Monday, March 31, 2008
On the surface, however, it does look as if iron is embedded in irony. Extrapolated from this etymologically ironic situation, one could, I suppose, manufacture other outcomes from other metals. That is, one kind of irony comes in the form of unintended consequences--a twist of fate.
A goldy, therefore, might be a surprisingly wonderful outcome, an unknotting of fate. A leady would be a disappointment--heavy, sure, but nothing like irony.
A silvery would be less then wonderful but still satisfactory. "You know, I have to say that the end result was at least silveric if not entirely goldic."
What would a steely be, as a noun? Would it be an extremely strong version of an irony? I think so. "Oh, how steelic that was," we'd say, "almost too ironic to bear."
A tinny would be a cheapened outcome or situation, I assume--as a sequel in Hollywood is almost always a cheapening of the original. "I found Big Explosion II to be a tinnic version of the original. Big Explosion I was explosive and big in such an original way."
A coppery, as a noun, would be a softening of a situation, an easing of tensions. "The diplomatic talks were regarded as copperic by all parties involved."
We run into some syllabic complexity with an aluminumy, which would be a lightening of a situation, perhaps almost a giddiness. "He won the lottery--how aluminic!" If the giddiness occurred in a play, it would be dramatic aluminy, which I don't think Aristotle covered in the Poetics, ironically enough.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Chiefly she read poems from her new book, Sleeping with the Moon, published by the University of Illinois in 2007.
In addition to being a poet and having been a professor, she is also a trained linguist and a professional collector of stories and folklore--worldwide, from Madagascar to Tibet to Cuba. She reminded us that, sadly, languages are becoming extinct worldwide as quickly as species of animals and plants.
In addition to the systematic reading she has done as a professor, linguist, collector, and editor, McElroy clearly does the kind of indiscriminate, voracious, and impulsive reading that many poets do. There's a certain kind of poet who finds almost anything and anyone interesting and therefore almost any kind of reading interesting. Part of the impulse springs, I think, from finding even commonplace utterances or texts full of possibilities, and another part springs, perhaps, from a stubborn refusal to let go of that readiness one has in childhood to find the world fascinating. It's not so much that one remains childish or naive; in fact, McElroy is, I assure you, quite the opposite of that. She has lived and learned. It's really more of a tenaciousness, a refusal to agree to be bored by what other people find boring or to agree to ignore what other people ignore. In some ways, poets like McElroy use reading to forage, scavenge, rummage, and detect.
Not surprisingly, then, when a student asked for advice for young writers, McElroy's first word was "Read." But she didn't follow that up with "read poetry" or "read the classics." She said something like "read anything and everything, and read all the time [when you're not writing]." She also advised keeping a journal at the ready, and she advised a colleague of mine to keep a journal in almost every part of the house--what a great idea. A kitchen journal, a bedroom journal, a living-room journal, etc.
McElroy writes and reads poetry with great care; the poems are filled with precise, evocative imagery, and there is an easy but by no means careless voice in them all.
A poetry reading on a Friday afternoon: what a fine way to end a work-week.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Two, four, six, eight.
Who do we appreciate?
Somehow, it made sense back then, partly, I suspect, because I was on the football field (or the sidelines thereof) or the basketball court (or the bench next to it), and I regarded all cheers as background noise, which makes "sense" because it just has to be noise.
Now, of course, I realize that the first line has nothing to do with the second line, that we're dealing with some inexpensive word-play, and that, because I'm an accursed lifelong student of English, I think the second line should be "Whom do we appreciate?" Accursed is just the term for this condition. Those former cheerleaders probably have their feet up and are appreciating a glass of wine, watching a movie, and not thinking or blogging about subjective v. objective forms of a word.
Nor can I remember whom, exactly, our cheerleaders did appreciate, although I certainly still appreciate the energy they threw into their organized optimism. (When I was a sophomore, I ended up one night, after an athletic contest, in a car full of senior [wow!] cheerleaders--a Ford Mustang, no less--and the young women had a bottle of blackberry wine with them. I appreciate my dim memories of that evening as well.)
In any event, I thought of the cheer when I thought of Adelaide Crapsey [no jokes, please] (1878-1914), inventor of America's very rough counterpart to the haiku, the cinquain, which is a five-line poem in which line one has two syllables, line two has four, line three has six, line four has eight, and line five has two. So the form is both incremental and circular, in my assessment. Subsequently, those attempting, unwisely (in my opinion), to improve upon Ms. Crapsey's invented form, have tried to dictate not just syllables but parts of speech, so that a noun should go here and a verb there, or whatever. Nonsense. The simple elegance of 2-4-6-8-2 endures.
My cinquain this evening concerns cities, which depend for their existence upon convincing large numbers of people that they should live in cities. If people who live in cities (large or small) woke up one day and truly realized that they live in a crowded, dirty, noisy, over-priced place, and if they decided t do something about it, they'd leave, go to the dwindling countryside, and--start another city. Oh, well.
I do find it amusing when people positively swoon at the mention of this or that city--NYC, London, Paris, Rio, L.A. An individual's sense of identity and importance gets entangled with the mythologizing of urbanity, of the central market-place, of the alleged hub of civilization. (If we ponder that metaphor just a bit, we might speculate that the more interesting part of the wheel--the outside, where the rubber meets the road--is analogous to villages and small towns, far from the hub.)
I am as guilty as the next person, whoever he or she is, of a robotic acceptance of the notion that city = good. I've convinced myself I'm fond of San Francisco and Stockholm, for example. I also find it amusing when one city's residents pretend to be better than another city's residents. Seattle v. Tacoma. S.F. v. Oakland. Philly v. Pittsburgh. Rome v. Naples. Whatever! It's all just streets and sidewalks, sewers and towers, cars and dog shit, "bistros" and homeless shelters, retail and wholesale, smog and bad water. The bigger the city, the smaller the living-space for twice (at minimum) the rent/lease/mortgage. ("But the restaurants! The nightlife! The museums!" Uh-huh.)
will always tell
you that it’s grand, sophis-
ticated, as you stand over
Two, four, six, eight. Whom do we appreciate? Adelaide Crapsey.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
It includes some extremely astute observations about post-WW II England, its economy, the status and self-doubt of men who did not go to war (some farmers were exempt, for instance), and the views of women who did serve (as nurses, for example), who had "seen the world," and who returned with ambitions to be more than housewives and to live somewhere besides a cozy village. In the book, there's also a sense in which England no longer knows who or what it is when it isn't fighting the Germans anymore.
Christie's novels tend to develop a bit slowly during the first 30-40 pages, but one's patience is usually rewarded because her plotting is superb, deceptively tight, and she works well with an ensemble cast. There Is a Tide turns out to be a gem, and the bonus is that I secured an older, very pulpy paperback with a lurid cover--my favorite. Hats off to Agatha and Hercules.
As if reading Agatha Christie novels weren't sufficiently nerdy, I now rush to heap praise on LibraryThing, a site on which one catalogues all one's books, "tags" them, ranks them, reviews them, and on which one may join groups based on authors, genres, topics, periods and eras of literature, and so on. It's just too much fun. One may instantly generate "author clouds"--the more books you have by an author, the large the font is for that author's name in the cloud. One may also generate a photo-collage of one's authors. I was explaining all this to some people at a restaurant, for some inexplicable reason, their eyes got glassy. ("Check, please!") Gee, I wonder why.
There's a group on LT called The Black Orchid: A Nero Wolfe Group, dedicated (obviously) to Rex Stout's famous detective, and the conversational threads on there are hilarious--for their minutiae, their passion for Wolfe and Archie, their discussions of food, orchids, and NYC, and all manner of things, with wildly circuitous detours. I also started several groups--one called Working Class, one called The Harlem Renaissance, and one called Karl Shapiro and Company--all about mid-20th century poetry. --Also one on Robinson Jeffers and one on Langston Hughes. The latter two have yet to "take off," as it were.
It's astonishing (perhaps it shouldn't be) how much bibliophiles from every culture on the planet have in common. There are versions of LT in numerous nations and languages, but they are also linked to the main (U.S.) LT site, so I can (for example) get to the Swedish site via a group called (with typical Swedish obviousness) Swedish Thing. The conversational threads on that group-site are few, measured, deliberate, serious--and of few words, whereas Americans and Brits do tend to go on a bit (like some bloggers).
It's too bad (or maybe not) that bibliophiles don't have more political clout. --Which makes me think of one of my very favorite droll bumper-stickers: I PLAY THE BAGPIPES, AND I VOTE. Bag-pipe players and bibliophiles--political forces with which to be reckoned. Something arcane this way comes. Mere eccentricity is loosed upon the world, the ink-dimmed tide is loosed, and what rough first edition, its hour come round at last, falls off the shelf in Toledo to be read?
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
I think you'll really enjoy the poem.
Monday, March 24, 2008
1. Because reporters don't seem to ask good questions anymore, why don't they ask candidates who their favorite poets are? Sure, it's irrelevant to the election, but so are most of the other questions. I figure Obama would answer straight-up. I think there's a 35% chance he'd say Langston Hughes, chiefyy for the sense of humor, not necessarily for the ethnicity. I figure the Clintons (plural) would stall, consult their team, do some polling, and then (if it were today) name a poet from Pennsylvania. I figure John McCain would get angry and hell at the reporter, "What kind of question is that?! Shut up!"
2. Why doesn't Ralph Nader run for mayor of a city first? Why does he always have to start at the top? How about mayor of Toledo? What if we made Ralph activist-poet-laureate?
3. Will the Dems manage to lose what most political scientists view as the easiest election to win in decades? Or should I ask, How will the Dems lose . . . .?
4. If "gay marriage" is, as some allege, a "threat" to heterosexual marriages [I still don't get how it could be a threat, and I'm still in search of one good example of such a threat], does it then follow, logically, that gay divorce would be a threat to traditional divorce and therefore an aid to traditional marriage, meaning we should make gay marriage legal so that gay divorce would be legal?
5. In the 2004 election, the GOPers allegedly used ballot initiatives on gay marriage to get out (so to speak) the vote on their behalf, in Ohio, for example. What ballot initiatives are they planning this Fall?
6. Instead of sending all taxpayers (in certain brackets) a $600 refund, why doesn't the government "bundle" that money and give it to the people who can't make their house payments?
7. What is one success Bush has had? I thought about this question hard, and I came up with the following: he has given a lot of money for AIDS relief in Africa (even though he insists on so-called abstinence programs). That's a good thing. I'm even willing to take the Iraq war off the table and say that people can agree to disagree about that. But leaving that off the table, what remains? Economy = bad. Environment = bad. Eroded civil liberties = bad (in my opinion). Foreign policy [even excepting Iraq] = bad. Support for veterans = bad. Energy = bad. Response to disasters [Katrina] = bad. Speeches = bad. Appointments = bad (strictly from a competence-angle). Polar bears = bad. Immigration = no policy one way or the other; a zero. Closing gap between rich and poor = bad. But I suppose some people want that gap to widen--I mean, seriously, from some kind of effed up philosophical point of view.
8. Would anyone be in favor of electing Obama, Clinton, and McCain and giving them each roughly 16 months in office? I guess we'd simply draw straws to see who started first. Or we could give each one 8 months and then hold a referendum to see if we wanted that person to continue. Why wait four years to see how bad things can get? Society moves at a much faster pace than it did in, say, 1808, so should we speed up the presidential cycle?
9. Did you get the sense, as I did when I watched Obama giving his speech on race, that he was thinking, "I can't believe I have to explain such simple things to [white] people"? I thought it was a great speech, but I did sense an understandable weariness on his part. A kind of "I thought we covered this already in high school history" feeling.
10. Is Obama essentially doing to the Clintons what Bill Clinton did to Bush I and Bob Dole? Hoisted on his [Bill's] own . . . ?
11. Who would be in favor of a heavy tax on presidential campaigns? Not on the people who give money, mind you, but on the candidates' campaign-machines. I'd put the money directly into Medicare, Social Security, and/or homeless programs. That way, society would benefit from each campaign, no matter what. And we'd take the money from them right away, before they spent it on attack-ads or whatever. Right off the top.
12. Does Congress matter anymore? Is it even logistically possible for any Congress to say No to any president at this point? Are we pretty much working with elected dictators at this point?
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Although Ashbery is of the New York School and bears some relation to L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E* poets, he's pretty much a school unto himself, drawing on a vast range of diction, creating expressionistic collages of language, infusing his poems with allusions and droll linguistic wit, and almost never, it seems, being interested in straightforward rhetoric, accessible narrative, or otherwise conventionally representational poetry. I've always found his poems to be amusing and extremely clever, but I don't like them as much as many of my cohorts do. I tire of them quickly, and I do get the sense that sometimes he's just effing around--that one could take out a couple lines and replace them with other lines, give the poem to someone, and not have that person catch the switch. (I can't imagine doing that [and getting away with it] to poems by Housman, Hopkins, Dickinson, or Auden, for instance, but I think it would work with some of Ashbery's poems.) As linguistically rich and surprising as his poems are, there is nonetheless something insular or insulated about the work. I start to yearn for poetry that's more sanguine, robust, and grounded, less academic, upper-middle-class, and enervated. Ennui abounds. A lot of his poems sound like J. Alfred Prufrock on roids or Franz Kafka on laughing gas. But Ashbery's an extremely famous, celebrated poet, so I think I'm in the minority in my view; also, Ashbery's ear for all the odd phrases we're flooded with each day is extraordinary; out of nowhere will come a line like, "Attention shoppers."
Dunn's poetry is quite clear and grounded, and his voice is interesting. This particular book is a bit too insular for me--not in the way Ashbery's is, however. The book seems centered on Dunn's own immediate experience, including such things as romantic break-ups. I found myself wanting a broader range of experience represented, and sometimes things got predictable. In a poem apparently about a new lover, he speaks of the woman's former lover and brings in the old reference to three people (figuratively) being in the bed. That idea seems worn out. "Grudges" is an intriguing, well crafted villanelle, modified, about 9/11. It doesn't quite capture the global nature of the mess we're in, however. For me, it personalized 9/11 a bit too much--shrank the event. There's more than a grudge involved when planes get flown into towers and the U.S. invades a country for trumped up reasons--at a cost of a trillion dollars. Like Ashbery, however, Dunn is a venerable, much celebrated poet--of the plainer style.
I read Kunitz's book third and was glad to do so, for I felt as if earth, sky, water, air, fish, ordinary folk, fire, wood, recognizable landscapes, and less preciously rendered experiences were suddenly let back into the room. Things had gotten a bit stuffy with Ashbery and Dunn. As much as I enjoyed Ashbery's rare, relentless cleverness and Dunn's spare, self-grounded work, I was really hungry and thirsty for the kind of poetry Kunitz writes, so the order of the reading worked out beautifully.
Anyway, props to these three veterans of American poetry. Solid books, established reputations.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I have a good friend, a longtime friend, who works at Microsoft now. He's one of the funniest people I've ever met, and among his schticks is a faux-hip one, in which the persona goes around saying, "Hey, I can dig that!" He happens to be a fabulous musician, so ironically, when it comes to music, he can play things that are genuinely diggable, even as, in one of his comic personae, he mocks the "cool" white bourgeois dude who's tragi-comically "hip."
I do wonder the extent to which "dig" is filially linked to the term "groove." One gets in the groove or finds something groovy, just as one digs or digs into an experience, but can one dig a groove? Hmmm. Perhaps one shouldn't use "one" when writing about "dig"--speaking of tragi-comically [un]-hip.
"Can you dig it?" is a rhetorical expression, although I believe in a tune by the group Chicago ("Saturday in the Park," if memory serves), the question is not treated thusly. "Can you dig it?" is followed by "Yes, I can." Chicago produced a great sound there for a while, but even from the beginning, the group was a bit nerdy. Nerd rock.
Anyway, here is a wee riff on the term "dig it":
When he said, “Dig the well,”
He wasn’t speaking Jazz or Beat
Or asking you to move your feet.
He meant shovel, and he meant hole.
The water-witching’s done, son.
Find that water-table,
If you’re able.
Dig the well good. Get it done.
It is not to my credit that I couldn't resist writing "Dig the well good." It amuses me, but I do apologize. Can you dig it? Don't answer that.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Although the facts show I'm a privileged white male, I'm in the "minority" on a couple of issues. First, I didn't find the Reverend Wright's excerpted comments offensive or even incorrect. "G.D. America" was a bit over the top, theologically, only because I reckon it's G.'s decision whether to D. anyone or anything. But even that phrase wasn't over the top if you place it in the context of prophetic preaching. Look at the Books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example: preaching that calls down the thunder and makes the Reverend Wright seem mild, no offense to him intended.
Second, I'd prefer to retire the word "race" as it applies to categories of people, simply because there is no basis for this categorization in science. However, I understand the argument that because racism is alive and well, we might as well keep "race" in play. It's just that I'm persuaded by the human-genome project and its apparent discovery that our entire gene-pool may be traced back to what we might call Eastern Africa. That's where the "race" began. The stuff about Caucasians, "Orientals," Anglo-Saxons, "whites," "blacks," and "Negroes" is just invented nonsense. But I'm willing to defer to those who want to keep "race" in the lexicon for strategic and tactical purposes. Recently, scientists have found three or four genes that control skin-color--but they control skin-color, not "race."
Because I teach African American literature, I talk every day--or every M-W-F--about what Obama talked about--just not as eloquently. Or more accurately, my students and I talk about such topics--the complexities of spirituality and race, class and race, how a sense of "whiteness" depends on a complicated view of "blackness," how white folks are privileged to be "tired of talking about race," whereas black folks have to think about the topic all the time, and so on.
Of course, the mainstream commercial media and right-wing hucksters smell blood, ratings, and money in the water, so they'll continue to "harpoon" Obama--David Gergen's phrase. A moderate Republican, Gergen liked Obama's speech but allowed as how, in his opinion, the right would relentlessly attack now, no matter what Obama said. To his credit, Gergen seemed disgusted by the predictable harpooning.
Having read the works of Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, George Schuyler, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Amiri Baraka, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Iceberg Slim, Chester Himes, Rudolph Fisher, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois, among others, I would have regarded the Reverend Wright's comments as unremarkable. The media ginned up the controversy, as far as I'm concerned, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm constantly amazed that African Americans aren't more angry, dispirited, and incensed. I can't think of another ethnic group from which fate and history have exacted more suffering and asked more resilience and patience. That Obama was so resilient, patient, articulate, and nuanced today impressed me, even if, in my opinion, there was no controversy to begin with. No offense to the Reverend Wright, but his righteous indignation and its targets are not news, nor should they be. That they are news may mean that the U.S. is a bit more "static" than Obama's speech allowed. To me, white privilege looks as implacable and immovable as ever, but I'm willing to follow the lead of Obama's speech and think the best I can of this society. And Obama, in the words of Langston Hughes, let everyone know that he is "still here." (Hughes's "Still Here" is one of my favorite poems, incidentally.) To his credit, Obama expects more from his nation than I do; he is more optimistic than I. Good for him. Good, I hope, for us, too.
Monday, March 17, 2008
For me, fiction is hard labor. There's just no two ways around it, as my mother used to say. Poetry is work, certainly, but I feel as if I have some control; even if a poem is turning out badly, I can recognize as much and quickly start again or revise or put the poem on hiatus. With fiction, I can write chapters and chapters, drafts and drafts, and still not know quite what I have. I'm much more comfortable with nonfiction prose--reviews, essays, textbooks, journalism, scholarship.
I've met quite a few writers whom I regard as "pure" fiction-writers; they really seem to know their way around fictional narrative writing. Many of them look at poetry and shake their heads; they don't even attempt it. One fiction-writer I know flatly says, "I don't know anything about poetry."
Quite a few poets are once-only novelists: Karl Shapiro published one novel, Edsel (great title); James Dickey published one (yes, that famous one on which they based a Burt Reynolds movie: "Aintree?! You can't get there from here, boy!"); and Richard Hugo published one--a mystery novel called Death and the Good Life (great title). I think Rita Dove has published only one novel.
At the moment, the most prolific double-genre writer that comes to mind is Robert Penn Warren (All the King's Men, World Enough and Time, much poetry). I think Stephen Dobyns started as a poet and became a rather prolific mystery-writer. The fiction-machine, Joyce Carol Oates, writes plays, but I don't think she writes poetry. John Updike writes relatively light poetry. I remember reading his volume, Midpoint, about 30 years ago--or more.
I've published just one novel so far--a mystery novel that was, I found out later, a "police procedural"--because its detective is a sheriff. These other two novels have taken forever and a day to finish. Two long, strange writing-and-revision roads. Maybe they'll get published; maybe not. But it was good to get a yes to a query and fun to send them off--with the SASE, in which I expect to see them again, rejected but still my pals.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
What rational nation cuts taxes after hurling itself into an unnecessary five-year-plus war? Only George Herbert Hoover Bush would pull such a stunt, which enables the very rich to suck up loose cash but ruins the economy as a whole and devastates working people.
I was talking with a realtor today, who explained that after "the Fed" pumped a bunch of money into the banking system, with the idea of lowering interest-rates and getting the economy going, many makes raised interest-rates so that they would make money at both ends--from the Fed handout and from small investors (like home-buyers). Thus they stash a lot of cash, make the quarterly books look good, and raise the price of their stock. Meanwhile, the economy continues to slump, and the gap between rich and poor widens. Why wouldn't Congress (for example) regulate such behavior and instruct the banks that if they get an influx of cash for the government, the mustn't raise interest-rates? Congress/the Fed did step in to save Bear/Stearns--because they were afraid of a stock-crash. Save Bear/Stearns, but to hell with the working-class family in foreclosure. The realtor told me he has a client who can barely make house payments. He wants to negotiate a deal with the bank, but the bank won't negotiate with him unless he goes into foreclosure. It's in the bank's interest to see him fail, I guess. And the banks don't have to pay attention to Congress because banking-lobbyists own Congress.
Don't you just love the argument that lobbying, a synonym for bribery, is protected free speech? Checks, currency, and wire-transfers of money--from banking lobbyists to a congress-person's campaign, e.g.--do involve numbers and letters: texts, if you will. I will grant that technical point. But only amounts of symbolic stored energy are being expressed. No one is speaking, writing, performing, or peacefully protesting. They're just bribing.
I'm tempted to argue against lobbying and even to argue for outlawing it. I'd allow anybody to give any information they wanted to legislators. I just wouldn't allow any money to go from lobbyists and their employers to legislators. In fact, I'd require lobbyists to take a vow of poverty. Non-profit organizations would take care of their basic needs. Ideas, jokes, poems, riddles, statistics, reports, theories, draft-bills--yes to all of these. Money--no. It's not speech. It's money. Gifts--no. Favors--no. Maybe one batch of home-made cookies per year, that's it.
On second thought, however, I think I'd prefer to make lobbying not illegal but even more obviously crass and vividly bad for the common good. Like automobiles in NASCAR, legislators should have to wear patches and decals on their clothes representing every entity that's given them money. Failure to represent a lobbyist with a patch or decal would mean the legislator would have to give the money back--in a public ceremony.
And while I'm at it, let me say how disappointed I am in the Poetry Lobby. What are they doing? Why aren't they pushing the poetry-agenda more fiercely? Where are their offices, their newsletters, their think-tanks, their phony corporations, their email-alerts? I want Emily Dickinson's image to replace Jefferson's on the nickel, for instance. The Poetry Lobby could push for that. E.D. never owned slaves, and she wrote over a thousand great poems. TJ helped draft a few "founding" documents, but he's gotten enough press. He can give up the nickel.
I'd like a National Poet's Reserve. If you joined, you'd have to go to a workshop once a month and agree to be ready to be called up to active duty--for example, if the governor needed some sonnets written, or if an ailing poet needed some help with meals or errands. I'd like to see the U.S. step up poetry-exports, and I want NASA to send some poetry-satellites in orbit, so the spoken word could be broadcast around the globe more vigorously. I'd like to see the villanelle put on the Endangered Form-Poem list, and I want us to drill for poetry in Alaska. Poetry Lobby, where are you?
Thursday, March 13, 2008
I do agree, of course, that the Democrats have an uncanny ability to find ways to lose presidential elections. This time, the Clintons seem to be in denial about the math and simply won't give up until a) many voters are embittered and unmotivated b) the current Demo money-advantage has dried up and c) the Republicans are once again positioned, essentially, to sweep the South, steal another state or two, and win. In my disinterested moments, I'm fascinated by this negative talent. The Democrats are so reliably inept. They lost to George W. Bush--twice! Yes, I know about the cheating in Florida and Ohio and the Supreme Court decision (Bush v. Gore) at which people will howl with laughter years from now. But why was the absurdist performance-artist, Bush, even close enough to win by cheating? He is a chronically failed businessman who went AWOL in military service and was addicted to cocaine. His own family, if accounts are to be believed, think he's the family loser. And the Democrats couldn't beat him! They can't even conduct basic primary elections in two of the most important states. This is disorganization that verges on the self-destructive. Maybe they were permanently infiltrated by Republicans back in the Nixon days. But "deeply" divided? I don't know.
We do seem to like these "depth" references. "Deeply" in love. "From the bottom of my heart." "He is deeply disturbed." "The depths of the soul." "Deep resentment." "Deeply wounded." Then you think, well, even full-figured people aren't really that deep. I mean the distance from any exterior point on the skin's surface to the innermost point--between spine and stomach?--isn't that far. "Depth psychology." Huh? Just drill down a few inches, and you're at the core of the brain.
Deeply convinced that the Democrats will lose deeply in the depths of Autumn, I dredged up an old "depth" poem in their honor.
In and Out of My Depths
My innermost being is a point located
somewhere between my spine and navel.
The very core of my being is a vertical line
intersecting with that point and situated
close to the bottom of my heart.
I plan to use a global-positioning satellite
to find my subconscious mind one day.
If I find it, it will become my conscious
mind, and I won’t have found it. Oh, well.
When I nap, my psyche naps with me.
In fact my psyche’s like a cat,
following me around the house. My dreams
happen inside my head—I’d say about
three inches deep, maybe less.
I can’t ask my brain why it dreams any more
than it can ask me why I sleep. The depth
of my soul—I wouldn’t know about that.
That is God’s business. I’m way
out of my depth on that one.
The rib-cage, friends, is a shallow basket,
and the skull, after all, is a shallow bowl.
Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
--Not that Dickinson is easy to teach. In fact, she's unnecessarily hard to teach, chiefly because of the baggage the culture, the critics, the anthologies, and some other teachers have heaped on her poetry and our image of her. To use an old-fashioned phrase, people get "hung up" on all sorts of nonsense that simply isn't there, in the poetry. Often, when I go into a classroom, I'm facing all the things Dickinson isn't, the preconceived notions, so I try to get around those.
So my "rules" for reading Dickinson's work are as follows:
1. Her poems are to some degree like crossword puzzles or soduku. There is always a solution to the confusion. There is, in fact, never any (lasting) confusion.
2. To the extent her poetry is mystical, philosophical, or spiritual, it is so grudgingly; that is, her work is always firmly attached to the earth, sometimes directly to earthy imagery. One key, then, is to find what that more concrete thing is to which the spirituality (assuming the spirituality really is there) is tethered. Or: Always prefer the simpler explanation to the "confusion." And: Never leap to the spirituality or "mysticism." Because she's never in a hurry to get there, and she never stays there long.
3. Take out the dashes. Put in your own punctuation. Get comfortable with the poem. Take out your punctuation. Put the dashes back in. Or: don't make a big deal of the dashes. She didn't punctuate because she didn't publish. All the pauses, etc., were in her head. The dashes are a combination of universal place-holders and a writing-quirk. She wasn't trying to be difficult. She just didn't imagine the poems would go to print. Same thing goes for the capitalization. Just a quirky habit. Ignore it.
4. She never makes mistakes. She just makes quick moves. (See #1--there is no confusion.)
5. If she hadn't been a poet, she would have been a scientist. She observes everything very carefully. She's an empiricist. (See # 2.) (Just look at her descriptions of bees, snakes, and birds.)
When, for example, in 591, she writes, "And then the Windows failed," she means the windows of the house failed to work because she (the speaker of the poem) died. Or: dead people don't see through windows, even if, in literature, they're still allowed to speak poems. Emily will go only so far with poetic license. She won't go so far as to suggest dead people can see through windows. She's practical. When, at the end of the poem, she writes, "I could not see to see," she means that, owing to death, her brain has ceased to function, she is no longer processing sensory data, and therefore does not have the capacity ("could not see") to see.
Dickinson remains the smartest, drollest, most original, and yet still most earthy poet I know. It's hard to think of one important thing the Modernists did, for example, that she didn't anticipate. Things you find in Pound, Williams, Auden, Yeats, Lawrence, Cullen, Moore, cummings, Eliot, Woolf--they're there in her work. The outlook is Modern. It is feminist. It is anti-establishment. It is anxious (in the sense Auden meant the term). It is imagistic (Williams, Pound). It is new. "No ideas but in things" (Williams). The phrasing and especially the rhyming and improvisation with meter are Modern. She's still hip. Known as a recluse, she lived in the world--the tactile, stinky, pungent, messy world of the house, the garden, and the woods. When the "I" dies in 591, "the King" is witnessed (no confusion there--but plenty of room for debate), but note that he is preceded and followed by this: a common housefly, which is blue--meaning a "blue-bottle fly," meaning a fly the color of glass left in the sun for a long time (see number 2 above).
I like Housman almost as much as Dickinson, but his range is much more limited. There's more true joy in her work than his. I like her rich simplicity as much as I like that of Langston Hughes's, but she is even quicker, less predictable, and a little more tricky. L. and E. share a great sense of whimsy--but usually with an edge; they're not just playful. Williams's imagery is often as vivid, but her point of view is more original. You never know what Yeats or Pound might drag in (like a cat) to a poem, but she can be just as surprising. Eliot has gravitas, gotta give him that, but pound for pound (ezra for ezra), her poems can go 15 rounds with his. In her own way, she's as sexy and exuberant as Neruda (with adjustments made for lingering Puritanism), as defiant as Jeffers.
Eliot and Pound threw more allusions by volume into their poems, but she is as allusive--just more efficient, and less insecure. They seem to need to show off. She doesn't.
She's not "the Belle of Amherst." She was just one hell of a hardworking, focused, precise poet. --With the gift of, not so much talent (though she sure had that), but of believing, unwaveringly, in her talent. She justs didn't know (cf. "see to see"); she knew she knew--how to write.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
I have this sonnet, and its battery
Is running down. The sonnet's theme,
I think, is flattery.
--Not, it would seem,
There we have it, an entropic sonnet that goes from iambic pentameter to mono-meter in 14 lines, includes an internal dialogue, and rhymes best with Psst. I think of it as an old wind-up sonnet that came along before sonnets could run on long-lived batteries.
I'm considering the possibilities of a square sonnet, not "square" as in the way the Beatniks used the term (although maybe that, too), but geometrically square. This could be achieved simply by playing with spacing, of course, but maybe I'll go for a more figuratively square sonnet and write 14 lines with 14 words in each line. I could also throw in an acrostic or two--top to bottom and/or diagonal. This is starting to sound not simply like lyric madness but Shakespearian soduku. Somehow, I think John Donne would have approved.
So the governor of what envisages itself to be our most important state pays several thousands of dollars for sex and drags his wife to the ensuing press-conference, and a president once supported by "the Christian right" takes the side of Pontius Pilate and vetoes an anti-torture bill. It all made me think of the title of a book by Russell Baker--a book of humor, meant to salve minds as they attempt to confront absurdity. It's called So This Is Depravity.
It could be--and has been--worse. In Mississippi, where there's a primary election today, it could be 1958 instead of 2008. Sometimes thinking about African American history (for example) provides some perspective.
Nonetheless: Why is Bush president? Why are Rove and Libby not serving time for outing spies? Why is Guantanamo not closed? Why is it legal for Bush to practice torture? Why was it legal for Bush to invade Iraq? By what laws, if any, are Bush, Cheney, and Blackwater bound?
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
According to the OED online, one of the earliest references to the Milky Way was Chaucer's, and Milton & Pope also referred to it in their poetry:
a. The irregular, faintly luminous band that circles the night sky, now recognized as composed of billions of stars and corresponding to the main disc of our galaxy, in which are located most of its stars, including the sun; =
I guess I see how someone might regard that luminous band of stars as a "way," but I probably wouldn't have described it in that manner. I don't have any bright, so to speak, ideas about what to replace "way" with, but the word just doesn't seem quite grand enough for that stellar spectacle.
To some degree, the phrase "billions of stars" means something to me. I understand it. But to a large extent, it's meaningless because I can't picture the immensity of that immensity--multiple billions of things that are like the sun.
Anyway, I wrote a poem about the impending demise of the Milky Way:
The Matter of the Milky Way
In a magazine
I read today that
the Milky Way
will also disintegrate.
memories, and ambitions
less than microscopic.
Yet my life feels important
to me. --Habit,
I suppose. A person
goes on even as
it’s clear a powerful
case can be made
for the idea that nothing,
not even matter, matters.
But I’m not going to make feel the spirit.
that case because I
have to go to work tomorrow,
and you never know—
I might have a few laughs,
I’ll see people I like
and one gray cat. I'll
view this bankless river they call
the Internet, which
must be observed with interest
in some parts of the Milky Way.
feel the spirit.
Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom
Monday, March 3, 2008
For another example, I tell myself I really should read more French writing--in translation. My opportunity for learning to read French well passed long ago. I did take one year of French in college, and my teacher praised my accent in this way: "Your application of a Spanish accent to French is interesting, Monsieur Ostrom." Lo siento mucho, Mademoiselle.
I have read and do like Balzac's fiction. Balzac's writing is a bit like Dickens's in its panoramic, manic vision of society and its layers, but it has somewhat less melodrama and a lot more earthiness. I have read and do appreciate Descartes' philosophy. I think I have read almost everything by Camus, and I like both his fiction and his nonfiction more than a lot. A bit of Zola and some Stendahl. Colette: I love the Claudine novels; they're so smart, so quick and alive. I've taught them (in the one-volume, translated Penguin set) twice. Sartre, who leaves me cold, for some reason. Some of Jacques Prevert's poems. I tend to read about Simone Weil, as oppose to reading what she herself wrote. Quite a lot of Baudelaire and some of the French Symbolists. Vast heaps of Simenon novels. As terrific as they are in English, they must be heavenly in French. An anthology of translated surrealist poetry, which I loved. That's about it, I'm afraid. Awfully spot. I really should read more French writing. (I've seen a lot of French films. Does that count?)
So many shoulds, so little time.
Before we moved into the present abode, we had a place in the quasi-country, with lots of trees, shrubs, and flowers, nearby lakes, and a our own small pond. It was an okay neighborhood for humans, but for birds, it was truly upscale. They wanted for nothing, especially when I spent wads of cash on suet and seeds for them, maintained bird-houses, maintained not just the pond but a bird-bath, chased away stray cats, hung moth-balls to ward off raccoons from nests (it works), and let some shrubs grow into dense trees, which to birds are exclusive condominiums. For example, we had a holly "bush" that had grown into a 17-foot tree: Trump Towers. I almost hired a crow or a seagull to serve as the doorman.
The great choral cacophony of birds, especially at evening, from Spring through Fall is one thing I miss about that place. The sheer amount and variety of activity, sound, and bird busy-ness created such exuberance, such a comic display of life, that you couldn't help but smile, even as you toiled in an unmanageable garden or tried to unwind after a stressfully tedious or tediously stressful day. As a subject, birds are almost irresistible to poets--and therefore dangerous. One is likely to get trite or sentimental, or to go over old poetic ground. Also, after what Dickinson, Hopkins, and (William) Everson (among others) did with their bird-poems, the poetic bird-stask is daunting, to say almost the least. With trepidation, then, I post the following poem, which I exhumed, like a lost potato, from the loam of my hard-drive. I post it not just with a poet's trepidation, but also with an amateur's appreciation for some good bird-times.
Birds At Evening
Evenings, birds convene
in trees and shrubs, in sky
and fields, fill air
with sound, thesis of which is
we’re alive; repeat: we’re alive.
Bodily harmonies rise,
spill out of beaked mouths (alive).
Birds can wait,
know, react. They cannot
hope but do embody hope
by going on, by feeding
and feathering, by trickling
water down their throats, by
flitting, flying, hopping,
looking. --By shrugging
feathers into place. No look
is more alive than a bird’s glance:
old news--but still. . . . Night absorbs
last avian riffs, alive . . .live . . .
ive . .e . . Beaks close, and eyelids
shut from the bottom up.
No so much to comment on my own poem (a terrible faux pas), as to add a reinforcing coda: The way birds fluff their feathers out of and into shape has always cracked me up; it sometimes reminds me of Italian-American men "shooting the cuffs" of their tailored shirts. And, unfortunately, I do fancy the idea of birds' "songs" having a thesis. I like birds, and I'm an English teacher, so that nerdly fancy is explicable if not forgivable.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
American writer James Baldwin echoed Keats without naming him as he concluded his famous essay, "Notes of a Native Son." The essay details one of the worst moments in Baldwin's life. His father has died. Baldwin is still in is teens but is essentially the head of the family, which is desperately poor in Harlem. He never understood his father, nor his father him. He doesn't have proper clothes to wear to the funeral, and Harlem has just exploded in a race riot because a white policeman has shot a Black man for suspicious reasons. He may be at the period in life when he most needs a father--and his father has died. Baldwin reports summoning the will from some unknown reservoir of determination to decide that, to survive and thrive, he must hold two opposing ideas in his had at once and forever. Idea one: Life is unjust--and especially unjust for African Americans, and demonstrably unjust for him--and will remain so. Idea two: One must never stop struggling against the injustice. That is, there is no resolution to the injustice, but you have to struggle--not just seem to struggle--as if there resolution might be possible. No crying in baseball (a tip of the cap to Tom Hanks), no seeming in the struggle.
I was reminded of Keats and Baldwin today after I attended what I'll call an activists' meeting on campus. For the immediate moment, the topic of the meeting isn't important (although it will be tomorrow morning), and this isn't the place to reveal particulars of processes under way. After about three hours, we broke for a late lunch, and I ended up dining with two impressive students: smart, informed, activist in their own ways, but by no means starry-eyed or naive.
One of them asked me how long I'd been at the college, and I told him 25 years. He then opined that it must be depressing or at least wearing to revisit the same old issues year after year with little progress. I agreed with him, but I added that, over a 25-year span, one at least has the chance to perceive some change, whereas over the usual 4-year span of an undergraduate's time on campus, nothing seems to change. I also pointed to one rather significant, concrete example of a fine academic program that had arisen from similar activism some 15 years earlier. The other student said something like "and while we're working on this problem, there's a war on." --His point being, I think, this: so many issues, so little time. One throws oneself at a local issue, only to look up and realize how many national and global issues persist.
That's where Keats and Baldwin come in. Nothing much is going to change, even over the course of a lifetime, or lifetimes (ouch), but one must live one's lifetime as if much change is possible. It's not pretending--because you don't make believe that injustice has suddenly disappeared, and you don't over-estimate your powers. It's not denial--because you are well aware of such lovely circumstances as futility and such phenomena as constituents who are natural allies becoming "enemies" strictly out of pride. It's Negative Capability. A mental, perhaps even spiritual, juggling act. Two ideas, two opposing conclusions, up in the air of the mind at the same time, each given equal weight. A more colloquial version of N.C. might be "keep on keeping on."
Keats was headed for death from tuberculosis when he wrote his letter, and Baldwin was, arguably, at the lowest point of his life with no evidence that there was an "up" from that lowest point. In their own ways, both prevailed. Yes, I know they were the exceptional of the exceptional, but it's not as if one has to compete with Keats and Baldwin. One merely has to keep on keeping on. Breaks, naps, and good night's sleeps are not only allowed but vital, so there's that.
I'll get the most self-centered one out of the way first: I think the absence of a Secretary of Poetry has represented a glaring oversight from the beginning of the republic into our present imperial period. Let's take care of that after the next election. I want some press-conferences where reporters pepper the Sec. of Poetry with questions about trochaic meter, surrealistic imagery, and women coming and going into rooms speaking of Michaelangelo.
I'd also rename the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: The Secretary of Housing and Urban Humanity. We seem to do the development-part real well. For whom and how are different questions.
Arguably, we need a Secretary of Consequences, whose job it will be to predict what will flow from a president's decisions, precipitous and otherwise. She or he would soon probably be known as the Sec. of Uh-Oh or the Sec. of Oh, No. In this new department, perhaps there could be an Under-Secretary for History, her or his main job being to remind people that bad (and good) ideas have a history.
I'm not sure we still need a Secretary of the Treasury because there's nothing left in the treasury. Perhaps he or she could simply become the night-janitor. We need, instead, a Secretary of Debt. I believe I could get the support of Ron Paul and several recluses who live in the Mojave Desert in old Airstream trailers for this idea. Not a groundswell, per se, but, hey, you have to start small, and, in the case of Ron Paul, weird. How he manages to answer every debate questions with "The gold standard," I do not know, but I'm impressed.
I'd go back to the old name for the Secretary of Defense: the Secretary of War. It was refreshingly counter-Orwellian. I would then add a Secretary of Peace, for symmetry and out of blind hope.
A Department of Rhetoric is clearly needed. The Government Accounting Office now investigates how money is mis-spent. Although nothing is done with these investigations, it is good to know something close to the truth. The Sec. of Rhetoric would be responsible for analyzing the rhetoric of top-level politicians and explaining the traditions out of which the rhetoric sprang, the logical fallacies, the good and bad appeals, modus ponens, modus tolens, and so on. All politicians are slick. Congressperson Socrates is a politician. Therefore, . . . .
Apparently we have a Secretary of the Interior, which sounds vaguely contemplative but which actually operates the Forest Service, against whom my father held a life-long grudge involving their (its) alleged incompetence. If this department concerns itself with the outdoors, wouldn't it be better named the Department of the Exterior? Then the Department of the Interior could advise people either on decorating-choices, their inner lives, or digestion.
Do we need a Secretary of Philosophy? I would argue Yes. When Clinton quibbled with the meaning of "is," that was an obvious Wittgenstein-move, and the U.S. Dept. of Philosophy could have stepped in. Bush II is obviously an absurdist. The Secret Service's code-name for him is probably Gregor Mendel. Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, is obviously counter-Nihilist and a bracing attack on post-Modernism. As I've noted before, that McCain calls what is a "bus" the "Straight-Talk Express" is a sophisticated irony with which philosophers could help. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama chant "Yes, we can." This implies a belief in free will. What would be the U.S. Department of Philosophy's stance on this?
Good night, and good luck.