Wunderkind Shelley

Do you know this poem?:

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.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, that is. I read it for a correspondence course in my senior year of high school, and I love it–brilliant, searingly ironic, beautifully lyric. I think I’ve posted it before – back when this blog was new and I posted a poem each Wednesday.

Did you know he also wrote this?:

Why do we admit design in any machine of human contrivance? Simply, because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind, because we are acquainted with persons who could construct such machines; but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had accidentally found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted, and that any attempt to account for the origin of its existence would be equally presumptuous and unsatisfactory.

and this?:

It is vain philosophy that supposes more causes than are exactly adequate to explain the phenomena of things.

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between every thing which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition, if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endured, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation.

and this?:

That certain animals exist in certain climates, results from the consentaneity of their frames to the circumstances of their situation: let these circumstances be altered to a sufficient degree, and the elements of their composition must exist in some new combination no less resulting than the former from those inevitable laws by which the Universe is governed….

and this?:

If we found our belief in the existence of God on the universal consent of mankind, we are duped by the most palpable of sophisms. The word God cannot mean at the same time an ape, a snake, a bone, a calabash, a Trinity, and a Unity. Nor can that belief be accounted universal against which men of powerful intellect and spotless virtue have in every age protested….

Turns out he got expelled from Oxford for writing a tract advocating atheism, and wikipedia claims that publishers were afraid to print his writing, throughout his life, lest they be punished for it. Oh yeah, and Shelley wrote the work these quotes are from in 1814. He was a little ahead of the curve, you might say.

…Also, seriously? Shelley was arguing 200 years ago against the very same design arguments that are still trying to insinuate themselves into classrooms today? (sigh)


Meaning Is in the I (fourth ModPo essay)

(The week’s topic was aleatory, or chance, poetry. Bonus points if you recognize all of the hat-tips in the title; I intended three of them.)


Here I have created a mesostic using the seed word “wandering” with Rae Armantrout’s “The Way”* as my oracle. I chose this combination because I would describe my own mind as peregrine, and “wandering” links that with the shifting “I” in Armantrout’s poem. I didn’t want to add deliberate meaning to the experiment, so this is the unedited result from the mesostomatic.

The resulting grammar is unconventional but not nonsensical. “Pew announces only bad winter” reads like the clipped syntax of news headlines – a bad winter is the only forecast we get from the pew. And “word is scenes gasp,” with a comma after “is,” acquires a conversational tone; “scenes gasp” could indicate the bad winter – a season of “scenes” where everything holds its breath, waiting for the spring. We could even read “pew” as the research group, suggesting a prediction of a chilly post-election civil/political climate.

More interesting than a particular meaning is that we can find meaning at all in a poem that came about through a pseudorandom, deterministic process where no specific meaning could have been intended. This reminds us what pattern detectors we humans are – we seek patterns and meaning everywhere, so much so that we often see them where they aren’t (both for good reason, ask any evolutionist). Finding meaning in chance poems shows that this applies to language as much as anything else, and it also invites us to ask what meaning really is.

Douglas Hofstadter wrote in Gödel, Escher, Bach that “meaning is an automatic by-product of our recognition of any isomorphism.” A heady statement, but he was discussing the way that no message comes through as uncoded, pure meaning (e.g., this essay is coded in English); an isomorphism is a relationship between two things, “mapping” one onto the other (like a translation). Meaning happens when you make the connection between them. There are all kinds of things (objects, ideas, experiences) that bear a relationship to each other without anyone intending it. The “code” of chance poems may not be organized and deliberate, but if something in it makes sense to you, then you’ve recognized a relationship – meaning has happened. In this sense, chance poems have whatever meaning their readers find in them.

But I think it’s more than that. That they have whatever meaning readers find is itself a (meta) meaning of the chance poem – the fact that meaning belongs to each person who encounters the poem. In a traditional poem, the poet tries to control what meaning the reader sees, but if the readers don’t recognize the intended meaning in it, it’s unsuccessful; that meaning isn’t there. The fact that language is such that it can so often be non-intentionally arranged into something that seems meaningful and, conversely, that we are such that we can find meaning in such arrangements of words may be another meaning.

Finally, there are the questions themselves: what does this mean? how do I find meaning in this noise? if something non-intentional can have meaning, then what is meaning?

We are all too familiar with these questions in another context: faced with the claim that the universe and life and we came about through non-intentional, deterministic processes, the religious ask, “Then what’s the point? What value or meaning can there be in life if everything exists by coincidence?” Atheists seem to have little trouble finding these things. Indeed, many exclaim that it is all the more wonderful that there is such order and complexity in the universe, and that we are here, if no one has been there deliberately making it so. And it is up to us to determine or create meaning in our lives.

Some people will find meaning in chance poems; some will not. Either way, art demands we look at its objects in new ways, and here, the object most in question is meaning itself.

* Read Armantrout’s poem here, and find a PoemTalk discussion of it here. We read this in the second week of the course, when we saw a variety of Dickinsonian and Whitmanian poets (she is Dickinsonian).

Half a year in the life of Arestelle, part ii

I feel like I’ve been going nonstop since January, and last weekend, when I took an extra day off to have a four-day weekend, was the first I’ve stopped for air since New Year’s. It’s not just the conflict with the employer and the Coursera classes and the grad school application, either, though I lost plenty of sleep to those, too.

I’ve been reading, for one thing. So far, I’ve read a novel and its prequel, Blue and Until Again, by Lou Aronica; Dance for Two, essays by Alan Lightman which I reviewed here; The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte, which I cannot recommend highly enough; The Once and Future King; The Hunger Games; Terry Pratchett’s Colour of Magic; H. G. Wells’s Time Machine; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Quiet, by Susan Cain (please read this!); a novella by Bradley Beaulieu, called Strata; Aristotle’s Poetics; and Strunk & White’s classic grammar guide, The Elements of Style. I am currently in the middle of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry; Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man; Beaulieu’s second novel of Anuskaya, The Straits of Galahesh; and a math text, Calculus: A Liberal Art.

I follow several television shows online: Psych, Castle, Bones, White Collar, House (fare thee well), Glee (shut it), Ringer (and I wanted to see what comes next!), Grimm, Once Upon a Time, The Voice, and now Touch. And I’ll probably follow a couple others during the summer, like Burn Notice. In spite of all these shows, which I quite like, the one — the only one — I truly care about is the Sing-Off, which, sadly, has been cancelled. (The petition to save it has over 24,000 signatures, though; check it out.)

I’ve also…

  • taken some pictures here and there (but have yet to edit or post many of them);
  • discovered that the Highline Canal trail south of Denver is gorgeous for biking;
  • replaced my laptop’s old, dying hard drive;
  • spent some time with each of my parents when they visited;
  • given my adorable niece a stuffed owl for her first birthday – a sentimental connection to my grandpa – and am told she rather took to it (which I suppose means something like “she tried to eat Owl’s beak”);
  • had a little adventure in new-glasses-buying that ended with my old optometrist refusing to take responsibility for giving me a bad prescription;
  • nerded out a bit on notebooks & paper (O Clairefontaine!) after buying a set of colorful fineliners and discovering that ordinary paper is no match for a felt-tip pen;
  • battled a non-functional clothes dryer for about two months (it ran but didn’t heat the air);
  • bid good riddance to an alcoholic roommate who believed that grinding coffee beans falls under the category of Things It Is Appropriate to Do While Trying to Be Quiet at Five O’Clock in the Morning; and
  • finally got new windows at my house! (okay, I didn’t do that myself, but it needed done and I’m well pleased now it is.)

I also picked up some music that I found on sale or otherwise needed to have: the Amélie soundtrack, Robyn, A Fine Frenzy, Carla Bruni, Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans, Keith Urban, Sara Bareilles, Norah Jones, KT Tunstall, First Aid Kit, Keane, Lauryn Hill, Andy McKee, Scott Joplin/Joshua Rifkin, JS Bach/Jian Wang (cello suites), Beethoven/András Schiff (piano sonatas). I love all the albums I’ve gotten, but especially Tunstall’s “Tiger Suit,” Bareilles’s “Kaleidoscope Heart,” and AFF’s “One Cell in the Sea.” The new Norah Jones is really interesting, too, and on one track (“She’s 22”), Jones & the tune sound exactly like Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley, if you don’t know her as a solo act). I would never have seen that coming; Norah’s always been so smiley, and Jenny is, well, not that.

So, um, I’m a bit tired. I can haz more 4-day weekend?


This is another entry I found in the binder from last summer; I think these must’ve been from July, because they’re in there with my letter to Congresspeople about the JWST, and I wasn’t using the binder otherwise. (Yes, my mind is such that I have to figure out when I wrote an undated journal entry. 😛 ) The “you,” once again, is just imaginary. I’ve always liked writing in the second person.

Ich will viel. I want a lot. Je veux… Je veux beaucoup. Beaucoup de temps, beaucoup des choses, beaucoup. I want to walk on air. I want to breathe physics and dance mathematics. I want to stay up all night watching the stars alone, surrounded by the echoes of everyone who has watched them before. I want to do something new. I want to see something that none of them did. I want to do something that would interest the greatest minds that knew this Earth. Is that so much in the end?

Don’t touch me now. I don’t know what I want. I don’t know who you are. Are you the one who will wake me from my slumber? My thoughts are lost and full of fog. Help me find them. Don’t let me lose them again–hold them safe with you. They slip through the walls of my mind too easily when you are near. Perhaps they like you better.

I want my self back now. I seem to have forgotten it a thousand miles from here, if it was not all a dream. I miss the girl with the glimmering eye and the camera in her hand. I miss the girl who could be anything. If you see her, please tell her for me: Become something now, girl, before you become nothing.

I want a lot. I want pretty things, shiny things, strong things, bonodorous things. I want an arm linked with mine, a hand around my shoulder, a mischievous grin. I want knowledge. I want to know what makes the world tick and the knowledge to make it tick in better time. I want answers so that I can find new questions.

And I want someone else who wants those questions, too. “So many are alive who–” So many have forgotten how to say “why?” So many have forgotten the joy of a surprise, of an answer that holds more mysteries than the question it replies. I want someone who will search with me for questions.

I want one who can lose his world to a piece of paper. I want his imagination to be the vessel that carries him to Valinor, to Ivalice and Anuskaya. But I want him to come back nearly whole. I want him to see the difference and similarity both among these worlds. I want him to remember that this one is his home, clutch his wonder tight to his heart and see such beauty here that he needs no magic, elves, or fairies to make him stay. I want this of everyone. Je veux ceci pour tout le monde. Ich will dies.

If I ask you why the sky is blue
don’t just tell me that the sunlight bounces off the air
do not quench my curiosity
rather ask me why the sunset’s red.

Colorful quote spiral

I got a new notebook and new pens. The pens are Stabilo 88 fineliners (which I got because, while I loved my Staedtlers a few years ago, the Stabilos were cheaper for more colors 😛 ). The notebook is a Whitelines hard-bound squared (graph-paper) notebook in the A5 size. On which note, I love the way the ‘A#’ sizes work–the number is the number of times the ‘full size’ sheet has been halved; and A5 is about 5-7/8″ by 8-1/4″ — perfect size for a journal. And, true to name, the lines making up the grid are white (on gray paper) instead of black. They kind of melt away where there’s a chunk of writing.

Anyway, this is the first thing I did with it. Each color change indicates a new quote. The quotes are from Carl Sagan, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jalal ad-Dīn Rumi, Franz Kafka, Mary Oliver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Douglas Adams, Stuart Kauffman (via Melanie Mitchell), Daniel Levitin, Alan Lightman, & Simon Garfield.  Sagan, Rilke, and Rumi appear multiple times. At the risk of making a tiresomely long post (sorry?), here are the quotes strung together, so you needn’t spin your head around to see them. 😉 I’ll alternate between gray and olive text to help differentiate the quotes.

When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. It’s not too late to open your depths by plunging into them and drink in the life that reveals itself quietly there. Let everything happen to you – beauty and terror. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things. The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together. We are all connected: to each other biologically, to the Earth chemically, to the rest of the universe atomically. The cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day. The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships, of the awesome machinery of nature. Life exists at the edge of chaos. Consider that at a very early age, babies are thought to be synesthetic, to be unable to differentiate the input from the different senses, and to experience life and the world as a sort of psychedelic union of everything sensory. Babies may see the number five as red, taste cheddar cheese in D-flat, and smell roses in triangles. The bird does not twitter or chirp but instead gives out a continuous drawn-out song. When hundreds sing in unison, the sound is an unbroken chorus, with the effect on the hearing like that of a waterfall on the sight, a multitude of tiny droplets combining to make one sweeping flow. This is the best thing about the ampersand–its energy, its refusal to sit still. It is almost impossible to look at one and not think about its shape, or to draw one and not think about liberation. Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving–it doesn’t matter, ours is not a caravan of despair. But that shadow has been serving you! What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, come, come again, come.