#21.4 Starting from Paumanok, verse 6

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We are still reading Book II of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Today I am reading Verse 6 of Starting from Paumanok. If you’re just joining me, start from Verse 1 here.

 6
  The soul,
  Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer
      than water ebbs and flows.
  I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the
      most spiritual poems,
  And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
  For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and
      of immortality.

  I will make a song for these States that no one State may under any
      circumstances be subjected to another State,
  And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by
      night between all the States, and between any two of them,
  And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of
      weapons with menacing points,
  And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces;
  And a song make I of the One form'd out of all,
  The fang'd and glittering One whose head is over all,
  Resolute warlike One including and over all,
  (However high the head of any else that head is over all.)

  I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
  I will trail the whole geography of the globe and salute courteously
      every city large and small,
  And employments! I will put in my poems that with you is heroism
      upon land and sea,
  And I will report all heroism from an American point of view.

  I will sing the song of companionship,
  I will show what alone must finally compact these,
  I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love,
      indicating it in me,
  I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were
      threatening to consume me,
  I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
  I will give them complete abandonment,
  I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
  For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
  And who but I should be the poet of comrades?

I like the appearance of “song” here, because (spoiler alert) the next poem in this book is Song of Myself. I like finding the recurring themes that we’ve been seeing so far – first, Whitman writes to a “certain cantatrice“, and then we have heard America singing, and now, finally, Whitman is starting to sing himself. This entire poem so far seems like it has been a long manifesto of all the things that Whitman intends to make happen – I’m looking forward to get this show on the road!

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Behind the Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’ much-awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was published earlier lincoln in the bardo.jpgthis year. The book mostly takes place in a graveyard, where Abraham Lincoln has entombed his son, Willie. The book is a blend of fiction, history, philosophy, and religion. I read this book not knowing anything about the plot, premise, or title of the book; George Saunders is one of my favorite authors, so I trusted that I would enjoy anything he wrote. After I finished the book, I decided to do some sleuthing to figure out what exactly his title means. What’s a Bardo, and what is Lincoln doing in there? So without further ado, here is the second post in my “Behind the Title” series. (Is it really a series if I’ve only written about this once before?)

Bardo is a Tibetan word (བར་དོ) which literally translates into “intermediate space.” In Tibetan and Buddhist traditions, there is the belief in reincarnation – that our souls will be reborn into a different body after we die, again and again until we reach enlightenment and are able to escape the cycle. Bardo loosely refers to the space in between, where our souls go to wait before being reborn in a new body. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there are six Bardos spanning life, death, and after death. The six traditional Bardos are:

  1. Kyenay bardo – the bardo of life, from conception until your last breath
  2. Milan bardo – the bardo of the dream state
  3. Samten bardo – the bardo of meditation
  4. Chikhai bardo – the bardo of the moment of death
  5. Chonyi bardo – the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature, which begins after you die (this is only available to those who practiced the second and third bardos in their lifetime.)
  6. Sidpa bardo – the bardo of becoming or transmigration, which endures until you are born again in the first bardo

Based on my (very limited) understanding, Bardo is similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory, but the main difference is that Bardo lasts no more than 49 days, whereas purgatory is a place where your soul undergoes purification before entering heaven.

willie lincoln

Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)

A more accurate title for George Saunders’ book may be Lincoln in the Chonyi Bardo, or Lincoln in the Fifth Bardo, perhaps. I mentioned earlier that the book mostly takes place in a graveyard. Young Willie Lincoln has just died of typhoid fever and his ghost soul is in the graveyard hoping that his father comes to visit him. The other characters in the book are all ghosts, who don’t know that they are ghosts. They are all in the fifth bardo, the bardo after death, where an experienced practitioner would gain clarity and insight into the meaning of life, while less experienced people are in a state of disarray and panic while waiting for the sixth bardo to begin.

Saunders is inventive and playful with the ideas of purgatory, bardo, heaven & hell. He borrows from all of these religious traditions and invents some of his own, in a way that works very well within the dark humored satire that he has made his signature style. It’s not necessary to know anything about Bardos or the Lincolns to read this book, but it definitely adds a layer of meaning when you understand the meaning behind the title, Lincoln in the Bardo.

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Additional Reading:

#21.3 Starting from Paumanok, verse 5

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We are about 1/4 of the way through Starting from Paumanok. I read verses 3 + 4 last week and am picking up today with verse 5.

5
  Dead poets, philosophs, priests,
  Martyrs, artists, inventors, governments long since,
  Language-shapers on other shores,
  Nations once powerful, now reduced, withdrawn, or desolate,
  I dare not proceed till I respectfully credit what you have left
      wafted hither,
  I have perused it, own it is admirable, (moving awhile among it,)
  Think nothing can ever be greater, nothing can ever deserve more
      than it deserves,
  Regarding it all intently a long while, then dismissing it,
  I stand in my place with my own day here.

  Here lands female and male,
  Here the heir-ship and heiress-ship of the world, here the flame of
      materials,
  Here spirituality the translatress, the openly-avow'd,
  The ever-tending, the finale of visible forms,
  The satisfier, after due long-waiting now advancing,
  Yes here comes my mistress the soul.

If you didn’t believe me last week that America had a weird sibling rivalry with Europe’s literary traditions during this time, do you believe me now? The first half of this verse is describing Europe’s artists, inventors, and language-shapers “on other shores.” Whitman has found it admirable, and admits that he was even a fan for a while, but he thinks “here” (which I think is the U.S.) is where the future is – the “due long-waiting now advancing”.

I am not exactly sure what to make of that last line, “yet here comes my mistress the soul.” Is he saying that the future of art and literature is going to be driven by the soul? Or is America his metaphorical soul-mistress? What are your thoughts?

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Review: Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

weapons If you haven’t been living under a rock, you will have experienced big data, whether you applied to lease an apartment or if you are a Facebook user. Generally, we see big data as a helpful way of predicting what movies we’ll like on Netflix and streamlining processes like applying for a mortgage. There are apps now to track your budget, your steps, your caloric intake, and we generally welcome it. More data is always helpful, right? Unfortunately, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy sheds light on some of the darker implications of our reliance on big data.

Cathy O’Neil has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University and worked as a quant for a hedge fund, before becoming disillusioned with the world of finance and taking up with the Occupy Wall Street movement. She also runs a math blog (mathbabe.org) where she explores all of the newest developments in big data. So, what exactly is big data?

Define Big Data: extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions

Normally, when we see things becoming automated, we would generally assume things become less biased and more fair and predictable. O’Neil shows us all of the reasons why this presumption is flawed. She calls these automated/big data driven algorithms “weapons of math destructions” when they meet three criteria: opacity, scale, and damage. O’Neil makes a compelling argument and walks us through how WMD are with us every step of our lives – getting a job, applying for college, and even car insurance. WMDs do not impact us all the same – some people are impacted more than others, namely the poor and minorities.

O’Neil writes about math and complex systems in a way that anyone can understand, even if you slept through every math class in high school. However, nothing is perfect, and I wish that the “and threatens democracy” portion of the book was a little more fleshed out. O’Neil mentions her work with Occupy Wall Street in passing, but I think this should have been a full chapter of her book.

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I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in social policy, nonfiction books written in plain language, and people who listen to Planet Money. But be warned, after reading this book, you’ll begin to see big data traps everywhere (does the Congressional repeal of internet privacy rules sound familiar?)

Additional resources:

#21.2 Starting from Paumanok, verses 3-4

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We are continuing through Book II of Leaves of Grass today: Starting from Paumanok.

3.
Americanos! conquerors! marches humanitarian!
  Foremost! century marches! Libertad! masses!
  For you a programme of chants.

  Chants of the prairies,
  Chants of the long-running Mississippi, and down to the Mexican sea,
  Chants of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota,
  Chants going forth from the centre from Kansas, and thence equidistant,
  Shooting in pulses of fire ceaseless to vivify all.
4.
Take my leaves America, take them South and take them North,
  Make welcome for them everywhere, for they are your own off-spring,
  Surround them East and West, for they would surround you,
  And you precedents, connect lovingly with them, for they connect
      lovingly with you.

  I conn'd old times,
  I sat studying at the feet of the great masters,
  Now if eligible O that the great masters might return and study me.

  In the name of these States shall I scorn the antique?
  Why these are the children of the antique to justify it.

If you recall, this isn’t the first time that Whitman has referred to his poems as leaves. He is scattering his poems into the wind, hoping they travel the world. Continuing in the tradition of the second verse, Whitman furthers the idea that his poems will be studied far into the future. I found the twist in time interesting – while he used to study the great masters, the next set of great masters will be turning to him.

At this point in history, I think America was still struggling in the literary shadow of Britain and Europe. Whitman is wondering whether in the “name of these States” he should scorn the old masters, the European literati. He is trying to pave his own way and create a new, American literary tradition. (Do you remember his poem, To Foreign Lands?) It’s pretty exciting to see some recurring themes come back, as we connect the dots through his poems. I am not sure which American writers Whitman admired as part of the new American tradition besides Ralph Waldo Emerson. This might be an interesting segue for some Wikipedia research sometime.

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

A Pairing: Francis Picabia + Jeffrey McDaniels

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Francis Picabia, Têtes-paysage (1928)

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.
When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.
Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.
When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.
– Jeffrey McDaniel, The Quiet World (1998)

#21.2 Starting from Paumanok, verse 2

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But wait, it’s not Wednesday! In honor of World Poetry Day, I thought I’d do my Whitman Wednesday a day early. It’s been a while, so to refresh your memory, we are currently trekking through Book II of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Book II is a 19 verse poem, so I thought we’d take it a verse at a time. (See verse one here).

Victory, union, faith, identity, time,
 The indissoluble compacts, riches, mystery,
 Eternal progress, the kosmos, and the modern reports.
 This then is life,
 Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions.

 How curious! how real!
 Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.

 See revolving the globe,
 The ancestor-continents away group’d together,
 The present and future continents north and south, with the isthmus
     between.

 See, vast trackless spaces,
 As in a dream they change, they swiftly fill,
 Countless masses debouch upon them,
 They are now cover’d with the foremost people, arts, institutions, known.

 See, projected through time,
 For me an audience interminable.

 With firm and regular step they wend, they never stop,
 Successions of men, Americanos, a hundred millions,
 One generation playing its part and passing on,
 Another generation playing its part and passing on in its turn,
 With faces turn’d sideways or backward towards me to listen,
 With eyes retrospective towards me.

Whitman sees life as a succession of people, each one playing his/her part and then moving on. Their eyes are all looking back to hear Whitman speaking. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a Whitman stanza, so I had forgotten how pompous he can be at times – he is so confident, at least in his writings, that he is going to be read and listened to for generations. But in a way, the absolute confidence that life moves on one generation after another, but that these generations will all share something in common (a love for Whitman, maybe?), is reassuring to me in today’s political climate.

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! If you’re hesitant, take a peek at the free Leaves of Grass eBook at Project Gutenberg.