Thursday, April 30, 2009

Found-Poem Finale For April

(image: badger, not greasy)
Well, I had several poems in mind to post on this last day of write-a-poem-a-day month, a.k.a National Poetry Month.
Then I read the newspaper this morning--the Tacoma News Tribune, which, like all newspapers, is getting smaller all the time, it seems. On page three of the first section, political writer Peter Callaghan had a piece on local building-codes and developers.
Here is one quotation from that piece: "Which is where the 'greasy badgers' came in. That's the phrase architect David Boe, the vice chairman of the [planning] commisssion, used to describe the ornery animals he sometimes has as clients (figuratively, I hope). They ask him to design buildings that 'maximize the site.'"
I was, of course, interested in Callaghan's use of "figuratively," for, as a poet, I was hoping that the fellow's clients were literally badgers. Ah, well. To each his own. On behalf of badgers, I was a little insulted that they were described as greasy and compared to developers. What did they do to deserve that?
But the "found-poem" lay in the headline, so thanks to the headline-writer who worked on Callaghan's piece. I have arranged the headline as a poem, and I think the found-poem is nice way to finish off National Poetry Month in this wee badger-den of the blogosphere.
Found Poem
Building codes
Can't save us.
We're at the mercy
Developers' moods.
from The News Tribune (Tacoma), April 30, p. A-3, bottom.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Small Poem For April

(image: Gerard Manley Hopkins)

If memory serves, I first read the poetry of Hopkins when I was 17 and a freshman in college. I was a bit younger than other freshmen because I'd skipped second grade. I don't think they have students skip grades anymore, but I'm not sure about that.

Anyway, when I read "Glory be to God for dappled things" (from "God's Grandeur"), I immediately was taken by Hopkins' poetry and his view of things, a view that is in many ways far from pious. Later I embarked on an exhaustive study of Hopkins' "sprung rhythm," the simple version of which is that instead of spacing out stresses regularly (as in iambic meter), you jam them together and then emphasize them with alliteration. I often like to say Hopkins brought Be-Bop rhythms to English verse, but I'm not sure how helpful or accurate that statement is. It is fair to say he jazzed things up.

Since I first read Hopkins' poetry, I've had many opportunities to try to teach it. A majority of students simply don't take to it, even students who are otherwise open to poetry and to poetry that may seem, at first, difficult. I've tried innumerable different ways of helping students to get inside his poetry, but nonetheless, Hopkins' poetry remains not so much an acquired taste as an instant taste. If you "get" the poetry, you are likely to "get" it right away, I've decided. At any rate, I still cherish Hopkins' counter-intuitive love of "dappled" things--that which is squiggly, dotted, spotted, cluttered, and kind of a mess in Nature. The following poem may or may not be in that vein, but it satisfies my desire to write a short poem in April. (And there's one more day to go in write-a-poem-a-day April, my friends.)

Small Poem In April

This small poem honors
smooth blue pebbles,
flecks of color on birds'
feathers, stalwart friends,
fair wages, and rest.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Summer Carpentry


Summer Carpentry

Sometimes when Sierra sun baked
and bleached a new house's skeleton,
I'd stand on a plywood sub-floor, jeans
sweat-drenched, forearm fatigued from
hammering all day, and look up at
an immobile mountain greened with
manzanita, fir, oak, and pine, and know
something secretly but not sadly.

We'd built that thing, frame of dwelling.
Wages came, sun lavished light, mountains
mimed illusion of permanence. Everything,
everything changes always and everywhere.
This isn't news but you can come to it
newly after a long's days work with wood.

And the Old Man said, "Hans, time to pick
up the tools," and it was 4:00 p.m. that one
day once in all of time, and somebody wanted
a house by the river. A canyon-breeze caught
sweet odor of sawdust. I stopped staring,
came back to tasks, reached for a saw,
a plumb-bob, a level; moved in and with the
changes. Newly nailed partitions cast shadows.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, April 27, 2009

List-Poem on the Loose

Here's a list-poem I've been messing around with for the longest time. Actually, the time hasn't been the longest, not even close.

List-poems often work out well on the their own terms, as good poems, but they can also serve as good warm-up exercises or as ways to generate ideas.

In this one, I think I wanted a poem that could be read top-to-bottom (on the left margin) as well as left-to-right (the usual way), but, as usual, this goal ends up being too clever by half or not clever enough or something. Anyway, the point is . . . hang loose, list loosely, and have some fun with a list-poem of your own.


each word a stone each
stone a weight
each weight a wish each
want a wait
each wait a time each
time loss
each loss a lake each
lake a cloak
each cloak a shade each
shade a wish
each wish a lie each
lie a word
each word a yes each word a
no each word a breath
each breath an each

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, April 26, 2009

For A Writer

For A Writer

Someone read something a friend of mine
had written and said, "I'm afraid the language
itself gets in the way of the story." This response
puzzled my friend, so she asked the person,
"Why are you afraid, and how do you even know
the story if the language itself didn't tell it to you,
and aren't words supposed to get in the way when
you read?" She admitted that she had deliberately
placed the words between the reader's line of sight
and the blank page or screen. Insulted, the person

told my friend she was ungrateful, rude, and
argumentative. My friend felt badly. I took her
to lunch, partly because I was hungry. "I'm afraid.
I can't read the menu," she said, "because the language
itself gets in the way." I laughed, she laughed, and
we ordered & ate. Writers need to laugh more and
to take a break to eat lunch, I decided that day.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Michael Cunningham on Campus

How fortunate we were to have novelist Michael Cunningham on campus this week. He was "in town" chiefly to rehearse and then perform with musicians from the Northwest Sinfonietta Orchestra, reading from his novel, The Hours, as the musicians played compositions from Schubert and others. One of the performances was on campus.

Cunningham also visited a short-fiction class I teach and was splendid, answering the students' questions with great authenticity, humor, and detail. He also divulged some wonderful behind-the-scenes information about the filming of The Hours. Of all the insights and wisdom he dispensed, the theme of persistence may have been the most important. He told the students that, yes, talent was important but that relentless, unflagging persistence was often what made the difference between a writer who achieves some of what she or he wants to achieve and a writer who stops writing--because of discouragement or other factors. He told a wonderful personal "parable of persistence" (my term, not his), but that will have to wait for a future post.

Even though by conventional standards Cunningham has "made it"--Pulitzer Prize, world-renowned novel (successfully adapted to the screen--he still goes to his small office six days a week, he reported, and writes for up to six hours. . . .

. . . .So thanks are due to Neil Birnbaum of the Northwest Sinfonietta and Keith Ward, Dean of Music on our campus, for making Cunningham's visit possible. And thanks to Michael Cunningham, too.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

On Hold

On Hold

Your call is important to us even though
we arranged for a machine to answer it--
a bit of a contradiction at first glance. If
you know the extension of your party,
then extend your party. After the tone,
say either "scansion" or "reptile." I'm
sorry. I didn't hear that. Did you say
"scansion" or "reptile"? The sound of

a violin and a bass guitar you hear is
virtual. If you'd like to write lyrics
for this benumbing music, touch 3.
You'll have plenty of time to write.
Your call is important to us. This is
an example of a lie. If this is an
emergency, hang up and scream.
Otherwise, press 2. Thank you

for being so docile as to stay on hold.
Your docility is important to us. Your
call isn't important to us. That's the
truth, and you know it. And yet you
sit there, on hold. All our representatives
are busy because they called other
companies and are on hold, too.

Actually, nothing is important to us.
We're entirely automated, a form of
nihilism. Press 666. We dare you.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Friday, April 24, 2009

No Strings Attached

(image: twine, a kind of string--in case you were wondering)


No Strings Attached

He told her he preferred a relationship
with no strings attached. She said she preferred
strings attached. For instance, she wore an anklet
woven of string. Sometimes she kept her hair back
with a simple elastic circle of string. Her clothes
were made of threads, a kind of string, and,
she added, she preferred to keep her clothes
on at least for the immediate future. She
said that if he and she were to take a long
walk into a relationship, she would want
to tie bits of string to branches so she'd know
the way out for sure in case they got lost.
He said, "It's just an expression." "You mean
like 'string of words'?" she asked. "It means,"
he said, "I'm not your puppet and you're not
mine. It means 'no commitment'." She said,
"Your shoe's untied." He looked down. It
was untied! She wasn't kidding. He knelt
to tie the string of the shoe. When he arose,
he saw that she'd vanished, no strings attached.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Spring, Again

(image: bee, laden with pollen)

Spring, Again

Assuming the blooming occurs again,
I'll wheeze when pollen's fallen and seize
sight of bees, the hardest working nectar-
miners in show business. Spring's that thing,
that dated zing of warmth correlated to
a meaningful swing in globular orbit. Spring
sings Winter's obit. Yes, yes, bursting buds,
returning birds, etc. Renewal, Inc., roars
into town again, down again by the river,
a regular revival of survival-impulse
(hang on to your wallet). Call it
what you will, Spring's one shrewd
season, more instinct than reason,
a shout of regenerative clout. Come
on in, my big-blossomed baby. We've
been waiting for you, oh-so-long.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Pre-Existing Condition

Pre-Existing Condition

A representative from the company told him,
"We can't sell you medical insurance. You have
a pre-existing condition." He asked what his
pre-existing condition was. "Life," the rep said.
"That is, you exist. You're pre-existing. Our
records show you're alive. Are they correct?"
"Yes," he said, "I'm alive." The rep said,
"Well, then you're at risk of becoming unwell,
so insuring you is not a good bet for us. We
prefer to insure dead people, who aren't
susceptible to illness." "How will I pay my
medical bills?" he asked. "I don't know,"
the rep said. "But if the illness is so severe
that it takes away your pre-existing condition
of life, give us a call. We value our customers."
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Poem

Some years ago, I returned to the site of my undergraduate education (well, part of it) and my graduate one: U.C. Davis. In the years since I'd been back, the student body had doubled, from 17,000 to over 30,000, and the physical plant had grown bewilderingly large, so much so that I got lost--at a place where I'd studied and then taught for nearly a decade: how embarrassing. You can go home again; it's just that you can't find your way around.

Finally I made it to what I considered the center of campus--the quad and the coffee house. And at that point, time had stopped. For it was Earth Day (I think we used to call it Whole Earth Day), and the booths, people, music, and atmosphere all seemed the same as they were the first time I attended the gathering. Ah, I'm back at Davis, I thought.

Dogs, frisbees, herbaceous smoke, hand-made jewelry for sale, intense but friendly arguments going on, and all sorts of music, long skirts, bare feet, scarves, wild hair, and the original Good Vibes. At the perimeter, on the bike paths, herds of bicycles went by. (The bicycle-accidents at Davis sometimes involved hundreds of people. Somehow I avoided them all.)

I think the following Earth Day poem may be irreverent, but I'm not sure. The first line certainly is.

Bet On It

Sun, you bum, if you weren't close,
you'd be just any other star, one cold
fleck on a black velvet painting. Earth,
you globular oaf, if it weren't for Sun,
you'd drop down Time's abyss like a cold
marble. Moon, you sycophant, why
don't you grow something on yourself?
Humans, you fatuous, big-brained
locusts, you're killing your home by living
in it. God, You are looking more necessary
all the time--the Back-Up Plan. Some
see you as a long shot, at best. I'm with
Pascal. I'm making the wager. It's not
a lock, but it's the smart bet, especially
as we turn the place into a sauna and strand
polar bears on ice cubes. And who would
have bet, back there in the Big Bang Bar
and Grill, that Sun, Moon, Earth, and humans
would end up just so, tensely tethered
to each other? It's all impossible, of course.
Do the math. Yet here we are. Bet on it.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Splendid New Chapbook from Karen Weyant

(image: cover of Stealing Dust, by Karen J. Weyant)

I just finished reading a chapbook of poetry by Karen J. Weyant, Stealing Dust. It is splendid.

The poems are firmly anchored in working-class experiences in an area of the nation routinely called "the Rust Belt," and they represent varied, nuanced elements of those experiences, including but not limited to the perspectives of working-class women. The poems are clear and accessible but deceptively complex, and one wants to return to poems multiple times. The voice is mature and unpretentious, the imagery superb, and the control of language admirable.

Several poems have irresistible titles: "The Spring of Hand-Me-Downs," "The Girl Who Carved Jesus Into Her Forearm," "Delusions of a Die Setter's Daughter," "Beauty Tips from the Girls on the 3rd Shift," and "Why Men in Factories Should Never Write Love Stories." The latter poem may well be my favorite in the book, but it has lots of competition.

Certainly my own working-class roots (albeit on the Left Coast) and a general affinity for working-class literature draw me to the book, but at the same time, this poetry succeeds on its own merits, and if you like strong, unaffected contemporary poetry, you'll enjoy this chapbook.

It is from Finishing Line Press, P.O. Box 1626, Georgetown, Kentucky 40324, and of course it's available on as well. The ISBNs are 1-59924-397-0 and 1-59924-397-9. Buy one for yourself and for a friend (a National Poetry Month gift), and most certainly urge your local librarian to order one. Finishing Line is a well know publisher of chapbooks.

Weyant teaches writing and literature at Jamestown Community College, and she also writes a blog called "The Scrapper Poet," which is on the blog-roll to the right.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Let Him Collect His Thoughts

Thoughts Collected

He collected his thoughts, arranged them
in a heap outside on parched hard dirt.
The assembly didn't impress. It included
a rudimentary view of Spinoza's philosophy,
a reminder to buy shoes, numerous tattered
worries, sad wee handcrafted boxes of hope,
an image of a trout, one of a grasshopper
spitting brown juice, a strong opinion about
torture, and countless scraps, shards, and bits.

As expected, the pile smelled powerfully
of confusion, the odor of which is not unlike
that of mothballs. Having collected his thoughts,
he turned his back on them, went inside,
and produced more thoughts. Homo sapiens.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, April 20, 2009

Pluto's Credit- Score

(image: photo of Pluto and its satellite [or moon], Charon--taken by Professor Karen Rehbock, University of Hawaii)
I was angry when the astronomers decided to down-grade Pluto's status from "planet" to something else, so angry that I forgot what the something else is. Boulder? Now Charon can't be a moon. It is a "satellite." Not a single astronomer consulted me before the decision was made. Go figure. Pluto had been my favorite planet in the solar system. It was, after all, the most eccentric planet.
Pluto's Credit-Score
When he applied for a loan, the bank
asked him for collateral property it might
seize if he were to default on the loan,
and he offered his share of Jung's collective
unconscious human mind. The bank said
his share, indeed the whole unconscious mind,
vast as it might be, was worthless, at least
in terms of collective human economics.
He said, "The symbols of what you call
'money' are Jungian." This was a wild
guess on his part, but the bank didn't
quibble with the assertion. It refused
to lend him money. After he left the bank,
he felt like the planet Pluto must have felt
after it had met with astronomers, who
told it that they no longer considered it
to be a planet. He heard himself say,
out loud, "Well, I don't regard you as
astronomers, so we're even!" He knew
he deserved the disapproving glances
of passersby. He knew Jung, and for
that matter Freud, would suggest that
he was projecting his financial difficulties
onto the inanimate object, Pluto. Still,
if he were a loan-officer and Pluto
were applying for a loan, he would
approve the loan even without the
collateral of Pluto's moon, Charon.
Pluto wouldn't have to ask twice.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom


(image: boxwood hedges; the Latin name for boxwood is Buxus japonica, I think)






Bold Talk


I buried several sadnesses, not knowing

they considered themselves to be seeds.

They broke through ground and grew

into grief-bushes that shadows fertilized.


Today, I had about enough of them,

so I snipped and chopped. I yanked

out roots. I stood there like a plow-horse

lathered in sweat, too tired to be sad

or happy, with just enough energy left

to vow never to sow sadness again.

Yes, I vowed. Bold talk.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, April 19, 2009


(image includes Italian Greyhounds)

There's a pet-store a few doors down from where I usually get coffee on a retail basis. I like pet-stores for supplies, but the display of animals in the window bothers me. There were some rabbits there around Easter time, and only one of three were purchased. Do I want to know what happened to the remaining rabbits? They aren't there anymore.

What are there are two "pure-bred" (whatever) Italian greyh0unds. Extremely cute, of course: that's the point of the window-schtick.

So it was with some surprise that when I looked up "mongrel" on the OED, an example included in the earliest example was "greyhound." Pure-bred Italian mongrel? As I said, "whatever." The OED [online]....

A. n.

I. The offspring or result of cross-breeding, miscegenation, mixed marriage, etc.

1. A dog having parents of different breeds (in quot. c1460 a heraldic representation of such a dog); a dog of no definable breed resulting from various crossings. Also: {dag}the offspring of a wolf and a dog (obs. rare).

c1460 Bk. Arms in Ancestor (1903) 4 250 [Azure a fesse gold between ‘quatre mains’ of gold quartered with silver] ij mongrelys of goulys. 1486 Bk. St. Albans sig. fiiijv, A Grehownd, a Bastard, a Mengrell, a Mastyfe.

Wow, who knew that, at one point, grehound, bastard, mongrel, and mastiff were all synonyms? Of course, humans quickly if not immediately transferred their mistaken notions of dog-breeding to insane notions about human "races."

Of course, part two: the more allegedly "accidental" breeding goes on (with dogs, let's say), the more likely the gene-pool gets stronger, yes? Genetic diversity = genetic strength, or a greater likelihood thereof? Perhaps this is my own insane notion, but I doubt it.


Our operatives have determined he's
probably not worth our operatives' time.
He's anti-social but polite. He has problems
with authority but a Puritan's work-ethic.
He's a well-traveled, well-read hick. And
he's extremely loyal but can't grasp
the concept, patriotism. Alas, he's

a hot-tempered pacifist and a cloistered
utilitarian. He's often observed in the company
of anarchists, contrarians, the shunned,
the shy, the maladjusted, and the eccentric.

He is not to be trusted unless he's your friend.
He's jaded and guileless, optimistic, morose,
habitual, and unpredictable. He is by turns
too loud and too quiet. Our operatives,
who do a lot of listening and watching,
report he does a lot of listening
and watching. These latter are his most
worrisome traits, but our operatives
have determined he's no threat to the State.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Visit From 1971

(image: album-cover of Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)

Hey, 1971

1971 rolled up out of somewhere in a 1965
Ford Fairlane, which seized itself with fried
brakes and halted in a heap of smoking steel,
bringing sounds of a baritone AM DJ yelling
over the first thuds of a rock-song. 1971

got out and loped up the sidewalk
toward him. 1971's hair was mismanaged
but sincere; the year's draft number was
low. The clothes 1971 wore looked like an amateur
Cubist installation. Oh, here came 1971,
jogging now, yelling delighted words. It
grinned as it ran up and embraced him, as smelly
and guileless as a dog. He didn't know what
to say to 1971 except the ironic, "Nice Car."

1971 said, "Hey, man, could I borrow, you
know, 25 bucks or so? When I get to
San Francisco, I'll send you a cashier's check,
man. Sound good? Right on." He retained
great affection for 1971 and gave the year
a 50-dollar bill, which disappeared into a
blue-jean pocket, and BAM, the Fairlane
backfired as 1971 took off, no seat-belt.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Seven Sins

We bought an HD TV quite a while ago, but we usually forget to tune in to the HD channels, a practice that a younger member of our kinship-network finds exasperating. Today, however, we tuned to the HD version of the History Channel, or one of the HC's incarnations. HC on HD. Wow. Go crazy. Party down with some documentaries.

We watched a show on the seven (deadly) sins, which I can never list completely--and this failure on my part probably gets us closer to double-digits in sin-counting. Anway, here they are.


I'm not sure, but these look more like "common traits" than "sins," but I guess they could count as both. I also think they "bleed" into one another. Envy and pride seem to do a lot of commerce, for example. Wrath and greed. Sloth and gluttony. Eat a massive turkey dinner and then go try to be non-slothful.

The program featured some neuro-scientists from U.C. Berkeley, and, as one might expect, they have been able to map brain-responses to such things as greed (a kind of addiction, at least partly) and lust. Also, the economist Robert Reich, whose approach I happen to like, noted that a sensible goal is probably not to try to eliminate greed but to channel and manage it so that (my words, not his) the greatest good may be enjoyed by the greatest number. In other words, he's not a big "free market" guy, but then again, no one else is, either, because there's no such thing as a "free" market. Somebody's always got a finger on the scale, inside information, a head start, or whatever (in my humble, not prideful, opinion).

The scientists from Berkeley did not seem to be fatalistic. They did not imply that because our brains may be hard-wired to struggle with resisting greed or getting out of a "greed cycle," we should give up on trying to reduce greed. They are suggesting, I think, that there simply is a neurological/chemical piece to what was once described soley in terms of sin, or of one person's "moral failing." Similarly, the possible connection between clinical depression and sloth seems obvious.

I was thinking of writing some poems based on the seven (deadly) sins, but I'm feeling a little slothful--I mean tired; yeah, that's the word: tired. Besides, thriller-writer Lawrence Sanders (R.I.P.) already got there before me and wrote a series of books based on the sins. And then there's the infamous film, Seven, which I think was too greedy in its need to be horrifying. The real master of the seven sins, however, was Dante, with his Divine Comedy and its circles of Hell. ("Comedy" seems like a bit of a stretch in this case.) I don't feel any envy toward Sanders, Brad Pitt, or Dante, by the way.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Interesting Post About U.S. Weapons

Following is a link to a post about a bomb the U.S. Air Force uses. The post is from the blog, "Utopia or Bust," a reincarnation of "Hyperborean."

Friday's Prompt

We were working on love-poems--broadly defined--today in the poetry class: love poems each student had selected from an anthology and drafts of love poems students had written. About half-way through the class, I had students (who were working in pairs) select one word they especially liked in their partner's love poem, and the resulting list was as follows:

solace, marshmallows, drool, poot, bleeds, hug, appetite, adoration, theater, Yuppie, Shiva, resonates, wishies, emerged, phenylethylamine, [and] packaged.

Then I had everyone, including me, quickly draft a poem that had to use all these words. The "rules" allowed for changing the tense of a verb (hug, hugged--if indeed one was using this word in a verbal form) and for bringing in other words, as needed. This kind of quick drafting often produces remarkable results, as does starting with language and moving toward a subject, as opposed to having a subject/topic/theme/scene in mind and going in search of the language.

Obviously, some intriguing problems and opportunities arose. Who was Shiva? God/Goddess of Destruction in Hindu spirituality. We didn't have time to discuss the topic extensively, but we concluded that a) the deity may be, for lack of a better term, androgynous, although s/he is ofte represented visually in feminine terms, and that b) referring to the deity solely as one of destruction may be reductive. We acknowledged a considerable lack of knowledge, that is.

"Wishies," we discovered, was more or less a word a poet in class had invented. Phenylethylamine is a pheromone.

And we noted that the level of diction ranged from the lofty "adoration" to the colloquial, and what some might consider vulgar, "poot." In other words, we got lucky, poetically speaking.

After writing, we had the choice of sharing all or part (one line) of what we'd written aloud with the whole group. Here is, alas, what I wrote, product of my own medicine, so to speak (and feel free to take the "challenge" yourself). I could be mistaken, and often am, but I think I managed to use all the words.

[Draft-poem from Friday's Prompt]

Following the solace of a hug,

phenylethylamine bleeds into

the theater of my Yuppie brain.

Is adoration anything more than

a packaged poot of wishies? Does

Shiva drool after devouring

marshmallows? Appetite has

emerged and resonates. That's

all I know for sure.

What does one do with such a quick draft? Well, the immediate choice is to "toss" or "keep," although I advise poets never actually to toss anything. I still like Richard Hugo's idea of "stripping a poem for parts," so that you may certainly keep a draft "out back" with other "parts," but you need not actually destroy it. If you "keep," then most likely you have a lot of revising to do.

Also, the poem may simply be a marker on the path to another poem. Maybe you'll get interested in the subject of Shiva, of marshmallows, or of pheromones. Maybe one one line or phrase will stand out, and you can remove that and build a draft of another poem around that. Often, however, quick-drafting produces energetic, surprising results, some of which can lead, eventually, to good poems.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sleeping Seaside

Sleeping Seaside

The sea can give only so much. It shrugs
tides inland as far as possible. Then its
conscience, the moon, urges caution. What's
left behind on strands looks broken or worn.
Anyway it's exiled from origin and function:
a cracked shell, a driftwood plank.
A receding tide's a kind of regret.

Hearing the sound of surf all night erodes
the will's high bank. That's when a tide
of sleep advances. That's when you wade
in the water, child, and shrug off the day.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


As I continue to participate as best I can in the great National Poetry Month poem-a-day roundup (cue the theme song from the ancient TV series, Rawhide), I've decided to post a guitar-poem, of sorts--meaning it is sort of a poem that's sort of about guitars.
All Guitars
Do you ever wonder how many people
worldwide are strumming a guitar at
the exact same instant, such as now?
Me, neither--well, except for this
one time. What if we could hear
this simultaneous strumming's
combined sound? It would be
like a guitar-hurricane hitting
the coast of our listening. We'd
have to got to a shelter
while the guitar-storm roared
overhead. How many strummers
strum at once? Estimating this number
creates a complex chord in the head,
a gnot of notes compelled to get along.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fine Poem By Ms. Cugno

I feel compelled to share a link to a post (which includes a poem) by musingsinflux, also known as island musings, and also known as ms.-cugno-to-some:


In our small town, there was a guy named Harold Hallman who hauled freight for a living, but he didn't change his name to Haulman. He drove 3-plus hours down the mountains to Sacramento, got the stuff, and drove 3-plus hours back, delivering bread, milk, meat, etc., to the grocery store but also delivering stuff to indivuals in town.
For example, my parents had Harold deliver milk and ice cream for a while. The only ice-cream he ever delivered was Maple Nut because that was the flavor my father liked. --Not a democracy, in case you were wondering. The ice cream came in a huge tub, which I guess held 5 gallons. Maybe ten. All the stuff came in boxes made of hardwood and metal. I think the Crystal Dairy Company in Sacramento owned them, and Harold was affiliated with it.
At any rate, my father kept some of those boxes, which he flipped over (metal bottom on top) and put in the back of his pickup when he had too many passengers than could fit in the cab. I believe this sort of practice is illegal now, as it should be, especially in late Fall in the Sierra Nevada (when al fresco transportation is not enjoyable), but also because of the whole seat-belt thing, etc. Sometimes there were several of us back there with hounds because my father wanted to drive around looking for deer after work, towards dusk, when the weather was even more lovely.
Rarely did we see a deer that he might shoot, I presume because the deer were at home with their feet up, reading the newspaper. Nor did we really want him to see a deer and to shoot it--for we were cold and selfish and did not wish the evening to be extended any further.
A very classy image comes to mind: a family and its dogs riding around mountain roads. The dogs had their noses in the air.
I'm sure my father asked Harold's permission to keep those unusually durable boxes, but it never occurred to me to ask. The strange boxes were simply part of the landscape immediately around our house. One of my brothers worked for Harold for a while, loading and unloading freight.
The time has always come
somewhere, I suppose, for
who knows what. To whomever
time has come, the what usually
becomes clear on delivery. Time
delivers the goods and the bads.
It's the biggest shipping company,
with offices in every moment and
deliveries to any place. You look
into a moment, see the package,
open it, and say, "Hey, look what
time delivered. I don't really
remember ordering that."
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, April 13, 2009


Paradoxically (or so it seems), I listen to "talk-radio" regularly but not a lot. My commute to work is so brief that it hardly qualifies as a commute: 8 minutes.

To save even more fuel, I drive at the speed-limit, and if I'm absolutely sure no one is behind me, I've been known to drive below the speed-limit, partly because I like to take the idea of "limit" literally. One is limited to 25 miles per hour (for example); one is not obliged to drive that fast. However, whenever there is a car behind me, I don't care to test the extent to which that other driver shares my theory of speed-limits. I assume he or she has places to go quickly, people to see soon, and at least the potential for exhibiting road-rage.

So for a few minutes, I listen to talk-radio: Air America, sports-talk, conservative-talk, pretty much in that order. I don't ever listen to Rush Limbaugh, but I've listened to such lesser conservative lights as Michael Medved and Mark Levin.

Rush, I gather, has something like 20 million listeners--or about 8 per cent of the U.S. population. That's a lot. I don't know how many listeners these other fellows have, but to hang to their audiences, they seem to feel the need to get more outlandish all the time since Obama defeated McCain. Medved referred to Obama's foreign policy as "insane." It may, but how does it differ radically from Bush's (Medved advanced no argument at the time).

True, Obama is behaving more conventionally as a president; for example, he does not give prime ministers uninvited back-rubs in public. Also, he wants to remove a lot of troops from Iraq, but so does the military, which is exhausted. I'm not aware of any massive policy-shifts that might account for a sharp contrast, especially one in which Obama's side of the contrast would be "insane" to Bush's "sane." Oh, well.

Of course, some talk-show hosts on the alleged Left are merely mirror-caricatures of those on the Right. Rachel Maddow, Thom Hartman, and Ed Schultz are exceptions. Their tone is more moderate and thoughtful, and they not only take calls from people who disagree with them (and treat the people respectfully), but they also regularly schedule guests who disagree with them. This practice is refreshing. As far as I know, Rush takes no calls now, certainly takes no opposing calls, and never schedules guests that would disagree with him. At least that's what I've heard about his "format." I could be wrong and often am.

Talk Radio


She "called in" to talk to a talk-show, radio.

A screener screened her call. She held the

phone to her left ear while her call to the

call-in show was held in a queue. Finally she

found herself talking to the talk-show host,

who behaved inhospitably and with hostility,

and who'd abandoned listening long ago in

exchange for talking. She opined briefly,

sensibly, and cordially. He interrupted,

opened the bays of his word-bomber,

and dropped a rant on her for the benefit

of his loyal listeners lying in their bunkered

opinions with flashlights and non-perishable

items. After the unpleasant, anti-conversational

experience talking to a talk-show host, she

tuned to the station no longer.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

New Book About Langston Hughes

(image: Langston Hughes, 1902-1967)
If you have any interest in the life and/or work of Langston Hughes, you will likely want to take look at a new collection of essays about both: Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes, edited by John Edgar Tidwell and Cheryl R. Ragar.
Hughes remains one of the most widely read American writers, and he's read by a wide spectrum of people: critics, scholars, middle-schoolers, high-school students, librarians, college students, people not associated with schools, and so on. He is, for example, among the most popular poets on, which tends to get visited by people who simply like to read poetry. The accessibility of his work, like that of Frost's and Williams's, helps, but so does his indefatigable concern for the lives and circumstances of working people.
He wrote more than poetry, as essays in this new book remind us: a novel or two; short stories (including the classic collection, The Ways of White Folks, still in print); essays; works for children and young adults; plays; opera libretti; journalism; and criticism).
Immodesty induces me to mention that I've written two books on Hughes: Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction and A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia (although let the record show that 8 of the entries in the latter work were contributed by others). His work seems to have survived my books just fine, however. Hughes is resilient that way.
I also teach his poetry and short fiction (and one essay) regularly in a course on the Harlem Renaissance. Another scholar and I have a friendly running "argument" about which of Hughes's short stories is the best one. He gives the honor to "Father and Son." I have given the honor to "On the Road," but more recently I'm leaning toward "The Blues I'm Playing."
Both because of the relative clarity and simplicity of his work (especially compared to that of Eliot and Pound, for instance) and because of his steadfast interest in labor-politics, socialist thought, and civil rights, Hughes has not always been held in high esteem by academics, so books like this new one, which broaden and deepen an understanding of this work, are welcome. At the same time, Hughes can take care of himself. People read his work. They just do. Comparisons to Frost and Williams obtain, as do ones to Dickinson, Neruda, Rumi, and Yevtushenko (to name but a few consistently and widely read poets).
The book is from the University of Missouri Press, which also published Hughes's complete works.

Writing Centers and Creativity

If you work in a college (or high school) writing center, know someone who does, or refer students to writing centers, you may want a) to have your library order the following book [or purchase the book yourself], b) read the book, and/or c) tell others about it:

Creative Approaches to Writing Center Work, edited by Kevin Dvorak and Shanti Bruce. New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2008.

I was in on the beginnings of two writing centers, one at U.C. Davis and one where I teach now, so I have a certain fondness for writing centers in theory and practice, and I refer students to the one here all the time. Sometimes writing centers get exclusively (and falsely) associated with remedial writing and/or with narrowly defined academic writing. In fact, writers with basic compositional things to work on and writers working on traditional papers can indeed find assistance at writing centers, but they can also find help with poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. How to work with such writing is one topic this book addresses--among many others.

Abandoned Gold Mine

(image: gold-miners in Colorado)





Abandoned Gold Mine


In the mine, looking at gray

mud-and-stone leaking water,

you realize the folly of digging

a hole in a mountain and hoping

the hole will suspend the mountain

above you. You look at rusted

iron tracks and the one ore-core

no one stole yet. This is a morose,

dank space--an intrusion, a bad idea,

but, Oh Lord, a product of long hard

labor. In the mine, you see evidence

of work, engineering, zeal, folly, ingenuity,

and mystery. You, too, want to stay

longer than you should--imagining;

listening to granite, diorite, and quartz

mutter. What you don't see is evidence

of wealth, which was created by what

was extracted but not for ones who

extracted. The air you breathe is bad.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, April 12, 2009

El Greco's "Christ on the Cross"

I visited the Getty Museum in L.A. recently. As you no doubt already know, it's a renowned and controversial museum. --Renowned for the sheer volume of art it owns, much of it from uniformly famous European artists. --Controversial because it is a massive museum on a hill overlooking Hollywood and Santa Monica, as much a visual testament to one capitalist's ego as Hearst Castle is.

Also, a lot of curators think J. Paul Getty just bought indiscriminately and/or bought (sometimes) because the price was right. He would also do things like sell a painting, wait for its price to drop (because of the market), and buy it back.

Nonetheless, Getty was a lifelong, dedicated collector who assiduously kept notes on art he liked. He'd earned a a degree at Oxford (after attending USC and Berkeley)--in political science, I think--so with regard to art he was pretty much an autodidact. His money came, at first, from Oklahoma oil. His father was an investor.

The good news about the Getty is that J. Paul left SO much money in trust that it generates vast amounts of capital and makes the museum free to the public. So enormous numbers of people get to look at extraordinary art for free. Whether this free availability of art is achieved through the Getty way or through public financing, I like it. It's the way things should work. Also, the other end of the spectrum--art that's just emerging, art from artists now--needs support, not just the old stuff that people agree is "great."

Looking at Van Gogh's painting of irises (for example) does take the breath away for a moment. More importantly, it makes the painting human again. You see those brush-strokes, quirky and authoritative, made by one guy at a moment in time.

Getty also collected antiquities, manuscripts, and decorative art. He was obviously compulsive. --And Euro-centric--although his collection of early American photographs is astounding, too.

Anyway, the first visit to the Getty is likely to produce . . . gallery fatigue. So much. Too much. Thus, I bought the catalogue. It's not the same as looking at the paintings "in person," but it's a good fall-back position, and a good thing to look at just before you fall asleep. Both cookbooks and art books (ones that aren't heavy) are good pre-snooze reading, in my opinion.

Anyway, I decided to write a poem about El Greco's painting, Christ on the Cross, a painting I like very much, and one the Getty owns. I wasn't able to see it on my visit. Who knows? It could be in storage.

El Greco's Christ on the Cross

In El Greco's Christ on the Cross, earth
rolls up into sky, which looks like sea--
and it's all one blue-black mass
behind the hanging man who said
his reign was not of this shifty world.

El Greco's Jesus, stuck at the center
foreground, isn't handsome, looks up
exhausted, is almost out of here. A
city's suggested beyond and beneath
the nailed feet. It's no city you'd want
to enter. Between the small mound
of bones and limp urban spires, small
men ride tiny white horses. There's

a flag, of course--a standard, which
the painting's enormous blue note
blows away like a dry leaf. Horses
and men seem headed into a lifeless,
lightless cave or copse. Without
a doubt, the flag suggested power
to occupied and occupiers both back then,
as flags often do. El Greco's study's
an indelicate bruise of black-and blue.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Three Bridges

In the following poem, which in part concerns bridges, I use the word doppelganger, the fine German word for "[the] double," as in Jeckyll/Hyde, except the a which spans the space between g and n is supposed to have an umlaut, those two dots. The Blogger menu doesn't seem to include its own drop-down insert-symbol menu, so I attempted to import the word (via cut and paste) with the umlaut, but it was refused.

The word was stopped at the border by Customs guards. There must be some kind of tariff on umlauts or something. I didn't want to surrender doppelganger, so I went with the hideous approximation, doppelgaenger. I think this is what's known as a trivial problem.

When I studied German, I was told that, to create the umlaut-a sound, one should should say "a" while lifting the tongue as if one were saying "e," and it seems to work, generating the proper blend of a and e. Of course, even when I seemed to get it right, I didn't sound like a German, just close enough for linguistic horse-shoes.

Incidentally, some people refer to the wrecked Tacoma Narrows Bridge as Galloping Gertie. I just thought I'd mention that.

Three Bridges

You select one item from a mail-order
catalogue. The company sends two
in error. You open the package and feel
delighted, confused, and disappointed
all at once. You may feel similarly

looking at the redundancy of two
parallel suspension-bridges that
now span the Narrows next to
Tacoma. The second Tacoma Narrows

Bridge is the third, the first one lying
now under water, which is, for bridges,
Hell not baptism. Wind that killed
the first bridge plays the new bridges
like harps. Octopi strum the wreckage
of the old bridge in strong cold currents.

You may feel as if two bridges together
are one bridge too many, a failed
engineering success, a planned excess,
a doppelgaenger of spans.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, April 11, 2009


(image: cover of Zombies album, from Decca Records)

Here's the first definition of "zombie" from the OED online:

1. In the West Indies and southern states of America, a soulless corpse said to have been revived by witchcraft; formerly, the name of a snake-deity in voodoo cults of or deriving from West Africa and Haiti.

1819 R. SOUTHEY Hist. Brazil III. xxxi. 24 Zombi, the title whereby he [chief of Brazilian natives] was called, is the name for the Deity, in the Angolan tongue... NZambi is the word for Deity.

The second definition, the figurative one referring to seemingly lifeless persons or Hollywood versions of zombies, is pegged to H.L. Mencken in 1936, when he complained in print that the only roles Hollywood had for non-Caucasian actors were for "zombies." Things have certainly improved for Black, women, Asian-American ( et al.) actors--but how much?

But I digress, as almost always.

Quarter to Five

He works as a zombie from 9 to 5. He climbs
into a catatonic state and performs duties
as are assigned to him. He's under the spell
of employment. (It could be worse.) His
co-worker, Barton, said, "You scare me.
You look like the living dead." "Don't worry,"
he said, "I'm just behaving professionally. After
work I become vibrant and garrulous."
"But I don't get it," Barton said, "--what
job-title around here requires a person
to behave like a zombie?" "In my particular
case," said the man, "it's Chief Deputy for
Zombic Affairs." "And what is it exactly
you do?" asked Barton. "Barton," he said,
"you don't want to know." With his blank,
unnerving, but professionally appropriate
affect, he resumed his duties, for the clock
read only quarter to five.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Friday, April 10, 2009

In Praise of Nostalgia

(image: 1929 Model A Ford automobile)

In an earlier post, I undercut nostalgia by referring to a quotation from poet Randall Jarrell: "In the Golden Age, everyone probably went around complaining about how yellow everything looked."

I think I'll take the opposite view this time, partly because almost all creative-writing classes and textbooks warn poets about the dangers of nostalgia--namely, sentimentality; getting cheesy. Sometimes it's good to write a poem that takes a contrarian position, for grins if nothing else.

For Nostalgia


In the old days, nostalgia

didn't have a bad reputation.

Now it needs a publicist. Nostalgia's

a sound strategy. It lets you seem

to go to that place and realize how

much the place has changed or how

much it hasn't but is different anyway

because you've changed. Nostalgia's

also inexpensive. Sit on that big rock

you sat on, looking an lichen. Walk

through those summer streets and on

those winter paths. Go off the high dive,

plunge into the perfect perfume of

that other person's hair back then.

Remember that evening, a big bag

full of life and excellent oblique light.

Nostalgia: it's what you've been missing.

Your life and memory belong to you.

Seek a blend of both that suits you, then.

If people chide you about nostalgia,

ask them what they have to offer in

its place. Uh-huh. I thought so. Not much.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Desert Tale


Whew! I'm trying to keep up with this National Poetry Month poem-a-day regime, but it's not as easy as it looks.

Desert Tale

A stone rings with heat in the desert. A
lizard answers the stone, speaking in tongue.
On the other end of the line is the Sun.
After ringing off, the lizard does push-ups,
then runs away to tell other reptiles
all the hot gossip. After sundown,

a coyote lopes out of a gulch, uses
the same stone, which is still warm,
to call the Moon, which wishes all
the mammals well, predator and prey
alike. After talking with the Moon,
the coyote yip-yips contentedly
across cooling sand.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, April 8, 2009



Dogma's what we're supposed to to believe.
It puts the ortho in doxy. It's like architecture--
elaborate, well planned, impressive, and completely
human. Acknowledge dogma. Quibble with it if
you've the time and energy. Otherwise,
go with the simplest creed--streamlined, quick,
and pithy. Believe in God (or not: your choice)
and await further developments. Dogma's
a human pursuit, a kind of hobby. Godma
is the thing. Whatever the thing of it is, is,
is God. Cut through the crap. Believe in that.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Virgule: Forgotten or Never Known?

After class, I went to the cafe, where two people behind the counter asked me what "virgule" meant. I said, "I don't know." Then one of them went to a computer and looked it up.

"Virgule" is another name for what we commonly call (referring to punctuation) the "slash" or "forward slash," and it's used (among other ways) to indicate a line-break in poetry when, in an essay, you're quoting from a poem but not presenting the poem as it was printed. Of course I thought, "My God, I should know this word." And then I thought, "Did I know it at one point--and forgot it?" I don't think I ever read or heard the word, however, in all the literature classes I took. I think the mark in question (not a question mark) was always called a "slash." In high school, I even took a typing-class, and I know I never heard the word in there.

I think you were supposed to reach for that key with your pinky-finger, and I probably did so at one point, but now I don't. My typing-fundamentals have been eroded badly.

"Virgule" is certainly a more ornate word than "slash"; indeed, one feels as if one should keep one's virgule (emphasis on the first syllable) in one's vestibule.

Virgule: how cool.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mr. Several

A student in a Fall semester class asked me one of those extraordinary questions students sometimes ask: "What's your favorite book?" "Of all time?" I asked. "Yes," she said. Of course, I could have used the dodge of "that's an impossible question," but the enterprise was too entertaining and challenging for that. I did take the dodge of "prefacing" my remarks, a well known academic tactic used to stall for time. I said, "Well, I'm assuming you've read all the major spiritual texts from the venerable religious traditions globally." "By "you['ve]," I meant the whole class, before whom she'd asked the question. She: "You shouldn't assume that." I: "True, but I'm going to."

Then I finally answered: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. It's a book about Zen, obviously, but it's a book about the fundamentals of everyone's existence. I also added that one does not have to adhere to the tenets of Buddhism to benefit from the book. I then went on to yadda-yadda about a variety of novels and collected poems I treasured, but I stuck with my original answer. Her question was really not the same as the "what book would you like to have on a desert island? " one (my answer to that, similar to Chesterton's, is How To Surive on a Desert Island).

In any event, Suzuki reminds us that the illusion of a stable, singular personality is just that: an illusion. Everything changes, including the "I" one is, all the time. Hence this poem, I suppose, which is a bit of a come-down from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

Mr. Several

Mr. Several, who shall you be today?
Will you be buying low and selling high,
crisp-collared amongst incorporated towers?

Perhaps you’ll jelly your brain
with wine and weed, wipe away
drool with a purple hand, address demons

in the park. Maybe touring is in today’s
future, dragging bunioned feet
through many centuries of art,

holding in gas as you pretend
to enjoy an impressioned landscape,
which gives you less pleasure

than standing in a weedy meadow.
Whatever you choose, Mr. Several,
you will need a proper costume,

certain basic memories, beliefs,
and appetites—a language to speak,
cast-members who look like people

you know. We shall be delighted
to contact the usual arranged
establishments, Mr. Several.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, April 6, 2009



I liked poetry even back then, but
it was hard to come by. I had to settle
for "The Marine Corps Hymn" and didn't
know where Tripoli was. I disliked

the tedium of projects and workbooks
and fell so far behind in one workbook,
I entered a different time-continuum.
When the teacher read to us,

my mind wandered to its own stories.
Recess provided a chance to use
the imagination. Math was okay.
Numbers nested up like ants,

and who can resist shapes?
They don't call it "grammar school"
anymore. They say "K through 12,"
mixing letters and numbers.

I can say for sure what school
taught me: for example, South
America exports coffee, and
nine times nine is eighty-one.

Who we are is what we learned.
Can we say that? Yes, we can.
May we? Sure. Should we?
Debatable. Schooling.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom






During National Poetry Month, when we poets are supposed to be writing a poem a day, I thought I'd finally try a poem about Africa. Let's call it a rough draft, shall we? That would make me feel a lot better.

Of Africa


I've not been to Africa, but

I want to return. They say the

mitochondrial DNA of every woman

can be traced back to that of one

woman in ancient Africa, before it

was ancient Africa, so my mother

was related to her; me, too. Also, I've

been staring at the shape of Africa on

maps since I was five years old.

Western cartographers put Africa

in the middle of my geographic vision.

What's more perpetually tragic and

beautiful than Africa? I don't know.

Africa seems ready to disprove

everything I think and know about Africa.

I know that much for sure. I must return

to Africa, which I've not visited yet.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Aristotle's Topical Ointment

(image: likeness of Aristotle)

Aristotle, who seems to have been able to understand everything about everything, helped to establish the field of rhetoric, as well as the fields of science, philosophy, politics, literary criticism, and what we might call "college teaching." (All in a day's work.) Indeed, the volume we refer to now as On Rhetoric, by Aristotle, is composed in large measure of students' notes of Ari's lectures. It's a fabulous book, if you like that sort of thing.

With regard to rhetoric, Aristotle came up with, or at least formally defined, "topics of invention." The idea was that a rhetor (writer, speaker), when approaching a new topic, could approach it equipped with categories and get going more quickly on the task of discovering ("inventing") what he or she would have to say, ultimately, on the subject.

Nowadays, the term "stock issues" is one variation on "topics of invention." In this case, "stock" doesn't mean stereotypical; it means something closer to "well known issues" related to a subject.

For example, if you're getting ready to argue, civilly, with someone about abortion, you can be sure that the issue of when life begins will come up, as will the issue of whether a fetus is a separate life or part of a woman's body (or both). I often tell my composition-students that arguments about abortion effectively end before they begin because neither side is ever going to agree on fundamental points (or stock issues). If you can't agree on "when life begins," it is unlikely that you are going to agree about abortion. In some cases, it's better simply to agree to disagree, as opposed to wasting time staking out familiar territory, getting angry, and so on. At the same time, if you want to persist in writing an argument about abortion, you can use the "stock issues" to acknowledge the "opponent's" point of view and summarize them fairly, unless of course you are a pundit on TV, in which case you will want to be unfair and loud.

A distinct option is to try to find common ground elsewhere in the topic. For example, could people who disagree about abortion agree on sex-education? Maybe such agreement is not likely, but it's not impossible; it's not impossible because the argument hasn't stalled on something like "when life begins."

Another venerable example of "topics of invention" are the journalist's questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? Go into a story with these questions in mind, get answers to them, and you're on your way to writing a good news story.

During National Poetry Month, when we're supposed to be writing a poem a day (I usually do so anyway--more's the pity), I thought I'd reach back to some of the oldest prompts in the figurative book and steal something from rhetoric to use on poetry (Aristotle would approve, I'm convinced; he was comfortable with both arts).

Topical Poem

Who is the one you are. Good luck discovering
What makes up your Who. In the meantime, interact with
When, which is any moment you're alive, and with
Where, a space full of stuff!
How you interact is only partly up to you.
Why any of this is, is the Mystery.

I invite you to write a poem based on these venerable topics of invention, and I think the odds are quite high that your poem will surpass the one above (ya think?). Use Dr. Aristotle's Topical Ointment!

And by the way, isn't "ointment" just a fabulous word?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Narration In Three Parts, Thanks to Frank O'Connor

(image: writer Frank O'Connor, 1903-1966)


One of the best books I know on the art of writing short fiction, as a genre distinct from novels, is The Lonely Voice, by Frank O'Connor, pseudonym of Michael O'Donovan. O'Connor wrote many great stories, but his best known one is probably still "Guests of the Nation."

In The Lonely Voice, he argues that the short-story form is better suited than novels to the project of revealing the lives of "submerged" populations in society; of course he meant the term figuratively, but during the debacle in New Orleans, the term became frightfully literal and figurative both. People perpetually at the margins of society were also inundated by water--and by incompetence & indifference.

O'Connor didn't have any formula for deciding on who is submerged and who isn't, but he thought that, for short-story writers, Nikolai Gogol led the way when he wrote about the man in "The Overcoat." Social status has something to do with being submerged, but not everything.

At least one other great thing in the book is O'Connor's simple, effective demonstration of the concepts exposition, development, and drama (or conflict). Here's his demonstration, from p. 26 of the 1985 Harper Colophon edition of the book:

"Exposition we may illustrate as 'John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X'; development as 'One day Mrs. Fortescue told him she was about to leave him for another man'; and drama [conflict] as 'You will do nothing of the kind,' he [Fortescue] said."

Yesterday in the fiction-writing class, I invited students to write three "stories" in three sentences modeled on O'Connor's illustration: exposition, development, drama. I suggested that for a couple of these, they could add a fourth sentence that pointed toward a resolution to the drama. I also said they could use more than one sentence, or use a long sentence, for each section, if necessary. They came up with some terrific stuff. As usual, I wrote with them, and I decided to base one of my responses to the prompts on a familiar story. My version goes something like this (I don't think I used numbers yesterday), and I added a sentence that feinted, at least, toward a resolution:

1. Joseph, the owner of a small business in the Middle East, was engaged to a young woman from the same rural area.

2. One day Joseph said to the young woman, "This is going to sound rude, and I apologize in advance, but you look pregnant."

3. Joseph's young fiance said, "I look pregnant because I am pregnant, and what's more, I'm still a virgin, I know who the father is, you're not the father, and I'd still like to marry you."

4. Joseph said, "I'm going to need a minute."

Friday, April 3, 2009

Everybody Is A Critic

(image: canary, expressing an opinion)






Everybody Is A Critic


"That's not poetry," said the cat,

adding, "--it's mere doggerel."

Then the cat closed its eyes,

as if to say, "Go revise."


Poets, even cats are critics.

Your poems will bring you love

from neither human nor creature.


Feed the cat. Walk the dog.

Write your poetry. If you want

a friend, buy a canary. Just don't

line the cage with one of your poems.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Down Escalator

We recently stayed at a hotel in Hollywood that gives the appearance of being designed on the model of a London hotel, so (for example) the signs for what Americans call "elevators" say "lifts."

As far as I can tell, the British call "escalators" "escalators." I have to say (well, I don't really have to) that "lift" is pretty impressive. It's so simple. And it does describe what the machine does to (for) you--if you're going up, that is, and if the machine is working properly. This escalator-poem was first written in Canada, not Hollywood or Britain, though, if memory serves. So it goes.

The Down Escalator

A sign specifies I ought to stand right or walk
left. Standing right, moving, and thus moving
as I stand, I take this escalator, which takes
me--down, against the grain of its name.

Ahead I see the floor inhale grooved metal
steps insatiably. The ingested steps fall
into an abyss, which I escape undramatically
by getting off a step just before it vanishes.

The momentum of moving while standing
right makes my first stride betray over-
compensation. A slight hint of stagger mars
my gait. I proceed to plod without the escalator.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


I've heard that genuine ambidexterity in humans is relatively rare, but I've read so little about the subject, I know virtually nothing about it. Neurologists have probably discovered some fascinating things on the subject.

One of my brothers is ambidextrous. He writes with his right hand, plays baseball left-handed, for example. He can do many things with equal acumen with either hand. Because he batted left-handed, he taught me to hit the baseball left-handed, from the right side of the plate. Therefore, I was one of those rare baseball players who "bats left, throws right" as they used to say on baseball cards. Otherwise, I was not a rare baseball player, if you get my drift. On my best day, I went 3-for-3, with one walk, and no errors in the outfield. Cool.

I am also a left-handed golfer, and a terrible one; nonetheless, I have a special interest in the careers of Bob Charles (retired now, I believe) and Phil Mickelson. The interesting thing about left-handed golfers is that they're not simply the mirror image of right-handed ones. They look different. Mickelson leans a certain way on putts and the short game that reveals he's left-handed. He wouldn't lean that way (even if it were the opposite way) if her were right-handed; that's my theory, and I'm sticking to it.

From my strictly amateur observations, cats appear to be ambidextrous--part of that fearful symmetry, I reckon, that Blake noticed.

Ambidextrous Cats

The ambidexterity of cats is a pleasure to watch,
like spats on feet of fabulous tap-dancers. Cats
have an answer for any motion they see. Sometimes
the response is just alert stasis. Other times, the
chase is on. Often two or more feet, claws unsheathed,
are involved effectively, symmetrically. The tail
gets bushy--"fat," we say. And hey, the whiskers
twitch. With precision, cats seize the which
that moved into view, using two paws equally.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom