Gathering flowers, my mountain flowers


What are the names of the flowers and blossoms that edge the late August roadsides of rural Wisconsin? Cornflower? Goldenrod? Queen Anne’s lace? Or wild carrot? Maybe this is botanical contrafact.[1] Same road progression along corn and soybean fields, but new melodies and arrangements of purple, white and yellow. Weeds and wild flowers remixed along country roads.

The expression “gathering the flowers” originated from a Latin phrase, florilegium.[2] The idea and practice of gathering flowers was to record quotations, excerpts and selections of literature, sketches and observations. Often religious and/or philosophical. These thoughts and ideas collected in a common place[3] provided a field of potential cross pollination. Hence the term commonplace books from the Latin “loci communes.”[4]

But tonight the poetry of Li Po, commonplace books and conversation at the dinner table collided. It is a practice in my home to share dinner together with the entire family. Good food and lively conversation abound. Tonight the topics included rhetoric definitions, friendship, loyalty, virtue, astronomy, Taoism, Christianity, providence of God, Li Po, coffee, heavy metal music, hairless rabbits and so on. Weeds and wild flowers distinguished throughout the animated discussion.

After the conversation subsided, the table cleared and dished washed, I reflected on a poem by Li Po. In the poem he referred to himself and a hermit friend as “mountain flowers.” Remixing gathering flowers and mountain flowers intrigued me. One of the children placed John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Art Tatum records on the stereo.

John Coltrane’s “26 2.” Charlie Parker’s chord progression from “Confirmation” reimagined with Coltrane’s melody and arrangement. Later, I borrowed Li Po’s four-line structure and motif and added my own melody, images and theme. Gathering flowers and blossoms. Poetic contrafact.

NOTES:
[1] Discovering Jazz, Episode 46, Stolen Chord Sequences (Jazz Contrafacts), accessed September 7, 2019. https://player.fm/series/discovering-jazz-2150622/archives-episode-46-stolen-chord-sequences-jazz-contrafacts
[2] “Florilegium – gathering literary flowers,” August 27, 2019. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2019/08/27/florilegium-gathering-literary-flowers/
[3] Loci communes: Not an easy Google search, but an example of its usage is here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loci-communes-rerum-theologicarum. Additionally, here are some Latin root words that make up Loci communes.


[4] Commonplace books is a subject explored here. “Best reads of 2014 (or what I found in my notebook),” December 31, 2014. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2014/12/31/best-reads-of-2014-or-what-i-found-in-my-notebook/

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Florilegium – gathering literary flowers

Ever have one of those moments when you realize you are not what you claimed or thought you were? Where an illusion of yourself, either self-imagined or externally imposed, dissipates.

Well, an interesting thing happened to me on the way to the Intermodal Station. While I had thirty minutes to spend, I lost my way through the labyrinthian shelves of Downtown Books in search of a Latin dictionary. Instead, I found a used English dictionary.

Knowing that half of the English language is built on the foundation of Latin, I found a delicious word: florilegium. Culling flowers is the literal definition. But “a volume of writings” reminded me of something else. The idea of gathering literary flowers or collecting the flowers of one’s reading. Somewhere between the Middle Ages and Renaissance the practice of writing quotes and excerpts from other texts began. Later it manifested itself in European culture as commonplace books.

For years I considered myself a modernist of sorts. Writing down quotes, excerpts and notes on or from influential artists like Jackson Pollock, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, and Ezra Pound. But there I was, standing in Downtown Books searching a dictionary for English words with the Latin root word “loci.”

When did this happen? When did I begin act and resemble a classicalist? Maybe this is part of the great conversation. Connecting the dots. Reading the ancient writers. Comparing them to modern literature. Maybe this is part of gathering literary flowers. Legacy informing legacy.

I boarded the train. Found a seat. Opened a copy of Gary Snyder’s Left Out in the Rain. And gazed out the window at the setting sun.

Be selective in what is read

New acquisitions at the used bookstore.

Have you ever wondered how fast you read? A stack of reading material on the nightstand begged for my attention. I considered how long it would take me to get through it.

Reading speed test.

Curious, I took an online test to find out.[1] I selected a blog post from a published poet/essayist and took the reading test. The results disappointed me. It took me less than two minutes to read a blog post with more than 300 words. According to a Forbes article, the average adult reads 300 words a minute.[2]

Test two. I selected the nut graph of a Slate.com article. Again, below average reading speed. Test three. Selected another blog post. This time from a professional blogger. I received an above average reading speed. Test four (and five). Two different New Yorker articles selected. I read the opening paragraphs. Two different writers. One wrote a news piece. One a literary critique. The results varied. The critique results were below average and the news piece was above average.

Content readability.

I turned my attention to the text read. Using an online app I graded the passages read.[3] The Slate.com article received a good readability rating. The professional blogger article earned an okay readability score. The literary critique received a poor readability grade. The news piece received a score worse than the literary critique.

The app rates the difficulty of a text. The readability grade based upon passive voice, adverbs, phrases with simpler alternatives, and sentences that are hard or very hard to read. In other words, difficult sentences that included compound or compound/complex sentence structures.

Observation.

What I have noticed is that numbers (and analysis), abstract ideas and foreign words slow me down. There is so much I desire to read, but time limitations prevent the volume of literature I seek to explore. So, I have to be selective in my reading habits. And this reminds me of something Annie Dillard wrote:

“He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know.”

NOTES:


[1] ReadTime, accessed January 11, 2017.
http://readtime.eu/

[2] Brett Nelson, “Do You Read Fast Enough To Be Successful?,” Forbes, June 4, 2012 @ 09:09 AM, accessed January 11, 2017.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/brettnelson/2012/06/04/do-you-read-fast-enough-to-be-successful/#436dc4dc58f7

[3] Hemingway App, accessed January 11, 2017.
http://www.hemingwayapp.com/

 

Rented Mac computers and other joys of graphic design in the 1990s


Discovered an old portfolio during spring cleaning. The book predates the iPod. Or, for those readers under the age of 20, the iPhone or Twitter. The design samples were probably created using an old Macintosh Quadra series. Or maybe a Macintosh LC II with an integrated Sony Trinitron display screen. Aldus PageMaker 5.0 was the software used for digital design page layout. Or maybe Adobe PageMaker 6.0 or QuarkXPress 3. Either way, the software had to be installed using removable media — 3.5″ floppy disks. No internet connection on the machines — unless you were an art director or lead graphic designer. Projects and tasks did not flood your email inbox. They were assigned by paper envelope work orders or creative briefs or landline telephone.


Each portfolio sample was mounted on black core matboard with spray adhesive. It was not that I did not own a classic black leather portfolio case with two handles and black filler pages and acetate covers. I did — and still do. But I remember being advised by someone in an ad agency to present work on boards. That way a client may spread the design samples out on a conference room table for a better examination.

Back in the early days of the digital revolution in design, a commercial artist needed to include a spectrum of work: page layout, photography, product design, illustration, package design, logo, branding, infographics and so on. As design technology advanced, the pervading question asked was, can you draw? A senior graphic designer at the ad agency where I interned had boxes and boxes of drawings for advertising campaigns. The paste-up boards featured his illustrations on the bottom layer with an acetate overlay for text and a top layer had written mechanical instructions for the printer. One of my goals as a young graphic designer — improve my illustrations skills.


The hardware and software during that period were rather primitive by today’s standards. Much of graphic design tasks veered toward desktop publishing. That consisted of typesetting blocks of text around images in a page layout. The cathode ray tube display screen became more of a designer’s interface than a drafting or light table. Within in years, the tactile connection between commercial artist and the art object were severed indefinitely.

Whether spoken or internalize, the mantra of young graphic designers in those days was adapt or die. The desire to rapidly assimilate to the new tech outweighed the intellect to consider the consequences. In the mid to late 90s I recall young designers often took full-time jobs in construction or sales to pay off student loans. The pay was better than design jobs. But when they tried to return to a career in graphic design a few years latter the advances in hardware and software were too much. For those of us desiring to be an art director in five years, creative director in ten and partner in 15 to 20 years, we took the low wages with the long term goal in mind.


There were no web sites in the mid 1990s where designers could download a free vector-based template of a t-shirt or book cover in order to showcase custom designs. I created all my own templates. Often on a rented Mac computer at Kinko’s that charged by the hour. Now the question remains. Do I recycle these samples? or store them in a museum — in the early period of digital revolution in design wing of the museum?

Work is the curse of the reading class, or the virtue of reading

Work is the curse of the reading class.

How many books did you read last year? According to some reports, one in four Americans did not read a single book in the last twelve months. Three out of the four who did read in the last year read only one book. But the reports are even more dismal when a distinction is made between any books and books of literature. For example, books on business, cooking, gardening or self-help are in a different category from books of literature. Further, books on business and marketing by Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin or Simon Sinek are not considered literary works. Books by Dante, Plato and Shakespeare are works of high literature. Books of literature by American authors include Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost and Thornton Wilder.

My own reading pattern shadows the national trend. This discourages me. Years ago I read more than 50 books a year. In addition to that, I used to read several literary journals, magazines and newspapers on the bus ride to the office each day. It was a delicious and robust period of time. But life interrupted this reading regimen. A dream job, mega commute, cross-country move, career change, new job at a legacy media organization, and more commuting disrupted my reading habits.

It is a struggle for me to completely read one single book from cover to cover. The desk in front of the window holds eight books. I may have to return all these to the public library partially read. Or renew them. The library must be weary of me renewing a copy of a theological book. I must have renewed it several times over the last few months. One report I read stated the reason people do not read books is due to their busy work/life balance.

Great disruption.

The interruption to the reading habit is due in part to the daily commute. 90 minutes a day spent traveling from home to work. Public transit would be nice. However, no public transit system services the rural communities surrounded by cultivated fields and farmland. Travel accounts for more than 15 days of my time each year. And then there are the long hours of production work. The job is mentally demanding. My fatigued mind only desires to turn on the record player and go to sleep when I return home.

Solution.

Most Americans spend more than two hours each day on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That equals more than 40 days a year. From an economic stand point that seems like a lot of wasted productivity. What that means in practical terms is that my social media feeds are on life support. I do not spend time on Facebook or Twitter at all. LinkedIn occasionally. And I deleted my Instagram account. Eliminating social media activity allowed me to reclaim some of the time lost to commuting and work.

Great books.

A second action put into practice during the last few years included reading great books of literature. Mostly. Plato’s The Republic, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglas, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are some of the books read during the last year and a half. The classical education curriculum of my children helped me form a list of great books to read. I added a few books to the list to include Asian and Near Eastern studies. I explored Basho’s The Narrow Road, an anthology of Rumi, Hafix and Lalla, and Ryokan’s Sky Above, Great Wind. Most recently I attempted to read and compare three different translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. An ambitious task that I failed. Ended up focusing on selected cantos for comparison before the books were shuffled back to the public library.

The virtue of reading.

Why is reading books, especially, great books, important? The virtue of being well-read is the goal. Do not leave it up to the academics and professionals to read great books. C. S. Lewis wrote that “the simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” He continued by encouraging readers to acquire firsthand knowledge of the source material rather than to rely on secondhand commentary. Being a well-read individual has the potential to foster a civilized society. But you must be vigilant, designate time, pick up a book and read it cover to cover.

National Poetry Month, weekend edition, five reflections on poems

Poems well composed haunt readers. Like the ache of an old injury during inclement weather. Good poems never quite disappear. They remain. Like a stubborn clump of April snow and ice on the corner of the street that refuses to melt. Here are five reflections on poems that continue to sparkle and shine throughout the year. At least in my mind.

1.

The May 2011 edition of Poetry magazine featured a Dana Gioia poem with a haunting opening line:

“So this is where the children come to die, . . .”

How can you not keep reading this poem? It is so good. So rich. Later in the poem the speaker says, “but there are poems we do not choose to write.” From the first line of the poem to the last line, “Special Treatments Ward” is an exceptional work.

2.

Poetry continues the Great Conversation. What is truth? How do we know it? Who are we and how should we live? Often reserved for philosophers, these questions are the result of friction from winds of poetry. What came first? Philosophy? Or Poetry? Since Theogony pre-dates many philosophical writings, I submit that poetry came first. Poetry is the wind that troubles the water.

3.

On a gray, stormy afternoon, I retreated to the public library in Racine. A book of translations of Han Shan needed to be renewed for the fourth or fifth time. And the children needed to get out of the apartment. Besides, the more you check out books of poetry the more funding the library gets based on your activity and/or interest in certain subjects. Or so I am led to believe by local librarians.

I was introduced to the Cold Mountain poems during one of the library’s writers groups. Since then I have read and studied several books of translations from Wang Wei, Ryokan, Basho and others.

During the last few years, I find my writings turning toward dialogues with these poets. Here is a poem from Han Shan, a Taoist/Buddhist hermit, as translated by Red Pine:

Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change

A quick read reveals a surface feast of images and imagination — the woods, the cliffs, soft grass and Heaven and Earth. After reading and thinking about this poem for several months there are questions that come to mind. Is the An Lu-shan Rebellion referred to in the third line? Is there a reference to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Heaven means the emperor. Earth means the empire. Is the last line political? Or philosophical? What do I say to Han Shan? Why did you flee? What and/or who did you leave behind?

Elsewhere in the world, at that same time Han Shan wrote this poem, Beowulf was composed. Charles Martel expanded the Frankish Empire. Three hundred years later The Song of Roland would commemorate one of the battles.

On a stormy afternoon, twelve- to eighteen-foot waves batter the rocky Lake Michigan shoreline. The world through literature expands and contracts with each line of poetry read.

4.

I like how Dick Allen stated this suggestion:

“Think of books of poetry the way you think of music CDs. A CD may have 12–15 songs on it. A small book of poetry may have 30–50 poems in it. Just as good songs will be played over, so good poems will be read over and over.”

Like a single track on an album, I return to a poem by Anna Akhmatova. A Russian poem about an English play — Hamlet. The line that gets me every time I read it is:

“It was the sort of thing that princes always say.”

To me it is a catchy phrase that I want to play over and over again on the stereo. At full volume. Until it drives the neighbors in the apartment across the hall crazy.

5.

In Sam Hamill’s notes regarding his translation of a Tu Fu poem he wrote about the mingled joy and deep resignation expressed in the work.

“What is implied in the original, . . . is the notion that somehow, . . . he will not waste away sitting before the wine jug. . . . [Tu Fu] asks the question every poet asks under such circumstances: Why do we do it?”

Indeed. Why do we do it? Why read poems? In an old literary journal? Why read a poem more than 1000 years old? Or older? Why write poetry? Some may desire to write poetry in order to express themselves. I thought that was me. But not so much anymore. I write poetry in response to Wang Wei. Or Anna Akhmatova. Or Ghalib. Or Dana Gioia. My modern-day peasant efforts are to continue the Great Conversation. One line at a time.

NOTES:
Edited, condensed and updated from three previous blog posts: National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part one, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part two, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part three

A tangled forest of 1000 letters

Wrangling pages of copy all day. Setting letters and words into rows and columns. Aligning headline copy and main body copy. Kerning. Leading. Placing an image — photo headshot of a person featured in the article. Assigning pagination to each folio.

Often I am too busy hammering out page layout designs and meeting a deadline for a press date that the elegance and beauty of each letter is missed. The leg of the letter K, the arm of the letter V, the shoulder of a lowercase N, the spine of the S become a swath of gray in a field of white space. The stoke of an A, the swash of a fancy uppercase B, the bowl of the letter D, or the counter — the closed space — of the letter O become a tangled forest of 6000 characters.

In a culture where everything seems instant and ephemeral, it is a delight to enjoy a timeless typeface inspired from a two thousand year old Roman edifice. If only for a few moments.

Analog desk, mostly


This is a story about fighting for something that is worthwhile. It starts with attention fragmentation due to disruptive media. Data explodes across small and large screens. Time confetti. Tools designed to build stuff now maximizes a user’s attention. Algorithms exploit weakness.

A CEO of an internet technology company once told me that the best way to prevent a data/security breach is to unplug from the internet — air-gap. Does that work for your brain?

Last year I built a desk from salvaged materials. The idea was to create a retreat by the east window. Books, Boston ferns, dwarf palms, pens, paper and a manual typewriter populate the desktop. Mostly. A smart phone routinely finds its way to the desk. And a laptop computer. Vigilantly I try to maintain low-tech/no-tech policy with the desk by the window.

The space has allowed for a renewed energy for illustration projects, writing efforts, and — most importantly — reading and thinking about books. The discipline of maintaining this sanctuary is more difficult than initially perceived.

NOTES:
“Air-gap” According to a Wired magazine’s article: “An air-gapped computer is one that is neither connected to the internet nor connected to other systems that are connected to the internet.” https://www.wired.com/2014/12/hacker-lexicon-air-gap/

Love letters and various type catalogs

Type catalogs and color guide book circa 1991 and 2004. These artifacts of graphic design history turned up in the garage while I was searching for something else. These catalogs reminded me of a certain passion for the stories behind the creation of specific typefaces. As a young designer, I looked forward to receiving type catalogs from T26 and Émigré.

Émigré often featured text about what inspired the type designer to craft the typeface. For example, Frank Heine wrote in the catalog Various Types:

“I’ve always had a desire to design a typeface based on a Renaissance Antiqua. There are two reasons. First, the Renaissance Antiqua can be considered the prototype for most of today’s typefaces. . . . Second, I am particularly attracted to its archaic feel, . . . “

I read those catalog pages the way, I imagine, a chef may read a sommelier’s writings on viticulture, enology, and food pairing.

A quiet love developed for the work of type designer Zuzana Licko. She created the typefaces Mrs. Eaves and Matrix II. Both typefaces were and still are my favorite typefaces to use in editorial projects.

If my digital tool box were restricted to only five typefaces, Helvetica, Baskerville, Mrs. Eaves, Matrix II and Gotham would be there. I thought briefly about Butler. But I know that is a passing phase. Ten years from now designed material that features Butler will look dated to this time period in the same manner that Copperplate of FF Trixie will always remind me of the late 1990s.