Affective Technology, Part 1: Poems and Stories

by William Benzon

This is the first in a series of three articles on literature consider as affective technology, affective because it can transform how we feel, technology because it is an art (tekhnē) and, as such, has a logos. In this first article I present the problem, followed by some informal examples, a poem by Coleridge, a passage from Tom Sawyer that echoes passages from my childhood, and some informal comments about underlying mechanism. In the second article I’ll take a close look at a famous Shakespeare sonnet (129) in terms of a model of the reticular activity system first advanced by Warren McCulloch. I’ll take up the problem of coherence of oneself in the third article.

Augustine’s shameful members

There is a passage in The City of God where Augustine complains about “bodily members” that are not subject to our will (Book 14, Chapter 17):

Justly is shame very specially connected with this lust; justly, too, these members themselves, being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called “shameful.” Their condition was different before sin…. because not yet did lust move those members without the will’s consent; not yet did the flesh by its disobedience testify against the disobedience of man.

Augustine is obviously complaining about sexuality, and offering the interesting speculation that, before humankind’s fall from grace, sexuality was under the control of the will but only afterward, alas, was such control lost.

The problem is hardly confined to sexuality. One cannot become hungry at will, nor curious, affectionate, playful, angry, and so forth. One can fake many of these things, and more, and sometimes one can fake it until it becomes real, after a fashion. However, we can go beyond faking it. Though the use of literary or artistic means, we can exert indirect influence on our affective states. We deliberately, willfully, set out to read a poem, listen to piece of music, watch a movie, whatever, and our feelings change. Read more »

The Irises Are Blooming Early This Year

by William Benzon

I live in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan. I have been photographing the irises in the Eleventh Street flower beds since 2011. So far I have uploaded 558 of those photos to Flickr.

I took most of those photos in May or June. But there is one from April 30, 2021, and three from April 29, 2022. I took the following photograph on Monday, April 15, 2024 at 4:54 PM (digital cameras can record the date and time an image was taken). Why so early in April? Random variation in the weather I suppose.

Irises on the street in Hoboken.

That particular photo is an example of what I like to call the “urban pastoral,” I term I once heard applied to Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

Most of my iris photographs, however, do not include enough context to justify that label. They are just photographs of irises. I took this one on Friday, April 19, 2024 at 3:23 PM. Read more »

Third Places and American Libraries

by Mark Harvey

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book…  —President Dwight Eisenhower, 1953

Andrew Carnegie

The other day I stopped in at one of those coworking spaces to see if it would be worth joining in an effort to increase my productivity. Productivity, in my case, is a fancy word to describe getting my taxes done on time, answering a few emails, staying atop some small businesses, and doing a little writing. I’m not exactly a threat to mainland China.

Unfortunately the place I visited had all the charm of a gulag in far east Russia, with poor lighting, and about four pale characters staring at their computer screens as if they could see the eternal void in the universe and had a longing to visit. No thanks.

It did get me thinking about “third places,” and libraries in particular. I believe the term, third place, was coined by the writer Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. First places are our homes, second places are where we work, and third places are where we go to get relief from the first and second places. They include churches, libraries, pubs, cafes, parks, gyms, and clubs.

My second place is a beautiful ranch in Colorado, so I have little to complain about, but when it comes to the close work of being on a computer, I really value third places. Scholars have described Oldenburg’s third place as having eight features including neutrality, leveling qualities, accommodation, a low profile, and a sense of home. In short, it’s a place that is welcoming, not fancy, free of social hierarchies, free of dues, and imparts no obligation to be there. That perfectly describes American libraries, one of our greatest institutions. Read more »

What Art Can Do

by Christopher Horner

Grasmere (Photo by author)

Why do we value art? I am going to suggest that a large part of the answer is to do with its unique power to disclose and convey areas of our lives unavailable to us though other means. Art, on this account, is a kind of communication, and kind of act: something performative – a communication that makes something happen, in a way that eludes ordinary discourse. 

By ‘ordinary’ here I mean the kind of communication delivered by language when it is used to convey concepts: ranging from the most banal everyday speech to the most rarefied theory. Of course, ordinary speech acts themselves have a performative quality too – we don’t just communicate information through language, but make things happen, make requests, (‘shut the door’, ‘the meeting is over’ ‘help me!’). Moreover we use our bodies, tone of voice, emphasis and more: and the conceptual content may not even be what matters, especially when something isn’t banal, but matters greatly: moments of grief or joy, for instance. A gesture, a tear, or just silence may be more eloquent than words. It is this ‘beyond’ in our imperfect communications, that hint at what art can do. Art aspires to a more perfect communication: one that takes us beyond the confines of the lonely self.  Read more »

Robert Frost’s Ghost: The Bread Loaf Writers Conference

by Leanne Ogasawara

Bread Loaf Writers Conference 2023


I walked through woods muddy and wet, feet sinking down into the boggy earth. With each step, mosquitoes rose up in clouds. It felt more like I was forging a river than walking a path through woods.

I was told that it was less than two miles to Robert Frost’s writing cabin in the woods. According to the Bread Crumb, the daily newsletter put out by the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, it was a must-see. Just follow the pink ribbons…it instructed. And sure enough, pretty pink ribbons were tied to tree branches, marking the way, whenever two roads diverged through the woods.

I had only applied to the conference on a whim. Well, not a whim exactly, but more like a major disappointment and a bad experience with a literary agent sent me spiraling… but then after a week of tears, I decided to just get back up again. What else could I do anyway?  “Fall down seven times, get back up eight” 七転び八起き says the old Japanese proverb.

And so, I applied to several workshops and one residency.

I don’t recall where or how I first heard about Bread Loaf. Maybe it was from that old Simpson’s episode, when Lisa launches tavern-owner Moe’s literary career by sending his poem to a magazine:

Howling at a concrete moon,

My soul smells like a dead pigeon after three weeks.

I shut my window and go to sleep.

In my dream I eat corn with my eyes.

Moe’s poem creates a literary splash, and he is immediately invited to attend Word Loaf, where Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon—both played by themselves—end up getting into a fight. And, everyone but Lisa goes on a hay ride.

Thinking about it, though, I wonder if I didn’t first hear about Bread Loaf in connection to the great American poet Robert Frost.

Do American kids in public schools still memorize his poems? Read more »

Rumi, Adab, and the Beauty of Boundaries

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

The author with Esin Çelebi Bayru, Rumi’s granddaughter (22nd generation) in Konya

I was so excited to meet Azra Bayru Kumcuoğlu, Rumi’s granddaughter (23rd generation) for breakfast on my latest visit to Istanbul— that I wore my pearls early in the morning and popped into a salon across from Boğaziçi University campus where I had been staying. Halfway through the blowout, it began to rain and by the time I stepped out, there was a proper downpour. I was irked, as was the hairstylist, but somewhere in my Pakistani heart, rain remains a thrill, a secret, contradictory gift that comes to awaken our dormant spark. Waiting outside the museum where we had planned to meet, I saw Azra Hanim rushing towards me; her spirit was instantly apparent. With the smile and embrace befitting a descendant of Maulana Rūm himself, she held her umbrella over me as we walked down slippery stairs; a stranger a millisecond ago suddenly felt like a sister. As we negotiated the traffic, the whipping wind and wet streets, Azra Hanim kept one arm firmly hooked into my mine to prevent me from slipping. This moment inspires a reflection on courtesy but its sweeping grace defies language; words slip like “a donkey in mud” when it comes to love— to offer that unforgettable metaphor of Rumi’s making. Azra Hanim’s was no ordinary social courtesy but a courtesy shaped by love, a value rigorously honed in the Sufi cultures as Adab.

Earlier on my visit, I had met Azra Hanim’s mother, the honorable Esin Çelebi Bayru in Konya and had interviewed her regarding her new book Love is Something Beautiful. The book is part family memoir, part history of the Mevlevi school of Sufism, and reveals, amidst the ebbs and flows of circumstance and socio-political demands, how the Mevlevi culture has survived in recent centuries. The theme that prevails throughout the book is the centrality of Adab. When I met her, I immediately felt her warmth. She carries herself with the ease of a satiated spirit, happy to pass on to others the peace she feels. We had multiple conversations in the days I spent in Konya, each was memorable. The two things that interested me most in the context of my own work of original poems and translations of Iqbal, was Mevlana Rumi’s early life and influences, and the practice of Adab in the Mevlevi culture and beyond. Read more »

The Face of a Dervish

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Before I met Hayat Nur Artiran, I had only had a raw understanding of what female selfhood may look like, a notion I have been attempting to refine in my writings over many years. Here, at the Mevlevi Sufi lodge in Istanbul, I received a lifetime’s worth of illumination about the power of the spirit in the company of Nur Hanim, beloved Sufi Hodja and the President of the Sefik Can International Mevlana Education and Culture Foundation. A researcher, author and spiritual leader on the Sufi path known as the Mevlevi order (based on the teachings of Maulana Jalaluddin Muhammad Balkhi Rumi, known in the West simply as the poet Rumi), Nur Hanim’s accomplishments shine a light on an ethos that has transformed hearts for nearly a millennium. More instrumental than personal achievement in this case, is the Sufi substance and finesse that Nur Hanim has nurtured in the running of this Mevlevi lodge. Spending a day here, on my most recent visit to Istanbul, I came to experience what I had thought possible, based on my Muslim faith, but had never witnessed before: men and women coexisting, learning, working and serving in harmony, a place where one forgets the ceaseless tensions between genders, generations, ethnicity, or those caused by differences in religious beliefs or the self-worshipping individualism that has become the insignia of modernity. Read more »

Historical Memory 2: Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon

by Dick Edelstein

Modernist Irish poet Lola Ridge

This is the second of three articles on the theme of historical memory. The first, which can be found here, deals with issues related to archival data on casualties and victims in the Spanish Civil War. In the present article, I discuss the activities of a movement to redress the exclusion of Irish women writers from the historical record.

Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon is a collective that became publicly known in 2017. It emerged from discussions among a group of women of varied backgrounds in both Northern Ireland and the Republic who shared a common interest in the status of women in the arts, and it was launched in response to the publication of the current edition of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poetry, an authoritative compendium that is re-published periodically in updated editions.

The exclusion of women in that volume and others like it was neither remarkable nor novel; what was noteworthy on this occasion was the existence of a body of recently published research on the careers of a number of successful Irish women poets in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. (A notable example is Poetry by Women in Ireland: A Critical Anthology 1870-1970 by Dr. Lucy Collins.) This research brought to light the poetry of several Irish women who had enjoyed important reputations in the past. The Cambridge volume ignored this research, and just four of its thirty chapters were devoted to female writers, while only four female critics had been commissioned to provide chapters.

The response was the launch of Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon through two lines of action: a pledge aimed at redressing the gender imbalance in Irish poetry and a series of readings throughout Ireland and abroad to focus attention on historical Irish women poets. Read more »

The Soul-Haunted War Poet Wilfred Owen

by Thomas Larson

Among the youngest and most soul-haunted poets who endured trench warfare during the First World War was Wilfred Owen—a British lieutenant, who died in France in 1918, one week before the Armistice. He was twenty-five. Owen was raised by an evangelical Anglican mother with whom he was abnormally close. She placed her provincial son into the service of a vicar—visiting the poor and sick, which Owen loathed—until he escaped and went to France in 1913. There, his faith began to unravel, declaring to her that “I have murdered my false creed.” War afoot, he returned to England and enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles, a British military order, rising quickly to officer. His fighting ability was tragically competent.

In April 1917, assigned a squad at the front, a shell exploded two yards from his head and he was severely concussed. Sent home, confused and shaky, he recuperated by writing. As his biographers note, the war was good for his poetry. His front-forged verse found its edge. He wrote brutal elegies for the lads he commanded and saw shot and with whom, as spirits, he communed. Dozens of men dead, their “unburiable bodies” lay as “expressionless lumps.” Freed from the horrors of gas and bombardment, “their spirit drags no pack, / Their old wounds, save with cold, cannot more ache.”

Such men were, in part, entranced by a three-hundred-year tradition of English Poetry, from Spenser to Sassoon, in which British boys were enchanted by the Romantic concept of the soul—whose life and death was given to love, honor, faith, courage, even the finicky rewards of verse. Read more »

Controlled Passion: On the Ghazal

by Claire Chambers

Ghazal poetry is an intimate and relatively short lyric form of verse from the Middle East and South Asia. The form thrives in such languages as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and now English. Like the Western ode, these poems are often addressed to a love object. Influenced by ecstatic Sufi Islam, the ghazal’s subject matter concerns desire for another person and, figuratively, love for the Divine. 

Indeed, a mixture of sacred, profane, romantic, and melancholic elements are frequently stitched into the ghazal’s poetic fabric. Many ghazals revolve around the theme of lovers’ separation. This topic also functions as an image for the Muslim worshipper’s longing for Allah. In doing so, the ghazal draws comparisons with seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry. Like ghazalists, John Donne would ostensibly write about love for a woman but also shadow forth devotion to God. 

Sound, rhyme, repetition, and rhythm come to the forefront in this form. This makes it unsurprising that many ghazals have been turned into songs. For instance, during the course of his illustrious poetic career, Mohammad (‘Allama’) Iqbal (1877–1938) wrote dozens of ghazals. Some of these poems have been set to music. They were sung by popular South Asian musicians including the late Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as well as contemporary singers Lata Mangeshkar and Sanam Marvi. I also think of the famous playback singers Noor Jehan’s and Nayyara Noor’s renditions of the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911–1984). This crossover often surprises Westerners: it’s as though Carol Ann Duffy’s poems were being sung by Rihanna!  Read more »

An Electric Conversation with Hollis Robbins on the Black Sonnet Tradition, Progress, and AI, with Guest Appearances by Marcus Christian and GPT-3

by Bill Benzon

I was hanging out on Twitter the other day, discussing my previous 3QD piece (about Progress Studies) with Hollis Robbins, Dean of Arts and Humanities at Cal State at Sonoma. We were breezing along at 240 characters per message unit when, Wham! right out of the blue the inspiration hit me: How about an interview?

Thus I have the pleasure of bringing another Johns Hopkins graduate into orbit around 3QD. Hollis graduated in ’83; Michael Liss, right about the corner, in ’77; and Abbas Raza, our editor, in ’85; I’m class of  ’69. Both of us studied with and were influenced by the late Dick Macksey, a humanist polymath at Hopkins with a fabulous rare book collection. I know Michael took a course with Macksey and Abbas, alas, he missed out, but he met Hugh Kenner, who was his girlfriend’s advisor.

Robbins has also been Director of the Africana Studies program at Hopkins and chaired the Department of Humanities at the Peabody Institute. Peabody was an independent school when I took trumpet lessons from Harold Rehrig back in the early 1970s. It started dating Hopkins in 1978 and they got hitched in 1985.

And – you see – another connection. Robbins’ father played trumpet in the jazz band at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1950s. A quarter of a century later I was on the faculty there and ventured into the jazz band, which was student run.

It’s fate I call it, destiny, kismet. [Social networks, fool!]

Robbins has published this and that all over the place, including her own poetry, and she’s worked with Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. to give us The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2006). Not only was Uncle Tom’s Cabin a best seller in its day (mid-19th century), but an enormous swath of popular culture rests on its foundations. If you haven’t yet done so, read it.

She’s here to talk about her most recent book, just out: Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition. Read more »

Context Collapse: A Conversation with Ryan Ruby

by Andrea Scrima

Ryan Ruby is a novelist, translator, critic, and poet who lives, as I do, in Berlin. Back in the summer of 2018, I attended an event at TOP, an art space in Neukölln, where along with journalist Ben Mauk and translator Anne Posten, his colleagues at the Berlin Writers’ Workshop, he was reading from work in progress. Ryan read from a project he called Context Collapse, which, if I remember correctly, he described as a “poem containing the history of poetry.” But to my ears, it sounded more like an academic paper than a poem, with jargon imported from disciplines such as media theory, economics, and literary criticism. It even contained statistics, citations from previous scholarship, and explanatory footnotes, written in blank verse, which were printed out, shuffled up, and distributed to the audience. Throughout the reading, Ryan would hold up a number on a sheet of paper corresponding to the footnote in the text, and a voice from the audience would read it aloud, creating a spatialized, polyvocal sonic environment as well as, to be perfectly honest, a feeling of information overload. Later, I asked him to send me the excerpt, so I could delve deeper into what he had written at a slower pace than readings typically afford—and I’ve been looking forward to seeing the finished project ever since. And now that it is, I am publishing the first suite of excerpts from Context Collapse at Statorec, where I am editor-in-chief.

Andrea Scrima: Ryan, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to start with a little context. Tell us about the overall sweep of your poem, and how, since you mainly work in prose, you began writing it.

Ryan Ruby: Thank you for this very kind introduction, Andrea! That was a particularly memorable evening for me too, as my partner was nine months pregnant at the time, and I was worried that we’d have to rush to the hospital in the middle of the reading. But you remember quite well: a poem containing the history of poetry, with a tip of the hat to Ezra Pound, of course, who described The Cantos as “a poem containing history.” Read more »

Ignatz on Road Trip

by Olivia Zhu

Right now, I'm somewhere in the American Southwest, surrounded by what my high school biology teacher would remind me is called a “desert chaparral.” I'm road-tripping from Austin to California, both a far cry away from the cold climes where I first encountered Monica Youn, and her second book Ignatz.


As a child of the 90s, I had no clue that Ignatz referred to the Krazy Kat comic strips, and similarly had no idea who Monica Youn was (CliffNotes version: she's a notable lawyer and poet, and Ignatz is her second book). When I first read “X as a Function of Distance from Ignatz,” or “Ignatz Domesticus,” or any of the other bits and pieces of her book available online—well, they were a bit inaccessible. I thought it because I didn't know Krazy Kat, didn't know the original Ignatz. To be perfectly honest, I still don't know if Ignatz is meant to be male or female, and I confess I haven't been perfectly diligent in my research here; even now, I read Youn's work in fragments, on the road. But—I hope my argument that poetry is a matter of being at a point in time, at the right moment in time, is no less obscured for that fact.

Read more »

Old King in the New World: Restraint and Art in ‘Madame X’

by Olivia Zhu

MadamexThe pale neck of John Singer Sargent’s most notorious portrait subject graces the cover of William Logan’s latest book, a collection of poetry that pays homage to the artist in its themes and style. Madame X, named after the painting, opens with two epigraphs that establish the themes of the work: the first explicitly links Herman Melville’s Ahab to “that wild Logan of the woods,” in reference to a Native American chief who literary historian Jonathan Elmer calls “a melancholic relic,” of the same lonesome breed as both captain and poet (119). The last of his kind, fanatically in search of a poetic white whale: this is how Logan announces himself.1 The second epigraph, a quote from Roman Holiday, reveals the object of his pursuit. Gregory Peck’s expat character, attempting to resist an undressing, Shelley-reciting Audrey Hepburn, advises her to “Keep [her] mind off the poetry and on the pajamas and everything will be all right.” Taken together, the two inscriptions position the poet as an old king, yearning for the classicality of the Old World, its elegant poetry, and its restrained sexuality. Madame X, with all its recurring images of ancient soldiers and overexposed young women, is a testament to Logan’s self-assigned role as a guardian of taste and timelessness.

Like Logan, Sargent might have also been called an “old king.” Toward the end of his career, Sargent’s devotion to his brand of “realism was viewed increasingly as anachronistic and facile,” paralleling Logan’s fidelity to “a certain sense of tradition that was antipathetic to the traditions that most of the poets [his] age were following” (Churchwell; qtd. in Jalon, 16). Nevertheless, the artist and poet soldiered on. Both have defended their relatively traditionalist work, and the very first poem of Madame X hints at the poet’s artistic loneliness in doing so. “The Hedgehog in His Element” indicates that Logan, oft-maligned for his “miserable” and “bullying” criticism, is the titular creature, very much at home in his attitude and medium (1). During a phone interview, Logan admitted he “was attracted to the sense of a hedgehog as a masochistic figure—it looked as if he had been shot full of arrows.” Is Logan’s tenth work a vindication of how he has suffered for his formal style? Its introductory poem suggests so, for “like a Sherman tank forced out of the brush,” the poet is made to emerge and set up a defense in whatever prickly way he might choose (“Hedgehog” 2). The image of a self-sacrificing soldier is driven home by the poem’s concluding image of “St. Sebastian bristling with arrows,” with the patron saint of warriors—and a martyr twice over—shown as angry and defiant even when wounded (“Hedgehog” 3).

Read more »

Do Good Books Improve Us?

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_465 Jan. 20 11.14Does reading good literature make us better people? The idea that exposure to good art is morally beneficial goes back at least to Plato. Although he was famously suspicious of the effects that tragic and epic poetry might have on the youth, Plato takes it for granted that art of the right kind can be edifying and that therein lies its primary value. Most educators from Plato's time to the present have made similar assumptions, even though they may disagree over what sort of effects are desirable and therefore which sort of books should be read. In the past a lot of powerful art has glorified tradition, upheld religion, celebrated national identity, and helped foster social cohesion. This is the sort of art that often appeals to conservatives. Today, by contrast, much more emphasis is placed on art's critical function, its capacity to make us more informed, aware, self-aware, thoughtful and questioning, particularly in relation to aspects of contemporary culture that the artist finds troubling.

Obviously, no one expects every important work of fiction to precipitate some great moral awakening or social reform after the fashion of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nor do we expect to see patrons of a New York literary festival dispensing cash to street people as they wait for their cabs after a reading. The moral and social benefits of art identified by critics are usually more subtle. Typical academic commentary on fiction, for instance, will see its importance as lying in the way it enlarges our moral imagination, helps us to grasp another's point of view, sensitizes us to another's feelings or sufferings, warns us against certain kinds of illusion, exposes insidious forms of cruelty, shows us how to avoid self-deception, impresses on us some profound truth, strengthens our sense of self, and so on. This approach receives theoretical support in works such as Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, and John Carey's What Good are the Arts?

A huge amount of literary criticism is of this sort, and it can certainly be interesting, insightful, and entertaining to read. But I also believe that it might be useful, for once, to meet it with a robust, even vulgar skepticism. I would not deny that literary works are sometimes capable of having desirable effects of the kind just mentioned on individuals and society. But I believe that in most cases, such benefits are either negligible, or short-lived or non-existent. They certainly provide a rather flimsy reason for valuing the works. Compared to the much more obvious good of the enjoyment we derive from reading fiction and poetry, their value as instruments of edification is like the light of stars against the light of a full moon.

Read more »

Here a quack, there a quack

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Coppersmith_Barbet_I_IMG_0006As the Bombay heat began to set in this morning at nine o'clock, I heard amidst the cawing crows, the shouts of a street vendor, local kids playing cricket, and cars and motorcycles, a long metronomic birdcall emitted from a tiny, fleeting visitor. The Coppersmith Barbet, adopted as the city's official bird, is known so because of its signature call – a metallic evenly paced sound, “tuk…tuk…tuk (or tunk), reminiscent of a copper sheet being beaten”. Rickshaws were passing by raucously; on occasion one would sputter into action after picking up a fare. It is intriguing to consider the only similarity between the two – how the sounds they make are described in speech. If the little crimson-throated visitor's call can be described with a set of phonemes that attempt to approximate it, then the rickshaw's steady rhythm as it charges down streets have led to it being named onomatopoeically. From the tuk-tuk in the tree to the tuk-tuk on the street, it is both the ubiquity and the boundaries of onomatopoeia that is fascinating. I cannot recall now, if I sipped my tea, or slurped it, as the Barbet's sound ceased and the distressing white-noise of the water-pump took over.

From babbling brooks to angry oceans, soft breezes to fierce gales, trains, bullets, rockets, machine guns, and the purrs, meows of cats to the roars of wild beasts, we find ways, in all cultures and languages, to phonetically transform the sounds we hear into words that can be spoken and written. Songs, poetry, and literature are suffused with the sounds of the world we live in through onomatopoeic words.

The steady rhythm of human life itself, the beating of hearts, is cross-linguistically broad in description – from bumm-bumm in German, lab-dab in Tamil and Telugu, doki-doki in Japanese to tum-tum in Arabic, the way chests throb and pulses race find varying phonetic forms across the globe. Boom-boddie-boom was the way it went for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in the promotional song for the 1960's film The Millionairess, and in Hindi cinema, we have long known of dil ki dhadkan and the pulsating dhak-dhak. From the diastolic to the systolic, to aches and sighs, the heart and its cadences is widely found in song form.

Onomatopoeia-Is-A-Straight-Forward-Disease-Comic-By-Cyanide-HappinessThe role of onomatopoeia in evolutionary linguistics is highly disputed, and the theories of ‘opprobrious names', the ding-dong, bow-wow, and pooh-pooh, which do not heed visual signs and cues, writes EL Thorndike, are largely discredited. However, the role phonetic elements play in mimetic gestures is an interesting one and the links between sound and sense is an essential aspect of language and speech.

Read more »

To Run Aground

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Last month, while on my way to 7 Bungalows, a neighbourhood in Bombay’s northern suburb of Andheri, I stuck my head out of the rickshaw as we were momentarily caught up in traffic at Juhu Beach. Just a week earlier, on June 12th, a large merchant ship, charmingly named MV Wisdom, had run aground. A faint drizzle nimbly animated the monsoon skies and I wiped my glasses clean on my T-Shirt to look out at the enormous ship and the several people gathered on the beach. They ate chaat and ice creams and gawked at the derelict, wretched old vessel, none the wiser to its impending fate. The unmanned giant was being tugged from Colombo to a ship-breaking yard on the coast of Gujarat. Its demise was imminent.

News reports mentioned that the vessel had inadvertently broken free from its grim escort, and as it set adrift in the then perturbed waters and inclement weather, it narrowly missed colliding into the Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge – Bombay’s latest showpiece. It however remained fortuitously adrift enough to not rudely bump into the city’s latest public display of inept governance and poor planning, but instead lumbered on to the iconic Juhu Chowpatty, with what one can imagine to be, ponderous fatigue corroded over many seafaring years, and a groan like none other.

These were the scenes to be seen:

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Expressing Fidelity Through Sorrow’s Hope

By Maniza Naqvi

Faizphoto Separated for now, from Ami, in this journey of life and death, I feel myself displaced: trying to find meaning in everything, wanting to be able to express her being in everything that I do and struggling to not feel muted and exiled. I feel her touch each time that sorrow becomes overpowering as though to say—I am here with you:

With such love, oh beloved, at this time, the memory of you has placed its hand on my heart’s visage/ A sensation, still, though now it is the morning of separation, set the day of exile, arrived reunion’s night.”

Is qadr piyaar sey, eh, jan e jahan rakha hai/Dil ke rukhsaar par is wakht teri yad nay hath.

Yun guma ho tha hai garchey hai abhi subhay firaq/Dhal, gaya hijr ka din ah bhi gayee wasal ki raat.

And in this moment as I write this piece which is meant to be about this photograph and about the immortality and intensity of poetry and poets, I search for Ami’s gentle touch. Ami with her perfection in relating her understanding of meanings, her precision of thought, her clarity of language and her passion for prose filled my life with poetry. My understanding of Urdu poetry was through Ami and my father. Ami recited poetry to me and helped me read it in my mother tongue—she explained and translated the difficult vocabulary and gave meaning to its detailed and often culturally specific symbolism and context of my motherland. With Ami’s help I read and understood a handful of shers contained in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s book of poetry called Nuskhaye Wafa, on the inside cover of our copy of the book I had scrawled in pencil my own alternative title:—“A Prisoners and Exiles Guide to Survival.” One of my favorite poems or ghazals of Faiz begins with:

Merey dil merey musafir, Huwa pir sey hokum sazir key watan badar hon hum tum.

My heart, my traveler, Once again we are ordered into exile you and I.

It is this photograph of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that I want to write about. But in this moment I cannot see it through any other lens then that of the sorrow and loss of Ami, my mother whose intekal or transition from this life occurred January 17, 2011.

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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — and at Obama

by Evert Cilliers (aka Adam Ash) and Wallace Stevens


In 1917, Wallace Stevens, to my mind the best American poet of the 20th century (sorry, Sylvia Plath fans), published one of his most famous poems, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” What with Barack Obama being our first black President, and also a leader who elicits a variety of responses, from the sensible to the absurd, I thought it might be interesting to look at Obama through the lens of this poem.

(Note: this piece is shorter than my usual 8,000-word epic rants. Last month I wrote a 17,000-word saga, mixing stories about my strange family with social commentary and snippets of the history of South Africa, where I grew up. I didn't get the usual fifty plus readers comments, but the ones I got were so enthusiastic and heartfelt that I am honor-bound to repeat this personal anecdote/social commentary form again. I thank all those 3QDers who read the whole damn thing and expressed their thanks. You make me love what I do, and make me love 3QD for letting me do what I do. BTW, if you're brave enough to climb this Mt. Everest, google “The World Cup, my White Afrikaner Skin, my Fascist Parents, Mandela, Obama and Forgiveness.” And now on with a mercifully shorter piece.)


Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.

The problem with Obama is the problem with democracy, as famously described by Churchill in a Commons speech in 1947, after the British voters repaid him for saving civilization by throwing him and his party out in 1945: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Obama is the worst form of president, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Today there are a few pols that are mildly interesting — Nancy Pelosi, Ron Paul, Anthony Wiener, Paul Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, Jeb Bush, Barney Frank, James Webb, Newt Gingrich, Alan Grayson — but none to match Barack Obama. Among the snowy mountains of Washington, his is the only eye worth catching. He can still summon the mojo to enchant a crowd (to see him in top form, google “realclearpolitics Obama: Republicans want to bamboozle you”).

However — and this is what makes Obama really interesting — he appears to have lost his progressive base somewhere between Air Force One and the White House urinal. Obama may be the smartest guy in any room, but when it comes to keeping his loyal base loyal, he has moved into full possession of an ear of tin, a tongue of lead, and a brain of plank.


I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

Looking at candidate Obama in 2008, three mindsets pertain:

(a) Obama was the hope of the universe, the dawn of a new day, a progressive nation changer of unfathomable potential, an avatar of Dr King, Gandhi, Mandela and FDR.

(b) Obama was a socialist demon Nazi Hitler Lenin Antichrist Arab Muslim, the real-world manifestation of super-conservative America's worst hates and fears.

(c) Obama was a blank slate on whom we could all write ourselves; he was whatever you wanted him to be, a projection of your innermost desires, the change that was us that we were waiting for.

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