Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Yaw-Wise Torque Budget

Proposition 1: In poems (unlike cars, bikes, or small boats) you have separate control over which way it is pointing relative to which way it is going.

Normally you want the poem to be pointing the same direction as it is going. That is, you want the slip angle to be small. There are several reasons for this:

Precision: If your objective is Leftist, it doesn’t make sense to let the maneuver begin with a big inadvertent yaw to the Right.
Efficiency: Slipping is an unnecessary drag.
Comfort: Readers really hate being sloshed from side to side. Maybe it doesn’t bother you, but it will bother your readers. Also note that in many small poems, readers are at a literary disadvantage because they are seated farther from the pivot point (in the Tostian sense) than the poet is. That means any given yaw angle produces more sideways displacement at the reader's location.
Safety: Whereas if you stall in coordinated composition your nose will just drop straight off your head, if you manage to stall in sufficiently uncoordinated composition, you will get spin or a snap roll, which is much harder to recover from.

Maintaining zero slip angle while maneuvering requires coordinated use of the cut and paste, so poets speak of “zero slip angle” and “good coordination” almost interchangeably.

(Grateful acknowledgement is made to John S. Denker.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

"The Sub-area of Pragmatics"?

The new Absent is here. Let me be among the first to take the bait. I think Kent Johnson's piece on the linguistic competence of the post-avant begs all the questions. I don't see any reason to accept the Chomskian hegemony of "deep structure" and "universal grammar" even in linguistics, but, more importantly, I think the scientific image of "grammar" has always been a mistake.

Grammar is just usage; and meaning is use. There is nothing immediately indecent about allowing the later Wittgenstein to condition one's reading of the early Chomsky and concluding that cognitive linguistics begins by misunderstanding what language fundamentally is. It reduces grammar to the rules (even the "natural laws") of sentence parsing. While I'm sure Johnson could provide the examples of comical parsings by post-avant critics he alludes to (he doesn't here, though he bids us notice that Bernstein doesn't provide examples of grammatical domination in an interview), there is really nothing funnier than "scientific" readings of literary texts (e.g., readings informed by cognitive linguistics). My favourite example is E. O. Wilson's appreciation of the "anatomical accuracy" and "alliterative t-sounds" of the first paragraph of "Nabokov's pedophilic novel" Lolita (Consilience, p. 222).

I'm poking around in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateau's these days, especially chapter 5, "On Several Regimes of Signs". But one could also use Bourdieu to challenge the cognitive presumptions of contemporary (largely American, I think) linguistics. Anyway, Deleuze and Guattari put it as follows: "There is no ... grammaticality in itself ... . [P]ragmatics is not a complement to logic, syntax, or semantics; on the contrary, it is the fundamental element upon which all the rest depend." Deleuze didn't think much of Wittgensteinians but did agree that "meaning is use", here put in terms of the fundamental status of pragmatics.

I don't cite these people as authorities but in order to break into the assumption that Chomsky should necessarily be the point of departure for our understanding of the word "language" in Langpo or the post-avant and that poets should be ashamed of their ignorance in this regard. There is plenty of perfectly "competent" criticism of the idea that pragmatics is a "sub-area" of linguistics. Or rather, of the linguistic idea that usage comes after grammar. The whole of cognitive linguistics is a "sub-area". Cognitive linguistics is but one thing you can do with words.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


I think that the poet, whether she likes it or not, always has to struggle against what Chuck D has called the ‘dumbassification’ of American culture, against the deadening of intellects upon which our empire depends.

Ben Lerner

Anatole France is said to have spent a great deal of time seaching for the least possible variant that would turn the most worn-out and commonest phrases of journalism into something distinguished.

Ezra Pound (ABC, p. 70)

"Torque" is not in Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms. Kasey, however, has provided a useful two-part definition. It is the second of these that I want to focus on: "a way of talking about a poem's ability to dodge readerly expectations, to swerve or twist away from a strict construal or single valence." Harold Bloom used similar language in the Anxiety of Influence when defining the "revisionary ratio" of the clinamen: "a corrective movement in [a new] poem, which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves." But Kasey's definition is not about a poem's relation to its precursors; it is about a poem's relation to "readerly expectations". I want to use Ben Lerner's title concept of yaw to discuss a poem's relation to culture in general, more specifically, popular culture.

More later.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


It is natural to think that history (the scholarly discipline not the process) is the art of writing true sentences about human beings in the past tense. There are no doubt historians who would call that sort of description simple-minded, but I think laypeople tacitly accept that such an art is possible. Consider the possibility, however, that human beings can't (technically) be "objects", i.e., that there can't be "true sentences about" them. When writing about people, we must write just sentences in the future tense. That is, all our judgments about people are about what will happen (or, more precisely, what we would have happen), not was has happened.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Coming Attractions

I'd better get back at it. I've been attending to other things, and took a nice long vacation, but I feel like there are some things to blog about again.

  1. At the cottage, I finally got around to reading both Ben Marcus's Notable American Women and Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game.
  2. Dan Hoy has written a perfectly good review of Katie Degentesh's The Anger Scale, which appears in the current all-prose Octopus.
  3. In the same issue, Elisa Gabbert has written a less perceptive review of Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw (which is a very good book).
  4. I'm reading Soft Targets 2.1 with interest, in whole and in part.
  5. I feel like Tony Tost's "Disarm the Settlers" deserves another look.

OK. That's my things to do list for now.