Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Part 2: "Great Books" Reflective Questions on "The pennycandystore beyond the El"

Reflective "Great Books" Questions

The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
fell in love
with unreality

1. Since candy store is 2 words in dictionaries, why are the 3 words pennycandystore run together as the starting line in this poem?

2. Why is the elevated train called the “El” instead of the El Train or even the Elevated Train?

3. Why does the poem emphasize that the pennycandystore is “beyond” the El?

4. Why is the place a "pennycandystore" where the speaker “first fell in love”?
Who is the speaker of the poem?

5. Why does he fall in love with “unreality”?

Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved along
the licorice sticks
and tootsie rolls
and Oh Boy Gum

6. Why is the pennycandystore in “semi-gloom” rather than brightly lighted?

7. Why are “jellybeans’ mentioned first and why do they “glow”?

8. Why do the poem’s events take place on a “september afternoon”?

9. Why is there a “cat upon the counter” moving “along” the candy rows?

10. Why does the narrator speak of “licorice sticks,” “tootsie rolls” and gum?

11. Why is the gum singled out to be “Oh Boy Gum”?

12. Is there any significance in the details that “Oh Boy Gum”
advertisements in the 1920’s had this unusual image of an elf whispering in the boy's ear?

Why does the ad state that "It's pure"?

Another key point to ruminate on is that the poem in its original poetry book form is a concrete one where the lines are staggered so that the poem looks like its lines are falling leaves!

Outside the leaves were falling as they died

13. At this point, why does the narrator switch focus to outside of the pennycandystore, saying that the "leaves were falling as they died"?
Remember, Ferlinghetti has already said that it is "september."

A wind had blown away the sun

15. And then the next line speaks in extreme hyperbole and fantasy--that "a wind had blown away the sun"?

A girl ran in

16. Suddenly, after "a wind..." why does the focus shifts from objects back to a person, as it did in the 1st line, saying the speaker "fell in love with unreality"?

Her hair was rainy

17. Is this vivid metaphor describing the girl's hair literal or figurative-thematic OR both?

18. Before this, the speaker hadn't mentioned any rain or stormy weather, so why does he do so now?

Her breasts were breathless in the little room

19. This sexual image is shocking and unexpected! Before this sensuous image, one might expect that the girl is in elementary school since the boy is.
Why does this well-developed adolescent girl from outside enter now?

20. Why are her "breasts...breathless?
Of course on the plot level of the poem, it's because she was out of breath from running to get out of the bad storm and rain.
What emphatic meanings are in these 3 short lines?

21. Notice all of the near rhymes, alliteration, assonance, and other word play.
Here's an amazing graphic showing the sound structure of the poem from upinvermont

Outside the leaves were falling
and they cried
Too soon! Too soon!

22. Why are the "leaves...falling" "Outside" brought forth again?

23. Then another shocker--the narrator appears to use personification..."leaves were falling and they cried..." (like the rain?)

24. However, when one close-reads, the realization comes that the "they" aren't the "leaves" but the adolescent boy and girl!
Why are the leaves and the boy and girl associated with each other?

24. Of course, next is why do they cry, not only in the sense of weeping, but also as in shouting?

25. What is "too soon"?


Please add other possible questions, comments, or reflections in the response box below.

In the Light,

Dan Wilcox

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Review: Best and Worst of Ferlinghetti

Memory sometimes brings back wondrous experiences. This morning, I took a brief break from showing our 3-year-old grandson pictures of dinosaurs in my evolutionary biology textbook by Stephen Jay Gould (our gk is wild for dinosaurs like so many kids, including me 67 years ago:-).

As I glanced over some of our home library shelves, an early 60's book of poetry jumped into my mental lap. Wow, Ferlinghetti! However, it's one of his books I don't remember: Starting from San Francisco .

My memory flashed back to my university days in the late 1960's,
the best and worst of times--back when I hung out with Beats,
hippies (heck, I became a hippie, lived in Haight-Ashbury-SF
until my draft notice came:-), and other wild ones--many of us
radical activists, reading Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, and Jack Kerouac,
hitching and backpacking and protesting and attending love-be-in's,
going to poetry readings and rock clubs.

In my vivid poetic reminiscence is this poem:

The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
fell in love
with unreality

Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved along
the licorice sticks
and tootsie rolls
and Oh Boy Gum

Outside the leaves were falling as they died

A wind had blown away the sun

A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room

Outside the leaves were falling
and they cried
Too soon!
too soon!

--by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
from A Coney Island of the Mind
New Directions Paperback
purchased at City Lights Book Store, February 1967

At this point, I planned to speak of the poetic power and deep meanings of this amazing poem by Ferlinghetti, but now have instead decided to let the poem speak its wonder.

To quote Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the U.S.,
"I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means."

--Billy Collins

What about the worst of Ferlinghetti? Turns out that the book I didn't remember, Starting from San Francisco, ought to have stayed abandoned/dumped on a shelf in our garage. Ferlinghetti, therein, has written so much drivel--vapid pages of dead prose, long lists of words that look like they were impulsive mouthings minus all that is poetic.

Later I will return and continue:-)

In the Light,

Dan Wilcox

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Is There Meaning in Reality?


This time around, it isn’t famous atheists such as Jerry Coyne or Sam Harris or Lawrence M. Krauss denying humankind’s belief in cosmic meaning but Michael Shermer.* This is a bit unusual because sometimes in the past, Shermer has, while supporting a mild atheism, has also tried to argue for the transcendent in reality in several of his books.

And, of course, countering this non-theist view of reality are other thinkers such as Carl Jung who wrote, “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?"

"That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities, and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance....The more a man lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity he has for what is essential, the less satisfying is his life. He feels limited because he has limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy. If we understand and feel that here in this life we already have a link with the infinite, desires and attitudes change.”

FROM Michael Shermer's article,
“Our Actions Don’t Matter in a Cosmic Sense—but That Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Matter” "Alvy's Error and the Meaning of Life" in Scientific American 318, 2, 67 (February 2018)
By Michael Shermer on February 1, 2018

“In a flashback scene in the 1977 film Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer is a depressed young boy who won't do his homework because, as he explains to his doctor: “The universe is expanding.... Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.” His exasperated mother upbraids the youth: “What has the universe got to do with it?! You're here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”

Shermer continues, “Whether you behave like a Soviet dictator who murdered tens of millions of people or a Roman Catholic missionary who tended to the poor matters very much to the victims of totalitarianism and poverty. Why does it matter?

“Because we are sentient beings designed by evolution to survive and flourish in the teeth of entropy and death.”

Laughing out loud! Here is another philosophical naturalist speaking of undirected, unpurposeful evolution as “designing” !
I am amazed at how many non-religious thinkers who in their own writing speak of evolution as if it was a purposeful agent.

Probably, Shermer doesn’t believe this but is only showing how difficult it is for humans to speak about reality without “meaning” and “purpose.” He would probably say he was using “designed by evolution” metaphorically.

However, many “religious” thinkers would also state that their theistic statements are “metaphoric” not literal in a dirt and rock sense.

Then he writes “…expending energy to survive and flourish. Being kind and helping others has been one successful strategy, and punishing Paleolithic Stalins was another, and from these actions, we evolved morality.”

Huh? Does that mean if doing immoral and unjust acts would increase our “survival” then they would become the new morality. Sounds like Nietzsche, the reversal of values.

Human survival isn’t the true basis of meaning or morality. On the contrary, often true meaning and morality is contrary to human survival!

Then Shermer states, “In this sense, evolution bestowed on us a moral and purpose-driven life by dint of the laws of nature.”

There it is, again, giving agency to a natural process which, allegedly, has none—“bestowed.”

Also, how can “a moral and purpose-driven life come from the laws of nature” if cosmic reality is without any of that?

If all f reality is meaningless and purposeless, then any claim by humans that their actions and views have meaning is a delusion.

And Shermer ends with, “In the long run, entropy will spell the end of everything in the universe and the universe itself, but we don't live in the long run. We live now. We live in Brooklyn, so doing our homework matters. And so, too, does doing our duty to ourselves, our loved ones, our community, our species and our planet.”

Not if we, our places, our actions are PART of the “long run.” Then ourselves, our acts, or beliefs all don’t matter either because they are included in the whole.

I think it makes far more sense to go with those scientists who do think that all of reality--including humans--has meaning.

In the Light,

Dan Wilcox

*Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine ( and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (Henry Holt, 2018).

Monday, April 6, 2020

Stephen King on Pandemic Tragedy: (THE STAND) How Humans Ought to Respond...and Not

Looking back now, King's famous story, a mini-series and 1,141-page science-fiction opus seems prophetic,
especially in how such a crisis brings out

the Moral Best
and Immoral worst
in humankind
(Of course,
The Stand's
fictional flu pandemic
is far worse
than the Corona Virus Crisis).

Before we look at the outstanding themes in The Stand, here's a brief plot summary
of the powerful story to remind everyone of the basics and the main characters.

The central plot shows us how a pandemic could easily start, because of human negligence and immoral priorities. In the miniseries, most humans quickly catch the weaponized flu and suffer horrific deaths. The unwalking dead.

A few remaining humans--who somehow are immune--unite in two contrary groups:
One is led by a 104-year-old Black lady, Mother Abigail Freemantle, who seeks to lead them to the Good, the Just, the Right, the Kind.

The other led by Randal Flagg, a demonically inspired sociopath, sets up his kingdom of the world to bring about Evil, Injustice, and all that is Wrong.

From the first scene/opening page, the narrative hooks readers with the epic story.

For those who haven't seen the miniseries or read the long tome, I recommend the former, mainly because in the movie version some obscene minor parts not central to the plot are cut out.

Central Themes of How We Ought to Respond to Pandemic Tragedies:

#1 Don't spend trillions of dollars on weapons of mass destruction (biological, chemical, and atomic weapons) like the U.S. and many other nations do, and have done in the past. (Are you aware that President Obama, and now President Trump have committed more than 11 billion dollars for maintaining and upgrading U.S. weapons of mass slaughter?! The total cost will be almost 1.7 trillion dollars according to the Arms Control Association.)

#2 Set priorities putting humanistic spending first.

#3 Listen and observe what humans DO, not what they say. For instance, NIck Andros, when confronted by Mother Abigail to choose the Right and the Good, says to her, "I don't believe in God."

Mother Abigail bursts out laughing, "That don't matter! God believes in you."

Nick is a caring, compassionate, conscientious individual. Those actions are what matter, not abstract notions.

#4 TO BE CONTINUED...time to grandkid sit:-)