proverbs from Roger’s writing lair (with a nod to Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”)

 

 

simple, declarative sentences are not necessarily better than complex ones; the converse is equally true

clarity is a desideratum, but it is not necessarily a bad thing to challenge the reader

loose verbiage is not a hallmark of good writing — pruning is desirable; but, shorter is not always better (nor is the most concise style a prioi the best one)

objectivity and balance are often desirable, but not at the cost of dullness; the opposite, a fulsome, over the top, raging screed, is usually not worth reading

subtlety and irony can be as desirable as making one’s point bluntly and forcefully; it depends

no argument can stand on its own without support by way of evidence, details, illustrative examples, etc.; and, explication

vagueness and fuzziness are to be avoided; but, abstractions and abstract words do not, per se, amount to the same thing

it is not necessarily a fault to digress, or to yoke disparate topics in a single piece (but one should avoid the possibility of the reader getting lost or confused)

speaking directly to the reader and/or making an abstract argument more personal are not “wrong”

draw on your own experience where appropriate

sentence fragments can work, if used sparingly, in the right place (but not abused)

punctuation should not be dispensed with merely for the sake of convenience

comma splices are almost always an avoidable and unjustifiable error

adverbs can be overused, but they are not necessarily “bad”; it depends

vulgarity is almost always a mistake

connectors such as moreover, however, and on the contrary are essential and desirable for coherence, but they can be overused; coherence can often be achieved in more subtle ways

filler words and qualifiers such as as it were and so to speak can sometimes serve a purpose

emphasis is key; it is not always or simply a matter of putting the key idea at the end

time honored grammar rules should be heeded and not ignored simply out of ignorance or on account of laziness or political correctness

fifty cent words are not verboten; recherché words and foreign terms should not necessarily be shunned

clichés are not always bad

good writers are allowed to break the rules, but first they must know them

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2018

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damning with faint praise

 

 

Consider … the most popular novelist in the English language–Charles Dickens. His characters are types, not people. With some honorable exceptions like Great Expectations and David Copperfield; his plots are unwieldy and ultimately uninvolving. He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of. His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day, are coming up on 150 years old and read like it; his sentimentality handed Oscar Wilde his best moment in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. (“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”)

— Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing (HarperResource, 2004)

To be fair, Yagoda does proceed to praise Dickens for his style. He states: “So why could you roam the Contemporary Fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble for a year and still not find a writer as stirring and alive? Benjamin Disraeli suggested the answer when he observed, ‘It is style alone by which posterity will judge of a great work.’ ” He provides an example of the opening paragraphs of Bleak House.

Yagoda goes on to say:

Flaubert used to submit his sentences to what he called la guelade—the shouting test. He would go out to an avenue of lime trees near his house and proclaim what he’d written at the top of his lungs, the better to see if the prose conformed to the ideal that was in his head. Try that with Dickens’s words. Or, maybe better yet, type them out (as I just did), the better to fall under the spell of this mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.

I disagree (overall with Yagoda’s assessment, that is, not with the above paragraph). Charles Dickens is not still read (and, he will continue to be read, long after writers such as J K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Stephen King will be forgotten) because of style alone.

 

 

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I agree with Yagoda about Dickens’s “mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.” This is well put and totally on target. But, Yagoda has gravely underestimated Dickens. True, his characters are, in a sense, “types,” but in their “improbability” and eccentricity, they are exactly just the opposite of improbable; they are realer than real, completely believable.

Dickens’s plots may perhaps be described as “unwieldy”; they do seem at times contrived. (This was also true of many other great nineteenth-century novelists. Think Les Misérables.) But, “ultimately uninvolving”? No way.

“He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of.” So what? The works of a great novelist involve us on many levels, and their function as social commentary/criticism does not wither away over time. (Again, think Les Misérables.)

“His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day. …” This is uninformed criticism. A main reason to read Dickens is for his HUMOR. Still true. Completely.

 

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The first rule for a newly minted MD is “do no harm.” The first rule for anyone purporting to opine on literature or writing is READ.

You cannot learn how to write or how to judge writing without reading.

This includes the greats. In fact, you will never fully comprehend the above parameters of writing and literature without reading the greats. This means to fully engage with them.

Charles Dickens, for example.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    January 2018

 

 

 

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the ferry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
photographs by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;

Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.
I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,

Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward,
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,

The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,

Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable to me than my mast-hemm’d Manhattan,
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide,
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter*;

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!

Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me;
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
Receive the summer sky, you water! and faithfully hold it, till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you;
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sun-lit water;
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters!

 

— excerpted from Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”

 

 

* A lighter is a flat-bottomed barge used to transfer cargo to and from ships in harbor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2018

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Agnus Dei from Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli

 

 

 

 

 

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

 
Note: if the Agnus Dei appears to end abruptly, that is because, in the mass, the next and final section, Dona nobis pacem, follows without interruption.

 

 

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Some people seem to think that the composer Joseph Haydn is almost dated and that his music is best suited for the era of waistcoats and breeches, petticoats, buckles, and silk stockings.

I beg to differ.

Listen to the Agnus Dei from Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli.

The Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War), in C major, is also known also as the Paukenmesse (kettledrum mass) due to the dramatic use of timpani. It was first performed on December 26, 1796 in the Piarist Church of Maria Treu in Vienna. The autographed manuscript contains the title “Missa in tempore belli” in Haydn’s handwriting.

 

 

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From Wikipedia:

Haydn composed this mass at Eisenstadt in August 1796, at the time of Austria’s general mobilization into war. Four years into the European war that followed the French Revolution, Austrian troops were doing badly against the French in Italy and Germany, and Austria feared invasion. Reflecting the troubled mood of his time, Haydn integrated references to battle in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei movements.

Haydn was a deeply religious man, who appended the words “Praise be to God” at the end of every completed score. As Kapellmeister to the Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy, Haydn’s principal duty in the last period of his life, beginning in 1796, was the composition of an annual mass to honor the name day of Prince Nicholas’ wife, Princess Maria Hermenegild, 8 September, the birth of the Blessed Virgin. In a final flowering of his genius, he faithfully completed six magnificent masses (with increasingly larger orchestras) for this occasion. Thus, Missa in Tempore Belli was performed at the family church, the Bergkirche, at Eisenstadt on 29 September 1797. Haydn also composed his oratorio The Creation around the same time and the two great works share some of his signature vitality and tone-painting.

This piece has been long thought to express an anti-war sentiment, even though there is no explicit message in the text itself, and no clear indication from Haydn that this was his intention. What is found in the score is a very unsettled nature to the music, not normally associated with Haydn, which has led scholars to the conclusion that it is anti-war in nature. This is especially noticed in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei. During the time of the composition of the Mass, the Austrian government had issued a decree in 1796, that “no Austrian should speak of peace until the enemy is driven back to its customary borders.” …

[A] sense of anxiety and foreboding continues with ominous drumbeats and wind fanfares in the Agnus Dei, which opens with minor-key timpani strokes (hence the German nickname, Paukenmesse), perhaps fate itself, knocking seemingly from the depths. This foreshadows the timpani-catalyzed drama of the Agnus Dei in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The music brightens with trumpet fanfares, ending with an almost dance-like entreaty and celebration of peace, “Dona nobis pacem” (Give us peace).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missa_in_tempore_belli

 

 

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— Roger W. Smith

   January 2018

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a better, stronger country?

 

 

re

“As a 2-State Solution Loses Steam, a 1-State Plan Gains Traction”

 

By David M. Halbfinger

The New York Times

January 5, 2018

 

 

 

 

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The article states:

The Israeli right, emboldened by President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, is not the only faction arguing for a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The Palestine Liberation Organization has also begun to ask whether that might not be such a bad idea, though it has a radically different view of what that state would look like.

As momentum ebbs for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides are taking another look at the one-state idea. But that solution has long been problematic for both sides.

For the Israelis, absorbing three million West Bank Palestinians means either giving up on democracy or accepting the end of the Jewish state. The Palestinians, unwilling to live under apartheid-like conditions or military occupation, have also seen two states as their best hope. …

Palestinian supporters envision one state with equal rights for Palestinians and Jews. Palestinians would have proportionate political power and, given demographic trends, would before long be a majority, spelling the end of the Zionist project. …

Under that idea, the Palestinian movement would shift to a struggle for equal civil rights, including the freedoms of movement, assembly and speech, and the right to vote in national elections.

 

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As noted in a Wikipedia entry, “Israel defines itself as a Jewish and democratic [italics added] state. Israel is a representative democracy with a parliamentary system, proportional representation and universal suffrage.”

 

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I am not well informed about Arab-Israeli issues. But, perhaps one might say (although I would disagree) that the so called “Palestinian territories” and “occupied Palestinian territories” — i.e., the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip — since they are occupied or otherwise under the control of Israel, should perhaps be “talked about separately” in this context, meaning, yes, Israel is a democracy, etc., but political issues and solutions with respect to the occupied territories are not the same as those applying to the Jewish state. But, to explain what I mean by “this context,” it seems to me to be worth noting that Palestinians are struggling for (in the words of the Times article) “equal civil rights, including the freedoms of movement, assembly and speech, and the right to vote in national elections.”

Isn’t that what the Civil Rights movement in the US was about? Yes, blacks already had such rights under the US Constitution, but they were struggling to be allowed to exercise and be granted them de facto.

I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen. (I have a dream, one might say.) A better, stronger country would eventually emerge. I feel intuitively that diversity is always better. It is what has made the US such a great country, which, sadly, President Trump does not realize.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 7, 2018

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on the glories of English

 

 

 

It is organic. It is unstructured and unregulated. It has developed naturally. It seems to a native speaker such as myself unequaled in its richness, by which I mean to say the variety of source languages — such as the Germanic and French — out of which it grew, and its richness of vocabulary.

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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“The learned among the French will own that the comprehensiveness of expression is a glory in which the English tongue not only equals, but excels it neighbours.”

“… it really is the noblest and most comprehensive of all the vulgar languages of the world.”

 

— Daniel Defoe, “Of Academies,” An Essay Upon Projects (1697)

 

NOTE: by “vulgar,” Defoe meant the word not in the sense commonly used today, but an ancient language such as Latin.

 

 

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Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is the culling and composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitalized, and stand for things, as they unerringly and very soon come to do; in the mind that enters on the study with fitting sprit, grasp, and appreciation.

— Walt Whitman, “Slang in America,” North American Review, November 1855

 

 

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[T]he English [language] is like an English park, which is laid out seemingly without any definite plan, and in which you are allowed to walk everywhere according to your fancy without having to fear a stern keeper of rigorous regulations. The English language would not have been what it is if the English had not been for centuries great respecters of the liberties of each individual and if everybody had not been free to strike out new paths for himself.

— Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language (1905)

 

 

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— posted by Roger W. Smith

  October 2017; revised January 2018

 

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good neighbors (in a metropolis)

 

 

 

 

 

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

— Matthew 22:31

 

 

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I have lived in New York City since early adulthood.

New Yorkers cold and impersonal? Too busy to be Good Samaritans?

I have often experienced instances of just the opposite.

 

 

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On Wednesday afternoon, January 3, a bitterly cold day, I was headed home and was waiting for a bus.

No one at the bus stop. I guessed that I probably had just missed a bus and that another one wouldn’t arrive for at least ten to fifteen minutes.

It’s a bleak neighborhood, but there was a “gourmet deli” right there.

I entered and ordered a large cappuccino. There was one customer in front of me. Two young women were behind the counter. I paid $3.95 for the cappuccino.

Through a window, I saw my bus, the Q39, pulling up at the bus stop.

“How long does it take to make a cappuccino?” I said to the woman who had taken my order. “My bus is here.”

I left without a cappuccino or the $3.95. The bus was at the curb, about to leave.

I got on. There were only a couple of other passengers. The driver shut the door.

Then he opened the door again for a “last minute passenger.” A young woman boarded (whom I realized after the fact was the cashier) with cash in hand, arms extended. She dashed to my seat and said, breathlessly, “here’s your $3.95”; handed me the money with a big smile. Then she darted off the bus before it left.

New Yorkers are NICE.

 

 

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When I first moved to New York (to take a job) after graduating from college, I was overwhelmed by the immensity and seeming impersonality of the place. The anonymity was refreshing and liberating, in its own way. But, the City seemed like an awfully cold place. (And, besides its sheer size, all those high rise buildings intimidated me.)

I went to Eighth Street in Greenwich Village once, when interviewing for the job, and asked a couple of young people if there were any like minded types hanging out there, as I had experienced on Boston Common. “If you walk over to St. Mark’s Place, you will find some,” they said kindly.

On Sundays, I would hang out in Central Park, where Sixties types would congregate, perhaps listening to a guitar player singing folk songs, hoping that I would vicariously feel a sense of belonging or companionship.

One day in a subway station, I asked someone a question of some sort. They answered politely and helpfully. I told a friend of mine from college, Sam Silberstein (son of concentration camp survivors), who had grown up in Flushing, Queens, about this. “Someone was actually nice to me in the subway,” I said.

“New Yorkers are people, too,” Sam replied.

 

 

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Yes, New Yorkers are nice. I wonder if it’s the same way in Paris. I don’t think so. Parisians seem to be cold and abrupt. But, I can’t really say, having been to Paris only briefly a few times.

“Even with that sprawl of humanity, New York can be lived as a small town, familiar and compact,” in the words of New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer.

What accounts for this? I am thinking particularly of the way New Yorkers treat one another.

I think there are several factors. People like myself live in a metropolis like New York because they like being amidst other people. They don’t want to live in an ivory tower or, God forbid, a gated community.

The diversity of New York’s population acts as an elixir, a tonic. Immigrants in particular bring vitality and a palpable sense of community to the City. One might think it could be otherwise, that perhaps immigrants would cloister themselves in ethnic enclaves. Perhaps to an extent in the outlying boroughs, but, for the most part, I have found that it’s the opposite: The newcomers, and the recently arrived, or those who have not always lived in New York (which includes a large segment of the population) are full of enthusiasm for everything (and an inherent ingenuousness), including getting to know other people. And the tourists have the same attitude.

 

 

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When I go into retail establishments, restaurants, and the like, the staff seems to be for the most part friendly, eager to relate with you, the customer. (Perhaps a bit less so in chain stores.) I seem to get a welcoming reception and a friendly hello or goodbye over half the time.

If you are in distress, incommoded, or someone perceives they can help you, it’s quite remarkable how often people are ready and eager to do so. When I tripped and fell flat on my face crossing Third Avenue a couple of months ago and within seconds several people were clustered around me, helping me to get up, asking if I was okay, and (one woman) offering to call for medical assistance.

When I was taking photographs on Fifth Avenue near 59th Street last summer and someone with a foreign accident, a man who seemed to be Hispanic with several children, noticed that I had dropped my wallet on the pavement and alerted me to the fact. (I was already walking away and was halfway down the block). Same thing if one drops something or gets up and leaves one’s hat or gloves or one’s MetroCard on their seat on a bus. People including myself swiping their MetroCard for someone who needs a fare, and frequently giving handouts.

And so on. I could cite numerous examples.

 

 

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Re niceness. Of people in general, that is. And Good Samaritan-ship (aka altruism). I prefer to encounter it “in the raw,” so to speak, spontaneously, from average people whom one encounters ad libitum. To witness it bubbling up from the ebullience of good hearted types. Prefer this to organized charity and welfare, to do goodership of the institutional form.

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

   January 5, 2018

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