Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Truckin'

This essay is followed by the texts of Blind Boy Fuller’s "She's a Truckin' Little Baby," Ted Koehler’s “Truckin’,” Big Bill Broonzy’s “Truckin’ Little Woman,” Garcia, Lehr, Lesh, and Hunter’s “Truckin’, Hot Tuna’s” Keep On Truckin’,” and Eddie Kendricks’ “Keep on Truckin’.”


The Symbolist poets realized that images can be strengthened by underdetermination, that is, by giving the reader insufficient information to decode a term precisely, opening a route to associations and connotations that might otherwise be excluded. Furthermore, the implications of every image are conditioned by the tradition, such that a range of earlier usages may suggest allusive reference either strongly or weakly, expanding the semantic field in complex and subtle ways rather than limiting it as a definition would do. In addition, all figures of speech might be said to be imprecise in that the vehicle (in I.A. Richards’ term) applies only in part to the tenor. Paradoxically, what might seem inexactness provides the ability to formulate new significations, far more densely laden with information than ordinary discourse. Meaning becomes considerably more complex once the reader surveys a variety of texts by different authors. The use of the word “trucking” in American popular music indicates the vigor and elasticity of a term that gains in power with each novel turn in usage.

Thanks to R. Crumb and, in his wake, the Grateful Dead, “truckin’” has entered common vernacular usage, yet long before the fame of Mr. Natural and Jerry Garcia, the expression had a place in American song lyrics. In "She's a Truckin' Little Baby," recorded in 1936 by Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen), [1] the word is nothing more than rhyming slang, a euphemism for fucking (like both “jazz” and “rock and roll”). The singer warns rivals, “Catch you truckin' with her, I'm gonna sure shoot you down,” and celebrates his beloved in familiar hyperbole.


Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away, yeah
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Make a lame man run, make a blind man see
Sure gets good when she truckin' with me.


This usage is not surprising from Fuller, a Piedmont street musician whose repertoire included a number of outrageous hokum songs such as “I Want Some of Your Pie,” “ What’s That Smell like Fish,” and “Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon.” The genre, reveling in double entendre, arose from minstrel show comedy to popularity on “race” (black) and sometimes on “old-time” (white country) recordings as well in the 1930s.

A number of other artists further exploited this vein, including John Jackson, another Piedmont musician, who performed in the 1940s but never recorded until the 60s. Jackson’s “Trucking Little Baby” opens with the words, “That little girl, she's a-named Irene./ Got good jelly but she's stingy with me.” Bill Bill Broonzy recorded “Trucking Little Woman” in 1938 which notes that “She can look up as long as you can look down.” Decades later John Hammond used the same sort of ribald lyrics in his “Trucking Little Boy” as did Hot Tuna for their version of “Keep on Truckin’” on the Splashdown album in 1984.

The term trucking, however, doubtless due to an extension of the same euphemistic usage, was also familiar to Fuller’s audience as a dance step popular since the late 1920s. [2] Though much couple dancing may be seen as formalized sexual intercourse, and some dance moves are clearly erotic, this one is instead descended from the struts or cake-walks, conventionalized moves indicating confidence and ebullient joy. Considered by some a decorative elaboration on the Lindy Hop, the dancers lift and lower their shoulders while waggling a pointing forefinger in the air. The program of the 1935 Cotton Club Parade show includes a number titled “Truckin’” credited to Ted Koehler which is free from sexual innuendo. Like many other dance craze lyrics, the words simply announce the new vogue, saying everyone’s doing it.

From the dance usage, perhaps via marathon dance competitions, the term came to have the more common contemporary meaning of persisting or carrying on despite difficulties. The phrase “Keep on trucking” seems to have been unrecorded until Crumb’s images to accompany Fuller’s words in 1967, though some trace it plausibly to usage decades earlier among Pullman car porters or long-haul truckers. It can hardly surprise one that the phrase emerged in African-American vernacular to indicate persistence, “keeping on keeping on,” in a hostile racist world. In the three word phrase the erotic implications are often subdued though not out of place. Love-making was always a recreation and solace available to the poor as well as the rich.

In the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” an account of the band’s road trips, the sense of restless traveling, of moving forward predominates. Against a background of poker imagery (a modern version of the wheel of fortune) and the evocation of Crumb’s “do-dah man” [4] The song opens with a collage of various cities, though to the singer they seem “all on the same street.” The theme of love is included in passing with these lines.


Most of the cast that you meet on the streets speak of true love,
Most of the time they're sittin' and cryin' at home.
One of these days they know they better get goin'
Out of the door and down on the streets all alone.


Eddie Kendricks, once of the Temptations, had a number one solo hit with “Keep On Truckin’.” Here the sexual metaphor returns with fierce intensity, while the propulsive, “traveling,” implications of the word are also exploited. With his incoherent moans and exclamations, the singer enacts sexual pleasure. His “love jones” has set him “on fire.” Though saying it’s a “double shame” to be so helplessly enraptured, he continues to “keep trucking” toward “good loving.” Kendricks then explicitly evokes the image of a truck on the highway with his references to “diesel-powered” and the “red ball express.” [3] Lines such as “Ain't nothin' holdin' me back nothin'/ I'll keep right on, right on truckin'” might refer equally to love-making or to life in general.

As T. S Eliot said in his immensely influential “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” tradition involves far more than “blind or timid adherence” to earlier models. According to Eliot the appreciation of any writer necessarily involves “the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” Thus the addition of every new work requires the alteration “of the whole existing order.” The meaning of Kendricks’ song includes the previous meanings, not only of the word trucking, but indeed of every word in his lyrics. He depends as do all poets, on the competence of the reader (or listener) to understand his language in the context of his tradition. For the word trucking, this includes well-established implications of sexual desire and dogged determination, both associated with the energy of a fully loaded semi barreling down the road. In his song’s final word, “truckin’,” the listener can hear a symphony of allusions to generations of earlier poets.



1. Fuller also recorded “Long Time Trucker” which adds little to my analysis. The song is more concerned with his concern about his lover’s black cat bone.

2. The dance has been variously attributed to Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham and to Cora LaRedd of the Cotton Club, but most authorities agree that it was largely a renaming of previously existing moves, some of which had been featured in nineteenth century minstrel shows.

3. Soldiers on the historic Red Ball Express convoys following D-Day were mainly African-American.

4. Do-dah (or its variations) most readily alludes to the chorus of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” though baby boomers will think also of Disney’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South. In fact the syllables occur as far back as the minstrel show favorite “Ole Zip Coon.” In Thomas Birch’s 1834 version the chorus is “O Zip a duden duden duden zip a duden day.” In fact, due to its jocular nonsense sound, doo-dah has been used as a slang term with such varied referents as cocaine, breasts, penis, and the city of Wichita as well, I suspect, as others of which I am unaware.


"She's a Truckin' Little Baby" Blind Boy Fuller (Fulton Allen)

I got a gal here in this town, she's the best lookin' brown around
I got a gal in this town, best lookin' brown around
She's a-strictly tailor-made, she ain't no hand-me-down
Catch you truckin' with her, I'm gonna sure shoot you down
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
Truckin' my blues away

Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
Keep on truckin' mama, girl you truck my blues away
I got a gal she's little and neat
When she's starts to truckin', man it's so sweet
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
Truckin' my blues away

Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away, yeah
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
I know a gal she's long and tall
When she starts to truckin' make a little man squall
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
I mean, truckin' my blues away, yeah

do be dee be da....zee za za etc.

Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
She has a dance she call biddle-um-bum
Sure missin' somethin' if you don't truck some
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away
Truckin' my blues away

Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away, yeah
You don't have to hurry, don't have to go
Wait a little while you might wanna truck some more
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Truckin' my blues away

Keep on truckin' mama, truckin' my blues away, yeah
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away
Make a lame man run, make a blind man see
Sure gets good when she truckin' with me
Keep on truckin' baby, truckin' my blues away


“Truckin’” Ted Koehler

Listen you rhythm rounders,
Harlem is talking now
You know the truck bug got you,
But you never knew just how.

That’s what I want to tell you,
I’ve got it figured out.
Now if you want the lowdown,
Here’s how it came about.

We had to have something new,
a dance to do up here in Harlem,
so someone started Truckin’
as soon as the news got round.

The folks downtown came up to Harlem.
Everybody Truckin’. It didn’t take long
Before the High Hats were doin’ it,
Park Avenue nuin’ it, All over town,
You’ll see them Scufflin’, Shufflin’, Truckin’ along.
It spread like a forest blaze, became a craze
and thanks to Harlem now everybody’s Truckin’.


"Trucking Little Woman" William Lee Conley Broonzy (Big Bill Broonzy)

See that woman, her hands up over her head?
Did you hear me, what I said?

She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, here from Tennessee.

Wake up, boys. Don't you be no fool.
This little gal here, she's just from school.
She got plenty sense. She ain't no fool.
Got big eyes 'cause she's stubborn as a mule, but

She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, here from Tennessee.

This little gal that I'm singin' about
Is strictly tailor-made and it ain't no doubt.
She's built up round, right on the ground.
She can look up as long as you can look down, 'cause

She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, here from Tennessee.

I's just wonderin' what's that Annie got?
Where does she keep it, an' in what drawer?
Where did she get it? How much it cost?
Eyes like a big motor with a double exhaust, 'cause

She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, don't you know.
She's a truckin' little woman, here from Tennessee.

See that woman goin' down the road,
Jumpin' an' jackin' like a model-T Fo'd.

She's a truckin' mother for you, don't you know.
She's a truckin' mother for you, don't you know.
She's a truckin' mother for you, here from Tennessee.


"Truckin'" Grateful Dead (Garcia,Weir, Lesh, and Hunter)

Truckin' got my chips cashed in. Keep truckin', like the do-dah man
Together, more or less in line, just keep truckin' on.

Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street.
Chicago, New York, Detroit and it's all on the same street.
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.

Dallas, got a soft machine; Houston, too close to New Orleans;
New York's got the ways and means; but just won't let you be, oh no.

Most of the cast that you meet on the streets speak of true love,
Most of the time they're sittin' and cryin' at home.
One of these days they know they better get goin'
Out of the door and down on the streets all alone.

Truckin', like the do-dah man. Once told me "You've got to play your hand"
Sometimes your cards ain't worth a dime, if you don't lay'em down,

Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me What a long, strange trip it's been.

What in the world ever became of sweet Jane?
She lost her sparkle, you know she isn't the same
Livin' on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine,
All a friend can say is "Ain't it a shame?"

Truckin', up to Buffalo. Been thinkin', you got to mellow slow
Takes time, you pick a place to go, and just keep truckin' on.

Sittin' and starin' out of the hotel window.
Got a tip they're gonna kick the door in again
I'd like to get some sleep before I travel,
But if you got a warrant, I guess you're gonna come in.

Busted, down on Bourbon Street, Set up, like a bowlin' pin.
Knocked down, it gets to wearin' thin. They just won't let you be, oh no.

You're sick of hangin' around and you'd like to travel;
Get tired of travelin' and you want to settle down.
I guess they can't revoke your soul for tryin',
Get out of the door and light out and look all around.

Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me What a long, strange trip it's been.

Truckin', I'm a goin' home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong,
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin' on.
Hey now get back truckin' home.


“Keep on Truckin’” Hot Tuna


Well, now keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away

Well I say, keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away

Here you come baby big as sin
Tell what you been doin' by the shape you're in

So keep on truckin' mama
Now truck my blues away

If you been doin' like I think you been doin'
I can't do that 'round here
I said, you been doin' like I think you been doin'
I can't do that 'round here

Here you come mama big as hell
Tell you knew by way you smell

So keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away

Now what's that smell like fish oh babe
I really would like to know
And tell me, what's that smell like fish pretty mama
I really would like to know

That ain't puddin' baby, that ain't no pie
It's the stuff that I got you by

So keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away

Now yes you gotta leave my house this mornin'
Get your yas yas outta my door
Well I said, yes you gotta leave my house this mornin'
Get your yas yas outta my door

Ashes to ashes baby, dust to dust
Whatcha gonna do when that damn thing rusts

So keep on truckin' mama
Truck my blues away


“Keep on Truckin’” Eddie Kendricks


Ooh...
Ooh...
Ooh...

Keep on truckin', baby
I got to keep on truckin'
Got to get to your good lovin'
Huh...huh...huh...huh...huh...

Shame
A double shame on me, yeah
Love
Love, I let it control me, yeah

From just one kiss I am inspired
To lovers in time there's a fire

And I'll keep on truckin', baby
I got to keep on truckin'
I got to get to your good lovin'
Huh...huh...huh...huh...

Baby, its bad
It's so hard to bear
Yes, babe
You're hard to bear

I've got a fever rising with desire
It's my love jones and I feel like I'm on fire

And I'll keep on keep on truckin', baby
I got to keep on truckin'
Got to get to your good lovin'
Huh...huh...huh...huh...

Feelin' good
No, you can't stop the feelin'
No, you can't stop the feelin'
No, not now

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh

Keep on truckin' on
Keep on truckin' on
Keep on truckin'

Keep on truckin' on
Keep on truckin'

Yes, I've got a fever rising with desire
It's my love jones and I feel like I'm on fire

And I'll keep on keep on truckin', baby

I'm the red ball express of lovin'
Diesel-powered straight to you, I'm truckin'
In old Temptation's rain, I'm duckin'
For your love through sleet and snow, I'm truckin', ooh

I'm the red ball express of lovin'
Diesel-powered straight to you, I'm truckin'
In old Temptation's rain, I'm duckin'
For your love through sleet and snow, I'm truckin'

Ain't nothin' holdin' me back nothin'
I'll keep right on, right on truckin'
Ain't nothin' holdin' me back nothin'
I'll keep right on, right on truckin'

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, truckin'
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, truckin'

Every Reader’s Shelley

This is the first of a series of essays meant to engage non-specialists, indeed, non-English majors, with the work of important poets. In spite of my own inclination toward the abstruse I mean to limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography. I vow to avoid tempting byways and to include no footnotes whatsoever.


Shelley was a poetic bad boy, sharing something of the notoriety of latter day rock and rollers. Denounced, often with good grounds, for subversive and irreligious opinions and for practicing an immoral lifestyle to match, Shelley was a counter-cultural campaigner since his youthful expulsion from Oxford for his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. He attacked monarchy, meat-eating, and pollution, and his active support for Irish independence brought him to the attention of royal investigators. He called for sexual freedom and acted on his convictions. Yet in his work this hostility toward much of what the world believes is overwhelmed by the enthusiastic afflatus of his neo-Platonism, capable of carrying readers aloft to dizzying heights. When he is not ecstatic, however, he can be subject to self-pity as in the exclamation “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” Such language set an influential pattern for histrionic poetry whose continuing sway is evident in coffee house readings yet today.

Still “Ode to the West Wind,” the poem in which these lines appear, is powerful indeed, addressing the wind as a deity, both “Destroyer and Preserver.” Rather than viewing the autumn foliage as merely picturesque, like “leaf-peepers” who peer out the windows of New England tour buses, Shelley sees instead “pestilence-stricken multitudes.” As the lines tumble over each other in expert terza rima, he welcomes the tumultuous change of season as a Romantic visionary, not with fear or an unrealistic desire to halt time, but with exhilarated exultation, as a dazzling display of energy, awesome as a cataract, grand as a rugged peak, inspiring uneasy awe.

He then enlarges his view from the leaves themselves to storms, violent yet surpassingly beautiful, “angels of rain and lightning, “bright hair uplifted from the head/Of some fierce Mænad.” The past year is being most grandly buried in a “vaulted” and “vast sepulcher,” which inspires the poet’s awe. He imagines the wind sweeping over the ancient resort of Baiæ where with the almost neurasthenic sensibility he cultivated, he says the flowers are ”so sweet, the sense faints picturing them.” (One might imagine the secondary school scenes the young poet endured in which -- while gaining an excellent classical education -- he suffered the brutality of the British public school system with corporal punishment from the faculty and “fagging” by older students, in his case intensified into daily bullying his school-mates called “Shelley-bashing.”)

Identifying with the wind as one inherently “tameless, and swift, and proud,” the poet feels “chain'd and bow'd” by “a heavy weight of hours” to the point that he can only envy the uncontained force of nature. His neo-Platonic impetus toward the ideal abstract, toward a sort of ill-defined yet numinous impersonal divinity is marked by his use of that ugly word he so favored “skiey.” Like an ancient invocation, the poem ends with his prayer to the wind to be his spirit as well. Magical incantation as well as prayer, serving not only a mystical longing but poetic ambition as well, he asks that his words be the cause of “a new birth,” prophetic “ashes and sparks” “to quicken” the world in the continuing cosmic cycle.

Shelley’s radicalism is foregrounded in “England in 1819,” surely one of the fiercest sonnets ever composed. What can be said after the unforgettable first line: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King”? George III, by this time in his eighties and eight years into the regency of his reasonably sane yet irresponsible son, serves as an excellent, if cruel, image for the superannuated feudal system. To Shelley aristocrats are parasites, “leeches” as the poem says, consuming the people’s blood. Yet the poem ends, as does the Ode to the West Wind” with a prophetic expectation of an apocalypse to come, bringing out of “graves” a new and more enlightened order of society. Ferment was certainly in the air. Eighteen-nineteen was the year of the Peterloo Massacre in which the cavalry charged a demonstration of sixty to eighty thousand citizens who had gathered in Manchester to demand some reform in the direction of universal suffrage. The current assumption that most poets, artists, and intellectuals are likely to take a radical position dates from the period of Romantics like Shelley and, indeed, to my mind, there is far too contemporary a sound to his denunciation of the ruling class. The leaders are out of touch; the people are betrayed and suffer from want; the army is an instrument of oppression; the church itself “Christless, Godless.” Blake had expressed a similar protest in his “London” in 1794.

“Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” is a rather grand articulation of Shelley’s views on nature, poetry, and the divine. With Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads clearly in mind, he described the poem as having come to him “under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe: and as an undisciplined Overflowing of the soul, rests its claim to approbation on an attempt to imitate the untamable wildness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feelings sprang." To the poet the river Arve which begins mysteriously deep in the high peaks and then rolls ever stronger downward resembles his own ever-changing consciousness through which flows “the everlasting universe of things.”

In conscious contrast to Coleridge whose "Hymn before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni” in which the same view inspires “prayer” and “worship of “the Invisible alone,” and which concludes "Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God,” to Shelley the spectacle is unsettling. He uses adjectives like “wandering,” “unfathomable,” “hideous,” “rude,” and “awful.” It is populated by predators like wolves and eagles, yet it induces a “trance sublime and strange.” The closest approach to resolution is his claim that “Poesy” is a “witch” who seeks in these “wild thoughts” some “ghost” of truth.
Human senses mediate reality such that even direct experience can provide only a phantasmagoria of phenomena, “many-colored, many-voicéd” (the reader recalls the characterization in “Adonais” of life as “a dome of many-coloured glass,/ [which] Stains the white radiance of Eternity). The glacier and the river suggest some grand Truth. Magnificent though they are, their significance arrives only with the engaged human eye of the observer.


The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?


Shelley shaped generations of poetry since his day with his philosophic flights to the sublime, his passion for social justice, and his self-dramatizing poses. In his influential “Defence of Poetry” he elaborates on Aristotle with his claim that the poet records “actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.” If Shelley lacks the sweet concreteness of Keats, the plain language of Wordsworth, and the wit of Byron, he provides instead ample passion, verbal dexterity and lofty themes to engage virtually all readers.

In Praise of Bias

People often speak as though a writer’s bias is an undesirable thing, indicating a beclouded vision. Yet surely the only unbiased person would be one who has never had a thought or made an observation. In fact “bias” is what enables significance and instills meaning into what would otherwise be mere information. Far from warning readers to beware, an openly confessed bias promises well-thought-out conclusions and the active engagement of the author.

In fact bias is universal. Perhaps the writer who pretends to objectivity might be honestly unaware of bias, leading the reader to wonder how much else he or she might be in the dark about. A great proportion of our intellectual blind spots arise because certain assumptions strike us as so self-evident or natural that they seem raw data rather than conclusions. It is just such ideas, often the idées reçues of an entire culture, that an original author will seek to interrogate or at any rate to reinforce in an original manner. As Max Friedländer noted in commenting on the case of forger Han Van Meegeren , “Forgeries must be served hot,” since the tell-tale stylistic nuances, the assumptions characteristic of each age are invisible to viewers at first, but inevitably emerge as obvious with the passage of time. The very same principle applies to reasoning and logic.

Worse but less insidious is the intentional concealing of bias. The consciously deceitful propagandist need not concern us. Everyone will find such a fraud offensive (with the exception of sophistic rhetoricians to whom falsity may present an opportunity for a more dazzling epideixis). In such cases the writer, aware of the deception, can only be thought to consider a legitimate case unconvincing. Such arguments are far from insignificant – they are the very stuff of advertising and political discourse -- but such biases are less likely to hoodwink the alert reader or listener if they cannot deceive their own creator.

This principle emerged clearly during the late 1960s when many concluded that it was impossible to be apolitical. Passivity in the face of injustice came to be regarded as tantamount to endorsement of the status quo (particularly when combined with other clues such as the pursuit of income), while such transgressive practices as dope-smoking and gay sex naturally, though not inevitably, situated people in the opposition , and poverty implied integrity. These are, of course, biases and less than absolutely predictive, yet they possess both meaning and analytical value. Like other prejudices, stereotypes, and clichés, they were found to be quite often true.

Some, but not all biases, are also value judgments. I recognize my bias against Western movies and musicals as individual and subjective; I would not argue the inherent superiority of who-dun-its, but I would not voluntarily spend an evening watching John Wayne drawl as he rides through the sagebrush. Likewise, my fondness for ancient Skeptics, medieval troubadours, and early modern avant-gardists is not prescriptive, nor is my coolness toward Chinese traditional music or the Grand Ole Opry. I recognize my unfortunate sluggishness to appreciate the work of artists and writers younger than myself. Most blues music is for me good, while all polkas with the exception of those written by Chopin are not.

Yet I do not deny that I hold biases about biases. Father Arrupe’s “preferential option for the poor” is a good bias to me as is affirmative action while sexism, racism, and homophobia are bad ones. These preferences may be traced to morality, but the association is not necessary. If I encounter an individual with a prejudice in favor of bland food, I will prejudge that person’s other values as dubious, while I will be predisposed in favor of the attitudes of a cook with an ample spice cabinet. I would be more likely to agree with the judgment of a leftist opera buff than a reactionary Nascar fan. The fact is that biases are so potent in human social relations that I never encounter a Nascar fan in my social circles. Such an event would be as unlikely as dinner with Republicans. (A radical car racer might be an interesting character; a conservative lover of La Traviata sounds boring.)

Intelligence is no safeguard against bias. Indeed the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky has indicated that intelligent people are not only fallible like everyone else, but that they are in fact slightly more likely to make erroneous decisions based on bias.

The word itself derives through French, Provencal, and Latin from the Greek epikarsios meaning “athwart, crosswise, at an angle,” and that is the basis for its applications in tailoring and the sport of crown green bowls. The quality of obliqueness it shares with metaphor and other rhetorical figures is what opens biased judgments to significance based on connotation, association, and implication. Such ambush on a question from an angle other than warp or woof often releases insight. Biases are instrumental in weaving a texture of meaning that may be decoded (not always accurately) like a poem, a profile, or a tone of voice.

My biases include a preference for black over blue, red wine over white, pinot noir over cabernet, for lamb over beef, pork over chicken, for spinach over chard, cauliflower over broccoli, cherries over grapes, pears over apples, hazelnuts over Brazil nuts, and, I must confess, peanuts over all tree nuts. Bring me a heap of beans rather than of meat. I like Victorian houses rather than modern ones, cities over suburbs, San Francisco over Los Angeles, Iowa over New Jersey, but the Northeast over the South. I have a bias in favor of traveling anywhere outside of my own country such that I have never seen the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park. Talk is more pleasant than television, the fall preferable to the spring, and the mountains to the seashore. I would never ever dye my hair. I always wore a tie while teaching. Though biased against church-going Christians, fundamentalists, and hierarchies, I feel sympathetic toward Meister Eckhart, Quakers, and the Catholic Worker movement. I like Plato rather than Aristotle, the Greeks in general more than the Romans, the Nibelungenlied better than Roland, troubadours before trouvères, Wyatt before Surrey, Lear before Hamlet, Keats better than Shelley, Pound more than Eliot. The early poems of Gary Snyder and Robert Bly are far superior, I think, to their later work.

The value of biases need not arise from their truth. Naming a few among my myriad biases sketches my nature with greater precision and accuracy than the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. To eliminate my biases would be to erase the host of specifics that define me far more than my physical features. The fact is that bias cannot be avoided. There is no escaping the perspective through the holes in the front of the skull. Even a physicist contemplating subatomic particles must view the spectacle of existence using all-too-human eyes and a brain full of assumption derived from teachers and words and the chances of grants and fashions in science, but, far from lamentable, these limitations give a point to science as they do to art and to life.