Unanswered Questions for Philip Larkin in Poetry Magazine's new Q&A Issue

What are your thoughts about confessional poetry?

Many readers will be put off by the lines about mum and dad "fuck[ing] you up." Should they be, or not? What are the lines there for?

Whence the coastal shelf?

The last lines are more revealing than others in the poem. Tell us why you would rather not procreate.


Let us discuss the murderous cell phones stalking our fair land

Cancer and cell phones - I meant to blog about this for some time, since it has long trended among the most read articles at the Times website.

To be charitable, the article did make me go and look up the literature, so that's not a bad thing. In short, however, the Times treatment is irresponsible and fear-mongering.

First, let me remark that the Times article mentions by name a refereed study of cellphones in humans only in the 14th paragraph. And it neglects to mention the multiple studies which have shown no connection.

Now, let's consider the INTERPHONE study referred to in the Times piece (it's one of these with the fake acronyms). It showed no connection between cell phone use and cancers, when all brain cancers are taken together. Now, it's reasonable for them to analyze different cancers separately, since they are of different severity and prevalence. It's not questionable in itself that they looked at an effect on gliomas. However, this effect was not significant. Only when they looked at cell phone use for 10 years or longer did they find an association with gliomas.

Several caveats - screaming sumo-size caveats - were not mentioned in the Times piece. (A science reporter presumably would have read the article.)

1. As far as I can figure out from reading the article, it's a secondary analysis. There was no a priori hypothesis that cell phone use for 10 years would be associated with glioma. Post hoc analyses are suspect - as you know - since data mining is biased. How many associations were fished through and discarded before this positive one was found? There is always a probability of a false positive, so if there were twenty post-hoc associations (properly consigned to an on-line appendix, pace the Times's conspiratorial mutterings), the chance of one positive finding is 5% - just by probability.

2. The association itself is not statistically significant! This is mentioned nowhere in the Times article, but the authors of the study themselves make haste to note this up front, in the abstract - which makes them responsible. I would not call this a hook to hang anyone's hat on.

3. The INTERPHONE study is a case-control study. A big question in any study of this kind is how we are to judge the accuracy of the cases' self reporting. People with cancer are understandably eager to find a cause, and might recall cell phone use out of proportion to the controls. Such recall bias is hard to control for.

4. Even if recall bias is controlled for, the correlation between recollected number of cell phone calls and the actual number of cell calls is not perfect. Heavier cell phone users tend to overestimate the number of calls they have made. In addition, the correlation between subject recall and their actual exposure to electromagnetic frequency is not airtight either.

5. Let's say the effect is real (which I very much doubt by reason of the sumo caveats just mentioned). (This would contradict another case-control study done on the very relationship between gliomas and cell phone use, in 2005, which was negative.) How high should this putative danger even rank on our public-health agenda?  Gliomas are rare.

To quote a 2004 study in the journal Cancer (first thing I could Google): "The incidence rate of central nervous system (CNS) tumors in 2000 was 6.7 per 100,000 persons as reported from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registry and gliomas account for approximately 51% of all CNS tumors.". Let's say then 3.5 per 100,000 people. or 10,000 cases a year, more or less. Horrible cases to be sure. If cell phone use increased this number to 20,000 cases a year that would be a tragedy, but a tragedy comparable to the million deaths caused yearly by malaria?

6. In toto: bullshit.

Update: but see some second thoughts here.


Contemporary Yiddish Literature: a personal view

The original of an article of mine published in Polish.

What people used to call "Yiddish literature" without qualification is fading away, and what we are not used to calling "Yiddish literature" is thick on the ground.

We'll start with the first. This includes everyone who writes in Yiddish who is not Chasidic. For lack of a better word, we'll call them secular Yiddish writers, though their ideological, religious, and cultural sympathies run the gamut from the settler poetry of Velvl Chernin to the loud radicalism of songwriter Daniel Kahn. They are the heirs to the literary tradition of Eastern Europe and America, what was Yiddish literature with a capital L: a social phenomenon complete with newspapers, journals, books, printers, publics, writers, controversies, scandals, sex, and violence.

For secular Yiddish writers, nearly all of that has fallen away. Traditional venues, things still published on paper, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There's the newspaper: the Yiddish Forward. There are the two or three literary journals. There is about a book, maybe two or three books at most, published a year. There is the Internet, certainly providing community - or the illusion of community - and a way for writers and readers to interact. But this cannot substitute for a community of people who spend their lives and make their living writing and reading. At this point, the number of people who make their living writing Yiddish in the secular community is about a minyan: the number of people on staff at the Yiddish Forward.

This does not mean that individual writers are not still producing individual works worth reading, or that the few literary institutions that still exist in the Yiddish secular world are not valuable. The Yiddish Forward, polished to a high literary sheen by Boris Sandler, has few parallels among Jewish publications anywhere - except perhaps the cultural pages of Israel's Haaretz in Hebrew. I suspect that some readers find it difficult to understand its mix of politics, culture, and academic analysis, but won't admit it. Gilgulim, a literary journal in Paris, is lovely (and I hope will come out for many more issues). Afn Shvel, the journal of the League for Yiddish, has been transformed into a modern publication, beautifully laid out and with a variegated content. It looks like the 21st century's last gesture towards the relevance of print in Yiddish.

There are a number of writers still working in Yiddish, though it's hard to know exactly how many - probably a hundred or so. Which to mention is an interesting question. In a healthy, king-size literature, like English, critics try to predict things: which writers will turn the great ship of written language in some unlooked for direction? out of all the abundance, what is worth reading? The first question is irrelevant to contemporary secular Yiddish literature, since the greatest ship of all is the daily language use of the ultra-Orthodox. We are gnats on it. The second question is irrelevant for other reasons. If you wanted to, you could easily afford to buy every single new book published this year by secular Yiddish writers. But let me name-check some loves of mine: anything published in Gilgulim; the strict, erudite, and tightly edited reviews of Mikhail Krutikov in the Forverts; the prolific post-Holocaust yearning of Alexander Shpigelblat; the monumentum aere perennius of Avrom Sutzkever, may his poetry be for a blessing.

The editors asked me to address some particular questions of contemporary secular Yiddish literature. They want to know what the challenges are. The challenges of writing in Yiddish! I don't know if writing in a language without readers is harder than writing in a language almost without fellow writers. But then they gave me an excuse to answer another question: is there communication between Chasidim and secular writers?

Chasidim: our brothers and sisters who create a literature merely by virtue of speaking a language daily and expressing themselves in writing. An enviable writing, as natural as breathing. But most would never call what they write literature, since they don't believe in aesthetics and know that secular literature is viewed by most in their community with suspicion.

So much of what is worth reading in Chasidic literature is written by anonymous hundreds who post at great length on a number of message boards. They write in a variety of genres and though I don't think much of what's written there is worth reading, it has the virtue of life, slippery and unmediated. There are a very few writers who write literature with a capital L - the blogger Katle Kanye is the most widely known of them, though there are others (such as Pinchas Glauber) who are on a similar level.

Do the secular and the ultra-Orthodox have something to say to each other? I read them, but they (with some exceptions) don't read me, and have never heard of me. There is no incentive for a Chasidic writer to read a secular writer, unless they want to benefit from a secular esthetic and the variety of topics available to it. That would be strange indeed - but stranger things have happened to Jews and Yiddish. Why shouldn't some of the strange things be blessings?

If I could imagine a work of literature in Yiddish, what would it be? An epic poem about today's Chasidim, written in Chasidic Yiddish, perhaps. Or a sprawling novel of contemporary Jewish life (about either sector, ultra-Orthodox or secular) written by an observer "on the other side." More than likely, though, the coming Yiddish classic will be written in a genre not even on my radar, outside my dyadic model of contemporary Yiddish culture. I look forward to it.


Market day seen clear-eyed - or open-nosed

"In the middle of the traffic jam of people and horses, there's dirt. Filth. In winter - the snow's not snow. Manure, horse urine, hay, straw, hoops, barrels, boxes, puddles of colored oil, rarely cleaned up by day."

--from The Family Mashber by Der Nister (my translation - all three sentences of it)


A pointless exam can be just as bad as a stupid MRI

Dr. Abraham Verghese, says the Times, is reviving the lost art of the physical exam. He cuts quite a figure on the wards, with his white coat, his stories, and his diagnostic maneuvers, reminding us of "the doctor who missed nothing and could swiftly diagnose a peculiar walk, sluggish thyroid or leaky heart valve using just keen eyes, practiced hands and a stethoscope."

Here's where the definitions of art and science matter, though. The margin here is too narrow to contain a detailed discussion of where these two bugbears embrace and where they face off, fangs bared.

The applicable stab of a definition in this case, I think, is this: in a science, we try and apply a community's rigorous professional definition to our individual classifications. In art, we try and apply our own individual classifications a priori. Yes, rigorous professional definitions are important to art as well, but less so.

Verghese's approach to the physical exam falls short whether it's seen as an art or a science, and flirts with nostalgia as its sole justification. If it's art, then why should Verghese pick out the 25 maneuvers he and his Stanford colleagues choose to the exclusion of all others? And, if it's science, why does Verghese seem to ignore the incomplete but abdundant literature on the evidence-based physical examination?

The worst thing about the Times article is the way it conflates evidence-based medicine with ignorance of the physical exam. A pointless physical exam can be just as bad as a stupid MRI. I suspect that Verghese can make a stronger case for the physical exam than "this is the way the giants of old practiced medicine," but I have yet to see it.


Poetry on the loose

Catch me at Yugntruf's Yiddish Tog this Sunday in New York! I'll be reading poetry (I'm so predictable).

This Be The Translation

There's a not-bad Hebrew translation of the Larkin poem. And whoever wrote it (I don't see a name) links to some guy's Yiddish version.

The Wrong Kind of Poetry

The editors at ZEEK recently came out with a poetry manifesto. Since the journal devotes significant space to poetry, and there are precious few publications which consider Jewish poetry in a serious way, I looked forward to their treatment of the subject. I glanced at the last paragraph and saw that the authors wanted to “blast open the possibility of what Jewish poetry can be” — certainly an ambitious goal. I hoped that the manifesto would tell us how.

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/132823/#ixzz14JZhcs6W