Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mere Sympathy










What should one do for others who are grieving or who are in pain or who are in crisis? That is a very tough question, one I'm often tempted to answer with words like "Something" or "Anything." But sometimes something or anything feels ineffectual, rote, routine, not all that helpful. Anyway, this topic hung around my mind long enough to get me to write a poem on it. I chose rhyming couplets, for some reason, but I went light on the rhythm, which I wanted to be low key, conversational.



Mere Sympathy


I'm feeling sorry for yourself.
I bring some empathy to your shelf

of discomfort. It's such a small
gift, sitting there against the wall.

I wonder if it does you any good.
Guilt gets me thinking I should

convert it to fuel that would power me
to cook, transport, listen; to see

to something that might lessen pain;
to soothe, repair, or entertain:

something, anything, specific for you,
that is, as opposed to

this general sympathetic feeling,
which hangs above you like a ceiling.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, September 29, 2008

In Times of Crisis, Count On Poets

The broken financial times call for poets. See, almost almost all poets are practical because they can't make a living by writing poetry and must therefore maintain other kinds of gainful employment to get by. Most poets are frugal, both with money and words. They have to make do, so they're used to repairing things, living on a budget, scraping by, solving problems, these sorts of things. Poets tend to be good listeners, too.

If I could assemble some poets in D.C. by, say, Thursday, I know we could pass a sensible fix-it financial bill--one good enough to let everybody gain their equilibrium and start to dig out of the larger problems caused by unregulated greed and capitalists on speed. First of all, we'd all start to get bored really fast, and we couldn't leave until we passed the thing, so we'd pass it and then to to the Library of Congress, used bookstores, cafes, or whatever.

In one column on a piece of paper, I'd list the most serious immediate problems. In another column, I'd list the best ways to solve them, realizing these are short-term repairs, like fixing a tire but not driving on it for a long time. Then I'd break the legislation, based on the repairs, into pieces, and start voting.

Obviously, credit needs to flow again. People need to pay employees and get inventory, that sort of thing. People need help making house payments and hanging on to houses as they go through bankruptcy. This screwy "mark to market" nonsense needs to stop; everybody knows that.

Aunt Sam needs to take over lending-institutions that were run by greedy morons. That can't be hard to arrange. Aunt Sam needs to hang on to these for a while, straighten them out, and then sell them back to the private sector at a modest grocery-store profit so the taxpayers don't get screwed--again.

I'd also have some of my poets call, oh, 50 billionaires in the Gates and Buffett class and ask them to put up 10 per cent of the so-called bail-out, which isn't a bail-out so much as a re-priming of the credit-flow pump and a "calm down, everybody" move. These billionaires can afford it, kicking in 10 per cent would calm nerves, and the billionaires would go down in history as heroes, not just really rich guys and gals. We could have their faces carved on a mountain somewhere, maybe in Alaska.

If it would make the timid congresspeople feel safer, I'd have a different set of them constitute the majority that passed each major section of the legislation. That way, all the praise and blame would be spread out like peanut butter on a piece of bread. You could break down the fix-it bill into, say, 5 parts and have the whole thing passed by dinner time. Then I'd have everybody read Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," and they'd get some perspective and learn something about heroic couplets and what it's like to read something written by a person who's brain seemed to work at warp-speed.

There. See how easy that is? Sonnets are hard. Legislation is easy. While no one was paying attention, lots financial folks got greedy and sloppy. That's just the kind of shit people do. They created some problems. Some short-term solutions are required to get people confident again and get some credit flowing. Then we need to create some longer-term solutions, which are more in the novelists' turf.

I'm telling you, poets have a good idea of when it's time (to dredge up a 1960s term) to get one's shit together. George needs to tell that treasury guy of his to settle down, and Congress needs to get its shit together. This isn't rocket science. It isn't even poetry. It's legislation. Sam Johnson's term for the congress-person entities would be "blockheads."

If it's broken, and it is, fix it--no later than Friday. No excuses. Do your damned job. If you can't or won't, call in the poets.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What Would Jeffers Say?














Two of the most intellectually interesting and nimble people I know are an historian of science and a political scientist, the latter specializing in Constitutional law and how the media report on matters of law. In some ways the two are different intellectually, but they share at least three qualities that help account for the quality of their minds. They are empiricists. They are willing to follow the data wherever they (the data) lead, as opposed to taking a theoretical short-cut to a destination and forcing the data to come along on the vacation Second, they have a sense of irony--about the world and themselves. Third, they're widely read, far beyond their academic specialities. Their reading includes the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.


I see these two and talk with them frequently (one of the perks of this academic job of mine). This week especially I've had them in mind, however, because of the financial debacle and accompanying political circus related to the alleged collapse of Wall Street. Here I must break for a brief rant about conservatives who like to stress "personal responsibility." Arguably, excessive de-regulation (also known as chaos) led to this mess, so how about if some conservatives take personal responsibility for having pushed de-regulation too enthusiastically since, oh, about 1981? How about a simple, "I'm sorry. We were wrong"? It is, however, somewhat amusing to see Congressional Republicans saying No to Bush with regard to the bail-out. Typically, Bush seems to have seen the alleged crisis as an opportunity to try to give the Secretary of the Treasury the powers enjoyed by Henry VIII.


At this moment, when crisis meets farce, I am of course tempted to think of Jeffers and of my two colleagues who like his work. Jeffers thought the U.S. was crumbling by the mid-1940s, as demonstrated by his poem, "Shine, Perishing Republic," in which "this America settles in the mold of its vulgarity, heavily/thickening to empire,/And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out,/and the mass hardens." Later in the poem, he writes, "corruption/Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet/there are left the mountains."

Well, I don't know if even the mountains are left, what with ski resorts, open-pit mining, the spread of suburbia, drought in the Rockies, and all those noisy snow-mobiles and three-wheelers out there. In any event, today I seem to hear Jeffers whispering "See, I told you so."

I suppose it's only fair to concede that Jeffers was a bit of a misanthrope and pessimist; a few friends and family excepted, he tended to prefer the sea, large rocks, and hawks to humans. There is a chance, however, that the current corruption, mismanagement, and inept political spectacle might shock even Jeffers. I'll have to check with my colleagues to see what they think.


Anyway, Robinson, the republic (or empire) seems to be living down to your expectations these days. Maybe this is a good day to read some of e.e. cummings more exuberant, life-affirming poetry and take a break from Jeffers' rocks and hawks

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Concerning That Good Night












In class we briefly discussed the villanelle, that most difficult form, in which the poet has to repeat whole lines, use only two rhyming sounds, stick to iambic pentameter, and, incidentally, make sense. As I've noted in earlier posts, Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," and W.H. Auden's "If Could Tell You" are among the most venerable villanelles; however, we also studied one by Jay Parini about the event now known as "Nine-Eleven," and most of the students liked it.

We talked about some moves a poet can make to negotiate the form. We noted that many villanelles are light on imagery and rely on statements, on a kind of conversational discourse. We discussed the possibility of using half-rhymes and of altering the repeated lines slightly--turning a statement into a question, for example, or changing one word.

One student said she found the form difficult to read because of the repetition, which can indeed begin to sound like "nagging."

As great as Dylan Thomas's poem is--and it is, indisputably, a tour de force--I've always felt uneasy about the advice the poem offers, simply because I think people should be able to die with the attitude they choose--assuming, of course, that they are even able to choose the attitude with which they approach death. I had a very close older relative who died of heart failure but also, indirectly, of dementia, so she was not able to approach death--mentally or spiritually--in the way she might have chosen. So if I or anyone had advised her not to go gentle into that good night, it would have been pointless, at best. But this takes nothing away from Thomas's indelible villanelle.

Still, I finally decided to write a wee response-villanelle with D.T.'s poem in mind, although I confess the main task here is just to get a bit of a workout. Villanelles offer good aerobic poetic training, even if they don't turn out perfect or fall far short of perfect.


Go As You Wish Into That Good Night


Go as you wish into that good night.
It's not a night, of course. It's death.
To tell you how to die? I have no right.

Besides, death often hides nearby, plain sight--
Then someone's gone, as quickly as a breath.
Go as you wish into that good night,

Assuming you're allowed your wish. I might
Not even be around, to tell the truth.
To tell you how to die? I have no right.

I've not yet died, have not yet faced the fright
Of certain death, so here's my guess:
Go as you wish into that good night.

I sympathize with D.T.'s rage. That sight
Of one who's dear about to die: Damned death!
But still: go as you wish into death's night.
To tell you how to die--I have no right.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Should an Apple Pie Appear in a Poem?
















I'm almost always afraid to put a rose in a poem because roses have been appearing in poems since about 5,000 B.C.E., or thereabouts. I make an exception when I'm writing explicitly about actually growing roses because then I have a chance of staying away from the usual symbolism, which can be religious, or romantic, or whatever.

I feel similarly about putting an apple pie in a poem. From a poetic perspective, apple pies are . . . what? Too domestic? Too "home-spun"? And then there's the unholy trinity of mom, applie pie, and the American flag. Oy.

So I guess if you write a poem that's based in some way in experience, and if the experience had something to do with baking or eating an apple pie, you're out of luck. You should probably just write a poem about something else or maybe use a different kind of dessert. That would be the smart thing to do.

I decided not to be prudent, however, and I decided to go ahead and write a poem with an apple pie in it. I don't think I entirely escaped the pitfalls of doing so, and I probably made things worse by including "love" along with the apple pie. Oh, well. So it goes with baking and with writing. Trial and error, with lots of error.

Not that you asked, but I prefer apple pies to be very light on the sugar (or the Splenda); indeed, I believe all fruit or berry pies should be tart. I believe this preference places me in a minority. I am also very much in favor of a tradition on the verge of disappearing: serving a piece of sharp cheddar cheese with a piece of pie. No, not vanilla ice cream; cheddar cheese.

Waking to Baking



My love for you
is but for you, just
like the only apple
pie of its kind, the one
I baked that day:
butter-brushed crust
just so, narrow streams
of sweet steam piping
out of vents in the top-
crust opened with a
nicked tip of a paring-
knife. Yes, my love
for you is precisely
combined like cinammon,
nutmeg, and lemon-peel--
a sparing use of sugar,
apples picked, peeled,
and cut by no other hands
but these, pieces of apple
floating in cold water
that day, that hour, the
oven pre-heating, which
is another name for heating.
You napped. You awoke
to a house inebriated with
aroma of baking apple pie,
an affection-imbued interior
weather of heat applied
to fruit, flour, and spices.


Hans Ostrom, Copyright 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

Prophets' Return














Prophets' Return

No wonder prophets don't come back.
Their crests would fall if they returned.
See the prophets standing here, just
returned: "For this," they ask, "we spoke
the fiery truth, risked our lives, and cracked
history?" See them looking at chronic
starvation, effects of cluster- and car-bombs,
oceanic gaps between rich and poor,
advertising smeared like mucous across
humanity. See them seeing torturers,
enslavers, elected thieves and thugs.

Overhear them asking, "Why did we bother?
What we failed to eradicate with righteousness
persists, what we achieved has been forgotten
or repackaged and marketed for a profit." Ah,
but if they were to tarry, they need only read
a single suffering child's face, ingest a spore
of hope, feel courage electrifying wisdom,
and there they'd go again, trying (can you
believe it?), to change the way things are.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Any Storm in the Port












Any Storm in the Port


The coastline forms a question-mark,
which punctuates the sentence of this day.
From your apartment, you can't even see
buildings that have a view of the harbor.
No ship docking down there will bring
adventure to your life. Even the cargo,
quotidian as it is, will be shipped elsewhere.

Idly, you wish for strange weather--
hurricane, tsunami, dead-calm, lock-down
fog. This wish would be irresponsible if
related to a reality outside your head. You'd
never kill an albatross, interrupt a whale's
progress, organize or break a strike. You

are a cove that occasionally dreams
of being a bay. Viking--you might have
been a Viking. --Not a berserker hacking
villagers but a rower who would pull
the boat in a gray unmapped direction
for as long as it took or until you died.
You're that sort--a kind history never
notices from its panoramic view. You
pull your life through life.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Wall Street Metaphors


I don't know how appropriate it is to speak of having a retirement-account (in the making) as a blessing. Perhaps privilege is a better word. Having one, however, I was among those interested in the reported demise of such instiutions as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch and the consequent effects on the stock market.

As a reader and poet, however, I soon became interested in the language used to describe the events: tsunami, collapse, plunge, tidal wave, earthquake, hurricane, even Armageddon. Yikes.

Of course, "Wall Street" itself is a kind of metaphor. I believe it's a metonym, in which a part of something is used to describe that something, so that the White House is sometimes used to describe the Executive Branch or the presidency. "The White House said today that . . . ." Certainly, a stock market exists on Wall Street, but all those stocks and bonds exist in vaults somewhere or, more likely, they exist only on computer-chips. I "own" stock only because some letters and numbers on a screen or a piece of paper say I do. Yikes, the Sequel.

I like this term "correction," too. I think it's meant to sound soothing. "The housing-market is undergoing a correction," it is said, or "Expect the stock market to correct." When I pause to consider the word, though, I realize that a mistake has been made--one that needs correction. "They" would probably prefer that I think of a ship making a slight "correction" (adjustment) in its course.

"Bubble" has been around a long time in connection with markets. As far back as the 18th century, I think, there was a speculative "bubble" concerning British colonial investments. It's a pretty interesting metaphor. Investments become as molecules of gas, which create a bubble, which pops, and the investments go . . . into the air. I still don't know what to make of the term "hedge," applied to investments. I think it means that you put a hedge around your investments, but hedges have never seemed that durable or protective to me. They're things birds can penetrate, after all. "Hedge-fund" just doesn't sound right. "I've decided to invest in hedges--chiefly laurel and boxwood. What do you think?"

In some ways, the financial world seems and is so technical, all mathematics and statistics. But when even the alleged experts discuss "the market," they seem quickly to slip into metaphor-speak. Nonetheless, I don't think I'd necessarily argue for putting a poet in charge of AIG, for example. By the way, who or what insures insurance companies? I guess "we" do--people who pay taxes.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

We're There Yet












We're There Yet


Where shall we go? Hell is out--
much too expensive. Let's go where
the beach doesn't stink when the tide
hides. I wouldn't mind a town
that featured jobs for us but also
had people who have doubts about
strong opinions. Who am I, Kidding?
We're where we went.

This isn't home, but it will have to do.
Say, do you hear that dog barking?
That's where we are, my darling.
Why does the newspaper have
a "Travel" section every Sunday?
Is that supposed to be some kind of joke?
Why is there even a newspaper here?
The best news already happened.

Yesterday, a woman told me
she saw someone walking an
armadillo on a leash. She asked me,
"What kind of town is this?"
I said it's definitely a town
in which people might take
an armadillo for a walk. I
did not wish to mislead her.

We've arrived, regardless of
whether we planned to go here
or not. This is what our destination
looks like. Darling, do your best.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sex

















There is an online site called poemsabout.com, and as you might infer, it's a massive compendium of poems organized by topic. The lists of topics themselves intrigue. Here's just a piece of the alphabetical list:

africa
alone
america
angel
anger
animal
april
autumn
baby
ballad
beach
beautiful
beauty
believe
birth
brother
butterfly
candy

An arguably interesting writing-prompt would simply be to start with this list, begin making phrases, lines, and sentences (with additional words as needed), and see where the language led one. Richard Hugo advises this kind of approach (in The Triggering Town), when he advises poets to write "off the subject." His logic is that a poet's obsessions will out, one way or another, and that therefore one should concentrate on the medium (language), not the message. In fact, he advises that if you have a choice between conveying your "message" and writing language that is more pleasing than the language that contains the message, go with the pleasing language every time. Of course, much in writers resists such advice, which is counterintuitive because we are accustomed to thinking of language as transmission of message. Elsewhere Hugo humorously writes, "If you want to communicate, use a telephone."

At any rate, when I looked at the topics on poemsabout.com, I realized I'd never written a poem, strictly speaking, about sex. Of course I'd written some poems that referred to sex, one way or another, but I'd never written "sex" at the top of the page and started a poem. Certainly, "sex" seems like a very good topic for a poem; this claims seems indisputable. At the same time, poets who've been writing for a while know that the so-called sex-poem can be simply graphic, pornographic, and/or surprisingly not-sexy--that is to say, boring. Nevertheless, I decided to write a poem entitled "Sex," although the poem itself seems to be as much about language as it is about sex, no surprise there.


Sex


Sex
is an excellent syllable, which
detonates meaning and is fillable
with much connotation. Of course
it conjures a deed done and conjugal
entanglements of bodies, when love
or lust gets down to earthy business,
when desire fires itself up and down
and on (and out of) the town. Sex
is also an implied question on a form

that may be answered M or F,
even if you’re in a mood to
answer Yes or No or Maybe So,
or "I'll get back to you later" or
"What about it?"Sex is not solely
one thing or two but more
than a few and human, too.

Sex at times is a semiotic nexus
(how sexual that sounds!) suggesting
bawdy, haughty, naughty, hottie
bodies, which touch and much more
in sex’s neck of the woulds and coulds,
the musts and lusts. Sometimes sex is
subtly intimated simply by the two-letter
syllable, it, as in getting it on, doing it,
making it, and even, alas, faking it. Oh

yes, there’s that other effing eff-word,
the one that rhymes with truck
and gets so often stuck in awkward syntactical
positions. Sex is life in frenzied love
with itself, all lips and hips, rounds
and flats, sultry strategies and tender
tactics, loads of lust and convoys
of cupidity, sensual consensual
congress. Sex can cause stupidity—
would you agree?—and vice versa.
Sex is a state of union, an exhilarating
expiration, a getting up, a getting with
it, a going down, a fear and fondness
of flying, a finding out and a knowing
about. It has been known to be
a bit of a chore, an occasional bore.
It’s mysterious and base, crude and holy,
much cause for consternation,
controversy, rules, and fools. Sex
is something else again. And again.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Concerning Vanity











[photo of Peter Sellers as Clouseau]



How vain of me to write and post a poem on vanity! Ah, the obscure, vainglorious trap of being a blogging poet.



Vanity Almost Rhymes Fully With Insanity


In those days of my alleged
importance, vanity
was my friend. She
maintained a list

of my accomplishments.
We sipped drinks
and traded admirations,
looking out over a bay.

We wore status
like our clothes.
We decided, vanity
and I, who was good

and worth our time. Once
vanity and I had realized
my importance, however,
I lost vanity as a friend. A

certain evaporation of
illusion left distance
between us. Obscurity
is my pal now. Oh,

obscurity makes me laugh,
and what a reliable friend.
We get together, evenings.
We warmly review

how vanity once charmed
us, the ways in which I was
ordinary at most and not
important back then. And now.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ballad of the Micro-Town












[the photo is of Sierra City, California, population 225, elevation @ 4,250 feet above sea level]





Ballad of the Micro-Town


The mountains round that town are sheer
Massifs of stone. The town
Lies glinting like a coin below.
The river carves a frown.

I grew up there, so it was all.
It was the world to me.
That it and I were less than small
I'd learn eventually.

To have grown up in a small town
Is such a micro-fate,
A shrunken destiny, at best,
A morsel of time's bait.

If you are from a micro-town,
Bravo to you from me.
Our origins have blessed us with
Well known obscurity.



Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hair-Cutter's Hiccups















Hair-Cutter's Hiccups


In the hair-cutting place, no longer
known as either a barber shop or salon,
I heard a child report, "Horses
are my favorite thing in the whole
universe." The woman cutting
my hair suffered from hiccups.
Of a recent customer, she said,
"He's the rudest person I've met--
hup!--in my hair-life so far." She
asked, "Sideburns trimmed?" I
answered, "Sure." She asked,
"'Shorter' or 'sure'?" I said,
"Sure, shorter." She said, "Hiccups
affect my hearing." I laughed.

Finished with my sideburns, she said,
"Look down." At the guillotine-line, she
let the humming clippers nibble my neck.
Later, she removed the black silk cape
from me with a bullfighter's flourish
and said, "There you are--hup!" We
looked in the mirror, where I
wasn't but where we saw each
other absurdly looking in the mirror.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

Friday, September 12, 2008

Blogosonnet















Blogosonnet

There's nothing spherical about the space
In which innumerable web-logs all appear.
It's just Electronville, the selfsame place
That harbors radio, lightning, and fear.

A universe of language every day
Big-bangs itself into hyper-existence
On billions of screens--a cosmic spray
Of texts that is galactically immense.

The Web is actually a firmament
Of pixelated light. In fact, these blogs
Aren't blogs so much as wee lights meant
To light a billion mental strolls through bogs

Of collective and individual thought:
This is what Gutenberg and Gates hath wrought.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Transactional Poem















Transactional Poem


Although we've never met
and odds are never will, we
virtually converge here on line 3.
I deliberately left imagery home
because I wanted to meet you
unspecifically as I write and you
read this. I figured you didn't
want to be imagined, for you
already exist. You are who

you are, not what anyone
says you're like. Similitude
is difference with a mask on.
What happens next is that
you think what you will
inside your life, mind, body,
moment. You are the only

you you'll ever be, a verifiable
rarity. It is good to meet you
here without having to know you,
and there's a good chance you may
feel the same. Your reading this
transactional poem is what the poem
means. You perfect it by being there
and here. Reading, you finish the poem
I'm about to finish, none too soon.

In poetry, this qualifies as business
transacted. It's been a pleasure doing
language with you.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Creeks













Creeks



Should you be granted the luxury
of listening to a creek, you'll hear
sounds inside sounds, trickles within
rushes, and a constant water-sigh,
an exhalation of sound. Memory
hears names of alpine creeks: Deer
Creek, Haypress Creek, Hackman
Ravine. There's the unnamed creek
that carries water from the abandoned tunnel
of the Monarch Mine. Each of these

creeks featured an improvised mix
of bedrock and gravel, bank and bar,
riffle, pool, fall, foam, and whirl. Each
had systems of life--bird, bug, moss,
brush, fern, trout, worm. Sometimes
a deer: touching the glassy top of water
with a glossy black nose. Sometimes

something demanded
your respect--for example, a bear
making a splash of things and broadcasting
its bear-body, bashing brush, looking
at the creek as if the creek might be
swallowed in a gulp. A few times there

was I, absolutely incidental to the watershed,
hiking through holy sunlit days, flicking a fly
out on a leader, watching for fish, breathing
in shadows of ancient cedars, listening
to creek-water as it dropped into this
pool, space and time.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Details Inside


Last night, we were pumping gasoline into an automobile, and I looked at an exterior wall of the the gas-station, and I saw a sign that "said," "Buy 5 car-washes and get the 6th one free. Details inside."

I wondered what additional details lay inside. Maybe if I were to go in there and to inquire about the information on the sign, an employee would say, "Well, I think you'll find the details ironic. You actually don't get the 6th car-wash free!" Or perhaps she or he would have said, "No one has asked about the details before, so I'm ashamed to say I don't know what they are." Or: "You may not believe this, but if you purchase 5 car-washes, you automatically become a Knight of Malta."

I assume the details are, in an actuality inside the gas station, mundanely legalistic. You probably have to purchase the car-washes with a form of American currency--not that American currency actually exists. No rubles, no semi-precious gems. Or you have to purchase the car-washes all within 12 months. Or perhaps if you've purchased a used Soviet tank from the Black Market, you are not allowed to try to drive it through the car-wash.

That's why I didn't inquire. I wanted to make up some mythical details. I also thought, however, that a great generic title for almost any poem would be "Poem: Details Inside."

Friday, September 5, 2008

Dancers at Last Call







Dancers at Last Call


Where Zeno's paradox, Jesus's orthodox, and science's
anti-dox intersect stands my belief--nervously, like
a solitary traveler waiting for a bus that's more
rumored than scheduled. Science transforms mystery
into temporary knowledge, but mystery's infinite
at least, so we'll always not know. Incarnate, God
transmitted some counterintuitive news:
word, light, love, and peace are the way,
not war, invention, industry, and empire.
Who knew? The human response to the bulletin
was to hang the incarnation out to dry. Sigh.

Nonetheless, the wisdom haunts us, hounds us
down the positively positivist ages. By means
of knowing, we can never cross Zeno's line
of mystery. By means of belief, we hope we can
cross over, but hope lives in later. Faith
and science each need the other like two
dancers in a bar when Last Call comes. They
clutch one another, shuffle, and try to think
of something to say. The bartender, Zeno,
will count the tips and lock the door
behind them when they leave and get
slapped with cold wind and dark early
hours of tomorrow outside.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Stick


I was walking across campus today when I overheard a conversation between students. The topic seemed to concern one person's wish to have another person drive his car somewhere. She did not seem entirely committed to the proposition of driving his car. He seemed to be marshaling arguments---until a logistical question popped into his mind. He asked, "Can you drive a stick?"

What a lovely question, especially if you are unfamiliar with American English. "Drive a stick? No, as a matter of fact, I've never driven a stick. Are you mad?" Stick-shift, obviously, was the term in play, but even that term attracts fascination. I believe it springs from a healthy desire to reduce technology to the basic. "Yeah, whatever, it's a lever, and it's connected to a transmission, but I say it's still a stick."

Shifting topics abruptly, I'll mention that, regardless of what toys we acquired for our son when he was quite young, sticks were his favorite implement of fun when he was 4 and 5 years old. We lived in Sweden for 6 months at that time, and he amassed quite a collection of Swedish sticks, which look remarkably like American sticks.

I suppose there's an argument to me made for sticks having been the first human tools, although Kubrick focused on the bone in his famous cinematic rendering of an evolutionary epiphany.

"Stick" is one of those words poets need to keep nearby. Verb and/or noun, with multiple meanings in both parts of speech. A single, brisk syllable. Open to rhyming. A doorway to numerous subjects.

"Stick a feather in your cap, and call it macaroni." Now, that is a folk-song line that continues to perplex me. "No, thank you, I don't have a cap, and if I did, I wouldn't want to stick a feather in it, and even if I stuck a feather in a cap, I wouldn't call the feather or the cap macaroni. What you're asking is excessive. Good day to you, sir."

And looping back to the semi-original topic, let me say that I am surprised (but shouldn't be) how many persons do NOT know "how to drive a stick." My son knows how to drive a car with a stick shift, and he also earned his Ph.D. in stick-driving by practicing on a 1969 Ford F-100 pickup, with none of this "syncro-mesh" nonsense, and no power steering--so while you're madly trying to get the thing in gear, you're also wrestling with the wheel.

Stick.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Stories the Mainstream Media Ought to Cover


Not that you or anyone or the mainstream media asked, but following are some stories/topics I wish the mainstream media would cover. How do I define the mainstream media? By example. Example one: Any city's large daily newspaper, and in most cases, it's just one large newspaper. Example two: large news networks, cable and otherwise. Example three: "national" dailies like the New York Times or the Christian Science Monitor.

1. Themselves. I want them to cover themselves. I know; this sounds silly. But I really would like the Tacoma News Tribune to report on how its being part of a huge chain of newspapers affects the way it reports news. I'd like the media to cover the unprecedented consolidation of the media, in other words. But of course this is a story they won't cover, and it's probably a story they can't cover because their interests and the story, arguably, conflict.

2. What is happening to soldiers and contractors who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. What are there lives like? What are the effects of so many tours of duty and so much trauma?

3. Protests. I think the media do a lousy job of covering anti-war protests, and in some cases, I think they're missing some significant stories about the police's abuse of people and rights. Of course, being a police-person in a protest isn't an easy job. Policing isn't an easy job. Neither is protesting. Both the police and the protesters have to do things right; each has a professional responsibility, as it were. I think in some instances the police have become unprofessional and abusive. Maybe I'm wrong. It's hard to tell, though, from watching and reading mainstream news because they don't seem to dig into the story.

4. Oil. How about getting some plain facts out there? The U.S. "own" about 4% of the oil that's left and it uses about 24% of the oil worldwide. This means drilling is a moot point. Also, most of the oil from Alaska (for example) does not go to the U.S. market. It goes to the world market.

5. The extraordinary, almost unchecked growth of the Executive Branch, in terms of power. Presidents from both parties are responsible for this growth, and I'd argue that Bush II + Cheney are just an extreme example of a trend that's been growing for a long time. The issues dovetails with a lot of other ones: Church and State; the role of Congress vis a vis military action; "signing statements"; civil rights; proper responses to global warming; the imperial tendencies of the U.S.

6. Poetry. I'm kidding. I really don't need the mainstream media to cover poetry. On the other hand, if they just read some great poems out loud on TV, that might fill time better than some of their stories. Who knows?

7. What is everyday life like for most people in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places around the globe?

Unexpected Turns in Poems












Here is a short poem by Irene Rutherford Mcleod, a British poet born in 1891. The poem is from an anthology published in 1920 and edited by Louis Untermeyer. I like the poem, especially the first two stanzas. The last stanza presented me with something I hadn't expected and to which I didn't respond all that favorably.
Is Love, Then, So Simple

By Irene Rutherford Mcleod


Is love, then, so simple my dear?
The opening of a door,
And seeing things all clear?
I did not know before.

I had thought it unrest and desire
Soaring only to fall,
Annihilation and fire:
It is not so at all.

I feel no desperate will,
But I think I understand
Many things, as I sit quite still,
With Eternity in my hand.

Great title and great first line, in my opinion. We're used to reading poems and other things that complicate love. Mcleod decides to go against that grain and present love as simple. In the middle stanza, the poem seems to disrupt conventional poetic treatments of love, such as those found in traditional sonnets, famous for their intentionally over-blown rhetoric.

I found myself still very much in sync with the poem through the first half of line 3 in the last stanza, but "With Eternity in my hand" is surprisingly conventional and grandiose. I didn't see that turn in the poem coming, and when it arrived, I didn't like it. I think I may have preferred an image of the two people who are "in" the poem--the hint of a scene, a suggestion of intimacy, but nothing over the top. I still like the poem, and in some ways, I like the fact that Mcleod chose to end it in a way I wouldn't have ended. I don't mind differences of opinion and tactics between me (as a reader and poet) and another poet. It's pleasurable to see another poet making a different choice, and other readers may have good reasons for liking Mcleod's choice here. I still like the poem also because the deliberately plain rhetoric, combined with a lyric-form, works nicely. The form is traditional, but the rhetoric is modern, especially by 1920 standards.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

About The Author, All Right, Already

A genre unto itself is the "about the author" page or paragraph that appears on the back of a book, on a dust-jacket, or at the end of a book, among other places. I've had to write such things, or edit ones editors have written about me, and they're awkward and artificial. It's a form of bragging, of course, so there's really no lovely way to write the thing; on the other hand, I suppose a reader or two might want some information about the author.

For a while, in the 1960s and 1970s, it became not just customary but obligatory for poets, in the "about the author" paragraph, to mention what sorts of things they'd done besides writing (or teaching), and the more gritty, the better. So male poets especially mentioned that they had picked fruit for a living, or shipped out on a freighter, or worked as a fry-cook. At some point in the late 1970s, maybe the early 1980s, I remember the poet Philip Levine, who had working-class roots, implicitly mocking such references in an "About the Author" paragraph; he wrote something like, "Philip Levine has held a variety of stupid jobs."

Anyway, a while back, I was playing around with a send-up of the about-the-author pieces, including the ones I've written and read about me.

About the Author, All Right, Already

Wagging the Marsupial is Shillbay Scrum's thirteenth
book of poetry. Scrum is a member of the National
Academy of Poets (NAP) and has been on the receiving end
of a Flugelhorn Grant, a Braunschnoz Prize, and the
Agewart Medal from the American Awardamantine
Foundation. Violet Redbeak, Monopoly Professor
of Literature at Varhard University, has written
of Scrum, "His work amorously massages our eyeballs
and testifies with aching penance to the beauty of
ugliness. His unique, piquant, uncompromising voice
scrapes our nasal passages and reminds us that
we are human, not amphibian." Scrum
is Extinguished Professor of Rarity at Central
Pomp State University, Brine-Wreck-on-Hudson,
where he has never taught. He divides his time
between New York and New York. Scrum's next
book of poems will be his fourteenth.

In A City










In A City


Anyway, you're in whatever city the city is,
the one next to a harbor or a river or both or
a lake, toxic water at any rate, and of course
a big percentage of the buildings are tall--
density is money--and prestige is squeezed
into selected leased spaces, and you stop,
take effects in via senses conditioned by
memory, reason, digital imaging, and
Pavlovian repetition, and in spite of it all,
you think, "Well, I'm glad no overt war appears
to be occurring here, and I can breathe, kind
of, and these people sure work hard, but this
isn't very good, this spectacle, this big-ass
urban production, this extraordinary
collection of hard surfaces, motors, pipelines,
wires, and compressed gases," and you yawn,
and a stranger is gratuitously but unoriginally
rude to you in a way that elicits pity for
yourself, the other person, and everyone,
including the bustlers bustling past.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

A September Poem by Auden

Here is one of W.H. Auden's more famous poems, "September 1, 1939." It's famous in part because it responds to Germany's invasion of Poland and what people knew would be the beginning of a European war. It's also known for being a poem that Auden himself came not to like. He went so far as to remove it from collections, alleging that he didn't like the line "we must love each other or die," asserting that whether we love each other or not, we die--but I think even he knew that that wasn't the original rhetorical point in the line. I especially appreciate how the poem replicates a complicated, multifaceted response to an event of terrible global impact, and how it demonstrates Auden's comfort with many different levels and sources of diction and vocabulary.



The poem appears on the Academy of American Poets site.




September 1, 1939


by W. H. Auden



I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.


Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.


Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.


Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.


The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.


From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?


All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.


Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Updates are Ready to Install


[image is of the Magna Carta]








Updates Are Ready to Install


USA needs to reboot
the republic, erase viruses
of repacity, racism, monopoly,
milidustry. USA needs to enlarge
its memory and improve its
applications. Also, the simpler
computations have yet to be
completed: feed the hungry,
house the homeless, love
the cast aside, lift the worker,
limit the powerful. Let people
mediate their own media,
decide what's news to them.
Let us click and drag unused
icons to the recycle-bin. Let
justice and old Magna-Carta
ways rise to the level of
the desktop. Let USA
interface with its ideals,
become user-friendly
to citizens of the commons.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom