Category Archives: poetry

Some of my best friends are cross-dressing kingmakers

Steve Burt profiled in the New York Times Magazine.

I thought the profile was a little too heavy on other people talking about Steve and too light on Steve talking about Steve, so here’s Steve’s long and in part autobiographical essay about Game Theory (the band, not the branch of math) which is subtitled, I’m guessing by Steve himself, “An awkward essay about a deeply ambivalent band with a very unpromising name, including notes on nerd camp, fear of sex, Northern California area codes, and autobiographical digressions, with a book review near the end.”  If you want to read something more directly about poetry, here’s Steve’s essay “Close Calls With Nonsense” from The Believer, which lays out, to the extent that it can be laid out, the state of American poetry as it looks from one vantage.


Tagged , ,

Knuth, big-O calculus, implicit definitions (difficulty of)

Don Knuth says we should teach calculus without limits.

I would define the derivative by first defining what might be called a “strong derivative”: The function f has a strong derivative f'(x) at point x if


I think this underestimates the difficulty for novices of implicit definitions.  We’re quite used to them:  “f'(x) is the number such that bla bla, if such a number exists, and, by the way, if such a number exists it is unique.” Students are used to definitions that say, simply, “f'(x) is bla.”

Now I will admit that the usual limit definition has hidden within it an implicit definition of the above kind; but I think the notion of limit is “physical” enough that the implicitness is hidden from the eyes of the student who is willing to understand the derivative as “the number the slope of the chord approaches as the chord gets shorter and shorter.”

Another view — for many if not most calculus students, the definition of the derivative is a collection of formal rules, one for each type of “primitive” function (polynomials, trigonometric, exponential) together with a collection of combination rules (product rule, chain rule) which allow differentiation of arbitrary closed-form functions.  For these students, there is perhaps little difference between setting up “h goes to 0” foundations and “O(eps)” foundations.  Either set of foundations will be quickly forgotten.

The fact that implicit definitions are hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach them to first-year college students, of course!  Knuth is right that the Landau notation is more likely to mesh with other things a calculus student is likely to encounter, simultaneously with calculus or in later years.  But Knuth seems to say that big-O calculus would be self-evidently easier and more intuitive, and I don’t think that’s evident at all.

Maybe we could get students over the hump of implicit definitions by means of Frost:

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.

(Though it’s not clear the implied uniqueness in this definition is fully justified.)

If I were going to change one thing about the standard calculus sequence, by the way, it would be to do much more Fourier series and much less Taylor series.

Tagged , , ,

John Stuart Mill and scansion

There are lots of good reasons to read Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi’s network-theoretic defense of democracy against market fundamentalism on the one hand and hierarchic paternalism on the other.  But at the moment I just want to quote their quote of John Stuart Mill:

But the economical advantages of commerce are surpassed in importance by those of its effects which are intellectual and moral. It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact.

And I’m not even quoting the quote because the quote says something interesting, which it does — it’s just because scansion is on my mind, thanks to Paul Fussell, and I was struck by the grace of “Commerce is now what war once was.”  To write with authority you have to have good ideas, but you also have to pay attention to the sound of your words.  Writing is a formalization of sound, not a formalization of thought.


Tagged , ,

In which I agree with Pushkin

“Imagination is as necessary in geometry as it is in poetry.”

Tagged , , ,

Stephen Burt interviewed in Publishers Weekly

Steve Burt interviewed in the PW series, “The Art of the Review:”

Classes can reveal the properties of their members more fully (to understand the differences between calcium and magnesium, for example, you should know why they are both alkaline earths) but classes can also obscure them (the Pagans and the Germs were both American punk rock bands, but to me their songs sound nothing alike). Classes should be used with care everywhere; there’s probably no way to fully avoid them.

But you aren’t asking about classes in general; you are asking why poetry critics and reviewers seem to classify and classify, whereas fiction reviews try to avoid it. Perhaps it’s because few books of poetry can count on a buzz produced by their authors, or by a publicity campaign, or by grassroots, independent-bookstore-sales-driven chatter, all of which can justify (to assigning editors, to casual readers) space and time for extensive reviews of single volumes. Poetry reviewers, poetry critics, even very academic ones, need other pegs on which to hang their claims.

Novelists, necessarily, work in sustained solitude, when they are working (however gregarious they become otherwise), whereas poets can work in solitude in short bursts and then come together to discuss—and make programs and slogans about—what they made.

Poets also seem to attach themselves and their work more often either to their peer group, or to their teachers; some poets can tell you where and with whom they studied almost in the way that classical musicians can tell you about their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers.  If novelists do that, I haven’t seen it.

For more, buy Steve’s book, Close Calls With Nonsense.

Tagged , , , ,

Math And: Arielle Saiber on Italian poetry and Italian algebra, Friday, Oct 23 at 4pm

Something to do tomorrow (besides eating the Beef n Brew slice): the Math And… seminar is very pleased to welcome Arielle Saiber from Bowdoin for our Fall 2009 lecture.  Arielle is an Italianist of very broad interests, with academic papers on Italian literature, the early history of algebra and geometry, Dali’s illustrations for Dante, and the polyvalent discourse of electronic music.  Tomorrow there will only be time to unite the first two.

23 Oct 2009, 4pm, Van Vleck B239: Arielle Saiber (Bowdoin, Italian)

Title “Nicollo Tartaglia’s Poetic Solution to the Cubic Equation.”

Niccolo Tartaglia’s (1449-1557) solution to solving cubic equations, which renowned mathematician and physician Girolamo Cardano wanted but Tartaglia resisted, led to one of the first intellectual property cases in Western history. Eventually, Tartaglia agreed to give Cardano what he so desired, but only if the latter promised he would not publish it. Cardano promised, and Tartaglia sent him the solution. Wasting little time, however, Cardano published the solution (along with a ‘general’ solution that he himself developed). Tartaglia was, not surprisingly, furious and began a vicious battle with Cardano’s assistant, Ludovico Ferrari (Cardano refused to engage Tartaglia directly). But vitriolic polemics aside, there is something else rather curious about this ordeal: the solution Tartaglia gave Cardano was encrypted in a poem. This talk looks at the motives behind his “poetic solution” and what it says about the close relationship between ‘poeisis’ and ‘mathesis’ in this period of mathematics’ history.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Road trip!

Steve was talking about the future of poetry at the Twin Cities Book Fest this weekend, so CJ and I hopped up for the weekend to see him and his family.  A few notes:

  • Priceline works!  I’ve never used them before, I suppose because it’s rare I’m traveling not for work and not staying with relatives.  I worried there’d be no free rooms Saturday night with a Twins-Yankees playoff game the next day; but in fact Priceline found us a $60 room at the Holiday Inn Metrodome.  Why were there still rooms available next door to the stadium?  Because, as Steve explained, the Twins reserve most playoff tickets for locals, with only 3,000 seats available to New York fans.  I both approve of this practice (on grounds that it sticks it to New York fans) and disapprove (on grounds that stadium owners extract all kinds of concessions from cities and states with the promises of massive hotel, bar, and restaurant sales to visiting fans, and surely the city of Minneapolis forwent a pile of revenue from Yankee fans who would have been staying in CJ’s and my hotel room, had they been able to get tickets for the game.)
  • The crowd in the lobby Saturday night was about equally mixed between belogoed Gopher fans, the afterparty from a hotel wedding, and ravenous zombies.  Lots of aggression between the beeriest groomsmen and the most in-character zombies, which looked like it might get physical; rather than witness this CJ and I tucked ourselves into our big comfy bed and watched the Discovery Channel until we fell asleep.  We learned a lot about walnuts.
  • You probably already know this, but if you’re driving from Madison to Minneapolis you should stop at Norske Nook in Osseo and get pie.  They sell other food but it’s little more than an unneccesary delay of pie.
  • I never found out what the future of poetry was, but if it has one it will surely involve Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press, which, per the chatter at the book people party Saturday night, is one of the few literary entries everybody in po-biz endorses and admires.  Buy some books!
  • We made it back to Madison about 15 minutes before the start of yesterday’s all-ages They Might Be Giants show at the Barrymore.  It’s twenty years, to the month I think, since I first saw them play.  I thought there would be a lot of eight-year-olds there but the crowd actually skewed younger than CJ.  Maybe the eight-year-olds were up in the mosh pit.  Spirited short set, almost all drawn from the kids’ records — very nice, though, to hear a bit of “The Famous Polka.” Assertion:  the songs from the standard TMBG catalogue that read as kids’ songs (“Istanbul not Constantinople,” “Particle Man,” “Why Does the Sun Shine?” “Dr. Worm,” “Older”) are better kids’ songs than the official kids’ songs.  Discuss in comments.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jim Carroll is dead

I don’t have many firm ideological beliefs about novels, but here’s one:  you can’t write a good novel by good luck.  No matter what your life story is, no matter what a raconteur you are, it takes years of practice, intense attention to boring detail work, and thorough rewriting if you want to produce anything worthwhile on the page.

Also good luck, of course.

You can’t have a good hearty ideological belief without a counterexample, and mine is The Basketball Diaries, a beautiful memoir/novel which was more or less a greatest hits collection from Jim Carroll’s diary, ages 13-16.  I like the way it shouldn’t be as good as it is.

I used to buy used copies whenever I’d run across them and give them to people.  I gave one to a girlfriend in college.  (For college friends, the one whose name rhymes with “I need a DJ on Ramadan.”)  She gestured in the direction of her bookshelf, where there was already a copy, and said “Men always give me that book.”

I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean that to be as crushing as it was.

Tagged , , ,

In which I like Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem

Elizabeth Alexander’s decision to deliver the inaugural poem in “poetry reading voice,” with careful little pauses to indicate line breaks, was a bad mistake — after Obama’s smooth, long lines, she sounded like Rain Man, or a William Shatner impersonator, or Rain Man impersonating William Shatner. But I thought the poem itself, “Praise Song For The Day,” was great.

I’m not sure anyone else thought so. Monica praised the poem very faintly. Adam Kirsch called it “bureaucratic,” which he meant as an insult. But is it? Some things are made to happen by heroic leaders. But others, equally important, get done by thousands of people in separate rooms, none with a global view, each one carrying out a small task thoughtfully and by the book. Poetry isn’t a thing of the latter kind, but poetry has to recognize that there are such things, and that they matter. As must the President. Steve Burt made this point in verse.

Back to Kirsch,who labels the opening

Each day we go about our business

as cliche, fairly — but seems to miss that the following lines

walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din

stroll around the different aspects of the word “about,” poking at it, so that the words of the first line, or at least the word “about,” retroactively re-activate inside their dead phrase.

Alexander’s not afraid to tweak Obama a bit:

A farmer considers the changing sky.

reminding us (and him!) that “change,” too, is a real word, not just a slogan, and it might mean you’re about to lose your crop. And then this, my favorite part:

Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

“Picked the cotton and the lettuce” is a graceful way of getting both 19th century African slaves and contemporary migrant farmers from Latin America into a single, eight-syllable frame. You can’t help comparing it with Maya Angelou’s dreary ethnocatalogue: “THE BLACK, THE JEW, THE HINDOO, THE CROAT….” I won’t defend “brick by brick” — glittering edifices are steel and glass office towers, not brick buildings. But the permeation of the workers through the building walls (with an implicit generation shift — the fathers are construction workers, the children disperse through the class structure, some becoming janitors and others deskworkers) is deft as hell — and she caps it off with the weird scrambly rhyme of “edifices” and “inside of,” and a cheeky sentence-ending preposition which seems to talk back — but respectfully! — to the schoolteacher five stanzas previous. Just as she talked back to the new President when she brought up the changing sky.

A lot is getting done in the rooms of this poem, piece by piece and without flourishes. It’s bureaucratic in the best way.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

After Virgil

is the title of Steve’s new poem, which is dedicated (blush) to me, but really should be dedicated to my parents, my son, or my next President. It starts like this:

At last, today, we can talk about something else–
about rock and roll again, for example, or
about the relative merits of green and black tea,
about anything that we know will have nothing to do
with the national perils and chances that kept us fixed,
like greyhounds in harness, despite ourselves, on the tracks
of the polls, of the ground game, of cellphones and robocalls,
of the neck and neck, the face to face, the fears
we harbored all year for the winner in that great race
where two hundred million people could join, or jeer.

Read the whole poem at InDigest.

(It shouldn’t be double-spaced, by the way; WordPress cognoscenti are welcome to explain how to fix this.)
Tagged ,
%d bloggers like this: