Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, February 29, 2008

Badger

I saw a badger once and once only in the Sierra Nevada. I was riding around with my dad in his pickup, in the back-country. I can't remember what the specific quest was--firewood, perhaps, or merely flight from boredom. No doubt he said, "Look at that--that's a god-damned badger," and left it at that. The badger was pretty impressive in its own way--low to the ground, garbed in some good-looking fur, and awfully determined. The sighting was but a glimpse--off it went, bothered, on those big paws with long claws--really low to the ground.

It's a bit odd that "badger" was turned into a verb, meaning to tease or to harangue incessantly (or at least that's my definition), and we're used to hearing it in TV court-dramas: "Your honor, I object; counsel is badgering the witness." I guess the connection is that badgers dig incessantly, looking for food--including rodents, I have learned; so "counsel" digs into the witness. But badgers seem to want to be left alone; they do not seem to aspire to become attorneys. According to the OED online, "badger" became a verb very late in the 18th century.

Unfortunately, some people still trap badgers for the fur and hunt them for--I don't know what for: just to kill them, I guess. Steve Jackson's badger website suggests badgers usually live 2-8 years in the wild, more like 14 in captivity, and, in one case, up to 26 years. Various kinds of badgers include the honey badger, the hog badger, the Eurasian badger, and the ferret badger.

Badgers are related to ferrets and weasels. I think some people call lawyers "weasels," so I guess it's technically possible to hear someone in a court-room say, "Your honor, I object; the weasel is badgering the witness."

The American badger's Latin name is Taxidea taxus, and apparently the one I saw was from the Taxidea taxus jeffersoni sub-group; another sub-group is jacksoni. Why the scientists used Jefferson and Jackson, I do not know--and I'm sure those names arose well before Steve Jackson started his site in the U.K., so we mustn't jump to conclusions. From the website, I learned that those who study the badger have a heck of a time determining their population, but badgers are spread broadly from the upper mid-western states to the west and widely over western Canada, too.

Here's a link to the badger-site, which has some photos of handsome badgers, and of one badger who is yawning (after a tough day of digging, no doubt). Badgers seem just to throw themselves into any activity, and this badger is really yawning. I mean, he or she is going for the yawn in an inspiring way.

http://www.badgers.org.uk/badgerpages/american-badger.html

Here's a badger-poem I wrote quite a while ago. I think I may have included it in the Collected Poems I put together, but I just added an epigraph from Jackson's website. I don't know if philosophers, let alone linguists, would approve of the word or the concept, "badgerness," but it amuses me (that makes one of us).

Regarding Badger

"A loner, it is always digging."

--Steve Jackson


I have seen the badger,
and I approve. Its body
argues for badgerness. The
rhetoric is fierce, furry, low,
leveraged, and necessary.

I prefer not to point to tall
buildings and small computers
and say Look at what we’ve done!
I am, however, in favor
of sewer systems, electric light,
and medicine. Have we
done right by the badger?

That’s a measure of civilization,
too: a judgment to limit ourselves,
to leave badger and woods
alone enough and well.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, February 28, 2008

500,000 Iraqi Children

With three other professors and a member of the staff, I'm helping to facilitate an Iraq War Discussion Group where I teach. It's an official course, but it's worth only 1/4 of the academic credit usually earned in a course, it's graded on a pass/fail basis, and it meets only once a week. We try to talk about our various responses the war but also to present information about the history of the region (going back to antiquity), the British involvement during and after World War I, and the U.S. involvement in Iraq for decades. Of course we also talk about events, issues, and controversies related to the war as they arise, including those connected to the presidential primaries in the U.S.

Today we talked a bit about the first Gulf War. One of the professors, a political scientist, mentioned that he is reading a book in which a CBS "60 Minutes" interview with then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright is mentioned. The interviewer, Leslie Stahl, first notes that by most estimates, the international sactions against Iraq in the 1990s had directly or indirectly caused the death of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children. She then asked Madeline Albright if this loss of life was worth what the sanctions were aiming to achieve. The Secretary of State answered, "Yes."

My colleague also mentioned that the U.S. had not only supported Iraq's regime during Iraq's war with Iran but that it had also, essentially, looked the other way while Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds. He suggested that the U.S.'s "looking the other way" (my term, not his) might have contributed to Saddam Hussein's sense that the U.S. would not react to his invading Kuwait--an invasion that led, of course, to the first Gulf War, and later to the sanctions--and ultimately, I suppose, to the current war, for it seems the second president Bush believed he had to finish the war begun by the first presdient Bush. Precisely why the U.S. invaded Iraq the second time, I still don't know. Plausible reasons range from oil to Bush II's need to prove something to trying to introduce American-style capitalistic democracy to the region. Implausible reasons now include the weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist. A reason invented after the fact is that Saddam Hussein was a terrible, murderous dictator. The facts suggest he was indeed that, but Bush, et al., did not at first use that as a reason to start the war. Only after the weapons of mass destruction proved illusory (or always were illusory, as Colin Powell's "testimony" to the U.N. suggested, from the first) did this reason form part of a retroactive argument. There was also an assertion about Iraq's connection to terrorists who attacked the U.S., but that connection proved to be flimsy, at best. A reason to perpetuate the war now advanced (by McCain and others) is that to leave would embolden terrorists who are now in Iraq, but a counter-argument is that the terrorists would not be there if the U.S. hadn't invaded in the first place.

There's no good way to create a transition from these topics to a poetic one, so I will simply and abruptly mention that the site and project, Poets Against the War, is in its 7th year and has accumulated roughly 22,000 poems from around the world, as well as publishing an anthology, supporting politically oppressed writers worldwide, and continuing to express a variety of views against the war in Iraq. The site's main page also points to selected poems it receives each month, and for November 2007, there is mention of a poem by an alum of our university and a former student of mine, Sarah Borsten.

The link to the main page of Poets Against the War is http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org/,
and Sarah's poem is mentioned on the left-hand column.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Villanelle: The Villain, L

The villain, L, disrupts this life of ours,
And is, as the imbuer of desire,
A criminal who deftly drains our powers.

Sometimes the villain, L, recedes and cowers,
And lurks as others rush to douse a fire.
The villain, L, disrupts this life of ours.

Is L for Love? For Longing, Lonely hours?
For Lust or Loss? Or maybe just for Liar,
A criminal who deftly drains our powers.

Could it be Language? Our Linguistic powers--
That signifying engine which won’t tire?
The villain, L, disrupts this life of ours.

(In many languages other than ours,
A different letter shall be used to hire
A criminal who deftly drains our powers.)

Or L for Light, fiated Big-Bang’s flowers?
By light, we know and, knowing, we desire.
The villain, L, disrupts this Life of ours,
A criminal who deftly drains our powers.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

One By Jeffers

I know two colleagues where I teach, neither of them professors of English, who enjoy the poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), known for--well, for many things. He anticipated so-called "eco-poetry" by many decades; he often expressed a kind of anti-humanist ("inhumanist") philosophy, arguably close to Stoicism but also involving anti-imperialist ideas and a sense in which one might benefit ethically from living close by and observing raw nature.

Jeffers built his own stone house near Carmel, by the sea, in California; he built his poems with deliberate rhetoric, long lines, an austere tone, and clarity. His work is often thought to occupy a place between that of Whitman and that of writers loosely associated with the Beat Movement--Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, and Gary Snyder, among others. In fact, Rexroth, Everson, and Snyder were pretty far removed from Beat poetry; mostly they were otherwise occupied, even though Snyder certainly knew the gang at City Lights Books and is allegedly the basis of a character in one of Kerouac's novels.

Jeffers, like Langston Hughes and William Blake, is one of those poets with great appeal outside colleges and universities. The Hughes conference I attended in 2002 (he was born in 1902) included both academics and "plain old citizens." The Blake Conference I attended in Santa Cruz in the 1980s drew academics, of course, but also ordinary folk interested in visual art and people who literally viewed Blake as a prophet. I'll never forget one fellow who casually suggested that everyone go out and do "some ecstatic dancing" in the forest after one of the sessions. I was tempted to join him and the group, but having grown up in the woods, I knew that the forest and ecstatic dancing didn't really mix. It's just too easy to fall over a log or off a rock.

Oddly enough, Jeffers and Hughes got to know each other in the 1930s, when Hughes was staying with a friend in Carmel, Noel Sullivan, and working on some stories that eventually showed up in The Ways of White Folks. Hughes attended at least one cocktail party hosted by Jeffers, whom one does not associate with such conviviality after having read his poems. Differences between the work of Hughes and Jeffers abound, and many are obvious; at the same time, both are plain-spoken poets who didn't much care whether English professors liked their work.

Here's one by Jeffers that's in the public domain. It's from his book Tamar, and unfortunately, the blog-machinery will make at least one of the long lines spill over:

To The Stone-Cutters

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

Sometimes Jeffers is so morose that he makes me smile, and although his phrasing is almost always clear, it is also often surprising. "[Y]ou foredefeated/Challengers of oblivion/Eat cynical earnings . . .". Reading the poem again, I found myself settling in with the first two phrases here and then being surprised (again) by "Eat cynical earnings." It's startling, and it also begs to be interpreted several ways, but the rhetoric is that of direct address: "You . . . eat . . . earnings."

Many undergraduates understandably do not take immediately to Jeffers' poetry. After all, most of them are enjoying life and rightly expressing optimism and hope. Suddenly there's this guy "looking forward" to when the earth will die and the sun flame out. Robinson "Happy Go Lucky" Jeffers, at your service. Anyone up for an Ingmar Bergman film?

An obvious question to ask readers of the poem is this: Do you find the "honey of peace" in Jeffers' newish old poem? Speaking only for myself, I don't necessarily find "honey" in the poem, but I find the peace of familiarity in "watching" Jeffers meditate on stone-cutters, poets, and a geologic scale of time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gwendolyn Brooks and Displacement

I was reading some poems by Gwendolyn Brooks again, in preparation for teaching them. She was born in 1917 and died in 2000 and was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, if memory serves. Her most famous poem is "We Real Cool," which is indeed a great poem in an invented form, and a poem that's efficient in the way Dickinson's poems are. A great deal of business is transacted, so to speak, in just a few lines.

But Brooks' range was amazing, both in terms of style and voice and of subjects that interested her. Many of her poems are rooted in her neighborhood of Chicago (like "kitchenette building" and "The Bean Eaters"); indeed, the prize-winning volume is entitled A Street in Bronzeville.
She wrote excellent short narrative poems--"Sadie and Maud" is a famous one--and longer, more meditative pieces like "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith." She moves easily between more formal verse and free verse, is a virtuoso deployer of rhythms and diction, and displays a clear, sharp intelligence in every poem.

Partly because of temperament and partly because she started writing in the 1940s, she arrived a bit late at the political-activist eruption of the 1960s--but arrive she did. She changed publishers for activist reasons--in part to make her books more affordable for working people. She wrote some superb socially conscious poetry, including "Riot." Her homage-poem, "Malcolm X," is pithy.

Of her "neighborhood" poems, "the vacant lot" (yes, she uses no capitalization in the title) is one of my favorites. The speaker remembers the last three people--Mrs. Coley and her two children--who lived in the house that was removed to create the vacant lot. The memory is sharp and humorous, but one subtext of the poem is that the poem, the memory, is the last anyone will hear of all the history that occurred in that vacant lot. Circuitously, it's a poem about urban displacement, or urban revision, which seems constant.

I saw/heard Brooks read at U.C. Davis. Her husband was with her, and at her insistence, he read some of his poems after she did. He was a modest, wry man, and before he read, he said, "Simple logic dictates that I should have read first." We laughed, for who among us would have liked to read our poems right after Ms. Brooks had read? Of course, she had intended to honor him and his own work, but she'd put him in a tough spot, so she laughed, too.

In honor of her and her husband, I'm replicating the folly by posting a poem after talking about hers. Simple logic dictates that I should have started with my desultory poem and then moved to the main act, Gwendolyn Brooks. But no. That would have been too easy. As far as I know, this poem concerns urban displacement, too; hence the title, I reckon:

Displacement

Well, I went downtown.
They’d moved it. Some dirty bricks
were left behind, some people.
A few old buildings stood—
rats in elevator cars, For Lease
signs in windows, stench of mayoral
promises in a dumpster.

I started screaming, couldn’t stop,
stacked echo on echo, splendid rage.
My outburst brought police. They
took me to a place to which
Downtown had been transferred.

For every question they asked,
I asked two. In the hasty move,
city ordinances had been
misplaced. No one
could specify with what I should be
charged. Upon my release, I asked
myself what’s right for me to do?—an
old-fashioned interrogative that
would have played well in Old Downtown
but not, alas, in the New Here District,
where bright, new office buildings
and slick, wee bistros will sit on
an immense investment of capital.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, February 22, 2008

Unique But Constant

For some reason, I'm intrigued by the idea that, or the phenomenon whereby, each day all of us in modern, mobile societies see several, many, perhaps even hundreds of people precisely once in our lives; the moment when we encounter them and they us is vivid. That is, the sensory information about them is clear and accurate. Moments, minutes, or hours later, however, all trace of them is gone from our minds, our sense of experience, our memories, and all trace of us is gone from their minds, senses of experience, and memories. These encounters are unique, but the phenomenon is virtually constant--a steady stream of once-only, momentary encounters that are quite real--particular and concrete--but then gone, as if they were unreal.

This situation was true even in the micro-town in which I grew up. In Winter, if we went into town, we would know all the people we saw. They would at least be acquaintances we'd seen before, and we would at least know their names and a bit about them. (This circumstance is one of many reasons the pace of life is so slow in micro-towns; people have to talk to each other; deliberation is required.) Just as likely, we'd know them well, share a history with them. But in summer, when tourists streamed through town, we might encounter people exactly once, so even in an extremely rural, remote town, the automobile brought this unusual everyday anonymity, this constant flow of unique encounters, into play.

I think philosophers, psychologists, or neurologists are better suited to write about this subject than a poet, or at least better suited than this particular poet. But I gave it a whack anyway, more or less to get it out of my system:

Idiosynchronized

People we see once: flood of faces, coats,
collars--on avenues and plazas, in markets,
theaters, bars, banks, hospitals. A bent

shape hoeing weeds: one of us saw it once
one place one time from a train: This
is an example but only of itself. Its

singularity can’t be transposed. Imagine
you remember the person who interested you
terribly in that café that morning that city.

Sure it happened, but you don’t remember
because once was not in fact enough. People
we see once are our lives: Forgetting

them (we must), we lose whole arenas
of the lived. Even ghosts return, but not
this vast mass of once-only-noticed

which composes medium and matrix
of our one time here. We are adjacent and
circumstantial to strangers, just one jostle

of flux away from knowing next to everything
about their lives. The river of moments takes
a different channel; the one moment is nothing now.

The once-only appear, then appear to go
to an Elsewhere that defines us. They go on
to get to know who they get to know.

Their lives are theoretically real to us, like
subatomic particles. To them their lives
are practically real to them. From their

view, ours are not. We know they were there,
vivid strangers, because they always are,
every day. Like a wreath floating

on the ocean, memory marks a space
abandoned. In large measure life is
recall of spaces occupied. History

consists of someone who insists on being
remembered, someone who insists on
remembering, combinations of both. Familiarity

and routine join to work methodically; they
manufacture things in recall. Vivid strangers are
incidentally crucial, indigenous to a

present moment that is like a mist
over a meadow, rising, evaporating
just when we arrive, past as we are present.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Extremely Narrow Sonnets

Some poets like to write in traditional forms, some like to write in free verse, some like to do both, and some like to monkey with traditional forms. Some poets like to do all four things, and I am one of them, and I am also a person who likes to use "monkey" as a verb, an idiomatic move I permanently borrowed from my parents' generation.

Sherman Alexie monkeyed with the sonnet-form by writing fourteen rather large prose-poetry paragraphs. Instead of fourteen lines in a metered, rhyming scheme, there are fourteen large chunks of writing, much of which concern American history and American Indians (or Native Americans--although I gather the former term is back in use). I like Alexie's poem, and I like what he does with the sonnet, which in my view he treats as an old-fashioned constricting form--a figurative reservation, if you will, from which Alexie wants to escape. He explodes the form, to good effect, in my opinion.

My present aims are much more modest and, arguably, whimsical. I wanted to write the narrowest sonnet possible. I'd already written a sonnet that rhymed on its left side. That is, I used the Shakespearian-sonnet rhyme-scheme and the usual iambic pentameter, but the rhyming words occurred at the beginning of each line, not at the end, so of course the rhyming-effect is completely different. I just thought it needed to be done--done, but not repeated.

A traditional sonnet is ten syllables wide and fourteen lines high. As my late friend Wendy Bishop noted, it is a 14X10 poem. Wendy was extraordinarily imaginative, but she had a great practical side, too. She also thought of the sonnet as a poem that could fit on a postcard. I think she even had her students literally write sonnets on (onto) postcards.

I supposed, then, that the narrowest possible sonnet would be composed of 14 letters that formed words vertically. Here is an example:

Wafer-Thin Sonnet

I
l
o
v
e
y
o
u,
m
y
d
e
a
r.

I like this because it fulfills the 14-line criterion, and its theme is the same as 57. 5% of all sonnets, based on no research and a blind guess. But you do have to figure that tens of thousands of sonnets have had a thesis-statement similar to "I love you, my dear," don't you?

But then I thought that I'd gone too far (or not far enough) because the rhyming had disappeared. So I decided to write an extremely narrow sonnet that still rhymed, and here it is:

Extremely Narrow Sonnet

How 'bout
If we
Went out
To see
What you
And I
Might do
And why?
Let's set
A date
And let
Our fate
Unfurl--
Or curl.

So I kept the basic rhyme scheme of a Shakespearian or English sonnet: ababcdcdefefgg. And in the interests of narrowness, I used one iambic foot per line. An even narrower sonnet would keep the rhyme scheme but just use one word per line; that would be tough. Take a whack at it, if you like.

The purpose of such foolishness? Partly, it's foolishness for its own sake. And, well, as W.H. Auden said, of his poetic vocation, "I like to play with words." He did not say "I like only to play with words," and his poems demonstrate just how much more he liked to do with poetry. But playing fanciful, whimsical games with form is not a bad thing to do after one has been hitting the serious poetry-writing hard for a while, and I think a playful connection to venerable forms actually complements a conventional connection to them. It's good training--discipline, if you will--to try to write a genuine Shakespearian sonnet--but in a contemporary idiom. It's also good to explode the sonnet, as Alexie did. It's good to "stab" the sonnet, as Shapiro claimed to do. And it's good to monkey with the sonnet. All are ways of living with words, as musicians live with sounds and rhythms, strictures and improvisations, the old and the fresh.

I invite you to attempt to monkey with villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets--ballads, too, perhaps. Venerable, venerated forms can withstand whimsy and deconstruction. Sonnet 18 by the Shakemeister General isn't going anywhere.

Poem About Reading

Here is a second guest-poem by Patrick Bizzaro, this one concerning reading (among other things):

LIKE A READER
aaaaaaa for Dave Bartholomae

I love to open a book
some previous owner
has marked and folded,
a book that turns
magically
to a page read
more often than others,
to a margin
filled with pencil prints,
checked lines,
paragraphs in brackets.

And I love the reader
I do not know
who argues with the author,
corrects him,
circles typos,
accuses the author
of plagiarism or at best
of dialog with some other writer.

I love it best
when that reader assumes
a reference to someone
who lived after
the author, someone, perhaps,
the author created,
like a character outside the book,
like a reader.

Patrick Bizzaro

Copyright 2008 by Patrick Bizzaro

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Guest Poem By Patrick Bizzaro

I'm delighted to post a "guest poem" by a colleague and friend from East Carolina University, Patrick Bizzaro. Patrick is also the author of a fine book on teaching creative writing, Responding to Poems, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, and he's also written criticism on the work of poet Fred Chappell. Here is the poem:

FIRST PHOTOGRAPH
for Antonio

The frame
that held my photograph
of you being born
kept changing shape.
It pushed in on you
from all directions,
clamped down
until I could tell,
when your head shrunk
into a wrinkled photo
of a baby’s birth,
you began to wrestle back.

Less moving
picture than a series of stills
presenting themselves to me now,
weeks later,
in no particular order,
the frame stretched
to fit your head
as though the photo of you being born
changed to fit its frame.

But there was a moment,
when seeing your head
deep inside the frame
of your mother’s precious parts,
foolishly noting aloud
your head’s simple size,
I thought this photo,
any photo of any birth,
impossible to frame.
So I concentrated instead
on my part in this,
circling with both hands
the all-important left leg
I’d been assigned to hold. Fortunately,

there were people in the room
determined to see this event
develop. Looking up, I watched
one possible photo after another
snap by—any one of which I might freeze here
into words—and, quite frankly, for the first time
that day or night or whenever it was
a plot entered the room, a storyline,
a sequence of tangible events
moving toward some ultimate resolution.

And though distracted by
the breaths of someone
in the distance, I noticed
all the possible first photos of you
as they changed shape
to fit this frame of your mother.
Your shape,
your mother’s shape,
became something mutual,
some unspoken agreement.
The knot on your head nodded
to everyone in the room
you would do your part.
It tightened until
it was no longer a photo of you, Antonio,
but instead a video
of a proud if undersized Sumo
entering the delivery room.
Standing beside your mother’s
left leg, I looked down for the first time
into your face and saw
you, my son,
entering the room,
the knot at the top of your head gone,
your skull in the frame
taking a shape
I recognized as skull,
your shoulders, slanting
to form a small arrow,
pointing at some target
only you could see
between your mother’s knees.

Patrick Bizzaro

Copyright 2008 Patrick Bizzaro

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Pascal's Successful Failure

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) toiled on a master work most of his life, a massive opus reconciling philosophy, mathematics, Catholicism, faith, reason, and even rhetoric. He failed. The book(s) never materialized, but a collection of notes toward the book(s) survived. It's now called Pensées.

It's one of those books one may read in, as opposed to reading, and every return-trip is as pleasurable as an earlier one. A good history of philosophy functions similarly, as does a book of aphorisms or Fowler's book on usage in English. Dag Hammarskjold's Markings is similar in form to Pensées, but Hammarskjold intended to write an interior, private, meditative diary, so he produced the book he had intended to produce (but not to publish, at least in his lifetime), whereas Pensées is an and accidental classic, its complete unevenness part of its charm. Pascal died thinking he had nothing more than a collection of notes. He was right. And wrong. His interminable warm-up to the book ended up being the book, and some of the entries are so pithy as to be poetic.

So you might find something lofty like this (quotations take from the Oxford World Classics paperback edition translated by Honor Levi):

#225 "Knowing God without knowing our wretchedness leads to pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God leads to despair. Knowing Jesus Christ is the middle course, because in him we find both God and our wretchedness." (p. 65)

But then you might run into a stray line that truly is just a note to himself: "I too will have thoughts at the back of my mind." Nothing leads up to this, and nothing follows it, so you just have to think, "Thanks for that, Blaise."

A few favorites of mine:

"Power is the mistress of the world, not opinion. But it is opinion which exploits power." (p. 115)

"Languages are ciphers in which letters are not changed into letters, but words into words. So an unknown language is decipherable." (p. 115) This is no longer a profound observation, of course, but it still says much succinctly about language-acquisition, translation, and cryptology.

"When wickedness has reason on its side, it becomes proud, and shows off reason in all its lustre." (p. 113).

#213 "There is nothing so consistent with reason as the denial of reason." (p. 62).

#214 "Two excesses. Excluding reason, allowing only reason. (p. 62).

Then there's the famous "wager," a section of the book in which Pascal argues that if you are forced to wager whether whether God exists, you should bet that God does exist because if you bet that God doesn't exist and lose, then your soul might be in danger, whereas if you bet that God does exist and you lose, you haven't lost anything.

One more I like:

(p. 149): "The more intelligent we are, the more readily we recognize individual personality in others. The crowd finds no difference between people."

The book also includes a stand-alone treatise on rhetoric that holds up pretty well.

Different people will find different morsels to enjoy from this French philosophical, religious, meditative, aphoristic buffet of Pascal's. If you can locate a copy, just start flipping through it, and something will catch your eye, intrigue your reason, your personality, your obsessions, and/or your curiosity. It's a book that goes nowhere and everywhere.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

One For St. Valentine's Day

Yes, I Do

I take full responsibility for
what I’m about to write, which is
that when she eats chocolate, some
ends up in a corner of her mouth.
She reprimands cinematic villains,
speaking directly to the TV screen.
I take full responsibility for the
fact that this is turning into a
love poem. She runs a business
in a sector of the global economy
known as “not-for-profit.” She
appreciates eccentricity. Has
long, melodramatic nightmares,
from which she wakes refreshed.
She eats the whole apple, core
and all. It’s my fault that I see
these qualities and details from
the vantage-point commonly
called love, and that I’ve already
used the word “love” twice, now
three times. I hold myself
accountable. She sings on pitch.
Likes swing, rock-and-roll, Sinatra,
Domingo, soul, rockabilly reverb,
and the cello. It was my error
to begin with the detail about
chocolate in the corner of her mouth.
To the degree this is a love poem,
and getting rather domestic, at that,
I’m to blame. She’s unabashedly
happy when a hot dinner’s waiting
for her after she’s been driving
in the rain. I do love her. I take
full responsibility. I do.

Hans Ostrom

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Poet's Political Questions

Poets are even more notoriously naive and/or misguided about politics than "the average citizen," whoever he or she might be. Percy Shelley claimed that poets were "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," but I think most people would add "and let's make sure we keep them unacknowledged." Especially poets in the Anglo-American tradition have not-so-great political reputations: Ezra Pound, for instance. I don't know that other traditions are much better in this regard, but Pablo Neruda and Vaclav Havel seem to be writers who combined literary and political careers well (Havel is not a poet, but is a fiction-writer and a dramatist)--but I know much is contingent upon your literary and political points of view.

To support the claim that poets are naive and/or misguided about politics, I hereby submit questions I would like presidential aspirants or even Congressional aspirants to answer--I mean really answer--not just the canned non-answer. For instance, if one asks, "How large is the national debt, and how do you propose to cut it?", one does not want to hear, "My candidacy represents change." By even entertaining the possibility of a straight answer, I am being naive, of course. Questions:

1. How many American military personnel are deployed worldwide, and in what regions is this deployment unnecessary, misguided, and/or wrong? Take your time. Be specific.

2. What is the month-and-year in your administration when everyone in the U.S. who is ill or might get ill will have affordable, guaranteed access to the appropriate doctors, nurses, equipment, therapy, and medicine? No hedging, and no excuses, please, and don't bother mentioning "Canada" or "socialized medicine"; that just wastes time.

3. What is the most cynical piece of advice from your political team you have accepted and acted upon?

4. Specifically, what Executive Branch powers that Bush II has expanded will you retract--when and how?

5. What are the three most severe erosions of civil liberties in the last 8 years and how will you insure that they are repaired?

6. How many nuclear weapons does the U.S. own, and, in your opinion, how many of these should be incapacitated--and by what date?

7. In your opinion, what are the acceptable numbers of a) homeless persons and b) persons who live below the poverty-line in the U.S.? Why are these numbers acceptable? What will you do to reduce the numbers to those levels permanently?

8. On what date will you reveal what all of the interrogation techniques, incarceration practices, and "rendering" practices of the U.S. government are and explain why all of these are both morally and legally acceptable?

9. What is the emptiest piece of effective speech-making, sloganeering, and/or political advertising your campaign has used so far?

10. What are the chief differences between your political campaign and a cult? What are the chief similarities?

11. In your political life, what is the most shameless thing you have done?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More Pigeons, Please

I haven't seen a pigeon in a long time. Some pigeons used to roost in the belfry at the parish to which I belong, but I think difficulties arose regarding their leavings, and someone installed some wire.

I think pigeons, like seagulls and crows, don't have great reputations. They annoy a lot of people, these birds. Some people adore pigeons, of course, including the few Italians who feed them in Piazza San Marco, which may well be the headquarters of Pigeon United Nations. I think there are some pigeons in downtown T-Town, but I haven't seen any in a while.

Sometimes I do get a bit weary watching pigeons walk because they seem to use the weight of their heads for propulsion, so with each step they thrust their heads forward. Empathetically, I start getting headaches and neck-aches. Pigeons' eyes and feather-coloring are very pleasant to look at. Pigeons seem very eager, almost as if they worked in sales, but they're not obstreperous and bossy, unlike some crows we might mention.

Probably cities with large populations of pigeons have tales to tell about how much trouble they are. . . .I used to see cousins of pigeons, doves, in the Sierra Nevada every so often. Lovely.

I've eaten squab--or cooked pigeon--once only. Fictional detective and large gourmand Nero Wolfe eats a lot of squab in those books--as well as starlings.

A friend of mine doesn't particularly like the Seahawks, Seattle's professional football team (it's a complicated story), so he refers to the them as the Sea Squab, a fine example of a satirist's deflationary move, with no loss of alliteration.

I'm not sure if this "information" springs from an urban legend or not, but I've heard that carrier pigeons are extinct. I'll need to investigate further--or await a tiny scroll delivered by a bird.

Maybe the most interesting thing about pigeons to me is the sounds they make in their throats--hence this poem:

Pigeons’ Throats

Trickling cold-water springs bubble up
in the throats of pigeons.

In the throats of pigeons,
weary orderlies push medicine-carts

down dim hospital corridors, and
the one weak, wobbly wheel eeks.

Old men and women sit around
tables, mutter alibis, lullabies,

and goodbyes in parlors
I've imagined in pigeons' throats,

which speak in pigeon-code of untraveled
highways upholstered in ground-mist . . .

gray, green, and purple purses full of coins from
a lost currency. . . pearl light of train-windows, dawn.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Poem for Lent by Kimball

Because I converted from having no particular religious beliefs to Catholicism after I'd traveled down the road quite a ways, I am still getting used to the rhythms of the Church, as well as still feeling as if I walked into the middle of a large family's party in which, among other things, several arguments have been taking place for, oh, three or four centuries, at minimum. I converted in 2000.

Catholics have just entered the season of Lent, which, I suppose, the public at large connects vaguely to Mardis Gras. Lent is a time of ashes, silence, self-reflection, figurative and literal fasting, and waiting.

I found a poem about Lent by Virginia Kimball. Usually I'm not drawn immediately to religious poems connected so directly to any one particular aspect of any one faith. I tend to like poems that are spiritual in a broader sense. For instance, you don't need to be a person of any particular faith (and you may even be an atheist) to see the sense of Hopkins' praise of "dappled things" in "God's Grandeur." But Kimball's poem intrigued me, and although she is, I believe, a Dominican nun, the poem has something for non-Catholics, non-Christians, and readers with no particular religious affiliation.

Rhythm of Lent,

by Virginia Kimball

The day dims to evening,
rosy sky tingeing
cold bare limbs
with pink tinting.

Wind howls meaning,
inner soul tingling.
Frigid cold wrapping,
on a coffin tapping.

Yet off to Compline,
this first day of Lent,
darkness creeping
on the sunset seeping,
chanted prayer singing
plaintive night shortening,
incense in vision ringing.

Rhythm of days proceed,
filling steady with hope:
prayers dressed in candlelight,
dark holes in a cosmos plight.

Stars birthing from strange, deep
abysses of compressed
energy, brilliance emerging
from death, a glory surging
in mystery,
God asking Job, "were you there
when I formed the earth?" (Job 38: 4)
"Have you seen the gates of darkness?" (17)
"Was it you who formed the deep?" (8)

From the mystery of nothing
we come by the breath of God.
From a valley of darkness walking,
yearning for Christ without talking,

from dimmer to brighter,
from shorter to longer,
the steps of this path
a cadence grows greater,
the pulse of Creator,
the beat with His heart,
to faith that is stronger.

I rather like the following lines:

prayers dressed in candlelight,
dark holes in a cosmos plight.

They present an unsentimental, startling image of prayer. The whole of stanza 5 is impressive. partly because, with ease and purpose, it blends modern physics into a religious poem, but also because of its stark references to God's having challenged Job. The poem is from a series of Lenten meditations by Kimball that are posted on a site at the University of Dayton.

The Jesuit priest at my parish gave a homily on Lent this weekend, and he mentioned that most Catholics are pretty predictable when it comes to giving something up for Lent. They might, for example, go on a diet or a give up a particular kind of food. The padre had no objections to these "sacrifices," but he also encouraged his listeners not just to give up something but to do something--something either to be better persons or to try to make the world a bit better. To me that was as refreshing as Kimball's poem.

Of course, the list of things I could give up is so long as to require several volumes. Food that's bad for me, impatience, self-absorption (said the blogger), and almost-constant worry are part of that heap. I guess I'll just pick one. As to what I will do, according to the padre's advice--I'm working on it, but I think I'll keep it a secret for now.

You don't need to be a Catholic to experience this time of year as one of waiting, especially in northern climes. A very large number of people in the Pacific Northwest are waiting for Winter to stop cuffing us around.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Repetitive Espresso Macchiato

Sinning against counter-corporatism, I do patronize Starbucks, although during the work-week I go to the (two) cafes on our wee campus.

At Starbucks, I usually order a beverage that used to be listed rather prominently on the menu in the Paleolithic Starbucks Era: espresso macchiato. I add "doppio" (not sure of my Italian spelling there) to the order, and I think the word suggests either that I'm a dope or that I want two shots of espresso or both. (That bit of drollery may have been too dry.)

For at least two years, I've been getting the sense that almost no one else orders this beverage, which is simply two shots of espresso "marked" with a dollop of foam, which is supposed to be creamy foam, I believe, but milk-foam is fine for me. I add a bit of Splenda just to take the edge off the brownish-black knife that is espresso.

Once a barista had to get out what looked to be a Top Secret Starbucks book of recipes. Another barista recently informed me that I was "the only one who ever orders this." His tone suggested neither condemnation nor admiration. He was just giving me a fact and pointing out that I was, in this fact, a doppio.

More typically, after I order the beverage (and if there are multiple baristas around), a brief consultation occurs in which the pullers of shots confirm what they think an espresso macchiato is. They mumble quietly and do not make eye-contact with me--I think they don't want to let on that a conference was required. Every so often, a barista makes the drink incorrectly and just dumps a load of hot milk in with the mud. I never complain or send it back, however. After all, folks, what we're after here is "a hot cup of coffee," more or less.

I have deduced that the bulk of Starbucks customers order drinks that I consider milkshakes--enormous jars of liquid topped with hillocks of cream, with red straws jutting out like accent-marks in Spanish. The drinks must take the better part of an hour to consume and drive the blood-sugar to record-heights. (This makes me think of Rome, and of going to an espresso bar--literally a zinc bar--and ordering a shot: If you don't toss the thing back immediately like the rest of the Italian men and leave, the barista looks at you as if you're a trespasser. The look he gives you, should you linger, suggests he's thinking, in Italian, "Are you gonna stand there and nurse that thing all day, moron?")

It is just like me to find something I like and stick with it--until it disappears. I hang on to everything from books to clothes to vehicles. (The 1969 Ford F-100 pickup featured on this blog belonged to my father, who purchased it new.) I once had a favorite pair of wool socks that I believe were handed down from one of my brothers, and I think I may have kept them for close to 20 years--until my wife executed them. I get in ruts and routines. My parents' generation sometimes referred to such behavior as "getting on a jag." I had an uncle who, as observed by my mother, would get "on a jag" that entailed eating the exact same breakfast (which his wife had to cook) every day--for a year or more. It might be a waffle and bacon, for instance.

I'm especially vulnerable to repetitive behavior that saves time and energy, and I don't like to put much thought into shopping for food or clothes, one of many reasons I tend not pay attention to advertisements or coupons. (I wish they'd put the money for that into food for the impoverished.) Who knows?--I may have been content with at least one part of Soviet society, wearing gray every day and buying the one kind of whatever that was available. I would be content with one "blazer," for instance; only my wife saves me from such repetitive, eccentric behavior and induces the proper variation. I may have gotten the clothing-part of this habit from my father, who, in summer, wore bluejeans, a "railroad" striped cotton shirt, work-boots, a hat, and suspenders every day. When the weather got colder, he would change the kind of shirt and wear a red chamois-cloth (a kind of flannel) one. He had dozens of the two kinds of shirts.

When viewing the tube, I tend to go to the news outlets, BBC America, and/or Turner Classic Movies--with an occasional check on the fundamentalist-Christian network, which for some reason fascinates me: the programming and personalities are so bad that they're good.

I will get on poetry jags and read somebody's collected poems (again)--like Housman's, a recent example.

Although I am an old dog, I don't necessarily mind being dislodged from a groove, a rut, a drill. It just doesn't occur to me, usually, to break my own routine, so usually some kind of external influence is required. One day, for instance, Starbucks may simply refuse my request for an espresso macchiato (doppio). I will have to reconsider the situation. It will take a while. I may need to interrogate the barista briefly but politely. But I will change, if need be. There is, I believe, a difference between being an old dog and a pain in the ass.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Beyond the Chortle

I saw a clip of President Bush today; he was giving a speech to conservatives in his party, attempting "to rally the base" behind the next Republican candidate. Whenever any politician speaks, not just Bush, I tend to think of e.e. cummings' poem that parodies political speech:

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water


(I seem to have landed myself in a different font.) Bush himself seems
to have lost interest in his own speeches.In the speech today, and
the
State of the Union, he seemed almost too relaxed--burned out, fatalistic.
He
seems to be a man who has done whatever it was he was
going to do, a man
who thinks this pageant, life, is a bit of a joke.
Who can blame him if he feels this way? He seems tohave become
president in spite of himself. When I saw the clip of him
speaking, I chortled.

He did say one thing that interested me. He encouraged the audience
to stand up for
"faith in our values." I assume he meant "conservative"
values,but I decided to
broaden the term and assume, further, that
he meant "American values." Then I asked
myself, "What are American
values?" Of course,some ironic, sarcastic, answers
spring to mind.
But if I had to try to answer the question straight up, without a chortle,
I'd say
the following:

1. Work. Americans value work, and statistics show we tend to
work ourselves to death,
at least in comparison to folks in Europe,
for example. We tend to drive ourselves.


2. Consumption. We're mad for things. We make millions of things,
or have them made
abroad, and we sell them to each other. Gadgets,
cars, stuff. "Home improvements."
Clothes, shoes, trinkets. Little boxes
of entertainment. I've spent some time in
Germany and Sweden, two
industrialized countries, and while they're certainly modern

nations with all the "amenities," they simply aren't as obsessed with
things as
we are. I don't think any nation is as obsessed as ours is with
things.And the statistics in this case don't lie: we consume the most
fuel and produce the most waste, per capita, of any nation.

3. Control. How we got to the place where we think we can and should
control global
politics is a complicated story, but I think that's the place
we're in, for better
or worse. Nobody's business globally is not our
business. We can always rationalize
its being our business because
of "national security" or "human rights" or "the
global economy" or "the
spread of freedom." But these pieces of language really don't
get at
why we Americans love control so much. I think it's more than just
greed and
more than the fact that we're convinced our way is the way.
We have imperial instincts,
in my opinion, but they're different from
those of England, for example. The net
effect, however, may look the
same to those countries we try to control.


4. Immaturity. Europeans are fond of saying that Americans never grow
up (somewhat
ironic, given the trouble some Europeans get into, but
nonetheless . . .). We tend to
try to extend youth perhaps even more
frantically than the rest of humanity.


5. Privilege. We like imagining that we are on top of the world. Lord
knows a lot of
Americans are not privileged, to say the least, but still
I think there's an American
way of looking at the world, one that sees
America at the top of a hierarchy.


I don't know, for sure, what President Bush meant when he spoke of
"values." In private,
he may say something like, "It was just a speech,
okay? Grow up." Or he may really
mean something, or at least believe
he means something, when he says "values." He
may mean "freedom"
or "individuality" or whatever, but these are empty signifiers. As
far
as I know, he never deigns to complicate such terms, to reflect on
them, even
to define them. He says "values," and he counts on the
fact that his audience will
read the code-word correctly. In this respect,
he's just like every other politician. Politicians speak in code.


And so, once more, I think of cummings' poem.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ballad of the Bibliophile

It is such a heavy, cold, wet, harsh Thursday in the Pacific Northwest that I have decided to post some extremely light verse. In fact, it is arguably weightless verse, and it floats past with a virtual shout-out to anyone entranced by books in general or LibraryThing in particular.

Ballad of the Bibliophile

I wonder where my books will go
When I am gone away.
The image of that scattering
Has troubled me today.

Bibliophilia
Is really a,
Surreally a,
Condition one can’t cure.
Of this we can be sure.

Of course, the books don’t know that they
Belong to me, are held
By me in such sweet high esteem.
Without a doubt, the books will meld

With new collections easily.
Books after all are not
Hired help, don't owe fealty--
an independent lot.

Bibliophilia
Is really a,
Surreally a,
Condition one can’t cure.
Of this we can be sure.

From my stuffed shelves into the world—
Diaspora foretold.
Meanwhile I touch and horde and read
Dear books I have and hold.

Bibliophilia
Is really a,
Surreally a,
Condition one can’t cure.
Of this we can be sure.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

African American poems--a few favorites

"An embarrassment of riches" is an intriguing cliche. I suppose if one is wealthy in a monetary or acquisitive sense, one ought to feel some embarrassment, at least enough to induce one to share. But in literature, I'm not sure it's posssible to have an embarrassment of riches. Of course, I would think that, for I'm a greedy reader of poetry and don't believe the world can have too many good poems.

But as we're well into Black History Month, I thought I'd mention a few of my favorite African American poems, many of which are also my favorite poems, period. In no particular order, then:

"Yet Do I Marvel," by Countee Cullen. A perfect sonnet, but also a modern sonnet. And considering that Cullen has to finish the argument in 14 lines, the argument is quite complicated. It's an argument with God, to some degree.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, "We Wear the Masks."

Jessie Redmon Fauset, "La Vie C'est La Vie." A superbly phrased lyric poem.

Georgia Douglas Johnson, "I Want to Die While You Love Me." I have a recording of Alfre Woodard reading this one; her rendition is captivating.

Claude McKay, " If We Must Die" and "To White Friends." I have a recording of Ice T reading "If We Must Die."

Two more by Cullen: "Incident" and "Heritage." The latter is a remarkable achievement in poetry.

Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "I, Too," "Harlem," "Mother to Son," several of the "Madam" poems, "Trumpet Player," and "Theme for English B." Really what I want to do is to recommend the whole Collected Poems, but I must restrain myself.

Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays." Students tend to like this one a lot. It resonates for me partly because of the wood-stove in the poem.

Margaret Walker, "For Malcolm X."

Gwendolyn Brooks, "We Real Cool," "The Beat Eaters," and "Malcolm X"

Bob Kaufman, "Jail Poems"

Etheridge Knight, "For Black Poets Who Think of Suicide"

Audre Lorde, "Coal"

Amiri Baraka, "A Poem for Black Hearts"

Michael Harper, "Dear John, Dear Coltrane"

June Jordan, "Poem About My Rights" A wide variety of people "connect" with this poem.

Nikki Giovanni, "Beautiful Black Men"

Yusef Komunyakaa, "Facing It." One of the best poems from/about the Viet Nam War era.

Rita Dove, "Ö," "Parsley," "History" The second two are rather famous, the first one not so much, but I love that poem.

James Emanuel, "After the Record Is Broken" Emanuel is not a well known poet now, although he's still revered as a pioneer in African American criticism. It's a fine poem.

Dudley Randall, "Booker T. and W.E.B." A nice poetic summary of the two points of view, or at least one version of the two points of view.

Mari Evans, "And The Old Women Gathered"

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Dabbling in Philosophy

I'm an amateur philosopher--at best. Dabbler is more like it. Like almost every other person who has earned degrees in English, I dipped into philosophy as important background to and context of literature, and I took a two-semester "History of Philosophy" course--but philosophers tend not to like such courses because (so the argument goes) they are more of a tour of ideas than a course in "doing" philosophy. Getting ready for written doctoral exams in 18th & 19th century British literature and Modern British & American poetry, I also read some philosophy, but mostly in connection with specific literary works, poets, and novelists, and not all that systematically.

Having established the absence of preparation and credentials, then, I shall proceed to provide details that will further liquefy, if not atomize, my status in this regard.

My favorite philosopher is Spinoza. I've been reading him (his work) ever since I took that history of philosophy course, and I plunged into Ethics again about a year ago. --Not exactly light reading. But the line of argument is elegant, and the thinking is cool, as in chilly. God is the substance, goes one part of the argument, and everything else (pieces of reality large and small) comprises attributes of God. Evil springs from human misguidedness and mis-perception, not from Satan.

The poet in me likes the fact that Spinoza earned his living as a lens-grinder in the Netherlands, where his Jewish community excommunicated him. Later, a colleague encouraged him to become a Catholic. Unfortunately, the colleague's argument (I take great liberties with the paraphrasing here) was something like "all the popular people in Europe are converting to Catholicism!" Spinoza politely told the fellow that when he (the friend) came to his senses, he would know how ridiculous the invitation and the argument were.

Stuart Hampshire's work on Spinoza has been quite good at getting me as close to understanding Spinoza as I'll ever get. Spinoza has tended to get mis-used quite a bit. The 19th century, for example, wanted to turn him into a mystical pantheist, but that wasn't his argument at all. ("That is not it at all," to quote Eliot.)

Aristotle's my second favorite philosopher, although I know his non-philosophical work better: his writing on poetics (especially on tragedy, of course) and the timeless On Rhetoric. As long as I can remember, I've always preferred his work to Plato's. If Ari were alive today, he'd probably be a scientist or a social scientist, for he was the great empiricist. He seems to have been interested in everything and capable of taking apart everything and having a look. The world was data; data were the world. Even the guesses he made that turned out all wrong were very good hypotheses, even the crystal-sphere stuff.

Hume I love, too. He seems to have taken great joy in disrupting arguments and explaining how the logical connections people thought they were making were neither logical nor connections. --A latter-day Zeno, in my opinion.

I have to give Descartes his props. He came up with the greatest "hook" in philosophy, after all--and kept it to three words. And his thinking certainly swept Europe by storm.

Wittgenstein is fascinating, especially his evolution--going from mocking any "philosophy" that wasn't essentially phrased mathematically to embracing (or at least this is how I misinterpret it) something akin to rhetoric, wherein premises and definitions can function even as we acknowledge that they're contingent or constructed. The book about the famous (and famously mis-remembered or multiply remembered) "poker" episode with Popper, Ludwig, and Bertie Russell is entertaining.

I wish I liked Plato more, but I don't feel quite so bad after having read a biography of A.E. Housman (classical scholar), who read Plato as an undergraduate, decided what Plato had to say was a useless way of explaining the world, and never changed his mind.

I always found it ironic that Plato wanted to expel poets from his utopian kingdom because I see him primarily as a dramatist, a writer of little plays in which Socrates is the hero and, like professional wrestling champions, always "wins" the rigged contests. And the parable of the caves is lovely poetry. I enjoyed I.F. Stone's book on Socrates, especially how Stone criticizes Socrates without defending the death-sentence given him, even if Socrates had the choice of leaving the city rather than facing death.

And how cool is it that Aristotle and Plato just had one name--just like some celebrities nowadays? "The Philosopher formerly known as 'Plato.'"

Among the legion of philosophers whose work I never "got" are Leibniz and Kant. Or maybe I did "get" part of Kant and just didn't think it went anywhere. He seems to want to deny reality--but not really. He seems to waffle (a technical term in philosophy). Without a doubt, I grossly oversimplify when I remark that "the categorical imperative" seems like a very ornate version of the golden rule. When I got to the "monads" in Leibniz, I started laughing, and I apologize--for that for thinking that Berkeley is Plato Redux.

It's hard to overestimate Hegel's revolutionary (so to speak) ideas about history, but damn, his work is often impenetrable (to me, a mere poet, critic, and dabbler).

I could never quite connect with Nietzsche's work, either. I probably just needed a better philosophy professor--a better or more systematic introduction to his work. Or maybe I just imbibed too much of Aristotle-on-hubris to be anything other than suspicious about what appears to be the glorification of the will. What we think of as "the will" seems like something useful selected by evolution; it provides persistence and focus, among other things. But does it provide a worthy basis for understanding the world fully, for doing well and doing good? I don't know. But then Nietzsche wanted to move past good and evil--so there's that. I need to give Nietzsche at least one more try. This time maybe I'll confer with a Nietzsche-expert who happens to work on the same corridor as I.

I reckon the stuff I've read on Zen Buddhism doesn't really qualify as philosophy--or does it? Zen Buddhism seems to me to have anticipated almost all of Existentialism, but I'd wager there are some strong counter-arguments to that position. Anyway, my favorite Zen writer is Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

Certainly St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are more properly classified as theologians than as philosophers, but it is fascinating to watch their minds work as they reason on behalf of God and Christianity. When I read them, I feel as if I'm wandering around in a forest, not lost, by any means, but also not going in a straight line, the way one does with Descartes, say.

If he were alive, Spinoza wouldn't care that I became a Catholic several years ago because he wouldn't know or care who I was--I, a trivial micro-attribute. How to reconcile my great interest in Baruch's work with my Catholicism is an interesting problem--but also above my pay-grade.

Now that I have defamed several philosophers, my work is done here. Goodnight Baruch, wherever you are; by definition, you are with God--or is it of--God?

Friday, February 1, 2008

African American Books Slightly Under the Radar

I'm staying in the Black History Month (officially it started today) groove.

African American literature has become central to American literature, so the names Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin have the same literary heft as Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Ernest Hemingway.

At the edges of the limelight, however, are some fine books; they're not so well known, and maybe the same is true of their authors. In no particular order . . .:

The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, by Rudolph Fisher. If you like detective fiction, you may already know this book, but if you somehow missed it, give it a read. Its plot is wonderfully structured, it mixes realism, comedy, and a bit of the gothic well, it has two (arguably, three) great detectives, and it present a memorable picture of Harlem in the 1930s. In addition to being a fine writer, Fisher was a physician. Unfortunately, he was a pioneer in X-ray technology, experimented on himself when the effects were still unknown, and contracted cancer, dying before he was thirty. Otherwise, a series would have developed from this novel. I've recommended the book on LibraryThing in several venues, and I may have noted it on the blog before, but another recommendation can't hurt. If you're a mystery-reader, are in one of those phases where you can't find "a good one" to read, and haven't read this one: go for it. A nice treat in Winter.

From the same era, Plum Bun, by Jessie Redmon Fauset. It's one of the better novels on the theme of passing, in my opinion, and its dissection of social class, desire, ambition, and romance (as well as racism) is worthy of Jane Austen; the book is that strong.

The poetry of Countee Cullen, also from the Harlem Renaissance. "Yet Do I Marvel" used to get taught in high schools, but I'm not sure it does anymore.

If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin. I think it's fair to say this is one of his least well known novels and books in general, but its quality is as good as that of Giovanni's Room and Another Country. He takes a chance by using a young woman as both protagonist and first-person narrator, but he just nails the narrative voice.

Black Ice, by Lorene Cary. An autobiography, much of which concerns her experience at an almost-all-white, extremely exclusive East Coast prep-school, at which she had earned a scholarship. The book's about 15 years old now, I think, but it is--among other things--highly pertinent to current presidential politics, where ethnicity, gender, and class are mixing it up in fascinating ways.

Harlem Redux, by Persia Walker. This is regarded as more of a popular novel than a literary one (whatever that distinction may mean). It came out around 2000, maybe a wee bit earlier, but it's set in the 1920s in Harlem, so it's an historical detective novel, with rich social texture. It may not be heavy enough for a reader fresh from a Morrison novel, but it's well written, smart, and immensely entertaining. Still available in paperback as far as I know.