Saturday, December 30, 2006

Gerald G. Ford

I remember that John Denver song, the full text of which is:

"This is the ballad of Gerald R. Ford,
And all the things he's done."

Now take a look at Paul Constant's article from The Stranger:

"What Gerald Ford saved us from was a nation where Richard Nixon went to jail or committed suicide, a nation where politicians would have to face real legal consequences for their actions, a nation where politicians are responsible for the people under them, and to the people who voted for them. What Gerald Goddamned Ford gave to America is the wave of cynicism that has dominated politics and ensured wave after wave of ever-worsening Republican presidents, preying on our basest fears."

Friday, December 29, 2006

A Barred Owl

The I-shuffling of my CD collection (largely on my external hard drive) just offered me Richard Wilbur reading "A Barred Owl." You can listen to this stunning little poem, too, at the Poetry Archive link I just added to the title.

New Yorker cartoons

Here's a fun article from the Washington Post about how cartoons are chosen for the New Yorker.

The article mentions Matthew Diffee's acceptance rate: 1 cartoon out of 10 in a good week. Otherwise none. That reminds me of what Ted Williams supposedly said when asked about how it felt to hit .400: "How would you feel if your boss gave you ten jobs to do and you did four of them successfully?" I always wanted to add, "And how would your boss feel?"

No old haunts

We go to Kassel at Christmas, to Andrea's parents. Where would I go in the U.S.? No old haunts: Detroit, where I was born? Nobody there. Palo Alto, where I lived the most before moving to Europe? No family there. Toledo, of the late seventies? God forbid (at least since my Dad finally escaped there to go to Seattle). Ann Arbor? My Mom moved to Wisconsin.

So wherever I would go, it would not be to haunts from childhood and university!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Year in Review

Birdchick posted a version of this, which comes from Faux Real Tho: collect the first sentence of the first entry of each month of one's blog.

January: Welcome.

February: Miles: T-Rex was a bad guy.

March: I got Geoffrey Hill's "Without Title" from the Poetry Book Society right before I went to the United States ten days ago, and finished it on my trip.

April: Two poems by my friend A. E. Stallings were on Poetry Daily on Monday, April 11.

May: The April 17, 2006, issue of The New Yorker contains a wonderful coincidence in its profiles of Maurice Sendak and Pete Seeger

June: Since class did not take place on Tuesday, May 23 (as I was on paternity leave after Sara's birth), the votes for week 7 (Tuesday, May 16, to Monday, May 22) and week 8 (Tuesday, May 23, and Monday, May 29) both took place in class on Tuesday morning, May 30.

July: The vote for the 12th and final week of the Daily Poem Project (poems on Poetry Daily from June 20, 2006, to June 26, 2006) took place on Tuesday morning, June 27.

August: I have been meaning to make more comments about verse novels since March, when I bought quite a few new ones while traveling in the US.

September: A student of mine sent me a link to the Wikipedia page for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody of Intelligent Design that has taken on a life of its own: the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

October: In another entry from the category of misheard lyrics, there are these lines from "Touch of Grey"

November: Miles and I don't play cribbage any more since we invented doublage, which is kind of "double cribbage."

December: On a September evening in 1987, I watched the television broadcast of the baseball game when the San Francisco Giants clinched their place in the playoffs.

Goodnight Mush

I enjoyed Elizabeth Kolbert's article "Goodnight Mush" in the Dec. 4 issue of the New Yorker:

'If, as Joan Didion famously put it, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” why do we tell stories to our children? In my experience, mostly it is to get them to shut up. A book read to a toddler who, after running around the house all day, has had to be stuffed, quite literally, into his pajamas, may traffic in imaginative freedom and wonder, but it is still an instrument of control. I will read this to you, and then you will go to sleep. End of story.'

The article lives up to this opening (and it is nice to see that EK can write well about other things, and not just about her usual terrifying topic, global warming).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lying in submissions

C. Dale Young writes, in his post "Lies and Garbage" (and in his role as poetry editor of New England Review):

"Why do writers lie in their cover letters? I mean, they not only lie but they lie like dogs. Not all of them. Not even the majority of them. But the ones that do just about kill me. It is never a good idea to lie about something like having work in The New Yorker and POETRY. These can be checked in less than a minute. And even if your lie gets your work past the screeners and into the hands of the poetry editor, s/he will know almost immediately that you are lying. So weird."

My comment to him:

1) I, too, am astonished that somebody would lie about the really biggest names, where it is, in the age of the web, astonishingly easy to be caught in one's lie.

In composition classes and academic work, it is easy these days for students to steal essays from the web (or essay-like texts from blogs), but it is also incredibly easy for their teachers to find them, too (and the stolen material sticks out like a sore thumb, because of the change in style—and, with my students, the sudden absence of the common mistakes made by German speakers). In fact, the English Seminar in Basel subscribes to a service that can identify plagiarized texts—the flip side of students' buying essays from web services.

2) Why do editors need bios at all? I just read the guidelines page at NER. It does not ask writers to submit a bio in their cover letters. Have you thought about asking people to NOT send bios?

What is the purpose of a bio with a submission to a literary magazine, anyway? If the editors are really serious about the idea that they look only at the poems themselves and not at the names of the poets who wrote them, then a bio should be superfluous. If a good bio increases the poet's chances of being published, then the editors are looking at more than just the poems themselves, aren't they?

Of course, even without bios in cover letters, editors will still recognize the names of many of the poets who submit to them. But short of blind submissions (as in prizes), there's nothing to be done about that.

Early Comics

Thanks to Pierre Joris, I came across this stunning site: Andy's Early Comics Archive. Endless browsing pleasure: ancient Bible illustrations, tapestries, even Roman-era illustrations.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Walt Disney

Anthony Lane's article about Walt Disney in the Dec. 11, 2006, issue of The New Yorker is worth checking out. Lane makes a wonderful comparison between Disney and Dickens, by way of G. K. Chesterton:

'As G. K. Chesterton wrote, irrefutably, "Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted."'

But Lane (a writer I have been enjoying for years now) does not need Chesterton to heighten the insight of his own writing: "[Disney] became an industry, but the one thing that links the industrialist, whatever the product, with the auteur, whatever the form, is obsessive pedantry—the will to get things right, whatever the cost may be."

One especially interesting factoid in the article has to do with Disney's decline after the end of his peak period in 1942. His last five films at the time had been "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo," and "Bambi" (not a bad run!). But the decline was not purely creative: Disney's animators went on strike in 1941. The resulting changes in his relationship to his animators meant that the intensive labor that made those five movies so deep and brilliant became too expensive.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Nicholas Manning on Celan

Nicholas Manning made some interesting points about Paul Celan and interpretation (with three beautiful photos of Celan, one with his wife Giselle). My comments:

1) The worst thing you can do when teaching Celan is what Gerhard Sauder did on the first day of an otherwise wonderful Celan seminar I sat in on in Saarbrücken years ago: "Es freut mich, dass so viele gekommen sind, um diesen schwierigen Lyriker mit mir zu lesen." Once you declare Celan difficult, you've closed off the students to direct access to the poems' beauty. Perhaps I say this because when I first read Celan in a "Literature of the Holocaust" course with John Felstiner, John did not say anything about difficulty, and I read Celan, and the stunning effect of the poems was utterly clear. In terms of reference, the poems had opacities, of course; but as I was able to get right to them as works of art.

2) I find that Celan can be read using careful close-reading techniques as long as my starting point is that I take things literally. The poems may not be referential in the sense of describing realistic scenes, but they do describe scenes.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


Multiple blogs (Silliman from Wed., Dec. 13; Jonathan Mayhew, from Dec. 14) led to this, from John Gallaher:

"... to me the idea of a poetics is best left to someone other than a practicing poet."

Which led me to comment on JG's blog:

Generally, the best theorists of poetry are not the poets themselves. Or as my friend Geoff Brock once said to me, "One does not need a degree in Comparative Literature in order to write poems."

The irony of this, of course, is that Geoff and I both have degrees in Comp. Lit. (though we both wrote our dissertations on novelists), and even that we became friends in grad school. :-)

In the starting point of this discussion, Ron Silliman wrote this about Alice Notley: "She may choose to deny that what she does constitutes a poetics, but that denial, it seems to me, is not just a part of that poetics (as surely it is), it’s also part of the conscious loneliness that makes Alice Notley’s work instantly unmistakable, regardless of the forms it may take."

I would agree that the work of Alice Notley (or any poet) can be analyzed in such a way as to describe that poet's "poetics" (as something ever mutable, in the case of a living poet, as something complete and potentially even fully describable, in the case of a dead poet), but it is certainly not necessary for Alice Notley herself to do that analysis in order to write poetry.

Style is culture-dependent

As I just wrote to a student here in Basel:

I had a student once in Saarbrücken who wrote a seminar paper in English after taking my class and was praised for the dramatic improvement in his writing skills. Then he wrote a seminar paper in German, again putting my suggestions into practice. I don't remember the professor's exact words (this was over ten years ago), but basically the student was told that the paper was too straightforward, too "thesenhaft."

Friday, December 15, 2006

Jeet Thayil in Softblow

I enjoyed Jeet Thayil's poems in Softblow, especially the poem "To Baudelaire":

To Baudelaire

I am over you at last, in Mexico City,
in a white space high above the street,
my hands steady, the walls unmoving.
It’s warm here, and safe, and even in winter
the rain is benign. Some mornings I let
the sounds of the plaza—a fruit seller,
a boy acrobat, a woman selling
impossible fictions—pile up in a corner
of the room. I’m not saying I’m happy
but I am healthy and my money’s my own.
Sometimes when I walk in the market
past the chickens and the pig smoke,
I think of you—your big talk and wolf’s heart,
your Bonaparte hair and eyes of Poe.
I don’t miss you. I don’t miss you when
I open a window and light fills the room
like water pouring into a paper cup,
or when I see a woman’s white dress shine
like new coins and I know I could follow
my feet to the river and let my life go
away from me. At times like this,
if I catch myself talking to you,
I’m always surprised at the words I hear
of regret and dumb boyish devotion.


Or, as Greg Brown put it:

I'll be happy happy happy happy happy, just by myself.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Other than that

There's the old line that you say when somebody had a bad time somewhere: "And other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?"

Once, my wife, my sister-in-law, and I started playing around with that: "Other than that, Mrs. Kennedy, how was your stay in Dallas?" We went through a lot of variations, and then came up with something from an event that, at the time, had just occurred: "Other than that, Mrs. Rabin, how did you like the demonstration?" It was only then that we realized how truly morbid the joke is.

Maxwell's color photo

I enjoyed this article about James Clerk Maxwell, the Scottish physicist famous for "Maxwell's equations," which explain light, electricity, and magnetism in four lovely formulas. I especially enjoyed the bit of trivia that Maxwell produced the world's first color photograph.

Patterns in book manuscripts

A while back, C. Dale Young made some comments about the patterns in submissions to the New England Review (he is the poetry editor). Just now, he made some comments about patterns in book manuscripts (I take it he is working as a reader for a prize):

"Over the past 2 days, I screened 100 first book mss. What did I learn?

1. people seem to love the word "ochre"
2. the simple, present-tense sentence is still the choice of most poets out there
3. Abortion is a fairly common topic for poems (I saw no less than 20)
4. a good story does not always make for a good poem
5. many seem capable putting together a 90+ page ms. without difficulty
6. Rothko is making a comeback
7. most poets are like me in that they come up with god-awful titles for their mss. (I always have to have friends guide me to a better title)
8. a lot of people must visit Italy (I mean A LOT)
9. many poets use spell check but don't check the spell chack changes!
10. God and religion is everywhere in these mss."

I stopped submitting my book manuscript for a year (though I am going to start again in January), so all I can do is take Dale's comments as advice, rather than respond with a list. So I will avoid "ochre" and Italy. :-)

But seriously, the most important of these points is number two: so many poems today are written in the present tense when they would surely work better as the past-tense narratives that they "really" are (but see number 4!).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Becoming a neurosurgeon

I posted this as a comment on the post 'Tis the Season on Of Looking at a Blackbird:

Rosellen Brown told me that she was once at a dinner party where she was sitting next to a neurosurgeon. When the neurosurgeon found out that she was a novelist, he said that he was considering taking a sabbatical in order to write a novel. She said something like, "That's interesting. I've been considering taking a year off from writing in order to do neurosurgery."

As she commented, once in a while you say the right thing at the right time.

Why German-language poets don't write blogs

I wrote this as a comment on a post on John Gallaher's blog:

I recently tried to locate German-language poets who have blogs, and I was unable to find any. So I wrote to my friend Ulrike Draesner, a poet and novelist who lives in Berlin, to ask her if she knew of any German poets who write blogs. In my note to her, I wondered if German poets might avoid writing blogs because most of them are making a living as free-lance writers; she agreed that that might be the case when she wrote me back to say that she knew of no German poets producing blogs.

In other words, to put in the crudest terms, the German-language poets don't write blogs because they have to sell as much writing as they can to make a living, while many poets in North America do not have to sell writing to make a living (because they teach writing instead), so they can write blogs just for the pleasure and community of it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Humanity's Place in Nature"

"... the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified."

Steven Pinker, "Less Faith, More Reason"

Sunday, December 10, 2006

No Man's Land

No Man's Land is a new, Berlin-based journal of German literature in English translation (the English version of lauter niemand). I translated three texts for the first issue: Nina Lucia Bußmann's story "The Tree" and two poems by Florian Voß. It's all done with frames, so I can only link you to the NML website. From there, click on "Issue #1" to check out the work they are publishing.

Human Shields, 20061122, Parterre, Basel

Photos by renew. Thanks, man!

News Poet News

News Poet News is a site I wish I liked more than I do: every day a new poem that comments on the news. The cool thing about the poems is that they are in verse, but that is also the problem: the verse is not regular enough. As Don Brown wrote in a comment on my "What are Critics for?":

"No formalist myself, I do believe formal patterns should be adhered to if attempted. The ... sloppy ... attempts at form just make us all look bad. If you can't come close to John Hollander, get out of the game."

Of course, if you want to read formally sharp light verse that occasionally ventures into the political, you should check out Light Quarterly. (Yes, I know LQ publishes my poems, which makes this shameless self-promotion!)

Two interesting discussions of poetry and criticism

Here are two posts I found interesting:

Death and Critical Transparency
Some Like It Hot

I commented on the latter:

"You can become immersed in something that is initially difficult to enter. Learning how to enter is what comes with more reading. You can come to love best the literature that excels in being both writerly and readerly simultaneously if you have loosened those barriers enough."

That is very well put. All I ask of the "difficult" work is that it provide *some* entrance for me, whether it be sarcasm, prosody, or beauty, or some undefinable thing. To pick up on Diane K. Martin's metaphor, if the text wants to seduce me, it has to offer me *something* that will get me interested in responding. If it just sits at the bar and nurses its difficult beer, I won't even notice that seduction is what it's after.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

George and John in heaven

I enjoyed this poem by Reyes Cardenas, "What George Harrison Saw When He First Got To Heaven."

What are critics for?

I wrote this as a comment on an entry in C. Dale Young's blog:

When I was at Stanford in the mid-eighties, the Stanford Daily's film critic was a man named Steve Vineberg (who, a quick Google search just revealed, is now a professor at Holy Cross). Almost everybody I knew who read is reviews hated them: he was extremely tough on everything, and he rarely seemed to enjoy any movies. (Sounds a bit like William Logan, actually.)

But I learned to appreciate his reviews. In the final analysis, it was not his opinion on a given film that mattered, but the fact that, when I read a review of his, I could tell whether or not I would like the movie. And this feeling did not depend on whether or not he liked the movie!

That, then, became the mark of a good critic to me: the sense that, if you read the critic regularly, you could learn to parse his or her comments and opinions so that they could be a filter for your own interests.

But I also have to admit that I am still not sure whether Logan is a good critic in that sense. His critical persona might be too much that of a curmudgeon.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Don on Orson

Just a quick note to point anyone who reads this in the direction of my friend Don Brown's extraordinarily insightful and beautiful discussion of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight. "Nothing Falstaff does or has done is lost on Falstaff; he is always equal to the task of being himself."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Name Wizard

Matt Grant had a link to this on his talent blog: the Baby Name Wizard. Superb live graphics as you search for how popular names were at any given time over the past 100+ years. A great thing to play around with for a few minutes (and check your own names, of course). Andrew peaked in the early 1980s at over 7000 kids per million babies, as did Jonathan, my middle name, that J in my blog address.

Miles just reached 400 kids per million babies. It's never been as popular before. Luisa stopped being used in the US in 1930! Sara also peaked in the early 1980s. In fact, so did Andrea. Even Andrea as a boy's name peaked around the same time. So with the exception of Miles, we are the family of outmoded names. :-)

Friday, December 01, 2006


[This is another set piece, one I wrote in December 2001]


On a September evening in 1987, I watched the television broadcast of the baseball game when the San Francisco Giants clinched their place in the playoffs. After the game, the commentator, Gary Park, went to the Giants locker room with a camera crew to do some interviews during the players' champagne celebration. Park was especially interested in interviewing one of the team's leaders, Will Clark, then a young player on the verge of stardom. But when Clark appeared, he ignored Park's questions and kept jumping around like an excited kid, screaming phrases not usually heard on television: "Shit, this is the greatest fucking thing that's ever happened to me!" Park's discreet but unsuccessful efforts to let Clark know his excitement was being broadcast live were amusing, and the moment as a whole was enjoyably honest: Clark, the All-American boy, was being one in the most truthful sense. After all, all-American boys can cuss with the best of 'em.

While watching the game the following evening, I was disappointed to hear Park read Clark's apology. It said just what one would expect, in the very words one would expect: he got carried away; he didn't know it was live; he hoped he hadn't disappointed the fans — the usual things athletes have to say when they haven't lived up to their status as "role models for young people." Of course, Clark was probably under pressure, but still, anyone who really thought about the scene could have understood it without any apology being necessary. And anyone who wanted to "protect my kids," as people so often say in such contexts, didn't know (and had forgotten) what kind of language kids actually use when there are no adults around. Kids are usually just as good as Clark himself at knowing when and where they can use "such language." In fact, "register control" is an everyday skill mastered by the vast majority of the population — those who don't master it end up in asylums or on street corners. Clark's mistake was not cussing as such, but inadvertently cussing in public.

I would certainly have forgotten the entire incident if it weren't for another baseball game a few weeks later. On the last day of the season, I watched a true classic, a game so memorable all the details have stayed with me, so I don't even have to look them up: with the pennant on the line, Frank Tanana of the Detroit Tigers and Jimmy Key of the Toronto Blue Jays both pitched complete games, with the Tigers winning 1-0 on an early home run by Larry Herndon. Unlike Clark, Tanana knew he was live when he was interviewed after the game, so he didn't say anything was "fucking great." But before he answered the first question, he said: "The first thing I'd like to do is thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ."

"Well," I immediately thought, "if other people can be offended by Will Clark's excitement, I'm going to be offended by this! If I ever have kids, I don't want them to think Jesus Christ has anything to do with success or failure in sports." It would, of course, have been futile to try to get Tanana to apologize for what he certainly would not regard as "taking the lord's name in vain" (though such a statement is tantamount to that), but if others can use the "protect my kids" argument, why can't I?

In the United States, such rhetoric from athletes is not rare, but in Europe, it is: the French tennis fans at Roland Garros in 1989 were quite taken aback when Michael Chang, having just become the youngest player to ever win the tournament, began his remarks by thanking not his coach or even his family but "my lord and savior." And now, twelve years later, two more non-Europeans have caught my attention in another European sporting event, this time two Brazilians in a German soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Nuremberg. After scoring the match's first goal, Nuremberg's Cacau pulled up his jersey to reveal an undershirt that read, in German, "Jesus lives, and he loves you." As if that weren't enough, Leverkusen's Ze Roberto scored a goal a few minutes later and pulled up his shirt: "Jesus loves you." Then Cacau scored again and did the shirt thing again, and to top it off, the two players traded jerseys at the end of the match, as soccer players are wont to do — but they didn't put them on, so they did their post-match interviews with their message clearly visible.

Sometimes one would really like to be an athlete. If I were a player in the German soccer league, I'd wear a special undershirt until the next time I scored a goal, and then I'd celebrate by pulling up my jersey: "Jesus didn't score; I did!"