It’s happened to most writers I know. You’re in the middle of an essay/poem/story when you suddenly have the urge to go back and fix several problems with paragraph one. You resist the urge as best you can, but it gets harder and harder to wade through the final half of your work because your mind is constantly thinking of ways to improve the part that’s already on paper. There’s nothing wrong with giving in per se. The problem, for me anyway, is that as you start revising, you move back through that first half that you’ve already written revising as you go until you suddenly realize that your revision to the beginning doesn’t really fit with what you’ve now changed in the second quarter of the piece and so the cycle starts over again without any actual forward progress being made on completing the piece.

If I’m on a deadline, such as with research papers for uni. or articles for a magazine or contest, I can generally fight through to the end and get something completed–often something whose first half is a sight better than it’s second, but at least a whole work. With very short works such as formal poetry, I can generally complete a first draft before the urge kicks in. And of course, once the first full draft is complete I can revise to my heart’s content knowing that I am revising a completed work and that whenever I choose to stop revising (if ever) the work will still be complete. [As it happens here I am revising this paragraph while this missive is still incomplete] I should also note, that I’m not talking about writer’s block in the traditional sense. I know where each particular work needs to go next and I’m excited about getting it there. If I do run into that kind of block I certainly always have other projects on the table that I can resort to.

Nevertheless, I have never in my adult life managed to complete any creative work longer than about 2 pages (500 words). Never. There’s no missing dependent clause here. I’ve started three or four novels, a good dozen short stories, and more than one creative essay. They are all incomplete. Some are still available to me, others have gone untouched (due to the molasses that was my forward momentum) for so long that I have lost the original file/notebook/envelope.

I’m writing this celebrate the completion of my very first children’s story. It took only the spare moments during a one weekend retreat to complete it, but it has been hanging out in my brain for at least 4 years and hadn’t made it out onto paper yet. (There were at least two abortive attempts, one in longhand and one on my blog using a draft post.) Finally the story of Princess Abigail and the Dragon is complete. It isn’t finished yet. It still needs a lot of revising, but at least now I’ll be revising a completed work! My greatest thanks go to Stephanie for typing it up for me so that I can do that revision more easily.

Recently, I was reading on Slashdot about how Professor John Brookfield has told the UK Press Association that the “pecking order is clear” with regard to the age-old chicken and egg question: “Therefore the first bird that evolved into what we would call a chicken, probably in prehistoric times, must have first existed as an embryo inside an egg.”

In the comments there, the much more important question of Why the chicken crossed the road came up, and one observer noted that:

“The question “Why did the chicken cross the road” is invalid. It is invalid because “why” assumes that the chicken had some reason for taking the action “cross the road”. This, in turn, assumes that the chicken has the concept of “road”; after all, if the chicken doesn’t know that the road is there, then the chicken did not – from the chickens point of view – cross the road, and consequently it is meaningless to ask for its motivations for doing so.

“Since chicken is an animal, it is unlikely that it has the concept of road in the same sense than humans do; since it is a bird, whose ancestors were propably capable of flight in the near past, it is unlikely to have the concept of road in any sense – why would a flying bird need roads ?

“Therefore, the chicken can never have any motivation for crossing the road, since from the chickens point of view, it never does any such thing. It simply moves from one point to another, and these points happen to be on the opposite side of a flat area of ground. No road-crossing has happened.

“Think of it this way: if you walk over a scent trail left by some animal, and you don’t know that the trail is there, it is foolish to ask your motives of crossing that trail. One can ask your motives for walking in the first place, but the crossing was pure coincidence and not something you chose.”

My Reply:

Actually the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is perfectly valid. While you may be correct that the chicken does not have a ‘reason’ for crossing the road because reasons (used precisely rather than as in common parlance) require intentionality with regard to their object, causes do not require intentionality and yet are at least as commonly if not more commonly the object of the interogative ‘why’ as reasons are.

To put it simply, I may say that the cause of the chicken’s crossing of the road was the action of a particularly strong gust of wind in that direction. This provides an adequate explanation for the phenomenon and answers the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” without imputing sentience or intentionality to the chicken’s actions.

I may further say (if I wish) that the chicken crossed the road to eat the grain on the other side. This both imputes intentionality to the chicken, adequately explains the phenomenon and answers the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” But wait, you may be saying, you just told us that intentionality isn’t necessary to answer the question. I did say that and I stand by it, but that does not mean that intentionality may not be involved in the answer to the question. In this case, however, the intentionality while needed to answer the question, is only tangentially related to the effect under examination. Specifically to answer the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” we are pointing out that the chicken intended to consume a certain pile of grain, and that the road was between the chicken and that pile. We still have not imputed to the chicken any knowledge of the road “as a road”. Rather we have simply explained the conditions and the intentions which led to the action of the chicken crossing the road, whether or not the chicken had a full understanding of those conditions.

Finally we must address the standard answer to the question: “To get to the other side.” Again this answer imputes intentionality to the chicken’s actions (the chicken did it ‘to get’ something) and it seems to imply a knowledge of the road (to understand ‘the other side’ the chicken must have knowledge of some object with two sides, understand that it is on one side of said object and desire to cross the object to reach the other side). Implied in this answer is that there is no further motivation other than getting to “the other side” and hence we cannot suggest that the answer simply left off the fact that there was a pile of grain on the other side which is the ‘real’ reason the chicken crossed the road. No. The chicken must have crossed the road for the sole and ultimate purpose of reaching the other side of “the road”. How are we to reconcile this with the (most unassailable) assumption that the chicken has no knowledge of the road “as a road” and the need to allow this statement as a positive answer to the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” We have specified that the chicken has no knowledge of a road “as a road”. However, we have never suggested that the chicken has no knowledge of the road “as something”. What then is the nature of the road as the chicken perceives it? We would not be unjustified in suggesting that at the very least the chicken has access to its own sensory data. It then must have a knowledge of the road as the “extended-hard-flatspace”. We need go no further in our suppositions. We have here a chicken with an exploratory bent who wishes to discover what lies beyond the “extended-hard-flatspace”. This adequately explains the phenomenon, assigns to the chicken a state of intentionality, relates that state of intentionality to the road, and answers the question “Why did the chicken cross the road?” with the statement “To get to the other side” all without in the least requiring that the chicken understand roads in the sense that we as humans understand roads.

Do you have a take on the Chicken Crossing the Road? Post it below. Feel free to post joke variations as well.

In “A Rape In Cyberspace” (Village Voice, 1993), Julian Dibbell discusses a virtual world in which a virtual person (representing of course an actual person) used the tools of that world to force another virtual person into an unwanted violent and graphic sexual encounter and how that encounter and its victims created a community out of an electronic database known as Lambda Moo. He does this by first relating what actually happened, as objectively as possible recounting the facts of the so-called assault as it occurred within the virtual world, then discussing the ramifications of the virtual world on the real world that it mimics and questioning where virtual crime falls on the moral scale of society, and finally discussing the after-effects of the events in both the virtual and real worlds, in both the public sphere and in his own philosophical musings. Dibbell attempts to determine the nature, purpose, value, morality, and importance of virtual worlds and virtual communities in order to explore the hazy line between thought and object, between physical and mental. He keeps a narrative tone throughout the piece, but the depth of his philosophical musings make it less than appropriate for a general audience; it seems to be aimed primarily toward philosophers interested in examining the nature of physicality versus mentality with respect to online communities, but to also attempt the inclusion of the average well educated member of an online community.

Having been a participant in many online communities of the type foreshadowed by Lamda Moo, and indeed, having visited Lamda Moo itself on occasion, I find it interesting to note the evolution that has occurred in these virtual communities since the time that this article was written. Primarily, there has been a stratification of virtual worlds, into those in which a community, much like that which evolved in Lamda Moo, self regulates through some form of semi-governmental process, and those in which there is a strange combination of anarchy and dictatorship where one or more “wizards” hold absolute power and occasionally make use of it to mete out arbitrary and capricious “punishment” on “wrongdoers” but in which there is otherwise no enforcement of any moral or legal standard. These latter types are often what is known as hack and slash MUDs, in which interaction between characters is limited to virtual fighting, and of course the perennial virtual sex. In the former on the other hand, players tend to form relationships with the other characters in the virtual world, and in fact, invest much of their emotional well being into that characters persona and life experiences. Much as the real-life woman who presented as Legba in the story above was literally in tears in real life over the experiences of her virtual persona, so many players invest themselves so deeply in the online world that virtual marriages have been known to lead to real life marriages, and virtual slights to lead to real-world retaliations. What the ramifications of all this are is beyond me, except to say that as the real-world gets uglier, and as interfaces move from text to graphics to true virtual reality, I think it likely that more and more people will find it important, therapeutic, and even vital to retreat into a fantasy world, where at least you can kill the villains.

In A Virtual Commonplace, “The Computer as a New Writing Space,” Jay David Bolter makes the argument that electronic hypertext offers a “revolution in writing” by allowing the writer to make use not only of linear words, sentences, and paragraphs, but also of larger and more diverse organizing structures which mimic or reflect the languages rich tradition of verbal gestures. He refers back to the Greek conception of topoi from which our word topic descends as a verbal unit or place whose meaning “transcends their constituent words.” This topical organization he suggests is intrinsic to logical thought but almost impossible to accurately reflect in traditional media. The closest that the ancients came to a truly topical organization was the Roman conception of outlining, which persists to this day as the primary “formal” method of written organization.

Other than the paragraph, which divides a paper up into high-level topics, traditional writing “flattens” or destructuralizes the content of an evolving text. Word processors move in the write (right) direction by allowing structures to be defined, highlighted, and moved or deleted as a unit temporarily, but don’t go far enough. An outline processor goes a step further, by making this structuralization a permanent feature of the processor, and allowing the writer to play more easily with the overarching structure. Finally hypertext offers the writer the ability to create a “web of thought” similar to many “pre-writing” exercises which writers use prior to formally organizing their thoughts. The computer he says, “Can maintain such a network of topics, and it can reflect the writer’s progress as he or she trims the network by removing connections and establishing coordination until there is a strict hierarchy.” He goes on to argue that these types of topical association networks are an important part of writing which traditional media have been forced to suppress as having no outlet for them. The papyrus allowing them not at all, and the codex and printed book, allowing better and better access; and finally, the hypertext document allowing full and unfettered access to the “text behind the text.”

Bolter then goes into the benefits, and detriments of this new form of writing. The benefits include the ability to capture that structure of ideas in physical form, the ability to restrict the flow of information to the reader with regards to both speed and path, and the ability make the written word respond to the reader in a much more interactive sense than ever before. The disadvantages include the removal of the writer even further from the reader due to the abstract nature of electronic technology, and the transitory nature of technological writing with its tendency towards change evolution and extinction. Without ever coming to any definite conclusions, Bolter seems to end the article or chapter in an uncertain state. While the benefits and possibilities that hypertext offers are without a doubt valuable, there seems to be a note of caution that the unstable and transitory nature of the electronic medium are something to be wary of.

This text is, of course, decidedly out of date with its talk of outline processors (a concept which flopped dramatically in the early 90s) and hypertext as a “revolution.” The only revolution in writing which hypertext heralded was in the amount of freely available smut. It has turned out that hypertext documents like other documents are best written in the same highly structured, hierarchical, and “flattened” format as traditional texts. Those that attempt to become “networks of ideas” end up as quagmires into which the unwary reader sinks, and without divine intervention loses himself, never to arrive at any conclusion. In fact, the reader is likely to become so frustrated with the plethora of options that he gives up on the text entirely and moves on to something that is organized in a manner that he can understand.

The problem of course is that my “network of ideas” or ways of grasping a subject are drastically different from almost everyone else’s ways. Rhetoric has always been the process of bridging that gap between topoi and speech, between idea and communication, between thought and action. It seems unlikely to me that this process will ever be “swept away” by a new paradigm, but rather that it will simply continue to be refined and evolved to use, rather than be replaced by, new technologies. In fact, the best use of hyperlinks in online text is the use which Bolton scoffs at in his introduction: The judicious footnote made immediately available inline through a hyperlink.

The real revolution in electronic text will come from the plethora of opportunities for the author/artist to bypass the establishment, and deliver their work directly to the proletariat, whether for pay, or gratis, and in the ability of the audience to respond to and interact with their beloved author in real time. Communal works written by multiple authors in which no one part can be said to be the product of a single person will flourish, as will published “discussions” or debates between two or more respected individuals. Town halls, and virtual universes will allow the reader to be steeped in the authors work, and the author will be able to monitor such places and use them sources for further writing. In fact, all of these processes are already happening to a greater or lesser extent with various authors, especially in genre fiction. As such, it is bulletin boards, newsgroups, online communities, and e-mail lists that herald the revolution in writing, not mere hypertext.

     On the Shining Screen of the Eyelids by Josely Vianna Baptista, with translations by Chris Daniels is a volume of facing translations divided into two parts.  The first part, “from Air,” indeed seems to waft across the senses in a way that is in striking contrast to the blockiness of the typographical layout.  The second half, “Corpography,” begins to play with image, and the almost photograph like drawings by Fransisco Faria, incorporate text into the image even as they, as images, are incorporated into the text.  There is a short introduction in which Daniels describes his process in translating, giving specific examples of the dilemmas he was faced with and the choices that he made about them.

     I was much more interested in the introduction than in the poetry itself.  I found that the uniform overspacing made the text difficult on my eyes, and while it certainly problematized the very ideational level of the text, rather than draw me into a deeper interest in and exploration of the sonic, sensory, and typographic levels, it merely turned me off to the work as a whole.  On the other hand, the glimpse into the translation process was fascinating, and examining some of the poems as works of translation, even with my limited Portuguese, made the book much more fascinating.  The drawings, too, were superb, and while Chris suggests that their photographic quality is a product of the medium of the glossy book pages and the offset printing process and laments the loss of the texture of the originals, I found the juxtaposition of the pseudo-real images  with their canvases of skin which served up text inside of image inside of text, added an interesting dimension that would not have existed without the photo-realistic aspect.

Though I got it initially from Lime Tree, it originates in its current form from a Live Journal Entry by Elkins who apparently modified it (a much needed modification) from Amy’s Journal which can be traced back to, if not its original incarnation, at least the start of this thread at, Tabouli, where it is part of a larger question and answer meme which is unattributed.

The Game

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.

“We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose in our minds those notions have certainly the principal place.”

  — Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time. Ed. D. J. Enright. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: The Modern Library, 1998.

This is probably the most fascinating little meme I have seen in a while.  I must admit that since I had several books in a stack which were equidistant from my current location I looked at page 23 of each before choosing my “official” response.  Also up for the honor were:

1. “If we scan them, we will find that Hardy mixes iambs and anapests almost equally, as in the poem’s third stanza:

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
     Like an ominous bird a-wing . . .”

  — Timothy Steele, Missing Measures (poem is ‘Neutral Tones’ by Thomas Hardy)

2. “On these terms meter may be costing more than it is worth.”

  — John Crowe Ransom, “Wanted: An Ontological Critic” from The Advocates of Poetry, Ed. R. L. Gwynn

3. “Mother kissed both tear-stained faces and led the twins away.”

  — Mabel Betsy Hill, The Enchanted Playhouse

and finally,

4. “Hashes are often called associative arrays, because a string index is associated with a scalar value.”

  — Martin C. Brown, Perl: The Complete Reference

Don’t ask me what the Perl book was doing mixed in with the others.  My areas of discourse often mix.

The problem with discussions of poetics today is that no one is willing to accept any linguistic boundaries.  In other words, poetry must be allowed to be anything anyone chooses to call poetry, and for some, anything that exists regardless of whether anyone has yet chosen to call it poetry.  This makes the word poetry meaningless for distinguishing an entity, and as such makes discussions of poetics pretty damn meaningless too.  It is fairly clear that the definitions of the OED (of poetry) are no longer acceptable to the emerging establishment, but I doubt that a definition could be worded that would satisfy even a basic majority of interested and academic parties and yet still hold some linguistic value.

This rant brought on by the question and discussion at As/Is2

UPDATE:  I should have said that it makes arguments about poetics pretty damn meaningless, rather than discussions about poetics which can, in fact, still be civil and enjoyable (though probably not useful in any meaningful sense) as the case in point shows.

<A href="http://limetree blog”>Lime Tree has a fun little discourse on the discourse of thought.

Ruminate has an old but very philohumorous post on the End Times, as well as a discussion of VIM vs. EMACS (a life-or-death matter to some UNIX users) that caught my interest today for some reason. 

Chris notes the upcoming discussion group and poetry reading in Arlington, and Mike Snider posts a delicious little sonnet by scientist-poet, Loren Eiseley, along with an insightful reply to a comment that boils down to a discussion of what makes canon.

I’ve always felt that there was an intrinsic connection between poetry and code.  The more I engage the blogging community, the more I find it to be true.  I therefore am proud to procaim myself, in the tradition of YAPH, JAPH, etc., YAPP, (Yet Another Programmer Poet).  Joined by the likes of Mike Snider , Michael Helsem (Gray Wyvern), and Chris Lott, the YAPP community appears to lean towards formalism, though such a statement is sure to be immediately contradicted by the discovery of a YAPP who is firmly ensconced in the avant garde (though I might argue that new formalism is, in fact, the new avant garde [you’ll need a subscription to the OED to use the link]). 

Now it might be fun to explore the connections between the fields and to theorize as to reasons for the formalism of YAPPs.  It might also be fun to point to places like The Poetry of Programming and Programming As Poetry and Perl Poetry.  I might even reprint my own attempt at a perl poem:


#!/usr/local/bin/perl -w
# Turn on warn so that errors won’t trouble ya.
use strict if ( ! $AQuickHack );
# Keeps your program both safe and on track
$program =~ s/local/my/ if ( $version >= “Perl 5” )
&& print “Now you’re not a Perl quack!”;
First published on Perl Monks at Tips. (Of course its not really poetry, just a bit of light verse or doggerel, but go to the link and look around occasionally something beyond the banal slips into the stream over there.)

On the other hand, I might not have time, and so I might just leave it all alone for another day, as it seems I’m always doing when it comes to my blog these days.

I know I’m no blogger (My god! you only read a couple of blogs once or twice a month, how can you possibly keep up), so it’s no suprise that it’s taken me this long to stumble upon Ruminate. How does this person so poignantly put so many things I think I think? Added to my bloglist (which only contains blogs I actually read regularly, as opposed to most bloglists I know of).

Well, maybe you didn’t. You didn’t really ask for unadulterated text. I decided to give it to you. Lost? Me too? Can I get us both out of it? The blind leading the blind? The blind leading the sighted even. Here’s some real live unadulterated text for you:


Somewhere in time, or perhaps I should say somewhen– I loved my grandmother. She was almost a storybook grandmother. She was more than a storybook grandmother. She taught piano lessons for Christ’s sake. How much more grandmotherly can you get? She gave me warm milk when I couldn’t get to sleep. And when that wasn’t quite right, she gave me warm milk and honey. She taught me to love words, and word games. She could calculate the scrabble value of any word without looking at the tiles and what’s more she’d look the word up for you when you were to lazy to figure out what that word (that you knew existed but couldn’t explain) meant. She lived far enough away for the trip to be an adventure, but close enough to be a permanent feature in my life. Blackberries grew in her backyard, and she let you pick as many as you wanted, even when she was trying to make blackberry ‘somthing’ as Christmas presents. She taught me to love music, to hate flats but love sharps, to stay away from the blues, and to stop playing when I was finished. A storybook grandma? No storybook grandma ever did what she did. Who else could make warm milk for a kid in underwear, a t-shirt, and galoshes and not even send him to bed when it was finished, but read stories about people made out of blocks, and foxes who were outsmarted by hens, and Bulls stung by bees? How can I face her? Her unresponsive face glares: I died when you were away in college zithromax pills buy online. I don’t even know you. How could I when you left me while I was alive and didn’t return until I was a zombie: dead to you? How can I tell her goodbye when I never said hello, I’m back, I’ve missed you? How can I cry now when I didn’t cry then. How can I accept this when I couldn’t accept that? How can I lie? I hide my tears in the dark, even as I spread them across the world. Everyone can know my thoughts except my family. Everyone can share my pain except those that I know should. I cannot cry. I cannot scream. I cannot even meet the stranger who has greeted my children every day as wonderful new surprises, come to ease her pain– Every day new surprises– Every day my children. Every day questions about their lineage. Everyday delight in their everyday antics. Even when I am just across the room, watching, even when I am holding her under each arm, scared beyond belief that brittle bones will snap and it will be my fault, as she walks across the living room calling for a husband who died in the world war, asking where she is and who I am, and then calling again for a daughter, my mother, the only one she can trust to tell her that she is still alive and not in hell, even when, when no one except her can hear, I whisper, “I love you.”– Even then– I cannot cry. I can only drift gently, without emotion, into the abyss over which I have been floating these last 9 years. And stoically, carefully, with a face silent and dead, shoulder a pall, bear a pole, march quietly to the grave, and pretend that the future is the past, and the present is merely a nightmare, and there are more piano lessons and stories and adventures, and warm milk with honey to come. And she isn’t even dead. GOD! The nurse says it’s a matter of hours. She’s wrong. It’s a matter of years. It’s a matter of a life.

The Sunday poem on Poetry Daily was “I Pass the Arctic Circle” by Olav H. Hauge. I was very enamored of this little gem almost on first reading. In it, Hauge makes a very nice metaphor between landscape and lifescape. He also juxtaposes two timeframes on the piece by using an interjection that indicates the future within a sentence that uses the past tense. The interjection however, in addition to muddling the flow of time at the end of the piece, also refers us back to the object or goal referenced by “what we go toward,” both tying the metaphor together more closely, and keeping our eye on the eventual (but only implied) end, death.

There are two things that I would like to take away from this piece with regard to poetic technique. The first is the way that he mitigates the reference to the end of life, by enclosing it within an interjection, a side-note, while keeping the poem centered firmly in the past, where he is just entering the “arctic circle.” The second is the way that the confusion of tense focuses my attention on that ending, and draws attention to the metaphor, while suitably matching the theme of the poem–He is trying to stay in the past, even though he knows that “one of these days” the end is coming.

A Balanced Examination of the Controversy Over Technology in Education

From 1981 to 1991, the percentage of schools with computers increased by over 400%. In that same time period, the use of computers for instructional purposes increased by an even greater amount, and the ratio of students to computers dropped from 125:1 to 18:1 (Cuban 186). Since the popularization of the personal computer in the early 1980s, there has been a push by lawmakers, administrators, and the general public to introduce more and more technology into the classroom faster and faster. Less commonly remarked on is the trend of some educators to resist the implementation of all this technology: “Although the economic and political forces that drive technology into the classroom appear to be an overriding trend, there is a concurrent trend to not let technology drive educational needs” (Goddard 22). In fact, in 1999 only 33% of public school teachers felt that they were well prepared to use computers and the internet (“Public School Teachers’ Use of Computers” tbl. 39-4). So how do we find a balance between the effective use of technological innovation and the preservation of traditional educational forms and goals in order to provide the best possible education for our children?

Both sides have the best interest of our children at heart, and considering that motive, it seems wise to examine the thought processes and worldviews of both sides. Since technology is already a fact of life in many educational settings, a good starting point may be an examination of the reasons for the adoption of technology in schools and the benefits that the increased use of technology offers to students and the educational system. These reasons and benefits fall into three categories: increasing workplace preparation, enhancing traditional education, and overcoming the challenges of special needs students, both those with learning disabilities, and those with economic disadvantages.

One of the first facts pointed out by proponents of increasing the technological factors in our schools is the trend outside the educational system to increase the level of technology, from homes to businesses to government. As our society becomes more and more technical in its social, business, and political functions, computers and technology become an increasingly important factor in the success or failure of students after matriculation. Gernot Böhme even suggests that computer literacy represents a fourth cultural competence in addition to the traditional 3 R’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic:

Internet competence is a prerequisite for practicing an increasing number of professions. It looks as if it will not be long before one will no longer be competent to take part in social life if one has not mastered the use of computers, just as up to now a competent participation in social life was not possible without the ability to read, write and do arithmetic. (203)

According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey of 1997, 49.8% of all workers use computers on the job, and that number goes up to the 70% range when the field is limited to executive, managerial, professional, and technical jobs–the ones with the highest salary potentials (“Percent of Workers” table 426).

With computers taking such an increased role in every aspect of post-educational life, administrators are concerned that the educational system may fail to adequately prepare our young people for the world of business, sending them off into the computer savvy business world without even a modicum of computer training. They would argue that computers are needed in our schools not just as a supplement to traditional teaching methods and traditional subjects, but also as an object of training in and of themselves: “the computer is not currently perceived simply as an aid to acquiring other knowledge content more quickly, easily, or enjoyably” although that is the case “but is perceived as an area of instruction in its own right” (Böhme 204).

But this is not the only reason for the importance of increasing the computerization of our schools. Yu-Mei Wang notes the value of increased technology use in previously traditional classroom settings and subjects: “Computers facilitated more independent learning. Students assisted each other in completing the learning task and solving problems collaboratively, often with their teachers as partners” (151). In other words, the proper application of computers and other technologies can help to shift the education process from a teacher-centered approach to a more constructivist, student-centered approach. While constructivism itself is not a new concept, tracing its lineage to the ideas of psychologist Jean Piaget, it has been increasingly recognized by professional organizations, administrators, and educators that “although constructivism is a philosophy of learning, not teaching, understanding [and applying] constructivist learning can make us more effective teachers” (Inch 111). Goddard agrees, commenting, “An educator who combines technology with engagement can create an atmosphere of student collaboration.[. . .] If technology is used as a judicious tool that fosters creativity and communication[. . .] learning is enhanced” (24). Computers have also long been touted for their information gathering and collating functions when used in conjunction with the Internet. Students at primary and secondary schools, who in times past would have had little or no access to scholarly journals, are now just a click away from reliable and erudite sources. While access does not guarantee understanding, lack of access will almost certainly guarantee lack of understanding. However, computers are not just valuable as information gathering tools. They are just as valuable for engaging students through the production of multi-media presentations and other electronic projects in which students are creatively involved, thereby heightening their learning.

Technology has also become invaluable in teaching special needs students and teaching specific skills to other students. Technology has increasingly been the deciding factor in enabling students, who might otherwise have slipped through the bulging seams of the educational system, to excel. Some of the techniques that have been shown to have significant success have been (a) affective computing techniques that overcome emotional and psychological communication difficulties in special education students; (b) the use of audio textbooks and digital books, such as those produced for DAISY to allow higher level cognitive learning for the blind, dyslexic, and special needs students; and (c) the use of various assistive technologies in support of traditional (i.e., non-special education) students, including Picture Communication Symbols, adapted books, and computers with Intellikeys, Intellipics, and Overlay Maker (Beck; Boyle; Steele). In the year 2000, over 58% of post-secondary schools offered some type of adaptive equipment or technology for disabled students (“Special Programs” 85). The value of technology in these types of auxiliary, assistive functions has been generally unquestioned, but it still represents an important argument for the importance that technology can have in the classroom.

Finally, technology provides help for economically disadvantaged students who traditionally perform below average in the American educational system. Indeed, a trial in a school with a disproportionately large disadvantaged student population (over 98% of the 850 “were in free or reduced rate lunch programs” [Garman 796]) has shown that the introduction of technology-based educational reforms induce a striking improvement in the performance of disadvantaged students, “contributing to a reduction of students reading ‘below level’ of 15.1%” and an astounding “36.7% reduction in students reading ‘3 years below level'” (Garman 795-96). Those students whose educations had suffered the most from economic factors received the most benefit from technological factors.

A less obvious use of technology in the aid of the disadvantaged is outlined by Catherine McLoughlin, who uses the internet and online technology to incorporate the “values, styles of learning, and cognitive preferences” of “disadvantaged groups living in rural and remote communities” in designing a university preparation curriculum (229). This second use is all the more convincing because it not only posits the use of technology to adapt to the needs of economically disadvantaged students, but also suggests ways in which technology can be used to provide education to students who might otherwise be unable to receive that level of education. Another way in which disadvantaged rural students are aided by the influx of technology is in the area of teacher certification and training in rural areas. Barbara L. Ludlow et al. report on the success of web-based instruction in teaching and qualifying special education instructors in rural West Virginia (33). By increasing the access to instruction in special education methods and concerns, this program increases the available teachers, the teacher-student ratio, and, by extension, the probability of student success.

Despite the aforementioned benefits, there are many who are nevertheless concerned with the prevalence of computers and technology in education. Proponents may tend to dismiss these concerns as being due merely to inadequate on-the-job training in technology, and indeed this issue is behind some of the concern, but there is more to it than that. There is also a school of thought that is actively opposed to what they consider to be the current overuse of technology in schools; people in this category are concerned that computers may be contributing to the very problems they are intended to correct. R. W. Burniske in his essay “The Shadow Play,” argues that computers have contributed to the continuing “death of dialectics” in modern education, contending that the blind acceptance of technology in the classroom has led to a consumer culture in which students are unable to think critically about the information available to them (323-25). Böhme, in a somewhat less strident tone, still contends that “a modern educational policy which prepares children and young people for this situation [the pervasiveness of technology in the social and business sphere] must stress the difference between information and knowledge and the difference between technical access to information and its appropriation and conversion into personal knowledge. This does not mean excluding the computer but it does mean using it rationally” (208). Three basic arguments against technology in education can be identified: Technology has been introduced solely–or at least primarily–to promote the interests of big business; technology does not produce the results that it claims; and the emphasis on technology will result in a lack of attention to more pressing issues in education.

The importance and influence of popular trends and fads and economic and cultural pressures in the development of educational curriculum and the choices in courses of study cannot be overemphasized. Throughout the history of public education, administrators have been forced to make concessions to the temporary social, cultural, historical, and economic needs of business and society (Goddard 20). This tendency to acquiesce to temporary external trends is no less true for the current influx of technology: “Concern for the development of young people is not, therefore, the fundamental motive for the forced introduction of the computer into schools. [. . .] On closer inspection the paradigm shift said to be taking place in the educational sphere consists primarily in the fact that this sphere is becoming a capital-intensive area” (Böhme 206). Todd Oppenheimer worries that “if business gains too much influence over the curriculum, the schools can become a kind of corporate training center–largely at taxpayer expense” (288). R. W. Burniske echoes this concern:

But what I’m certain they [elected officials] do know is that the ‘boxes and wires’ of telecomputing are manufactured by ‘Big Business.’ And Big Business fills those campaign coffers we keep hearing about. So if we keep Big Business happy by investing in its gadgetry, then Big Business will keep the politicians happy by spreading largesse–and occasionally donating hardware and software to schools and libraries. This, in turn, will get youngsters ‘hooked’ early, thereby oiling the machine that paves the Information Superhighway. (324)

The concern is not so much that technology is being introduced at all, as that it appears that big business is driving the speed, method, and amount of technological innovation in our schools, without regard for the needs of, training of, and compatibility with educators and administrators.

It is certain that enough data is not yet in on the results that technology may produce in the classroom; however, it is just as certain that the sweeping claims made by politicians, officials, and businesses are not justified by the existing data. While there may be success stories here and there, there are many reasons to believe that technology may not be producing the results that are desired. For example, many students who have learning disabilities, language deficiencies, or reading comprehension problems may not be able to benefit from technologically based course-work because of deficiencies in background knowledge and basic skills (Westby 81). It is somewhat ironic that, in the appropriate setting and implementation, technology can be so beneficial to this group, yet when integrated with traditional students, innovative technology uses may pose problems.

Another problem is in the adoption of technology in paradigm shifting ways by individual faculty. In a survey of pre-service teachers conducted by Wang, almost all believed in a balanced approach to teaching between teacher-centered activities and student-centered activities; however, when asked about their uses of computers in computerized classrooms, “the comparison showed a significant difference (t=9.7, p<.05) between the pre-service teachers’ choice of teacher-centered computer uses (M=4.0137,SD=.677) versus student-centered computer uses (M=3.3659, SD=.718)” (153-54). In other words, the introduction of a computerized setting was likely to unbalance the teaching approach, and put an undue emphasis on less progressive, teacher-centered activities. Wang concludes, “Reform in education must begin with the type of educator in the classroom. All of the dollars spent on resources and equipment will do little to alter the day to day realities of the learning process” (158). Before the promise of technology can be realized, we must have teachers with the right training, the right mindset, and the right goals. Until that happens, technology will not realize its full potential.

But even more fundamental is the question of whether, assuming that technology is properly implemented and well taught by competent teachers, it will be of value to the students after matriculation. Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist, suggests that it may not: “Learning to use a computer today is a poor guarantee of a student’s future, since workplace equipment will have changed dramatically for all but our oldest students” (357-58). While learning an outdated technology may not detract from students’ ability to adapt to newer technologies, it may not be as beneficial to students adaptive abilities as a through grounding in logical thinking, spatial reasoning, math, science, and other traditional subjects would be. So between the failure of technology to adequately address the needs of special education students, the inability of even the most recently educated teachers to effectively implement technology in a constructivist way, and the dubious value of technology for future job prospects, we must question whether technology can fully live up to its promise.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, we must examine the effects of the shift in focus that an over-emphasis on technology inevitably engenders. Computers and similar technologies are expensive propositions, and even with the occasional assistance–usually only in the earliest stages of implementation–of big business, they will lessen the funds available for other important educational goals: As Böhme argues, “It is nevertheless inevitable that immense pressure will be placed on personnel costs in the education budget, and that a reduction in class size–a demand made by all educationalists for decades–will be rendered permanently impossible” (207). Are we willing to live with classes in which a single teacher is responsible for the education of hundreds of students, even if that responsibility is shared with any number of machines? For the unmitigated technophile, the reduction or elimination of human teachers is actually one of the goals of increased technology. Yet studies and statistics show that smaller class sizes (i.e., lower student-teacher ratios) increase student performance more than almost any other factor, including greater access to technology and computers (“Teens” 3; Hofkins 12).

What will the increased focus on technology do to the transmission of other more basic skills? For instance, the intuitive faculties that are developed during early childhood are negatively affected by the introduction of technology and “must be consolidated before children are confronted with computers” (Böhme 208). But the intuitive faculties are not the only skills affected by introducing technology too early: “For younger children, too much electronic stimulation can become addictive, replacing important experiences during critical periods of development: physical exploration, imaginative play, language, socialization and quiet time for developing attention and inner motivation” (Healy 357). Obviously, it is extremely important that for very young children especially the amount of technology and electronic stimulation be limited to that amount which can be absorbed without damage and addiction.

Furthermore, the problem is not isolated to younger children. Older children too may become “dependant on the support of information technology” (Böhme 209). If technology becomes so important that traditional subjects and skills are not taught outside of the technological paradigm, students may end up merely “digitally literate, in that they feel at home with joysticks and remote controls and are perfectly capable of absorbing the sights and sounds of multimedia entertainment,” but without a thorough grounding in the subjects that provide functional literacy, students “chances of getting a significant piece of the cyberspace pie are slim” (Burstein and Kline qtd. in Healy 358). Without a thorough grasp of the basics, we run the risk of producing Eloi–parasites that live on the technology without the ability to control it.

What else may be crowded out in the push for technology? Teacher education, curriculum revision, visual and performing arts, shop classes, and early childhood educational programs are just a few of the many programs that have already been pushed aside to one degree or another (Healy 354-55; Oppenheimer 283). What will be left? In the most extreme scenario, not much except for technology itself, and a generation of illiterate, but computer savvy youngsters. In more realistic assessments, we may end up suppressing educational alternatives and electives that have been critical avenues of self-expression and self-determination for students in an otherwise rigid educational system. We need to look closely at what we give up to support ever rising levels of technology.

There is no question that technology has something to offer education, that it is, in fact, a necessary component of a well-rounded education in today’s society. However, serious thought must be put into the ways that it is implemented, because it has the ability to cause as many problems as it fixes. We need to find a balance that will allow educators to take advantage of the benefits that technology has to offer without introducing changes that are detrimental to students long-term educational well being, unawares. The goal of those on both sides of the issue is the same: Increasing the quality and availability of education for all students is of the utmost importance, as is the necessity to prepare students for the quotidian world outside of the educational preserve. So where do we begin to compromise?

In the case of assistive technology for the disabled and adaptive techniques for those in special education environments, technology has proven itself time and time again. The validity of the studies showing this is not in dispute. Even those who are most concerned with the influx of technology do not suggest that its application in these particular areas be curtailed. In these areas at least, then, we must allow technology a free hand to produce the results that it invariably has.

When it comes to the traditional student and classroom, we must proceed with more caution, to ensure that technology fulfills its promise, and not its threat. Let us acknowledge the validity of the concern that technology may become a crutch that replaces the need to learn traditional subjects with an everlasting dependence on technology in a generation that does not understand its workings. First, we must ensure that all students receive a thorough grounding in English, math, and science. Second, when we do introduce technology, we must ensure that we provide students not only with the skills to make use of it, in traditional coursework, but the ability to have mastery over it, in computer science curriculums that focus and enhance students’ critical thinking, math, and logic.

Closely related to the issue of proper grounding is the question of age. Except in a few rare cases of children with disabilities, the positive effects associated with technology primarily benefit older children. Let’s give our children time to ground themselves in traditional physical and mental skills before introducing them–in any significant and persistent way–to technology. This is not to say that we should shield our youngsters from any exposure to computers whatsoever, but merely to suggest that computers and technology not be integrated as part of the basic curriculum for children below mid-elementary school (e.g., grades 5-7), the point at which Jane M. Healy suggests they begin to be able to make use of the multi-media and symbolic aspects of computer use (357).

The final step is to enable teachers to make the leap to the positive employment of technology for the benefit of students. If we want our young people to have the benefit of technological advancements, we must have teachers who are capable of implementing technology in a way that leverages its benefits without succumbing to its faults. To accomplish this, the anti-technology viewpoint would argue that the rate of flow of technology into the classroom be reduced to the rate at which it is accepted and implemented into the curriculum by the teachers and administrators, while the pro-technology viewpoint would simply demand that teachers “pick up the pace” and begin using technology. Neither viewpoint, taken to the extreme, is a valid solution, but a middle ground can be found. It begins with in-service training and acclimatization for teachers. Second, to accommodate this, some technology funds might be diverted to allow for the faster inculcation of technological values. Administrators should be given the control to fine-tune this ratio to produce the fastest and most effective and efficient use of resources. Finally, rather than praise the indiscriminate use of technology, administrators and technologists must find the shining examples where computers have allowed for a paradigm shift that has resulted in better performance and learning, and then recreate those successes on a national scale.

It is important to remember, as we discuss these possibilities, that technology has already been placed into our schools. It is no longer a matter of debating the value of technology, but the appropriate implementation and use of the existing technology (Burniske 325). Educators’ current situation is accurately summed up by Goddard: “The teacher’s responsibility lies not in staring at a blank computer screen while lamenting the changes that have been imposed, but to reach up and turn the computer on. The teacher’s responsibility is to discover the judicious use of technology as another tool in the arsenal of teaching that will guide students to exploration, discovery, practice, appreciation, and wonder at the world they inherit” (26). When the type of model for compromise outlined above is followed, we will hopefully be able to reach a point where we have the benefits of technological implementation without having to worry about negative side-effects, where we will be able to avoid the both the danger of conceiving of technology as a panacea and the danger of viewing technology in and of itself as a threat. We will, through compromise be able to provide our young people with the skills to survive, thrive, and even excel in an increasingly technological world.

Works Cited

Beck, Jennifer. “Emerging Literacy Through Assistive Technology.” Teaching Exceptional Children 35.2 (2002): 44-48.

Böhme, Gernot. “Réflexion sur la société: Note on Society.” Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Canadian Journal of Sociology 27 (2002): 199-210.

Boyle, Elizabeth A. et al. “Reading’s SliCK With New Audio Texts and Strategies.” Teaching Exceptional Children 35.2 (2002): 50-55.

Burniske, R. W. “The Shadow Play.” Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Educational Psychology. Ed. Leonard Abbeduto. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 259-69.

Cordes, Coleen and Edward Miller eds. “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood.” 18 September 2000. Alliance For Childhood. 22 March 2003. < computers_reports_fools_gold_contents.htm>

Garman, F. et al. “Enhancing Reading Achievement: A Collaborative, Community-Based Intervention Model.” Education 120 (2000): 795-99.

Goddard, Mark. “What Do We Do with These Computers? Reflections on Technology in the Classroom.” Journal of Research on Technology in Education. 35 (2002): 19-26.

Healy, Jane M. “The Mad Dash to Compute.” Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Educational Issues. Ed. James William Noll. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 353-358.

Hofkins, Diane. “Class Size Figures Back Tories’ Case.” Times Educational Supplement 7 Jan. 1994: 12.

Inch, Scott. “The Accidental Constructivist: A Mathematicians Discovery.” College Teaching 50.3 (2002): 111-113.

Ludlow, Barbara L. et al. “Updating Knowledge and Skills of Practicioners in Rural Areas: A Web-based Model.” Rural Special Education Quarterly 21.2 (2002): 33-43.

McLoughlin, Catherine. “Cultural Maintenance, Ownership, and Multiple Perspectives: features of Web-based delivery to promote equity.” Journal of Educational Media 25 (2000): 229-41.

Oppenheimer, Todd. “The Computer Delusion.” Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Secondary Education. Ed. Dennis Evans. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

“Percent of workers, 18 years old and over, using computers on the job, by selected characteristics and computer activities: October 1993 and October 1997.” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 1998. 21 March 2003. < digest2001/tables/dt426.asp>.

“Public School Teachers’ Use of Computers and the Internet,” FRSS 70, 1999. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 21 March 2003. < coe/2001/section4/tables/t39_4.asp>.

“Special Programs: Services for Disabled Postsecondary Students.” The Condition of Education 2000. (2000): 85.

Steele, Marcee M. and John W. Steele. “Applying Affective Computing Techniques to the Field of Special Education.” Journal of Research on Technology in Education. 35 (2002): 236-40.

“Teens say smaller classes would help them learn.” American School & University 74 (2001): 3.

Wang, Yu-Mei. “When Technology Meets Beliefs: Preservice Teachers’ Perception of the Teacher’s Role in the Classroom with Computers.” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 35 (2002): 150-61.

Westby, Carol and David J. Atencio. “Computers, Culture, and Learning.” Topics in Language Disorders. 22.4 (2002): 70-87.

Fishing, by A. E. Stalling (Poetry July 1998) employs a technique that I have seen on occasion and loved for the simple fun of it, though I have never done it myself, and it doesn’t (at least in this case) add much to the poem. It’s not anything important or insightful. It doesn’t have any effect on the meaning of the poem or really do anything except make me smile. You’re going to be really let down when this paragraph ends and it is revealed, but nevertheless, it is a technique and I want to use it, so it belongs here. It is the way she rhymes multiple words with single words as in water/daughter/bought her/taught her. Those are the rhymes that I can never come up with. I’m going to find one, and then write a whole poem just about that rhyme. It’ll be silly, but no sillier than my pure pleasure in the artifice.

Tim Morris reviews Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s recently reprinted 1911 novel The Crux. I’ll let you read his review and form your own opinions, because that’s not what I want to talk about (even though it is well worth the read and interesting–the review not the book, which I haven’t read).

What is of particular interest to me is his differentiation between the meaning (or value or purpose or whatever other term you want to use) of Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” in isolation as opposed to its meaning in the context of Gilman’s body of work as brought into focus by the newly reprinted novel. He marks the story as a “great masterpiece of the uncanny” on the one hand, and as “no more or less than an object lesson in social policy” on the other. Now to take my own two hands–On the one hand, I see the point that he is trying to make and it is an interesting one and certainly I can see how the obvious politico-cultural slant of her other work could inform and transform one’s reading of the story. On the other hand, the phrasing seems to imply that “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been somehow overvalued due to being examined in isolation, that a historically and culturally informed or cross-textually informed examination must lower the estimation of the work to “no more or less than…”

So, does its latent political activism lessen or change the validity of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as an eerily uncanny short story? Of course not. However, do we tend to devalue texts (especially poetry) when they have a pragmatic social goal? I think sometimes we do, and while I don’t suggest that this is what Dr. Morris was actually implying (I’m fairly sure it wasn’t), I do want to watch out for even the appearance of this in my own criticism.

So Mike Snider is talking about how “It’s easier to recognize and discuss basic competence in a metrical poem” The point being that it’s difficult to argue the merits of free verse and therefore bad free verse is, perhaps, slightly more likely to slide under the critical radar. In other words, metrical verse has an objective standard that must be met or at least nodded to in passing, while free verse has no objective standard. Any significant debate about the merit of a particular piece of free verse then, being subjective, is likely to devolve into a mere shouting match, with no way of determining the “winner.”

He leaves us with the question “how can you tell the difference between bullshit and real depth” with regard to free verse. I think though, that the question applies equally well to metrical verse. Certainly, with metrical verse, we can apply the objective (or at least semi-objective) standard, and weed out the completely incompetent, but once the poet has mastered meter, do they magically get a pass simply because the author is technically competent? In fact, I think that “bad” metrical poetry may get a pass as often as bad free verse because once it has passed the metrical standard it is passed over 1, at least this has been my experience in work-shopping my own poetry. In other words, once it has passed the additional standards imposed by form, a formal poem ought still to be subject to the same standard of critique as a free verse poem is initially.2 Which leaves us back at square one, but now looking at the whole range of poetry: “How can you tell the difference between bullshit and real depth?”

Assuming we want to apply some sort of standard, that we’ll agree with Poe that poetry is “the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty” but disagree with him as to whether or not “Its sole arbiter is Taste,” we have our work cut out for us. Because, if we accept that poetry is entirely subjective, then ALL criticism becomes pointless. But if we attempt to define poetry or to set a standard, then we face a task which has made greater minds than mine blanch at the prospect. When Boswell asked him, “Then, Sir, what is poetry?” Samuel Johnson replied, “Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.” Poetry seems to hover on the border of the indefinable, on the tip of the tongue. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”, though beautiful, and despite my love for Dickinson, hardly works as a standard for argument. Or to take a less emotional definition, neither does Amy Lowell’s “Concentration is the very essence of poetry.”

There are things that we can look at, though, whether in free or formal verse. We can examine the aural structure of the poem and determine whether it supports or distracts from the message of the poem.3 Ditto the visual structure. We can look at the metaphor (or metaphors) that are used and see how well they hold up throughout the piece. We can look at the images that are chosen and judge them both on originality and on specificity or concreteness. I could list more, but I think the point is made: There are objective standards by which arguments can be made as to the quality of a poem, over and above its technical competence, for both formal and free verse, arguments which ought to, in an unemotional venue, be able to stand up well to any attack(1 again), even when made about the work of an “established” poet. The question is a good one, and I will be interested to see what other responses and opinions it generates.

1Obviously this is not the case in an environment of modern meter-haters who will try to put down even great metrical verse, but in an environment where metrical verse is accepted.

2Of course, I don’t think anyone would disagree with this statement in theory, but in practice it seems to happen.

3Assuming of course that we can find a message or image or whatever that the poem is supposed to be about. If we can’t then either we are incapable of examining that poem, or it is really really bad. I don’t buy the “you don’t have to understand it to experience it” philosophy.

Modern poets and teachers often emphasize the importance of changing the meaning or sense of a refrain with each repetition. I have generally tried to follow this rule. However, I was reading Elizabeth Berret Browning’s “The Sleep” again the other day, and saw that although it doesn’t change the sense of the refrain in the modern sense, by changing punctuation or splitting words, it adds a new dimension to the refrain with each repetition. I think it is as valid a use of the refrain as more “catchy” modern ones. The refrain, when its sense is not changed, charges the air with feeling on each repetition. When it is used the way Browning uses it here, it has an incantatory quality that is enhanced by the formal diction, structure, and length (3 3’s). So while I will continue to primarily attempt to change the sense of refrains in the fun wordplay that is modern formal verse, I will also keep my eye out, and my ear open, for situations, structures, and senses that lend themselves to this more emotive methodology.

Once again, Mike Snider’s comments have perked my interest and spurred me to write. He says:

“Of course we can choose whom we entertain, and the more ambitious of us try to mix some instruction into the delight we try to give, but who of us has done the hard work to actually develop the knowledge and wisdom behind that instruction?

And is delight such a small thing?”

To what extent is poetry a hedonistic and to what extent a didactic art? Certainly poetry has evolved significantly from the days of tribal bards or traveling minstrels, but whether it has been an evolution or devolution may be somewhat in question. The bards served two purposes, of equal importance: They preserved the history, mythology, and traditions of the tribe, and they provided entertainment to the people. These two purposes can be talked about separately but they could not be performed separately. The hedonistic aspect of the bard’s song facilitated the didactic one. With the decline of poetry as an oral tradition, came the rise of modern verse, which seems to have abandoned poetry’s hedonistic purpose to focus solely on its didactic purpose. “The epic singer brings together a powerful memory and a strong voice– to build an epic tale in song and verse” (Hirsch 212). Repetition was key to building a mnemonic atmosphere, and so stock phrases abounded. The modern poet, in contrast, feels the need to make every word count, to burden his poem with layered meanings and multiple interpretations, to create the ultimate condensation of thought and emotion. In the process of doing so, he or she often lets aural considerations fall by the wayside and with the aural, much of the pleasure of poetry.

Modern criticism has also excluded from consideration any verse that does not aspire to this heavy burden, any verse that subordinates the didactic purpose to the hedonistic one, in short any verse whose primary purpose is entertainment. Thus we have an abundance of terms that ridicule the entertaining: fluff, doggerel, light verse, poesy, and even, almost unbelievably, verse itself. But let’s not stop with ridiculing the object. Let’s ridicule the creator as well with terms like versifier, poetaster, lyricist, etc. In fact, of Aristotle’s three types of poetry–lyric, dramatic, and epic–we have relegated all but the first to oblivion.* The fact is that criticism has become too concerned with “what a poem means” and has forgotten to address “how a poem means” (Hyles 175, emphasis added). We have forgotten that what a poem tells us about the external world is not its only importance. Of equal, or perhaps more, importance is how we get there. In poetry, the signifier is at least as important as the signified, the journey as important as the destination.

So how do we return to a poetry that fully fulfils its dual nature? How do we inform our poetry with instruction, entertainment, and wisdom? How do we transform the reader? For me as a reader, the transformational process is what draws me to poetry. Both the pleasure and the instruction are conveyed through the experience of being, for however short a time, a poem. And the journey that I take will be valuable as long as the poem is well crafted and informed by the experience or ideas of the poet. I grant that a poem might be well-crafted and informed by said experience and not move me, but I don’t think that any additional criterion can be applied. Are the experiences of the Oxford educated earl of any more validity for either my entertainment, my enlightenment, and my transformation, than the experiences of the Havana field worker, or vice versa? No. So in the end what is it that makes poetry great? I can only revert to cliché and say that it is “A life well lived,” captured in text well-written.

* In fact, I would argue that modern poetry has gone so far as to divest itself of even the descriptor “lyric.” Hyles says of modern poetry: “Rhyme became suspect and meter especially was discouraged and it had been those two sound devices in particular that had supplied the life force for most supernatural poetry, with its hypnotic, musical effects that echoed the incantatory force of magic, superstition, and ritual. Fantasy themes were rejected also” (7) With the abandonment of rhyme and meter, modern verse is hardly “1 : of or relating to a lyre or harp 2 of verse a : suitable to sing to the lyre b : suitable for being set to music and sung” (, “lyric,” def. 1 and 2).

Hirsch, Edward. How To Read A Poem: And Fall In Love With Poetry. New York: Harvest, 2000.

One of the more accessible books I have read on understanding and interpreting poetry, How To Read A Poem teaches close reading while providing the reader with a basic literary glossary and a discussion of meters, feet, symbolism, theme, metaphor… It also provides a broad sampling of great poetry through the ages.

Hyles, Vernon. Afterword. Murphy and Hyles 171-75.

The Afterword to Poetic Fantastic discusses the purpose of criticism in relationship to poetry, arguing that “good criticism has [always been commited] to illumination, to being ancillary to the work,” a thing that I think many modern critics have forgotten.

—. “The Poetry of the Fantastic.” Murphy and Hyles 1-9.

Discusses the relationship between Poetry and Fantasy, and draws parallels between the analysis of the two.

Murphy, Patrick D. and Vernon Hyles eds.The Poetic Fantastic: Studies in an Evolving Genre (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy). Westport: Greenwood Press, 1989.

In the forward, editor and contributor Patrick Murphy notes that “Fantasy has existed as long as thought and fantasy poems as long as poetry. … while modern criticism has largely mimicked a puritanical prejudice against the fantastic.” This book attempts to rectify that defect, collecting several previously published essays on poetry of the fantastic.

I have lately been particularly attracted to poetry as a visual art, especially as evidenced in such pieces as “Three-Piece” by Seamus Heaney. In this piece, at least, the connection between visual shape and meaning is there, but not overstated. While I find much (though not all) of concrete poetry to be ridiculous, this piece shows that more can be done with it than is being done. To connect shape with sense with sound in a way that does not look absurd is something of a challenge to me as I am primarily an auditory creature when it comes to language, but it is worth a shot. I think the key though is to combine all three elements in equal parts, without letting one override the other. And rather than being tied to a realist shaping, I think we need to look to the visual meaning and shape it in a more abstract-concreteness (if such a thing is possible… hopefully you understand what I mean). So look for a semi-concrete poem from me in the near future.

Thanks to Michael Snider for his interesting and informative comments on my analysis of “To A Critic” (The poem can be found here). He suggests that because of their more readily identifiable rhythmic nature short lines can better handle substitutions than longer lines such as IP in opposition to my statement that there were too many substitutions. I think that there is certainly some truth to that, but it brings up an interesting question.

I have heard countless discussions of poetics in which iambic pentameter was referred to as embodying the “natural rhythm” of the English language. I had always found this somewhat distressing, since when composing poetry, my phrases naturally tended to fall into tri- or tetrameter. Now I begin to wonder if the “natural rhythm” of the English language hasn’t changed somewhat since IP was established as the meter of choice for great English poetry. I found at least one reasonably respected source who has a similar leaning, at least with regard to American speech: Ronald Wallace, PhD. (scroll down a ways or search twice for tetra). Our language has been transformed from the highly inflected Old English to a much more word order driven paradigm. Contractions have abounded, especially in American Idiom. Our basic beliefs about the pragmatics of communication have changed. Have we lost syllables along the way, poor syllables waving goodbye as we march on without them? I’m not sure about this, for certainly when I do write Sonnets, I generally stick to IP rather than to the variation that allows tetrameter. But then, I am very concerned with my “free verse” friends’ criticisms of my predilection for a lack of enjambment.

Mr. Snider, at least, doesn’t seem to think so. He says of IP, “no other line is as capacious as the pentameter.” So we have a dichotomy between the fit of the English language to IP and the idea that it is at the same time less amenable to substitution than other line lengths. What is the resolution? Perhaps the type of substitution is important? Perhaps it is the placement? I could write an entire sonnet with headless iambs beginning each line, and no one would blink an eye or argue that it was something less than IP. In the same way I could write one with trochaic substitutions beginning each line, or with the last or next to last foot always anapestic. Is it then consistency that matters? And regardless, is it possible that shorter lines are actually a better fit, but that we have been conditioned so well by history and tradition that to consider another line length is virtually impossible? Not that either, I don’t think. I don’t have any answers, only questions. Which brings me back to my thoughts on shorter meters and the fact that they often seem more natural to both my ear and my tongue. I feel like I have noticed more sonnets lately (though of course I can’t locate any examples at the moment) written in iambic tetrameter, though as I said I can’t be sure. But I have digressed rather far (interesting though it has been for me) from my initial topic.

Ok, back to the trimeter of “To A Critic.” Looking back at it, I realize I may have stated my case a little to harshly, though I stand by my evaluation with the following caveat. The trimeter is well established, and I am not trying to suggest that it ever breaks down to the point of unrecognizability. What I am saying is that the points where there are significant departures cause a slight hiccup if you will in the reading in places where that hiccup doesn’t accent the content. Let me just give one concrete example:

The final two lines of the first stanza read “I have known only two,/Dick Wilbur and Tony Hecht.” I’ll take the next-to-last line first. I can scan it without much difficulty in two ways: trochee/iamb/iamb or iamb/iamb/iamb (I suppose you could also claim headless iamb/anapest/iamb but I apply Occam’s razor and remove this possibility). Now, since the meter up to this point has been unfailing iambic trimeter, I am willing to read it the second way, but the meter has brought itself to my attention. The first way is the way that I would read it if I had no established meter to go on, and the need to accent the first person pronoun followed by a typically unstressed helping verb at the beginning of the line is difficult to surmount. I notice the substitution in the first foot though I may choose to regularize it. The final line can also be read in two ways: spondee/anapest/iamb or iamb/anapest/iamb. Again, the first is the way that it would be pronounced without the influence of an established meter. And in this case, neither of the stresses of the Spondee are easy to demote, which gives us four stresses for the line. Not only that, but we have two substitutions out of three feet! And all of this, immediately following a line with a difficult conversion to make.

What do these significant blips in the meter imply about the content, or what purpose do they serve in drawing our minds so forcefully to the meter? As far as I can tell, none. Now, the really bad part comes. All that has to be done to remove the difficulty with the meter is to remove the word Dick. The use of the last name only is perfectly acceptable, even when combining it with a first/last name combination, and then the final line’s meter matches the penultimate’s: trochee/iamb/iamb. When multiple lines make the same metrical “burble” our ear just accepts that meter as the norm for those lines. So to summarize, not every substitution in a short line is a problem for me (in fact no substitutions may tend to the boring), and it may well be that IP can handle substitutions less well than shorter rhythms, but in this particular piece there are at least a couple of occasions in which the substitutions work against the flavor and flow of the whole.

Now all of this is not intended to somehow shore up or defend my analysis from one critical remark (though possibly to extend and explain that analysis). I am perfectly willing to be taught. It is simply the thoughts, questions, and re-evaluations that Mr. Snider’s awesome comment engendered. Thank you again Mr. Snider. (Oh, and thanks to Chris Murray as well, who commented even as I was writing this response. We missed you Thursday!).

Marion Shore, in her poem “Parallel Universe” (published in Volume 13 Issue 2 (2003) of The Formalist), uses slant rhyme mixed with perfect rhymes in a way that coincides perfectly with the content of the poem. She uses the slant rhyme in the first stanza to compare space with gaze. Emphasizing the contradiction of a universe in which she has “never met your gaze” (Line 4). The rhyme is imperfect, but so is the universe, she seems to be saying. She takes this even farther and brings the slant rhyme into stark relief in the final couplet where she says, “Somewhere there is a universe/Where when you dream, you see my eyes, not hers” (Lines 13-14). By placing this change that would typically be considered a flaw in the closing couplet, she announces its intentionality.

I have seen other poems in which the form mirrored the meaning, but usually that was in free verse or at least in non-traditional forms. Of course the sonnet in and of itself, through its tradition and its volta, complements and guides the content of a sonnet, but this additional device is so intentional and stands out so boldly that our attention is drawn to the form and we begin to see other aspects in which the form mirrors or enhances the content, the rhymes, the meter, etc. The sonnet form, alone, hides in the background of our consciousness, and we may read and understand the poem fully without ever noting what the sonnet form adds or subtracts from or to it. I am challenged to attempt to incorporate some type of overt and blatant “in your face” connection between form and meaning into my next poem. After all, “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 7). Perhaps slant rhyme, perhaps something else, but to somehow directly tie form to meaning, and then bring it blatently to the attention of the reader.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT, 1964.

Lately, I seem to be constantly facing issues of time: time management, timing, time for family, time for schoolwork, time for writing. That last is one of the biggest; I think that like doctors, we should describe authors as practicing the art of writing. We’ll never get any better if we don’t keep doing it (Not that we don’t need to read a lot as well). In fact, it’s impossible to produce a work of literature without the act of writing. I digress. In “I Go Back to the House for a Book,” Billy Collins provides an effect that although not narrative per se (although certainly narrative in portions), or in emphasis, nevertheless captures more than a single image. It captures a timeline, and through that timeline, a feeling, almost an aura. Collins captures this timeline in several ways, the most traditional being through narrative. However, especially in his second and third stanzas, he maintains a sense of time and timeliness without continuing the narrative form. More important than the flow of the narrative is the use of time-oriented words, such as sometimes, before, slow, synch, before, blazing, follow, etc. These words remind us as we go through that the snippets of scene that we are seeing are not contiguous, that they are separated in time, and indeed, that seems to be the theme of the poem. The separations of events in time, the impact of time on choice, and the effects of time on emotion and memory. So, my challenge? Write a poem with NO narrative that nevertheless captures a sequence of events, to use time words to make clear that events are separated by time, while juxtaposing them on one another to emphasize a contrast or comparison.

I was reading the poetry of Sondra Ball on The Web Projects of Sondra Ball and Mario Cavallini, and came across The Villanelle, which is a delightful little metatextual exploration of the form. I have always been fascinated with metatextual poetry, especially poetry that is specifically self referential, and this villanelle becomes quite narcisistic with it’s self-referential chorus.

Although I’m not at all a fan of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” I love Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking.” and I’m sure there are others that I can’t think of off the top of my head. The villanelle holds great interest for me even without the metatextual aspect. The contstant revolution builds atmosphere quickly when handled correctly, although I think some villanelle’s must really be performed for full effect. Like Poe’s “The Raven,” they should be read aloud in an appropriate atmosphere with a participatory audience where the tension and emotion can build and build, ’til electricity fills the air, and the words become a magical web that you can climb into the heavens to battle the gods. That feeling is what the villanelle seems to evoke for me, or at least is what I think the villanelle ought to evoke. Because I’ve never even played with writing a villanelle, its something that I want to put onto my plate to attempt. The problem of course is matching form to subject.

I don’t normally set out to write a poem in a particular form, except as an exercise, to practice meter, rhyme, syllabics, alliteration, or some other specific technique that may then be incorporated into unrelated and “properly” inspired poems at a later date. However, I have occasionally begun with an exercise, and ended with a poem which felt “right” that I kept. So the question becomes, can I inspire myself with a subject which fits the form and fills my need to create this beast which is called the villanelle. But that begins to diverge into the realm of idea, and this is supposed to be a technique file, so I’ll save that for another time.

I noticed that I have left out a specific description of the form of the villanelle, so I’ll just mention briefly for the few visitors to this site who may not know it that the villanelle is formed of 5 tercets in which the exterior lines rhyme across all the stanzas and the interior lines do as well. That is to say that all the tercets have a rhyme scheme of aba. Additionally the first and third line form an alternating chorus as the last lines of the following stanzas beginning with the first. The 5 tercets are followed by a quartet that rhymes abaa with the final two lines being the two choruses in order. I am sorry if this is obtuse; I didn’t have any reference material in front of me when I wrote it. Feel free to check out Villanelle for a more complete discussion with examples.

I just finished rereading The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. This is, in my opinion, one of the most enjoyable of his plays, and it is a pity that the anti-semitism which it seems to display (and in fact does, though Shylock is presented more sympathetically than many Jews in Drama of the time) causes it to be one of the less-often produced of his plays.

Our sister site, Free Text, has the full text of the public domain play here, if you would like to read it.

Also on our BRAND NEW sister site, Free Text are the first of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Troilus and Cressida. I’ll be posting one new sonnet every day, and plays and works by other authors as I have time.

I was just browsing through some poetry the other day, and I noticed that a surprisingly large number of the poems that I really enjoyed made significant use of wordplay. In fact, much of that play might even be said to be punning, such as when Lisel Mueller in “Ex Machina” plays with the meanings of “deus ex machina” and “machina” as machine, or when in his “Blessing for Malcolm Lowry,” Brad Leithauser quotes a bar guest as saying “Life’s a process of rile and terror.” Noah Webster called puns “a low species of wit.” Christopher Morley called them “language on vacation.” On the other hand Oscar Levant said, “A pun is the lowest form of humor – when you don’t think of it first.” Going even further, Arthur Koestler put it beautifully saying that a pun is “two strings of thought tied with an acoustic knot.” And Anthony Burgess may have put it best when he said “plurality of reference is in the very nature of language, and its management and exploitation is one of the joys of writing.” (You can find more famous quotes on puns here.)

But there is more to great poetry than great punning, obviously. Although Lisel Mueller is having fun with word processor problems and quirks of the lexicon, when “Ex Machina” finishes, one is left transported. The computer, as unlikely as it seems, has become a metaphor for the criminal, without sacrificing the absurdity of the former or the significance of the latter. Much of this separation is accomplished I think, by putting the two objects into separate stanzas, allowing the absurdity to overrun the first (though mixed with not a little bit of frustration), and allowing the more serious emotions to take precedence in the second. However the wordplay brings just the right amount of the former into the latter, and leaves us with a much better understanding or empathy (not sympathy surely) for the criminal, along with, as in the case of the computer, not a little bit of disgust. This technique of thoroughly separating two concepts which we mean to parallel, and thus allowing two separate tones to pervade the separate concepts while using play on words and ideas to connect the two seems to me to be a very valuable tool that I would like to incorporate into my poetic toolbox.

Investment,” by Scott Topper, begins in the middle of an apparently one-sided conversation, possibly a photographer speaking to a model. What really interested me about it was the strikingly audible feel that the short sentence fragments, and the running together of seemingly non-related subjects (that is to say subjects requiring context to understand their connectivity) gave to it. It has a conversational tone, not in the sense that it seems to speak to the reader, for I definitely couldn’t place myself as the you of the poem, but in that it feels, more than almost any poem I have read, like spoken English. Usually when a poem is composed almost entirely of sentence fragments and run-ons, it just feels like a lack of craft, but in this poem, it feels just the opposite, highly crafted. Even most poems that attempt to be conversational still read like written, rather than spoken, English. I think it would be a great challenge to get that feeling of “being there” that the well-produced spoken (barked even) dialect gives.