Stephen Fry Narrates 4 Philosophy Animations On the Question: How to Create a Just Society?

How do we create a just society? 50,000 years or so at it and humanity still has a long way to go before figuring that out, though not for lack of trying. The four animated videos of “What Is Justice?”—a miniseries within BBC Radio 4 and the Open University’s larger project of animating the ideas of philosophers throughout history and explaining them in the voices of various famous narrators—tell us what John Rawls, Henry David Thoreau, and the Bible, among other sources, have to say on the subject of justice. Stephen Fry provides the voice this time as the videos illustrate the nature of these ideas, as well as their complications, before our eyes.

Imagine you had to create a just society yourself, but “you won’t know what kind of a person you’ll be in the society you design.” This thought experiment, first described by Rawls in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice as the “veil of ignorance,” supposedly encourages the creation of “a much fairer society than we now have. There would be extensive freedom and equality of opportunity. But there wouldn’t be extremes of high pay, unless it could be shown that the poorest in society directly benefited as a result.” An intriguing idea, but one easier articulated than agreed upon, let alone realized.

Much earlier in history, you find the simpler principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” an “ancient form of punishment known as lex talionis, or the law of retaliation.” Any reader of the Bible will have a strong sense of this idea’s importance in the ancient world, though we’d do well to remember that back then, it “was a way of encouraging a sense of proportion — not wiping out a whole community in retaliation for the killing of one man, for example.” While harsh punishment could, in theory, deter potential criminals, “severe legal violence can create martyrs and increase society’s problems.” The rule of law, naturally, has everything to do with the creation and maintenance of a just society, though not every law furthers the cause.

But you’ve no doubt heard of one that has: habeas corpus, the legal principle mandating that “no one, not even the president, monarch, or anyone else in power, can detain someone illegally.” Instead, “they need to bring the detainee in question before a court and allow that court to determine whether or not this person can legally be held.” Yet not every authority has consistently implemented or upheld habeas corpus or other justice-ensuring laws. At times like those, according to Thoreau, you must engage in civil disobedience: “follow your conscience and break the law on moral grounds rather than be a cog in an unjust system.” It’s a dirty job, creating a just society, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. And though we may not all have given it as much thought as a Rawls or a Thoreau, we’ve all got a role to play in it.

Related Content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Term Paper Assignment from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Teaches You to Read Fiction Like a Writer

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Commons

I wish I’d had a teacher who framed his or her assignments as letters…

Which is really just another way of saying I wish I’d been lucky enough to have taken a class with writers Kurt Vonnegut or Lynda Barry.

There’s still hope of a class with Barry, aka Professor Chewbacca, Professor Old Skull, and most recently, Professor Drogo. Those of us who can’t get a seat at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, the Omega Institute, or the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop can play along at home, using assignments she generously makes available in her books and on her Near-Sighted Monkey Tumblr.

Vonnegut fans long for this level of access, which is why we are doubly grateful to writer Suzanne McConnell, who took Vonnegut’s “Form of Fiction” (aka “Surface Criticism” aka “How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro”) course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the mid-60s.

The goal was to examine fiction from a writer’s perspective and McConnell (who is soon to publish a book about Vonnegut’s advice to writers) preserved one of her old teacher’s term paper assignments—again in letter form. She later had an epiphany that his assignments were “designed to teach something much more than whatever I thought then…  He was teaching us to do our own thinking, to find out who we were, what we loved, abhorred, what set off our tripwires, what tripped up our hearts.”

For the term paper, the eighty students—a group that included John Irving, Gail Godwin, and Andre Dubus II—were addressed as “Beloved” and charged with assigning a letter grade to each of the fifteen stories in Masters of the Modern Short Story (Harcourt, Brace, 1955, W. Havighurst, editor).

(A decade and a half later, Vonnegut would subject his own novels to the same treatment.)

A noted humanist, Vonnegut instructed the class to read these stories not in an overly analytical mindset, but rather as if they had just consumed “two ounces of very good booze.”

The ensuing letter grades were meant to be “childishly selfish and impudent measures” of how much—or little—joy the stories inspired in the reader.

Next, students were instructed to choose their three favorite and three least favorite stories, then disguise themselves as “minor but useful” lit mag editors in order to advise their “wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior” as to whether or not the selected stories merited publication.

Here’s the full assignment, which was published in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Delacorte Press, 2012). And also again in Slate.


This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”

As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all …”

I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children …”

Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.

Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.

Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.

Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.


McConnell supplied further details on the extraordinary experience of being Vonnegut’s student in an essay for the Brooklyn Rail:

 Kurt taught a Chekhov story. I can’t remember the name of it. I didn’t quite understand the point, since nothing much happened. An adolescent girl is in love with this boy and that boy and another; she points at a little dog, as I recall, or maybe something else, and laughs. That’s all. There’s no conflict, no dramatic turning point or change. Kurt pointed out that she has no words for the sheer joy of being young, ripe with life, her own juiciness, and the promise of romance. Her inarticulate feelings spill into laughter at something innocuous. That’s what happened in the story. His absolute delight in that girl’s joy of feeling herself so alive was so encouraging of delight. Kurt’s enchantment taught me that such moments are nothing to sneeze at. They’re worth a story.             

via Slate

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Charles Dickens & Edgar Allan Poe Met, and Dickens’ Pet Raven Inspired Poe’s Poem “The Raven”


“There comes Poe with his raven,” wrote the poet James Russell Lowell in 1848, “like Barnaby Rudge, / Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.” Barnaby Rudge, as you may know, is a novel by Charles Dickens, published serially in 1841. Set during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, the book stands as Dickens’ first historical novel and a prelude of sorts to A Tale of Two Cities. But what, you may wonder, does it have to do with Poe and “his raven”?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Poe reviewed the first four chapters of Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge for Graham’s Magazine, predicting the end of the novel and finding out later he was correct when he reviewed it again upon completion. He was particularly taken with one character: a chatty raven named Grip who accompanies the simple-minded Barnaby. Poe described the bird as “intensely amusing,” points out Atlas Obscura, and also wrote that Grip’s “croaking might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.”

It chanced the following year the two literary greats would meet, when Poe learned of Dickens’ trip to the U.S.; he wrote to the novelist, and the two briefly exchanged letters (which you can read here). Along with Dickens on his six-month journey were his wife Catherine, his children, and Grip, his pet raven. When the two writers met in person, writes Lucinda Hawksley at the BBC, Poe “was enchanted to discover [Grip, the character] was based on Dickens’s own bird.”

Indeed Dickens’ raven, “who had an impressive vocabulary,” inspired what Dickens called the “very queer character” in Barnaby Rudge, not only with his loquaciousness, but also with his distinctively ornery personality. Dickens’ daughter Mamie described the raven as “mischievous and impudent” for its habit of biting the children and “dominating” the family’s mastiff, such that the bird was banished to the carriage house.


Image courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

But Dickens—who Jonathan Lethem calls the “greatest animal novelist of all time”—loved the bird, so much that he wrote movingly and humorously of Grip’s death, and had him stuffed. (A not unusual practice for Dickens; we’ve previously featured a letter opener Dickens had made from the paw of his cat, Bob.)  The remains of the historical Grip now reside in the rare book section of the Free Library of Philadelphia, “a stuffed raven” writes The Washington Post’s Raymond Lane, “about the size of a big cat.” (See Grip above.)

Of the literary Grip’s influence on Poe, Janine Pollack, head of the library’s rare books department, tells Philadelphia magazine, “It is sort of a unique moment in literature when these two great writers are sort of thinking about the same thing. You think about how much the two men were looking at each other’s work. It’s almost a collaboration without them realizing it.” But can we be sure that Dickens’ Grip, real and imagined, directly inspired Poe’s “The Raven”? “Poe knew about it,” says historian Edward Pettit, “He wrote about it. And there’s a talking raven in it. So the link seems fairly obvious to me.”

Lane adduces some clear evidence of passages in the the novel that sound very much like Poe: “At the end of the fifth chapter,” for example, “Grip makes a noise and someone asks, ‘What was that—him tapping at the door?’ Another character responds, ‘’Tis someone knocking softly at the shutter.’” Hawksley notes even more similarities. “Although there is no concrete proof,” she writes, “most Poe scholars are in agreement that the poet’s fascination with Grip was the inspiration for his 1845 poem The Raven.”

Where we often find surprising lineages of influence from author to author, it’s unusual that the connections are so direct, so personal, and so odd, as those between Poe, Dickens, and Grip the talking raven. I’m especially struck by an irony in this story: Poe courted Dickens in 1842 “to impress the novelist,” writes Sidney Moss of Southern Illinois University, “with his worth and versatility as a critic, poet, and writer of tales,” and with the aim of establishing a literary reputation, and publishing contracts, in England.

While Dickens seemed duly impressed, and willing to help, nothing commercial came of their exchange. Instead, Dickens and his raven inspired Poe to write the most famous poem of his life, “The Raven,” for which he will be remembered forevermore.

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch 52,000 Books Getting Reshelved at The New York Public Library in a Short, Timelapse Film

After being closed for 2+ years for repairs and restoration, The New York Public Library’s historic Rose Main Reading Room reopened earlier this month. Above, you can watch 52,000 books getting reshelved in a quick, two-minute timelapse film. Books getting reshelved. Paint drying. A time lapse film can make everything interesting.

Then watch this very related item: The New York Public Library Unveils a Cutting-Edge Train That Delivers Books.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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Hear J.G. Ballard Stories Adapted as Surreal Soundscapes That Put You Inside the Heads of His Characters


Image by Thierry Erhmann via Wikimedia Commons

“This enormous novel we’re living inside thrives on sensation,” J.G. Ballard once said. “It needs sensation to sustain itself.” The author of novels like High-RiseCrash, and Empire of the Sun knew how to deliver a certain kind of textual sensation, and he often underscored (as first evidenced by his experimental text collages) that he possessed a command of visual sensation as well. Ballard’s use of sonic sensation has taken longer to gain a wide appreciation, but the BBC has furthered that cause with two new radio dramas adapting his stories “Track 12” and “Venus Smiles.”

These productions debuted together this past weekend on “Between Ballard’s Ears,” an episode of the program Between the Ears, which for twenty years has showcased “innovative and thought-provoking features that make adventurous use of sound and explore a wide variety of subjects.” They both make use of a technology called binaural audio, sound recorded just as humans hear it. The process involves an artificial head with microphones embedded in each ear, the industry-standard model of which comes from a company called Neumann. (You can see a gallery of the cast and crew of “Between Ballard’s Ears” using, and hanging out with, their own Neumann head here.)

All this has the effect of putting you, the headphone-wearing radio-drama listener, right into not just the setting of the story but into the very head of the character — in the case of J.G. Ballard, as any of his fans know, a troubling place indeed. We hear 1958’s “Track 12” from within the head of Maxted, a former athlete turned company man invited over to the home of Sheringham, the biochemistry professor he’s been cuckolding. Sheringham sits Maxted, and us, down to listen to his greatly slowed and amplified “microsonic” recordings of cells dividing and pins dropping. We wonder, as Maxted wonders, when the inevitable confrontation will come, though none of us can foresee what form Sheringham’s revenge will take.

“Venus Smiles,” which Ballard first wrote in 1957 and rewrote in 1971, takes place in his fictional desert resort town of Vermillion Sands. This story opens with the installation of a new piece of public art, a “musical sculpture” that makes me think of the Triforium in Los Angeles. But unlike the lonely Triforium, neglected and ignored for most of its history, this sculpture causes pandemonium from day one, piping out quarter-tone compositions pleasing to the ears of the Middle East, but apparently not to those of Vermillion Sands. When one commissioner transplants the hated sculpture to his backyard, it reveals its true nature: much more complicated than that of a big music box, and much more interesting to hear besides. As much as the binaural production will make you feel like you’re standing right there beside it, Ballard makes you feel relieved, as the story goes on, that you’re actually not.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Sean Penn Narrates Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff: Download It for Free


A very quick heads up: Audible has just released a new audiobook, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, written by an obscure figure who goes by the name “Pappy Pariah.” Who is Pappy Pariah? Some speculate it’s Sean Penn. But no one can say for sure. The only thing we can say is that Sean Penn narrates the audiobook. And also that you can download the audiobook for free. Click here or here, and go through the $0 purchase process.

As a quick aside, I should mention that if you start a 30 day free trial with, you can download two free (additional) audio books of your choice. They’re professionally read, and you can keep them even if you don’t ultimately become an Audible subscriber. That said, we do heartily recommend their service. Get more details on the offer here.

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Leonard Cohen’s New Album, You Want It Darker, Is Streaming Free for a Limited Time

A quick heads up: Leonard Cohen’s new album You Want It Darker is streaming free online for a limited time, thanks to NPR’s First Listen site. Now 82 years old, and sensing that time is running short, Cohen offers, writes Rolling Stone, a “gift to music lovers: a realistically grim, spiritually radiant and deeply poetic worldview, generally spiked with a romantic thrum and an existential wink.”

Hear the title track above. And stream the complete album right below using NPR’s free stream. Or another one provided by Spotify. You can purchase your own copy of Cohen’s album on Amazon and iTunes.

We’d also encourage you to read this new profile of Cohen, written by The New Yorker‘s long-time editor David Remnick. It’s quite poignant.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sounded Like When Sung in the Original Ancient Greek


Image by via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a humanist truism for some time to say that Shakespeare speaks to every age, transcending his time and place through the sheer force of his universal genius. But any honest student first encountering the plays will tell you differently, as will many a seasoned scholar who works hard to place the writer and his work in historical context. Even onetime director of London’s National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, once said, “I’ll admit that I hardly ever go to a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays without experiencing blind panic during the first five minutes. I sit there thinking… I have no idea what these people are talking about.”

Of course, none of that means we can’t learn to appreciate Shakespeare, and we do not need a graduate-level education to do so. But much of his archaic language and obscure references will always sound foreign to modern ears. How much more so, then, the language of the ancient Greeks, whether in translation or no? Although we’ve also been taught to think of the Homeric epics as containers of universal truth and beauty, the world of Homer was, in many ways, an alien one—and the literature of ancient Greece was far closer to song than even Shakespeare’s musical speeches.

In fact, “before writing was generally known among the Greeks,” the University of Cincinnati notes, “poets recited and sang stories for audiences at the courts of city leaders and at festivals. A poet could actually improvise a tale in the six-beat rhythm of Greek verse if he knew the plot of his story.” We do not know whether Homer was one enterprising scribe or “a group of poets whose works on the theme of Troy were collected” under one name. But in either case, that poet or poets heard the tales of Hector and Achilles, Odysseus and Penelope, and all those meddling gods sung before they wrote them down. Now, thanks to Georg Danek of the University of Vienna and Stefan Hagel of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, we have some idea of what those songs may have sounded like.

“In the course of the last years,” write Danek and Hagel, “we have developed a technique of singing the Homeric epics, which is appropriate for the primarily oral tradition from which these poems emerge.” The two scholars caution that their theoretical recreations are “not to be understood as the exact reconstruction of a given melody, but as an approach to the technique the Homeric singers used to accommodate melodic principles to the demands of the individual verse.” Accompanied by a four-stringed lyre-like instrument called a phorminx, “the Homeric bard” would improvise the “melody at the same time as he improvised his text, which was unique in every performance.” In the audio above, you can hear Danek and Hagel’s melodic recreation of lines 267-366 of book 8 of the Odyssey, in which Demodocus sings about the love of Ares and Aphrodite.

At their site, the two scholars present an abstract of their Homeric singing theory, with musicological and linguistic evidence for the recreation. Their technical criteria will confuse the non-specialist, and none but ancient Greek speakers will understand the recording above. But it brings us a little closer to experiencing Homer’s epic poetry, “the foundation stones of European Literature,” as the ancient Greeks might have experienced it.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Immersive Audio Tour of the East Village’s Famed Poetry Scene, Narrated by Jim Jarmusch

Allen_ginsberg_erads howl

Image by Michiel Hendryckx, via Wikimedia Commons

A peek at the photos on a realtor’s listing for a New York City one bedroom apartment formerly occupied by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg is a dispiriting reminder of how much the East Village has changed.

And that listing is over six years old!

Daniel Maurer, the editor of Bedford + Bowery, and a Ginsberg fan whom history has compelled to take over a portion of his hero’s formerly sprawling digs, wrote amusingly of shoddy renovations and his upstairs neighbor, punk rock icon Richard Hell:

Orlovsky’s name is still on the mailbox – which is just about the only thing still around from his day. After his death, the place was gut renovated with luxurious modern amenities like a mini fridge that comes up to mid-thigh and a stove that’s so tiny and ineffectual I just use it for cookbook storage. Soon after I moved in I took a trip to Ikea and recognized my kitchen cabinets there.

That’s why I was amused to read a piece in the Wall Street Journal … in which my upstairs neighbor, Richard Hell, talked about his rent-stabilized two-bedroom apartment and its “funkiness that you don’t find in Manhattan much anymore.”

Hell describes his “worn unvarnished wood floors that groan when you walk on them, cracks in the plaster walls, sagging original moldings.” That’s exactly what I was looking for in an apartment two years ago.

Maurer is far from alone in the desire to edge closer to a bygone cultural moment. Radio producer Pejk Malinovski spent three years crafting Passing Stranger, a site-specific audio tour of the East Village poetry scene, below.

A Dane who relocated to New York in 2003, Malinovski was intrigued by the scene-related anecdotes of his friend, poet Ron Padgett, who pointed out his former haunts on strolls about the neighborhood. His interest piqued, Malinovski immersed himself in Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome, The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960’s, another history that comes fortified with archival audio clips.

Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, a longtime Lower East Side resident who studied with poet Kenneth Koch in his youth, was tapped to provide the audio tour’s narration, with music compliments of composer John Zorn, the artistic director of The Stone, an experimental East Village performance space. Below, Jarmusch explains what attracted him to the project:

No matter if geographic constraints prevent you from downloading Malinovski’s tour for a two mile, 90 minute amble around the much-changed East Village. In some ways, the virtual tour is better. Rather than trying to take it all in in a single, pre-plotted session, you’re free to wander at will, enjoying such interactive features as maps and photos, in addition to interviews, readings, and reminiscences.

The 10th stop on the tour deposits you across the street from 437 East 12th Street, Ginsberg’s aforementioned former residence, on the steps of a church that no longer exists. Mary Help of Christians Roman Catholic Church was demolished shortly after Passing Stranger hit the streets, but its memory lives on thanks to its celebrated appearance in Ginsberg’s work:

Fourth Floor, Dawn, Up All Night Writing Letters

Pigeons shake their wings on the copper church roof 

out my window across the street, a bird perched on the cross 

surveys the city’s blue-grey clouds. Larry Rivers 

‘ll come at 10 AM and take my picture. I’m taking 

your picture, pigeons. I’m writing you down, Dawn. 

I’m immortalizing your exhaust, Avenue A bus. 

O Thought, now you’ll have to think the same thing forever!

– Allen Ginsberg, New York, June 7, 1980

Ginsberg himself is brought to vivid life by his secretary and fellow poet, Bob Rosenthal, who recalls how visitors would call up from the street, then wait for Ginsberg to toss down keys, wrapped in a dirty sock. He also name checks Mr. Buongiorno, the 437 East 12th St neighbor who served as Mary Help of Christians’ bell ringer.

You can hear those bells in the background of your Passing Stranger tour, though producer Malinovski uses ambient sound sparingly, to avoid overwhelming those using the tour on the noisy streets of the actual East Village.

You can download the full walking tour of Passing Stranger—named for Walt Whitman’s opening salutation in “To a Stranger”—here.

Explore Passing Stranger’s trivia-filled interactive website—featuring audio from Amiri Baraka, Hettie Jones, Eileen Myles, and Jack Kerouac, among others—here.

Poems included on the Passing Stranger audio tour of the East Village, in order of appearance:

Kenneth Koch, “To my Audience” (excerpt)

Frank O’Hara, Ode to Joy (To hell with it) (excerpt)

Ted Berrrigan “Dear Margie, Hello”

Ron Padgett “Poema del City from Toujours l’amour”

Walt Whitman, “To a Stranger”

Taylor Mead, “Motorcycles”

Bernadette Mayor, “Sonnet (You jerk, you didn’t call me up)”

Diane Di Prima, “Revolutionary Letters” (excerpt)

Galway Kinnell, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ” (excerpt)

Miquel Piñero, “A Lower East Side Poem” (excerpt)

Jack Kerouac, “American Haiku” (excerpt)

Bill Berkson / Frank O’Hara, “Song Heard Around St. Bridget’s”

John Ashbery, “Just Walking Around, from A Wave”

Joe Brainard, “I Remember” (excerpt)

Alice Notley, “10 Best Comic Books”

WH Auden, “September 1, 1939” (excerpt)

Anne Waldman, “Fast Speaking Woman” (excerpt)

Lewis Warsh, “Eye Contact” (excerpt)

Dick Gallup / Ted Berrigan, “80th Congress”

Abraham Lincoln, “My Childhood-Home I See Again” (excerpt)

Leroi Jones, “Bang, bang, outishly” (excerpt)

Hettie Jones, “Ode to My Kitchen Sink”

Brenda Coultas, “A Handmade Museum” (excerpt)

ee cummings, ”i was sitting in mcsorley’s…”

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet the Memphis Group, the Bob Dylan-Inspired Designers of David Bowie’s Favorite Furniture

David Bowie, in his years at Bromley Technical High School before becoming David Bowie, studied not just music but art and design as well. Despite becoming a rock star, he never forgot about the importance of the visual, a sensibility manifest in the performances he put on, the personae he assumed, and the music videos in which he starred right up until his death earlier this year. After his success, the artist also became a full-fledged art connoisseur, and next month Sotheby’s will hold Bowie/Collector, a series of three auctions “encompassing over 350 works from the private collection of the legendary musician.”

The first two auctions will sell Bowie’s modern and contemporary art; the third will focus entirely on his collection of furniture and other pieces of design by Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group. Even if you haven’t heard of the Memphis Group, you’ve certainly seen their furniture. “It’s Pee-Wee’s Playhouse meets Miami Vice,” in the words of Alissa Walker at Gizmodo. “It’s Saved By The Bell plus Beetlejuice.” As the postmodern wing of the 1980s Art Deco revival, Memphis “combined overtly geometric shapes from a variety of materials in bright, contrasting colors. Graphic patterns — usually black and white — were not unusual.”


Image by Zanone, via Wikimedia Commons

Memphis, whose influence has extended far beyond the movement’s official lifetime of 1981 to 1988, began “when Ettore Sottsass, one of Italy’s architectural grandees, met with a group of younger architects in his apartment on Milan’s Via San Galdino,” according to Design Museum. (Sottass had made his name with, among other things, Olivetti’s bright-red Valentine portable typewriter.) “They were there to discuss Sottsass’ plans to produce a line of furniture with an old friend, Renzo Brugola, owner of a carpentry workshop,” an idea that turned into “an exuberant two-fingered salute to the design establishment after years in which color and decoration had been taboo.”

Why call it Memphis? During the meeting, the group put on Bob Dylan’s song “Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again),” which gave Sottass the inspiration. “Everyone thought it was a great name,” wrote Memphis member, and later Memphis chronicler, Barbara Radice, with its evocations of “Blues, Tennessee, rock’n’roll, American suburbs, and then Egypt, the Pharoahs’ capital, the holy city of the god, Ptah.” This aesthetic foment eventually produced such items found in the Bowie collection as Michele de Lucchi’s Flamingo side table, Peter Shire’s Bel Air armchair, Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s friendly-looking radio-phonograph, and Sottass’ own Carlton room divider, the most popular Memphis object and one still made today.

Always aesthetically polarizing, Memphis has undergone a bit of a revival in recent years: younger designers have looked to the group for ideas, and its surviving members have heard a new call for their special brand of bold colors and striking geometry. In the video at the top of the post, gallerists Leo Koenig, Margaret Liu Clinton, and Joe Sheftel show and tell about Memphis, and in the subsequent videos you can learn more about Sottsass’ life and times and the memories of Memphis designer Mattheo Thun. Call the fruits of the Memphis Group’s labors dated if you like — “it just looks like the 80s,” writes Walker — but they’re dated, like many a Bowie or Dylan record, in the best way: undeniably time-stamped, yet somehow always fresh.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.