Category Archives: poetry

There’s only one thing that I know how to do well

Last week I moderated (virtually) a discussion at Stanford between my poetry friend Stephanie Burt and my category theory friend Emily Riehl, on the topic of “identity” — specifically the question of how, in lyric poetry and in mathematics, one addresses the complex topic of what we do when we identify; whether this means “identifying with” a character in a song or poem or story, or identifying two objects which are not equal but which, in Poincare’s phrase, we “call by the same name.”

What I realized after the fact is that, as in so many other matters, the most succinct formulation is in a They Might Be Giants lyric:

There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
I’ve often been told that you only can do what you know how to do well
And that’s be you,
Be what you’re like,
Be like yourself

Surely this points to three different notions that appeared in the discussion:

  • “be you” — to say that you are you is to assert equality
  • “be what you’re like” — that is, have exactly the properties that you have and no others — an assertion of indiscernibility
  • “be like yourself” — this is the assertion of relation (here denoted a “likeness”) between two entities that licenses us, following Poincare, in calling them by the same name — that is, an assertion of equivalence

Here’s YouTube of the discussion:

And here’s YouTube of the They Might Be Giants song, “Whistling in the Dark.” I remember seeing them play this in the fall of 1989, at the Paradise Rock Club, before the album came out, a song nobody had heard. A revelation!

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To A Crackpot

I still have a lot of text files from when I was in college and even high school, sequentially copied from floppy to floppy to hard drive to hard drive over the decades. I used to write poems and they were not good and neither is this one, but to my surprise it had some lines in it that I remembered but did not remember that I wrote myself. What was I doing with the line breaks though? I am pretty sure this would have been written in my junior year of college, maybe spring of 1992. Around this same time I submitted a short story to a magazine and the editor wrote back to me saying “free-floating anxiety cannot be what drives a narrative,” but I disagreed, obviously.

To a Crackpot

He eschews the shoulders
of giants. He chooses instead
the company of thin men, coffee-stained,
stooped with knowledge. They huddle
on the sidewalk, nodding, like crows
or rabbis. He speaks:
the world is hollow and we live
on the inside. (Murmurs of assent.) There
is a hole at the top where the water runs in. The sun
is smaller than my hand, and the stars
are smaller than the sun.

A woman walks by, drawing
his eye. She has no idea. Beneath their feet,
out in the dark, secret engines. The Earth turns like milk.


Pandemic social life as villanelle

When I took creative writing in high school my idea of writing a poem was writing down some thoughts that felt expressive to me and organizing those thoughts into lines of various lengths. Our teacher gave us assignments to write poems in form: sonnets, pantoums, villanelles. This seemed artificial and out-of-date and absurdly restrictive. Why should line 2 have to rhyme with line 5?

What our teacher said was that the absurd restrictions are there to be restrictions. If you sit down with the goal of expressing yourself you only say what you intend to say and this is rarely interesting. The restrictions of form force you into a channel you’re not used to and then you might find yourself saying something you didn’t know you wanted to say.

So maybe pandemic social life was like that? It sort of was, for me. I wasn’t in the office so I didn’t see math people and chat with them there as usual. I wasn’t running into people at the coffeeshop. So I did some things I didn’t usually do. I was on Zoom calls with groups of people from my class in high school. I impulsively accepted Misha Glouberman’s invitations to be on Zoom calls with groups of Canadians I barely knew. I called old friends on the phone without warning them I was going to call, and talked to them. People I usually talk to about every five years I talked to every three months.

Writing a sonnet in class doesn’t mean you go around talking in sonnets afterwards. Maybe you never write a sonnet again. But the things I did when my social life ran through this weird channel are things I’m glad I did.


Portuguese vs. Portuguese

The Portuguese edition of “How Not To Be Wrong” just arrived at my house.  “Portuguese” as in “from Portugal” and as distinct from the Brazilian edition.  Interesting how two versions of the book in the same language can be rather different!  Here’s the opening paragraph in Portugal:

Agora mesmo, numa sala de aula algures no mundo, uma estudante esta a reclamar com o seu professor de matematica.  Este acabou de lhe pedir para usar uma parte substancial do seu fim de semana a calcular uma lista de trinta integrais definidas.

And in Brazil:

Neste exato momento, numa sala de aula em algum lugar do mundo, uma aluna esta xingando o professor de matematica.  O professor acaba de lhe pedir que passe uma parte substancial de seu fim de semana calculando uma lista de trinta integrais definidas.

Ok, those are not too far off.  Here’s how some lines of John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended” are translated in Portugal:

E vimos que ambos temos razao, ainda que nada

Tenha resultado em coisa alguma; os avatares

Do nosso conformismo perante as regros,

E ficar sempre por casa, fizeram de nos — bem, en certo sentido — <<bons cidadaos>>

and in Brazil:

Esta vendo, ambos estavamos certos, embora nada

Tenha de algum modo chegado a nada; os avatares

Da nossa comformidade com regras e viver

Em torno de casa fizeram de nos … bem, num sentido, “bons cidadaos”

I don’t know whether Ashbery’s poems have official Portuguese translations.  The only one I could find of “Soonest Mended” was in a book of criticism by V.B. Concagh, where the last two lines were rendered

Deste conformarmo-nos as regras e fazermos a nossa vida

Ca por casa fizeram de nos — bem, num certo sentido, “bons cidadaos”

The line I hit very hard in English is  “For this is action, this not being sure.”  That last phrase is rendered

  • (Portugal) esta incerteza
  • (Brazil) essa falta de certeza
  • (Concagh) este nao esta seguro

I don’t read Portuguese but the last, most literal rendering seems best to me, assuming I’m right that it captures something of the “not the way you’d normally say it”-ness of the Ashbery:  “this uncertainty” or “this lack of certainty” in English don’t have at all the same quality.

Note:  Because I was feeling lazy I have omitted all diacritical marks.  Lusophones are welcome to hassle me about this if it makes the quotes ambiguous or unreadable.


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Poem for the ALDS

These are the names that are freaking me out,
Verlander, Scherzer, and Price,
Plaguing my Oriole fandom with doubt,
Verlander, Scherzer and Price.
A trio of felines, bringing the heat,
Verlander, Scherzer, and Price,
Are these guys that a team writing “Ryan Flaherty” and “Jonathan Schoop” on the lineup card every day actually has a chance to beat??
Verlander, Scherzer, and Price.


Update:  I should make clear that this is meant to be apres “Tinkers to Evers to Chance,” by Franklin Pierce Adams.

Thoughts on TEDx

I gave a TED talk!  OK, not exactly — I gave a TEDx talk, which is the locally organized, non-branded version, but same idea.  18 minutes or less, somewhat sloganistic, a flavor of self-improvement and inspiration.

I was skeptical of the format.  18 minutes!  How can you do anything?  You can really just say one thing.  No opportunity to digress.  Since digression is my usual organizational strategy, this was a challenge.

And there’s a format.  The organizers explained it to me.  Not to be hewed to exactly but taken very seriously.  A personal vignette, to show you’re a human.  A one-sentence takeaway.  General positivity.  A visual prop is good.  The organizers were lovely and gave me lots of good advice when I practiced the talk for them.  I was very motivated to deliver it the way they wanted it.

And in the end, I found the restrictiveness of the format to be really useful.  It’s like a sonnet.  Sonnets are, in certain ways, all the same, by force; and yet there’s a wild diversity of sonnets.  So too for TED talks.  No two of the talks at TEDxMadison were really the same.  And none of them was really like Steve’s TED talk (though I did read a poem like Steve) or Amanda Palmer’s TED talk or (thank goodness) like the moleeds TED talk.

No room in the talk to play the Housemartins song “Sitting on a Fence,” which plays a key role in the longer version of the argument in How Not To Be Wrong.  So here it is now.

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Life, friends, was boring. xkcd says so.

From a recent xkcd:

But kids, it’s not true! I was here before there was Internet, and I can tell you, people were not bored more often than they are now, and the boredom was not of a finer and more concentrated quality. The mouse-over text says, in an incredulous tone, “We watched DAYTIME TV. Do you realize how soul-crushing it was?” But people still watch daytime TV! Even though there’s the internet! People like daytime TV.

xkcd used to take a slightly different stance on this:

Actually, it’s not clear what stance is being taken here — maybe xkcd really does think nature is of interest only insofar as as it generates ideas for status updates.

The right answer is that xkcd doesn’t think anything at all, because xkcd is a comic strip, whose job is to be funny, not to have consistent principled stances concerning how we have lived and what we should do.  There’s a post I never get around to making about how much I disagree with something in one of Louis CK’s famous bits, and one reason I never make this post is that it’s kind of dumb to argue with a comedy routine, because comedy routines are not arguments.

In conclusion, boredom is a land of contrasts.  John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14”:


Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.


God I love this.


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Adam Smith on mathematicians and poets

I got this strange and interesting passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments from Mark Lewko’s blog, which seems to be quiet at the moment but I hope it comes back!

The beauty of poetry is a matter of such nicety, that a young beginner can scarce ever be certain that he has attained it. Nothing delights him so much, therefore, as the favourable judgments of his friends and of the public; and nothing mortifies him so severely as the contrary. The one establishes, the other shakes, the good opinion which he is anxious to entertain concerning his own performances. Experience and success may in time give him a little more confidence in his own judgment. He is at all times, however, liable to be most severely mortified by the unfavourable judgments of the public. Racine was so disgusted by the indifferent success of his Phaedra, the finest tragedy, perhaps, that is extant in any language, that, though in the vigour of his life, and at the height of his abilities, he resolved to write no more for the stage. That great poet used frequently to tell his son, that the most paltry and impertinent criticism had always given him more pain, than the highest and justest eulogy had ever given him pleasure. The extreme sensibility of Voltaire to the slightest censure of the same kind is well known to every body. The Dunciad of Mr Pope is an everlasting monument of how much the most correct, as well as the most elegant and harmonious of all the English poets, had been hurt by the criticisms of the lowest and most contemptible authors. Gray (who joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope, and to whom nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more) is said to have been so much hurt, by a foolish and impertinent parody of two of his finest odes, that he never afterwards attempted any considerable work. Those men of letters who value themselves upon what is called fine writing in prose, approach somewhat to the sensibility of poets.

Mathematicians, on the contrary, who may have the most perfect assurance, both of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries, are frequently very indifferent about the reception which they may meet with from the public. The two greatest mathematicians that I ever have had the honour to be known to, and, I believe, the two greatest that have lived in my time, Dr Robert Simpson of Glasgow, and Dr Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh, never seemed to feel even the slightest uneasiness from the neglect with which the ignorance of the public received some of their most valuable works. The great work of Sir Isaac Newton, his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, I have been told, was for several years neglected by the public. The tranquillity of that great man, it is probable, never suffered, upon that account, the interruption of a single quarter of an hour. Natural philosophers, in their independency upon the public opinion, approach nearly to mathematicians, and, in their judgments concerning the merit of their own discoveries and observations, enjoy some degree of the same security and tranquillity.

The morals of those different classes of men of letters are, perhaps, sometimes somewhat affected by this very great difference in their situation with regard to the public.

Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.

It is not always the same case with poets, or with those who value themselves upon what is called fine writing. They are very apt to divide themselves into a sort of literary factions; each cabal being often avowedly, and almost always secretly, the mortal enemy of the reputation of every other, and employing all the mean arts of intrigue and solicitation to preoccupy the public opinion in favour of the works of its own members, and against those of its enemies and rivals.

Now that the public reads no more poetry than it does mathematics, have the moral habits of poets and mathematicians converged?

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There are no new gags

Free idea for my philosopher friends:  put out a call for papers for a volume about baseball and philosophy, called “What Is It Like To Be At Bat?”

Amazon tells me that somebody has already produced a book of articles on baseball and philosophy, but hasn’t used this gag.

But Google tells me that the gag has already appeared several times:  in a blog post, in an article by John Haugelund, and, somewhat memorably, in the last stanza of a poem by Michael Robbins that appeared in the Awl:

I never promised you a unicorn.
But still. What is it like to be at bat?
Just having T.M.I. tattooed on my balls.
The heavy lice that hang from them
run in blood down palace walls.

There are no new gags.  I think Robbins’s poems are interested in the contemporary fact of there being no new gags.

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Sometimes, sometimes and always

Peli Grietzer is kind of thrillingly good on one of my very favorite poems, Ashbery’s “At North Farm”, especially

the way that things done for the sake of some eschatological hope or fear end up sort of indistinguishable from normal minor daily habits after enough iterations of the eschatological thing not happening.

I have posted “At North Farm” in the blog before, but why not again?  Poetry is written to be repeated.

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

Each time I read this there’s something new — this time, the way “sometimes, \\ Sometimes and always” reads as a list of three things, the first two identical.

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