Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Reporters Without Borders

The annual report on the U.S. (2007) from Reporters Without Borders (interesting reading):

Moratorium on Advertising

Basically, the only thing I've ever understood about economics is this: in this culture, you'd better have some cash. I first earned cash by pulling weeds. I moved on to cutting back sweet-pea vines that had overtaken yards. Thence to other endeavors. If you run out of money, you're screwed--unless you're someone like Donald Trump, who can declare bankruptcy as a tactic; or something like a sovereign state, which apparently can owe money and not pay it back, ever.

Out of my supreme economic innocence, then, comes this suggestion: One day a year, the U.S. ought to have an advertising moratorium. I think this would allow us to catch our figurative breaths, and I think it would be a useful experiment. Are all these advertising dollars worth it? What if there was no dip in spending on the moratorium day? Would the advertising industry be thrown into chaos, exposed at last as unnecessary? (I would make an exception for small businesses and local advertising, by the way. It's not really advertising. It's keeping in touch. "Hello, this is Bob from Bob's Diner on Fern Street. I just wanted to let you know that we'll be open, as usual, on Saturday. What we cook is as edible as what you cook, so come on by.")

The marvelous culinary writer M.F.K. Fisher was perpetually puzzled by the existence of food-advertising. She asked, not rhetorically, "Why do we need to be told what and when to eat?" A splendid example is the phrase "part of a complete breakfast." The idea of "a complete breakfast" was invented by advertisers--to sell orange juice from an unexpected excess of oranges. It was emergency advertising. Once they created the phrase, the culture absorbed it, and suddenly orange juice (and eggs, bacon, sausage, bread, margarine, pop-tarts, etc., and so forth) got loaded onto trucks and shipped to gaping mouths in suburbia, where a complete breakfast was accepted as some kind of fact.

Can you imagine Native Americans--in California, say, pre-Columbian--coming upon a billboard, in their language, which urged them to eat acorn meal, berries, fish, fowl, and game? In their own language, they would have said, I am sure, "WTF?"

At some point in the near future, I expect there to be a commercial advertising the need to breathe, accompanied by some kind of oxygen-product--you know, like a box of air. (But wait! There's more!.)

Bill Cosby, in his early days, had a great bit about college, specifically about taking a philosophy class at Temple. He said one of the key questions seemed to be, "Why is there air?"

My question is, "Why is there advertising?" I mean, I know the basic answers, but they seem to be circular (so to speak). There's advertising because you can't sell stuff without creating a need, and we need marketing, because without marketing, we can't sell stuff, and we need to sell stuff to make money and keep the economy going and keep the marketing going. Otherwise . . . .

Okay, fine. But why is there advertising? I would also like to know what the earliest recorded advertising-artifact is. So I guess I need to find an economic anthropologist, or an anthropological economist. Maybe I'll look in the Yellow Pages.

Crushing Fate

Over the years, I've encountered quite a few people who imagine themselves to be masters (a word which we'll deploy as non-gendered in this instance) of their fate. I reckon we're all more or less ego-centric, and ego-centricism can lead to a belief in the ability to control fate; also, different modes of society encourage us to make the most of ourselves, to persist, to "perfect" ourselves, to achieve, to oppose slings and arrows of outrageous--or perhaps just annoying--fortune with our wills. (My mother's favorite phrase, arguably, was "mind over matter.")

I've almost always withdrawn from the notion that one can control one's own fate, and I react especially bad to people who actually advise other people to go one-on-one with fate. Will these advisors be around should fate have an especially good day and some pieces need picking up? A long time ago, a fellow who perceived himself as a rugged individualist encouraged me to "run to my fate and crush it in my arms." I recoiled from the advice then, and a recall it now in a poem:

Crushing Fate

“People who believe that they are strong-willed and masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.”

--James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Somebody once advised me to run to my fate
and crush it in my arms. He may have been confused
about what fate is, who’s the crusher, and who’s
the crushee. Anyway, he confused me, so I
crushed him in my arms. I told him, “I’m practicing.”
He found my behavior unpleasant, the bear-hug
inappropriate. As fate had it, we didn’t become friends.

Even if I were to run to my fate, odds are I’d take off
in the wrong direction. Anyway, you just can’t
go around pretending it’s possible to crush fate
with your arms or even with rented fate-crushing
equipment. Some days, I have trouble making it
to work on time. I’m in no position to fantasize
about crushing fate or to give fate-related advice.

If you’re in a better situation, then I say this:
more fate-crushing power to you. If you’ve located
your fate and are running toward it now, I give you
no advice, but I wish you good luck, Godspeed,
and above all, strong arms.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


In a discussion-group recently, we read Poems From Guantanamo, edited by Marc Falkoff. As you might guess from the title, the poems were written by prisoners at Guantanamo and later translated into English. Some of the poems are extraordinarily moving--as are the brief narratives about each writer. Some of the men have been released--but only after years of imprisonment and torture; in many cases they were imprisoned and tortured simply because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time in Afghanistan--and that is all. Imprisoned indefinitely, psychologically and physically tortured, by Americans. Erik Saar, a former interrogator, has written a book about some of what has gone on there. Inside the Wire, it's called.

But what if some of the prisoners really were terrorists? A legitimate question. An answer: If you (the American government) have evidence of this terrorism, then present it to a judge and provide the defendant with an attorney. Go to trial. If you have "the goods," then prove it. Ah, but the men aren't subject to our laws. They're "enemy combatants" at "Guantanamo." So? If we indeed believe in inalienable rights, then we should be able to demonstrate enough consistency not to a) torture, b) imprison somebody indefinitely, without habeas corpus and without trial or some other legitimate judicial review. But they're POWs. Nonsense. Even Orwellian Bush won't go that far. He calls them "detainees." Rights are either inalienable or they're not.

What made Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld believe torture is not only acceptable but should be routine? What makes them believe they have the right to imprison people arbitrarily and indefinitely? What makes them believe it's all right to tap phone-wires without a warrant? Bush is close to having absolute power, and we know the quotation about that.

Why aren't Clinton, McCain, and Obama talking about torture and Guantanamo and the war in Iraq and eroded civil liberties every day? Why aren't they asked questions about these topics--every day? Why is torture, especially, "under the radar"?

One student in the discussion group speculated that great numbers of Americans were essentially (and figuratively) paralyzed--waiting out the Bush years, hoping for a change, but feeling powerless in the meantime. She wasn't offering this as an excuse, merely as a diagnosis.

It's not a discussion-group in which we all agree. We often agree to disagree about the war and whether/when to get out of there. But after reading and discussing the Guantanamo poems, no one seemed to want to argue, and a different kind of silence settled on us. It wasn't the silence of not knowing what to say, or the silence of being afraid to start (another) argument, or the silence of boredom or weariness. It was the silence of being deeply moved by the condition of strangers in a prison built by the U.S. And no, it wasn't the silence of the naive. Pick a robust percentage of men at Guantanamo whom you think are truly guilt of something terrible. Let's say 50 per cent, for the sake of argument. Now that we've picked the percentage, I have to say: It doesn't matter. If the U.S. has evidence of these terrible things, then bring the men to trial, soon and fairly, and in the meantime, don't torture them. Don't torture. If there's no evidence, let them go. "It's not that simple." Really?

In fact, it's not that simple, as Falkoff, who represents Yemeni men, whom the evidence suggests are guilty of nothing, suggests. He says that if the men were brought to trial, much of the "evidence" might well be thrown out because it was "gathered" via torture. That is, because of another of Bush's follies, it's "not that simple" now for the U.S.

I'm extremely reticent to use the word "evil" seriously. It's a powerful word. But I look at things in Iraq and Guantanamo for which Bush is responsible, and I believe it's legitimate to ask whether he, Cheney, Gonzalez, and Rumsfeld, and the torturers, are evil. Did something evil happen on 9/11, too? Of course. What happened demanded many kinds of responses. Among the responses should have been this one: Let's not justify whatever ends we think we want in reaction to 9/11 by practicing means we know are wrong.

I wrote to my senator, again, about Guantanamo. No answer yet. I joined Amnesty International, strictly because of Guantanamo, but then someone told me there is a similar agency that was arguably more effective that AI. I talk and write to others about the topic. But mostly I feel the paralysis the student astutely diagnosed. The U.S. has lost its way in a variety of areas: education, the deficit, the economy, education, veterans' affairs, the environment. It's also lost its way badly at Guantanamo, and I don't understand why journalists and politicians don't make each other, indirectly, talk about it all the time.

One shard of good news, from a colleague who works with the ACLU: the ACLU is organizing a group of experience attorneys in the event the "detainees" get to trial--in military court (that's the bad news), where hearsay evidence is admissible. Of course, some will place the ACLU on the left-wing fringe for such action. That's right, the fringe: out there with habeas corpus, search warrants, the Geneva convention, and not making unprovoked war--out where water-boarding is what it is, torture. Out where the U.S. had some self-respect. Something more is being "detained" at Guantanamo than men from the Middle East. Bush's, and thus the U.S.'s, basic sense of right and wrong is being detained there, too, day after day.

Monday, April 28, 2008

What Is the Cruelest Month?

English professors still love to quote The Waste Land, "April is the cruelest month," especially professors who teach on a semester-system that ends in early-to-mid-May. Another year of academia is ending, another semester is ending, acute senioritis has set in (and the rest of the students are antsy, too), and just when everyone on campus thinks her or she can't do one more thing, five more things get scheduled. So if you hear an English professor mutter this phrase, he or she is doing so not merely to sound pretentious.

In the upside-down world of The Waste Land, regeneration can be a bad thing, so that's one reason one voice in the poem asserts that April is the cruelest. In other parts of the poem, voices express yearning for regeneration that refuses to arrive.

But what, in fact, is the cruelest month?

When I was in grammar school, I probably felt as if November was the cruelest month because the days were dark and cold in the Sierra Nevada, playing outside was a brutal affair, and the 12-mile (one-way) bus-ride to school seemed awfully dreary.

When I was in late grammar-school, September was the cruelest month because summer was still pretty much one long holiday, and I could only just bear the thought of going back to school.

I rather enjoyed most of high school--the academic part was okay, I played sports, I had some good friends, and what wasn't to like about the young women? Also, I'd begun to work full time during the summer as a laborer, first at a gravel-plant, then as a carpenter's helper/hod-carrier, so June became the cruelest month; gone were the sunny afternoons after class when I could just hang out with friends when classes were done. (I gave up baseball after my sophomore year, so after basketball season was done, I didn't have a practice to go to.)

Once I got to college, I don't think any one month was the cruelest. I seem to remember liking the summer-work as a laborer (I'd become more skilled, and I liked making that cash), and after I turned 21, I could work 8 hours during the day and either go fly-fishing in the evening or go to one or both bars in town, and I do remember feeling some dread in early September, knowing I'd have to head back to college, hit the books in a Ph.D. program (which did not seem to be pointing directly at employment; almost every job advertised by the MLA, anywhere in the country, drew 200+ applications), and teach one freshmen-writing class per quarter. I knew I didn't want to be a laborer the rest of my life (labor is a young person's game), but it was hard to beat working outside in the Sierra Nevada, living near trout-streams, and being able to drink in funky rural bars).

Now, I think November is back at number one on the Cruel chart. Gloom descends on the Pacific Northwest, and rain settles in. In our first year in the Pacific Northwest, it rained every day that November (we know because we counted), and it seemed to get dark at 2:00 p.m. Also, the flu virus for which we are unsuccessfully vaccinated each year (they must just shoot sugar-water in our veins) seems to get busy in November.

Pacific Northwesterners tend to loathe June because it can behave very badly and be cloudy and cold--at a time when everyone feels entitled to summer. July, August, September, and even a big hunk of October can he heavenly up here, however.

I think any time you're out of work makes for a bad month. I tend not to say "April is the cruelest month" because I feel lucky to have a good job, especially when the price of gasoline (a price that must devastate most working folk) and food are rising so fast.

I've never been a big fan of March, and I don't ever remember disliking January. "March," I think, is a dumb name for a month, whereas "January" sounds pretty good. Sure, it's cold in January, in the Northern hemisphere, in most places, but at the same time, January never lied to anyone and said, "I promise to be warm and sunny." January just goes about its business, which is to be cold and icy but to start lengthening the days. Back in the day, I remember wanting the professional golfer Don January to win a tournament because I thought his name was cool.

May the month of May treat you well.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Poemhunter's Top 25

Poemhunter is an online site featuring the poems of venerable poets as well as those of anyone who wants to post his or her poems on there. It's a great place to visit--a vast arena of poetry that all sorts of people visit. Of course, as a pedantic scholar, I must caution that the versions of poems you find there may not be accurate, so if you want to insure that you have the more or less correct edition of a poem, you need to go to "the standard edition." Apparently, the top 25 poets--based on how often the poet's "page" and his or her individual poems are "hit" or clicked on--are as follows:

1. Langston Hughes
2. Pablo Neruda
3. Maya Angelou
4. Shel Silverstein
5. William Shakespeare
6. Joe Fazio
7. Robert Frost
8. Charles Bukowski
9. Emily Dickinson
10.Edgar Allan Poe
11.Sylvia Plath
12.Walt Whitman
13.Jack Prelutsky
14.Gwendolyn Brooks
15.Dylan Thomas
16.William Blake
17.Elizabeth Bishop cummings
19.Allen Ginsberg
20.Roald Dahl
21.Ogden Nash
22.Billy Collins
23.Dorothy Parker
24.Ted Hughes
25.Philip Larkin

How about that? Langston Hughes, #1. That's all right by me. He never pretended to be the poet of the people, but he also never tried not to be a poet of the people. I expected Neruda, Frost, Shakespeare, and Angelou to be up there. Silverstein isn't a complete surprise. I don't know the work of Joe Fazio, so I'd best look into that. Same goes for the work of Jack Prelutsky. Roald Dahl is a surprise, only because I think of him as a prose writer. Nash and Parker are a bit of a surprise, only because I might have assumed their work was getting dated, but I guess amusing light verse does and should have staying power. I love the eclectic mix of poets in the top 25; probably the list tells us, among other things, that it would be difficult to define the "demographic" of those who visit the site. I've posted some poems on there, and far and away the poem that gets the most hits is the one on Langston Hughes. This surprised me because most people who aren't poets or academics don't like poems on poets, but then I realized that because Hughes is the number one poet on the site, my poem was likely to get some echo-traffic from his site. Poemhunter may be the biggest "anthology" of poetry in history. It seems to have some ancillary sites--such as Poemsabout, a site that seems to link directly to Poemhunter but that has its own domain. I wish I knew more about sites that are kind of pilot-fish for larger sites. Wikipedia, for example, seems to be followed by lots of pilot-sites these days.

Anyway, go post a poem on poemhunter, or look up that favorite poet of yours, or search by topic. I rather like the warehouse, wholesale feel of the site.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

When Poetry Dies

Poetry dies at sea in sight
of Guantanamo's prison.
Poetry dies in taxes
that pay for the horror
in Guantanamo's prison,
in Bagram's prison.
Poetry dies in the waiting
for the waking nightmare
of an evil regime to end,
in the waiting for sawdust-
speeches to end and for
language, for law, to begin again.
Poetry dies as it looks up
to see tax-forms dropped
like leaflets on the grounds
of Guantanamo's prison,
of Bagram's prison.
Poetry dies a dry death
at sea, dies when morality
disintegrates more thoroughly
than depleted uranium
inhaled by Iraqi children.
Poetry dies while we're
watching the news. Poetry
dies when we know
Guantanamo's prison is ours/
Bagram's prison is ours/
/our responsibility/our money/
our Federal Bureau of
Investigation/whose agents
went to Guantanamo and saw
what they knew to be wrong/
and came back/and said
nothing/ and what's
wrong goes on, and on past the sea's
horizon, goes on all day, all
night at Guantanamo, at
Bagram. Poetry dies when
our president/our congress/
ourselves observe due process
replaced by indefinite
imprisonment and torture,
by rendering, by euphemism.
Poetry dies as it pleases, and
as it stands by. Guantanamo's
prison says please stand by
for these messages, which
will be right back to distract
you, pay no attention to the
president who stands behind
the podium and torture.
dies when we stand in wet sand
by the sea in sight of what is wrong
and cannot move, and can do nothing,
and cannot stop horror done.
Prisoners die in Guananamo's
and Bagram's prisons. Minds and
consciences die there as well.
Poetry dies in paralysis of complicity.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bad Supreme Analogy

From an article in April 23rd's USA Today (p. 4A), by Joan Biskupic ("Justices Split Over Campaign Financing"), I learned that Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito "were the most critical of the provision" that limits what House-of-Representatives candidates may contribute to their campaigns from their personal piles of money. Apparently the provision is about to kick in--unless the Supremes kick it out.

I have a friend and colleague whose chief research- and teaching-field is Constitutional law, but I see no reason to consult him or anyone else before offering my own analysis and thereby exposing how little I know on the subject. That would be too easy. I find it's better to blog first and seek information later. Call it lazy, call it crazy, call it ill-advised, or call it post-modern--it's still the bad way I intend to proceed today.

According to Biskupic, "Scalia derided the idea that government should level the field in any way: 'What if one candidate is more eloquent than the other one? You make him talk with pebbles in his mouth or what?'"

Ah, the speech of scholars. I feel safer with such minds sitting on the Court, or with such a Court sitting on its minds.

Scalia's analogy is between money spent to buy television-advertisements, the main weapon in modern political campaigns, and pebbles in "his" (a candidate's) mouth. I enjoy Scalia's assumption that the candidate will be male.

I hope the lawyer he was deriding asked Scalia, "But what if the more eloquent candidate is out-spent by the less eloquent but vastly more wealthy candidate to such a degree that she or he cannot get the eloquent message out to citizens?" In other words, I believe Scalia's analogy is faulty in its comparison of something that might personally stifle a candidate (pebbles in the mouth) and the one external, impersonal thing that buys candidates' access to a crucial mass medium (television): money.

"Leveling the field," to use the worn analogy that appears in the article, would indeed insure that such capacities as eloquence, intelligence, and experience are visible to interested citizens, with regard to all candidates. Moreover, if one candidate is able grossly to out-spend the other, then the outspending has become the equivalent of pebbles in the other candidate's mouth. For example, if I were a candidate and were able to buy 100 TV ads to my opponent's 1, then in what sense would my personal pile of money not be a silencing, "chilling," or pebbling factor in the campaign?

Social Darwinists might argue that if candidate A earned his or her pile of money fair and square, then he or she was obviously and naturally selected in this "free-market" economy and deserves the fruits of such social adaptation. This argument places the money-making "trait" at the top of a list of priorities. But should it be at the top of a list of priorities for someone running for Congress? Also, what if the money is merely inherited? From a social-Darwinian perpsective, the person with the money that he or she did not earn is being "privileged," then, not because of personal strength or adaptability but solely because of the luck of the draw. If most Congressional races were between candidates with inherited wealth, would that be a good thing? I suspect some Republicans and Democrats would argue, "Yes." I think some members of both parties favor an oligarchic form of government.

But what do I know? I have pebbles in my blog.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Want to Write a Ten-Line Poem for Tuesday?

Following is a "prompt" for a ten-line poem. Of course, such prompts in and of themselves still strike many writers and readers as counterintuitive if not absurd or insulting, a prevailing assumption being that poems spring from poets naturally and need not and cannot be elicited by anything as formulaic as a prompt--an assignment. I

In The Triggering Town, however, Richard Hugo--arguably as intuitive a poet as there ever was--praised assignments given to him and others by their teacher, Theodore Roethke. Hugo describes one such assignment in the book, and the assignment is brutal in its requirements. Hugo maintains that as one part of the mind focuses on the artificial limits of the assignment, another part goes in unpredictable but productive directions, and you come up with material you probably would not have discovered otherwise. Of course, all prompts and assignments come with a codicil or two: one always has the right to rewrite the draft so drastically that traces of the prompt may disappear altogether; one has the right to take just one line, image, or idea from the draft and go off in a completely different direction; and so on. So this really isn't like paint-by-numbers because you can paint over the canvas as much and as often as you like.

In fashioning the prompt, I borrowed some other notions from the Triggering Town, including Hugo's suggestion that poets should let themselves be led on--to the next word or the next line, for instance--more because of sound or arbitrary decisions than because of a more linear or single-minded desire to pursue a message, as one does, for example, in an essay. Also, Hugo disliked "connective" or "transition" words such as "but," "however," and "although." He also suggests that if a poet asks a question in a poem, he or she should not then answer the question; otherwise, he argues, the question wasn't worth asking (from a poetic point of view). I'm just paraphrasing what he wrote, so don't kill the messenger.

If indeed you're tempted to be prompted, take pleasure in the writing, and probably everything will work out just fine. And we're making a poem here--a first draft, at that--not performing emergency heart-surgery. So there's that. You'll notice that the topic and "sense" of the poem are left entirely up to you. The prompt:

A ten-line, free-verse poem. Start by writing a first line. Then follow steps 1 through 11.

1. Rewrite the first line, rearranging the syntax:


The blue lake still resembles slate.
The still lake is slated to resemble blue.

2. Write a second line in which, at some point, you repeat a sound from the first.

3. If the second line did not end in a one-syllable word, make sure, now, that it does.

4. Phrase line three has a question.

5. In line five, do NOT answer the question in line four but do include a word that includes the letter “u," and make doubly sure this line contains an image.

6. Line six should be either a very short line or a very long line—in relation to previous lines.

7. Take a break and review lines one through six. Cross out any connecting words like and, but, while, although, so, or then.

8. Line 7 should include words of one syllable each. You are allowed one exception.

9. To start line 8, write a last word of that line. Now finish line 8 by working backwards, moving to the next-to-last word, and so on, until you write the first word of the line.

10. In line 9, write anything you like but make the sound and rhythm similar to those in line 8.

11. Do whatever you want in line 10.

Poem from the Friday Challenge

A colleague and poet took up Friday's challenge, which was as follows:

I selected one word each from the [love] poems [selected by students from the Norton anthology] and invited the students to try to write a poem that successfully incorporated all the words. Here is the list, in case you'd like to accept the challenge, too: ask, eye, felicity, medicine, neutral, spoken, bread, satisfaction, cloud, absence, murmur, difficult, beauty, we, hold, live, delight, cold, compare, and sunlight.

She wrote the following fine poem (which works very well as a whole piece but which, in my opinion, also has two especially splendid lines--the second and the next-to-last):

Poets Asking Metaphors

We ask:
What’s felicity to the eye, and what’s medicine?
And, what is neutral?
Does spoken bread yield satisfaction?
And, does absence murmur?
And, is beauty too difficult?
We hold, we live, we delight in this cold.
We compare this cold with sunlight.

by Tamiko Nimura Copyright 2008 Tamiko Nimura

Friday, April 18, 2008

Love Poems and a Friday-Challenge

The students in a class I'm teaching chose one love poem each to discuss, and I left the definition of "love poem" up to them. They selected the poems from The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which now seems to weigh about 30 pounds.

Their choices, in no particular order:

"To My Excellent Lucasia, on Our Friendship," by Katherine Philips
"Love's Growth," by John Donne
"Talking in Bed," by Philip Larkin
"Unfortunate Coincidence," by Dorothy Parker
"The Ghost in the Martini," by Anthony Hecht
"Separation," by W.S. Merwin
"The Passionate Shepherd," by Christopher Marlowe
"I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," by William Wordsworth
"One Flesh," by Elizabeth Jennings
"The Canonization," by John Donne
"When We Two Parted," by Lord Byron
"Whe You Are Old," by W.B. Yeats
"After Making Love," by Galway Kinnell
"Lullaby," by W.H. Auden
"Litany," by Billy Collins
"Sonnet 18," by William Shakespeare

I selected one word each from the poems and invited the students to try to write a poem that successfully incorporated all the words. Here is the list, in case you'd like to accept the challenge, too:

ask, eye, felicity, medicine, neutral, spoken, bread, satisfaction, cloud, absence, murmur, difficult, beauty, we, hold, live, delight, cold, compare, and sunlight

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Revise, Revise

Yesterday in the poetry class, we worked on revisions. Sometimes I use "guided revision," whereby I have students choose from a menu of different options for revising. So we did that kind of thing with one poem, then simply had one other reader suggest how to revise another poem, and finally did some quick work on revising titles.

My suggestions for revising titles included the following: make a short title long, or make a long one short; look at the last line of one or both poems and see if a title is lurking there (perhaps with slight adjustments); write a title that is a complete sentence, such as "Maggie Ate My Shoe"; write an "ing" title, such as "Picking Gooseberries" or "Walking to Work in the Snow"; write an old-fashioned title that tells what the topic of the poem is, preceded by Of, Concerning, or About--examples include "Of Renting," "Concerning My Disloyal Friend," or "About Looking for Work"; write an intentionally alluring or figuratively seductive title, such as "Edgar Allan Poe's Secret Lover" or "Why I Have a Third Ear." A student prudently asked, "What if the poem isn't about that?" I said, "That might be a problem, but let's just take it one step at a time."

I often write and/or revise along with students, partly to get across the idea that writing and revising are work for everyone; that "the teacher" isn't somehow above the fray. Also, it helps me see how I might improve a task or "lesson" or activity I've invented. So I revised a poem I'd had sitting in a notebook for a long time, and I found a new title for it by using the last-line suggestion mentioned above.

I Know and Don't Know

In March dirt sticks to itself like tar:
I thought this as I dug in a garden plot.
Then I looked up, noted pink cherry-blossoms,
looked further up--and there was March's
boring disorganization of clouds. Then, back
to digging, I went further into mind
to imagine my years, traceable to California,
where my father had found comfort in digging
with pick and shovel because (I surmise)
it's different from talk, reduces the equation
to you versus planet, is difficult, necessary,
and absurd. Digging holes or ditches is
for a Sisyphus who doesn't like to move
from one spot. Returned from mind to garden
plot, I looked up and saw a black
cat watching me dig as I dug. Then a bird
in a beech tree made a sound in its throat
like a stick hitting a hollow wooden block.
Stuck together, this digging, seeing, hearing, recalling,
surmising, and thinking annoyed me, as March,
in fact, irritates a lot of people I know and don't know.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

ABC = All But Comatose

Well, I tried. I watched the Democratic debate, hosted by ABC News, for 50 minutes. Then I couldn't take it anymore. The pressing issues of the day, according to George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson, were the following:

1. What Obama meant by "bitter."
2. What actually happened when H. Clinton landed in Bosnia once.
3. The matter of wearing a flag-pin on one's lapel.
4. The (retired) pastor of Obama's church.

Why not ask about the exact blend of rayon and cotton in Obama's socks or the precise shade of Clinton's makeup? Why not really drill down into the big issues?

Why is George Stephanopoulos even in a position to be asking questions? He was a hack in the Clinton White House whom Bill Clinton and James Carville mocked. Why is the unctuous, pompous Charles Gibson in a position to be asking questions? He's like the stuffed-shirt straight man in a Marx Brothers movie. As Butch said to Sundance, "Who are these guys?"

Two wars, economic collapse, environmental collapse, the largest prison population in the industrial world, a chasm between rich and poor, no solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, a Vice President who wants to be a dictator and who got liquored up and shot his friend in the face, a circus clown as president, a Congress that seems to be on a permanent morphine-drip, a Supreme Court that looks like the Spanish Inquisition, a concentration camp in Guantanamo, a Justice Department that argued in favor of torture up to the brink of organ failure, the use of ethanol helping to worsen famine worldwide (feed cars, not people), the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and so on--and what do Fatuous Gibson and George Boretheshitoutofus ask about?:

Flag pins, the Bosnian tarmac 15 years ago, a retired pastor, and the word "bitter." I'm now convinced that all journalists except Helen Thomas have been taken over by the pod-people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and are incapable of asking pertinent questions.

I ask of American journalism what I believe Casey Stengel once asked of his hapless New York Mets, as he watched them flinging themselves around the diamond like characters from Monty Pythons's sketch, "Twit of the Year": Can anybody play this game?

Of course, because HC is behind, she was only too happy to play the pin-the-flag-on-the-pastor's-tarmac game of trivia, but at least Obama had the decency to look nauseous and to ask, implicitly, "Who cares about this shit? People are out of jobs and homes." Not that Obama is some kind of hero. It's just that his brain seems still to work, so of course he was perplexed (as any normal person would be) by George and Charlie.

Is All But Comatose still owned by Disney? Are any television-journalists required to study journalism anymore?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Poem By Katie Cugno

Here is a poem by Katie Cugno (that's Ms. Cugno to some), who kindly gave me permission to reprint it from her blog; the sounds and imagery of the poem are splendid:

The Shingle Life

by Katie Cugno

Sneakily surveying the scene
rain spatters and bursts
at the seams
shattering through dreams
of the asleep

streams charge,
change jingling onto shaking shingles
after jumping (joyous) from the sky
anxious to rouse a ruckus
on the roof
jitterbugging into tin and wee hours,
co-mingling caution with wind

Success: the innards of this monster have been rattled--
roused as well as ruckus--
rest abating,
guts awakened and waiting
for the storm to stop
or the roof blow off

brave shingles grow afraid as well
shuddering and fluttering they
stutter and mumble to one another

will we make it, this time?

will wind subside before
we lose...our lives?

As hopefulness sways,
and faith like rest abates
a shingle is broken and bounces away

the others dismay
for a moment
but then notice
their own attachment still
to the roof.

Always to the roof.

Through the howling scowling wind and rain,

The ones who remain remain attached,
and afraid...

and some stationarily stuck
shivering shingles
stop and think wait,
to where could that wind rip a shingle away?

to certain sudden death...
or freedom, by a bay?
Free from constraints,
Far from battery by beating rain...

And the next little shingle that flittered away
lifted its own single self from its space
and fluttered--
not stumbled or violently tumbled--
off to freedom
from sleet, snow, most wind...

and rain.

To live a cozy little life on a bay.

Copyright 2008 by Katie Cugno

He Heard Dead People

The kid in The Sixth Sense sees dead people, and unfortunately, I guessed what the hinge of that movie was way too early, so it got a bit tedious for me. But it was an interesting film. I think the director, M. Night, started to imitate himself, and things haven't gone so well since then. I wasn't even tempted to see the one about the woman in the swimming pool. I saw clips of it on TV, and I just thought, "Drain the pool; that ought to do it."

Edgar Lee Masters heard dead people, at least when he sat down (or stood up) to write A Spoon River Anthology (1916), still a great achievement--and perhaps an overlooked one now--in American poetry. The premise is simple: dead people from a small town finally have their say; they speak interior monologues through Masters' poetry. The poems resonate for me because they're so tough, taciturn, and down to earth, and because they do remind me of people I knew in a small town. However, I don't think you have to be from a small town to enjoy Masters' poems. Here's one called "'Indignation' Jones." That has to be one of the great nicknames--Indignation. It could apply to all of us at one time or another.

"Indignation" Jones

YOU would not believe, would you,
That I came from good Welsh stock?
That I was purer blooded than the white trash here?
And of more direct lineage than the New Englanders
And Virginians of Spoon River?
You would not believe that I had been to school
And read some books.
You saw me only as a run-down man,
With matted hair and beard
And ragged clothes.
Sometimes a man’s life turns into a cancer
From being bruised and continually bruised,
And swells into a purplish mass,
Like growths on stalks of corn.
Here was I, a carpenter, mired in a bog of life
Into which I walked, thinking it was a meadow,
With a slattern for a wife, and poor Minerva, my daughter,
Whom you tormented and drove to death.
So I crept, crept, like a snail through the days
Of my life.
No more you hear my footsteps in the morning,
Resounding on the hollow sidewalk,
Going to the grocery store for a little corn meal
And a nickel’s worth of bacon.

I love the false pride of Indignation Jones, even in death. He thinks his coming from "Welsh stock" is something special. The part about having been to school and having read some books is poignant--painfully insufficient evidence for the assertion he's trying to prove. Masters' sense of what somebody like this might say is spot-on.

The poem makes me think of two men I saw this past Saturday. Before I went to Mass, I stopped to pick up some groceries, and a ragged, gaunt, bearded man was crouched behind a wall near the store. He whispered, "You wouldn't have some change . . . ?" At first I didn't know where the voice was coming from, but finally I located it. I went over and pulled a bill out of my wallet, and the fascinating thing is that he knew it was a five-dollar bill even before I did. "You're giving me a five?!" he said, incredulously. "Yes, sir," I said. I gave it to him, and he said, "God bless you." As I returned to my car, I glanced at a woman who was near her car; she had apparently observed the wee scene, and she had a bemused smile on her face. I don't think she disapproved of my giving the guy money, but I'm not sure she entirely approved either.

Then I went to church, and as I walked toward the entrance, I saw another homeless man who'd wedged himself into a nook of the church's exterior and was having a nap. He didn't wake up. He was gone when I came out. It's not uncommon to see homeless persons around our parish because there is a big food bank connected to the parish, and their is a "hospitality kitchen" that serves a meal a day. Also, economically strapped people can get free bus-passes from the parish.

Indignation Jones wasn't homeless, apparently, but he was dismissed in his town, and in his posthumous monologue, he tries to explain that he was somebody. Of course, everybody is somebody, but when someone crosses a line--into being a recluse, a pariah, or a homeless person--they officially become nobody. They have to crouch and whisper. They feel as if they have to creep, "like a snail": what a great simile.

When I see people like the ones I saw Saturday, or when I think of Indignation Jones, I think about what might have happened to keep them from crossing that social line, and I think about what might happen to bring them back across. I know the answers aren't simple. But at one point, presumably, these people were relatively content, functioning people, more or less accepted by society. One wants to hit "rewind" and go back to some mythical crucial moment when it all changed, and change that moment. It's a sentimental desire, I realize. So we write poems out of empathy, or give five bucks, or work on "the homeless problem." Or we ignore "the snail" entirely.

In poems, sometimes the best details are the oblique ones, and I love how this poem ends with the corn meal and the nickel's worth of bacon. Perfect. These details make me think of all the obscure, strange, reclusive "old timers" I saw in my hometown. One was an old miner, Bill Nichols, who seemed to wear the same pair of bluejeans and the same flannel shirt year-round, and never to take a bath. He lived in a shack outside of town. We used to take a bus 12 miles to another town to school, and every once in a while, Bill would flag down the bus and hitch a ride. Often he was wearing a holster with his six-gun: I'm not lying. Bill was from a claim-jumping era when you had to pack heat. Bill wore a gun on his hip, the way some older women wore a feather in their hats. Nowadays, I think, a bus driver would a) not stop for a hitch-hiker an b) even if he or she were tempted to stop, would probably look at the gun and think, "Maybe not today."

Murder-Mystery Poem

In a course on the Harlem Renaissance, we finished Rudolph Fisher's detective novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, not long ago. It's a well plotted novel immersed in Harlem society of the 1930s, and it also plays some inventive riffs on detective-novel conventions. Fisher tries to get it all in there: amateur-genius detective, police-detective, gothic elements, a locked room of sorts, the gathering of suspects, a whiff of the supernatural, science and forensics, and so on. Fisher, a physcian and experimenter with X-Rays, unfortunately died in his 30s; otherwise we might have a series of detective novels from him, but it's nice at least to have this one. On my own, I've been reading some detective novels by Michael Innes, Agatha Christie, and Chester Himes, too. Himes's crime novels are set in Harlem, too, but their grittier and more hard-boiled than Fisher's book.

A great afficianado of detective fiction, W.H. Auden wrote a kind of tribute-poem for the genre. Auden very much favored the "village cozy" subgenre of the form, and in an essay, he developed a rationale for his preference, asserting that the setting of the murder should be Edenic. Here's a link to his detective-story poem:

I decided to write a murder-mystery poem, too:

Murder-Mystery Poem

Among fictional live bodies lies a fictionally dead one,
made so not by itself but by one or more bodies who
had minds, means, and opportunity
to kill. Identification ensues. Who is dead, who
killed, who will mislead, confess, and reveal? Enter

empiricism, wearing a thick coat and having a look
around with those unmistakable Aristotelian
eyes. The empiricist is foe of secrecy, friend
of plodders who trod paths of data, and assistant
to the plot. In death, on ice, a body in this fiction
forms information incarnate. It is cause

for apprehensiveness and apprehension,
justice and correction. Ah, there in a meadow
of likelihood stands a murderer, defined
by spores of imperfection and pride, caught
by humble fact, a residue of act. Under
arrest, a fictional transgressor is held, as I,

satisfied, hold the soft paperback book in my hands.

(Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom)

The last line alludes to one of the main reasons I like detective novels: I love the feel of those pulpy paperbacks in my hands. I've been reading them for several decades, after all, and the physical aspect of a book contributes a lot to the experience--if, that is, you're a bibliophile. If you haven't read an Innes book yet, you might try From London Far, and even if you're not a detective-fiction fan, you'll probalby enjoy The Conjure Man Dies.

If you're a poet and haven't done so yet, you ought to write a poem about a kind of reading you like to do, or a memory of reading, or a genre. Or an homage to a favorite writer. The homage need not be full of unalloyed praise; it might express ambivalence, or even a kind of love-hate attitude toward the writer and/or her/his works.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Dickinson and Hope

Having promised solemnly, as opposed to effervescently, yesterday to write something more hopeful today, I must immediately call in reinforcements in the form of Emily Dickinson's poem #254 (according to one counting-scheme):

"HOPE" is the thing with feathers--
That perches in the soul--
And sings the tune without the words--
And never stops--at all—

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

I've heard it in the chillest land--
And on the strangest Sea--
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb--Of Me.

It's almost always unwise to paraphrase a Dickinson poem, so I won't, but I will say that the poem makes me consider whether hope is given to most people, as part of the hardware and software package, at birth. The speaker in this poem reports having heard hope "in Extremity" --in extreme situations--but, returning to the equation of hope to bird, reports that even in such moments, when hope is arguably as important as it ever is, it doesn't ask anything in return; were it a bird, it wouldn't even ask for a crumb.

What hope has to offer to us as so many apparently intractable problems face us: well, there's the usual--things could be worse. Also, people seem at least ready to acknowledge there's a problem, Houston, with the globe's environment, Bush's catastrophic foreign policy, and race in the U.S.. The present twenty-something generation in many parts of the world seems precocious, alert, and tenacious. I feel as if I should knock on wood while saying this, but the prospect of thermo-nuclear apocalypse seems much less likely now than it did in the 1950s through the 1980s. Although Bush expanded the executive branch's power to the brink of dictatorship (arguably), there's a chance Congress might reel in the next president in this regard. For communication between peoples and fresh ways of getting and analyzing information, the Web seems to be a net-gaine (pun intended). The need to use alternative fuels (something that seemed obvious to many decades ago) seems to be close to being accepted as fact. And finally, in Tacoma, the sun is out, meaning this is our fifth try, I believe, at Spring. We'll see how it goes. The things with feathers seem pleased, and students from Hawaii are preparing for a Luau.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Watching Bush With a Political Scientist

In our Iraq-War discussion-group today, we started by playing about half of Bush's 17-minute speech on Iraq. Lately, I've found Bush almost unwatchable, but today I was fascinated by the look on his face, which suggested that even he might be having trouble getting the lies out. He simply looked like a teenager lying to his parents. Sometimes he seemed repulsed by his own language. However, I was determined not to share my views with the group because I'd much rather facilitate the conversation. I already know what I think, and I'd rather listen, in hopes that someone might change my mind.

But then the political scientist in our group--a moderate in both politics and temperament--said essentially that he didn't believe a word Bush said. That is: Things are not "better" in Iraq. A majority of Iraqis want us out. The Iraqi army is in no sense trained or ready. The "Surge" did very little to affect things "on the ground"; rather, Sadr's decision to pull back his militia was the main factor. There will be no real troop-decline. Al Qaeda is not the main problem. Shi'ite militias are. Our military is close to exhaustion, and our economy is broken. And on and on. This political scientist is so moderate that although he agrees with much of what Juan Cole writes on his blog, he doesn't like Cole's "Bush-bashing." The political scientist also thinks William Polk is a person worth listening to and reading.

Oddly enough, before class, a student was fiddling with a camera that turned out to be an infra-red one, so that if you look at the screen of the camera, and the camera is pointing at a black shirt, the shirt looks white. It was a great emblem for Bush's speech. Make everything he said the opposite, and you'll have the truth.

I had to ask the political scientist this question: "Then, assuming Bush is lying and knows he's lying, should we assume that his strategy is to stall (keeping the military in Iraq) until he's out of office." "Yes," my colleague said, "and then when things go badly, and if Obama or Clinton are indeed in the White House, the Republicans can and will blame the debacle on the Democrats." --Not that the Democrats don't have it coming. They've done almost nothing to oppose Bush on war, torture, the economy, and the erosion of civil liberties. And if McCain is in office, he's a one-term president anyway.

As Helen Thomas told me when I had the privilege of chatting with her in a hotel lobby in D.C. some three years ago: "Bush is the worst president in U.S. history."

A student in class asked, "Assuming Bush is lying, I have to ask: is it common for presidents to lie to this extent and in connection with such serious matters." The American historian then walked us through all of Johnson's lies leading up to and during the Viet Nam War--as a way of saying, "Yes, it's common."

I wish there were a poem I could read tonight that would make me feel better about the country of which I'm a citizen, its awful foreign policy, its widespread use of torture, its failure to do right by the environment and working people, and all the rest. Maybe it's the one I just posted--"The Vanity of Human Wishes." I vow solemnly to write something hopeful tomorrow. It will probably have something to do with my faith in many younger American citizens--their smarts, their will to do well and good.

Sam Johnson's Best Poem

My favorite 18th century British poem (not that you asked) is Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," an imitation of Juvenal's 10th satire and a noble poem of over 360 lines. It is Johnson (1709-1784) at his best: incisive, erudite, and articulate, in full command of rhyming couplets, deploying all his learning.

Aside from this poem, Johnson's poetic opus isn't that impressive, and the one novel-like work he wrote, Rasselas, is quirky. But he's still a remarkable literary figure because of his criticism, biographies of other writers, essays, and a dictionary of the English language--which, astoundingly, he wrote himself, often quoting examples of definitions from memory. No matter how might want to measure it, his intelligence was rare and ferocious. His personality is preserved in Boswell's biography. Although Johnson seems to have been in control of conversation and prose, he was a painfully self-contradictory figure, plagued by nervous disorders, depression, self-doubt, fear, rage, poverty, and procrastination (he wrote some of his best essays in one draft, while the printer waited nervously for him to finish). He was both a rationalist and a Christian, a person of enormous apetites and one of great self-discipline. He could be cruel and sexist, but among his close and genuine friends were an Afro-British man and several women. He's one of the most quotable writers and conversationalists in the language.

A few lines from near the end of "The Vanity of Human Wishes":

Where then shall Hope and Fear their objects find?
Must dull Suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise,
No cries invoke the mercies of the skies?
Inquirer, cease; petitions yet remain,
Which Heaven may hear, nor deem religion vain.
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice.

"Roll darkling down the torrent of this fate." That's a fine line. Classifying "ignorance" as "sedate": that's a nice move, too. An ignorant citizenship is, arguably, a sedate one.

As usual, Johnson's (and Juvenal's) advice is hard: go ahead and pray, but as for the response (if any): "leave to Heaven the measure and the choice."

My goodness: Johnson's three-hundreth birthday is coming up. --Cause for celebration, but nothing too vain.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


It's fascinating to watch the digital revolution get its second or third wind, with all manner of hybrid gizmos being dumped on glassy-eyed consumers, who've been told they "need" this or that. For the moment, the monopolists seem to want everything to go through the phone, which is the portable talk-device, telegrammer (text-messaging is the new name for it), data-storer, and locater (that is, law enforcement and Homeland Insecurity can locate you if your phone is near you). The phone is starting to look like a combination leash/security blanket/homing device/wiretapper to me. It wouldn't startle me to see some people sucking on them like pacifiers. I do own a cell phone, but I almost never turn it on, and I like to keep it away from my body. It's a hideous little beetle of a thing, although I like the way it flips open like William Shatner's old communicator on ST. There are only about three people I call on it (or they me), anyway. I do like the fact that my son rigged it so Johnny Cash sings "I Walk the Line" when somebody calls. The wee numbers are so close together that the few times I've tried to text-message, I look like a polar bear trying to open a candy-bar.

But I'm as attached to the (old-fashioned) computer as some people are to their souped-up phones and their boysenberries, or whatever those other things are. Gooseberries? I like the old screened beast for word-processing (now an old-fashioned term), emailing, finding information (especially academic), following threads on LibraryThing, blogging and reading blogs, poking around on Google, getting a whiff of politics, and checking on the Oakland Raiders.

I also got on facebook about a year ago, when almost no faculty were doing so. At first it seemed like it was me and some faculty members at Abilene Christian University (go figure). Now more faculty members are hopping aboard. One hidden benefit has been keeping in touch with alumni.

But I loathe all the new "applications" they've heaped on facebook, like a bad chef ruining a simple, elegant dish. Most of the applications are moronic, but even if that weren't the case, they just make the whole thing look like a strip-mall. The process seems at once self-propelling, self-accelerating, and self-defeating. Proliformation for proliformation's sake: the diseased need to keep producing products productively, prodorrhea.

I especially loathe the Top Friends facebook application--and the ones about what cartoon character you are. What the hell is that? Cartoon characters are cartoon characters, not people. I thought we covered that. Top Friends is a middle-schoolish thing, in my opinion. Next, people will list their second-tier friends, their bottom friends, their Top nemeses, their charming acquaintances, their mid-level Jungian shadows, and their moribund enemies. Some of the facebook groups, I like, however; they seem to serve either a practical or a whimsical purpose and sometimes both.

Beyond the aforementioned few digital engagements, I'm pretty clueless. (Oh, I forgot Ipod.) I know virtually (so to speak) nothing about this Second Life stuff, but it looks a lot like what we used to call "the imagination," except some programmers created it and sold it, and I gather you have to mold your fantasy-life according to what the programmers have established, like sheep going through a chute, or kids at recess. (I always hated organized stuff at recess. The whole point was to take a recess from regimentation.) Apparently there's another fantasy-thing called Entropia. Over there your Top Friends are, by definition, running out of energy, so they just take Top Naps. Thinking about Second Life annoys me as much as thinking about bed-and-breakfasts. I start feeling like Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining, and I want to take an ax to a B&B door in First Life or to all of Second Life. My two main gripes about B&B's are that they're "cute" (meaning uncomfortable and creaky, with lousy beds) and that you're forced to talk to strangers at breakfast. If I'm forced to talk to people at breakfast, then the B&B owners should pay me, is the way I think about it. The strangers are no doubt better people than I am; nothing personal; it's just that I want them to stay strangers, and I want to eat breakfast--in a place where old-pro waitresses work and don't make small-talk.

I think there should be an application-process ("application" in the old sense, not in the facebook sense), and you should have to be doing a few things right in First Life before you're allowed to play much, or at all, in Second Life. Are you a good friend? Do you imagine you're better than other people (if so, do not advance to Second Life)? Are you reducing your carbon footprint? Do you leave a good tip for hard-working servers? Have you read enough poetry? Any poetry? Have you shown a modicum of generosity? Have you sworn not to express road-rage? Do you clean up after yourself? Do you arrive on time? How are your listening skills? After looking at your answers, a counselor would come over and say, "Well, we'd like you to try a bit harder in First Life before you start playing Second Life, okay?"

Now it looks like I might, in connection with my work, have to try something called Moodle. Oy. I think I might have named it VooDoodle or Schtroodle.

Fish Out of Water

"Like a fish out of water," used to describe someone or something that is completely out of its element, milieu, or indigenous turf, is actually a bit of an odd simile, as well as being cliche. Being cliche, it doesn't get much analysis even if it may still get some use.

When I go fly-fishing now, it's strictly catch-and-release, with barb-less hooks and a careful return of the unharmed trout to water. However, I grew up catching and keeping fish, chiefly because my family ate them regularly. Native rainbow, with the occasional German brown or Eastern brook trot, were part of our diet. Among my earliest memories is of my father going fly-fishing "down to the river" after work, returning after dusk with a creel full of trout, and dumping them in the porcelain kitchen sink. The smell of the slimy trout--with bits of fern stuck to their slimy sides--was overwhelming but appealing. As a child, I viewed the event simply as part of life, the fascinating thing unfolding before me. Now I'm more likely to think that he was a) getting out of the house & away from the family to clear his head and de-compress, and b) supplementing the grocery budget.

Later, when I started catching fish, I decided early on to knock out a caught fish--euthanasia. I'd read somewhere that Native Americans had done that (I have no idea if that's true.). --For a fish out of water is a fish experiencing a kind of drowning, slowly.

So the simile doesn't really work because it's supposed to suggest discomfort--maybe extreme discomfort, culture shock, to dredge up, so to speak, Toffler's term--but not reverse-drowning or death. It certainly does suggest that a person is out of his or her element--but it goes too far.

Assuming "fish out of water" is more poetic than literal, I think I've been a fish out of water a lot in my life. As I've moved from place to place, the places have seemed quite different from the earlier places. Remote town to suburban high school; suburban high school to community college; cc to large state university (full of pre-meds and pre-vets, while I studied English); undergraduate life to the labyrinth that is graduate school; and on to a liberal arts college, a kind of college with I was completely unfamiliar. At the same time, let's not lose sight of the fact that I'm male and white, and even though I certainly had to work on the way from there to here, I didn't have to incur the debt that most college graduates incur now.

At any rate, I think I've been more like a fish from a high-country creek that ends up in ever larger rivers--murkier waters, more fish, more kinds of fish, more complicated rules, a deceptively deadly current. Like most people, I've not been a fish out of water (thank God), but a fish in different waters. The main thing is to keep facing into the direction from which the water is flowing, look for food and other sustenance, be cordial to other fish who may swim one's way, and hope that if God or fate is fishing that day, the fisherperson is practicing catch-and-release.

Poetry Out Loud

"The spoken word" and "performance poetry" have certainly gained a higher cultural profile in the last decade or so; that is good news. Alongside of that development, traditional poetry readings seem to have flourished again as well. By traditional I just mean reading poems-in-print out loud, as opposed to performing poetry written more or less for the stage.

However, I think people in general and even student and faculty on campuses in particular are a bit reticent about poetry readings, viewing them as effete, perhaps, or potentially boring. If and when those unfamiliar with readings attend, however, they are usually pleasantly surprised. So are those who read poetry aloud to an audience for the first time.

Yesterday a few of us gathered to celebrate National Poetry Month by reading some of our favorite African American poems. About 15 people showed up, and we all took a turn reading one or two poems. As I told the group, any time there's more than 2 people at a poetry reading, it's a success.

I noticed that there was a calming effect on those listening--not calm as in sleeping, but calm as in attentive but re-composed after a harried day. I wonder if people's stress-levels, physically, are lowered at readings, in fact. I'm sure they're raised again once the person has to get up and read, even to a small audience.

The choices were great: a poem about a father, African American, who had served in the air force (or army air corps) in World War II--when the corps was still segretated. A poem by Etheridge Knight, who spent some time in prison, about photos and memories of his family--the photos pinned to his cell-wall. A poem by Audre Lorde about how all of get silenced but must find a way to keep speaking. A poem by Countee Cullen about poetry. A poem by Frances Harper about a slave-mother and one by Alice Walker paying tribute to African American mothers and mothers in general. One by Ruth Forman, and one by Langston Hughes: "Ballad of the Landlord," read by a student who has had some landlord-problems this year. I read "America" by Claude McKay and "Frederick Douglass" by Robert Hayden.

Of course, the usual poetry reading features one poet reading his or her work to an audience (I gave one of those this week), but I'm quite fond of readings at which people read the work of others, including, perhaps, some so-called established poets. There's something at once more informal and more communal about such readings. We're going to try to do more of that kind of reading next year.

Also I found out yesterday that my colleague Bill Kupinse, a fine poet (I've posted a couple of his poems here) was a) named poet laureate of Tacoma and b) in connection with that honor, "opened" for poet Billy Collins last week at a big reading in Tacoma. This is the best news I've heard in quite some time. Coincidentally, I visited Bill's poetry class yesterday, and there was much out-loud reading in there--of students' own poems and drafts, and of poems by David Wagoner. Bill happens to be a great teacher of poetry, too--very discerning in his comments about students' poetry, extremely knowledgeable about a huge range of poetry.

--Poetry out loud, often and everywhere these days, it seems: What's not to like about that?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What About Food?

I've always been a bit mystified by how economists measure "the economy." Rates of joblessness: these make sense, as do the other categories, such as GDP, "housing-starts," the Dow Jones (which I think of as the Tao Jones because it's essentially mystical), "consumer-spending," etc. What's left out, though?
Why don't we hear regularly (daily) about the following: is everyone getting enough food? Is everyone able to get medicine? Does everybody have access to a good school? I guess what I'm asking is: Who decides what the measurement-categories are, who appointed these people, and why doesn't measuring "the economy" involve really basic things? If the stock market goes up and a bunch of people still aren't eating, in what sense is the economy okay? I'm just going hard-headedly practical hear, nothing Marxist about it. If a disinterested observer arrived from outer space, and we told the entity that the economy was okay except for the the 3 trillion dollar deficit, poverty, famine, and a sooty atmosphere that's cooking where we live, the entity would say, "Who in the hell is in charge of measuring things down here? Fire that person."

Poets, rightly, have a reputation for having their heads in the clouds, but I think because we often think about common objects quite concretely, we occasionally can display useful "bullshit detectors"--I think Hemingway (not a poet) may have invented this term. I mean, I see Wall Street guys (never women) , wearing those goofy pin-striped suits from Guys and Dolls, yammering on MSNBC about whether "the market has found its bottom," and I want to allude to a phrase from my father's generation: "You couldn't find your ass [or the market's bottom] with both hands and a flashlight." If a nation's "economy" isn't working for huge segments of the population with regard to basic needs, then it's either not working, or it's not an economy in any practical way. Same for the global economy. I hate to use the household analogy again, but I will: What if person came home and said to his or her significant other, "You know, our household economy is in great shape, except there's nothing to eat, we can't afford to get sick, and our kid's school sucks. But our mutual funds look good."

Economists, add to categories, get more basic, become more practical, and pull your heads out of your NASDAQ.

I think this may have been a rant.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Property and Stuff

So: we were going to "go condo," but we decided not to. The building was distinctive if not unique, but the price almost left the earth's atmosphere, and owning a building (but not really) with nearly 30 other people as well as having a pseudo-landlord proved too complicated for us. So we bought a house, a real solid beast that's close to where I work and energy-efficient. We're trying to reduce our carbon-footprint, as if I knew what that meant.

Owning a home is such an American ideal--for working- as well as middle-class folk. My father--a hard-rock, underground gold-miner turned carpenter and stone-mason--got his houses the old-fashioned way. He bought land with cash and built a house himself. --Sold it when I was six, bought other land further out in the sticks and built another house himself. He thereby cut out the realty middle-person and never had a mortgage. He "designed" the homes himself. Oh, my goodness. "Eccentric" and "idiosyncratic" don't quite cover it. In what he called "the rumpus room," there was a piece of exposed steel and vaguely rusted I-beam running down the middle of the ceiling. It was holding up the second floor, but it could have held up Trump towers. Why he made this architectural choice remains anybody's guess. He used to make his sons do "pull-ups" on the thing, and until I was about 10, I thought all families did this sort of thing.

No doubt my inclination to own a home was influenced by my father's attitudes as well as the over-arching, steel I-beam American ideal. I suspect I like to own a house (or own a mortgage) for three main reasons: I don't like landlords. I like peace and quiet (harder to find in a rented place, usually). And I've almost always grown a garden. I probably won't get into gardening again much, but even growing some herbs and the odd vegetable is satisfying. (And the produce I produce is indeed often odd. I grew a red potato once that was almost as big as a football. I wanted to bronze it.) Maybe an apple-tree, too. If I could get these three things (no landlord, quiet, garden) by renting, I might have never bought a house. Who knows? Also, American apartment-buildings tend to be badly constructed, whereas ones in Germany and Sweden (two countries in which I've lived) are built to last, so one is more likely to find a rented "apartmental" place there that doesn't surround you with noise and cracked walls and a kind of stucco-hell.

Having found the house, we're on the lookout for "stuff," of course. For example, we want to modify the kitchen slightly, so we went in search of granite today. We ended up at a place called "Warehouse Liquidators." When I saw the sign, I was immediately suspicious because I wondered how they managed to turn wood and metal warehouses into liquid, and I wondered why we would be interested in buying such liquid. I was going to raise my concerns to the other person in the car, but I knew she would develop a powerful counter-argument, such as "Shut up."

Once inside, I discovered the kind of "market-place" I love: no frills, no "salesmanship." They just leased a big old place, got some stuff cheap, threw it on the floor, plugged in a cash-register, and called it good. The staff there was exuberant and irreverent, and there was even a store-cat, who was probably thinking, "I have no possessions, and I have a great life; what's up with humans?"

We didn't get much "stuff" there, but the adventure was great--exploring the raggedy edge between wholesale and retail, looking at "stuff," most of it made, I suspect, by grossly underpaid workers half a globe away. I've seen a lot of bookstore-cats, but that was the first Warehouse Liquidator cat I've ever seen, so I may have to write a poem about her. We were looking at some tile, and she came over and sat on the box, as if to say, "Let me know if I can help you with your color-selection." Knowing cats, I imagine she's both on salary and commission and probably owns a piece of the operation, too.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Ultimate Frisbee

Recently I seem to have quite a few students in my classes who play Ultimate Frisbee. I've seen frisbee-golf played on the campus for years, and I'd heard the term, "Ultimate Frisbee," but I didn't know the extent to which it's a widely played organized sport until I asked a student last semester. He happens to be a good poet, fiction-writer, and blogger, as well. He's so active and accomplished at the sport of UF that he even traveled to Brazil recently to compete. I confess I don't know what the rules are, and I've yet so see the sport played--although I have seen photos of people in the midst of U.F. I think there are some rough parallels to football, soccer, and rugby. I should probably just look up the rules on the web, but so far I've been too lazy to do so, or perhaps I just like thinking about the sport from a distance that exoticizes it. As far as I know, all that members of my generation did with a frisbee was toss it back and forth or have dogs go after it. I remember getting bored with the tossing pretty quickly, much faster than I did with "playing catch" with a baseball, for some reason.

I wonder what Penultimate Frisbee would look like. Maybe it's the equivalent of AAA baseball, or maybe its rules are different, making for a slightly less interesting or competitive game. Another possibility: the rules of PF are the same as those of UF, but the frisbees that are used have manufacturers' flaws, so they wobble, careen, and crash, and the PF players simply have to bear that burden. I suppose people would be reluctant to admit they played Penultimate Frisbee.

Clearly, from my point of view, at least, Ultimate Frisbee is better for civilization in the long run than Ultimate Fighting, which I gather is quite popular. Surfing through the channels, I can't bear to watch more than about 5 seconds of ultimate fighting, partly because I suspect all the participants will suffer head-trauma and brain damage. It's just a matter of evolution; the head wasn't "designed" to get beaten on. It was "designed" to hold our organic version of the hard drive; it's a casing, among other things.

I think Penultimate Fighting would be more entertaining than Ultimate Fighting, certainly less degrading (to contestants and audience alike) and injurious. Contestants would move out into the ring or cage and demonstrate clearly that they were in a bad mood--miffed. They'd shove each other and trade insults, perhaps denigrate one another's fashion-choices or coiffures. If either tried to land a serious blow, he or she would be disqualified. After each round, the "corner men" would suggest additional insults or encourage their charge to go out and try to tie the other contestant's shoe-laces together. The crowd, reading paperback novels, would look up occasionally and cheer if one contestant made the "rabbit-ears" sign behind the other person's head. The "loser" would be the first one to get fed up and say, "I have better things to do than to tussle with you, you insufferable fool!" Penultimate Fighting: I think there are some real possibilities here.

Giving an Author Multiple Tries

Over the years, I've tried to read and like the mystery novels of Michael Innes, but I could never get past a chapter or so in any of them. The other day someone on LibraryThing recommended two books by him, Lament for a Maker and From London Far. I read the former and liked it all right, even though I tend to dislike mystery novels with multiple narrators. It's an extremely intricate and whimsical book, set in Scotland. Now I'm reading From London Far, and I love it. A scholar of 18th century British poetry gets pulled accidentally into intrigue. The book reminds me a bit of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, but it's not quite as manic and idiosyncratic. There's a bit of Edmund Crispin in Innes's books, too, but Innes exhibits more gravitas; the book lies more toward Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear on the spectrum.

Anyway, I am most pleased that--what? my fourth or fifth attempt to read Innes--resulted in a successful meeting of author's books and reader's mind. I had to be willing not to write off (or is it read off?) Innes forever. It was a matter of patience more than persistence, of flexibility more than patience, and probably of serendipity more than flexibility, for I probably wouldn't have tried again if it weren't for the recommendation on LT, where bibliophiles party down with their bad selves.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I don't think "an economy of false scarcity" and "a zero-sum game" are the same concepts, but they seem to overlap. The former, I gather, is both an economic and an anthropological concept. The latter is a game-theory concept. As you've already gathered or know, the former means there's enough or more than enough but someone has a stake in pretending there's not--and in enforcing circumstances that make for scarcity. The latter means that in "the game," there must be a total winner and a total loser; a win/win situation isn't possible, nor is it possible for one of the "players" to become a spectator and enjoy the achievement of the other player.

I was thinking about this topic both in terms of academics and the world of poetry today, as well as life in general.

As you might imagine (if you're not an academic), academics can be at least as insecure as the next person. So sometimes if a fellow academic has some success, that's seen as taking something away from another academic; there's only so much success to go around (the insecure person fears). I think it's more than mere envy or insecurity. I think maybe they the person believes there's only so much to go around, when in fact there's so much work to do in academia, so many possibilities, that abundance reigns. After all, new literature gets published and republished every day, so in the field of English, there's no end of work to do in terms of interpretation, editing, theorizing, thinking about teaching X or Y, and so on. The reservoir is always full.

Generosity is rather toward the other end of a spectrum from zero-sum thinking, insecure thinking, time-wasting, fake-competition thinking. Sometimes generosity's driven by less than noble intentions, of course; it is faux generosity. It gives to get. But real generosity fuels itself. Since I'm older, I now, by definition, have younger colleagues. It's not so much that I get great satisfaction from providing some assistance or advice, or an avenue for publication, or whatever; it's that the generosity seems like part of a process that's working well. I feel as if I'm part of the rhythm of how things should work, partly because it's so simple to be of basic help. It takes a while to get to the point of expecting nothing in return--literally not even a "thank you." You just just sort of throw your wee grain of generosity into the mix of things and know it will at least do no harm and probably do some good. If nothing comes of it, what have you lost? If the person is "ungrateful," so what? Maybe they fear they're in a game in which they owe you something, and they don't like that game, so maybe their response is understandable.

In the world of poetry and art in general, whole systems are built upon an economy of false scarcity. There are just a few elite publishers of poetry, for example (Knopf being the prime example), a few elite writers' conferences (Bread Loaf, for example, and even at Bread Loaf, there's this hideous pecking-order, I've heard), a few big awards, an Academy of American Poets with a static number of slots, and so on. At the same time, there's always been a sense in which there are too many poets, too much poetry being produced. The systems that can admit only so many poets and poetry depend upon scarcity.

Unless you're compulsive and believe you have to read all the poetry, how can this scarcity really be so? What if everyone in the U.S. (for example) wrote a poem tomorrow? What would be the harm? There's a good chance some good might come of it and an excellent chance almost everything else the people would do would be more harmful. But if, somehow, a person gets invested in faux scarcity or zero-sum thinking, then productivity, abundance, generosity, exuberance, and diversity all become threats. Someone has to lose! The basic fear (besides thinking that someone else is going to take all the peanuts), I think, is of a loss of control.

Of course, like everyone else, I have my regrets about giving X to Y in life and remember that Y probably took advantage of me. But I have almost no regrets about being generous--providing assistance or advice if asked, providing a bit of an opportunity, an opening, an avenue. Answering a question; giving a tip; saving somebody from some unnecessary grief I had to go through when I was in the same spot. As I mentioned, it usually feels as if it's the way things should work. It feels deeply practical; forget altruism. Yes, it's a tough, competitive world out there, and no amount of generosity will likely change that soon, but by the same token, there's nothing really preventing a person from being generous within that person's powers (however meager they may be), genuine personal limits, and sphere. That is, there's only so much I can do, but at least I can do that, and withholding it doesn't mean I'll "have more" (as the zero-sum logic would dictate).

--Which is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching poetry-writing. The more poets, the better, as far as I'm concerned. The more readers of poetry, the better. No need to create false scarcity; it's not a zero-sum game. If some writer who took a class from me publishes a book (let's say), that simply does not take anything away from me or anyone else. I've neither won nor lost. I just get to be a spectator and enjoy the person's achievement. I "win" (falsely) only if I indulge myself by taking some credit for the publication. ("You know, that person took a class from me once.") I lose only if I imagine that the person's achievement somehow limits me, but it doesn't limit me, so there's no reason to "go there."

Marcus Aurelius: 7:73: "When you have done a good act and another has fared well by it, why seek a third reward besides these, as fools do, be it the reputation for having done a good act or getting something in return?" Translated by Jacob Needleman and John P. Piazza. Tarcher Cornerstone Editions/Penguin, 2008, p. 59.

I suspect generosity is a renewable source of energy.