The Black Account Book

#10 Richard Wilbur “The Lilacs”

I’m always kind of suspicious at poems with weird formation on the page. Not because I don’t think it’s interesting and useful, but at the same time, if it doesn’t change the way one reads the poem why do it? It’s like those weird enjambments or ending a stanza in the middle of a sentence. If one is still going to read the line as a whole statement then it doesn’t matter how “interesting” it looks, the enjambment doesn’t mean anything and it’s just putting on airs.
I feel like we treat the writing of a poem as a thing in itself without realizing the purpose. We write poems so that people can read them correctly without us being there and line breaks, punctuation, stanza breaks, etc. are all so that the reader can know what this poem is supposed to sound like. It’s basically sheet music. If a song doesn’t stop in the middle there’s no reason a staff would break off in the middle and start again on the next line.

So I don’t know how I feel about “The Lilacs”. I can see that it may be a sort of representation of the lilacs being “in staggered file”, but I guess I would have to hear the poem read to know if that’s truly important, though the left side of the poem can be read as a poem in and of itself, so that heartens me to see the division of the poem create an effect that has some rime and reason.

Those laden lilacs
                        at the lawn’s end
Came stark, spindly,
                     and in staggered file,
Like walking wounded
                        from the dead of winter.
We watched them waken
                     in the brusque weather
To rot and rootbreak,
                     to ripped branches,
And I saw them shiver
                    as the memory swept them
Of night and numbness
                    and the taste of nothing.
Out of present pain
                       and from past terror
Their bullet-shaped buds
                    came quick and bursting,
As if they aimed
                       to be open with us!
But the sun suddenly
                    settled about them,
And green and grateful
                       the lilacs grew,
Healed in that hush,
                    that hospital quiet.
These lacquered leaves
                    where the light paddles
And the big blooms
                    buzzing among them
Have kept their counsel,
                      conveying nothing
Of their mortal message,
                   unless one should measure
The depth and dumbness
                   of death’s kingdom
By the pure power
                   of this perfume.

Review: The Modern Researcher

The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff. Belmont
Reviewed Johana-Marie Williams

The background of both authors of The Modern Researcher is (fittingly) as historians, and Jacques Barzun is perhaps better known for his contribution to the history of education. It is obvious that his focus in education informed the writing of The Modern Researcher, as there is much value to be had in this book to students and scholars in other disciplines and at other stages of education. Sadly, Barzun passed away in October 2012, but his contribution of this text is invaluable to the education of history.[1]
Henry Graff's background is also in history, his most recognized works--other than the modern researcher--being The Tuesday Cabinet: Deliberation and Decision on Peace and War under Lyndon B. Johnson and The Presidents: A Reference History. He is currently a professor emeritus at Columbia University.[2]
Barzun and Graff’s goal in The Modern Researcher is to  prepare students of history for research by giving them the tools to organize their research, organize their own thoughts, make imaginative but fact-based leaps, and to examine their own thinking and writing for flaws in logic and communication. The book is broken into two parts (“Principles and Methods of Research” and “Writing Speaking and Publishing”) with seven chapters each. It is also peppered with well-chosen anecdotes from the lives and works of real historians meant to exemplify both good and bad tendencies in historical writing and research. One of the strengths of the text, the stories give evidence to the prescriptions given and keep the reader engaged in what could have been a dry three hundred page list of the does and don’ts of historical methodology. This use also gives tangible examples to the reader on some of the major points of the text, such as the seamless use of quotations from sources.
One of the weaknesses of The Modern Researcher is it’s… lack of modernity, particularly regarding research in internet databases and the overall attitude toward updates in technology. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the newest edition was published in 2004 (nearly decade ago), however even in 2004 references to “so-called tablet computers”[3] and word-processing software that “shows only half a page at a time”[4] would have been dated.  Also, the availability of other technological resources needs to be updated to reflect the advancements of the last ten years, both of the technology available and of the average historian’s access to archived research. This is not to say that all or even most original research can be done online but it is to say that the somewhat skeptical attitude towards using computers, internet resources, and other technologies flies in the face of what is available for and what is expected of the historical researcher today.
The most valuable parts of this book, in my estimation, are chapters two and eight: "The ABC of Technique" and "Organizing: Paragraph, Chapter, and Part", respectively. Both chapters are at the beginning of their respective parts and are examples of front-loading the text with the indispensable information. While it is necessary the other topics of The Modern Researcher be addressed for the book to operate at all as a complete text, there are other sources that would better and more completely address citations, translating, computer usage, etc. However, the idea that the “a note is a first thought,” was revolutionary for me, and—I believe—will affect other students in a similar manner, once grasped.[5]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          
One of the most difficult challenges of any writer is researching in an organized manner then organizing that research in the way that best lends itself to forming a coherent first draft and aiding in further revision. I have struggled with this undertaking in both my creative and scholarly writing, and I now believe I have a much better grasp proper note-taking, and would even suggest that at the least these two chapters be introduced much earlier in the college curriculum to students of all disciplines, preferably during freshman year.
While needing some updating once again, maybe with some input from younger researchers more experienced and comfortable with new technology, The Modern Researcher continues to be a definitive resource for students of history that should perhaps be used earlier to give students a solid foundation in the art and science of historical research.

[1] New York Times, 25 October 2012 (website)
[2] Columbia University. “Department of History”. (website)
[3] Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher. 25
[4] Ibid. 294
[5]Ibid. 26