Jerry Lettvin’s Poetry

A sampling of the professor’s literary work

  • January 2, 2013

When MIT’s Building 20 was demolished, Professor Jerry Lettvin marked the occasion with this poem.

Jerry Lettvin reviews the gross neuroanatomy of Rana pipiens (the Northern leopard frog).

Elegy for Building 20

Place of work is part of mind,
Memories imprint the wall,
Shabby artifacts recall
Crystal concepts, well-defined.

Down the halls of empty wings
Expurgated rooms extend;
When the wrecker comes, they end,
Broken down to formless things.

I’m not Faust, and will not pray
Time to take the time to dwell;
Status quo is gait of hell.
let those rooms be done away.

Academic monies buy
Only what it pays to know;
Newer fabrications grow
Where the older legends lie.

As the building comes apart,
Driven by a subtler trend,
Means that justify an(d) end
Subsidize the wrecker’s art

Past, reknown for past renown,
Cannot generate returns,
Just the interest it earns.
Tear that tattered engram down.

When the F&T Restaurant in Kendall Square was torn down to make room for the Kendall Square T stop, Lettvin composed a dirge in its memory.

Eulogy for the F&T

There’s no pub 
in the Hub– 
only singles bars 
and bistros run by hockey stars.

There’s no fare 
in the Square– 
only Harvard Yard 
and clip-joints that take a credit card.

What they sell 
at Lobdell 
is recycled sludge 
prepared to nourish, at best, a grudge.

Sky and school and spirit are gray– 
Where can we eat in a civilized way?

Fox and Tishman, Tishman and Fox, 
dealt us compassion with bagels and lox, 
meatloaf with morals, lentils with leers– 
they warped our palates as we bent their ears.
Execs and secs, jocks and crocks 
lunched in leisure at Tishman and Fox.

Now this bastion 
has cashed in. 
The sagging ceiling, the flaked chrome 
that gave us home 
are no more to be.

Fox and Tishman, 
Fox and Tishman, 
Fox and Tishman,

Have been f’d by the “T.”

Lettvin wrote poems for his wife, Maggie, as birthday and anniversary gifts. Here is one.

An Untitled Poem for Maggie

Whatever signs of age our years ensure
the states of love un-aged will yet endure,
and though our art and flesh are past their prime,
nothing in our bond can change with time.

Whichever of us goes, then none are gone;
there’s no such thing as the surviving one.
whichever stays, the other’s also there
but gives no indication of just where.

Lettvin was also known for his witty and thoughtful translations of poetry, including the work of the popular German poet Christian Morgenstern. Here is his translation of “The Aesthete” from Morgenstern’s Die Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs).

 The Aesthete

When I sit, I sitting, tend
to sit a seat with sense so fine
that I can feel my sit-soul blend
insensibly with seat’s design.

Seeking no support the while
it assesses stools for style
leaving what the structure means
for blind behinds of Philistines.

 Remarking on this translation, Lettvin’s son David writes:
“Note Jerry’s use of alliteration, which lets him fill the poem with asses just as he fills the chair with his own. Even the title is a lisping pun. This is an excellent example of his ability to retain Morgenstern’s humor. I have read several other translations, none of which have the same sense of wicked play. I wish that he had done more than the few that were published in The Fat Abbot.”

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