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Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’

Ornate Rhetorick

July 2, 2015 | by

Edward Lloyd's Coffee House, William Holland (1789)

Edward Lloyd's Coffee House, William Holland, 1789.

There is a coffee shop in my neighborhood called the Sensuous Bean. This is obviously a great name, and perhaps one key to the store’s longevity; it’s one of the few small businesses in the area to have lasted over thirty years. I think it’s tops. No precious nonsense here, but the smell of roasting beans and the clutter of brewing paraphernalia is like a comforting hug.

I’ve always hoped that their name was one of the few accurate Miltonian uses of the word sensuous in modern signage. After all, Milton came up with sensuous specifically to evoke a sensory experience innocent of leers and winks. And it didn’t really take. As Oxford Dictionaries would have it:

The words sensual and sensuous are frequently used interchangeably to mean “gratifying the senses,” especially in a sexual sense. Strictly speaking, this goes against a traditional distinction, by which sensuous is a more neutral term, meaning “relating to the senses rather than the intellect” (swimming is a beautiful, sensuous experience), while sensual relates to gratification of the senses, especially sexually (a sensual massage). In fact, the word sensuous is thought to have been invented by John Milton (1641) in a deliberate attempt to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. In practice, the connotations are such that it is difficult to use sensuous in Milton’s sense. While traditionalists struggle to maintain a distinction, the evidence suggests that the neutral use of sensuous is rare in modern English. If a neutral use is intended, it is advisable to use alternative wording.

Ah, Milton! Look up the word now and you’re likely to find “a range of romance products designed to bring you and your lover even closer,” an Estée Lauder perfume (“Warm, Luminous, Feminine”) and a 2007 record by the Japanese artist Cornelius featuring the tracks “Beep it,” “Gum,” and “Toner.” I do not recommend an image search.

Here’s how Milton used it in his tractate Of Education: “Ornate rhetorick taught out of the rule of Plato ...  To which poetry would be made subsequent, or indeed rather precedent, as being less suttle and fine, but more simple, sensuous, and passionate.”

That’s sort of how I feel about The Sensuous Bean. It’s unfettered by the dialectics of modern coffee. Passionate? Certainly—and delicious, to boot. But perhaps less “suttle and fine” than its younger counterparts, and the better for it. What’s more, on my last visit I passed a gentleman sporting both an open fly and a bare chest, and this seemed to have everything to do with the sensuous, and nothing with the sensual.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.

In the Details

December 9, 2014 | by

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Milton’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

Some books are made to be read aloud—or, at least, they take on different dimensions when they’re heard or performed. The texts that make for great audiobooks are sometimes the ones you’d expect: Ulysses or Moby-Dick or just about anything by Wodehouse. Books whose poetry and humor are thrown into relief by a gifted voice actor.

Other times, a title will take you by surprise. My brother has always been a great book-listener, and over the years I’ve given him any number of audiobooks. I won’t say which were disappointing, but it was fun to hear how well Herzog took to the treatment, or The Savage Detectives. Leo McKern reads Rumpole far better than your head ever will. (And listening is, in my opinion, the only way to approach The Fountainhead.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Paradise Lost. Maybe that doesn’t sound fun—but it’s riveting, and I’m not just saying that because today is Milton’s birthday. (He doesn’t care. Depending upon your system of belief he’s either dead or has better things to think about.) Like a lot of people, I’d read Paradise Lost in college—or maybe studied is the better word—and I’d recognized its importance as a literary and philosophical work and a cultural artifact. But it wasn’t until listening to the nine-hour Nadia May version that I really appreciated the poem. Read More »

Those Who Hope Not to Be Erased: An Interview with Carol Muske-Dukes

July 8, 2014 | by

Photo: Carlos Puma

Photo: Carlos Puma.

A writer and poet whose verse recently appeared in the Spring issue of The Paris ReviewCarol Muske-Dukes has long been interested and active in presenting a public face of poetry. A former poet laureate of California and a teacher for many years, she founded the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and began a writing program, in 1972, at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island in New York. On the heels of National Poetry Month, I spoke with Muske-Dukes at her home in Southern California about the many contemporary approaches to reading, writing, and thinking about the art of poetry, from hip-hop to “unoriginal genius” and how language matters.

What do you think the public face of poetry looks like?

Recently, a judge of the prestigious 2014 British Forward Prize for Poetry was moved to observe that “there is an awful lot of very powerful, lyrical, and readable poetry being written today,” but we need education, because “we have lost the sense that poetry sits halfway between prose and music—that you can’t expect to read it like a novel.”

A few years ago, the New York Times published an op-ed of mine, about learning poetry by heart. The response to it confirmed that people of all ages think about poetry as a kind of inspired music, embodying beauty and insight. On one hand, poetry has always flowed from music, as rap and hip-hop remind us big-time. Rappers know how poetry walks and talks. So we have music, or deeply felt recitations of poems that belong to collective memory. On the other hand, we have overly instructive prose poems, as well as the experiments of certain critical ideologies, or conceptual performance art. These aspects seem to represent the public, Janus face of poetry.

Is there a particular critical ideology you have in mind?

I’m thinking of the idea of “unoriginal genius,” though no one outside of the academy much cares about how some academic critics are now promoting it. “Unoriginal genius,” oxymoronic as it sounds, means simply that you can call yourself a genius in this age of technology if you’re savvy at editing, deleting, and erasing certain words from canonical poems and calling what remains proof of your genius. Read More »

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:) vs. :-), and Other News

July 8, 2014 | by

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No emotion required.

  • The world’s first rhyming dictionary: 1570’s Manipulus Vocabularum. (What rhymes with horseleach? Ouerreache.)
  • On writers and neologisms—how does a writer invent a good word? “Successful coinage, like happiness, may be more likely the less you aim directly at it. A writer who is obsessed with creating a popular new word is like a footballer who devotes all his energies to breaking the world record for keepy-uppy rather than playing well for his team. It’s a stunt rather than the real game. When composing Paradise Lost, John Milton probably wasn’t rubbing his hands at the thought of all the people in coming centuries who might borrow his invented term for the place where all the devils dwelt (pandemonium); he was just getting on with the job of writing an immortal poem.”
  • A linguist analyzes our use of emoji and emoticons: “He discovered a divide, for instance, between people who include a hyphen to represent a nose in smiley faces— :-) —and people who use the shorter version without the hyphen. ‘The nose is associated with conventionality’ … People using a nose also tend to ‘spell words out completely. They use fewer abbreviations.’”
  • The triumphant return of interactive fiction and “text adventures.”
  • The Reading Rainbow app is a sign of the times: “In the television version, a soothing voice read books to viewers as illustrations drifted across the screen like fish in an aquarium … The Reading Rainbow tablet app is busier.”

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On Mirth, Milton, and Nostalgia: A Conversation with Mark Morris

October 11, 2013 | by

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Twenty-five years ago, Mark Morris created L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, a vibrant, enthralling choreography inspired by the music of George Frederic Handel and the poems of John Milton. The New York Times hailed L’Allegro as “a glorious outpouring of dance invention and humanistic imagery,” and Joan Acocella stated that it is “widely considered one of the great dance works of the twentieth century.” Morris may indeed be the most talked-about modern dance choreographer of his generation, and he has a personality to match his renown. He didn’t so much appear for our interview as arrive, bursting into the room in red socks and his trademark scarf, thrown insouciantly over his shoulder.

A natural performer, Morris communicates with enthusiasm and urgency; his hands sliced through the air dramatically as he spoke. Our conversation was punctuated by his impish laugh and his opinions on everything from Lydia Davis, country western music, his figurine collection, and his choice of vodka. Morris is a voracious reader, and during the course of the interview in his New York apartment, he repeatedly pulled books from his shelves.

What’s the last great book you read?

You know what’s not great but fabulous is this book of love notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It’s called Baby Precious Always Shines. And I just read this Mary Renault–style gay potboiler called The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. I have to say I was so thrilled that Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize, because I was plugging her book to everyone I met. When I read her Collected Stories, I lost my mind. Those two-sentence stories really fucked me up. I think she’s a genius.

Is there any type of literature you steer clear of?

Boringness! Actually no, I have a tolerance for boringness. If it’s John Grisham I’m not going to read it. I’m not a big best-seller type, but I did read all of those terrifying, evangelical Christian books, the Left Behind series. Read More »

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The Epigraph

February 1, 2012 | by

Milton wasn’t working.

The aspiring novelist had already written the perfect dedication (“For my friends”), and he’d long had a list of possible titles, yet he still had no epigraph, the mysterious but meaningful quotation he’d seen at the beginning of every great book. He’d been holding John Milton in reserve for this very situation.

When contemplating the epigraph for his debut novel, the writer had always been confident that if all else failed, he could find inspiration in Shakespeare or Milton. For his part, the Bard hadn’t cooperated.

A line like “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” might work for a paperback legal thriller, but nothing Shakespeare wrote seemed appropriate for the “Borges meets Zola, if Zola had somehow been influenced by Nabokov” collection of loosely related vignettes set in a fictional megalopolis in an indeterminate near-future the writer hoped to get published by next fall. Read More »

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