Saturday, July 13, 2019

Learn the Author's Taste

One of the best things I've added to my repertoire of study tools is trying to learn the aesthetic taste of the author. When I feel something in the vicinity of disagreement with X, I write a little essay in which I describe the world from a perspective where X feels good/obvious/beautiful, trying to capture what things taste like at that vantage point.

For example, toward the beginning of the (excellent, highly recommended) prosody textbook The Poem's Heartbeat, Alfred Corn writes, "In no way should the inclusion of stress conferred purely by meter be considered a compositional failing. In the best examples, the slight (incantatory?) departure from ordinary speech patterns afforded by metrical stress makes for a useful rhythmic reinforcement of the content..."

He's talking about the fact that some poetry is meant to be read in a slightly artificial way. He gives the example of a line from "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Shelley:

And by the incantation of this verse

If that string of words were spoken in conversation, the word "of" would likely receive the same stress as the last syllable of "incantation", or possibly a little less. But the poem is in iambic pentameter, so for the line to fit the surrounding meter, the word "of" needs to receive more stress.

When I read that section, I noticed a discomfort I'd been feeling almost constantly while reading, one that had previously prevented me from focusing on stress patterns in poetry. At that point, I did indeed consider purely metrical stress a compositional failing. I felt that poetry ought to take advantage of the rhythms of natural speech, without asking the reader to modify anything. Doing otherwise was cheating.

But when I read a textbook, it's because I want to gain access to the author's view of the world. I want to augment myself with their perceptions and understanding, to get their models and mine into the same mind so they can talk and work out their differences. In other words, I want to learn from them.

My favorite way of getting someone else's perceptions into my own head is to try to see things as they do, and to pay attention to the details of how the world seems and feels and tastes from that perspective. So I wrote a little essay for myself, trying to do that with what I imagined might be Corn's perspective on metrical stress, stepping into the world where it feels good to stress that "of" just a little more strongly:

Metrical stress is just another tool in the poet's toolbox of prosody.

It's just as legitimate as is musical pitch in the sacred chants of shamans or Gregorian monks, and serves nearly the same purpose. Singing a prayer creates a very different kind of experience than speaking a prayer; in song, more of the mind is recruited to move in a single direction, like a flock of sea birds diving all at once for their fish. Verse with strong meter does the same, but is even more hypnotic.

The more eager you are to give yourself over to the inexorable rocking rhythm of Ode to the West Wind, the more thoroughly Shelley succeeds. His spell penetrates and takes hold of you as no bit of mere rhetoric could. Resisting, insisting that 'that's not really how those phrases sound', is much like claiming you 'can't be hypnotized' while trying to not be hypnotized. It prevents you from receiving the enchantment in full.

I kept this incantatory invitation with me as I read new poems, re-examined old poems, and read the rest of the textbook. As a result, I'm much more aware, now, of the relationship between poet and reader. I think about what experience the poet designed for me, but also about how to be a more fertile soil for the artistic experience.

In fact, I'm inclined to re-learn all the poems I've ever loved, because of how much more they might have to offer if I offer myself as a more cooperative reader.

Ode to the West Wind


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!


Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aƫry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

--Percy Shelley

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Discomfort During Exercise

A friend who is interested in building muscle told me, “I’m curious how you relate to the pain of doing exercise.” I asked them what they meant by “pain” in this case, and they seemed unclear on it.

How to relate to discomfort in exercise is a great question, and it’s one of the reasons I’d recommend most people do regular yoga for at least a month before they get serious about weight lifting. Exercise involves discomfort. Recognizing and understanding what various bodily sensations mean is key to getting stronger without hurting yourself.

In response, I made three mindfulness exercises that might help distinguish types of discomfort during physical exercise, and weight lifting in particular. You might want to do them in the middle of a meditation session, so you’re already in the right state of mind.

Exercise One

Get a sharp pencil, a paper clip, a key, or something similarly pointy. Gently press the pointy thing to the meaty part of your palm, near your thumb. Stopping well before you break the skin, gradually increase the pressure, and pay attention to the details of the sensations at the pressure point.

This is a kind of “sharp pain”. You should associate it with “danger” in exercise. It usually indicates that something is going wrong, and ignoring it will likely lead to injury.

I experienced “sharp pain” similar to this when I lifted too much weight in a squat and damaged a groin muscle (an acute muscle strain). It’s also similar to the pain I’ve recently been feeling in the front of my shoulder when doing front raises and certain other motions, which a doctor confirmed for me is caused by an inflamed shoulder bursa (an overuse injury). I felt it in my feet when my plantar fascia degraded from increasing my running mileage too quickly (another overuse injury).

If you feel a sharp pain while exercising, especially if you seem to feel it where you’d expect a bone to be or where something might connect to a bone, back off right away. Try to understand what’s going on, then re-evaluate.

If a sharp pain doesn’t stop when you stop the exercise, do a little first aid, and if it’s not noticeably better in a day, see a doctor. First aid for muscle and connective tissue injury is RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. You can also take an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, which will lesson pain and reduce swelling.

Exercise Two

Hold up two fingers of your left hand in a peace sign. Using your right hand, grip both peace-sign fingers and press the middle knuckles together, so the insides of the knuckles are touching. Gradually increase the pressure, and pay attention to the details of the sensations at your left knuckles.

This is a kind of “pinching” or “joint compression”. It usually indicates danger to joints. Somewhere, your bones are pressing on some intervening tissue with more force than that intervening tissue is designed to take. You should find it a bit less concerning than “sharp pain”, but you shouldn’t ignore it. When you feel it, back off by reducing weight or intensity, or by changing position, until the pinching goes away.

If you’re feeling pinching very frequently in most of your lifts even at very low weight, it might be a good idea to focus for a while on stabilization and range of motion exercises. Do things like yoga and pilates for a while, then come back to lifting. You may find that the little muscles around your joints are better able to take the load off of the joint itself.

Exercise Three

Find something that’s about the size and shape of a can of beans or a water bottle. Set a three minute timer. Hold the can at your left side with your arm straight, then raise the left arm out to the side until the can is at shoulder height, palm facing down. Stay in this position for a full three minutes, and pay attention to the details of the sensations in the muscles of your left shoulder and upper arm.

Most likely, these are the sensations of healthy muscle exertion and muscle fatigue. (This is a static version of a “lateral raise”, an exercise that works the lateral deltoid muscles.) For me, it feels a little like burning deep in the muscle.

If I do it long enough (about six minutes in my case), my arm starts to shake, and the burning becomes intense. My heart-rate increases and my breathing gets deeper and faster. My arm starts to feel like it’s a metal rod that’s on fire during an earth quake. Eventually the water bottle begins to lower, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it short of lifting it up with my other arm.

The experiences that occur toward the end of this exercise are things you want to happen in weight lifting. As I understand it, the physiological processes these sensations correspond to have something to do with the lactic acid produced when glycogen is drawn directly from the muscle tissue to fuel contraction. You don’t feel those sensations in the beginning of the exercise because there’s still local oxygen available to combine with carbohydrates for fuel, which doesn’t produce lactic acid.

I don’t have a satisfactory gears-level model about why, but for some reason, you have to get your muscles to burn through almost all of the fuel stored in them before the magic thing happens that causes them to get bigger and stronger in the future. (I’m aware of some common hypotheses, I’m just not satisfied by them.) That means the immediate sensations of lactic acid and muscle exhaustion, in the absence of sharp or pinching pain, are your best indications of successful muscle building.

On My Relationship With Discomfort In Exercise

I want to insert a disclaimer here. It’s common among people who exercise a lot, and who have done so for a long time, to describe the sensations associated with successful exercise as enjoyable. Maybe those people stuck with something unpleasant until it became pleasant, for whatever reason. (Most of us like to think so.) OR maybe they’re predisposed to enjoy exercise-related discomfort, and are thus more likely to continue exercising just because it’s easier for them.

If the latter, I am definitely such a person. I started gymnastics in pre-school and haven’t stopped moving since. It only took about three months of consistent distance running for running to become just about my favorite activity ever. I lift four times a week, do at least half an hour of cardio three times a week, and do at least an hour of yoga once a week, with many a sun salutation in between. My little brother is similarly active. So I think you should take with a grain of salt anything I say about learning to enjoy exercise. It seems likely that I just don’t have the same obstacles as more sedentary people.

But my experiences talking with others, and completing a yoga teacher training program, suggest you can probably change your perceptions of exercise by at least some amount.

I think it takes some time and/or some skill in internal double crux to develop a happy relationship with sensations of muscle exertion. A foundation of differentiation between types of discomfort is probably important; if you just try to ignore discomfort without knowing what it means, you’ll stay stuck in an internal conflict that saps your energy (and keeps your body safe, if physically weak). I’ve learned to perceive and understand many small details of physical sensation during exercise, so I trust myself to move safely at full power. My mind and body feel aligned most of the time. I don’t have a little voice saying “You need to stop or something bad will happen” unless I really am doing something harmful.

But there’s also something about appreciating the feeling of exertion in itself. Lifting heavy weights until I can’t anymore makes me feel alive and powerful, like a summer storm. It makes me feel on fire.

Becoming stronger, in all senses, is one of my central values. Fully enjoying weight lifting for me involves being in touch with that value, and with the relationship between it and the physical sensations. It’s the pleasure of striving, of overcoming obstacles and finding out what’s on the other side. It’s beginning as a candle and becoming a sun. It’s always difficult and uncomfortable, but I love it.