Tag Archives: poetry

Poets are intelligence assets

Aeschylus’s Oresteia is an ancient Greek tragedy about the dialectic between the natural desire for vengeance, order, and the rule of law. This is most likely what contemporaries thought the play was about, including Aeschylus himself.

It is also a play about sexual politics, and the relationship between the idea of the rule of law as actually implemented in the West, and patriarchy.

This is a good example of the well-known phenomenon in which literary criticism and other forms of textual analysis frequently get something “out of” the text that the author had no apparent intent of putting into it - and that many coherent narratives can be extracted from the same text. Far more than an author could plausibly have meant to put into the text. This is often taken as evidence that such readings are spurious.

Robin Hanson argued that one way to extract information from published studies that was comparatively uncontaminated by publication bias, was to look at the coefficients of control variables. The idea is that if your study is about, say, the effect of alcohol on life expectancy, journals may be unwilling to publish it if you get an improbable-seeming result, or no significant result. But less scrutiny is applied to the estimated effect of alcohol if you’re studying something else, and simply “control for” alcohol (i.e. include it in your model as a possible predictor).

Likewise, great literature is typically an integrated, multi-dimensional depiction. While there is a great deal of compression, the author is still trying to report how things might really have happened, to satisfy their own sense of artistic taste for plausibility or verisimilitude. Thus, we should expect that great literature is often an honest, highly informative account of everything except what the author meant to put into it. Continue reading

Confutatis and cold comfort

On a recent morning bits from Mozart’s Requiem were playing in my head, and when I got to Confutatis I began to translate it in my head:

When the accused are convicted

To the acrid flames sentenced

Call me among the blessed.

I pray supplicant and prostrate,

Heart contrite as ash.

Show care for my end.

And I felt a strong desire to grant these prayers. My first impulse was to identify - not with the prayer, but the one to whom the prayers were directed. My first thought was not, how much like my own sentiments, but how terrible it is that someone might think I wouldn’t rescue them from the flames.

And then I remembered that I don’t have the power. I can’t just call everyone among the blessed. And I cried.

An acquaintance - not yet a friend, I think, though we have mutual friends - has been going through a very tough time, and meditating on their struggle, I wrote this poem, drawing again on my self from several months ago. So it’s not quite about them - as usual, I write the poem I’d have liked to read from someone else: Continue reading

An offer

A follow-up to my poem about Saruman:

Had you but let me teach you of those arts you so despise,
embraced your inner fire and the attachment that you fear,
forsaking calmness, self-control, the stillness you revere,
we could have left this world behind, ascending past the skies.

Continue reading

Two free verse poems in the bitter aesthetic

I’m in Portland, OR right now. I came here to try to absorb by some osmotic process the local culture of self-cultivation, people engaging in projects not because the projects are useful or justified, but because they want to. People living out their aesthetic vision for their lives. But when I got here, I found that it is not Rivendell, where lonely Elf-friends can heal their wounds, but the Shire. You can visit and be welcome, but you won’t really be a part of it. It’s not Elfsongs and stories and public feasts, but people living out their private lives in communities. You can visit a person in Portland, but you can’t really visit Portland.

Continue reading

Short Pieces - Two Stories and an Inspiration

Bird Watching

I heard the chickens in the henhouse grow silent. I loaded my shotgun and peeked around the corner. It was another zombie. Sometimes my birds quiet down for unrelated reasons, but it seems my chickens learned that the walking dead take longer to find quiet flock, and I'd found fourteen roving undead raiders by listening to the volume of their clucking, over the past week alone. A stopped cluck is right twice a day.


Eat My Shirts

There were twelve dresser drawers, and twelve moths; somehow, one had been trapped in each drawer during my vacation. Maybe some elaborate prank?

Whimsically, to claim some positive feelings out of the experience, I decided to name the bugs after the months of the year. The first three drawers contained little of lasting value - socks, undershirts, these things are easily replaceable. Drawers five through twelve contained little damage, because they mostly held things that moths don't eat - leather belts, tie bars, synthetics.

The fourth drawer, however, was full of my beautiful warm-weather shirts. Polos as thin and soft as a summer breeze. All of them had great big holes in them. April is the cruelest moth.



Of course I am an inspiration to you. You know this. I know this. But perhaps some of your friends do not. Perhaps I inspire you in so many ways that you don't know how to describe it all, or even where to start. At times you might find yourself asking, "How can I explain the extent to which Ben is an inspiration to me and others around him?"

My friends, you need no longer be perplexed by this quandary. You need only but explain: I am so inspirational that an "Inspirational Quotes" Twitter account follows ME:


Wasted Talent: Parody

Sometimes my friends post things on Facebook that are just begging for a response in verse.



This road, it did not lead exactly where I thought it led.


Actual road. I took a few of the unofficial trails that cut through the woods between the various office parks around here looking for the coffee shop and ended up one cul-de-sac further north than I wanted. This was an ultimately rectifiable mistake, I got my coffee, and had a beautiful walk.


The guys smoking on that loading dock were pretty surprised to see me emerge from the woods so I'm guessing they don't get too many passers-through.


Cream and Sugar Not Taken

Two trails split off past the office park,
And sorry I could not go both ways
In the time allowed for a coffee break -
So the cruel reward for a path mistake
Was to finish the day in a drowsy haze -

I looked down one as long as I could,
And it seemed quite straight and kept up well,
But it veered before I thought it should,
So I picked the other, what the hell,
It looked about right, though I couldn't quite tell
Its course, since it passed right through the wood.

On the trail I took I found that soon
The overgrowth cast shadows black.
Oh, I lost a good part of the afternoon
Winding around, and not too soon
I found myself in a cul-de-sac.

Two stevedores smoking, both jaded guys,
When I emerged from the woods that day,
Betrayed their sudden frank surprise,
Which I could read in those veteran eyes,
And told me the coffeeshop wasn't that way.

I backtracked doubletime to the fork,
To rectify my first mistake,
And by the end of my coffee break,
I'd bought my coffee and come back to work.



Downtown, Bethesda, Maryland.
Waiting for the Tripper Bus

This is the season, affordable routes out of town
This is the season, affordable routes out of town, now

She rides a Bus Tripper, one way ticket, yeah
It took me so long to find out, and I found out

She's in Bethesda, she's waiting for her bus there
She's in Bethesda, she's waiting for her bus there, now

She rides a Bus Tripper, one way ticket, yeah
It took me so long to find out, and I found out



 Light purple cummerbund
You know you're my only one
Don't need no date to the prom
When I've got a light purple cummerbund on


Light-purple cummerbund, you're the one
You make black-tie lots of fun
Light-purple cummerbund, I'm awfully fond of you.


Light-purple cummerbund, smile of smiles
Your color can be seen for miles
Light-purple cummerbund, you're my very best bund, it's true.


Every day when I make my way to the gala
I find a little waist-sash who makes me the dapperest fella.
Light-purple a-durple cummerbund

Light-purple cummerbund, you're the one
You make black-tie lots of fun
Light-purple cummerbund, I'm awfully fond of you.

Frost 2

Prompt 1:

Off to go cross-country skiing on a frozen lake.

Response 1:

My facebook friends will think it dope
To ski where there is not a slope
Upon a flat and frozen lake
Whose fish have long abandoned hope.

Prompt 2:

Finger Lake: skiid across. In a snowstorm.

Response 2:

The sky astorm, the air asnow,
By ski is how I wish to go.
No one would find me should I fall
Until the spring sun's melting glow.

Perhaps it seems bizarre to all,
but since my car is light and small
I harnessed it to pull my rope,
Ghost-skied the whip, no work at all.

My Facebook friends will think it dope
To ski where there is not a slope
Upon a flat and frozen lake
Whose fish have long abandoned hope.

My cold and weary hands will shake
If I ride long without a break.
I must reach land, or ice, though deep,
under my small car's weight will break.

The lake is lovely, dark, and deep,
but I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.