Literature, Legal Decisions, and the Plastic Palimpsest

As part of the Walt Whitman course I’m taking online, I watched a fascinating interview between Supreme Court Justice Elena Kegan and Harvard professor Elisa New. I’ve often blog about court decisions, but I’ve rarely thought about them as a literary form and the interplay of court decisions and other literature.

At one point, Justice Kagan, speaking about a poem said,

So reading this made me think a little bit harder about what I was seeing every day, in a way, that I guess, great poetry can do-- is to make you notice things that you don't notice in the world.

It struck me that we need Judges and Justices that read poetry; that notice things that normally aren’t noticed.

In another section she talks about quoting other judges

All the time, I use what other judges have said. And if I'm a judge and I have this amazing quote from Louis Brandeis-- man, I make sure to use that quote, right? Because it's an amazing quote, and because Louis Brandeis said it gives me a kind of credibility.

It was a wonderful discussion.

Today, I have been cleaning up some of the dangling fragments of ideas for blog posts on my computer. There are so many ideas bouncing around in my head that I would like to explore. I decided I would write a blog post exposing and exploring some of these ideas.

I was going to title the post something like, palimpsest. It is a wonderful word, dating back to Cicero, talking about writing over something, such as on a parchment that has been scraped off and is being reused.

Yet the idea of palimpsest that I always go to is from Judge John Woolsey in his decision about James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious.

It is such a wonderful quote, and I often think about this blog, with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions and the penumbral zone residua of my own past impressions, sometimes written about, sometimes, just in fragments, sometimes not even yet in fully formed thoughts.

But now, I’ve written my blog post of the day, exploring literature, legal decisions, and the plastic palimpsest underlying my own blog, so I’ll have to explore the incomplete fragments in a later post.

A Post Structural Whitman

How curious it is to be writing a blog post about an online course on Walt Whitman taught by a Harvard professor, shortly before the blizzard hits; so much further than Whitman’s mediations could ever have led him.

I, too, was once a student of modest means. I, too, once lived in Brooklyn. I, too, once walked the streets of Manhattan, visited the theatres and sailed the waters of the East River.

How different things might have been, if I had read Whitman, perhaps mixed with a little Foucault before heading off to college, before those long nights walking with an artist friend the back streets of industrial Ohio.

The railroad tracks, the blast furnace, the tree full of bats shrieking off into the night, and the fried onion rings at the all night truck stop might have made more sense against a palimpsest of Foucault and Whitman.

We were the flaneurs of twentieth century industrial America, and should have claimed our heritage of Whitman’s wandering around Manhattan or Baudelaire’s Paris.

But I was not so full of myself. I could not sing a song of myself, as much as I loved Giovanni’s Ego Tripping, I disliked self-referential pop music, and restricted my poetry to quaint imagism.

Years later, I took to the technology of my generation. Writing computer software became my poetry and my gateway to the penny presses of the twenty first century, the blog.

Like Franklin and Whitman, I went from working the presses to writing the content, fueled by a love of democracy. As a blogger, I hung out with the politicians, became a politician, and sought for words to make a difference.

But now, I must post my thoughts about Whitman, about the poems we’ve been reading before the blizzard hits, for like another poet that impacted me early, I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.

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Hacking Brooklyn Ferry

It is Saturday, a day of rest. I am visiting my brother-in-law and his family in Hanover, New Hampshire. Fiona is off hanging out with her cousins. I have just gotten back from a walk around the Dartmouth campus, playing Ingres, hacking portals.

I pause to read Crossing Brooklyn Ferry as part of the MOOC that I am taking. How curious it would all be to Walt Whitman, a MOOC, the internet, this laptop. How curious it would all be to Walt Whitman, Ingress, GPS, cellphones. Hacking Brooklyn Ferry.

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island,

I first lived in Brooklyn in the days before the cellphone, when the internet was limited to a select few. I commuted from Brooklyn to New York, not by ferry, but by subway. Years later, I lived on a sailboat, a sloop, Whitman would have said, on the west side of Manhattan. I often sailed the waters Whitman wrote about, jibing and tacking amongst the vessels in the bay. Again, years later. I walked the streets, hacking portals in Ingress.

Yes, how curious it would all be to Walt Whitman, and yet, to hop to a different poet,

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

I return to Whitman. Later, I come across “ as I lay in my bed” and my mind wanders to Wordsworth.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

I sit on my brother-in-law’s couch, and think about Wordsworth’s daffodils and Whitman’s “ curious abrupt questionings” and then my phone buzzes to notify me that a portal I had captured is now under attack. My resonators will be destroyed and the portal will be captured again by the resistance.

The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious,

Of course, this is not just in the game of Ingress. It is also in the game of life and struggling to write something meaningful. Yet I continue to struggle, continue to write, continue to hack portals only to be recaptured.

“Flow on, river!” Whitman exclaims, and Joyce replies, “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…”

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One Favorite Poem

I'm taking a HarvardX MOOC course on the poetry of Walt Whitman. Getting going, we have been asked to introduce ourselves. As part of the introduction we've been asked to list our favorite poem. There is no way I can narrow it down to one or two poems, so here is what I wrote:

Hi. My name is Aldon and I’m from Connecticut. I’m taking this class for a few different reasons. One is simply that I’m interested in always learning new things. I’m interested in how learning takes place online. And, I’m interested in Poetry, in 19th century America and Walt Whitman.

In terms of favorite poems, I’m going to break the rules, because I just can’t narrow things down to a few. Growing up in New England, I was exposed to Robert Frost early on and he was one of my earliest favorite poets. Stopping by Woods… Two Roads Diverged… In fifth grade, I had to memorize a poem, and it was John Masefield’s Sea Fever, which also remains a favorite of mine today. e.e. cummings was another poet I liked early on. domenic has a doll… anyone lived in a pretty how town….

It was probably in High School that I first encountered William Carlos Williams and So Much Depends Upon and The Great Figure became favorites. Later I wandered into the poetry of H.D. and many of her poems became favorites, such as Sea Rose.

When I studied the bagpipes, I immersed myself in Scottish culture and developed a love for the works of Robert Burns. My Heart’s in the Highlands… My Love is like a Red Red Rose… To a Louse …

I spent a bit of time reading Richard Brautigan in high school, but don’t remember many of them. The Winos on Potrero Hill comes to mind.

In college, I had the opportunity to hear some great poets. Nikki Giovanni, Ego Tripping remains a favorite. I can’t remember if Maya Angelou spoke at my college, but Still I Rise became a favorite poem of mine. We also had Denise Levertov speak. She read, A Tree Telling of Orpheus. It was the most magical experience I ever had listening to poetry, and many of her poems have become favorites.

The flip side of this was hearing Allen Ginsberg read Howl. I had read it many times and held it in deep reverence. In my mind it sounded ponderous as if it should be read by James Earl Jones. Ginsberg sounded nothing like James Earl Jones.

After college I binged on Keats and Blake. Yeats became a favorite, especially Lake Isle of Innisfree. I read a bit of T.S. Eliot in an adult Christian Education class in New York City, and still come back to the Four Quartets and The Wasteland.

Many of these poets became what I read to my children when they were young, along with Wordsworth’s Daffodils, and Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.

These days, I watch videos of poets reading. I like Sarah Kay’s If I Should Have a Daughter. I like Billy Collins Forgetgfulness and Richard Blanco’s One Today.

If I spent more time, other important poems would come to me as well, but I’ve already gone well beyond the one favorite poem.

Sisyphus’ Selfie

Sisyphus paused, his feet braced, his left arm extended against the boulder, holding off the inevitable. With his right hand he fished his smartphone out of his pocket and took a selfie.

The first selfie had been a challenge. His muscles were strong but sore. It was hard for him to hold the boulder in its place with just one hand. His friends mocked him. What was the purpose of the selfie? Why bother interrupt his routine?

But through practice, he became better at it. The selfies went from showing weary anguish to having a certain artistic flair, catching the angle of the setting sun just right. Once, he even managed to capture an image of an eagle flying away with Prometheus’ liver. Some of his friends started taking selfies as well and selfies became part of the routine. Push the boulder up the hill. Take a selfie. Watch the boulder roll back down.

Yet there was still something missing, that sense of repetition. So today, Sisyphus tried something different. He captured a brief video of the boulder careening down the crevasse.

The endless loop soon went viral.

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