Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, December 31, 2007

Bowl Season

Marketing turns everything into a season; if something is a season, a sense of urgency can be created around it, and a sense of urgency might lead people to spend money. So, or example, we are very close to the "Spring Fashion Season," not because Spring is near but because the marketers have sold all the Winter clothes they're going to sell.

Now the season of football "bowls" is upon us--or upon those of us who pay the slightest attention to bowls of this kind (my wife pays no attention, whereas I pay token attention). Two football teams are invited to play a game in a stadium; the game is sponsored by a corporation and televised; money streams in; the colleges the football teams represent get some of the money. At home or in bars, we are allegedly entertained by the spectacle. There is something called "pageantry." There are tight close-ups of cheerleaders. You get the idea.

"Bowl" as applied to stadia and to games played in the stadia is an Americanism, according to the OED online, which cites the following early appearances of the word:

1913 Yale Alumni Weekly 4 July 1073/1 I voice the thanks of all Yale graduates for the ‘Bowl’... I am glad that Yale..prefers the good old word ‘bowl’ with its savor of manly English sport, to the ‘coliseum’ of the Romans or the ‘stadium’ of the Greeks.
1923 Pasadena (Calif.) Star-News 1 Jan. 1 Cheered to the echo,..a crowd of about 50,000 people in the great Rose Bowl, Pasadena's new Stadium in the Arroyo Seco

That the writer in the Yale Alumni Weekly yearned for a word that would provide a "savor of manly English sport" suggests an insecurity about masculinity and Americanism that I associate with Ivy League universities and with academia in general. I think Americans and Brits both think that "real academia" exists in England and elsewhere in Europe, but not in America, even at Harvard and Yale, even though the latter two universities can afford to buy any scholar from any country any time they want.

I'm not sure I agree that "bowl" provides a savor of anything manly or English or even sporting. It seems rather domestic, which might make it masculine, feminine, neither, or both--but not necessarily "manly." I may be wrong, but I think those gladiators in the coliseum were pretty darned "manly," both in the sense of being violent and murderous (two things we associate with men) and in the sense of how Hollywood likes to portray gladiators: muscle-bound, shaved, oiled, and scantily costumed (Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Brad Pitt, and that Australian guy). I think literary critics call this "over-determined" masculinity. (See the remark about insecurity above.)

The second citation makes me wish they'd named the stadium "Arroyo Seco" instead of the Rose Bowl. How poetic "Arroyo Seco" is--great syllables, great rhythm! Rose Bowl sounds rather morose, like two blasts of a foghorn. Does it (the former) mean "dry gulch"? I think so. But that's okay. It's not like the Rose Bowl is really a bowl full of roses, so we're not going for literal denotation.

In my ever-more-distant youth, there were only three bowls of much--let's say any--significance, to the degree bowls can have significance: The Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Orange Bowl. Then there came along the Blue Bonnet Bowl and the Sun Bowl. Then a proliferation of bowls occurred, and they took on highly visible sponsors, so now we have the All State [insurance] Sun Bowl or the IBM Rose Bowl or whatever. I think there are over 30 bowl games now. Some of the teams in the bowls have records like 7-5. At least one of the bowls might be called the Barely Competent Bowl.

Bowls I would like to see played, to make "bowl season" more interesting:

1. The Despair Bowl, featuring the two worst teams in college football. Different faith-traditions could sponsor this bowl and offer hope to the teams and their long-suffering fans.

2. The Absurdity Bowl, in which, if a team "scores," points are subtracted, not added. So if a team scored a lot, the scoreboard would read "-58" or something like that. The defenses would attempt to let the offenses score; they would be hospitable, polite, and supportive. The offenses would be inoffensive, reticent, and shy.

3. The Don't Go To War Unless It's Absolutely Necessary Bowl, featuring teams from the military academies. Before the game, all in attendance would pray in their own fashion that the players would never have to see military action and especially not have to suffer wounds or get killed in combat, ever.

4. The Poetry Bowl, in which players from the two teams would choose their favorite poems and read them aloud to the crowd during the four timed quarters. There would be a half-time, during which the teams could change their strategies and consult different anthologies. Judges would determine which set of poems was more interesting and which team gave better readings. All the players would earn academic credits in English at their respective universities.

5. The Zen Bowl, featuring no teams, only spectators, who would file in and look at the empty field. Cheerleaders representing no teams would "cheer" silently.

6. The Interpretation Bowl. This would be an ordinary football game, but on television, you could select different commentators to describe and interpret the game. The menu would include political scientists, feminist scholars, anthropologists, game-theorists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, and so forth. Everyone at home would get the deeper meaning of their choice.

7. The Out Bowl. This would be a game between two teams composed of players from all teams across the nation--perhaps East and West. Players would be invited to come out as gay, but no player would be outed without his permission. One aim would be to assemble enough gay players to field two teams. Another aim would be to help the United States get over its homophobia and realize that about 10 per cent of any given group--including athletes--is gay. (Consider the appeal of gladiator-movies.) I predict that this Bowl will not occur soon.

8. The Soup Bowl. Innumerable corporate sponsors would support this Bowl lavishly, but all the profits would go to feeding the homeless, who would be able to attend the game for free (if they so desired), after a good meal, a hot shower, and a fresh change of clothes.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Putting Poems in Their Place(s)

Another blogger I read regularly wrote a post about poetry and a sense of place, and after reading the post, I thought about poets who have seemed (to me) to be especially good at evoking a sense of place.

I thought of Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, a travelogue that includes poetry--haiku. There are crisp, vivid images of the countryside through which he walks, but the book also includes images of the common-folk he meets along the way. Of course, especially after the Romantic era, we may be inclined reflexively to think of "nature" when we think of "place" and poetry, but upon further inspection, even "nature poets" usually include human beings and their behavior in their poems. For instance, Robinson Jeffers was, arguably, not just a poet of place but a philosopher of place; his poems often express a moral outlook that aggressively prefers nature to people. But, paradoxically, he still needs to mention people, even as he often finds they don't measure up to nature--that hawks, for instance, seem to have more integrity and dignity than most people.

In the Jeffers-vein of poetry situated in California lies the poetry of William Everson (Brother Antoninus) and Gary Snyder. Snyder's The Back Country includes poems of place from around the globe, but Turtle Island is set chiefly in Northern California, as are many of Everson's later poems. Bill Hotchkiss's poetry is set almost exclusively in the Sierra Nevada, with some poems from the southern Cascades. When it comes to Alaska and poetry of place, John Haines is the go-to poet, methinks, but a former student of mine, Jessy Bowman, has some great Alaska poems, too, as does Art Petersen.

But what of urban places? Well, ironically, Mr. Lake Country, William Wordsworth, has that terrific sonnet about London, as viewed from Westminster Bridge. Ferlinghetti has that memorable, funny poem written from the point of view of a dog wandering through North Beach in San Francisco. Philip Levine has some great gritty Detroit poems, and Rita Dove evokes Akron from a variety of perspectives. I guess Sandburg wrote what we think of as "the" Chicago poem, but I'd bet there are a lot of Chicago poets and readers of Chicago poetry who wish that poem hadn't been written.

We tend to think of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land in terms of Modernist fragmentation, myth, and elaborate allusiveness, but in some ways it's best read as a picture of "the city"--a depressing picture, certainly, but what did we expect from Eliot? I remember attending a reading/talk by Stephen Spender, at which he said that he believed Eliot (in that long poem) wanted to write "a series of satiric sketches about urban life." That seemed like such a sensible, accurate description of the poem--and a great counter-weight to the overblown criticism written about Eliot's work. . . .

. . . .I love Langston Hughes's vision of Harlem in the 20th century--in Montage of a Dream Deferred. It isn't a vision of a place so much as it is a vision of people in a place--and in myriad situations dictated by history, ethnicity, economics, personality, gender, and sexuality.

Oddly enough, when I think of such places as L.A., Paris and other cities in Europe, and places in the American South, and when I then think of writers whose work is situated in such places, I tend to think of novelists and/or short-story writers--and sometimes of detective writers--rather than poets. I'll need to give more thought to who are the poets of L.A. and Paris, Berlin and the Rhineland, and the urban and rural South. If you have some suggestions, let me know.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Holmes For Christmas

I didn't receive any books of poetry for Christmas, but I did get the third volume of Leslie Klinger's new annotated edition of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes fiction. This volume includes the novels; it's published by W.W. Norton, and it replaces Baring-Gould's famous annotated edition. Klinger has the last two volumes of tales to go before finishing the complete annotated set. For every page of fiction, there are usually at least three or four long notes, just to give you some idea of how detailed the volumes are. They also include splendid illustrations and bibliographies. Klinger is an extremely professional amateur scholar, a lawyer by trade but a Holmesian at heart. His scholarship is superb.

I have long thought that the appeal of detective fiction in general and Holmes-fiction in particular was similar to that of poetry; in the case of both genres, there are certain well defined conventions within which the author is supposed to work, but at the same time, aficionados of detective fiction and poetry are always ready to entertain a disruption of the conventions--as long as it works. Among the more satisfying improvisations in the Holmes canon is his "defeat"; the genius is outwitted in "A Scandal in Bohemia," by the woman--and an American!--Irene Adler.

In addition to reading poetry (Cavafy and Housman at the moment), I'm also reading detective fiction. I just finished A Man's Head, a Maigret novel by Georges Simenon, and I have to say it ranks with the best Maigret novels. I think my favorite may still be Maigret's Revolver, but A Man's Head is superb. As usual, there is a great deal of pipe-smoking, brooding, drinking, and eating--as well as detecting. Freud, a detective in his own right, might claim that Maigret has an oral fixation. I'm part way through an Agatha Christie novel featuring Poirot, Murder in Retrospect. It's one of the later ones, and it's not bad at all. Christie, via Poirot, seems to come out in favor of modern (that is, surealistic) painting; that was a bit of a surprise.

I gave books for Christmas, too. One family member received The Jane Austen Cookbook, which, in addition to including recipes, includes information about dining practices in Austen's era and social class. Another family member received a travel-memoir about Sicily.

If you a) take part in a gift-tradition of some kind this time of year and b) like books, I hope some gift-givers came through for you. In any event, we are into the prime reading weeks of the year--deepest, darkest December. Put a soup or a stew on the stove, get a real or faux fire going, and crack open a good book. Salve for the soul.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Amusing English

As the semester comes to a close, many students, professors, and members of the staff express fatigue. One of my colleagues said she felt "overwhelmed," and then she added, "Does anyone ever just feel 'whelmed'?"

I'm reluctant to claim that English is stranger than other languages when it comes to oddities such as the one my colleague pointed out. I've studied Spanish, Swedish, German, and a smattering of Latin and French, however, and those language do seem more regular in the way they "manufacture"--and spell--words; and English is notorious for being more extraordinarily inclusive--some might claim cannibalistic--than other languages. With regard to the sheer number of words Brits, Canadians, and Americans use, for example, English is much bigger than German. If I am recalling correctly what a German teacher once told us, German has a working vocabulary of about 60,000 words, whereas that of English may be twice as large. (And now, of course, I will need to check these pseudo-factoids, after I finish the post.) When I was in Sweden, some Swedes were about as proud as Swedes ever get about the fact that their word, "ombudsperson," had been devoured by English. (In Sweden, it's unseemly to appear proud of anything; celebrities and others from the U.S. should be sent there to detoxify the ego.) Only about 8 million people have Swedish as a first language, so other languages tend not to borrow much from Swedish.

Sometimes in class when we touch on how difficult English must be to learn as a second or third language, I mention the words "enough," "bough," "through," "threw," and "thorough" and suggest how just these five words would raise enormous difficulties for a new student of English.

In any case, my colleague's comment got me to thinking about other oddities:

1. If someone can be "feckless," can someone else be "feckful"? Apparently not. "Feck," according to the OED online, shares roots with "effect" and "effective," it seems. How about "fecky" or "feckie"? (And don't you love Stephen Colbert's coinage, "truthiness"?)

2. The same goes for "ruthless" versus "ruthful." If "ruthless" is a pejorative adjective, wouldn't "ruthful" be an honorific one?

3. Is the opposite of "exhausted" "inhausted"? As if! How about just "hausted"?

4. Sometimes I am precipitous in my actions. When I am excessively cautious, should I be described as "postcipitious"? Or maybe I'd just be late in that case.

5. When I feel as if I should express thanks, I am "grateful." When I feel the opposite, I don't think of myself as "grateless." And shouldn't "grateful" really mean "full of the capacity to scrape"?

6. Most people, not just English teachers, know how useless the word "incredible" now is. When people say "that's incredible," they don't mean that the thing is not believable; they do mean that the thing is good, but "incredible" is used so frequently that it doesn't even mean that anymore. It just seems like a worn-out word. Maybe we should say "That's ultra-credible" instead. It's funny that saying "That's credible" really isn't much of a compliment. It seems to imply something like "Well, it sounds as if you're telling the truth for once."

7. I like the word "discombobulated." I always have. However, one cannot be "combublated," apparently, or even "bobulated." ("Oh, man, I got so bobulated last night!") And how did "bob" get in there? Was the word originally "discomrobertulated"?

I hope your day has been just right--combobulated in just the ways you like it to be.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bigger Than Large, Smaller Than Tiny

I've always been quite interested in science but also terrible at doing it. In chemistry classes, the math confused me, and when I read "mole," I thought of the underground animal. I was terrible at measuring things--hence I'm one of those intuitive cooks who glances at a recipe and then estimates the measurements. (The professional chefs on TV seem to do the same thing, so I feel vindicated, even as my fare is simpler than theirs.) I didn't like doing experiments that were just exercises, either. I wanted the teacher just to tell us how much sodium was supposed to be left over after the reaction and be done with it--and tell us what the point was.

I read, but do not understand much of, such books as Einstein's Universe, Cosmos, and Hawking's book about the universe. I read Science News with fascination and buy Scientific American at the airport every so often. I like it when scientists tell me more about how things work, although they change their minds a lot. Since I first studied science--after a fashion--in grade school, the universe seems to have gotten a lot bigger, the particles seem to have gotten a lot smaller, and the artist's rendition of what an atom looks like has change completely. Every so often, I have this sneaking suspicion that scientists just make things up, like poets. I mean, how am I going to check up to see if their new drawing of the atom is accurate? I can't ask an atom.

On CNN yesterday, I saw a report about an enormous stream of gamma rays and x-rays leaking out of what they now call a "super black hole." The stream is so enormous that it can wreck a smaller galaxy if it runs into it and, of course, fry any planets in said galaxy. The astronomer said the stream could last another 100 million light years, which he said wasn't a very long time in the context of the life of the universe. CNN showed what it claimed was a picture of the stream. The thing looked like a blue river in space. For all I know, it was photo-shopped. . . .One hundred million years is a "relatively short time"?! And here I was thinking it takes a long time to pick up a package at the post office during the holiday season.

Anyway, a while back I decided to summarize, in a short poem, my sense of the universe, focusing on "units"; of course, the "units" by which scientists measure things seem to change often. I remember when atoms used to be the smallest "building blocks" of matter; it turned out, however, that atoms were made of smaller building blocks, in a manner of speaking. Here is the poem, which I envisage as an extremely short chapter in a "science" book (which makes me think of that guy on NPR who whimsically claimed to have "a Master's Degree--in Science!!"):

Units: An Introduction

by Hans Ostrom

Everything is made
of little units, which
are made of even smaller
units. The smallest units,
undetectable by us, are
reality. All units larger
than these are rearrangement,
illusion, phony structure.
They constitute a kind
of molecular cinema
watched by us and
understood by God,
who is exempt from
the unit-arrangement.


from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006, copyright 2006 Hans Ostrom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

You Know You're Addicted to Books When....

You know you're addicted to books when . . .

1. . . . You can't find one of your favorite books, and, instead of waiting a while to see if it will turn up, you immediately consider at least three ways of procuring another copy.

2. . . . .You almost always have between two and six books on a table next to your bed--and another two-to-six books on the bed, and if anyone gets the bright idea of moving any of them, you become extremely anxious.

3. . . . You have just had dinner out with your significant other, and she or he asks what you'd like to do for fun next, and you hear yourself say, "How about if we go to a used-bookstore?"--and you don't stop yourself from uttering this suggestion, even though you know how coldly or mockingly it will be received.

4. . . . You consider cataloging your books on LibraryThing to be an excellent use of your time.

5. . . . In a garage or an attic, you exhume a book you have not seen in a long time, and you stare at it and touch it as if it were a piece of expensive jewelry.

6. . . . You reflexively memorize precisely what the spines and covers of certain books look like.

7. . . . You don't just have favorite books or authors but favorite copies of books. If a certain copy of a book were to disappear, you would become depressed, even if millions of other copies of the same book exist.

8. . . . You immediately think "a book" when someone asks you what you want for your birthday, an anniversary, or a holiday. In fact "a book" appears in your mind even before the person has finished asking the question.

9. . . . You were, at some early point in your formal schooling, told not to take so many books home with you because the person telling you this thought that you couldn't possibly find time to read all those books; and you were, of course, mystified by this apparently absurd admonishment.

10. . . . You like books apparently as much as cats like lying in the sun on a cold day, and you may come very close to purring when you pick up a favorite book.

11. . . . You wonder why there isn't a National Book Day in every nation, a Day that is as solemnly observed as any holiday in each respective culture.

12. . . . You hear the commandment, "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's goods," and you agree with it, except that you make an exception for books.

13. . . . You go to a party at an apartment or a house, and instead of talking with people, you stare at the bookshelf and hope no one interrupts you with an "entertaining" story.

14. . . . You knew that something like Kindle was coming, and you generally appreciate electronic technology, but you still suspect that Kindle is the spawn of the Devil.

15. . . . You consider "biblioholism" to be a blessing, not a curse, and if someone forced you to attend a support group, you would read a book instead of listening to people share stories of their "affliction."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Desultory Musings Concerning Kindling and Kindle, Reading and Grieving

When will the total ban on burning wood in fireplaces occur? Sooner rather than later, one suspects, especially with the news that the oceans are becoming much more acidic because of CO-2 introduced by humans. When will "the fireplace" finally seem as distant and quaint as jousting? What percentage of fireplaces are already "gas-inserts," which apparently burn much more cleanly than wood-burning hearths?

. . .Culture tends to consume itself: the automobile burns up the horse-and-buggy, and something else will burn up the automobile, which is already undergoing significant mutations. If culture is a fire, red coals of old products ignite newly obsolete products; the "family" sitting around the hearth is composed of economics (capital), science, governments, and . . . taste? Fashion? Expedience?

How to chop kindling is becoming or has already become a bit of consumed, arcane cultural knowledge, I suspect. Should you need to chop kindling, my advice is never to use a hatchet or even an ax. If you use either, you're likely to lose a finger or gash your leg. Use a splitting mall, which has a heavy "head" like a sledge-hammer and a relatively dull blade on the other side. Let the heavy head do the work; that is, just use the handle to lift the head a bit above your head, but there's really no need to drive the thing down, nor even to lift it directly over your head. Just let the wedge-shaped heavy iron head fall; it will work for you. Presumably you'll be chopping dry, soft wood--pin, fir, cedar: such make the best kindling. You'll be chopping in the direction of the grain, and the wood will "want" to split, as long as you don't try to split a knot in the wood or, literally, go against the grain. I think in the South they refer to such soft wood as "sapwood" because it's full of pitch. It's also less dense than hardwood, so the combination of pitch and soft fiber makes for a highly combustible wood--or kindling.

I used to chop heaps of kindling in the summer, loading up cardboard boxes for winter. In cold country, you want all your wood and kindling ready and under shelter well before Fall arrives. To be out in winter cutting wood is bad form and hard work. There is a kind of art to chopping relatively thin sticks of kindling, and it's fairly pleasant, rhythmic work. But with bans on wood-burning, such chopping is, as I noted, becoming arcane work.

My father chopped kindling to get his mind off worries. After his younger brother died of cancer, my father phoned me and said, "I go out and chop kindling, and even that won't take my mind off it [the death, the grieving]." In my father's universe, work was supposed to solve everything. A couple years later, my father suffered from congestive heart failure and died. After that, I often went into the garden to work and to try to get my mind off his death and my grieving. . . .

. . . . .And now a product called Kindle has arrived--a reading-machine onto or into which one downloads books. It comes from amazon.com, and I assume the head honcho (Bezos?) did enough research to know that the machine will indeed catch on, so I also assume that the long-predicted demise of the book-as-paper has officially begun. I was about to write that the clock is ticking, but digital clocks don't tick, and one's phone tends to be one's clock. (Culture consumes itself.)

In Winter sometimes, I and other members of my family would occasionally sit in front of the fireplace and read books. Such basic human activity: using wood for heat; using wood for pulp, which becomes paper, which becomes books; sitting in wooden chairs in front of a wood-burning fire reading paper-books.

In the Newsweek article (paper-form, not online) I read about Kindle, the writer noted that "Kindle" allegedly refers to the ignition of ideas in the mind--an ignition triggered by reading. I harbored a more sinister interpretation. I think Kindle refers to the cultural, technological fire that will burn up paper books. It had to happen sometime, this fire, but we paper-book enthusiasts need not like it. Luddites, by the way, didn't so much hate technology as they did enjoy having a job. I don't hate the technology of Kindle, which I think will be grand for scholarship, but I still do love books as artifacts. I think I'm what's known as "torn.". . .

. . . .Poets traditionally--perhaps "customarily" is a better word-- have been amongst the most enthusiastic book-lovers, partly because they often printed their own books or were at least more closely involved in the process than other writers might be. William Blake is a shining example; he printed and illuminated his own books. William Everson (Brother Antoninus) was both an accomplished poet and a professional printer. Poets have often joined with other poets to form small publishing "houses"--meaning they bought an old used letter-press and produced chapbooks. City Lights Books in S.F. is a good example. I wonder to what extent old fashioned paper chapbooks will survive the arrival of Kindle and its cousins. . . .

. . . .I've just recently begun to catalog my books on LibraryThing, where old-fashioned book-lovers, compulsive readers, and book-collectors collide, as it were, with digital technology. So it's been a contradictory month for me, technologically. I think Kindle is "the real deal"-- the machine that will accelerate the demise of the paper-book, even as publishing has already been undergoing massive changes. I've been entranced by this digital beast, LibraryThing, which is built for lovers of paper books. I've been sent off on meditations about kindling and fires and such basic "technology" as the hearth and the iron splitting-mall attached to a polished hardwood handle. And now I'm writing an old-fashioned, desultory, meandering essay, a la Montaigne--except it's digital--about books and the death (or radical transformation) of books, about fire and wood, printing and paper, blogging and cataloging, reading and grieving, working and musing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Net Worth?

So, if things continue to move apace (what a wonderfully vague contingency), we'll move into a condominium in March or April. Separately, we lived in dorm-rooms, rooms, and apartments of various kinds before we met, then we lived briefly in an apartment, but otherwise we've only lived in houses--aside from relatively brief stints in NYC and Sweden. This condominium-thing, then, will be new to us. "It" is in a refurbished old (by West Coast North American standards) building, built like a battleship, if battleships were built of brick and concrete. The floors are composed of concrete, ten inches thick, for example. The interior walls are concrete, too. The builders also recycled lava-rock taken from ships, in which the rock was apparently used as ballast; some of the lava-rock is situated between layers of concrete, for insulation. I like Old School improvisations like that. (Assuming the ballast-story is true, I wonder if the ships in question came from Hawaii.)

Condominium is a good gray Latin word, and when it got absorbed into English, it meant something like "joint ownership" or "joint sovereignty," according to the OED online, anyway:

a1714 BURNET Own Time (1823) IV. VI. 412 The duke of Holstein began to build some new forts..this, the Danes said, was contrary..to the condominium, which that king and the duke have in that duchy.
1882 Sat. Rev. 16 Sept. 361 The establishment of a new condominium with all Europe.

So, in the example from around 1714, the king and the duke have joint control--or condominium--over that "duchy." Co-dominion might be an improvised cognate, yes?

Not until around 1962--and in North America, probably the U.S. first--did "condominium" get used to refer to joint ownership of a building combined with individual ownership of spaces therein. One example from the OED online is taken from the Economist, a British magazine, which was reporting on this new concept (and a new denotation of an old word) from the U.S. However, I don't know how new the concept was, really, as I assume apartments had been "owned" in various countries around the globe for a long time before 1962. But, apparently, the word "condominium," applied to the concept, was new in '62.

Of course, unless one has the capacity to pay "cash on the barrel-head," as my father used to say, one must secure a loan, and to do that, one has to (or two have to) estimate "net worth." When I think of this concept, I sometimes think literally of a net. "What is your net worth?" "Not very much, but I have caught some fish with it, if that interests you." At other times, I imagine a scene in which someone arrives in Heaven and, wanting to impress an angel, scribbles something on a piece of paper and says, "This was my net worth on Earth!" Thunderous laughter then rocks the Afterlife.

--A poem, then, not about a condominium, but about wealth and worth. I don't remember which came first, the experiment with blank tetrameter verse or the topic; a confluence of the two might have occurred. Anyway, . . . :

Wealth and Worth

He is a nervous, wealthy man.
He fidgets, squirms, and giggles; counts,
Divides, and multiplies. He rubs
His face. And when he comes into
A room, he seems determined to
Invest himself in it and get
Its interest in him as return.
He wants and gets. He plans and plots,
Accrues. He is confused because
The more he gets, the more he gets,
And yet and still and nonetheless
He seems to him to be just he,
A discontented “I,” a sphere
Of fear and calculation and
A worry-furnace. He’s a rich,
A nervous, wanting, getting man,
So oddly sad, despite his wealth,
Because despite net-worth, he can’t
Account for feeling worthless.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Photo of Bear


Somehow this bear got stuck under/in a highway-bridge near Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada. He or she may have been on his/her way to Reno or Lake Tahoe to gamble. He or she seems to be pondering the situation. The species is Black Bear, but the individuals often have brown fur.

Uno Amoretto by Spenser

By my count, Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) published 84 sonnets in the collection Amoretti. I'm relying on the Oxford University Press edition of his works, Spenser: Poetical Works, edited by J.C. Smith and E. de Selincourt. I used to be able to read this edition with ease, but now I find the print to be extremely small, so I have to take uno amoretto at a time and then rest the eyes.

Warning: digression ahead. . . .I had some friends in California who liked to drink (alcohol) much of the evening--beer or wine or mixed drinks--and then top it all off, so to speak, with a wee glass of amaretto, which is an Italian almond liquer, if I have my mixology correct, and not a love poem, although the two are not mutually exclusive, of course. Actually, the liquer is the result of a process whereby herbs and fruits are soaked in oil derived from apricot pits--at least according to the website of Disarrano, makers of amaretto; but the flavor resembles that of almonds. I never got into the habit of topping off the evening with liquer. It sounded like a good idea in theory, but if one were an empiricist or of the theoretical school of Never Mix, Never Worry, or both, it sounded like a terrible idea.

Here is uno amoretto--in fact, it's number one out of the chute--from Spenser. The Amoretti (published first in 1595) are sonnets.

Sonnet I

by Edmund Spenser

Happy ye leaves when as those lilly hands,
which hold my life in their dead doing might,
shall handle you and hold in loves soft bands,
like captives trembling at the victor's sight.
And happy lines, on which with starry light,
those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look
and read the sorrows of my dying spright,
written with tears in heart's close bleeding book.
And happy rhymes bath'd in the sacred brook,
of Helicon whence she derived is,
when ye behold that Angel's blessed look,
my soul's long lacked food, my heaven's bliss.
Leaves, lines, and rhymes, seek her to please alone,
whom if ye please, I care for other none.

I have taken broad liberties with the spelling and punctuation here. The Oxford edition from which I took the sonnet preserves the poetry as set in type in 1595. The "v" is printed as "u" in that edition, the possessive apostrophe is not used (it is disappearing--again--from English, even as we speak, by the way), and an "e" is added to such words as tear(e)s and brook(e). Also, hearts (no apostrophe) is spelled harts, but from the context, I gather Spenser was not discussing a male deer, so I went with heart's. I did preserve the absence of capitalization in all but four lines, whereas in Shakespeare's sonnets and most of English formal verse, all words that start lines are capitalized. I've left lilly and spright as they appeared. Rhymes is spelled rymes.

As to the poem itself, it is a kind of meta-sonnet, insofar as it comments upon itself as a published sonnet. The leaves are pages of the book of sonnets, leaves the lilly-handed lover will handle. The poem is almost reckless in its mixing of metaphors (speaking of mixology)--the book as a collection of leaves, the book as bleeding heart, the book as a literal collection of lines and rhymes, the book as being written by tears (not blood), the lover as Angel whose look derives from a mythical river but whose look or approval is also food for the poet's soul. Whew! Blood, tears, water, hearts, leaves, etc.--Spenser has it all going on. There's also a lamp and some captives. I think of a sonnet like this as being almost too rich--like those creamy-centered chocolates in the variety-box. I tend to favor the chocolate-covered walnuts, a simpler candy; and I tend to favor a sonnet that develops along one line and then perhaps takes just one dramatic turn, or makes just one rhetorical shift, or pursues just one additional major metaphorical route. On the other hand, to read a richer variety of sonnet can be a not altogether unpleasant shock. Spenser mixes, but he doesn't worry.

As is almost always the case with a Renaissance sonnet, there is at least one major irony in this one by Spenser. It is, to my mind, the irony that the poet claims to want the sonnet to please only the lover but has gone ahead and published the collection of sonnets for a readership he hopes the sonnets will please.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Housman Defines Poetry and Drinks a Beer

In my opinion, A.E. Housman's The Name and Nature of Poetry (Cambridge U. Press, 1933; also published by Macmillan in the U.S. the same year) ought to be as well regarded as Sir Philip Sidney's A Defence of Poetry, but it is a less well known book.

I just acquired a good used copy of the it; it was purchased in 1933 by its first owner--on September 20 of that year, if a note in pencil on the first page is to be believed. The brief book reprints Housman's Leslie Stephen Lecture at Cambridge on May 9, 1933, about three years before Housman's death. Housman was a professor of Latin at Cambridge for a long time.

Housman did not consider himself to be a literary critic. He writes (that is to say, he said), "In these twenty-two years [since last giving a lecture to a similar assembled body] I have improved in some respect and deteriorated in others; but I have not so much improved as to become a literary critic, nor so much deteriorated as to fancy that I have become one" (2). The well wrought prose and self-deprecation function as excellent rhetoric, establishing Housman's ethos and pretending to lower expectations.

He then states that he had first intended to talk about a subject that he believes can be approached with scientific certainty: "The Artifice of Versification." The topic appealed to him because he could approach it with such certainty, whereas trying to define poetry seemed a hopelessly murky enterprise. He thereby implies what he will later state: poetry is more than merely versifying. He then admits, "When one begins to discuss the nature of poetry, the first impediment in the way is the inherent vagueness of the name, and the number of its legitimate senses" (5). Although he admits what most of us admit when embarking on a definition of poetry--that poetry is almost impossible to define satisfactorily--he quickly gets down to cases, quoting two passages of poetry:

Now Gilpin had a pleasant wit
And loved a timely joke.
And thus unto the Callender
In merry guise he spoke.

I came because your horse would come;
And, if I well forbode,
My hat and wig will soon be here;
They are upon the road.

(This is from a poem by Cowper.)

Come, worthy Greek, Ulysses, come,
Possess these shores with me:
The winds and seas are troublesome,
And here we may be free.
Here may we sit and view their toil
That travail in the deep,
And joy the day in mirth the while,
And spend the night in sleep.

(This is from a poem by Samuel Daniel.)

Housman pronounces the first excerpt "capital"--as verse, but not as poetry. He pronounces the second poetry--and also calls it "perfect," adding, "and nothing more than perfection can be demanded of anything: yet poetry is capable of more than this, and more therefore is expected from it." So he thinks example two is good enough verse--verse with some substance--to be called poetry, and then he suggests that we ought to demand even more than perfection from poetry. No doubt Housman was aware that, by definition, more than perfection cannot be expected, but he was taking and we shall grant him poetic license, so to speak.

Housman thinks this next excerpt is even better (it is from a poem by Michael Bruce):

Sweet bird, thy bower is ever green,
Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year.

What Housman detects in this excerpt is the presence of emotion represented.

The excerpts were probably known to Housman's audience but not necessarily famous, and I like the fact that he chose excerpts that are unexpected, that aren't "ringers" of one kind or another. And Housman, is, it would seem, seriously trying to show us the relatively slight differences between and among mere verse, good verse, and verse that qualifies as good poetry.
The lecture then goes on to indict 18th century British poetry for being overwhelmed by the intellect to the exclusion of emotion and intuition. He writes,

"When I hear anyone say, with defiant emphasis, that [Alexander] Pope was a poet, I suspect him of calling in ambiguity of language to promote confusion of thought. That Pope was a poet is true; but it is one of those truths which are beloved of liars, because they serve so well the cause of falsehood. That Pope was not a poet is false; but a righteous man, standing in awe of the last judgment and the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, might well prefer to say it" (30).

One of his points, I think, is that although Pope was a magnificent maker of verse--chiefly verse in heroic couplets--his poetry was too dominated by satiric impulses, dry intellect, and obsession with immediate politics and society to be what Housman might consider "real" poetry. He can't claim Pope was no poet. He can claim that, if I, for example, were forced to say who was the real poet--Alexander Pope or Emily Dickinson or A.E. Housman--I'd probably go with Dickinson and/or Housman every time--especially if the penalty for choosing incorrectly were to be tossed in that burning lake!

Housman then pushes the envelope and objects so strongly to the dominance of intellect in poetry that he claims that, for poetry, he prefers Blake at his best even when Blake is making no sense, simply because his poetry is so splendid. Hmmm. I think this comes close to a contradiction, because the first excerpt from Cowper was certainly pleasant verse--but not "real" poetry, and he just got through suggesting that the great technician Pope was suspect as a real poet. However, I also think Housman is contrasting Blake to Pope to reemphasize that Pope was tuned in chiefly to intellect and the artifice of versification, whereas Blake was tuned in to something more mysterious.

Housman does not go on to embrace 19th century British verse unthinkingly, and he claims that many people in the Victorian and Edwardian periods liked Wordsworth's poetry simply because of the philosophy (regarding nature) they believed it projected.

Then come three astonishing moments. First, on pages 45-46, Housman reports that someone from America wrote to him and asked him to define "poetry." Housman replied that "I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by symptoms which it provokes in us." So, after the tour of specific excerpts and poets, Housman stands his ground and says that poetry is too hard to define but that he knows it when he sees it (as that Supreme Court justice knew pornography when he saw it even though he couldn't define "pornography" precisely).

Next, he calls poetry a "secretion." Now, Housman possessed a learned, alert, and ironic mind, so he was well aware of most if not all the smart-aleck remarks his serious claim might elicit. He had to have known he was taking a risk in telling the truth as he saw it, adding, "whether a natural secretion, like turpentine in the fir, or a morbid secretion, like the pearl in the oyster." He then says that, in his case, his poetry is more like the pearl than turpentine.

Finally, he describes his writing process (48): "Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon--beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life--I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once, accompanied, not preceded, by a vague notion of a poem which they were destined to form part of."

A pint of beer, a long walk (away from purely intellectual pursuits), and an openness to or a readiness to listen for some lines and phrases: that was the Housman Way. (If I were to have read this when I was 20, I might have focused on the beer, exclusive of the two- or three-mile walk.) Fascinating.

In the book, Housman may protest too much against "the intellect" and its effect on poetry, for in addition to the strength of the verse itself and the emotion in his poetry, the ideas in his poetry appeal enormously to me and many others, and I suspect he liked ideas in poems as much as the next Latin professor, his claims about liking Blake's poetry (even when Blake made no sense) notwithstanding. Also, we might note that he circumvents any discussion of Whitman, the free-verse giant (he does mention one American--Poe) or of all the Modernist poetry that had arisen--erupted, if you will--in the decades just before 1933. He sticks with what he knows well: verse; "Old School" poetry. Since then, many readers, critics, and anthologists have asserted that free-verse poetry can be as beautiful as well written formal verse. But in this lecture, Housman sticks with poetry produced between the time of Shakespeare and the time of Matthew Arnold. Of Shakespeare, he writes that although (of course) Shakespeare was capable of producing great poetry, the poetry could be "confounded in a great river" (39) of ideas, observations, and conflict, whereas Blake's poetry could "be drunk pure from a slender channel of its own." I prefer almost all of Shakespeare's and Housman's poetry to almost all of Blake's--because I don't see the poetry as being confounded or made impure by other elements. For me, the other elements (ideas, rhetoric, irony) are poetic, when combined a certain way.

That is, I rather like the rhetoric and the argument in Sonnet 18, as well as the superb phrasing and the lovely meter and rhyme. In fact, the unabashed arrogance (although, if you can do it, it "ain't bragging") of Sonnet 18 is what makes it so winning for me--the argument being that the lover to and of whom he writes is destined to be immortal, after a fashion, because his poem will make her (probably "her") so.

Ah, but what a great read this little (50 pages) book is, and how wonderful to observe Housman taking a tour of poems and poets he considers just okay, good, and great. And to hear about how some of his poems first sprang to life (drinking beer, walking, musing) is warmly amusing and instructive.

In the book, Housman states that he is no critic and implies that he is more Latin scholar than poet, but now, of course, we view him as poet first, perhaps as critic second, and then (arguably) Latin scholar third. (Latin scholars may object.) Housman can't be happy about that, nor can he be entirely surprised. Those walks after his having downed a pint were simply too productive! Raise a glass and a poetic pen to A.E. In between the raisings, get some exercise!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Define "Poetry"

In a course this fall that to some extent surveys British and American lyric poetry (shorter poems, in other words) from Shakespeare's time to the present, I included two tests. On such tests I tend to ask such questions as "Who wrote 'The Second Coming'?" or "What is blank verse?" --Identifications and definitions, in other words. Nothing too fancy.

For the second test, the students helped me generate a range of possible questions, and one student suggested that I ask, "What is poetry?" The rest of the students chuckled, but I put it on the list, and then I put it on the test. Before offering his answer, one student wrote, "I can't believe it! You really asked this, didn't you?"

I was impressed with the answers to this almost impossible question. The answers tended to focus on poetry as a "verbal art," as concentrated language, as arrangements of words to emphasize images and sound-patterns, and so on. Especially after the free-verse revolution and the emergence of such forms as "prose poems," defining "poetry," as distinct from fiction and other kinds of writing, became even harder than before.

One way to approach the problem, of course, is to consider what poetry might do (its function[s]) and also what it might be (what does poetry "look like"?). This is the old form-and-function gambit.

It's tempting, certainly, to see poetry's function as expressing emotion, but that's too limiting, I think. For the sake of argument (and in the interest of time), however, let us grant that much of what poetry expresses--what it does--concerns emotion. But what is poetry?

Poetry is a comparatively compressed form of writing that evokes images and uses words as much for their figurative power and their impact on the ear and the tongue (figuratively speaking!) as for their rhetorical or semantic function. At least that's what I think poetry is on this particular cold day in December.

Ah, but why am I wrestling (rassling) with the definition, when I can simply turn to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)? We know he's famous for having written The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, "Kubla Khan," and other poems; for collaborating with William Wordsworth; and for writing the Biographia Literaria, which gathers some fine criticism, including the well known bit about literature's (and, by extension, drama's and cinema's) capacity to induce in the audience "a willing suspension of disbelief." That is, instead of stubbornly insisting that we're just sitting in a dark place munching popcorn and watching light play on a screen, we agree to believe that that guy is really chasing that other guy down a dark alley.

Coleridge's definition of poetry (or one of his definitions)? The following:

QUOTATION: "I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose—words in their best order; poetry—the best words in their best order." ATTRIBUTION: Table Talk.

(I have cut-and-pasted this quotation from Bartlett's Quotations on line--on the bartleby.com site.)

True, the definition doesn't say much about the function of poetry, about what it is "supposed to do" or what it has done in different societies and as compared to prose. Coleridge leaves that for another day. But the definition does a nice job of telling us what poetry is, provided we can agree on what we think the best words and the best order are!

Of course, we can't agree about these things. (And where would be the fun in our agreeing?!)

Once again this semester, for example, excellent students whose opinions I respect expressed their less than enthusiastic appreciation of Emily Dickinson's poetry, whereas I happen to think she is easily one of the best, most original, most enduring poets ever. I also think she is one of the more misunderstood poets. An impulse in the culture wants to turn her into the precious recluse, when the poetry itself has always struck me as earthy, direct, and connected with things important to almost everyone. Her mannerisms--the clipped diction and the dashes--cause some readers undue discomfort, I think; for some reason, I was never put off by these elements of her poems, even when I first began to read her work. In any event, the disagreements about Dickinson and innumerable other poets and poems persist, so in the rooms behind Coleridge's pithy definition arises the din of endless arguments about which words in what order are indeed "best." But least Coleridge gave us a short, sweet definition that was good enough to start some arguments.

Best wishes, and orderly wishes, to you as you write and/or read "poetry," whatever that is!

(I'm reading A.E. Housman's The Name and Nature of Poetry, which wrestles in entertaining, informative ways with definitions of poetry, but a discussion of that sharp little book will have to wait for another blog-entry.)








Thursday, December 6, 2007

Sidney's Defence

I located a nice copy of Sir Philip Sidney's A Defence of Poetry (1595) at a used bookstore this week; it's the Oxford University paperback edited by J.A. Van Dorsten.

I hadn't read the long essay/short book in ages, and I'd forgotten how pleasurable it is. Yes, the language is a bit ornate, as over 400 years of language-change stand between us and Sir Philip. And the structure of the argument is based on a classical model of rhetoric: exordium, narration, proposition, divisions [types of poetry], refutation [of charges against poetry], digression, and peroration.

Phil, as I like to call him, argues that poetry "precedes all other learning." He looks at different cultures and asks, rhetorically, what came first (in terms of what we might call "texts")? Answer: Poems! He then discusses the poet as prophet and the poet as "maker"--as artist. That is, the poet (at his or her best) says important things with words and makes beautiful, represented things out of words. He goes on to talk about divine poetry and philosophical poetry and "poetry strictly speaking," or the real stuff, which he associates with 8 specific kinds of poetry, such as the lyric, the ode, and the epic, among others. We might call them sub-genres nowadays.

Perhaps my favorite section is where he places poetry between philosophy and history. Like historical texts, poetry concerns itself with particulars, but like philosophy, it also concerns itself--indirectly, at least--with precepts, values, and ways of looking at things & people.

Poets are not liars, he claims--at least not in their roles as poets, even if (this is my example) they might cheat at cards. Poems represent nature, but they don't misrepresent things the way a deliberate lie does. Phil says poor Plato was simply misguided when he booted poets out of his utopia. He also denies that poems are "sinful fancies"; they're not icons that people worship, only artifacts (artifices?) that people enjoy and from which people gain learning. Poetry is not a bad habit.

Nowadays, poetry is alive and well, in many venues and variations. But it's difficult--for me, at least--to claim that it is central to the culture. That's partly why Phil's Defence (yes, with the British spelling) is so pleasurable and refreshing. Sir Phil clearly and boldly articulates the centrality of poetry. To him, it's "the best." I agree with him. What a surprise! The peroration--or "knock-out punch"--is hilarious. It's composed of one long sentence stretching over a page and riveted together with semi-colons, and it's a great riff. Phil had a little bit of Chris Rock and Lewis Black in him. It's a rant!

Against whom was he defending poetry? Some elements of the Church, probably. Some Neo-Platonists, probably--who favored philosophy over poetry. Some who thought poetry was merely decorative, or recreational, or precious. And probably an imagined rhetorical audience of anyone past, present, or future with bad things to say about his friend, Poetry, which he also calls Poesy sometimes. He also insists that the English language is perfectly suited to poetry--a claim that may strike modern readers as simply Anglo-centric but that may have been a parry of the thrust implying that either classical poetry (Greek, Latin) or Continental poetry (French, Spanish) was the real stuff.

It really is a great read for poets and for readers of poetry, IF you can take just a moment and get accustomed to his Renaissance vocabulary and style. It's composed of about 75 pages of very readable, nicely paced prose by a smart guy with a lively mind.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Masters and Mistresses of Our Fates?

Arguably one of the best known poems in English is William Ernest Henley's "Invictus," the speaker of which asserts that he is "the master of [his] fate"--in total control. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the poem is indirectly well known; that is, lines from it continue to adhere to the culture: "master of my fate," "captain of my soul," and "bloody, but unbowed."

Apparently, Henley himself was combative, but one might argue that he had to be. From an early age, he suffered from tuberculosis of the bone, lost one foot to amputation, and almost lost another one for the same reason. Educated at Oxford, he moved to Scotland and became a feisty editor of periodicals. With his most famous poem in mind, we might consider it ironic that he spoke very highly of one grammar-school teacher, who, according to Henley, showed him great kindness and generosity at a crucial time. Henley need help and got it. So, as always, we might be careful about applying biographical assumptions to a poet's poem.

A few years back, the poem became notorious because Timothy McVeigh quoted it just before his execution. Gore Vidal writes about this in one of his recent books of essays. While in prison, McVeigh started a correspondence with Vidal, who did not (of course) approve of the bombing but was interested in the kind of rage against the federal government that McVeigh represented. That is, Vidal wanted to try to understand McVeigh. Vidal also doubts very much that McVeigh and his one convicted partner in crime acted alone, but that's another story. Gore chides a variety of media outlets for apparently not knowing who wrote "Invictus." Checking an archive of CNN on line, however, I did discover that CNN had asked an English professor to comment on the poem, and she knew when the poem was written and by whom. Here is the poem:

Invictus

by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


"Invictus" is allegedly one Latin term for "unconquerable."

In a notebook, I just discovered a draft of a poem written in response to "Invictus." Temperamentally, I have always been inclined to react with some surprise at bold statements of fierce independence. (I acknowledge, however, that even the speaker of Henley's poem claims to have been bludgeoned by chance.)


When I hear such statements, I certainly believe the person voicing the statement believes what he or she is saying, and I hear the statement with no small amount of admiration because my experience has shown me that I am not the master of my fate and not the captain of my soul. As an employed American citizen, I probably have, on balance, more control (or the illusion thereof) over my life than some other citizens of the world, but nonetheless, proclaiming that one is the master or mistress of one's fate seems like an extraordinary thing to do. It seems to run counter to the facts of life, and, if one is in a superstitious mood, it seems to send an open invitation to life to prove one wrong, sooner rather than later. Hence this poem:

Memo to William Ernest Henley

I'm not the master of my fate,
not even an apprentice. However,
I do have season tickets to watch
the effects of my fate on me;
that's about it. At this very moment,
I have no very big idea of where
my fate is, what it looks like, or what
its plans might be. Invictus, inschmictus,
in other words. I'm not the captain of
my fate. At best, I'm below-decks,
with no access to helm, map, sextent, sky.
The sea, so to speak, seems in charge
of my fate, and something else
seems in charge of the sea. We'll see.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Lyric Poem on Epics

I'm an almost-lifelong reader of poetry. The first poems I encountered were probably nursery rhymes--at age 4, 5, and 6. Then, in grammar school, I was introduced to such poems as Frost's "Stopping By Woods" and Wordsworth's daffodil poem, among others. I've been intrigued by poetry ever since, and whereas many English professors prefer fiction and drama and often place poetry third, I tend to place it first. I've been writing poetry on my own (that is, independently of "school assignments") since I was in high school.

Consequently, this confession is not an easy one to make: I don't particularly like epic poems.

I certainly enjoyed, and enjoy, parts of the Iliad, the Odyssey, Paradise Lost, and The Prelude (for example), but I simply don't relish these poems. I have colleagues who remain devoted to such works, particularly the middle two. I cannot and do not wish to quibble with the foundational stature of Homer's epics, with the monumental achievement in verse that Paradise Lost is, or with the essential modernity of Wordsworth's epic about himself. I can clearly see why others not only laud these works but truly enjoy them. It's just that I've never enjoyed them as whole works, even as some parts of them satisfy me greatly. Regarding Milton's epic, I agree with Samuel Johnson: "No one wished it longer." I find the Iliad downright tedious in places. The same goes for Virgil's Latin sequel to the Greek epics, Spenser's The Fairie Queen, and Goethe's Faust. Nonetheless, I'm more than glad such works exist, and they constitute an inexhaustible mine of invaluable cultural allusions. What would we do without the Trojan horse, the Achilles heel, Scylla and Charybdis, "the world was all before them," Milton's roguish Satan, the Sirens, Circe, Faust's bargain, and those vivid "spots of time" in the Prelude? I even volunteered to teach a whole course on Wordsworth once, including the Prelude. The course went about as well as I could have hoped--and I'll never teach it again. The students did not wish the Prelude longer, to put it mildly. I also published an article on George Meredith's quasi epic Victorian sonnet-sequence, Modern Love. It's not as if I haven't tried. Moreover, in my defense, I might also mention Miguel de Cervantes, who was moved to write what is arguably the first European novel by something of a bad attitude toward epic literature and its conventions. (Unlike me, Don Cervantes had actually been to war, so I acknowledge that he had more reason than I to be unamused by conventions of epic war-poetry and codes of chivalry.)

At any rate, in honor especially of those who love poetry but only like (parts of) epic poetry and of those who may feel a little guilty about not enjoying the monumental epic poems more, I hereby post the following short poem about epics. It is not, however, nearly as short as Gary Snyder's wry haiku about the Trojan War: "Moonlight on the burned out temple/wooden horse shit." I believe that's to be found in The Back Country, and I may not have quoted it perfectly, but you get the joke. Thanks to Mark Twain and his attitude toward Wagner's music for the allusion at the beginning of my poem.

Generic Epic

Imagine a long story that is more interesting
than it sounds. Its hero, like certain pop
stars, has one name, many egos. Ignore
a probability that the dull parts are merely
padding. Look for symbols, but don’t kill yourself.
Try to find parallels between your life and the hero’s.
Doubtlessly, there are none. Otherwise you would be
famous or in prison or both. Imagine a fierce
climax scene here. Got it? Fine. Know Hollywood
will film it with profligate ineptitude. (Costumed thusly,
Victor Mature and Brad Pitt were right to look
embarrassed, even as they cashed the epic checks.)

Hero, journey, a lot at stake, revenge, an awkward
plot, and, as noted, a long story. There you have it,
an epic of your own design, a sense of accomplishment,
a vague notion of having read something
you were supposed to have read before. Now:
be off with you—on to your own long story.
Savor it. Seek symbols, but don’t kill yourself.
Ignore a probability that the dull parts are merely
padding. Every so often, do something vaguely
heroic, but don’t push your luck because whether
gods are in charge is an open question, but
whether you are in charge is not.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom, from Subjects Apprehended (Pudding House Press, 2000)

Monday, December 3, 2007

O Christmas Tree

The lyrics of customary Christmas songs have landed on my ears so many times since I was about six years old that I rarely if ever stop to analyze them.

I went to a tiny school in the Sierra Nevada; consequently, the whole student body became the "choir" at Christmas time. Pity the poor music-teacher--a volunteer, Mrs. Tabor. There was no depth on that choir-bench; she had to work with the personnel she had, poor woman.

For the longest time, I misinterpreted the first lines of "The First Noel": "The first Noel, the Angels did say/Came to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay." I "sang" the lines hundreds of times, and I always thought that "to certain" was an infinitive form of a verb, and I just assumed that the British had used "certain" as a verb at one point--as a synonym for "assure" or "reassure." That is, the first Noel, in order to reassure poor shepherds, came to them, showed itself to them, in the fields where they lay. Only later did a realize that "certain" simply meant what it usually means, and what it usually means is the opposite of what it seems to mean. It means an unnamed number; in other words, it actually means "uncertain." If I say, "Certain harsh words were spoken," I am not specifying the words, so my listener is uncertain about which harsh words were spoken.

I think "certain" would work well as a verb, but I am in a minority composed of one person.

I was thinking about a certain Christmas song today; in this case, I really mean "certain," as in one specific song, "O Christmas Tree," based on "O Tannenbaum," and as far as I know, "tannenbaum" in German refers to the fir tree. Here are the lyrics:

O Christmas Tree

O Christmas Tree,
O Christmas Tree,
How steadfast are
your branches!
Your boughs are green
in summer's clime
And through the snows
of wintertime.
O Christmas Tree,
O Christmas Tree,
How steadfast are
your branches!

O Christmas Tree,
O Christmas Tree,
What happiness befalls me
When oft at
joyous Christmas-time
Your form inspires
my song and rhyme.
O Christmas Tree,
O Christmas Tree,
What happiness befalls me

O Christmas Tree,
O Christmas Tree,
Your boughs can
teach a lesson
That constant faith
and hope sublime
Lend strength and
comfort through all time.
O Christmas Tree,
O Christmas Tree,
Your boughs can
teach a lesson

This is not my favorite Christmas song, not by a long shot. But I do like how a certain German attitude seeps through. The tree's branches are "steadfast." That personifies the branches in a way that makes them seem like they're not just sturdy but loyal, perhaps even open to the idea of joining the military. I never thought of tree-limbs as capable of loyalty. I also like the fact that happiness "befalls" the person, almost like a catastrophe. I've known some couples on whom marriage has fallen, I mean befallen, and it's not pretty.

Of course, the metaphorical move in this lyric is to equate being evergreen with being religiously faithful (if the latter is not a redundancy). Organic stasis equals religious stasis. I would never have thought to make that metaphorical move, perhaps because I'm literal-minded, but also perhaps because I grew up around evergreen trees and tended not to personify them. They were big and alive and often amazing. Sometimes they were firewood in waiting. Mostly they composed "the forest." And I climbed a few of them. But they never seemed human to me.

I keep pressing my wife to buy one of those plastic Christmas trees, which I think are very campy and, arguably, better for the environment, but so far she has held out for the O Natural Christmas Tree. The real trees smell better, I have to admit. And "O Plastic Tree" doesn't quite have the charm of "O Christmas Tree." O well.

Nosing Around

This morning I was positing the following: assuming human civilizations remain intact and continue to advance technologically, will it be possible, relatively soon, for humans to experience firsthand (firstpaw) how dogs and cats--for example--see, hear, and especially smell the world? Might the technicians be able to hook us up to a dog-simulation program and trick our brains and noses into detecting odors as a dog does? I assume the experience would be overwhelming; it might be too much for the brain to handle. In the case of cats, smelling and tasting apparently overlap in an official capacity. Sometimes you'll catch a cat smelling something and then opening its mouth as if to breathe in the odor. Apparently there's something called "the Jacobson organ" in the mouth, and it "tastes" odors. Seeing cats do this is amusing because they look like they are about to chuckle, but no sound comes out. I reckon the difference between tasting and smelling is pretty arbitary anyway, as we need our noses in order to taste things "properly," and it's all about molecules hitting a sensor-system, isn't it?

This has all been by way of introducing a poem about the nose:

Nose

Like a cliff dwelling, it hangs
from the sheer visage. Long ago,

Coyote caught a whiff of Moon,
has been yipping, nose to sky, ever since.

Long ago, our kind caught
spore of something dangerous

and sweet in woods, traded
innocence for perplexity, straight up,

has been on the move ever since, pulled
along by scent of something just ahead and

wanted. Come on, catch up, exhorts
Nose, drive that thing to tree. What

it is, why you want it: these
can wait. Smell it? Get it.

Friday, November 30, 2007

This One's For Chuck

I don't know much about Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican from Nebraska, although I've always assumed that everyone who lives in Nebraska has to be resilient, no exceptions. Today Senator Hagel said the George W. Bush White House was one of the most arrogant and incompetent presidential administrations in American history. This statement was newsworthy, I suppose, because a senator from the same party as the president rarely criticizes the president so starkly. As as way of saying thanks to and agreeing with Senator Hagel, I thought I'd post the following poem from my notebook-scribblings.

Yes and No

by Hans Ostrom

Yes, it's true. The president of this nation
in 2007 is immature, dishonest, inarticulate,
reckless, short-sighted, venal, destructive,
corrupt, smug, spoiled, lazy, improvident,
deluded, distracted, misguided, shameless,
uninformed, impulsive, unimaginative,
cynical, hypocritical, irresponsible, unprepared,
unaccountable, lawless, and obstinate. Yes, I have
exhibited such characteristics, too--who among
us hasn't?--but not on such an operatic scale,
and not all at once; and incidentally, I'm not president.

No, I don't know what to do about the president
of this nation in 2007 except worry, wait, wince,
wonder, mourn, pray, fear, and hope, also love
the ones I love. No, it's not a nightmare. We're
awake. Yes, he's a kind of dictator. No, we're
not a democracy, nor even a republic. A friend
of mine who's a non-partisan political scientist
used the word "fascism," a word political scientists
don't toss around like a frisbee. Yes, I'm worried,
but people in much worse situations than ours
maintained hope and kept working, so, no, we

mustn't give up. No, it won't be easy to repair
all the damage this man and his men and women
have done. No, we cannot bring back the dead
who shouldn't have died. Yes, we'll have to try
to crawl out of our caves of futility and do
something, even if it's just crawling out of our caves
to blink at the light and take in fresh air.

Meynell's Short Lyric On War

I finally tracked down a used copy of The Poems of Alice Meynell, published in a nice clothbound edition in 1955. For a bibliophile, the arrival of a new used-book by post brightens the day. To re-introduce gloom, I'll reprint a short lyric about war from the volume. Meynell decided to use a quotation from Richard Hooker as the title--and to give the attribution in the title, so the poem is indeed called "'Lord, I owe Thee a Death': Richard Hooker," and it includes the epigraph, "In Time of War." The war in question is the Great War, which we know as World War I, the horror of which Europe had not seen before, even though it had seen plenty of wars.



"'Lord, I owe Thee a Death': Richard Hooker"



In Time of War


Man pays that debt with new munificence,

Not piecemeal now, not slowly, by the old:

Not grudgingly, by the effaced thin pence,

But greatly and in gold.


--Alice Meynell



The extreme understatement of this poem works effectively, at least for me. Instead of expressing horror at the scale of life lost in the Great War, Meynell frames the loss of life in terms of a monetary debt, and in so doing she mimicks the heartless, matter-of-fact way in which nations sent soldiers to slaughter in the trenches. Meynell punctures that cold, deliberate, ironic trivializaton of death in the last line, however, because "greatly and in gold" reminds us that, whatever terms by which one chooses to frame the loss of life, one cannot successfully minimize how dear the cost has been. The short lyric seems to imply that even if one chooses to rationalize the loss of life as inevitable (everyone has to die sometime), the rationalization will dissolve because inevitable though the debt may be, God is not the one who decided it should be paid, in effect, all at once--"greatly"--and in gold: a massive percentage of young men from a certain generation in Europe and elsewhere. A similar debt is now being paid by Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans--greatly, and in gold.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fiction In A Poem

I observed a colleague's class yesterday. She was teaching a session of introductory short-fiction, and it was a splendid session. The class was discussing ways in which to end short stories, and apparently the textbook had suggested that one way to end was to evoke a sense of "infinity" quietly; the textbook used the example of a lone clarinet ending a symphony. Rather than accepting that analogy uncritically, my colleague went through her collection of symphonies by some of the Greats--and couldn't find an example of the lone clarinet! She played a few symphony-endings for the class, and this generated a great discussion of analogies between musical and fictional "endings," and about the implications of a happy ending, a tragic ending, a vague ending, a surprise ending (the "twist"), and so on. She was able to find a movement in a Berlioz symphony (Fantastique, I think) that ended with the sound of a lone horn.

Poets struggle with how to end poems, of course, but how to end stories may involve even more pressure. Poets are also often able to avoid the struggles of working with characters, who can become quite real (even thought they're just made of words), insistent, and stubborn, telling the author what to do (at least it feels this way sometimes), when the author thought he or she was in charge of writing the story. Sometimes, in my capacity as a fiction-writer, I have the urge to hit an unmanageable character over the head with a clarinet. I think I'd been working on a novel--many years ago--when I wrote the following poem, which concerns unruly fictional characters:

An Author Falls in Love With a Minor Character

I first noticed her in early scenes with
the hero. She was unremarkable,
there to get him
believably from point A to point B.
It was supposed to be geometry.

Now the hero’s been in a bar
in the fourth chapter for a year.
I might as well write the scene in which
an ambulance wails down a wet street,
pulls up to the bar. He’ll die there.

A telephone rings in the novel.
She walks across a room
to answer it. It’s me. I tell her
I’ve thrown it all over, all those
other lives, given up all plots for her.

I ignore how foolish I sound asking
“Where would you like your life
to take you? What kind of smile
shall I invent for you?” She says,
“Oh, you shouldn’t do all that for me.”

There’s something in her voice
I haven’t heard before. A certain
calculation. I consider the prospect

of following her
through my mind’s streets. I’m alarmed.

She says goodbye, replaces the receiver,
gently, crushes out a cigarette. I write,
“. . .crushes out a cigarette . . .” on the screen,
hate it. I’m unable to stop. I write only
to find out more about her.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Genitive Wednesday

Today I'm giving a poetry reading in a colleague's class and then fielding questions. Often students ask about where I or poets in general (like these students) "get ideas" for poems. Another way of asking this questions is "What is it that drives poets" (when it's not a taxi-cab driver, har har)?

My friend Kevin Clark tells great stories about having taken a workshop from the famous Southern bad-boy poet and novelist (Deliverance) James Dickey, known for archery, boozing, and fighting--a schtick associated with Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and countless others, of course, even if the particulars differ. Apparently Dickey roared into the classroom wearing a hat that Burt Reynolds had given him during the filming of Deliverance. The roar of the poet, the smell of machismo!

To open up the workshop, Dickey asked the graduate students what, fundamentally, poets like to do in their art. Of course, trying to get on the good side of the Great Poet, the students were tempted to say that poets like to depict real gritty life, or to be the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world, or to "express the inexpressible," or to get carried away by inspiration, or to devote their lives to art. (As Seinfeld might say: Yadda, yadda.)

Kevin smelled a rat, however, and remembered that W.H. Auden's famous anticlimactic answer to the question was simply this: "Poets like to play with words." Of course, Auden was being a bit coy, and Auden did much more than play with words. But that was, in fact, the answer Dickey was looking for, and Kevin gave it to him, and we'll simply slide past the several ironies of Dickey's and Auden's having agreed with one another.

What Auden meant, I think, is that words constitute the medium of poetry, not ideas, inspiration, life, or love. Words are to poetry what paint is to--well, painting. By saying "Poets like to play with words," Auden was implying, perhaps, that poets shouldn't lose sight of the medium itself even when they're trying to write "about" something. Often the so-called "idea" for a poem comes simply from playing around with (or working with, if that phrase seems more respectable) language, even if the poem, when finished, seems to be "about" something else, such as a red wheel barrow or having your heart broken.

It's true that readers usually want more from a poem than simply the poet's having played around with language, and who can blame them?! To some degree, I ignored that consideration in the following poem, which plays around with a) words I enjoy, as words, b) rhythms of phrases and c) the grammatical/linguistic notion of "the genitive case," which in Latin refers to words whose endings change so as to signal that they are being used to suggest ownership (the bird's beak, or the beak "of" the bird), description (the field-lilies or the lilies "of" the field), or location (the farm tools, or tools associated with or tools "of" the farm). I think you get the idea that the genitive case in English is often signaled not by a changed word-ending (English is mostly different from Latin in that respect) but by bringing in the word "of" for assistance. I think Gore Vidal said one of the thorns in a novelist's side (he probably didn't use this analogy) was trying to avoid the double genitive: "Speaking of the King of Sweden, the Norwegian laughed." The repetition of "of" can seem awkward/awkward.

In any event, playing with words, rhythms, and the genitive case, and unafraid to repeat "of," I decided--many years ago--to write a poem that played with words, more or less for the fun of playing with words. Whether readers consider it fun is highly debatable, one reason I kept the poem relatively short. I won't read this poem today to the students, but I will encourage them not to forget to play with words, seriously--to work with words, that is. The poem:

Genitive Case

Of eucalyptus, of acacia,
of rhododendron, tubers,
and pubescence, essence and
viola. Of pulse, of frond,
of pool and cool, of breeze,
arrest, and musculature. Of
hush and curvature. Of rush.
of whisper, moan, variety,
shoulders, piety, also variegation.
Of ripe, of lip, of full. Gladiola,
of. Form, firm, fern, tongue, smell:
of these of course. Of you. Of to doze and of
to languish. Of liquids, tubas, lobes,
and drums. Of cheek, chin, choice.
Of moist. Of measure for measure,
for olives of all, of grape and fig,
laze and sprawl, days and quirks.
Of sycamore and buttocks, of
cedar, water, smoke. Of willing
and of waiting, salt and wit.
Of grin. Of sum.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Yeats Tosses One Back

In one class this term, I asked students to choose an extra volume of poetry (by one author--not an anthology, that is) to read and to discuss with me. One of the students chose an edition of William Butler Yeats's Selected Poems and Plays. He'd studied Yeats's poetry in another class, and he was familiar with the well known poems like "The Second Coming" and "Easter 1916." He said he enjoyed reading this volume because he was able to discover much less well known poems that were enjoyable in their own right. We did end up discussing the well known "A Prayer for My Daughter," which includes the intriguing reference to Apollo and Daphne; the speaker of the poem wants his daughter to be like the shrub, Daphne, and remain rooted in one place--Ireland, presumably. But we also discussed a slighter poem that is nonetheless enjoyable. Here it is:

Drinking Song

By W. B. Yeats

WINE comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the ear.
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

The half-rhyme mouth/truth is vintage (so to speak) Yeats.

I wonder if someone has, in fact, set this lyric to music; probably so. However, the poem might work better as a simple toast than a song. If a person were to sing it, he or she would have to select the appropriate saloon, pub, or cocktail lounge; it may not work in every venue. In any event, I agreed with my student's idea that one advantage of reading a poet's selected or collected works is that you get to discover the poems that are not anthologized often or at all but that are nonetheless memorable. You get to take your own angle on the poet's opus. I'm in favor of rummaging through such books, as opposed to hitting the familiar high spots or reading systematically.

I also like to think of Yeats's "Drinking Song" in connection with Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," partly because the pronunciations of Yeats and Keats constitute something of a running joke, but also because the poems disagree on what we know "in the final analysis." Keats says we know that beauty is truth and truth, beauty. Yeats says we know only that wine comes in at the mouth and love comes in at the ear. Maybe the claims aren't as far apart as they seem to be at first glance.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Tough Poem From Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon was among the so-called "trench poets" of World War I, and he not only survived the war but lived until 1967, having been born in 1886. One wonders what he thought of the Viet Nam war.

One of his toughest war-poems, in my opinion, is the one below. It isn't remotely as famous as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," and it isn't tough in the same way; the poem by Owen, in addition to skewering easy notions of patriotism and of dying for one's country, presents a graphic "battle" scene--which is mainly a scene of soldiers being hit by poison gas. Sassoon's poem is tough because it is directed at--and gives hard advice--to one who grieves. It is one of the most emotionally unflinching poems I know. If one didn't have the sense that Sassoon had earned the right to compose such a poem and the sense that what he writes is true, one might be tempted to think of the poem as cruel. It is a hard poem, a tough poem, certainly a sobering poem about war--but not a cruel one. It is from his book Picture Show (1920).

Reconciliation

By Siegfried Sassoon

WHEN you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.


Gazelle Ghazal Gets Monday Going

As Ron Padgett notes in his splendid book, The Handbook of Poetic Forms (Teachers & Writers Press, New York), the ghazal is a venerable form of Persian poetry with which the poets Hafiz and Rumi are associated, among others. I'm always reticent to use forms that have such a long history in other cultures because I assume that when the form is transferred to English, it will lose much if not most of what makes it distinctive in its own setting. The ghazal, for example, had its own patterns of rhythm and rhyme in Persian, whereas in English those features tended to fall away. In fact, Padgett's view (p. 88 of his book) is that the contemporary ghazal in English really need only be in the form of (unrhymed) couplets and approach its subject-matter with something of a mystical or philosophical perspective. Adhering to one custom of the Persian ghazal, the ghazal in English may also end with the poet's name. I've brought exactly one ghazal in for what I consider to be a successful landing. It first appeared in Wendy Bishop's textbook, 13 Ways of Looking for a Poem (Longman). Unfortunately, the narrow margins of the blog make what should be long couplet-lines run over, so one will have to make allowances for that.

This Is The Gazelle Ghazal

This is the piano which holds its white hat in its black hands. This is the shovel
that says Excuse me and enters an important person’s office and will not leave.

This is the pebble that politely intrudes and, like a hard seed, sprouts
discomfort. This is the important person, leveled by regret, desperate for hope.

This is the outside, which is rain, and this is the inside, which is dry.
This is the student, who wants to be older. This is the teacher, who wants to be younger.

This is the love affair, so raging it convinced itself it would last forever but ended.
This is the friendship, which began before it knew it began and will not end.

This is the gazelle that springs onto suede savannas of mind as you read.
This is the name that writes the last of the gazelle ghazal: Hans Ostrom.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Walt Whitman Sees


Known for his volubility, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) can be a pithy poet, too, as in the poem below. Written in an age of supreme anxiety about what Darwin's ideas meant for those with mystical or religious beliefs, the poem seems to sidestep a "science" vs. "religion" duality and simply regards evolution as one more element to admire, mystically, about the universe. Not surprisingly (in the case of Whitman), the poem ends with a surprise, as the "real" subject of the piece is the unseen "soul"--human consciousness, another mystery of evolution. Thus the poem finally settles into an old philosophical question about whether reality exists independently of perception, whether perception is reality, and whether these are the correct philosophical questions to ask. Happily, for him and for us, Whitman chose his genre wisely--lyric poem, not treatise; so he's not obligated to sort out the philosophical question fully. Instead he ends with an exclamation, an homage to the soul his intuition grasps but does not see. It's a grand little poem, the way I see it.

Grand is the Seen

Walt Whitman

GRAND is the seen, the light, to me—grand are the sky and stars.
Grand is the earth, and grand are lasting time and space,
And grand their laws, so multiform, puzzling, evolutionary;
But grander far the unseen soul of me, comprehending, endowing all those,
Lighting the light, the sky and stars, delving the earth, sailing the sea,
(What were all those, indeed, without thee, unseen soul? of what amount without thee?)
More evolutionary, vast, puzzling, O my soul!
More multiform far—more lasting thou than they.