Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mr. Memory

In 1997, Bill Frisell released an album called Nashville, his "country" album. I took it upon myself to write words for some of the songs on the record, including the song "Mr. Memory" (click here to listen to it on Spotify):


When you're alone with your name
what you recall is your self

Shoulders hunched up with the rain
no umbrella lost again
Mr. Memory heads for home
turns the corner and he's gone

If you forget your own name
what can you say to yourself?

The rain against the windowpane
is everything left behind
Mr. Memory waits for you
round the corner but you're gone

And you awake with no name
Bells ringing in a blue day

I just liked the expression "Mr. Memory" and let it and the melody take me places while I was writing. 

Last week, I watched Alfred Hitchock's The 39 Steps and was pleased to discover that Frisell's title might well be a reference to the character Mr. Memory, as played by Wylie Watson:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Voices from the air

In a short prose text called "Voices from the Air" (from her book What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, Norton, 1993), Adrienne Rich describes three scenes of hearing recorded poetry on the radio, with each scene exemplifying a different way of responding to poetry. In the first, while in the hospital recovering from an operation, Rich turned on the radio to look for music and heard instead a recording of The Duchess of Malfi, specifically, a passage that begins with the Duchess saying, "Who am I?" (it's about halfway through this scene):

BOSOLA: Thou art a box of worm-seed, at best but a salvatory
Of green mummy. What's this flesh? a little cruded milk
Fantastical puff-paste. Our bodies are weaker than those
Paper prisons boys use to keep flies in; more contemptible,
Since ours is to preserve earth-worms. Didst thou ever see
A lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body: this world
Is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o'er our heads,
Like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge
Of the small compass of our prison.

DUCHESS: Am not I thy Duchess?

BOSOLA: Thou art some great woman, sure, for riot
Begins to sit on thy forehead (clad in gray hairs)
Twenty years sooner than on a merry milkmaid's.
Thou sleepest worse than if a mouse
Should be forced to take up her lodging in a cat's ear:
A little infant that breeds its teeth, should it lie with thee,
Would cry out, as if thou wert
The more unquiet bedfellow.

DUCHESS: I am Duchess of Malfi still.

BOSOLA: That makes thy sleep so broken:
Glories, like glowworms afar off shine bright,
But look'd to near, have neither heat nor light.

Rich found that hearing this brutal passage, which precedes Bosola's strangling of the Duchess, could "solace [her] consciousness to the point of relief. For that is one property of poetic language: to engage with states that themselves would deprive us of language and reduce us to passive sufferers." This is a particularly vivid example of the cathartic experience of tragedy, the purification of negative emotions ("pity and terror," in Aristotle's terms) into an experience of solace. The scene is strikingly different than the theatrical scene of tragedy—not a stage with actors performing for an audience in a well-prepared aesthetic experience, but a solitary sufferer listening to something on the radio that she had not even been looking for—but even in this unlikely situation, the play produces its effect, and its audience finds relief.

The second scene could hardly be more different, except for the accidental discovery of poetry on the radio that connects it to the first. Driving at night, Rich and a friend again come across a Wallace Stevens poem being read by Stevens himself (I tried to find this recording on the web somewhere, but had no luck):

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Rich writes of this experience: "And for those moments, on a mountain road on a calm night, for two listeners in a world we knew to be in fracture, the words ... rose in that flat, understated, actuarial voice to bind the actual night, the moving car, the two existences, almost as house, reader, meaning, truth, summer, and night are bound in the poem. For a few minutes, we could believe in it all." This is quite a different way of responding to a poem: not through a cathartic purging of negative emotions, but through identification: although the scene they experience in the poem in is quite different from the scene described in the poem, they find themselves identifying with the described experience and having an experience of their own that corresponds to it. "The words were spoken as if there were no book": and for Rich and her friend, of course, there was no book, as they heard Stevens read the poem on the radio.

But Rich then spins this scene in a different way, imagining a different person coming across the Stevens poem on the radio: someone driving over to her sister's house in the middle of the night to go to the emergency room with her sister, whose boyfriend has stabbed her. This listener also searches for music while driving, but comes across poetry instead. If you were this listener, Rich wonders, "what would make your hand pause on the dial, why would these words hold you?" Such a listener would not identify with the reader in the poem, because her house is not "quiet," and her world is not "calm." Nor would she experience catharsis, for the poem is far from being a tragedy that can "purge pity and fear." If she is drawn in, Rich imagines, it will be for another reason entirely: "You are drawn in not because this is a description of your world, but because you begin to be reminded of your own desire and need, because the poem is not about integration and fulfillment, but about the desire ... for those conditions." For such a listener, the poem provides not solace or confirmation but a vision of an alternative, a utopia even, in which solace and confirmation might be possible.

In all of these scenes, the listeners turn on the radio to look for music, and they get poetry instead. They look for distraction from their momentary existence, and instead they find a commentary on it. They do not get an experience of wholeness that erases their own experience and replaces it with a commodity; they get the experience of a desire for wholeness, a desire for "what is found there" in poetry, as the title of Rich's book puts it, in a reference to William Carlos Williams: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." The misery of the lack of catharsis, the lack of identification, and the lack of a way to represent one's desires even (or especially) when one's world is fractured beyond hope of repair.


Click here for the context of the Williams quotation in his poem "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." The quoted passage is right near the end.


Alex Ross has a beautiful and brief response to the Stevens poem here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Updating "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish"

I love reading Neil Gaiman's picture books to my daughter Sara: "Crazy Hair," "The Wolves in the Walls," and "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish." It was the last of these that I read to her tonight. But even though the book was published in 2004, it is already out of date, so I had to update it.

It begins as follows:

One day my mom went out and left me home with just my little sister and my dad. My dad sat in front of the television, reading his newspaper. My Dad doesn't pay much attention to anything, when he's reading his newspaper.

I revised it as follows:

One day my mom went out and left me home with just my little sister and my dad. My dad sat in front of the television, reading his iPad. My Dad doesn't pay much attention to anything, when he's reading his iPad.

Yes, yes, that is much more up-to-date!

I should add that the book is hysterically funny. I laugh my head off about some of the bits, even though I know they are coming: "Mumf, mumf, mumf," said my little sister. You'll have to get the book yourself to know why that is hysterical. :-)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Streaming services and bands

My friend David Bauer wrote a quick defense of streaming services such as Spotify against the complaints musicians have about how little they earn from such services. It's in German here. (If you read German, the comments are worth reading, too.)

David's points are as follows:

1. Every band can choose whether or not to work with streaming services.

2. Bands earn money every single time a song is played on a streaming service. That's not comparable to the sale of a CD or other ways of earning money from selling music. (My comment: when you sell a CD, you don't earn money every time the consumer listens to each song.)

3. If a song is not available for streaming, that does not mean that you sell a CD. People can find free downloads or listen to something else.

4. Spotify is not making great profits. David provides a link to an article called "Why Spotify can never be profitable."

5. Spotify is not about making money for bands but about generating attention for their music. (My comment: it suddenly reminds me of the Grateful Dead: give away the right to record concerts and trade tapes, and the fans will come in droves, assuming the music is any good, especially if you promise a distinct concert at every show.)

David also links to this post of suggestions as to how Spotify can help musicians.

Curious what my musician friends have to say about this.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Home in on and hone in on

It begins with this status update from someone on Facebook:

Do people now accept "to hone in on" as in sharpen one's attention on something — as opposed to "to home in on"?

After a dozen or so comments that all denounced "hone in on," I entered the fray by referring the crowd to the Eggcorn Database and the page on the issue there:

There's a link there to a lengthy discussion of the issue by Mark Liberman, from Language Log:

I noted the following about Liberman's discussion:

It's fascinating to note that "home in on" is definitely only a few years older than "hone in on," and that George HW Bush's use of "hone in on" suggests that the "hone" form might have arisen almost simultaneously with "home in on" (as he was a pilot in WW2).

 After a few more comments by others, along came this comment:

Sorry to be so harsh, but only a dribbling cretin would believe the former to be correct. 'Hone' - as many others have pointed out - has *always* denoted the act of polishing/refining.

This led me to write:

"Only a dribbling cretin": give me a break! Read the Mark Liberman link I posted; like a good linguist, he treats all users of a language as worthy of respect, and he ends up with a much deeper understanding of how language is used than those who insult people for making "mistakes."

Which eventually led the poster of the "dribbling cretin" comment to this remark:

 Thank you for the link, Andrew: extremely interesting - but anyone who possesses what you characterise as "a much deeper understanding of how language is used" would be forced to the inevitable conclusion that Liberman - albeit perhaps a little too subtly for some - is simply monitoring, with exemplary fair-mindedness, the continued use of a malapropism that unfortunately appears to have taken root among dribbling cretins everywhere.

As for "treating all users of a language as worthy of respect": do you accord the same respect to people who deploy (as two examples we see on Fakebbook every day) "your" rather than "you're" and "it's" rather than "its"? If not, then perhaps you'd care to explain *why* not?

So here is my response to this last comment.

On the eggcorn in question:

First of all, I would not call the use of "hone in on" instead of "home in on" a malapropism. In a malapropism, the misused word does not make any sense at all in the context it is used in. In an eggcorn, the new phrase is "different from the original, but plausible in the context" (to quote the Wikipedia page on "eggcorn," which begins by contrasting the two terms). Recall that Mrs. Malaprop misuses words because she wants to show off. Users of eggcorns are not showing off; there are good reasons for the construction of an eggcorn.

This particular case exemplifies those reasons (as Liberman argues quite cogently): there is a phonetic justification for the usage (home/hone is a minimal pair, and the distinguishing phonemes are often misconstrued). Further (and again, following Liberman), the metaphorical extension of "hone" in this context is semantically feasible. 

To me, though, Liberman's most interesting point is that "hone in on" appears relatively soon after "home in on." We are not talking about one expression ("home in on") that has existed for centuries and a new expression ("hone in on") that recently began to replace it. Instead, "home in on" appears, and shortly thereafter, "hone in on" appears. So this is an example of a new expression that immediately generates an alternative that is phonetically and semantically not without justification. (A related case is "could (not) care less," where the "incorrect" form follows very quickly after the "correct" form. There are Language Log discussions of this, too, such as the one here, again by Liberman, which provides links to many further posts on the topic.)

In addition, once people begin hearing the "alternative" expression, they will begin to use it, especially if everybody around them does. A different expression is both a good example here and a funny story in its own right: I once used the spoonerism "one swell foop" when talking to my friend Heather. This is just a form that I like to use sometimes because it's funny. Heather laughed and told me that her mother had always used the spoonerism for its comic effect, but that meant that Heather thought that the real expression was "one swell foop." Eventually, Heather heard "one fell swoop" and thought that that expression was a funny spoonerism. This did not make either Heather or her mother a "dribbling cretin"; the whole process was and is completely understandable. If you hear something all the time, you will pick it up and use it, because that's what you hear.

On treating language users with respect (and "your/you're" and "it's/its"):

The short answer is that I do respect users who mix these forms up, because I understand why they get mixed up. One source of the problem is touch-typing: I learned how to touch type almost 35 years ago (thanks, Mom, for insisting that I take the typing class!), and one thing I noticed pretty much immediately was that when I got faster, my fingers stopped typing individual letters, as it were, and typed whole words as units. My name, for example, is so programmed into my touch-typing fingers that if I try to type my wife's name (Andrea), I always end up typing my name first (Andrew), and then I have to go back and correct it. The same thing happens with the problem pairs with apostrophes (for me, it's usually not the two mentioned above but "their/there/they're" that cause trouble because of typing reflexes—and even as I typed them now, my finger reflexes got in the way again!).

Secondly, in the case of "it's/its," many people are probably posting on Facebook with their iPhones, and the iPhone autocorrect will turn "its" into "it's" almost every time! (I'm puzzled why it sometimes does not do so.) Similarly, the commenter in question uses hyphens for dashes, and that would be annoying in a printed context. But on Facebook, it doesn't matter at all, and it's completely understandable—after all, it's easier to type a hyphen than a dash on a computer, and it's much easier to do so on an iPhone.

Thirdly, I mostly come across those problems in unedited contexts (such as Facebook), and I simply write it off as an honest slip; I've certainly posted things before editing them often enough, only to discover a silly mistake after doing so. It's related to rapid production (I had to stop for a moment to check my "it's" there to make sure it was correct, and it slowed down my production for a moment!). Even in the comment above, such a "rapid production" mistake appears: the commenter writes "Fakebbook." I like the playful "Fakebook" for "Facebook" (that's what I assume it is), and the double "bb" is just a typo. The mistake caused by rapid production does not make him a cretin.

Finally, even in highly edited contexts, the mistake slips through. When I come across "it's" for "its" in poetry collections, I take note of them. I've come across a half-a-dozen instances in the past two or three years. And in every case, the mistake only appears once or twice, and "it's" is otherwise correctly used in the book. The same is true of novels. 

In the final analysis, these are not problems of grammar. They are problems of typography. People make such errors even if they largely write correctly otherwise. And to come back to the commenter's question: yes, even people who make such mistakes deserve to be treated with respect as far as their language use is concerned.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Within Shouting Distance of the Coosa

A fine poem by R. T. Smith on Poetry Daily yesterday—but I have a problem with it. Read the poem first:


Once in Alabama when I was young
and given to aimless ambling,
I followed a red road between pines
where even at midday the cicadas
were complaining, and with nothing
on my mind and expecting nothing
I was about to pause for water
when the road's weedy roughness
opened to a clearing where boards
wounded by years of weather
formed a modest church, the peak
of its steeple gone and door scotched
open. The wind was scattering pollen,
and somewhere off in the needles
a mockingbird thought it was evening
and half-heartedly sang. Do I need
to say I forced the door and found
everything rain-soaked and broken,
the pews only planks whose cinder
blocks had fallen or were, as I've said,
ruined? But I heard a hum or what
I thought could be a hymn rising
from behind the altar and squinted
to see the worker bees dance and circle
where they'd swarmed. Young
as I was, I understood "not one step
closer, do not disturb," so backed
away, because I knew they believed
their honey holy and would not
suffer it to be troubled without
rushing to beset me, and besides I'd
already been touched by the Word
and held under down at the river
till I heard God's gold voice shining,
insects swarming the choir's serenade,
bee sound the very sound He made.


I stumbled at the question in the middle of the poem: "Do I need / to say ...?" Until this question (and after it, in fact), the poem presents a speaker remembering an experience, and the reading of the poem is itself an experience. The question about what one "needs to say" shifts away from the experience of a poem depicting an experience to the discursive nature of the poem itself. In itself, that's not a problem: there are many successful poems that address the discursive nature of poetry as a problem. But this question seems out of place to me.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Dream of publication

The other night, I dreamed that I was looking at a list of forthcoming titles from a poetry publisher, and one of the titles was a collection of my poems, something like "Poems 1988-2011." In the dream, I was surprised, because I could not remember having heard anything from the publisher (and I wasn't even sure I had sent the publisher a manuscript). Then somehow I was talking to the publisher, and he said, "But I was told you were dead, and somebody gave me all of your poems to edit for a book." I was most emphatically not dead, even in the dream, as the publisher admitted. That's all I remember from the dream, except this: the overall tone was not weird or uncanny; it was just funny.

Saturday, February 04, 2012


I recently had to replace my water boiler in the kitchen, which had started to leak. The new one is bigger, and it also boils the water much faster. So only now, when the water is done boiling much sooner than I unconsciously expected, have I noticed that I was in the habit of putting the water on and then taking my time in preparing my coffee filter to make my cup of coffee when the water finally boiled.

In this case, I only noticed that I even had a particular habit once the habit no longer functioned as such. It reminds me of this poem, which I wrote shortly before my second child was born:


We've moved into the dining room,

and Miles into ours,

to make room for number two.

And every couple hours,

I head to what was once our room to get

something no longer there,

then turn around, amazed by habit,

by what I live in, unaware.

Light Quarterly 50, Autumn 2005

Friday, February 03, 2012

Blowin in the Wind parodies

I readthis morning that David Lee Roth has parodied Bob Dylan on the new Van Halen album: "How many roads must a man walk down / before he admits he is lost?"

Can you sue somebody for stealing a parody? After all, the Chenille Sisters got there first: