“All that a man knows, and needs to know, is found in Berkeley.”
-W.B. Yeats, mispronounced by Jack Spicer
Some things are worth waiting for. I submitted “Reading James Joyce at the Berkeley Marina” to Berkeley Poetry Review in January 2013, and it was accepted in August that year. However, due to the Editor-in-Chief’s struggle with a major illness, my contributor’s copy just found its way through my mail slot here in England this morning.
The issue must be something of a small victory for the editor, which he writes about in his preface. It is for me too. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I applied to a creative writing workshop with some of my poems. I still recall standing outside the classroom door, reading and rereading the list of accepted students, my name not on it. Little did I know how fitting an introduction to the writing life this would be.
This issue is a tome, featuring poets from Ashbery to Hass, filled with terriffic historical documents, letters, concrete poems, and sketches. It is a kind of tribute to Berkeley’s intellectual and artistic history in its way. Needless to say I am eager to get stuck in to it.
You can order this issue, or subscribe, at the Berkeley Poetry Review website. Here also is a photo of my poem.
Never before in human history has such potential existed for the large-scale digital analysis of text. Thanks to the Google search engine index of the world wide web, and the emerging Google Books project, which aims to index books, an enormous amount of text exists in indexed digital form, and this base is growing constantly. But the mechanisms by which digital texts and their indices are currently used to judge the relative quality, value, or meaning of a work of text are relatively crude as compared to how humans perceive and relate to text, and especially literature, which is text as art. This begs a chain reaction of questions: are there gains to be made in the fields of literature or linguistics by exploiting this digital base of text? Is it possible to derive aesthetic principles sufficiently logical to work as algorithms for the analysis of digital text? Would analysis based on such principles yield new insights into our relationship to language and literature? Could such analysis contribute toward something like a greater computational “understanding” of text, with implications for improving search engine results, speech recognition, and computerized translation? These questions fascinate me.
I first encountered Seamus Heaney in person during my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley. I had originally been admitted to the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science double-major program, having won two of the university’s most prestigious scholarships, been introduced to the Chancellor, assigned a high-ranking advisor from the Engineering faculty, and generally been welcomed to campus as a potential next Bill Gates. This was during the height of the dot-com era, when venture capitalists wooed by the poetic visions of high-tech courtiers flung open (seemingly) bottomless coffers.
Imagine the look on my guidance counselor’s face when I told her that I wanted to transfer into the English department. My grades were good; what was wrong? I told her that I simply wanted to pursue something more — how could I say it? — human. She suggested that I consider a career in the exciting new field of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research.
After signing a legal contract wherein I promised that I would not, under any circumstance, try to beg my way back into the Engineering department, I found myself sitting auditorium-style with three hundred other students, eagerly attending a lecture by Robert Hass. Within minutes, I felt all three hundred students disappear, and I seemed to be sitting fireside with my favorite poetry-loving uncle. Professor Hass mentioned that Seamus Heaney was returning to Berkeley to discuss his new translation of Beowulf, and to read some poems. He encouraged us all to attend.
I have been reading The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, edited by Phillis Levin. I skimmed through the introduction and read the first sixty pages to reacquaint myself with old friends from my undergraduate days at UC Berkeley: Petrarch, Sidney, Spencer, Wyatt, Dante. It occurs to me just how wildly popular this form remained, largely unaltered, well after Shakespeare wrote into being some of the highest realizations of the English Renaissance sonnet form. Sonnets were a showpiece in courtier times, a means to political mobility as much as artistic merit. The lack of innovation on the form, up until the Romantics, reminds me of the current saturation of our modern poetry “marketplace” with the same cookie-cutter forms of sentimental personal lyric.
Both forms lend themselves naturally to turns of rhetoric and reflection upon a personal subject (be it love or the death of a loved one), and both forms, done badly, often seem to repay the author’s narcissism far more than the reader’s interest. The challenge with the personal lyric is to overcome the limitations of the deeply personal to reach some unique and universal truth. The challenge of the sonnet, especially in modern times, is to overcome the stringent limitations of the form to approach something transcendent. Far too often, it seems poets are content to write lyric poems that simply matter to themselves and their friends or, as with the sonnet, to simply plough through the form, capitalizing on all its traditional advantages and enduring its limitations.
Read The Poem
What is so great about this poem is the way that it carries you along with strong, simple words and imagery, whisking you past moments of highly ambiguous meaning, delighting the senses. Having blasted our way through many of these moments with an almost nursery-rhyme use of rhythm and alliteration, we come to this spectacular moment:
When the stars threw down their spears, /
And watered heaven with their tears