Cryptic poems, Mahabharata, means of production

At CppCon this year, Ben Deane’s nametag featured a cryptic crossword clue: Bird chewing a pencil (7). That got us talking about crosswords, which reminded me that a few months earlier I’d learned of Vermont poet Holly Painter, who has a book coming out next year titled At last, we listen closely: cryptic crossword poems. The publisher’s blurb explains:

Holly Painter invents an original form: solvable interconnected poems […] Organized into sections such as “Seas & Seasons” and “Characters & Conversations,” the collection comprises 55 poem pairs. Each half of the pair – the “clues” poem and the “answers” haiku – can be enjoyed as standalone poetry, with subject matter ranging from moon-washed forests to pub brawls, rebellious churchwomen to Vermont dairy cows. […] Adventurous readers can choose to join the poet in her work by obscuring the haiku and generating it themselves: each line of the “clues” poem employs the devices and tricks of cryptic crossword setters to provide one word of the “answers” haiku.

I liked the sample I read, a lot. But I’m always so eager to read ahead that I’m afraid I failed to join the poet in her work. Maybe if I just quote the “clues” poem, and let the adventurous reader work out the haiku (or just google it)…

“Cryptic Crossword L”
Holly Painter

Itinerant sliver, pearly
crescent dream.
Hush! Inescapable veil reveals shimmers:
blue diamond flurry now

above, peekaboo novae hiding.
Look, child! Dizzying crown
bends, one might say, and sprays
lush spots of light everywhere, airy, fine yellow
mists. Earth holds you, small,

radiant. Be just,
dwelling on good, content in status,
content to fly like
fledglings, last feather parting tender space.

I’m reading the Bhagavad Gita for the second time, having done it for a meetup earlier this year and having just joined a second meetup. This time, I was motivated to find out more of what happens before and afterwards in the Mahabharata (the much larger work of which the Gita is a small part). I highly enjoyed, and very highly recommend, Peter Brook’s epic 1989 miniseries The Mahabharata. It seems to come in several different lengths/cuts; you can find the 5.5-hour version I watched on YouTube. It’s divided (by titles and credits) into three roughly-two-hour segments. If you’re looking for the Gita portion specifically, I recommend watching some of the beginning (3m–7m) for context, and then 3h14m–3h28m for the Gita, and then 5h08m–5h09m for the recap. If the beginning hooks you and you end up watching the entire thing in one sitting, you will not have lost.

Brook’s movie is great in many ways, but I found it particularly useful in two specific ways: All the characters introduce themselves by name, so you get to hear all the names pronounced out loud. And Brook cast actors of all different races, so you generally get a nice broad visual cue to match a face to a name (“Drona is the Japanese one, Bhishma is the skinny black one”) even if you haven’t figured out yet what their distinct role in the story is going to be. (Sadly the exception is that Arjuna, Yudhisthira, and Duryodhana are all generic white guys, and so it did take me a good hour into the movie to sort out which of them was which.)

Finally (via Hacker News), I recommend Nathan J. Robinson’s essay “How Billionaires See Themselves” (Current Affairs, January 2021). It’s a long read, but a fun read, especially if, like me, you’ll probably never read a billionaire’s autobiography for fun. (Nor, sadly, write one.)

If there is a central recurring theme to [these autobiographies], it is this: an insistence that what has made the billionaire rich is helping other people rather than helping themselves. The billionaire wants to explain to us that what might look like the steady hoarding of wealth and a feudalistic imbalance of power is, in fact, the product of defensible moral choices and a fair system. […]

Christianity has elaborate “theodicies”: attempts to [reconcile] the existence of God with the fact that the world is clearly unfair, since the most obvious other option is atheism. The rich have their own theodicies: attempts to account for the obvious unfairness of their own position and to find some explanation for the world being the way it is, because the most obvious other option is socialism.

I also found it refreshing to get halfway through the essay and find:

In the early 1990s there was a bidding war for Janet Jackson, whose next album was widely expected to be a sure-fire hit. [Virgin Records’ Richard Branson] won the war, put out Jackson’s album, and it was a huge hit. But note something: if Richard Branson and Virgin had not existed, nothing would have changed from the public’s perspective. Jackson was hugely popular, and someone was going to put out her next album. Branson did not actually add any value. Nothing happened because of him, except that (1) Jackson’s albums said “Virgin” on them instead of another label; (2) the marketing strategy was possibly different than it would have been under a different label, but the consensus was that given Jackson’s popularity whichever label got the next album would have a hit on its hands no matter what; (3) Jackson got slightly more money than she would have if the bidding war had had one fewer participant.

This latter factor might make it seem like Branson helped Jackson. But that’s only the case if we

[epic beat drop]

assume the legitimacy of the capitalist system. In fact, the reason Jackson needed to go to a billionaire record label owner in the first place is that the billionaire record label owner controls the “means of production and distribution.” Having several record labels bid for her work allows the laborer (Jackson) to sell her labor at a higher price, but the whole reason she has to sell it at all is that she doesn’t have ownership of the means of production and distribution. Let us imagine an alternate situation in which those means were socialized; let’s say we have public recording studios like we have public libraries, and a public means of distribution (like, for example, an artist-owned Spotify). Here, the artist would benefit far more from a successful album, because there would be no Branson taking a cut.

I’d never considered the concept of public recording studios, let alone expect it to pop up offhand like that. Crazy idea? Probably, yes. But also a refreshing splash-in-the-face that doesn’t feel at all like the New York Times.

And if you’re wondering what ever happened to the writing staff at the “real” newspapers, well, check out McKay Coppins’ Atlantic cover story (October 2021).

If you’re working out Holly Painter’s poem and need a clue: I think it’s useful to know that the number of letters in each answer (each word of the haiku, clued by each line of the poem) are: 6-4-6-4; 2-7-6-5-6; 6-6-2-5.

Posted 2021-11-18