Rhymes and Couplets in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens and Alexander Pope

When editing T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” Ezra Pound expresses his distaste for the original introduction to “The Fire Sermon” by crossing out Eliot’s rhyming couplets and writing a cryptic note in the margins: “Too loose… rhyme drags it out to diffuseness… trick of Pope etc not to let couple[t] diffuse ‘em.”[1]  By diffusion, Pound probably refers to the dwindling power of those rhymes dragged out to monotony in a why that diminished their ‘absolute rhythm’ – to use Pound’s own term for virtuosic prosody.  Far be it for Pound to use a word like ‘sing-song’ to describe these trite rhymes that never made it into the final, published version of Eliot’s poem, but to this reader’s ear, Eliot’s rhymes clang awkwardly much like the ditty of a nursery rhyme or a limerick.  Interestingly enough, Pound does not condemn the use of the couplet, but rather some perceived artlessness in the way Eliot uses it.  Even more peculiarly, he makes an elliptical allusion to the way Alexander Pope carries his rhymes from couplet to couplet without letting them diffuse into the monotony of the metronome or the happy-go-lucky ‘sing-song’ of some kind of extravagant or annoying joke.  Placed in juxtaposition to a very different kind of rhyming in the poetry of Wallace Stevens, perhaps Pope’s poems will reveal their ‘trick’ – and perhaps Stevens’ will reveal a trick or two of their own.

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Wallace Stevens: My Favorite Poet

In “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Stevens carries a tune over more than 150 lines, rhyming sometimes in couplets and sometimes across spans so long that the rhymes nearly fade or disappear entirely.   In a manner slightly unexpected for a rhyming poem, these rhymes come without a standard quantifiable scheme.  Not a sestina or a Petrarchan sonnet by any stretch of the imagination, Stevens’ poem sometimes rhymes four lines in succession and at other times proceeds in spans of five or six lines without any rhyming at all.  The poem introduces itself with an unrhymed couplet: “The man bent over his guitar,/ A shearsman of sorts. The day was green,” and then brings back the last syllable of the first line in a succession of rhymes: “They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,/ You do not play things as they are.’/ The man replied, ‘Things as they are/ are changed upon the blue guitar.”  Here, Stevens introduces the alternating chords that will form the chorus of the poem: ‘blue guitar’ and ‘things as they are.’  By inserting the bizarre and unrhymed phrase “The day was green” in between these repeated rhymes, Stevens subtly breaks up what might have otherwise been ‘sing-song’ and does so with an unsettling phrase that leaves the reader yearning for the order and sensibility signaled by repeated rhymes.  In fact, were Stevens to write the entirety of “The Man with the Blue Guitar” without any rhymes whatsoever, we would be left with a bizarre tract about creativity and the shaping of reality – without any of the playfulness that makes his act of creation so engaging.

Pablo PIcasso's painting "The Old Guitarist" from his Blue Period has been paired with this poem often (and appropriately so) on cover art and whatnot.

Between the returns of the ‘blue guitar’ and ‘things as they are’ telling us that we are listening to a composition by a speaker who writes deliberately (against any intuitions to the contrary that arise in the wake of Stevens’ nonsense), another kind of rhyming emerges.  In section VIII, for example, we begin with two rhyming couplets, all packaged in noun phrases starting with “the.”  Then, in the third couplet, Stevens drags out the subject matter into a longer exploration; the images of clouds and the synesthesia-inducing ‘drenching thunder’ unwind into the “feeling heavy in cold chords/ struggling toward impassioned choirs.”  Just as Stevens moves from a description of a storm into a broader discussion of music, he intentionally lets the rhymes rest for a few lines.  Then, when the clang of the earlier rhymes has sufficiently exited the reader’s ear, he brings back ‘air’ to rhyme with the final couplet: “And yet it brings the storm to bear./ I twang it out and leave it there.”  Displaying his virtuosity with rhyme, Stevens lets ‘air’ twang on its own, ‘leaves it there’ and then brings it back in a rhyme that mirrors the subject matter.  As if enacting the sounds of the storm he describes, Stevens begins the section with two strong chords struck by rhyming couplets, lets them rumble out into the alliterative phrases that take precedents in the couplets that follow, and then strikes one more thunderous chord in the final rhyme.  Far from ‘sing-song’ in the sense of a nursery rhyme, Stevens vacillates between rhyming couplets, alliterative phrases, unrhymed lines, and a repeated chorus in a way that preserves a sense of music without turning it into the frivolous repetition of a nursery rhyme or the irritating ‘hooks’ of a pop-song.

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Alexander Pope: Not my favorite poet, but a good one nonetheless

Alexander Pope’s rhymes enact themselves in a manner quite distant from Stevens’.  Although both poets frequently employ rhyming couplets – and in Stevens’ case, sometimes even repetitions of rhyming words – each poet takes a divergent approach to the construction of those couplets.  In “An Essay on Man” Pope develops an argument as structured as the iambic pentameter and rigid rhyme scheme that form the backbone of his poetry.  He proceeds from admissions of mankind’s ignorance through various arguments about perfection, imperfection, and man’s relationship with God, finally arriving upon a declaration of the ‘rightness’ of all creation.  These grandiose arguments come neatly packaged within lines that almost uniformly contain 10 syllables, almost always flow in exact iambic pentameter, and – with the exception of a few slant rhymes – all make full rhymes with one another.  This is not to say that Pope’s poetry is universally engaging. Quite the contrary, at its low points, the rhymes indeed ‘drag it out to diffuseness’ – to return to Ezra Pound’s criticism of Eliot.  In section IV, the concluding couplet reads, “And who but wishes to invert the laws/ of order, sins against the Eternal Cause.”  Although ‘laws’ rhymes nicely with ‘cause,’ the reader can imagine Pope struggled to bring these words to the ends of neighboring lines.  With no end-stop in the first line and with an awkward elision of “the” into “Eternal” in the second line, Pope here seems to insist upon his rhyme against all the syntactical and metrical forces working against him.

Elsewhere, and in a great deal of Pope’s poetry, the rhyming couplets read with (unnaturally) natural flow.  In the final section of the first epistle of “An Essay on Man,” Pope’s voice booms at the zenith of its rhetorical power.  While all of his rhymes run on the same iambic current, the syntactical pauses and rhetorical devices make them each ring differently, so that they sound anything like the metronome to which iambic pentameter is often compared.  “Cease, then, nor order imperfection name:/ Our proper bliss depends upon what we blame.”  With a reversal of the first foot, two caesuras, and a concluding anapest, this couplet manipulates the iambic pentameter into a more fluid kind of music.  Although the rhymed words are separated by the same number of syllables as many of the rest, Pope’s syntactical twists and turns make them ring in a time of their own.  In the concluding lines of the epistle, Pope writes,

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

The anaphora that begins the first few of these lines develops a rhetoric of reversals, with each turn signaled by a mid-line caesura.  The metrical qualities of the lines lend some irregularity to the rhymes, but otherwise they seem to come in closely-knit pairs.  Then, for the final couplet, Pope takes a departure from this form, teases us with an internal rhyme (spite/spite), plays with the multiple meanings of “is” (to be/ to exist) and then brings back the rhyme with a very confident, “is right.”  Far from ‘sing-song’ in the sense of a nursery rhyme or a limerick, Pope’s rhymes here come together in an epic finale.  Yes, they do ‘sing’ in a way, but more in the way a rhetorician might ‘sing’ his triumphant exhortation or in the way a Baptist preacher might ‘sing’ the conclusion of a fiery sermon than in the typical sense of ‘sing-song.’

Both of these poets wield couplets skillfully, each in the pursuit of starkly divergent philosophies, through starkly divergent forms.  The ‘trick’ that Pound refers to seems to manifest itself in ways equally divergent.  In Stevens’ poetry, he combats ‘diffuseness’ by the sheer unpredictability of his poetry.  He would be just as likely to repeat the same phrase ad infinitum as he would be to let it dissipate and weave unrhymed poetry for many lines at a time.  Pope, on the other hand, combats ‘diffuseness’ by inserting artful pauses, reversals, and syntactical play within otherwise regular iambic pentameter.  Both poets would probably agree with Pope’s dictum, “All nature is but art,” but both perceive and enact that art with forms as divergent as their philosophies.


[1] “The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript,” 38/39.

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An Anecdote about Professionalism in NY’s Public Schools

When I was first accepted into the NYC Teaching Fellows in 2010, I received a near-constant stream of emails and documents preparing me for my new career as a public school teacher in the city.  Among them were repeated entreaties to “dress and behave professionally.” Being the kind of person who takes these things seriously, I took them for their word.  I showed up to every event, session, and class wearing dress slacks, collared shirt, and tie.  I shook hands professionally, made professional statements, and turned in professional work.

Later in the summer, I went for an interview at what would become my workplace this year.  I had exchanged a series of highly professional emails with my future principal, Dr. H, tactfully and sensitively inquiring about my future position as a special education teacher and about the learning environment of the school.  When, at last, I came in for my official interview, I was a bit taken aback:I had to wander confusedly in search of the entrance of the building, which was obscured behind streets littered with garbage, construction crews, and abandoned parking lots.  I knew the school was in a bad neighborhood, but I expected it to be a shining light of hope and learning amidst the chaos outside.  Nevertheless, I brushed off these misgivings and went into the building.

As I walked inside, I saw a disheveled janitor leaning over a trashcan slurping haphazardly on a plum, large portions of it pitter-pattering all over the plastic lining.  An oversize shirt hung un-tucked halfway down his thighs. “Um… excuse me sir,” I said, “Have you seen Dr. H anywhere around here?” “You’re talking to him, kid.” I stood in disbelief, not because I mistrusted this janitor’s words, but because I could not comprehend the fact that this man, wearing a tattered shirt and leaning disgustingly into a trashcan, was, not a janitor at all; he was, in fact, the principal of the school.  As he wiped away the remnants of his meal on the backside of his pants and leaned forward to shake my hand, I took an uneasy step forward and accepted.

To make a long story short, I ended up interviewing well and accepting the job here.  What can I say? Job prospects are pretty thin for new and inexperienced teachers.  In addition, he promised me that this was the best school in Harlem and that during the actual school year everyone wore uniforms with collared shirts and ties, addressed each other respectfully, and regularly witnessed top students getting accepted into Ivy League Universities.  “Great,” I thought, “Maybe this place is not so bad after all.” Looking back, I can’t believe I bought it.

As the summer came to a close, most of my peers were hearing back about more specifics for their new jobs.  Virtually everyone knew what grade they were teaching and most had some idea about the subjects and schedules that would make up their workday.  Despite my continuous emails, though, Dr. H had not even replied to tell me they were working on my schedule.  When I finally received a reply (now 2 weeks before I was actually supposed to begin teaching) Dr. H called me down for a “brief chat” in which he would fill me in on those long-awaited details.

I headed down to the school building, leaving behind company who knew they would probably not have to wait more than 15 to 30 minutes.  I kid you not, I waited for over 2 hours in the main office before ever even seeing the principal.  When he finally arrived, he told me to wait a moment before he would be ready for our “brief chat.”  After that, I waited another 30 minutes before he returned.

When we finally sat down to have our “chat,” Dr. H plopped down on the couch beside me so that his excessive girth spilled through his shirt buttons and out onto his lap.  He then whipped out a piece of dental floss and began cleaning his teeth, all while having a chat with me, his new employee.  “Your case is interesting,” he said, “we don’t know where we’re gonna put you yet.  So come to school on the first week and we’ll give you kids that haven’t had their schedules made yet.  After a couple weeks you should have some classes of your own.  As of right now, you’re just babysitting.”  As he said this last line, he yanked out a large white chunk of gunk from his teeth, stared at it, and then ate it off of his piece of floss.

I wanted to gag, not just from the disgusting action I witnessed, but from the tremendous breach of professionalism this man had perpetrated.  He had failed to answer my emails, held me in his office for over two hours, flossed his teeth while talking to me, and then reported succinctly that my job was to babysit kids until they figured things out in the scheduling office.

Now, I’m not the shining example of professionalism in the world of education.  Sometimes I go several days without shaving.  I occasionally forget to reply to an email or phone call.  I have even been a few minutes late to a class when held up by the weather.  That said, I have never kept anyone waiting over two hours just to meet with me, and I have never EVER flossed my teeth while talking to a colleague or employee.  In a career that straddles the line between professionalism and incompetence, I have thought it best to follow the advice of the NYCTF program that recruited me: dress and behave professionally in the workplace. Others out there – including my principal – would beg to differ.  When a few members of our profession treat it like a part-time job babysitting rather than a white-collar position that they’re proud of, the reputation of teaching is denigrated for all of us. Much worse, when our principals – those who should be our leaders – fail to maintain professional standards, an unfortunate tone is set for the entire system.

With that introduction, I direct any interested readers to this NY Times article by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, who discuss teacher salaries and ask us why we blame our teachers rather than our administrators when student performance is poor.  If we want to elevate the teaching profession, we not only need to set higher standards for our students and teachers, but for those who set the tone for school culture.  Any principal who behaves as mine has does not belong in the lead role of our children’s schools.

Oh, and to all you principals out there: Do not floss your teeth in front of new employees. It leaves a bad impression.

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A highly professional fan-made video for Boards of Canada’s ROYGBIV

This is the only video posted on Youtube from this fan of Boards of Canada.  The music video is so well done that I felt I had to post it here.  It appears that this individual found some footage of 1980’s TV commercials – mostly of the techie variety – and melded them into the highly appropriate backdrop for this tune.

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Bridges and Barriers between Chinese and English: Maxine Hong Kingston’s use of (Foreign?) Language in China Men

Not knowing your people’s language, in the harshest consequence, meant excommunication from God.  “Language is much like a body limb,” his grandfather had said.  “A physical facet that speaks for the soul, the all-important shadow in its privileged journey.”  Any decision made by the incomplete, nonspeaking person to not learn the first language was taken as unkindness to Being.  These were the words you were fed to give back to the world. – Ray A. Young Bear, Black Eagle Child, p.67

China Men at Amazon

Click here to go to the Amazon page for China Men

Maxine Hong Kingston addresses issues of immigration, cross-cultural identity, and language from hundreds of perspectives in China Men.  The novel not only destroys readers’ preconceptions about these issues, but also provides countless viewpoints that resist any kind of restrictive generalization.  Particularly with her mixture of the Chinese and English languages, Kingston creates a unique linguistic world simultaneously Chinese and English.  But the language she creates is distinct from those two as well.  Even more amazingly, she combines these two languages without a single Chinese character printed on any page in the novel.  Kingston’s unique language not only beckons us to recreate our understanding of Chinese, but asks us to question our own ‘American English’ as well.  The metaphor, myth, and history replete in Kingston’s hybrid language invite the reader to contemplate both national and personal identity.  Do I belong to the country whose language I speak?  What language (or languages) does this country speak, anyway?

Within the first few pages of China Men, this interplay between languages has already revealed itself.  The first line begins, “Once upon a time,” – a clichéd phrase that refers to century upon century of storytelling history in the English language.  With this type of introduction, we expect to find English words arranged in familiar ways in the pages that follow.  Instead, we encounter unfamiliar words and phrases that don’t sound anything like vernacular English.  As that first sentence of the novel progresses, we meet “Tang Ao” a name that sounds nothing like the “John” or “Jane” we might expect, and encounter strange capitalized phrases: “Gold Mountain,” and “Land of Women.”  In the page that follows, even the familiar phrase “needle’s wide eye” transforms into the unfamiliar Chinese version: “needle’s nose.”  Not to mention the confusion and displacement in Tang Ao’s transformation into a woman, we readers have already begun to view the familiar through an unfamiliar lens.

Maxine Hong Kingston: A remarkable manipulator of the English language

This unexpected twisting and transforming of English continues coming up through the rest of the novel.  Kingston consistently explains Chinese homonyms or idioms in English phrases, translating metaphors across the two languages.  Through his jealousy, her grandfather Ah Goong “discovered why to be envious is ‘to guzzle vinegar.’”(18) For a Chinese-speaking reader, a familiar metaphor latent in an ordinary word (吃醋) appears in words foreign to it: “guzzle” and “vinegar.”  For those who do not speak Chinese, on the other hand, this foreign metaphor comes to life in familiar English words.

Kingston’s translations both emphasize the fluidity of Chinese and English and draw barriers between the two languages as well.  Though we can easily imagine how a jealous grimace might resemble the face of a vinegar drinker or how a needle’s eye could also be its nose, Kingston interrupts the flow of her sentences to explain these metaphors.  She sometimes cuts them off from the rest of the sentence as in, “(‘needle’s nose’ in Chinese)” and sometimes tries to slip them in as smoothly as possible as in “to guzzle vinegar” or “Gold Mountain”(金山).  She occasionally even interrupts the flow of her narrative to delve into the particular nature of Chinese homophones or the composition of Chinese characters.  In one such instance, she writes,

“‘We need to go-out-on-the-road again,’ Kau Goong roared. ‘We need to go to the Gold Mountain.’ And since the Chinese word for ‘need’ and ‘want’ and ‘will’ is on and the same word, he was also saying, ‘We want to go-out-on the-road again. We will go to the Gold Mountain.’”(44)

In all of these cases, despite her translation, she still places a boundary between English and Chinese.  Parentheses, quotations, italics, capital letters, or long explanations separate Chinese metaphors from their seamless transition into English.  Though she could have slipped these metaphors through the cracks and assumed that we would understand, Kingston prefers to denote their Chinese origins with punctuation or explanation.  In so doing, she taps into an expressiveness in Chinese that would be impossible to achieve with English phrases and words.  The ambiguity between ‘need’ ‘want’ and ‘will’ exists in a single Chinese character, (要) and perfectly characterizes the want-need-will mentality of Kau Goong’s journey toward Gold Mountain, where future, desire, and necessity intermingle.  At the same time that she expresses these foreign metaphors in English, she draws a boundary through her explanation or punctuation, reminding us that this language and these metaphors aren’t our own.  Reflecting the simultaneous fluidity and boundary between China and America that run throughout the novel, these translations bridge the gap between languages, but reinforce the linguistic barrier at the same time.

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Image taken from the NativeWiki

Though these barriers exist, they pale in comparison to the syllabic walls Ray A. Young Bear builds between narrator and reader. In Black Eagle Child, even simple conversations in Mesquakee first greet the reader in their un-translated form: “Ken a ta we ne me kwa ke e yi ki. And she also desires you” “Ke ne tti ma a be be tte tti. You are such a liar.” (77) Even in this ordinary conversation between Ted and the narrator, Young Bear places a vast wall of foreign syllables between the reader and his or her understanding.  We find ourselves in a similar place to the girls Ted is talking about – non-Mesquakee speakers who have no idea what the boys are saying.  At the same time, our narrator divulges the secret conversation to us, showing us the boundary of the Mesquakee language from both sides.  Though the English translations appear alongside the Mesquakee, Young Bear’s style of translation places us on the English side of a clearly marked barrier. He willingly translates for us, but emphasizes our ‘outsider’ status as well.

Junot Diaz: An extraordinary author who happens to be Dominican

Other authors, such as Philip Roth and Junot Diaz, immerse us in new vocabularies, depending on our ability to learn words like “goyim” in their context.  Through repeated mixture of Yiddish and English, Roth places us in the midst of a Jewish-American household, teaching us Yiddish words through context and witty wordplay as we read along.  Similarly, Diaz sends a flurry of foreign words past the reader’s eyes, ranging from Dominican Spanish to urban slang, and from archaic ‘dictionary words’ (i.e. vertiginous, orchidaceous) to comic book lingo.  Though I doubt any reader could pick up on every word and every reference across all of these dialects, words like “fuku” and “zafa” gradually enter our vocabularies as we read along.  Because we eventually begin to learn some of their vocabularies, reading Diaz or Roth feels much more like immersion into a ‘foreign’ English than translations from insider to outsider.

In China Men, though, Kingston includes not a single Chinese character and only rarely uses Chinese words, strong Chinese influences appear in her writing and create a complex language that is neither English nor Chinese.  Although both of those languages are present in Kingston’s writing, the result differs drastically from the language mixtures discussed above.  Despite our comprehension of every word Kingston uses, we still feel like outsiders to those aspects of her language that are particularly Chinese.  Even the minutest details of our English language take on a Chinese tone in her writing. For instance, the sound of an explosion, “the bang – bahng in Chinese” (136) here has an unfamiliar sound to English-speaking ears.  Kingston replaces the ‘ay’ sound in our familiar onomatopoeia with the “ahh” sound that a Chinese person would associate with an explosion. In so doing, Kingston not only invites us to consider the Chinese language in all its metaphors and peculiarities, but reveals to us the peculiarities of English as well.  We are not only outsiders to the peculiarities of the Chinese language; we are outsiders the strangeness of the English language – and to the strangeness of any language.  Meanwhile, Kingston makes all of these languages come alive to her readers, affirming their fluidity at the same time she draws boundaries between them.

In a passage about Uncle Bun, Kingston plays with the peculiar sounds of the English language, depicting their peculiarity to non-native speakers: “In two weighty syllables, both equally accented, a spondee, he said ‘Wheat germ,’” and later in the passage, “‘Yet you can eat it by itself like cornflakes,’ which he also pronounced spondaically in his accent Coon Flex.” (191) Through her uncle’s dialect, Kingston transforms familiar English words into foreign sounds, inviting the reader to view the familiar through an unfamiliar lens. Vitamins become ‘why-huh-ming” and iron becomes ‘eye-yun.’  In all of her uncle’s attempts to pronounce English words, Kingston discovers a latent poetry.  Rather than misplaced emphasis in ‘coon flex’ she sees a fascinating word pronounced spondaically.  She uses this metrical analysis to uncover poetry latent in Chinese-accented English.  What many listeners might dismiss as ‘incorrect’ or ‘foreign,’ Kingston translates into poetic English.

These examples only skim the surface of Kingston’s play with the Chinese and English languages.  One ‘China man,’ on his journey toward the Gold Mountain, encounters Chinese dialects that he doesn’t understand – emphasizing the multiplicity of the language we tend to lump under the single word “Chinese.”  Other ‘China Men,’ “don’t even talk like China Men any more, the salt gone from their speech.” (112) Yet another ‘China Man’ refuses to use his language abilities to aid in the Vietnam War, disgusted by the politicization of a language he would rather use for poetry than to translate phrases like: “Do you believe in (1) U.S. victory (2) annihilation of Bolshevism?” (300) The use of Chinese language in China Men is as varied as the interpretations of ‘Gold Mountain’ that run throughout the novel.  In every case, however, language roots these ‘China Men’ to the cultures, histories and mythologies of the countries on either side of their immigration.  Not only that, but because these China Men straddle the line between English and Chinese, they possess their own unique histories, cultures, and mythologies unique from those of either country or either language.  In Teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner writes about this bridge between native and non-native language, “It’s the bridge from the known to the unknown; from a native culture to a new; and, universally speaking, from the inner man out.” (28) With the gap bridged between ‘a native culture and a new,’ Maxine Hong Kingston possesses twice the expressiveness of either Chinese or English alone.  The bilingual ‘English’ she uses in China Men allows her to present culture, history, and mythology in ways that are both American and Chinese, and unique from the two as well.

In the opening section of the novel, “On Discovery,” Kingston confronts the reader with a drastic revelation.  In this short piece, our male protagonist, Tang Ao, undergoes an unexpected gender reversal.  His captors in the ‘Land of Women’ remove his armor and boots, pierce his ears, bind his feet, and powder his face.  When the transformation is complete, they remark, “She’s pretty, don’t you agree?”  This experience foreshadows the confusion and displacement for any reader of this novel.  In addition to Chinese being transformed into ‘Americans’ in a multitude of ways, Chinese Speakers are transformed into English speakers, and the English we expect to read is transformed into its own unique language.  While the text may appear to be composed with letters from the Roman alphabet and familiar English words, underneath the surface of this language lies a vast Chinese architecture.  Kingston’s play with language proclaims the beauty and expressiveness of Chinese language in terms that English-speakers can readily understand.  In addition, it displaces us.  It forces us see ourselves as ‘foreign’ and the ‘foreign’ as familiar.  Occidental and Oriental spill in and out of each other, sometimes with surprising fluidity and other times with unmoving boundaries.  Just like the male Tang Ao transforms into a woman, so Chinese transforms into English and English into Chinese.  Together, these transformations create a bilingual language completely unique from either of the two, and as expressive as both combined.

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Heavy Rain – Review

Movie viewers will be disappointed.  Video Gamers will feel let down. I don’t care. Heavy Rain is an incredible piece of digital entertainment. It may not stand so strong when compared in terms of mystery writing, to action films, or even when compared to blockbuster video games.  That doesn’t really matter, though; Heavy Rain is none of these things. It is, however, awesome in its own right.  It is not, as some critics might say, a glorified “choose-your-own-adventure;” it is an engaging piece of digital entertainment that falls between existing genre lines.  But let’s not get carried away, either. This is not the first example of video games art.

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Heavy Rain Cover Art

For the 5-6 days I spent playing Heavy Rain, it entranced me hours at a time.  Even when not playing the game, its themes and mechanics crept their way into my thoughts about the world around me: when opening a lock, I had an urge to spin my fingers around in a circle in the same way one might do in the game; when opening the fridge, I imagined the swift heave with which one performs such actions in the game; in conversations at work, I even imagined my words in terms of “aggressive,” “funny,” “convincing,” and other such stances one may take in Heavy Rain.

Of course, actually turning a key and actually opening the fridge are much more complex and fruitful actions than their in-game counterparts. Conversations, too, are far more subtle, layered, and open-ended than anything a software developer is capable of mimicking. Nonetheless, the fact that players must deliberately perform these actions in the game naturally leads to introspection and reflection upon the minute details that make up the cause and effect relationships of our real lives.

I share these anecdotes not to indulge the reader in my obsessive psychoses (those psychoses can certainly be found elsewhere in my writing), but to illustrate just what kind of game Heavy Rain is.  Never in my years of playing video games – all the way from Mario on the NES to Call of Duty on the PS3 – have I ever, ever imagined myself hopping on little frowny-faced mushroom men or leaping for cover with an AK47 in hand.  Heavy Rain, by contrast, imitates the everyday banalities of life so accurately and so engagingly that one cannot help but re-examine oft-overlooked actions.  It is not the next great leap in “art imitating life” or “life imitating art” in the spirit of Oscar Wilde and Plato. But its experiments in mimesis and diegisis are remarkably rife for contemplating the ways our simple actions result in little awarenesses and realizations that accumulate over time to form larger stories. I do not think that Heavy Rainis the grand rebuttal to Roger Ebert’s challenge that video games cannot be art, but I do think it is a strong step in the nascent world of artistic creations in digital media.

Roger Ebert wrote this article about art in video games. It has become infamous among avid video gamers.

When discussing Heavy Rain with friends, I found that all of us kept unintentionally calling the game a “movie.”  It is unfortunate that an innovative piece of software, pleasantly situated between existing genres, inevitably falls into unwanted comparisons with those genres already in existence.  How does it rank as a detective story? Badly.  Is it as entertaining to watch as a movie like Memento? Far from it. Does it engage video gamers as intensely as Call of Duty? Sadly, no.  That said, I spent a great deal of time engrossed, entertained, and reflective with it.  I have no doubt that many unfamiliar with the tropes of video games will feel confused and frustrated with a story that grants partially agency over the characters, but reveals little about their internal thoughts, and strips away your control at crucial moments.  I am also aware that its open ended story on-rails will feel constraining to those who prefer the stories of the real world or of great fiction writers.  I am aware of all this, but I stand my ground: Heavy Rain is awesome.  Its prickly peculiarities are not the result of failing to meet genre standards; they are the result of a new and innovative manipulation of digital media. If you haven’t yet, buy it and play it.

If I were rating this game in the grand scheme of things, I’d give it an A-.  On Amazon, I’m giving it 5/5 stars because anyone reading this review is likely thinking about buying a video game, and this is simply better than the alternatives on the PS3.

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Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” – Playing “with a twisted cue and elliptical billiard balls?”

From the moment one lays eyes on the actors and introductory scene of The Mikado, its absurdity leaps out on stage and declares itself outright.  English actors, garbed in traditional Japanese clothing, dance on stage with regal gestures and sing operatic syllables to their audience.  To my (perhaps oversensitive) eyes and ears, these sounds and images evoke horror stories of performers in blackface, parodying another race through patronizing and insensitive behavior.  Then, as if to confirm my suspicions of foul play, the first song begins,

“If you want to know who we are, We are gentlemen of Japan; On many a vase and jar — On many a screen and fan, We figure in lively paint: Our attitude’s queer and quaint – You’re wrong if you think it aint, oh!”

Gilbert and Sullivan have not only demonstrated that they are willing to parody the Japanese race through costumes, but through direct statements, as well.  Surely, then, this opera must be a classic example of either subtle Orientalism or overt racism.  But something seems suspicious about my swift conclusion.  After all, why would a parody of Japanese attitudes begin with such outright statements like “We are gentlemen of Japan”?   A great sense of irony arises when English actors, whose facial features and operatic voices are clearly not Japanese, declare outright that they are Japanese.  The song continues to rattle off the most stereotypical perceptions of Japan that an outsider could possibly possess.  The singers declare that they are the same portrayals of Japanese that a Westerner might have seen painted on a vase or on a fan.  “We figure in lively paint,” they tell us.  No actual Japanese person would state that he or she was the object painted on a vase.  By the time the singers have stated, “our attitude’s queer and quaint,” the audience must have picked up on some sense of irony.  The actors do not seem to be parodying the Japanese race, but rather the English portrayals of that race.

An anonymous commentator has remarked that The Mikado is not actually patronizing or insensitive, but rather it is “really a delightful spoof of English misconceptions of Japan. In fact the whole opera is a lampoon of Victorian England and its insular culture.”  Given the absurd exaggerations and ironies that have already unveiled themselves in the first few lines of The Mikado’s introductory song, this statement appears to be perfectly tenable.  However, farce is a wily creature.  The absurdities that run throughout The Mikado leap from societal critiques to ironic dialogue and then from strange parodies to witty self-reference.  To a careful reader or viewer, these absurdities may all be fit into this “lampoon of Victorian England and its insular culture.”  Many other readers and viewers, myself often included, may be confused or offended by particularly strange moments in the opera.  Some, feasibly, might not even see the parody at all; they might enjoy The Mikado as a lampoon of Japanese culture, failing to realize that the parody is directed at their own attitude of insensitivity.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno: A lampoon of homophobia or a lampoon of homosexuality?

In a contemporary pop culture comparison, Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent movie Bruno met with a similar kind of misunderstanding.  Although the filmmaker intended the film to parody modern America and its insensitive culture toward the gaycommunity, many viewers feasibly failed to see this parody, and instead saw the film as a parody of the gay community itself – to either bigoted delight or deep offense.  In a similar way, the kind of ridiculous farce that runs throughout The Mikado might simultaneously satisfy one audience’s desire to see a lampoon of Victorian England as well as another audience’s desire to see a lampoon of Feudal Japan.

The parody of The Mikado meets one obvious manifestation in Pooh-bah, the satirical embodiment of a government bureaucrat, and Gilbert’s mouthpiece for quite a bit of dry sarcasm.  He first enters the stage right after a blindly optimistic chorus: “And I am right and you are right and all is right as right can be!”  Pooh-bah proudly declares “every judge is now his own executioner” as if to say that this terrible government policy were a shining example of something as “right as right can be!”  Introducing himself, Pooh bah states that he his “a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite descent,” who can “trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal atomic globule.”  Ironically, he brags about his own braggart status, and then exaggerates his pedigree to an absurd extreme.  Witty, funny, bizarre: all these words give a fitting description to Pooh-bah’s speech.  Besides this bizarre character, though, who is being laughed at? For what tradition of hereditary pride and ridiculous law is Pooh-bah the satirical mouthpiece?

One might jump to the conclusion that the parody targets Japanese government and society.  After all, a Westerner at the turn of the twentieth century could conceivably hold the preconception that Japanese society was riddled with ridiculous laws (like a law against flirting) and that its rulers held pedigrees that extended back to the “pre-Adamite” era, or something near it.  Pooh-bah’s remark “I was born sneering” might not differ much from the Western preconception of a Japanese ruler, painted on a vase or on a fan with an angry sneer across his face.  As the narrative progresses and Pooh-bah drives the jokes further and further, however, his mindless bureaucracy, inefficiency, and haughtiness seem to point toward a different sort of lampoon: that of Victorian England.  Possessing every other government title in Titipu besides Grand Executioner, Pooh-bah frequently becomes tangled in his own plethora of roles and positions.  “In which of my capacities?” he frequently asks, at one point even following Ko-Ko around the stage, whispering in order to avoid being heard by himself.  He takes the joke to a characteristic extreme when he states, “But then, as Archbishop of Titipu, it would be my duty to denounce my dishonesty and give myself into my own custody as First Commissioner of Police.”  In such statements, Pooh-bah weaves a web of confusion around himself, eliciting Ko-ko’s witty remark, “That’s extremely awkward.” It is awkward, the reader must agree, and it reflects the tangled behaviors of government bureaucrats in our own familiar Western governments.  The English actors, thinly veiled in Japanese disguise, thus emerge to parody their own government, or any government riddled with inefficiency, hypocrisy, and utter awkwardness.

Much harder to comprehend are the self-conscious references to ‘the way things are in Japan.’  Ko-ko once requests “an abject grovel in a characteristic Japanese attitude.”  Later, Yum-yum parodies her own naïveté: “You forget that in Japan girls do not arrive at years of discretion until they are fifty.”  Later, she makes an even more shocking statement: “Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world.”  In each of these statements, and in the similar ones that run throughout the text, the Japanese characters make self-denigrating marks about their own culture and behavior. Because the actors are actually English, the reader could quite easily construe such critiques of the “artless Japanese way” as actual jabs at an inferior culture.  Whether offended, delighted, or confused, the reader finds herself confronted with outright bigoted statements.  Because the text is so infused with wit, double-meanings, parodies, and exaggerations, however, these bigoted statements could just as easily be parodies of their own attitude as they are parodies of Japanese culture.

Is the Mikado more akin to ‘blackface’ performances’ in minstrel shows or to Dave Chapelle’s tongue-in-cheek use of ‘whiteface’ in his comedy show?

As always, the interpretation is up to the reader.  However, one more clue may point us in the direction of Gilbert’s intention: the references to blackface performers that were replaced in the 1940’s to avoid offense.  The Japanese names and attire of The Mikado, in fact, evoke memories of minstrel shows meant to parody the behavior of blacks.  Why, then, would Gilbert refer to this offensive practice?  In one song, early in the opera, Ko-Ko enumerates all of the people that he might execute should he ever need to “act professionally.”  “Society offenders,” “people who have flabby hands,” “the lady novelist,” and even the self-referential “funny fellows” and “comic men” all make Ko-Ko’s list of those who would not be missed.

Using Ko-Ko as his proxy speaker, Gilbert adopts a mock-racist, mock-sexist attitude in which all women, people of other races, and even the actors in the opera themselves will be subject to wanton executions at the whim of this confused madman.  Amidst this list, Gilbert includes “the nigger serenader, and the others of the race.”  “Nigger” was later changed to “banjo” in order to avoid offense at that word, but in the original, it creates an air of self-conscious critique around this sort of culturally insensitive minstrel show.  With English actors thinly disguised as Japanese, The Mikado mirrors exactly this kind of insensitive performance.  Because it does so with a sense of self-conscious irony, however, The Mikado does not produce the same insensitive effect.  Rather, it ruthlessly parodies its own mock-insensitivity.

Gilbert and Sullivan sink this shot.

Humor and parody of all kinds run throughout The Mikado.  From innocuous jokes about the beauty of Katisha’s right ankle to bizarre references about the Second Trombone, Gilbert’s immense wit permeates almost every single line, beckoning the reader not to take anything in the opera at face value.  Although a reader could conceivably find in The Mikado either deeply offensive statements or humorous insensitivity, I believe that such interpretations would be misguided by the preconceptions of the reader who makes them.  Instead, Gilbert expects us to agree with Ko-Ko, when he states, “That’s extremely awkward.”  The farcical narrative and exaggerated stereotypes are, in fact, quite awkward.  Gilbert’s wit is not playing “with a twisted cue and elliptical billiard balls” like one character in a song by the Mikado.  Instead, it strikes with extreme deliberation, creating a purposeful sense of awkwardness around bureaucracy, hypocrisy, and cultural insensitivity.

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Tokyo Drift or Tokyo Drifter?

I have a theory that there are only two kinds of people in the world:  people who have theories about how many kinds of people there are in the world, and people who don’t.  Aside from that theory, I have another one:

There are only two kinds of people in the world, those who fall under the ‘Tokyo Drift’ category and those who fall under the ‘Tokyo Drifter’ category.

Choose one, either A or B.

A.

B.

I’ve always found myself in the Tokyo Drifter category.  Occasionally, in an altered state of mind, I can ‘swing both ways’ – so to speak – but I think I definitely gravitate toward “Drifter” status.

Which one are you?

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