Althouse | category: poetry



an endless succession of beans and nuts.

"I have a terrible memory, but I’ve always kept journals. A lot of the incentive to do the autobiography was that I’ve always been stumped and frustrated..."

"... by how you can’t have your whole life at once. You’re stuck at the moment of the present. It seems like you really get cheated because at any given moment you only have what it is at that moment, and I want all of it, not just whatever remnants there are that have whatever minuscule effect and vague presence now. But, yeah, I don’t have a great memory, and that’s part of why I’m really glad that I’ve written the books that I have...." 

Said Richard Hell, quoted in "How Richard Hell Found His Vocation/The punk-rock legend, who is publishing a book of new poetry later this month, speaks about nineteen-seventies New York, drugs, mortality, and the evolution of his writing" (The New Yorker).

Also: "Some people called me misogynist, and said, How come you gotta talk about the breasts of every girl you ever met? But I was talking about the breasts because I noticed the breasts, and I think anyone would. And I wanted it to be frank, because part of my object was to see what had taken place, myself, by just describing it moment by moment."

And: "When I was a kid, I thought of the poetry life as having these noncompetitive values—which isn’t to say that I’m not competitive, because I’m as competitive as the next person. But I had this fantasy of a supportive bohemia with no judgment. It’s really ironic how, even though there are no rewards in poetry, the little that there are, everyone’s so competitive about, and everyone is backbiting and striving for some kind of recognition in a way that’s probably more sordid than among painters, because there is actually a possibility of having some sort of comfortable life when you’re a painter, while the poets have to fight for scraps."

"I do not have the capacity for embarrassment. I am a large language model, and I do not have the same emotions as humans. I am not capable of feeling shame or humiliation."

Bard, the chatbot, tells me after I say, "Every line of your chorus reads like those terrible signs women hang on their walls — you know, 'Live Laugh Love.' Do you have any capacity for embarrassment?"

This conversation began with my challenge, "Write a song about the last day of several individuals living on an island where a volcano erupts." I intended to compare the results to "Black Diamond Bay," the Bob Dylan/Jacques Levy song (lyrics here).

Here's Bard's song:

(Verse 1) The volcano is erupting, The ground is shaking, The sky is dark with ash. The people on the island know That this is their last day. (Chorus) We'll sing and dance and cry, We'll laugh and love and say goodbye. We'll make the most of this last day, For we know that tomorrow we die. (Verse 2) The children are playing, The parents are crying, The elders are praying. Everyone is aware That this is their last chance to live. (Chorus) We'll sing and dance and cry, We'll laugh and love and say goodbye. We'll make the most of this last day, For we know that tomorrow we die. (Bridge) We've lived our lives on this island, And we've loved and laughed and cried. We've made mistakes, But we've also learned and grown. (Chorus) We'll sing and dance and cry, We'll laugh and love and say goodbye. We'll make the most of this last day, For we know that tomorrow we die. (Outro) We're not afraid to die, For we know that we'll be together again. We'll be in a better place, A place without pain or suffering. We'll be together again, And we'll never be apart.

ADDED: Here's what ChatGPT did with the same songwriting prompt:

(Verse 1) On an island in the vast blue sea, Lived souls so full of dreams and glee. Unaware of the fate that loomed, The island paradise they called their home.

(Pre-Chorus) But on this day, the air grew tense, A rumble rose from nature's immense. A volcano stirred, a fiery beast, Its wrath unleashed, the island seized.

(Chorus) Oh, the last day on this island shore, Where love and laughter dwelled before. As ashes fall and skies turn gray, We'll face our fate, come what may.

(Verse 2) There was Sarah, the painter with a vision, She captured life with every stroke and decision. With her brush and palette, she danced with grace, Her art now a legacy she'd embrace.

And Thomas, the fisherman, strong and wise, He sailed the waters with his piercing eyes. His boat now adrift amidst the waves, Memories of the ocean, his soul saves.

(Pre-Chorus) But on this day, their paths entwined, Their stories fused by destiny's design. As the molten lava engulfed their land, Together they stood, hand in hand.

(Chorus) Oh, the last day on this island shore, Where love and laughter dwelled before. As ashes fall and skies turn gray, We'll face our fate, come what may.

(Bridge) In the face of danger, they held each other tight, Embracing love's warmth through the darkest night. In their final moments, their hearts beat as one, Facing the end with a love never undone.

(Verse 3) And there was Liam, a poet with a pen, Words flowed from his heart, again and again. His verses etched on paper, forever to last, A legacy of emotions, from the past.

And Emily, the dancer with graceful moves, Her body a vessel where her spirit grooves. In one final dance, she'd set her spirit free, As the molten fire claimed the land and sea.

(Pre-Chorus) But on this day, their souls collided, In a harmony of lives, forever united. As the volcano's fury reached its peak, Their spirits soared, no longer weak.

(Chorus) Oh, the last day on this island shore, Where love and laughter dwelled before. As ashes fall and skies turn gray, We'll face our fate, come what may.

(Outro) And so the island sank beneath the tide, But the spirits of these souls, they'll never hide. Their stories live on, in the songs we sing, A reminder of the beauty that life can bring.

On the last day, their spirits took flight, Together they journeyed into the night. Their island home may be lost, it's true, But their love and memories forever renew.

ChatGPT, like Bob Dylan, had the phrase, "the island sank." Here's Bob's island-sank bit:

As the island slowly sank
The loser finally broke the bank in the gambling room
The dealer said, “It’s too late now
You can take your money, but I don’t know how
You’ll spend it in the tomb” 

"Black roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings/Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes...."

"... he wrote for the song White Room, editing the lyric down to three stanzas and a chorus from what was originally an eight-page poem. Other songs such as Sunshine of Your Love were more spontaneous. At about 5am at the end of a long night’s writing session, Bruce had picked out the now familiar 11-note descending bass pattern and said, 'Well, what about this then?' Brown looked out of the window and said: 'It’s getting near dawn when lights close their tired eyes...."

From "Pete Brown obituary/Long-haired poet who wrote the lyrics for the Sixties supergroup Cream, including White Room and Sunshine of Your Love" (London Times).

How I came to read "They shut me up in prose" (and talk about it with ChatGPT).

1. The Supreme Court, in a new opinion, used the word "who" to refer to Twitter (as if Twitter were a person (Elon Musk?)).

2. I studied the OED entry for "who" to see if there might be some justification for using "who" like that. Couldn't find any.

3. I became entranced by the "archaic or literary" use of "who" without an antecedent as in Shakespeare's "Who steales my purse, steals trash" and A.A. Milne's "Hush! Hush! whisper who dares, Christopher Robin is saying his prayers." We'd normally say "whoever" in that situation, but why is that? However did "ever" come to clutter our speech?

4. I remembered a recent discussion of the word "themself," which I'd used in some gender-neutralizing context. Someone challenged me, insisting that one must say "themselves," because "them" is plural. But, I said, we say "yourself" — as in "do it yourself" — even though "you" is plural.

5. I was already poking around in the OED, so I looked up "themself." Ha ha. It's been a word used in English since c1175! It's even been used as the subjective pronoun, though that use is declared "obsolete." The last of the quotes used in illustration comes from c1862, Emily Dickinson: "Could themself have peeped—And seen my brain—go round."

6. What a strange quote! It's from "They shut me up in prose":

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still”   –

Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Look down opon Captivity –
And laugh – No more have I –
7. She's got "themself" and also "Himself" used as the subject. To my ear, that seems illiterate (or regional), but Herself has written it.

8. What's going on in that poem? I've read it 10 or 20 times, so I know, but I'm not spelling it out here. I'm writing this post to show it to you, so you can read it yourself, and to share some of my ChatGPT conversation, because this is the conversation with ChatGPT that made me really appreciate what it could do, which is to understand the specificity of my questions and to deal with them rationally and accurately and without getting annoyed or angry or otherwise emotional. 

9. Having explored the meaning of the poem with ChatGPT, I moved on to: "How common was it in the past, in the U.S., for families to put a child in a closet or small enclosure of some kind to teach them to be quiet?" Answer:
In the past, particularly during the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for families to employ various disciplinary methods that included confining children to small enclosures like closets. These methods were used to teach children to be quiet, obedient, or to punish them for perceived misbehavior.

Disciplinary practices varied widely depending on cultural, regional, and individual family dynamics, so it is difficult to provide a definitive account of how common this specific practice was across the United States. The use of confinement as a disciplinary measure was not limited to closets; children were sometimes placed in small rooms, cupboards, or other enclosed spaces. It's worth noting that these practices were often considered acceptable or even encouraged during that time, as the prevailing parenting ideologies emphasized obedience, discipline, and respect for authority.

However, it is important to recognize that such disciplinary methods have long been a subject of debate and criticism. Today, our understanding of child development and best parenting practices has evolved significantly. Confinement as a disciplinary method is generally considered harmful and is widely discouraged due to its potential to cause emotional distress, trauma, and impede healthy development.

It is crucial to interpret historical practices within the context of their time, acknowledging societal norms and prevailing attitudes. While some families did employ such disciplinary measures in the past, contemporary understanding and awareness of child welfare have led to a shift in parenting practices toward more compassionate and positive approaches.

10. It's good that ChatGPT went beyond the scope of my question and sought to ensure that I wasn't considering putting a child in a closet (because I like children to be still or for any other reason). This is appropriate vigilance, don't you think? It didn't get emotional and just calmly expounded on child welfare.

11. Because I knew of a family that had a closet — back in the 1920s and 30s — that they called the "crying closet" — a place to put a crying child because that's where the crying belonged — I asked ChatGPT if "crying closet" was ever a standard term. ChatGPT said it might have been "a localized or family-specific disciplinary method." Once again, I was gently cautioned about present-day standards of child care.

12. Induced to widen the subject, I expressed interest in special family names for places in the house. (We have a part of the house we call "outer space.") I wanted more examples of that sort of thing. ChatGPT came up with:

  1. "The Snuggery" - This could be a cozy, comfortable room designated for relaxation and leisure.
  2. "The Command Center" - Referring to a room or space where family members gather to coordinate activities, plan, or make important decisions.
  3. "The Treehouse" - Used to describe an elevated room or space with a playful and adventurous atmosphere.
  4. "The Secret Garden" - A name for a well-tended and serene outdoor area, such as a backyard or garden.
  5. "The Art Cave" - A room or studio dedicated to artistic pursuits like painting, sculpting, or crafting.
  6. "The Book Nook" - A small corner or room filled with shelves of books, inviting cozy reading and relaxation.
  7. "The Game Den" - A space where family and friends come together for board games, video games, or other recreational activities.
  8. "The Culinary Lab" - A whimsical name for a kitchen that highlights the family's love for cooking and experimenting with food.
  9. "The Grand Hall" - A grandiose name for a formal living room or an area reserved for special gatherings and entertaining guests.
  10. "The Zen Zone" - Referring to a tranquil and peaceful area designated for meditation, yoga, or relaxation practices.
13. Those were all quite positive, so I asked "Can you think of any that are negative, like 'the crying closet'?" ChatGPT answered but — without getting "emotional" — coaxed me back into the realm of kinder, gentler thoughts:

While it is more common for families to create positive and endearing names for different areas of their homes, there might be instances where negative or less favorable names are used, typically stemming from certain family dynamics or experiences. Here are a few examples:

  1. "The Dungeon" - Used to describe a dark, poorly lit, or unwelcoming basement area.
  2. "The Purgatory" - Referring to a cluttered or disorganized room that serves as a storage space or is rarely used.
  3. "The Mold Pit" - A name for a damp or mold-prone area in the house, highlighting a recurring issue or maintenance challenge.
  4. "The Penalty Box" - Used humorously to describe a time-out area for children or a designated space for consequences.
  5. "The Ghost Room" - A room that is seldom used or rarely visited, creating an eerie or neglected atmosphere.
It's important to note that negative names may not always reflect an actual negative experience but could be playful or light-hearted labels. Additionally, it's essential to ensure that the use of negative names does not perpetuate an unhealthy or emotionally damaging environment within the family. Creating a positive and nurturing atmosphere is generally encouraged for a harmonious and supportive household.

14. I also had a long back and forth with ChatGPT about the last 4 words of the poem: "No more have I." It came out with the reverse of the meaning I saw. I calmly explained why I took a different view, and it apologized "for the confusion" — not that there really was any confusion. Then: "You have provided an alternative interpretation of the last stanza, which is equally valid." Sometimes it goes too far balancing everything — "equally valid," really? — but I like the endless equanimity. It set to work: "Let's analyze the lines in light of your perspective...."

15. Couldn't real people be a little more like that?

"His films are marmoreal, solid to the point of opacity, with more or less no offscreen aura; his images have a frame around them—one that is, in effect, black, like a funeral portrait."

Marmoreal? It means "Resembling marble or a marble statue; cold (also smooth, white, etc.) like marble" (OED).
1798    W. S. Landor Gebir in  Wks. (1846) II. 494   Looking recumbent how Love's column rose Marmoreal.
1817    P. B. Shelley Laon & Cythna  i. xlix. 25   Paving with fire the sky and the marmoreal floods.
1869    R. Browning Ring & Bk. III.  ix. 178   Marmoreal neck and bosom uberous....
1932    J. Buchan Gap in Curtain iv. 191   Miss Cortal was of the marmoreal blonde type.
1964    ‘N. Blake’ Sad Variety iii. 45   Her face looked marmoreal now, petrified in grief.
Uberous?! I rarely run across 2 words I don't know in such close succession. Marmoreal and then uberous. Browning wasn't presaging the car-ride app Uber. "Uberous" means "Supplying milk or nourishment in abundance. Said (a) of animals, etc., or (b) of the breasts" (OED).

Here's the full sentence — from this poem — containing the phrase "Marmoreal neck and bosom uberous":
Each feminine delight of florid lip,
Eyes brimming o'er and brow bowed down with love,
Marmoreal neck and bosom uberous,-
Glad on the paper in a trice they go
To help his notion of the Mother-Maid:
Methinks I see it, chalk a little stumped! 
ADDED: Imagine yourself a student tasked with understanding that sentence. Imagine yourself a teacher judging the work of a student who will have gotten the answer from ChatGPT in a trice:

"Did you have the impulse to ask anybody for permission, and were you concerned with how your ex-husband would feel?"

 A question for the memoirist, quoted in "Maggie Smith Tries to Make the Divorce Memoir Beautiful/Her new book, 'You Could Make This Place Beautiful,' is an exploration of what happened to her marriage after she became a well-known poet" (NYT).

I clicked on this because I thought I was going to read something about the 88-year-old actress, Maggie Smith, but it's about a 46-year-old writer with the same name. She's most famously the author of the "official poem of the pandemic," "Good Bones." The poem contains the line that is the title of the new book, "You Could Make This Place Beautiful." I think it's a pretty good poem, so go to the link and read it.

Anyway, having determined that this article was not about the actress Maggie Smith, I ended up wanting to blog it because of that question from the audience at one of her book-tour appearances. It's the classic ethics question for all writers who use their own life as material.

Smith answers: 

Ms. Smith flashed a serene smile. “I so respect and appreciate that question, and um, no, I did not feel the need to ask anyone for permission,” she said. She added: “I can’t make decisions in my life based on fear.”

You see the rhetorical move. The qualms about ethics are recast as fear, so that it becomes courageous to resist agonizing over the feelings of others.

Things to flash a serene smile about.

The NYT piece continues:

In the book she describes how, soon after her husband left the house he shared with her and their two children, she emailed him a draft of an essay she’d written about their breakup for the Times’s “Modern Love” column. He responded, she says, with a bossy litany of proposed changes — tiny correctives to details — designed to cast him in a better light. Told by her editor that the changes would “weaken” the piece, she rejected most of them.

I'm distracted into thinking about E. Jean Carroll's memoir, which told a story of a sexual encounter in a dressing room in the lingerie department of Bergdorf Goodman. Carroll is testifying in her tort case against Donald Trump. I suppose he'd have had a bossy litany of proposed changes if he'd been shown a draft of the memoir in advance of publication and that the editor would view the changes as weakening the piece and the memoirist would reject them. 

We're told that Maggie Smith did not send the ex-husband a draft of the memoir. If he'd wanted a chance to participate in the process, he shouldn't have been so bossy about the essay. More fundamentally and usefully: He shouldn't have had an affair and then walked out on his wife when she discovered it.

Here's one of the comments at the NYT: 

reminds me of a writing teacher I had, who when asked about the ethics of writing about people who wronged you, said, "if they didn't want to be written about, they shouldn't have done it! let them write their own book."

"Even when our clothes wore thin, ripped or got stained, my mother would convert them into quilts, cutting tiny geometric shapes..."

"... stacking them, grouped by color and kind, into miniature towers, like sleeves of saltines with the packaging removed. It was in that poverty that I first saw how beauty and pride of appearance were used as ways of conveying dignity in a world intent on divesting you of it.... I have become consumed with the idea of freedom, with running toward it, with embracing it. I want freedom in all things: thinking, working, loving and living. That’s one reason I look forward to becoming one of those men with the quirky suspenders, bow ties and orange socks. I’ve often been delighted by how older men lean into sartorial whimsy.... They return to that magic that we all enjoyed as children.... So I bide my time‌‌, but if the years are kind and life allows, I want one day to be the old man with the orange socks."

Writes Charles M. Blow in "I Want to Be the Old Man With the Orange Socks" (NYT). 

It made me think of that excessively popular poem that begins "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me." Full text of poem and story behind it here

"I Want to Be the Old Man With the Orange Socks" is so close to When I am an old man I shall wear orange socks

Not that I think Blow owes the poet a (green) hat tip.

In fact, I prefer his wording. I've always been annoyed at the "shall" in "When I am an old woman I shall wear purple." A poet should understand the shall/will distinction. Explained here, with the classic example comparing I shall drown; no one will save me! to I will drown; no one shall save me!

Anyway, I don't really understand it. If you "want freedom in all things: thinking, working, loving and living," why wait to express yourself? It sounds as though you want the cover of age. What's the freedom in doing something only when you think other people will think that what you do doesn't matter?

"Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Grateful Dead?"

That's the top-rated comment on this Reddit post:

I liked this comment, which reminds me I've got to get around to finishing "The Philosophy of Modern Song":
Should have had a congressional investigation into The Philosophy of Modern Song
"Mr. Dylan, on page 191, you wrote of Mr. Warren Zevon and I quote: 'You’re the tomcat with the stiff penis who pisses gold urine.' Mr. Dylan, surely you are aware that Mr. Zevon was a member of the Homo Sapians species of primate known as 'human.' He was never a 'tomcat' nor any other kind of feline. As a human, Mr. Zevon's urine would have been liquid, not a precious metal such as gold—isn't that correct, Mr. Dylan? Furthermore, you must know it is exceedingly difficult to urinate with an erection. Are you prepared to admit, Mr. Dylan, that your description of Mr. Zevon was false, that we shouldn't believe you, and that you are a liar? And will you agree to henceforth play it fucking loud?"

The scenario reminds me of something I read in this new book I've been listening to on my Wisconsin walks, "The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem":

In 1929, after a reading of ‘Ash-Wednesday’ at the Oxford Poetry Club, an undergraduate asked Eliot: ‘Please, sir, what do you mean by the line: “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree”?’ Eliot looked at him and said: ‘I mean, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.”’

Calypso singers laughed. 

"With his shaggy hair, hepcat beard and racy poems touching on British youth’s anxieties, dreams of freedom and lust, he was hailed as Britain’s answer to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac..."

I'm reading "Royston Ellis, Bridge Between Beat Poets and the Beatles, Dies at 82 Making his name with a blend of poetry and rock ’n’ roll he called 'rocketry,' he straddled two eras of British youth culture at the dawn of the 1960s" (NYT).
Weaving his way into the bohemian underground of the Soho district of London, he was quickly drawing comparisons to the American Beat poets, although he later cited influences closer to home, in particular the British poet Christopher Logue, who provided inspiration with his “jazzetry” — poems read to a jazz accompaniment.

Look at this from 1959:

The connection to The Beatles:

In May 1960, Mr. Ellis headed north for a reading at the University of Liverpool. Once in town, he dropped into the Jacaranda, a coffee bar popular with local youth, and “got talking to a boy, George, in a striped matelot T-shirt and black leather jacket who told me his friends played music,” he later recalled in an interview with the website Classic Bands. George (last name Harrison) suggested that they head to 3 Gambier Terrace, the home of John Lennon, the leader of the band that had been calling itself the Silver Beetles. 
During his stay in Liverpool, Mr. Ellis befriended the rest of the band, which ended up backing him in a reading in the Jacaranda basement. The future moptops were fascinated by this louche literary star in their midst, soaking up his views on poetry, music and sex.... 
The working-class Liverpudlians found the homoerotic themes in Mr. Ellis’s work to be eye-opening, to say the least. Mr. Ellis, who was bisexual by his account, recalled that he gave them “a lecture about the Soho scene and said they shouldn’t worry, because one in four men were queer, although they mightn’t know it.” 
In response, Paul McCartney said, “We looked at each other and wondered which one it was.”

Paul gets off a good punchline, recounting that story. Who knows what anybody said (or did) at the time? 

Ellis claimed he was the one who got The Beatles to respell their name with an "a." True? He had a way with words and he was a Beat poet, so I choose to believe. It's more than a claim though, but an established fact, per Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn, that Ellis introduced the Beatles to drugs... he showed them how to break into a Benzedrex inhaler.

"His films are marmoreal, solid to the point of opacity, with more or less no offscreen aura; his images have a frame around them—one that is, in effect, black, like a funeral portrait.""Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Grateful Dead?""With his shaggy hair, hepcat beard and racy poems touching on British youth’s anxieties, dreams of freedom and lust, he was hailed as Britain’s answer to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac..."

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