Thursday, January 31, 2008

Poem by William Stanley Braithwaite

Here is a poem by African American writer William Stanely Braithwaite (1878-1962) that I like:

Sic Vita

by William Stanley Braithwaite

Heart free, hand free,
Blue above, brown under
All the world to me
Is a place of wonder.
Sun shine, moon shine,
Stars, and winds a-blowing,
All into this heart of mine
Flowing, flowing, flowing!

Mind free, step free,
Days to follow after,
Joys of life sold to me
For the price of laughter.
Girl's love, man's love,
Love of work and duty,
Just a will of God's to prove
Beauty, beauty, beauty!

(first published 1908)

The rhetoric and language of Braithwaite's poetry are rarely this deliberately spare, stripped down. The poem reminds me of deliberately simplified paintings; for some reason, Chagall's work comes to mind, but I don't know how apt that comparison is.

Normally, the repetition of "beauty" followed by an exclamation point in a poem would make me nervous, but i think it works all right here. The poem seems to answer an unspoken question: "What are the basics of life, of human experience?" The poem seems both rhetorically and philosophically pithy, and althought the perspective is certainly adult, the landscape evoked by the poem reminds me of a children's book: blue above, brown below, keep it simple.

I did not see "Love of work and duty" coming, but I was glad to see it. Depending, of course, on the nature of the work and the duty, love of work and duty may be of basic importance to a good life, I'd argue. What does "Just a will of God's to prove" mean? It might mean that one has to live in order to live out or demonstrate whatever God's will is for one's life (and the poem assumes one believes in God). Or the line might be using "prove" as in "try" or "test." That is, "the exception that proves the rule" used to mean "the exception that tests the rule," not "the already accepted exception that we'll agree to ignore as we continue to abide by the rule." Anyway, I like the fact that the line seems as simple as the other lines but introduces some complexity there at the end.

It would be going way too far to suggest that there is something essentially "American" about the poem, but I do think there is a kind of American impulse to "get down to business," and Braithwaite may have had the impulse to list the basics of this life. I imagine I hear an American voice in the poem brusquely asking, "Okay, when we're talking about life, what are we really talking about, huh?"

I suppose Max Weber would perceive something quite Protestant in "Love of work and duty."

A final musing: Braithwaite's being born in the year after Reconstruction ended and having died after one major chapter in the Civil Rights Movement had occurred probably mean that he was astonished by some changes and dispirited by a lot of circumstances that remained the same. I wonder if he ever saw Jackie Robinson and/or Willie Mays play baseball--trivial in one sense, miraculous in another. Likewise (and not so likewise), I've always wondered if T.S. Eliot, who died in 1965 (if memory serves), listened to the Beatles, and if he did, what he thought about that. I assume he would have been unamused by the Beatles, but on the other hand, Tse Tse (as Ezra Pound called him) was the source of Broadway's Cats, so who knows? Maybe one of his biographers does. I'll have to check the index.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

African American Writers: Some Favorites

Today a student asked me when I first became interested in African American literature. I told her, "When I was 16." I was hanging around high school after class--and not practicing a sport that day, for some reason--and I found James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time at the back of a classroom. I began reading it, and I couldn't believe how powerfully the writing confronted America's perpetual problem with race. I couldn't believe how good the writing was, even though I didn't have the terminology to describe what made it so good.

Oddly enough, I attended a suburban high school that was ethnically diverse. Mexican-Americans had been living in the town/small city (not far from Sacramento) for generations, many of them working for the railroad. Some of their families were the most venerable ones in town. Also, several African American students were in my graduating class, most of them from military families who lived at a nearby base. My lab-mate in "physical science" was one of them, we played football together, and we've kept in touch down through the years. He used to tease the hell out of me, and he still does at reunions.

The high school wasn't racism-free, of course, and I know I was especially oblivious to much of what the Black students must have had to endure, but social commerce among ethnicities was the rule, not the exception. So-called brown, white, and black students not only took classes together but were friends and were on teams and in clubs. Comparatively, at least, the high school seemed like an oasis in a nation deeply afflicted by racism and its effects, and in our freshman year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered.

I'd always been drawn more to rhythm & blues and "soul" music than to much of the rock and pop on the airwaves. When I first heard Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," I could hardly believe my ears; it was just better and more interesting than any pop song I'd ever heard. I loved Motown records, too--and still recall that purple label on the vinyl. "Ain't that peculiar?"--as Marvin Gaye sang. I think the music enhanced my interest in African American literature.

Although I studied chiefly British literature in graduate school and wrote a dissertation on British poets from the 19th century, I kept up my reading of African American literature over the years, and eventually I wrote a book on Langston Hughes, and then another, and that led to work on The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature, which I edited with David Macey. It was a massive project--5 volumes--and much more work than we envisaged--but what an honor to be invited to edit it. Now that the volumes have been in print for a couple of years, thoughts of the constant work, deadline-missers, and endless details fade, and the fortune of having been asked to edit the thing shines brighter.

Among my favorite African American writers, in addition to the prolific, multifaceted, well known, but still under-rated Hughes, are Baldwin, of course--one of the greatest essayists in the English language, and no slouch at novels (Giovanni's Room and Another Country are my favorites, but If Beale Street Could Talk is a real sleeper); Rudolph Fisher (The Conjure Man Dies is a splendid detective novel--Denzel, if you're listening, turn it into a film); Rita Dove (she uses all the tools in the poet's toolbox); Sonya Sanchez (home-girls and hand-grenades is a fine book, with some extraordinarily inventive haiku, of all things); Countee Cullen (some of his lyric poems are perfect, including the perfect sonnet, "Yet Do I Marvel"); June Jordan (poet and essayist); and Elizabeth Keckley, once a slave, then a professional seamstress in D.C. who worked for the Lincolns and became very close to Mrs. Lincoln; Keckley's autobiography Behind The Scenes is fascinating, even as it was forced to adhere to some literary conventions of the era. I like some of Baraka's poetry and his essays on the blues and jazz.

Of course, there's no arguing with Ralph Ellison's monumental achievement in fiction, Invisible Man, one of the finest novels the U.S. has produced. Alice Walker's The Color Purple is terrific, and Morrison has joined the pantheon of great world writers. My favorite of hers is Solomon's Song.

One of numerous blessings that came from working on the encyclopedia was the chance to spend time with the work of writers who haven't been in the limelight. Lewis Alexander wrote some superb lyric poems, Ann Petry and Dorothy West some fine fiction, Chester Himes some great crime fiction, August Wilson's drama, and on and on. . . . Today in class we read compelling poetry by Angelina Weld Grimke and Anne Spencer. . . . . But this is merely to glance at a massive reservoir of literature--so much autobiography, drama, poetry, and fiction that even with 5 volumes available to us, we couldn't include all the writers and topics we wanted to include. I know they call February Black History Month, but secretly, I think of it as African American Literature Month because I'm selfish and "litero-centric," to coin a bad term, and it all started with the serendipity of finding Baldwin's book on a shelf at the back of a classroom. I'm sure glad I wasn't running wind-sprints for basketball or colliding with someone in the outfield that day.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Living and Writing

Arna Bontemps, great friend of Langston Hughes, novelist (he wrote Black Thunder, a fine historical novel), and poet, edited The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1963, and it became a highly regarded, oft-issued anthology, which he revised in 1973. It's still in print, in paperback, from Hill and Wang, and it contains many treasures, including this poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson:

The Poet Speaks

How much living have you done?
From it the patterns that you weave
Are imaged:
Your own life is your totem pole,
Your yard of cloth,
Your living.

How much loving have you done?
How full and free your giving?
For living is but loving
And loving only giving.

Beginning as it does with that question, we might think the poem will advance a customary view --namely, that in order to be a writer, you have to live first, and by "to live" is usually meant adventure, hard times, knocking about--perhaps heavy drinking, boxing, and watching bull-fights, a la Hemingway.

Instead the poem takes a different path and seems to suggest that what kind of living you do is entirely up to you, but that your life will be the material out of which your figurative weaving will be made. Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, expresses a similar view, cautioning writers not to take too seriously the alleged line between "the real world" and college. Hugo can speak with authority because he served in World War II, in a Flying Fortress Crew, and he worked for many years in "the real world" of the Boeing plant near Seattle. He urged writers to write not so much about their lives as from their lives, whatever and wherever those lives might be. He happened to find small obscure towns in the American west an important part of his life--towns that triggered his imagination.

The second stanza of Johnson's poem offers another great surprise; she shift to the topic of loving, which seems to be even more important than life. In other words, she asks, "How generous have you been?'' You don't see people linking generosity and art that often. More often, you see them making excuses for artists. If they're rotten people, it's okay, as long as the art is good.

Then Johnson demystifies loving. It's "only giving," she tells us. Wonderful. Yes, we can all imagine other attributes we might ascribe to loving, but it's hard to quibble with her fundamental definition. Put another way, if you take "giving" from "loving," does "loving" still exist? Does it hold on to its integrity?

We often look to anthologies as books that collect the famous poems and hit the high spots, but they may be more valuable for the not-so-famous poems they include, the overlooked gems, the surprises.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Toward Black History Month

As we head toward Black History Month, let's break out some determined optimism and envisage this century as the one in which the U.S. finally gets--in the parlance of the 1960s--its shit together with regard to race in general and, at long last, full African American citizenship in particular, not to mention poverty, health-care, education, and a foreign policy that looks vaguely sane. Let's also hope the horrors of war, famine, and displacement in some parts of the African continent will vanish soon.

One of James Baldwin's favorite words to describe the American dilemma of "race" was "conundrum": a kind of insoluble riddle. I think he might have looked at the events surrounding the Jena Six, juxtaposed against the candidacy of Barack Obama (and his primary-victory in S.C., with 25% of the white Democratic vote), as a conundrum. Is there progress or not? That is and always has been the question; yes and no have always been the answer.

I'm a spectator on a listserv (that word bugs me) on which "progressives" chat, and a while back several of the participants allowed as how they'd given up hope on the U.S. I decided to respond, and I wrote that if African Americans haven't given up, why should any of us? Who's had it worse than they? An African American colleague wrote an email (outside the list) to me and thanked me for making that point. I appreciated the thanks, but let's be real: the point was--or should have been--painfully obvious. White progressives, and white conservatives, for that matter, get a bit whiny. "Nobody knows the trouble they've seen": yeah, right.

And as we head--one hopes with optimism--into another Black History Month, let's appreciate some mighty fine literature, including Lerone Bennett's history, Before the Mayflower; James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which includes some of the best extended American essays ever written; the well known but still under-valued poetry, prose, drama (etc.) of Langston Hughes; the masterpieces in fiction of James Weldon Johnson, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison; and more recent poetry by Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Sonya Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Amiri and Ras Baraka, Robert Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Gil Scott Heron, Natasha Trethewey--and so many more.

And since, in the words of Langston Hughes, we're "still here," let's use our time wisely (my first-grade teacher liked that phrase) and do some good. It couldn't hurt. Optimism is foolish, but it's the right kind of foolishness. In first grade, I received an "S," as opposed to a "U," next to "uses time wisely," so I have some history going for me. Peace be with you.

Look For the Union Label

I don't think I've ever seen a union label, per se, although I know I've consumed food harvested by unionized workers and driven cars made by members of an auto-workers' union. It's difficult to pinpoint when labor-unions first arose because they were preceded by guilds, but in England a kind of union arose in 1838 with an organization, in London, of "Working Men." Its primary focus was voting-reform, I gather. Not until 1833 had child-labor in factories been made illegal.

The OED online includes these early published references to "labor unions":

1866 in Documentary Hist. Amer. Industr. Society (1910) IX. 133 Each member belonging to the National *Labor Union.
1884 J. HAY Bread-Winners xi. 183 The labor unions have ordered a general strike.

I think I have unions on my mind because Senator Obama was a labor-organizer, and Senator Clinton's having sat on the Wal-Mart Board (apparently she was a thorn in the Board's side) has become an issue. Meanwhile, the Republicans seem content to leave "the union vote" (whatever that may mean) to the Democrats, and in my profession, college-teachers who aren't in tenure-line positions have been joining unions.

Also, we've been watching a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens' Hard Times, in which the factory-owner and fabricator of a rugged childhood, Josiah Bounderby, opposes unions. As usual, Dickens tends to shy away from broader structural or political issues and makes everything exceedingly personal, so that one of the characters is sympathetic to the union, speaks forcefully against Bounderby and on the plight of workers, but doesn't join the union because he promised someone once that he wouldn't (and is therefore shunned by his "brothers"). The man's personal code of honor trumps his sense of solidarity. Bounderby fires him anyway, so the man takes off across the countryside to look for work--and falls into coal-mining pit camouflaged by rotten wood and weeds. He dies, but not right away. Dickens loves to squeeze the melodramatic juice out of his plots. The production is a bit long in the tooth; the late Alan Bates plays Bounderby and does a nice job. Published in the same year as Origin of Species (1859), Hard Times is Dickens' send-up of utilitarian education, phony "self-made" tycoons, and the savagery of industrialized England. Tom Gradgrind is the schoolmaster-turned-politician.

Does England have a screen-actors' guild? I assume so, but I need to look for the union label on the DVD-case.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

An Image Almost Too Good For Its Own Poem

I ran across a poem by D.H. Lawrence I hadn't read before: "People." When I saw the title, I thought of the song that Streisand made famous, but Lawrence's poem goes in a different direction, to put it mildly.


by D.H. Lawrence

THE great gold apples of light
Hang from the street's long bough
Dripping their light
On the faces that drift below,
On the faces that drift and blow
Down the night-time, out of sight
In the wind's sad sough.

The ripeness of these apples of night
Distilling over me
Makes sickening the white
Ghost-flux of faces that hie
Them endlessly, endlessly by
Without meaning or reason why
They ever should be.

(Some of the lines are supposed to be indented, but alas, the blog-machinery is single-minded when it comes to the left margin.)

I think of this lyric as Lawrence's counterpart to Eliot's The Waste Land, and especially to one of Eliot's recurring images: the crowd flowing over London Bridge. Although the intensity of Lawrence's and Eliot's dissatisfaction with modern civilization was about the same, their reasons differed. Lawrence believed people had become worn down, domesticated, and enervated by modern existence. He wanted people to be more earthy and spontaneous, and although he hated how lethal labor could be (he grew up in coal-mining country), he never thought himself above the working class into which he was born. Eliot, on the other hand, believed modern society had cut itself off from nourishing roots of faith, tradition, and order. Working-class folk seemed to repulse him, and middle-class folk were a target of his satire. Eventually, he'd proclaim himself a royalist, an Anglican, and a literary conservative.

The image of the streetlight-as-apple is so surprisingly good, however, that it almost displaces the rest of the poem. I almost don't want to hear about those people on the street who don't know why they're alive and whose faces are made ghastly and ghostly by the gaslight. It's a sly image, too, because it likely induces many readers to think of the Edenic apple.

When I think of this poem later, I'll think of that apple-image, and--taking nothing away from Eliot's masterpiece--I'll smile at how efficiently Lawrence's lyric evokes its own kind of waste land. And I may even remember the title (which has nothing to do with that captivating image), and thus hear Barbra's voice.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

What's The Matter With God?

I was reading a fine blog I've added to my list--it's called the Hyperborean--in which the author was discussing agnosticism, more specifically agnostic materialism, which might be defined as a state of accepting what science tells us about reality (a.k.a. matter) and of not believing much else, except that we have to keep on keeping on (breakfast, job, sleep, blogging, philosophy, golf, video poker, scratching itches, etc.) The blog included a nice paraphrase of an observation by Lyotard (French writers get all the great names, those bastards--emphasis on the second syllable):

"As Lyotard wrote in The Postmodern Condition, even the story we tell ourselves about the progress of science to deliver mankind from veils of ignorance has failed to foster the confidence that we really know what we're talking about when we try to explain what matter is made out of."

Put another way, it's amusing to observe Science coming up with new explanations that not only replace old explanations but also sometimes replace the premises of old explanations. "Did I say the visual model of the atom was 'planetary'? I'm sorry. I meant to say that it wasn't planetary; also, trying to draw a model of an atom is folly. There. Now we can proceed!"

Since I'm self-centered and a poet (was that a redundancy I just heard go off?), the Lyotard/Hyperborean idea made me think of a short poem I've posted here before:

Units: An Introduction

Everything is made
of little units, which
are made of even smaller
units. The smallest units,
undetectable by us, are
reality. All units larger
than these are rearrangement,
illusion, phony structure.
They constitute a kind
of molecular cinema
watched by us and
understood by God,
who is exempt from
the unit-arrangement.

--Hans Ostrom

And then I thought of the "agnostic" context of Hyperborean's blog, so I recalled a self-interview poem (I refer the reader to the comment concerning "self-centered" above):

Self-Interview on the Subject of God

Have I seen evidence of God?
I think so. Have I seen
God? I don’t know. Will
I see God? I think so. How
will I know? Oh, I’ll know.
What does God have to do
with anything? Well, God
has to do with everything, so
anything must be no trouble
for God. Do I have doubts?
Yes. Are my doubts a threat
to God? Be serious. On what
basis do I believe in God? Yes.

--Hans Ostrom

When asked, I describe myself as a Catholic because I became one in 2000, but because I arrived late to the Judeo/Greco/Roman/Jesuit party, and also for temperamental reasons, I'm a Catholic of the Keep It Simple, Stupid variety (my name for it, not the Pope's, in case you hadn't guessed): Apostle's Creed, Mass, the Lord's Prayer and what else Jesus had to say (he wasn't meek; remember: he was a threat to all established power in sight), social justice, and keep a close, unamused eye on your self-importance (especially, but not exclusively, if you're a self-centered poet). That's it. Nothing fancy. If the Vatican writes my parish and orders that something in the Mass should be done this way and not that way, my parish and I make the adjustment and move on.

My parish is a Jesuit one, therefore suspect, socially minded, and quirky. A person who moved to another parish in Tacoma was once quoted as saying, "I'm sick of St. Leo Parish--all they do is talk about helping poor people!" The Parish did not take the remark personally but had a good collective belly-laugh at the ironic truth. A colleague told me that some 25 years ago, he went to Mass at St. Leo, and a person from the Puyallup Nation "processed" (walked) into the Mass with the priest, in full head-dress, etc. The colleague found this outlandish, distasteful, risible, and wrong and apparently hasn't been back to St. Leo since. I don't quibble with his choice, and I'd only observe that the parish no doubt simply had invited the man to be a guest that day. I doubt if anyone in attendance except my colleague saw anything remarkable, disruptive, or radical about the guest's presence; that is, it would not have been seen as a protest an act of heresy or a quasi-political performance. Mass would have proceeded apace.

I spend almost no energy on the disputes that often seem to fracture and distract the Church, and I leave the serious Judging up to God (including who is in God's favor and who isn't; for instance, I would never assume that anyone who is not a Christian or a Catholic wouldn't be in God's favor; to do so would be mightily presumptuous, obviously, as would assuming that Christians/Catholics are in God's favor). I have to confess--no, not that kind of confession, which Catholics don't do much any more, by the way; they reconcile--that I'm also influenced by the writings of Baruch Spinoza (who amused neither the official Catholics or the traditional Jews of his era, and maybe not of this day, either), Dorothy Day (the Catholic Worker Movement; she was decidedly un-meek [wink], too); Henry J. M. Nouwen; The Cloud of Unkowing; and Jack Miles, who wrote God: A Biography, one thesis of which is that the arrival, appearance, work, life, and death of Jesus represented "a crisis in the life of God." I'll let Jack explain that one.

Keep It Simple, Stupid. Today I'll need to get help to construct the Latin for that. It will make a nice pairing with Rene's (I told you they got all the great names) Cogito, ergo sum.

God works in mysterious ways, for at least two reasons. First, why on Earth (so to speak) wouldn't God's ways be mysterious to us? Second, look what God has to work with. Just ask Lyotard.

By the way, to any poets, self-centered and otherwise, out there who derive pleasure from writing poems based on prompts or "challenges" given to them: a self-interview poem, on almost any topic and certainly in any form, comes highly recommended.

(poems from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Politics and Language

At the beginning of my teaching career, I taught George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" every semester. It had been an iconic essay for a long time by then, and it may well have been at the peak of its popularity among teachers of writing. It is still well known, of course, but I don't know how widely it's used now. I haven't read it in years, but if memory serves, one of Orwell's main theses is that politicians and bureaucrats degrade language so that they may cover up mistakes, wrongdoing, corrupt motives, and/or evil, that consumers of such language (not just readers but listeners and now viewers) swallow the deceptive language and maybe regurgitate it themselves, and that a cycle of language-degradation ensues.

It's both amusing and depressing to examine political language through the Orwell lens from time to time, especially if you're a poet or otherwise work closely with words. Or if you just get sick of politicians.

For example, if John McCain were truly on the "Straight Talk Express," wouldn't he use straight talk and refer to the vehicle as a "bus"? Only someone on the Crooked Talk Express would refer to the bus as the Straight Talk Express, according to Orwell's thinking.

Every candidate invokes "the American people." Which ones? It's ludicrous to speak of the American people as a single unit.

"Sanctity of life." This seems to be uttered most often by people who favor capital punishment and oppose abortion, so it seems to refer to sanctity of the life of my choice (I choose an unborn baby over a murderer), but I thought they were against choice? I wish Huckabee or someone like him would come out against capital punishment because I would enjoy the reactions to such consistency.

The Dems seem to prefer "progressive" to "liberal" now. I guess 20 years of getting beaten over the head with "liberal" by Newt Gangrene will do that. But what does "progressive" mean? Aren't we all moving forward (chronologically) whether we like it or not? One of them should claim to be a "freeze-frame" Democrat, just for grins. Ron Paul seems to be "regressive" (no offense intended), in the sense that he wants to go back to the gold standard and such. I love the way his competitors just shake their heads when he speaks instead of taking on his arguments. They're so condescending. I have no idea if he's right or wrong most of the issues, but how can he be wrong when he says we can't afford to go to war? The ledger seems to prove him right. I just wish they'd argue with him straight up. He's no more loony than the others.

"Health care." This is Orwellian. Don't we want doctors to care for our illnesses, or for us as we have illnesses? When I'm healthy, I don't need care that much--how about you? "Managed care" is even worse. When I was growing up, we visited a general practitioner in a town 70 miles away. You sat in his office until it was your turn to see him. He greeted everybody pleasantly and took on whatever affliction arrived that day. His nurse "managed" the office by telling people when they could go in. That non-managed care seemed to work better than the labyrinths we enter now, but I hasten to add that the advances in medicine have been astonishing, so we must give scientists, docs, and especially those savvy nurses their due. But anyway, I liked "going to the doctor" as opposed to "seeking health care." The former is so concrete.

"Surge." Please. Classic Orwell. Just say "more soldiers and more tours for current soldiers." "Surge" makes it sound all dramatic and wave-like, and it assumes success. More troops means more troops will get killed. During the Viet Nam War, "escalation" was one similar buzzword. "Cut and run." A hideous phrase. It refers, I believe, to men and women in battle who retreat in a hurry, chiefly because they have deduced the battle is hopeless. Sounds like good sense to me. It sounded that way to Lincoln, too. He had to sign every execution-order for deserters, and he confessed that, for him, the most difficult cases (some of whom he didn't have killed, which is less Orwellian that "execute") were what he called "the leg men": men who ran away from slaughter. Lincoln assumed he might do the same thing. "Cut and run" seems to be used most often by people who haven't served in the military. In fact, I don't know that I've heard McCain use the phrase, even though he supported sending more troops--and he does sink to using Bush's word, "Surge." I would never presume to use the phrase except to quote it because I've never been in battle.

"Compassionate conservative." As opposed to the mainstream conservatives, who are--one infers--cruel? If you have to add that adjective, then there's trouble to begin with. Same goes for Dems who use "fiscal conservative." One would hope (and be insane to do so) that all of Congress would be fiscally conservative, just like everyone on a budget in the U.S. But of course, no one in Congress is a fiscal conservative (even Ron Paul) because the system absolutely depends on getting money for one's district--fast, because the term is only two years. It really is an insane system. Every other term for every congressperson should be declared a "pork-free" term when s/he is prevented from advocating for pork. If s/he's not re-elected to that term, the new person has to be pork free for her/his first term; no one escapes the pork-free two years. By the way, how did the poor pigs get associated with this practice? They work hard for living, snorting mud and eating all manner of slop--cheerfully! (They sound like us citizens.) Again, if you have to use the adjective "fiscal," you're suspect.

The "war on the middle class." Lou Dobbs likes this as much as he hates what he calls "illegal aliens," which I assume are beings from outer space whose saucers fly across the Mexican or Canadian borders and break the saucer speed-limit. Yes, I know it's hard being middle-class, raising a family, paying rent or a mortgage, and so on. But, by definition, it's even harder to be working class or in poverty. So it's really a war on the poor, a fierce skirmish with the middle class, and a dinner-date with the ruling class, which really does rule, when you think about. Bullshit talks and money walks, as they say.

A tip of the cap, then, to John Edwards, even though he doesn't have a prayer and is as much a politician as the next person. At least he's clear-eyed enough to see that, of course, those who are poor and those who are underpaid are the ones in real trouble, and he argues that the government needs to help them first and most. This seems incontrovertible. What exactly he would do to get them help, I'm not sure, but his plan for paying for "health care" seems in danger of adding up. But he's not getting near the White House, unless someone appoints him to the cabinet.

What about Huckabee and his assertion that we need to adjust the Constitution to God's view? That presumes we can know for sure what God's view is, so I'm wary of that. I mean, I know we have lots of religious texts, but nonetheless, it's humans interpreting the texts. And which texts are we supposed to use? Only the Bible? Only the New Testament? Or a wide array of revealed texts?

Also, if we agree with Huck, why not just can the Constitution (Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes have all taken a shot at it--Clinton, too, I guess) and use the Bible? Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over underneath his slave-dependent plantation; wasn't he terrified of linking government with any religion too strongly? But give Huckabee credit. He was apparently saying what he meant. He wasn't on the Eric Blair Express. Or was he?

"Trickle-down" economics. There's a blast from the past. Believe it or not, people accepted the phrase as describing a good thing! Right--so if I'm a working stiff in Reagan's America, I can count on drops of wealth trickling on me, like dirty water from a plumbing leak in the ceiling? Gee, that sounds great! People bought it. I'm afraid Orwell was right.

Publishing Is Strange

Today's desultory miscellany concerns publishing. Now that we have "the internets," anything can get published any time, if we take "published" to mean simply "made public." --Well, perhaps I should say anything but important information about what the federal government is up to. Much of that never seems to see the light of cyber-day.

At the same time, publishing in printed form is not that easy. It's a wonder anything gets published in that form. Writers chase agents who chase publishers who chase profits. Many want to write, many want to make a profit from publishing, but how many really want to read, when there are so many other things to do? (One lovely aspect of LibraryThing is that it is a cyber-place where die-hard readers hang out.) Publishing companies have become micro-units of immense corporations, so that which is published is an economic afterthought.

Around the turn of the century, I was working on a college textbook with two colleagues. In the course of about a year, as we wrote the textbook, the company that had given us the contract was purchased twice, and one consequence was that we kept getting different--and less experienced--editors. Somehow the book still got published. If I remember correctly, Rupert Murdoch bought the company that owned the college division, but allegedly he either wasn't interested in college publishing or didn't think it was profitable enough (even though it is profitable), so he sold the college "wing" to another corporation.

Agents seem more accessible now because of the internet, but in fact they may be less accessible to Joe and Jane Writer. It used to be relatively easy for writers at least to get an agent to consider a query and look at pages of a manuscript, but I think there are too many manuscripts, too few agents, and too few markets for most kinds of writing now. Romance novels, mystery novels, and a variety of nonfiction dominate the market; just look at the layout of Borders and Barnes and Noble, and you can see what the store thinks will sell. Literary fiction is getting squeezed out; poetry has all but disappeared, except for small magazines, small, independent publishers, and a few recycled greats like Shakespeare, Eliot, Frost, and Yeats. How many ordinary citizens know who won the most recent Pulitzer Prize in poetry?

Publishing in academia has always been a vexed subject. There is the "publish or perish" adage, but there are also lots of practices, conventions, and quirks beneath the surface of the adage. One must publish articles in "refereed" journals; one must publish books with certain kinds of publishers; it is still preferable in some fields for one to work alone and not collaborate on a book; it is preferable to write a book as opposed to editing one; it is preferable to publish with this university press but not that one; and so on.

Who actually reads academic writing? In theory, academics, but I do wonder how many people in a given field actually read article x in journal y, all the way through. I wonder how often the number doesn't break double digits.

Poets, bless our hearts, have long been accustomed to a rotten publishing market. We know that those who read and write poetry are part of an underground culture. We know we'll never make money and will, if you add up the postage, probably lose money. We know about Dickinson, who published one or two poems in her lifetime and was essentially wary of publishing. We know that almost all of Hopkins' work appeared posthumously and that Blake (among others) self-published. It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that poets write because, at some level, they must, and whether their work finds an audience is a separate matter. Fiction-writers and playwrights may be more focused on audiences, from the beginning of the process, than are poets--but I hesitate to generalize beyond poetry.

I'm shocked I've published so much. But then I remember that a curriculum vitae is a bit like a stalagmite. The publications accumulate slowly, steadily, drip, drip, and after a decade or two, the list of publications starts to look substantial. But then if you divide publications by years, the list doesn't look so impressive. Moreover, I'm a horizontal publisher, in the sense that I've always been interested in writing in many different genres, whereas some writers stick to one and only one genre: and more power to them (also in the sense that sometimes I write lying down, so if it's fiction, I lie lying down [wink]).

Probably some writers actually enjoy the process of, the business of, publishing, but it's astonishing how many famous, well published writers dread working with agents, editors, and publishers, and if you're not well published and famous, you'll have even less leverage and control, and so the process is more likely to be painful, one way or another. I treat the sending out of manuscripts, the querying of agents and publishers, and the working with editors as jobs, as duties. But that part of writing is, to exhume an old piece of slang, a drag. I think it may have bee Peter Vierek (but I'm not sure) who said, "I like writing; it's the paperwork I can't stand." Writers like to write, editors like to edit, publishers like to make money. The three are forced to work together; it's been that way since Gutenberg started this madness. But all three are from different worlds. Like most writers, I just like to write; the rest is a bit tedious, cumbersome, and even absurd. Nonetheless, to get readers, one does need to engage in publishing, and publishing is strange.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ipoding and Memories of Mox Stark

Somebody gave me an Ipod, one of the small ones, about six months ago, and the gizmo has won me over.

I went through almost all of our CDs and skimmed off the cream, although in some cases I've loaded on whole albums. I've purchased some songs from the Ipod store, too. But it's taken me all this time to get up to 338 "songs"; some of these are recorded poems, most from a Harlem Renaissance collection on which Ice-T reads "If We Must Die" and Quincy Jones reads, "I've Known Rivers, and on which are some great recordings of blues and jazz from the 1920s. My son probably filled up his first Ipod in a week.

My list is dominated by jazz, blues, and rhythm & blues. There's some rock & roll, a handful of pop songs, some gospel, and some classical. My selections in the latter category are frightfully predictable, I fear: mostly Chopin, Bach, and Mozart. The jazz is old school: Ellington, Hawkins, Coltrane, Davis, Brubeck, Tatum, for example.

I have a few selected tunes by Elvis, and one album by Sinatra--with Count Basie at the Sands, recorded live in the mid-sixties. I like his voice from that period, and Basie's band swings with a harder edge than Nelson Riddle's orchestra. Before an instrumental interlude in "I've Got You Under My Skin," Sinatra warns the audience: "Run and hide. Run for cover." Actually, he says, " Run fuh covah," with some New Jersey mustard.

There are lots of odds and ends, including Edwin Starr's song, "War," and "18 With a Bullet," which was revived by "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels." I also have Son House's version of the old slave song, "John the Revelator." The song and his performance transfix me every time. Pure delta blues.

There's a bit of country, but it's mostly Johnny Cash, old and young (Sun Records and Rick Rubin). Astonishingly, I have no Beatles and no Stones. However, I included a whole album by Hank Penny, known as the master of country be-bop. His music mixes country, country swing, and jazz, and he has a sense of humor, to say close to the least, so some of the songs come close to novelty, but he played with some terrific musicians. The band includes a clarinet and an accordion, as well as a fiddle. I first heard his "Bloodshot Eyes" on a 78 rpm my father played. The lyrics are gritty, poetic, and hilarious. They include the following:

Don't expect me to dress you up in satin and in silk.
Your eyes look like two cherries in a glass of buttermilk.

When I heard those lines at age 7 or 8, I absolutely adored the image conveyed by the simile, which still seems perfect to me.

More lines:

Your eyes look like a road map, and I'm afraid to smell your breath.
You better shut your peepers before you bleed to death.


It seems our little romance has finally simmered down.
You ought to join the circus. You'd make a real good clown.

My dad liked this song and Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," because, I suspect, they struck him as authentic--and they sounded new. His good friend Mox Stark--a hard man--had done time for shooting a man. The man had shot at him first, but Mox got sent up for manslaughter nonetheless. Apparently Mox came to see the guy about money, got up to the door, and was shot at. Mox walked to his car, got his gun, came back to the house, and killed the guy--not just "to watch him die," certainly, but nonetheless: cold and hard. He probably could have driven away, but he made a different choice--and went to prison for several years. Mox visited us once every summer, unannounced. For some reason, he really liked my dad.

Mox had a strong sense of justice. Once he told me that he'd worked on a big dam--it might have been Hoover Dam or Grand Coulee Dam--with pick and shovel and wheelbarrow. Mox reported than one of the foremen was a tyrant, and the foreman struck an older worker. Mox beat up the foreman and told him he'd kill him if he touched the older man again--at least that's what Mox told me. I believed him. Mox had only one good eye--the other one may have gotten damaged in prison. The bad eye perpetually wept--leaked, if you will--and Mox dabbed at it with his handkerchief, but the affliction didn't seem to cramp his style. He seemed to drive all over the western states during the summer.

I was listening to my Ipod in a cafe, and I saw a co-worker, and she asked, "Are you Ipoding?" I love American English. It absorbs new things immediately and manufactures new verbs, in this case the present progressive phrased as an interrogative. Back to Ipoding I go.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Comedy of Dining

So we went out to dinner in T-Town, to one of the "districts." Tacoma's quite good with districts--several blocks of shops, restaurants, and cafes in a distinct neighborhood, a good alternative to strip-mall syndrome.

We went to a genuINE (as they used to say in the west) bistro, run by a native of Italy who sings arias as he cooks. The host is Italian, too, and we got there so early that there was no wait-staff, so the host waited table. 'Trouble is, the CD player went nuts, so every CD he played skipped. When it first occurred, the chef/owner/aria-singer shouted, "He fell offa the stage!"--referring to the recorded performer. ("The 'offa' was not feigned; he really talks that way.)

The host is a linear thinker, not a multi-tasker, so he forgot about our drinks while he toiled on the CD player. At a nearby table sat two people who had left their enormous, mellow (and yellow, as it happens) dog outside. The dog stared at them and us, for we were all seated near the window. They had given him some food from the restaurant in a little box, it looked like. Everything was fine until the dog threw up on the sidewalk--really gooey white vomit, which he barfed patiently in puddles that made a wide arc. Two at our table couldn't watch, but for some reason, I was fascinated. One of the dog's owners said, "Oh, my," but did not otherwise show concern, go outside to check on the dog, or offer to clean up the barf. There may be an emblematic difference here between dog-owners and cat-owners. Cat-owners are often ashamed of their cat's behavior, and the cat is almost always ashamed of his or her owners' behavior. Also, I have yet to meet a cat who would wait on the sidewalk while his or her owners dined. The cat would be long gone--or would make such a scene that he or she would be admitted into the restaurant, look at the menu, and sniff disappointment.

Finally we got the host's attention and mentioned the drinks. Mortified, he cried, "I so sorry!" The absence of a verb was charming. The chef yelled at him to turn off the skipping CD player. The host then disappeared behind a curtain in back and appeared to text-message someone--no doubt a waiter or waitress who was late to work. Finally our drinks arrived, and the food was great--I had halibut in a white wine/lemon/caper sauce, on top of fresh, sauteed spinach.

Outside, the dog lay down, his shiny coat just inches from the vomit-arc. Children walking by were, like me, fascinated by the barf. Their parents were alarmed. The dog's owners finally got up and left and took the dog away.

Our check came, and two of us had an extended, confused, farcical "argument" about which credit card to use--like Lucy and Ricky, or is it Rickey? The third in our party looked at us in mildly embarrassed amazement.

As we left, the wine-vendor backed into the place with a hand-truck full of wine-cases, and one of us almost got run over. At that moment, the waiter showed up, squeezing through the doorway. The host and chef yelled their good-byes to us, laughing.

--Dinner out, in T-Town. There's a poem or two in there, no doubt.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nods and Signs

I went to Seattle today. I was early for my appointment, so I walked around the downtown area, ending up at a bookstore, of course, followed by the imbibing (imbibation [wink]) of a double-espresso macchiatto (sp?) at Starbucks--not a popular beverage, apparently, because the people behind the counter often look as if they have to consult the Starbucks-archives for that one. It's basically two shots of the poison plus a gesture--literally, I believe, a "marking"--of milk- or cream-foam. It seems as if Starbucks is now chiefly in the business of selling sugar, milk, and CDs, not coffee. Most of the drinks look like milkshakes "marked" with coffee.

To echo Loman in Death of a Salesman, I am liked but not well liked in cities. I tend to walk too slowly--I call it sauntering. --Unless, of course, I'm late, but I'm almost always early. Sauntering is tolerated in Seattle but virtually felonious in NYC. I take up quite a bit of space, anyway, so the sauntering only exacerbates things. People go around me quickly, like pilot-fish around an immense sea monster. Oh, well. I like to think of myself as breaking up their routine, in addition to frustrating them.

Also, if by chance I make eye-contact with someone, I usually nod a hello, perhaps even smile. I don't go out of my way to make eye-contact, mind you. I'm not a complete loon. But I don't like that robotic affect (not effect) that people adopt in large cities or immense institutions, like a big state university or a huge corporation. I guess the idea is that if you make eye-contact, the other person might take it as a sign that he or she should bother you, but I think if the person is going to bother you, he or she will do so anyway. For example, an Australian fellow was trying to stop everyone who passed him on the sidewalk in Seattle today. He was "clean-cut," as they used to say, and polite, so I suspected he belonged to a cult; that is, he wasn't asking for spare change. When he asked me if he could have a moment of my time, I said, "No, thank you," and resumed sauntering. (Sauntering does make me a less quickly moving target for potential cultists, unfortunately.)

[I gave small amounts of money to persons who appeared to be homeless. I know: the funds will likely be applied to an inexpensive vintage of wine (for example), but when you give a donation like that, you don't want to get all up in the person's business and ask her or him what fund the dollar (or so) is going to enhance.]

My guess is that approximately 22% of the persons I quickly nod "hello" to in Seattle quickly nod "hello" back. (It has to be a crisp nod; you don't want to come off as looking like you're about to go to sleep, or as if you're nodding agreement to a complex proposition.) In New York, I'd put the figure at 2%, half of whom want spare change, so the net is 1%. Philadelphia seems friendlier than NYC, at least according to the nodometer. San Francisco is very friendly. That's because an earthquake could strike at any moment, so people don't want to spend energy on discourtesy or tough, false fronts, and you could end up under rubble with the stranger beside you; at least that's my working hypothesis.

I also saw some amusing signs for businesses downtown today. One place, a clothing store, I believe, is called "Totally Michael's." I think that means everything in the store is either owned or (and?) made by somebody named Michael. If it's totally Michael's, though, what happens if you want to buy something? Does the cashier say, "No, I'm sorry. That's totally Michael's, and Mike has never been one to share, but thanks for stopping by"?

Then there was "Coldwater Creek." --As opposed to what? Hot Water Creek? --That would be the creek below the nuclear-power plant, I guess. Or Coldwater Puddle? And it's a clothing store! They don't even sell water from creeks or creek-related merchandise. How disappointing. Everything was 70% off, however, so there's that. I didn't go in because I was 70% uninterested. It is a rather poetic name, however, what with the creek, the water, and the alliteration.

"Urban Outfitters." That's a hoot. I guess they outfit you in pollution, prohibitively high leases, and some kind of taxi-cab attractor.

"Banana Republic" is ludicrous. That's a nickname for a Latin American dictatorship, isn't it (where elections are rigged--I mean, like in Florida and Ohio)? And is it really a republic? Do the people who work there elect a president and a congress? Or is the manager a dictator with fake military medals and a limousine with flags? I bet you can't find even one banana in that store. Why do we put up with these names?

"Totally Yours--If You Give Us Enough Money In Return." That's a better name for a store, although it's bit long, perhaps.

Monday, January 14, 2008

When The Familiar Becomes Strange

It doesn't take much, in my opinion, for that which we regard as familiar to become suddenly strange to us. For example, I'd bet that most keepers of dogs and cats every so often take a second look at the dog or cat in question and, no matter how long the animal has been around, will find something about the creature to be fascinating or puzzling--as if it were a strange, new characteristic. Maybe the person looks, really looks for the first time, at leathery pads on the bottoms of the paws, or at dog- or cat-lips, and then the closely examined item looks fantastic, in the older sense of that word.

Or the familiar-turned-strange thing may be something you look at anew on your umpteenth commute to work.

Here's a short poem by Harold Monro (1879-1932) that represents such a moment--when the familiar becomes strange, except that, in this case, Monro focuses on human beings.

Strange Meetings

By Harold Monro

IF suddenly a clod of earth should rise
And walk about, and breathe, and speak, and love,
How one would tremble, and in what surprise
Gasp: "Can you move?"

I see men walking, and I always feel:
"Earth! How have you done this? What can you be?"
I can't learn how to know men, or conceal
How strange they are to me.

If one takes the concept of Evolution seriously, and I do (and I do not view the concept to be incompatible with the concept of God, in case you're wondering), then you do have to wonder, as Monro does, how some bits of protein in water (to summarize things too simplistically) became us over millions or billions of years. And you have to wonder why those bits turned into this odd thing (especially in my case) called "the human body."

The other evening, during the Republican "debate," Mike Huckabee got off a good joke about members of Congress acting like monkeys, but he did so at his own expense (though not so as his supporters would notice), for he deliberately fell back on one of the oldest, most inaccurate recapitulations of evolutionary theory--that we descended from monkeys. Civilizations, arguably, may have descended, and the descent seems to have picked up some velocity, but humans didn't descend, biologically. They resulted from evolution, and so they share some biological and anatomical characteristics with primates, but we are not directly connected to "monkeys," and Huckabee knows this, but he needs to pander to a certain "base" (and that's the word for it), as do all the candidates in both parties; it's just that one base likes one type of pander-snack, and another likes another.

But how much more refreshing Monro's take on "the human body"--or, more simply, humans-- is! Rather than taking one side or the other of the phantom "debate" between faith and evolution, which are compatible, he expresses shock. How did these creatures come to be?! (I have a friend who doesn't like that double-punctuation, by the way, but I think it's useful; it helps express an astonished question, in my view.)

Of course, we might be as astonished as Monro about many other human characteristics, such as why we make the fashion-choices we do, how we pick our leaders, why we keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, and why we voluntarily watch so many television-commercials--and so on.

But Monro sticks to basics, and good for him. He ran a bookshop in London, by the way, and published poetry books there and otherwise supported poets. Allegedly Wilfred Owen lived above the shop for a while.

(I cut the poem from one of Louis Untermeyer's anthologies, now in the public domain and posted on, and then pasted it here, to give credit where credit may be useful, is polite and appropriate.)

I hope something familiar to you looks pleasantly strange to you tomorrow.

"I can't learn how to know men . . .": what a great (part of) a line! I imagine lots of social scientists ultimately come to a similar conclusion. "I can't learn to know humans! I give up!"

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Extemporaneous Ballad of the Blog

The Extemporaneous Ballad of the Blog

Ah, there you are: reading
these words upon your screen,
words composed of light,
words that strain to mean

precisely what you want
in this wee cyber-moment
to "hear," and words that want
in fact to help you foment

a revolution in your mind,
a pleasurable coup
that affords you supreme
power over what it is you

get from your government
of thought. The words can only guess
what thoughts you'd like to
host, their writer must confess.

--Perhaps a recollection of
your very favorite spice?
Its odor, color, and its taste?
Or maybe images of ice

you famously recall--
icicle? Or the white expanse
of childhood's moonlit lake?
The words now fall into a trance:

Their pixels fixed, they stare
translucently at you,
mesmerized a bit by your
intensely focused view

as you focus on your screen,
process this hypertext.
The words dream you would know
about the viper next. . . .

The viper, yes, not just a snake.
"The Viper's Tale," alas, must wait.
For these words must get their rest,
and so must you. It's getting late.

Indeed, this clumsy ballad
must lie down before it falls.
And you must surf to other sites.
You must maintain your firewalls.

--Hans Ostrom

Friday, January 11, 2008

Auden, Cavafy, and Poetry in Translation

In his introduction to C.P. Cavafy's Complete Poems, W.H. Auden admits that if he hadn't read Cavafy's work (in translation from the modern Greek), he would have written many of his own poems differently--Cavafy's work influenced him that much. He goes on to say that this circumstance distresses him because he has "always believed the essential difference between poetry and prose to be that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot" (vii).

He then performs surgery on his own assumption. He grants that it's impossible to translate homophones and gives this example, by Hilaire Belloc:

When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'

That is, the joke, combined with the rhyme, works only in English. The simple example is a place-holder for all sorts of untranslatable elements of language in poetry.

Auden further asserts that when a poet is more of a singer or lyricist than a speaker, the more difficult it becomes to translate his or her work. He cites the work of Campion. I might cite that of Tennyson or Burns--or Hopkins. My goodness, how impossible it must seem for any translator to render Hopkins' idiosyncratic "sprung rhythm" in another language!

Auden goes on to write, however, that we can appreciate technical devices in poems from languages we may not know well or even at all. He asserts, for example, that one can hear the effect of technical devices used in Welsh poetry and that hearing these may influence one's own work.

And he asserts that imagery, similes, and metaphors can usually survive translation, and I think he's absolutely right about that. I'd add only that I think much rhetoric--statements, claims, arguments, opinions--can survive translation, although this is point is chiefly just an amplification, so to speak, of Auden's distinction between "singing" and "speaking."

Auden implies that Cavafy's homosexuality influenced his (Auden's) own work, although, in the introduction, Auden doesn't discuss his own homosexuality. (Although almost everyone who knew Auden seems to have known he was, in our phraseology, "gay," his poetry is certainly "pre-Stonewall" and in effect closeted.) He praises Cavafy's ability to bear witness with regard to sexuality, noting that Cavafy "neither bowdlerizes nor glamourizes nor giggles" when he writes about sex (ix).

Although Cavafy's poetry must undoubtedly be aurally pleasing in its native modern Greek, Cavafy is, in Auden's terms, more of a "speaker" than a "singer," and he is often plain-spoken, as in the beginning of the poem, "On Painting":

I attend to my work and I love it.
But today the languor of composition disheartens me.
The day has affected me. Its face
is deepening dark.

Such a direct voice runs through most of the poems and is, I think, part of Cavafy's appeal, regardless of what the poems concern--and they often concern the past, are set in ancient Egypt or Greece, for example, and imagine the lives of historical figures. Cavafy also has a great sense of irony, and of self irony. Auden observes, "Cavafy is intrigued by the comic possibilities created by the indirect relation of poets to the world" (xi).

In his introduction, Auden wishes he had learned to read modern Greek, and I feel the same way after I read Cavafy, but nonetheless, having the poems in translation is a great gift. I regard the translated poems of Neruda, Lorca, and Machado similarly, even though I know some Spanish. Much of Neruda's "music" may be lost when his poems go into English, but his exuberance, his liberating, earthy surrealism, and his undomesticated imagination cross the divide of translation easily.

The edition of the complete poems by Cavafy (1863-1933) I'm reading is a paperback from Harcourt Brace in 1961. I highly recommend it. It's one of those collections I circle back to regularly, it seems.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


"Gull" is a most satisfactory word. It can be a noun, of course, referring (as the OED online told me) to any web-footed, long-winged bird of the Laridae and Larinae families. But it can also be a noun that refers to a naive person, one who can be "gulled": fooled or conned. One may "gull" someone, then; hence the term gullible, I infer. But to gull can also mean to drink--to gulp, and to hollow out.

But back to those Laridae and Larinae families: Gulls of various kinds seem ubiquitous near all seashores and at many land-fills and lakes. I've seen them near fast-food restaurants, too; for some reason, the sight of a gull there is terribly amusing.

The other day, we went to lunch at one of the places on Commencement Bay in T-Town, and on the railing outside sat the largest gull, by far, any of us had ever seen. I mean, the body looked like that of a large goose or an immense chicken. It almost crossed the line into turkey territory. The massive gull, mostly white, sat there for a long time, looking through the window at us diners. Sometimes the look on a gull's face is as amusing as that on a cat's face. Your rational mind tells you that the bird- or cat-brain is small, that there can't be that much going on up in the attic, but your intuition whispers to you that the creature is really thinking things over.

That piercing cry of gulls is quite appealing (to me), and the few times I've been ocean-fishing, chiefly for salmon (many moons ago), I enjoyed watching the gulls follow the boat. I don't have any desire to kill and/or to eat a gull (my, that was an abrupt shift of topics), but I wouldn't mind hearing from a reliable source who has tasted cooked gull-meat. There seems to be this built-in taboo against eating gulls and ravens, and I'm not interested in disrupting the taboo. I'm just curious about whether anyone at any time has actually tried, literally, to eat crow--or gull. At the moment, I'm too lazy to do the research, but I'll rouse myself soon.

It's frightening to think how many poems may have been written about gulls. The seashore is, after all, where poets and gulls converge. Sandpipers, too: you have to figure there are several million poems about sandpipers.

The following poem refers obliquely to gulls--and, in the title, directly to gulls. But it's not a gull-poem, honest. I'm not trying to gull you.

Her Gull Sadness

Today’s sadness surged out of nothing
specific, rose and rolled against her.
Large not fierce, it held
her in place, took away a will to go,
to try, to hope. There’s always everything
to be sad about, this sadness seemed to assert.
She thought about canceling the rest
of life’s appointments. She wanted
to lie down in dirt like a weary hound,
sleep, not dream—please, no dreams.
The sadness subsequently withdrew,
as some sadnesses do. It left like a slack
tide, nothing personal. All the shells
it left behind were broken, and even if whole,
they wouldn’t have been pretty anyway.
Here she stays, feeling slow and vaguely
ridiculous, like gulls, the disappointed gulls.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, January 7, 2008

Charles Wright

I've been reading Charles Wright's Appalachia (1998), a fine book of poems. Wright's work has won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer. He has a distinctive way of phrasing his poems so that they seem "spoken" casually but are actually quite precise. He really likes to spread the poems out on the page, too. The poems in this book mix meditations on landscape with those on death and art, and Wright seems especially interested in boundaries and interfaces between mind and landscape, body and landscape, perception and nature, and that old stand-by, mutability.

I especially like these lines from the poem, "Body Language":

The human body is not the world, and yet it is.
The world contains it, and is itself contained. Just so.
The distance between the two
Is like the distance between the no and the yes,
abysmal distance.

I typed those last two words as they appear--one space to the right of the comma after "yes," but dropped one line; but I fear the blog-program will move the lines to the left margin.

Most of the poems are in first person, present tense, in the poet's voice or persona, and that persona does a lot of sitting, then getting up to look outside, or to walk outside and look at leaves or stars or landscapes. I found this a wee bit repetitive, but then all poets repeat themselves, have their obsessions. The clarity and intelligence of the poems in this book are memorable and admirable, though--no doubt about that. A very satisfying read. I'm glad I picked up (and paid for!) the volume today at a used-bookstore.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

It's All In the Wrist

I suffer from lateral epicondylitis, which is an epic name for a demotic affliction better known as tennis-elbow. I got it from typing; repetitive motion strikes again. More precisely, I got it from mousing. The wrist moves just enough and just often enough, in my case, to make the tendon stretch too often, and a pain in the elbow materializes. The pain feels as if it's in the bone but is actually in the tendon, which is apparently attached to the bone. There's this little velcro thing you put around your fore-arm that allegedly relieves the tendon, and I also wear a brace (when I remember) that keeps the wrist immobile. But what I really need to do is to change my typing and mousing techniques and learn to rest the forearm on the desk, as well as to type with the keyboard lower. In other words, I have only myself to blame, whereas millions of workers out there have their repetitive-motion jobs to blame.

As I mentioned to some of my students, you know you're a nerd if you get hurt typing.

A shot of cortisone every now and then seems to help. Does the needle really need to be that long?

A doctor told me that one other "level" of treatment is to sever the tendon from the bone. I looked at him with disbelief, chiefly because I was experiencing disbelief, and I believed a silent look was better than shouting, "Are you out of your effing mind?" or "And you call yourself a doctor!" He said, "No, really--the tendon floats around for a while and then reattaches itself."

The reasoning behind this other "level" of treatment seemed counterintuitive to me. Tendons floating around? Is that really a good idea?

Poetry always helps, too, of course; it's one of the real unsung (so to speak) homeopathic treatments--or "levels of treatment." It beats the heck out of floating tendons, anyway. In any event, I wrote a thing-poem about the wrist, not necessarily my wrist but the wrist. My wrist was probably thinking, Why doesn't he just speak the poem and not make me type it? Everybody's a critic. Before I post the poem, I'll wish you healthy typing, and I'll hope your days are not filled with harmfully repetitive motion.



The road narrows as it approaches the river.
The bridge is brief as bridges are. Beyond it,
five separate routes materialize. Seeming
parallel at first, the routes diverge.


When I looked at her brown wrist
that 15th summer, I fell in what-I-thought-
was-love. I don’t blame myself
for having thought me into love.
Her wrist was better than ideal because

it existed. So did she. Aristotle always
held a better hand than Plato’s, as it were,
for he knew real beat ideal
every time because it showed up.

The rest of what I knew that summer
seemed useless. That's because it was.
I do hope she kept the bracelet.


His wrists were placed under arrest
and bound. They were charged, booked,
arraigned, tried, convicted, and sentenced.
Loyal to his wrists, he went
to prison with them.


The other day a woman’s wrists asked her
why she’d worked so hard. She said because
she wasn’t born a Rockefeller, for example.
The wrists said, “That’s what we thought.”
With the help of her wrists, she picked up
a tool and went back to work.


By means of repetitive motion,
Industrial Society declared war on The Wrist.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Nicki Leone on Reading

Here is a link to an excellent essay by Nicki Leone on reading and where it can take us, literally and figuratively; the essay is called "Literary Expeditions," and it's a gem:

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Genres I Have Known--And the Toughest One I Know

"Genre" is a funny word--funny "peculiar," not funny "ha-ha," to quote from Eudora Welty's perfect short story, "Petrified Man." Once upon a time, it (the word, genre) was used to refer to immense historical paintings; now it refers to a kind or a type of almost anything. It has become an especially slippery word with regard to kinds of writing. Arguably, "the novel" is a genre, but then critics, publishers, bookstore-owners, writers, and agents will speak of "genre-fiction," and what they mean is novels that are written to fit in such categories as romance, mystery-writing, westerns, and so on. And then we get into "sub-genres," and that way lie several genres of madness.

Using the term to describe kinds of writing, I hereby confess to having written pieces of writing in the following genres. A "p" appears after a genre of which one or more pieces have made it to publication, for whatever that is worth (not much, as it turns out):

Anthology (which requires a mixture of writing and editing)--p

Aphorisms, book of (I actually started to write such a book, but I quickly realized I was not sufficiently wise or aphoristic, I stopped, thank goodness.)

Article, general (in the magazine, Writer’s Digest, for example)—p

Article, scholarly—p

Audit-report (I only edited these, but sometimes I rewrote whole sections; these were performance-audits, not financial ones)—p (but only in-house, as it were—but available to the public)

Autobiography—an extremely short one, in third grade; fragments of others languish in notebooks

Book review—p

Cartoon—[not even remotely close to the solar system adjacent to publication]

Case-statement--this is a genre in the not-for-profit world

Chapbook (mini-book of poems)-p

Chapter [in a collection of scholarly articles, for example]--p

Column--p (in a medium-sized metropolitan daily, twice a month for 3 years; how real weekly or daily columnists keep going, I do not know; bless their hearts.)

Conference-paper (oy, what a genre!)

Criticism, book of--p (on Langston Hughes's short fiction)

Dictionary-entry (for the New Dictionary of National Biography [Oxford U. P.], for example)--p [not the same as an entry in a Webster's-like dictionary or lexicon, of course]


Email—p (p in the sense that all of us who write and send emails publish them; in a away, even if we don’t send them, we publish them; what a brave new world); believe it or not, there are scholars out there who try to define and discuss "electronic mail" as a bona fide genre.

Encyclopedia—(wrote one; edited another)—p


Essay (although most have been in the article, chapter, news story, review items already listed)—p


Joke--so hard to write

Letter (as in “to the editor”)—p

News article (sports only, and only for small dailies and weeklies)—p



Play (but only a one-act)


Poetry collection—p

Post—as in blog-post

Reference-guide (a book-length, annotated bibliography)—p (with my pal, Tim Lulofs)

Report—mostly curricular ones, therefore mostly academic, but not always

Review-article (an odd academic genre)—p

Screenplay—“p” in this case would refer either to purchased or produced or both; neither, yet, but keep you fingers crossed; on second thought, un-cross them.

Short story—p

Textbook—p (sole author and co-author)

Text-Message—p (for explanation of p, see “Email”); I'm awful at this genre; family-members mock my text-messages; the tiny key-pad mocks my thick fingers; I feel as if a reader-over-my shoulder is saying "WTF!"

For me, the hardest genre in which to write is the novel--by far. I've published one novel, a mystery (sub-genre, "police procedural," technically). I have completed five others, three of which really stink, and I'm their parent, two of which I am close to liking. (Too bad the "fiction-market" seems to be going to that hot place in a hand-basket.) So at the moment, I am one-for-six in the publication-of-novels department, but I feel lucky just to be one-for-anything. (Sometimes when baseball players get in a slump, observers say they are "one for June").

From my perspective, novels ask everything of the writer--and seemingly all at once. I feel awkward writing them in a way I don't even when I'm writing short stories, which are a cousin of the novel. True, it is extremely hard to write an excellent or even a very good poem, but even when I come up short, I know it, and I know why, and I can move on, whereas with a novel, I might write (and rewrite, and rewrite) hundreds of pages and then realize it all stinks--but not really know how to fix it. I feel as if I'm the captain of a large ship, and the steering no longer works. I know many fiction-writers, however, who feel the same way about poetry. They feel as if they simply can't write poetry, even when I try to tell them, "Of course you can."

Co-authoring and co-editing anything are extremely hard, but I've been lucky. If you and your co-author or co-editor a) can converse frankly but politely and b) have the same work-ethic, even if you have different work-habits, then chances are you'll be okay. Even so, the process will be hard. To modify the old joke, get any two writers (or editors) in a room, and you'll have at least three opinions on any subject.

After I wrote a few screenplays and took an intensive workshop from a pro, screenplay-writing (or screen-writing: what an odd term) seemed quite manageable. The problem with them, of course, is multifaceted: there are a million screenplays; nobody really wants to read them; as William Goldman famously wrote, "nobody knows anything" in Hollywood; even if by some fluke you sell one, it might get buried or rewritten beyond recognition or both; it's a murky genre, at best, because producers, directors, and editor actually make the product; it's basically a Hollywood genre; and so on, and so forth. Among the countless characteristics that prevent me from being a real screenwriter is that I tend to want to write films I'd enjoy watching.

I felt a bit at sea, or at least at lake, with the one-act play because I don't know a lot about stage-craft. However, I did feel as if I knew how to write something that actors and a director could run with, so to speak. That is, I tried to stay aware that I was writing for the stage, not the page.

I have not written science fiction or fantasy, nor have I tried to write a graphic novel. I haven't written a cook-book, but I wouldn't mind trying, if only I knew more about cooking! I haven't tried to write pornography or even erotica, although I've written scenes in fiction and screenplays that might qualify as "erotic." I haven't tried to write a self-help book or a how-to book. I haven't tried to write a television-pilot or a radio-play. I haven't tried to write a biography, but I think great biography-writers are to be cherished.

I never wrote a telegram, but I did receive one--once only. I had to drive down to a Greyhound bus station to pick it up.

I wouldn't mind getting a play produced, a screenplay sold, a short-story collection published, and at least two more novels published--this is, after all, the silly season of resolutions, also known as pipe-dreams.

Should I try to write an "Op-Ed" piece at some point? Nah. But you should!

The Surrealistic Gamble

I reckon almost any time a poet publishes a poem, even when the publishing is in the form of handing the poem to a person, she or he gambles. The stakes aren't high, financially or otherwise, except, I suppose, in some rare, extreme instances. The poet gambles that the reader will want to read the poem, will read it, will understand what the poem is up to, and will then appreciate what the poem is up to. Also, a poet may have some feelings or pride invested in the poem; poetry is "art," after all, so allegedly there's more at stake emotionally than there is, say, in a draft of a report, but I think people who draft and share reports--in a business or a not-for-profit organization--probably feel as if they're as much at risk as the poet who shares a poem, and if their job is at stake, they may feel much more at risk. Yes, poets should take pride in their work and be invested in it, but I also think it's possible to over-dramatize what's at stake in a poem.

But back to poetry itself: I think that, in the case of poems that deploy surrealism in one form or another, the risk that the reader won't "get" the poem almost always increases significantly. Robert Bly, for one, would adamantly insist that the risk is always worth it. He wants poems--his and others'--to "leap." He celebrates the surrealistic work of Spanish poets, for example, and he often derides American poetry for being flat-footed, for only hopping, at best. (One book he wrote on the subject is in fact called Leaping Poetry, as in poetry that leaps, that associates rapidly and freely, not as in jumping over poems.)

I think a poet hopes that the juxtapositions, associations, and non-rational, intuitive leaps will convey meaning, perhaps in the way our dreams convey meaning to us--but not in the way our dreams fail to convey meaning to others when we tell them about our dreams. (It seems not even psychiatrists are interested in the dreams others, even paying, clients have; the stock of dreams has gone through the floor since Freudian and Jungian heydays.) Maybe there's a rough, workable analogy to jazz here. The jazz musician hopes the listener will "get" the leaps of improvisations.

I was mulling all of this over when I decided to post the following surrealistic poem, which I think hops, at least; maybe it leaps, according to Bly's criteria; but maybe it also falls flat after it gets up in the air. I like the poem well enough, he said, feinting with damned praise, but with surrealism, I'm almost never sure what the reader will think, whereas with other kinds of poems that may be quite imaginative but not surrealistic, per se, I usually fee as if I can predict roughly how a reader will respond. Oh, well: it may be surrealism, but at least it's only four brisk stanzas of the stuff, so there's that.

Oranges Night, Oranges Day

Morning tosses oranges to night,
which juggles then peels them,
inhaling a blossom-rubbed
sea-breeze. Peeled whole oranges

become lanterns lit by juice.
They quiver at the sound
of a midnight train, its long
announcement preceding it

into town. The sun steps off
the train carrying a valise
in the shape of a quarter-moon.
The sun has traveled all night

and wants a bath,
maybe a glass of orange juice,
perhaps a nap beneath
gray flannel clouds.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, January 4, 2008

Dickens: In Print, Or On Screen, Or Both/And?

When is it all right to give a loved one a gift that you know you will enjoy, too? I don't think I'm a good judge of this question because I'm the defendant.

I recently gave my wife a boxed set of DVDs--multiple BBC series based on novels by Dickens: Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and Martin Chuzzlewit [I may have missed one.] In my own defense (I can't afford a lawyer, so I will have a fool for a client, as the saying goes), I will say that my wife enjoys Dickens on film and in print as much as I, and that we enjoy watching Dickens on film together more than we do separately. Nonetheless, . . . .

I happen to like the BBC's way of adapting fiction in general and Dickens in particular. The BBC's approach seems to be to keep much of the original language, as well as the bones of the plot; to hire good costume-designers; to hire able actors and exquisite character-actors; and to keep the film-making simple. The BBC seems to film efficiently--lots of interiors and close-ups, not much fancy camera-work, little wasted motion.

But I acknowledge that the BBC series may be too boring for cinema-purists, and for Dickens- purists, any film-version may be heresy. I'm in the camp that likes Dickens both in print and on screen, although of course I like some of the novels much more than others and some of the adaptations much more than others; indeed, I've deliberately avoided some adaptations. The experiences of reading a long novel and viewing a long (by video-standards) series are different, but in the cases of the BBC and Dickens, the experiences overlap, partly because the language is honored, as are the zest and exuberance of CD's fiction.

We started with an episode of Our Mutual Friend tonight--with its great opening on the Thames, and a father and his daughter making a living by retrieving floating corpses. Dickens, of course, wastes no time and no corpses, so the corpse figures immediately and significantly into the almost instantly twisted plot. The father relieves the corpse's pockets of money. His former partner floats by in a boat. --Former because he allegedly took money from a man who was not yet quite a corpse. (Timing is everything in show-business, and every profession has its ethical standards, I guess.). They argue. The father shouts, "To what world does a dead man belong? To the other world! To what world does money belong? To this world!" . . .And so Dickens' most money-obsessed (arguably) book--er, BBC series--begins.

The episode refreshed my memory of how rhetorical Dickens' work is, not just in terms of his prose style, which is often Ciceronian, but also in terms of arguments, in which all his characters engage, regardless of their status, age, situation, or gender. The ancient joke about hockey is that you go to a fight and a hockey-game breaks out. With Dickens' work, I often feel as if I read (or, in the case of the DVDs, view) arguments, and a novel breaks out. The arguments and style are so superbly executed that the prose becomes poetry at times, as in the beginning and the end of A Tale of Two Cities.

Incidentally, I plead guilty, or at least nolo contendere, to the charge of "gifting" self-interestedly, as well as to the charge of treating "gift" as a verb--a linguistic development of which I became aware only a few years ago. And just this year, I heard for the first time "re-gifting" uttered. Hmmm.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Homeopathic Treatments for Writer's Block

The chief way in which I have responded to writer's block has been denial. I just keep writing. Maybe stubbornness is a better descriptor than denial in this case. Being involved with or interested in several kinds of writing helps, so if you find yourself unable to write one thing, you can shift to another. But I try not even to take that exit, and if poetry, for example, isn't going well, I just stick with it; sometimes the results aren't pretty. But I refuse to acknowledge the block, and I keep the pen or cursor moving. No one ever said the job of a poet was going to be easy (wink).

A digression with(one hopes) a point: when I was attending U.C. Davis, I tried to go to as many poetry readings as I could, but I missed one by Denise Levertov, unfortunately. I didn't get another chance to hear her read, as things turned out. One of my classmates reported not just that the reading was good but that Levertov suggested that poets should not force themselves to write. As reported by my classmate, Levertov's view was that writer's block was a self-imposed neurosis. I take her point, if indeed that was her point, but at the same time, poets (for example) often teach or have other day-jobs, and/or they have families to take care of, and sometimes the opportunities to write aren't abundant, so simply waiting out the dry spells or the writer's block is not always an attractive option, and often neurosis isn't the problem; it's just that you had set aside this hour, day, or week to write, and the writing's not going well, so what might you do?

Here, then, are some homeopathic treatments (in addition to denial and stubbornness) I've found helpful for poets' writer's block:

1. The list. Make lists of anything and everything (I exaggerate, of course). Words, phrases, things, memories, peeves, names. At first, you can even do this like a robot. Your heart doesn't have to be in it. Rather quickly, however, you will become interested in, intrigued by, or fascinated by this or that list. You'll "get into it." The list or an item, word, or phrase on the list will suggest a poem--or, if you get lucky, the list will turn into a poem, or at least a rough draft of same.

2. Official language. Use what normally would be regarded as inappropriate language to write a poem about a given subject. For example, write a love poem in the form and language of a memo. Or use the language of a late-bill-notification to write about birds or a garden or a capitalist. The contrast between the language and the subject sometimes creates a productive, poetic "torque." Sometimes something witty, uncanny, or at least surprising occurs. W.H. Auden was extremely good at borrowing official language and using it in poems, as in "The Unknown Citizen." He even slips some into his grand elegy for W.B. Yeats, when he is "talking" about the temperature outside.

3. Be literal. (Part of my background is Scandinavian, so this comes naturally to me, as does stubbornness.) Write about your own personal writer's block. Writing on the Edge, a journal published at U.C. Davis, has a continuing series of one-panel cartoons featuring the image of a literal writer's block--a cube. Is your personal block made of wood, granite, plastic, post-consumer fiber, iron, or glass? Where do you keep it? How big is it? Do you try to camouflage it? Do you call it a "nightstand"?

4. Homage. Write an homage-poem for anyone or anything you think deserves the honor. A dead writer--or a living one. The one honest politician you met in your life (as if). An aunt. An obscure actor. (I would probably choose Warren Oates, R.I.P.). A film-maker: my choice might be Preston Sturgess, R.I.P.

5. Report. Write down things you hear people say, signs you see, everyday oddities, and so on. Today I went to the pharmacy, and I overhead a woman say, "Go home, take drugs, and get in bed: that's all that I can do." I thought that might work as a first line for a poem. There's a nice rhythm to the phrasing, for one thing. . . . My brother-in-law, who is something of a free spirit, once said, not as a boast but merely as a casual observation, "I don't believe I've ever owned a house-key." He's owned lots of houses, but he never carries a house-key. Think of the implications! Think of the possible poems!

6. Write a poem that is imagined voice-mail from, well, anyone you like. It's your poem, and it's your voice-mail. Richard Nixon, Paris Hilton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Kafka, or Napoleon (I guess you'd need an automatic translator for the latter two, or you'd have to write the poem in Franz's and the Napster's native language.) The sister or brother you never had. The person who taught you to drive a car. God.

7. Poets stress sound and image so much that sometimes focusing on odors suggests a fresh way to write a poem. Get some spice-bottles out, open them, and take whiffs. What comes to mind? Any memories? What is the worst thing you've ever smelled? What were the famous odors of high school? Of your worst job?

8. "Why did we think that was normal?" Maybe your family or your friends used to do something that, back then, seemed normal, or at least unremarkable--routine. For example, because we lived in a remote canyon in pre-cable days, our television could receive only one channel, and if a snowstorm came--forget about it. Routinely, then, my father would go outside, often in freezing weather, and rotate the antenna. One of his children would be posted at the open door (cold wind rushing in), yelling reports to him about whether "the picture" had improved. It was all futile, farcical, and--in retrospect--absurd. But at the time, we thought of the activity as a routine way of "watching television." And later it made for an okay poem as well as for some astonished, embarrassed wonderment.

Block that block!