Isaac Newton Pickup lines

25 01 2010

I was listening to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast recently, where Jon Blumenfeld talks about Sir Isaac Newton. It’s a fascinating interview, I recommend it. One of the things mentioned, if briefly, was the belief that Newton died a virgin.

I brought this up at work today. My colleague was all like:
And I’m all like:
‘yes, totally.’
‘that’s sad.’
‘well,’ I say. ‘sad for him, good for science. The man was manic, by all accounts.’
‘you’d think, discovering all those things, that’d get you ****ed.’
Me: ‘yeah, and he’d have good pickup lines too. Like:

‘it’s a good thing I invented optics, so I can see how beautiful you are, baby.’


‘I’m glad I invented calculus, because now I can describe the motion of our bodies, baby.’’

I shouldn’t be allowed to talk to people.


On ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’

19 10 2009

The Emperor of Ice-Cream *
by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

In a classical mimetic theory, the thing being imitated is meaningful, but it is meaningful only in the way that any object or event is inherently meaningful.  Steven’s poem here, however, is not classically mimetic, for while there is the image of an actual ice-cream maker evoked in the poem, it is not the literal connotations of the ice-cream man that Stevens is using, rather it is the symbolic connotations. These symbolic connotations, unlike, say ‘goldenness’ or ‘a dark and shadowy figure’, are not inherent in the object itself. Which is to say: the object doesn’t have an inherent symbolic meaning. Instead the symbolism of ‘the emperor of ice-cream’ is particular to Stevens, and thus the poem attempts to explain the image, while at the same time evoking the emotional sense that originally lead to the phrase being created.

The ice-cream maker in this poem is not a mere maker of ice-cream. The poem names him twice, as well as in the title, as the ‘Emperor’ of ice-cream.  He is lord over a dominion. In the first stanza the dominion he presides over is the one where ‘wenches dawdle’ and boys ‘bring flowers’ and when ‘be’ becomes ‘finale of seem’, and they wed, ‘the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.’ His dominion in the first stanza, in fact, is the natural process of ‘boy meets girl’; the process of falling in love. The making of ice-cream and its consumption becomes a metaphorical image representing the process of adolescent courtship, contained within the quotidian experience of ice-cream, dresses, and flowers. Thus the ‘emperor of ice-cream’ is that god, or natural force, which oversees such interactions.

In the final stanza, however, we have something else. The images are of battered ‘glass knobs’, and an embroidered sheet (embroidered sometime in the past), and the cold, horny feet of an old woman who has plainly died. The objects here, the knobs, the sheet, the feet and their coldness, the lamp, are all signals of the end of life, the stillness of death, and yet still here ‘the only emperor’ still ‘is the emperor of ice-cream.’ The same emperor who oversaw the beginning of relationships presides over the cold, still end of a single love. The image of the emperor is re-imagined, retrospectively, and the ice-cream imagined at the beginning is re-imagined at the end in the coldness of the feet and the warmth of the lamp. The ice-cream, then, becomes mortality itself, and time the lamp that shines to melt it. The emperor of ice-cream is the cold fact of life and death. As was said previously, however, this is not a universal metaphor. Instead the image is Stevens’ alone, a personal interpretation figured outwards through physical/visual metaphor.

The works of Imagism, then, are plainly not just mimetic in the classical sense. In classical mimetic theory the objects of the poem were written into the world, and their significance came from the associations of worldly objects and behaviour (Abrams, 1953). In Imagism the objects are written into the mind, with the Romantic colouring of ‘things’ by the poet, and they operate dynamically within the mind also. In this way it is possible to see Imagism as being a combination of Mimetic theories of the imitated object/action in poetry and the romantic attachment to the poet.


* STEVENS, W. 2001. Harmonium, London, Faber and Faber.

Whitman and Poetry as a Social Act

2 10 2009

              TO YOU.

STRANGER, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why
     should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

~Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass

I’m not Walt Whitman’s biggest fan. I’m probably going to get hate-mail from America now, but that’s the truth. I think he’s tediously self important, quite frankly. But this detriment in my mind is also the key to his power as a poet. There’s a sense of enormity in his voice, a sense of a world imagination that encompasses everything at once, and also all of the tiniest things individually. Each single leaf of grass.

Walt Whitman (not Gandalf)

Walt Whitman (not Gandalf)

What I most like about Whitman is the way his poetry engages with the world. His poems are often addressed to people or to groups, anticipating responses, making defences or suggestions. He is aware of the reader’s presence in the poems, and allows them space, talking directly to them sometimes. He is aware of poetry as a social act.

When a poem is written every word is a decision, and every decision is a social act. When you choose the word man instead of the word person, it has a meaning in society. When you write a poem about a war, it enters into the public discourse about war, and about poetry, and about poetry and war. Whitman was aware that the social act of poetry meant that he could not be solely in control of the meaning of the poem. Why should the reader not speak to him, and him to them? Why should the poem not be a place of dialogue where the writer and the reader collaborate on the meaning of the poem?

Super Freaky Dust Dawn of the Apocolypse

23 09 2009

So this morning I wake up and wander into the kitchen, not really doing much, and then I wander into the bathroom ‘cos it’s 6.30 and I have to get ready to go to work and IT”S THE FREAKING APOCALYPSE Y’ALL!!

 My first thought was, ah, shit, it’s the rapture. And then I thought, good, that’s a few less Christians around, everybody gets what they want. But then I thought, no, probably NOT the rapture. I’m pretty sure that Atheists get kicked in the throat by Jesus or something during the rapture, lets not leap to any conclusions. Especially not conclusions that involve throat kicking.

 My next thought was, shit, nuclear war? The reason this wasn’t my first thought was because I have reasonably good hearing and I believe that a nuclear explosion is something a reasonably attentive person would notice. So I filed nuclear apocalypse under ‘unlikely’. The truth, it turns out, is even cooler.


This image was totally stolen from the ABC, if anyone from the ABC is reading this I will absolutely take it down if you want me to. There are better pictures on the ABC online article anyway, everybody should just go there.

This image was totally stolen from the ABC, if anyone from the ABC is reading this I will absolutely take it down if you want me to. There are better pictures on the ABC online article anyway, everybody should just go there.

 Right now I’m sitting at my desk at work, coughing up handfuls of airborne silt and trying not to devolve into religious terror. I think I’ll be ok.

 Red sky though… the shepherds are fucked.


Comments, please.

17 09 2009

So, I have a really boring job. Sometimes I’m busy, sometimes I’m totally not. Sometimes when I see the piles of work that appeared on my desk overnight, as though brought forth from the ether by some secretive night time paperwork fairies, I go and open the quiet field of Microsoft Word and write a poem instead.

Because this is ‘work poetry’ and work isn’t what you’d call a creativity inspiring environment, It’s usually pretty crappy stuff. Today, however, I think that what I wrote was actually a bit ok. So here it is. Comments please.

Bring the men down from where they mine the sky
Of lightning and give them overalls.
If they still wish to be high, then make them pi
-lots winging the thin electric blue of
You and me and Moses shaken times.

Otherwise, remember, faith is made of scrap-
Metal ascending daily on cordwood motors
And elastic bands and eventually everything
Collides with a mountain somewhere.
It carves out the great commandment carved
Elsewhere by physics, the wax melts quickly
When the lightning comes.


Oh. PS. If you have any poetry written at work send it through and we’ll totally post it up here for you.

The Sydney Peace Prize

4 08 2009
John Pilger

John Pilger

Before yesterday I didn’t know that Sydney had its own ‘Peace Prize’. It seems a bit odd, a bit like Paris having its own ‘orbital hygiene mechanics’ prize; not totally out of the question, but somehow not quite what one associates with the image of the city. The Sydney Peace Prize. Well, why not? There have been no major wars here, or even minor ones. There have been no civil uprisings, military coups, or bombings. Except for an undercurrent of barely concealed racial tension Sydney is just about as peaceful as you could hope for. Who better to be giving out a peace prize than a city described by Clive James of having the air of a population permanently on holiday? There is a contention to be made, perhaps, that a nation like France, or Spain, or such, might be better suited to the distribution of accolades for peace. This is on the basis that a long and bloody history of civil and international conflicts really gives a nation an understanding of the value of peace. But I say phooey to them. Let the prizes come from a country that has rarely seen the need for an alternative.

 At this point the thinking person might put up their hand and say, ‘wait a minute,’ and they would be right. Sydney bears a darker legacy than that: the Unacknowledged War that came to the country when, in 17xx, the endeavour dropped anchor and started the process of colonisation. A war was fought, acknowledged or not, and involved the trading of land for lives as much as any named war. The failure to acknowledge the reality of the conflict has been seen by many, like writer Peter Cary in his book 20 Days in Sydney, as one of the country’s greatest failings.

 It makes me wonder where a country, or city, gains the right to make awards for peace. I don’t think that there’s a way to earn it. Neither lengthy suffering nor enduring political stability seems to confer the right. Indeed, it would seem as hypocritical for Switzerland to award a peace prize as it would seem, perhaps, self serving for modern Berlin to award one too. I don’t think it’s possible to qualify for the right, but if Sydney’s dark heart motivates it to foster the pursuit of peace in the world… then good. We should encourage it.

 In that vein the winner of the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize is John Pilger. Pilger is an Australian journalist, film-maker and author. The Jury citation for the prize awarded it to Pilger “for courage as a foreign and war correspondent in enabling the voices of the powerless to be heard. For commitment to peace with justice by exposing and holding governments to account for human rights abuses and for fearless challenges to censorship in any form.”

 Previous awardees include “Nobel recipients Professor Muhammad Yunus and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Indian author and human rights campaigner Arundhati Roy and, last year, the Aboriginal leader and ‘father of reconciliation’ Patrick Dodson.”


 University of Sydney press release: Here.

Article from Pigler’s website: Here.

Image taken from: Here.

Enjambment and Caesura

6 07 2009

Whenever I come across a word I didn’t know I tend to look it up. And whenever I come across a new concept I tend to get a bit obsessed and include it in my writing as much as possible, often to the point of ridiculousness. My most recent obsession isn’t really a new concept. However, thanks to a succession of lazy English teachers in my school days, I didn’t know it by its name until I was researching my post about Ezra Pound. It’s actually two concepts, mostly employed as rhetorical devices, enjambment and caesura.

Caesura is the concept of having a pause or break in some part of a poetic line, with the pause tending to follow or conform to the nature of the thought being expressed. For example let’s take two of my favourite lines from poetry. The inscription on the fallen monument in Shelly’s poem Ozymandias:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

The line is broken up rhythmically by the punctuation, which occurs as part of the declaration being expressed. The main purpose served here by the multiple caesuras is to make a more interesting line and to emphasise the arrogance of Ozymandias’ inscription, which is later contrasted with the collapsed and ruined monument to the long dead empire. It should be pointed out, also, that there are different types of caesura: Initial (beginning of the line), Medial (middle of the line), and Terminal (end of the line).

Enjambment involves running a phrase on past the place where it breaks down into the next line; or as Wikipedia puts it “the breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses”. The idea is that the continuous syntactic unit straddles a break in the physical structure of the poem, basically. Like Caesura Enjambment is best used as a rhetorical device. There are two main effects (or employments) of enjambment. By placing the ends and beginnings of syntactic units on the same physical line, Enjambment can encourage the reader to go immediately from one unit to the next. The effect can be to encourage a ‘stream of consciousness’ effect or to unsettle the reading experience slightly. Enjambed phrases have more the feeling of a natural flow of thought than do completely end-stopped phrases*.

The other use of the technique is as a way of delaying a thought in the reading until after the break in order to surprise the reader with it. I can’t come up with a better example than the one used in Wikipedia, so I’ll steal theirs for the moment:

Enjambment may also be used to delay the intention of the line until the following line and thus play on the expectation of the reader and surprise them. Alexander Pope uses this technique for humorous effect in the following lines from The Rape of the Lock:

        On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore
        Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.

The second line should confuse the reader, raising the question “Why would a Jew or infidel adore a cross?” On second reading, the reader should realize that “breast” does not carry the general androgynous connotation of “chest” but instead the specific idea of a woman’s breasts, which are so attractive that a man of any religion would kiss the Christian cross to be near.

So the effects of these rhetorical figures can be as subtle or obvious as the poet chooses. What’s interesting is that these concepts are quite fundamental to poetry. Lines must end, and so must phrases, and the interaction between these two facts is the genesis of many subtle effects. The more we look into the great masters of any form the more we find out that they had exquisite control of even these small nuances. And the magic thing, the thing that made them great, is that they never seemed to notice them at all.


*Phrases where the end of the syntactic unit ends with the end of the line.