Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lyric Craving


Lyric Craving

Sometimes I crave a lyric poem
That springs like a clear creek,
A regulated rush of words
To zap a weary week.

A yellow butterfly in air,
A jet-trail frozen high:
Such images are welcome, too.
They fill the lyric eye.

In Housman and in Dickinson;
In Langston; Auden, too.
There's often something sharp and quick.
The words are right and few.

I'll go read these, and others, too:
The Spare Ones, let us say.
I'll sip the water from the creek
And slake the thirst today.

Copryight 2009 Hans Ostrom

The Sign of the Horse

A reader of the blog (the blog has readers? who knew?) sent a link to a Chinese astrological site. As far as I know, I am aligned under the sign of the Horse, about which the site has this to say:

'Popular literature in the West speaks of “men being from Mars and women being from Venus.” Well, in Chinese astrology, the Horse is associated with male and its complementary sign, the Sheep, with female characteristics. Independence is the “male” characteristic epitomized by the Horse. Anyone who loves cowboy movies knows the first thing a cowboy does upon riding into town is to tie up his Horse. You are most likely adventurous, fun loving and enjoy the outdoors as well as a variety of sports. It’s no chore to get you to go to the fitness center to work out, but you truly enjoy the combination of working out and being outdoors---hiking, jogging, biking, rock wall climbing.

You can be a human dynamo. Furthermore, you can stay in an action mode a lot longer than the rest of us. Others probably see you as a vivacious person due to your high energy level. It’s not only your vitality that catches our attention and wins our respect. You’re quick in both mind and body, and cut a dapper, colorful figure as you rush in and out of our lives. In general you have to have things your way---now. Occasionally impatient and rash, you tend to engage in impulsive behavior more than the rest of us. In truth stability is not your strong suit. You are fickle, especially when it comes to fashions."'

I'm not much for "outdoor sports" anymore, although I do like to get out and about, and fly-fishing is just the best. As for being a human dynamo, I must confess that when I'm focused on a project or two, I tend to be unrelenting, one might say obsessive. I'm not sure this is a good quality, but it does help with getting things done.

I love the line about about a cowboy tying up his horse. The analogy is just left there, for us to ponder.

I have been known to be impulsive and rash.

Of course, many people who know me would focus on a particular portion of the horse's anatomy to describe me.

My mother was casually but intensely interested in astrology, so much so that when I called her to tell her our son, her grandson, had been born, her first response was, "Thank God--he's a Libra." He was "on the cusp" of another sign that, for whatever reason, my mother didn't like. I'm an Aquarian, by the way. "Harmony and understanding . . .".

A great aunt of mine was seriously into astrology--she did the charts and the whole bit. She also did NOT offer advice or work up charts for anyone unless they asked and seemed serious. That is, she was rather the opposite of a huckster. She took the subject very seriously, but it was more or less a private pursuit for her. I visited her once, accompanied by a woman I was sure (that day) I was going to be with for a long, long time, and my great aunt, gently, suggested otherwise, based on a brief reading of my chart. Of course, the odds that any relationship will break up are pretty high, so, in addition to astrology, she also had Vegas odds going for her.

I tend to be sanguine about almost all systems of belief, as long as they're not obviously shuck-and-jive affairs and dedicated to ripping people off. After all, the more "science" discovers about quantum particles, for example, the less "knowable" the universe becomes and the more like mystics physicists seem, so we'd best be careful about going all Enlightenment on everybody.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Privilege #238B.1

To wake up at 3:21 a.m. in a warm,
clean bed in a heated, electrified
house, go to an equipped kitchen,
eat a banana, drink clean water, listen
to a neighborhood's silence, return
to bed, read a book by good light,
open a notebook and scribble, turn
off the light, and go back to sleep.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Post 666: Hmmmm

According to the blog-machinery, this is post 666 on my Poet's Musings blog. You couldn't prove it by me, as I've not been counting.

When they still scored the Law School Admissions Test on an 800 scale, I received a 666. Many reasons went into my deciding not to go to law school, but this was among them. I thought someone was trying to send me a message. I told a class this today--and added that, unfortunately, because I took "this" road and not "that" road, I'm their professor.

Except for 666, I'm extremely uninformed about things related to numerology, etc. I have, however, always rather liked the number 4. And I wrote a series of poems on number 1 through 10. I think 4 and 10 produced the best poems.

This 666-business is sure popular in Hollywood horror movies.

Allllllrighteeeeeee, then, as Jim Carey likes to say: this has been post 666.

The Original Salesman

The Original Salesman

Maybe the first salesman went from
cave to cave, peddling pebbles, bones,
and moss, telling stories as he heard
them all along the way. No one bought
anything, as he was way ahead of his
concept. At least he got to see

the world, barter his way to mobility,
hunt approval, gather lies, trade
a carved femur for burnt meat
and a bowl of water. Good news:

no quotas, no district manager, not
even a company. No fake warranties,
handling fees, or special offers. Just
a person who liked to keep moving
and loved the look on people's faces
when he opened up his bag
of electic stuff. Bad news: disease
and weariness. --And people

do establish their territories, lingo,
kinship-networks, customs,
terrors, beliefs, and hate. That's
when you really need to sell it,
man--to convince them how harmless
you are, how very sensible it is for
them not to kill you. That's
a pitch that needs to work.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thirteen Ways

(image: Wallace Stevens)

We're going to discuss Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" today in the poetry-writing class. Then we'll do some writing based on prompts springing from the poem--and from other poems that express multiple perspectives.

Arguably, the poem is Stevens at his best: philosophical but whimsical, very playful with language, and pleasantly self-conscious about imagination and imagining. The poem is indelible.

For some reason, I don't like his use of Roman numerals to number the sections. They seem too heavy for the poem--maybe that's it.

If forced to pick a favorite way, I'd probably go with XII:

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

Here we have quintessential "poetic 'logic,'" and also the kind of primitive logic that sometimes operates when one is in or around nature. The lines provide the kind of "leap" that Robert Bly treasures and that he claims isn't in American poetry to a sufficient degree. I also appreciate how comparatively flat the phrasing is--in comparison to that of other sections, where the lingo is lush.
Sometimes readers new and not so new to the poem get frustrated by some of the sections, which seem too cryptic to them. The poem is really a bit of linguistic jazz, so listening to it as jazz and not worrying about decoding every "note" comprise one way around the frustration.

My friend, co-writer, and co-editor, the late Wendy Bishop, wrote a superb creative-writing textbook that takes its name from Stevens' poem: Thirteen Ways of Looking For a Poem. It's full of good poetry, great discussions of writing poetry, and superb specific prompts for poems. Published by Longman. And Wendy's own collected book of poems is My Last Door.

And here's hoping the week goes well for you in at least thirteen ways.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Going Through Customs

The Current Customs

At the airport in Vancouver, B.C., the border's
inside the terminal, which is many miles and
kilometers from the border, so the border
in the airport's even more arbitrary, let us
say imaginary, than the "real" one. You

round a corner that's under reconstruction,
and at some point, the linoleum becomes
"U.S.A" not "Canada." You have to take off
your shoes, declare you're not a farm-animal,
surrender anything sharp or metal, expose
your collection of sad toiletries (including bad
aftershave that was on sale), and allow
the underwear in your luggage to be X-ray-ed
to see if it has pulmonary problems.

Finally you approach a glass-enclosed booth
and show your passport. The customs-agent
either sells you a movie-ticket, tells you your
passport belong to Franz Kafka and arrests
you, or lets you back into the nation where
you pay taxes--even though you already
passed a sign that said, "Welcome to the
United States of America." Our customs get

more labyrinthine every year, and does
anyone besides the Germans stamp
passports anymore with that authoritative
whack of ink? Anyway, having passed
the point of demarcation, you buy coffee
from an outpost of a multinational
corporation using a tossed salad of
two currencies. A recent immigrant serves

you. His daughter will become
an entrepreneur, a civil rights attorney,
or a diplomat in Canada, the U.S., or
a country-to-be-named-later. You
have passed through customs.

Sixty Bees of Separation

Sixty Bees of Separation

The man misheard me and believed
I'd said "sixty bees of separation"
instead of "six degrees . . ." and he
wanted to know "what the hell"
I was talking about--what did I
mean by sixty bees of separation?

I went with a mondegreenish
improvisation and said that
according to a South American
legend, sixty bees once got
separated from a magical hive
in the Amazon Basin. Ever since
then, the bees have been
circling the globe, searching
in vain for their indigenous nest.

I said according to the myth,
if all sixty bees locate the hive
and end the separation,
the waters of the Amazon
will turn to honey. "Oh,"
said the man, "it's just some
legend, then." "Yes," I said.
"It is the Legend of the Sixty
Bees of Separation."

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Scuffling With A Poem

A Poetry Scuffle

The poem asserted snow "is like
an invasion of feathers," and I said,
"Snow isn't anything of the sort. What
a ridiculous comparison." Then the poem
and I really got into it. It threw
an overhand quatrain and caught
the side of my head. I kneed it
in the last line. We ended up
on the floor, gouging and choking.

Our friends finally broke it up.
One of them told me, "You're
not supposed to beat up your
own poetry. That's what critics
are for." "He started it!" I lied.
"You're an adult poet," said my
friend. "Act like one. So what if
there is a dumb simile in the poem.
Ever heard of 'revision'?"

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Day's Amusements

At my local cafe, I almost always get an old-school beverage--espresso macchiato, two shots. Of course, my parents' generation regarded a CUP OF COFFEE as an old-school drink, which they never called a beverage. At any rate, today I ordered a steamed soy-milk with sugar-free vanilla flavor. The barista looked at me with grave disappointment and said, "And we thought we knew you."

So then, partly because it's tax-season, one with whom I live and I started talking finances. I had just learned that for one of our credit-cards, there are two accounts but one balance. I still don't understand how that works, and being confused, I started expressing my outrage at the world of finance. My conversational partner shook her head as if to say, "I know you too well," and she said the financial terminology I was using was completely wrong. I said, "And you know what's funnier than that?--I'm on a budget-committee where I work!" She tried to let me down easy by saying, "You're conceptually very strong. It's just that your terminology is awful." Well, kind of easy.

It's almost April, and it's almost snowing again in Tacoma. This is pretty much Unheard Of. It's as if the Weather God is saying, "Let's see, should I start Spring?. . . Nah." "Computer says nah," as Stephen Wright says. At least I think it's Stephen Wright.

Then there's this guy in L.A. with whom I'm working on a project, and he emails me via his phone from his boat out on the sunny Pacific. I understand how the technology works, but I'm still amazed by it, and I still want phones to weigh 50-60 pounds. I'm trying to tamp down my envy about the whole boat, sunshine, I-phone situation down there as I sit and watch snow-flakes attempt to form.

And I learned from a blogger that country/folk (and blues/gospel influenced) singer Kate Campbell sometimes reads my Emily/Elvis poem at concerts. How cool is that? She has some great subtle, surprising songs about Elvis. She's a terrific lyricist.

This isn't being sent from my I-phone as I lie on a boat in sunshine on the Pacific.

Friday, March 27, 2009

International Rhododendrons

Rhododendrons were something of a revelation to me when I moved to the Pacific Northwest. Unassuming but noble most of the year, rhododendrons blossom extravagantly in Spring.

Soon we inhabited some homes with yards that included venerable "rhodies," and I became even more intrigued by them. Many gardeners give rhodies a great deal of attention, going so far as to pluck off the dried blossoms in late Spring/early Summer. I never did that, partly out of respect for the rhodies, which seemed quite self-sufficient to me. They do grow like mad, so sometimes pruning is called for. And they like some acidic fertilizer every now and then. --And water if the weather gets real hot. Otherwise, they just flourish: part of their charm, as far as I'm concerned. They provide some nice balance to roses, which require constant care, it seems.

Rhododendrons Without A Country

Rhododendrons in Canada and the U.S.
may be aware of a lot, but they don't know
they're Canadian or American. They're
even undecided about whether to be trees
or shrubs. Unsurprisingly, then, they bloom
cautiously. Vivid swatches of color peek
through grenade-size buds and give Spring
a good hard look to see if it's serious or
a double-agent working for Winter.

Rhododendrons never carry a passport
or negotiate treaties. They're model
citizens of forests, parks, and gardens.
Their leaves are leathery, seem wise.
Rhododendrons conduct business with
sun, soil, and rain. They exhibit a
cosmopolitan poise that rises
above petty nationalism.

Copyright 2009

Herrick's Poem, Reader's Face, Let's Party

(image: Likeness of Robert Herrick [1591-1674])








To the Sour Reader

by Robert Herrick

If thou dislik'st the piece thou light'st on first,

Think that of all that I have writ the worst;

But if though read'st my book unto the end,

And still dost this and that verse reprehend,

O perverse man! If all disgustful be,

The extreme scab take thee and thine, for me.

Well, then! Here is poetry as a bit of a contact-sport. Instead of invoking the muses, Herrick invokes the reader, and, as I interpret the poem, he gives the reader two options: 1) If you don't like the first poem you read in my book, then simply assume that that poem is the worst poem in the book and move on from there (to what will, by definition, be better poetry). 2) If you don't like any of the poems, then you are perverse, and I curse you; specifically, may an extreme scab afflict you and those whom you know.

A poet and poem with attitude: not bad. Also a poet who probably wore a wig, judging by the image above. He looks like he could have played in a 1980s rock-band. Or maybe 1970s: He looks just a bit like Tony Orlando from "Tony Orlando and Dawn."

The use of "reprehend" is nice. We're used to "reprehensible." I don't hear or read "reprehend" much if at all anymore, though.

"Scab," I assume, in this case refers more to a disease than a single scab (crusted-over wound), per se. Here is an example from the OED online that may obtain (from anotheer poet, George Herbert, although not from a poem):

G. Herbert Jacula Prudentum 1137 The itch of disputing is the scab of the Church [transl. of the saying Disputandi prurigo est ecclesiæ scabies].

"Scab" also, of course, has come to refer to a worker who takes the job of a union-worker on strike. I haven't looked into the origins of that figurative use yet, but I probably will.

In the meantime, here's to Robert Herrick and his aggressive opening gambit toward is audience, even though the audience could have simply closed the book in outrage--and hoped the curse would not come to pass.

In a preface or foreword to one of his poetry-books, William Stafford was somewhat more subtle. If memory serves he wrote, "And to my critics: thanks, anyway." Lovely.

The Latest Spring

The Latest Spring


Well, we were all out in the icy air,

behaving as if Spring weren't later

than we'd ever not seen it. I had seeds

to plant and seeds to feed birds. I

loaded up the bird-feeder, looked up,

and saw a fat robin squatting on

the roof, hunkered down. It seemed

too cold to move. It looked at me.

I looked at it. Chilled and in

no mood to plant, I gave up and went

inside. Birds and I have always

gotten along just fine. I'm not sure

why. Maybe we interpret weather

similarly, and we try to say busy.

They weren't moving around

much today. Me, neither.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Grocery Carts

I use the term "grocery-cart," I think, because I want to focus on the Old School metal baskets-on-wheels, as opposed to the plastic versions ("shopping carts") one is more likely to see at a place that sells clothing cheaply. For some reason, really simple, basic technology--like bicycles, grocery-carts, and hand-turned cake-mixers--continues to fascinate me.

Grocery Carts

Sometimes many grocery carts collectively embrace to create a long hive of silver caging in a parking lot. At night this is how new grocery-carts are born.

From a train, I saw a solitary grocery cart abandoned upside-down on a cresting wave of blackberry vines. I felt the tragedy of its never carrying groceries again. I almost wept, but luckily the train was moving quickly.

Sometimes people who live outside, using layers of clothing as housing, shuffle behind grocery carts filled with all their possessions. The carts look like they were intended precisely for such use. The carts belong to the people.

By accident, I've put an item I wished to buy in someone else's grocery cart. Apologizing, retrieving my quotidian item, I glance at the items the other person has chosen, and I'm envious. What excellent choices they have made! What a superb shopping-list they must have composed before coming to the store!

Sometimes a realtor's face appears on a plastic flap attached to a grocery cart. The face smiles at me no matter what I purchase. It is not judgmental. If I buy pickled herring, the face keeps smiling, as if it were the face of a Swedish realtor.

Sometimes a full grocery cart stands alone on the other side of the cashier's station: someone was unable to pay. One thinks, "There but for the grace of . . .".

Sometimes grocery carts linger at bus-stops. They wait for a bus shaped like a massive grocery cart. This bus will take them home.

Sometimes the grocery cart I select is wounded. It favors one of its wheels. The wheel wobbles like a nervous person. Loyal to a fault, I stick with the cart I chose. It squeaks with pain and wants to stop shopping, but I press on. "Hang in there," I whisper to the cart, "I just have to get some pickled herring and pay for the groceries, and then you may rest."

Sometimes I take an item out of the grocery cart and put it back on the shelf. I think of the person who will buy the item. Our lives will be obscurely connected by the thinnest thread of retail commerce.

Sometimes the eclectic items in the grocery cart seem to be getting acquainted before I arrive at the cashier's station. I can almost hear an orange say to a bar of soap, "What's it like to be processed? I ask only because my cousin became orange juice."

Sometimes too many empty grocery carts are lined up at the cashier's station, as if they're stuck in commuter-traffic, talking on their cell-phones, becoming angry, and tail-gating.

Sometimes pushing a grocery cart up and down aisles between shelves of stuff is a vaguely sad experience. One feels shabby, privileged, and absurd all at once. One feels as if one has pushed the cart into a short story by John Updike.

A grocery cart looks like a genial cage that's always amenable to escape.

Another theory is that grocery carts are baskets woven by artistic robots.

Yet another theory is that grocery carts come from Area 51.

Grocery carts mean too much and too little. That is the way it is with semiotics and with simple technology, so you had better get used to it.

Please return the grocery cart to the place where you are supposed to return the grocery cart. A grocery cart nearby is watching you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Believing They Can Learn

For teachers of writing (composition) at almost every level but especially at the undergraduate level in college, the name "Mina Shaughnessy" is still one with which to conjure. Her book, Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing, which she published as Mina P. Shaughnessy in 1977 (Oxford University Press), remains a classic in the field, partly because it helped to change the way teachers look at students and at themselves and the way teachers look not just at mistakes students make in writing but at mistakes in general. (There's a Mina Shaughnessy Award now for the best book on the teaching of basic writing, as well as another Shaughnessy award for an article in the field.) In that decade, after all, people still referred to basic-writing courses in college as "Bonehead English." The name doesn't exactly denote respect for the students in the class--or, indeed, for the teacher.

Shaughnessy, who taught at the City University of New York, argued compellingly that teachers should see mistakes or errors as opportunities and that teachers need to place such errors in context. Here's an excerpt from the book. It's an excerpt that focuses on students who may be the first from their families to go to college, but the the advice is also broadly applicable:

"College both beckons and threatens them [first-generation college students], offering to teach them useful ways of thinking and talking about the world, promising even to improve the quality of their lives, but threatening at the same time to take from them their distinctive ways of interpreting the world, to assimilate them into the culture of academia without acknowledging their experience as outsiders.

At no pointis the task of representing both claims upon the student--the claims of his past and of his future--more nervously poised than at the point where he must be taught to write. Here the teacher, confronted by what at first appears to be a hopeless tangle of errors and inadequacies, must learn to see below the surface of these failures the intelligence and linguistic aptitudes of his students. And in doing so, he will himself become a critic of his profession and begin to search for wiser, more efficient ways of teaching young men and women to write.

For unless he can assume that his students are capable of learning what he has learned, and what he know teaches, the teacher is not likely to turn to himself as a possible source of his students' failures." (p. 292)

(Because Shaughnessy was writing in the late 1970s, she was accustomed to using the singular male pronoun to stand for everyone, whereas after the influence of non-sexist language, we're more used to seeing the plural [teachers; students; they] or "he or she").

In any event, I still value these passages and her book after all these years. And that last sentence in particular is a good one for teachers to remember. If teachers constantly blame students' failures only on the students, then something is probably haywire. Of course, it's just as counter-productive always to blame onself and one's teaching for things that go wrong, but it's always worth asking oneself what one might do better or differently to insure that some learning happens and to remind oneself that, yes, students are most capable of learning (in this case, to write) and that the errors are an opportunity to teach. Also, when students get the clear message that a teacher believes they can learn, they're in a better position to learn--in my opinion.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Golden Age

(image: Poet and critic Randall Jarrell, with cat)

A colleague and I gave a paper on George Orwell at a conference recently, and I just noticed how odd the term "give a paper" is. In this case, it means that we collaborated on a 15-page single-spaced essay, submitted it, summarized it at the conference, and then responded to reactions.

As the discussion expanded, professors (mostly of political science, in this case) began to complain about students, especially students' not wanting to learn but instead merely to accumulate credits toward graduation. Passing over the issue of whether all students are the same, my colleague spoke up and said, well, when I was an undergraduate, that was pretty much what I was interested in--graduating.

The interchange reminded me of a quotation from Randall Jarrell, specifically from an essay called "The Taste of the Age":

Randall Jarrell
The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.
The Taste of the Age

That is, we tend to glamorize our own days in college and believe that students now are radically different. I don't think they are radically different, except perhaps insofar as I think they have had to mature--or at least to absorb more information--than we were. Jarrell's quotation reminds us to be careful not to think too highly of the past and too lowly of the present.

As a poet, Jarrell was extraordinarily empathetic, seemingly able to inhabit the emotions and perspectives of others. (He is most famous for the six-line tour-de-force, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"). As a critic, he was fierce and acerbic. Karl Shapiro once said that after being reviewed by Jarrell, he felt as if he'd been run over but not killed.

Some things were probably better in "the good old days," whatever era to which we'd like to attach that phrase. But probably relatively few things. The problem is that we really can't compate year X to year Y--to get the full sense of how things really were back there in year X, for us, for everyone--including those who were weary of those yellow Golden Age days.

The Stuff That Came His Way

The Stuff That Came His Way

Yes, this is about the stuff that came his way
and his way with the stuff. By barter, whim,
or accident, odd items came my father's way.
An huge green spotlight from a Navy
destroyer. He wired the light, placed it outside,
and shined it on the mountain. Why?

. . .An ornate barber's chair--porcelain, chrome,
and leather. It occupied our living-room for
a year. He called it a "conversation piece."
I did not know what that term meant. . . .
A hand-made cross-bow. A mahogany
nutcracker in the shape of a naked woman:
the legs did the cracking (very funny). An

upright porcelain urinal, which he left outside,
leaning against a cedar tree. Dynamite. Mercury.
A Chickering grand piano, made in Boston but first
sold in Portland, Oregon. A ukelele. Hand-made
skis. An antique mechanical apple-peeler. Square
nails. Antique barbed wire. Petrified wood. A
bona fide jalopy, which he rigged to drive
a big-bladed buzz-saw. Bamboo fishing rods,
wire and pipe of all kinds, and a Chinese nightstick.

The intrinsic value of all these things was immediately
clear to me. That they had arrived and were mysterious
was all the verification I required. My father used some
of this stuff, laughed at most of it, misplaced some, and gave
a lot away to anyone who made the mistake of showing
or feigning interest. "Hell, take it--it's yours," he'd say.
It wasn't theirs. It wasn't his. It wasn't anyone's:
that was the problem. Toward all the stuff, my mother
remained skeptical, cooly tolerant. She liked the piano.

She laughed, once, at the nutcracker shaped like a woman.
As for the rest: it was from her point of view part of a
domain mismanaged with great authority by her husband,
my father, who was a kind of intersection of the Dadaist
Movement, of which he wasn't aware, and Daniel Boone.
I have a piece of cinnabar someone gave him. It's very
heavy for its size. I'm hanging on to it. The piano's in
my livingroom. I'm restoring his Ford pickup. His stuff,
it came my way. Like him, I'm a magnet for stuff.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, March 23, 2009

Caribbean Cruise (Not)

"Caribbean" is one of those words my mind always tempts me into misspelling. For some reason, I want an extra "r" in there. . . .

I've taken one cruise in my life--an over-nighter from Stockholm to a big island between Sweden and Finland. The Swedish travel-agent informed us that the colloquial name for the cruise was "the booze cruise." He was right. Swedes, especially Swedish men, got on the boat, drank and drank, and then passed out--usually without saying a word and never with causing trouble. Americans tend to get louder when they drink. Swedes seem to get quieter.

I did take a boat from southern Italy to Greece (and back) once, but it was hardly a cruise. It was a people-freighter.

Oh, and I've taken a small cruise-ship on a "dinner-tour" of Puget Sound. That was okay. I actually prefer sitting in a restaurant and looking at the water, however.

I took the ferry from Dover to Holland once, and the sea was rough. Not to get too graphic, but everyone was throwing up except the crew, an Irish woman, and me. I tend not to get sea-sick for some reason, although if I were on a ship in the Atlantic, I probably would. One person made the mistake of rushing to the wrong side of the boat and expressing himself, as it were, into the wind. A crew-member chided him. I thought that was mean. The Irish woman sat there on the deck smoking, and I sat next to her. I think we were each waiting for the other to get sick.

This has all been a rather unpleasant prelude to a poem.

The Home-Cruise

I'd like to take a cruise, Caribbean, let's say,
but I don't like "activities," crowded boats,
and troughs of food. I wonder if they'd bring
the cruise to me: A cup of sand, a bucket of
sea, a box of sunlight, a book about the history
of the Caribbean. --You know, just drop it all
off at the place here. Then I could put on

some swimming-trunks that don't fit,
play recorded Jamaican music ("Get Up,
Stand Up"), pretend to look through a
porthole, fall asleep drinking rum, wake up,
stand up, and feel as if I've taken that cruise,
come back, rested, with some small knowledge
of Jamaica and no sun-damage to my skin.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Poetry As Impressionism

I'm continuing some of the most pleasurable reading I've done in some time--that of The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry (cited in earlier posts). If you like poetry and haven't read it, then by all means buy the book new or used or borrow it from a library or a friend or a friendly library.

One of the short poems in there I like is by Femi Fatoba, a multi-talented person--actor, dramatist, stage director, painter, and drummer. He is from West Nigeria. The poem is called "In America," and (unfortunately, the blog-machinery gets in the way) each line below is supposed to be indented four spaces more than the previous line--to create a stair-step effect:

In America
The highway runs too fast
For men to feel the ground underneath;
The mirage does not have time
To look like water:
And too many rainbows
Strangle the clouds.

(p. 270)

Of course, any time anyone, including a poet, makes an observation about one's nation, one is likely to want to correct the impression--not so much out of defensiveness as out of a sense in which one believes one knows "the whole story." But in the case of poetry, photography, painting, etc., one must fight the urge to correct--precisely because what's being offered is an impression--not a sociological or anthropological thesis.

Having visited the U.S., Fatoba no doubt felt the impression(s) represented in the poem, and they're not inaccurate. Obviously, folks from rural California, Montana, and West Virginia (for example) may protest, "Wait a minute--we feel the ground underneath all the time!" But just as obviously, Fatoba isn't intending to ask his short poem literally to make such sweeping claims. No, he's giving us a quick impression, a lively, inspired sketch.

"The mirage does not have time/to look like water": what a great line, an effective way to convey the rush and haste evident in much U.S. (and industrial, generaly) culture. Fabulous. "And too many rainbows/Strangle the clouds": again, wonderful: a superb image and phrase to capture a visitor's impression of American excess, Americans' sense of their alleged "exceptionalism," Americans' sense of entitlement, and Americans' sense of "no limits."

Fatoba achieves so much in so few lines. Great stuff.

Name In The Book

Name In The Book

So I called an uncle to tell him
his sister, my mother, had died,
and he said, "Well, all of our names
are written in the Book." I took this
to be a reference to preordination
if not predestination. After

the conversation, I thought
about the Book--an elegant
symbol of fate, omniscience,
or both. The when, where,
and how of our deaths are out
there, no doubt about that.

But are they fixed, as in a book
already printed? The uncle
I've never known well thinks
so. Since we don't get a good
look at the Book, the fixed
points aren't legible to us,
so my uncle's as much in
the dark as I; it's just that
he stands confidently there.

I wonder if the Book is also a
log and therefore included
the phone-call with my uncle
before the call occurred. Could
be. Who knows? I have to say,
that's how the phone-call seemed.

I wonder how people talked
about predestination before
books started getting made,
but from this uncle's point of
view, I should maybe stop
wondering so much.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Charity In Vancouver

Handouts in Vancouver, B.C.

A homeless alcoholic missing
half a smile asked me for money.
I gave him some. He said,
"Thank you. God bless you."
Moments later, we found
ourselves to be customers
in the same cafe. His use
of money to buy bread
and coffee surprised me.
I'd assumed he'd spend it
on booze to quiet tremors.

The one giving the handout
feels superior, perched to judge;
makes assumptions; and settles
into self-satisfaction. I wonder
what, if anything, he assumed
about me. I wonder if he gave me
the handout of a second thought.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, March 19, 2009

White Beard

Study: Man With White Beard

The old man's beard grew so big
it became a white cloud below
his face. Wee thunderstorms
occurred in there. Sometimes
a silver airplane from 1948
emerged, banked, and landed
on a nearby table. Behind

the beard lay the face
of a shy man whom no one
knew anymore. With the beard,
the man had grown garrulous
and querelous. He'd been
barking opinions for years.

Sometimes his family takes him
to lunch and tries to listen. They
look at the white cloud of whiskers,
which quiver when he talks. The
cloud hypnotizes them. They
don't hear the opinions coming
from the mouth behind the cloud.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Bach to Basics

Watching Bach Played

I saw a string-ensemble play
Bach's music. Each musician
leaned, turned, and swayed
in chairs differently as
they played. The women's
backs looked strong in gowns.
The men's feet in black shoes
stayed fixed to the floor.

Sometimes violin-bows poked
straight up as if probing unseen
clouds just above the players'
heads. Portly cellos had to be
held up like friendly drunks.
They mumbled low genial
gratitude. One man stood

above the players, waving
his arms and a stick as if
to try to get someone's
attention. The violinists
may have glanced at him,
I don't know, but mostly
they cuddled their polished
wooden instruments, and
let their bodies feel the music.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Taxes Make Cats Sick

As everyone except those who don't pay taxes knows, it's tax-season in the U.S. By "those who don't pay taxes," I mean those wily global capitalists. If you can run a company into the dirt, threaten nations' economies, AND get a bonus for doing all that great work, there's no way you're going to mess with anything as trivial as taxes.

Before I get to taxes and cats, I should mention that hotel-owner Leona Helmsley famously said, "Taxes? We don't pay taxes. Taxes are for the little people." Unfortunately, the government convicted her of tax-evasion, and she had to go to prison. There wasn't an immense amount to like about Leona. She was overbearing, and, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, she treated her employees terribly, humiliating them instead of interacting with them as professional employees.

Nonetheless, I had some sympathy left over for her after she got out of prison, lived as a recluse, died, and left all her money to a dog. Leaving it to a worthy non-profit would have been better, but leaving it to the dog showed just how isolated and probably almost mad she was. Apparently the dog doesn't need that much to live on (it is still alive), so I think some of the money does go to charity. "Can't buy me love . . ." does seem to apply in this case.

Anyway, we're getting ready to have our taxes "done"--quite an expression. The process requires as much work as if we figured out the taxes ourselves. The only difference is that, by having a professional fill out the forms, they're filled out correctly. That's a substantial difference.

We begin the process by scattering forms and such on the floor. We like to call this stage of the process "chaos."

The cat threw up on one of the papers. We're working on several hypotheses to explain this occurrence. 1) The cat objects to income tax. Cat's do operate in the world as if they're entitled to everything, after all. 2) The cat found an arithmetical error in the form, or it read the form and believed we'd paid too much for something--or that we should have spent the money on something cat-related. 3) The paper in question had been handled by a dog working as a cashier. 4) The cat had a hairball stuck. Most of the evidence supports 1, 2, and 3, but we haven't ruled out #4 entirely.

The upshot is that one of the supporting documents we're sending to our accountant will have a stain on it.

After we scatter the forms and other records, we fill out a booklet our accountant has given us. It's loaded with questions. Many of them seem strange to me, so strange they induced--as opposed to inspired--a poem of sorts.

Tax-Form Questions

Did you sell a medieval castle last year? If so, then go
to line 25C and wait.

Did an imaginary friend live with you more than
50% of the time last year? Did the friend pay
imaginary rent?

Did a marauding band of unfettered global
capitalists steal your retirement-fund? If so,
join the crowd, and weep in the streets.

Has anyone ever actually asked you what you'd
like your taxes to support? We thought not.

Add the total on line 36A to the total on line
1,401, 263C and divide by the total on line
6F. Then multiply by eleven. Light incense and
chant. Count on your fingers. You are ready.
Welcome to Taxland, Pilgrim.

Copyright 2009 by Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Uh-oh: now I'm trouble. A blogging colleague and fellow poetry-enthusiast from Africa (he writes the wonderful Poefrika blog), Rethabile, has invited me to take the honesty-challenge. He writes,

"Honesty is the best policy. Yeah, right. Tell that to... too many names pop up at this. Never mind it, though. Let's play at being honest. 100% honest, this very Saturday. What with it being the first day of Spring and all.

I will be celebrating Norouz that day with family, eating Adas Pollo and drinking a nice red. Why not Australian Shiraz? But never mind that.

For Saturday, 21 March, place the Honesty badge in a post on your honest blog. By so doing, you will be inviting your honest readers to ask you an honest question each. And you swear by the skies of thunder that you will reply honestly.

Your fans are honest and good and knowledgeable enough not to ask unanswerable questions, of course. I will certainly place the badge in a post on Poéfrika, so come by and ask away. The askee has two "passes" ("no comments" in bloglese). If you can badge up a post before Saturday, by all means do so. That way we can all dream questions up, ha ha ha!"

Wow, only two passes. These are some stringent rules. Nonetheless, I'm going for it. Ask questions if you like, and I'll try to answer them honestly. Notice "try." Also notice "unanswerable questions," above.

And may Rethabile enjoy the Australian shiraz and the Adas Pollo. I just saw BOTTLE SHOCK, finally, and the Brit. who ran the famous contest in '76 (Paris) predicted that, once an American wine "beat" a French wine, all bets were off, and wine would be produced successfully around the globe--including (he predicted) Australia and South America. He also predicated Africa. I don't think I've every tasted an African wine, but I'm ready.

"Honestly!" used to be a favorite expression of my mother's--except it didn't have anything to do with honest; a rough translation might be "Good grief!" That is, she (and others of her generation) used it as an expression of frustration. I wonder how that got started. She's passed on, so I can't ask her--directly, anyway. Even if she were still here and I asked her, she might give me the cold blue stare, as if to say, "What do you mean, 'How did it get started?' It just did."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Words Effective In Poems, Experts Say

(image courtesy of International PEN organization)

Make Poems Out of Words

If in doubt, make your poems with words.
It's awfully conventional, and individual
results will vary, but usually things work
out fine. Which words? Excellent question.

Let me suggest some possibilities: hail,
moist, ax, electron, pollen, choice, chew,
choke-cherry, Tanzania,, sweat, sweet,
sulphur, gluttony, knuckle, tongue, balk,
rip, Thunder Bay, and, the, when, hence,
fennel,Lesotho, slag, Uppsala, velvet,
and torque. Spread the words out
and place additional words among so
as to create meaning and pleasure.

Stop and take a look at what you've
arranged so far. Then rearrange
the words, as necessary. Rely
on instincts. If you need more words,
remember that English contains
between half a million and a million
words, that there are hundreds of
other languages, and that you may
create your own words. I myself
invented the word "consumocracy"
not long ago. This is just an example,
and I'm sure you can do better.
The number of poems
to be made of words is infinite, so
welcome to the big project.

Copyright 2009

Poems From Africa

The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry arrived, and of course I immediately dived in.

Certainly, the editors must have felt dispirited at times (as they imply) because their task was to represent poetry from writers in nations and homelands across a whole immense continent in a wide variety of languages--all in one volume.

Some well known writers are represented, as one might expect; these include Ben Okri, Tchicaya U Tam'si, and Wole Soyinka.

One of my favorite poems so far is "Sometimes When It Rains," by Gcina Mhlophe, a poet from South Africa. Unfortunately, no other biographical information about her appears in the back of the book. "Sometimes when it rains" is a first-line refrain in five-line, free-verse stanzas, of which there are ten. The images, experiences, memories, and/or scenes depicted in each stanza get increasingly more complex, weighty, and intense, and there's also a general movement from childhood to adulthood--and toward what might be called political awareness. A poem with this design can easily become a static list-poem, but Mhlophe escapes that outcome easily. The voice is authorative, and one never gets the feeling the poem or poet is trying to do too much, so (almost paradoxically) the poem's able to achieve a lot. I think I'm going to use this poem in classes. There's so much to admire in it.

It's hard to beat a new, interesting anthology of poetry on an unseasonably cold day in the Pacific Northwest. And I'm just getting started reading it.

Tell Us How We're Doing

We went to a restaurant the other evening, and with the check, also known as a bill, came a pre-printed card on which was printed a survey about the restaurant and the server.

I almost never fill out such surveys because I don't know what the management is going to do with them, if anything. I might have mentioned that some of the lettuce in the salad was frozen, but I'd already mentioned this fact to the server, not so much to complain or whine as to alert her to a possible refrigeration-problem. Of course, my social-scientist friends would probably critique the validity of the survey itself. Usually surveys like this are titled something along the lines of "Tell Us How We're Doing."

Tell Us How We're Doing

When our global corporation defrauded
everyone, did a representative greet you
with a smile? When we built another
nuclear missile, was it delivered in a
timely fashion? After we dumped
poison into a river without warning
anyone, did you receive a Christmas
card from us? When we took away
your rights, were we dressed properly?

We value the opinions not only of
our clients but also of our victims.
Please take a few moments and let
us know how we're doing. After
you fill out the survey, present it
to the uniformed guard who is
staring at you. Thanks!

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, March 16, 2009

In The TV

I know it's eccentric of me, but I wish a lot of television-shows, even current ones, were in black-and-white. I also wish the "test-pattern" would appear now and then--the one that used to appear when they ran out of programming. Now when they run out of programming, they run program-length commercials, which aren't as fascinating as that test-pattern, which looked like an elaborate, cryptic target. I also miss all those glass tubes you could look at when someone took the back of the TV off. Televisions now are essentially computer-monitors, aren't they? Oh, well. They seem to work pretty well.

Inside the Television

Sometimes he kept the television off
so he might imagine what was in there:
a movie in which books are characters
who talk; a news-program that reports
on only one significant story per week
in unrelenting, exacting detail, commercial-
free; a series in which celebrities interview
ordinary working people and listen; the
Saw Channel; a nest of new-born birds;
a cake; shadows folded neatly like black
linen; a collection of some excellent TV-
moments from childhood; unimagined

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Those Who Can, Learned How To

(image: cover of book about Jaime Escalante, renowned teacher
of high-school math)
I've been glancing at some quotations about teachers; my text is the Webster's New Explorer Dictionary of Quotations (Massachusetts: Merriam Webster, 2000), pp. 408-409.
Probably the most famous quotation about teachers is from George Bernard Shaw's play, Man and Superman: "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." The quotation often appears in the plural nowadays: "Those who can . . . ." The quotation has endured because it's well phrased, reflect the great appeal that "making it" entirely on one's own has, and it gives voice to bad feelings toward and memories of schooling and teachers we might harbor.
Apparently Shaw harbored quite a few of these about the schools he attended: Wesleyan Connexional School and the Dublin English Scientific and Commercial Day School. The trouble with these schools may have begun with their names, and it continued with such lovely practices as corporal punishment.
Later Shaw married an heiress; they were both members of the socialist Fabian Society. I don't think the heiress gave up her inheritance. Those who have the capital tend to keep it. Ironically, Shaw helped found the London School of Economics, where at least a few of the teachers, apparently, can teach, do teach, and can practice economics. I think Mick Jagger went there. He certainly seems to have learned something about amassing capital--and about dancing in a very silly way.
A few more quotations about teaching:
"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." --Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams. I assume the quotation applies to women teachers, too, and I might add that teachers can never tell where the influence starts. It's a mystery.
"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn." --John Cotton Dana, motto composed for Kean College, New Jersey. Amen, brother Dana. You have to keep current in the subject you teach, but as importantly, you have to maintain a certain delight in learning. And the next class-session is the none you have to do well in, regardless of how well or poorly the last session went. I don't know if Kean College still exists. I'm going to check.
Of course, all of us learn from and teach each other all the time. That's pretty much how society and culture work. If you don't know, you ask; if you see someone struggling to figure something out, and you know something about it, you offer to show them how the thing works. If you can, and if you have the opportunity, teach someone who can't, provided they appear to be open to the idea of learning. Random acts of instruction, and all that.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Air Voltaire

(image: Voltaire)

Before Air Jordan (the U.S. basketball player, not the airline), there was Air Voltaire, although I'm not sure he actually went by that nickname.

However, in the image above, he certainly is styling, even if he doesn't seem to be leaping, sinking jump-shots, playing suffocating defense, or making lots of commercials. Voltaire was in favor of so-called "free trade," so if he were alive today, he might do American Express adverts or maybe ones for travel in France.

Actually, "Voltaire" itself is a nickname, or at least a pseudonym--for François Marie Arouet, born 1694, died 1778, and most famous, of course, for having written Candide. In his own lifetime, he was more famous for pamphlets and encyclopedia-articles (in an age when encyclopedia-articles were more sexy than they are now).

Voltaire was essentially a satirist in the tradition of Swift, whose writing he admired. He wasn't an atheist or a revolutionary but was rather a deist and a reformer. In the town he ultimately settled in, for example, he used his capital to create what we might call small business, and he built housing, which he offered to people on extremely reasonable terms.

At the same time, Candide is a hilarious, scalpel-like attack on optimism (especially that suggested by Leibniz), on religiosity, on fanaticism of any kind, and on humans' capacity for getting almost everything wrong. After Pangloss, the hopelessly optimistic philosopher, yet again expresses his view that "all was for the very best," a character named James replies, "Men," he said, "must have corrupted nature a little, because they weren't born wolves, yet they've become wolves: God didn't give them twenty-four-pounders [cannons; we might substitute "nuclear missiles"] or bayonets, but they've made themselves bayonets and cannons with which to destroy each other. I might also mention bankruptcies, and the law which takes over a bankrupt's property to defraud his creditors of it." (end of chapter three)

Imagined how amused and unsurprised Voltaire would be by the current global-captial implosion, which seems to spring directly from greed, corruption, and "de-regulation," also known as white-collar lawlessness.

Circuitously and incorrectly, Voltaire often gets blamed or credited, depending on your viewpoint, with the French Revolution, but, as Andre Maurois points out in a nice introduction to the Bantam Classic edition, Voltaire was a monarchist, a deist, and a scientist. He was Monsieur Mainstream Enlightenment, in other words, as well as being Air Voltaire. His view, as expressed in Candide, was that one needed to tend one's own garden--tend to business, that is; concentrate; practice moderation; be sensible; follow the data.

Maurois calls this a "bourgeois" worldview, as well as a scientific (in the sense of Englightenment) one, and he's probably right. Voltaire was no revolutionary. It's just that his views were so anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian at the time that people reacted as if he were a revolutionary. He often faced censorship. My own less-than-educated guess is that he managed to be a monarchist and a reformer/deist at the same time chiefly because he liked sensible order and seemed to be getting it from the system. He seems to have been a monarchist in the sense most Brits are monarchists now--liberal (in the 19th century sense, not as in U.S. Democrats), republican (small "r"), and tolerant of tradition, as long as it didn't go crazy.

Best of all, Candide is a very quick, funny book--still. Air Voltaire is in the house.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

After Next



What happens next? Next happens
next. You go to a funeral, a hard
summing-up, and you feel as if
something's been sealed. Not long
thereafter you're standing in a
grocery store, buying celery,
or you're at home pawing through
mail distractedly.
Tides of ordinary
life roll in, unchecked by what we
deem momentous, even cataclysmic.
In the midst of broadcast
disaster, when time seems like
it should be seized, people
need to go to the bathroom,
put clothes in a closet, feed
farm-animals or a pet. Our
own parts in the flow end, yes.
The flow, no, never ends.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Friday, March 13, 2009


(image: George Fenneman, Groucho Marx's announcer, with Groucho)

I suspect I was thinking first of the late Don LaFontaine when I wrote this poem. He was a professional announcer or voice-over specialist, famous for describing movies by starting, "In a world where . . .". He also did a very funny send-up of himself on a Geiko commercial, second only to the appearance of Little Richard (who transforms every form in which he works, even a commercial). But more broadly the poem is about all those radio and TV announcers with those resonating, cultivated voices. "Announcing" is one of those niche-careers that materialized because of the rise of electronic mass-media. Arguably, the announcer with the toughest job was George Fenneman, who had to work with the acerbic, unpredictable Groucho Marx on a game-show called You Bet Your Life. I saw it only a few times, but even when I was a kid, I sensed that Fenneman was managing Groucho, smoothing over the rough spots.

For decades he told contestants
what they'd won, he introduced
the host, and he said other words
to help create The Show. He could
make his voice resonate the way
microphones like it and make it
dive down, rise up, purr in
between, but most
importantly sound optimistic
and happy for people came home
from work and watched TV or
watched TV while they cleaned
house. The Show was to make
people happy so they would
watch The Show and maybe buy
the products advertised.

Small man. Big voice. Calm
spirit. Talking through a
microphone was his work
and made as much sense
and money as anything else,
more or less. His voice won
the bread. A family, sure. He
got sick and died. People do.
Anyway the great age of
radio and TV announcers
had come and gone. Gone!
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

You Don't Say?

Tell me a story.
Go ahead.
I will listen and
Nod my head.
Talk a lot.
Make it plenty.
I'm one patient
Conversing's something
We can do.
We coincided:
Me and you--
(Or "you and I").
Is that so?
Tell me more!
I want to know.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom


According to the OED online, one of the earliest appearances of "snore" and/or "snoring" in print occurred in 1140, but an arguably more entertaining quotation comes from the 18th century and essayist Richard Steele:

1710 STEELE Tatler No. 208 6 We have a Member of our Club, that when Sir Jeffery falls asleep, wakens him with Snoring.

The etymological trail of "snore" also runs through such variations as "snork" and "snort." There's just too much to like about those two words.


A motorcycle gaggle guns its snarlers

into Larynx Tunnel. Then a nearby sea

seems to sigh. The engines rumble once

again. The process repeats itself in a crude

rhythm as the one lying next to you or

the you who listens to you subconsciously

waits for a crescendo to seize the terrible

song. Whoever is listening waits for a gulp,

a swallow, a sigh--a break of some kind

that will invite soft silence to settle

like a dew on the slumbering cacaphonic

heap of prostrate weariness. How

can tired be so loud?


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Auden After the News

(image: W.H. Auden)

I listened to and watched some news tonight on television. Staunch Republican Frank Gaffney is still claiming that Saddam Hussein consorted with those responsible for attacking the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and that, therefore, the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do. Then I learned that respected (if controversial) reporter Sy Hersh, speaking at a forum in the Midwest, explained that the Bush administration included an assassination-squad that reported directly to the Vice President and operated independently--traveling to other countries, not even bothering to communicate with the CIA, and killing people named on a list. The book containing Hersh's reporting is not due out for 18 months or so; we'll have to wait on the evidence for a while, but perhaps others will dig into the story now to see if it will hold up. Fortunately (or, in this case, unfortunately) Hersh almost always gets things right.

Having had enoughof the news, I turned to W.H. Auden's Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 (New York: Vintage 1975) and read "A Walk After Dark," which ends this way:

For the present stalks abroad
Like the past, and its wronged again
Whimper and are ignored,
And the truth cannot be hid;
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn't have happened did.

Occurring this very night
By no established rule,
Some event may already have hurled
Its first little No at the right
Of the laws we accept to school
Our post-diluvian world.

But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
As I walk home to bed,
Asking what judgment waits
My person, all my friends
And these Unitd States.

(pp. 232-233)

Promptly Write Poetry

I was cleaning up my computer's "desktop," which is neither a desk nor a top (an uppermost surface), and I ran across a list of "prompts" or "ideas" for poems--each prompt designed to help students start writing a poem.
Probably, the issue of whether to use prompts in creative-writing classes (or simply in one's own writing) is less contentious now than it was 10-20 years ago. In all the creative-writing courses I took in college, we were given almost no prompts. In one class, however, Karl Shapiro gave us a semester-long task of writing poems about a poet whose worked we liked. I chose Hopkins and wrote a series of poems about him.
I guess one argument against "assigning" poems or providing prompts is that poetry is supposed to spring purely from inspiration. Of course, a nearby philosopher will immediately order, "Define 'inspiration.'"
With regard to this issue, I'm terribly biased, so much so that I co-wrote a book, Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively that discusses different aspects of writing poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction but that, in each piece, ends with some ideas for writing. In a way, it's a book full of prompts, topics, tasks, assignments, experiments, triggers, suggestions (choose your favorite term).
I'm the sort of writer that often likes to be given tasks or challenges, and I actually think many poets fall into (or wander into) this category. To some degree, Shakespeare challenged himself (or maybe one of his friends challenged him) to write a sonnet that disrupted conventions of sonnets when he wrote "Sonnet 18." "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" It's as if he's asking himself more than he's asking the imaginary listener. Much of the poem is taken up with his showing that the comparison isn't a good idea, so Shakespeare is writing a kind of counter-sonnet that refuses to make conventional comparisons. His implicit poetic answer to the question is, "Well, I shall and I shan't--watch this."
Sometimes the challenge or prompt is as simple as. . . trying to write a villanelle, a sestina, a sonnet, or a pantoum, etc....or trying to write a poem in one long sentence...or trying to write a poem on a topic about which you've written a poem: refrigerator, feet, landfill (e.g.). Often, that is, "inspiration" may spring from a fairly plain task one gives oneself or from an idea or an experiment someone asks you to try. Once the writing is underway, we might find more inspiration, more reasons to keep wanting to write the thing.
Anyway, here are the prompts I found on my non-existent but nonetheless cluttered "desktop," in the unlikely event your're interested:

Write an homage-poem about a favorite writer. You need not be enthralled by the writer or her/his work, but you should like a lot of the writing, and you should feel a strong connection to it or to her/him (as you imagine her/him—after all, the writer may have died long ago). But it’s fine to have mixed, ambivalent feelings toward the writer and his/her work. (Auden wrote an homage to Yeats; Ginsberg wrote an homage to Whitman.)

Write a poem about a time when you were excluded from a group or, at the very least, when you believed yourself to have been excluded from a group.

Pick an age, more or less arbitrarily: 11, 9, 15, 13 years old. Then write a poem in which you completely make up an “autobiographical” event. But it should seem real, not farcical or over the top. And it might even capture an emotion you might have felt at that age, even if the “facts” of the poem are entirely fictional.

Write a poem that begins, “After you lied to me, . . . .”

Write a poem that begins, “After I lied to you, . . . .”

Write a poem about an animal you have observed closely—but not a pet. It has to be an animal you’ve watched—maybe smelled or heard, too. --You know, like that one horse that slobbered on you, or the spider that lives in your bathroom.

Quickly list ten verbs, in the past tense. Then start a poem that draws heavily on this list of verbs. Let the language pull the subject. Follow the verbs. See where they go.

Write a poem consisting of 10 images you associate with a given topic, thing, subject. You might start by making a list of topics, things, or subjects--or even by asking someone else help you make the list. When you write, make your language precise. Present the images. Then see where the poem takes you.

Think of a strong emotion—fear, love, disgust, outrage. Then write a poem about something neutral—tea, a boulder, being in the library, whatever. Let the emotion drive the poem—but not overtly. Leave the emotion under the poem, like molten but unseen lava.

Write a poem that is somehow concerned with the topic of shame, but be concrete—trust the images.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Library Catalogue As Inspiration

(image: old library-catalogue, the wooden kind)

So recently I searched (online) the Nevada County (California--confusing, I know) Library catalogue to see if the library held a book by me. I thought I had donated one, but I was wrong. At any rate, I typed my name in and hit search, and although I was searching by "author," the catalogue, having not found anything related to my name, presented me with suggested keywords related to each of my names.

Consequently, in relation to "Hans," the following list was provided:

strong, lost, most, cost, position, stop, strength, St [no period], stood, lot

The list, however, was verticle and had no commas, so it looked a bit like a poem.

In relation to "Ostrom," the following list was provided:

hands, has, then, hand, as, an, answer, things, means, ask

Of course, when presented with lists of words like this--lists that are both random and not--a poet thinks he or she has just received a most extraordinary gift indeed.

In poetry-writing classes, I often have students make lists of their favorite words (although I steer them away from proper names or pets' names) and then begin to generate a poem strictly from the words themselves, without a subject or topic in mind. Of course, additional words have to come into play to help begin to stitch something together. Temporarily, I fashion a false binary and say that sometimes we're inspired by something than happens or that we remember, and then we go find language to make a poem out of it, but that at other times, we start with language and go in search of a topic. The processes are much more entangled and reciprocal than that, certainly, but the idea is to consider language itself as a kind of "inspiration," a starting place, a trigger.

In any event, I gave myself the same assignment, except that I worked with the words from the library catalogue, not with my favorite words. The initial draft looks like this:

What Things May Mean

Even the strong
will have lost most.
That is the cost
of our position.
We must stop
thinking of strength
as sainthood.

Hands have. A
hand has an answer
sometimes. In
the conversation
you will have
this afternoon,
the word “things”
means “ask.”

I don't know that I've really found a subject yet, or maybe I've found too many, but it was most pleasurable to work with these words, which had arrived unexpectedly and seemed to ask to be made into some kind of poem. Putting them into sentences and aligning their sounds were satisfying tasks. I also like the fact that databases now politely correct us and offer to make up for our mistakes by providing "helpful" suggestions, including lists of words the computer thinks we thought we meant to write. Lovely.


(image: Kindergarten students taking a collective nap)

The OED online lists and defines a dozen different versions of "nap" as a noun, ranging from a type of wool fiber to a cup to "a baby's nap"--that is, a diaper (as it's called in the U.S.) or a "nappy," as the English call it. There's also "nap" as an adjective and five different versions of "nap" as a verb. Of course, some of these incarnations of nap are now obsolete, but nonetheless, who knew "nap" was such a various-and-sundry word? The OED did, it seems. One quotation is from Dickens:

DICKENS Dombey & Son (1848) xxiii. 240 He..refreshed his mind with a nap

Through 8th grade, I went to school in a town 12 miles away from where my family lived. We road the bus there, and on the bus were kids from age 6 to 18. Because the high-school "day" was longer than the first-grade one, the teacher had us first-graders take a nap on the floor of the classroom. I gather that still goes on in kindergartens, judging by the photo I found on the web (above). We had to sleep on these bizarre naugahyde mats, and I do wonder now about the hygeine-factor, but as to the comfort-factor: children can sleep anywhere.

Anyway, the main idea, I think, was for the teacher to take a break and restore some sanity to herself while she waited for 3:30 to roll around, whereupon we'd board the bus and travel 12 miles up the mountain--on a winding highway next to a canyon: kudos to the bus-driver (usually it was one Neil Foster), who never had an accident in the 8 years I rode the bus. I recall one flat-tire, which Mr. Foster promptly changed.

Napping may be a crucial key not just to a teacher of young children but to civilization itself. It might help Americans' sanity, for example, if the U.S. were to construct its culture more along the lines of Italy and Latin America, where the afternoon nap still seems to be central.

I was reading this book, Rules of Thumb, yesterday, and according to it, a one-hour nap is equivalent to three hours of sleep at night. The book didn't explain in what way the nap was equivalent, but I assume the authors meant that body and mind were provided as much restoration by a one-hour nap as three hours of night-sleep. I have no idea whether this information is accurate, and there is the famous REM-sleep-factor to consider, but I can say that naps seem to work just fine for me, when I can fit them in. The world just seems to be a little more manageable after one takes a nap. And then there's . . .the double-nap.

The Double-Nap


He woke up from a nap,

stared at light left by

a gap in curtains, thought

of ambition as an acquaintance

who never repays personal

loans, enjoyed the pleasure

of second weariness, the lure

of lassitude, and lapsed once

more into napping, which

he considered to be a most

constant, reliable friend

indeed, one with an interest

in his restoration. Oh, Lord,

thought the napping man,

subluminously: a day off,

crowned by a double-nap.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Anthology of African Poetry

Finally, I ordered an anthology of African poetry. I'm afraid I made a very conventional move and went with a Penguin anthology. I'm hoping it will serve as a good place to begin, and I have no doubt many delights await me, so even if you're unamused by this choice, don't disabuse me too much. Anyway, here is the basic information, in case you'd like to join me on this adventure--or, indeed, if you'd like to disabuse me (a bit); --or, better yet, suggest additional anthologies and other books.

Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, editors and translators, The Penguin Book of African Poetry (fifth edition), 2007.

I've read some African poetry and proverbs in translation here and there, I encountered some names of African poets when I was working on two Langston Hughes books, and I've been enjoying poems on Poefrika's blog, but this will be my first systematic foray.

A new anthology: wow--just the sort of thing to give a poet and reader of poetry an adrenalin-rush, and in a way, I wish I were kidding. Some people prefer bungee-jumping off bridges or race-car driving. Me, I go right for that table of contents, ice-water in my veins.


(image: Mayor Richard J. Daley)

According to the OED online, "mayor" springs from the French, "mare," and used to be spelled "mair," among other ways. The governmental post seems to have been a feudal one originally, but it soon changed into the municipal-related one we think of now. Probably the most notorious mayor in my experience was Richard J. Daley of Chicago, famous for his dictatorial style, his "machine" ("vote early and often"), his bigotry, and his over-reaction to protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. His son is mayor now. Probably there are many reasons for his having been elected and re-elected, but one of them must be that some people were more or less nostalgic for "the old days."

I met a woman once who had grown up in Spain when Franco was still dictator but who then moved to the U.S.--in her late teens or early 20s, I think. She recognized that Spain's government, etc., was better now than then, but she also recalled feeling "safe" in the city she lived in--because Franco ruled militaristically: no street-crime, etc. I doubt if this woman ever would have voted for Franco, assuming he'd stood for election. Nonetheless, she experienced a degree of nostalgia when thinking of her childhood when he was dictator. The current Daley is no Franco, of course, but I do wonder if some people prefer "familiar authority" sometimes.

Anyway, I've been messing around with a mayoral poem.

A Brief Message from the Mayor

I'm the Mayor of No-town,
Population: One. However,
others live here seasonally.

I like to tell people I won
the election in a run-off.
I disagree with myself,

can't decide what to do,
and change my mind a lot,
so government suffers here.

True, I don't get many
complaints. I've threatened
to resign in protest. Still,

it's a good place to live.
I might create an ad-campaign
to boost tourism--something

like "No-town: home of
the Big Yes" or "No-town . . .
for a Tiny Vacation."

This democracy of one--
I have my doubts. I think
I'll change the charter.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, March 9, 2009

Whom the Students Like: Poets

(image: ice cream fit for an emperor)

So I gave a test in the Introduction to Poetry Writing Class. I suppose it's unusual to give tests in creative-writing course, but there are other good reasons to do so besides the fact that it goes against the grain. We use a textbook [this time it's Kevin Clark's The Mind's Eye, which includes a lot of contemporary poetry] and the Norton Anthology of Poetry, and we do a fairly sustantial unit on prosody and traditional verse-forms, so although of course much of our time is spent on the students' poetry, we also read a fair amount.

On the test, I included a question about a favorite poem of theirs we've read so far--either in the Norton or in Clark's book. Shakespeare may be the earliest author I assign, although at some point, I usually discuss the English ballad tradition briefly as well as Anglo-Saxon poetry and how (for example) it influenced Hopkins.

Anway, here are the students' answers:

William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Ezra Pound, "In a Station of the Metro"

Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken" [we spend some time discussing the ways in which the text of the poem doesn't "say" what people now assume it says] [2 votes]

Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" [2 votes]

Countee Cullen, "Yet Do I Marvel"

Norman Dubie, "Poem" (about a child burying a hairless doll)

Barbara Hamby, "Vex Me"

Wallace Stevens, "The Emperor of Ice Cream" [3 votes]

John Donne, "The Flea"

Theodore Roethke, "The Waking" [2 votes]

Wilfred Owen, "Dulce Et Decorum Est" [2 votes]

T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" [3 votes]

I was surprised by the fact that both Stevens and Eliot received multiple votes--Stevens, especially, because I had assumed the students had found "The Emperor of Ice Cream" to be too perplexing, although I try to show that it's really not as perplexing as all that (I assumed I'd come close to failing in this regard). We will have read more women poets by the time the second test comes around, but even so I was surprised poems by Hannah Stein and Ruth Stone (for instance) didn't get a vote. On the other hand, this is a vote only for one poem.