''Writing is a process of discovery, not self-discovery,'' Robert Kelly told an afternoon seminar sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute. The poet, short-fiction writer, novelist and essayist read from his work on March 21, 1996, as part of the Institute's Visiting Writers Series.
Kelly was associated with the Black Mountain poets, including Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, and is credited as one of the founders of the ''Deep Image'' movement in poetry. He has published some 50 volumes of poems, including the 1980 Killing the Messenger Who Brings Bad News, which won the first Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Red Actions: Selected Poems 1960-1993, published in 1995. He has, additionally, produced a notable body of fiction, including the 1990 collection of short pieces, Cat Scratch Fever, which The New York Timesdescribed as "full of signs and wonders.''
Responding to questions in the seminar, Kelly resembled nothing so much as an jazz musician, going off on riffs, asides and improvisations, yet always finding the way home to the original theme. The hour-long afternoon meeting touched repeatedly on the theme of what Kelly called ''the quality of reverence,'' a fidelity towards one's own beliefs that he reckoned was ''the central fact of the human condition -- what one has to learn.''
Robert Kelly: It's absurd, you know, you can't have a Reverence 101 course, where would you put it? Would you put it in the library, would you put it in Religion -- where does reverence live? Reverence, it seems to me, lives in a person's own responsibility to his own feelings, her own feelings, in the world as the world strikes them. There is the place of reverence. Being reverent to one's own feelings starts the process of intuitive understanding of the world. I feel a certain way when I look at a certain person. It behooves me, then, not to do anything to the person, but to examine that interaction.
That's part of what I mean by reverence, paying strict attention to what's there and to how you feel about it. Language is a wonderful tool for that. All of art is. I'm conscious -- in this very angry time -- of the almost playfully quixotic impulsion of reverence as the central energy of all art. We live in a time in which the characteristic of art impulses is indignation, savage or otherwise, high minded or simply resentful, but indignation is what we like to write of. The word criticism, which used to mean perception or judgment, has come to take on quite a different meaning -- Don't be so critical, we say, when exactly what we would want each other to be is critical. We would like to learn the facts from other people, to bear the crisis of judgment, but in fact criticism, like almost everything else, has become aggressive and mean. You don't read the New York Review of Books to find out something about New York or about books; you read it to score off your enemies, rubbing your hands happily because of what X is saying about Y, and what he's saying about Y is what you really think about Z but hadn't had occasion to say it. In this era of angry indignation that has, in my perception, kind of replaced thought, and replaced the grand Whitmanic lunacies of my own childhood, in the '50s and '60s, when people rushed around supposing that the world was growing ever more coherent, or at least more interestingly incoherent, we now have a world which seems to me full of a lot of mean people. Yellow meanies, blue meanies, green meanies. The word don't, or Thou Shalt Not. The priests that Blake used to imagine as Christian priests have now been replaced by everyone -- everybody is a priest in the sense that we're all full of negations and thou shalt nots. Even I hear, in the back of my own voice, someone saying thou shalt not criticize so bleeping much, thou shalt leave the world alone a little bit and be nice to it. . . .
Language is such a strange thing because we share it, we all share it. Any gesture you make in it is manipulating stuff that you find. You're not going down to Utrecht and buying some paint that you put on a canvas; you're not welding steel together, you're using nothing that isn't there for everybody in the room. So your business is to so respond to the material you're working with, and so respond [to] the people you're stealing it or borrowing it from, that it isn't spoiled for them, it isn't wrecked for them, and you're giving them something back. And that is a tiny bit of what I mean by reverence. . . . I'm not terribly interested, as you probably know, in stories. I'm interested in what comes out of language, what that reverent interaction between my own feelings and the everything-else conditioned by language produces.
But I'm worried these days, about the meanies. I don't like mean people. I may have gotten soft. Or I may just be imaging that we're meaner than we used to be. But if we are meaner than we used to be, we ought to do something about it. Because, I think, in general, mean people make shitty art. . . . And the only thing we can do about it, as paradoxical as it sounds, is not be so angry at each other. So you say, I'm not going to hate anybody today, not even the man in front of me who drove 40 miles an hour for 15 miles when I was trying to get here.
But what about when language fails? a student asked, presenting to Kelly his personal quandary over cultural ambiguities such as the Unabomber's manifesto of anti-technology . The student noted that, while he did not agree with the bombers violent methods, he found himself ''having some appreciation of his ideas.''
''At the moment when thoughts about . . . what's happening to the quality of life in America focus on building a bomb and blowing someone you don't know up, something has happened to your reason,'' Kelly responded. "[And] there has to be something that focuses on that moment, that curious moment when a perfectly plausible line of reflection produces some nightmare as a consequence.
''Most of the horror of the 20th Century comes not from earthquakes and apparent demons,'' he continued, ''but from strange misapplications of logic from which the only thing that could protect us would be a kind of love or reverence. If you have a reverence toward complex living systems, for example, you would be unlikely to solve your problems by killing one, or blowing it up. . . . These moments are crises of the mind, and it seems to me we're having more and more of them, when right mind of attitude launches out into wrong mind of action.''
This line of thought came around to writing when Kelly proposed that that ''curious moment'' when good thought produces bad results is also,''the crisis of poetry'': ''The poem is something you enter, seeking the form of the poem that stands before you somewhere,'' he said. ''You move towards words , [but] have only an intuition of what they are.'' As an exercise for writers, Kelly presented the seminar with an experiment he had used with success.
Kelly: When the poet Shelley, back in the early 19th century, first saw the mountain of Mont Blanc (in France) . . . , he stood there on the bridge and composed a thought into notes, and later wrote down "Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni" a poem that runs five pages in print. I took this poem, which haunted me in one way or another, and I began to write into it. Shelley's poem begins this way:
The everlasting universe of things
The hand on my desk is my hand the everlasting
And so it goes. I have found a tremendous answer to the question of reverence, to the question of the complexity of the text, by this experiment. It's not something I've done before, and not something I've done since, but it still interests me, writing into another text, that is, preserving the text of the other and entering it with your own voice.
What happens to you -- in you -- if you take a text and begin to write into it? Take it as simply a fact of language in which you can speak, just as, when you're a child, you have to learn to find your own way in a conversation. Imagine the text as a conversation, already there, into which you must speak, in which you can speak. This mode of writing was, for me, an investigation of the subject of permissions. . . . Issues of authorship, ownership, identity all came up -- very interesting things for me -- but essentially it's that, the minute you're working with another text, even when you're doing something which seems to annihilate it -- and mine annihilates the Shelley poem in some way, because you no longer hear it as a Shelley poem after I've gotten done with it, you hear it as a Kelly poem instead -- that represents the nature of our ordinary engagement with language: the dictionary. I'm endlessly boring people by observing that all poems are written with words that are in the dictionary -- that all they're doing is rearranging the dictionary. The minute we start thinking of ourselves as no more exalted than that, the better. But we're doing it with an energy and a magical clarity and a luminosity and a good will that changes what we do. Without the good will, I think it's just acrostics, crossword puzzles.
I propose to you all, as an experiment, to write into somebody's text. Don't take out any of his words, just add yours. You will not make it less his or less hers, because that's still sitting there. Shelley's "Mont Blanc" goes on serene, sitting over those countries of Europe, the one thing that isn't under the smog, and there you see it. Nothing's going to happen to it, that's the beauty of it. So I urge that on you very keenly, take a text of somebody else's and make it your own by writing into it.
Timothy Cahill writes for the Times Union newspaper in Albany and is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.
Anne Waldman: A Profile
In the history of modern performance poetry, Anne Waldman's contributions would fill the introduction and at least the first three chapters.
Thirty years ago, Waldman began arranging poetry readings in Manhattan at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. Over the next dozen years, she brought hundreds and hundreds of poets from all over the world to New York to read and perform at the church."Ms. Waldman... presided over the St. Mark's scene as some combination of oracle, siren and den mother," The New York Times noted in 1993. Besides feeding and promoting the public's growing appetite for poetry, the St. Mark's program also served as an important historical bridge between the New York beat poetry scene of the 1950s and movements that followed. Among Waldman's regular early readers at St. Mark's were beat poets Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. But 70's punk poets Patti Smith and Lou Reed have also read, as have members of the new generation of poets writing in what the Times calls "punk-intensive, form-splattering verbal styles."
The St. Mark's program went far to help revive the notion that poetry is an oral--and a public--art. To be fully appreciated, a poem must lift off the page and enter the public arena as theatrical event and/or public ritual.
"Of all the poets of my generation, none has done more than Anne Waldman to bring poetry before the public at large," concluded poet Aram Saroyan, writing of Waldman and her poetry in The New York Times in 1976.
At the same time she was promoting the work of other poets, Waldman herself emerged in the 1970s as a reader-performer of her own poetry. She quickly gained a reputation for wildly spirited readings.
"Waldman's poems are a kind of high-energy shorthand, elliptical brain-movies of her life and times," Saroyan noted. Speaking of her performance piece "Fast-Speaking Woman," Saroyan said that Waldman's hypnotically repetitive chants "bring to mind tribal shaman ceremonies."
Over the years, Waldman has worked her magic on audiences throughout the United States and around the world, giving poetry readings in Germany, England, Italy, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, The Netherlands, Bali, India, Nicaragua and Canada. She has frequently appeared with Allen Ginsberg and has read with Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, William Burroughs, Kenneth Koch and Clark Coolidge, among other poets. Waldman has also worked and performed with a number of well-known musicians, composers and dancers. More recently, she has collaborated with many visual artists.
In 1978, when Waldman left her position as director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's, she joined forces with Allen Ginsberg to found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. She now directs the MFA writing and poetics program there.
Her list of publications is voluminous. She has written more than 42 books, most recently Kill or Cure (Penguin Poets) and her book-length poem, Iovis (Coffee House Press). She is now working on Book II of Iovis.
With the publication of Iovis, Waldman has been acknowledged as a major--and a mature--voice in American poetry. In the 336-page epic, Waldman delves deeply into the masculine soul and its sources of energy. Her goal: to speak against, about, around and through the all-pervasive forces of Western patriarchy and its many manifestations. Waldman invokes a myriad of male voices in the poem, including those of her grandfather, her son, and male deities from other cultures. Throughout the poem, Waldman is trying to come to terms with her own male energy and impulses.
"There are many references to war and weaponry in the poem's weave," Waldman noted in an interview last year. "The act of the poem helped me make sense of--or clarify--my own outrage at aggression or my own aggression. Everything happening seemed to be grist for the poem."
In part to demonstrate the all-pervasive force of patriarchy worldwide, Waldman includes numerous languages in the poem. Besides English, she writes in Greek, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Balinese, Indonesian, Mayan, Czech, Sanskrit and Gaelic.
"I wish there were even more languages in it," Waldman says. "I have them in my ear when I'm traveling... when I travel in Germany, there are these sounds that I don't understand, but there's a deep male gruffness and intellectual superiority that I want to capture, and maybe in the next book I'll play with that a little more, have longer text in some other languages. I'm working on a section in Iovis II called 'Lacrimare, Lacrimatus' with Latin phrases."
In the end, Waldman takes an antagonistic position toward the male energy she explores in Iovis. But that antagonism is complex, noted a Gary Allen in The Bloomsbury Review. Waldman's take on feminism avoids a simple "good girl/bad guy" point of view. Hers, instead, is a many-layered "tantric approach derived from the poet's Buddhist perspectives," said Allen. "Rather than reject the [male] energy out of hand, one invites it in and experiences it in as undiluted a fashion as possible, desiring thereby to liberate it from the artificial constructs placed on it by egotism.
"Her strategy, instead of seeking to empower the female side by dwelling on women or calling down goddesses, is to explore the masculine in every conceivable manifestation, piling up innumerable correspondences and oblique angles into a large, male energy mandala which the poet then inhabits, struggles with, surrenders to, etc."
She has, in Iovis, managed to produce, according to The New York Times, "an engrossing poem in which ideological axes do not grind in the background. She's the fastest, wisest woman to run with the wolves in some time."
In earlier work, Waldman explores the joys of motherhood. Her "First Baby Poems" include a brisk "Number Song," a play on the numbers game that generates and accompanies the procreative act:
I've multiplied, I'm 2.
Reaching into the voice of an infant, Waldman attempts to record in "Baby's Pantoum" the kind of moment-by-moment, "always changing" consciousness that closely observes the small detail of life:I lie in my crib midday this is
unusual I don't sleep really
Mamma's sweeping or else boiling water for tea
Other Sounds are creak of chair & floor, water
dripping on heater from laundry, cat licking itself
In her newest long poem, Iovis II, Waldman says she is continuing the exploration she began in Iovis. Now, however, she has shifted gears; that is, she is writing to explore not male, but female energy. In so doing, the widest possible set of themes has opened up for her, all of which center on the confusion of roles that confront a woman poet in the final years of the twentieth century.
"The opening section is entitled 'So Help Me Sappho,"' Waldman says. "[It is] an invocation of sorts. There's absolute chaos in my own mind, much of the time, and I continue to write this poem to make sense of the chaos, without achieving any particular goal. The chaos of patriarchy, of being daughter, mother, lover, rainbow-skinned Tantric deity, of being passionately in love with the dazzling violent phones and phonemes of, speech, of mind into language, which is why the poem is in the shape of a spiral."
Waldman’s goal for her poetry is simple, and yet anything but simple to achieve. She says, in effect, that what she is attempting to do on the page is to give readers not "a refined gist" or "an extrapolation" of feeling, thought and emotion, but an actual "experience" of "a high moment." In effect, Waldman is attempting to bring to poetry on the page the same kind of immediacy and sense of immersion that she brings to her poetry, in public performance.
"I want [my poetry] to be the experience... a sustained experience, a voyage, a magnificent dream, something that would take you in myriad directions simultaneously, and you could draw on all of these other voices and you could pay homage to ancestors and other languages--a poem that would include everything and yet dwell in the interstices of imagination and action."
The Panda's Thumb. Hen's Teeth and Horse’s Toes. The Flamingo's Smile. Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle. An Urchin in the Storm. Dinosaur in A Haystack.
Stephen Jay Gould brings his lively book titles, his formidable accomplishments, and his attitude, called "one part Harvard intellectual, nine parts curious little boy," to the New York State Writers Institute Thursday, December 5.
He will read and talk about his work at 4 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the uptown campus in a program co-sponsored by the Guilderland Central School District Goals 2000. Since 1974 Gould has written a monthly column, A View of Life, for Natural History magazine, and the evolution of this evolutionary biologist can be studied in part from the author photos that grace the frequent collections of these columns and other essays.
For example, The Panda' s Thumb, published in 1980 when Gould was 39,shows us scientist-still-as-graduate student, grinning brashly straight out of the 1970s, his plump, intelligent face framed and accented by hair--pounds of it, thick and wavy at the top, a mustache over full lips and a biblical fringe around the cheeks and chin.
Not incidentally, this book is dedicated as follows:
Ester L. Ponti
Rene C. Stack,
Three dedicated and compassionate teachers of my primary years,
P.S. 26, Queens
A teacher...can never tell where his influence stops.
By The Flamingo’s Smile (1985), Gould has shaved his beard and kept the mustache. The confidence remains too, though his face has thinned and lengthened. The book isFor Deb
In 1965, Gould had married Deborah Lee, an artist and writer; 1985 was their 20th anniversary. They have two children, Jesse and Ethan.
For An Urchin in the Storm, a collection of book criticism written for the New York Review of Books, Gould rates a caricature by David Levine. The drawing emphasizes hair still, like a huge ocean wave breaking over his head, along with a broad nose and the mustache.
The book is dedicated "to my two favorite British intellectuals--Arab and Jew by origin... Peter Medawar ... Isaiah Berlin...in appreciation for their inspiration but, above all, for their kindness," Dinosaur in a Haystack was the first of two books Gold published in the last year. Fifty-five now, his face is rounding again but little worse for the wear. His hair is gray, looks every bit as thick as ever, and he has found a very good barber, who keeps it tamed.
The dedication reads as follows
For my only brother, Peter (1944-1994)
Education, life, love, life, intellect, life and loss. All these are found in Gould's 230-and-counting-essays, collected in seven volumes over the years.
These are not personal essays as such. Gould is present in them--annoyed because he has to be: in New York City during, a rare solar eclipse, he orders his Harvard students to see it from the best vantage point in New England, then keeps his appointment in the city, only to have a wonderful time watching the eclipse with the rest of midtown Manhattan.
But this information is just a glimpse into the life, an aside in "Happy Thoughts on A Sunny Day in New York City", which starts with Gallileo and ends with St. Francis of Assissi; touches on city attitudes and safety in watching eclipses; and is really about the sun.
These days Gould’s CV runs six and a half pages. It includes no fewer than 40 honorary degrees in the last 13 years, implying an unbearable number of college graduations attended at least 14 literary awards, including a National Book Award (1981, Panda’s Thumb) and a National Book Critics Circle Award (1982, The Mismeasure of Man); 39 academic medals and awards in geology, zoology and biology; and a MacArthur "genius" fellowship (1991-1986), given in the first round of those prestigious awards.
The bases for all these salutes are the writing, known for "making the excitement of science accessible to the general reader," and the teaching. Completing his Columbia University Ph.D. in 1967, (Gould went straight off to Harvard and never left. Currently (since 1982) he is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, dividing his time between Cambridge, MA and New York City.
In an interview with Contemporary Authors a few years ago, Gould described his writing as intuitive. "I was never trained in writing. And I'm not nearly so well-read as some people might think ... I just have the ability not to forget what I've read."
Asked to rate, the U.S. on scientific literacy, Gould said, "It may be true that formal academic knowledge of science isn't high, but there's a lot in popular culture that really is a form of science that many people understand very well.
"Seventy million people every year, go to the horse races," he noted, "You’ve got a hundred million poker players. There's a lot of very sophisticated knowledge on the nature of probability. Sure, a lot of people bet on a horse because it has the same name as their granddaughter, but a lot of people who bet are really quite sophisticated. There's a large knowledge of probability out there that we generally don't call science. That's one of the most important of all subjects.
"Take the amateur telescope makers," he continued, "the collecting of tropical fish in blue-collar communities, dog fancying--that's all part of science.
“There’s so much. I'm not happy with the general knowledge of science," he concluded, "but I don't think it's nearly so abysmal as the doomsayers would have it."
Asked to comment on genetic engineering and whether he thought it had legitimate uses, Gould said, "Of course. You don't throw out the printing press because it once printed Mein Kampf. There are enormously beneficial medical and agricultural uses that are potential and even actual, and there are other things like cloning, that you would not want to do.
"All technology has power, and power can be used in good and bad ways. It has to be scrutinized, " he said, "but your don't turn off the power because of its potential misuse."
After a couple hundred columns, was he finding new topics harder- to come up with?
"Oh no," said Gould. "Knowledge in science is so close to the starting line relative to what there is to know, there' s no prospect that in the limited course of a human life you could ever get anywhere close to satisfactory knowledge about any large issue."
Reviewing Dinosaur in A Haystack for The New York Times Book Review in January of this year, essayist Philip Lopate noted, "Nature may be infinite, but all machines wear down eventually. Mr. Gould warns in his preface that there will be only two more essay collections after Dinosaur in A Haystack, since he is giving up his Natural History column at the start of the new millennium, January 2001. Speaking of--which, Gould settles the hash of exactly when the new miIlennium begins in an essay in Dinosaur, basing his conclusion on science, history and The Farmer's Almanac.
"You don't have to care going in to a Gould essay," promises the Washington Post Book World, "you’ll care going out."
In April, 1991 the Writers Institute held a symposium on many areas of non-fiction writing entitled "Telling the Truth." Among the areas, science writing was covered in a panel called "Words on Things." The panelists included Tim Ferris, Richard Rhodes, Bill McKibben, Stephen Jay Gould, and was moderated by James Gleick. What follows here is a transcript of the first half of the panel's discussion. The second half will appear in the next issue of Writers Online.
GLEICK: It used to be said of Richard Feynman, the physicist whose biography I’m writing, that his lectures had a kind of Chinese dinner quality, that they would fill the audience with a feeling of nourishment and comprehension and then an hour later they would realize they knew absolutely nothing. Does the best writing about science perpetrate that particular kind of fraud? When you finish reading a semi-technical passage by Stephen Jay Gould on paleontology, or Bill McKibben on climatology, or Richard Rhodes on nuclear physics or Timothy Ferris on cosmology and you sigh with satisfaction, are you kidding yourself? Have you been given a false feeling of comprehension? Is there something inherent in this genre that is if not false, at least compromised?
FERRIS: I do disagree with the premise of that idea, the premise being as I understand it, that there is some kernel or some location to which one can hope to gain access, from which perspective one then actually understands the issue. That’s not the case. What I think a lot of science writers try to do is to remind the reader that this isn’t the case. There isn’t some sort of a pinnacle which if you work hard enough and get there enables you then to have grasped the essence of this subject, at least not in most of the areas of science that I have any familiarity with. On a philosophical basis, even though there’s been a lot of nonsense written about quantum observership and the fact that in quantum theory there’s been an overthrow of the idea that there’s an ultimate reality, that really is what quantum theory teaches. When you strip away all the misconceptions there really is something quite astonishing there, and it’s not something that we didn’t know before in other ways. But it is interesting to see it confirmed, and that is that there are different realities depending upon who and how, who does the observation and how it’s conducted. So, one ought not to give the impression in a piece of science writing or anything else that yes, you’ve grasped this ultimate reality, because it wasn’t there to grasp in the first place. If you write a piece of science writing that says science has now gotten to this essence, you have violated the spirit of science. What you’ve written is really an Aristotelian treatise that says there is such a thing as an essence to this pencil. But there isn’t any essential pencil, and therefore if you get the sense that you’ve grasped it, it’s an illusion.
However, what I think is a deliberately provocative point that Jim has raised is that after all this is just a small activity that’s conducted by a handful of writers, and we write about what interests us and we hope the reader gets something out of that. I don’t think many readers think that what they’re getting out of it is a comprehension of the science. I don’t think I have comprehension about the science that I’m writing, and I often go back — one of the nice things about having written a book, you know, is that it’s on the shelf and you can go open it up and look things up in it that you didn’t know. I do that all the time.
Let me just tell you one story to illustrate this, to show the backscattering influence that we have on the scientists once we write a story. In my first book I had a narrative scene, the discovery of what’s called the Red Shift of Quasars which was the discovery that these quasars are actually the farthest things anyone has ever seen, billions of light years away, and therefore represent a view of the universe a long time ago. This was discovered by a man named Maarten Schmidt in 1965. He was sitting at his desk at Cal Tech and he had a cold, and he was writing what he called a complaining little note to the astrophysical journal saying, I have this result and once again I’ve gone up to the mountain and made another quasar observation and it still makes no sense to anyone, and he was looking at the spectrum and it suddenly made sense. It was just one of those moments and he said, Oh my God, it’s a red shift, it indicates distance, it’s just that it’s more distance than anyone ever saw in an observation, that’s why no one saw this. Jesse Greenstein, the chairman of the department, was walking by and Maarten called him and said, Look, this thing is four billion light years away, and they had a dialogue. Well, for better or worse, for dramatic affect, I wanted to reproduce that dialogue. I talked to the two men who were in the room and they sort of came up with the same dialogue. So I put it in quotes, because it was pretty much word for word the same that they both agreed. As years went by, I began to worry about this quote because another account was written and they remembered the quotation slightly differently soon after I had talked to them. I began to feel I ought to take it out, and I think in a subsequent edition of the book I actually took the quote out. Then a new book appeared and one of them gave exactly the same account, a fresh interview, of the dialogue, just word for word the way I had it. And I thought, Gee maybe I had it right in the first place. So I ran into him and asked him about it and he said, Oh I got that out of The Red Limit. I don’t remember it myself but I assumed it was an accurate account of what we’d said.
GLEICK: Stephen, you’ve certainly been on both sides of this. You’ve been both glorified and victimized by science writers, and you’ve done your share of glorifying and victimizing. In Wonderful Life you said that you hoped the book would be read both in graduate seminars and on airplanes, something I think everybody on this panel hopes will be true of their books. But is it really possible? Certainly you write two very different kinds of books. In your more “popular,” books you leave out certain details, you change the language to some extent. Assuming you would agree with that characterization, why shouldn’t readers feel there’s been at least some act of compromise?
GOULD: There are differences in compromise. The problem with separate but equal as a doctrine is that in Plessy v. Ferguson it could never actually apply to its actual subject because of the history of racism in America but as a logical notion, it’s not necessarily wrong, nor do I actually think that popular and technical writing are that separate but that they can be equal in terms of the insight that they provide. Yes, I believe that firmly. I think the whole history of writing about science shows it. Galileo wrote two great books and they are dialogues written in Italian rather than Latin. Those were the books that changed the world. Perhaps there wasn’t an audience for more technical literature. Isaac Newton wrote a work that was much more difficult to read and in Latin, but I don’t know that you’d want to measure them off against each other. The idea of no compromise when you write for a popular audience is that you don’t dilute the conceptual content of material, but I don’t know that unless there’s a whole conceptual realm I don’t grasp and there may be. I’ve never thought that the conceptual realm, though it’s very deep in engaging issues that are of utmost importance to us. But it’s not so deep as to be incomprehensible. The problem is that we tend to think that what we haven’t engaged when it comes down to us through social reputation as important is too arcane for our comprehension. That’s the basic modesty of the art.
I remember I felt that about Freud because I’d never read Freud. I thought that it just must be too complicated for me. And then I actually read Freud. He’s a wonderful writer, and although I thought there was a lot to be annoyed and it was very rich, I don’t know that I was incapable of grasping the basic theory. I don’t even think it was that inordinately complex, although the arguments about it are and the justifications are. I feel the same way about most of science. Much of the language is justification, particularly if it’s mathematics. But I don’t know that the deepest conceptual issues are at all unapproachable, especially with respect to the history of life, although academicians, for a couple of reasons, may make it seem so: they’re self-selected in general not to pay a lot of attention to writing or to be good at it, and they fall into the habits of using the jargon of a profession without even realizing that it’s incomprehensible to others because most of what they are writing isn’t going to be read by others anyway. But that doesn’t mean that the conceptual material is necessarily dense or difficult. Now, I wouldn’t want to say that I could write about absolutely every single subject at the level of conceptual depth required for popular presentation. I chose not to make those compromises. But, as an essayist I have the freedom not to write about those subjects. And there are a series of subjects, mostly statistical and mathematical, that I haven’t much addressed in my work because I don’t know a way to do that in language that is successful, primarily because the justification is mathematical and I’ve never figured out a way to write about it.
The bit of popular writing I’ve done that I actually take most pride in will surprise some people, but it’s the chapter on factor analysis in The Mismeasure of Man because that is a difficult mathematical technique and yet without it you cannot understand the history of the IQ literature or the intelligence testing literature which has two threads, one is IQ testing, the direct measurement of quantified entities, and the other is the study of correlations between performance on different tests. The study of IQ is easy to express. It’s just numbers and means and averages. The study of correlations is factor analysis and that’s arcane. The only reason I wrote The Mismeasure of Man is that I figured out a way to do it geometrically rather than algebraically. Once you had a geometric or pictorial representation it could be done, and I think the greatest pride I have in any writing I’ve ever done is that I’ve had statisticians write to me and say they liked that. That worked. For the first time made factor analysis comprehensible. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to say you can always do it. But there is that difference between conceptual richness and mode of justification. I think most of what, at least my kind of science, which admittedly is more narrative and historical descriptive, really can be expressed in all its conceptual richness is writing that is accessible to non-professionals. And therefore, yes, I think I do mean that I want it to be used both in graduate seminars and read on the businessman’s special to Tokyo.
McKIBBEN: Although “Words on Things” is a broad enough topic to take in almost everything, in some ways it’s a kind of fraud, in this regard: I spend an awful lot of time writing about feelings and attitudes and history and culture. In some ways, this is dependent on what it is that you’re writing about. There are some things that are very, very difficult to write about. I have no particular interest at all in the fundamental science that underlies the greenhouse effect, in knowing how people know what the rotational spectra of CO2 is and why precisely it traps heat close to the planet or whatever. But the part that needs to be gotten across is not particularly complicated at all, and I think, happily, luckily, it is well within the grasp of almost everyone, which doesn’t mean that you can just write it and it will have an effect. That’s why I think that it’s important also to write about the sort of feelings and attitudes and kind of information engendered. But the science itself is, in my case, quite luckily, not particularly forbidding.
GLEICK: It may not seem forbidding and yet it’s within the technical community that you’ve had to deal with, it’s intensely controversial, and judgments are made and profound decisions of public policy have to be based on these technical judgments that only a specialized community has been given the authority in our society to decide. You as an outsider have to make some judgment of your own about them.
McKIBBEN: Right, and to some degree, and when I write I make no attempt to cast myself as someone who’s done new research that elucidates which one of the various views is correct. The skills that I have are the skills of a reporter, in trying to figure out by talking to as many people and reading as widely as possible what the consensus are and what the challenges to those are and to express them as best I can.
RHODES: The question originally had to do with the Chinese dinner syndrome. I think that one way to approach the question is to talk about which restaurant we’re in. J. Anthony Lukas has raised the question of this word nonfiction to try to describe the sort of books that many of us write. I had a conversation along similar lines last week with the publisher Michael Bessie. He said it had always been difficult to publish this kind of work. He said, “John Hersey and I used to talk about this and finally decided that we should call it story,” and story is a nice word but it’s already taken. Story is a part of fiction as well as this thing we do. For a number of years I have thought of what I do in terms of the word narrative, but narrative is also taken. Certainly there is fictional narrative as well as this other kind of narrative, and now I understand that there is simple narrative as well as presumably compound narrative. Going back to Connecticut on the train the word suddenly came to me and I’d like to propose it to all of us and to all of you as a possible new coinage that we might all use for what we do. That word is verity, v-e-r-i-t-y, derived from the Latin for truth, but I wouldn’t want to imply in this more specialized coinage that the word meant that we wrote the truth and fiction writers don’t. I think it’s verity that is or ought to be under discussion here and not journalism.
GLEICK: Do intellectual historians in the areas of science and science writers see news that the scientists don’t consider news? Or is this a case where science genuinely has a claim to a kind of truth that is more empirical than historians usually like to acknowledge?
GOULD: I come at this from someone who is a practicing scientist and I would say two things. First of all, the claim made about empirical truth, though grossly exaggerated and self-serving, has a certain anchor and validity. There is an external world out there, however hard it is to know, and in some enormously fitful and tentative way we get a little closer to it. Secondly, I happen to come from a profession, paleontology, that has a very rich amateur tradition and which still respects the general principle that if you want to go anywhere and collect fossils, the person you have to link up with is the amateur who is almost always not an academic paleontologist in any sense. People who really know where the fossils are and how to collect them are almost always amateurs. That may be unusual among the professions. Many advances and insights have come from people who aren’t credentialed.
However, I think it is important—and that’s why I emphasis it in my writing—always to debunk that part of the claim that is exaggerated, namely, the notion that science is a thing apart; that science is that enterprise which clears the mind of all the prejudices and superstitions of culture and has developed a method called the scientific method that when properly applied leads on necessarily to truth. Until you debunk it people will forever think that science is inaccessible to them, and that’s why I like to write about the history of science and its necessary social indebtedness but also to point out it’s not a bad thing because just as often as not the social indebtedness can end up encouraging a more adequate approach to data. It’s an old story by now, but Darwin did develop the principle of natural selection by transporting the style of arguing about Adam Smith’s economics into nature, not primarily from looking at tortoises on the Galapagos. So the content of social indebtedness can be salutary as well.
RHODES: I would like to say a few words about some of the qualities of science that do, I think, commend it to the attention of non-scientific readers and the violation of which does raise some of the kinds of problems that James Gleick is talking about.
One of those is the question of verticality. If science is presented as simply one more authoritarian system in which the experts will tell you how things are and you will try your best to understand them, then I think the spirit of science is violated in the piece of writing that presents that. In television, you often get a big corporate-sponsored TV show that has a corporate look to it and its whole tone is, There is this absolute knowledge which we’re now going to present a little bit of it to you in the hopes that you poor soul will be able to understand this simplified version. But science as practiced really is an egalitarian function in which the authority really doesn’t count ultimately, though it’s true that in any area one relies on authority to some degree. There’s that wonderful story that Murray Gell-Man tells in Jim Gleick’s book, about being at his first seminar when he was thinking of going into physics, and all the Nobel Laureates were sitting down in front and one of them was giving a talk. Early in the talk he mentioned that the spin of a certain particle was such and such and a guy in the back stood up and said, Excuse me, no it’s two, and he didn’t even talk, in the way Gell-Man tells the story, very grammatically and he had a seat far from the honorific seats in the front. But he had measured the spin of this particle correctly which no one previously had done. He’d done it in the basement just a few days before. And that was the end of that. The rest of the talk might as well not have taken place. Well, that story sounds a bit apocryphal and it may be, but the spirit of it is correct, that science is more horizontal. To reflect science correctly you need to convey that part of it.
GLEICK: Scientists do tell stories and they use stories as we all do. It’s certainly well known and it’s been said already here that we use stories as a way of organizing our understanding of the things we are interested in. I’ve found that scientists do this in a very special way. I was sitting in a Harvard physicist’s office a couple of weeks ago sort of waiting to interview him and while I was sitting there he was conducting some business with a graduate student that involved the deciphering of some equations. They went through this on the blackboard and a part of the process, a secondary part of it, but it seemed to me an essential part of it, was a kind of story that went with it. It happened that it was some equations that Feynman had developed and this physicist was saying, Now, Feynman was thinking about this and such and such a problem was on the table and he could have tried to do it this way but because he was such a wild and crazy guy, he did it this way. And a few minutes later, this very smart physicist admitted that this was made up after the fact, that actually he had never talked to Feynman about what was in his mind, that there was an act of construction afterward that tried to attach a retrospective logic about the work itself to a sort of general knowledge of how scientists work. I think everyone here who has explored the history of science has discovered the degree to which the field is filled with little myths of this kind and in some cases I think larger myths. They are not always so easy to parse out.
RHODES: I like Jim’s suggestion that science is also a storytelling process in a very specific way. I had a problem in trying to write the history or the physics that lead up to the development of the discovery of nuclear fission, a problem in trying to figure out how to make it accessible, first of all to myself because I’m not a physicist, but beyond that to non-scientific readers like myself. I struggled with that quite a bit and I looked at a number of other writers, scientists in particular who have tried to do this, George Gamov most of all because he had such a very successful series of books over a number of years. Gamov’s approach was to shrink his little man into the size of a nucleus and have him walk around. His approach was to describe certain physical phenomenon within the nucleus, like a watermelon, although that turns out to be closer to the way some physicists worked, at least early in the century, than I realized at the time. There was for a while something called the plum pudding model of the nucleus, a British version of the watermelon presumably. I had one course in physics in college and it was what should have been called Physics for Poets. I took it because the instructor did all the experiments and we just watched. This seemed to me to be the right approach to studying physics. But in the course of that year of studying a little bit about physics, I read a book by the Harvard physicist, Percy Bridgman who devised something that he called the operational definition as a philosophic way to try to make rigorous the descriptive effects of an experimental paper. What he said essentially was that you should describe how you did an experiment not in more abstract terms, not, let’s say mass, but if you take this object and put it next to that object they show a certain attraction to each other, or they move together. That’s an operational sort of definition. I looked over the classic and important experiments in the history of physics leading up to nuclear fission and realized that if I could just narrate, tell the story of how the experiment was done, that its results would be clear because you and I would then be in that laboratory, moving these brass boxes around, evacuating the air from the that tube, putting this little radioactive source here, putting this screen over here, reading the results on the meter, and we would have an emotional and existential and operational participation in the process. In a way I guess I was doing a little piece of verity criticism, parallel to literary criticism of an experiment. And I think that for some readers, at least to the extent that I was successful, that process worked. What I didn’t really understand until just know is that I was turning experiments back into what they really are, which is stories.
The deeper point perhaps concerns the question of point of view. One thinks of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle and the problem of the observer somehow affecting the outcome of the experiment. That’s a point of view issue, as a novelist might say. Behind this there’s another point about science as a truth-giving process. I think I’d like to say generically that the whole function of the imagination since the beginning of human time has been in some sense the alleviation of pain. Science has such weight and importance to us all in the 20th Century because it has managed to alleviate various kinds of pain while indeed causing others that are perhaps almost equally severe. That’s the nature of nature, if you will. It’s a belief system. The question is why do we believe it. We believe it because it has results. We believe it because, however abstract, it seems to have some very profound connections with our normal reality. Niels Bohr used to suggest that science was kind of a heightened and specialized and precisely, more precisely focused version of some very ordinary, everyday things that we all do. So to wield this back around to my point about experimental papers, experiments and story, there’s a very profound sense that you can tell about science and you can tell about it in a way that makes sense because it is ultimately a kind of story.
FERRIS: Apropos of what Dick was saying I just want to interject that one big distortion I think we do make in recounting science is that we tell about the experiments that in the story have terrific endings, for some reason. Most of them of course don’t, and you can’t fill a book with the stories of all the experiments that didn’t go anywhere. I mean you could fill a book with them.
GOULD: Those aren’t even bad experiments. Most of history is boring most of the time, and if you make a decision to tell the narration that becomes a special kind of history. I don’t blame historians for doing it. If you told what everybody eats for breakfast everyday it would get dull. Most of science most of the time involves things that don’t work and don’t go anywhere.
RHODES: Some physicist said may years ago that science necessarily proceeds very slowly because it’s paced by the level of human intelligence.
GOULD: That’s a good way of putting it.
FERRIS: A lot of it is not covered at any given time for that reason.
The second half of the "Words on Things" panel discussion will appear in the next issue of Writers Online Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 3.
Edited by William Rainbolt, novelist and lecturer in journalism in the English Department, University at Albany; and Donald Faulkner, Associate Director of the NYS Writers Institute and professor in the English Department, University at Albany.
Sometimes, especially for new writers, understanding how a book gets published is about as mysterious a process as the decoding of the Rosetta stone. How do those pristine pages, which the writer has crafted with infinite care, make their way through the tangle of agents, editors, marketing directors, and publicists to the bookstore, and, finally, into the reader's hands?
In an effort to justify the "business" of writing, The Writers Institute has assembled seven of the most qualified individuals in the publishing industry to talk about their work and answer questions from the audience. The panel will, in turn, speak about the stages of the publishing process in which they are directly involved, and then follow a hypothetical manuscript from page to finished book.
The panel, moderated by the Institute’s Associate Director, Donald W. Faulkner, will include, in the order of their presentations:
This stellar round table, which will be of interest to both the general reader and the experienced writer will be held by The Writers Institute on November 21, 1996 at 8:00 p.m.. at Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue, in Albany, New York. Since the panelists will be speaking about their work rather than practicing it, audience members are discouraged from trying to press manuscripts into the hands of the visitors.
William Kennedy: Albany's Poet
Through six novels of his "Albany Cycle," two books of nonfiction prose and a powerful play, William Kennedy has become something more than a community fixture of the Capital Region, he has become its spirit guide. In two new works about to emerge, the novel, The Flaming Corsage, to be released at the end of April from Kennedy's publisher, Viking, and the play Grand View, given its premiere by the Capital Repertory Company in May, Kennedy only adds to the legend which has grown around him.
When, as rarely happens, a writer and a place merge, mesh, and acquire synergy, making something in the combination that hasn't been seen before, both readers and critics take note. When that blend becomes so dynamic that both literature and the space of people's lives are affected, something wonderful begins to happen: people, as one writer put it, "recognize a sense of community and of common destinies on a deeper level than that of practical affairs."
At its best, that's what American literature is about: in stories and novels from Hawthorne and Melville to Hemingway and William Faulkner, and in drama from Eugene O'Neill to Lillian Hellman to August Wilson, the greatest American writers write of what they know, their home spaces, and in so doing make them real, pungent, palpable, and accessible on the stage of life.
William Kennedy, a steadfast member of the community of Albany and the Capital District, not to mention a shaper of its self-understanding, has become both an actor and a voice on the ground it offers. Dead soil to most, or at least rocky and infertile. But what Kennedy has done has brought this landscape into blossom, flower and fruit. The literary map is incomplete without Albany wedged in among James Fenimore Cooper's upstate frontiers, Robert Frost's Vermont, and Herman Melville's, Henry James's, and Edith Wharton's Berkshires.
Both The Flaming Corsage and Grand View enhance that connection. The Flaming Corsage, which along with Quinn's Book and Very Old Bones, completes the second trilogy in the Albany Cycle (the first is comprised of Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ironweed), offers us a turn-of-the-century playwright, Edward Daugherty, whose ambition comes to naught.
"Wounded by history, branded by ancestry" as one reviewer aptly put it, Edward gamely attempts to make art out of life.
Along with Edward are his wife, Katrina, worn to melancholy by an unhappy life; the talented, self-destructive Thomas Maginn, a journalist who becomes at once Edward's alter ego and nemesis; and Melissa Spencer, "a gifted conscienceless actress who becomes Daughery's lover and sets in motion a murder/suicide that comes close to destroying Daughtery." Another writer, for Kirkus Reviews, neatly summarized the rather complex issues of The Flaming Corsage. As the reviewer put it, "The long struggle of Albany's Irish population to seize power from the governing elite is never far from the action: Daugherty, given a start in life by a wealthy benefactor, uses his plays to celebrate the resiliency of the Irish and lampoon the Dutch and English who rule the town." But it is the combined struggle of Edward and Katrina that drives the plot, through deaths, betrayals, and deceits.
There are some fascinating self-contained set pieces in the novel, notably the youthful Edward's musing on the suppression of the Irish, a new years hotel conflagration, and Katrina's comical effort to get materials assembled for administering last rites. This last segment alone is worthy of Joyce's Dubliners, or the "Spotted Horses" section of William Faulkner's The Hamlet. But what's most compelling about Kennedy's effort is his ability to present a huge novel, which covers decades and generations, in barely over two hundred pages. He does this by telling the story in non-linear fashion. The reader fills in the gaps of time following Kennedy's strategic foreshadowing and hindsight. The result is a system of revelation that is hallmark Kennedy. The last quarter of the book moves rapidly across time with a darkness and regret reminiscent of Ironweed's best. The book is an exhilarating, masterful achievement, whose last line, "there would always be bacon," pierces the heart much as that flaming sliver of wood earlier pierces the corsage on Katrin's breast.
Grand View: The PlayBut the sense of "the play's the thing" has led Kennedy to move from imagined play in The Flaming Corsage to the real item in Grand View. Grand View emerged from a germ idea in Very Old Bones wherein Patsy McCall, modeled on the Albany boss Dan O'Connell, has to confront a machine greater than his, that of the Governor's (the model here is Dewey). The time is Labor Day, end of summer, 1944; the place is a Saratoga, not the genteel locale the region has come to know, but a gambling den controlled by Patsy McCall and his minions.
There's a score to be settled. Corbett Atterby, his wife, Mabel, and his daughter Faye, come to pull the plug on Patsy's local machine at the behest of the Governor. But Patsy and Corbett have some older scores to settle. Patsy, surrounded by martinets who do his bidding, thinks of himself as the Civil War general, Grant, at Vicksburg, managing a siege. Corbett has the goods on the machine, but Patsy's comeuppance is one-upped by a dark history that lies with Mabel and her daughter. A strange dance of one-upmanship ensues, the likes of which are reminiscent of Hellman's "The Little Foxes," and Warren's "All The King's Men" with touches of classic films like "Key Largo," "Casablanca," and "The Maltese Falcon" thrown in.
The characters are sharply drawn, and the locale and setting give the play a film noire quality reminiscent of the best of Bogart. The action comes fast and the repartee among the characters is swift and witty. Who finally wins in this clash of titanic forces? Strangely, and productively, it is Albany, the richness of its history, and the sharpness of its characters. To say more than that William Kennedy has yet again delivered on his talented promise would be to say too much. Come and see.
Grand View premiered at Capital Repertory Theater in Albany from May 8-June 2, 1996.