Poem: The Surfer

Another great poem by Judith Wright (1915-2000), clearly influenced by the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins (whose rhythm was influenced by the triple repetitions of Robert Southwell).  She captures here particularly well the change in mood of the Australian beach after sunset but before dark.

The Surfer
He thrust his joy against the weight of the sea;
climbed through, slid under those long banks of foam –
(hawthorn hedges in spring, thorns in the face stinging).
How his brown strength drove through the hollow and coil
of green-through weirs of water!
Muscle of arm thrust down long muscle of water;
and swimming so, went out of sight
where mortal, masterful, frail, the gulls went wheeling
in air as he in water, with delight.
Turn home, the sun goes down; swimmer, turn home.
Last leaf of gold vanishes from the sea-curve.
Take the big roller’s shoulder, speed and swerve;
come to the long beach home like a gull diving.
For on the sand the grey-wolf sea lies snarling,
cold twilight wind splits the waves’ hair and shows
the bones they worry in their wolf-teeth. O, wind blows
and sea crouches on sand, fawning and mouthing;
drops there and snatches again, drops again and snatches
its broken toys, its whitened pebbles and shells.

Judith Wright [1971]: Collected Poems. Sydney, Australia: Angus and Robertson. Page 21. From The Moving Image, published 1946.

Next, the Literature Nobel

Robert Draper has an interesting essay in GQ on Barack Obama the writer.  As I noted before, Obama shares this characteristic with Teddy Roosevelt (and with no other US President).  And like TR and JFK, Bam is also a cosmopolitan urbanite.

“I think he sees the world through a writer’s eye,” says senior White House adviser and former Chicago journalist David Axelrod. “I’ve always appreciated about him his ability to participate in a scene and also reflect on it. I mean, I remember when we were meeting clandestinely with the guys who were vetting the vice presidential candidates. There was this courtly southern gentleman who was doing the vetting. The president said to me, ‘This whole scene’s right out of a Grisham novel.’
“I also have to say, one of the great thrills is to watch him work on a speech. It’s not just the content—he’s very focused on that—but more than anyone I’ve ever worked with, he’s focused on the rhythm of the words. Like, he’ll invert words. He’ll say, ‘I need a one-beat word here.’ There’s no question who the best writer in the [speech-writing] group is.”

Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1953, after writing — or perhaps supervising the writing of — his History of the English Speaking Peoples), so there’s hope yet for Bam’s next Nobel.

Poems: Six O'Clock

Today, two poems on the same theme, the first by Joe Stickney, published in 1905.   The image is a famous Australian painting, Collins St, 5pm, by John Brack, painted in 1955 and now in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Six O’Clock
Now burst above the city’s cold twilight
The piercing whistles and the tower-clocks:
For day is done. Along the frozen docks
The workmen set their ragged shirts aright.
Thro’ factory doors a stream of dingy light
Follows the scrimmage as it quickly flocks
To hut and home among the snow’s gray blocks.-
I love you, human labourers. Good-night!
Good-night to all the blackened arms that ache!
Good-night to every sick and sweated brow,
To the poor girl that strength and love forsake,
To the poor boy who can no more! I vow
The victim soon shall shudder at the stake
And fall in blood: we bring him even now.

The second poem, by TS Eliot, was published in 1917, and is number I from the Preludes:

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.

T. S. Eliot [1917]:  Prufrock and Other Observations.  From: Collected Poems 1909-1962. London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1963.   (Prelude I, page 23.)
Trumbull Stickney [1966]: The Poems of Trumbull Stickney. Selected and edited by Amberys R. Whittle.  New York, NY, USA:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. (Poem XXXI, page 174.)

Two Nations

Ian Jack, writing in the UK Guardian today, describes the southern bias of the British Conservative Party leadership, particularly when contrasted with the present British Labour Party Cabinet:

To historians, the interesting thing may be that for 13 years spanning the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries Britain was ruled by a party born inside and chiefly supported by the Northern Metaphor, whose second prime minister wore so many of its qualities. Look at the constituency names attached to the members of its cabinet: South Shields, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Blackburn, Normanton, Leigh, Pontefract, Edinburgh South West. Out of its 20 members elected to parliament, 13 have seats north of the Trent.
The shadow cabinet tells a different story: Arundel and South Downs, Chesham and Amersham, Surrey Heath, Beaconsfield, South Cambridgeshire, Chipping Barnet, Havant. Twenty of 28 members have seats in southern England. England north of Birmingham is represented by George Osborne (Hatton in Cheshire) and William Hague (Richmond, North Yorkshire).

Jack also quotes Australian journalist Donald Horne (Disclosure:  whom I once shared an evening in a bar with), writing in 1969 about Britain’s competing metaphors:

In the Northern Metaphor, Britain is “pragmatic, empirical, calculating, Puritan, bourgeois, enterprising, adventurous, scientific, serious, and believes in struggle”. In the Southern Metaphor, Britain is “romantic, illogical, muddled, divinely lucky, Anglican, aristocratic, traditional, frivolous, and believes in order and tradition”. The winner in this contest was decided at least a century ago when, in Horne’s words, Britons decided it wasn’t “for what they did but for what they were that destiny had rewarded them so lavishly”.

Congratulations, Bam!

Congratulations to President Barack Obama for the award of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace!
Former speechwriter to President Jimmie Carter, James Fallows, analyzes Bam’s speech yesterday here.   The Peace Prize is yet another commonality between US Presidents 44 and 26.
I am stunned that much of the commentariat seems to think Obama has not done anything to deserve this, as if ending the Bush-Cheney doctrine of global bullying was nothing at all.  Let us not forget that an unelected US Administration made, in August 2002, a decision to invade Iraq, which decision said administration and their allies refused for several months to provide the public with reasons for (a refusal which led the Australian Senate, for example, to pass its first-ever and so-far-only motion of censure against a sitting Prime Minister, and which led to the largest public demonstrations in Europe for four decades), and which decision was then justified to the public on grounds the justifiers appear to have known at the time to be misleading and possibly also false.  For 8 long years, the US Government was led by a secretive, macho, power-hungry, war-mongering, torture-mongering, jingoistic, neoconservative cabal, and as a consequence the peace and safety of all us around the world was lessened.   The prospects for global peace improved dramatically at 12 noon on 20 January 2009, immediately upon the removal of that cabal from office, a removal that was itself also a major achievement, and the Nobel Committee has recognized that real achievement for peace with this award.
Among the churlish commentary, I was most surprised by former Polish President Lech Walesa’s reaction, who apparently said, “So soon? Too early. He has no contribution so far.  He is still at an early stage.”   But the Nobel Prize for Peace is sometimes awarded to people or groups as a statement of solidarity by the Nobel Committee, and thus the world, for the person or cause receiving it.   Recent examples include a courageous national political leader under house arrest (Aung San Suu Kyi,  1991), a courageous dissident scientist also held under house arrest by his Government (Andrei Sakharov 1975), and the leader of an outlawed trade union, whose cause appeared at the time not only to have failed completely but to have been entirely counter-productive, leading as it did to martial law and more political repression in response than would otherwise have been the case (Lech Walesa, 1983).
Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan quotes an anonymous correspondent:

Remember how Obama should have stepped aside and let Hillary win the primaries? Remember how America wasn’t ready for a black President, of course, so why didn’t he just realize it and wait his turn? Remember last summer when the candidate went to Germany and gave speech before hundreds of thousands of adoring fans?  How arrogant.  Who does he think he is?  Only a president should do that.  He should have at least waited until he won. And then he did win.  And he took a world tour and gave a game changing speech in the Cairo.  Who did he think he was?  A rock star?  The arrogance and audacity – it’s breathtaking. If the man would just wait his turn, dammit.

The Zen of Sunday-painting

In his famous account of learning the piano as an adult, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger refers to a book by psychiatrist, Marion Milner, a pseudonym of Joanna Field.  Milner was the sister of Nobel-physicist Patrick Blackett, and great neice of Edmund Blackett, architect of colonial Sydney.   Her book is an account of her attempts to paint and draw, and to learn to paint and draw, as an amateur artist.  I am not enchanted by her artwork, and I find her Freudian accounts of artistic creativity and its barriers both implausible and untrue to life.   I believe Alfred Gell’s anthropological account of art to be far more compelling – that artworks are tokens or indexes of intentionality, perceived by their viewers or auditors as objects created with specific intentions by goal-directed entities (the artist, or a community, or some spiritual being).  These perceived intentions include much else beside the expression of feelings.
But Milner’s book is replete with some wonderful insights, many of which express a Zen sensibility.     Herewith a sample:
Continue reading ‘The Zen of Sunday-painting’

The websearch-industrial complex

I think it is now well-known that the creation of Internet was sponsored by the US Government, through its military research funding agencies, ARPA (later DARPA).   It is perhaps less well-known that Google arose from a $4.5 million research project sponsored also by the US Government, through the National Science Foundation.   Let no one say that the USA has an economic system involving “free” enterprise.

In the primordial ooze of Internet content several hundred million seconds ago (1993), fewer than 100 Web sites inhabited the planet. Early clans of information seekers hunted for data among the far larger populations of text-only Gopher sites and FTP file-sharing servers. This was the world in the years before Google.
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Public lectures

I expect that Bertrand Russell is the only person in history to have given public lectures to both TS Eliot (in lectures given at Harvard University) and Mao Tse-Tung (in a lecture series given in China).  With youtube and the web, we are in danger of forgetting how special an occasion a public speech can be.  And so I decided to list the people whose public lectures I have heard.  I’ve not included lecturers and teachers whose courses I attended, the most influential (upon me) I have previously listed here, nor talks given at conferences or in academic seminars.

Kenneth Arrow (2000), Michael Atiyah (2008, 2013), PK van der Byl (1985), James Callaghan (1980), Noam Chomsky (2003), Thomas Clayton (2012), David Coltart (2016), Joan Coxsedge (1979), Don Dunstan (1976), Steve Fuller (2008), Dov Gabbay (2012), Julia Gillard (2016), Joe Gqabi (1981),  Tim Harford (2011), Bob Hawke (1980), Xavier Herbert (1976), Anahid Kassabian (2009), Michael Kearns (2011), David Kilcullen (2013), Hans Kung (c. 1985), Kgosa Linchwe II Kgafela (1983), Bill Mansfield (1976-1980, several times), Robert May (2011, twice), Mobutu Sese Seko (1981, at gunpoint), Moshoeshoe II (1982), Robert Mugabe (1981-7, numerous times), Ralph Nader (c. 1977), Robert Oakeshott (c. 1985), Christos Papadimitriou (2009), Malcolm Rifkind (2016), Joseph Rotblat (2002), Rory Stewart (2009), Oliver Tambo (1987), Edgar Tekere (1981), Rene Thom (1979), John Tukey (c. 1979), Moshe Vardi (2010), Gough Whitlam (1975-8, several times), Gerry Wilkes (1975), Elizabeth II Windsor (1980), Andrew Young (1979) and Mick Young (1979).
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Terry Eagleton has been a strong defender of religious belief, religious practice, and theology against the attacks of the neo-classical atheists, as in this interview here.  I have a great deal of sympathy with Eagleton’s aims, but he seems confused about performative acts, actions which may or may not imply propositions, and, when they do, certainly rarely imply propositions reasonable people can agree on.   Normblog, here first and then here,  attacks Eagleton’s account of religious practice.  In his second post, Norm is responding to a post by Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling, a post which defends Eagleton by discussing tacit knowledge and coming-to-know-something-through-experiencing-it.
Continue reading ‘Know-all’

The Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge

From the 18th century until 1909, students at Cambridge University took a compulsory series of examinations, called the Mathematical Tripos, named after the three-legged stool that candidates originally sat on.  Until the mid-18th century, these examinations were conducted orally, and only became written examinations over faculty protests.   Apparently, not everyone believed that written examinations were the best or fairest way to test mathematical abilities, a view which would amaze many contemporary people – although oral examinations in mathematics are still commonly used in some countries with very strong mathematical traditions, such as Russia and the other states of the former USSR.
The Tripos became a notable annual public event in the 19th century, with The Times newspaper publishing articles and biographies before each examination on the leading candidates, and then, after each examination, the results.   There was considerable public interest in the event each year, not just in Cambridge or among mathematicians, and widespread betting on the outcomes.
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