'Understanding Poetry,' by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.

To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem's perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem's greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.

If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.

And I deliberately leave the context to last ...


Dead asleep on a snagged seat between commitments on a crowded bus when a sudden slam/slip/grab of brakes brought me abruptly fully awake and a woman from a front seat to somehow twist around and slam head-first into the metal farebox.

Others, still standing and clinging desperately onto poles and the top bar, managed -- just -- to retain their balance. Me, it only hurled against the stuffed-full bag resting against the seat in front of me: convenient cushion. The ambulance arrived within minutes ... considering that I had just been leaving from a hospital myself, it was not far at all. In the meantime passengers quickly offered basic first aid, cellphones, general comfort. On her own initiative and choice the woman who had fallen was just starting to get to her feet on her own but no further than to the seat: sharp headache (probably a light concussion) but no open injury, pain under her ribs suggesting possible sprain or possibly even a cracked rib, no neck or back injury: but wisely chose to accept the Roentgen nevertheless, just in case. Our bodies are amazingly resilient; and she, notwithstanding, was very lucky.

Not one person had seen anything. Really! Phones, chatting, general tiredness all around, in my case asleep. We all knew the outline of what had happened and it took only a few seconds for the details to traverse a hundred people and the length of the bus, four cars, impatient, quickly whipping around another trying to turn left and into the bus' lane, a fifth, who realised too late that there would not be enough space to cut off the bus -- and a bus driver who reacted barely in time to avert one accident, and so caused another.

No win for him, here: and it was outside my ability entirely to help him not lose. I wish I had seen something of it, but accident reports demand seeing, not simply knowing ... and in the end the only alteration to my day was that I was half an hour late to my meeting.


Two more talks in a season of talks -- and considering the reputation I am rapidly acquiring as a shit-disturber (for no other reason than that I am fearless in asking the questions that tend to shake the unquestioned foundations ... where I think there is there is some point, that is: for I see no point in questioning what is held as an article of faith): I was asked by a friend, gently, to be kind?

Half-expected in light of the subject matter and in fact it was so: that both sets of analyses were given by hard-core conservatives, high-level advisors within the Reagan and both Bush administrations.

The first, examining the new Iraqi constitution, ranked among the most solid analyses I have yet heard anywhere: underlying issues, what had gone before ... in short, not only solid identification and understanding of the core problem, but with context such as to enable a direction for true, meaningful, and long-term solution. (Yet though the audience recognised and acknowledged the sheer depth of substance and consideration, the speaker still could not resist three liberal digs: petty, against the rest.) I could not even find a question to ask here: building solutions rather than focussing on the faults of others, foundation solid beyond my capacity to pick holes, too much positive potential. It is much better than the three-territory division I had envisioned, glued together by Baghdad as separate territory. For now, suffice it to say that this has a real chance of working; that what has been built here has a real chance of (in time) holding the country together, in peace. I know I will be returning to the substance of this one later, perhaps as part of examining federal policy as product of different approaches to multiculturalism as it applies in three or four different countries. (Iraq certainly, France certainly, one of the immigrant cultures [though I might have to treat the United States and Canada separately], maybe Yugoslavia, any other suggestions for exploration?)

The subject of the second talk was risk assessment and weapons of mass destruction / the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): but it could have more accurately been titled something along the lines of "What We Have To Do To Preserve Our Way Of Life". The first, stated assumption of the talk was that there will always be some young men who turn out "bad" everywhere in the world: how do we minimise the chances that they will harm us? Unspoken assumptions included:
  1. the fundamental "right-ness" and benevolence of the United States and the doctrines it evangelises;
  2. the inherent rationality of those doctrines;
  3. the obligation to educate others into those doctrines, for fear of what someone not educated into those doctrines might do with modern technology;
  4. and thus that anyone who opposes those doctrines is irrational, and anyone who opposes those (non-violent, non-coercive) doctrines is BAD.
This set of assumptions leads logically to the true (if unspoken) question threading its way through the entire talk of how should we limit other countries to protect the United States? (it went without saying that there was no perceived obligation -- or even question -- of considering the inverse) -- as well as a second, quieter thread of a moral and rational superiority that our hands are somehow more trustworthy with these technologies than those of others.

I did not ask a foundation-challenging question here, for the reason stated at the first: I don't challenge another's belief structure. After much hesitation, I finally did ask one of internal consistency, and overtly identified it as of a heretical, "devil's advocate" nature: does the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty actually reduce risk of a nuclear incident?

(Someone else had already asked earlier about the credibility gaps that arise when a nation has the freedom to withdraw from a previously-signed treaty: and eventually the questioner had to bring up the point that other countries besides the traditional "rogue states" had done so ... including the United States itself. To which the answer came that there is a right way and a wrong way to withdraw from treaties ... and the rest of that answer is readily extrapolable.)

To my question, he answered that this was a valid issue, which was why the point was to explain to other nations why the NPT was in their best interest. I really didn't see the value of pursuing it further at that point.

By way of context, I offer here a hypothesis I have slowly been evolving in this blog and in the linked discussion boards, that the actualities of national policy -- or for that matter anything born of a group which shares a common group-identity -- follow the same patterns as the psychology of individuals: in which case how is the United States constitutionally-sanctioned right to bear arms fundamentally different from a sovereign nation's right to arm itself in whatever manner it sees fit?

Two talks by persons of parallel -- perhaps for all intents and voting purposes identical -- politics: yet one constructive, one destructive. One foundationed on a fundamental belief that persons of all races/colours/creeds are trustworthy with high technologies and resources and can potentially work together to build. The other foundationed on a fundamental belief that persons of other races/colours/creeds are always potentially untrustworthy with the same technologies as we need to hold for ourselves to protect ourselves from them.

Which is the true view of conservatism in the United States? Are both? Is either?

Group self vs. individualism

He understood one rule, that waste was death; that what one gave the desert it never gave back, to world's end.

He did what he knew to do, which was to yield nothing.

- C.J.Cherryh, The Faded Sun: Kutath

Communities at the edge of subsistence have communal identity: each person growing up within a structure of understanding from their earliest sense of self-awareness equally an understanding of self-as-group, knowing what is needed and where one fits in; as it was, is, and so shall be. Such a group identity can cede no flexibility, for to experiment is to risk extinction against a pitiless nature; yet similarly such a group identity has no flexibility to adjust to changing external circumstance.

It requires cities to develop individualism, through specialisation and consequent coordinating centralisation: but also individualism to adapt to a changing environment, to adjust for better or for worse ... and, sometimes, to evolve.

And if I were to generalise?

Back in my minimum wage days (of which there were many!), years before 9/11, one particular job required somehow getting to a location not accessible except by automobile. I had none, so I shared a ride with my work partner, paying my share of the gasoline.

I bit my tongue hard each time I entered the vehicle. Radio on maximum volume, windows open, pedal to the metal. Capable driver, but thoughtless and a speeder besides: I don't think we did less than 160 kph on any one of those freeway stretches (illegal). Although, capable: it was not likely he was going to get us into any accidents. He also happened to be rather thoughtless about his job -- and I, unhappily the senior of the two, was placed in the position of "suggesting" changes, lest the disciplinary arm fall on us both.

He was black, had held a military officer's position in the Sudan, and was a Muslim. He told me directly that if he were ever stopped by the police, he would claim racism. I am white. To this day he thinks I am racist.

And now, the true irony: it so happened I was studying Islam and Islamic history at the time, very much by choice. When he was telling me his stories, I was listening, learning, asking questions (carefully). I don't know how many others would have winced at the Arabic music of his preference -- but my wincing was not at the music (which I found unique and fascinating) but at the painful volume at which it was played. I made the mistake of asking him, carefully, to turn it down.

He turned it off.

And now, a second story, of a second individual, white, who knew, absolutely and beyond the shadow of a doubt, that every negative thing that had ever happened to him and to the country was the fault of Muslims: and further held that all Muslims could never be truly loyal to their country of birth, and thus should be deported out of hand. Perhaps the only reason he had not taken his conviction that one, deadly step forward was because he still respected, not the law, but the practical descent of law. He had been trying very hard to get an innocent person in our small cluster of offices convicted for last year's rash of break-ins -- I had first-hand reason to learn the absolute for-sure innocence, the one time when I came close enough to catching the true culprits to cause them to drop the laptop they were carrying -- and then he additionally tried to assign blame upon me (wrong place, wrong time) when the building manager had finally had enough.

I see the individual, each person separately; and know what I have seen to be of the individual only. It would be very easy to generalise, no doubt there are other individuals out there who share in some of these traits -- but there are also many who don't. I had and have no solution for this specific situation: we parted ways, I don't think we have encountered each other since. I can only recognise that among the diversity that comprises all people, some (of all colours and creeds!) will try to seek advantage they have not earned; and that some people are not all people or even most people.


People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children.
- Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes)

Always, I seem to be the only one who has absolutely no desire to repeat any day of my life. Not aversion, just, well, this is a new day: why repeat what is gone? I don't see what is over through sepia-coloured glasses, and so I have no nostalgia in me for what is past. I deal, rather, with the now. Past has made me what I am, future is branched potential. Now is where I exist, where my choices exist. I do value the understanding born of memory and experience, understanding which is the foundation of what I am and of what will be; and which will thus (I hope!) help me to make my choices well in the future, some suggested spectre of consequences past suggesting possible (but not certain!) similar consequences in future given a close-to-identical choice-making environment: but understanding is not clinging to a thing already frozen and drifting away in time.

(It is reported, in the Platonic dialogues and through scraps of information elsewhere, that Socrates had a very poor opinion of reading. He claimed that the ability to read destroyed reliance on memory and consequently memory itself, since one could always look up again what one needed to "remember", thus undercutting the need for memory. And it is true enough that the feats of memory common to many members of illiterate cultures dwarf all our sophisticated information-retrieval systems. After all, why remember, when Blackberry lets us always Google?)

While re-living a memory could readily harden us ever more solidly within its mould: would re-living make the memory itself, positive or negative, any stronger? Weaken it rather, I should think: call it the difference between having and not having. Things never to be had again are re-created in our minds, ultimately to become something they never were; but more: the awareness that something one had deemed permanently inaccessible -- and thus remembered perhaps the more intensely -- has suddenly regained accessibility. Never mind that it is only for one revisiting: the rules have been broken once, and so now carry the possibility of being broken again. Part of the treasure of the moment is its uniqueness: for it to acquire the illusion of accessibility dilutes that uniqueness.

Treasure the memories, the good and the bad ... and know when to release.

Play as learning

We generally think of play as functionless or else actively escapist: distraction, diversion from the "real" world of work-linked learning: yet unstructured play is no less learning for being less or even non-goal-oriented. In smaller towns, while growing up, sports remain more actively "play" than in the highly-structured leagues and practice schedules common to the fields and rinks of larger cities.

For N. American hockey and baseball at least, one study (to be published in Journal of Sports Sciences) has now found a distinct correlation; with proportionately the most professional male baseball and hockey players -- almost three times as many as would be expected in proportion to male population alone -- coming from places of between 50,000 and 100,000 population: large enough to have the facilities, small enough to allow less-rigidly scheduled access to those facilities, perceived safe enough to allow children to play in the yards and the streets and thus to develop on their own their natural aptitudes -- in play. In contrast, only half as many professional male baseball and hockey players as would otherwise be expected come from larger cities (of above 500,000 population): far below the expected pool of talent.

The same study also shows a link with birth date, with professional athletes much more likely have birth dates in the first half of the year. Two straightforward possibilities here: first that although children and later professional players (at the initial recruitment phases) are sorted by age, children born closer to the beginning of the year will have had almost a year's more physical development than children born toward its end; and second that children born near the beginning of the year in a four-seasons country in the northern hemisphere will have acquired crawling and walking skills by the time summer arrives. (Auzzies and Kiwis: you now have a point of comparison and potential contrast :D)

La vrai France

Oh, good.

Let's allow the French-born children of immigrants to grow up within the mythology of being French, one France, all equal under possibility and under the law. Let's take every opportunity to reinforce this mythology that anyone born in France is equal with every other person born in France. (Oh, and France has no ghettos.)

Let's take every opportunity to strip any visible cultural heritage from them at the growing-up stage -- for in France, you are French, yes? (No matter that it just so happens that the only religions affected at their core happen to be non-Christian.) Above all, we don't want their parents to brainwash them into a cultural system that shouldn't be theirs, equal opportunity and all that ... although we can allow them to build private schools if they want, once they have the local community money to build and support them: the second generation is French after all, equal under the law of economics.

After all, no one can say we did not learn from the example of the Canadian aboriginal residential schools.

Let's finally release these second-generation children out of an education severed, made barren of their roots. Let them venture into the working world as equals with every other French-born child raised within the same structure, empty of their own heritage, filled with the natural expectation that they, as much as any native son of France, have with everyone else an equal chance to succeed under the law: for France is secular and colour-blind.

Cover from all the media and let simmer for a few decades. A few odd incidents in a few (not-really French) suburbs are a non-story after all: and it is our patriotic duty to ensure that business and tourists and exchange students recognise that they remain perfectly safe, please do continue to invest your money and to visit? (but just not those parts of the cities).

Then, when the mixing pot begins to boil over, let's impose a law dating from colonial times, enacted specifically for the purpose of subduing native unrest in Algeria; and let's also deport anyone involved who did not have the fortune to be born in la belle France. That ought to demonstrate to the young marginalised second-generation men of African and Muslim descent beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are truly French.

Not us

O, but we do hold our sacred cows to be sacred indeed. What point, else?

Above all we must never Never NEVER entertain, even in the potential, even in the abstract, the least possibility that what we observe and study in others might possibly apply to ourselves as well: and if any source even suggests otherwise we must deliberately close our eyes lest we see something which challenges our identity-linked truths -- and do our utmost to undermine their credibility as well, lest another, less knowledgeable than us, accidentally encounter them and form a wrong opinion.

Which, of course, is how history repeats.

The stages of genocide, perhaps inextricably linked with religion, nationality, and economics (especially where a reasonably comfortable and established socioeconomic class has been displaced or otherwise eroded and its circumstances worsened), are commonly considered to be:
  1. Classification: in which people are separated into groups classified by some key trait (race, religion, nationality ...): specifying and then exclusively focussing on the key difference, and thus introducing and promoting an "us vs. them" attitude.
  2. Symbolisation: in which the difference used to identify "them" is linked to a symbol or cataloguing system.
  3. Dehumanisation: in which members of one group are likened to animals, vermin or disease; and commonly mythologies or distorted truths are spread about them as well.
  4. Organisation: in which newspapers and radios begin spreading these dehumanising messages, hate groups are organised, and militias are formed, trained, and armed.
  5. Polarisation: in which extremists drive the two groups apart, emphasising "us" vs. "them", "if you are not with us, you are against us"; moderates and those attempting to be neutral are increasingly denounced as unpatriotic or traitors and are actively persecuted. This is usually the point where the killing begins: and instantly the message that spreads is one of kill or be killed.
Thus far, perhaps, we might just recognise (and uncomfortably close upon our porches yet): but there are eight stages in all, and still time to step aside. Yet knowledge implies duty: and by the time we decide -- are willing even to see -- what is happening, it is over?

Why can't we see? Not our problem? Not in our backyard? (and are we so very sure about that?) Too terrifying, too unreal to contemplate? Look in the mirror, at the wolf lurking closely behind your eyes -- and then look closely at what is happening all around you. Why should we think that we, uniquely, are somehow exempt?

But perhaps, just this once, the next two stages we won't have to learn about except in textbooks of ancient history -- leaving us finally free of the need to Deny.

Conversations, in understanding and in silence

As I ran for yet another lecture, running toward me on the sidewalk another: and this time it was I who happened to be on the side visible to the bus driver. Quick exchange of unspoken communication:
  • hand half-raised, glance in his direction: yes?
  • his head shake: no
  • nod of acknowledgement, hand lowered
  • further mutual nod of thanks and acceptance, quirk of smile on both sides.
How many of these unspoken conversations have I had, each and every day? What had it cost me? Complete understanding, not one word spoken -- and the day a little brighter on both sides for it.