Sunday, August 31, 2008



If the clock were to stop,
time wouldn't notice. If
the creek ran dry, it wouldn't
run at all. If "if" didn't exist,
I'm sure the other words
would miss it. If there
weren't any war, we'd
be much better off, and
that reasoning's too obvious,
and if one says such a simple
thing, then one might be
accused of using "if" as a happy
hallucinogen. Then again,

if we don't think of its and
the imaginary whats they inspire,
then we might as well proceed
to stop proceeding at all and act
as if all the possibilities
had already up and iffed
themselves away.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Novel: A Sonnet

When I was at Powell's Book Store in Portland recently, I saw a volume of "three-sentence novels" by a European writer. I should have purchased the book, but I'll track it down eventually.

The book reminded me of some "one-page novels" that a former professor of mine, the late Elliot Gilbert, used to write. Elliot was a marvelous professor of Victorian literature, wrote smartly on Kipling (of all people), and also knew a lot about such topics as detective fiction. He was married to the noted poet and feminist critic, Sandra Gilbert.

In any event, I decided to write a "novel" in fourteen lines--a novel stuffed into a sonnet.

Novel: A Sonnet

There was a place where people lived a long,
Long time. They soaked the place with their despair
And overloaded it with lore and song.
And then one day a stranger traveled there.
His presence was an irritant and salve,
Of course--that dual role which strangers play.
He saw someone and something he must have.
His getting them, however, would betray
A secret waiting for him all along.
A certain pressure grew under the weight
of character and fate combined. A wrong
Occurred and love turned into hate.
In more detail, the story stretches out
Three hundred fifty pages, or thereabouts.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, August 29, 2008


At moments like these, it's a pleasure to be a part of academia because one can wander the halls and ask political scientists (PS) what they think of McCain's choice for the candidate for Vice President.

1. PS #1: I cannot explain the choice, so I will not try to explain the choice.

2. PS #2: Whether the choice is good or not depends entirely on who wins the spin-game. The GOP will try to spit the choice as a) good for women [an appeal to women who voted for Senator Clinton] and b) good for conservatives. The Dems will spin it as . . . this person is not qualified to be president, should McCain be elected and then perish.

3. PS #3: The selection makes no sense. Strictly from a political standpoint, it is nutty.

A mere poet, I watch in fascination and wonder why McCain didn't select Kay Hutchinson if the tactic was to appeal to women and conservatives. or Mike Huckabee if the tactic was to appeal to conservatives and those interested in "executive experience."

My own opinion, which is at least worthless, is that McCain had some kind of appeal-to-women in mind but is insecure and did not want to select someone from the primary-race and is also impulsive to the point of recklessness.

I also treaded online turf and sought opinions about the worst vice presidents in history. Of course, one must be a vice president of the U.S. first before one is judged, so McCain's or Obama's choices must first be elected to be eligible to be judged.

Anyway, apparently Burr [dismissed as Veep-candidate, he eventually killed Alexander Hamilton]; Calhoun; Tyler; Agnew [even Nixon thought Agnew was not qualified to hold the post--ouch]; and Quayle. The newspaper The Guardian in the U.K. gave Teddy Roosevelt, Al Gore, Lyndon Johnson, and Dick Cheney high marks. That last one puzzled me; after all, Dick did get liquored up and then proceeded to shoot his friend in the face, he lost his composure badly in the Senate, and he probably egged Bush II to occupy Iraq, out a CIA agent, and conduct illegal wiretaps. On the other hand, Dick has made the most of the post, so I guess that's the logic.

I couldn't unearth any information about Vice Presidents and poetry, but I'm still looking.

I think that after several decades of observing politics, I have come to the point at which I regard presidential politics especially as a kind of surreal poem. Of course, I do wish our nation and the rest of the world the best, but I must confess I do not understand politics as much more than a spectacle which, nonetheless, does affect people's lives, eventually. On the other hand, Veep rhymes with Jeep, so there's that.

C'est le guerre.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Liberal Professors

It seems as if at least once a year, somebody publishes a book about how almost all college professors are liberal, and I notice that this Glenn Beck fellow devoted a show to advising conservative students how to survive and thrive at colleges, which Glenn seems to think are all liberal.

Of course, there are lots of problems with the assumption that most college professors are liberal. There's the definitional problem. Indeed, to political economists, "liberal" still refers to so-called free-market expansion connected to some kind of republican (small r) captitalism. Last year, for example, I heard an economist say that the occupation of Iraq was an experiment in bringing "liberal capitalism" to the Middle East, and he meant liberal as in Adam Smith not as in George McGovern.) Also, "liberal" and "conservative" have been pummeled, misused, and food-processed in the media so much that they'e become empty signifiers. Murray Edelman has observed that, to create a political spectacle, one has to create enemies, and one way to do that is to soil the category-name of your political opponents.
It used to be that environmentalists were automatically judged to be liberal, but with big chunks of glaciers melting daily, etc., environmentalism has become what I have long suspected it to be: practical. Neither Left nor Right but Necessary. People used to mock recycling as a Lefty idea, but now municipalities have well oiled (so to speak) recycling programs, ho -hum. Vaguely responsible fiscal policy used to be associated with conservatives, but the most fiscally conservative president since 1980 has been . . . Clinton, according to the data, and the most fiscally giddy has been Bush II, who cut taxes during a war, which is kind of like quitting your job and maxing out your credit cards at the same time. It's as conservative as a drunken first-time gambler playing craps in Las Vegas. Whoopee!

Maybe the real problem with the liberal-professors thesis, however, is that the people purveying it don't know what professors do most of the time. For example, today I was advising freshmen about what classes to take. What did we discuss? Where they're from, how well they do in math, what their short-term and long-term interests are, and (drum-roll please) what classes will actually have seats left in them when this group registers on Friday. The only political topic that came up was whether to try to take introduction to American politics or introduction to political theory, and once again, the choice hinged mainly on what was open. So even if I had wanted to advocate on behalf of my eccentric politics, I wouldn't have had the time or opportunity.

More to the point, I don't have the slightest interest in advocating on behalf of my politics. I'm tired of my political ideas because I hear them all the time in my own head. 'm much more interested in what students's political views are and even more interested in how they express and support the views. That is, I'm interested in their rhetoric (not in the sense of "empty rhetoric" or "political rhetoric," but in the sense of how they present arguments, go through a reasoning process, and make appeals to authority, history, logic, and so on.) Also, in my experience (mostly from observation), if you want to be sure to dissuade young adults of your views, political or otherwise, try to convince them of the views. Parents of teenagers and young adults will know whereof I speak.

Professors spend a lot of time preparing for class, reading essays or lab reports, going to committee meetings, trying to carve out time to do research, driving their kids to soccer-practice, going to the grocery store, attempting to do something helpful to the cardio-vascular system, blogging, checking email, and so on. If there is a professor out there who wants to distribute copies of the Communist Manifesto to his or her students, I 'd bet that he or she has lost the copies somewhere in the back of the station wagon or under heaps of students' essays on the desk.

So if you saw Glenn Beck's show or read one of these books, and if you're conservative, and if you're worried about liberal professors, I hereby give you permission to chill out. On the list of things to worry about, you probably want to place "liberal professors" at around the 50,243rd slot, or lower. Seriously.

On the other hand, if you're worried that certain professors will induce students to read poetry, then your concerns are well founded. Poetry strikes fear into liberals and conservatives alike. Iambic pentameter--the great equalizer.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Duke Ellington

Some words remembering Duke Ellington:

Duke Ellington

The headline from the Sacramento Bee
Announced that Ellington had died. I think
The article may have referred to him as one
Of those things he really was. They got
It right, if I recall: they said he was
"A treasure"--treasure lost to us, to me,
Who'd only just begun to understand
What I'd been blessed to witness when I spent
A few buck on a ticket for a concert in
A cafeteria--a break from writing essays for
My English 1-B class. I got to hear
Duke Ellington--in a junior-college cafeteria.
That night I was as privileged as a prince
Who'd seen and heard Mozart conduct.
Mere Rocklin was my Salzburg, Duke's jazz
Demotic classical. Duke Ellington had passed,
The headline said. I thought of him, spotlit
That night, a black tuxedo, and the hair
Brushed back. That's how he must have looked
As he strolled past Archangel Gabriel.
To Gabe he may have said, "We love you madly--
But try it in a minor key this time."
When I saw him, I was 18 and thought
I knew just what Duke Ellington deserved.
"He's royalty," I thought, "does not deserve
This gig on cold linoleum." Time is
No satin doll who puts her arms
Round you, and now I think I' may have learned
What Mr. Ellington believed that he deserved:
To write, to play, and to conduct, as long
As God would let him, and anywhere the bus
Or train or plane might go. The music does
Not know it's in the cafeteria, or in
A segregated Cotton Club. And Mr. Ellington,
The evidence suggests, could take care of himself.
Ah, heaven's black piano's always tuned.
The A-train glides like silk into the night.
In Davis, California, and in Harlem, you
Can see the sky, and hear "Mood Indigo."

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, August 25, 2008

How to Get Ideas For Poems

Occasionally, persons who are not, or who do not see themselves as, writers of poetry, fiction, drama, and the like ask persons who do write such stuff, "How do you get ideas for [poetry, fiction, drama, etc.]?" I can't speak for all or really any of such writers; nonetheless, I suspect some of them might agree with my sense that a lot of writers find it fairly easy to "get ideas." It's the writing itself that is sometimes, maybe even often, the difficulty. It's one thing to have a good or great idea for a short story. It's another to write that short story, and it's still another to make that story as good as you think it needs to be.

In any event, a while back I wrote a poem about how to get ideas for poems. Perhaps the title is too obvious. I'm not sure.

How to Get Ideas for Poems

It's surprisingly easy. Since you're already in
your mind, even if others claim you're not, just
look around in there and see what's on the shelves
and prairies, in the tunnels and trade-shows::
sharks, appliances, jeans, turnips, primal scenes.
Maybe foaming dog-mouths full of teeth.

Scan acres and acres of words--native, transplanted,
farmed, found, pilfered, grafted, milled, mulched. It's
a little known fact that poems are made of words.

Allergies and outrages are good. Grudges, too.
Love? Sure. Why not? Do what you have to do.
You and your mind are already in the world,
in spite of jokes philosophers tell, so you don't
have to make special trips to peaks, Paris,
bull-fighting rings, deserts, or dance-halls
to find what advertisers call inspiration.

If you want inspiration, just keep breathing.
(If you want anything, just keep breathing.)
The poems will follow. Some ideas will cling
the way stickers stab socks when you walk
through brush and grass. Others will settle--
shadow, soot, silt, and shock. Some will pound
on the mind's door like a drunken neighbor
who came back to the wrong house. Some

will whisper and mumble like spies, gossips,
gamblers, and prophets. Basically, just
let it slip that you're a poet. The news
will get around your mind, and there will be
no end to the ideas. You'll have to
fight them off with poems.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Scorpion King II

We subscribe to cable television, and so we have access to something like 31,238 channels. However, we tend to be interested in only about 6 of them, two or three that run different iterations and re-runs of Law and Order, a couple of so-called "news channels," and channels that give us access to BBC news, programs, and movies. I also like to watch C-Span, the fundamentalist Christian "network," the Weather Channel, and other anomalies.

On one of these selected channels, I saw an advertisement for the DVD of a movie called Scorpion King II. I haven't seen Scorpion King [I], but I think it may have been produced by the unusual people who are in charge of professional-wrestling-entertainment.

I've seen only a couple scorpions in my life, so I'm no expert, but I don't think scorpions are ruled by a monarchy. The scorpions I met seemed like they would rebel against the very idea of a hereditary monarchy, in fact.

However, I gather the scorpion monarchy has not been in place for a long time, as it is now ruled only by its second King. Some monarchies consolidate power via marriage, so maybe the Scorpion King will marry the Princess of Spiders or Lady Bug, who will then become the Scorpion Queen.

Interestingly, I saw no scorpions in the advertisement for The Scorpion King II. Most of the images seemed to be of young body-builders with lubricated upper bodies. They seem to be running and carrying swords from the studio's collection of swords.

The language such advertisements borrow from alleged reviews of the product being offered is a bit like exhausted poetry. For example, the quotations mentioned in this advertisement included the following: "Non-stop action!" "Bone-crushing excitement!"

I like movies in which the action stops occasionally. I like it when people stop chasing each other or hacking off limbs, sit down, and have a conversation. Also, at some point, the action in all movies needs to stop after an hour or two, don't you think? At some point, the credits have to run. As for bone-crushing excitement, I am ambivalent, at best. I can't envisage liking excitement that would result in the crushing of bones.

I don't think I'm going to rent or purchase the DVD for The Scorpion King II. If there is a so-called "Nature" show--on a Public Broadcasting channel--that focuses on scorpions, I am likely to watch it for a while, however.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Poem Is

The Poem Is

The poem is a woman who
would sing if she weren't so
weary. The poem is a man
who would get up and fight
if he weren't so old. The poem
is a child who would come out
of the room if the world
weren't so strange.

The poem is a mountain
that would be green if
water flowed there. The
poem is a city that would
treat people right if only it
weren't a city. The poem

wants to meet a poem
that understands what
it's like to be the kind of
poem the poem is.

The poem would be epic
if it were arrogant. It would be
lyric if it weren't so lonely.

The poem breaks like a dry
stick and heals itself
miraculously and leans
on itself as it takes a walk
through the woods. The
poem thinks magically.
That is the job of the poem.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Waiting Room

The Waiting Room

The room waited. No,
that's not true. The room
was empty, so we said
it had been waiting for people
to enter it. They entered
it. We were already there,
waiting. We watched them.
They waited. All over the
planet, operators are
standing by. A man is being
recorded shouting, "But
wait--there's more!" "What
are you waiting for?: that
is a command poorly
disguised as a question.
"I can't wait": this is best
translated as "I am saying
something as I wait." Once
someone told me, "Wait
here." I did so. I am in
fact still waiting. Here.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Democracy Today

Democracy Today

A politician's head swelled
and burst out of a televising screen,
crashing onto the floor of my room,
rolling to my feet, where it lay,
face up, a grin glued on like a photo
of a keyboard, eyes fixed wide open,
genderless features painted
with studio-makeup, hair
formed like fine-spun fiberglass,
forehead shining like porcelain.

I howled, jumped up, ran
out the door into the street,
where everyone wore masks
that looked like the face on
the floor of the room I'd fled.
"We're all going to vote!" the
masked crowd cried.
"You will join us!"

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

For Rose-Gardeners

Is there a flower that humans have been more obsessed by than the rose? Maybe the cherry-blossom; and, indeed, the rose-obsession may be more Western--Greco-Roman/Euro-American--than Eastern. And it's a bit ironic that the rose itself is a bush, a shrub, and of course the cherry is a tree.

Lilies, orchids, daffodils, and poppies have all drawn their share of attention. But especially in Western religious and poetic traditions, the rose seems to have it all going on. Bill the Bard, Robert Burns, Bill Blake, Gertrude Stein, Jean Genet, and even George Eliot (in a wee poem) have famously weighed in on the rose. Rose-poems must number in the millions.

To those who grow roses--or, more accurately, assist roses in their growth--the rose tends to discard its several cultural symbols and starts to represent work, a battleground (chiefly person v. fungus and person v. aphid), a vegetative entity with diva-like whims but also astonishing resilience, and unrequited love. Yes, rose-gardeners fall in love with their roses, in many cases. It's not a pretty sight. That's when the whole thorn v. blossom mythology kicks in.

I had a 20-year fling with roses. Mulching, pruning, spraying (I stuck to organic sprays like neem oil, and a mild, non-detergent soapy spray does just fine with aphids), weeding, staring. A lot of staring. And sighing--in frustration. Fertilizing (I liked organic fertilizers). There is, of course, the illusion that it's all worth it--such as when you pick what really looks like the perfect rose--a blossom, say, from a Mister Lincoln--and the color & perfume really do almost make you swoon, and then you show it to someone else, and they almost swoon. From different objective distances, however, one may raise all sorts of objections to the time and energy spent on roses, to the Rose Industry (floral shops, rose "breeders," garden shops), and to the culture's rose-fetish.

Oddly enough, the most amazing roses I've seen are wild ones growing in a pasture in the Sierra Nevada. They basically turn into huts--an igloo of vines. Once one of our neighbors read about how much Vitamin C was in rose hips--those knots that grow after the petals have fallen--and she began to brew and drink rose-hip tea. Apparently the wild rose-hips had something else in them, however, because she got a little loopy and had to give up the tea. Jonesing for rose-hips. Wow.

Solid tips I picked up over the years: in the Pacific Northwest, prune roses on or near President's day; prune roses into a kind of bowl-shape, and attempt to eliminate the branches on the inside (roses seem to need some space "inside" to ventilate themselves; don't over-fertilize (I know: but what does that mean?) ; checking for aphids is actually more important than waging war on them (when you see them, spray a mild solution of Ivory soap on them; also, ladybugs really do like to dine on aphids).

In the imaginary court of gardening, roses and I reached an amicable rose-divorce. When I stroll past an impressive rose garden, I am most intrigued--and then fatigued, as I imagine all that work, the constant attention.

I did exceptionally well with two kinds of roses, both venerable--Queen Elizabeth and Mister Lincoln, one pink and the other red. I did okay with Peace roses, too, and I had pretty good luck with yellow roses--Sun Sprite was one I liked. A rose called Oklahoma did not do well in the Pacific Northwest, at least for me (and I'm a rank amateur), but that one had my favorite rose-aroma. Roses by other names didn't smell as sweet, nyuk, nyuk.

A poem, then, for rose-gardeners (I think it's in iambic tetrameter):

For Rose-Gardeners

To one who cares for roses, rose
Refers to the whole plant; the flow-
Ers are a kind of coda. To one
Who cares, the tale is in the soil,
Which should be dark and rich and loose.
It should be mulched, and it should breathe,
Perhaps give off a faint bouquet
Of chocolate. The tale proceeds
In pulpy roots of rose, and in
The branches which shoot up so fast
The green-and-purplish growth can seem
A little other-worldly. Leaves
Have much to say as well. They should
Be waxy and deep green but are
Impressionable, go black or brown
Or yellow from the merest wink
Of fungus. Thorns amaze--ornate
Medieval armor for a plant. If
The flowers come and keep coming,
Then one who cares for roses has
Assisted earth and plant to tell
The story well and now may stare,
May bend to sniff perfume or clip
In twilight of a long ritual--
The caring for the whole rose plant.

Monday, August 18, 2008

For Groundskeepers

On a rainy Monday in the Pacific Northwest, here's some blank verse for groundskeepers.

For Groundskeepers

At universities and schools, at parks
And hospitals, at bureaus and museums,
Banks and supermarkets, rows of shops,
Amidst steel and glass, beside the wood,
The brick, the concrete, walls, walks, facades,
In stadia at which rich athletes play,
There are the grounds, that space where those who plan
Our public spaces want to keep the Earth,
A.K.A. Nature, domesticated--kept
As in maintained. And after builders have
Departed and investors disappeared,
Now that the planners have moved on to plan
Their other things, responsibility for care
Resides exclusively with those who keep
The grounds; who dig and clip and weed and care,
Remove what's dead, restrain the growth that has
Become obese or weird. "Groundskeeper" is
One name by which they go. They are by all
Accounts almost invisible, paid not enough,
And tasked too much, no doubt, but genial
In most respects, it seems; the work with soil
And shrub, with grass and tree, must teach
A kind of patience; people who pass by,
Oblivious to the keeping grounds require,
Must also cultivate a sanguine view.
The litterer, the snob, the ones who've never
Held a shovel, wheeled a barrow: no sense
In getting angry at such folks, who are
Less sensitive than plants. Ah, well: Here's thanks
To those who keep our grounds, who care for our
Exteriority. Our cities and our towns,
The places where we work and where
We recreate would be oppresive or
Hard blighted spaces, were it not
For ones with barrows, clippers, spades.
Appreciation's due to those who keep
For us the grounds, who keep them up for us.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Picking Blackberries

On one of my urban-hike routes, there are blackberry bushes, hence blackberries. It is August, and humid; therefore, the blackberries are ripening.

I happen to be a veteran blackberry-picker, having picked berries in my youth in the Sierra Nevada, where the blackberries ripen rather late, as late as September, just barely ahead of the frost and the snow.

Poets like to write poems about blackberries, for some reason. For some reason, I've never gotten a poem I like out of the blackberry subject. But that's okay. Blackberries are enough.

Picking blackberries is most satisfying to the single-minded, persons vaguely driven, determined, perhaps a wee bit compulsive. One must ignore how lonely the first berry looks in the container. One must be ready to experience minor thorn-damage on one hand. (one must never wear gloves.) The technique I prefer is to load up one hand with several berries, retrieve the hand, and dump the harvest in the container. But it's not good to get too greedy with one handful.

The more one picks, the more one sees additional ripe berries. It's some kind of Zen thing, I think.

One mustn't eat any berries until late in the game. It's not professional. Also: delayed gratification.

Not-quite-ripe berries don't want to come loose, but you can use them to pull the vine closer to you.

Soon the container is heavy and full, black and gleaming. The image of a pie, or simply berries in cream, materializes.

Blackberries are enough.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Exonerate the Snake?

Some blank verse for Friday, then:

Exonerate the Snake?

The Bible and John Milton blame the Fall
On Slim--the slender slitherer alleged
To have approached Ms. Eve and sold her on
The idea of the Fruit. With deference
And all respect that's due and duly orthodox,
I have my doubts. The snake? A pea-brained length
Of skinny tubing lying in the grass?
A narrow fellow, as Ms. Emily said?
Okay: I know a boa can enwrap
A human or a cow and swallow whole.
Sure, cobras, vipers, rattler, and mocassins
And such can strike and kill. But please. Hold on.
Be serious. If we insist on saying snakes
Must take the fall for loss of Paradise,
It seems we run the risk of looking low--
Yes, lower than the snake. We chose to cast
Off innocence for worldliness, and God
Said, "Fine. I call it sin, and I say it's wrong.
What's more, I think it's dumb. Your lease is up.
Get out of Eden." What happened then, it seems
Was something between God and human kind.
To blame a lowly flicker of the tongue,
A crawler with cold blood and clammy hide,
Seems more than just a bit convenient.
Let's take the rap. The fault was ours, not Snake's.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Thanks to someone vastly more attuned than I to the nuances of Internet culture, I have learned of the practice known as "Rickrolling." In the 1980s, a British singer named Rick Astley recorded what became a popular tune, one that I'd put in the disco category. Astley has a rather impressive baritone voice, which seems incongruous in relation to his physical appearance: He seems to be of relatively small physical stature, with red hair, not that red hair runs counter to baritone-status; anyway, it's one of those cases in which the person in possession of the voice is a bit of a surprise.

His big hit was "Never Gonna Give You Up," and, music-videos having been in their infancy back then, his video is nerdy and dorky, to use technical terms. Basically it's just Rick singing and doing some basic moves. Not quite explicably, he sometimes appears in a trench coat. Sometimes the alleged scene is a club--but the club is empty, and it's daytime. A female dancer or two materialize, and the bartender becomes a dancer at some point. There is not a "plot" to the video, and I say thank God to that. Who wants a plot in a music video? Indeed, who wants a music video? A few have been interesting, but basically, it's a moronic, corporate genre.

The video is so bad that it's good, and the song blends a great, trained voice with a fairly dumb disco song. All the elements are there, in other words, for camp, and I gather that things campy in this day and age can be turned into Internet pranks of the harmless variety. So people apparently trick their friends into viewing the Astley video on youtube, and allegedly hilarity ensues.

Nerdy and dorky, I am both amused by and sympathetic to Mr. Astley. Chiefly, he seems to have been working the job (my agent got me into this?) and in no way seems to take the video seriously. More nerdy than Rick, I find the lyrics interesting because they exemplify iambic tetrameter. In fact, one could substitute "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/In the forest of the night," and have a splendidly surreal combination, a fearful symmetry, of Rick Astley and William Blake. "Tyger, tyger BURN-ing bright, in the forest OF THE NIGHT!" Blake is never gonna give up that tyger.

In the lyrics, there's also an interesting bit about the persona of the song offering "total commitment," which other fellows do not offer the beloved, it is argued. Perhaps he's threatening to have his lover committed to an insane asylum, OR he's offering to commit himself voluntarily to such a facility. "I'm never going to give you up, but at the same time, I'll be safely behind bars, getting treatment!" Of course, there's a chance that commitment refers to something else.

For a very good, frivolous time, check out the Astley video, rick-roll yourself, and have a grin or two in these dour times. Join the people who've been ricked!

A link:

And thanks to Mr. Astley and his most impressive baritone.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Centers Hold

"Things fall apart," Yeats famously wrote, "the center cannot hold." I always found "things fall apart" to be a refreshingly imprecise bit of phrasing.

Yeats's poem came to mind yesterday as I passed a business-sign for Neovita, which describes itself as a "Foot Comfort Center." I'm not sure what they do in there, but I had visions of all feet being treated like Roman emperors, bathed, massaged, entertained, read to. Maybe there are foot-therapists on duty to whom the feet can talk about their problems--nightmares about blisters, that traumatic hang-nail in childhood, impossible expectations placed on the feet by the parental Body.

"Center" is a great all-purpose moniker. Think-tanks and thinly veiled political shops, which seem to have proliferated in the last 20 years, like the term. The Center for Strategic This and That, the Center for Family Something, etc.

I had a part in establishing two Writing Centers, or Centers for Writing Across the Curriculum. One basic idea behind them is that since writing happens in almost all disciplines, it should be taught in all disciplines and not seen merely as an "English" subject. The first one I worked at was in a temporary building on one edge of campus, so it really wasn't in the center of much. The other one, however, is pretty much centrally located on campus.

I hope Periphery catches on at some point. The Periphery for Strategic Studies, The Periphery for American Family Values. These might be interesting think tanks, featuring people who are on the outside looking in and therefore in possession of valuable perspective. In Yeats's terms, they'd be falcons who couldn't hear the falconer, but maybe they could hear other important stuff, and who says falconers know everything? The falcon does all the work, after all. Just ask the Center, I mean the Periphery, for International Falcon Studies.

Monday, August 11, 2008

What, Conservatives Worry?

When conservatives worry about McCain, then I get even more worried about McCain. Hawk-faced Pat Buchanan, noted isolationist and perfecter of the chop-motion while talking and giving speeches, said [on CNN] President McCain would make Cheney look like Ghandi--not physically, I assume, but by comparison. (Buchanan did not seem to intend the comparison as a compliment; with Buchanan, one feels one has to add that information.) Andrew Sullivan, one of those seemingly very bright people who nonetheless swallowed Bush's bait about WMD's and tried to cough it up long after the hook had been set, has posted quite an interesting anti-McCain video on his blog. Here is the link:

Probably the most compelling speaker on the video is Scott Ritter, one of innumerable people who seemed to know what they were talking about during the "run-up" to the war and who was therefore ignored, dismissed, and attacked by Bush and the Surrogates.

A mere poet, I do wonder what the military and the intelligence agencies think of Bush and what I deduce to be his compulsive recklessness and lifetime of being unaccountable. He has been reckless in going to war, in conducting the war and the occupation, in the unprecedented use of contractors, in the breaking (John Murtha's word) of the army and Marines, in forging documents (see Suskind's book, and apparently Suskind has the audio tapes to back up the findings), and in betraying spies. Mustn't even the professionals regard Bush as reckless and incompetent? I don't know.

A mere poet, I wouldn't mind if Obama and McCain would agree to read Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est" out loud and then comment briefly on it.

A mere poet, I wonder if Putin and McCain are some kind of international marriage made in Hell.

A mere poet, I do wonder what a mere citizen can do to prevent President Bush, President McCain, perhaps even President Obama, from attacking Iran.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Too Sad, Darling

Too Sad, Darling

(in memory of Esther Wagner)

We go from no
memories and all
experience to combinations
of experiences and memories to
no experiences and all
memories. Life

at first opens up all
around our minds and us. Then
the thing known as Later
abandons the mind to its own
paltry self, its wee storehouse
of snapshots, shreds of dialogue,
and remember that time?

"Too sad, darling," is what
the grand woman said,
with a laugh,
"but fix yourself something
to drink and one for me.
Sit down and we'll talk,
reminisce, just us,
about experience."

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, August 8, 2008


Owing to a chance interchange at Starbucks, we have found ourselves considering the Britishism, "Bob's your uncle," which has netted us a poem, among other things.

Another Britishism that intrigues me is "bollocks." A bollock is a testicle, so bollocks are multiple testicles, but according the OED online, one may "bollocks" something, as in mess it up; there is a verbal form, in other words. If you're tempted to suggest "that makes no sense," simply consider how often Americans think or say "he sure effed that up." Think about it. When I was in Sweden, a Swede, mystified by the amount and variety of American cursing, said, "You know, we really have no curse words based on sexual activity." He didn't sound as if he regarded this as something lacking in Swedish.

I think every Hugh Grant movie I've ever seen has had "bollocks" in the script. Maybe the situation is similar to Christopher Walken movies, wherein Christopher is allowed to dance--in some fashion. (My favorite Walken quotation: "I'm not sure what the worst movie of all time is, but I'm sure I acted in it.")

Sometimes I think the British simply say "balls" in place of "bollocks." Is that right? Of course, it's impossible to try seriously to trace the "logic" of such cursing. I suppose you could try to make a case for "bullshit" being more "logical" than "bollocks," inasmuch as bullshit is waste material and therefore ostensibly worthless, except as fertilizer, but on the other hand, "bollocks" is more absurd. "What a load of bollocks!"

According the OED online, the etymology of bollocks goes back to a noun referring to a sacrificial knife. Ouch.

The OED also includes a quotation from one of my favorite English poets, Philip Larkin. If you haven't read his poem, "This Be the Verse," you really must.

1940 P. LARKIN Let. 9 Dec. in Sel. Lett. (1992) 4, I suppose my writing is terrible. Sod & bollocks, anyway. Not to mention cunt and fuck.

What I like about this quotation is that it qualifies as scholarly because the OED uses it, and that it seems as if Larkin, in his letter, catches himself cursing and then, like a naughty boy, finds cursing so pleasurable that he curses some more. And like many of us writers, he's unamused by his own writing.

At any rate, Bob is your uncle, the one who says "bollocks," not to mention--well, anyway.

Bob Is Your Uncle, The Sequel

Someone from our nation's heartland read the previous post and produced a fine poem in response to the prompt concerning "Bob's Your Uncle." So in case you want to read the poem (I submit that you should want to read it) and don't want to go through the comments, here it is:

Bob Is Your Uncle

I’m not sure you understand
what I’m trying to tell you.

That man in the armchair,
feet up, snoring softly,
the one you call your dad,

his name is Robert, so we
all call him Bob. It suits him.

Bob has three brothers.
The two you know, the two
who take you hunting and
tease you about your cowlick,
and one you don’t.

The one you don’t know
left town a while ago. Twelve
years and six months, but
who’s counting? Not me.

Anyway, it’s time you know,
time for you to know, whether
you want to know or not.

That man, Bob, is your uncle.
There. You have it.

Submitted by Lars, August 8, 2008 8:52 AM, all rights reserved


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bob's Your Uncle

So I went to my local chapter of Starbucks today. I realize I'm supposed to be unamused by the corporate giant, but I like the people who work at the local chapter, which happens to be a destination point on my urban hikes. At any rate, one of the workers there was expecting me to order my usual espresso macchiato, doppio, an Old School drink, but then I said I wanted a tall green iced tea with one splendid splenda, and then I said, you know, that cup looks like it's short to me, not tall (not complaining, just observing), and she said, "Well, we don't have short cold-beverage cups," and I thought but didn't say that this, then, was a categorical problem, or maybe an aesthetic one: my sense of short does not dovetail with Starbucks', but instead I said, "Well, there you go," and she said, "Bob's your uncle, as my grandmother used to say." And I asked, "Is your grandmother British?" ["Bob's your uncle is, of course, a Britishism], and she said, "She aspired to be." And we laughed.

Isn't that marvelous? "She aspired to be British." I think some Americans still aspire to be British, especially those with vague upper-crust leanings. I've even known a few American academics who try, with horrific results, to adopt some kind of British accent. And of course, T.S. Eliot and Hank James turned themselves "British." Naturally, trying to turn yourself British is a quintessentially American thing to do. In the world of poker, it's known as a "tell."

Anyway, I like those toss-away phrases like "Bob's your uncle." They're not really cliches. They're just sort of generic pieces of language we stick in there from time to time. My father and his cohorts often said, in response to mildly surprising news, "Well, I'll be a sonofabitch." They meant "Bob's your uncle," which is to say, they meant nothing remotely connected with bitches and sons (although I recognize the misogyny lurking in the phrase). They didn't view themselves as vulgar, unless they were around women and children they didn't know. They didn't believe themselves to be sons of bitches anymore than people think Bob is their uncle, unless of course Bob is their uncle, in which case they may not use the expression, even in England.

It might be kind of fun to write some poems that take such expressions literally. What kind of poem might one write with a title, "Bob Is Your Uncle"? Ah, the possibilities.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sonnet Play-By-PLay

So I write sonnets more or less as aerobic poetic exercises and only rarely expect them to turn out as successful poems, and then from that very limited set, I might try to publish one. I think the main thing with sonnets and other traditional forms is knowing why you're writing them. Also, it's good, I think, to see yourself as participating in a long genre-tradition and exploring the tension between adhering to conventions and disrupting them, perfecting your engagement with a mode and improvising upon the mode.

With the following sonnet, a mere exercise, I decided to provide a play by play, line by line, just to show what sort of difficulty the form puts a poet it.

Sonnet: Hometown Paper

[the title/subject: so this is a fairly conventional Modernist move--take the love-poem form of the sonnet and use it to talk about something unrelated to love and otherwise unlyrical]

And shall it disappear, the local paper--

[The "And" is there to jump-start the iambic with an unstressed syllable, and I've presented myself a problem by asking a question; also, I've chose a two-syllable end-word and what's called a feminine rhyme; I've chosen to go with iambic pentameter, the conventional meter]

The hometown's daily, weekly digested

[More hot water--another two-syllable end word, meaning I have to think of rhymes now for both paper and digested]

Familiar fare of nearby news and safer

[So I went with a half-rhyme with paper--which I think worked out okay, but then I caused more problems by introducing a conceit--the newspaper or news as food--hard to continue, and likely to tempt me into a mixed metaphor]

Palatable small snacks, time-tested,

[I love putting multisyllabic words in an iambic line; it really speeds things up. "Time-tested" is a cliche--so I had to pay the price for "digested"; I'm depending on a pronunciation of palatable that stresses the second syllable]

Reliable desserts of gossip, sports,

[So now I'm stuck in that food-conceit, but at least I'm hanging with the subject]

Cooked up by ones who know the local fears?

[Still wearing out that conceit, making the editors cooks--I do like "local fears," however, and it may let me out of the conceit--we'll see; and I've finally sewed up the question--started in line 1!]

Already, so it seems, rags of all sorts

[Sports/sorts: basic rhyme; a shift of subject--papers going out of business--but by using "rags," I may have attached myself to another conceit]

Have been attached to quilts (one hears)

[So I decided to take "rags" literally; as rags are made into quilts, "rags" (newspapers) are attached to figurative quilts of . . . what?]

That make up media conglomerates,

[Conglomerates are quilts. Hmmm. But what will rhyme with conglomerates?! Oy.]

While others simply went, were buried with

[Still stuck on the rag-conceit, now treating rags more as clothes]

Their owner-editors. Moreover, what's

[So I rhymed "moreover, what's" with "conglomerate"--that's fun; some small newspapers perish when their old editors die]

The fate of reading? Yes, like Faith and Myth,]

[I rhymed Myth with With--amusing; more importantly, I'm experiencing what many sonnet-writers experience--the sudden, panicky realization that the poem's about to end; one gets lost in the meter, rhyming, conceits, and so on. Then: OMG! Only 14 lines, and I've written a dozen already--and I need to end with a couplet--and finish the poem! I mean, it's not cliff-diving, but it does create a virtual adrenaline rush, for nerds]

Our Literacy is ultra-local now--

[Now I leap to a Big Point--linking local papers to larger issues of literacy; the couplet is an opportunity to do this; I've played it safe in terms of rhyming by using "now"--lots of options]

Locked to a screen mere inches from the brow.

[Like the Shakemeister General, except not really, I've gone for a wicked little irony. In the age of the Internet, we feel we're superior to printed local, hickish papers, but then here we are peering at our various little personal screens, which in one sense are more insular, even solipcistic, than the local rag, or so I argue.

So there you have it--a not very good sonnet, but a great aerobic poetic workout, getting some work on rhyme, meter, conceits, getting out of trouble, having fun. And play by play, just like sports! Such a deal. Or, as John Madden would say, "And, boom, he finishes the couplet!" Maybe Madden will make a Sonnet Video Game. Uh, maybe not.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Sandburg Gets Morbid

Carl Sandburg, early 20th century American poet, is best known for the fog poem, with its cat-analogy, and the Chicago poem. He took over the long free-verse line from Whitman, made it more laconic, much less ecstatic, and made it work. His poetry is pleasing in ways similar to those in which Jeffers's poetry is. Among the poets he influenced was Langston Hughes, who liked Sandburg's focus on working folks and his unpretentiousness.

Sandburg takes a morbid turn in the following poem, but I don't think it's a gratuitous turn, as one sometimes finds in Poe's verse, for example.

Cool Tombs

By Carl Sandburg

WHEN Abraham Lincoln was shoveled into the tombs, he forgot the copperheads and the assassin ... in the dust, in the cool tombs.

And Ulysses Grant lost all thought of con men and Wall Street, cash and collateral turned ashes ... in the dust, in the cool tombs.

Pocahontas' body, lovely as a poplar, sweet as a red haw in November or a pawpaw in May, did she wonder? does she remember?... in the dust, in the cool tombs?

Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries, cheering a hero or throwing confetti and blowing tin horns ... tell me if the lovers are losers ... tell me if any get more than the lovers ... in the dust ... in the cool tombs.

The decision to treat the iconic, even sacred, Lincoln roughly in the first line fascinates me, and I think it takes the poem in a successful, if risky, direction. Then there's a shift to Grant, feckless as a president, victim of corruption. The shift to Pocahontas makes sense; after Lincoln and Grant, we need a feminine icon, and we need a person who represents grace. As plain as the last stanza is, I think it's inspired--especially the choice to interrogate the reader. This not so well known poem is one I admire.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Molecular Sonnet for Sunday

Whether you take some kind of Creationist point of view or some kind of Evolutionary one--or are skeptical of both, as a friend of mine is--it's nonetheless amazing that mere matter, of which we are composed, can have concepts and produce complicated emotions. If we ask how in the heck single-cell organisms evolved into organisms complex enough to think of love, time-share condos, philosophy, chess, and combustion-engines, the Creationist point of few is certainly easier to grasp: God made it so. The Evolutionary point of view, ironically, seems more miraculous. What are the odds that organism A would have eventually evolved into organism Z--a human? A key variable, I think, is time. The Biblical calendar is pretty brief. The Evolutionary one allows for millions and millions of years during which lots of accidents and false starts can happen--eventually leading to organisms called human golfing, cheating on taxes, and singing ballads in cafes. The Evolutionist's retort to God made it so seems, in part, to be Evolution takes its own sweet time, of which there is an infinite amount.

As may be immediately apparent, I did not take millions of years to write the following sonnet, which has something to do with molecules and love.

Molecular Mood: A Sonnet

Molecular in nature were the two,
For they were human, and therefore made
Of carbon, protein, fat--the usual stew
Of which stuff in this matter, fact, is said
By scientists to be composed. But how
Does one molecular composite reach
The point at which it loves, the point called Now
Wherein one body-mind, by means of speech,
Decides and then declares this thing called Love,
A concept generated by uncounted other
Molecular composites, the stuff of
Which Civilization's made? Whatever.
The she loves him; the he loves her. Their cells
Conspire to cast reciprocating spells.

Hans Ostrom/Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

I'm inordinately fond of the made/said partial rhyme in the first quatrain, and of the partial rhyming of other/Whatever. The couplet pleases me, for some reason.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Songbooks Exhumed

Among the items paroled from storage have been songbooks, many of which feature ballads from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. By accident, I started playing these ballads as I was teaching myself to play piano, using the quick-and-dirty "chord" method. So there I was, age 16, playing songs like "Two Sleepy People." Two things interested me about the songs--the complicated chords, never just a D minor, but always a D minor seventh or something like that, clusters of notes; and the lyrics, which were often sentimental, true, but just as likely to be whimsical, wry, and ironic. They were way over my head, of course, written by "sophisticated" and rich lyricists in New York or Palm Springs.

So it's been great playing the songs and reading the lyrics again. There's probably a book to be written out there about American ballads being an important window on American culture, and on the complicated "icons" that sang the ballads, like Sinatra, who in one sense was a hack and a thug but in another sense was a very puzzling amalgamation of traditional American manhood, celebrity, androgyny, money, poverty, East Coast values, and West Coast values. He was also an Old School liberal, who, of course, became a conservative, as almost all Old School liberals did and do. Scratch a Northern White liberal, and you almost always find a redneck, as James Baldwin articulated. Thus has it always been so.

Ah, but the lyrics are so smart, especially those written by Johnny Mercer (not a pleasant person, alas: read Skylark, the recent biography), Dorothy Fields, Billie Holliday, Cole Porter, Jules Styne, the Gershwins, Harry Warren, et alia.

Some will say the wry, ironic, whimsical poetry has disappeared from American popular music, and to some extent that's true. Most popular songs are about as subtle as an avalanche. But you will still find a great deal of subtlety and wit even in some Hip Hop music, such as that by the Fugees (one example). Nonetheless, the Great Age of the Ballad has passed. Hence the importance of exhumed songbooks.

Not that you asked, but my all-time favorite Sinatra "album" is the one recorded live in Las Vegas with Count Basie's orchestra and Quincy Jones's arrangements. There's an edge to the swing that you don't find in the Nelson Riddle arrangements, and you sense that Basie, Jones, and Sinatra are engaged in a healthy competition. Sinatra is 50, I think, so the voice is down an octave or two, but the schtick is finely tuned. When Basie's orchestra is about to take off on an instrumental raid, Sinatra warns, "Run fuh covah; run and hide!" If you like Sinatra, you'll love (and probably already know well) this CD. If you don't know much about Sinatra or are skeptical, give a song or two a listen on this one. A fascinating artifact.