1987: There are two “topics” on my mind…

Coyote pups in Hinckley, Minn., gleefully joined in as the adult started to howl. ( Credit Debbie DiCarlo Photography)

Coyote pups in Hinckley, Minn., gleefully joined in as the adult started to howl. ( Credit: Debbie DiCarlo Photography)

[Dear Mother,]

There are two “topics” on my mind. One results from watching the C-Span show where people call in from all over the country, usually to a group of journalists. I’ve seen it twice in the last several days; yesterday the journalists represented the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the New York Times and Newsweek; today just one journalist, a young woman from the Wall Street Journal, with a degree from Yale in something and a masters from Oxford in history.

So many of the callers are excoriating “the media” or “the press” for presenting Reagan in a negative light, or else for being too hard on him during questioning sessions. I know you’ve heard or read the same sort of thing. In fact, I saw the congressman (or senator) Alan Cranston on TV in Lionville thrashing the press for asking Reagan the wrong questions at some occasion prior to his recent press conference. (The woman today from the Wall Street Journal remarked that journalists get a chance to ask questions of Reagan for 30 minutes every four months, given his current rate of holding news conferences.)

All this is irritating to me, and I hope the journalists stick to their guns. They respond with grace and restraint in the shows I’ve seen. Can you make some connection between the apparent great rate of semi-literacy in the country and the obvious great concern of Reaganite media-critics that masses of people will be swayed against Reagan by a partisan press? Was it Jefferson that made such a thing of an educated electorate able to make its own judgments and come to its own conclusions? I wonder if the people whom they fear might be swayed even read the press; on the other hand, everyone watches TV, and that’s probably the medium they (the media-critics) fear the most.

It’s a good thing I’m not a journalist, because I can’t extract any telling thoughts out of this soup of impressions, at the moment, but I “feel” that there’s something dangerously deviant and sinister and irrelevant in these great howlings about maltreatment of public figures at the hands of the “media,” which 9 out of 10 of the howlers treat as a singular word!

[Correspondence, Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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How It Goes

A man clears debris after Taliban militants burned a market in Ghazni. Photograph Zakeria HashimiAFPGetty Images

A man clears debris after Taliban militants burned a market in Ghazni. Photograph: Zakeria Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images

Governor Nimati said that disaster in the Baghlan-e-Markazi district was averted last week only after the American military sent Special Forces troops to fight alongside Afghan commandos, backed up by airstrikes. But as soon as the Americans and the commandos left, he said, Taliban forces immediately began filtering back in, and by the weekend the bases in the district were again in Taliban hands.
(Rod Nordland, “The Death Toll for Afghan Forces Is Secret. Here’s Why,” NYTimes, 9-21-18)

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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Help Wanted

Joey Guidone [NYTimes]

Joey Guidone [NYTimes]

I count ninety-six pieces of J.S. Bach’s “Das Wohltemperirte Klavier” (The Well-tempered Clavier — does “tempered” mean “tuned”?). I don’t know if ninety-six is the canonical count. I may have miscounted. I purchased the recording from iTunes some years ago and usually access it on my iPhone. I’ve never listened to the whole series in one sitting because it goes on for hours. I stake out arbitrarily a dozen or so pieces, and switch to Laurindo Almeida or Charlie Byrd when I realize I’ve listened to music that has a dizzying torrent of notes struck at unstintingly strict tempo, now with muscular dexterity, now with serene detachment, by Angela Hewitt long enough, not to want to pierce my temple with an icepick necessarily, but to become testy.

It’s me, not Bach (or Ms. Hewitt).

I feel like this profligate genius, this “stolid” family man and church organist, Herr Bach, is having his way methodically and sublimely with musical mysteries that are over my head. It’s not narrative music like “Night on Bald Mountain” or “Peter and the Wolf.” It’s cerebral, even somewhat technical music, I surmise, and I would give a lot to get guidance from a musician (or musicologist?) who would help me not just listen to these exercises — is that what they are? — but also understand what they’re doing. This hankering for greater insight reminds me a little of the pleasure I get from conjugating model verbs, both regular and irregular. It’s the savoring of ordered complexity, of the serried rigor of eighth-notes and inflections. It’s diving past the petty shore ripple and into the big waves where the serious surfers play. Except I’m not that strong a musical swimmer, or maybe the metaphor requires me to say I don’t have a surfboard.

It strikes me that with painting I don’t need someone to tell me what I’m seeing, even if it’s otherworldly, but with music I’m over my head, at least in Baroque waters, though I must say I have a much better time with Bach’s cello compositions. I’ve heard them adapted to guitar, also, and either way they sound more modern and less… mechanical (an ugly word) to me.

I fantasize fishing out my Ramírez from its velvet coffin and laboriously fingering by ear — I’m not fluent in notation but I have a wicked ear — some of the melodic lines that Bach puts out in this torrent of keyboard music. Maybe translating patches of it to the fretboard will help me get smarter at listening to it.

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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In Praise of Tongues

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You Have to Break an Egg to… You Know the Rest

Eggs. Photo, JMN.

Eggs. Photo, JMN.

It’s a cruel trick the Fates play on this hapless heathen, but the odds are just as sure as shootin’ that on the rare day I make a three-egg omelet the THIRD egg will have a double yolk! <picture here an impish emoji with a winkie eye and lips crooked in rueful amusement, maybe some spikes of exasperation radiating from its forehead, or else an emoji with a shaking head and rolling eyes conveying a “my-day-has-to-start-like-this!?” ironic shrug — I couldn’t find the exact support for the graphical meta-commentary that I wanted to append to my flippant expostulation, and words are so inadequate in these situations>.

[Copyright (c) James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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Liberties Taken

Hoss. JMN, oil on canvas.

“Hoss.” JMN, oil on canvas.

I want to think out loud about how poetry works, but without being too scrupulous about terminology. It just slows me down to try to re-research what the proper name for everything is.

For a specimen I want to take the meter most familiar to me, the two-syllable foot with stress on the second syllable repeated five times in a line. It’s the only one whose name I can keep in my head: iambic pentameter. I want to represent it like this, with stresses capitalized:

ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM.


he CAN’T be-LIEVE you GAVE his SHIRT a-WAY
me-THINKS the SCOUN-drel DOTH pro-TEST too MUCH
with BRAINS he IS not O-ver-LY en-DOWED
and BEAU-ty IS her ON-ly CLAIM to FAME

I want to call it an act of “scansion” when one measures an utterance against a meter. I want to say transitively that I’m “scanning” an utterance. I want to say intransitively that an utterance “scans” in a certain way.

I want to distinguish impishly between “poetry” and “poesy.” The former is authentic, the latter is ersatz. Say I want to create a couplet with this utterance: “You came to my window, / Now I’m the one to blame.” But wait! I see an opportunity to inject rhyme, so I change it to: “To my window you came, / Now I’m the one to blame.” I’ve created poesy. How? I’ve modified a natural speech pattern to fit my rhyme requirement. The result is a perfectly “legal” English utterance, but it now has a rosy twinkle of yesteryear to it. It’s slightly quaint. I fight against poesy in my own versifying, and strive for doggerel instead.

Beneath this presumptuous (and amateurish) judgmentalism lies a bias, which is: One comes closer to poetry by crafting verse with syntax (word order) that stays faithful to unembellished, contemporary speech. It squares or even cubes the difficulty of finding unforced or non-trivial rhymes, and of conforming to meter, for that matter, if rhyme and meter even DO matter — and for many poets they don’t. But now that you mention meter, here’s where it gets interesting as well as stressful (pun intended).

I want to distinguish between speech stress and prosodic stress. Speech stress is the stress that falls on certain words and syllables when we talk more or less neutrally or unemphatically. (See how I don’t strive for much rigor in my terms?) Prosodic stress is the stress that conforms to a certain meter — the ta-DUM thing.

I gave five examples above of utterances whose speech stress, to my ear, conforms rather closely to the prosodic stress of iambic pentameter. It becomes apparent that to read or recite fourteen or ninety such verses would quickly ring singsong. Come to think of it, it might sound like poesy. Poetry craftily manages to profit from the counterpoint of verses whose speech stress doesn’t match the prosodic stress. Consider the following lines by Yeats:

Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Scanned against the iambic pentameter pattern, they look like this:

ce-RE-mo-NY’S a NAME for THE rich HORN,
and CUS-tom FOR the SPREAD-ing LAU-rel TREE.

With speech stress they can look like this (rudely — I’m not accounting for secondary stress):

CE-re-mon-ny’s a NAME for the RICH HORN,
and CUS-tom for the SPREAD-ing LAU-rel tree.

This excursus, this disquisition, this nattering over the motes in God’s eye, has already run far too long for any but the most obstinate reader. In shorter followups I want to have more loud thoughts about ways I don’t understand how poetry works, with specimens from Auden, Yeats, Millay, Roethke, Whitman, Arnold, Thomas, and possibly poets I haven’t read yet.

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

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