Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, July 31, 2008


An apt title for the blog, don't you think? Speaking of boring, I looked it up in the OED online--a terribly boring thing to do if, unlike a tiny percentage of the population, you think (quite rationally) that looking words up on the OED is tediously nerdy or nerdily tedious, or just plain wrong. Anyway, some info:

1840 T. HOOK Fitzherbert III. iv. 66 Emily was patiently enduring..Miss Matthews's boring vanities.

I was a bit surprised that the word, with this connotation, apparently arose in the written language so relatively late, a mere nine years before the California Gold Rush, which was probably more boring than its name makes it sound. Digging for gold is terribly boring work, although my father didn't think so.

Anyway, it looks as though the adjective, as deployed this way, springs directly from boring as in boring into--like a drill. Monotonous, unrelenting. Let us leap to the next point and avoid a boring transition:

Karl Shapiro, among others, insisted that the single most reliable test of a poem's worth [aside from historical worth, etc.] was whether the reader wanted to read it again--not necessarily right away (although that would be fine), but tomorrow, or next week, or five years from now. I think this also means that the poem isn't boring, but I suppose the poem has to be more than just not boring. Now a hop, as opposed to a leap:

Samuel Johnson, one of the most discerning readers ever, apparently got bored with one of the great poems ever, Paradise Lost. He agreed that Milton's blank-verse tour de force, or tour de paradise, was terrific, but he also famously said of the epic poem, "No one wished it longer." I feel the same way about films by Oliver Stone and John Cassavetes, not that the latter two are in Milton's league; on the other hand, did Milton ever direct a film? I think not. A sideways hop:

My "urban hike," which I attempt to take every other day (cycling in place on the other every other day, speaking of boring [but heart healthy, or so they tell me] exercise), takes me on the same vaguely circular route. Going in a different direction helps, and sometimes I stop halfway and do something, like drink espresso or observe Moldavians. Today, however, I was thinking that what really makes a familiar route interesting is simply paying attention. To the tiniest scrap of something someone throws away, for example. Or one weird rock. Or what people try to do with and to their yards. Or a cat, watching you as if you were dinner.

A high school teacher, attempting to teach us to write poetry, made a similar point. He told us to go outside and "really look at the world"--and then write. His implicit argument was that whatever one saw (and heard, etc.) was interesting, by definition, because it existed and because we would, he hoped, apply attention to it. I think it was a vaguely Zen point he was making, and I'm not sure whether "vaguely Zen" is redundant or not. It's still a great prompt for writing a poem--or story or essay: A) Assume that wherever you are, you are in an interesting place, and B) just observe the heck out of the place, pouring your attention into it and receiving all its particularity in return, and C) write.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hey, Cliche

I tend not to get quite as upset by cliches as most teachers of writing, especially in introductory writing classes. (By the way, I know the word needs an accent over the e, but how to put it there using the blog machinery is beyond me.) If you look at the alleged problem of cliches from a relatively younger writer's point of view, it's no big deal, and I think I just used a cliche. Usually, when I'm visiting a work-group in class or writing comments on a poem (or essay or story), I simply point out that most readers of such pieces react badly to the appearance of a cliche, and the writer gets the point immediately, and he or she then knows that what's expected is a fresh analogy or metaphor--or, if a good fresh one doesn't seem to arise, then a different good way of expressing what needs to be expressed. I don't take cliches personally.

Moreover, I have a special fondness for the word, cliche, because I acted in a short film of that title. It was directed by Ben Shelton, and, among other things, it landed my name in the IMDB database ("database" is redundant here, I think) as an actor. (Apparently, IMDB uses the term "actor" loosely.) The role did not prove to be my big break in the movie business, but I didn't expect it to do so.

"Big break." That's a cliche, I think. But it's one of those cliches that are part of the everyday linguistic currency.

What does it mean literally? I'm not sure. Does it refer to a breaking through (which would be a kind of military term, as in breaking through the enemy's lines)? When we say "give me a break," I think we mean something like "please provide me with a rest-period from your nonsense.? For example, if we're watching yet another tired Hollywood movie with 23.5 plot-cliches, we might mutter, "Give me a break." Ironically, and intentionally, Ben Shelton's short movie did not have such cliches.

My good friend, the OED online, informed me that the French word cliche entered the written English language around 1892. In French, the term originally referred to a pre-fabricated pattern or matrix that was plopped onto molten metal to create an object. --Rather like a cookie-cutter, I reckon. Some Brits, perhaps following a French lead (to use a cliche), apparently decided that such a pre-fabricated mold served as a good image for a too frequently used expression. But of course no one thinks of the mold or matrix anymore when they read or hear "cliche," and the same is true of cliches. In English, cliche is now a noun, of course, and an adjective ("that is a cliche expression"). I believe the more standard usage of the adjectival form is "cliched," however: e.g., "that is a cliched expression"). Both forms are probably acceptable, as long as there's an accent over the e, a wee homage to French, a feather in the cap of the e, to use a cliche.

My parents' generation used the expression "don't go off half-cocked," and I assume that refers literally to a pistol that fires as the person is cocking it. The pistol "goes off." Now, however, I'd be willing to wager that if anyone uses the expression (I don't hear it much), they may not think of a pistol or anything concrete. Moreover, they may vaguely think of "going off" in terms of leaving, of going away. And they may vaguely think that half-cocked refers to being only half prepared--or something like that. "Don't go off half-cocked" now means "don't behave impulsively," yes?

Similarly, when people to refer to a dependable or resilient person as a "trouper," they may think they're saying "trooper," and they may, as I did once, write "trooper." A "trouper" is a dependable member of an itinerant performing troupe, at least that is my inference. Now, however, people may vaguely think that "trouper" is "trooper" and that "trooper" refers to a dependable member of the military, so they may think that the comparison is between a reliable person and a foot-soldier. And one one cliche leads to another: "foot soldier." Is that a podiatrist who works for the army? :-)

Another expression that interests me is "tow the line," which I belief refers to one boat towing another boat, as when a tugboat tows a large ship. So "towing the company line" would mean that, like a tugboat, a person is behaving in a servile, unquestioning way with regard to the company's policy, or the policy of "the big ship." However, I think most people now think the expression is "toe the line," as in bringing your feet in close proximity to a line on a floor. Again the reference is to a kind of obedience or servility. I think of getting one's shod toes close to the free-throw line on a basketball court, for example--obeying the rules, so that your free-throw counts, even though you don't really throw the ball as much as toss it--unless of course you're a terrible shooter of free-throws, in which case you really do hurl the ball.

In any event (to use a cliched transition, and just what event are we talking about?), I seem to be more interested in how cliches operate, how they drift far away from the original comparison, than I am in eradicating them or fiercely correcting writers who use them. (As you probably already know, there's a nice section in George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" about how expressions drift, become cliches, and otherwise lose precision and force.) Probably if writers get interested in how cliches work or even in the origins of favorite cliches, they will be likely to recognize cliches in their writing and speaking and, in revisions, excise and/or replace them, if that's the right writerly move to make.

I'll conclude by noting that I think "wasted" has become a cliche, in reference to being intoxicated or inebriated. I was most amused yesterday in a health-food store, where I went in search of almond-butter, when I heard one of the clerks say to another one, "I was totally wasted, so I had a good time." I liked the counterintuitive sense in which "totally" (as opposed to partially) wasted resulted in a "good" time, and I liked the fact that a clerk at a health-food store would not only get his body and mind "wasted" but happily discuss the matter at work the next day. I had (but did not act on) the urge to say to the clerks, "Hi--I'm interested in a product that will get me totally wasted so I can have a good time--do you have that sort of thing in the store? I'd like it to be organic, however, and healthy."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Thanks, Rachel

One of the smarter radio talk-show folk seems to be Rachel Maddow, articulate and well read. She explains things so well that even poets can appear to understand.

One of her good points today was that at least one of Bush's cronies is working against alleged U.S. interests in Iraq. The Hunt Oil Company, the head of which has donated $35 million to the Bush II Library [what will be in that library?], has cut an oil deal with the Kurds that effectively removes those oil deposits from the control of the Iraqi government. Maddow's point is that if the alleged goal of U.S. occupation is to establish something that resembles a viable state with a viable economy, removing the main source of economic strength, oil, from the state works against that alleged goal. Thus a Bush oil crony is arguably working against Bush's interests. But who says Bush's interest is in establishing a viable Iraqi state? Another crony in the midst of attempting to seal private oil deals is, of course Richard Perle, one of the main neo-con architects of the Iraqi invasion and occupation. He's working for a corporation with oil interests. Of course.

An old-fashioned way of viewing such matters is through the lens of conflict-of-interests. But I think the point of the military/industrial complex is to remove any conflict between the military and the industrial complex by having the former smoothly pave roads for the former.

The only point at which Maddow got a wee bit predictable is when she asked, "Would a President McCain remove Perle from the usual inner circle of neo-con advisors?" A better question, I think, is whether a President Obama would do anything about the way in which American oil interests trump all other interests, or appear to do so. My guess is . . . No. I think the vision of a United Federation of Iraqi States (or whatever) is a fairy tale, and I don't thing anyone is going to achieve that, especially if it runs counter to oil interests, which, if Maddow's argument is correct, run counter to a united Iraq in control of its own oil and oil-profits. Second, I think Obama is a pragmatist, and I don't think he'd dream of taking on big oil. Even if he wanted to do so, how could he do it? He'd only be the president, not an oil CEO.

Thus ends a poet's foray into Iraqi/oil politics. Thanks, Rachel Maddow. I think I'll stick to translations of Iraqi poetry.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Poets On Strike

For several months, I've been having a blast reading the Rumpole stories and novels by John Mortimer. They rival P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves narratives for pithy, hilarious writing, although because Rumpole is a barrister, there's also some underlying commentary about law and society. There's a very strong libertarian streak running through the books and Mortimer's worldview, but it's genuine libertarianism, not cloaked GOP politics (or Conservative politics, in Britain). Rumpole defends anyone with whom the State is unamused, including women, minorities, smokers, immigrants, persons deemed strange, and nonviolent criminals, including the Timson family. If you're looking for quick summer reading that will bring belly laughs, knowledge of poetry, and stylish British writing, go with John Mortimer and Rumpole. It doesn't matter where in the series you start, either. Just go to a used bookstore and pick one out.

The late actor Leo McKern played Horace Rumpole on the BBC (I've posted a photo of him), and you'll enjoy that video series, too.

In a story called "Rumpole and the Summer of Discontent," strikes or "industrial action" are featured. The clerk in Rumpole's firm threatens to strike, and Rumpole is sympathetic but reasons that the action in this case would be about as effective as if poets or pavement artists were to go on strike. Most amusing, and most certainly true.

Indeed, if poets were to go on strike, who would care? This is not to say that poetry is unimportant. It's only to say that society regards poetry as inessential. If you would test what profession, service, or vocation is essential, ask whether a strike by said profession, service, or vocation would be effective, would cause consternation if not chaos. Police, fire, emergency rooms, truckers, longshoremen, teachers, farmworkers: essential. (Teachers are essential in part because both parents work and even if both parents don't work, they want a break from the kids.) Poets, painters, interior decorators, stock brokers, philosophers, priests, rabbis: not essential. Of course, people might be wistful that such folk were on strike, but society would not grind to a halt.

Should Rumpole's observation (and remember, Rumpole loves poetry, especially that which appears in Quiller-Couch's edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse--it's just that, as a barrister, he must practice Realpolitik and even observes that knowledge the law only unnecessarily encumbers a barrister) be depressing to poets? Heavens, no. We poets (and philosophers) do what we do because poetry and philosophy are essential in ways that vegetable-produce, gasoline, and emergency medicine are not. There are different kinds of "essential," that's all. Oxygen is essential in one way; poetry is essential in another. Luckily for people and oxygen, people know right away when they are deprived of oxygen. Unfortunately, it may take the better part of a lifetime for someone to realize how much better life would be with poetry.

Rumpole regards employment, trial by jury, innocent until judged to be guilty, wine, small cigars, shepherd's pie, and poetry to be essential. Like Samuel Johnson, Rumpole is a dangerous person with whom to disagree. Therefore, I shall continue to read the Rumple stories and poetry, and I shall continue to write poetry, but I've decided not to go on strike, at this time.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Maher Unamused by God

Someone showed me a copy of Playboy magazine in which appeared an article by comedian Bill Maher concerning a book he's about to publish. The book apparently attacks all religion. I think the illustration of Maher that accompanied the article was meant to be flattering, but it didn't seem so.

The article mentions an image of a giant in Ireland (I think), carved into a hillside. The reference is meant to illustrate that people will preserve religious images long after the particular religion has died, but the real purpose of the reference is, predictably, to go for a penis-joke. Then Maher slides over to more established religions and mocks the opulence of the Vatican. Gee, that's a new one. Finally he gets to his point, which is apparently that belief in "groundless" things leads to all manner of evil.

That the article should appear in Hefner's surreal, exhausted magazine is itself amusing--an attack on religion sandwiched between the ultimate Middle Schooler's airbrushed, Barbie-esque nudes and lame cartoons. More amusing is the sense one gets that Maher takes himself seriously as a critic of religion and as a "thinker," and that he imagines he's breaking new ground. I think he may also believe he's being slightly mischievous as he attacks religion. On his HBO show, he often gets a look on his face that suggests he thinks he's being quite daring. "Watch this: I'm going to say the F-word!"

Well, if groundlessness is the criterion, he should also attack everything else human. It's not as if science is based on solid ground, for example. Just ask Hume--or Einstein. The more science discovers, the more Jello-like becomes the "ground" on which it's based. Also, what is more absurd--religion or stand-up comedy? A priest or a diminutive fellow wearing makeup and reading from a tele-prompter? I should think it's at least a toss-up.

I think one key to a humorous and by no means stupid fellow like Maher is, ironically, his naivete. He seems ultra-hip, ultra-cynical, and jaded. When he was on top of the mass-media world with a show called Politically Incorrect, he fashioned himself a gadfly who would say all manner of offensive things, allegedly insulting the "politically correct" [whatever that means] Left and the prudish Right. Ah, but who fired him and for what? His corporate bosses fired him for suggesting that terrorists who blow themselves up are braver than American pilots who drop bombs. So, of course, it wasn't feminists or professors or multicultural theorists or pastors' wives in Nebraska who got offended and censored him by firing him. It was the corporate suits. And for some reason, he didn't see it coming: that was the surprising part. He seemed to assume his carefully modulated mischief, with good ratings, wouldn't piss off the corporate types. Oops, one slip, and you're out.

Now, like Christopher Hitchens, he seems to have discovered atheism and wants to tell the world. Next, I suppose, will come some breaking news about gravity. As a friend of mine (an atheist and politically radical person) used to say, "Get in the game," meaning: People have been having these arguments about religion since religion came on the scene. Nothing Maher asserts hasn't been asserted more effectively than by writers in the tradition, including contemporary ones like Garry Wills. And then there's this: the atheist jokes aren't that funny. I think there's probably a more productive comic vein to mine at this point than religion, just as there may be a slightly more daring magazine (ya think?) than Playboy. In other words, snore. Bertrand Russell is a lot funnier than Bill Maher when it comes to atheism, and Bertrand is dead.

The one fellow on Maher's show recently who seemed to get the better of him was Russell Simmons, the record producer and inventor of Def Poetry Jam. Maher was mocking how ego-maniacal most Hip Hop artists seemed to him, and Russell Simmons merely observed, ". . Whereas you have no ego?"

God must be quaking in the celestial boots after hearing about Maher's impending attack.

Friday, July 25, 2008



Snow. A red bird. Fog.
A yellow scarf. Rain. A
white cat. Wind. An
orange leaf. Hail. Blue
marbles. Mist.
Silver fish-scales.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Herman Melville Invitational Golf Tournament

The Herman Melville Invitational Golf Tournament

Hawthorne reached the 9th green in two, but lightning
struck him down as he walked up the fairway.
Edgar Allan Poe was buried alive in a sand-trap
on the 13th. Walt Whitman fell in love
with his caddy. Near the hazard on 15th,
there was an unusual set of divets
leading up the the water, and a harpoon
had been driven into the green.

Emily Dickinson carried the day,
("epic for show, lyric for dough"),
and Fred Douglass presented her
with the trophy. Henry David Thoreau
filed suit against the developers
who'd wiped out a perfectly good
marsh to carve the course.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright Hans Ostrom 2008

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Business As Usual

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxFranz Kafka

Business As Usual

"Bonnie, will you get
Mrs. Phillips on the line
and remind her that everything
except Emptiness is an illusion?
Oh, yes, and tell her she's
trapped in the nightmare
of history. Ask her if next
Monday is a good day for her
to come in and discuss
her portfolio. Thanks, Bonnie."

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Exhumed Story-Poem

A large crowd of books and notebooks has been paroled from storage, is now assembling itself, with my encouragement, on some darned fine custom-made bookshelves. Just when the world, via Kindle, etc., is turning to digital reading-matter, I decide to get some old-fashioned built-in bookshelves. Timing is everything in show business.

In one of the exhumed notebooks I found an old story-poem--about a preacher, a man of the cloth. Oddly enough, I remember the poem's origin, too: a walk beside a creek near my brother's home in California. It's a creek that gets hit pretty hard by the human presence. How or why I took a leap, so to speak, from the creek to the story, I don't know. The poem is pretty much a free-verse ballad, I'd say.

Evangelical Detour

On the way to deposit
tithings in a secret account,
a preacher lost his way,
found himself misplaced in woods.

Hungry and bug-bitten
beside a creek that smelled
strongly of sewage, this
preacher asked God

to direct him toward
a way out. A weird
child appeared then. There
was something too wise

in her pallid face. There
was no indication she lived
anywhere but in
those words. Maybe, thought

the preacher, she lives nowhere.
She said to him, "Throw the money
away. Throw it, preacher, in
the creek." He said, "No."

He claimed the money, of course,
belonged to God. It wasn't that
the child disagreed. It was that
she smiled thinly, sweetly.

She said, "Then throw it in
the creek, preacher. Throw that cash
in the creek. Do you doubt God
will retrieve it if it belongs to Him?"

The preacher knew his powers
of conviction had left the congregation
of his mind. He was hungry
and bug-bitten, lost in woods.

He feared the child more
than any lacerating snake.
He flung the money in the creek.
He watched the currency float

on water like leaves. The child
evaporated. The preacher
was tempted to reach for the money,
run after it. In his mind,

he saw it drying on the rocks.
But he turned, and he left.
He woke up in his car. A state
trooper tapped on his window.

"Am I dead?" asked the preacher,
after the window had come down.
The servant of the people said, "No,
sir, but you look like hell."

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dusk Poem

Just a Poem at Twilight

Late skies drape light
over dimming woods. Smaller
animals come to life and mind--
burrowers, scuttlers in the brush.
They work very hard. Thinking
about them improves thinking,
which is nudged now toward
an idea of someone turning around

in the woods, coming back
near the cabin. She will encounter
clouds of gnats and mosquitoes.
Her thin jacket will not seem
sufficient. Sighting lit cabin-windows
will insinuate a melange of excitement
and regret. Birds and bats against
late skies--wings! Damp air.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom


I send approximately two text-messages per month, always to the same person, a family member. It takes me quite a while to construct and send a text-message because phones now are apparently designed to fit in the paws of very small rodents, not in humans' hands.

I gather, however, that the text-messaging language, if it can be called that, has become quite extensive. I tend not to abbreviate much, but I might use 2 in place of to and 4 in place of for. In other words, I'm a text-messaging dinosaur in this respect, too.

A colleague in philosophy posits that within 100 years, almost everyone will be illiterate by today's standards. I think he means that only eccentric groups of people will read books to any great extent and that people who do write will mostly rearrange digital-screen icons or compose short messages in a language rooted in today's text-messaging language. That is, what we think of as an abbreviation or an acronym will be a word unto itself, and those using this language won't think in terms of parallels between the abbreviated and the abbreviation.

I don't disagree with him, but on the other hand, it's almost impossible to predict what will happen with literacy and language. Language especially is such a protean, independent force that you pretty much have to sit back and just see what happens. As a teacher of writing, what I've noticed happening for a long time is the disappearance of the possessive apostrophe. I can "correct" the "mistake" until I'm blue in the face, but basically the apostrophe is toast. It doesn't exist in German, and will cease to exist in English. "Quote" as a noun has replaced "quotation," and I think at some point "alright" and "alot" will be accepted into Standard Written English. These are trivial examples, but they're also place-holders for much larger shifts of language that happen because the amorphous group of people actually using the language have decided, without deciding, that the language works better with these changes. Sociolinguists have a much better handle on how this happens than a mere writing-teacher, of course.

But people already speak of a "post-literate" society, by which is meant, I think, a society more comfortable with screens, images, and icons than with old fashioned chunks of written language--sentences, paragraphs, pages, documents, books.

I gather that OMG--which apparently stands for Old Mother Goose--and WTF--which apparently stands for Wild Truffle Foundation--are common acronyms in text messaging. Gee, I do hope I have the proper translations here.

I remember hearing Brad Comman reading a poem, many moons ago, composed entirely of three-letter acronyms much in use at the time. The art came from the juxtaposition, as I recall. For example, "LSD" and "CIA" were cheek by jowl--as well they should be, for the CIA experimented with LSD as--what? An interrogation tool? A reward for good spying? Who knows? A list like Brad's would be much different now, I reckon, but CIA might still be there, along with OMG, WTF, WTO, DVD, SDS (in revived form), and WMD. (I invite you to make your own list.) Interestingly, referring to presidents by their three initials--LBJ, JFK--has gone the way of the apostrophe. Headlines routinely included JFK and LBJ during the respective presidencies, but I don't believe I've seen GWB even once. OMG!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Spy Poet

I don't think being a poet necessarily disqualifies one from being a spy, but I could understand if espionage-agencies worldwide would be wary of deploying poets as spies. I think poets are more likely than other people to get confused by codes because poets are tempted to deconstruct codes and try to turn them into poems. Also, what "cover" could usefully be constructed for spy-poets? True, spy-poets could give readings and teach creative writing in the nation on which they were supposed to be spying, but would that put them close in information crucial to national security? I envisage a spy-poet contacting his or her handler and excitingly reported that poets from the nation in question allude to 19th century European philosophy in extremely inventive ways. I can hear the handler saying, "Gee, that's fascinating." I can also envisage spy-poets padding their expense-accounts with purchases of notebooks, poetry-books, pens, coffee, and wine. On the other hand, "the enemy" might suspect that the poet would be a spy, but the counterintuitive characteristic of a poet might also make the poet a likely spy. How convoluted this poetry-espionage gets, and so quickly!

Spy Poet

He was supposed to be in Phoenix
giving false secret information to agents
from a nation whose economy was
smaller than Arizona's. Instead he lay
in bed in North Dakota, writing poems
about cats, observing that cats know what
they want humans to do and watch to see
if humans do it, and if the humans don't
do it, the cats devise ways to change
humans' behavior. Some of the poems

worked with the idea that domestication
was not a process by which humans
changed cats but one in which cats changed
humans. He had completed drafts of several
poems when federal agents burst into his
motel-room in that sudden bursting-
federal-agent way and arrested him.
He reminded them that it was unprofessional
of them to laugh at his poems.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Self-Cleaning Cats

Not that you asked, but I've never known how self-cleaning ovens work. I suspect I cling to my ignorance on this subject because I'm suspicious of the concept, "self-cleaning ovens." You want ovens that will cook food well and reliably, I think. Ideally, you might want self-cleaning ovens, but requiring an oven to self-clean as well as to cook reliably seems like asking too much, in the sense that whatever bizarre technology is required for "self-cleaning" might disrupt the technology that insures reliable cooking.

Cats, on the other hand, are self-cleaning in ways I understand, ways I've observed, with some fascination. Therefore, I wrote a poem on the subject.

Cats' Baths

A cat is not a user of tools,
must therefore clean its body
using only its body. At some
juncture, self-cleaning cats
persisted well in Evolution's
pageant, passed on codes
of instinct which direct regular,
thorough cleaning of fur, feet,
orifices. A cat concentrates

on cleaning longer than it
concentrates on anything else.
Cleaning calls to cats. They
are somber as they clean, not
quite grim but determined
and earnest, certainly sincere.
Distracted, cats may pause
briefly, the edge of the pink tongue
lodged between teeth, bright
and vivid like a fragment of
a rose's petal.

This cat-vocation, cleaning,
fascinates. After cats clean,
they often sleep deeply, as if
sleep were a solemn ritual
in preparation for which they
licked their fur in the direction
their fur lay, and rubbed their
ears with dampened paws,
and licked between each
separated claw-sheath.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Found Poem, Portland

We hadn't been to Portland (Oregon) for a while, so we spent a few days there. Many moons ago, we used to stay at a cavernous old hotel called the Mallory, and then we'd go to the venerable Benson for a drink. This time we stayed a few blocks from the Benson and stopped by, only to find that they'd remodeled the lobby and pretty much gutted the great old immense bar that used to be lined with dark carved wood. Oh, well. Things get modernized.

Predictably, I went to the secular shrine for bibliophiles, Powell's Books--always a good time. The place isn't quite as magical as it used to be, but it sure seems to be thriving. So far the Internet and some of the surviving used-book stores seem to experiencing a beautiful friendship. The stores can appeal to their traditional clientele but also sell books online. Maybe Kindle and other devices will eventually undermine even these stores, or maybe paper books will survive somehow. . . .

All big cities have a lot of homeless citizens, but Portland seems to have more than its "share," whatever a share is supposed to be. There also seems to be a greater percentage of younger homeless persons--people of high-school age--in Portland. I'm wary of a state and the State having too much power, but with regard to homelessness, I lean toward Sweden's attitude, which is definitely state-heavy.

Basically, Sweden sees homelessness as unacceptable. The police pick up homeless people and take them to a shelter. I'd be in favor of building a lot more shelters and having the police, or another agency, or non-profit groups transport homeless people to the shelters. I'd rather see taxes go to that then a lot of other stuff. There is an argument, I guess, for allowing people to live on the street if they want to, but it's not an argument that convinces me. In most cases, they've been forced to live there, one way or another, or they have mental conditions so genuinely disorienting that they're not good judges of where they ought to live. Also, a huge percentage of people on the street, especially but not exclusively younger ones and women, are targets for all manner of predation and abuse. I think people have a right to shelter and basic meals, and I think society has the responsibility of getting them into shelter, maybe even in spite of initial opposition. At the same time, the shelter has to be safe, not another site of potential abuse.

Now that the rant is over, I'll mention a found poem I saw in Portland. It was composed of eight signs, one word each, on the side of a grocery store downtown--I think it's called Helen's. The words were in white, with a black background, and appeared in a line on the side of the building. I've kept them in order but arranged them vertically.



The order of the words appealed to me a great deal--three single-syllable words followed by a multiple-syllable word. Then there's the repetition of beer and wine. All the nouns are singular, although "beer" and "wine" can work as collective nouns. I also like what the "poem" says about what items are most essential, perhaps most desired, and I rather like that "card"--greeting card(s), presumably (although playing cards were available in the store--is among the perceived essentials. Beer and wine appear to be doubly essential. I agree, of course, that the list is a bit of a nutritionist's nightmare.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Successful Beading

While I was waiting for the train, which is actually a bus (it's complicated, as they say on Facebook), to Tacoma in Bellingham, I made a bracelet out of beads for someone I've known a long time. I'd ambled past many a bead-shop before, but this was my first venture into one of the shops.

I didn't have a lot of time before the train left, so I set a brisk pace as I selected beads and politely pressured the person in charge of the shop to show me how to put a bracelet together. I had the sense my speed-beading was not a customary part of bead-culture. I chose beads of a similar color--light brown, tan, burnt umber, that sort of thing. And I chose three different kinds of beads and arranged them in a pattern, a kind of visual representation of Morse Code--a simple repetition of a simple series. I also went with the wire, not the nylon string.

Crimping proved to be a huge challenge because I couldn't see what I was doing, even with glasses on. I think next time I'll make a gigantic necklace.

People usually pretend to like something you make for them yourself more than they pretend to like something you bought for them, in my experience.

I predict bead-shops will thrive in this economy, which is starting to take on Herbert Hooverish characteristics. I'm not sure Bush even knows what country he's presiding over, but I digress.

According to the OED online, "bead," spelled "byd" and then "bede," originally donated "prayers," and if I'm inte-preting things correctly, it had nothing to do with prayer beads. "Bead," as referring to a small object with a hole in it (for stringing) didn't come into the written language until about 1377, whereas bead (bede) as prayer came in about 855.

It's too bad "beady eyes" is now a cliche. It's not a bad description.

I know what "draw a bead on" means with regard to sighting something and shooting at it, but I'm not sure precisely how the metaphor was supposed to have worked originally. A lot depends upon "draw," which can mean to pull but which can also mean to mark. So maybe the phrase meant to mark, figuratively, a bead on the target; or maybe it meant that once you shot a hole in the target, you would have, so to speak, drawn (marked) a bead (a wee circular image) on the target. I think it's too much of a stretch to link "draw a bead" to the tiny sphere that used to be on the front sight of some rifles; one would visually place that "bead" in the notch of the front sight and align both with the target.

Luckily, beading is now a completely nonviolent pursuit, although I suppose patrons of a bead-shop could get into a bead-throwing fight, but judging by the customers I saw in the Bellingham shop, this is unlikely to happen.

I do have to improve on my crimping skills, meaning I have to bring a magnifying glass next time. My eyesight has become too beady. The bracelet had to be recrimped, I guess because there was a crimp in its style, nyuk, nyuk, but everything is fine now.

In any event, I encourage all poets and readers of poetry to try to make something out of beads. In some ways, a line of poetry is like a string of beads, yes?



Is your abode too close to the river?
Does your home sit astride a fissure
between slabs that uphold illusions
of real estate? Is there a slope
above or below your place
that will one day fall for rain?

Perchance, did you build
a match-factory next to a field
full of dry, oily brush? Well, wherever
you live, your roommate is risk,
statistically. Pay us, please, in case

your relationship with risk becomes
more, or less, than Platonic. Rest
insured. If the river riots or Earth's
complexion cracks, if all falls down
or bursts into blaze, then count

your blessings, muse on ruination,
and wait for our reply. In the meantime,
we'll be watching data gather round
the mean. We'll keep your money
in a vault well away from risk,
from you. We'll keep your money safe,
where it can work in peace for us.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, July 14, 2008

Beyond Beyond

For some reason, I never really favored making the first line of the poem the title, or the title the first line. Some poets pull it off just fine. I thought I'd try it with this one, although I'm tempted to give the poem a different title, such as "Beyond Beyond."

The other side of the universe

is a phrase that begs the question,
and a very good question it is. One answer
is how my mind feels when it fails
to imagine what's beyond the unimaginable
borders of reality, out where minds, not
to mention Time and Space,
break like waves on invisible coasts.

Perplexity is an intriguing limit, rather
like the horizon, which doesn't exist.
Does the universe have an outside
outside itself, or
does it, like Myrtle Thompson,
an ancient eccentric in my hometown,
prefer to stay indoors, forever?

Hans Ostrom

Copyright Hans Ostrom 2008

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I've been teaching for a long time, and I think I've had only one student in class named Daphne. It's one of those great names that have gone out of fashion in the U.S., it seems. I put it in a category with Dolores, Edna, Olive, Inez, Agatha, and so on. These names probably sound bizarre to most people under a certain age, and they may even seem risible. Hunt Hawkins has a fabulous poem about "lost" women's names.

Daphne happens to be the name of a shrub, too. It's a low-growing shrub with thick dark leaves and pliable, slender branches. It "volunteered" in a yard we once had. It is spread in a classic way. Birds eat its berries, the seeds pass through the birds (along with natural nitrogen fertilizer), and there you go. Interestingly, Daphne basically refuses to be transplanted. It dies if you try to move it. Is it even available in nurseries? I've never seen it. Maybe you have to grow it from seen, like California poppies, which also die if transplanted. On the other hand, there are many different kinds of Daphne, so maybe the kind we had is especially stubborn about being moved. There are probably more agreeable kinds in nurseries. Allegedly, all types of Daphne are poisonous to humans--leaf, berry, and flower.

If I have the myth behind the name right, Apollo wanted Daphne but she didn't want him, so he turned her into a shrub. Anyway, I wrote a poem about Daphne.


The shrub, Daphne, volunteers to grow
After birds, for example, defecate its purple berries
Onto soil. Daphne refuses to be transplanted.
Moved, it dies. The original Daphne became a tree

Because Apollo wouldn’t leave her alone. To me,
This sounds awfully much like Apollo’s version
Of events—concocted to save sunny face
When he came back without the girl.

Sunboy probably hauled a shrub back
With him, had it planted, watched it die,
And then said, “That used to be a girl,
And I warned her—if she didn’t blossom

Toward my will, she’d end up as dead
Foliage.” Whatever. Meanwhile, staying
With friends incommunicado,
Daphne told how she gave the big oaf

The slip, said why she’d live here,
Thank-you-very-much, not there.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, July 11, 2008

Farm State

Farm State

Weary the wheat and plow the wishes.
Harvest what of God you know. Stow it
in a town-sized silo. Why grow
anything when the loans never seem
to evaporate? Summer stands over land
like a ruddy-faced fry-cook and cracks
the sky: out comes a yolk of sun.

Thunderheads filibuster like the senator
filling the Farm Bill with his high pressure.
Lightning votes. An incumbent known
as Toil rigs the election. This is a farm state,
where one day your fate may rise from loam
like a galleon shrugging foam, and maybe
you shall sail yourself away on swells of luck
toward a coast where roosters don't crow
til supper-time, tractor-axles never break,
and climate keeps its promises.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Paradigms and Poetry

As I continue my desultory reading of the philosophy of science, I am getting reacquainted with ideas from Thomas Kuhn, specifically his notions of "paradigm shifts" and "theory-laden data." The latter notion is meant to disrupt the idea that data can be neutral, just sitting there waiting to support this or that theory. ("Just the facts, ma'am.") Kuhn suggests that the way the data are gotten or placed or shaped springs from theory. It's not so much that, like Disraeli ("lies, damned lies, statistics"), Kuhn is mocking or dismissing data; he's just pointing out, I think, that data are never innocent ("theory, damned theory, and data").

With a paradigm-shift, I reckon a way of putting the idea is that one overarching way of looking at the world is replaced by another one. One of the most dramatic paradigm-shifts in my lifetime, I think, has been the one shaped by feminism and its effects. Not that long ago, it used to be unthinkable for women to hold a huge spectrum of jobs they now hold, and even people who remain allergic to the word "feminism" accept women in these roles--because the paradigm has shifted.

Two paradigms that simply will not, apparently, stop butting heads are so-called Evolution and Creation.

Bush took a bit of LBJ and a lot of Nixon and created a paradigm by which the president is an elected dictator, as well as a compulsive gambler. He seems to have put about as much thought into invading and occupying Iraq as a drunk does when he decides to hit on 15 at the blackjack table in Bordertown, Nevada. I exaggerate, but I wish I were exaggerating more. Even his former press-secretary, Scottie the Wonder-Dog, referred to Bush as "a gut player." That's quite a paradigm-shift.

In a minor key, the paradigm-shift can be useful for poets. You can get stuck writing one kind of poetry--first person, semi-autobiographical free verse remains a dominant paradigm, for instance. But then you can glance at Randall Jarrell's "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner," to pick just one example, and realize you can write from the perspective and in the voice of someone different from you, relate an experience you have not had but can imagine, and, by the way, have a dead person speak. Or, like Hopkins, you can look at the dominant "music" of your contemporary poetry and decide, "Gee, I think I'll blow that up." With sprung rhythm, he blew up the monotony of iambic pentameter. Dickinson ignored so many paradigms and seriously bent others that it's hard to keep track of them. Surrealism was once a scandalously new paradigm. Now it's pretty much a dominant one, as is the image-devoted poem.

I think poets are naturally comfortable with the idea of "theory laden data"; or at least they sense that all that stuff we encounter and perceive out there is laden with something. Often it's laden with our desire to write a poem about it. That summer's day didn't know Shakespeare was going to write about it and show why it shouldn't, in fact, be compared to his love; and those plums didn't realize that a) Williams would eat them and b) that he would then write a poem in the form of a note apologizing for having eaten them. They were cold, delicious, and poetry-laden data, those poems.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Poet's Questions for Obama and McCain

I think I speak for all poets when I say no one can speak for poets, who are harder to herd than cats and, in politics, are mere noise in the data, at best, and crackpots at worst.

Situated somewhere between noise in the data and cracked-pottedness, I therefore launch my questions for the only two people who seem to be semi-serious candidates for the presidency, which in my opinion has become awfully close to a dictatorship; "has become" may be naive, however, for if the Constitution started with an electoral college and by putting the head of the executive branch in charge of the whole military, then it looks like "we" always had a hankering for a Strong Executive, or Dictator Lite. In any event, the questions:

1. The obligatory--but, I would add, a deceptively useful--one: who are your favorite poets, and what are your favorite poems, and why, gentlemen? Think of how revealing the answers to this question would be. I predict McCain would refuse to answer, perhaps get angry. I predict Obama would stall, go over the options, and then go with something wry or populist, such as "Bob Dylan".

2. Specifically, what will you do to reverse the growth of secrecy and privilege in the Executive Branch. Examples include "signing statements" (meaning "I won't obey the law you just passed, but thanks for playing"); claims of privilege that block Congress's ability to look at documents and interview employees; the unprecedented growth in "classifying" documents (new ones and old ones, paper and email) as secret because of "national security"; the excessive politicalization of the Justice Department; and so on. I predict McCain would simply revel in all the expanded powers of the Exec. Branch--which have developed over decades, even if Bush II accelerated things. I predict that Obama . . . would do the same. But this is unfair of me. Let the lads speak for themselves.

3. What, exactly, and please give us the math, will you do about the three "items" that drive the budget, which seems to have grown beyond Pluto [to which the arrows point in photos accompanying this post], which isn't even a planet anymore: defense spending; Medicare; Social Security. As far as I know, the rest of the budget is, comparatively, mere fluff. Bob "Roseanne" Barr talks about cutting the Education Department, for example, which would be like cutting one whisker from a mountain man's beard, although such analogies are probably not used much in economics circles, including pie-chart circles.

4. Why shouldn't every citizen have a health plan as good as yours? This is not a rhetorical question.

5. What will you do, if anything, about spying sans warrants on American citizens? I predict McCain and Obama would both mumble something platitudinous--and then leave the system as Bush created it. Both seem in favor of the current FISA bill, for example.

6. Okay, what will you do about torture? How about an Executive Order, written on your first day in D.C., outlawing it? I predict that whether it's Obama or McCain in office, the torturing and "rendering," also known as kidnapping as a prelude to torture, will continue.

7. Who's your favorite philosopher and why? I predict both lads would go for the joke here, if they answered at all. Neither would mention the name of a vaguely legitimate philosopher. But as with the poetry question, think of how revealing the answer would be!

8. What is the lie you told in your life (so far) that you regret the most?

9. Specifically, what will you do to roll back all the anti-trust excesses, including those in the oil industry and the media? I predict neither has any interest in dismantling media conglomerates.

10. What is the biggest line of bullshit you've uttered so far in your quest to become president? Nothing personal here, lads. Everybody knows all candidates have to speak bullshit to get elected, or just to pass the time, or to give the frenzied crowds what they want. Which line of bullshit do you yourself have trouble saying?

11. Speaking of Pluto, as we did in #3, will you promise to reinstate it as a planet? I realize the territory known as "Pluto" isn't strictly under American control, but that has rarely seemed to be an obstacle in American foreign policy, and we're just talking about restoring planetary status, not occupying the place.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Praise Good Sense

July 4 in Tacoma was positively serene as compared with July 4 some 10 miles south, where they still not only allow but encourage fireworks.

In years past, we would have endured two weeks of the build-up, then the noise-riot of the "holy day," then a week of blasting the inventory that remained. One of our neighbors had a cannon. I kid you not.

This year: nothing, except for some noise from Gig Harbor, where official fireworks still go off for an hour, tops, and then some noise from one distant neighbor, who let off some fireworks in spite of the regulations. After this neighbor lighted the fireworks, they created light, noise, and smoke, just as they have done for thousands of years. Why don' t people just put in a DVD of fireworks going off? They seem surprised when the same effects result from lighting black powder anew. I hesitate to say the behavior is moronic. But. . . .

But: like a wee firecracker going off, a thought occurred to me this year that hadn't occurred in years past. Are fireworks gendered? That is, if men weren't around on July 4, would anyone set off fireworks? I assume that at least a small percentage of women would light them, but I think if men weren't around, fireworks sales would diminish by 90%, pure guesswork, and only guesswork. We'd need to hear from social scientists who study fireworks-behavior, take a look at their data and graphs, to get a better sense of this fireworks/gender issue.

I dream of a noiseless 4 July, when dogs and cats rest easy and all the money spent on black powder and paper goes toward . . . well, goes toward something, anything, quieter. Maybe baby food for impoverished families. Boom! Anyway, a tip of the cap to the City of T-Town and the good sense it had to outlaw fireworks, except for a big show down on the waterfront for folks who like that sort of thing.

Multiple Realization and Poets

Sometimes, after my mother (R.I.P.) would do something based on intuition, she would say, "Don't ask me why [I did that]." "Don't ask me why, but I had a feeling there was a rattlesnake there, so I didn't lift up the box."

Don't ask me why, but I've been reading some philosophy of science, though I haven't probed the depths as extensively as the Hyperborean,whose blog is on my list.

Specifically, I've been reading Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction, by Samir Okasha. These very short introductions from Oxford U.P. are nifty little books. As is often the case with books, I'm drawn to these because they're physically pleasing--thin, nicely designed, easily fitted in the back pocket. I think I own about 10 of them now, everything from short intros to the Koran and to Islam to short intros on Descartes, Spinoza, Literary Theory, and Ancient Philosophy. If you know the subject already, the books are great refreshers, with updates on newer literature in the field. If you don't know the subject, they're great introductions (indeed) and point clearly to additional reading.

Among the topics I was drawn to in Okasha's book was the concept of multiple realization:

"How can science that studies entities that are ultimately physical not be reducible to physics? Granted that the higher sciences are in fact autonomous of physics, how is this possible? According to some philosophers, the answer lies in the fact that the objects studied by higher level sciences are 'multiply realized' at the physical level" (p. 56). The example of the concept Okasha deploys is demotic: ashtrays. That is, you can have a theory of or a design for ashtrays, but then when you go out into the world, you see that ashtrays are multiply and, figuratively speaking, infinitely realized. Even two ashtrays based on the same design are different. One has a nick in it, for example, or it's slightly warped. So any one ashtray cannot be completely reduced to the physics underlying. Another science, or two, is necessary to explain that one particular ashtray you're looking at.

I like this concept because it articulates the way in which what is always seems to outrun or disrupt what is thought about what is. I like it also because I think poets are drawn more to the particular manifestations of reality as opposed to reality as generalized by scientists, custom, and so on. That one particular bird, city street (and moment on that city street), interchange with a person, sweater, kiss, cloud, or copy of Kant's writing (the copy with the coffee stain on page 92): these highly specific realizations are what, in most cases, first hook a poet's interest. Poets aren't necessarily opposed to concepts or categories, and a lot of poets, I think, aren't in fact interested in the particular. But most are. In this sense, the poetic way of looking at the world is not so different from the scientific way. I think in another context, Emily Dickinson (for example) would have become a botanist or an entomologist. Her poems are far more grounded than most readers expect or think. Almost all of them begin in close observation of a single realization: not "snake" in general, but a snake, seen on that day. Also, Wordsworth liked geometry--because it was, in his view (and according to the etymology), it was the science of measuring the earthy [geo + metric]. That is, it had to do with the planet that supported his beloved lake country and its multiple realizations. Most mathematicians now, I gather, do not think of geometry as the science of measuring the earth but as just another conceptual framework--another dialect of math, as it were.

Don't ask me why, but I think I'll end this particular realization of the blog here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Blue Teeth, Etc.

One with whom I live just reported that we're getting new cellular phones, which, by the way, always sounded like phones embedded in one's cells, something nano-technology apparently has in store for us, even though phone companies no longer seem to have stores. It was also reported to me that "you're getting the biggest buttons they have," meaning the buttons on the phone. I suffer from Homer Simpson's Syndrome, whereby when I hit a phone-button with one of my thick fingers, I hit three buttons at once. For whom are these phones made, anyway? Barbie? It takes me the better part of a day to construct and send a text message. Smoke-signals would be faster.

When it was reported to what we used to call THE phone company that I used 15 minutes of calling per month on my cell phone, the person from the company was incredulous. "Did you say FIFTEEN?!" Hey, that's 30 seconds a day. In Sweden, that would make you a real gas-bag. I don't like talking on the phone.

I'm also getting a blue-tooth, I've been advised. This is great, especially because I have no idea what one is. All I know is that it's associated with a thing you wear on the side of your head--something like Uhura wore in the original Star Trek. It looks like a big beetle, and I think it's quite a fashion statement.

I already have a blue tooth. Thanks to Raymond Cervantes, who hit me in the mouth with his elbow when we were going after a rebound in high school, one of my large, saber-tooth-cat front teeth is discolored; it's also dead. It's the original blue tooth. I can't receive calls on it, but so what?

The proliferation of phone-technology is most amusing, especially since, when I was young, our family was on a "party line," which sounds quite festive but which actually meant that we shared a phone line with two other families. One effect was that sometimes, when you picked up the phone to make a call, Sophie from the Yuba River Inn would be on there talking. It was considered bad form to a) listen in [did you hear that, Congress, Bush, Homeland Security, and Tele-Kom companies?] and b) talk too long. Of course it took forever to dial a number back then--because you used a dial. I think they should provide cell phones with dials because it's harder to make a mistake when you can lock your finger in that hole and spin the wheel. I think cell phones with little dialing-wheels would be more aesthetically interesting, too. People might rethink whether they actually need to make that call, and they could get their minutes down to 15 or fewer per month.

I'd like now to leap to a proposal: I think there should be an international text-a-poem day. We already have write-a-novel-in-a-month and write a blog-entry-every-day-for-a month, so why not a text-a-poem day? Everybody with access to a cell phone would simply text-message a short poem, which they could write or which they could borrow from someone else. Above the globe, where there used to be ozone, there'd now be poems flying around. I think the phenomenon known as "good vibes" would ensue, and Uhura, wearing her Blue-Tooth, could link up the Universal Translator. Keep thinking about those good vibrations.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


We went to the zoo today, chiefly to see someone who works there. While we were there, we looked at a few exhibited creatures. The lemurs looked like they'd been up all night, drinking caffeine and writing term-papers. In fact, pretty much all the creatures looked weary. It was late in the day, after all, and a humid day, too. The elephants looked very sleepy, but they also looked as if they felt lying down would require too much work. For an elephant to lie down is a bit like a building dismantling itself.

The tapirs were doing well. They seemed to have joined together in a civil union, and physically, they seemed to prefer to stand in a kind of parallel position. They wore matching fur outfits.

The Sumatran tiger was completely out of it, sleeping deeply, not even a flick of the tail.

I liked the empty exhibits. You walk up and look through the glass or over the fence, and there's no creature in particular there. It's as if someone took a great deal of trouble to create a space for absence. So you stand there and start to observe other people, who are, after all, inside the zoo, just like the other animals. Maybe they could employ a poet to sit in one of those empty spaces. The sign could say something like "Poet--Hominid," and people could take pictures of the person as he or she wrote a word and then erased it.

Crows at a zoo behave in an even more superior fashion than they do elsewhere, it seems. They hang around tables at a cafe, pretending to be customers, and they're all full of themselves about not being on exhibit, or part of the paying public, or part of the paid staff.

I saw the father of two young children buy two brightly colored cloth snakes for the kids. While he was purchasing the second one, his wife, mother-in-law, and kids sat a a table nearby. Referring to the kid who already had a snake, the wife yelled, "He just tried to make the snake kill my mother!" Then she laughed. So did the mother, who's apparently not afraid of cloth snakes or her grandchildren. I don't know, though. I might keep an eye on that one kid if I were her. The dad seemed moderately amused by the cloth-attempt on the mother-in-law's life.