Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Fyodor, I think we would have gotten
very drunk together, and that
wouldn't have done either of us
any good. Still searching, but
I haven't yet found any writer
more delighted than you were
to dig into the muck
of consciousness. Others may
dig boldly or conscientiously,
some timidly, but you--
you did it in your prose with glee.

When I read your novels,
I get depressed and thrilled.
I get weary and joyful.
For about 45 seconds,
I may even become Russian.

I visited a "Dostoyevsky House"
they've created on your behalf
in St. Petersburg. It wasn't
bad at all. I bought a postcard
based on a painting of you.
I never sent it to anyone. Jesus
Christ, what you would have
thought of tourists! Lord,
help me: what you would
have thought of my
calling you "Fyodor."

Tolstoy overhead everything
that was said. You
overheard everything
that went unsaid.

Your books are as modern
as Dickens' aren't. You're
a brawler in prose.
You're also dead. What a
goddamned shame. Or is it?
It's so hard to know.

hans ostrom 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I'm almost two seasons off with this poem, as it chiefly concerns the seeds and seeding of Fall. However, one could argue, if one were making excuses, that Fall's payoff is about to occur. All those seeds, etc., have been biding their time, waiting for the Earth, Sun, and even the Moon to do their gravitational dance and bring on just enough sunlight, warmth, and moisture. I also allude to Darwin indirectly by mentioning Evolution, and (as I'm sure you know) it's the 150th birthday of Chuck's Origin of Species, which I read in a graduate course that was dedicated to the year 1859 in England. We red a Dickens novel and an Eliot one and lots of poetry (including Meredith's Modern Love) and essays. My particular task was to "follow" the London Times month by month in 1859--on microfilm. Oy.

The course was taught by the late Elliot Gilbert, Kipling specialist (oddly enough) but also one of the first academics to take detective literature seriously. He published a nice anthology with critical commentary with Bowling Green State University. . . .

I also mention God in the poem. I didn't ever see a particular conflict between God and Evolution, but I'm probably missing something, as usual.


Out of the orange smoke
of California poppies materialize
thin sage-green scrolls, in which
tiny prophecies of next year's
poppies harden, darken. Lupine-
pods go black-grey, too. They bulge
and stiffen, bags of loot. Dill
supports its canopy of seeds with
spindly architecture. Hollow-boned
sparrows perch on these green, frail
stalks, gorge. They will defecate
seeds later, encasing them in
hot, effective nitrogen, part of
a plan Evolution stumbled on
way back when When didn't
exist yet. Earth backs off a bit
from Sun, tells a hemisphere
of vegetation to go to seed. A
deluge of cones, pods, hips, sacs,
fronds, and fruits surges across
one terrestrial moment in space,
predicting vegetation's recurrence
and able to deliver the goods, already
outlasting Winter yet to come.
Seeding is a vast, well organized,
ordinary miracle. Seeding is God
at God's most professional. It is a
counter-apocalypse of indetermination.
Fall concerns ferocious patience
and thinks several moves ahead.

first published in Sierra Journal 2006, Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Apostrophe's Extinction Signals Apocalypse's Arrival

(image: representation of an apostrophe, or of a tear, or of both)

One occasional reader of this blog relayed a link to a news story which reports that new or replaced street signs that once contained apostrophes will no longer contain them because "they're confusing and old fashioned"--the apostrophes, not the signs or decision-makers, apparently.

The link:,2933,486144,00.html

That this event should occur in Britain, where precise men with incendiary tempers such as A.E. Housman, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, and Alexander Pope once strode the earth (owing to some infirmities, Byron and Pope hobbled a bit, no worries), strikes an apostrophe-lover with a combination of punches.

Nonetheless, we who teach English and/or care about the language saw this one coming decades ago, for the apostrophe has been disappearing from college papers (for example--this is not to put the blame on college students) for a long time. We "correct" the papers, write something in the margin, perhaps even spend seconds in class discussing the apostrophe. The students, ignore our corrections, marginalia, and blather, as they should. They are college students. They have certain duties to uphold. Each has his or her role in the academy.

And having studied German, I knew that the possessive apostrophe had disappeared long ago.

Nonetheless, let me point out that the reasoning behind the decision to eliminate the apostrophe would not pass muster with Hume's (or Humes) or any philosopher's big toe, not considered the seat of logic.

The apostrophe's old-fashioned? Well, so is printing itself, which dates back to the 15th century. So is the monarchy. So are those goddamned wigs they wear in court over there. I say the wigs should go first; then maybe we'll pretend to discuss the demise of the apostrophe. The apostrophe has a clear semiotic use. The wig has a murky one, at best. The apostrophe is unobtrusive. The wig is not, and I'd (Id) be willing to bet that those wigs stink. I've never known an apostrophe to need a good cleaning or to harbor fleas.

Confusing? Imagine a sign that read St. John's Wood. Or St. John's Wood, One Kilometer. I'm just not feeling the confusion coming from either sign.

Now consider a sign that says William's Pub. Then one that says Williams Pub. The first sign is not confusing. The pub belongs to William, or at least William figures or figured in the history of the pub. Such niceties may be sorted out nicely in the pub over a pint, but they are niceties, not sources of confusion. Now consider the second sign. Is it William's Pub, singular? Williams' Pub, plural--the pub owned by the Williams family? One is so disgusted by the lack of clarity that one will go to another pub.

One might assert that the absence of an apostrophe will either have no effect (let's [or lets] be generous and say 10% of the time) or will, indeed, cause confusion, an absence of precision being more likely to create confusion than a persence of precision (that is my assumption)

Let us further assume that those in charge, or what Gogol called Persons of Consequence, are lying. They want to to save money and time, which are the same thing in their minds. It takes X amount of time to punch an apostrophe into a sign and then paint it. Multiply by Y, and you have an amount (illusory, of course) that you are saving. Read Dickens' [or I guess I should write Dickens and surrender) Hard Times for a flavor of this mentality.

Or maybe this is their revenge on English teachers!

I don't (I mean dont) like the slothful use of "old fashioned," unsupported by data, although my use of slothful begged the question, I grant. I don't like an assertion concerning "useless" when the assertion is not followed closely by reasoning, logic, or at least something dressed as good sense.

I like the apostrophe. It adds clarity. Nonetheless, I let it go long ago, even as I ritualisitically point out its absence (or should I write it's absence?) or its incorrect presence in papers.

With the impending official demise of the apostrophe in England, the apocaplyse's, I mean the apocolypses, intial phase has begun. Whats a person to do? Store a years worth of food? :-)

Listen, this is how loyal, to a fault, not just to people but apostrophes I am: In those rare instances when I use my telephone to "text" (sigh, text is a verb), I use the apostrophe. What percentage of texters use it? I would guess 1% at most. Nonetheless, all hail the corporate design-dude or design-dudette who allowed the phone to be programmed to include an apostrophe. Hes my hero or shes my hero, of sorts. I mean he's my hero or she's my hero.

National Lampoon might write the headline this way: ENGLAND BAN'S [SIC] APOSTROPHE, GOES IMMEDIATELY TO HELL'S ANTECHAMBER.

"Should all apostrophes be forgot and ne-ver come to mind . . . ." Cue tears, pull out handkerchief, head to William's Pub.

Monday, November 3, 2008

New Diggers

I almost feel as if a Kantian categorical imperative obliges me to say something about tomorrow's election, which is obviously crucial in many ways but also surrounded by hyperbole. It certainly is a distinctive new moment in American and African American history, but the meaning of the moment is of course yet to unfold, let alone be interpreted.

I've been teaching at the same college for over two decades, and the students are obviously more tuned into, informed about, engaged with, and anxious concerning this election--by far--than any election previously. Many of them, of course, are voting in a presidential election for the first time, and they certainly are voting in interesting times.

The disinterested political scientist whom I trust the most predicts that Obama/Biden will "win" 310 electoral votes.

I don't think this poem has much if anything to do with the election, and that is just as well.

New Diggers
In the near future, people will mine dumps
and landfills for sustenance if not profit. That
stuff we've been tossing out for centuries
gets more valuable every day. Burrowers
will try to borrow it back from the past
we thought we were throwing it into.
Places of refuse live in the future like
bank-vaults. Toward the end of this
profligate era, we'll want to accept much
of what we refused in the way of pulp,
plastic, and metal. Every civilization
needs its diggers. Our civilization
has dumped and buried useful stuff
maniacally and so will soon employ
exhumers to resurrect what once was
waste from out of tombs.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Of course, in almost every nation, in different degrees, people already pick through "garbage" to find valuable or edible things, and a "dust-heap" is central to Dickens' immense, marvelous novel, Our Mutual Friend, which in some ways prefigures our ultra-profligate era. But I have to imagine that some landfills in the U.S. and elsewhere will begin to look like wealth-laden mines at some point, although I'm most willing to be corrected on this most wild guess.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Look For the Union Label

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 4, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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