Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bike lane prospects

So while I was out in California for a couple weeks, the NYC DOT finally put in the bike lane along Prospect Park West. There was uproar all through the Slope about the lane, put in the master plan over a decade ago in 1997. Things got really intense earlier this year, when the borough president (Marty Markowitz) asked the transportation commissioner (Janette Sadik-Khan) to kill the project in an open letter. In the last few months flyers were being passed around and posters were being taped up claiming, like Markowitz, that it would eliminate parking spaces, make walking across the street a nightmare, and increase congestion on the street generally.

The first claim hits at the most wide-ranging problem in the Slope, as parking is extremely hard to find and is only becoming more scarce as more and more families come into the area with more and more cars, and more and more parking garages are sold and turned into more and more apartments. The next claim about pedestrian traffic is the most narrow in focus, as it affects mostly the population in the streets closest to the park (some of the choicest properties in all of New York City). And the last claim about congestion is groundless, like the first two--the only difference being that it if you have ever lived in or near Park Slope, you would never make it in the first place.

This is because (to take the last claim first), as only a little experience with the road will tell you, the problem on Park Slope West is not traffic congestion at all but speed, as the planners of the project understood when they made this the foremost goal of the plan. They claimed, rightly, that the actual traffic along the park simply didn't require three lanes of one-way street, and that having three lanes there could only encourage people to rocket along and weave through lanes unpredictably. And this is what people did--wouldn't you? A particularly bad twist to this was that the cab companies which thoroughly infest Park Slope and make it a dangerous place to walk with your children realized it could work as their own personal freeway: thus, just a couple weeks ago, cabbies were shooting along, weaving around on either side anyone going slower than 50, or floating from the left lane all the way over the middle to the right and back again, looking for the street they had to turn down to find the executive they would race that day down into Manhattan or up to JFK. Moreover, it became a thoroughfare for people in other neighborhoods to make their way towards the BQE. Why people didn't get pissed about this, and did get pissed about the commission's decision to reduce the road to two-lanes and force people to drive slower, I guess I'll just never understand. But even in my ignorance I can positively say that the threat of congestion couldn't be the real reason, since the only possibility of it existing on that road was when the commission was trying the stop-gap solution of fiddling with the timing of lights and increasing the length of reds--pending the more thorough solution the plan would provide. This, to the eye of someone who believes that traffic problems are only solved by expanding roads and adding lanes, rather than by incentivizing the use of real thoroughfares (Flatbush Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, 4th Avenue) or (gasp!) public transportation, I guess might look like congestion. But the view isn't then much different than the person's that would use anything to convince us that any project without immediate benefit to the most immediate parties involved--which tends to be most projects in the interests of the local population--can't be managed, and that we should concludes, like Markowitz, that the only thing worth approving are lucrative projects like the kick-backing corporate orgy that is Atlantic Yards (which at least looked a bit like that before costs, and Frank Gehry, were cut--all without "managing," however). Meanwhile, even though it is too early to tell how the reduction of lanes has affected things in any significant sense, I can say there are many hints of slower speeds already.

In short, even if Janette Sadik-Khan had to basically ram the project past all of the objections, this was thoroughly justified, as the objections were not only groundless but also were made by people with only private interests in mind. This goes especially for local residents who somehow thought (to take up the next claim) the walking situation would be complicated by bikes. While crossing a bike lane is indeed a bit annoying, anyone who enters the park from the west does it already without complaining just to get to the Long Meadow--and on the bike lane inside the park's West Drive which they cross, they have no problem avoiding marathons, races, and all sorts of bike-related tomfoolery. What's a bike lane--which is better than undirected bikes flying everywhere, mind you--to that? Nevertheless, the concern is more global than this annoyance, since the goal of the bike lane involves directing more new bike traffic to this area. But one has to realize that this is done to alleviate the car traffic on Prospect Park West in an even more substantial way than the ways already mentioned: by encouraging biking rather than driving by the park. And one can't complain about too much congestion, as we saw above, at the same time as one complains about every remedy for it--unless of course, what one is really complaining about is any and all traffic along the park except their own. And while the park should be for local use, "local" should not be defined so exclusively as to require no traffic at all coming from elsewhere, and especially from areas so close by that people are using bikes to get where they are going, since they will probably also live around the park (something else is going on when you effectively claim the other sides of Prospect Park are not "local" enough).

But the most astounding thing about the whole bike lane project is the way it put the fears about parking to rest. The planners simply moved the bike lane to run right along the curb, protected by the cars which now park right along the street (and given lots of room on the other side from the extra-wide sidewalk). Everything regarding the cars is exactly the same as it was before with three lanes, only we now have two lanes: the bike lane does not interfere at all with the process of parking or finding or getting a space, as the cars and the bikes don't have to cross each other at all. While no spaces were added (that I can see), none at all were taken away or made tough to access, and it is probable that with more bike traffic into the area, the demand for parking spaces will actually go down.

New problems are sure to emerge, of course. But if the commissioner and everyone involved in the project handles those with a similar combination of creativity and levelheadedness, I'm also sure they will be manageable.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Poetics and criticism

I've been digging around in the 17th century lately, and am just falling in love with the poetry. I particularly can't get enough of Ben Jonson. His verse (to say nothing of his drama) is so experimental, which is perhaps a different thing than the inventiveness we rightly admire in Elizabethans like Spenser (who is just unmatched in ingenuity and originality). Of course, we think everything Jonson touches is different because Jonson wants to seem different, but there is an insistence behind his constant revival and readjustment of certain forms that does more than just demand the usual flattering comparison. It suggests that word, experimentation, as if invention (the inventio so insisted upon in the late Elizabethan age) were really something about thoroughness. Perhaps a new poetics can also be created by the connections it makes to the previous paradigm, or the general plausibility that the changes it makes are merely substitutions.

Such, I think, is sometimes the aim of the amazing Discoveries when it comes to outline this poetics.

Spenser, in affecting the ancients, writ no language; yet I would have him read for his matter, but as Virgil read Ennius.

The ease with which Jonson makes this famous pronouncement, along with its brevity (striking even for Jonson, literary pioneer of the concise style), might actually distract us from what it is doing, which is not so much securing Spenser's place as working up the plausibility of Jonson's system of rules and values. We are not supposed to assent to this proposition, but are encouraged to pick it up. And it is then, and only then, that the system demonstrates its superiority. Something of this, I think, is understood by Samuel Johnson, when he indeed picks up Jonson in his Life of Milton:

Milton's style was not modified by his subject: what is shown with greater extent in Paradise Lost may be found in Comus. One source of his peculiarity was his familiarity with the Tuscan poets: the disposition of his words is, I think, frequently Italian; perhaps sometimes combined with other tongues. Of him, at last, may be said what Jonson says of Spenser, that "he wrote no language," but has formed what Butler calls "a Babylonish Dialect," in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius and extensive learning the vehicle of so much instruction and so much pleasure that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity.

For Johnson, "he wrote no language" has an affinity to his own judgment of taste. But it is only an affinity, since in the Discoveries, it never is quite so condensed into a maxim that it would seem to need elaboration via Butler--or indeed, Johnson's two preceding paragraphs:

Through all his greater works there prevails an uniform peculiarity of Diction, a mode and cast of expression which bears little resemblance to that of any former writer, and which is so far removed from common use that an unlearned reader when he first opens his book finds himself surprised by a new language.

This novelty has been, by those who can find nothing wrong in Milton, imputed to his laborious endeavours after words suitable to the grandeur of his ideas. "Our language," says Addison, "sunk under him." But the truth is, that both in prose and verse, he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantick principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom. This in all his prose is discovered and condemned, for there judgement operates freely, neither softened by the beauty nor awed by the dignity of his thoughts; but such is the power of his poetry that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself in captivity to a higher and a nobler mind, and criticism sinks in admiration.

Johnson comes to the same point as Jonson by giving us what is essentially an unbelievably excellent gloss or extrapolation of Jonson's point, by picking up and elaborating what is essentially Jonson's system (though he does so, of course, with his own inimitable perspicacity and with his own very nuanced--though Miltonists and "those who can find nothing wrong in Milton" won't always give him the credit of this--aim). In doing this, Johnson has also given up that aim of connecting to other systems which keeps the Discoveries closer to a poetics than a work of criticism. That said, the space opened up by the shift allows Johnson more space than even the incidental and private commonplace-book form of the Discoveries for connecting the judgments to a personal image and moral vision.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Sounding sonnets

Read this, Shakespeare's 138th sonnet:

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor'd youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress'd.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be.

And now watch this amazing exercise of the amazing RSC, captured here in an amazing 1979 programm(e):

The importance of reading sonnets like this aloud probably can't be made any more plain. And I call it "reading aloud" rather than dramatizing, because what's so interesting isn't even the final dramatic product, but the slight modifications needed to vocalize the thing in order to get this dramatic product. Of course, that's what dramatizing is, and it constitutes the case here (and I myself thoroughly stand behind it with Shakespeare) for bringing the plays to the sonnets: these sorts of modifications are possible primarily if we take the cue from the plays. But it's also what any sort of significant struggle to make words audible achieves, if only because that process allows you to dwell with them for a while, weigh them, get some sense of their shape. And so I think this merits opening up what happens here to something like sounding (vocalizing, but also fathoming) the thing in general.

What's probably most dramatic, but at the same time closest to this sort of sounding of the poem, is Trevor Nunn's clever decision (but--and if you've ever seen anything with Nunn directing, you'll agree--when isn't isn't clever? then again, it might be John Barton's decision) to pick out one of the most suppressed words of the sonnet and, expanding it as a vehicle, set up David Suchet's role as a teacher. Certainly more than the most satisfying puns ("lie"), "untutor'd" (coupled with its consequence, "unlearned") is one of those words that is so interesting that you'd miss it--unless you were reading it aloud.

The process of dramatization brings this out by trying to make the speaker's language consistent: you need to bring it out because it is the clearest cue about the sort of situation of the character. But sounding it out alone--something between Suchet's first reading and the later ones, where Nunn is messing with the words, distributing the emphases not unlike a teacher of elocution--makes the strange word hover over the rest of the sonnet, lending significance beyond characterization (although that is not the only aim of dramatization) to the argument in general and (most significantly) its form, and thus to words like "youth" and "young": we see that they are oddly repeated, for the benefit of balancing the notion with "past the best" (unbelievably great use of the body by Suchet), although it actually creates a significant imbalance (with youth stressed twice, and age once, this is not equal on both sides).

This is a point that can be taken up by further reflecting on the speaker as a character, but he is more than merely "insecure" about his age. Such a response to the speaker of a sonnet--the most tiresome kind, repeated over and over again by undergraduates looking (bless them) for "tension"--is not a very deep rendering of the character because it wholly refuses to treat him like the lyrical "I": that more poetic function which merely sounding the poem brings out for us.

In short, the differences then between verse and drama (such as the fact that the speaker of a sonnet has functions more akin to those of the lyric "I" than a dramatic person or character) become strengths when dramatization actually takes over the process of sounding the poem which it has to involve, but which is available to foreclosure by pushing dramatization further. This foreclosure is not necessarily a bad thing, though--for neither (despite what it is fashionable to say) is foreclosure. In many cases, and perhaps nearly always with Shakespeare, this has more benefits than drawbacks. While it often leads to a treatment of verse that has less respect for the line than the sentence (as it were), or (to be precise about one thing at least) more respect for the tone than the rhythm, this might be necessary to reveal something more urgent and fascinating which is properly dramatic and can only be revealed by drama (where words don't just have a sound but a body). Regardless, in cases like the above dramatization, whatever foreclosure may be cancels itself out, and the dramatization opens up something we hear in the words.