The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Friday, March 31, 2006

Arma virumque cafe

For reasons beyond me, I had a bout of insomnia a couple of nights ago (as well as last night). I thought I was through with this shite...
Anyway, in my sleep-deprived state nearly to madness allied, I thought of a really funny idea: I will write the great Canadian national epic, the theme of which will be Tim Horton's. I would have to do some research, but, being in it's infancy, the idea is less than complete or even coherent. I'm not sure whether to compose it, as Milton did, in blank verse or to imitate my faves, Dryden and Pope, both of whom translated epics into English rhymed verse. I'm also not sure whether to make it more or less serious or, a la Pope, to make it a mock-epic. Rape of the Lock is mock-heroic, so this would be the first mock-epic that I know of.

I thought I might start off like this:

Coffee cup, and the man whose name it bears,
Who from northern plains o'er ice, full o' cares,

that's my best epic poetry ex tempore. Anyway, I thought it's an idea worth toying with.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

How much was that worth?

I remember toying with this site a few months ago, and it's not only educational, but a lot of fun. Have you ever wondered how much that book that five dollar book your great grandfather bought in 1955 would cost today (all things being equal)? Now you can. For example, I recently picked up a really old edition of the poetical works of William Cowper from 1924. It is so well preserved that the dustjacket/sleeve is still on, which bears the price 8s 6d, or 8 shillings and 6 pence (the book is so old this currency doesn't exist anymore). So, after punching in a few numbers, I discovered that, if I were to go back in time to 1924, I would have to pay 16.15 pounds, which is approximately worth 33 CAN dollars.
Similarly, a nice hardcover in the US in 1955 would cost around 5 dollars, which today would be worth approximately 35. Looks like books, at least hardcovers, have always hovered around that 30+ dollar range. I remember the days, not so long ago, when a penguin would cost about 5 bucks (without exaggeration, this was in 1993 or so). Penguin inexplicably has its own economy, and the same book today would cost about 12+ dollars. Sigh...

Friday, March 24, 2006

Siraki's Miscellanies

Nothing coherent, but some usually desultory (for me) observations and tid bits from the last couple of days:

--I was reading W.K. Wimsatt's Introduction to his selection of Pope's Works (published by Rinehart originally in the 1940s), and he very briefly makes a connection between the rhyme of heroic coupletsand classical rhetoric. As we know, classical poetry (Latin, Greek, etc) didn't rhyme; this was a much later invention, something Milton, who refused to employ it in Paradise Lost, considered "barbaric." Here's an example of a heroic couplet off the top o'my head:

In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin...

Although the 18th century is my thing, it is a little odd that I only started to read Pope and Dryden recently again (after about a 3 year hiatus). I was busy deepening my knowledge of literature in general, but of course, the academy makes little sense thus (a rant for another post).
Nonetheless, I find it interesting that Pope and Dryden, quintessentially neoclassical poets, consistently used rhyme, usually in the form of couplets. Wimsatt briefly points this out, and it is something which I recently read in one of Adam Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (how's that for an arcane reference). In it, Smith briefly considers authors of antiquity who used the inflectional nature of especially Latin to create harmony or rhyme in, not poetry, but prose. Anyone who knows as little Latin as me knows that such a language will have a greater potential for similar endings given the case system (declensions). Here is I think a wonderful example:

lateritiam invenit, marmoream reliquit [he found it stone, and left it marble].

Lateritiam and marmoream are both nouns in the accusative case, and invenit and reliquit, both verbs in the perfect or simple past, but one can see the cadence in this sentence of prose. Perhaps this is why (Wimsatt suggests, Smith doesn't) the ardent classicists such as Pope and Dryden preferred Rhyme.

--I just recently found out (or, rather, remembered) that John Dryden, made poet Laureate in 1668, paid a visit to Milton in the year of the publication of Paradise Lost, 1674 (I know the correspondence of the two exists, although it is not something you usually hear about). Anyway, Dryden asked Milton if he could have leave to "tagge his verses," in other words, to take his lines and versify them. Dryden in fact did this: he turned Paradise Lost into an opera called State of Innocence. I'll bet it's nearly impossible to find in print. Some sources describe the opera as a failure whereas others merely state that it was never performed, but neither was Milton's Samson Agonistes, a "closet drama" (i.e., a drama not meant to be acted).

--It is perhaps for this reason that a rift developed between Dryden and his once famous contemporary, Andrew Marvell. The latter publicly derided Dryden, and Dryden returned the favour in Religio Laici (it was basically poetical name calling). At this point all I know, based on my limited sources, is that Marvell was appaled at Dryden's "misappropriation."

--The Libertine, a movie about the Earl of Rochester, is currently playing, and it has garnered mixed reviews. I'm not sure if this is out of date or not, but according to some sources, it was postulated that the same man (John Wilmot) ordered John Dryden to be beaten up in Covent garden around 1689. I'm not sure if this has been substantiated or disproven, but Dryden was indeed beaten up in that year, although we're not quite sure why. There was speculation that a publication which ridiculed the Earl was responsible, although Dryden never wrote anything of the like.

-I'm currently reading Camus' L'Etranger en francais, bien sur! It's an interesting little book that I couldn't put down, perhaps owing to the fact that the French is fairly simple (if only Racine were as simple...)

--Last but not least, I recently discovered a band whose CD I will likely buy soon (as I purchase around half a dozen CDs a year, this is a big deal). Their name is Mortiis, not, as the name suggests, a death metal group, but something more like indstrial/techno/rock. Their website is, I believe,, whence you maybe download song clips. The album with the word "rain" in the title is worth listening to.

A hundred bucks to the one who can gimme the source of this posts title (if this ain't obscure, I don't know what is).

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Received two emails yesterday, both replies to my polite question, "why the f#$^ did I not get in"? The first was from the director at U Texas, who said essentially that there was nothing wrong with my application, but that they could only admit 2-3% of MA holders (A prof of mine suggested, probably correctly, that they have geographic quotas).
The second was from U Virginia, which was more surprising. He said that, while my application is strong, in such a large and excellent pool, my writing sample and GREs were'nt quite high enough. Huh...I thought 720 Verbal and 630 subject are pretty darn good (98 and 80th percentile respectively, scores English students would kill for, and pretty darn good considering that most students utterly bomb the subject test). Somehow I doubt it was my GRE scores, and my writing sample is and always will be a moot point. I guess when you're one of 400 people fighting for at most 18 spots, you're bound to be lost in the mix. Finding you in that pile really would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Perhaps we should update that metaphor to finding a qualified student in a pile of English grad applications :)
On the plus side, I just realized that Ottawa's faculty is even better than I thought. They not only have Frans De Bruyn, an 18th century expert, on their payroll, but also Nicholas von Maltzahn, an internationally recognized Milton and 17th century literature scholar. He's currently working on Marvell, a nearly forgotten Restoration poet (Interregnum/Restoration that is).

Sunday, March 19, 2006

'Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed'

I am just about done reading Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Woolf has nothing to do with my area of interest, but this is indicative of my readings in general, which are, like Samuel Johnson's, too desultory. Perhaps my lack of focus is why I've had so much trouble getting in.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the dinner scene. The characters of Mr Ramsey and Charles Tansley, both of whom remind me of Mr Causabon in Eliot's Middlemarch, remind me of me, the aspiring scholar who sure as hell tries hard and is honest enough but can't seem to get much done. In a "something like stream of consciousness through the narrative"** when she is looking at Mr Ramsey, Mrs Ramsey (or is it Lily Briscoe) says

"Success would be good for him." That takes the biscuit. I can definitely relate

The title of this post comes from the first line of one of my favourite Dickinson poems.

**Very briefly, the reason why I don't merely call this "stream of consciousness" is because it isn't exactly that. Good examples can be found in Joyce's Ulysses and some of Tolstoy's works, to name but a few. Woolf certainly had the technique in mind, but many will agree that her "stream" is far more organized and less random and chaotic than Joyce's. Also, her "stream" is done through the narration ("She then thought about the day that....which led to..."etc, etc) whereas pure "stream" has no connective "tendons." Read the third chapter (I believe) of Ulysses and compare it with anything Woolf wrote and you'll see the difference. There's a method in Woolf's madness, as it were. Thus, I call Woolf's "something like stream of consciousness." It's probably somewhere in between interior monologue and "stream."

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The capital of the nation / Liked my application

Well, looks like it's off to Ottawa in the fall: My status on U Va's website changed to "Deny." The only place I haven't heard from is U Penn, and if one hasn't heard from them by now, there's a 99% chance he's rejected. I really, really thought I had a good shot at U Toronto, Virginia and Texas (the other rejections didn't surprise me). In case anyone needed to be reminded of the insanely competitive, arbitrary nature of Grad Admissions in English, I'm living proof. I'm not the best applicant there ever was, but it's still amazing when someone with my background and numbers can't get in. It has reached a point where people aren't getting into safety schools, so I should be grateful. Incidentally, I the Grad Director at Ottawa spoke to me today: mostly chit-chat, but he told me that he and the committee was impressed with my application and they will be offering an admissions scholarship (which, in total, means that my funding will be comparable with UofT's or Queen's, which is quite good). Most importantly, it's a foot in the door and they do have one person whose work interests me. Maybe this is the "big fish in a small pond" placement I need?? Who knows.
I'm still disappointed, but it could be much, much worse.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


After the shock I received yesterday, I received an email that is serving as a balm: I've been accepted to the University of Ottawa! It's not my top choice, but given everything that's happened, I'll take it. Of course, I'm still waiting in U Virginia, so I'm not jumping up and down, but I can at least breathe a little easier.
Their funding usually isn't great, but I've been offered an admissions scholarship and am approved for an assistantship. The chair wants to talk to me.
Could it be Ottawa has the most perspicuous committee? There's hope after all.

continued from yesterday...

Just a thought: I wonder how well the great critics/scholars of the past, such as Northrop Frye, Cleanth Brooks, W.K. Wimsatt, T.S. Eliot, and even Harold Bloom etc, etc, would fare if they were in their mid 20s applying for a PhD in North America. Probably not very well. What's interesting, remembering my experience getting into the MA, is that the genuinely intelligent people who applied usually had the toughest time getting in (I knew one guy who was learning Sanskrit, etc, and he couldn't get into either York or UofT, but there were definitely people at both institutions I knew who weren't half the scholar he was). I'm told admissions has nothing to do with how smart one is (no kidding), but it begs me to ask, what is it based on???

Monday, March 13, 2006

Rejected; dejected

Just got my email rejection from U Texas Austin, followed by U of Toronto's rejection in the post. I'm really surprised: I thought one of these would take me, even if the funding weren't great.
So this leaves U of Virginia, U of Pennsylvania, and U of Ottawa. I'm told U Penn has already made their decisions, and they like to fuck with their applicants and mail out their rejections really late, so it's basically down to Virginia and Ottawa.
My God in heaven: I don't mean to sound arrogant, but when someone such as myself can't get into a decent program, there's something fundamentally wrong with the discipline. I really don't know what the hell these departments are looking for. I really can't see what else I could've done. I already have an impressive average, Verbal GRE, semi-publishable writing sample, water tight statement of interest, and three very strong letters (one of whom is a Canada Research Chair). What reallt surprised me about U of T was that one of my recommenders actually teaches there, so I thought her reference would carry much weight. Last year when I applied, I knew my application could've been stronger, but I'm really at a loss this time. Apart from maybe the writing sample, there's nothing I can change/improve about my app.
I don't mean this in a malicious way, but I'd love to know who on earth is getting into these programs.

Cupio pecuniam, amabo te!

Here's something you don't see everyday: an ATM machine in Latin! I'm guessing it's somewhere in the Vatican (the only place outside a classics department where a knowledge of Latin is required).

BTW, please excuse the paltry and contemptible attempt at a latin sentence in the title. For anyone who cares and knows less latin that me, it reads "I want money, please!" (I think).


In the course of my customarily desultory reading yesterday, I was glancing at a few pages in a volume of Oliver Goldsmith's I purchased in the summer ('tis a hardcover with the original sleeve from the 60s, and ad 9 dollars CDN, a steal). I happened upon Samuel Johnson's epitaph for him, originally written in Latin, which sounded awfully familiar to me (most likely one of those things I read some time ago but simply forgot). I won't quote the entire piece, but merely these important three lines, of which the last is simply grand:

A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian,
Who left scarcely any style of writing untouched,
And touched nothing that he did not adorn.

Qui nullum fere scribendi genus
Non tetigit,
Nullum quod tetigit non ornavit

What a wonferful thing to say of anyone. Reminds me of Augustus' (?) praise of Vitruvius, the Roman architect, which Johnson not only knew but translated (in his life of Dryden):

He found it stone, and left it marble

Lateritiam invenit, marmoream reliquit

Thursday, March 09, 2006

How the feminists betrayed feminism

Interesting article I was directed to in today's Globe and Mail (or, as Dr. J puts it, Grope and Flail). I'm not an expert in feminism, but I definitely see hypocrisies and conflicts within it. Let me know if any of you cannot access it.

The author points to York, somewhat disparagingly, but I can't help but agree with her when she says such things as "York University, which is so feminist it even teaches feminist geography." I also liked this particular passage:

The vast majority of women can only dream of oppression as exquisite as ours...

Yet, when it comes to women who really are oppressed, Western feminists have nothing useful to say. How can we help Afghan girls whose schools are being burned down by the Taliban, or women in South Africa who endure one of the highest rape rates in the world? What about the unwanted female children of rural India whose parents let them starve, or the millions of African women suffering from HIV-AIDS because of the deeply sexist sex habits of the men? And how can we help the millions of Muslim women who live under the worst kind of gender apartheid?

I think feminism is important and has done some important things in the 2oth century, but it has definitely lost direction.

What the...?

I live in a very peaceful and boring neighbourhood, but that all changed yesterday. I'm sure some of you living in and around Toronto saw the news of a 17 year old getting shot near a school in a park. The park is right in front of my house, and I was sitting at home when I heard what I thought were firecrackers, but after the 4th or 5th "pop", I was convinced I was hearing gunshots. I looked outside and saw an indistinct mass about 100 metres away, and when ran outside I saw a couple of people tending to the young man until the police/ambulance arrived (very quickly, I might add). Because I sorta was a witness, I went to the station, but man they make you wait! five or six of us were locked in a room for what must have been close to four hours. Fortunately they gave us a slice of pizza, so we didn't have resort to cannibalism. Finally when the detective came, he told us that it was a long night so he was going to let us go and call us back, to which I replied that I knew very little so it was best to get rid of me quickly. When I told him my address, he told me the police found two shell-casings on my front walk, which I was at a loss to explain.
Fortunately there were a couple of witnesses who saw quite a bit. Last I heard one suspect was apprehended and the victim is in stable condition. Weird stuff. I had never heard gunshots in real life! Guess there's a first time for everything.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bars and the Man I Sing

I spent nearly the whole day at York U yesterday. I met two professors and Dr. J, which is always neat. It really is a strange experience going back there (my alma mater, I think), and, with the exception of TAs or Profs, not knowing anyone. I went to a book sale in Founder's College, an annual thing which I highly recommend. As I was digging through the tables, I found a book I nearly went mad searching for, The Poetical Works of William Cowper. I paid, get this, a buck for it!! It's a hardcover from 1924. The only other place I've ever seen anything by William Cowper was in Eliot's second hand bookshop, a century old leatherbound edition going for about 50 bucks! Good thing I held out.

Concerning Queen's University's rejection of moi, I had to share this: I emailed the graduate coordinator and asked her "How may I strengthen my application, for future reference?", which is a polite way of saying, "Hello ass; why the f#$@ did I not get in"?
I won't share the whole email with you, but suffice it to say, Queen's egregiously misread my application. I will only share those points that are patently false:

1) She pointed out to me that the prof I mentioned on my Statement would be on sabbatical next year, something I obviously knew since I had already spoken to him (I mentioned this on my statement). The supervisor doesn't really kick in until the 2nd or 3rd year anyway.

2) She said I have a strong A average, but my lowest mark (B+) is in the area I want to work in. Only Queen's would make a big deal of that. If I have one B+ in a half course and, without hyperbole, fifteen A's (two A- and two A+), that should probably tell you to ignore the B+.

3) Referees: it is puzzling that I didn't get references from people in my field. Well, genius, if the only person in my field I ever worked with was the course in which I got a B+, why in hell's name would I get a reference from that prof? And besides, most schools don't even offer grad level courses in my area, so it's lose lose. She also mentioned that I didn't get references from professors in my strongest classes...WRONG!! One of my referees was the one who gave me my two A+ s. Please look closer next time.

4) Writing sample is not in my intended field: first, it's very close, and second, the graduate chair in November told me that it doesn't matter. Only a school like Queen's would do something like that.

5) PArts of my writing sample were misread: I call Austen a "teenager" and admit that it is an anachronistic term, but for some reason this person thought that I was referring to Kant's ideas on comedy as anachronistic!

In the end, it's too late to matter now, but I was right to question their admissions process. Assuming what was written to me is accurate, it reveals a basic lack of attention to detail and common sense. It's not just me, but many, many people I've spoken to from different fields have told me that Queen's is "weird." Now I can see why.

On a side note, I've been hearing from fairly accurate sources that U Texas at Austin has rejected people, and so far I haven't heard, so here's hopin'.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Coffee House Wits

Something interesting happened to me today on my way to one of 16,000 Tim Horton's (coffee shop) near my house. First, I went to the one nearest my house, but their drive-thru was packed, so I went to the next closest one (which, incidentally, has better coffee), whose drive-thru was no better. So I decided to take the old fashioned route of, gasp, walking inside! As I was waiting in line, an elderly (but not too elderly) gentleman in front of me dropped a quarter, which I picked up and gave back to him. After thanking me, he bought me a coffee!
Sure, coffee is still only a buck and change (unless you go to Starbucks, where you now need a credit card just to walk in), but little things like this are what life's about. It's refreshing and certainly renews ones faith in mankind.

On another topic, I'm going to York University (York U) today for the first time in months, yayy! (As my two friends would call it, Pork Spew). First, I'm meeting with a professor I had last year to discuss a paper I wrote on Jane Austen which I'm considering publishing (considering the abundance of garbage that passes for scholarship these days, one would think I should have few problems). I'm not sure if it's my best work, but it's definitely original and, gosh, readable! Next I am meeting up with another prof from last year, who was one of my referees, to buy him a beer (he bought me one around this time last year. Thank goodness he's not counting interest. What's interest on beer? hmm).
Last but not least, I'm meeting Dr. J for the first time since August! This should be an uncharacteristically interesting day.

As long as the Queen's thing from yesterday isn't a sign of things to come, I'm not worried. If I should (God forbid!) need to apply again next year, I'm not gonna waste my time or money anymore. Sure they're not as sketchy as Western U (as some of you recall), but there's just something about me they don't like. Maybe I'm not white enough, I don't know :)

I also thought of an idea for a course in my idle moments, should I ever be fortunate enough to procure a pedagogical position of higher learning: "The Poet: Notions of the poet in Western civilization." I just thought of this a few minutes ago, but I think it would be neat. I would start from Babylon/Sumeria, Israel/Judaea, then go to Greece, Rome, Persia, and then Western Europe (notably, but not limited to, England, Italy, Germany, etc). Of course, the bulk of the course would probably examine different ideas of the poet beginning in the 17th century. Of course, given my bias, I would spend a lot on the 18th century, especially the shift from 18th century Augustan poets to the Romantics (something I've been cogitating on recently). I find we are still living in a Romantic (or post-romantic) world, i.e., our notions of poetry and poets is for the most part still very romantic. My bias is towards the pre-Romantics, whose role in society, among other things, was quite different.

Wow, a semi-cogent thought! I'm goin' places. Here's some neat trivia: coffee houses, which exploded in late 17th century England, were known as Penny Universities since, for the price of a then coffee (a penny), you could listen to the top minds of the country discuss everything from the politics of the day to the latest translation of Homer.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Grad School

Well, the Grad School gods convened and rendered their verdict: I ain't going to Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario).
To be honest (and it's not sour grapes), Queen's was not my first choice, but I wouldn't mind going there. Funny thing is I kinda knew this would happen, and it's even funnier that their deadline was February 1, whereas schools with much earlier deadlines (Dec. 15, Jan. 2) haven't gotten back to me yet.
I'm only disappointed because I thought I had a very strong, nearly water-tight application. This is the THIRD time I've been rejected by Queen's (I applied for my MA there 2 years ago and the PhD last year). I'm at my wits' end trying to figure it out, but there's just something about me Queen's doesn't like, or maybe I'm lacking a certain X factor (again, what that factor is, if it isn't great grades/scores, great letters, potentially publishable writing sample and very strong statement of purpose, I don't know what it is).
Here's hopin' I get in, hopefully somewhere better.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Belated Valentine/Marriage post

As I was desultorily flipping through volume I of Plutarch's Lives (the Dryden Translation, which is not translated by John Dryden), I happened to come across a passage of some interest to modern readers in the life of Romulus, legendary founder of Rome. Given the scarcity of women and the necessity of population/generation for the maintenance of a state or city, Romulus and his men went over and abducted Sabine women. After this Plutarch writes the following:

It continues also a custom at this very day for the bride not of herself to pass her husband’s threshold, but to be lifted over, in memory that the Sabine virgins were carried in by violence, and did not go in of their own will.

How touching. I wonder if it's true.