Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top Secret

(image of Spy vs. Spy, from Mad Magazine)

Top Secret

How does a secret reach the top?
Also--the top of what? I think
of secrets that never reach the peak.
They remain in huts on a slope,
run out of provisions, succumb
to despair and gravity, and stumble
toward a village of common knowledge
where they are nobody special.

What percentage of secrets deemed
Top should a government share
with everyone? Answer: always
a greater percentage than the
government claims. Incidentally,
who manufactures the stamps
that spell TOP SECRET? Is
this information secret?

I might have made a semi-
excellent spy because I tend
to forget secrets people tell me.
The safest place to keep a secret
is one you can't find again. If
someone needs the secret,
the situation may seem awkward.

I know there are good reasons
to keep secrets, but not as many
as the bad reasons. Information
isn't power. Power is Power. It
keeps secrets chiefly because
It can. Because It will. Sometimes

when I stood next to an alpine
creek, fast water would arrange
itself just so, so it became like
a liquid lens with no distortion.
The complex beauty of the creek's
multicolored, gravelly basis, with
bits of debris and a trout's dark
back, struck apprehension clearly.
Transparency's a transfusion.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bats and Bobs in My Belfry

I'm not exactly sure why, but in Winter, the reading I do that's not connected with my professorial work tends to include either Russian novels or classic detective fiction or both. With regard to Russian novels, I guess one reason may be obvious: who "does" Winter better in fiction that the Russians? With regard to detective fiction, well, I can remember having read the collected Sherlock Holmes tales for the first time in the winter, and I even remember reading them by candle-light when the power went out for a few days. So maybe that experience welded Winter to the reading of detective fiction, in my case.

So I've dipped into War and Peace for the umpteenth time, and I've decided to read Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels again; in fact, I'm reading a couple of them for the first time. I'd read Strong Poison and Whose Body? before, for example, but I'm reading The Nine Tailors for the first time. (The photo is of Sayers.)

It has nothing to do with tailors, at least as referring to people who put clothes together. It has everything to do with bells. Church bells. Ringing church bells--the tradition and practice of which are bewilderingly complex--and fascinating. In the beginning of the novel (I'm not spoiling the plot), Lord Peter is pressed into service as a parish church literally rings in the New Year--with 8 bell-ringers ringing a bell each for nine hours, from midnight to 9:00 a.m. That's some serious bell-ringing. The narrator also lets us know that one of the bells was forged in the ground; that is, a hollowed out piece of pasture was used to mold the bell, back in the day.

There are probably cultures that immerse themselves in arcane, eccentric practices more fully (one wants to say more madly) that the Brits, but I can't think of any at the moment. (And for every arcane pursuit, there seems to be a BBC radio show.) Apparently, serious bell-ringing began in the 17th century, and soon ringers were performing elaborate, mathematically complex tunes, although I thing I'm supposed to use "change" in place of "tune." Soon thereafter, an elaborate and seemingly impenetrable vocabulary emerged. For instance, "tailors" is, according to the OED online, a corruption of "tellers," which probably is related to "tolling." According to a bell-ringing glossary online, "bob" refers to "a type of plain method" of ringing in which a "lead or a half-lead" is deployed. All righteee, then.

I know I'm over my head with a subject when the definitions of terms seem as confusing as the terms they allegedly define. It was that way with trigonometry.

In bell-ringing circles (that word seems apt, given how sound radiates), "wrong" doesn't mean incorrect. It is "a device that causes an odd number of bells (often 3) to vary their work"--usually related to the "Treble's full lead." There, now; we've cleared that up!

Sayers was not just a Brit, but also a Dante scholar, a devout Christian, and a feminist. This combination helps to make her a most readable detective novelist, full of surprises, knowledge, wisdom, and wit. I wouldn't say her villains are especially interesting, but her detective, Wimsey, is distinctive enough to rival Holmes, and his side-kick (and wife), Harriet Vane, a liberated woman of the 1920s, more than rivals Watson, except for the fact that Watson is our narrator in the tales, and for the fact that Harriet is not in all the novels.

The devout-Christian part induces Sayers to defend ferociously the practice of bell-ringing--in an author's note before the novel begins. She asks, rhetorically, why anyone would complain about bell-ringing in an age of the automobile and the "wails" of jazz--especially when bell-ringing is a tribute to God. The novel itself makes bell-ringing--like book-collecting, fly-fishing, and all manner of pursuits--and end in itself. Highly proscribed subcultures like this no doubt provide great comfort to people in a bewildering, chaotic world. Meanwhile, ordinary folks who aren't maniacally devoted to such a pursuit think the bell-ringers, et al., have "bats in their belfry." I always thought that was a charming term for insanity. I heard it quite a bit when I was growing up (not always directed at me, I hasten to add), but I don't hear or read it anymore.

In any event, here I am in Winter's darkness, immersed in a Sayers book and immersed in her immersion in bell-ringing. And this pleases me? Yes, I'm afraid it does. I'm 40 pages in, and there's yet to be a murder, so I must be pleased. I usually like at least one murder--or some other serious crime--to occur within the first 25 pages of detective novels.

So when you ring in the New Year, think of . . . Dorothy Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey, bats in the belfry, and bob, who is not only your uncle but also "a type of plain method . . .".

If there's a bat or two in your belfry and you'd like to know more about this obscure art of bell-ringing, well, here's a link:


The lingo of those who report weather-news to us fascinates, although it may fascinate less when we're focused on the news itself and how it might disrupt our lives.

A term new to me is "winter mix," which I feel obligated to hyphenate because winter is a noun pressed into service as an adjective. At any rate, it apparently refers that anything-can-happen weather, when rain, snow, freezing rain, or just cold air may greet you when you step outside. There is a note of resignation in this term that appeals to me, as if, subtextually, the weather-person were saying, "You know what? It's winter, and the weather's unpleasant, so sue me." Ellen DeGeneres has a nice bit about how people tend to blame weather-reporters for the weather-news, an attitude sometimes enacted clumsily on the set of local-TV news-shows, where news "anchors" display mock outrage toward their climatological colleagues. "Please tell us the snow is going to stop, Amanda!"

Still, "weather-mix" doesn't measure up to my favorite term, used almost exclusively in the Pacific Northwest, as far as I can tell: "sun breaks," which also should be hyphenated, in my opinion. Essentially, the terms means "cloudy," and everybody knows that, in some circumstances, sunlight may break through clouds momentarily. But saying "there will be sun-breaks" instead of saying "it's going to be cloudy again" may qualify as protesting too much. I hope the "financial" reporters don't start saying, "The economic outlook is still horrible--but with prosperity-breaks in the afternoon, followed by a few minutes of economic justice overnight."

So anyway, I decided to play around with a poem concerning this winter-mix business.

Winter's Mixed Results

Snow to rain and back to snow
again. Then comes just cold,
which freezes slush and snow
and mud. At last we're slowed
down and up, our feet and wheels
and winged chariots set back
to sluggish paces, in some cases
even stopped by frozen slop
of slush and snow and mud.

This weather lurks beneath
the mean temperature. We're
put in a mercury-mood--heavy,
gray, not quite solid, depressed
by cold. After thaw, abrasive
rains scour streets. Hard wind
mutters under eaves, in
gaps between urban structures.
We escape again into feverish
bustling and maniacal toil, into
the flow of routine we hold dear.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, December 29, 2008


(photo of Jacques Ellul, looking hopeful)

A professor from whom I took graduate courses in 18th century literature (many moons ago) especially liked this quotation from Samuel Johnson:

"The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope."
Johnson: Rambler #2 (March 24, 1750)

He was bit dour, this professor (as was Johnson), rather chronically disappointed in almost everything. So I think he interpreted the quotation as bearing on humans' penchant for false hope.

Given the news from almost everywhere about almost everything, hopelessness is a tempting position. Turn where one might, much seems hopeless: the plight of the poor everywhere, the health of the planet, Middle East politics, and so on. No doubt you have your own pertinent list handy.

At the same time, one might posit that hopelessness is a luxury. For example, today I found myself lapsing into a hopeless attitude toward conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, but at the time I was driving on calm, if pot-holed, streets, headed to a well-stocked grocery store. Easy for me to indulge in hopelessness. If I were trying to raise a family and/or support friends somewhere in the midst of conflict, violence, and oppression, I might not have the option of focusing on my private hopelessness. I'd probably have to focus on surviving, getting through a day or a week.

And, indeed, perhaps the most important word in the Johnson quotation is "natural," a word about which social scientists, among others, are quite skeptical. Nature v. nurture, essential v. constructed, and all that. Maybe there is some hopeful hard-wiring in the brain, however. Who knows?

At the same time, as a close friend of mine is fond of saying, particularly of organizations that can't get their stuff together, "Hope is not a strategy." I find that assertion hard to argue against. In my limited experience, preparation, attention to detail, persistence, and focus have seemed to be more productive than hope. But I'm also open to the argument that hope helps make these practices possible.

I'm also emboldened, or at least made hopeful, by people who maintain hope in extreme situations, who "beat the odds," at least for a while, and who do what had seemed like the impossible. Emily Dickinson, who knew much hardship and pain, famously took the side of hope in this poem:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird—
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

There may be some of Dickinson's attitude in that of Jacques Ellul, 20th century French theologian and political scientist. Ellul's book, Propaganda, is arguably the very best single volume on the subject, and what he had to "say" about propaganda and mass media seems more pertinent with each new technological "advancement" in media. Ellul's book is not entirely hopeful, and Ellul himself had seen France occupied by Hitler's military (but then also unoccupied, or liberated). Oddly enough, Ellul settled on a combination of anarchy and Christianity as his hopeful, feathery perch amid the gale. He saw Christianity as having been rooted in anarchy--"anarchy" in the sense of being opposed to oppressive hierarchy. And he perceived non-violent Anarchism as the stance most likely to lead to liberty and justice.

How does Ellul reconcile Christian faith and political anarchy (not chaos, mind you, but the political philosophy of anarchy, as defined by Bakunin and others)? Well, in the short run, I'll rely on a one-paragraph summary taken from

"Jacques Ellul blends politics, theology, history, and exposition in this analysis of the relationship between political anarchy and biblical faith. On the one hand, suggests Ellul, anarchists need to understand that much of their criticism of Christianity applies only to the form of religion that developed, not to biblical faith. Christians, on the other hand, need to look at the biblical texts and not reject anarchy as a political option, for it seems closest to biblical thinking. Ellul here defines anarchy as the nonviolent repudiation of authority. He looks at the Bible as the source of anarchy (in the sense of non-domination, not disorder), working through the Old Testament history, Jesus' ministry, and finally the early church's view of power as reflected in the New Testament writings. 'With the verve and the gift of trenchant simplification to which we have been accustomed, Ellul lays bare the fallacy that Christianity should normally be the ally of civil authority.'" - John Howard Yoder

In the long run, I'll rely on Ellul himself. A translation of his book, Anarchy and Christianity, appeared in 1991 and is still available in paperback, and maybe in a locally owned used bookstore of your choice. If, however, the combination of anarchy and Christianity just seems too preposterous to you, seems to be a perch to which you have no hope of (or interest in) reaching, then I hope you'll glance at Ellul's Propaganda sometime, if you haven't already. One absolutely need not be either Christian or anarchist to benefit from that book; indeed, it's the sort of book that's easily imported to all sorts of world-views. As is the wisdom in Sam Johnson's essays and poems (and the dictionary), come to think of it. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, as one might say about this post, "no one wished it longer."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hash? Sheesh!

So we trekked all the way to Seattle to meet a garrulous group who had trekked all the way from Whidbey Island; we rendezvoused at the Sorrento Hotel, which refers to itself as "the longest running luxury hotel in Seattle" (I didn't see it move, let alone run), and we "brunched."

To my mild astonishment, if astonishment can be mild, corned beef hash was listed on the menu. It was easily the most interesting dish listed, and the sight of the words made me a wee bit nostalgic, so I had to order the dish.

Alas and alack, I was served, not hash, but simply strips of corned beef. I managed to find sustenance in what I ate, but nonetheless, I was disappointed that I hadn't actually been served hash, which is ground-up meat. My parents and many in their generation routinely made hash with a cast-iron meat-grinder. Hash of this sort is connected with some social-class issues and "stretching a dollar." If you have a piece of tough meat left over, one way to use it is to grind it up into a hash and serve it for dinner or breakfast or both. Probably through the 1950s and into the 1960s, hash was also a mainstay of diners' breakfast-menus. One hardly ever sees it now. It''s much too folksy, and it probably takes too much time to make, although I think you may still buy it in a can.

A fellow I was dining with had also remembered hash of the old-fashioned kind, and he opined that, in this economy, corned beef hash might make a comeback. He also observed that Spam (referring to meat in a can, not to unwanted email messages) has become much more popular and that in Hawaii it has remained popular because Hawaii has to import most of its meat. "Spam and hash are inexpensive ways of getting protein," he said, cutting to the economic and metabolic chase.

According the the OED online, hash (as referring to ground-up meat), goes back linguistically to the 17th century, and Samuel Pepys's (pronounced Peeps) famous diary is cited as a source. Not too long thereafter, "hash" took on a derogatory connotation, meaning a mess, as in "he made a hash of things." A poem by Alexander Pope from 1735 is cited in this case. Pope uses the term figuratively and writes of a "hash of tongues," a mixture of languages--not ground-up tongues.

Then the term "settle [his] hash"--as in vanquishing a person--came into the language in the early 1800s. I almost never hear the term anymore, and in fact I didn't hear it all that often in my childhood.

Apparently, hash-browned potatoes, as a term, arose in the language after 1900. Probably most of us think of hash-browned potatoes as fried (browned) potato slices, but some people think of them as bits of potatoes fried--hence the link to hash, I assume.

As to corned beef itself: it refers to salted beef. "Corning" is a form of "curing" meet, and the connection is to corns or pieces of salt, not to corn itself. A "corned beef and cabbage" meal is still associated with Easter Sunday and with Irish cuisine. I rather liked corned beef and cabbage when I was growing up. The (boiled) cabbage (of the light green, not of the purple, variety) was served with vinegar.

"Hashish" actually pre-dates "hash," going all the way back to 1598 and referring, of course, to processed Indian hemp-plant, which was also called "bhang." I think I prefer "bhang" to "hash" in this instance--not that I know anything about smoking hash, but I did have a friend once who smoked it, and according to him, it was mightily more powerful than marijuana and had the effect of removing the top of his head, gently. "Hash" as referring to "hashish" came into the language in the 1950s, at least according to the OED online, which cites Norman Mailer, of all people. Perhaps things got a little complicated in big cities when people walked into diners and asked for "a plate of hash." "Would that be the Irish or the Indian hash, sir? There's a bit of a price-difference, and are you a cop?"

Being a nerd to the third power, I had to wonder of "hashish" was related in any way to "assizes," as in "the court of assizes" in Britain. Nope. "Assizes" refers to judgments, and it's related to the Old French "assise," which concerns sitting down. So if you go to the court of assizes, you and the judge and your expensive barristers and solicitors sit down, and you get your judgment, unless you're stuck in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House, but then that's the court of chancery.

And finally, on a football (American) field, there are small white dashes or marks toward the center of the field, and these are called "hash-marks," but the linkage is to marks on a military uniform, also called "hash-marks," and as far as I can tell, there's no connection to smoking hash or eating corned beef hash, although the rules of American football seem to have been devised by people who had smoked hash, and I know at least one NFL referee who seems to make rulings on the field without benefit of the top of his head.

Oh my goodness, I've made a hash of this post.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


I like the way William Golding went about writing novels, to the extent I know by inference how he went about writing novels. It seems as if he invented premises or situations that would allow him to investigate and represent human behavior in isolation and in relatively extreme situations. Indeed, he didn't limit himself exclusively to human behavior. In The Inheritors, he imagined the world of Neanderthal people more or less at the "moment" when they encountered (and just before they seem to have been overwhelmed by) humans of our particular species. This novel is The Inheritors. (Incidentally, some scientists in Europe are supposedly attempting to rebuild the genome of Neanderthal "man.")

Of course, his most famous novel, and one of the most-assigned novels in American high schools, is Lord of the Flies, the isolation-maneuver in this one being the use of an island on which adolescent males are stranded. Then there's The Spire, which is the Golding novel I happen to like the best; it describes the building of a Medieval cathedral, with all the attendant and conflicting forces of ambition, faith, greed, mystery, engineering, labor, and so on.

Pincher Martin is not my favorite, but it's still a good book, in my opinion. Golding takes extremity to its extreme. Mr. Martin is stranded on a rock, just a rock, in the ocean, and there is also some question in Pincher's mind whether Pincher exists. And what a great (first) name--reducing all of humanity to a crab-like form (if we take pincher to equal pincer). I read that novel when I was 17. It was a bit much for me at the time. --A good mind-stretcher, however.

If his novels are any guide, Golding was ambivalent, to say almost the least, about what constituted essential humanity and the extent to which something good was a part of that essence. His was a guarded view of humanity, I'd say, so I thought of him after I'd written this small, pincer-like poem.


So, to recap, we staggered out of Time,
became aware of our awareness. We
found, used, and made tools. We got
big ideas, learned to draw and build.
We refined storage, trade, war, art,
and sex. Now we are too many for
the space allotted. Our killing-tools
have outgrown war itself. We've
progressed so much that we've
regressed to the predicament of
a self-threatening species. I wonder
what's going to happen. Shall love
and sense somehow prevail? That
would be lovely, but as the "somehow"
nervously suggests, I feel obligated by
all those practical jokes I fell for early
in life to have my doubts. At the same
time, who cares about my doubts,
when the percentage of us I constitute
is too small to calculate? Carry on.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Poem to Poet

Poem to Poet

"If you don't mind," the poem said
to the poet, "I'd prefer not to begin
with a vivid description of place,
a surreal image, or an attention-grabbing
statement." "As a matter of fact,"
said the poet, "I do mind. I write you.
Your job is to stay written." "But
not published?" said the poem.
"Ouch," the poet said. "And,"
continued the poem, "poetry--
that's me--is not a matter of fact.
Facts are like weights you attach
to the corpses of dead poems so
they'll sink." "In a marsh?" asked
the poet, trying to be helpful.
"Sure. Whatever--a marsh," the
poem said. The poet inhaled
substantially, held the breath,
and let it go. "Fine, then," said
the poet, "how might you begin
yourself?" "Your inquiry sounds
insincere," the poem said. "Don't
change the subject," replied
the poet, "or are you all talk
and no poetry?" "Okay," said
the poem, "this time I'd like
to begin with a question--this
way: 'Why do washed clothes
dried outside in sunshine
smell so extraordinarily fine
that I when I release them
from the line, I plunge my face
into the clothes and sniff them?'"

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, December 26, 2008

Goya Humbug

The Winter break seems to be my time to catch up on movie-watching--on television. I saw the better part of Apocalypto today and was not disappointed, or rather I was as disappointed as I expected to be, so I don't think this counts as disappointment. From the point of view of craft, Gibson knows how to assemble a movie and make startling images, and he seems to make movies that make money, and I guess that's the point. But a huge percentage of the film is essentially a chase-scene that recycles conventions not only 0f chase-scenes but of Old School "jungle" movies--including predatory cats, poisonous snakes, booby-traps, and (wait for it!) quicksand. Oh, how I loved quicksand in movies when I was about 11!

I also saw Goya's Ghosts, directed by Milos Foreman. Like Amadeus, the movie is, to some extent, about the artistic personality and about society versus art. The King of Spain, played by Randy Quaid, is a ditto of the King of Austria, played by . . .um, the actor who played the newspaper editor in Deadwood. Jeffrey is his first name, I believe. A visit to IMDB is required, I see.

It is not a subtle movie, and many scenes are predictable, such as when violence erupts and we cut away to . . . chickens. Later, when someone is being tortured to death, we cut away to a burro eating hay. The bad guy--a Catholic priest who later becomes a Napoleonic rationalist (and is a thug in both incarnations)--becomes a Christ-figure in the end. He's played nicely by Janvier Bardem. Natalie Portman is okay, but she's given about as much to do in the movie as most women are given in Hollywood movies, although this may be an "independent" Hollywood movie, meaning a bank somewhere else funded the movie, which was then distributed by Hollywood.

Goya is played by a Swede, Stellan Skasgard (circle over the second a), and that turns out to be a nice piece of counterintuitive casting. The movie's a pretty thinly veiled rant against torture and against the corrupting nature of all power (whether it's "rational" or "religious"). In the end, it presents a kind of Jonathan Swiftian, misanthropic view of history: same megalomania, greed, and pathology, different era. Pope, General, President, or Emperor: all the same.

After watching these movies, I took one of my "urban hikes" and ended up, as usual, at Starbucks, where I learned that the barista had worked 9 hours on Christmas Day and found the customers, including longtime regulars, grumpy. I commiserated on both counts and was especially careful not behave grumpily, not that I ever behave that way in a cafe. My sense is that most people over the age of about 11 are grumpy at some point on Christmas Day. There are so many reasons TO be grumpy. For one thing, it may not be a holiday or a holy day for a lot of people. For those to whom it is a holy day, the commercialism is distasteful. For everyone else except retailers (but including the front-line workers in retail), the commercialism is distasteful--not to mention exhausting. And there's all that pressure to be cheerful and have a good time. Also, in many cases, families are forced together. So Foreman's bit of Goya humbug seemed appropriate, even as I had enjoyed the 25th very much.

Because I walked after the sun had gone down, a family member insisted that I wear one of those orange and yellow reflecting vests. --Not a bad idea, except that I'm not a small person, so I looked like a bus. In fact, I walked past a bus-stop and someone waiting there looked disappointed that I didn't stop and open a door on my side. I merely smiled and said hello when I might have said, "Humbug." I went into Starbucks and ordered a cup of diesel.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


I got to know the work of G.K. Chesterton first through his Father Brown detective stories and then through his fantastical thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday. Then I started reading his writing on religion, including Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Chesterton's an extremely witty, agile writer, although in nonfiction he may rely excessively on the paradoxical flip, as in the following quotation:

Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." - The Uses of Diversity, 1921

The sentence is smart and witty. Sentences of this kind seem ubiquitous in the books, however, so sometimes one yearns for another mode of rhetoric.

You might not guess as much by considering this photo (above) of G.K., but he was a mirthful (albeit single-minded) defender of mirth. In fact, he claimed mirth was one of the benefits of being Christian, a faith he relentlessly defended, partly through a running argument--in print and on the radio--with G.B. Shaw, famed atheist. At the same time, Chesterton was most interested in egalitarian economics and some forms of socialism, but of course not the forms that dismissed religion. He was in favor of distributing wealth, in other words, and probably would have (and did?) mock the idea of "redistributing" wealth. He may have argued for distributing wealth first and then worrying about "redistribution" later, as the quotation above may suggest.

Based on my imperfect understanding of Chesterton's work, I assume he would attribute the existence of mirth to God's having given it to humans. I'm willing to entertain that possibility, but I think it's also entertaining to ponder whether mirth is something that evolved, along with opposable thumbs, for example. Cats and dogs certainly play, but do they experience mirth? Do primates? (I know: "define mirth.") How much does the human brain have to develop before it generates a sense of mirth, triggers a laugh? No doubt Chesterton would mercilessly and mirthfully skewer my desire to understand mirth through the lens of evolution. In any event, I couldn't help thinking of Chesterton as one reader over my shoulder when I drafted the following poem.

The Birth of Mirth

I don't know how many cells a creature
must possess until it develops a sense
of play as distinguished from or in concert
with function. (My knowledge of science
is a source of mirth to scientists I know.)
Regarding mammals, more particularly
humans, I've deduced with my Left Brain
that at some dim prehistoric parliamentary
meeting of variables, babies started laughing
soon after birth if not before. At that
unfalsifiable point, the mythical door
of mirth opened. What a nice selection.
How funny. Perhaps, like me,

you've laughed at babies who laughed
unprompted, and you felt the quirky purity
of mirth. Maybe sometimes you just want
to go out or stay in and have
a few laughs. Anyway, it's all traceable
(this is a lie) back to the birth of mirth.
How is humor? Why is funny? Mirth must
be. This much we know, or this little.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Bowl Season Redux

About a year ago, I wrote a post about the strange American phenomenon, "bowl season," when college football teams play before large stadia-audiences and cameras, each bowl sponsored by corporations and each team's university rewarded handsomely with cash. I even looked up "bowl" in the OED online, and if memory serves (it rarely does), "bowl" in connection with American football, stadia, and the games played in the stadia entered the language early in the 20th century. (Pictured is the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, where the game, the Rose Bowl, is redundantly played.)

Bowls (of this kind) must be one of those American traditions that flummox many observers of American culture. Probably Europeans can connect bowls in some vague way with soccer competitions, but the proliferation of bowls, the bewildering way in which teams are selected, and the corporate sponsorship must seem impenetrable.

When I was a lad (this was in the 17th century), the main bowls were the Sugar, Rose, and Orange Bowls, and then the Blue Bonnet and Sun Bowls seemed to sneak in there. The proliferation seemed to occur in the early 1980s, so that now there's the Holiday Bowl, the Poinsettia Bowl, and a bowl of bowls with corporate names.

In last year's post, I listed bowls I'd prefer to watch in place of the current ones. My favorite possibility is still the Despair Bowl, in which the two most inept, despondent teams in the land compete--or commiserate. I also liked the Absurdity Bowl and the Zen Bowl. The Poetry Bowl is probably an acquired taste.

Corporate-sponsors were so eager to support these bowls last year that I thought I'd offer up more great ideas, including the Obsessive Compulsive Bowl, in which both teams run the same play throughout the game, trying to make it perfect, and the crowd loves it because they share the same trait with the compulsive players and coaches. I agree that this may not make for "good television." I, however, would find it compelling.

Putin and Cheney, among others, seem so wistful for Cold War days that I think we may need the Cold War Nostalgia Bowl to exorcise these demons ritualistically. The teams could allegedly represent the USA and the former USSR, but then of course both teams would include spies and double-agents. A musical tribute to Joseph McCarthy and Nikita Kruschev might occur at halftime. Left-leaning fans could wear pink. Illegal wire-taps would be placed on all telephones affiliated with the teams.

The "Where's Our Money, Buster?" Bowl might be appropriate for this year. The teams would be made up of bankers, and we'd need to make the field extremely muddy. The winning team would earn the privilege of helping people rescue their foreclosed homes.

The Post-Modern Visual Media Bowl might work. All players and coaches and all fans in the stadium would wear their own wee video camera, first-person perspective, and the resulting maelstrom of images would be broadcast, perhaps with some great electronic music, the kind associated with raves. We'd all experience the experience of experiencing the experiences of the bowl, but don't worry; we'd still have traditional commercial advertisements, just so we could catch our breaths.

I'm so alienated from college football now that I don't know which teams are playing in what bowls for what illusory status. By chance, I do know that the TCU Horned Frogs defeated the Boise State Idahoans (I made up that last part--I think the mascot may be a bronco or a fox terrier--some kind of animal) in the Poinsettia Bowl last night. And I still don't like poinsettias.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Light Verse

Light Verse

They tell me light exhibits
the properties of both wave and
particle. So is light particle and
wave, both, or neither? I guess
it's principally indeterminate.
Anyway, I read about this
topic a few times using my
bedside light, the bulb lurking
behind the translucent shade
like the moon behind a thin
layer of clouds. Light's our
daddy, and water's our mama,
or vice versa. It took a while,
but the sun produced Einstein,
for example, and like every
other creature, he got thirsty
after walking in sunshine. Light's
the big mystery which teases
its challengers by illuminating
itself with itself, just as God
gave God an order ("Let there
be Be, if You got a minute") and
followed it it a T. If the way,
whatever that is, isn't the truth,
then it will have to do, and it's
a lot easier to find by light--
or by touch, which sends waves
or particles to the brain. We say
"the power's out" when we lose
our lights, and, brothers and sisters,
that's the truth. Light's the something
from nothing, the lux that leaps
out of nihilo.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

Broken Airport

Two nights ago we had to meet someone at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, nicknamed Sea-Tac. Luckily, the plane she was on made it through, but we nonetheless found ourselves at a broken airport. That day Alaska Airlines had canceled about 450 flights connected, in one way or another, to Sea-Tac and/or Portland's airport, and if you use even a modest multiplier, you end up with a lot of people who were supposed to be in the air now standing around. At Sea-Tac, there were (according to reports later) about 4,000 stranded people, and those getting in line just to sort out things with Alaska Airlines were told they would be waiting 7 or 8 hours.

Once an airport breaks like this, things deteriorate rapidly. Luggage piles up, disconnected from its owners. Stranded people turn the airport into a village, but the village runs out of provisions. Those working for airlines get so battered by questions and expressed outrage that they quickly get exhausted, even punchy. I asked one worker whether another flight we were expecting the following day (from San Diego) was likely to make it, and she said, "I'm not sure because I know they've had a lot of snow in San Diego, too." There was no point in quibbling with or correcting her. She probably wasn't hearing words anymore, and what I said may have sounded like "San Diego pink rabbit airplane snow hello complain goodbye," so she said something simply to get rid of her. I can't blame her, as the workers at the counter represent the epidermis of the corporation. The hearts of corporations are impervious, unseen.

The Broken Airport

The broken airport has become a temple
to which we sacrifice mobility. The terminal
has become its own disintegrating destination.
Haggard people and swollen luggage accumulate
like the snow outside. The enraged become
resigned; the patient, stupefied. Jabbed
and punched by questions, employees
in company colors resemble boxers
in late rounds. Everyone begins to resemble
everyone else. Distinctive personalities
melt into an impressionist canvas of weariness.
People become their uncomfortable bodies.
Quickly clothes and hair become soiled.

Original reasons for travel evaporate.
Now everyone will go anywhere just
to get out, to move. Once again, flight
has become a strictly theoretical concept.
Parked airplanes look like cigar-tubes.
A disembodied voice asks, "May I have
your attention in the airport?" No one
pays attention. The terminal's become
funereal. Mobility rots. People lie down
like herd animals in a pasture.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Stealing Dust

"The Scrapper Poet," whose blog I follow, has just published a chapbook with Finishing Line Press (search online). Make sure you either buy a copy or have your library order one--or both! Chapbooks represent one of the great traditions in poetry and publishing. There's something almost perfect about a thing, nicely printed book of poems.

The title of the chapbook is Stealing Dust (nice title).

I'll also put in a plug for Pudding House Press in Ohio; it specializes in chapbooks and is a real force in the small-press, poetry-publishing world. Poets would be lost without the owners of small presses, the printers and designers who work with them, the editors who look at chapbook-manuscripts, and the libraries that maintain chapbook-collections.

With desktop-publishing, you can also create your own wee chapbook of poems. I often encourage students to create one of these and produce some copies for family and friends--and to sell a few in the community.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I went out for pizza with some students the other evening. Some of them ordered dessert, so we got on the subject of chocolate. I opined that I thought women seemed predisposed to like chocolate more than men liked it, but such assertions carry less weight than a mousse. Even if someone launched a proper statistical analysis that showed more women liking chocolate than men do, the preference might be cultural or physiological or a combination of both--or, heaven's, even neither.

Nonetheless, I'm sticking with my unsupported hypothesis, partly because the stakes are so low, partly because I can't remember meeting a woman who didn't like chocolate, although I have met some to whom chocolate sometimes gives a headache. I did poke around on the Web and found that one researcher--Anthony Auger--contends that chocolate affects women's brains differently than men's brains, particularly a place in the brain called the amygdale. I didn't know there was a village in the brain that went by that name. Of course, the village appears in both male and female brains, so why chocolate affects the zone in women differently is anybody's guess, or rather Auger's guess.

Anyway, I've been working on a poem about chocolate.



After the moon has set but before sunrise,
sweet breezes issue from dark brown corridors
of a warm, fronded forest. This is the hour of
chocolate, when the mind is weary of merely
thinking and wants to dance with ancient
instincts, to self-induce a swoon by
indulging in lore from forbidden precincts.


Inside cacao beans lies a secret
that survives translations of growth
and harvest, roast and grind, concoction
and confectionery concatenation. After
tasting chocolate, tongues transmit
the news by nerve-line, enzyme,
and bloodstream to mahogany-lined private
clubs in the brain. There receptors
luxuriate on divans and thrill
at the arrival of tropical gossip.
After the messages from chocolate
arrive, brown damask draperies vibrate,
and pleased devotees purr pleasurably.


My darling, I wouldn't choose
between chocolates and flowers,
so I brought both. Let me put
the latter in a vase as you open
and taste the former. Yes, I agree:
chocolate is film noir watched
by taste buds in the mouth's
art-house theater. Barbarously

suave, chocolate is an unabashedly
debauched foodstuff--cad and coquette
of cacao. Darling, you're making
those noises you make when you eat
chocolate--the secret language of
satisfaction, the patter of pleasure,
your mumbled homage to this,
the moment of chocolate.

Copyright Hans Ostrom 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I've been reading some literary theory (now, don't nod off immediately; wait a few moments)--specifically Genres in Discourse by Tzvetan Todorov.

Of course, we all go around assuming genres exist--things like novels, poems, plays, prayers, and autobiographies. Then there are so-called sub-genres like naturalistic novels, satiric novels, tragic plays, celebrity autobiographies, adventure films, and the curious sub-genre, "chick flick," which I think is essentially a movie with reasonably good dialogue, not much representation of violence, and maybe a little romance.

Todorov is not the first to note that while we go around assuming these genres actually exist, the more we probe them, the more permeable they seem; boundaries between alleged genres disappear. He starts with a big genre, "literature," and shows how difficult it is to prove literary writing is essentially different from other kinds of writing. He goes over the usual stuff about mimesis, self-reference, and fiction; with regard to the latter topic, he notes that novels are neither true nor false (such as a report about weather) but simply "fiction." We may assume a novel has some relation to truth, but even so, we realize it's fiction.

He also sensibly discusses, via Rene Wellek and Northrop Frye, the issues of form (or structure) and function. So at first glance, the purpose of a play seems different from that of a prayer or memo, and the structure of a poem seems different from that of a scientific report.

"Seems" is the problem, especially after Modern writers deliberately disrupted genre-boundaries and were self-conscious about the seeming part.

Todorov ends by concluding that these things, genres, are in fact not essential categories but are determined and re-determined each time people actually use them--in discourse. So a single sentence, without being changed, might appear in a scientific report or a novel, and its being associated with one genre or the other would depend upon who was writing or reading it and why. In other words, society makes up, perpetuates, and disrupts genres all the time.

In later chapters, he presents some fascinating analysis of Dostoyevsky's Notes From the Underground (what genre is this book in, for heaven's sake?) and of Poe's writing in general. Poe, says T., is all about things that are very very small or very very large. He might focus on somebody's teeth until the teeth become extraordinarily symbolic, or he may present a most extreme experience, like getting buried alive. Poe was always pushing genre-boundaries and, along the way, inventing genres, such as the detective story, the horror story, and science fiction.

Todorov does have some affection for the notion that a literary text tends to be more self-referential than a simple everyday statement like, "I'd like to buy this book." That is, the literary text is less of a purely transactional one and more of a made-thing, of interest in itself.

I witnessed a nice example of this at the mall today. A five-year old who clearly knew some sign-language signed for her grandmother, "Rain here," or "It is raining here." She even interpreted the signs for her grandmother. It was a serious, matter-of-fact exchange. Then the grandmother, feeling whimsical, signed "rain" and "cow." The five-year-old cracked up, as did the grandmother, who had essential signed a wee poem that juxtaposed "rain" and "cow" and therefore asked us to imagine a creature known as a "rain cow." What exactly would a rain cow be? Good question. Lots of possibilities. Much imagery comes to mind.

The point being--well, the point being, laughter is good--but also that by "enacting discourse," the grand-daughter and the grandmother had essentially marked off two genres--one a piece of everyday communication--messaging, we'll call it; the other a kind of self-referential performance, a word-play, intended to entertain and to disrupt messaging. The latter kind is what we might call "literature," bu there's no way we can prove, absolutely, that the two statements are essentially different, in the way nitrogen and oxygen are.

Now I think I'll go imagine what the rain-cows might be up to.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Some Favorite Poets in Translation

Over a year ago, I posted a list of some favorite poems of mine, almost all from the Anglo-American tradition, although I included one poem in translation by Neruda. The post is on the list of selected earlier posts, and a recent visitor to the blog liked my list but asserted that not including poems by Rilke, Lorca, and/or Cesaire was "criminal." I'm hoping it's just a literary misdemeanor. My self-imposed sentence is pretty light: I thought I'd list some poets whose work I know chiefly through translation, although in some cases I've also tried to read the work in the original language.

I would indeed include Rilke and Lorca (pictured) on the list, as well as Cesaire, a poet whom Langston Hughes liked a great deal and who's also linked with the Negritude movement in world literature.

I'd also include, in no particular order, Basho, Rumi, Goethe, Machado, and Vallejo. I like some of Bly's translations of poems by Machado and Vallejo as well as his discussion of Latin American and Spanish surrealism in contrast to French Surrealism.

Speaking of the French, I do like Baudelaire's and Rimbaud's work, and I like Victor Hugo's poetry, although I'm not partial to the Penguin translation because the translator decided not to replicate the rhyming and form Hugo used, but it's a bilingual edition, so you can look over and see what Hugo was up to.

I like a lot of Swedish poetry and have read some in the original Swedish, especially in the anthology Svensk Dikt. Some students I taught at the University of Uppsala gave me an anthology of Seven Poets From Uppsala (although I've translated the title, and the poems themselves are in Swedish). I also return often to Robert Bly's translation of contemporary Swedish poets, Friends, You Drank Some Darkness. Marie Silkeberg, Gunnar Ekelof, and Tomas Transtroemer are among my favorite Swedish poets.

To round out this international list, I'll include Eugenio Montale, Li Po, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetaeva, as well as Yevtushenko, whom I got to meet and chat with some 15 + years ago in T-Town.

Obviously this brief list excludes too many great poets, and I've no doubt committed more literary misdemeanors by omission. Sometime I need to mention who some of my favorite Canadian poets are, for instance. Atwood's edition (for Oxford) of Canadian poetry is no doubt viewed as old hat, but I still like dipping into it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Movies With Snow

I've been watching the black-and-white, late 1930s film-version of A Christmas Carol today, off and on. I love the pace of such British movies. The scenes really move along. I'd forgotten about the scene in which Cratchett knocks Scrooge's hat off with a snowball and is fired. I don't think that's in the tale. The snow actually looks almost convincing in the film.

Probably my favorite snow-scene in cinema is in Dr. Zhivago, when Zhivago and his love hide out in the winter home, but the film also begins with some great exterior cinematography featuring a bleak wintry landscape. There's also the ill-fated protest, cut down by Cossacks on snowy streets.

For some reason, scenes from McCabe and Mrs. Miller also stick in my mind. Much of the film seem to have been shot on location, and the denouement takes place in the snow. Indeed, McCabe (Warren Beatty) is able to get the drop on a bad-guy by playing dead in the snow. That's before McCabe himself perishes in the snow. The film features some of the intentionally bad recording of sound and mumbling that Altman liked for some reason--his version of cinema verite, I guess. Otherwise, it's one of my favorites.

Beatty himself made a pretty good film involving a lot of snow, Reds.

I'm sure I'm not alone in being partial to some of the snow-scenes in Ingmar Bergman's films, including Fanny and Alexander.

Hollywood snow is usually pretty bad. It doesn't look like snow, so that's kind of a problem. Hollywood rain may be even worse, however, because there's almost always too much of it. All right, already, it's raining, we get it; now stop wasting water.

What's the film in which the character played by Richard Harris is attacked by a bear and then left for dead--and then left to try to survive in the snow? I think his antagonist is played by John Huston. Is it Man in the Wilderness? It's certainly a lot better than Mamet's strained, predictable move with Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, and a bear. Oy. That was a stinker, in my opinion.

Oddly enough, I think I first learned from a movie that people usually fall asleep before they freeze to death in snow. A young lad, I was watching a Western on TV. It was about buffalo hunters, and I think Robert Mitchum was in it, and I think he freezes to death--but nods off first. However, Mitchum may have just been nodding off in the middle of a scene. He didn't exactly take himself too seriously as an actor. He even turned down the lead in Patton, allegedly, because he said he'd just say the lines while somebody drove tanks back and forth in the background, whereas someone like George C. Scott would really tear into the role. And Patton includes a few interesting winter-battle scenes.

Mitchum strikes me as having been the type to like a good snow-ball fight, rather like one of my brothers. Sometimes we could get enough kids together in town to have a wee snowball battle between "teams." Forts of snow were built, and snowballs got stockpiled. My brother slipped some rocks in a few of the snowballs he made. That sort of thing tends to kick a snowball fight up to another level.

More Snow-Poems Piling Up

A valued reader of the blog and professional writer from Minnesota reminded me that Ms. Emily Dickinson wrote quite a few snow-poems. Living in Amherst in Winter had to have been rough at times, what with no insulation or central heating. I wonder what kind of cook-stove the Dickinsons had in that house. I also wonder what the hardwood of choice was for burning--maple? Oak?

I also forgot to mention Robert Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields (speaking of Minnesota), arguably the book that made Bly a nationally known poet.

Then there's George Keithley's magnificent book-length narrative poem about the Donner Party. Snow certainly played a role in that awful drama. (The photo is of Donner Pass.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


It's been snowing in Tacoma today. Snow in Tacoma is big news because usually this part of Washingston gets snow only once or twice a Winter, and even then, not much. Of course, in a city that's not used to snow, people react and over-react to it in a variety of ways. They don't necessarily know how best to drive automobiles in the stuff. They tend to go too fast. At the same time, snow seems to make a lot of people happy. I was getting my hair cut today when someone, not the hair-cutter, asked me, "What do you think of the snow?" "Well," I said, "I grew up around snow, so I associate it with shoveling." She seemed disappointed in my reaction, so I tried to meet her part-way. "But it sure provides a change from our usual gray Winter," I said. "It's pretty." "Yes," she said, brightening, "it's pretty." I gathered that most of the hair-cutters weren't able to show up that day because of the snow, especially if they lived in those notorious "outlying areas" that weather-persons seem to like to discuss. There always seems to be more snow in the outlying areas, not just in the "higher elevations." If you live in an outlying area that is also at a higher elevation, then the weather-person takes a very grave attitude toward your situation.

Anyway, I got to thinking about well known snow poems.

The first one that came to mind was the one I had to memorize and recite in 4th grade: "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." It's one of those Robert Frost poems that appeals to a broad range of readers. Those poets who like it probably like it first because of its technical brilliance. The combination of formal rhythm and speech rhythm works well, and the interlocking rhymes seem close to perfect. Repeating that line at the end really is a superb move, too. I've never sense anything forced in the poem. The scene and narrative are simple and accessible, so the poem works at almost every level of education, but they are also suggestive enough to tempt interpreters. When I studied the poem again in college, I discovered that some critics thought the poem to be about death. To me, this interpretation was not and is not persuasive.

Other snow-poems include Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man," Basho's "First Snow," Billy Collins' "Snow Day," Richard Brautigan's "The First Winter Snow," and William Carlos Williams' "Hunter's in the Snow," which, if memory serves, is an ekphrastic poem insofar as it concerns (in part) Breughel's painting of the same name. In fact, I think the poem may be in the book Pictures from Breughel, which earned Williams a Pulitzer Prize--his only one, I think. Tobias Wolff has a short story by the same name. It's a well written story, but also a cold-blooded one that echoes Hemingway insofar as it seems to have disdain for the characters in it, as Hemingway's "Francis MacComber" story does, too, at least in my opinion.

My goodness, I wonder how many Russian and Swedish poems there are about snow. Canadian, too. On a site called "The Canadian Poetry Archive," I just found a snow-poem by a person named Archibald Lampman. The poem is pretty good, and the poet's name is to die for. "Hello. My name is Archibald Lampman, and as you might have already guessed, I'm a poet."

Louis MacNiece has a poem called simply "Snow," and so does Edward Thomas. Robert Graves wrote called "Like Snow." Another Billy Collins one is "Shoveling Snow with Buddha."

Those venerable American poets Longfellow and Whittier wrote snow-poems, as did Edna St. Vincent Millay: "The Snow Storm."

But I keep thinking I'm forgetting a very important snow-poem, one even more obvious and famous than some of the ones already mentioned. Some figurative snow is piling up in drifts near my memory, however, and my memory is preoccupied. It thinks it may have to go out and shovel some snow soon.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Human in an Airport

(photo: Naugahyde)








Human in an Airport

To be human is to sit cross-legged

on a Naugahyde chair at an airport-gate,

which is no gate, to know what the word

Naugahyde means, to wear a dark woolen

coat, to wear cotton jeans which owe their etymology

to Genoa, to have had some of your head's

hair tinted yellow chemically, to wear metal

ear-rings, to wear a diamond-barnacled band

on one finger, to read with great rational,

passionate concentration a book entitled

World War IV, and to mark passages with

translucent, yellow, watery ink as if you

might be personally involved in this or that

denouement of history. And to sneeze.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Joke as Genre

A while back I bought a book called Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, by Jim Holt. It pretty much does what the title suggests, touching on major theories of humor, acknowledging how funny and absurd it is to try to generate a theory of humor, and breaking down how and why jokes work or fail. If there's one big missing piece, it's a rhetorical one--namely, the rhetorical concept of audience, and even more broadly, of culture or "rhetorical community." For example, when the effects of feminism began to be felt in the 1960s and 1970s, many jokes that had once been standard fare were no longer funny, and the people who used to tell them unselfconsciously, even proudly, were taken aback. Of course, they often blamed the cool reception on "political correctness" or the alleged "humorlessness" of women. No. Times and the culture had changed, as they always do. Rhetoric and humor have always had to adapt to changing communities, as Aristotle well knew.

Based on my reading of the book, I've been trying to write jokes, just to experiment with them as a genre of writing. One element running through my life is that I've often been willing to try things I know, a priori, I may not be very good at, may even be awful at. So, for example, I took a ballet class when I was about 20. There were about 50 women and three men, and I was easily the worst dancer. But I learned what I wanted to learn--some basics about ballet, from a dancer's (sort of) perspective. I've also acted in two short student-directed films, just to see what it's like to act in front of a camera. I actually did okay, partly, I think because I didn't try to act. I just "was" who I was supposed to be (according to the script and the director) and left it at that. In high school, I desperately wanted to play the lead in The Crucible, but after the audition, all I got was the role of Ezekiel Cheever, bailiff. During one performance, I did save a scene by ad libbing when the actor playing the judge forgot his lines and froze. I wrote a one-act play recently. It's not very good.

So I didn't start writing jokes with the hope of their being funny to anyone but me, and I don't have career goals in comedy, to say almost the least. But I am fascinated by the form jokes can take--by jokes as a genre, as verbal constructs, if you will. In some ways, they're like very short poems.

I've tried out a couple jokes on my classes this week, just to test them (the jokes, not the classes). Of course, this experiment has led to brief discussions (before and after class) about favorite jokes and favorite comics. All of these students are about 20-21 years old. As far as I could tell, none had ever heard of Jack Benny (pictured) or Henny Youngman, nor did I expect them to have done so (times and culture change). But historians of popular American humor will remember Benny as a master of timing and of the deadpan response, and of course Youngman is the Mozart of the one-liner. I also came to appreciate Benny because one of his sidekicks was Eddie Anderson (character name, "Rochester"), an African American actor and comedian. True, in the the fictional world of Benny's TV show, Rochester did work for Benny, so the Black man was still working for the White man. But Rochester was not deferential, and the fictional (and probably professional) relationship between the two men was enlightened, at least by the standards of the times.

Holt goes over the usual theories of jokes--surprise, superiority, the sense in which the audience is asked to figure out a puzzle, suppressed aggression, and so on. He also discusses famous and eccentric collectors of jokes, as well as famous joke-forms (three men walk into a bar, etc.) and comedians.

Two jokes I wrote that made me laugh are as follows; however, I did not expect them to succeed broadly, and they haven't. But I even like the fact that they more or less failed because the information helps me understand the genre better.

1. When I was a child, I was very lonely because my family hid from me a lot.

2. My girlfriend told me she wanted to start seeing other people. So I said, "Okay," and I removed her blindfold.

My wife thought #2 was mildly funny, and she thought #1 was not funny at all. My classes thought neither joke was very funny, and one student said, "But you're married--you don't have a girlfriend, do you?" And I said, no, it's just a joke, a verbal experiment, not autobiography. I want to know what you think of it as a joke.

Another student who is studying joke-writing told me that #2 might be funnier if I had given it a longer build-up. Two other students thought #1 was very sad. That is, they didn't read it as a joke but as some kind of autobiograhpical statement.

I like #1 because I tend to like dry, deliberately flat-footed jokes, and I liked the dumb literal-minded logic of loneliness springing from people's hiding from you, not from anything emotional.

I like #2 because I think the surprise is pretty good and because it plays with literal and figurative meanings of "see." For some reason, I think the blindfold is funny, too--partly because of the ambiguity. Does the girlfriend wear the blindfold because she wants to? Just what is the deal with this blindfold, anyway?

Of course, much depends on who is delivering the joke and to whom, and my delivery of jokes has always been bad. #1 might possibly be funny if it were delivered by a professional comedian who had a loser-persona. #2 might be funny if it were delivered by a professional with an absurdist persona, like Stephen Wright. Nonetheless, neither joke is successful standing alone on its own merits. They're simply like unsuccessful sonnets or ballad-stanzas. The form is there, and there's a hint of the requisite surprise, puzzle-solving, and superiority (etc.), but not nearly enough of what's necessary.

As I think I've written here before, "the joke" has to be one of the most demanding genres of writing.

Please read Holt's book. You'll enjoy it, and you'll be enticed to quibble with the various theories of humor and jokes.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Devout Atheist Dust-Up

There's a dust-up going on at the state capitol in Washington (Olympia). Apparently there's some kind of multi-faith display, and the people in charge of the display included some kind of poster developed by atheists, who wish to celebrate the Winter solstice and to express their view that religion is merely mythic and fantastical and should therefore be dismissed.
Apparently the poster was stolen and ended up at a country-and-western radio station in Seattle. (?) Then it was returned. But then yesterday, some 500 protestors showed up demanding that the poster be taken down. I gather most, though not all, of these protestors were Christian, or claimed to be. The governor doesn't like the poster, but she says the attorney general tells her the atheists have a constitutional right to post their views in the display.
Of course, the most reasonable response to this dust-up is "Who cares?" Given all the problems government needs to work on, I don't want it spending one second on this debate.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we do and should care, however, my second response is that if a Christian (for example) believes himself or herself to be solidly faithful, then what effect could the poster possibly have on the person's faith? Moreover, if a Christian really does perceive the atheist to be an "enemy," then the Christian is supposed to pray for the enemy.
Third, one of the protestors is the wife of a well known pastor near Seattle who preaches "the gospel of wealth," lives in a mansion, owns a helicopter, and so on. Arguably, "the gospel of wealth" is a greater threat to traditional Christianity than the atheist's poster. Arguably, the teachings of Jesus do not promote the pursuit of wealth, although I'm sure the pastor has worked out his argument for why Jesus would have owned a helicopter.
Fourth, if the atheists really are devout materialists, scientific positivists, and scoffers at faith-in-mystery or faith-in-God, then why do they want to celebrate the Winter solstice? Following their line of thought, the solstice springs from the phenomena of the earth's orbit and its tilting, so what's to celebrate--the accidents of planetary formation and gravitational force?
Fifth, it is alleged that dismissing religion as mere counter-factual mythology constitutes "hate speech." I don't think so. I think the dismissal is simply an expression of disagreement. Hate speech would be something like, "Imprison all Christians at Guantanamo!" or "I hate Buddhists!"
The dust-up suggests that some religious persons and some atheists give religion and atheism bad names. How about if all the groups represented at the capitol participated in a friendly competititon to see which group could distribute the most blankets, clothing, and food to homeless persons in the state of Washington? Helping the homeless does not go against any major faith tradition of which I am aware, and it certainly in no way contradicts atheism. It is also a better use of time than squabbling about a poster that expresses opposition to religion. Counterintuitively, the winner of this competition would be allowed to display the smallest poster next year--would have earned the privilege of displaying the most humility, that is.

Saturday, December 6, 2008



He looked out his window.
A stream of people flowed
past his abode. The fact
and number of them startled
him. He turned and asked
his cohabitant, "Who are they?"
She said, "They're just some
of the people who think they're
better than you are." "Better
at what?" he asked. "At nothing--
or everything. Superior. They're
better overall than you." "They
know me?"he asked. "Of course
not," he said, "Don't be ridiculous.
Or be ridiculous. They don't need
to know you. They're superior."
"Oh," he said, as if he understood.
"What should I do?" he asked her.
"Probably what you've always done," she said.
"Work. Keep to yourself. Stand by friends."
"Am I better than anyone?" he asked.
"Of course not," she said, laughing.
"No one is better than anyone else.
Remember? Jesus, don't you know
anything?" she said. "Don't take
that superior tone with me," he said.
They shared a bit of a laugh,
cooked some food, and ate it.
He looked out the window again,
and all the superior people were gone.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Budgetary Work

I've been working on a university budget-committee this semester. Why a poet and an English professor would end up on such a committee is a good question. I'm surprised someone didn't say, "Put down the spreadsheet, sir, and back away from it slowly." Of course, all the major budgetary decisions are made elsewhere, and certain established realities (such as how much money is available and how much non-debatable things like maintaining Building X costs) further limit the paths such a committee may tread.

Interestingly (well, it interests me), "budget" in English seems originally to have referred to a leather bag, at least according to the OED online:

1. a. A pouch, bag, wallet, usually of leather. Obs. exc. dial.

The OED traces this denotation back to the early 1400s. Not until the early-t0-mid 1700's does "budget" start to refer to a record or prediction of money/capital expended.

I guess one could argue that although we do still keep money in such things as wallets and bags, we keep most of the real money (assuming money is real) in unreal spaces: in online, virtual-reality accounts. We "transfer" X number of dollars from account Y to account Z, but nobody ever touches an object symbolizing value, energy, or worth--until someone later watches an ATM spit rectangles of paper out, and, astoundingly, other people accept these rectangles in return for a bag of rice or a cup of coffee. That all of this perplexes me is yet another reason to wonder about my presence on a budgetary-committee.

With regard to the "home" budget, I'm about as sophisticated as Fred Flinstone. I figure you have to have some money coming in, and you have to keep an eye on the money going out, and you better have some back-up plans, as well as some money "stored" literally or figuratively, such as in a "bank" (but now we're back to virtual reality) or "real estate" (I "own" a rectangle of "undeveloped" dirt in California, for example, and in theory, I might be able to induce someone to give me money in return for it.) The tale of how I purchased the dirt (also known as a parcel or a lot) and when will and should wait for another day. I had no business buying it, and how I scraped the dough together TO buy it remains vaguely mystical.

At any rate (let's say 6%, nyuk, nyuk), a poem regarding budgetary work:

Budgetary Matters

The spreadsheet is all before you. The farther

left you travel, the more desireable things become.

Indeed the items named seem not just necessary

but inevitable, prophesied. As you travel toward

the reckoning right hand of calculation, the less

possible things seem. You think of Zeno's Paradox.

You begin to feel an urge to save rubber-bands

and bits of string, to eat left-overs and sew

your own clothes. When you finally arrive

in the severe, humorless zone of the numbers-column,

you then descend toward the hell of the Bottom Line,

which is, oddly enough, often represented by two lines.

At that line, expenses devour entrails of income.

Accountants costumed in gray feathers perform

a ghastly arithmetical dance. You hear someone

mumble, "Nothing we can afford is worth doing,"

to which you respond, "Nothing worth doing

is quantifiable." You stand up and demand

to know the origin of money. You are forcibly

exported from the room. As you depart, you

hear someone say, "I think we just found

some extra money in the budget."

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thinking Is Free + Rodin and Rodan

Rodin's most famous sculpture has always puzzled me, and I suppose this reaction is good because the figure represented could be seen as puzzled, too. The source of my puzzlement springs entirely from the fellow's right elbow, which rests on his left knee. This position seems too awkward to fascilitate thinking. I think most people would put the right elbow on the right knee. Most people might put some clothes on before sitting on a rock to do some thinking, but this a separate issue, and Rodin probably wanted to show how well he could sculpt a representation of a body, as opposed to a representation of trousers on a body.
I do like the fact (or figure) that the fellow is sitting on a "rock" or some kind of mineral-surface because art (the sculpture) blends seamlessly with fact (the material of the sculpture). For similar reasons, I like some of Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures because the artistic forms seem to be struggling, as if propelled by their own wills, to emerge from marble.
Coincidentally, I learned about Rodin and his famous sculpture about the time I was also watching Japanese monster-movies on television, and one of the monsters was Rodan, a kind of dinosaur (which I did not find to be frightening, and which I knew to be a small rubbery model). The French pronunciation of Rodin sounded similar to "Rodan" to me, except for the hard "n" in the latter, so, bizarrely, I've always associated the sculpture with the cinematic monster, which was, of course, a wee sculpture of its own in reality, there on the "set" of the Japanese horror film.
Sadly, these musing constitute merely a circuitous, insufficiently thought-out prelude to a poem about thinking. I should probably apologize for that, I think.
Thinking Is Free
Thinking is free while supplies last.
Supplies may always last because there's
almost no overhead, so to speak,
at the Thought Factory, which supplies
thoughts to consciousness more
frequently than demand demands,
but that's all right because consciousness
has almost unlimited storage-capacity,
and it's not really a market, for thinking
is free. When you're asleep,
the Thought Factory ships surrealistic
cinema to neuro-theaters inside
consciousness, a part of which likes
to stay awake and watch brain-movies
while you snore thoughtlessly.
Don't ask permission to think or pay
entry-fees to exercise thought. Go
on thought-binges. Start a Thought Club.
Launch your thoughts into the digital ether--
what a gas. If you think an evil thought,
you'll know it when you smell it. Cull
it out, and put it in a mental bin
marked "Faulty Product." Otherwise,
just keep thinking as much and as
often as you like. Astoundingly,
thinking is free.
Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, December 2, 2008



I can't get away from illuminated screens. They
are where I go, watch what I do, write what I
write, tell what I know. Their light lies on me like
fine dust. They count key-strokes and stamp
time. They thicken the reduced sauce of my
personal numerology. I don't know what I would
do without screens, and I'd be willing to try,
but things have gone too far, and screens are not
about to disengage from me. I go from screen to
screen. That is the pattern and path of my life. It is
a digitized, visual existence--algorithms and
pictures, not sentences and thoughts. Some
people take photos with screens of people on screens.
Some screens spit cash at me. Others receive
my numbers and reduce my income.
Wow. I am observed observing, read writing,
seen hiding. One of my screen-machines eats
cookies and spam. I gather anyone with a screen
is targeted by means of the screen. This
Age in which I live is lit up, shining, flat,
and virtual. It is one or more times removed
from itself. Screens invade and insulate.
Screens virtually haunt me like rectangular ghosts.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

A Slice of Poetry

A Slice From a Poem's Center

...It's too late tonight
to start a poem, or to finish
one, so all that's possible
is to present the middle,
where these dry pine-needles
lie and the pastor's daughter
swims naked in a mill-pond,
and a meteor drags a line
of fire across black sky
above Siberia once only
in all of Time. In other
words, . . . .

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fooling Around With Surrealism

There's not a lot of time left in the semester, so we had to race through the topic of surrealism today. A student made the apt point that a "manifesto of surrealism" seemed liked an instance of hypocrisy: we need a manual of rules for telling us how to break the rules?!

We also talked about the important role surrealism played in Modernist poetry; arguably the most famous Modernist poem, The Waste Land, is surrealistic.

Sometimes it's easier to start talking about surrealism in connection with painting, so I established a spectrum between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, with Dali and Pollock thrown in there somewhere for kicks. Almost everyone in the class loved paintings by Monet and Van Gogh, thought Dali was amusing and relatively accessible, but didn't quite know about Pollock. I described Warhol's film of the egg, and they didn't seem amused, although a couple of them noted that showing such a film would make people reconsider the practice and act of viewing films.

We then read a poem by Charles Simic, and one by Theodore Roethke. In the Simic poem, the key is that he begins by refusing to see the fork (in this case) in a routine way. The poem assumes we are seeing a fork for the first time, and that assumption is the trigger for surrealism. Roethke's poem takes a different approach. It is more like expressionism. It presents a kind of violent, confused emotional response to something ordinary--cuttings, as in cut flowers or cut willow branches. Surrealistic images spring from the emotional response, the inner turmoil. But again, the poem refuses to be merely descriptive.

We then talked about why anyone would want to write surrealistically. Answers: to represent reality more faithfully than realism (ironically); to break through the confines of conventions and predictable genres or modes (like the contemporary first-person, autobiographical narrative poem); to explore the unpredictable murk of the psyche.

I had also asked the class to bring relatively ordinary objects from home. These included a penny, a 2 dollar bill, a black candle, some kind of mysterious lamp shade, a stuffed animal that looked like a kitten and actually seemed to breath (this item freaked out everyone), a deer-skull, a watch, and dice.

We then began to write poems about the objects--our object own or someone else's. The poems needed to be "surrealistic" in some way--that is, not simply and conventionally descriptive. Robert Bly calls this kind of poetry "leaping poetry," and he argues that there's not enough of it in the American tradition. Of course, as I mentioned to the class, the trick is to make sure the reader has a prayer of making those leaps with you.

At any rate, I chose the dice (or die) someone had brought--red, with white dots. I couldn't resist. This is the draft I wrote:


Fold night several times until
it becomes a cube. The North Star
shines on one side, Orion's Belt
on another, and so on. Repeat the
process. You have two cubes.
Now let your fist swallow both
die. Hold your fist high, shake
it against the sky defiantly.
Make a wager with God.
Toss the cubes onto
a flat black velvet night. Look
at the way the constellated cubes
have come to rest, inert
and grave. Of course, you've lost.
The House always wins. God is
the House. The sky is God's casino.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom