Monday, December 12, 2011

Gross- und Kleinschreibung in der deutschen Lyrik

[Einmal etwas nur auf Deutsch]

Hier das heutige Gedicht des Tages von Fixpoetry:

Carl-Christian Elze


ich lebe in einem wasserturm am meer, was albern ist.

ich bin immer versalzen, aber das süße halt ich nicht aus.

eine katze schlich ums haus & hat sich auf den rücken geworfen.

was das nur soll? ich will keine ergebenheit, ich will liebe.

woher ich meine liebe nehme, ist mein größtes geheimnis.

ich habe einen tank voll davon, aber nicht in meinem turm.

ich bin oft betrunken vor liebe & oft ein stinkendes feld.

das meer ist eine katze, der ich nichts anvertrauen mag.

in den dünen finden sich manchmal die knochen von engeln.

trete ich aus meinem turm heraus, liebe ich heftig die sonne.


Hier mein Facebook-Kommentar dazu:

Mir gefällt dieses Gedicht, aber wie so oft, wenn alles kleingeschrieben ist, frage ich mich, warum das so sein muss. Wie ist das kleingeschriebene Gedicht anders als die mögliche grossgeschriebe Form? Was bringt es gegenüber die Standardschreibung:

Ich lebe in einem Wasserturm am Meer, was albern ist.

Ich bin immer versalzen, aber das Süße halt ich nicht aus.

Eine Katze schlich ums Haus & hat sich auf den Rücken geworfen.

Was das nur soll? Ich will keine Ergebenheit, ich will liebe.

Woher ich meine Liebe nehme, ist mein größtes Geheimnis.

Ich habe einen Tank voll davon, aber nicht in meinem Turm.

Ich bin oft betrunken vor Liebe & oft ein stinkendes Feld.

Das Meer ist eine Katze, der ich nichts anvertrauen mag.

In den Dünen finden sich manchmal die Knochen von Engeln.

Trete ich aus meinem Turm heraus, liebe ich heftig die Sonne.

Das ist letztendliche keine Kritik an Carl-Christian Elze, sondern eine generelle und sehr ernst gemeinte Frage an die zeitgenössischen deutschsprachigen Lyrikern, die so schreiben, von einem in der Schweiz wohnhaften amerikanischen Lyriker, Übersetzer und Songwriter, der einfach nicht versteht, warum diese Form so geläufig ist, da sie sich, meine Erfahrung nach, selten mit irgendeinem Gewinn gegenüber der Standardschreibung rechtfertigt, und relativ oft (obwohl nicht in diesem Fall) nur Verwirrung stiftet.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Then you get another guy"

In the "Talk of the Town" section of the November 7, 2011, issue of The New Yorker, there's a description of the singer Gillian Welch and her guitarist David Rawlings driving from Philadelphia to New York. The article is not available on-line (except for subscribers to the magazine or the magazine's archive); here's the bit I noted:

The other thing that Rawlings had brought to divert himself was a collected works of Shakespeare. "I've been reading the histories," he said. "I'm up to the third act of 'Henry V,' and when I'm done I might even start them again. I like how fatalistic they are. They feel a little like the Iliad and the Odyssey. I like it in the Iliad when Homer introduces a warrior and says who he was and where he grew up and who his parents and his grandparents were and what they did, and then Hector disembowels him. Then you get another guy."

I love a guitarist who reads Shakespeare on the road and compares the plays to Homer, with superb comic timing in the next-to-last sentence of the passage. What would it mean to play guitar like this, with a flurry of information and then a comic twist?

Since I'd not only read that passage but also read it out loud to my son Miles (who was not as amused as I was ...), it was striking to find the same point made in a different article in the same issue: "Battle Lines," Daniel Mendelsohn's review of Stephen Mitchell's new translation of the Iliad, which begins like this (also only in the on-line archive):

For sheer weirdness, it would be hard to find a passage in the Western canon that can compete with the tenth book of Homer's Iliad—the one classicists call the Doloneia, "the bit about Dolon." Not the least of the book's oddities is that it's named after a nobody: Dolon is a character whom the poet conjures merely so that he can kill him off, a few hundred lines later, in literature's nastiest episode of trick-or-treating.

This is not the first time I have come across such a doubling in the New Yorker. I wrote about a case a few years ago, when articles by Malcolm Gladwell and Caleb Crain referred to the same thing in consecutive issues. And in April of 2006, I also wrote about two profiles in the same issue (of Pete Seeger and Maurice Sendak), which both included images of the profiled celebrity interacting with a famous poet (Seeger with Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sendak with Marianne Moore). Amusingly, the Seeger profile is by Alec Wilkinson, who also wrote the bit about Welch and Rawlings.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Michael Hulse and Quinn Latimer, reading in Basel, Monday, November 21, 2011

ESP (English Seminar Poetry) presents:

Michael Hulse and Quinn Latimer will read from their poetry on Monday, November 21 2011, in the Grosser Hörsaal of the English Seminar of the University of Basel, at Nadelberg 6 in downtown Basel.

For more information, click on the image of the flyer below.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ashes of American Flags

"I wonder why / we listen to poets," sings Jeff Tweedy in Wilco's "Ashes of American Flags." It's a somewhat odd way of putting it, since mostly poets get read, rather than listened to. But the range of possible meanings is still quite limited: it might refer to poetry readings (where we listen to poets, rather than read them), it might mean "listen to" in the sense of "do as someone tells you to do" (with poets as sources of moral guidance), or it might mean that lyricists who sing their poems are also poets (opening up the "are lyrics poetry?" can of worms). The rest of the lyric might help one decide among these three readings, if that's what one is inclined to do.

When I said that "Art of Almost" seemed primarily "suggestive" and not much more, I meant that the lyrics were so open to interpretation that even such an enumeration of the straightforward readings would not be possible. "Ashes of American Flags" is more than "suggestive," in this sense, because its text is more limiting in its possible interpretations.



Ashes of American Flags

the cash machine
is blue and green
for a hundred in twenties
and a small service fee
I could spend three dollars
and sixty-three cents
on diet coca-cola
and unlit cigarettes

I wonder why
we listen to poets
when nobody gives a fuck
how hot and sorrowful
this machine begs for luck
all my lies are always wishes

I know I would die
if I could come back new

I want a good life
with a nose for things
a fresh wind and bright sky
to enjoy my suffering
a hole without a key
if I break my tongue
speaking of tomorrow
how will it ever come
all my lies are always wishes

I know I would die
if I could come back new

I'm down on my hands and knees
every time the doorbell rings
I shake like a toothache
when I hear myself sing
all my lies are only wishes

I know I would die
if I could come back new

I would like to salute
the ashes of American flags
and all the falling leaves
filling up shopping bags

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Art of Almost

It's great to hear bands push the envelope of what is expected of them, and that's what Wilco does with "The Art of Almost," the first song on their latest CD, The Whole Love. It sounds to me, in fact, like this song is the best Radiohead song released this year (better than anything on King of Limbs, at least).

If the music of the song is fantastic, the lyrics settle for being suggestive. But most lyrics do (not every songwriter is Conor Oberst, not even Jeff Tweedy).

While searching for the lyrics, I discovered that the Wilco website has all their lyrics, and that you can request songs for concerts. So I requested "Hummingbird" and "Impossible Germany" for Basel. You can even dedicate your requests!

Here's a live video of "The Art of Almost," followed by the lyrics:



The Art of Almost

No!
I froze
I can’t be so
Far away from my wasteland
I never know when I might
Ambulance
Hoist the horns with my own hands
Almost
Almost

I heard a faint olé
True love but
I had other ways to hurt myself
Like calling
I could open up my heart
And fall in and
I could blame it all on dust
The Art of Almost
Almost
Almost
Almost

I’ll hold it up
I’ll shake the grail
Disobey across the waves
Tomorrow
I’ll have all the love I could ever ache
And I’ll leave almost with you
All of almost
Almost

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Antiphon

The first issue of Antiphon, a new online poetry journal based in the UK, includes my poem "The View From Here."

On reading through the rest of the journal, a few of the poems struck me in particular:

"Why do you live on your own, without any children?", by Michaela Ridgway
Nil by m0uth, week 3, by Cora Greenhill
Triptych, by Claire Dyer

But most of all I liked Archie's Paris, by David Harmer, which reminded me of the first sentence of Reginald Shepherd's essay "Why I Write" (which I quoted in my brief eulogy for him when he died, over three years ago now).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wilco, "A.M."

In anticipation of Wilco's concert in Basel on November 7, I picked up almost all the Wilco albums I did not already have, and now I am listening to them in chronological order. Their first album was A.M., from 1995, released right after I moved to Basel (which is neither here or there, of course). This one I did not have before, and on a first listening, I'm impressed by how they seemed to be channeling the Rolling Stones of Exile on Main Street at times, especially when they get more rocking, as on "Casino Queen":



(This version doesn't quite do the Stones comparison as much justice as the studio version, actually.)

Some might think an "altcountry" band should not be compared to "the world's greatest rock and roll band," but as my friend Geoff once pointed out to me, on Exile, the Stones also proved that they are the world's greatest country band, and reminded us all that country and rock-and-roll come from the same sources, and that the original distinctions between them were all about marketing and radio formats ...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fish on a Stick


This Wondermark comic from mid-September struck me as a little lesson in linguistics, although as is often the case, I am not enough of an expert in linguistics to really figure out how to talk about it. I'm only good enough to see that there is some linguistics to be talked about here.

The lesson is that language involves not just what is said but a whole bunch of assumptions that we have that help us interpret what is said. I thought this might have something to do with the Gricean maxims, but I can't figure out how the two speakers' assumptions violate those maxims of quality, quantity, relevance, or manner.

The second man assumes that if something is carrying something and shouting out a description of it, that it must be for sale. The man with the fish, though, interprets the question not as "how much do you want for it?" but as "how much of the fish is on the stick?"

Any linguists out there want to help me with this one? Perhaps I should send it to Mark Liberman of Language Log.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rob A. Mackenzie and Katy Evans-Bush, reading in Basel, Thursday, October 20, 2011

ESP (English Seminar Poetry) presents:

Salt poets Rob A. Mackenzie and Katy Evans-Bush will read from their poetry on Thursday, October 20, 2011, in Room 11 of the English Seminar of the University of Basel, at Nadelberg 6 in downtown Basel.

For more information, click on the image of the flyer below.

The next ESP reading will feature Michael Hulse and Quinn Latimer on November 21, 2011.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Cleanse Song

See the new pyramids down in old Manhattan
From the roof of a friend's I watched an empire ending

Bright Eyes, "Cleanse Song"

A few months ago, I was listening to Bright Eyes, as I was obsessively doing at the time, and up came "Cleanse Song," a beautiful ballad from their album Cassadaga. While I love the song, I had to differ with Conor Oberst about the above lines: it was not the end of an empire. Nor was it the beginning, of course. It was an opportunity for the leaders of the empire to reassert and even vastly expand their empire's reach, both abroad and, especially, at home.


Saturday, October 08, 2011

No Need for Due Process

In this column on October 3, 2011, Glenn Greenwald included a link to a White House Press Conference with Press Secretary Jay Carney, which I recommend that you watch:



Kudos to Jake Tapper of ABC News for asking the important questions. I would say "non-kudos to Carney," but he's just doing his job. The real "non-kudos" have to go to the President.

As Tapper asks, what would "Constitutional Law Professor Barack Obama" say about how President Barack Obama is handling the Constitution? And all American citizens and residents should be asking themselves, "Do we want to live in a country where the President can order people to be executed without trial?" If even a large minority, let alone a majority, answers that question with "Yes," that is a very sad state of affairs.

One thing that I think should be made as clear as possible about this sad state of affairs: in the end, it's not about ordering the assassination of an American citizen. That's just an extra turn of the screw. The real problem is the President reserving the right to order the assassination of anybody anywhere.

UPDATE: Here's a more recent Greenwald column about how people get put on the list for assassination. As Greenwald puts it:

Seriously: if you’re willing to endorse having White House functionaries meet in secret — with no known guidelines, no oversight, no transparency — and compile lists of American citizens to be killed by the CIA without due process, what aren’t you willing to support?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Michael Donhauser reading in Basel, October 25, 2011

The wonderful poet Michael Donhauser will be reading from his work (in German) on Tuesday, October 25, 2011, in Basel. The reading will be at 10:15 a.m. at Nadelberg 6, "Schönes Haus," home of the English Department; the reading is sponsored by the Philosophy Department and Professor Angelika Krebs. Click on the flyer for a larger version and more details.



Sunday, October 02, 2011

Footnotes

The main period of my life when I used a lot of footnotes was, unsurprisingly, in graduate school from 1988-1995. I wrote my dissertation on a Mac Classic (or perhaps it was a Classic II), using the version of Microsoft Word that existed way back then, and footnotes were added by typing apple-E. But since I veered away from scholarship into translation after finishing my doctorate, I have rarely written anything since then that called for footnotes.

This weekend, I'm translating an academic text with footnotes, and whenever I want to type a footnote, the old apple-E reflex takes over, and I end up with the text centered instead of with a footnote. It's not that I want to know what keystroke produces a footnote (I'm perfectly happy to go the Insert menu and select Footnotes). What strikes me is that this ancient reflex is still there, as it has never been over-ridden by a different reflex for generating footnotes or by a different use for apple-E.

There's probably a bit of deep psychology to be done here, but it's all just an anecdote really.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bad Linguistics ... and Good Linguistics

One of the things I have learned from several years of reading Language Log is just how absent the science of linguistics is from the radar of your average intellectual. Otherwise highly educated people spout nonsense about language that has long since been utterly discredited by serious scholarly study of language.

So I should not have been surprised to read a tweet by Ben Goldacre that addressed the use of the passive voice: "dear everyone, when i read your passive sentence constructions i sort of have to convert them into active ones in my head because i'm thick." I was not surprised, but I was disappointed, since I love Goldacre's ongoing critique of "Bad Science" on his blog and in his Guardian column and his book with that title. He is unrelenting, for example, on the nonsense that is "alternative medicine," while also being highly critical of "bad science" when he finds it in more mainstream scientific settings.

His critique of the passive voice as a supposed "stylistic problem," however, is first-order bad science — perhaps not quite on the order of homeopathy, but still utterly unfounded. If you, like Goldacre, think that "passive voice should be avoided," then you should read some good science by Geoffrey Pullum from Language Log: "The Passive in English." I hope that Goldacre, too, will follow my tip and recognize the Language Log linguists as his fellow campaigners against "bad science."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Rule of Law

THE RULE OF LAW

what might have been

The suicidal perpetrators died,
but those behind the scenes were hunted down
and put on trial for the crimes they had
abetted. Now they are in jail for life.

The citizens feel safe to know their land
is ruled by law, not fear, nor force, nor vengeance.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Spelling Rage

I just saw a Facebook page called "Learning How To Fucking Spell Properly":

1. When I first read it, I put the fourth word after the fifth word, which changed the meaning.

2. Then I wondered why such a page would be necessary anyway: I rarely see anyone misspell "properly."

3. Then it struck me as odd that someone with spelling rage would split an infinitive. Not that split infinitives are incorrect, but that most people with spelling-rage issues also have grammar-rage issues.

Tennis and The Change

12 years ago, Venus Williams was the emerging star in a sport that wasn’t always so hospitable to a young woman of color who dared to be great.

All Madison Keys heard on Wednesday were cheers and chants of “Maddy.” On the subject of change, it was the kind that a 16-year-old with a long climb ahead could believe in.

This is the end of Harvey Araton's September 1 New York Times article "As Williamses Age, Here Comes Youth." For most readers, the final sentence will read like a reference to Barack Obama's election slogan "change you can believe in." But for followers of the American poetry scene, there's another echo: Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change," the subject of much recent discussion on racism in poetry.

Whether Hoagland's poem is a depiction of racism or is itself racist, this article shows that there has been a change in the tennis world: when the Williams sisters emerged as the dominant forces in women's tennis, much latent racism became manifest. And now, Madison Keys's victory in the first round of the US Open and hard-fought, three-set loss in the second round is simply celebrated by the fans and the press as the success of a promising young American player.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

What is a monster?

This Wondermark cartoon (in a very different style than usual; see the note to the cartoon) nicely captures the problem of identifying the monstrous. The bull-headed minotaur of mythology might seem like a monster to the knight in the image, but he won't seem like a monster to himself. And the man-headed monster that chases them both probably thinks they are the monsters.

Something to keep in mind whenever you consider somebody "monstrous" in some way: his actions probably seem "human" to him, while yours may seem "monstrous."

At first, I thought this was another angle on "the banality of evil," but perhaps it's not:

In short, the true horror of Eichmann and his like is not that their actions were blind. On the contrary, it is that they saw clearly what they did, and believed it to be the right thing to do.

The monsters, that is, do not see themselves as monsters.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Partitions

After a fire destroys his home, Dr. Ibrahim Masud, a Muslim living on the Indian side of the new India-Pakistan border in Amit Majmudar's novel Partitions, decides to head to his clinic by bicycle, as he does every morning: "Violence would not trespass on the dominion of illness." In literature, such a conviction is immediately punished, so when Masud arrives at his clinic, it is no surprise that it has been destroyed. Beyond that, Masud's conviction is proved more generally erroneous throughout the novel, as violence repeatedly "trespasses on dominions" that are supposed to be exempt from it.

When I remembered the line later, I misquoted it to myself, replacing the word "dominion" with the word "domain." But "dominion" is the right word here: both in the novel and in the world in general, the trespasses of violence are aimed not at "domains" (places in general) but at "dominions" (places that are governed or ordered in some way by some authority). Where a boundary has been established, a dominion is created, and violence will seek to trespass on that dominion.

More specifically, "dominion" is the word used in the British Commonwealth to refer to some former colonies, including, apparently, Pakistan. And the creation of Pakistan and India in 1947 set up "dominions" in which violence was not seen as "trespassing" as long as it was directed at others: the Muslims in India, like Masud; the Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, like the novel's three other main characters.

In the end, this wonderful novel reminded me of Wayne Wang's movie Smoke, in its implication that the bonds of blood, family, and religion are weaker than the bonds one chooses to establish with others. The former establish dominions that are all to likely to attract the trespassing power of violence—or even to generate that violence within themselves. The latter, the chosen bonds, may be utopian in the negative sense of "unrealistic," but in their rejection of "partitions," they are also utopian in the positive, visionary sense.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Inspiration

I recently discovered Brian Brodeur's blog "How a Poem Happens." Each post has a poem and a series of questions for the poet—mostly the same questions, which makes for interesting comparisons in terms of how the poets work and how they think about what they are doing. My favorite section in most of the recent ones I read is, "Do you believe in inspiration?" And my favorite answer is the one given by David Hernandez:

Inspiration is a lazy architect who gives you a blueprint with only the front door drawn, then snoozes on a hammock while you build the entire house.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Rosy-Cheeked Shuffle

Even when the band stretches out and demonstrates its cohesiveness, you feel the ghost of Jerry Garcia and his rosy-cheeked shuffle.

So writes Sasha Frere-Jones in his New Yorker review of My Morning Jacket's latest album, Circuital. Jerry Garcia as Santa Claus? I kind of like the idea, as in this picture I just found on the web, but Jerry-bashing in order to praise MMJ's "cohesiveness" even when "stretching out" misses the cohesiveness of Jerry's own playing. And when Frere-Jones goes on to discuss MMJ's jam-band self-marketing in the next paragraph, he messes up the history entirely:

Something wonderfully odd has happened: though the punks famously want nothing to do with the system, it was the hippies—because of jam bands like Phish and the String Cheese Incident—who were the first to abandon the traditional music business, at least in part. They built enormous fan bases by touring endlessly. They earned reasonable salaries and were largely freed from worrying about how many records they sold or whether they were played on the radio.

As Phish and SCI would be the first to tell you, it was the Grateful Dead (with their rosy-cheeked shuffle) who first built their fan base by focusing on touring and thus freed themselves from record sales and radio airplay. If you're going to bash Jerry as a sweet old hippie, Mr. F-J, at least get your facts right!

And just to belie the image of Jerry as some sort of sweet musical Santa, here's Jerry and the Dead getting into a close encounter in 1978:


Friday, August 05, 2011

Touchstones

Most of my touchstones make implicit or explicit claims that I in some way agree with. Kafka's "Das nächste Dorf" is not just a pleasant paradox that amuses me but a complex statement about time that helps me sort out how it passes. But sometimes I refer to something again and again primarily because it is a pleasant paradox, as with Roland Barthes's claim about re-reading: if you read a lot of books one time each, you keep reading the same book, but if you read one book twice, then you've read two different books. I've been quoting this claim for over twenty years now, and I don't even remember where it comes from—or whether I even read it at all. Perhaps some grad-school buddy quoted it to me; perhaps he or she has long since forgotten it, while it stuck with me, to be fingered now and then.

It came to me again the other day, this pleasant paradox, and now I've realized that I have always read it in a way that contradicts its content: by quoting it so often, I re-read it multiple times over the years, but it was always the same. And now it's different, and only now that it's different do I understand that it is more than the pleasant paradox I long held it to be. Without realizing it, I'd always understood it in terms of re-reading a book twice in quick succession (perhaps because that's what one does in grad school when writing about a book). Now I see Barthes's claim in terms of re-reading something years or even decades later—or seeing a touchstone anew, after many years of referring to it. The works that accompany me change with me as I grow older—but so do the little fragments that I've torn out of context even as I "re-read" them every time I quote them. And every new book or poem or song or quotation I come across is the same book, poem, song, or quotation as all the others until I give it my attention a second time—or until it makes me pay attention to it a second time. I never know in advance which ones will become new touchstones, but at least I know that the old ones will always be new every time I take them out to touch them.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Furthur and The Grateful Dead

Furthur is the current band of the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, with John Kadlecik on lead guitar, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, Joe Russo on drums, and Jeff Pehrson and Sunshine Garcia Becker on backing vocals. The band has played over 100 shows since their first gig in September 2009, and though I have not had a chance to hear them live (since I live in Switzerland and they have not been in Europe yet, and I always miss them by days when I'm in the U.S.), I have listened to recordings of all their shows, thanks to the Live Music Archive and Furthur's own live downloads. Gradually, despite my being a veteran Deadhead (83 shows from 1982-1995), I have come to the conclusion (with a couple of caveats) that Furthur is a better band than the Grateful Dead.

The primary reason is Jeff Chimenti on keyboards. Chimenti's background is primarily in jazz, and he has played with Bob Weir's band Ratdog since the late 1990s, as well as being on keyboards with the various incarnations of The Dead (as the surviving members of the Grateful Dead—Weir, Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann—called themselves in 1003-4 and 2008-9). Simply put, Chimenti is a much better player than any of the Grateful Dead's keyboard players. None of them (Pigpen, Tom Constanten, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, Vince Welnick, or even Bruce Hornsby, whose tenure on piano with the GD was brief but wonderful) ever had the chops to provide a serious second lead instrument alongside Jerry Garcia's leads—and that is exactly what Chimenti adds to the mix. While Garcia always rightly insisted that his lead playing was just part of what the band was doing, the sound of Furthur benefits hugely from Chimenti's leads, both as a compliment to Kadlicek's lead guitar and in how his keyboard solos (whether on piano or organ) take the band's jams in ever new directions.

Drummer Joe Russo is also a better drummer than Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann ever were. I always liked the lightness of Hart and Kreutzmann's playing together, the way they kept the band afloat by never overemphasizing the beat but always playing colors and textures around it. When they started playing the beat more heavily in the late 80s, it detracted from the band's feel to my ears (although this might have been a matter of mixing the snare drum higher, in good 80s style, à la Phil Collins). Russo plays the beat with emphasis and drive, while also keeping the rhythm floating. Both Chimenti and Russo's potent contributions to Furthur can be heard in exemplary fashion in the first set of the July 22 show at the Gathering of the Vibes festival in Bridgeport, Connecticut, especially on "Sugaree," "Deal," and "Big River." (That just happens to be the show I listened to this morning.)

Furthur's quality also derives from the vocal arrangements. The backup singers and the band's obvious serious rehearsal of the vocals give Furthur something the Grateful Dead never had: consistent high-quality harmonies. I love the old recordings of "Uncle John's Band," say, as much as any Deadhead, but Furthur just nails the vocals all the time, while with the Grateful Dead, the vocals were always hit and miss at best. While listening to the Bridgeport "Sugaree" and "Deal," it struck me that, in this respect, Furthur is more like the Jerry Garcia Band in the 80s and 90s, with his excellent background singers. (I even hope that Lesh and Weir will give their backup singers a chance to step forward and sing lead ...)

So Furthur is a better band than the Grateful Dead—but of course, they owe everything to the Grateful Dead. Weir and Lesh are still playing their Grateful Dead repertoire, most of which (despite excellent contributions from Weir and Lesh) was written by Garcia. They should, of course: it's a great catalogue! There are a couple of Furthur originals, and one or two get played per show, but it would be a waste if Weir and Lesh played together without playing their back catalogue together, and as with the Grateful Dead, they play almost the whole catalogue, with no repeats from one show to the next.

Now it's time to discuss the elephant in the room: Jerry Garcia. Overall, Furthur is a better group of musicians than the Grateful Dead, but Furthur doesn't have a Garcia, who was simply one of the best musicians in rock history (and even beyond rock, as his work with David Grisman shows). Yet Garcia was not always at his best, and John Kadlecik is much more consistent than Garcia was in the last few years of his life. Like Chimenti, Kadlecik also has great jazz chops. Early in my listening to Furthur, I kept hearing traces of John Abercrombie in Kadlecik's playing, which turned out to be a matter of the wrong John: Kadlecik's primary early influence (even before he began listening to the Grateful Dead and Garcia)was John McLaughlin. As the lead player in the Dead cover band The Dark Star Orchestra for over a decade, Kadlecik knows how to "be" Garcia; interestingly, Furthur gives him a chance to play Garcia's music while being himself.

So the two caveats on my claim are that Furthur doesn't have Garcia, and that Furthur plays Grateful Dead music and is thus implicitly "derivative." But my argument is finally that Furthur does take the Grateful Dead's music "further," primarily but not only because of the unique contributions of Chimenti and Russo to the band's sound.

A while back, I read a comment on a Furthur show at the Live Music Archive that pointed out that in 20 years, when Furthur is long gone, Deadheads will be listening to the Grateful Dead and not to Furthur. Because of Garcia, that's probably true, even for this Furthur fan, but my response is also that the Grateful Dead's run ended in 1995, and Furthur is happening now. I hope I get a chance to hear them live before they stop happening.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Train Ride

Just before Christmas last year, my family and I were part of a little comic scene on a train, after which my son Miles and I wrote this poem.

TRAIN RIDE

I went down to the station
and made a reservation
to take the train back home.

On the platform, there I stood;
I was feeling very good;
I was talking to my baby on the phone.

The train came down the track,
and without looking back,
I got on and hunted for my spot.

There was a family sitting there,
and they didn't seem to care
about any reservation that I'd got.

I showed my ticket to the guy,
and he could tell me why
my seat was already occupied.

I had gone the wrong way!
I laughed, said, "What a day!"
and tried to enjoy the ride.

Miles Delpho and Andrew Shields
23 December 2010

The World's Pleasure

"Don't you see, sir, that the benefits of Don Quixote's recovery can't be compared with the pleasure that his antics provide?"

I found an echo of this remark from Don Quixote (a remark which is one of my touchstones) in All's Well That End's Well, when The Clown says to Parolles: "... much fool may you find in you, even to the world's pleasure and the increase of laughter."

But Parolles, of course, is not finding pleasure in his being treated like a fool, whereas Don Quixote surely does find pleasure in imagining himself to be not a fool. And Smokey Robinson does remind us, after all, that the clown does not necessarily take pleasure in his own foolishness.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bericht für eine Akademie

Ihr Affentum, meine Herren, soferne Sie etwas Derartiges hinter sich haben, kann Ihnen nicht ferner sein als mir das meine.

The ape who narrates Kafka's "Bericht für eine Akademie" was captured in the jungle five years before he speaks to the scientific academy mentioned in the title. In those five years, he has gone through the million-plus years of evolution from his common ancestor with the humans he addresses. Such extreme contrasts are a feature of Kafka's worka, one of my favorite examples being the lifetime that separates one village from another in "Das nächste Dorf".

Here, the extra twist is that one could almost say that all human children go through those eons of evolution as they grow up. But of course it does not quite work, as human children are not apes when they are born, but already quite human.

Still, Kafka's ape does learn like humans do, whether as children or as adults: he learns by "aping" humans:

Ich rechnete nicht so menschlich, aber unter dem Einfluß meiner Umgebung verhielt ich mich so, wie wenn ich gerechnet hätte.

He may not be calculating, but he acts as if he were calculating, and in response to his environment. I am reminded once again of Jonathan Lethem's point in Fortress of Solitude: "The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn't."

But there's more to the ape than that, because he is desperate to learn, so he learns/studies the way someone who wants to escape a ghetto might learn/study:

Und ich lernte, meine Herren. Ach, man lernt, wenn man muß; man lernt, wenn man einen Ausweg will; man lernt rücksichtslos.

I had a student once in Saarbrücken who was from a coal-mining family, and he was like Kafka's ape: he worked harder at learning than anyone I have ever met, because, as he explicitly told me, he did not want to be metaphorically trapped in the mine, in a dying industry, so he went to night school to get his high-school diploma (Abitur), and he went to college to get a teaching credential, so that he could teach in his former school, and help others find a way out. No one I have ever taught has been so determined.

As Kafka's ape emphasizes, one does this to find a way out, because only that can truly liberate one who is trapped. Flight is useless; only the way out of going in (into humanity, in the ape's case) can help. There's something slightly frightening about this idea: in order for the outsider to not be trapped completely by his outsiderdom, he must fully integrate himself into the mainstream, at the loss of what makes him an outsider. He must "enter the academy," as it were.

Near the end of his report, the ape produces another image quite common in Kafka's work: sitting by the window and looking out:

Die Hände in den Hosentaschen, die Weinflasche auf dem Tisch, liege ich halb, halb sitze ich im Schaukelstuhl und schaue aus dem Fenster.

Kafka surely dearly loved sitting by the window and looking out in a distracted way, as in the title "Zerstreutes Hinauschauen," but elsewhere as well, as in the wonderful final line of "Eine kaiserliche Botschaft", when the message from the emperor, it is finally admitted, will never get through to you: "Du aber sitzt an deinem Fenster und erträumst sie dir, wenn der Abend kommt."

Kafka's pleasure in that moment of sitting at the window in the evening and dreaming things up seems to me now, on re-reading these works, like a comment on Pascal: "Tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre." Are there any windows in Pascal's room?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Calmy-Rey instead of Monet

I've been to several museums in the last few days with my nephew Daniel. Yesterday, my son Miles and I went with him to the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen to see the Brancusi-Serra exhibition, but mostly to see the permanent collection. We were looking forward to seeing Monet's Waterlilies (visible in the middle window of the picture above) and my favorite painting there, Kandinsky's Improvisation 10:But instead, we did not get to see much of the permanent collection at all, because it was closed because a film was being made.

Near the end of our visit, we talked to a guard who was watching the barrier between the final Brancusi-Serra room and the lovely room of Rothkos that was closed, and he told us that the film was a recording of a speech for the Swiss National Day next week by Federal Councillor Micheline Calmy-Rey:

So we did not get to see Monet because of Calmy-Rey.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Pen Friend


... a cheap modern cartridge pen by Parker or Sheaffer will last you for years, and write unhesitatingly with a consistent line every time you pick it up.

Ciaran Carson, The Pen Friend

Ciaran Carson's The Pen Friend is an epistolary novel whose narrator, Gabriel, is a collector of vintage fountain pens. Each letter contains a discussion of the pen or pens he uses to write the letter, and the book gradually becomes a celebration of fine writing—meaning fine handwriting, and the tools used to produce it. So it was with great pleasure that I read Gabriel's admission, late in the book, that the beautiful pens he loves so are actually not very good tools for writing. In fact, he admits, cheap modern pens are much better tools than his collection of older, more elegant pens. The modern ones may be boring, but they write better.

Fortunately, Carson's reflective novel is anything but boring. As with his Fishing for Amber, the novel becomes a reflective essay on all kinds of subjects, while also spinning out variations on his wonderful verse novel For All We Know: Gabriel and his correspondent Nina are the two characters from that book—or at least versions of them. Each of Gabriel's letters is a response to a cryptic postcard from his former lover Nina, and the pictures on the postcards introduce new chapters, as do pictures of the pens Gabriel uses to write each letter. My favorite picture is the Vermeer:



Friday, June 17, 2011

Bright Eyes in Zurich, Bloomsday 2011

At one point in the Bright Eyes show at Kaufleuten in Zurich last night, Conor Oberst asked the audience if it was Thursday. I shouted several times that it was Bloomsday, but all he heard was Tuesday. Perhaps he doesn't know his James Joyce and was thus not aware of the significance of playing the city where Joyce died on the day that Ulysses takes place.

But that's almost the only negative thing I have to say about the show. The band opened with my two favorite Bright Eyes songs, but if I was briefly worried that things would go downhill from there, they proved me wrong. The arrangements were full of dynamic range, from quiet folk-picking passages to explosions of aggressive guitar and punk drumming, and Oberst's singing is just as good live as it is on record: sweet and childlike at times, then veering quickly into a kind of in-tune shouting that is quite hard to pull off.

I said "almost" the only negative thing above, because I do have one negative comment to add, even though it is one that has to do with my expectations about live music rather than the band's performance: they stick quite close to the album arrangements of the songs throughout, giving themselves little room to take the songs to other places. I found this especially ironic in "Beginner's Mind," which Oberst introduced as being about "keeping an open mind when everything is telling you not to," which made the tightly controlled arrangement seem to contradict the song's intent. Only in the three songs of the encore did the band begin to muck about with the studio arrangements to any significant degree—and to great effect, especially in an overwhelming version of "Road to Joy."

But that's me; clearly, Oberst and his cohort are aiming at playing tight arrangements well, and not at exploring more open arrangements. And they do play their arrangements superbly, so it's really only a minor quibble. (And I just happened to look up one of the songs to make sure I was remembering it correctly, and the arrangement on a live YouTube video from 2007 is radically different.)

Setlist:

At the Bottom of Everything
Four Winds
Haile Selassie
Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
Jejune Stars
Shell Games
Approximate Sunlight
Arc of Time (Time Code)
Cartoon Blues
Poison Oak
Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)
Hot Knives
Bowl of Oranges
Lover I Don't Have To Love
Beginner's Mind
The Calendar Hung Itself
The Ladder Song

Land Locked Blues
Road to Joy
One for You, One for Me

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mystery Dance

On the cover of his first album, My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello strikes a Buddy Holly pose, but the album's music has less Buddy Holly in it—except for "Mystery Dance." Its stops and starts and driving shuffle rhythm recall "Not Fade Away," but Costell0's lyrics provide a completely different perspective on eternal love, the main subject of so many of Holly's songs. "Mystery Dance" shows how early rock-and-roll's euphemistic presentation of sexual desire in terms of dancing and romantic love leaves its listeners unable to just "do it."

The "mystery dance" of sex is what the singer wants to learn, but in the second verse, when an opportunity to try it out comes up, he and his potential partner are at a loss:

Well, I remember when the lights went out.
I was trying to make it look like it was never in doubt.
She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew.
So both of us were willing but we didn't know how to do it.

The music offers Buddy Holly as a possible place to learn about such things, while the first verse turns to another possible source of information about love for teenagers:

Romeo was restless; he was ready to kill.
He jumped out the window 'cause he couldn't sit still.
Juliet was waiting with a safety net.
He said, "Don't bury me 'cause I'm not dead yet."

Romeo and Juliet are exemplary figures of teenagers in love who are misunderstood by the world around them: the outside world does not want them to "know how to do it." But even they do not actually show or tell their audience what to do when the moment of truth comes.

If classic literature and pop music fail, maybe pornography will help:

Well, I was down under the covers in the middle of the night,
Trying to discover my left foot from my right.
You can see those pictures in any magazine,
But what's the use of looking if you don't know what they mean.

In fact, it's not just pornographic pictures that don't help (in this case, not with sex, but with masturbation), but those "in any magazine": sexy advertisements don't do the job either.

Perhaps the singer ought to ask someone for help, which is what he does in the chorus:

Why don't you tell me 'bout the mystery dance?
I wanna know about the mystery dance.
Why don't you show me 'cause I've tried and I've tried but I'm still mystified.
I can't do it any more and I'm not satisfied.

In a sense, though, he does not ask for help: though he wants to know how to do "the mystery dance," he actually asks why nobody will tell him or show what to do. In a way, he's wondering why nobody has given him a sex-ed class!

The demo version of "Mystery Dance" contains one last verse that turns to one other possible source of information, beyond literature, music, and magazines:

I'm gonna walk right up to heaven dodging lightning and rods.
I'm gonna have this very personal conversation with god.
I said, "You've got the information; why don't you say so?"
He said, "Well, I've been around, and I still don't know."

Religion doesn't help either, and the singer is left with nothing to do but repeat his frustration while the song fades out: "I can't do it anymore and I'm not satisfied."

The singer's lack of satisfaction echoes another bit of earlier rock-and-roll, of course: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Even Mick Jagger, though, does not offer any help to a frustrated young man: he talks about how unsatisfied he is because of how the radio and the television present images to him that do not satisfy him. Only in the song's final verse does he address sex specifically—but only to refer to a girl who turned him down! We all know that "Satisfaction" is about "the mystery dance," but it's no help for that song's frustrated singer either!

*

The Buddy Holly feel of "Mystery Dance" is already gone by the time the Attractions start playing it:



And these days, the song can sound quite different:



When Bob Dylan does that to his songs, people hate it!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Interview with Larry Grenadier


On Friday, May 6, the Overtone Quartet played at the Jazz Festival Basel, but with a different line-up than usual: instead of Dave Holland (whose name was on the tickets and the posters), Larry Grenadier was on bass, with Chris Potter on saxophones, Jason Moran on piano and keyboards, and Eric Harland on drums. After the fabulous concert, I had a chance to talk to Larry for a few minutes, and he agreed to do an e-mail interview with me about the show and his time in the Overtone Quartet.

AS: You replaced Dave Holland in his own band for the Overtone Quartet's recent European tour. How did this unusual situation come to pass?

LG: Dave has had some family matters to deal with lately that have kept him from going on the road. At the beginning of January, I subbed for him with the Overtone band in NYC at Birdland for a week. So this tour in Europe was the second time playing this music. It is an unfortunate circumstance but a great opportunity to play with this band.

AS: How much time did you have to rehearse the material? Was Dave involved in the rehearsals? If so, how did that work?

LG: We rehearsed for a few hours before the first NY gigs, just the four of us. The way the band works is that they play everyone's compositions. So we ended up playing songs by Chris, Jason, Eric and Dave as well as a song of mine. Like most bands I play in, rehearsal time is fairly minimal. After the particulars of the songs are worked out, like form, most of the development occurs on the bandstand. This is the way I like it.

AS: Did you play Dave's own parts in his compositions? Did his style influence how you played the improvised parts? (And by the way, was he one of your influences when you were younger?)


LG: Dave Holland was absolutely a major influence on me. He was and remains for me a great example of a modern bass player with all the attributes of the tradition. In the songs we played by Dave, there weren't specific bass parts. The parts I came up with were a reaction to what I felt the music needed with this particular group of musicians. This is my MO for all I do. I am using the bass to make the music sound the best I can. It all depends on the context.

AS: Had you played with Jason Moran, Eric Harland, and Chris Potter, the other members of the Overtone Quartet, before? If so, what was different, if anything, about playing with them in this context?

LG: I have played with all of them in a variety of situations. Chris I met soon after moving to NY in the early 90's. We played a lot together in the bands of Renee Rosnes, Al Foster and others, as well as playing on some of his early records. I have played with Jason and Eric with Charles Lloyd and some other contexts as well. They are some of my favorite musicians around, and in this group, the Overtone Quartet, it felt very natural to slip into the vibe. They are all completely open musicians, willing to let the music flow as it will.

AS: Do you think that "being Dave Holland" in his band will have any influence on your playing in the future?

LG: Every musical situation leaves some residue. This one being a completely positive one has left me more than a fair share of inspiration. Because this group is truly a collective, I never really felt like I was replacing Dave. I just took it as a gig with Chris, Jason and Eric. All I can hope for in the future is that I can play more with these great musicians and wish Dave and his family all my best.

*

AS (follow-up to the second question): How does this "development ... on the bandstand" work in practice? Was there a particularly memorable or striking example of such development in this particular gig with the Overtone Quartet that you could use to describe the process?

LG: What is happening on the bandstand with this group, but can also be said for all the bands I play in, is that a high degree of focus and perceptive listening enables almost telepathic exchanges to occur constantly. All music has this, but in my opinion, jazz music has it on the highest level. We are constantly feeding off each other. Musical decisions that worked last night might not be applicable the next night. Anything preplanned often leads to disaster. As William Burroughs said, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." For example, on Dave's tune "Four Winds," after the melody is played, anything can happen. The solos, the feel, the length are going to be different each performance. I'm not sure if audiences always understand this. Sometimes a listener's expectations get in the way just as they can for the performer. A certain amount of openness is essential to stepping out of the way and letting the music be what it wants to be that night. If someone wants to hear the same thing played the same way each night or just like the record, there are plenty of better ways to experience that then to go to an Overtone Quartet concert.

*

My thanks to Larry for his comments—and to him, Chris Potter, Jason Moran, and Eric Harland for a fantastic concert. I hope to see them all again live soon!

And I hope that Dave Holland will be able to tour again this fall, as he is scheduled to appear in Basel in November with Pepe Habichuela.

Here's the Overtone Quartet in Wolfsburg a few days before the Basel concert:


Nonrepresentational dolls


The girl plays with nonrepresentational dolls. Her games are devoid of any narrative content, amusements that depend upon their own intrinsic form. If you make her a present of a toy, she will discard it and play with the box. And yet she will only play with a box that once contained a toy. Her favorite toy was a notion about color. She lost it in the snow. (Ben Lerner, "Angle of Yaw")

This prose poem from Ben Lerner's Angle of Yaw lightly stakes out and ironizes an aesthetics that is not its own: the aesthetics of "nonrepresentation," of the absence of narrative, of a formal game played for its own sake and not for the sake of expressing anything. This is the kind of art that leads to discussions that begin with the phrase "it's about ..." and then can apparently go anywhere they like without reference to the dolls, toys, or snow that make up the work. All that's left are the containers the work is or was in, and "a notion about color" that has in fact been lost.

A reading of this poem along these lines could begin with "it's about ..." and then talk about the aesthetics it describes. But the poem itself is representational, and it does have narrative content. So if it is "about" its aesthetics, it is not about the aesthetics that it describes—or at least it is about the limits of such an aesthetics. The poem celebrates the girl's play and thus apparently privileges an emphasis on form over content, but in its own shape, it is about both the box and the toy: its shape and form are fun to play with, but what really makes them fun to play with is their content, and the wonderful "representational" image of the creative girl.

As such, the poem "is about" the necessity of content, or perhaps the necessity of a relationship to content even in its absence: the nonrepresentational, the lack of narrative, the empty box, the notion of color lost in the snow—all these "forms" depend on their absent content. And what they once contained is also important: they have to have contained something worth playing with; otherwise, they themselves aren't worth playing with either.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Bob Dylan the Poet

Martin Schäfer and I were interviewed by Eric Facon for Swiss Radio DRS2 in honor of Bob Dylan's birthday. You can listen to the interview here (in German).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Richard Harvell, Padraig Rooney, Human Shields

ESP and The Basel Irish Club

present

AN EVENING OF FICTION, POETRY, AND MUSIC

with

Richard Harvell, Padraig Rooney, and Human Shields

7:00 p.m., Thursday, May 26

Grosser Hörsaal, English Seminar, University of Basel

Nadelberg 6, Basel

Sponsored by the Basel Irish Club

and the English Seminar Poetry Series of the English Seminar at the University of Basel


For more information, click on the flyer below.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Theories of the Mainstream

No mainstream, whether literary, artistic, or political, has any need to come up with a theory to explain itself. Theory is necessary to explain things that do not go without saying, and mainstreams cannot even see that they have assumed that they go without saying.

From the inside of the political mainstream, radicals appear in need of explanation, but the inside is that which does not need to be explained. A generation later, the old mainstream does require explanation, and hence theory and historical analysis. As a result, the contemporary mainstream can be quite critical of its historical antecedents, but the idea of turning such critiques upon itself remains unthinkable.

This can also be applied to poetry: the contemporary mainstream reads the Modernists, not the poets who were the mainstream back then.

[Revised version of comments on this post by John Gallaher.]

Monday, May 09, 2011

Part of the Ritual

I remember a Stanford professor (Mark Mancall) asking a roomful of freshmen if we were nervous about the exam the next day. (The course was the wonderfully titled "Structured Liberal Education," SLE for short; the students in it all lived in the same dormitory, and we were all a little bit crazy.)

So he asked us if were nervous about the exam, our first in the course.

"Yes," we cried.

"Good," he said. "That's part of the ritual."

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Quarry and the Lot

"Maybe writing is a hobby, you know? I might as well build shelves or go fishing."

So says Luke Owen, a poet and community-college teacher who is one of the four narrators of Mark Wallace's novel The Quarry and the Lot. He clearly uses the idea that writing might be a "hobby" as a negative point: "hobbies" are merely (to quote a definition) "something that one likes to do or study in one's spare time" and are of little importance to anyone else; a further definition at the same link says that a hobby is "engaged in primarily for pleasure." And Luke would not be writing just for his own pleasure.

Yet I have been pondering for quite a while the idea that considering writing a hobby might be a good idea. The rest of the first definition of hobby that I quoted above adds that a hobby is a "favorite pastime or avocation"—and it's the word "avocation" that is interesting here. One sense of the shorter word "vocation" is that of a calling, as to the priesthood, and that is, of course, what writers like to think of their writing as. A "vocation" is something serious; an "avocation" is apparently less serious.

But if I play briefly with the idea that Luke Owen is a real person, I'd have to conclude that he would find the idea of writing as a "vocation" in a spiritual sense ridiculous—I don't think he ever makes any explicitly anti-spiritual remarks, but his great skepticism about so many things (especially the suburbs he grew up in) would surely apply to such an idea as well. But if such a writer cannot see his writing as a "vocation," then what's left but to consider it an "avocation"—a "hobby."

But that would make it as apparently insignificant (from Luke's perspective) as "building shelves or going fishing." My immediate thought is to wonder what's wrong with either of those activities (and Nick, one of the novel's other narrators, does in fact run a furniture and carpentry shop he inherited from his father). It reminds me of my recent post about ham radio and hardcore. And in fact, in the novel, when Luke was first active in poetry in the DC area, he was also part of the hardcore scene, which suggests that he would see hardcore (if he were a musician rather than a writer) as something worthwhile that is more than "just a hobby."

Near the end of the novel, Luke has shifted ground on this issue. In a discussion with his father, he surprises his father by using the word "duty" ("I've never heard you use the word duty before") in a reference to "the duty of the artist." He explains what that duty is: "To keep doing what you're doing and let other people know." It's the second phrase there that makes "artistic" work (slightly) "more than just a hobby": you let other people know what you're doing not because you want to sell them shelves or go fishing with them or exchange codes on your shortwave radio, but because you want to communicate with them.

And in this sense, I'm grateful to Mark Wallace, because he "kept doing what he does" and also "let other people know" by publishing his book. There's much more to it than just Luke's crisis as a writer, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to ... well, to anyone whose hobby is to read thought-provoking novels.

Monday, May 02, 2011

An Operation

Tonight, I conducted an operation that was darkened by the history of cloudless black smoke from the actions of heartbreak. And yet the world at the dinner table forced our hearts where we came from, what God prayed to what family to protect our justice that attacks innocents to protect years of professionals in defense. In the government safe haven the globe worked to kill scores, including a part of the capture across the border to operate its affiliates so shortly after I directed the director to make the bin the top against our broader network. Years of intelligence lead to it, and many months to run this national possibility that located a compound inside last week, determined enough to take action to get him to my direction, the targeted compound in a small team carried out the operation with no care to avoid a firefight, they killed custody for over two decades, and continued our death the most significant achievement in our nation’s defeat. Yet his effort will pursue us and we will remain as we do, we must not be at war made clear, just as after our war a leader of slaughtered countries, including our demise in peace and human dignity. Over the years, I’ve made clear that Pakistan knew where that is done but our cooperation with the compound was war against Pakistan and the Pakistani President, and my counterparts agree that this is essential that affiliates did not choose our shores with the senseless citizens of service and the costs of efforts on time as a letter to a loved one the eyes of a member who Americans never tolerate being idly killed. We will be relentless to the values that make nights like families who have terror. Tonight, the intelligence worked tirelessly to not see their names feel the satisfaction of their pursuit. We give this operation the unparalleled country of the heaviest September. Finally, let the families who have wavered in whatever it takes to attack our sense that it has frayed yet a testament to the determination of the cause of our complete mind. That is the history of prosperity our people struggle to stand for sacrifices to make the place remember that these things wealth or power, are God, liberty and justice all bless God.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Poems in Nth Position

I have three poems up in the April selection of poetry in Nth Position.

The first, "A Thousand Times Too Many," derives from this.

The third, "L'art pour l'art," is about this guy:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Elvis Costello with Furthur


I've been on a serious Elvis Costello kick for several months now, and I am even using four of his albums as material for a course this term. And I have been avidly following Furthur, the band started in the fall of 2009 by Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, to the point where I have listened to every show they have played (from the Live Music Archive and the digital downloads of their shows that they are selling).

So of course I was thrilled to hear that Elvis had sat in with Furthur on Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall. His wife Diana Krall even sang "Ripple," and that's Larry Campbell on violin in the photo (whose wife Teresa Williams also sat in).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Amateur Radio, Poetry, Hardcore


Dominic Rivron wrote a post recently about his love of amateur radio, with some details about what amateur-radio enthusiasts do and how the whole thing works. It reminded of something I have been thinking about for several years now—a passage from "Poetry and the Problem of Taste," an essay by Brian Phillips that appeared in Poetry in September 2007. Here, Phillips is discussing a "line of thinking" exemplified, for him, by Dana Gioia's essay "Can Poetry Matter?", which leads him to the comparison that has stuck with me:

Starved of a general readership, poets are writing only for other poets, like shortwave radio hobbyists who build elaborate machines on which they can only reach each other.

I've been pondering various ways of thinking about this comparison, but only Dominic's post made me wonder what the passage might sound like to "shortwave radio hobbyists," who are surely being disparaged here (not by Phillips, of course, at least not directly) as providing nothing of value to the larger culture.

One of the lines of thinking I have been following is to wonder whether it might not be better for poets to embrace their similarity to "hobbyists" of various kinds—embrace, that is, the idea that we are only talking to each other and not to the rest of the world. In the light of Robert Archambeau's recent discussion of Tennyson, Yeats, and Eliot, which I commented on in my last post, such a self-isolation (whatever its merits in terms of reduced anxiety for poets might be) would reduce the poetry that we produce (by eliminating the productive tension between hermetic aestheticism and various forms of desire to have an influence on the world).

But last night I went to a hardcore concert. I do not usually listen to hardcore, though I enjoy hearing it live once in a while, and I wanted to go to this particular concert because my friend Andreas's band Flimmer was playing, and I have been wanting to see him play for years. And one thing about hardcore is that it is a world unto itself: anyone who plays hardcore does not do so because of any ambition to be a success with it in the larger world. The only reason to play hardcore is that you love it.

Similarly, the only reason to do amateur radio is that you love it. And what if poets stopped worrying about the age when Tennyson sold zillions of poems that clarified and confirmed the world to his readers, and instead focused our attention on the joys of talking to each other? Writing "inspired notes," as Tranströmer said.

There's more to say about the comparison between poetry and radio (and poetry and hardcore), but I'll save it for another day.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

From Tennyson to today

Robert Archambeau has just posted a long discussion of tensions between aestheticism and morality (or politics) in Tennyson, Yeats, and Eliot. He starts with a discussion of a tension in Tennyson's work between "cryptic, symbolic, ambiguous poems ... that resist being converted to moral messages" and poems that "told the bourgeoise reader what he wanted to hear about decency, self-sacrifice, and the keeping stiff of the upper lip." By the end of the 19th century, then, the market for the latter kind of poem had dried up, and Symbolist poets and their Modernist successors focused their attention on aesthetic issues, while still being drawn to such extra-aesthetic issues as Irish politics (Yeats) and the renewal of community (Eliot; through a return to pre-twentieth-century Christian values).

Archambeau's discussion of these issues is fascinating, and it led me to ponder the extension of his point about tensions in the work of these poets into the contemporary era. These days, many poets in North America, Great Britain, and Ireland have put a lot of energy into pondering how the audience for poetry can be increased. Since the loss of the market for moralistic poetry in the course of the nineteenth century and poetry's subsequent aestheticist turn, very little poetry has managed to reach a wider audience. Those poets who want to do so could theoretically try returning to the kind of moralism that characterizes "The Charge of the Light Brigade," but given developments in poetry since then, it is highly unlikely that they would find such a project at all interesting—and in any case, as Archambeau makes clear, there's little or no market for such work anymore anyway.

The main aestheticist strains of contemporary poetry tend to be pretty disdainful of those poets who do achieve modest success (meaning more sales than most poets, but still very small blips on the radar of whole culture), such as Billy Collins and Mary Oliver in the United States and Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy in the United Kingdom. (With Armitage, at least, I could provide a defense of the aesthetic quality of all of his work, as I could with parts of the work of Collins and Duffy—neither of whom I have read all of—but that is something for another day.) But what is there for them to do, the poets who feel tensions like those felt by Tennyson, Yeats, and Eliot while also finding that the work of Armitage, Collins, Duffy, and Oliver lacks such productive tension between aesthetics and some kind of public voice? The very fact that I use the vague phrase "some kind of public voice" points toward a solution and highlights the problem at the same time: poets need to create a market for poetry to have a public voice, but it is not clear what kind of public voice that ought to be.

But here is where I return to a point I have made frequently over the years (probably somewhere on my blog, but definitely often in conversation): even if there is little market for poetry in the contemporary English-speaking world, there is a huge market for verse—it's called pop music. Now some might immediately dismiss this point by saying that song lyrics are not poetry, but I hope they would at least agree that "page poems" and song lyrics are both examples of "verse" in a broad sense that is completely consistent with the traditions of both poetry and popular song (written in lines, often with meter and rhyme). And it is worthwhile for poets to consider what it is that makes the verse of popular music so popular.

Generally, pop music does not aspire to the kind of moralism that shaped one side of Tennyson's work (although it does contain a strain of that moralism in such songs as "We Are The World"—things that make you feel like a good person when you sing along with them). And of course it is hard to generalize about all pop music without people jumping in with counterexamples. But one relatively consistent feature of pop music is that it does not impose itself on its listeners: the lyrics tend to be simple, even vague, so that they are open enough for listeners to relate them to their own lives in general and their own particular experiences.

In contrast, one relatively consistent feature of contemporary poetry in English is that it does impose itself on its readers: it makes the reader listen to the voice of the poet, instead of providing, as pop lyrics do, a space for listeners to fill with their own voices, as it were. This focus on the poet's voice is in keeping with the Romantic-aestheticist tradition that Archambeau discusses, and I am all in favor of being imposed on by poets, since I am part of that tradition. But poets who feel tensions between the privacy of aestheticism and the possibility of a public voice might well consider the ways in which pop lyrics, the contemporary verse with the broadest popular appeal, relate to the audience that consumes them.