Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Not Writing Disaster Poems

[Earthquake / Tsunami (Japan 11/3/11)]

I was walking down the corridor yesterday when one of my colleagues stopped me to ask, "Written any poems lately?"

Rather a surprising question, I thought. Practically unprecedented, in fact.

"No, not really," I replied.

"I'd have thought there'd be quite a lot to write about at the moment," she continued.

"Yeah, I suppose so."

It was only then that I understood what she was getting at. "Disaster" = "disaster poem" / "Multiple disasters" = "suite of disaster poems".

"Where," she was asking (in effect), "is your Christchurch poem? Your Japanese earthquake poem? Maybe even your Libyan insurrection poem?"

There aren't any, I'm afraid.

I certainly don't want to legislate for other people, since a brief sampling of the blogosphere would reveal a number of Canterbury & Japanese earthquake poems already out there, and who am I to say if they're good or bad individually? "It's all just a matter of your opinion," as my Creative Writing students keep on reminding me. I do think it's an interesting matter to discuss, though.

I remember on the morning of 9/11, waking up to the news of the fall of the Twin Towers with the somewhat shamefaced realisation that I'd actually been at a poetry reading the evening before. Counting back through the time difference, I was glad to work out that I hadn't actually been intoning stanzas at the moment of the calamity - not that that would matter at all to anyone else - but had been asleep instead.

Who cares what I was doing? But somehow it mattered to me. I felt almost physically nauseated at the thought of standing there smugly self-promoting while other people were dying in flames. Irrational, really, but there you are ...

The only 9/11 poem that sticks in my mind is Amiri Baraka's ("Someone Blew Up America"), and not entirely for good reasons. It was those lines "Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion / And cracking they sides at the notion" which caused most of the problems, as I recall - though my memory had transformed the last bit into "laughing they asses off" ... Never mind. The point of his poem is clear enough.

For weeks and months afterwards, though, you couldn't go anywhere without a shower of 9/11 poems dropping around you like confetti. Somewhat perversely (or so it must have seemed), I determined not to write any. I know such decisions are generally futile - one is immediately struck with an idea for a verse epic on the subject. In this case, though, they've mostly faded on the page.

It seems obvious in retrospect that there was something spurious, second-hand, video-linked about the whole idea of writing verses about 9/11. I felt even at the time that one would need some exceptionally cogent personal link or angle to attempt it at all. Amiri Baraka's certainly fulfilled that criterion - with a vengeance. It was undeniably heartfelt, whatever else it was.

How can I explain what probably sounds like a rather pointless set of prescriptions about when (I think) one should and shouldn't write poetry (or, rather, publish it - an important distinction)? There's a fine section in Huckleberry Finn where Huck (or, rather, Mark Twain: the authorial mask wears pretty thin at this point) is describing the poetic efforts of one Emmeline Grangerford:

She warn't particular, she could write about anything you choose to give to write about, just so it was sadful. Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes. The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker - the undertaker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme for the dead person's name, which was Whistler. She warn't ever the same, after that; she never complained, but she kind of pined away and did not live long. [ch. xvii]

[Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn (1884)]

And what were Emmeline's poems like? The one Huck quotes, "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd", is certainly a stirring piece:

... Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly,
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

All I can say is that you would have to go a lot broader nowadays for this to stand out as conspicuously bad poetry. Emmeline understands metre and rhyme better than most. She has a certain tendency towards the bathetic, but then that's hard to gauge at the best of times.

If you want to see a lot more of this sort of stuff - far less accomplished technically, far clumsier and more naive in subject-matter - go to the obituary page of the NZ Herald (or most other daily newspapers). The funny thing is: I adore the poems I read on the back page of the Herald. I love the way that the people who write them often stop looking for rhymes after a while and just stop any old where. I admire the way in which they always go for the half-remembered scriptural / hymn-tune phrase rather than any concrete or living expression.

There's a sort of blunt-force trauma behind the words they seem to have literally wrenched out of themselves to express the sheer depth of their passionate feelings of loss. Very few of them resort to quotation from more accomplished bards. Most appear to feel they have to go it alone, through the shaky quagmire of five or ten lines of rhymed (or vaguely rhythmic) verse.

What Twain deplores in Emmeline, I feel, is her slick facility with words. She may not be entirely in control of her medium yet, but you can see that she had a great future ahead of her compiling the nineteenth-century equivalent of greeting-cards.

So what's all this got to do with 9/11?

I remember a few weeks afterwards seeing a TV interview with one of the survivors, who'd actually managed to get out of (I think) the second building just before it collapsed. The most striking thing about the whole event, for this woman, was the fact that she'd been personally rung up by Bruce Springsteen, who'd spoken to her for almost twenty minutes on the subject of her sensations and impressions during her journey down those smoke-filled stairs.

Twenty minutes talking to the Boss! What a thrill! And, sure enough, a few months later a Springsteen album was duly churned out, replete with husky, breathy phrases about "stairways filled with smoke / can hardly breathe / how'm I gonna get out?" Nice to see how the Master is able to achieve these striking effects ...

Now, I'm sure all the proceeds were donated to charity, and I don't doubt Mr. Springsteen's honest good intentions, but I just can't bring myself to take his "9/11" album very seriously. Why? Because he's just a bigger, slightly more professional version of Emmeline Grangerford, so far as I'm concerned. Shutting up would be the best thing he could do about 9/11, and that goes for most of the rest of us too. If you were trapped in there and got out, or know someone who was, or lost a friend, those might (to me) constitute legitimate prompts (or excuses) for penning some verses on the subject. If not, don't waste my time. I can watch the TV as well as you can.

One of the first pieces of writing preserved by the youthful Eric Blair (later to become famous as George Orwell) was an Ode on the Death of General Kitchener, drowned when his warship was sunk by a mine in 1916. He was not alone. Just about everyone in Britain seems to have found this watery death sufficiently striking to deluge the newspapers with similar poems (mostly along the lines of "we will fight on to avenge you ...")

I don't think Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen bothered, though - they had more important things to write about. Or perhaps one should say that they had more to think about. Facile verses full of patriotic cliches were, in that year of the Somme and Verdun, the last thing that anyone needed to hear. Similarly, a few less "Yahda yahda yahda 9/11 yahda yahda yahda I'm so angry yahda yahda yahda & kinda blue at the same time" poems might have provided a bit more room for thinking about whether it would be such a great idea to ... start a new war in the Middle East. Don't you think?

Perhaps it's foolish of me to think of poems as having any particular importance for anyone anytime when it comes to "serious" issues of politics and history (or natural disaster, for that matter). But, foolish or not, that's what I believe. It's for that reason that I'm not particularly into people churning out the equivalent of "Lord Kitchener is dead / the mighty warrior lies cold / with the coiling fishes / every hair of his moustache we shall avenge / on the dastardly foe" poems every time some new sensation comes up on the evening news.

It's not in the least that I have no sympathy for the tragic events in Japan and Christchurch (or NY in 2001, for that matter). It's just that I have nothing to say about them beyond what's being pumped out nineteen yards to the minute by every news medium known to man - until the next disaster sends all the reporters jetting off somewhere else. It's perhaps a little exigent of me, but I'm afraid I really do judge people as much by what they don't write as by what they do.

Second-hand emotions are, by and large, easy to access and not particularly difficult to express. Getting across something of how you actually feel about your life in this world is on a completely different order of complexity.

[Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (2002)]

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Moon Man Blues

I've been reading an interesting book about old abandoned colonies and outposts of progress. In it, I came across the curious fact that most scientists in the seventeenth century were of the opinion that precious minerals (such as gold, silver and gems) were likely to be found closer to the surface in the tropics. Why? Because they'd been drawn up by the magnetic influence of the sun. It was, after all, well known that the fertility of the soil near the equator was also due to this quasi-sexual attraction between earth and sky.

I'm not quite sure what authority Ed Wright (author of Ghost Colonies: Failed Utopias, Forgotten Exiles and Abandoned Outposts of Empire. Sydney: Pier 9 Books, 2009) has for making this assertion. His book is a little short on referencing, nor is his bibliography much help. I do tend to believe him, though. It makes sense - stands to reason, in fact. It accords with what I understand of the theory of the Humours and the Great Chain of Being and all that good stuff. And, after all, it's not really that nonsensical, even with all we know today. The sun does exert an influence on the earth - it even affects the tides (though not as much as our much closer neighbour the moon does, of course).

However, most of us would probably dispute the idea that gold is more likely to be found in the tropics. What about the Klondike and the great Alaskan gold rush? What about the mineral deposits of Siberia, mined by so many hundreds of thousands of hapless Gulag prisoners? The reasons for ore and precious stones being further or nearer from the surface of the earth are many and various, and understanding them would probably involve at least some knowledge of geology, plate tectonics, and a number of other sciences. It's called "evidence". Without it you don't have a case.

Or, then again, you could just grab a bent stick or an old clothes hanger and go dowsing, now, couldn't you? You might even find something. It stands to reason. Doesn't it?

I'm no stranger to occultist mumbo-jumbo. It's a subject that interests me a good deal. I've probably read more books on pendulums and dowsing sticks and all the rest than most true believers. Far more than I should have, that's for sure. So don't take me as some wowser, determined to expunge the astrology column from the daily newspaper and to forbid fortune-telling in public places. But I do draw the line at the Moon Man, I'm afraid.

Who's the Moon Man? Well, for those of you who don't reside anywhere near the earthquake-stricken city of Christchurch, his real name is Ken Ring, and over the past couple of weeks he's become a household name in New Zealand because of his (alleged) ability to predict seismic disturbances.

The facts appear to be (according to John Campbell, who's got into very hot water indeed for daring to dispute the oracle) that Ken Ring said, after last year's September earthquake in Christchurch (which he unfortunately failed to predict - by any laws of evidence except those of a card-carrying Ringian), that he felt the aftershocks would tail off by the end of November. They didn't. He then explained that he didn't mean little aftershocks, which had tailed off by November (they hadn't), but only big earthquakes which caused harm to people and property, and that there was at least one of them still to come. I don't quite get how all that follows, but let's let it ride. That big one would strike on or about the 20th of March 2011.

Now, since the seismologists studying the September quake had been saying all along that there was a strong possibility of at least one very large aftershock, which would not reach the magnitude of the original earthquake but which might cause considerable damage, this hardly seems very prescient. Especially as the big one, when it came, did not arrive on 20th of March, but almost a month before, on February 22nd. And, as predicted by the seismologists, it was almost a point lower on the Richter scale (albeit far closer to the surface, hence the far greater damage and loss of life caused by it).

Ken Ring's uncanny precision as a prophet tends to boil down, in practice, to generalised pronouncements that there's a greater risk of earthquakes and general seismic (or tidal) disturbances for roughly one week to either side of the new moon - and the full moon. As John Campbell pointed out, this covers the entire month.

As for his famous (or infamous) "Valentine's Day Tweet", in what sense does predicting a "potential earthquake time for the planet between 15th-25th" with a slight narrowing down of scope to "especially 18th for Christchurch, +/- about 3 days" for a city which had suffered three thousand or so aftershocks since September require any great acumen? And how does getting the day of the "big one" wrong (and not even within your scope of variation, albeit quite close to it) inspire such unreasoning awe?

The processes he uses to obtain such accuracy are rather shadowy, but - as Ring sagely remarked during the TV3 interview - nobody requires a tertiary degree of the Captain of the All Blacks, so why should he himself need one (or any scientific knowledge or credentials whatsoever) to act as an earthquake predictor?

Campbell certainly lost his cool during the interview. Wonder of wonders, it seems that he actually thought that offering untrained weathermen such as Ken Ring such excessive airtime to state their views (basically tantamount to astrology) was undesirable in the middle of a national emergency, with a frightened population ready to listen to anyone who offered them certainty.

Mind you, there's an obvious paradox here. As so many have already remarked, why offer Ring time on your own news programme if you don't think he should be given more free publicity? It's a fair point, and I suppose it might even be held to justify Campbell's abject on-air apology to Ring the day after their argument / interview.

What's truly fascinating to me, though, is the amount of response to the TV3 segment which concentrates on John Campbell's alleged "rudeness", and the paucity of any particular feelings of indignation at Ken Ring's sheer breathtaking chutzpah in using this appalling tragedy to boost his own profile and his own methods of predicting the future. Here's one fairly typical comment:

"JC acted like an arrogant opinionated jackass. What was meant to be an interview turned into John's personal vitriolic attack on Mr Ring's theory, interrupting and over talking Mr Ring every time he was trying to answer a question," said a commentator called Gareth on TV3's website.

Note how Ken Ring gets the proud title "Mister" while John Campbell is reduced to a pair of initials ... "Mr Ring's theory" indeed! Campbell constructed his questions purely from quotes from Ken Ring's published writings. How "arrogant" and "opinionated" of him! If it's opinionated to think that the earth goes around the sun and that water flows downhill, then I fear I too am an arrogant round-earther. But pax vobiscum, Gareth, in any case. I can't help feeling that you're acting like a bit of a jackass yourself, but hey, since when did that become illegal in a free society?

Like Nostradamus, and so many other successful prophets before him, Ring has mastered the art of wrapping his pronouncements in the mistiest and most imprecise language, susceptible to almost any interpretation one wishes to put on them. In his particular case, though, it takes a pseudo-scientific form: plus / minus various arbitrary numbers of days; vague estimates of the type or magnitude of the event to be expected.

And, as we all know when we stop to think about it for a moment, if you make enough scattershot claims, over a long enough time, one of them is almost bound to come true - or kind of, anyway.

I'm happy to be schooled by any of you out there who are better informed. Can anyone quote an accurate prediction - i.e. one which was actually completely correct in terms of the exact day (not plus-minus three, five, or seven days either side), and exact type (not disturbance of a tidal nature = earthquake, high tide, unseasonable bird migration etc.) of event - made by Ken Ring, ever?

I may well be wrong, but the impression from here is:

  1. Ken Ring did not predict the September earthquake in Christchurch
  2. Ken Ring did not predict the huge February aftershock in Christchurch
  3. On the other hand,he did predict a tailing-off in aftershocks last year which did not take place
  4. & he has predicted an earthquake for March 20th, which may or may not take place. I'm not holding my breath.

I do think that John Campbell should be censured for allowing Ring on his programme in the first place, but I also believe that a bouquet would be a more appropriate response than the various brickbats he's been handed for his "bad manners" ever since. Ought one to be polite to timewasters like Ring at a time like this?

Watch the interview again, and note how Ring evades every one of Campbell's questions, how he constantly sidesteps every quoted example of erroneous reasoning or faulty mathematics. He relies on looking like a harmless, frightened old codger - and he may well be sincerely deluded into thinking that he can help. I can't help feeling dubious about the way he's succeeded in publicising himself at the expense of so many others' suffering, though.

"Give Ken a fair go" say the comments on Redneck Central (otherwise known as the YahooXtra newssite). Oh, I know there'll always be another snake-oil salesman out there, whether he's called Cagliostro, Nostradamus, Anne Elk ("This is the theory that is mine") - or George W. Bush (remember those WMDs?). Don't waste your sympathy on them. The experts may well have got it wrong, but at least their evidence is out there in the open and susceptible to examination. Ken Ring and his ilk rely on trade secrets and invocations of the esoteric arts to obtain their results. Why? Because they know the moment they open up their boxes of tricks they'll be laughed out of town.