Oct 302016
 

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Today is the birthday (1885) of Ezra Weston Loomis Pound, U.S.-born poet and critic, who spent most of his adult life in Europe, and was a major figure in the early modernist movement in poetry. He developed Imagism in poetry, a movement derived from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, stressing clarity, precision and economy of language. His best-known works include Ripostes (1912), Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and the unfinished 120-section epic, The Cantos (1917–1969).

While working in London in the early 20th century as foreign editor of several American literary magazines, Pound helped discover and shape the work of contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. This aspect of his work included arranging for the publication in 1915 of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the serialization from 1918 of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Because of the carnage of World War I, Pound lost faith in England and blamed the war on usury and international capitalism, which may have led, in part, to his growing anti-Semitism (considering Jews to be prime movers in global banking). He moved to Italy in 1924, and throughout the 1930s and 1940s he embraced Benito Mussolini’s fascism, expressed support for Adolf Hitler, and wrote for publications owned by the British fascist Oswald Mosley. During World War II, he was paid by the Italian government to make hundreds of radio broadcasts criticizing the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Jews, as a result of which he was arrested in 1945 by U.S. occupying forces in Italy on charges of treason.

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He spent months in detention in a U.S. military camp in Pisa, including three weeks in a six-by-six-foot outdoor steel cage, which he said triggered a mental breakdown: “when the raft broke and the waters went over me.” Subsequently he was ruled unfit to stand trial and was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., for over 12 years.

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While in custody in Italy, Pound had begun work on sections of The Cantos. These were published as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress, triggering enormous controversy. Largely due to a campaign by his fellow writers, he was released from St. Elizabeth’s in 1958 and returned to live in Italy until his death. His political views ensure that his work remains as controversial now as it was during his lifetime; in 1933 Time magazine called him “a cat that walks by himself, tenaciously unhousebroken and very unsafe for children.” Hemingway wrote: “The best of Pound’s writing—and it is in the Cantos—will last as long as there is any literature.”

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You can read about Pound’s biography in general elsewhere. I want to focus on Imagism followed by a few notes on his fascism. Pound’s former lover, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), from Philadelphia met Pound in London in May 1911 with the poet Frances Gregg and Gregg’s mother. When they returned in September, Doolittle decided to stay on. Pound introduced her to his friends, including the poet Richard Aldington, whom she would marry in 1913. Before that the three of them lived in Church Walk, Kensington—Pound at no. 10, Doolittle at no. 6, and Aldington at no. 8—and worked daily in the British Museum Reading Room.

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At the museum Pound met regularly with the curator and poet Laurence Binyon, who introduced him to the East Asian artistic and literary concepts that inspired the imagery and technique of his later poetry. The museum’s visitors’ books show that Pound was often found during 1912 and 1913 in the Print Room examining Japanese ukiyo-e, some inscribed with Japanese waka verse, a genre of poetry whose economy and strict conventions likely contributed to Imagist techniques of composition. He was working at the time on the poems that became Ripostes (1912), trying to move away from his earlier work. He wrote that the “stilted language” of Canzoni had reduced Ford Madox Ford to rolling on the floor with laughter. He realized with his translation work that the problem lay not in his knowledge of the other languages, but in his use of English:

What obfuscated me was not the Italian but the crust of dead English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary … You can’t go round this sort of thing. It takes six or eight years to get educated in one’s art, and another ten to get rid of that education. Neither can anyone learn English, one can only learn a series of Englishes. Rossetti made his own language. I hadn’t in 1910 made a language, I don’t mean a language to use, but even a language to think in.

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While living at Church Walk in 1912, Pound, Aldington, and Doolittle started working on ideas about language. While in the British Museum tearoom one afternoon, they decided to begin a ‘movement’ in poetry, called Imagism. “Imagisme,” Pound wrote in Riposte, is “concerned solely with language and presentation.” The aim was clarity: a fight against abstraction, romanticism, rhetoric, inversion of word order, and over-use of adjectives. They agreed in the spring or early summer of 1912 on three principles:

  1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Superfluous words, particularly adjectives, should be avoided, as well as expressions such as “dim lands of peace,” which Pound thought dulled the image by mixing the abstract with the concrete. He wrote that the natural object was always the “adequate symbol.” Poets should “go in fear of abstractions”, and should not re-tell in mediocre verse what has already been told in good prose.

Pound wrote concerning his classic Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro”

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that – a “pattern,” or hardly a pattern, if by “pattern” you mean something with a “repeat” in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.

That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, of even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour.

And so, when I came to read Kandinsky’s chapter on the language of form and colour, I found little that was new to me. I only felt that someone else understood what I understood, and had written it out very clearly. It seems quite natural to me that an artist should have just as much pleasure in an arrangement of planes or in a pattern of figures, as in painting portraits of fine ladies, or in portraying the Mother of God as the symbolists bid us.

When I find people ridiculing the new arts, or making fun of the clumsy odd terms that we use in trying to talk of them amongst ourselves; when they laugh at our talking about the “ice-block quality” in Picasso, I think it is only because they do not know what thought is like, and they are familiar only with argument and gibe and opinion. That is to say, they can only enjoy what they have been brought up to consider enjoyable, or what some essayist has talked about in mellifluous phrases. They think only “the shells of thought,” as de Gourmont calls them; the thoughts that have been already thought out by others

Any mind that is worth calling a mind must have needs beyond the existing categories of language, just as a painter must have pigments or shades more numerous than the existing names of the colours.

The poem is a mere 14 words with no verb:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

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I’m not a big fan of this kind of poetry although I like parsimony and clarity in language, and probably spend as much time thinking about these issues as did Pound and his circle. I’m even less enamored of his emulation of Japanese and Chinese modes of thinking about language and art. Chinese language (written and spoken), for example, lends itself to imagistic modes of expression in a natural way; English does not. Take “simple” Chinese characters such as老 or道 which can be translated respectively as “old” and “path.” As soon as you combine these characters with others their meanings drift all over the map. The first one, for example, ends up in combinations that can mean “teacher,” “tiger,” “mouse,” “eagle,” “boss,” “tough” etc. etc. This is just not true of English even though there are glimpses sometimes.

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Pound’s longstanding embrace of fascism is a little puzzling, but I think I get it. The First World War not only devastated Europe physically, but emotionally also. How could seemingly civilized people end up being so barbaric? All the fruits of intellectual and scientific “progress” lay waste on the fields of Flanders. A whole generation of vigorous and hopeful men lay dead. Pound saw not just money as the culprit, but greed and international finance as the root causes, and blamed Jewish bankers – as did Hitler and Mussolini. Too late he wrote:

The worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.

His anti-Semitism drove me away from his poetry for a long time, and I still don’t really comprehend it. You don’t have to be terribly clever to see that Jews are not the cause of the world’s problems (any more than Muslims are nowadays). That, and his rather limited vision of language, leaves me thinking that he was not all that smart. But he did have a big impact on poetry and the literary world for which I am grateful. These thoughts of his do resonate:

The real trouble with war (modern war) is that it gives no one a chance to kill the right people.

Either move or be moved.

It ought to be illegal for an artist to marry. If the artist must marry let him find someone more interested in art, or his art, or the artist part of him, than in him. After which let them take tea together three times a week.

The jargon of sculptors is beyond me. I do not know precisely why I admire a green granite female, apparently pregnant monster with one eye going around a square corner.

I guess the definition of a lunatic is a man surrounded by them.

If a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his opinions, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.

The best recipe for Pound, I believe, should be one that is clear and simple, yet contains volumes. There is no question that a lot of the best recipes in the world require a mountain of ingredients, days to prepare, and endless experience. But recipes that are simply stated, and easy to accomplish can be really satisfying. One of my great problems in life is that there are some days when I am swamped with work with little time to cook, but I don’t want to buy something readymade or grab something from the refrigerator – which is the predicament I am in right now as it happens. I have too much to do over the next few hours to be able to cook something complex.  But I’m not going to settle for just anything to stave off hunger. I’m going to do this:

Boil 2 eggs

Peel

Eat with powdered cumin

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I love eggs with cumin as a quick snack. For something so simple to make, the tastes are quite complex and certainly delicious.

May 282016
 

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Today is the birthday (1807) of Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz , a Swiss-American biologist and geologist who was an innovative and prodigious scholar of Earth’s natural history. Agassiz grew up in Switzerland, and studied and received doctoral and medical degrees at Erlangen and Munich, respectively. After further studies with Cuvier and von Humboldt in Paris, Agassiz proceeded with research leading to his appointment as professor of natural history at University of Neuchâtel.

Agassiz emigrated to the U.S. in 1847 and became a professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University, headed its Lawrence Scientific School and founded its Museum of Comparative Zoology. Agassiz made extensive contributions to the classification of fish (including of extinct species) and to the study of geological history (including to the founding of glaciology), and has become broadly known through study of his thorough regimen of observational data gathering and analysis. He made vast institutional and scientific contributions to zoology, geology, and related areas—including many multi-volume research series. Nevertheless, his reputation has suffered in hindsight because of his resistance to Darwinian evolution, and his later writings on human polygenism.

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After Agassiz went to the United States he wrote prolifically on polygenism, the idea that human races were created separately, that they could be classified on the basis of specific climatic zones, and that they were endowed with unequal attributes, ideas now included under the rubric of scientific racism. Let’s look at that aspect of his writing first. “Racist” is a term that means different things to different people. Leaving aside all the biases and bigotry that can be attendant to the term, under its most basic meaning a racist is anyone who believes that human races exist at all. I don’t. There is absolutely no physical or biological basis for such a classification. Under this rubric Agassiz was a racist.

Agassiz believed that God had created the races at separate times, and that the Biblical account of Adam and Eve concerned the origin of white people. Actually Genesis is a little more nuanced, ascribing the origins of peoples in Europe, Asia, and Africa to descent from the three sons of Noah – Ham, Shem, and Japheth. According to Agassiz, genera and species were ideas in the mind of God; their existence in God’s mind prior to their physical creation meant that God could create humans as one species yet in several distinct and geographically separate acts of creation. Agassiz was, in modern terms, a creationist who believed nature had order because God created it directly. Because of this belief, Darwinian evolution was anathema to him. Species were created as distinct entities for a reason.

The fact that Agassiz saw humans as ONE species created as separate races at different times in different places is problematic. It suggests that migration is “unnatural.” Therefore, for example, black people belong in Africa because God created them for that particular environment. Migration from their home environment goes against their nature.  Agassiz questioned how plants or animals could migrate through regions they were not equipped to handle. According to Agassiz the conditions in which particular creatures live “are the conditions necessary to their maintenance, and what among organized beings is essential to their temporal existence must be at least one of the conditions under which they were created.”

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In 1837 Agassiz was the first to scientifically propose that the Earth had been subject to a past ice age. Prior to this proposal, Goethe, de Saussure, Venetz, Jean de Charpentier, Karl Friedrich Schimper and others had made the glaciers of the Alps the subjects of special study, and Goethe, Charpentier and Schimper had even arrived at the conclusion that the erratic blocks of alpine rocks scattered over the slopes and summits of the Jura Mountains had been moved there by glaciers. The question having attracted the attention of Agassiz, he not only discussed it with Charpentier and Schimper and made successive journeys to the alpine regions in company with them, but he had a hut constructed upon one of the Aar Glaciers, which for a time he made his home, in order to investigate the structure and movements of the ice.

This work resulted, in 1840, in the publication of his work in two volumes entitled Etudes sur les glaciers (“Studies on Glaciers”). In it he discussed the movements of the glaciers, their moraines, their influence in grooving and rounding the rocks over which they travelled, and in producing the striations and roches moutonnees seen in Alpine-style landscapes. He not only accepted Charpentier’s and Schimper’s idea that some of the alpine glaciers had extended across the wide plains and valleys drained by the Aar and the Rhône, but he went still farther. He concluded that, in the relatively recent past, Switzerland had been another Greenland; that instead of a few glaciers stretching across the areas referred to, one vast sheet of ice, originating in the higher Alps, had extended over the entire valley of northwestern Switzerland until it reached the southern slopes of the Jura, which, though they checked and deflected its further extension, did not prevent the ice from reaching in many places the summit of the range. The publication of this work gave a fresh impetus to the study of glacial phenomena in all parts of the world.

Thus familiarized with the phenomena associated with the movements of recent glaciers, Agassiz was prepared for a discovery which he made in 1840, in conjunction with William Buckland. The two visited the mountains of Scotland together, and found in different locations clear evidence of ancient glacial action.

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Within his lifetime, Agassiz had developed a reputation for a particularly demanding teaching style. He would allegedly “lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained.” Two of Agassiz’s most prominent students detailed their personal experiences under him, Samuel Hubbard Scudder in a short magazine article for Every Saturday and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler in his Autobiography.  Ezra Pound drew on these recollections for his short piece “Agassiz and the sunfish:”

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A post-graduate student equipped with honors and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: “That’s only a sunfish.”

Agassiz: “I know that. Write a description of it.”

After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.

The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.

This re-telling is not entirely accurate in its specificss, but the overall idea is correct. I don’t teach my students in quite the same way, but I expect them to observe the world carefully, not superficially. My mantra is PAY ATTENTION (yes, in caps !!). Details matter.

After the 1906 San Francisco earth­quake toppled Agassiz’s statue from the façade of Stanford’s zoology building, Stanford President David Starr Jordan wrote that “Somebody—Dr. Angell, perhaps—remarked that ‘Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete.’

By coincidence, today is National Brisket Day in the United States, so why not focus on brisket to celebrate Agassiz? Brisket is a cut of meat from the breast or lower chest of beef or veal. Beef brisket is one of the nine beef primal cuts, though the precise definition of the cut differs internationally. The brisket muscles include the superficial and deep pectorals. As cattle do not have collar bones, these muscles support about 60% of the body weight of standing/moving cattle. This requires a significant amount of connective tissue, so the resulting meat must be cooked correctly to tenderize the connective tissue.

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This normally tough cut of meat, due to the collagen fibers that make up the significant connective tissue in the cut, is tenderized when the collagen gelatinizes, resulting in more tender brisket. The fat cap, which is often left attached to the brisket, helps to keep the meat from drying during the prolonged cooking necessary to break down the connective tissue in the meat. Water is necessary for the conversion of collagen to gelatin, which is the hydrolysis product of collagen.

Popular methods in the United States include rubbing with a spice rub or marinating the meat, then cooking slowly over indirect heat from charcoal or wood. This is a form of smoking the meat. A hardwood, such as oak, pecan, hickory, or mesquite, is sometimes added, alone or in combination with other hardwoods, to the main heat source. Sometimes, they make up all of the heat source, with chefs often prizing characteristics of certain woods. The smoke from these woods and from burnt dripping juices further enhances the flavor. The traditional New England boiled dinner features brisket as a main course option. Brisket can also be cooked in a slow cooker, usually about 8 hours for a 3lb brisket.

In traditional Jewish cooking, brisket is most often braised as a pot roast, especially as a holiday main course, usually served at Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and Sabbath. For reasons of economics and kashrut, it was historically one of the more popular cuts of beef among Ashkenazi Jews. Brisket is also the most popular cut for corned beef, which can be further spiced and smoked to make pastrami. Brisket can be found in cuisines throughout the world, particularly Asia, where it is slow cooked then sliced thinly or shredded, and served with vegetables or noodles in broth.

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Here is an oven version for braised brisket. If you have a slow cooker big enough to hold a whole brisket, so much the better. The basic recipe is the same. Some people like to add a host of vegetables, but I prefer to keep the beef simple and serve vegetables cooked separately. Ditto for herbs and spices. If you use an oven, cooking the day before and then reheating the next day is preferable.

Braised Brisket

Ingredients

olive oil
2 lb beef brisket, whole
2 large white onions, sliced
6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
¼ cup cider vinegar
1 cup beef stock
salt and pepper

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Heat a little olive oil in a wide 5-to 6-quart heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté them gently, stirring often, until they are deep brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a plate.

Next, turn up the heat to high and brown the brisket in the oil, turning once. Transfer the brisket to a plate.

Reduce the heat to medium under the pot, and add the vinegar, stirring and scraping up all the brown bits. Return the brisket and onions to the pot, add the stock, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cover with a tight-fitting lid and braise in the oven on a low shelf until fork-tender. Times vary – anywhere from 3 to 4 hours.

Serve with boiled carrots and potatoes.