Sunday, 30 November 2008


To speak a word is to break that word;
Speech is for keeping, our mind a keep.
The mountainside echoes the unheard,
The avalanche dangerously poised and steep.

Saturday, 29 November 2008


The mind is a cursor, the world a screen.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Larkin's sadness

Larkin's 'Money' ends:

I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

It Is Intensely Sad would be a pretty good title for a study of Larkin's verse.

But wait a minute Phil: you don't actually mean 'it is intensely sad'. You mean 'I am intensely sad.' That's really not the same thing, you know, Phil. That's really not that same thing at all. Don't you see the difference? The street, the church, the whole provincial town is doing just fine, thank you, and has no responsibility for you mournfulness, standing at the French windows there. Ah, but that's you and your poetry in a nutshell, Phil, isn't it.

Thursday, 27 November 2008


I've never really liked this Leonardo quotation: 'Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.' The sentiment is fine, of course (inaction is bad). But rust is not inaction; it is precisely the manifestation of the vigor of the oxidisation process; and when a clear pond goes green it is the continually active viriditas of life itself; and if we're talking about art, then frost is the ceaseless worker of myriad beauties. Better to accept that whilst action is certainly preferable to inaction, action often results in the contamination of the purity of the inactive. That's its glory.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Negative capability

Keats's 'negative capability' is an interesting phrase. Keats uses it to mean 'a capability for the negative' ... the emphasis, in other words, is on the negativity, and 'capability' means something like 'having the capacity for.' But because capability is the gerundive of 'capable', and because of the word-order, it looks the other way around; as if negative is adjectival and the emphasis is on the power or ability to generate an outcome (such that the phrase might mean, 'having only negative power or ability to generate an outcome': if God creates and the Devil only destroys, then we might say that God has positive capability and the Devil negative capability. But to say this would quite misrepresent what Keats meant ... unless the phrasing and order of the words is in part about generating this sort of ambiguity ...

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Pitchfork in Middle Earth

I used, poring over Lord of the Rings as a child, to ponder the map; and I remember being struck by the thought that the great line of mountains running north-south (the Misty Mountains) and then after that gap running west-east (the White Mountains) and culminating the the E-shaped range that defines Mordor .... I used to fancy that this was deliberately drawn to look like a broken pitch-fork: its shaft snapped (the gap of Rohan) and the middle tine of its fork broken off and lying against the left tine. I imagined that this enormous broken pitchfork had been laid across the landscape of Middle Earth as a symbolic signifier: the devil's tool, yes; and dominating the landscape, yes. But, you know. Broken.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Plural plural

I find myself thinking: but how has English managed without a plural plural? The plural of horse is horses; but a larger grouping of a dozen groups of horses would still be horses. Why not horsess? Or horsesi. Or horsesim.

That said there are, as it happens, certain words that do seem to suggest plural plurals: one agendum; several agenda; the filing cabinet was full of many different agendas. But couldn't this be rolled out across the whole language?

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Rain boat

The rain boat passes,
Over a fluid sky,

Grey and rust-coloured:
Moulding smoke

And tipping the boulders
To float off outboard.

Drizzle is thrown up by
The wash of its passage,

And the oil it drips
Slicks a skein of colours

Flotsam coloured
And mutlicoloured.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Looking back, stateside

US Presidents, as it might be: Dilbert Dyson, Rudehealth, Harry S McCatrthyism, Dwight D. Eigersanction, Scatterbrained Kennedy, Lyndon B. Tonkin, Illface Nixon, Flawed, The Giant Crater, President Laserpistol, President Cosh, Bill F. Clitman. But not until now has a President been given the dubious distinction of being known, like a Kafka hero, only by one letter. Such a denuded signifier.

Did I say US Presidents? I meant professional wrestlers. My mistake.

Friday, 21 November 2008


In her notebook, as she prepared to write Adam Bede, George Eliot copied out the following from Carlyle's Life of Cromwell: 'The quantity of sorrow he has, does it not mean withal the quantity of sympathy he has, the quantity of faculty and victory he shall yet have? Our sorrow is the inverted image of our nobleness.'

So. My consciousness revolts from the notion, I think because it seems to me to heroize the pathological (misery, I mean): 'yes, I sit in my room feeling bitterly sorry for myself instead of engaging with the world: my selfindulgence is the mirror-image of my nobleness. The more depressed I become, the nobler I reveal myself to be.' But I suppose, Cromwell notwithstanding, Carlyle is applying, logically enough, a Christian conceptual template: Christ's nobility was made perfect precisely in suffering and death; the last shall be first; only through sorrow is victory possible. How else does God reveal himself to the world except through sorrow? How could that not mean that sorrow and suffering are the purest embodiness of the divine?

There's a false step there, I think, and it's an important one. It is a mistake nevertheless to think that Christ's suffering was the medium for the revelation of his nobility. The incarnation, if it comes to that, was not about sorrow; but it was about ignobility (a carpenter's son, not a prince; hanging out with lowlives and prostitutes, not fine folk; washing people's feet and exploring the abjection of physical existence). Suffering is the mirror of our ignobility, of course; and in that is the divine.

Thursday, 20 November 2008


We do need to keep faith, but what we need most is a fidelity to what might happen next.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

What was the Trojan horse made of?

Vergil tells us:

ductores Danaum … montis equum diuina Palladis arte/aedificant, sectaque intexunt abiete costas ['The Danaan chiefs … build by Pallas’ divine art a horse of mountainous bulk, and interweave its ribs with planks of fir (abies: ‘the silver fir’)']. [Aeneid, 2:16]

But wait a minute:

... praecipue cum iam hic trabibus contextus acernis/staret equus ... ['… when yonder horse now stood framed of maple-beams (acernus) …'] [2:112]

And here again:

...roboribus textis caeloque educere iussit ... ['… this mass of interlaced oak timbers (robor) so huge …'] [2:186]

And once more:

inclusos utero Danaos et pinea furtim/laxat claustra Sinon ... ['Sinon … stealthily sets free from the barriers of pine [pineus] the Danaans shut within the womb…'] [2:258]

Of line 112, there, T E Page [The Aeneid of Vergil ed. Page (London 1902; 2 vols) 1:216-7] says: ‘In 16 Virgil talks of “planks of pine”, here of “beams of maple”, and 186 of ‘woven oak-timbers.” Sigdwick calls this “a natural poetic variation”: as a matter of fact it is a curious illustration of Virgil’s art. He prefers the particular to the general and therefore prefers to name some particular tree rather than to speak simply of wood.’

Preferring the particular to the general is all very well and good; but it's not too much to request he prefer the same particular. (Page goes on: ‘[he] is consequently led to this artificial and unnatural method of giving three different names to the same wood. The difficulty he labours under in endeavouring to lend a poetical character to his description of the horse is also shown by his using the same metaphor (intexunt, contextus, textis [‘woven’]) in all three passages.’) Also it seems to me that there's no warrant for assuming, as Page does here, that 'fir' is the same thing as 'pine'.

What we have, then, is a horse made of: silver fir [abies]; maple [acernus]; oak [robor] and pine [pineus]. Perhaps, Page's dismissal notwithstanding, Vergil's repeated use of the idiom of weaving means he wants us to think of the horse as actually made of four different types of wood, all platted together? That's not outside the kingdom of possibility, I think; although it strains credulity (for if that was what Vergil meant, then wouldn't he say something along those lines? 'Woven severally of many timbers', or something?)

Silver Fir was well-known to the Romans. It is common in northern Europe and grows as far south as southern Italy and as far easy as the Carpathians; though not in Asia Minor: so it doesn’t seem likely the Trojans would have supplies handy outside Troy to fashion their horse. (Wikipedia also says: ‘Silver Fir is the species first used as a Christman tree.’) Most of the 125 species of Maple are native to Asia, and some to Asia Minor, so that’s a more plausible wood: though it would be difficult to ‘weave’, being a particularly hard hard wood (Wikipedia: ‘it is the wood of choice for bowling pins, bowling alley lanes, pool cue shafts… [and] is also used for the production of wooden baseball bats, though less often than ash or hickory due to the tendency of maple bats to shatter when broken.’). Oak grows widely in northern Europe and north America (I can’t find out whether it grows in Asia Minor) and makes good ships and furniture. It’s an important symbolic tree: the tree of Thor, the thunder god, in Norse Mythology; and the sacred tree of Zeus in Greek (the oracle of Dodona in prehistory consisted solely of a holy oak.) Pine provides ‘timber that is denser, more resinous, and therefore more durable than spruce (Picea). Pine wood is widely used in high-value carpentry items such as furniture, window frames, paneling and floors.’

What can we make of this? Of course, perhaps it is simply carelessness on Vergil’s part. But let’s, for the fun of it, imagine otherwise: imagine that there’s a significance here. Beyond straining to fit these terms into improbable dactyllic hexameters:

Sic: Abies acernus [duri] robor[is] pineus
— u u — u u — u u — u u — —

(But shouldn’t the ‘e’ in ‘acernus’ be long, because it comes before two consonants? Or does ‘rn’ not ‘make’ position?) … as I say, beyond such pointlessness, what of the trees themselves? For trees are symbolic of supernatural forces. The fir, for example, stands for ‘Science or Knowledge’ (to quote Graves’s White Goddess: I have no intention of trying to justify the authority of this source): ‘a form of the Greek Elate (‘fir tree’); Elatos (‘fir-man’) was an early Achaean King of Cyllene … [the fir] may thus be equated with Osiris, or Adonis, or Dionysis, who was born from a fir and mothered by the horned Moon-goddess’ [98].

Oak is Zeus’s tree, of course; the largest in the forest. Of pine-trees, Graves quoted Câd Goddeu, ‘The Battle of the Trees’: ‘The pine tree in the court/Strong in battle,/By me greatly exalted/In the presence of kings’: Ares’ tree, in other words. Maple is harder to pin down, although the Latin name is derived from ‘acer’, meaning ‘sharp’ (because of the shape of the Maple’s leaves, perhaps) but also meaning ‘bitter, harsh, poisonous’. In other words, Vergil constellates his constructed horse, at Troy, as a trinity of Achaean gods: Zeus, Ares and Dionysis—signifying that the horse will bring dominion over Troy via war and frenzy—together with the bitterness the horse bodes for all Trojans.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008


Friedrich Schlegel in 1798 (“Ideen,” No. 6) argued that “all philosophy is idealism and there is no true realism except that of poetry.” Schelling later, in 1802's Vorlesungen über die Methode des akademischen Studiums talks about what he calls Plato's “polemic against poetic realism.” Of course, Plato might argue that his is the true realism, Schlegel's a sort of hallucinatory delusion. Few terms have as utterly fluid (pungently fluid, in the sense that all meanings dissolve in them) than 'realism'. Personally, I prefer the formulation 'all philosophy is realism and there is no true hallucinatory delusion except that of poetry'; not because I am any sort of Platonist, but simply because there's something lovely about that three-word-phrase as a definition of poetry: 'true hallucinatory delusion'.

Monday, 17 November 2008


The Golden Bow-Bow: a Study in Magic and Canine Rhetoric.
The Golden Bow Down: a Study in Abasement and Religion.
The Golden Bow: Ships Too Dense to Float.
The Golden Baa-aa-ow: Sacrificial Sheep in Ancient Magic and Religion
The Golden Beau: Beauty and Wealth.

Sunday, 16 November 2008


Fireworks repeatedly hammer their nail into the black board of night sky.

Saturday, 15 November 2008


We've been pronouncing this word incorrectly: it's not ameeba, it's amoybay. See here: 'early naturalists referred to Amoeba as the Proteus animalcule after the Greek god Proteus who could change his shape. The name "amibe" was given to it by Bory de Saint-Vincent, from the Greek amoibè (αμοιβή), meaning change.'

Friday, 14 November 2008


The river in the sunlight
Innumerable glow worms.

Clouds tumble and meld.
Blue and black stacked:

The kaleidoscope of air
The kakeidoscope of vacuum.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The earliest recovered word of English

Recovered, that is, from Gildas's De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ('On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain'), and its account of Vortigern's reign. 'Gildas adds several small details that suggest either he or his source received at least part of the story from the Anglo-Saxons. The first is when he describes the size of the initial party of Saxons, he states that they came in three cyulis ('keels'), 'as they call ships of war'. This may be the earliest recovered word of English.'

It is of course attractive to think that English makes its first mark upon recorded and written language with the keel of a boat. But surely it's just as likely that this is not English. Perhaps, for instance, its the mark of some confusion: perhaps the Latin 'culeus' (or 'culleus') mangled through English-Roman interaction. This could either be a genuine misprision, for culeus means 'a ship without rigging' ('what's that culeus there?' 'what-d'ye-say? ciulis?'); or perhaps it is the result of some kind of joke, because Lewis and Short tell us the word also culeus means 'the scrotum ' I like this better, because it would mean the first recorded English word is 'bollocks'. And that's more authentically English than the keels of boats.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Gamma ray

That's an image of the moon's gamma-ray emissions; as beautiful, I think, for its irregular five-pointed crown (the image, perhaps, is ninety-degrees rotated) as for its white hot central face. Wikipedia informs us: 'surprisingly, the Moon is actually brighter than the quiet Sun at gamma ray wavelengths.' But this is not a surprise for those men seared by the sight of an unshielded Diana-Artemis.
If our eyes saw gamma rays rather than visible light rays night would replace day. And what would our vision reveal to us? Danger. ('Gamma rays are the most dangerous form of radiation emitted by a nuclear explosion because of the difficulty in shielding them. This is because gamma rays have the shortest wavelength of all waves in the electromagnetic spectrum, and therefore have the greatest ability to penetrate through any gap, even a subatomic one, in what might otherwise be an effective shield.') The moon cannot be kept out. The moon penetrates.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


"You're playing all the wrong notes!" "I'm playing all the right notes; although not necessarily in the right order."

Beethovian kettledrums rumble. The applause first,
Then the main show, in that order.

The pond's surface strains in a million places
To reach up and shake hands with the precipiation.

Cannons charging and discharging. Orderly
Disorderly. More 1815 than 6, actually.

Crinkled wires blankly incandescing
Rhizomes rooting clouds to sky. Traffic:

The wind the policeman and you the tramp.
Life inside that Jovian red roundabout.

Night storms day. Water storms land.
Napoleon storms Vienna. Beethoven's scowl.

Happy peasants are waiting in the wings.
They're there because the wings keep them dry.

Monday, 10 November 2008


—Skyscraper! The way I see it is, the sky reaches all the way to the ground. Or how else would we be able the breathe? So, you see, a bungalow can properly be described as a skyscraper.
—But do we breathe sky? Air, yes ... but sky?
—What else is there to breathe ... at the top of a skyscraper?

Sunday, 9 November 2008


He spoke Thesperanto, the universal idiom of actors. We might call it: showy.

Saturday, 8 November 2008


The fractured drainpipe sags like a corporal's stripe.

Water flees a blistering sky for cold and black earth.

Cold is more immanent here than time. The sound of it, the hiss, the sound.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Long Time 2

Time is not a matter of length
any more than breadth or depth.
Time takes length, breadth, depth
and moves all three, xyz, in a wholly
unprecedented direction. Like
a small brown hill being vectored upwards
by the movement of grass growing
every blade synchronised and pushing,
and turf-flowers in-amongst shifting
everything from thingness to beauty.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Long Time, 1

The waves cook the land:
the flame-roar of surge against rock;
the sizzle of sea interpenetrating shingle;
surf licking the beach's brown polenta.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Napoleon and Newton

Napoleon was called Napoleon because his Corsican roots are connected with Naples; and Naples was called Naples because when the Greeks founded it, it was a 'new town' (Νεάπολις). So it follows: when we look for an English equivalent ('Jean? Meet John!') for Napoleon, we should go to Newton (Wikipedia, here, say it's 'the most common placename in England ... a descriptive name of the relative type, implying a settlement that arose later than another, already existing or at least incorporating some kind of new feature'). In English, in other words, Napoleon is Newtonian. They even have (look!) a certain physical resemblance. Perhaps they were secretly related.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Art, life

'Make your life a work of art'. (Substitute any word you like, there, for 'life': state, sport, crime).

The opposite has its place in aesthetic theory ('make your art a work of life'); but the other two corners are surprisingly removed, ideologically speaking: from the radical gay 'lart pour l'art' of 'make your art a work of art' and the born-again-Christian 'make your life a work of life'. I do not understand why these last two have the ideological codings they do; or more specifically, since the other three are all, to one extent or another, conservative positions, why l'art pour l'art doesn't just fall into line over on the Far Right and leave other creators to create without particular references to the vivid or artificial.

'Vivid'; 'artificial'. The two words at the bottom of the New Right-Wing! poster

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Heavyweight Champion of the World

The bigger one swings his microwaveoven-sized fist.
The jaw-bell rings. Down the short slide, and boom.
And bust.
Splattering oily-fluid red in a moose-horn-shape
Across the canvas
Though hardly a blank canvas. Hardly a blank.
Hardly conscious at all.

Hard to point at the ceiling when your fingers are
Globed in leather.
Hard to do all the fiddly buckle-and-tongue tightening
Of this jewelled belt
When your hands are all spheres-and-thumbs.
Hard's the word.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Hebrew, Dutch, German, Greek

Mahendra Singh's ongoing Snark brings my attention to this Snarkly Carollian (Caroligian?) stanza:

"I said it in Hebrew — I said it in Dutch —
I said it in German and Greek:
But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
That English is what you speak!"

Singh glosses: "Left alone in his splendidly impenetrable semiolinguistic Fortress of Solitude, the Baker is now free to concentrate his intellectual powers upon himself. Toying with the building-blocks of language and meaning, he will arrive at some sort of Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything in It … eventually … "


The word it in Hebrew, Dutch, German and Greek respectively is: hu het es auto. If we shift to Latin, the language of learning most obviously missing from this list (the barrus in the conclavum), we get Hu. Het. es auto; which is to say Humanorum hetaeria es auto: 'you are yourself the brotherhood of all men.' Wise Bakerly words, clearly referential of the crew of which he is a part, as are we all.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

The sheer scale of stately homes

Big: to wander through the rooms and halls of a stately home is to be struck by the scale of the architecture: ceilings twice as high as a normal house; corridors three times the length and so on. I used to think that this was a simple matter of using stone to brag: 'I am considerably wealthier than thou ... see, I can afford to build bigger.' But recently I've come to doubt this: size doesn't correlate simply to wealth (aircraft hangers; tesco; farmer's barns); indeed, increasingly it is location rather than size that connotes wealth. So I have a new theory: the point of these huge rooms is precisely to make the person inside them feel small ... which is to say, to feel like a child. It is architecture as a sort of time machine; not back through the ages but back to a happier, simpler, smaller time. Me, now, in the hall of Syon House = me, age six, in the front hall of my parents' home.