Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Norton Anthology Boiled Down To 66 Words

Via the wonderful Language Log, here's a link to an NPR discussion of William Matthews' summary of The Four Subjects of Poetry:

1. I went out into the woods today, and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.

2. We're not getting any younger.

3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.

4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the
coin is too soon spent, and on what we know not what.

I love how offhand, vague, trite, inconsistent in tone, and even ungrammatical these are (check out the superfluous "what" in the last item). And I'll be damned if they don't summarize more or less accurately the contents of, oh, eighty percent of the lyric poetry written since around 1780. (Extend the view backward further in time or broaden it to include narrative, dramatic, or epic poetry, and a lot more themes clamor for inclusion.)

Among other things, it's a useful reminder that poetry is not about deep thinking. It's generally about saying trite things in a way that somehow keeps coming back to haunt you.

I imagine the same kind of offhand summary could be created for most other artistic forms. To start the ball rolling, here's my stab at The Four Subjects of Movies:

1. If I could get my hands on the contents of that black box, I could--dare I say it?--rule the world!

2. I've got an idea--let's put on a show!

3. If I can't have you, I'll die. Or somebody else will.

4. Ohmigod, it's alive!

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