Friday, September 28, 2007
Length of Moon
Then the golden hour
Will tick its last
And the flame will go down in the flower.
A briefer length of moon
Will mark the sea-line and the yellow dune.
Then we may think of this, yet
There will be something forgotten
And something we should forget.
It will be like all things we know:
A stone will fail; a rose is sure to go.
It will be quiet then and we may stay
Long at the picket gate, --
But there will be less to say.
The poem first appeared in the magazine FIRE!!, edited by Wallace Thurman and other younger members of the Harlem Renaissance, and published in 1926. Like a lot of little magazines ("little" referring simply to circulation and subsequently connotating a literary magazine), this one survived but one issue.
Bontemps' poem is one of those wonderful but small poems that get lost in the shuffling of literary history. Such poems may not end up in one of the well known anthologies and therefore their fate is left to libraries and/or to a few scholars who may study the author. Such poems are not lesser in quality than many of the much-anthologized poems and are greater in quality, arguably, than some very famous poems. I call Bontemps' poem "little" only because it is an unpretentious, one-page lyric poem; in other ways, it's big.
Bontemps invents a form for himself here--a three-line stanza rhyming aba, followed by rhyming-couplet stanza. The voice of the poem is understated, and the images are terrific. Any poem that announces itself as being about the moon will cause temporary concern because we fear a cliche is coming, but with Bontemps' poem, there's no cause for worry. The images echo those found in Zen poetry or the poems of Rumi; they are sharp but not forced to carry large symbolism. The poem unfolds quickly but quietly until suddenly we realize that it is, in part, about a couple; perhaps they are courting; perhaps they realize the relationship isn't going well; we can't say for sure. All we know is that "there will be less to say." I think the intentional (apparently) ambiguity works superbly there. Whatever is going on with the (two?) people, "there will be less to say" after they have experienced, together, the image of monnlight on dunes and the sea-line. And in way, after we experience such a scene, there should be less to say, for the scene has said something, has pierced us with some kind of meaning, some change in consciousness. When I first read the poem, I didn't expect it to end at the "picket gate," with "less to say." It's a surprising ending, but not a melodramatic one. It's a haunting poem, but it's by no means a gothic moon-poem or a cliche moon-love-poem. I admire its spare strength, its restraint, its capacity to arrange the images so that they communicate multiple meanings. I love the image of the flame going down in the flower, as if flowers were small lamps, the wicks of which were turned down at dusk.
"There will be something forgotten/And something we should forget." How cryptic! What will they forget? Surely they won't remember every detail of the scene. What should they forget? Harsh words? Some kind of betrayal? The lines that follow don't "answer" the questions raised by the previous lines. Instead they give the bigger answer: all things pass, not just a rose, which we know is short-lived, but also stones, which will be eroded or otherwise disintegrate, and which--as parts of foundations--will fail.
A coda: Bontemps wrote a terrfic novel, better known than this poem but probably still under-rated, called Black Thunder, which retells the story of a slave-rebellion led by Gabriel Prosser.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
An older colleague once said to me, when our son was young, "You tend to be so focused on whatever age or 'phase' your child is in that you block out everything that came before as well as any thoughts about years to come." There's some truth to that. When I consider my younger colleagues and their children, I really have to work to reconstruct what it was like for my wife and me when our son was 1,2, 3, 6, 10, and so on.
One thing I do remember is how surrealism comes naturally to children. Their use of language is so playful and protean that they come up with extraordinary combinations of words and phrases. Their word-associations are ingenious. Also, everything is essentially a play-thing to them, so they tend to see the functional in artistic terms, just as Dali saw the functional clock as something that might melt as it hung from a limb in the sun. The older we get, the more likely--for a variety of reasons--we are to channel the surrealistic impulse away from us and become routine, rational, and perhaps plodding creatures.
I think I wrote the following poem when our son was four, five, or six years old--as I said, it's so hard to go back and recover moments precisely. I do recall that I was reading a paperback anthology of surrealistic European and American poetry at the time, as well as doing the maintenance-thing in the back yard of the house we lived in then. Henri Michaux was a French surrealist poet. The poem:
Miscellany: Michaux, Back Yard, A Son, Poetic Ambition, Oz
Henri Michaux says, “The ambition to write
a poem is enough to kill it.” The following words
have been reluctant to join an ambitious poem:
Epicondylitis. Actuarial. My son brings me half an acorn,
which looks like an owl's face. He turns over aluminum
chairs so they look even more like junk, or art.
“Do we need tools out here?!” he asks, with authority.
Not yet five, he can prophesy the joy
of chainsaws, V-8 engines, weed-eaters, snow-
blowers—stuff that makes us a snarling, fuel-drunk breed.
“The little I want, you never bring,” said Michaux
to his own life. His life listened—sure it did, uh-huh,
the way a stump pays attention to mockingbirds.
Digging in dirt, my son says to no one,
“I’ll get you and your little dog, too!”
Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Before I posted the poem, I wanted to check on the etymology of "hick," something I should have done as I was writing the poem; oh well, you can't think of everything.
I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary online (which constitutes a kind of Shangri-La for hicks who are also nerds), and here is what I found:
a. An ignorant countryman; a silly fellow, booby. Now chiefly U.S.
1565 HARDING in Jewel Def. Apol. (1611) 529 Be it that Hicke, Hob, and Hans, of your Sects haue impudentlie accused him.
Source: OED online.
I was not surprised that the first definition of the first noun-version of "hick" is "an ignorant countryman" or "a silly fellow," although "booby" came as a bit of a surprise and has different connotations for me. Nor was I surprised that, once having jumped across the Atlantic, "hick" pretty much changed its citizenship.
But then I look at the first cited example of "hick" ["Hicke"] in print, and I find that my first name is lumped together with "Hicke," so that a Hans is apparently and officially a Hicke! How fabulous is that?! And apparently some hicks impudently accused somebody of something. I can see how hicks might be regarded as impudent, especially in Britain.
It is a difficult sentence to parse, that first citation. Does it mean, "Given the fact that Hicke, Hob, and Hans of your group (Sects) have impudently accused him, ...."? Or does it mean, "It is a fact that Hicke, Hob, and Hans [bumpkins all?] have impudently accused him"? Or does it mean something else? Hmmm. At any rate, Hicke and Hans appear cheek-by-jowl, to use a bit of a hickish term. (I wonder if Hob has anything to do with hobo. I shall need to return to the O.E.D.)
The second version of "hick" as a noun is the same thing as a hiccup, but I've almost never, if ever, heard it used that way. And "hick" can also be a verb, meaning to hiccup--but is extremely rare, methinks, unless the Brits use it that way.
Hick vs. Redneck: I think a hick is just a person from the country--a person with distinctly rural roots, whereas a Redneck, I think, may be more likely to be a person from the rural American South, to be white (with a red neck), and perhaps to come with more stereotypical baggage--in reality or by perception. I believe the first time I saw "red neck" (referring to white Southern rural folk) in print was when I read All The King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren, in high school, although I had heard the term before, of course. I found the narrative to be captivating, but I haven't read the novel again. I liked the movie-version with Broderick Crawford but not the newer one with Sean Penn.
What are the characteristics of a hick? I mention a few, by implication, in the poem below. But before that, here's a brief list:
1. A hick grew up in a very small town. Is anyone who grew up in a very small town necessarily a hick? No, but growing up in a very small town dramatically increases the odds of a person's being a hick.
2. A hick almost always comes from a working-class family. Is everyone from a working-class family a hick? No. Most people from working-class families in Boston or Atlanta, for example, probably aren't hicks. The combination of very small town and working class has a lot to do with one's being a hick.
3. A hick grew up accustomed to certain eccentricities, which only later were discovered (by the hick) to be eccentricities. Other people don't do it or say it that way, the hick learns. Who knew?! The hick learns that the world is full of "other people."
4. People change; education and re-education (the second sounds so menacing) are possible; nonetheless, in spite of undergoing transformations, a hick will still never quite fit in. Something hickish, however minor, still this way comes. A hick is often an accidental non-conformist, and s/he may have heard the term "non-conformist" somewhat later in her/his life than other people heard it in their lives.
5. A hick is easily impressed by almost any "new thing," but at the same time a hick is suspicious of people who think they are important (and a hick may in fact loathe his or her own self-importance); a hick combines naivete and skepticism in unexpected ways.
6. A hick is likely to display some awkwardness in social situations, even if the awkwardness is slight. The hick may or may not be aware of the awkwardness but in most cases is aware of it but is powerless to stop it or may, in fact, decide not to stop it--out of habit or stubbornness or mischievousness.
Contrary to popular opinion, hicks are not necessarily uncomfortable in cities. They do, however, tend to navigate or negotiate cities idiosyncratically. They may abruptly ask strangers for directions or use unusual landmarks, for example; or they may take circuitous routes. Non-hicks do not like to travel with hicks, for a variety of reasons, in most cases.
But many hicks do enjoy urban centers. They may find the behavior of urban dwellers risible, however. Hicks, for example, tend to be amused by New Yorkers' need to appear extremely busy, important, and eternally, perpetually Late for an Important Appointment. Of course, New Yorkers, in order to survive, have learned to wear the mask of someone who is allegedly busy, important, in a hurry, impatient, and From New York, even if, especially if, they are Not From New York--and may, in fact, be hicks passing as urbanites! The horror!
For the record, I grew up in a town that allegedly had and has a population of 225. During most winters, the population seemed more like 125. The town is in the backwoods of California's Sierra Nevada. The town is called a city. "Sierra City." Clearly, a hick named the town. To be fair, I must acknowledge that during the Gold Rush, briefly, Sierra City had a population of about 3,000 miners, but it was more of an encampment, and 3,000 does not a city make.
My family lived almost in the center of town, in a house my father had built, but here comes the telling, almost Dickensian, hickish detail. When I was six years old, my father announced that Sierra City was becoming "too crowded"[actually, its population had remained static], so he moved us all about a mile outside of town, built another house, and felt more at ease. I don't recall his inquiring as to how any of us had responded to the transition. He assumed we all agreed that in spite of what the Census suggested, Sierra City had indeed become "too crowded" and that we, too, had reacted negatively to this "crowdedness."
In any event, here's the hick (or Hicke, or Hob, or Hans) poem:
He grew up assuming others
had a right to speak
before he spoke.
He grew up in a region
named Not Really.
He eats too fast in restaurants,
walks too slowly in cities,
does his own repairs.
Elegance makes him claustrophobic;
The entitled fascinate him.
Shown evidence who he is and
what he does might
matter, he doubts it.
I know him: he hangs on
to worn-out things too long,
for at his house of fears,
someone’s always about to
break in and confiscate it all.
The grin—too broad. The stare—
too intense. He embarrasses me.
There he is—hanging back,
from The Coast Starlight, copyright 2006.
There’s not enough of here. We’ve memorized
the coastline, and we plan for surprising storms.
Native birds are too big, loud, and bright
for the venue. West manufactures
“beautiful sunset” every day. Our drinking-
water smells of boiled crabs. Every porch
sags with rot. We loathe tourists because
they fall for all the island’s gimmicks, including
sand, palm trees, and our menus. No one ever
meant or was meant to live here: Long-boats
of natives’ ancestors got shoved here in
an anomalous storm. Later arrivals were
victims of delusional cartographers. Well,
we’re all cousins now, so what's an islander to do?
Like us, our children
play with their food, make islands of mashed
potatoes in seas of gravy. This pile of rock
is slightly higher than the reefs—a volcanic
achievement that’s become a “romantic
get-away.” We don’t wish the ocean ill
but want just once to walk in any
direction on an aimless plain and not
bump into anything soon or
something we knew was coming, and
we know something like a tsunami is coming,
or a hurricane, or the theoretical tourist that will make
the total weight of the island's population too much.
Hans Ostrom Copyright 2007
Monday, September 24, 2007
Of course, the business about pencils is a bit tongue-in-cheek--but also refreshingly specific, especially in contrast to the tired, vague advice usually given to writers, such as "write what you know" or "show, don't tell." Because poetry and fiction concern imagination, or making things up, one is always writing what one doesn't know even when s/he is writing what s/he knows. And sometimes it's better to tell rather than show. You just never know.
A student in class reacted to some of this advice (from Hugo) by saying that it made him want to do just the opposite of what Hugo advised; he had the "don't-tell-me-what-do-do" response, not a bad one for a poet to have. Probably Hugo himself would endorse the reaction, and of course most writers and teachers of writing assume that when they give advice, it will be taken, dismissed, and/or modified but that each of these three responses is fine as long as it works. No doubt Hugo deliberately gives specific advice on seemingly trivial matters (in some cases) just to get poets thinking specifically about how they write, not to get them to write exactly as he does.
In the following poem, I think I unintentionally followed Hugo's advice about not answering questions. The poem does ask and answer questions (a no-no), but, arguably, it also answers questions not asked (okay according to Hugo's "rules"). (It's interesting that all politicians answer questions not asked, but probably not for poetic reasons.) The poem first appeared in Poetry Northwest (Spring 1987), a venerable magazine (founded at the University of Washignton, edited by David Wagoner for a long time) that went out of business but was just revived--in Oregon, I believe. Rather belatedly, I'll "dedicate" the poem to the late Richard Hugo. I never met him, but we exchanged letters once in which fishing was mentioned. Here's the poem:
From Another Part of the Forest
How are you today?
Ten dead fish float in the lake.
May I help you?
Five cattle lie in the shade.
Won’t you please sit down?
A bobcat rakes a deer’s back.
Do you love me?
A butterfly folds up its wings.
What are you waiting for?
Seven geese waddle toward a pond.
Are you sure?
A frog jumps from a log into mud.
Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom. First published in Poetry Northwest (Spring 1987).
Sunday, September 23, 2007
It's September, so many spiders are on the move, going--I assume--for more warmth, heading inside "our" abodes, which they think of as space to be shared; into garages, sheds, and woodpiles.
I almost never murder spiders. Usually I just leave them alone, and after a while they're not where they were. Sometimes I get a piece of cardboard, induce the spider to climb aboard, and take the spider outside.
All spiders look intricate; most spiders look menacing, at least to the common-folk like me. Upon further study, they seem either inordinately calm or astonishingly hard-working, artistic, and busy.
Once or twice I've had the privilege of seeing hundreds of tiny spiders burst forth from eggs in a spider's nest. Amazing. Like a little teeming city of commuters coming to life out of nowhere. I wonder what percentage of them become adult spiders.
I wish I knew more about that which allows spiders intuitively to measure the spaces of a web as they build it. A metaphysical question: Can spiders' webs be considered art? Maybe it's simply a definitional question.
Not that it matters, but I don't really like the Spiderman movies. In fact, I think I've seen only the first one. It's nothing personal. I just think the premise is kind of dumb. I think I'd rather he really turn into a spider, the way the fellow actually turns into a fly in The Fly. But then he wouldn't be spider-man, I guess. He'd be Spiderspider.
A poem, then, for September and for spiders on the move:
Northern Hemisphere, September: spiders
come inside. They slip through seams
to here, where summer seems to them
to spend the winter. Their digits tap out
code on hardwood floors. They rappel
from ceilings on out-spooled filaments
of mucous, measuring the place. Sometimes
they stay just still. Paused. Poised.
It’s not as if spiders wait for us
to watch them, or even as if they
wait. Rather, octavian motion
is so easy, syncopated, and several
that stillness surely exhilarates spiders
just arriving from the Northern Hemisphere.
It’s time for us to enter equal days and
equal nights, to pluck the filament between
fear of and fascination with spiders
Hans Ostrom. Copyright 2007.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Sigmund Freud and Babe Ruth in Heaven
by Hans Ostrom
Sigmund sits in a cool dugout,
theorizing The Babe,
who daily trots out in Heaven’s perpetual
Spring Training and wrists
pitches over marble walls. The Babe
plays in his underwear, looks like a white
radish atop toothpicks. Dr. Freud
is addicted to a revulsion he feels for this
Orality of a man, who even in Heaven
devours raw steak, rashers of bacon, barrels
of ale, potatoes, fudge, cigars, brandy.
Ruth’s lips are immense. His voice burbles
up like raw crude. The doctor cannot keep
himself from watching George Herman’s buttocks
flinch when he turns on a pitch. Wearing
a Brooklyn Dodger’s cap, Freud scribbles
notes toward a paradigm of Baseball As Dream.
At home plate, Bambino belches, breaks wind.
The doctor is discontent. Apparently, there’s
no treatment for this Promethean-American adolescent--
voracious as a bear, incorrigible as a cat.
Babe calls Sigmund “Doc,” of course.
When they play catch, Babe bends curves
and floats knucklers--junk for bespectacled Doc,
who squints and shies when ball slaps mitt. The ball
falls out as often as not. Sometimes, though,
a principled grin grows on Freud’s grizzled face.
For the doctor is day-dreaming he’s a boy
in Brooklyn--that Herr Ruth, Der Yank, is his step-father.
When the ball does slip snugly into dark webbing,
no sting, Freud feels the power of Catch as Ritual.
Hey, there you go, Doc! growls His Babeness—
and spits brownly, O prodigiously onto Heaven’s green.
When we discussed possible topics for an elegy, a poem about loss, we set aside the most obvious topic: the death of a loved one, and we brainstormed a list of "lost things" about which we might write an elegy. The list included health, wealth, virginity, hair, jewelry (or some other object with symbolic and/or commercial value), pets, space (for example, a field on which houses were later built), security, winter (for example, in some regions where it used to snow in winter, no snow now falls), one of our senses, keys, childhood, adolescence, and a wallet.
We saved 12-15 minutes toward the end of class in which to begin to write a poem, or at least to work our way toward a poem. Occasionally in that amount of time, one can come up with a whole draft, or at least a draft ("whole" is debatable).
For the heck of it, I decided to post the first (and so far only) draft I wrote, as is. I chose to write about a lost wallet.
The first time I lost a wallet,
I didn't lose it--it was
stolen from a gray metal locker
I had not locked.
I remember sitting on the bench
in the vacuum left by theft.
I knew then what I don't
know now: the exact amount
of money stolen; the name
of the girl in the photograph;
and to whom the phone numbers
belonged. Those area-codes signify
much smaller geographic areas
now, and now my wallet is obese, swelled
with fatted plastic cards and multiple
ways of proving I exist. The first lost
wallet moved, thin and quickly, through
the crowd, possessed by a satisfied
thief, whom I wish well.
I played football in high school. I was a second-string quarterback as a freshman, and my longtime friend Ronn English and I still cherish a black-and-white photograph of us: I have just pitched the ball to him, "sweep right," our classmate Rick is blocking for him, Ronn is about to take off, and I'm about to turn and look for someone to block. Such moments and photographs make all the endless practices and physical pain seem, briefly, to be "worth it," but upon further review, I'm not sure, nor do I think many football players are, even the very wealthy, although at the time, of course, to play seemed like a terrific idea. The ratio of moments-actually-enjoyed to moments-of-exhaustion-pain-and/or-boredom amounts to too small a fraction, and the more scientists learn about concussions (among other injuries), the less football seems like a net-gain.
As a junior and senior, I played safety, the furthest position back on defense, responsible for defending against the pass and for tackling anyone who has escaped defensive linepersons and line-backers. (I'm sure a conventional football fan would just love my use of "lineperson," but in fact women are beginning to play high school football.) Mostly I remember the collisions, my body meeting the body of someone running with the football. Velocity and mass, muscle and bone. I also remember the hard fields, which turned to dirt and mud in autumn; --also the odd co-mingled sounds of the fans, the cheerleaders, the grunting players, traffic far off in the night, a referee's whistle, coaches yelling, the echo in the helmet....
The following poem, "High School Football," first appeared in the South Carolina Review. The poem about high-school-football in the U.S. is James Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" (and yes, we have no apostrophe in Martins). Last year a visiting poet-and-professor said he might teach Wright's poem and mine together, and of course I was cheered by that prospect; it's not everyday that a poet has a poem put in the company of one by James Wright. Experiencing that comparison felt every bit as good as intercepting a pass, something I did, officially, only three times over two eight-game seasons. The poem:
We stuffed our crotches into hometown pants.
Clacked on concrete out to mud and grass.
Hit each other. Bled. Got dizzy.
Sweat, got knocked down, got up,
got down, puked, hit each other, bled.
We were having fun.
I swear reasons existed then
for playing. Honest I swear
there was a girl on the goal line
promising a slow dance. A referee
waited to whistle me into manhood.
We were not good.
Often we had to buy the ball back
from the other team. Once were down
forty points before the game began.
Our coach sold real estate at half-time.
Our cheerleaders hung us in effigy.
We pounded each other
until no one was left on either team.
The pads and helmets and shoes
went on grunting and blocking and tackling.
Fans stayed to see which set
of equipment would win.
We could hear that Homecoming crowd
roaring in the stadium
as we loaded the cars. We drove
to the bus station, took
the midnight express out of there.
(first published in the South Carolina Review, Winter 1985).
I became a fan of the professional Oakland Raiders in a highly circuitous, even accidental, way. I grew up in a canyon of the Sierra Nevada, pre-cable, and the only television-signal that made it into the canyon was that of an NBC affiliate in Sacramento. NBC broadcast games played in the brand-new American Football League, and Oakland was the AFL team from California, so I became a fan of that league and that team by default. Oakland's owner, Al Davis, a former English major, became an interesting cultural figure; he is self-admittedly obsessed with football; he has even said that he has led "a tunnel-life." He is the first NFL owner to have hired an African American coach and a Latino coach, and the first to have hired a woman executive. A colleague and friend who grew up in Ballard (Seattle) before the Seahawks existed is also a longtime Raider fan--and a New York Yankee fan. Apparently he has chosen well, considering the "world championships" (American overstatement at its best or worst) both teams have accrued. The Raiders have fallen on hard times, but the Yankees persist, in part because of a robust bankroll and a determined owner. Capitalism and professional sports seem to be happy companions.
I don't really watch football on TV anymore, not in a sustained way. I glance at it. I leave the TV on, so it becomes a virtual campfire. Occasionally I'll walk past it or sit down for a few moments and catch a few plays. The cat will be asleep nearby. The only televised sport my wife is interested in watching is professional tennis; she claps and cheers.
You don't have to be Kafka to realize that such apparently meaningful spectacles of sport (such as football games) are, in fact, absurd, but there is still some kind of creature-comfort to be had from watching football, at least for many men (and some women), partly because old memories visit, partly because a football-play is a little drama performed in (usually) less than 12 seconds, and partly because the game and the game-as-broadcast are so highly ritualized. And there are good memories of specific players, the Oakland Raiders being known as a haven for cast-offs, eccentrics, tricksters, and not-so-gentle giants. Ultimately, football on TV is a visual lullaby.
Goodnight, James Wright, wherever you are; and let us say a prayer and/or hold a good thought for Kevin Everett, injured terribly in a professional football game two weeks ago.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Theology and Banking
He tried to confess
his sins to a bank.
He told the teller
about his specific
enactments of sloth,
deception, cruelty, lust.
Did he have an account?
she asked. Everyone,
he replied, has an account
in Heaven. Would he step
aside to let the next
person in line advance?
she asked. Yes, he said,
but first I need to withdraw
a lot of it. She summoned
Security, who said they
would have to ask him
to leave. He said he
would have to ask them
to forgive him. They
said they excused him. No,
not excuses, he said—
forgiveness. They took him
to the door and beyond. He
wandered to a church
and deposited some money.
May I have a receipt? he asked.
Yes, a liturgical minister said,
and gave him a wafer, a sip
of wine. He ate and drank
the receipt. Will you tell me
my current balance? he asked.
Yes, the minister said, you are,
like everyone else, overdrawn,
so I wouldn’t push it. Go now
and sin much more frugally
if sin you must; and
apparently, you must.
--Hans Ostrom, Copyright 2007
I know as much about economics as I do about computers--just barely enough to get by. Economics and computer-technology don't make sense to me, nor do they not make sense. To me, they just are. They exist, and to make my way in life, I need to know a bit about them both, a very little bit, such as how to "re-boot" a computer (notice that boots are not involved), or that it is better to have some money than it is to have no money (what "money" actually is--that's a separate question).
I believe that the following poem, which isn't very long, exhausts almost all my knowledge of economics, which I believe to be the most elaborate magician's trick in all of human history. From where I'm sitting, the essence of economics is sleight-of-hand, and whenever I hear a term like "free market," I feel like giggling because not a single free market has existed, ever. To be a free market, a market would have to be free of human participation.
To put a positive spin on the situation, I'd say my knowledge of economics is very economical. The poem is spoken by someone who is trying to explain economics economically--in about 225 words.
Social Security: An Introduction
Certain numbers represent uncertain amounts
of money, which consists of texts (paper, metal)
on which numbers are printed. The certain numbers
just stay numbers unless you are allowed to let
them stand for something you want to get
and get it. This is called exchanging numbers
for something you want, or “buying.”
According to legend, some of the numbers
are kept by the State in the Department of Numbers.
The numbers change all the time but remain
kept by the State, which knows they are your
numbers because it has your number.
Still another number represents an amount
of years you will have managed not to die.
When this amount of years is big enough,
you may start using some of the State-kept
numbers to stand for things you think you
need to get and get them.
Getting these things is supposed to help
you to continue to manage not to die
until the time when nothing you get
can keep you from dying. The capacity
to use numbers to get things to keep you
from dying is sometimes called social
security. Certain numbers symbolize
this security. They are kept by the State.
Social security is really more personal
than social. Go over your records carefully.
Their information is not secure. Plan ahead
but look behind you. If you have questions,
call this number.
Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom
I think all pet owners indirectly, implicitly ask the same questions about their pets. I don't think I have ever met a single pet-owner who did not, at some point, talk to the pet as if the pet were not just human but a human who spoke (and perhaps even read) in the same language as the owner. I did come close to meeting such a person--in Germany. He owned a bird. My wife asked him what the bird's name was. He said, "It has no name. It is a bird." Ah, Germany! But of course even this logical German spoke to the bird, in German, and spoke to the neighbor's dog, in German.
To what extent are animals conscious in the way humans are conscious? To everyone from pet-owners to animal-rights activists to scientists, this question fascinates endlessly.
Every day I wonder what our cat--a Russian Blue named Lisa Marie--is thinking. I ponder the logic of her actions. I told a friend, "I believe that cats have a good reason for doing everything they do but that often we are unable to detect the logic behind what they do." Defects in their behavior may actually be defects in our ability to follow cat-logic. (Alluding to a photograph of her cat, another blogger wrote, "This is an ears-back situation." I love that line, partly because it expresses cat-logic.)
Sometimes I tell the cat about a news-item that troubles me, partly because I enjoy the absurd theatre of talking to a cat, but also because it's quite comforting when the cat remains calm, unmoved by news that troubled me. Except when cats themselves are over-reacting, they usually caution us, with their behavior, about over-reacting. Very few things are worth interrupting a nap over, for example. Cats spend their energy very carefully.
The following poem wonders what raccoons know and when they know it:
It’s said raccoons, for instance,
are not conscious of being conscious.
Those who say so reserve the right
to deny self-consciousness to others.
As if to prove such so-sayers
wrong, a fat raccoon waddled
regularly into our urban yard
around noon, after storing
two young ones inside a hollow,
hallowed elm. Through glances,
posture, and unintimidated wariness,
she appeared to suggest wisdom,
not to mention disdain for
the pretentiousness of non-raccoon
life. She gobbled earthworms
with gourmandic zest, cooled
her belly on wet grass,
yawned, groomed her hands,
fixed black eyes on me,
who stared at her through glass.
She seemed to know a lot,
including that she knew.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Raccoons have walked in and out of my life, chiefly at night, and I used to go with my father and his hound dogs when he "hunted" raccoons. Actually, he just liked to tree them, "tree" being a hunter's verb for using dogs to induce the hunted to climb a tree. For some reason, my father liked to do this in the winter. I recall my feet freezing in insufficient "galoshes," and I recall the excitement of the hunt wearing off rather quickly. Once the raccoon was "treed," my father would shine a flashlight on its perturbed face, call the dogs back, put them in the back of the truck, and off we'd go, back home. The raccoon must have thought, "What the hell was that all about?!" Not a bad question, actually. My father really liked the sound of hounds' voices--and getting out in the cold, clear air underneath stars. That was what that was all about.
I don't ever remember living in a room, apartment, or house that wasn't visited by moths, either on the outside (fluttering around a porch-light) or on the inside (clinging quietly to a wall or the inside of a lamp-shade, or living in a closet). I remember seeing some extraordinarily bizarre and beautiful moths in the Sierra Nevada. I wish now that I'd taken the time to learn their names--I mean their scientific names, not Bob or Alice the moth. The stillness of moths fascinates. Sometimes moths make me think of butterflies who decided to become priests, nuns, rabbis, or Buddhist monks.
The following poem concerns cohabitation with moths. It was first published in a magazine called The Kerf, published by the College of the Redwoods in California. "Kerf" means the track or cut left by a saw. Strangely, I had never heard or read the word, and I grew up with a carpenter-father and in a region where logging and wood-cutting were commonplace. So when the magazine accepted the poem, I looked up the word. It's a good word; it sounds nice. Here's the poem:
One result of Evolution
is that two small moths and I
are in this room now. They
live on my wall, gray flecks
on pale paint. Maybe they
move when I sleep. When I’m
awake, they’re still.
I’ve seen moth-holes in sweaters
but never caught moths eating.
Why don’t moths live amongst sheep
and cut out the middle step of knitting?
Is there such a thing as a moth-idea?
Do those new to English wonder
about “moth” and “mother”?
What’s the name of the enzyme
allowing moths to digest wool?
My wardrobe-door is open.
The moths remain,
composed, upon my wall.
first published in The Kerf (2004), ISBN 0-9746274-0-2 (p. 34).
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The trees have to be planted, watered, pruned, and cleaned-up after. At the college where I teach, crows live in the trees and dive-bomb people in the spring and early summer. I love crows, and I don't mind being dive-bombed by them. They're big, feisty, independent, and a little clumsy. Once a bald eagle glided in and landed on a fir tree on campus. Last year a terrible wind-storm left the campus blanketed thickly with boughs. When the facilities-folk must cut down a diseased tree, they always alert the campus first, so that no one, and especially no environmentalists, will get upset. Sometimes trees are planted in honor of people, and if a tree lasts long enough, it usually becomes a symbol for something more than just Nature. There's a massive sequoia on campus, and it's become something of a mascot. It oversees the cafeteria, as well as the cherry trees that were planted in remembrance of Japanese-American students at the college who were interred during World War II. The tree just stands there, unaware that it's reminding us that it will outlast all of us, that whatever importance we imagine we have brought to the campus is utterly illusory. It's a cautionary tree; reversing roles, it cuts us down to size.
Here's a wee, whimsical poem about trees on college campuses; well, at least it's intended to be whimsical.
Trees on a College Campus
They try to organize into a grove.
We’ll have none of it. Our curriculum
is severe. We rigorously prune and thin.
We launch lectures until sap retreats.
Huge firs outgrow us, write poetry
on the wind. The madrona
with eczema has stopped listening
to us. It gleefully flunks it quizzes
and will never contribute to
the Annual Fund. Elms chain-smoke
smog. The forest has stopped sending
its children to our college. Never
mind. Our tall standards and
broad lawns will see us through.
So when I decided to write an homage-poem "for" Karl, after he died in 2000, I knew I wanted to use some kind of traditional form, so I chose blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentamter. On page 141 of The Prosody Handbook, Shapiro and Beum write, " Blank verse is undoubtedly the easiest kind of verse to write. One does not have to search for rhymes or move them into the right places, and one does not have to worry about the confines of a stanza. To juxtapose words so that every other syllable receives a stress is not much of a problem. But because it is so easy, and because it is such a spare form, it is one of the hardest to master. The absence of rhyme and stanza form invites prolixity and diffuseness--so easy is it to wander on an on. And blank verse has to be handled in a skillful, ever-attentive way to compensate for such qualities as the musical, architectural, and emphatic properties of rhyme; for the sense of direction one feels within a well-turned stanza; and for the rests that come in stanzas. There are no helps. It is like going into a thick woods in unfamiliar acres."
So I ventured, without "helps," into unfamiliar acres with the following poem:
Shapiro was by nature Luddite and
Iconoclast--ironic then that he
So liked to frame his poetry with lines
Laid out like rows of bricks, with stanzas of
Fixed persons, places, things. He played a lot
At saying No but never thunderously—
The Beats embarrassed him. He rather liked
The post-War comforts brought to us by Ike
And Coke and IBM. Mischievously conform—
That’s what he did. A solidarity of one
Appealed to him—bad bourgeois white-haired boy
Who’d hurt a fly but little else, and then
Only with imagery of snot and rage
That scanned. He was a little bored by fame,
By his own poetry, by life on land-
Grant campuses, where doe-eyed kids would turn
In heart-felt free-verse stuff to him.
One hopes that Wystan Hugh was waiting when
Shapiro entered Afterlife’s Drugstore.
Perhaps the two every so often cruise
In a Corvair, smoke cigarettes, quote Yeats
And Keats, mock Eliot, admit they’re glad
That lust for beaus and belles belongs now to
That other life; and prosodize until
Nebraska cows come home—Imperial Wys,
Old Karl Jay, the blue-eyed brightest Beep
From Baltimore. Of course they need not love
Each other, and they died already, so
What’s left is love of words and irony;
Satiric tendencies;--oh, and Eternity.
--Hans Ostrom © 2006 from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006 (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2006).
In The Prosody Handbook, Shapiro and Beum say that variations on iambic pentameter are expected in blank verse. Such variations include an "inversion"; for example, the line that begins with "Only" starts with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one [ON-ly], so the iamb is inverted. And sometimes it's kosher to let a line run long; for example, in the line with Coke and IBM, I have one extra foot or unit of iambic pentameter, so it's actually hexameter.
Some allusions: One of Shapiro's poems, "The Dome of Sunday," mentions "row-houses and row-lives"--a reference to the sameness of suburbia. . . .One of Shapiro's early volumes was called Person, Place, and Thing [the definition of a noun]--what a great title for a book of poems. . . . ."No, in thunder," comes from a piece of writing by Melville--a letter, I believe. . . . . In class once, Shapiro talked about having met and talked with the famous Beat poet Alan Ginsberg, and it was clear that Karl thought Alan was a little bit "out there.". . . . Shapiro enjoyed the ironies of being what he called "a bourgeois poet," and he shortened the term to The Beep. . . . . One of his most famous, most widely anthologized poems is "Drugstore"--the kind of drugstore that had a "soda-fountain." It was a poem about American youth in the 1950s. . . . . One of Karl's later volumes was called White-Haired Lover; his thick hair had gone all white fairly early. . . . ."Land-grant campuses" refers to the University of Nebraska and the University of California, Davis, two places at which Karl taught. He edited Prairie Schooner at the U. of N. . . ..Karl smoked cigarettes, but at one point, he tried to switch to smoking a pipe. He'd bring the pipe to class, but he wasn't very good at keeping it lit, so sometimes he'd strike match after match. We students used to laugh about it after class. . . . . Shapiro was acquainted with Eliot, but Eliot's somewhat reactionary politics, his pretentiousness, his religious conservatism, and the occasional hint of anti-Semitism made Karl uneasy. . . . Auden was Shapiro's favorite poet. In a poem titled "September 1939," Auden wrote, "We must love each other or die," but he later revised the line out of the poem, saying that we die whether we love each other or not, but of course he was willfully misinterpreting the line, and I think he thought it was just too sentimental. . . .Karl also admired Keats's achievement in formal verse, as well as Yeats's, although I seem to remember Karl's having referred to Yeats's beliefs (the gyres and all that) as "goofy." . . . Karl's full name was Karl Jay Shapiro, and he grew up in Baltimore. . . . . Even after Ralph Nader had attacked the Chevrolet Corvair, Karl kept his and kept driving it around Davis; it was just like Karl to be stubborn--or oblivious?--in that way. The color of the car was silver. Davis was a very small town at that time, so occasionally you'd see Karl parking the thing in the lot next to the big grocery store near campus.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the English Department at U.C. Davis was housed in Sproul Hall, a nine-story office-building revealing no architectural imagination. Karl's poem "Humanities Building," published in the New Yorker, describes that building, which in the poem he calls a "plinth." Nice word, plinth.
So there we have it, some blank verse for an expert on prosody, an independent thinker, and a fine poet, Karl Shapiro.
The Latest Decalogue
by Arthur Hugh Clough
Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipped, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for for they curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it's so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.
The sum of all is, thou shalt love,
If any body, God above:
At any rate shall never labour
More than thyself to love thy neighbour.
from Victorian Poetry: Clough to Kipling, edited by Arthur J. Carr (2nd edition), New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1972), pp. 25-26.
Clough--pronounced "Cluff"--experienced something of a classic Victorian crisis of spirituality. The Victorians, at least those who had time to think about things, had to contend with Origin of Species (1859), which indirectly called into question a literal reception of the Bible's report about how Creation came to be, and they had to contend with what was known as the "Higher Criticism" of the Bible--an approach that was more historical than theological. Such criticism was symbolized by a biography of Jesus written by a German named Strauss. The very idea of approaching Jesus an as historical figure was, understandably, a blow to conventional theology.
Clough was at Oxford when some of this tumult occurred, and the tumult included the Oxford Movement, a kind of struggle between Anglicanism and Catholicism. Thereafter, Clough had trouble accepting traditional dogma, but he also developed a sour view of a world that seemed to have no spiritual anchorage, so "The Latest Decalogue" satirically derides a morality of convenience.
The lines about "graven images" make me think of debates about whether to keep "In God We Trust" on American currency. I'm pretty sure Clough would argue that the debate--regardless of which side one takes--is beside the point. It's the money, not the slogan, that's being worshipped, so who cares what's printed on the money? The poem cautions against cursing, but only from a practical standpoint: we're in a modern age now when curses don't work, so don't waste your energy. Yes, it's still a good idea not to kill anybody, but don't go out of your way to prevent others from killing others. This made me think of how I did almost nothing to try to stop the U.S. from invading Iraq and thereby killing thousands of Iraqi citizens and getting thousands of Americans killed or wounded. As with cursing, adultery is still a bad idea, but only because of practical concerns, suggests the poem. Honor your parents--and anybody else who's in power and can help you get ahead. Don't covet, but continue to compete like a maniac in the economy of capital and laissez faire. Clough wrote when England was, arguably, at the height of its colonial prowess, so there is a sense in which England coveted all the world's goods, just as the U.S. seems to covet all the world's markets and most of the world's inexpensive labor. But fear not: we are a Judeo-Christian nation! Of course we don't covet! And we may not hate our neighbors, Clough suggests, but it's imperative to love yourself more than anybody else. Take care of Number One.
Clough was good friends with Matthew Arnold, author of the famous (and well parodied) "Dover Beach." Oddly enough, although Clough was born in England, he spent his early years in the U.S.--in Charleston, South Carolina--before returning to England to go to school. He came back to the U.S.--to New England--in 1852 and got to know Emerson, Lowell, and Longfellow (see the brief biography in the Rinehart edition cited). Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis, and he died in Italy in 1861 (he was born in 1819). So "The Latest Decalogue" was published posthumously.
A side note: I think it may have been George Bernard Shaw who observed that all you need to do to realize how difficult English is to learn as a second language is to think about how differently such words as "enough," "though," and "slough" (and Clough) are supposed to be pronounced. A second side note: I can almost never think of the Ten Commandments without thinking of Mel Brooks's schtick wherein he plays Moses, who walks out from behind a rock with two stone tablets and proclaims that he has 20 commandments--then he drops one tablet, which breaks--then he recovers and says "make that TEN commandments"--to proclaim. Clough's humor is a little more subtle, to say the least, than Mel's.
Monday, September 17, 2007
The idea behind such a comparison can be useful to poets, however, because sometimes poets are so determined to say something--to send a message, make an argument, or get a point across--that they forget they are making something (a poem) not just saying something.
At one point in his famous book on creative writing and the teaching thereof, the late Richard Hugo, a Pacific Northwest poet who went to high school near Seattle and worked at Boeing for a while, advises, "If you want to communicate, buy a phone." With exaggeration and with tongue close if not in cheek, Hugo is trying to get young poets not to focus exclusively on getting a message across, on being profound. His book is The Triggering Town, and in it he develops a variety of strategies and techniques for learning how to dance between "saying" and "making." He often urges the reader to err on the side of letting language "tell" you what to write rather than on the side of insisting that the language say what you want it to say. He is not, I hasten to add, arguing on behalf of obscurity or obfuscation, or for laziness that leads to lack of clarity. He worked hard on his poems, and he insists that all poets should work hard. Nor is he pointing the way to what is now known as L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, in which poets seem, at least, to write words randomly, or at least to make leaps of thought and free-association that are hard to follow. I'm among those who simply don't "get" L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, but I confess that in this as in other matters, I may be revealing myself to be a curmudgeon, and I don't object to the fact that others do "get" such poetry.
Hugo writes, "Never want to say anything so strongly that you give up on the option of finding something better. If you have to say it, you will." That is, another part of his approach is to operate from the belief that our obsessions, the things we "have" to say, are going to emerge in our work no matter what, so it's best for us to concentrate on the making, not the saying, and often to let language and revision lead us and our poems-in-progress to surprising places and, one hopes, to surprisingly better poems.
Here is a poem that sprang from language itself; in fact, it started with a two-word phrase that had stuck in my head: "padre, noonday." I've always loved the word padre. It just sounds so great, and for a native Californian, it conjures images of Spanish priests wearing dark robes and getting missions built on El Camino Real. "Noonday" is a pleasing word, too, but it's also a bit confusing. What not just say "noon" or "mid-day"?
At any rate, I started playing with the phrase, and at some point, I came up with the first stanza:
Old padre, dry
as a cricket’s chirp,
as a lizard’s burp—
old padre, why
I associate crickets and grasshoppers not just with the sounds they make but with the dry summer grass of the Sierra Nevada in summer, and sometimes crickets do sound as if they need to wet their whistle--although I believe they make that sound by rubbing their legs together, so they don't literally chirp with their mouths. I followed that cricket-comparison witch "a lizard's burp," so I'd effectively committted myself to a certain rhyme-scheme--the In Memoriam rhyme-scheme, named after Tennyson's long poem of the same name, in which the stanzas rhyme a-b-b-a. I'd also commited myself to very short lines, and with the fourth line, I'd commited myself to asking the priest a question. Eventually, I managed to finish the poem, with the rhyme-scheme and short lines and also with the suggestion of a story concerning a priest in a village who, like mad dogs and Englishmen, goes out in the noonday sun:
Old padre, dry
as a cricket’s chirp,
as a lizard’s burp—
old padre, why
do you go to the well
at blazing mid-day
when everyone’s away
in shade, in sleep? Tell
why even the town’s
lunatic has enough sense
to nap under an immense
oak, but not you. My own
notion is it’s not
for water that you
come, surely not to
set an example. What
then? Is it to show
yourself to God’s blaze
of scrutiny, God’s gaze,
before you go?
I seem to have invented the possibility that the padre is showing himself to God--confessing himself--by going out in the brutal heat. I think the poem does end up communicating something, saying something, but it got there by the circuitous route of my having concentrated first on playing with language, or working with language. The poem pleases me in part because it's a surprise, a nice little gift given to me by the process of writing. I like the combination of very short lines and the a-b-b-a scheme, and I like the half-rhyme of town's/own, although I would certainly understand if other readers wanted a full rhyme there. Richard Hugo may not have liked the poem at all. I just don't know. I don't think he liked poems this terse, this short. But he may have liked the play of language, and he may have liked the hint of an invented town, a "triggering town," in this case some imaginary village in arid or semi-arid territory. In any event, "Padre, Noonday" is, like all other poems, made of language, but figuratively, at least, it also grew from language-itself, as opposed to being driven by a message.
The Bible is an antique Volume -
Written by faded Men
At the suggestion of Holy Spectres -
Subjects - Bethlehem -
Eden - the ancient Homestead -
Satan - the Brigadier -
Judas - the Great Defaulter -
David - the Troubadour -
Sin - a distinguished Precipice
Others must resist -
Boys that "believe" are very lonesome -
Other Boys are "lost" -
had but the Tale a warbling Teller -
All the Boys would come -
Orpheus's Sermon captivated -
It did not condemn -
Before I muse on the poem, I should probably discuss Dickinson. If pressed to say who my favorite poets are, I'd invariably answer, "Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins." Their poetry has always captivated me; it takes on big subjects freshly and small subjects ingeniously; and both writers "attacked" poetry in the same original way in which the most successfully innovative visual artists attacked paint-and-canvas.
At the same time, having taught poetry for many years, I know the degree to which even people who like poetry are put off by the poems of Dickinson and Hopkins. Neither poet has ever seemed insuperably difficult to me, but I find it easy to understand why others resist the poems so much. There's no doubt that both poets are quirky, stubbornly eccentric in a variety of ways. Hence their poetry alienates people, even people who read a fair amount of poetry. Both poets are thought of as being ethereal as well--Dickinson, the New England recluse; Hopkins the British Jesuit priest. I think these perceived personae are not terribly accurate; to me, both seem to have been rather earthy people. Hopkins's famous or infamous "sprung rhythm," in which he jams stressed syllabes and alliteration together, is a hurdle over which some readers can't jump. Dickinson's shorthand, elliptical references, her use of dashes, and her almost Germanic penchant for capitalizing words prove difficult for readers. Even when I was an undergraduate, I didn't find these elements discouraging. I found that I either enjoyed them or, if at times they got in the way, I could move easily around them. Mostly I think it's a matter of luck. Sometimes you get lucky and are simply able to "get" poems and poets with which and with whom others struggle. I've always struggled with Milton's poetry, for example, whereas others take to it easily.
Many of Dickinson's poems seem "modern" in the sense of being ahead of their time, and this poem is certainly in that category. She views the Bible from an historical point of view, seeing it not as revealed truth but rather as old stories written by humans, by "faded men." She deliberately reduces parts of the Bible to easily labeled topics there in lines 3-8; to refer to Eden as "the ancient Homestead" seems so wonderfully American, and to call Satan "the Brigadier" brings Satan down to size. Satan becomes merely the head of one part of an army, and one might think of a petty if murderous dictator, dressed up in a uniform that's covered with fake medals. David becomes a traveling musician, singer of psalms, and Sin becomes "a distinguished precipice." I love that comparison. If you sin, you fall, but you fall from a very "distinguished"--that is to say, special--place. Not only your bones will break, but also your soul.
"Others must resist." Just as the poetry of Dickinson and Hopkins proves difficult to many readers, so the Bible (according to Dickinson) proves difficult to people in 1882, when she wrote the poem. The Bible is old fashioned. It's a difficult text. The boys who believe in it are lonsesome, isolated, probably because most of their friends disklike going to church and reading the Bible. Solution? The Bible requires a "Warbler," some "Teller" (speaker or preacher) to freshion up the telling. Churches must invite "the Boys" (potential new believers; converts) with an aesthetically pleasing sermon that's like the song of Orpheus.
This is a strikingly counter-Victorian, counter-Puritan (as in New England Puritan) poem. It is at once whimsical and light and theologically serious. What Dickinson's own religious views were is open to question. She certainly wasn't traditionally Christian in her Amherst community, but her poems are imbued with the rhetoric and rhythm of hymns. She certainly wasn't a thoroughgoing atheist, but her view of heaven and things spiritual seems to have been independently forged. She was a free-thinker, that's for sure. To me she is the unbeatable poet (not that poetry has to be a competition). I just can't think of an American poet who's written a more magnificent, original body of work than she did, and she seems uncannily to have anticipated so many "moves" in poetry that we associate with the Modernist movement. Hail Dickinson.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
The laws of God, the Laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God's?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
The speaker here notes that he judges and condemns certain deeds of men--and of God? Or of God's alleged spokespersons? What is the source of the criteria by which he has judged and condemned these deeds? That is not clear; nonetheless, he seems to have established for himself his own way of living life and assessing behavior, but he has no desire to impose his way on others, by whom he wants to be left alone. But of course society and religion are not in the business of leaving people alone. And the speaker is not naive. "They will master," he says, "right or wrong." They have the power, and they will use it.
The lovely question the end of the poem always induces me to ponder is this: Has the speaker convinced himself to acquiesce? After all, he concludes that since he and his soul can't fly away to other planets, they're stuck with and on Earth and therefore must remain strangers in a strange land. "Keep we must," he says to his soul, "if keep we can/These foreign laws of God and man." But the poem begins by asserting,
The laws of God, the Laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Although the poem certainly expresses a stance that might belong to a hermit, an outlaw, or a sociopath, the rhetoric itself is urbane and mild. I sense I'm being spoken to by someone who just so happened to have been born, grown up, and discovered that he didn't fit into or agree with most of what was going on around him. The poem doesn't celebrate this eccentric status, nor does it argue that the world should conform to the speaker's view. This is not the speech of a revolutionary, a terrorist, a megalomaniac, a drop-out, or a protester. This is not, like the oft-quoted "Invictus," a poem of pride. This is the utterance of someone who simply believes his independent view of things is correct and who desires what he knows makers and enforcers of laws--literal and figurative--will not allow: to be left alone. This is the utterance of someone who is so reasonable that he even tries to convince himself and his soul to acquiesce, given the situation. "Let's try to go along to get along," he seems to be telling himself and his soul at the end, and the end comes before we find out whether he and his soul will take the advice. Oddly enough, the poem is something of a cliffhanger, although I'm inclined to think the speaker's inclined to stick with the assertion he brought to the dance.
Friday, September 14, 2007
It was interesting to me, then, to run across a sonnet Jeffers wrote. I found it in a lovely pulp paperback, The Penguin Book of Sonnets (1943), the kind of compact paperback published on cheap paper that I remember fondly from my childhood. The westerns by Zane Grey and Max Brand that my father read--in bed, while smoking a cigar--came in this form. I think most people who love books love them not just because of the reading but because of the physicality, and one may cherish a cheap paperback--the feel of the thing--as much as an expensive leather-bound book with exquisite paper and printing. An old soft paperback is like an old soft baseball glove, in some respects.
In any event, here's Jeffers's sonnet:
To His Father
Christ was your lord and captain all your life,
He fails the world but you he did not fail,
He led you through all forms of grief and strife
Intact, a man full-armed, he let prevail
Nor outward malice nor the worse-fanged snake
That coils in one's own brain against your calm,
That great rich jewel well guarded for his sake
With coronal age and death like quieting balm.
I Father having followed other guides
And oftener to my hurt no leader at all,
Through years nailed up like dripping panther hides
For trophies on a savage temple wall
Hardly anticipate that reverend stage
Of Life, the snow-wreathed honor of extreme age.
Jeffers does well in the sonnet-form here, in my opinion, but I feel him straining against its limits, sense his wanting to let the lines find their own length, rather like the Pacific coastline on which he lived. Jeffers here is like a fine athlete who's been asked to perform within the proscribed limits of a team-sport; you can feel him wanting to overwhelm the sonnet-form.
And Jeffers's characteristic brutal honesty is by no means discarded in the sonnet form. Faith in Christ served his father well; that's the truth, and Jeffers speaks it, and he explains precisely how that faith worked in his father's life. The faith helped the father through "all forms of grief and strife," and it kept his father noble and calm.
The surprising adjective "coronal" is terrific. Because of his father's faith, his father's age became a kind of crown, and death became a kind of balm.
This is a Shakespearian or English sonnet in form, but, like an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, it breaks after line 8, and "turns" to another view of the topic. Now we learn that Jeffers couldn't imitate or adopt his father's Christian faith. He has followed "other guides," namely Classical models, including Stocism and Greek tragedy. But how brutally honest Jeffers is about his own lack of faith; often the guides he's chosen have not soothed his pain, have not helped him through grief and strife, and the years lived in faithlessness are compared to "nailed up" "dripping panther hides/For trophies on a savage temple wall." How wonderful of Jeffers to find a pagan image for what he admits is his own version of paganism, and to state that such trophies can't do for him what faith in Christ did for his father. Nor does Christ escape Jeffers's honest assessment. He claims Christ "fails the world," meaning what? Meaning, one supposes, that Christ has not returned yet, and that evil marches on? Perhaps. The final hard truth Jeffers leaves for himself: His worldview will not leave him in as good a shape, spiritually and philosophically, as his father when he, Jeffers, is old; "extreme age" will not be the equivalent of a "snow-wreathed honor." He's not looking forward to growing old. Old age will be harder for Jeffers, in the absence of faith in Christ, than it was for his father. I find this to be a bracing poem in which Jeffers honors his father and his father's faith without being sentimental and in which he honestly contrasts his own world-view with his father's without being argumentative or combative.
Be Angry At the Sun
That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.
Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.
Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.
You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
From Dante's feet, but even farther from his dirty
Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
Yours is not theirs.
The poem was published in 1941, in a book of the same title, and one of the 100 copies that were signed by Jeffers goes for about $750.00, in case you're a collector. Later, during World War II, Jeffers published another book, with Random House, and the anti-war stance in the book was so pronounced that Random House published a disclaimer in the book, noting the Jeffers' views were not necessarily those of the publishing firm. Jeffers was too old to serve, or to be asked to serve, in the military at the time, so he didn't have to make the choice that two other poets, William Stafford and William Everson, made, which was to become conscientious objectors instead of joining the armed services. I believe both men were sent to work-camps.
As in many poems, Jeffers in this one implicitly advises the listener or reader to adopt a stance of stoic detachment toward politics, and the reference to the wheel makes history seem almost mechanistic, fated. "Don't involve yourself," Jeffers seems to advise.
My colleague quoted the lines, "the cold passion for the truth/Hunts in no pack." The lines don't need paraphrasing, but one way to amplify their meaning is to suggest that, if you seek the truth in political matters, don't look to "the pack"--which might refer to political parties, received opinion, mass sentiments, and/or the Media; instead, follow the facts and the evidence as they come to you. --Not always an easy task, especially when the pack tends to hide or to spin the facts, and especially when we may see ourselves as part of a group, if not part of a pack.
In the penultimate stanza, is Jeffers talking to himself or at least to poets in general? Perhaps. He seems to suggest that to be publicly or politically involved, as a poet, is no longer possible or at least not advisable. Perhaps it never was advisable to be so involved, in Jeffers's opinion.
The last stanza reveals some biases that belong to Jeffers' era. Pleasure is the exclusive turf of boys, apparently, not of girls. Power is the exclusive turf of men, not of women. And only women are interested in fame? Hmmm.
One "not unreasonable" (as a Brit might say) response to the poem is: "Easy for you to say, Mr. Jeffers." What if events conspire to place you in the midst of politics or of the effects of politics? If you're an African American in 1941, or in the 1950s, for example, you might have a different attitude toward political involvement, and you might want relatively privileged men like Jeffers to give you a hand, and you might not regard fatalism to be as safe a haven as Jeffers makes it out to be.
At the same time, "the gang serves lies" is a nice reminder about how the political world really works, regardless of "party affiliation." And "observe them gesticulating" is excellent advice for watching such events as presidential candidates' debates, wherein almost all gestures and phrases seem scripted, so much so that when candidates go off-script and--for example--turn to each other and argue like real human beings, oxygen seems to rush back into the proceedings.
For any person investigating anything--scholar, scientist, consumer, mere citizen--"the cold passion for the truth/Hunts in no pack" is great advice; --and also often very difficult advice to follow. It's an awful thing to have one's opinion confused by the facts. It creates what's known as cognitive dissonance. Apparently, the brain itself has a chemical response in such situations--that's the premise of a new book called Mistakes Were Made--But Not By Me.
Having lept from Jeffers' poem to cognitive dissonance, thereby creating cognitive dissonance, I'll leap to the topic of cats, for when I read "Be angry at the sun for setting/If these things anger you," I think of cats. That is, being angry at the sun for setting and at cats for any of their feline behavior gets you to exactly the same place with the sun and with cats: nowhere. And in some ways (as I try to wrench myself back to the poem), Jeffers is advising us to take a cat's stance toward politics: merely observe, detached, stoic.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!
But you were living before that,
And also you are living after;
And the memory I started at--
My starting moves your laughter.
I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone
'Mid the blank miles round about:
For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A molted feather, an eagle feather!
Well, I forget the rest.
A note in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume Two (Fifth Edition), p. 1250 says, "Browning reports that he once met a stranger in a bookstore who mentioned having talked with Shelley. 'Suddenly the stranger paused, and burst into laughter as he observed me staring at him with blanched face. . . . I vividly remember how strangely the presence of a man who had seen and spoken with Shelley affected me.' "
So to some extent, the poem is about "degrees of separation," in this case only one degree, between us and someone we think of as almost super-human, or at least special: a great artist, a great performer, someone who has achieved much, someone with a lot of power. The stranger thinks Browning's reaction is funny because, after all, the stranger is simply talking about having talked once to another human being.
The "six degrees of separation" concept is meant, I think, to show how interconnected everyone is, at least in some mathematical way, even in a global society of--what are we at now, seven billion" (And of course, the imagination can make no distinction between one billion and ten billion; at some point, the imagination shuts down.) Perhaps the concept also makes ordinary, nondescript people think that they are always only six degrees away from--what? Celebrity? "Immortality"?
An author whose work I've spent a lot of time studying is Langston Hughes. Three times I've had an experience similar to Browning's. I got to meet and to speak briefly with the jazz musician, Billy Taylor, who knew Hughes. I also heard photographer Roy DeCarava speak at a conference; he and Hughes had collaborated on a book. And at the same conference, I met a woman who had visited Hughes once, not long before he died. She described how he lit one cigarette after another and how the ashes fell on his clothes and how he casually brushed the ashes off while he talked. For some reason, I cherished that odd detail; maybe it helped make Hughes "plain," to borrow Browning's word. I'm sure at some point I got the vacant look that Browning got in front of the stranger in the bookstore, as I thought to myself, "Wow, I'm talking to someone who talked to Hughes, a poet I really admire, and one of the few writers, dead now, I would have liked to meet."
Back to Browning's poem: I love the shift in stanza three. It seems like a complete change of subject, and it may be disconcerting to some readers, but of course Browning is merely developing a comparison, and we soon find out that picking up an eagle's feather is a bit like meeting the stranger who spoke to Shelley: it's something to hang on to, a talisman. And the eagle-feather works nicely a place-holder for Shelley, who wrote Prometheus Unbound and Mont Blanc, and whose imagination soared to great idealistic heights. Of all the Romantics, William Blake included, Shelley probably took the most chances, tried most to make poetry do as much as it could, worried least about looking before he lept.
Browning is of course best known for his dramatic monologues, including "To His Last Duchess," but I also like this smaller lyric, "Memorabilia," which was published in 1855. Shelley drowned accidentally off the coast of Italy in 1822. He was only 30. Langston Hughes died in Spring of 1967, at age 65. I had not heard of him or of his poetry yet. I started high school in the fall of that year. The first African American writer whose work I remember reading was James Baldwin. I found a copy of The Fire Next Time in the back of a classroom and read it straight through. I do not have a vivid memory of when I first encountered Hughes's work.
Shifting presumptuously to a first-name, zero-degree-of-separation basis, let us say "Well done!" to three departed poets who achieved so much so differently: Percy, Robert, and Langston. Calling Browning "Bob" would, I believe, cross the line, however.
Friday, September 7, 2007
We had gone to Berlin this summer, only for a week, but nonetheless (or perhaps because it was only a week) we did a lot of touristy things, visiting famous sites, going to museums, drinking German wine (the latter just seems like a matter of good sense, not tourism). Also, the older I get, the more quickly I seem to get tourist's fatigue, a weariness born of a desire not to be experiencing things I am supposed to experience. I must admit that the unique Pergamon Museum, with its Pergamon Altar (reconstructed) and its Gate of Ishtar (reconstructed) knocked my socks off. Still....tourist's fatigue.
My wife was okay with not doing touristy things, too, in San Diego. However, we were unable to preserve a clean slate. We ended up going to Balboa Park, to the history museum, to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, which, ironically, had been in a city near where we live, not long ago. It is, of course, a fascinating exhibit, even if it's implicitly, and at moments obviously, saturated with contemporary politics. But the few examples of scrolls (pieces thereof) and the copper scroll found in Jordan were, indeed, fascinating, as are the tales of discovery, haggling, recovery, translation, preservation, and so on. I had already read quite a lot about the scrolls, but still it was great to revisit some of the circumstances and to think about those Essenes hiding the scrolls in the little caves. Unfortunately, I couldn't ward off tourist's fatigue. So I set a pretty brisk pace as I went through the exhibit--but was nowhere near as fast as my brother was, in 1981, as he fairly sprinted through the Uffizi. He was sick unto death of Famous Art. I can't remember why he simply didn't go into the museum, but I did enjoy the spectacle of his literally jogging past masterpieces.
In fact, the technique could be expanded into a special form of tourism. We'll call it The Hasty Tourist. It would be a new way of experiencing the famous places around the globe, the equivalent of speed-reading a famous novel. "It's better when it's blurred." That might be the slogan.
According to the OED, the word "tourist" seems to have arrived in printed English toward the end of the 18th century. From the OED (online), here is the second earliest example:
PEGGE Anecd. Eng. Lang. (1814) 313 A Traveller is now-a-days called a Tour-ist.
And the OED also has references to "tourist class" accommodations"--on cruise-ships, for example--accommodations that were second-class, at best.
Anyway, here are two poems concerning tourists and tourism (and "Goodnight, San Diahgo.")
Down a long cascade of white
steps in a seaside town, a man hurries.
By contrast people of the town
move slowly. They’re the most
recent generation who are where
they are supposed to be, something he
is not, hence the rush. No one in this
town will recall having noticed him.
* * *
On the Tour
. . . And here is a ruin of the palace
where the emperor claimed to have made
love to three virgins every night. That
was Emperor Zikka, nicknamed
Zikka the Liar. And just
off the coast here is where
a fleet carrying several tons
of important poetry sank.
The poems were heavy
and decorated with allusions,
tradition, and so forth. Salt-water
depth has preserved them.
SCUBA gear may be rented
at the wharf. Here is
a refreshment stand, not radically
different from a public hearth
in the ancient city whose ruins
we have toured today. This
stand represents perhaps
the strongest link between our
civilization and theirs.
Those people, too, were concerned
chiefly with replenishment of liquids
on hot days, getting inexpensive food,
having a few laughs, and finding shade
in which to ponder why they let someone
talk them into leaving their own beds
to join a package tour in quest
of illusory gains in foreign lands.
(First published in Writing on the Edge.)