[Humanist] 23.732 persistent fear

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 30 07:18:37 CEST 2010

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 732.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

Date: Mon, 29 Mar 2010 11:48:59 -0700
From: Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.729 persistent fear

What precisely is meant by a computer's reading poetry?  Words? Scanning a
text and speaking it in a synthetic voice which may or not hear stress,
pitch, rhythm, or whatever; all of which differ from speaker to speaker.
How many great actors can read poems aloud well?  Very few, since they are
taught elocution and movement performance techniques.  How many people, even
professors, perhaps especially academics, can *read  poetry? Reading poetry
is not interpreting, which perhaps a computer might be handy for, to
footnote and suggest allusions, usages, whatever; but that is not reading.
I teach at UCLA an honors seminar in the FIAT LUX series.  Students select
themselves, and from a list of nearly a hundred seminars offered for fun by
professors working or Emeriti like myself; so one assumes curiosity and real
interest on the part of students, who get 1 unit of credit, pass/fail.
Passing means showing up, in my case, for 5 two-hour sessions. Each are
asked for one 1-page+ paper in the Quarter on a poem they have selected from
the hodgepodge manual I constructed of about 108 pages of poems.  They are
cautioned at the outset and chastised during the course if they try to say
what a poem or line(s) means.  Meaning is strictly prohibited, per se.
Because of course even most adults do not know how to says what a poem

INVOCATION.  [So epic is exempted.  When I was 21 I was bemused by E A Poe's
theory of Composition, in which he scouted any poem over 100 lines, which he
said couldnt be read at one sitting of reading.  I have come to think he had
a point, and he said "Paradise Lost" was a series of short poems linked.  I
think he may also have had in mind Homer, though I dont know what he thought
about that matter — we suppose the epics were stitched together and
originally recited, even Beowulf, by the memory man, or singer or bard,
during after dinner short parties, before the torches burned down, or the
lamps ran out out oil.)

A written poem is a transcription of a speech act, as the Psalms are
orperhaps were meant to be chanted with a harp's accompaniment.  To get thenotion of a speech act across, and its occasion, elegiacal, satirical
attack, or invocational, is very difficult, since none of our students today
have ever memorized and spoken even a sonnet, or Shaxperian soliloquy, which
mimics internal rumination spoken aloud.

What has a computer that reads and speaks what it reads to do with the
elegy, satire, or invocation, which are the essence of what a poem is:
erotic energy in action, as Socrates suggests forcibly in THE SYMPOSIUM. And
it should be kept in mind, Socrates never completes or discloses the poem,
the source of which, for him, was revealed, in speech, by Diotima, a
sybilline person in the mountains.  Let us try to see how we can understand
what the speech act is.  The written poem is secondary.  Interpretation

Jascha Kessler
Emeritus Professor of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA

Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393,4648

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