Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week One Results


The winner of the first week of my fifth Daily Poem Project is Sherod Santos's "Film Noir," which received 9 votes out of 36 cast.

In second place was Tomasz Rózycki's "Coral Bay" (tr. Mira Rosenthal), with eight votes, while Andrew Hudgins's "Walking a True Line" and T. Alan Broughton's "A Midnight Clear" tied for third with five votes.

Every poem received at least three votes!

For a while, I thought I would be the only person to vote for Hudgins's poem, but then suddenly it got several more votes.

We discussed Rózycki's poem in great detail in my Intensive Composition class on Wednesday, and I came to admire it more and more. One student reads Polish (her mother is from Poland), so she's trying to find the original Polish to see if this sonnet is rhymed in the original.

My thanks to everyone who voted. I'll be posting the call for votes for week two on Sunday morning.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Info Dump

And here's another nice piece gleaned from my blog reading: Jonathan Mayhew on the "info dump" in scholarly writing.

The undergraduate version of the "info dump" in essays about narrative literature: a detailed plot summary of the short story, narrative poem, novel, or play in question, full of tidbits from the plot that might be interesting to know but are utterly irrelevant to what the paper is actually about.


Here's something from Caleb Crain that reflects on one characteristic of great writers: they tend to be prolific. Quantity and quality go hand in hand. (No, I am not feeling prolific these days ...)

There's a kind of an implicit challenge here: name a truly great artist who lived past the age of thirty but who produced very little work. I don't have any ideas off the top of my head, but maybe you do.

Some thoughts after reading Zadie Smith on "Speaking in Tongues"

I was deeply moved by Zadie Smith's article "Speaking in Tongues" in the February 26, 2009, issue of the New York Review of Books. She covers a lot of ground as she discusses her own shifting accent (from working-class London to Cambridge), as well as Pygmalion, Barack Obama, and a dose of Shakespeare, among other things.

Her main focus is on ways in which people find themselves between "voices," as she did in her move from London to Cambridge, for example, or as Obama describes of himself in his books. It made me wonder about what ways I might be between different voices. Although I am a child of a university professor and a librarian who has pretty much been in the middle to upper-middle class my whole life, I have experienced some doubling of my voice at various points in my life.

For example, I lived in an England for almost a year when I was nine years old. Coming from California, I was confronted by people who spoke an entirely different English than mine (and I have the anecdotes to prove it). But by the end of nine months in Leamington Spa, I had a thick Midlands accent, as did my sisters, and when we went back to the U.S. (summer of '74), our voices seemed as striking to the Americans we met as our American voices had seemed to the English kids when we had arrived in England. For at least a decade, I could still slip into my Midlands accent pretty much at will. (For some reason, the word I could use to help me get the accent right was "leisure.")

After England, we moved to Ohio. Despite a year in Leamington, I was still basically a California hippy kid, and that was not a good type of person to be in Ottawa Hills, Ohio, in the mid-1970s. (It probably still isn't!) Being almost completely rejected by your peers can generate a bit of double-voicedness as well, as you start to talk to the people around you with a much different voice than you use to talk to yourself. Throughout my life since then, I have gone through phases of having long hair and phases of having short hair, and as I said to a friend recently, I wish people would notice the long-haired side of my personality even when I have short hair (and—or perhaps especially—vice versa).

But there's one important sense of "speaking in tongues" that I am completely aware of that Zadie Smith does not discuss in her article: bi- and multilingualism. I am a native speaker of English, but I live in a German-speaking city, and I speak German on a daily basis. I also speak French (though nowhere near as regularly). My children speak English (which they mostly get from me), German (which they mostly get from their mother), and Basel German (which they learn at day care, then use in kindergarten and school). The multiple voices of such an environment make the shifts that Smith discusses as potentially something everyone could experience to some degree into something that everyone in the community experiences on a daily basis. (Even those who speak Basel German most of the time also speak some High German pretty regularly, and they experience it as a significant, even irritating shift, as many Baslers have told me over the years.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Fifth Daily Poem Project, Week One


The Daily Poem Project (or "Poetry Idol," as C. Dale Young likes to call it) involves reading the poem on Poetry Daily every day for a week, then voting for the poem you like best. We do this for twelve weeks, and at the end there is a final vote among the twelve winners to determine an overall winner. (For a list of previous winners, see below.)

I'm running the project with two classes this term, but unlike in the third project, where I ran separate votes for the blog and for the class, I will tally all votes together this time (from the classes and from the blog).

Here are the poems to vote for in week one, the first week of the fifth Daily Poem Project (the poems on Poetry Daily from Monday, February 16, to Sunday, February 22):

February 16: Charles Simic, Trees in the Yard
February 17: Tomasz Rózycki, Coral Bay, tr. Mira Rosenthal
February 18: Jacques Réda, Lament of the Old Pole , tr. by Andrew Shields
February 19: Andrew Hudgins, Walking a True Line
February 20: Chard DeNiord, The Woe That Is in Friendship
February 21: Sherod Santos, Film Noir
February 22: T. Alan Broughton, A Midnight Clear

The project will run for twelve weeks, and then the twelve weekly winners will be put together for a final vote.

HOW TO VOTE: You can send your vote to me by email or as a comment on the blog. If you want to vote by commenting but do not want your vote to appear on the blog, you just have to say so in your comment (I moderate all comments on my blog). I will post comments as they come in.

Please make a final decision and vote for only one poem (although it is always interesting to see people's lists).

Please VOTE BY FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 27! But I will still accept votes as long as I have not posted the final results. (March 1 at the latest.)

The winners of the previous projects:

1DPP: "The Shout," by Simon Armitage
2DPP: "Fragment," by A. E. Stallings.
3DPP: "Inside the Maze (II, III, and IV)", by Hadara Bar-Nadav (blog vote)
3DPP: "Friends", by Laure-Anne Bosselaar (class vote)
4DPP: "Come to Me, His Blood," by Martha Rhodes

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Post on Anne Carson

I've just posted "Being / A Self in a Song" on the Verse Novels blog, a couple of initial ideas about Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red.

Google Books Search Settlement

If you have published any books or parts of books that might be in academic libraries in the United States that are working with Google on their book-scanning project, you owe it to yourself to read this piece by Caleb Crain and then sign up at Google Books Settlement to find out what books of yours might be getting scanned. Please note the deadline to opt out of having your books scanned: May 5, 2009.

And you might be surprised what you find. For example, my unpublished doctoral dissertation, plus at least half a dozen of my translations for art catalogues.

Verse Novels / Versromane

I've started a blog for my course on "Contemporary Verse Novels / Zeitgenössiche Versromane". The students and I will all write posts for it. Feel free to drop by and comment if you like!

The books in question:

Ciaran Carson, For All We Know
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
Durs Grünbein, Vom Schnee, oder Descartes in Deutschland
Christoph Ransmayr, Der fliegende Berg

This is a bilingual blog. The first post is already in German (my first set of notes on Ransmayr).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Evolution is to biology as ...

From an article by Massimo Pigliucci on the Secular Philosophy blog:

... evolution is to biology what relativity or quantum mechanics are to physics, what the big bang is to cosmology, or what the atomic theory is to chemistry. Evolution is a scientific fact as solid as they come, and a scientific theory as well established as any other scientific theory is. Creationism and its cousin intelligent design are primitive ideas that were reasonable enough in a pre-scientific society, but do not have a respectable place at the table of intellectual discourse anymore. It’s time to get used to it.

Lament of the Old Pole

Poetry Daily's poem for today is "Lament of the Old Pole," by Jacques Réda, in my translation.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

For All We Know

The maitre'd was looking at us in a funny way
as if he caught the drift I sought between the lines you spoke.

For one word never came across as just itself, but you
would put it over as insinuating something else.

Then slowly, slowly we would draw in on one another
until everything was implicated like wool spooled

from my yawning hands as you wound the yarn into a ball.

(Ciaran Carson, "Second Time Around," For All We Know, 15)

You speak; I seek to understand what you say; I read the expression of the maitre'd. I think he looks as if he understands; if he understands your subtexts, that means that there are subtexts to be understood. My conditional reading of his expression is a sign of my desire for there to be a subtext, a "drift" to catch.

The source of ambiguity is fourfold: it comes from my desire for it; it comes from the attempt by the maitre'd to interpret something unfamiliar; it comes from you and your manner of speaking; it comes from language itself.

But perhaps one should say "implication" rather than "ambiguity." Your words have implications (you "insinuate something else"); they imply more than themselves. But I do not "imply"; I infer, and it seems to me as if the maitre'd also infers.

Ambiguity, implication, insinuation, inference: all this may imply that communication is not happening, that I am not "catching your drift," that something is wrong. But "slowly, slowly," you and I do communicate at this implicit level at which "everything is implicated" (whereby this verb, like "insinuate," has a sinister "drift" that "imply" does not), even if the simile of the winding of the yarn is not simple. What is being implied (insinuated, implicated) does not become explicit, but the feeling, the sensation, of communication ("we would draw in on one another") is generated, how it is when one is in love and words always have a surplus of meaning.

In the yarn simile, I hold up the wool while you wind it into a ball. As "yarn" can also mean "tale" or "story" (with the added implication that the tale might be "tall"), it is appropriate that you, the one telling the story, the one "insinuating something else," the one who has a drift to catch, should be one "winding the yarn." But the simile puts the listener in an unusual, surprising position: I do not unwind the yarn as you tell your tale; I hold the unwound wool up for you to wind.

So the listener here does not just receive the tale from the storyteller; I am not a passive receptacle for your "yarn." "Catching the drift" and understanding "insinuations" are activities I engage in in response to your story, but "everything is implicated" only because I provide a foundation for your storytelling. For the story to have its full effect, the listener must offer not only attention but something that the passage does not name, something prior to attention, something whose drift is caught only in the ambiguous image of "my yawning hands."

[I just noticed that I had forgotten that my original review of For All We Know begins with these same lines.]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Glass Essay

In my first round of reading Anne Carson back in 1998, I loved her verse novel Autobiography of Red—but the poem that truly floored me was "The Glass Essay," her depiction of recovering from the end of a long-term relationship while reading Emily Brontë's works (I have Carson's poem in the Cape collection from Britain, Glass and God). It does not diminish with re-reading:

You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.

Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?
She shifted to a question about airports.

This theme gets picked up again later, when the speaker is talking with her therapist, Dr. Haw:

When you see these horrible images why do you stay with them?
Why keep watching? Why not

go away? I was amazed.
Go away where? I said.
This still seems to me a good question.

And then that question gets picked up again:

Why keep watching?
Some people watch, that's all I can say.
There is nowhere else to go,

no ledge to climb up to.

I noticed these connections on rereading. But the image that had stuck with me from my first reading of the poem—for over a decade, that is—was this:

Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.

Rereading the poem now, I found a gentler version of the same point:

it would be sweet to have a friend to tell things to at night,
without the terrible sex price to pay.

In 1998, I thought "The Glass Essay" was utterly unique and extraordinary. Today, I still do.

Men in the Off Hours

Anne Carson's "Essay on What I Think About Most" (in her collection Men in the Off Hours) contains a much better statement of what I was trying to get at at the end of my post on her book The Beauty of the Husband:

The fourth thing I like
about Alkman's poem
is the impression it gives

of blurting out the truth in spite of itself.
Many a poet aspires
to this tone of inadvertent lucidity
but few realize it so simply as Alkman.
Of course his simplicity is a fake.
Alkman is not simple at all,
he is a master contriver ...

"Inadvertent lucidity" that is the result not of "simplicity" but of a mastery of contrivance that looks like simplicity—the trap I fell into was to talk about "transparency" without talking about "artifice."

Of the many other passages that struck me in re-reading Men in the Off Hours earlier this month, I'll just mention one, from "TV Men: Lazarus," in which Carson puts forward a striking theory about Plato's allegory of the cave:

I have grasped certain fundamental notions first advanced by Plato,
e.g., that our reality is just a TV set

inside a TV set inside a TV set, with nobody watching
but Sokrates,
who changed
the channel in 399 B.C.

Television as the realization of Plato's cave! (I suspect this is something like what Alexander Nehamas argues about television, but I'm just guessing!)

Grayling's biography of Descartes

A. C. Grayling's biography of Descartes helped me see how Descartes used doubt: he was a "methodological sceptic," not a "problematic sceptic" (282); doubt for Descartes was a tool for argument and not a fundamental problem. Grayling states this quite fully:

The sceptical arguments employed in the method of doubt do not themselves have to be plausible or sustainable. They may indeed be far less plausible than what they impugn; but that does not matter. They are simply a device, an heuristic, something that helps one to see how it is that when one says "I exist" it cannot but be true. (284)

Grayling also points out that even the Cogito itself is not entirely original with Descartes:

When St. Augustine wrote in the early fifth century AD that we can doubt everything except the soul's doubting ("On Free Will" II 3:7) he was even then not inventing a new idea, and presumably Jean de Silhon, who published his The Two Truths in 1626 containing the remark "it is not possible that a man who has the ability, which many share, to look within himself and judge that he exists, can be deceived in this judgment, and not exist", must have known St. Augustine's remark or — independently of that — the idea itself in the philosophical tradition. (278-279).

Grayling spends a great deal of time discussing Galileo and his conflict with the Inquisition, because Galileo's punishment had a significant influence on Descartes: it kept him from publishing Le Monde and hence, in the long run, played a great role in the forms his work took. Had Descartes published Le Monde, Grayling's book implies, then he would not have written The Discourse on Method and The Meditations! Galileo's punishment made Descartes back down out of fear of similar sanctions—and, Grayling emphasizes, Descartes backed down because he was a devout Catholic who did not want to run afoul of the Church.

Grayling's discussion of Galileo, then, taught me something that I had not registered previously (neither when reading Galileo in SLE nor when studying Brecht's Leben des Galilei in graduate school):

Galileo published his telescopic discoveries in a little book called Sidereus Nuncius (the Starry Messenger). But in the next couple of years he made more accurate observations of the moons of Jupiter and, while puzzling over inconsistencies in his data, realized he had to take into account variables in his own position relative to the motions he was observing—specifically, variables which had to be caused by the motion of earth round the sun, thus showing that Copernicus's model was not, as Copernicus himself had taken it, merely a convenience for simplifying calculations of the motions of heavenly bodies, but actually correct. (166)

The new point to me is that Galileo did not just believe that Copernicus's model was an accurate description of the universe; instead, he demonstrated that it is. (For a fascinating book on the Catholic Church's ambivalent relationship to astronomy, I recommend J. L. Heilbron's 1999 study The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories. The Church needed astronomers to calculate the correct dates for Easter, but feared the implications of their research.)

Finally, Grayling also nicely summarizes contemporary theories of consciousness (all of which dispense with Descartes's mind-body dualism):

Consciousness has arisen amongst higher mammals, according to these theories, because of its survival advantage—an organism’s appropriate use of energy and protection from harm are much enhanced when it is able to place itself in a map of the environment and make plans about the best courses of action in it. Creatures which are merely biological automata, even if highly sensitive to their surroundings, would not be as adaptive as creatures that are genuinely conscious. (288)

This succinctly captures the role of evolution in the development of consciousness, while also emphasizing, pace Descartes, that animals are also conscious beings (and not mindless machines). Or rather, Grayling points out how human beings are also animals and are as subject to evolution as any other living species is.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Reading Descartes as preparation for the discussion of Durs Grünbein's Vom Schnee, oder Descartes in Deutschland in my forthcoming course on verse novels, I discovered several passages that seemed like anticipations of post-Cartesian developments in science. This is not at all surprising, of course, given how fundamental Descartes was to the laying of the philosophical foundations of science. But I was still struck to find a passage in the Discourse on Method that sounds like a description of the Turing test. Descartes is talking about "machines" with "a likeness to our bodies" and argues that "we would still have two very certain means of recognizing that they were not ... real men":

Of these the first is, that they could never use words or other signs, composing them as we do to declare our thoughts to others. For one can well conceive that a machine may be so made as to emit words, and even that it may emit some in relation to bodily actions which cause a change in its organs, as, for example, if one were to touch it in a particular place, it may ask what one wishes to say to it; if it is touched in another place, it may cry out that it is being hurt, and so on; but not that it may arrange words in various ways to reply to the sense of everything that is said in its presence, in the way that the most unintelligent of men can do. (75)

Less surprisingly, a passage a few pages later describes how science is supposed to develop (at least in a world without "scientific revolutions" à la Thomas Kuhn):

[Descartes thought he should] urge good minds to try to go beyond this [his own results] in contributing, each according to his inclination and his capacity, to the experiments which must be made, and communicating also to the public everything they learned; so that, the last beginning where their predecessors had left off, and thereby linking the lives and the labors of many, we might all together go much further than each man could individually. (79)

Then there's this bit from the Meditations that reads like a peculiar combination of an anticipation of calculus ("infinity of parts") and an early formulation of Nietzsche's "genealogy" ("each of which depends in no way on the others"):

For the whole time of my life may be divided into an infinity of parts, each of which depends in no way upon the others ... (127)

The Meditations also includes a moment Grünbein surely enjoys, as he has mentioned "phantom pain" in his work in more than a few contexts (note that Wikipedia says that the earliest recorded reference to this phenomenon was made in 1551; the Meditations were published in 1641):

And yet I have sometimes heard people say, who have lost arms or legs, that they still sometimes seemed to feel pain in the limb which had been amputated ... (155)

The edition I have (which I bought in Glasgow last week, and which all the page references here come from) is from Penguin Classics, translated by F. E. Sutcliffe; it also includes the "Letter from the Author to the Translator of the Principles of Philosophy, to serve as a preface," which I found almost even more fascinating than the Discourse and the Meditations, as it is a looser, almost chattier text (as Descartes says in the Meditations, "my mind likes to wander"—108). It includes one extended passage on what science is for: first, the satisfaction of finding truths; secondly, the development of one's ability to "judge better"; thirdly, the resolution of disagreements (because it can "remove all causes of dispute"); and finally, the discovery of further truths (186). I was especially struck by the particular sequence of these points, with satisfaction first.

I read Descartes in SLE at Stanford, and I had actually remembered the overall arc of the text quite clearly. But I had not remembered how clearly the Meditations are framed by the conceit of doubt. Descartes begins with his heuristic of radical doubt: "The slightest ground for doubt that I find in any[thing], will suffice for me to reject [it]" (95). This leads, of course, to the Cogito: "I am, I exist, is necessarily true, every time I express it or conceive of it in my mind" (103). But I had forgotten (and, it seems to me, "we" generally forget) that Descartes concludes by dismissing that doubt: "And I must reject all the doubts of these last few days, as hyperbolical and ridiculous ..." (168).

Finally, in the "Letter from the Author ...," Descartes beautifully dismantles the cliché that experience and reading are opposed, when he says that the best way to demonstrate the validity of his argument is "through experience, that is to say, by inviting readers to read this book" (180). And then he says how this book should be read, and the passage is so exemplary that I will close this long post by quoting it in full. This is a good way to read:

I should wish [this book] to be read straight through completely, like a novel, without the reader straining his attention too much or stopping at difficulties he may encounter, in order simply to know in broad outline what the matters are of which I treat; and that afterwards, if he considers them to merit further examination, and has the curiosity to know their causes, he may read it a second time in order to observe the development of my reasonings; but that he must not then give it up in despair, if he cannot follow it completely throughout or understand all the reasonings; he has only to mark with a stroke of his pen the places where he comes across difficulties and to continue to read without interruption to the end; then if he takes up the book for the third time, I feel sure that he will find the solution of most of the difficulties that he marked before; and that, if any still remain, their solution will eventually be found in a further reading. (181)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

At Home, by Franz Hohler

I'll be reading my translation of a poem by Franz Hohler at this event on March 11:

Wednesday, 11th March, from 6.30 pm
Talk Party and reading

Celebrating with Franz Hohler his new book in English - At Home

At Home Franz Hohler is one of the most popular and successful writers and performers in Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. His stories, sketches and performances combine facts, fiction, satire and fairy-tales. Bergli Books is publishing At Home, a selection of his most popular and talked about stories in English. This event will take place at the beautiful Schmiedenhof-Zunftsaal on the other side of Rümelinsplatz since we expect a large number of people to want to celebrate with Franz Hohler. It is best if you let us know as soon as possible if you will be attending this special event. Tickets are available immediately for a token fee of CHF 10.00 each. RSVP to

Hudson Review

I have two translations of poems by Jacques Réda in the latest issue (Winter 2009, vol. LXI, no. 4) of the Hudson Review: "The Inspection" and "Lament of the Old Pole."

"Lament of the Old Pole" will be on Poetry Daily next Wednesday, February 18.

Practices and Expression

Joseph Duemer posted an interesting response to a reading he participated in the other day, in which he discusses the "distinction between poetry as a set of practices and poetry as a mode of (self) expression."

He articulated that difference as "professionals" and "amateurs," terminology which he himself does not seem to feel comfortable with. But I appreciate his emphasis on the difference between those who write poetry to express themselves and those who, although they surely started out that way, have kept writing poetry for reasons "beyond" self-expression.

It's perhaps important for "professional" poets to keep this distinction in mind, which seems primary to me—and far more significant than differences among the "professionals" (who, whatever type of poetry they write, are all focused on "poetry as a set of practices," to borrow Joseph Duemer's precise formulation).


I once attended a workshop in Geneva with Ellen Hinsey (this would have been about 1998 or so), and at one point, when I raised my hand to answer a question she had asked (after waiting a bit to see if anybody else wanted to try), she said to me that I was a "professional" and she thought it would be good to hear what the others had to say. (She had already come to this conclusion based on a comment I had made earlier in the workshop.) That was a breakthrough moment for me: I may not have had many poems published at the time, but my emphasis on writing poetry "beyond" self-expression had been recognized, and from then on, I was more sure of myself as a poet!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Edinburgh Reading, Feb. 8, 2009

Here's Rob Mackenzie introducing the poets at the "Poetry at the Great Grog" reading on February 8, 2009, in Edinburgh.
If the venue does not look like a bar (which is what the Great Grog is), that's because it not: it's a beautiful room at St. Cuthbert's Church. The reading was relocated after Rob realized that the Great Grog would probably be full of rugby fans in the evening after a Scotland-Wales match in Edinburgh!

The first reader was Alan Gay.

Then came me.
My set list:

The Day after Writing a Poem
The Seven-Year-Old Atheist
Pipe Smoke
Origin (by Dieter M. Gräf, tr. AS; note that the poem is incorrectly titled at the link)
In the breaks between the trees (by Ilma Rakusa, tr. AS)
The Letter Scale (by Jacques Réda, tr. AS)
Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong
September Rain

After me came Jane McKie.

And then Tim Turnbull.

When I'm a participant, I find it hard to comment on the other readers, but I did enjoy them all, each in their own way! One thing's for sure: I'm glad I did not follow Tim, who is a wonderful performer!

Moon Guitars in Glasgow

Here's me with Jimmy Moon at Moon Guitars in Glasgow last Friday. Jimmy made my octave mandolin, and that's a beautiful £1750 mandolin that I got to fiddle with for a few minutes. I had been planning to buy one of his other mandolins for £575, but I had to abort that plan when Andrea had a toothache in December!

John Taylor on German poetry

John Taylor was so kind as to send me an offprint of his review of several recent volumes of German poetry in translation, which is in the current issue of the Antioch Review (Winter 2009, vol. 67, no. 1). John takes a look at five books: Michael Hofmann's anthology of Twentieth-Century German Poetry (which features two of my translations of Lutz Seiler and which I discussed here), Hofmann's translations of Durs Grünbein in Ashes for Breakfast (which I discussed here), Rosmarie Waldrop's translation of Ulf Stolterfoht's Lingos I-X, and my two volumes of translations of Dieter M. Gräf, Tousled Beauty and Tussi Research.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Reading at Tchai Ovna, Glasgow, Feb. 6, 2009

I ended up reading at Tchai Ovna in Glasgow at the last minute last night. I was there to hear Eleanor Livingstone and someone else did not turn up, so I was a stand-in. I had my chapbook with me just in case, so I had something to read! My set list (all from my chapbook "Cabinet d'Amateur"):

Cabinet d'Amateur

Unfortunately, Eleanor and I had to run off to the train, so I had to leave right after my reading!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

On Buddy Holly's lyrics

Ben Zimmer does some nice things with Buddy Holly's lyrics here and here. I especially like how he connects "Not Fade Away" to the stuttering "Why don't you all f-f-f-fade away?" in "My Generation."

Troy Town

"La vraie vie est ailleurs," said Rimbaud, before he went elsewhere.

Sometimes, poets admit as much, as in "Hutt River Province," from Matt Merritt's Troy Town:

So I'll secede from the stutter
. . . . . . . . . and slide
of everyday. Make myself
one of those outback kingdoms
come of the refusal to accept the inevitable.

Some sad station of low scrub and stubbornness
way beyond the black swamp,
rough grazing by a stagnant bend of a backwater
that's all ox-bows and dead-ends,

with a sun fit to sear shadows
into the backs of my eyes.

It's not as simple as that, of course, as the "stutter / and slide / of the everyday" is at least in motion, while the landscape of this imagined, desired "elsewhere" is completely static.

This is not a representative poem from Troy Town, except insofar as it marks the way Merritt likes to shape his poems: with at least one sharp turn somewhere, and often two or three. These turns are sometimes logical (working with "but" and "or") but often temporal (marked by "then" and "until"). Such poems work best when the shifts do not coincide with the stanza breaks, as in "Paradise Tanager":

Suddenly it's there, presumably having roosted
somewhere about my person all the way home.
Certainly the first in these parts, a whole hemisphere

out of place, but seemingly none the worse
for its long confinement. No song, but no need
to announce its arrival to us anyway, in terms other

than a palette of primary colour daubed along
the bare branch. Already we can't think
how we lived without it, facing down the weather,

getting stuck into the DIY, or organizing
a full social life, yet it draws just a passing glance
from the blackbird wrestling a worm out of the lawn,

or the tabby dozing in the border. No matter.
The moment it alights again on the edge
of the kitchen roof, we decide it has an answer

for everything, even the questions we're not yet asking.
Like how will it cope with the British winter?
The sparrowhawk? The traffic? The council tax?

And will it ever sleep? And when? And where?

The movement of the lines and the stanzas and the sentences provide three different rhythms through the poem, and the surprise of a South American bird in Britain generates the surprising movement of the images and the shifting focuses of the poem.

There are a lot of bird poems in the book, as Merritt is a birdwatcher (with 87 posts about birds on his blog!), and that must have finally led him to write "Another Bloody Poem about Birds":

You ask me why
there are so many
birds in these poems

as if you don't know

but you're right, of course.
It isn't fair to ask them
to keep bearing this burden
when all they really want
is to sing, fly, or eat.
Most likely all three.

All we want
just now is a life
free from metaphor and simile

but still you insist on listening to me
with your head cocked
very slightly to one side.

This seems to me to provide an insight into why we use figurative language at all, and beyond that, into why we use it all the time!

I was going to type in the wondrously funny "Sex after 36," too, but I just decided not to. If you want that bit of bawdy comedy, you have to buy the book, and with it you'll get many more poems with birds in them, as well as sharply outlined scenes of life here (England, for Merritt) and elsewhere that highlight the play of the desire to be in both places at once.


Okay, I admit it: I'm a sucker for any collection of poems that mentions my favorite band, as in Kevin McFadden's poem "Die Satan!", from his collection Hardscrabble:

(The Stones alone show him sympathy,
the Grateful Dead call him friend.)

But McFadden's collection is worth reading even for those who aren't Deadheads. The only reason to avoid it would be if you hate puns and anagrams, because the book is full of them, and is also full of reflections on punning and anagramming.

Here's a taste from "Famed Cities," one of the three longer pieces in the book:

My friends I teased about the leave in Cleveland;
they teased back Brunswick's run. Home not,
as the saying goes, a place to hang your hat—
home where the hat, by name, by chance, hangs you.

McFadden's attention to the letters that make up his words might seem to get out of hand at times, but he relates his interest in letters to his own biography, as in this passage from the long prose section, "It's Tarmac," that is the second of the longer pieces here, in which he talks about his mother's name: "Her maiden name (Bretmersky) was a clerical error on a baptismal certificate (Pretmersky)."

His attention to letters and anagrams even colors his brief comments on poetics, in this later passage from "It's Tarmac":

Contemporary American poetry is fond of dichotomies. I'm feeling a little punchy, so I'll hazard my own one-two: those interested in who and those interested in how. Cults of who and schools of how.

The third of the long pieces here is called "Time"; section XV ("Another, Cleveland": yes, McFadden is from the Cleveland area) begins with a line that recalls a theme I appreciated in Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude ("The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn't"), and then it ends with a bit of philosophy and a bit of deflation:

What are we, but what we mistake ourselves for?
The brashest fact of my childhood—was I five?—
learning there were other Kevins. Might have said seven
for the rhyme, but you'd probably think I was slow
("Second grade, the lad hadn't grasped that?") and
good thing, too, since you're counting, I wasn't named
Nate, the temptation would be too (don't say it)
powerful. Do you even believe a syllable of this?
This life is a living remembered over a shoulder:
breadcrumb trail remapped into meaning years after
from crowshit cairns which pigs mistake for truffles.
Three days in your life that no art will recapture:
the day you were born, the day death sank in deep,
and the day you divined you weren't so damn special.

Thus, even when he's playing with anagrams and puns (pursuing the "how" of poetry), McFadden never turns fully away from a biographical approach centered on epiphanies (or the lack thereof), the "cult of who."

One feature of the book that I have left out until now is its focus on the theme of America, from anagram poems built around lines about America from Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg to a poem about the Statue of Liberty that outlines his mother's peculiar use of idiomatic phrases like "brand spanking new" to a poem about being "At Rushmore" that also deflates its subject in the conclusion, though here the deflation is also an opening up of the monumental subject at hand:

... Near the base, rubble remains—
a talus of blasted stones, dropped names—
the part of the image we may come closest to.

Buddy Holly

I wanted to find a video of Buddy singing "Not Fade Away," but there does not seem to be one, at least not on Youtube (just a video that shows the record playing). So here's "Peggy Sue" on American Bandstand.

So (hat tip to Marc Krebs) Buddy died fifty years ago today. "February made me shiver ..."

Monday, February 02, 2009


"Humoresque" is a chapbook by E. Tracy Grinnell, published by Blood Pudding Press. (Tracy is the publisher of Litmus Press.) It's a series of Sapphic quatrains circling around Moreau's painting of Sappho. It's a quick and beautiful read that also deserves a second reading right away. It made me smile the "archaic smile" that Grinnell refers to (doubling the title of A. E. Stallings's first book, Archaic Smile), with its "tangled" music:

Betrayed or awash in a mere while tides are
Slow to tempest, slower unleashing songs of
Tangled instruments and the faceless cries for
Precision, collapse

The sequence's "operatic I" puts a new spin on Descartes: "I think therefore I cannot see undoubtless."