Saturday, April 17, 2010

The 120-second thunderbolt

[Welcome, Mannionistas! Cucumber sandwiches and lemonade on the side table.]

This all began because of a post Lance Mannion wrote yesterday, with the shamelessly memorable title Dirty sexy naked poets. If it doesn't make you rethink Emily Dickinson, then a heart is the least of the functioning anatomical necessities with which you have apparently not been blessed.

Go read it and discover, among other things, what you could have been doing instead of breaking the spine on your school library's copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four at page 103.

Seriously. Go read it. I'll wait here.

Back? Good. Now here's the thing. Lance wrote:

An offhand remark by another poet, who was on the faculty at the time, in one of my classes my first or second week there, triggered something in my brain and suddenly I could do something I’d never been able to do, read a poem.

I had to know what the poet told him, so I dropped him a note and asked.

I confess I have always suffered the same affliction--a sort of colorblindness when it comes to poetry. In a file folder somewhere I have some poetry I once wrote in an attempt to impress a woman who was absolutely worth the effort, but even at the time I knew it was just prose with ragged right margins.

There's a story here: Many years ago, I was at a conference on rhetoric where the keynote speaker was Wayne Booth. A lot of his writing, particularly about irony but also his courteous but firm dismissal of E.D. Hirsch's "cultural literacy" cottage industry of the time, had left its mark on me during my intellectual Wonder Years. And I discovered Booth was quite impressive in person--the very model of a tall, bespectacled, baritone, tweed-and-suede professor. The man knew how to work a plenary session, let me tell you.

I had, in my young-pup arrogance, brought a paper to the conference that presumed to bite Booth around the ankles. He was pretty gracious about that (given how largely unbitten his ankles remained afterward, he could afford to be) and joined several of us at a bistro on the edge of campus later. The conversation came around to an article I'd recently read about RACTER (for "raconteur"), an early Eliza-like artificial intelligence program designed to write poetry and prose (some of its output was later collected and published as "The Policeman's Beard Is Half Constructed"). I mentioned that the attempts by RACTER's programmers to generate erotica with it were an acknowledged failure: Apparently it had written "The f------ c--- ate the parking meter" before anyone managed to lunge across the console and shut it off.

There was some laughter following that story, and when it died down I said that a Turing test using RACTER's poetry would probably leave me stumped: I doubted if I would be able to distinguish the program's output from the work of a decent human poet.

Booth shrugged and said, "I could teach you how to do that in two minutes."

Take a moment here to imagine that you're an average, 16-handicap golfer, and you've found yourself having a Heineken with Jack Nicklaus (it was the mid-1980s, remember), who casually mentions that in two minutes he could take 6 strokes off your game, or put 20 yards on your drive, permanently.

Or, over a martini, Frank Sinatra tells you that in two minutes he can show you how to phrase anything from the Great American Songbook like he does. You see where I'm heading.

So I sat there making Ralph Kramden waggly-jaw noises, but before I could take Booth up on his offer, the conversation moved away from poetry and artificial intelligence (and parking meters), and the chance was lost. I tried a couple of times to pull the conversation back, but it had been a one-time-only sort of moment. Almost 30 years later, I still bang my head on the table when I think about it.

So you can see why I hoped I might have a second chance here: What was the poet's offhand remark? Hence the note I dropped to Lance.

He sent a reply that recalled all he could dredge up, but the bottom line is that whatever she said that day was now the thing that emanated the ethereal golden glow from Marsellus Wallace's briefcase:

The poet who made the offhand remark was Jorie Graham and for the life of me I can't remember exactly what she said.

I won't say that my search for the two-minute explanation of how poetry works is doomed, but after 30 years it's not looking that great, either. I've read my John Ciardi, but I can't escape the idea that the 120-second thunderbolt is out there somewhere.


Ron said...

You may as well ask, "Why is there an Indian chief in the test pattern"?

Nothstine said...

Hey, Ron--

I have wondered about that from time to time myself. In fact, I asked long-time p3 correspondent Doctor TV about it once but [here's where it all comes full circle] I don't remember the answer.

If the good doctor happens to see this and remembers the answer, please let us know.


CathiefromCanada said...

Great column -- I guess proving once again that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder!
Every now and then one of my kids will quote back to me some nugget of maternal wisdom that I passed on to them in their formative years, but I can't remember having said it at all. Apparently my own best lines will never be found in my autobiography.

Nothstine said...

Thanks, CfC-- It is a little unnerving to consider that we don't get to write our own literary obituaries, isn't it?