I could not help but think of my recent post

“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”


when I read an op-ed piece by Gail Collins in today’s New York Times:

“Dogs, Saints and Columbus Day”

The New York Times, October 6, 2017






It has taken me a while to realize it — I kind of liked her op-ed pieces at first (while never being that impressed by them or struck by her thoughts) — that Gail Collins is a weak writer. As this piece shows, a very poor writer.

She begins the piece with Christopher Columbus, specifically the statues of him across the country to which protestors object and which some have been desecrating.

After a digression, she writes that Christopher Columbus, whom she is writing about because it will be Columbus Day on Monday, has been “been on a slide for a long time” (an awkward phrase), has been reevaluated as not having achieved such great feats as an explorer as he had been said to and criticized and/or vilified for having perpetrated atrocities on native peoples.

She then gets to her key point, which every op-ed piece must have: “Our current statue obsession began, naturally, with Donald Trump, who claimed that if people start to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, the next thing you know, they’ll be eliminating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, since they were both slave owners.”

“This is obviously nuts,” Ms. Collins writes.

It is not “obliviously nuts,” despite the fact that Donald Trump said it.

Is she trying to emulate General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, who in 1944, responding to an ultimatum that he surrender to German forces, replied as follows: “To the German Commander. / NUTS!”

Such an abrupt, peremptory dismissal by Ms. Collins — which she feels entitled to make in such a fashion because she assumes none of her readers would take anything said by Donald Trump seriously — of a sound point that requires thoughtful rebuttal proves nothing other than Ms. Collins’s weakness as a thinker who cannot go beneath the surface and her flaws as a writer.

She goes on to say:

Robert E. Lee was perhaps a nice man and a good general. But his point was winning a war that would have divided the United States for the purpose of preserving slavery.

You judge historical figures by their main point [italics added], because if you demanded perfection on the details you’d have nobody left but the actual saints. … The point of George Washington’s career was American independence. Thomas Jefferson’s was the Declaration of Independence. I say that even though I have never been a huge fan of Jefferson, who was possibly the worst male chauvinist in Founding Fatherdom. [Note that she has to make the point about Jefferson being a male chauvinist to satisfy her readers that she is criticism-proof correct politically.]

The point of Christopher Columbus was exploration. Although people knew the world was round, they had no idea how long it might take to get around it. Columbus’s goal was to try to make it to the other side of the planet. He sailed out into the great unknown and brought back word of his discoveries.

And so on.

This is very weak thinking.





Since when was it decided that one should “judge historical figures by their main point”? What does this mean, either as a guiding principle or in practice? How would it work? Since when do individual persons — historical figures, leaders in the present, and everyday people — amount to a POINT. A controlling idea? Since when could they be summed up that way, given the actual complexity of human personality, human motivations, and human actions?

What was Lyndon Johnson’s “main point”? (The Great Society or the Vietnam War?) Or Richard Nixon’s “main point”? What was George W. Bush’s?

What was JFK’s main point? The New Frontier? What was that anyway? It’s awfully vague.

This is simplistic, fuzzy thinking of the worst sort. It’s an attempt at dissimulation by which the “good guys” in history can be gotten off the hook for doing “bad” things such as racism or owning slaves, while the “bad guys” are still held accountable.






A final thought. Ms. Collins says: “Our current statue obsession began, naturally, with Donald Trump [italics added], who claimed that if people start to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, the next thing you know, they’ll be eliminating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. …”

This is totally inaccurate, and I find it hard to fathom how she could be so misinformed as to make such a claim. The controversy over historical monuments dedicated to and buildings named after Confederate heroes, slaveholders, and other historical figures considered racist has been going on since long before President Trump’s statements about the Charlottesville violence, which were made in August of this year.



— Roger W. Smith

  October 7, 2017





Addendum: I am working on a new blog about writing examined from all angles. I have found that, in trying to ascertain what the elements or good writing are, it helps to occasionally look at bad writing. Ms. Collins’s article is an example of bad writing that is founded on a weak premise and is jerrybuilt. This kind of writing seems to be the product of a writer wanting to have something to say and be clever, but writing hastily or flippantly without serious reflection or doing any preparation.

Posted in personal views of Roger W. Smith, political correctness (PC), politics, writing (the craft of writing; good vs. bad writing; my training, experience, and lessons re same) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

left vs. right brainedness; and, CREATIVITY



An animated discussion with an acquaintance the other day got me to thinking about the concept of left vs. right brainedness (known by scientists as lateralization of brain function) and how it affects people. Clearly, it is a fact of one’s makeup that is extremely important. There is much to be contemplated by the layperson trying to understand himself or herself. It seems to affect us so profoundly.

No doubt, the terms are often used loosely, and while I am not an expert, there seems to be much confusion, with concepts getting tossed around by people who feel that this or that trait is dominant in their makeup.

My wife is right brained. I am left brained. My entire nuclear family — parents and four children — was thoroughly left-brain predominant. I am so “left brain” it isn’t funny.

My acquaintance acquainted me with a chart summarizing the key features of the two types of brain dominance, which is very helpful. The key distinctions are that the left brain is dominant in speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, and mathematical computations, while in the right brain spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, and rhythm predominate. This is a very useful schema, heuristically, but as is true of much that is written and spoken about in human psychology, facile explanations and distortions are all too possible.

I have zero expertise and cannot do more than speak from experience and my own speculations: my experience as it seems to corroborate the basic ideas; my speculations about what this might say about creativity.






My Left-Brainedness


I am totally left-brained, as noted above, and knowing this and what its implications are has helped me greatly to understand myself. This is very true in terms of defects of mine in perception that stand out. I am very poor at learning and perception when it comes to spatial relationships. Give me an aptitude test of verbal ability and I will excel. Give me a test (as has happened) in which there are pendulums and pulleys, and one has to figure out which way a wheel will rotate if another wheel is rotating in the other direction, and I am helpless. I have no mechanical ability. If you give me directions in words, I’m fine. Show me a map and I am confused.

Facial recognition is a right-brain dominant strength. Being left-brain dominant, I am very weak at this. I used to have the embarrassing experience occasionally at my workplace of failing miserably at facial recognition. It would happen in the following manner. I would encounter someone who did not work in my department and perhaps worked on a different floor, but whom I knew and would see fairly often. I would encounter them at random so that the encounter was not foreseen. Suddenly, I could not think of their name, which caused me great consternation. I knew I knew them well, but I could not match the face with a name. I would say something like, “Good morning, how are you?” —leaving off their name — which the other person could perceive as being insulting. A few minutes later, after the encounter, the name would come to me, too late.

I am very good at remembering names of persons known to me in the present and in the past. I remember names of persons from way back whom I met but did not become closely acquainted with. So, there is a storehouse of names in my left brain. The problem, which used to cause me near panic at work, is that facial recognition somehow fails me, and I can’t connect the face with a name, even though there is a storehouse of names ready to be recalled in my left brain.

This is a significant fact of my experience, but it may not be that important. A more important fact is that I am at weak at thinking which is said to predominate in right brain types: holistic thinking, getting the big picture. I can reason and parse a problem with something bordering on brilliance, but sometimes when I have to make a decision and the facts are staring me right in the face, I have trouble seeing the solution clearly.






My Right-Brained Genius Friend


I had a friend in college who influenced me greatly intellectually. We used to have deep discussions (called bull sessions back them) that went on and on, often late into the night.

I recall when I first met him in our residence hall. He almost seemed like a hayseed and didn’t seem that smart. My college roommate, being informed that we had talked, said of my new acquaintance (the soon to become close friend and bull sessions partner) that he was brilliant. Really?, I thought. Several years later when reading a biography of Herman Melville, the words of Sophia Hawthorne (wife of Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne) about Melville (in a letter to her mother) reminded me of my college friend:

He has very keen perceptive power; but what astonishes me is, that his eyes are not large and deep. He seems to me to see everything accurately; and how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way. … When conversing, he is full of gesture and force, and loses himself in his subject. There is no grace or polish. Once in a while, his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected; an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into itself.

My friend was like this in that he seemed to be mentally lazy, to not be that inquisitive or attentive at times. (This was actually NOT the case, as I was to discover.) He did not exhibit verbal brilliance; his conversation was not scintillating on the surface. (Actually, he was extremely insightful; I just didn’t see it.) He didn’t come off as an intellectual. But, I discovered over time, through sustained acquaintance, that he was a near genius and exceeded me intellectually in many important respects. He was a right-brained, big picture guy with great insight into people and human relationships. (He became a psychiatrist.) He was highly capable of original thought and coming up with brilliant formulations of his own that were couched in plain, homespun language.

We were briefly postgraduate premedical students together. I petered out. He excelled in the premed program and was accepted by an excellent medical school. We were both working then and attending classes in the evenings. We would meet after lectures. Everything would have been digested by him and stored in his brain for exam time. He barely had to study or look at a textbook, it seemed. He has gotten all the essential lecture points down pat. That is why I perceived him as being intellectually lazy; he never seemed to be making an effort (usually, I should say; this was actually not always the case).

My right-brained “genius” friend was not well read (although he did well, to the extent he made an effort, in English and humanities courses and helped to introduce me to James Joyce by encouraging me to attend a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby” with him in my senior year in college). He had totally plebeian tastes in music; he was unacquainted with classical music. He could occasionally be unobservant about fine points of things and human relationships, making him appear insensitive. He was helpless at foreign languages. I stayed up all night once translating a paper into French for him that he had written, for a French course, in English and caught a bad cold. He barely thanked me.






My Wife and I; Right Versus Left



My right-brained wife excelled at geometry. She is better than I am at fixing things.

My wife has an excellent grasp of big picture issues. She often helps me unravel things — often when they concern human relationships — making clear what is plain as the nose on one’s face, but which I missed.

Early in our relationship, I thought to myself, she’s the math major and I’m the writer, she probably can’t write well. I was wrong. I am a more polished writer, but her writing (such as in student term papers she showed me and in communiques such as work related memos and emails to me) is well organized and clear. I came to see that (as illustrated by wife’s writing) the left brain/right brain distinction can be misleading when crude measures or yardsticks are applied. It’s basically a question of APPROACH.

An illustrative example will help to make clear what I mean by this.

When disputes arise that my wife and I can’t seem to resolve, I will often find myself giving her a long lecture, a “sermon,” trying to convince her that my viewpoint is right, segueing from minute point to minute point, with corollaries and ancillary points. Only if all my points have been made, fully and clearly, with illustrative examples and supporting “evidence,” do I feel entitled to say: I have proved my case.

You can see her eyes glaze over. All she wants to know is: what is (are) your main point(s)? But, from my point of view, this almost ensures defeat, because she didn’t agree with me in the first place.

What I think this shows — what thinking about left- versus right-brain thinking seems to indicate — is that there are elemental reasons why my wife and I often can’t resolve disputes. We approach mentally perceived things differently.









In the chart below, what we see is:

Left Brain Functions: Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.

Right Brain Functions: Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.

This is a problem with psychology extracted from science. It often becomes pseudoscience.

Which is not to say that the schema is unsound, or that the scientific findings (and I am not a scientist) are unsound.

But, someone who glances at the chart may think, left-brain people like myself are nerdy, pointy headed analytical types who don’t have pizzazz and are too uptight, too straightlaced to be able to be spontaneous or creative. Whereas right-brain types are intuitive persons into music, art, and rhythm who are much more creative.

A lot of people think that being logical means one is inhibited and incapable of creativity and to be creative you have to be kind of nutty like a Salvador Dali. This is a superficial, misleading view.

I believe that this is a fallacy, a serious one, and that it can lead to a profound misunderstanding of what creativity involves. To repeat, it’s not the schema that’s at fault. It’s that misinformed people don’t interpret it properly. As a matter of fact, the internet posting indicates that “It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.” (What is not said, which is a serious oversight, is that most creative people are analytical/logical.) The posting also indicates that it is not true that analytical people cannot be creative.

Note that the internet posting indicates that typical right-brain occupations include politics, acting, and athletics. “Acting,” one might say, “that’s creative. Proves my point. Right-brain types are creative.”

Two of the occupations listed, politics and athletics, are not in the creative category. And, actors, while they may have a lifestyle one associates with creative types, are not creative people. It is the playwrights, screenwriters, and directors who are creative.

The posting indicates that right-brained types are “intuitive,” whereas left-brained types are “logical.” Meaning that poets are right-brained? How about writers in general?

I’m not sure about poets, because I am not knowledgeable about poetry. But, I do know literature and great writing. Most writers — I will go out on a limb and assert it — are left brained.

Think of a writer such as Milton (poet!), Tolstoy, Melville, or Joyce laboring to produce a great work of art. Take the example of Joyce. A genius at language. Who labored about four years over Ulysses and seventeen years on his final novel, Finnegans Wake. The sequencing, the choice and order of words, were all. It is a master of language engaged in the most challenging exercise of exposition imaginable, drawing upon all his left-brain resources.

The schema associates right-brained people with musical talent. Perhaps at strumming a guitar or enjoying acid rock. But, this is very misleading; nowhere in the schema is there any indication that left-brained people may have a capacity for music. But, it is noted that left-brained people excel at mathematics.

It has been known for a long time that people with innate intellectual ability when it comes to abstract mathematics are often great appreciators of classical music. And, what’s more important, I am certain that most of the great composers were left-brained. Think about Beethoven endlessly revising his compositions. Working out the inner logic of his symphonies until it (the “musical logic”) seems preordained and inevitable. That is left-brained thinking, unquestionably.

People use words like “creative” and “intuitive” too loosely. Left-brainedness does not preclude creativity, far from it.

My mother provides an example. Her biggest intellectual strengths were reading/writing; communication/conversation. She was left-brained. She loved literature. She wrote very well. She remembered the books she read in great detail, as she also did conversations, incidents, and people she knew from the remote past. And, she was highly intuitive. It was the type of intuition a poet might have. She was great at picking up on subtleties, as poets (and also novelists) do and noticing or recalling little, telling details, in contrast to what is seen in “big picture” right-brain types.

A key, as is also true of my wife, to categorizing the mental or intellectual “cast” of person such as my mother is not to apply an adjective such as instinctive, intuitive, or artistic to that person from an a priori vantage point and then attempt to make it fit. It is, rather, to ask, how does that person habitually cogitate, communicate, and so forth? My mother excelled at writing and conversation. She was a born writer who never became one professionally. My father, to give another example, was a professional musician who showed talent from a very young age. Did that make him right brained? The answer is, definitely not. His writing demonstrated where his strengths lay. He wrote beautifully, whenever it was required of him. He had a gift that seemed remarkable for exposition, for making things clear, and for presenting his thoughts cogently, which is to say logically, both in conversation and writing.

My own career as a writer illustrates some of the above points. I was blessed with innate ability when it comes to language and exposition and raised in a family where these attributes were customary and essential. Yet, I slaved for years to hone my skills, beginning with rigorous writing instruction as a student and continuing with professional writing.

As a beginning professional writer, I often despaired of getting things right, meeting deadlines, being able to write to spec, and so forth; and labored for much longer than anyone might conceive to write short pieces for publication. What I have found over the years as I have become more skilled and my productivity has increased, is that there is a still a process which I go through in most cases. I start out with an idea for a piece of writing, I get some ideas down on paper. Leaving aside the question of research, which is a major undertaking in itself in the case of most expository pieces, I begin writing and it usually goes reasonably well. I am able to make a start (and am much more adept at this than in my earlier years as a writer when I labored over leads). Then, there is a long process of building upon that initial stab at a piece, of incremental additions, of qualifiers, rewriting, rearranging and recasting of thoughts, and of trying over and over again to get it just right, to get the words and sentences to cohere. It’s sort of like completing a jigsaw puzzle. (People think creativity means inspiration. Yes, it does, and no, it doesn’t. Meaning that most great works were produced after prodigious labor and endless refining — leaving aside the extended apprenticeship, years of study of models of excellence and of beginning or trial efforts, that a creative genius must undergo before achieving mastery. And, the works themselves do not just spring like rabbits out of a hat. Endless toil and labor go into producing them, during which the artist is not sure of the outcome. The best insights often come when you’re thinking hard, which means working hard, to perfect a piece, and they often come near the point of completion.)

For a while, one’s writing seems muddled, but it begins to take shape. Still, one knows that it’s not anywhere near completion, to being in finished form. One experiences frustration. But, the subconscious continues to work. One goes back to the piece, and on the tenth draft or so (literally) — if not the fifteenth or sixteenth — one feels the piece beginning to cohere and to have an inner logic: that it works. One has gone from becoming a logician of sorts (a logician of words and sentences, trying to work out their desired sequence) to an “artiste” (used sardonically), a creative writer, as they say. One experiences true creativity, which is very pleasurable. But true creativity is not possible without careful preparation and planning, without drudgery. This is not just true of a Roger W. Smith, it was also true of James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Didn’t I already say it? I belong in distinguished company. I’m left-brained! As were they.




— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017










Left Brain vs. Right Brain




Left-brained people are supposed to be logical, analytical, and methodical, while right-brained people are supposed to be creative, disorganized, and artistic. But this left-brain / right-brain theory has been refuted by a large-scale, two-year study by researchers at the University of Utah. In other words, it is untrue that logical people predominantly use the left side of the brain and artistic people predominantly use the right. All people use both halves of the brain. However, the stereotypes associated with being left- or right-brained persist and continue to arouse curiosity.



Comparison chart

Left Brain versus Right Brain


Left Brain Functions

Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.


Right Brain Functions

Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.


Left Brain Traits

Linear thinking, sequential processing, logical decision-making, reality-oriented.


Right Brain Traits

Holistic thinking, random processing, intuitive decision-making, non-verbal processing, fantasy-oriented.


Left Brain Perceived personality traits

Analytical, logical, pay attention to detail



Right Brain Perceived Personality Traits

Creative, artistic, open-minded.



Left Brain Overall Thinking

Linear, detail-oriented — “details to whole” approach.



Right Brain Overall Thinking

Holistic, big-picture oriented — “whole to details” approach.


Left Brain Thought Process

Sequential; verbal (process with words).



Right Brain Thought Process

Random; non-verbal (process with visuals).



Left Brain Problem-Solving

Logical — order/pattern perception; emphasis on strategies.



Right Brain Problem-Solving

Intuitive — spatial/abstract perception; emphasis on possibilities.



Left Brain Strengths

Mathematics, analytics, reading, spelling, writing, sequencing, verbal and written language.



Right Brain Strengths

Multi-dimensional thinking, art, music, drawing, athletics, coordination, repairs, remembers faces, places, events.



Left Brain Difficulties

Visualization, spatial/abstract thinking



Right Brain Difficulties

Following by sequence, understanding parts, organizing a large body of information, remembering names.





The theory of right brain vs. left brain dominance originates with Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist and neuropsychologist Roger Sperry. Sperry discovered that the left hemisphere of the brain usually functions by processing information in rational, logical, sequential, and overall analytical ways. The right hemisphere tends to recognize relationships, integrate and synthesize information, and arrive at intuitive thoughts.

These findings, while true, serve as the basis for the now-disproved theory that people who are logical, analytical and methodical are left-brain dominant, and those who are creative and artistic are right-brain dominant.

A study conducted at the University of Utah has debunked the myth. Neuroscientists analyzed over 1,000 brain scans from people between the ages of seven and 29. The brain scans did not show any evidence that people use one side of the brain more than the other. Essentially, the brain is interconnected, and the two hemispheres support each other in its processes and functions.


Lateralization of Brain Function

The human brain is split into two distinct cerebral hemispheres connected by the corpus callosum. The hemispheres exhibit strong bilateral symmetry regarding structure as well as function. For instance, structurally, the lateral sulcus generally is longer in the left hemisphere than in the right hemisphere, and functionally, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are located in the left cerebral hemisphere for about 95% of right-handers, but about 70% of left-handers. Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Roger Sperry has contributed significantly to the research of lateralization and split-brain function.



Brain Process and Functions

The left hemisphere of the brain processes information analytically and sequentially. It focuses on the verbal and is responsible for language. It processes from details into a whole picture. The left hemisphere’s functions include order and pattern perception as well as creating strategies. The left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body.

The right hemisphere of the brain processes information intuitively. It focuses on the visual and is responsible for attention. It processes from the whole picture to details. The right hemisphere’s functions include spatial perception and seeing possibilities in situations. The right hemisphere controls the muscles on the left side of the body.


The Stereotype

People who are analytical and logical and who pay attention to detail are said to be left-brain dominant, i.e., they use the left side of the brain more than the right side. Basic characteristics of left-brain thinking include logic, analysis, sequencing, linear thinking, mathematics, language, facts, thinking in words, remembering song lyrics and computation. When solving problems, left-brained people tend to break things down and make informed, sensible choices. Typical occupations include being a lawyer, judge, or banker.

People who are creative, artistic and open-minded are said to be right-brain dominant, and the right side of their brain is more dominant. Basic characteristics of right-brain thinking include creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, arts, rhythm, non-verbal, feelings, visualization, recognizing a tune and daydreaming. When solving problems, right-brained people tend to rely on intuition or a “gut reaction.” Typical occupations include politics, acting, and athletics.



What’s True

There exist personality types who are predominantly more analytical than artistic.

It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.



What’s Not True

Analytical people cannot be creative (or the other way round) because only one part of their brain is dominant.


Strengths and Difficulties

Left-brained people are supposed to be good at mathematics, reading, spelling, writing, sequencing and verbal and written language. They may have difficulty with abstract visualization.

Right-brained people are supposed to be good at multi-dimensional thinking, art, music, drawing, athletics, coordination and repairs. They remember faces, places and events. However, right-brained people may have difficulty understanding parts if they can’t see the whole. They may also struggle with sequencing, organizing a large body of information and remembering names.

Posted in Alan W. Smith (Roger W. Smith's father), creativity; thought, Elinor Handy Smith (Roger W. Smith's mother), personal psychology (Roger W. Smith observations re), writing (the craft of writing; good vs. bad writing; my training, experience, and lessons re same) | Tagged , | Leave a comment

musical settings of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”















Critic Harold Bloom has observed that “Only a few poets in the language have surpassed [Walt Whitman’s poem] ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’.”

I believe that it is Whitman’s greatest poem, which is saying something. Close rivals for that distinction among Whitman’s poetry might be “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

I have posted here (above) two musical settings of “Lilacs.”

German composer Paul Hindemith, who lived in the United States for over a decade, set Whitman’s text to music to mourn the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The work, an oratorio, was titled “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love” (1946).

I have heard this work performed live once, at Carnegie Hall. It never fails to move me. The ninth track on the recording posted here, “Sing on! you gray-brown bird,” brings tears to my eyes.

The recording posted here is by the Robert Shaw Chorale, which commissioned the work, with the mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. It is my favorite performance.

Also posted here is American composer Roger Sessions’s setting of the poem (1977), a cantata. It is noted in a Wikipedia entry that

The University of California at Berkeley commissioned American neoclassical composer Roger Sessions to set the poem as a cantata to commemorate their centennial anniversary in 1964. Sessions did not finish composing the work until the 1970’s, dedicating it to the memories of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and political figure Robert F. Kennedy. Sessions first became acquainted with Leaves of Grass in 1921 and began setting the poem as a reaction to the death of his friend, George Bartlett, although none of the sketches from that early attempt survive. He returned to the text almost fifty years later, composing a work scored for soprano, contralto, and baritone soloists, mixed chorus and orchestra. The music is described as responding “wonderfully both to the Biblical majesty and musical fluidity of Whitman’s poetry, and here to, in the evocation of the gray-brown bird singing from the swamp and of the over-mastering scent of the lilacs, he gives us one of the century’s great love letters to Nature.”

This recording is of a performance conducted by Seiji Ozawa.



— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

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“On the Beach at Night Alone” (Vaughan Williams, Whitman)





“On the Beach at Night Alone” is the second movement from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “A Sea Symphony” (written between 1903 and 1909; first performed in 1910).

The text of “A Sea Symphony” comes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

“On the Beach at Night Alone” is a poem by Whitman.

I find this symphony extremely moving and impressive, and this movement has never failed to hold me in awe. I can feel a sense of identity with, and the vicarious experience of, being a walker on the beach (which Whitman often was).



— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017







ON the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef
of the universes and of the future.

A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in
different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.


— Walt Whitman








“On the Beach at Night Alone”

What does the poem mean?

Here is my attempt at explaining the poem. Comments are welcome. I am not a poetry expert.


— Roger W. Smith



The poet is walking on the beach at night.

“[T]he old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song.”

The old mother is the sea.

Singing her husky song … the surf roars.

(No fancy words here; Whitman uses the plainest.)

He thinks of the “clef” (key) of the “universes” (multiple universes) and the future (what is now and what is to come, linking the past and the future).

He sees that “A vast similitude interlocks all.”

He sees that things that we often think of as not alike, different, separate: the animate and inanimate … celestial bodies far out in space, the living and the dead, different peoples and nations, are all part of life, having the same life force.

The “vast similitude” is like a giant blanket covering and enveloping anything that ever has existed, does exist, or can be contemplated.

There is unity and coherence in all things.

Posted in my favorite music, Walt Whitman | Tagged , | Leave a comment

serendipity (or, should I say, the paranormal)



It usually is the case that if two people don’t get along, they can’t have a successful working relationship.

This applies to an instructor and a student.

If the thing being taught is something technical, you would think that if the instructor has the knowledge and expertise, personality wouldn’t matter.

It does for me. I have had experiences taking lessons (briefly) in swimming, tennis, and piano, all of which didn’t work out mostly because I could not establish rapport with the instructor.







This was true of George Cohen of Newton, Massachusetts, a well known and very successful piano teacher.

My father, who became a professional pianist and himself a piano teacher, was a student of Mr. Cohen in his youth. My younger brother took lessons with Mr. Cohen for years and was one of his best students.

I myself decided that I wanted to try taking piano lessons for a second time when I was a junior in college. I had taken them briefly at age eleven with a very nice, attractive, and vivacious Japanese woman, Marsha Fukui, in Cambridge, Mass. We hit it off, but I lost interest in piano after a few months and stopped taking lessons.

I tried again in my late teens, when I was in college, with Mr. Cohen. I thought the fact that I was my father’s son and that my father must have been one of his best students would have meant something, also the fact that my younger brother was his student for a long time. This didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Cohen. Personal relationships were not of interest to him. One could say, why should they matter? You were there to learn how to play the piano. But in my case — from my perspective — such things are very important. I have to feel connected to the other person, have to be able to make conversation. If I don’t, I can’t get anywhere with them.






But that’s not the key point of this post. I wish to share a couple of amazing, serendipitous things that happened to me. One involved my lessons with Mr. Cohen.

Mr. Cohen kept telling me that I needed to strengthen my fingers as an older piano student. He said that stiffness in the fingers (they are, apparently, much more limber in a grade schooler) was a problem that had to be overcome if I was ever going to make progress. He told me to take a book and put it over my hand when playing, as a finger muscle strengthening exercise. So, I took a book at random off the bookshelf in the living room of my home and used it when practicing. A while later, I happened to look at the book. The title was The Physiology of Piano Playing.

A totally coincidental occurrence. What were the odds that that would be the book I would use?






The other anecdote involved, indirectly, my former therapist, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.

From time to time during the course of our therapy sessions, Dr. Colp, who was a prolific writer and well known scholar, would ask me to do unpaid research for him. I remember once when he was writing an article updating some aspect of the psychiatric literature and he asked me to make an inventory of new publications in the field.

Dr. Colp’s fees were every low, well below professional norms. He made it clear to me personally and also in comments he made to interviewers that he was not in medicine for the money.

Perhaps he regarded “hiring” me to do research as a form of barter, with the research amounting to partial payment. But he only asked me to do it when he was stumped by something and absolutely could not find anything.

I told him that I was flattered to be asked. Yet, sometimes I was thinking, what will he ask me to find now? He always gave me the hardest things to look up.

Often, the research concerned, usually indirectly, Charles Darwin, Dr. Colp’s major research interest, about whom he wrote two books and many articles.

Dr. Colp was interested in learning everything he could about Darwin’s personal (as well as his scientific) life, including how he spent his leisure time and what his tastes in books (e.g., novels) and music were. He had found out that Darwin liked a popular song of the Victorian era, “Will He Come?,” composed by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

Could I find out where the lyrics came from?

It was known that the lyrics to the song were by Adelaide Procter. Adelaide Anne Procter (1825–1864) was a very popular poet of her day; she was the favorite poet of Queen Victoria. She burst on the literary scene as a teenager. She died of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine.

So, what poem of Procter’s were the lyrics to the song taken from? Dr. Colp, like me, was a stickler for details. He wanted to be exact.

I couldn’t find out what poem of Procter’s the lyrics came from. She published three books of poetry in her lifetime. There is no poem with the title “Will He Come?”

It seems that it would have made sense for me to consult her books, but they weren’t available to me. I cannot remember why I didn’t. This was pre-internet days. Somehow, I found out that Procter had known Charles Dickens, who admired her work, and that some of her earliest poems had been published in Household Words, a weekly magazine edited by Dickens. (I doubt that nowadays many people know that Dickens was an editor.)

I went to the New York Public Library and put in a call slip for several issues of Household Words from the 1850’s. A big fat volume with a faded green cover was handed over to me. It was comprised of several issues of the magazine that had been bound together into a single volume. The pages were old and showed their age.

I placed the big, weighty book on a table in front of me and opened it carefully, not wanting to damage it. I opened it at random to a page somewhere in the middle.

On that very page was THE poem. Miss Procter’s poem. Published under the title “Hush!”

The exact same words, verbatim, as the lyrics in the Arthur Sullivan song.

How had it happened that I had requested the right volume of the magazine, and then, amazingly, opened to the very page on which there was not only a poem by Proctor, but the very poem I was looking for?


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017







“I CAN scarcely hear,” she murmured,
“For my heart beats loud and fast,
But surely, in the far, far distance,
I can hear a sound at last.”
“It is only the reapers singing,
As they carry home their sheaves,
And the evening breeze has risen,
And rustles the dying leaves.”

“Listen! there are voices talking.”
Calmly still she strove to speak,
Yet her voice grew faint and trembling,
And the red flushed in her cheek.
“It is only the children playing
Below, now their work is done,
And they laugh that their eyes are dazzled
By the rays of the setting sun.”

Fainter grew her voice, and weaker
As with anxious eyes she cried,
“Down the avenue of chestnuts,
I can hear a horseman ride.”
“It was only the deer that were feeding
In a herd on the clover grass,
They were startled, and fled to the thicket,
As they saw the reapers pass.”

Now the night arose in silence,
Birds lay in their leafy nest,
And the deer couched in the forest,
And the children were at rest:
There was only a sound of weeping
From watchers around a bed,
But Rest to the weary spirit,
Peace to the quiet Dead!


Adelaide Procter

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one cent more



My mother, Elinor Handy Smith, had an excellent, novelistic memory. She remembered all sorts of particulars that brought her past and the people who populated her past alive.

She told amusing stories about herself too. Like how, graduating near the top of her class in high school, she was admitted to Radcliffe College and thought college would be a breeze. How she spent a lot of her first semester attending films at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge and, when final exam time came up, she was hopelessly unprepared. How she stayed up cramming for a week or two drinking cup after cup of coffee with little sleep.

About Professor Arthur Pope, who taught Fine Arts at Harvard. My mother said that if you were a minute late for his lecture, he would have already locked the door.




My mother told a typically detailed and amusing anecdote once to me about taking the subway in her young adult years, after she was married.

Subways and trolleys back then cost a nickel. It was still five cents when I was growing up in Cambridge in the 1950’s.

You would throw the coin into a fare box. Pennies were accepted.

On one occasion, my mother somehow had practically no money in her pocketbook: only four cents. She was anything but a devious person, and highly moral, too. But, on this occasion, she thought she could get away with the following stratagem: she swept in one motion, striding briskly, through the turnstile, threw four pennies casually into the fare box, while looking at nothing particular, and kept going.

Then she heard a stern voice following her, as it were, the voice of a male attendant whose function it was to see that the fare had been paid. “Miss,” he said loudly, “you only put four cents into the box.”

“I did?” said my mother, feigning surprise. “Imagine that.” She nervously began rummaging through her pocketbook. To her relief and amazement, she found another penny and threw it into the fare box.


— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017


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unable to love




“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov







Could Theodore Dreiser ever truly love anyone?

The answer is NO.

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) is an American novelist in whom I have had a longstanding interest.






Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, November 4, 2016:


“Dreiser (who was not a good husband and never became a parent) was incapable of really, truly loving another person in his adulthood and never did. (See Harry Stack Sullivan’s oft quoted definition of absolute love.) A corollary was that he could never freely accept love or kindness nor trust anyone’s good intentions towards him.

“As Sullivan wrote: ‘When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant to one as one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists. Under no other circumstances is a state of love present, regardless of the popular usage of the term.’ — Harry Stack Sullivan, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry (1940)

“Dreiser NEVER attained this.”





Thomas P. Riggio, email to Roger W. Smith, November 4, 2016:


“The issue I thought we were discussing was Dreiser’s relationship with women. As to his ability to love another person, that’s another matter — one too complicated, for me at least, to make any judgments about.

“It’s tough enough dealing with that topic in regard to people we know well in our own lives, never mind someone long dead whom we’ve never met. And then there are so many different criteria that people use to determine what it means to love. For instance, you mention only two, not being a husband and not having children, but that could be applied to Christ as well! Philandering husbands might still love their wives: Bill Clinton seems to ‘love’ Hillary, for instance. As I said, it’s too complex for my simple mind to understand, so you may well be correct.”


The issue is not too complex! Biographers and psychobiographers make such judgments all the time.

Dreiser scholars don’t want to go to deeply into his psyche because of what they might find.

The Dreiser archives are massive. He saved practically every letter, telegram, and scrap of paper that ever came into his hands. His love affairs and romantic entanglements have been well documented.

There is much, also, in Dreiser’s own autobiographical writings that reveals how he habitually dealt with other people, his family, relatives, and his spouses. What is notable is that he was constantly worried that someone would be unfaithful to him — or, in the case of non-intimate acquaintances, such as people he had business dealings with — that someone would cheat him. He had many acquaintances, but hardly any in the category of what you would call a best friend. He just plain could not trust or give himself to anyone. In the case of intimate relationships with women, he demanded that they pledge and observe absolute fidelity to him, but would not pledge it to them. See my essay

“Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain” at

for just one example — a very telling one –of how this played out in real life.



— Roger W. Smith

     October 2017

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