Looking at a Wilfred Owen poem

National Poetry Month is almost over; given how big a role poetry plays in my intellectual life, I wanted to devote some time to one that I’ve been thinking about for a little while.

“Six O’clock in Princes Street”

In twos and threes, they have not far to roam,
Crowds that thread eastward, gay of eyes;
Those seek no further than their quiet home,
Wives, walking westward, slow and wise.

Neither should I go fooling over clouds,
Following gleams unsafe, untrue,
And tiring after beauty through star-crowds,
Dared I go side by side with you;

Or be you in the gutter where you stand,
Pale rain-flawed phantom of the place,
With news of all the nations in your hand,
And all their sorrows in your face.

Wilfred Owen

A friend sent me this poem as an example of the sort of thing she had trouble understanding. M. is very intelligent and educated, but more toward the hard sciences than in the humanities. I’ve no notion of writing some critical manifesto, but it may be that some of you who read this will find it useful to see a process of interpretation.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

First off, this is from Wilfred Owen. He’s one of my favorite modern poets (modern in the sense of cultural movements, anyway; he died almost a century ago). For my money he wrote the best English war poetry of any era. Even this short poem set on a British street is informed by his experience of war. The narrator sets himself apart from the men he observes with “they” and “those”: “they” are a happy crowd walking eastward to meet their wives at home, and by implication our speaker is not. He sees himself as a wanderer following dangerous dreams whose only chance to enter that domestic world of the first stanza would come by “daring to go side by side with”–who? A soldiers’ sweetheart as literary convention perhaps, though I find it more likely that Owen is alluding to romantic desire for his hero, the handsome, renowned poet Siegfried Sassoon.

And then there’s this third stanza. What an odd turn this is; try as I might, I cannot make satisfactory sense of that first line, “Or be you in the gutter where you stand”. The standing figure holding “news of all the nations” must be a newsboy; he is fixed to the spot as he sells his wares, but like the speaker he too is aware of the world outside domestic bliss, aware of the tragic stories he sells. I THINK Owen linking this figure to the object of desire in the second stanza with that “or be you” line, but I can’t quite work out the detail.

So, not one of Owen’s best poems, but certainly a touching little piece–I particularly like “tiring after beauty through star-crowds” as a description of a restless young man. It’s also nice to see Owen deal with something besides the horrors of war.

Psst. You wanna be a gargoyle?

Neal Stephenson’s first hit novel Snow Crash featured gargoyles, people who used backpack sensor arrays and portable computing to stay constantly connected to the Metaverse, scanning everything and everyone around them for useful information. If that sounds like the life for you, check out the TED talk linked below for some great interface design in wearable computing.


Man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud

In case it matters, this post contains SPOILERS for the plot of CoD4.

Playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare right before bed might not have been the best idea. It’s the best first-person shooter I’ve seen–realistic locations with different approaches to most locations, engaging gameplay, and two ongoing characters: a Special Air Service commando doing covert operations in the former Soviet Union and a U.S. Marine fighting a revolutionary army in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country. In fact, the game is SO involving that it gave me nightmares last night.

After a dozen or so missions in which your Marine unit fights its way through the streets to find the revolution leader with rogue nuclear weapons, your company is flying out of the city when THIS happens. Your character, the pilot you just rescued, the men you’ve been fighting with, the unnamed troops in helicopters all around–all dead in an atomic explosion. I’m very much a child of the Cold War; between a growing awareness of geopolitics, credulous belief in the Book of Revelations, distrust of Ronald Reagan and the string of hacks running the Kremlin, and The Day After, I worried about nuclear war more than most. Playing that game last night must have brought it all back. I don’t remember many details, just that a lot of my friends back in Louisiana were missing after an attack on Barksdale AFB, millions of people were dead, and the economy suddenly seemed like the least of our problems.

Oddly enough I’m not at all down or depressed about it now. Waking up on a cool Spring day in a non-irradiated world put me in a good mood, and my everyday problems seem much less important right now than they did yesterday.

Introducing . . . Aimee!

aimee the catWe got a wonderful new kitten last week. A coworker of a friend had a litter of calicos to find homes for and I selflessly volunteered. We looked at the litter of four and Suri picked up pretty quick that this one was special. She was friendlier and much more curious than the other kittens, so we called dibs on this one. We named her Aimee.

Likes: pettings, climbing on us even when we are without pants, playing with tangled balls of yarn, eating anything and everything we put in front of her
Dislikes: Being repeatedly placed on the ground when we can’t have a kitten on our lap, being hissed at by the older kitty, finding objects she is unable to climb

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Teabagging America

Ever since debate began over a big government stimulus plan I’ve been thinking about how irrelevant the GOP has made itself. Their idea of stimulus . . . isn’t one. Tax cuts can sometimes lead to business reinvestment and long-term growth in revenue, but not in the middle of a banking crisis. Cut corporate taxes during hard times and they’re much more likely to build up their war chest, sitting on the money rather than putting it back into circulation. After the last eight years, Republican claims of fiscal discipline and small, responsible government seem not just baseless, but actively clownish. OldKentuckyShark, a poster on RPGNet, explained it well in a post about the embarassing teabag protests.

The truly appalling thing is that they threw a protest without the protest.

What were the teabaggers standing against?

High taxes? Obama just cut taxes. Try again.

The rising national debt? It’s going up, but it’s been going up for the past 8 years (or twenty years, or fifty years, depending upon who is counting); why stand up and grow a pair now, of all times? Where were these voices last April? And even setting that aside, what do they propose to do to stop it?

The Bailout/TARP/Stimulus Plan? Well, all right, those are perfectly valid targets for debate… but there’s been no debate, just diffused, unfocused anger. That doesn’t make for a protest, it makes for a hissy fit.

Now, traditionally, on April 15th, libertarians all across America make a little to-do over taxes. Libertarians hate taxes: it’s their thing, it’s what they do. Now, I may not like the libertarian philosophy — I may despise and loathe some of its core precepts from the bottom of my soul — but I will give them this: they, at least, have an argument. They have consistency. They proceed from certain axioms along a line of logic towards a hypothetical future that is, to my mind, hellish, but at least they move in straight lines. They have their own golden path, and the best of them actually walk it, bless their hearts. Real libertarians, from what I have heard, were disgusted by what they saw as a co-opting of their traditional grinding axes.

The teabaggers had none of that. They spouted nonsense. They had conspiracy theories about Obama’s nationality and bad math and worse puns and teabags. One man had a sign declaring the stimulus package unconstitutional: when challenged, he had never even read the constitution. One woman had a sign declaring democrats to be socialists: when pressed, she couldn’t identify what socialism was. Thousands of people gathered in city capitals today over nothing. Nothing. They held up their persecution complexes like red badges of courage. They waved their impotent rage like an American flag, as if puling incoherence was a moving argument. They wore their paper-mache pig hats with absurd pride.

They’ve been called the party of No and the party of no ideas, but this went beyond all that. On April 15th, 2009 Republicans officially went all Bret Easton Ellis on us: totally less than zero.

There’s no there, there in the right wing any more.

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8tracks, a good mixtape site

So my good buddy Injun Joe linked me to this site a while back. It’s called 8tracks.com , and I’m hoping it’ll be a long-lasting site for streaming music. You can search for songs online or, crucially, upload them from your computer to create eight-song playlists. They’re licensed as webcasters so they’re not likely to be sued out of existence anytime soon. My first playlist was sort of thrown together, mostly to test the interface, but I’m still happy with it. You listen to it here if you’ve a mind to.

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Omit needless words

50 years ago, the most influential book on modern American writing hit the shelves. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style still follows its own oft-quoted maxim “omit needless words”: the book still weighs in at the publisher’s holy number of 128 pages. (The more comprehensive Chicago Manual of Style runs to near 1,000 in tiny type.) I loved hearing on the news this morning that the publisher got a telegram from Berkeley, CA during the first printing asking “send more copies. Whole campus gone mad.” If you’ve ever studied writing at the college level, you’ve probably read the book; if not, all your teachers were certainly influenced by such advice as “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” If you’ve never done so before, please take a look; the advice is well worth your time.

Illness redux

Suri’s suspect for a month or so that she was diabetic. Unfortunately, some bloodwork this week confirmed that. We don’t know yet whether it’s Type I or Type II; Type I seems more likely at this point given how rapidly it developed. We’re a little scared right now, but diabetes is at least treatment for diabetes is well understood and largely in the hands of the patient. We’ve been through some rough health problems in the past. I just wasn’t wanting another one so SOON. It seems like her heart problem (under control now) was just diagnosed yesterday.

Pour a 2-liter of Mountain Dew on the curb . . .

Dave Arneson died this week. He was one of the wargamers/fantasy fans in Minnesota who tweaked, re-interpreted, and wrote game rules that ended up becoming our modern tabletop roleplaying games. Arneson created the Blackmoor setting, the very first roleplaying “game world.” RPG evolution is convoluted and involved and required a large number of Minnesotans named “Dave” for some reason; Arneson remained involved his whole life, and he’ll be sorely missed.