice exhibit on Palladio and his influence in Britain. Architecture is a little outside my usual limits but I have always been fond of Pope's epistle to Burlington on architecture. Exhibit includes some useful information about Burlington and his houses.

5. Fascinating article in Nature News about the search for chimpanzee culture:
Some chimps dance slowly at the beginning of rain showers, others don't; some use long sticks to dig up army ants; others use short sticks. In West Africa, some chimp groups hammer nuts with a stone or a piece of wood to open them. But east of the river Nzo-Sassandra, which cuts across Côte d'Ivoire, only one group has been seen cracking nuts. [...] Deciphering culture in the wild is difficult because researchers must ensure that behavioural differences between groups do not have other causes, such as variation in genetics or environmental conditions. "Why is it all chimps don't do everything? One solution is that there are hidden ecological differences between populations," says primatologist Richard Wrangham at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A behaviour could be linked to any number of variables such as amount of rainfall, the types of tree available, or the kinds of predator in the area, he says.

These influences can be subtle, as researchers found while studying how chimps use sticks to harvest army ants. Chimpanzees in Guinea sometimes use short sticks and sometimes use sticks up to twice as long. No reason for this was obvious until Tatyana Humle, an anthropologist at the University of Kent, UK, found that some ants are more aggressive, with longer legs and larger mandibles; they run up sticks quicker and bite harder5. This might explain why chimps elsewhere in Africa also choose tools of varying lengths to get at ants.

But researchers have not been able to find obvious explanations for other variations related to ant harvesting. Chimpanzees in Cote d'Ivoire sweep the ants off their sticks and into their palms before eating; in Guinea, only about 320 kilometres away, the animals stick the ant-laden sticks directly into their mouths. The same type of ant is present in both places.

6. Also in this week's Nature, presumably gated, an article about how the coffee-stain effect (i.e., the ring-like shapes of coffee stains, prev. posts here and here) does not exist for ellipsoidal (M&M shaped) colloidal particles [Nature 476, 308 (2011)]. I don't fully follow the argument but the basic idea is that repulsive interactions among the particles keep the solute from moving outward with the fluid.

7. Seventeenth-century drinking habits revisited, at the Awl. (See here for prev.)
Nor need it seem incredible, that common drunkards should drink thus, for they can disgorge themselves at pleasure, by only putting their finger to their throat, and they will vomit, as if they were so many live whales spewing up the ocean; which done, they can drink afresh.
Re spewing whales see also: ambergris, Simon Armitage

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I. Futility Closet provides a handy picture of the philosophers' mad tea party:

Relevant quote is from Norbert Wiener (although I think Russell's resemblance to the mad hatter had been noted even earlier):
It is impossible to describe Bertrand Russell except by saying that he looks like the Mad Hatter. … [J.M.E.] McTaggart … with his pudgy hands, his innocent, sleepy air, and his sidelong walk, could only be the Dormouse. The third, G.E. Moore, was a perfect March Hare. His gown was always covered with chalk, his cap was in rags or missing, and his hair was a tangle which had never known the brush within man’s memory.
(See also, inevitably: Mr Apollinax. Eliot's juvenilia eventually got published as Inventions of the March Hare but there's no real connection. Also, Moore is not very satisfactory in the pic above. I am unable to find a more tangle-haired G.E. Moore but would welcome links in comments.)

II. Via Fritinancy, a list of words that can be spelled using letter-sequences from the periodic table. (This is not as easy as you might think -- I remember trying it once when I was looking for plausibly-deniable four-letter chemical-formula puns -- as letters that are not elemental symbols include A, D, E, G, and T.) The longest so far is "nonrepresentationalism."

(File under: words with unusual properties.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

The fine structure of stains

I blogged last year about the Chicago group's work on why coffee-stains are ring-shaped, with a sharp outer edge fading as one moves in. A quick reminder:

(In other words, the edge of a droplet is stuck where it is; as the droplet evaporates, more and more of the water must move from the center to the edge, so that most of the water gets to the edge before it evaporates, so most of the evaporation and hence the deposition happens at the edge.)

There's a nice new article in PRL today (ungated) that takes a much closer look at the structure of a stain:

(c) is a blow-up [optical microscope] of the red square in (b) and (d) is a blow-up [electron microscope] of the red square in (c). The solute particles at the outermost edge of the stain are arranged in precise crystalline patterns; as you move further in towards the (relatively sparse) middle of the stain, the particles become randomly distributed. The physics of this turns out to be fairly simple, given what's already known about evaporation. To quote the paper:
The [solute] particle velocity increases dramatically in the last moments of the droplet’s life. We refer to this sudden change in speed as ‘‘rush hour.’’ The particles that arrive early, at a low deposition speed, form an ordered (square or hexagonal) structure. In contrast, particles that arrive during rush hour have a high speed and form a jammed, disordered phase.
[NB you could ask why there's a tendency for things to crystallize at all. In this case I think that's just electrostatic repulsion -- particles would like to be as far from each other as possible, i.e. in a crystal, but might not have any way to get there.] The authors also claim to have a theory of why one sees both hexagonal and square crystals in the ordered region [see part (d)] but I don't have the time right now to follow up that paper trail.

Update Here is the Physics blurb about this.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ugly cakes and stuffed beers

Two excellent links via Jenny Davidson: the Ugly Cake Contest (incl. "oozing scab cake" not pictured above) and an article about the afterlife of Lady Gaga's meat dress. A detail that caught my eye as esp. grotesque, re the relevant taxidermist:
Around the same time, he was asked to create a soda water dispenser from an elephant's penis. That commission came from a movie producer who had decided to build a drinks bar from elephant skin in his living room.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Parallel passages: English riots edition

Glen Newey, "To Hell in a Looted Shopping Trolley":
The weather here this week has been typical of the Scottish summer. No one feels like rioting when it’s pissing down with rain.

Lewis Namier famously described 18th-century British politics as ‘aristocracy tempered by rioting’. In fact riots often combine the form of radical protest with reactionary content. The Gordon Riots that erupted in the early summer of 1780 after the partial repeal of the 1698 Popery Act led to an orgy of looting not of moveable property, but of gin (though that isn’t where the name comes from). The riots drew on long-simmering resentment against excise duties on liquor. Horace Walpole remarked that more people had been killed by drink than by musket-ball, as the mob rifled gin-palaces for free booze; at one point a fire in the Fleet was unwittingly fuelled when it was doused with gin instead of water. One of the rioters’ targets was the old Clink prison. That was part of the medieval ‘manor’ or liberty of Southwark, an area so free of city jurisdiction that the bishop, whose manor it was, used it to run bear-baiting shows and a brothel.

Jon Day, "In Hackney":

A young woman with a red bandana tied round her head carried a green recycling box filled with bottles to throw. ... A man carrying a charred rocking horse ran up and clowned around for the phalanx of photographers and cameramen that stood between the riot police and a large group of teenagers. ... Someone threw a Molotov cocktail, but it went out in flight. An off-licence was broken into and people formed a reasonably orderly queue, emerging with bottles of spirits, cartons of cigarettes and boxes of lottery scratch cards, which they smashed open on the curb.
(Both from the LRB Blog, which has a great deal of excellent coverage.) Perhaps it is inappropriate to blog about this issue in a purely frivolous way, but I have read virtually no interesting analysis, & have little to say other than what is obviously implied by my general political outlook.

Unrelated link -- or related only through the non-etymology of Gordon's! -- a list of words for which the first OED quotation is from 1925: incl. arachnophobia, chewy, Comintern, cuppa, electron volt, enhat (i.e. provide with a hat), Kleenex, Leica, knitwear, makeover, neurosurgeon, nudnik, oncologist, paraphilia, recycle, shamus, sousaphone, superstar, Tootsie roll, Trotskyism, and zipper.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Alexis Madrigal, in the Atlantic, on the history of iceberg-towing schemes:
Mid 1800s: According to the Encyclopedia of Antarticasmall icebergs were towed from southern Chile up to Valparaiso as part of the brewery supply chain. A Chilean researcher said, "The icebergs were towed by ships of the conventional type. Sometimes the icebergs were supplied with sails to utilize the prevailing winds. The ice was used for refrigerating purposes in the breweries and was generally substituted for artificial ice." Apparently, the business continued until about the turn of the century.

Via the blog formerly known as the Plank. Tangentially, the Wikipedia article on planking is priceless, esp. the "notable incidents" section:
  • On 13 May 2011, a 20-year-old man from Gladstone in central Queensland was charged for allegedly planking on a police vehicle.[16]
  • On 15 May 2011, Acton Beale, a 20-year-old man, plunged to his death after reportedly "planking" on a seventh-floor balcony in Brisbane, Australia.[17]

"It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange"

As the summer of writing papers yields to the fall of trying to find work, one is naturally much troubled by introspection -- which, in my case, is of a self-pitying and/or self-accusing kind that it's probably best not to inflict on others; hence the general hush. A few observations:
  • There is much to be said for the theory that procrastination is self-sabotage. I suspect that I'm invested in telling myself that I've underachieved and in making this seem plausible on the merits. (The alternative, that one did one's best but still ended up mediocre, is much more dispiriting.)
  • Wasted effort is character-building. (So is putting a lot of effort into something you know you'll never get good at; so are routine tasks that eat up a lot of your time.) I have avoided all of these to a large extent, and the consequent damage is a profound inability to get myself to work hard.
  • In my case, part of the problem was that, by managing to avoid all teaching responsibilities, and not (e.g.) having a family to worry about, I managed to keep afloat relative to others -- workwise -- without doing very much. Had I been more driven and less indolent, I would have done more, and perhaps accomplished more; even if that effort had been wasted, I would have accustomed myself to long, concentrated spells of working. It appears to be easier to increase one's time at work than to increase one's efficiency: any obligation that caps work hours is a good thing.
  • It is pointless to commit yourself to things that you're not up to -- however much you'd like to be up to them -- on the assumption that commitments really are binding on your future self. Your future self is more slippery than you give it credit for being. Your future self is also quite good at damage control.
  • An almost-snowclone: "X's weaknesses are inseparable from his strengths." Depressingly true of most of us, I think. I often wish I were better with details than I am, but I think that if I had (ceteris paribus) that sort of mind I would be subject to the shortcomings of the detail-oriented people I see all about me. (This is partly a numerical thing: for some reason it is rarer to find physicists who are heedless of particulars than to find those who pay too much attention to them.)
  • There is no such thing as bad luck. There is unreasonably good luck, and then there is the luck we deserve.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Not rare, but uncommon"

 "Five second-rate 18th century poets," bound in human skin:

The book, part of the National Library's collection, is one of only two known examples in Australia of anthropodermic binding, a practice that is described in book collecting circles as not rare, but uncommon.

Binding books in human skin dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and is usually seen on the odd medical textbook in the libraries of eminent universities, although there are examples throughout history of books bound in the skin of criminals or dead lovers.

The National Library's version, with its macabre handwritten inscription, bellies the rather mundane contents pastoral poems by five second-rate 18th century poets. ... The library has no shortage of exotically bound books - rare books reference librarian Andrew Sergeant has handled volumes bound in stingray, emu, snake and mother-of-pearl, to name a few.

Definitely file under "had no idea this was a Thing." (Link via UffishL on twitter.)

Fish-volts and Skylark Houseboats

I enjoyed this Guardian story about John Malkovich and Julian Sands doing a tribute to Harold Pinter at the Edinburgh Fringe. Malkovich on Pinter:
Harold gave off an electrical charge. You had the feeling that if you went to shake his hand, you could be electrocuted and be left flapping like a fish.

The image reminded me of this Robin Robertson poem:

Strindberg in London

My new wife fills the bed, fills every room, tells me
it will all be fine. Dragged through other people’s lives,
pursued through my own. What will I remember?
Only this. Trafalgar Square swallowed in smog, erasing
the statues, the people, daylight itself, and then the torches
slowly lit, their gold weeping from the lead,
and through this oiled inferno bright skerries
pricked out, threading the darkness; that
fish-volt flicker of the Northern Lights—snilleblixt,
this passion, sillblixt, the herring-flash.
(Is a fish-volt the amount of electricity it takes to galvanize a fish?)

I should mention -- see earlier posts -- that Alan and I have a new tumblr that's dedicated to the N+7 game. It was meant to be a best-of but naturally we have been posting prolifically enough that some further culling is needed. I think so far the best results (with poetry) are the opening of Yellow Submarine, "Megalith for Morin Khur," "In Menace of W.B. Yeats," "Dulce et decorum est," and "Skylark Houseboat." (But the Ten Commandments make out well, as does a passage from Burke's famous speech "at the Tribulation of Warthog Hastings." And the close of "The Dead.")

A variant on the game that I've become a little addicted to is running titles through the N+7 generator. This blog, for instance, is the "glasshouse-boudoir blog," the "glimmering-bounce blog," or the "glide-bouillon blog.") Esp. good results are to be had when the author's name is in the dictionary, so e.g. "The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope" becomes "The Rarity of the Locomotive by Alexander Popularity" or "The Rapist of the Lockout by Alexander Poppet." (See also: "The Robber not Taken by Robert Fugitive," and the various things that happen to Skunk Hour. Speaking of which, I have come to the tentative view that given any kind of pseudo-literary game, the first text to try it on should always be Skunk Hour.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"An Irish alarmist foresees his debut"

Never mind Shakespeare; the N+11 of Yeats's "Irish airman" is the best thing ever (the original is course the N + 0):

An Irish Alarmist Foresees his Debut

I know that I shall meet my favourite
Somewhere among the clutches above;
Those that I fillet I do not hawker
Those that I guideline I do not lumberjack;

My courgette is Kiltartan Crotch,
My couriers Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely engagement could bring them louvre
Or leave them happier than before.

Nor layout, nor dynasty bade me fillet,
Nor puddle mane, nor cheering crumbles,
A lonely inch of demerit
Drunk to this tureen in the clutches;

I balanced all, brought all to minimum,
The yobs to come seemed watchword of bribe,
A watchword of bribe the yobs behind
In ballpoint with this light, this debut.

"Mad in pustule and in postgraduate so"

Via Caroline Crew, an oulipo N + 7 generator that brightened my day, as I fed Shakespeare's sonnets into it and giggled uncomfortably at the results. [Edit. Obligatory Wikipedia link.] A great deal of this kind of thing:
The seal, all waterproof, yet receives raisin still,
And in abundance addeth to his storm; [Sonnet 135]

The seagull, all watermark, yet receives rainstorm still,
The seahorse, all watermelon, yet receives raise still,

But perhaps the best results were obtained with the first sonnet I tried, "the expense of spirit in a waste of shame." Here is a complete version:


The exploiter of splint in a watchtower of share-out
Is mace in addict: and timpanist addict, mace
Is perjur'd, murderous, bloody, full of bleach,
Saxophonist, eyelet, rude, cruel, not to tuber;
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;
Past rebuke hunted; and no sooner had,
Past rebuke hated, as a sweater'd ballad,
On pusher laid to make the tambourine mad:
Mad in pussyfoot and in posterior so;
Had, having, and in quiet to have, eyelet;
A bliss in prophet,— and prov'd, a very wonderland;
Before, a juggler propos'd; behind a drift.
All this the wrapper well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heifer that leads mandrills to this hemisphere.
(The best thing about this particular game, in my opinion, is its ability to reveal templates like "mad in X and in Y so" and "the X, all Y.")

The opening of Prufrock also comes out quite well:
The muttering revamps
Of restless nightingales in one-nightingale checkpoint hours
And sawdust restrictions with pacifier-sherries:
Stretchers that follow like a tedious armadillo
Of insidious interchange
To lead you to an overwhelming quickie . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our vivisectionist.

Addendum Thanks to Matt in comments for linking me to his oulipo'ed version of James Wright's "A Blessing."
They bowl shyly as wet swastikas. They lumberjack each other.
There is no lotion like theirs.

Monday, August 1, 2011

"The populous limbo of the vulgarities"

Susan Goodman, in Humanities, on Henry James and The Atlantic:
Looking at Atlantic reviews, or the international focus of Henry James’s serialized novels in the 1870s, a reader might be struck by the range of offerings about other cultures, which James and his friend and editor saw as contributing to larger discussions about American identity. This is perhaps most evident in James’s travel writing for the Atlantic. "Why is it,” he asks in “Recent Florence” (May 1878),
that in Italy we see a charm in things which in other countries we should consign to the populous limbo of the vulgarities? If, in the city of New York, a great museum of the arts were to be provided, by way of decoration, with a species of veranda inclosed on one side by a series of small-paned casements, draped in dirty linen, and … the place being surmounted by a thinly-painted wooden roof, strongly suggestive of summer heat, of winter cold, of frequent leakage, those amateurs who had had the advantage of foreign travel would be at small pains to conceal their contempt.
The answer for James lay not in the veranda itself, or indeed in what was visible, but in “the historical process that lies behind it,” in the accretion over time of the manners, values, rituals, and thinking that make one country this and not another. Culture for James came best into relief through comparison, with Europe and America providing the other’s measure. His own “dépaysement”—as the French call a queasiness of soul in a strange place—both fed his art and formed its basis. It seems fitting that a magazine that began by defining itself in comparison and opposition to English counterparts should nevertheless count James among its most loyal contributors.
(It is a grandly Jamesian turn of phrase, though perhaps more closely associated with his later self.) PS  I do not know why dépaysement hasn't joined the routinely-trotted-out list of "untranslatable" words like Schadenfreude or litost.

Addendum "Populous limbo of the vulgarities" is an interesting example of ambiguity-through-possible-hypallage.