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The Far-ness of Distance

The annihilation of distance is one of the hallmarks of modernity. To contradict Kipling, the twain of East and West have not only met, they Skype regularly. When distance was filled with far-ness and strangeness, we feared and shunned it when it came too close. The river, the port and the railroad moved both the rare and the strange from beyond the horizon into our locality.

Radio and television brought sound and pictures of the strangeness of distance into our living room. The Network first brought distance to our desktop and then to the devices in our pockets. Distance stripped of its far-ness. The upside is that strange seems less strange; our horizons are expanded. The downside is that nothing surprises. We've seen it all, or it's only a screen and a click away.

Joseph Banks's voyage on the Endeavor lasted three years. Charles Darwin spent five years on the Beagle traversing the oceans. From their perspective, all kinds of strangeness was discovered. Those kinds of time scales aren't in play in exploring the earth any more. It's only space exploration where we accept big time scales and the far-ness of distance.

But it isn't the clicks on the map or the tick-tock of the clock that make up distance. Time and space emanate from objects, they are part of what happens when things interact. We tend to measure time and space as some calculable number of units from where we are. We are, after all, the ones who measure. But it's the things themselves that tell us about their timing and spacing. As an aside, they tell each other too.

We take for granted that distance has been annihilated. But it's there, in the things whether they're near or far. Somehow we need to re-learn to see what we believe has been destroyed.

 

Where to Stand: Some Notes on Liner Notes

bob-dylan-desire

We seem to have lost the liner notes. On some labels and for some artists the liner note provided a context or key to the music contained within. Reading song lyrics while listening to an album for the first time was an important ritual. Before the counter-culture was totally absorbed into mass culture, the photographs on the album were a window into a new form of life. An album required decoding and the casing provided some of the clues.

felix-sleeve-2

For those too young to remember, the liner note was an essay, photographs, lyrics, credits, etc., usually printed on the inner sleeve of a vinyl record album. The sleeve that held the vinyl platter was called a record liner, sometimes referred to as a dust jacket. When commercially recorded music became digital bits there was no need for a dust jacket and thus no where to print the liner notes. The material relationship of the liner note to the physical media that holds the encoded music can’t be replaced with hyperlinks.

jeremy-denk-bach-golbergs-cd

The record album created the perfect canvas for the liner note. Its size was more like an art book, plenty of room for the interplay of text and image. The compact disc shrunk everything down to an unreadable size. Text is still printed on compact disc packages, but only as a matter of form. It’s like those credits that roll by at hyper speed at the end of a television show. You know they say something, but they’re not really meant to be read.

Allen Ginsberg writing about Bob Dylan’s album “Desire” is my strongest memory from the heyday of liner notes. Listening to the music through Ginsberg’s lens connected it to a long line of poetry and song. Long afternoons lying next to the stereo, reading and discussing the notes, listening to the tunes, parsing the lyrics until they were burned into memory.

tim-morton-bw

Recently I’ve had a similar experience with poetry and podcasts. While footnotes to the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton don’t always give me the same charge — listening to close readings of the poetry is like getting a great set of liner notes. Here are a few that I’ve listened to more than once:

• On Wordsworth
On Wordsworth
Professor Timothy Morton
Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English Literature
Rice University

• On Milton and Wordsworth
On Milton and Wordsworth
Professor William Flesch
Brandeis University

If liner notes were to make some kind of comeback, I think they might look more like what Anil Prasad does with his web site Innerviews. His interviews with musicians are completely different than anything you’ll find in the commercial music press. His writing opens up both the players and the music. When I first discovered it I realized that I’d missed years of great interviews. I spent days going from Bill Bruford to Allan Holdsworth to Zoe Keating to Laurie Anderson, and then to Marc Ribot and Joan Jeanrenaud. I have to be very careful about visiting Innerviews. I start reading and when I look up, several hours have passed and I wonder if I can squeeze in just one more interview.

Joyce-DiDonato-Drama-Queens

Another possibility for liner notes is the video note. Here, soprano Joyce DiDonato talks about singing an aria from Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.” This is a warm up for a concert, but it would be a welcome addition to a recording.

The video liner note that kicked off this whole train of thought was the DVD that accompanies Jeremy Denk’s new recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Denk is both a writer and a musician, and is particularly adept at taking you inside the music and the experience of playing it. Listening to Denk talk about what he’s playing is much like listening to Timothy Morton read and interpret Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc.” You go back to the work with new eyes and the aesthetic object unfolding in front of you bristles with new possibilities.

The liner note was physically linked to the media it described. You’d think in an age where the hyperlink has become so dominant that liner notes would proliferate. But like a restaurant with hundreds of online reviews, you have trouble knowing where to turn. You need a review of the reviewers to even get started. Here the economy of abundance is a detriment, it’s the limitations that force the liner note to be something special.

A last liner note, this one also by Jeremy Denk. I’d always had trouble hearing Gyorgy Ligeti’s piano etudes. Somehow my ears weren’t quite ready. A work of art asks you to attune to it in a certain way. To see perspective in a classical painting, you need to stand in a certain spot with respect to the canvas. Listening to music is much the same. Sometimes it’s the liner note that tells you where to stand.

Rick Holland: Clicking the Link of the Real

rhapsode

We begin to think of this as an age of gluttony when we realize we’ve stopped tasting the food. Sure there’s a foodie culture that seeks out the best coffee and beer, the best this and the best that — but it’s not the culture in the main. And even “the best” ends up becoming a strange kind of commodity as it becomes mass produced and commonplace. We only taste its “bestness”, not its flavor. In domains where there are economics of abundance, quantity becomes the only measure.

the7deadlysins

Our senses have been made the target an endless barrage of synthetic stimulation. Even our sleep is turned into “lucid dreaming“, so we can increase the gape of our maw. When we multi-task while we multi-task, only to pause for a moment to multi-task, we lack the distance to perceive how the span of our attention has been doubled and tripled and stretched all the way to the horizon to maximize the programmable surface of our being. Our gluttony is optimized.

The poet Rick Holland attempts to think through the predicament of meditating “on our technological predicament in a crowd of people discussing Facebook.” The classic move when attempting thought while faced with an over-abundance of stimulation was made by John Milton. In his introduction to the second printing of “Paradise Lost” he was asked to explain his choice of unrhymed iambic pentameter — also called “blank verse” or “heroic verse”.

THE Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian, and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rhime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, triveal, and of no true musical delight; which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rhime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.

Milton’s desire to throw off the chains of the “modern bondage of Rimeing” was an appeal to the intellect of the reader. The “jingling sound of like endings” would not serve for a poetry that attempted a theodicy — justifying the ways of God to men. This most serious project required “judicious ears”. Poetry not simply read or heard, but heard, read, marked, learned and inwardly digested. Such that a judgement on this theodicy could be rendered.

The philosopher Tim Morton talks about how we’ve come to view poetry as the candy sprinkles stuck to the surface of the scientifically real. Like the rest of the humanities, it’s something that can easily be chucked overboard when it comes time to tighten budgets. Poetry is booked into the balance sheet as a “nice to have” in a bottom-line world. But for Morton “poetry is the blood of causality”, there’s nothing optional about the aesthetic dimension. He thinks that when you do art, you are directly messing with causality.

When one hears the question, “Where does poetry begin?” one is prone to visualize things chugging along in their way, and poetry somehow arising out of the chugging, or being sprinkled along the surface of the chugging like sparks flying out of a complex grinding mechanism. But contemporary physics — going back now to 1900 — tells us that the aesthetic dimension is not some kind of optional fireworks that happen if you’re lucky and happen to have (human) ears, eyes and so on. Poetry is the blood of causality. A fruit fly smells not by inhaling some volatile chemical, but by detecting the quantum signature of a molecule: its shape, which is transmitted nonlocally to receptors in the fly’s olfactory system. Shape, which Aristotle calls morphē, just is what Aristotle thinks as the essence of a thing. This ice cream, right here, this one in my hand — its essence is its form, not an idea in my head or in some transcendental ice cream parlor of the beyond. Somehow we have forgotten how important form is. Form got flushed out of the modern way of thinking about things as pure extension and nothing else — maybe with some accidental candy sprinkles here and there — machinating away in the void.

Rick Holland, among others, is searching for a way for poetry to get a seat at the table. One strategy is to become ultra-serious and austere. With the frivolity of rhyming cast aside, the candy sprinkles are brushed off to reveal the real and serious candy sprinkles underneath, and now the verse is ready for judicious ears. Another method attempts to stop your heart with the beautiful. In the midst of a swirl of sensuality, entice the reader to click the link, to open the door, to go down the rabbit hole. Beauty, so beautiful, it cannot be resisted.

The poet Rachel McKibbens reminds us that the stories we receive aren’t all from search engine results pages or Facebook and Twitter streams. While Morton may think of poetry as a kind of “Realist Magic“, McKibbens says “poetry is a kind of witchcraft“. Both seem to see poetry as a technology for messing with causality.

LM: In her essay, “The Semiotics of Sex,” Jeanette Winterson says, “It is the poet who goes further than any human scientist.  The poet who with her dredging net must haul up difficult things and return them to the present.” Do you?
 
RM: But aren’t the “difficult things” always present? We’ve been taught how to see past the difficult. To bury it. It is why we must constantly name and re-name things, why we spell cast, testify, gift and unbury. Poetry is a kind of witchcraft. We have the power to manifest, to call forth, to make what didn’t happen, happen. I think of the griots who delivered stories from town to town, the soothsayers and playwrights and brujas, all the ceremonies and dedications and incantations and proclamations, everything that starts with the word. And how the word gains its power by being spoken and handed to the next person and how what we write will last longer than our skins, our poems are the truest husks of our former selves.

And so, Rick Holland stands in front of a crowd with a microphone in his hand. The noise of the bar swirls and melds with his voice. Thinking through the idea that metaphor and metonymy may be the original hyperlinks. The musicians take their places, ready to lay down the groove. Old Man Diode is welcomed to the stage. Imagining what life might be like outside of the machine. Bringing back the tradition of the rhapsode… Telling us through the interdigtal blaze that the “linking magic” is our ability to directly mess with causality.

Rick Holland and Old Man Diode

My name is,
as I’m the self consumer of my woes
tonight they self-consume,
to rise and vanish in oblivious host.
TONIGHT I HAVE THE SPIRIT OF THE KING
ROAMING
EXQUISITE THIRSTY, LIVE THROUGH EYES
a creature breathing nothings with the waves
and there is nothing here to take away
no words, no beats, no breaks
except the rising surge and wave
to surge, to die, to surge again,
so please welcome Old Man Diode to the stage
with Wampa, Fya, Plummer, Beth, Onallee, Chris James
yourselves, the wider crowd, and this the linking age
this is the linking magic we all dive deep to save
children of the interdigital age
interdigitally ablaze
these the waves we came to pave as moving floors
and all of us together
KRILL AND KINGS

{Track : Clearing Song}
Squall gone
Shoal left
Moon wrapped
These bits left
These bits
A tech lift horizon
blend free
a Clearing Song
Mapped out there
Where the machines left us
Ran out
Out here
It’s me and you out here

Look on my Works ye Mighty and Despair!

king-corn

It might be a way for a television show entering its final season to tell the audience that the empire built up by the main character over the years is about to come apart. That’s where Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandiasmakes an appearance.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

A poem may have a use as a preview for a television series. It might provide a comment on the inevitable decline of empires built through raw power. On our sofas in front of our big screens, at our desks gazing at computer screens, on our smart phones as we navigate the foot traffic of the sidewalk, we hear the poem and put it into the context of the story arc of a television show. From the safety of our media consumption dens we see the folly of powerful empires in the face of the sands of time. The show, by means of the poem, tells the audience about a particular way to watch the show. More than half a million people heard Shelley’s poem in the five-day period after it was published to the Network. In this context, the poem has a certain utility, but it also bursts out of that frame.

Shelley thought of a poem as a message in a bottle from the future. A powerful poem, this one was written in 1818, continues to deliver messages to the present for a good long time. The poem remains in the future until it has no more it can tell us. “Ozymandias” continues to speak.

The poem’s construction gives us a whole series of nested narrators, interlocking boxes of perspective. We, the readers, are also implicated in this chain of perspectives. It turns out that “we” are Ozymandias, it might be us speaking those words that appear on the pedestal. As we appear to have a relation to the broken and buried stone figures of Ozymandias, so will future civilizations have that same relationship to us.

The desert of Shelley’s poem brings to mind the landscapes of Craig Childs’s “Apocalyptic Planet“. Childs visits landscapes of heat and sand, ice and wind, and fields of volcanic lava. He returns to us a traveler from an antique land. He winds up his Long Now Foundation talk on his journeys with the place he called the most terrifying apocalyptic landscape. Childs and a friend hiked and camped for two days and three nights in an Iowa GMO corn field. For Childs the corn field has much in common with the other apocalyptic landscapes he visited. These are places where the earth becomes “lots of one thing and not much of any other.” King corn has a message written into its DNA. The pesticides carved into the pedestal of its genetic code are a broadcast message to any living entities who might enter its empire: “look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

cranston-web

The other message delivered in this reading of Shelley’s poem has to do with what attitude, what feeling, we get from the ruins of Ozymandias’s broken stone statues. There’s the “frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” and the command to “look on my Works and despair.” We get the feeling of a civilization built on the fear of power — of the many living in fear of the few. If we are Ozymandias, what message we will leave behind for a future generation to ponder?

It’s here that the writer George Saunders’s commencement speech to the students of Syracuse University emerges in the poem. As an older person he wanted to tell this group of young people, with their whole lives ahead of them, what he regretted in his life. And here’s the message written on his pedestal: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness”. George Saunders is also Ozymandias, but an Ozymandias who has read and been affected by Shelley’s poem.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Saunders’s consciousness has been upgraded by the poetry of English romanticism. It’s not just that the sands of time have buried and broken this antique emperor named Ozymandias, but that only a small piece of that culture survives. For Saunders, we read this command from the pedestal: “err in the direction of kindness.” The poem asks you as you read it: “What is your message in a bottle for the future?”

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