Saturday, December 30, 2006

Gerald G. Ford

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 29, 2006

A Barred Owl

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

New Yorker cartoons

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

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

No old haunts

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2006

Year in Review

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

January: Welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodnight Mush

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

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

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

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Lying in submissions

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

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

My comment to him:

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

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

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

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

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

Early Comics

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Walt Disney

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Nicholas Manning on Celan

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

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

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

Saturday, December 16, 2006


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

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

Which led me to comment on JG's blog:

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

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

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

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

Style is culture-dependent

As I just wrote to a student here in Basel:

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

Friday, December 15, 2006

Jeet Thayil in Softblow

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

To Baudelaire

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


Or, as Greg Brown put it:

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

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Other than that

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

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

Maxwell's color photo

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

Patterns in book manuscripts

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Becoming a neurosurgeon

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

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

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

Why German-language poets don't write blogs

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Humanity's Place in Nature"

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

Steven Pinker, "Less Faith, More Reason"

Sunday, December 10, 2006

No Man's Land

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

Human Shields, 20061122, Parterre, Basel

Photos by renew. Thanks, man!

News Poet News

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

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

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

Two interesting discussions of poetry and criticism

Here are two posts I found interesting:

Death and Critical Transparency
Some Like It Hot

I commented on the latter:

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

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

Thursday, December 07, 2006

George and John in heaven

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

What are critics for?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Don on Orson

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

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Name Wizard

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

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

Friday, December 01, 2006


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Set Pieces (2001)

[This is a set piece I wrote in September/October 2001]

I first noticed the odd literary use of the expression "set piece" in book reviews. In my favorite example, quite a few reviewers used the term to refer to the opening section of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld. This lengthy prologue is a description of the 1951 baseball playoff when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit a game-winning home run The New York Times dubbed "the shot heard round the world" (even though the issue's other lead story reported the Soviet Union's first detonation of a hydrogen bomb). The expression "set piece" not only does not do justice to such a virtuoso performance, it is also—independent of the passage's quality or style—not really applicable to it at all.

In a set piece in sports, players do a series of planned things in order to achieve a particular goal: the hit-and-run in baseball; the pick-and-roll John Stockton and Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz perfected in basketball and executed thousands of times over the years; corner kicks or free kicks in soccer, so sublime when performed by David Beckham or Roberto Carlos, with all their power, grace, and precision. In a sense, every single play in American football is a set piece, at least at the beginning. In all these examples, a series of "set" moves has to be executed with precise timing in order for the action as a whole to succeed. In this light, regarding a passage in a novel as a "set piece" seems quite odd: the point of such a play is that it can and should be done over and over again in the same way, while DeLillo's prologue in Underworld—to return to my example—can only be done once.

The verbal set piece is in the realm not of the writer but of the raconteur. Think of those people who are so present at parties because of their virtuoso storytelling. Their narratives can occasionally be annoying, but such "set pieces" are more often thoroughly entertaining, full of wit and energy, told with precise timing and complete control of digressions and little ironies. Tucked into the flow of conversation, these little morality tales, however indirectly, comment on or correct statements made by others. Still, the raconteur does not finally aim to "score points," as it were, but to perform, to keep the conversational ball in play as artfully as possible—so as to provide openings for further stories down the line.

Those who hear such stories often urge their tellers to write them down—but good raconteurs rarely have the temperament to be good writers. They are gregarious improvisers, not solitary composers; their pieces evolve in performance, not through the painstaking revision a writer like DeLillo puts into his work. The writer aims at the unrepeatable; the raconteur's story may evolve with time, so that if you hear it again, even years later, you may wonder why some of the details have changed, but the point of the set piece—or more precisely, of its telling—is finally its repeatability.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Oh Hell; Bored; Lucy

I've been meaning to post this little gem from the September 18, 2006, issue of The New Yorker for quite a while, from the profile of Bill Clinton:

"For decades, including the White House years, Clinton’s game was hearts (or, when he lacked a posse, solitaire), but he dropped it when Steven Spielberg, a longtime Friend of Bill, taught him Oh Hell—a lesser cousin of contract bridge. ... Clinton’s appeal for ... tycoons is obvious: in exchange for giving money to a good cause—the Clinton Foundation’s budget last year was thirty million dollars—you not only have the usual tax break and the knowledge that you are doing good but also get to play Oh Hell until five in the morning with a two-term ex-President who knows how to have a good time."

Hey, Bill! I love playing Oh Hell, call me anytime. Spielberg can join us. :-)

Finally, Clinton visits the National Museum in Addis Ababa:

'Then, at Clinton’s command, we visited the National Museum, which houses the bones of “Lucy,” a hominid who lived more than three million years ago. The museum was dingy and underfunded, but the guides were thrilled to open the place to Clinton, even though it was their day off. As he walked past the exhibits, Clinton listened a little and talked a lot. He talked about the giant pigs, the razorbacks, that roam his home state. And as he walked past some of the display cases he started talking about the wonders of the bonobo apes.

'“They have the most incredibly developed social sense,” he said. “When one of them makes a kill, they share the food, unlike all the other apes.” And then, Clinton said, with a laugh, “they fall down to the ground and have group sex! It’s a way of relieving aggression!” Such behavior, he said, “would drive the Christian right crazy!”'

Bush wouldn't be caught dead near Lucy, would he?

About his days as a Rhodes scholar, Clinton says: "I was very happy in England. I was young, I didn’t mind, I travelled a lot alone. I was alone a lot as a kid. I was never bored."

If he was never bored, he must have Inner Resources.

Monday, November 27, 2006

To get her

To get her
ego, Rhett,
go tether
hot egret
to get her
tog ether

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Thanksgiving Blog Blues

The main way that this expat in a country that did not have a holiday this week has noticed that people in the U.S. do have a holiday this week is that I keep checking blogs that otherwise get updated on a near-daily basis and that have now fallen silent! I'm looking forward to tomorrow and Monday, when people begin writing again, once they have fully digested their turkey!


A student wrote an essay-story whose purpose was to end a text with the sentence, "When I woke up, I felt alive."

This reminded me of a one-sentence short story cited by Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (which means for us): "When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there."

I found a reference to this on the web: it appears to have written by a Guatemalan writer named Augusto Monterroso. The Wikipedia page on Monterroso provides a different version of the story, in the third person! I don't have Calvino's book (I read it long ago, having borrowed it from a friend or the library), but I am sure he quotes it in the first person.

I also remember (perhaps incorrectly) how Calvino refers to Monterroso in his section on "quickness," but also refers to Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities as a book characterized by brevity, despite its being well over 1000 pages long (and unfinished). "Quickness" is a matter not only of length, but also of focus.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Habitat destruction

Some interesting points about habitat destruction are at birderblog today. Here's a summary:

"In tropical rain forests, for example, land conversion exceeds habitat protection by a ratio of 2 to 1. ... But in Mediterranean habitats ... the disparity is 8 to 1. We have protected only one acre of land for every eight we have lost. ... And in temperate grasslands ... we have protected only one acre for every 10 we’ve lost."

In other words, the attention paid to tropical rain forests has helped (if not as much as it could), but it has distracted "westerners" from their own local destruction of habitats, ones that they barely recognize as being habitats. I'm going to keep this in mind the next time I read about how horrible it is that rain forests are being burned for farmland: what about the grasslands in the Great Plains?

How Terrible Is It?

Max Rodenbeck's "How Terrible Is It?", from the Nov. 30, 2006, issue of the New York Review of Books, begins with the official documents called "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America" from September 2002 and March 2006. You can tell from the title of the article, of course, where MR is coming from! But my reason for citing it here is Rodenbeck's discussion of Louise Richardson's book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.

Richardson is "a Harvard professor who not only has been teaching about terrorism for a decade, but brings the experience of an Irish childhood, including youthful enthusiasm for the IRA, to understanding the phenomenon. As she explains, she had always thought it wise for academics to stay out of politics. The sheer boneheadedness of Washington's incumbents, who have ignored decades of accumulated wisdom on her subject, prompted her to write a belated primer."

Rodenbeck summarizes a dozen of Richardson's basic points as follows (his elaborations are longer than I have quoted here; I've just quoted the beginning of each point):

1. Terrorism is anything but new.

2. Terrorism is obviously a threat, and the deliberate killing of innocent civilians an outrage, but it is not a very big threat.

3. The danger from terrorist use of so-called weapons of mass destruction is not as large as scaremongers profess.

4. Many terrorists are not madmen. The choice to use terror can be quite rational and calculated.

5. Groups that commit terrorism, in many cases, believe they are acting defensively, using the most effective means at their disposal. Their justifications can be self-serving and morally repugnant, but are often carefully elaborated.

6. Suicide attacks can also represent a rational policy choice. They are cheap. They can be a means of access to difficult targets. They are effective in frightening people, and in advertising the seriousness and devotion of those who undertake them.

7. There is no special link between Islam and terrorism. Most major religions have produced some form of terrorism, and many terrorist groups have professed atheism. If there is a particular tenacity in Islamist forms of terrorism today, this is a product not of Islamic scripture but of the current historical circumstance that many Muslims live in places of intense political conflict.

8. Electoral democracy does not prevent terrorism, which has flourished in many democracies, typically being used by groups representing minorities who believe the logic of majority rule excludes them.

9. Democratic principles are no impediment to prosecuting terrorists. On the contrary they are, Richardson asserts, "among the strongest weapons in our arsenal."

10. Military action is sometimes necessary to combat terrorism, but it is often not the best way to do so.

11. Armies, in fact, often create more problems than they solve.

12. To address the issues terrorists say they are fighting for cannot automatically be dismissed as appeasement.

I highly recommend the whole article, and Rodenbeck highly recommends Richardson's whole book.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Glass Beads

Brian Campbell's comment on one of C. Dale Young's entries led me to BC's essay "Can Poetry Matter?--15 Years After."

Brian looks at a number of essays that responded to Dana Gioia's original "Can Poetry Matter?" essay. One of the issues that always comes up is the role that Creative Writing programs play in the development of poetry in North America. One point that I always make and that I rarely come across has to do with health insurance.

Perhaps it takes an expatriate living in a country with a functioning health-insurance system to notice this, but one very good reason for poets to want to get credentialed (MFA) and tenured (Professor of Creative Writing)—or even just working for a university in some way—is to get health insurance.

In the jazz world, it is striking how often older musicians who get sick are dependent on benefit concerts from their fellow musicians in order to be able to pay their health costs (Billy Higgins, Sun Ra)—or at least are dependent on staying on the road (or going back on the road) after life-threatening heart attacks or strokes (Oscar Peterson continued touring even after his stroke partially disabled his hand: try playing piano like that!).

So it's more than understandable if creative people try to get themselves a gig at a university, which will usually involve some sort of health coverage. When Adrienne Rich left UC Santa Cruz to teach at Stanford in the mid-eighties, the story we students heard was that (even though she apparently would have preferred to stay at UCSC) she got much better treatment for her rheumatoid arthrities through Stanford than from a public school.

Of course, Brian's essay made me think of some other things, too. He quotes Jake Berry's response to Gioia:

"Should we as poets be prepared to accept, even embrace, obscurity in order to practice an art that is important to the deeper, more complex, conditions of our species? For what reason? Does reason have anything to do with it? Do we not practice this art out of some obsession that forever seems to remain just beyond our ability to describe and name? Or do we practice it to keep the poetic faculties alive regardless of who or how many may subscribe to that experience?"

The last of these questions reminds me of a book I read long ago, Das Glasperlenspiel, by Herman Hesse. Not a great novel, but a very memorable one: the main character is a monk-like figure living in a future in which civilization has collapsed, and he and his fellows in the cloister-like place where they live spend their days playing "the glass-bead game," which is a means of preserving knowledge for future generations.

I recently read Basel in the Age of Burckhardt, by Lionel Gossman, and one of the things that kept coming up was how much Burckhardt (and Bachofen, who is the other major figure in Gossman's book) saw his scholarship as a way of "shoring up fragments against our ruin" (to quote anachronistically). In a sense, Burckhardt saw scholarship as a "glass-bead game" even before Hesse wrote his novel.

There's one other moment in Brian's essay that I would like to draw attention to:

"As Simon DeDeo, one of my blog interlocutors, put it so well, does theoretical science matter to anyone? Not really, except for the practitioners, the aficionados, and the students. Similarly for poetry. As theoretical science is not in a bad way, neither is poetry."


Monday, November 20, 2006

Elixir, volume 5, no. 2

My poem "Tarah's Maid" appears in volume 5, number 2, of Elixir, which has just been published. (The issue is so new that they don't even have it up on their web site yet.)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The worst in American history?

Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker of November 6, 2006, before the mid-term election:

There’s a lively debate among historians over the question of whether the record of the forty-third President, compiled with the indispensable help of a complaisant Congress, is the worst in American history or merely the worst of the sixteen who managed to make it into (if not out of) a second full term. That the record is appalling is by now beyond serious dispute. It includes an unending deficit—this year, it’s $260 billion—that has already added $1.5 trillion to the national debt; the subcontracting of environmental, energy, labor, and health-care policymaking to corporate interests; repeated efforts to suppress scientific truth; a set of economic and fiscal policies that have slowed growth, spurred inequality, replenished the ranks of the poor and uninsured, and exacerbated the insecurities of the middle class; and, on Capitol Hill, a festival of bribery, some prosecutable (such as the felonies that have put one prominent Republican member of Congress in prison, while another awaits sentencing), some not (such as the reported two-million-dollar salary conferred upon a Republican congressman who became the pharmaceutical industry’s top lobbyist immediately after shepherding into law a bill forbidding the government to negotiate prices for prescription drugs).

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Human Shields, Parterre, Open Mic, November 22, 2006

Human Shields

Dany Demuth (g, voc)
Andrew Shields (g, songwriting)

"How you gonna get the cat back in the bag?"

Open Mic
Kaserne, Klybeckstrasse, Basel
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Time: sometime after 8:30 p.m.

"In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

Just call me Maya, honey.

I took The Which Famous Poet Are You Test and came out as Maya Angelou!

Gay marriage in South Africa

In today's International Herald Tribune is an article about a new South African bill allowing gay marriage. The catch is that it includes an "opt-out clause" for "religious and civil officers to refuse to marry same-sex couples on moral grounds." Considering that the starting point for this bill was a South African Constitutional Court decision that "existing marriage legislation was unconstitutional because it discriminated against same-sex couples," it is surprising that this law still allows for such discrimination.

In the same newspaper is an article about how traditional customs in Africa can contribute to the spread of AIDS. For example, an HIV-positive mother who is advised not to breast-feed her baby did so anyway, because she had to breast-feed the baby for two weeks as part of a traditional ritual. Of course, there are those who say that the traditional rituals should not be subject to any challenges from science.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

From Atheism to Baptism

Okay, I'm a Militant Darwinist and an atheist. But my children get baptized, so I am not, I guess, a true full-scale militant Atheist. Andrea wants them to get baptized, and I like the ritual.

So Sara is being baptized on Sunday, one day before she turns six months old. In Switzerland (as in Germany where Miles was baptized), the parents are asked to choose a verse from the Bible as a Taufspruch (baptismal motto, or something like that). For Sara, we chose this:

Meine Kindlein, laßt uns nicht lieben mit Worten noch mit der Zunge, sondern
mit der Tat und mit der Wahrheit. (1. Johannes 3:18)

That's how Luther put it. King James's team put it like this:

My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed
and in truth.

I like the way this seems to undermine Luther's emphasis on faith, as opposed to works, by keeping the focus on what one does ("in deed") as well as on what one believes ("in truth").

We also considered this beautiful verse from Proverbs (31:25), in Luther's words:

Kraft und Schöne sind ihr Gewand, und sie lacht des kommenden Tages.

The KJ team put it like this:

Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

We like the German version, with its beautiful echo of the way Sara (also known as "the rooster" in our household) often wakes up at around 5 a.m. and begins to laugh and coo and enjoy the very fact of being alive. (I also like the lovely genitive of "lacht des kommenden Tages," but I'm funny that way.)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Gary Wolf on Atheism

Here's an interesting article from Wired in which Gary Wolf pursues the idea of being a militant atheist, including interviews with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.

My favorite line:

"... there are certain actors in history who change the world by staging their own defeat."

What's on my desk

C. Dale Young posted a list of everything on his desk. I posted a comment with what is on my desk, but actually only with what is on the top of the piles, plus a few stray things:

These are the things on TOP of the piles:

The latest issue of Conduit.
Bill Coyle, The God of this World to His Prophet (which I received because I did not win the New Criterion Prize for 2005)
Two DVDs of Greg Brown concerts.
Amy Clampitt, The Kingfisher (waiting to be given to a friend, since I have her Collected Poems)

Then some stray things:

A pink highlighter; a lost pen cap; a small post-it pad; a black Pentel mechanical pencil; some ungraded papers; a guitar tuner; an electronic letter scale; a green clothespin; a small package of Kleenex.

What do you have on your desk?

Updated list of publications

It has been years since I last updated my list of publications on the Basel English Seminar website, but I have finally done it again. The list also contains updated links to publications that I have been able to locate in on-line versions. (If you do happen to try any of the links and discover that they are incorrect, please tell me so that I can fix them.)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Light Quarterly 52-53, Spring-Summer 2006

The latest issue of Light includes four more poems of mine. If that sounds like a lot, well, they add up to a grand total of fourteen lines. The titles:

Walk with a Five-Year-Old
Certain Persons
Postcard after a Visit
The Day after Writing a Poem

There are more words in the four titles than lines in the four poems! :-)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Poetry Calendar 2007

My poem "Cabinet d'Amateur" appears as one of the 365 poems in the Poetry Calendar 2007 published by Alhambra Publishing in Belgium. I have been enjoying the 2006 calendar published by the same house, not only because it includes my poem "Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong," but because it is full of interesting poems, both contemporary and historical, often nicely paired (as when my poem is preceded by Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush").

The 2007 calendar also includes poems by my friends Geoffrey Brock and A. E. Stallings, along with many other fine contemporary poets.

The same company publishes poetry calendars in French and German, as well.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Great Uncle Andrew

I hope that my nieces and nephews all think that I am a great Uncle Andrew, but now I am a Great Uncle Andrew: my German nephew Nils and his girlfriend Jessica had a baby on Sunday (Jessica's own birthday), Luca Jannis Delpho. And Andrea (who has always been a great Aunt Andrea) is now also a Great Aunt Andrea.

This, by the way, is my 100th post to my blog.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Neighborhood Bully

Back when George H.W. Bush talked about the "line in the sand" after Iraq invaded Kuwait, I finally understood why I had always disliked him: it was because he was a bully.

Like father, like son, then: the morning after the election in 2000, a student asked me why I disliked Bush so much, and since I knew she was a fan of Harry Potter, I told her it was because he was a bully, just like Draco Malfoy. She immediately understood. :-)

It's nice to see others coming to the same conclusion; here's Paul Krugman on GWB:

"At this point, nobody should have any illusions about Mr. Bush’s character. To put it bluntly, he’s an insecure bully who believes that owning up to a mistake, any mistake, would undermine his manhood — and who therefore lives in a dream world in which all of his policies are succeeding and all of his officials are doing a heckuva job."

And here's Joan Didion on Dick Cheney:

"The personality that springs to mind is that of the ninth-grade bully in the junior high lunchroom, the one sprawled in the letter jacket so the seventh-graders must step over his feet."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

Math and German

C. Dale Young wrote today about his decision to do medicine and poetry, instead of Studio Art.

Twenty-two years ago, I decided to drop the Math part of my planned double major in Math and German. Later, I switched to English, still writing poetry all the time. Today, I wonder why I thought I could not do mathematics and literature at the same time. I have even considered doing a B.S. in Math part-time here in Basel. Maybe I'll still get around to it, but not before Sara goes to kindergarten, which will not be until August 2011.

My reflections on this, as well as CDY's, reminded me of John Koethe's poem "Hamlet."

Saturday, November 04, 2006


Miles and I don't play cribbage any more since we invented doublage, which is kind of "double cribbage." Instead of dealing six cards and putting two in the crib to create two four-card hands and one four-card crib, play with two decks (104 cards), deal nine cards, and put three in the crib to create two six-card hands and one six-card crib. All other rules are the same, except that we go four times around the board rather than twice. (You need 241 points to win instead of 121.)

The highest possible hand is 112 points (seven fives); the next highest is 91 (jack, six fives, nibs; the equivalent of the 29-point hand in cribbage). The highest-scoring hand we have had is a 58-point hand that Miles had once (when he needed only 20 to go out); my best hand was thus ruined: a 50-point hand that I did not get to peg because of his having won already!

The funniest thing to have was double nibs, when I had two jacks of the suit of the card that was cut. Finally, in doublage it is nearly impossible to get a dry hand or crib.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Senators who voted for the "enemy combatant" law

Garrison Keillor has helpfully provided this list in his article "A Shameful Retreat from American Values":

Alexander, Allard, Allen, Bennett, Bond, Brownback, Bunning, Burns, Burr, Carper, Chambliss, Coburn, Cochran, Coleman, Collins, Cornyn, Craig, Crapo, DeMint, DeWine, Dole, Domenici, Ensign, Enzi, Frist, Graham, Grassley, Gregg, Hagel, Hatch, Hutchison, Inhofe, Isakson, Johnson, Kyl, Landrieu, Lautenberg, Lieberman, Lott, Lugar, Martinez, McCain, McConnell, Menendez, Murkowski, Nelson of Florida, Nelson of Nebraska, Pryor, Roberts, Rockefeller, Salazar, Santorum, Sessions, Shelby, Smith, Specter, Stabenow, Stevens, Sununu, Talent, Thomas, Thune, Vitter, Voinovich, Warner.

As Keillor points out, "If your college kid were to be arrested in Bangkok or Cairo, suspected of 'crimes against the state,' and held in prison, you'd assume that an American foreign service officer would be able to speak to your kid and arrange for a lawyer, but this may not be true anymore. Be forewarned."

Further: "None of the men and women who voted for this bill has any right to speak in public about the rule of law anymore, or to take a high moral view of the Third Reich, or to wax poetic about the American Idea. Mark their names. Any institution of higher learning that grants honorary degrees to these people forfeits its honor."

And finally: "Our enemies have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They have made us become like them."

Paint my love a morning sky

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

Must be getting early
Clocks are running late
Paint by number morning sky
Looks so phony

Until I had occasion to look them up a few minutes ago, I thought the second line was "paint my love a morning sky." Which is a beautiful line, actually, just not what Robert Hunter wrote!

Friday, September 29, 2006

20 Science Myths

I enjoyed this page about common "facts" that are not true. I had only recently read that it is not true that water drains one way in the northern hemisphere and the other way in the southern hemisphere, so I was pleased to see that confirmed.

Fire on the Mountain, Ventura, July 13, 1985

Mr. Jumbo has posted some pictures of wildfires currently burning along his biking route in Southern California. They reminded me of a Dead show in Ventura, CA, on July 13, 1985. From the fairgrounds, in the mountains on the other side of the city, a quiet drama was taking place before the show: a wildfire was creeping down the hillside toward some houses. My sight might have been playing tricks on me (or my memory is playing tricks now), but I can still picture how the arcs of water were playing over the roofs of houses to keep them dry. Then the Dead came out and opened with "One More Saturday Night" seguing nicely into, you guessed it, "Fire on the Mountain."

I thought I'd put a link to the Live Music Archive recording of the show here, but for some reason it is no longer available. So anyone who wants to hear that version of FOTM will have to get a copy from me!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

What Miles Heard

Miles likes the Rolling Stones. This is how he heard the chorus of the song "Happy":

I need a loan to make me happy!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Good poets steal

Bob Dylan's been at it again, borrowing lines and images from one source for Modern Times, this time from a nineteenth-century American poet named Henry Timrod. One article on the subject is in The Independent.

As for the Eliot line that I stole the title of this from, I have always heard it as "bad poets imitate; good poets steal," but the web is full of references to "bad poets borrow; good poets steal." The former sounds like a better maxim to me, and since TSE was good at maxims, I hope he said "imitate" and not "borrow." But the web is not very useful in answering this question, since a search only gives you a zillion unreferenced citations of the maxim, in both forms!

(I'm expecting at least one occasional reader of my blog to be able to provide an immediate answer to this question!)

Timrod, by the way, wrote South Carolina's official state anthem, "Carolina."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Here's a site for language fans (and nitpickers): the Eggcorn Database. "Eggcorns" are misused words or phrases, like "mute point" for "moot point" or "eggcorn" for "acorn," and this database has collected over 500 of them!

One of them is "ten year" for "tenure." When I was growing up, my father was a tenure-track professor in Math at the University of Toledo. I was always puzzled about the fact that "getting ten year" meant "getting a permanent contract" when it ought to mean "getting a ten-year contract"!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Trying to be double-skunked II

We tried again. This time Miles was trying to be double-skunked—and he failed. He ended up with 70 points, for two primary reasons: I was not scoring many points; and, over and over again, he was getting bad cuts (that is, he was getting what would usually be good cuts, turning a dry hand into a five-point hand, say, but since he was trying NOT to score, they were bad cuts).

Our conclusion based on this very slim sample: it is VERY hard to double-skunk anyone in cribbage. I, for one, do not remember having ever seen or been involved in a double-skunk. Are double-skunks as rare as 29-point hands?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Trying to be double-skunked

Miles and I did a cribbage experiment this morning: Could I be double-skunked on purpose? It turns out it is quite hard to avoid scoring points! I did manage to let him double-skunk me, but I still ended up with 48 points, and part of the reason he was able to do so is that he got a couple of quite powerful hands (16 or 17 points). It's hard to strip a good six-card hand of points! So that makes it clear why double-skunking is so rare. I wonder if it is as rare as a 28/29-point hand?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

August and September photos

I've just put some new photos on a web page. As I don't want to post the link publicly, send me an email if you'd like to have the link!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Dewey Redman obit in English

The NYT obit is here. See my thoughts in my previous post.

Dewey Redman (1931-2006)

I never had a chance to hear Dewey Redman live, but I used to play lots of albums featuring his brilliant sax playing on the radio back in my KZSU days. Pat Metheny's "80/81," Keith Jarrett's American Quartet in the 70s (with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian), Ornette Coleman LPs, and the wonderful band Old and New Dreams all made frequent appearances on my radio show. Now Charlie Haden is the only survivor of that last group, which also featured Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell (another great player whom I never heard live). Live long, Charlie.

I haven't yet found an English obituary; a German one appeared in the NZZ.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Flying Spaghetti Monster

A student of mine sent me a link to the Wikipedia page for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody of Intelligent Design that has taken on a life of its own: the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The founder, Bobby Henderson, gets a lot of hate mail.

As for me, I am still a Militant Darwinist, but I am sympathetic to the Pastafarians, as the followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monsters call themselves.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

A. E. Stallings reviewed by Adam Kirsch

Adam Kirsch's review of A. E. Stallings's Hapax concludes with a brief and beautiful discussion of the winner of my Daily Poem Project, "Fragment":

"When Stallings writes about shattering emotion, as in 'Fragment,' she does not use 'I' even once, preferring to give herself wholly over to the metaphor of a dropped glass:

It breaks because it falls
Into the arms of the earth—that grave attraction.
It breaks because it meets the floor’s surface,
Which is solid and does not give. It breaks because
It is dropped, and falls hard, because it hits
Bottom, and nobody catches it."

(I should mention that Kirsch's review begins with a review of The Optimist by Joshua Mehigan, before getting to Stallings's book.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

George at work

There's a nice picture of George W. Bush at work here. He's never been much of a handyman, I guess.


As Andrea said the other day: "When you have to wear socks, it doesn't feel like summer anymore."

Bob Dylan, "Modern Times": First impressions

Bob Dylan's new album, Modern Times, is incredibly relaxed. Most of the songs are mid-tempo shuffles, with the arrangements focusing on texture (a guitar riff here, a drum fill there, a bit of violin) rather than on power. There are only a couple real rockers, and even they are not played for rock-and-roll drive.

My first listen was last night after supper, with three kids running round (well, okay, Sara was not running around, since she can't walk yet, but it's a metaphor). The sound of the CD made the whole living room calm; the kids' energy did not seem hectic with these gentle but pulsing rhythms surrounding them. Despite being very worn out, I just sat there on the couch and enjoyed the music and the kids.

I've been catching bits of lyrics here and there, but nothing that makes me want to cite anything yet. Lots of nice turns of phrase, as always, and a healthy dose of lines that are actually clichés, but that sound beautiful in a song. Also, the lyrics are not included with the disc, and I have not yet been able to find them on line.

In fact, the phrases that keep coming to me tend to be from songs from Dylan's last, Love and Theft, which just indicates that this CD sounds a lot like that one—and why shouldn't it? One feature of both Love and Theft and Modern Times is just how wonderfully recorded they are.

The titles that have struck me the most on Modern Times are the first two, "Thunder on the Mountain" (not a rocker; the thunder is in the distance, as it were) and "Spirit on the Water" (with some exquisite rhythym riffing from the guitars), as well as two ballads, "When the Deal Goes Down" (with its title that sounds familiar to any Deadhead) and "Nettie Moore." The last of these is the most singular tune on the CD musically: the groove is much less pronounced, and the sparseness of the arrangement (though not the details) recalls the exquisite "Sugar Baby" from Love and Theft. The arrangement of the drums deserves special mention: using mostly just a straight-four bass drum, with some percussion details added on the choruses (or perhaps they are bridges?), George Recile has produced a masterpiece of minimalism in his playing here.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer

David Foster Wallace, author of the novel Infinite Jest and other books that have gotten a lot of attention over the past few years, has just published an essay about Roger Federer in The New York Times. I recommend it; along with being a good description of Federer himself, it is an excellent analysis of the current situation in men's tennis.

(If you can't get to the article, sign up for free access to the NYT. If the article is more than a week old and hence in the archive, then you can access the archive if you subscribe to the NYT or to the International Herald Tribune. If you cannot get to the article otherwise, I did download it, so you can ask me to send it to you.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Verse novels V: Rosellen Brown, "Cora Fry's Pillow Book"

This book is another one that I picked up in March, but I only just now got around to reading it. It pushes the envelope of what can be called a "verse novel," but there is enough story to it to make it clearly more than "just" a "sequence." Rosellen Brown writes in the first person here, but the speaker is Cora Fry, a woman who lives most of her life in Oxford, New Hampshire, where as an adult she is first a housewife and then a mail carrier. The narrative is basically the narrative of a life: children are raised, tensions between husband and wife are dealt with, and eventually Cora and her husband move to another town after he has gone through a period of unemployment. This story of a life makes the book more a novel than a sequence.

At the same time, the individual poems can mostly be read on their own, as well (which, it could be argued, makes it more a sequence than a novel). There are many vivid moments, as in a poem about Cora's children that contains this frightening thought for all parents:

And if I died
would they
remember me

This is followed a bit later by a a crisp poem acting out how the light from a new streetlamp would upset someone nearby who is not used to light shining in the window at night. Another memorable poem describes how a muskrat chewed off its leg to escape a trap, leaving behind only a leg for Cora's husband and son to find there. A third is about gardening and the gardener's uncertainty about the vegetables she plants:

Each year I doubt, each year they prosper.

The gardener's doubt, that is, does not influence the success or failure of the garden. (I have the same doubt when I tie-dye shirts: each time I doubt, each time they come out.)

There is a memory of her son on a merry-go-round, thinking that the "red and white horse" would "canter off across / the town green." At the same time, there is a much later poem about talking to adult children, remembering things, and noticing:

They have forgotten the childhoods we had
together, they remember only their own.

The book is actually two books: Cora Fry was apparently published much earlier; the 1994 edition that I have includes all of Cora Fry and then continues with the actual Cora Fry's Pillow Book. The two books cover different time periods (the former the housewife years, so to speak, and the latter the mail-carrier years) and are written in different forms (shorter lines in the former, much longer lines in the latter).

One of the more startling moments comes near the end of the second part, when Cora reflects on the lives of those who have lived in or near Oxford all their lives:

... I feel like a pilot
flying over the tiny, separate plots of our lives,
I see how the shapes we've worked so hard at carving out and cultivating
to look like no one else's begin to resemble each other. At fifteen thousand feet,
they blend, their borders run together, vague, finally invisible.

All in all, Cora Fry's Pillow Book is another fine addition to my list of verse novels.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Verse Novels IV: John Bricuth

John Bricuth has written two books that he calls "narrative poems"; they both seem to me to qualify as "verse novels" (although perhaps he might try to downplay the "novelistic" elements). I picked them up in the U.S. in March and read them on the plane home. Yes, both of them, all the way through.

The first, Just Let Me Say This About That, was published in 1998. A brief prose introduction sets the stage; it begins:

"The following poem takes the form of a press conference. The three questioners are named Bird, Fox and Fish. The person being questioned, addressed only as 'Sir,' either God, the president of the United States, everybody's father, or a combination of the three."

This structure becomes the springboard for a wide-ranging story told through questions and answers; at times highly philosophical, at others it is uproariously comical. Still other passages become entirely tragic.

As "Sir" says once, though, "boys, let's not go crazy chasing details." Further, Fox complains about "the coldness of examples." Instead, here are some quotable passages:

You come away convinced the sense of self

And its survival had its start in childhood
Memories of being held within a
Parent's gaze, that look that first conveyed

The notion they were someone separate, special,
Safe from harm as long as daddy watched,
Until as they grew up that gaze was swallowed

Whole, and came back as the soul.


We'd had the better of the bargain: merely
To have been, and been aware, within
A universe mostly made of vacant

Space, freezing cold, drifting dust,
Represents so rare a gift that if you
Reckon in life's ordinary share of

Joys, then add the world's surprises, you've got
A big mix justifies any amount
Of suffering, at least that's what I think.


I know you'll laugh at this, my thoughts began
To clear. I had a kind of revelation, Fish,
That burst of level lightning one associates

With several types of Eastern wisdom—
The seven ways, the twelve steps, the four
Tops, the three pigs—I don't know ...

I know it had a number in it, Fox.


Bricuth's second "narrative poem" appeared in 2005. As Long As It's Big takes the same discursive situation, adds a few characters, and makes it more concrete: the setting is not a parody of a press conference but a divorce trial in which Fox and Bird have become lawyers for Fish and his wife. Like its predecessor, the book runs through a wide range of emotions and registers. Some readers might prefer the somewhat tighter intensity of Just Let Me Say This About That (which might partly explain why I did not note any particular passages of ALAIB), but others (the majority, I suspect) will prefer the clearer narrative of As Long As It's Big. I enjoyed both books immensely and recommend them highly as two more extraordinarily successful and utterly unique examples of the peculiar category of the "verse novel."

Monday, August 07, 2006

Simon Armitage, "Homer's Odyssey"

In a book that is as yet only available in England, Simon Armitage recasts the Odyssey as a radio play and hence entirely in dialogue. Even though the book was a BBC commission, it is vivid and riveting from start to finish. Odysseus's telling of his story to the Phaeacians is handled beautifully, with the dialogues switching back and forth between those in the stories Odysseus tells and those between Odysseus and his listeners. But the book's best sections are the dialogues between Athena and an entirely memorable Zeus: the king of the gods comes across as a wonderful ironist:

When we send eagles
to signal our thoughts in the sky,
what do they do -- stand and point and stare,
like ... birdwatchers!


At least they don't live forever, like us. My memory --
it's like a museum. Infinite rooms, covered in dust.


I find it doesn't do to look down too much like that.
Gives one a bad neck.

As I looked back through the book to find some good passages to cite, I discovered that after about halfway through the book, I stopped underlining things. That could be a bad sign (fewer quotable passages later in the book?), but it usually means that I got so caught up in the story and its telling that I stopped thinking about finding quotable quotes! And this is, of course, a fabulous story, which Armitage tells in a fresh and exciting way.

Kick Me

So last night Miles and Luisa were watching Swallows and Amazons. Miles was lolling about on the floor, and Luisa was sitting on one of their two small white chairs (which they usually sit on to watch their movies, right next to each other, soooo cute). Luisa was pestering Miles with her feet.

Andrew: Luisa, don't kick Miles. Kick me if you want to kick somebody!
Miles (standing up): I want to have somebody to kick, too!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

31 for 14

Miles and I were playing cribbage, and we had the following run of points in play:

Miles played a 10.
I played a 5: Fifteen for two.
Miles played a 4: 19.
I played a 4: 23 for two.
Miles played a 4: 27 for six.
I played a 4: 31 for fourteen!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Evening Snack

After they have put their pyjamas on, Miles and Luisa often have an evening snack of fruit while watching a bit of one of the movies they like (lately, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Swallows and Amazons have been their favorites). This evening, they watched the scene in which Mary Poppins arrives, the "Step in Time" sequence, and the finale, "Let's Go Fly a Kite" (what a cool song that one is), and they each ate quite a few pieces of apple and banana as a snack.

When movie-watching time ended, I asked Miles to go brush his teeth. He insisted that he was still hungry and wanted to eat some more, which I did not believe (sometimes he asks for more just to further delay going to bed, and it was already quite late). So I decided to tease him and offer him something more to eat that would be as small as possible: "Okay, you can have one piece of rice or a piece of cold macaroni."

"Okay," he said, "I want a piece of cold macaroni!"

At which Luisa said, "Auch cold macaroni!" (If she had not said it bilingually, she would have said something like "me-too cold macaroni!")

Friday, August 04, 2006

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Verse novels III: Fred D'Aguiar

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

One was Fred D'Aguiar's Bloodlines. As I commented in Verse novels part two, I was not that impressed by his Bill of Rights, but Bloodlines makes me want to reread that one anyway. Bloodlines tells the story of a doomed interracial love affair around the time of the American Civil War. Its tour de force is a chapter called "War," and its most memorable effect is that it treats the topic without the slightest sentimentality: no happy end here.

My only problem with the book as a whole might have been a result of how I read it: I had to take a break in the middle of it to reread another verse novel (Glyn Maxwell's The Sugar Mile, which I taught in late June), and as a result, the book seemed somewhat disjointed to me.

But it is full of wonderful moments, such as this one:

.... Their attitude
to everything is, if it is so urgent
it will happen without their attention.

They are right and they are wrong. The world
carries on as it must, but it is diminished
without their involvement.

Verse novels part two
Verse novels

Monday, July 31, 2006


Miles came up with the following joke today:

A man is sitting on the floor playing chess. The cook comes in and asks him what he is doing. "I'm playing chess on the floor because it looks like a chessboard," says the man. "That's a rather large board," says the cook. "But it's okay, the crib is on the icebox," says the man.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


I taught Miles how to play cribbage. When it's his deal, he says, "HGG." When it's my deal, he says, "GHD." What do these abbreviations stand for?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Headlines; Brian Turner, "Here, Bullet"

The big headline in the International Herald Tribune today:

"Rice to return to Mideast with plan"

I don't know which is worse: the idea that she had no clue what to do on her previous trip(s) to the Mideast, or the idea that she is bringing a plan from Bush along, whose previous plans for the Mideast have not been particularly successful.

It makes me want to stop reading the newspaper. I get the same reaction when I read The New Yorker sometimes: there's yet another article about how badly things are going in Iraq, and all it makes me want to read is Brian Turner's poetry collection Here, Bullet. Turner was a GI in Iraq, and his collection is uncannily powerful. Poetry is indeed "news that stays news," as Ezra Pound said. Three poems from the book are on-line from when they were published in The Georgia Review.

Friday, July 28, 2006

The "Wayback"

I read an article by Daniel Gilbert in the International Herald Tribune (taken from the New York Times) that led me to send him the following note:

Dear Prof. Gilbert,

I enjoyed your informative and insightful article in the International Herald Tribune the other day. Along with the information on research that it contained, I especially enjoyed the image of you and your family's trips in the station wagon when you were a child. The part of that, then, that especially struck me was the expression "wayback." That's what we called that section, too, when I was growing up in the seventies. It was always fun to sit there on long car trips, in the days before child-safety seats (which I, as a father of three kids, can hardly imagine anymore). And it's nice to know that our family was not the only one to use this expression.


He wrote the following back:

I've now heard from about a half dozen people who used this term. We all thought we were the only ones!


I think we thought we were the only ones, too.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Cool acoustic blues downloads

A link at my cousin Katy and her husband Bruce's site sent me to this download page for country blues from North Carolina and environs. I've downloaded some of it and have enjoyed it all quite a bit. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Vinyl story

I left my records in storage in Philadelphia in 1991 when I went to Europe to spend a year in Berlin. When I handed in my dissertation in Philly in March 95, I picked up the stuff I had stored there and took it to my Dad's house in Toledo. When he moved from Toledo to Seattle (in 99, I think), he shipped the stuff (records and books) to my sister Sara's house in Massachusetts And then a couple summers ago, I took all the books to a used bookstore there and traded them in for four very old books (all about birds, but up to 100 years old), and I took all the records to a used record store and traded them in for CDs.

The only vinyl I kept was the old Beatles and Doors LPs that my Dad bought in the 60s. The copies of the first two Doors LPs were actually bought by my Dad in 1967, the year of their release.

Zidane's head butt as video game

If Marco Materazzi has insulted your mother and sister, you, too, can give him a head butt. More than one, actually: earn your well-deserved red card in this Zidane video game!

Morality Tale

A few years ago, my New Year's Resolution was to floss every day. And I did; I was very proud of myself. After a few weeks, I already did it more or less automatically.

I always did it very quickly, though, and I wondered if I was being too cursory. So when I went to get my teeth cleaned again in the early summer, I was eager to hear what the dental hygienist said. If she had given me the "you-need-to-floss" speech again, then I would have quit flossing in frustration! But she didn't, she praised me and said it made a world of difference, upon which I admitted that I felt like I was doing a cursory job, but I was glad that that was better than nothing.

The moral of the story: A cursory effort is better than no effort at all!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Syd; Wish You Were Here

So Syd Barrett died, the mastermind behind the early Pink Floyd. My Mom thought I might be sad about this (which I guess I am, a little bit), but it wasn't Syd that meant PF to me (although this idea surely scandalizes Syd fans). It was Roger Waters and his songs, and David Gilmour and his guitar playing.

But as the news items point out, at least two later PF songs were explicitly about Syd. One of them, "Wish You Were Here," is one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar:

Wish You Were Here

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field
from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you trade
your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
a walk on part in the war
for a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl,
year after year,
running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears,
wish you were here.

I am always especially moved, when playing the song, to sing the powerful last lines of the first verse: "Did you exchange / a walk on part in the war / for a lead role in a cage?" This is not only a fine piece of songwriting, the music is fabulous to play on the guitar. In fact, many beginning guitarists that I knew in the eighties began with this song (or "Stairway to Heaven"). It's easy to play, but it also feels like you are really playing music already.

Maybe I'll play it to myself someday soon, and think of Syd and how sad it was that he had to be institutionalized, but later he got out, changed his name to Roger, and became a painter.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


I actually understand those who say that "Fragment," the winner of my Daily Poem Project, is a boring poem. Its initial effect is one that is often not very productive: one reads it and nods. Okay, next poem.

What drew me back to it, then? Two things, one about the poet, one about the poem: first, even if I had not become friends with A.E. Stallings, I would still be a fan of her work (in fact, we became friends because I invited her to read in Basel, hence because I am a fan), and it has been my experience, over and over again, that her work deserves multiple readings, even or especially when it does not seem to deserve them at first glance.

Secondly, the poem itself drew me in with its patterning. As is often the case with Stallings's work, the surface is delightful and full of suggestive phrasing.

That said (to use that phrase again), I had to keep returning to the poem before it really opened up for me, because, I think, its surface is so glossy (or glassy?) that it actually resists interpretation (one way of putting this is: it's boring). Only when I began to notice how distinct the various moments that cause the glass to be dropped are did I began to get at what the poem says to me: how it is not the material that objects are made of that causes them to break but the fact that we use them. To put it boldly: matter is not in itself mortal; it is the use of matter that makes it transient.

Last Days of the Surreal

Just when I fear that my tastes in poetry are becoming so "straight" as to be almost boring (I don't really fear that, but it's a nice opening move for a blog entry), I come across something like Elton Glaser's "Last Days of the Surreal," which reassures me that "bent" poetry can still strike me, if it's this good. Wit does not preclude darkness and mystery.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

My biography, 1988-present

Someone asked me to explain how I got to Basel, and I did, so here it is for the whole world to read.

In the fall of 1988, I went to Penn to do a Ph. D. in Comparative Literature. I was ABD in the spring of 1991, when I went to Berlin for a year to work on my dissertation (on Christa Wolf, Doris Lessing, and Marguerite Duras).

That year turned into more: I was in Berlin for about twenty months in all, and then I got a job teaching English-language courses in the English Department at the University of the Saarland in Saarbrücken.

I taught there for two-and-a-half years, during which time I completed my dissertation and tried, unsuccessfully, to get a tenure-track job in a North American English or German department. Then I got my job here in Basel, starting in October 1995—more or less the same job I had in Saarbrücken.

I came here planning to stay for two years, and that has turned into a lifetime. When I began to be more interested in literary translation than literary criticism and to concentrate more on my own poetry, I stopped trying to get back to North America to be a professor. The decision was made easier since Andrea did not really want to move to North America.

So here I am still, happy to be living in a wonderful European city teaching English to support my literary habits and raising my three kids to be Swiss. :-)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

David Bottoms on Poetry and Philosophy

I found this passage from an interview with David Bottoms quite compelling (although I am not sure I agree with it one-hundred percent). I'd be interested in any comments people may have on it:

"[Young poets] want to write ideas and not poetry, and I'm of the old 'show me, don't tell me' school. Students sometimes have trouble with that. Someone asked me once in a class, 'Hey, but can't the poem be an idea?' I said no, absolutely not, and I stick by that. On the other hand, it can express an idea, and it usually will if it's any good. Karl Shapiro puts this well in an essay called 'What is Not Poetry.' He says, 'If poetry has an opposite, it is philosophy. Poetry is a materialization of experience; philosophy is the abstraction of it.' I love that, and it's a point I try to get across to all my students. Okay, think about this. Here's a story I like to tell. It's another simplification, sure, but it makes the point well enough for students. A poet and a philosopher are walking across Woodruff Park [in Atlanta], going over to Fairlie-Poplar for some Thai food. When they reach Peachtree Street they see a yellow flash go by, then hear a gigantic crash under the traffic light at Five Points. A yellow MG has tried to beat the light and smashed into the side of a furniture truck. It's a mess. Well, the poet and the philosopher rush over and try to help. A crowd gathers, somebody's on a cell phone calling an ambulance. The driver of the MG has been thrown into the street. The sports car's a tangle of crushed metal. Gasoline, blood, and glass are everywhere. So, the philosopher takes it all in and immediately abstracts. He thinks 'Accident, Chaos, Fate.' The poet, on the other hand, whips out her notebook and writes down everything that happened. The yellow flash on Peachtree Street, the smell of the smoking brakes, the spilled gasoline, the sound of the impact, the blood in the street. She goes back to her apartment and fleshes it all out on a legal pad as vividly as she can, then she types it up into a poem, and sends it to Five Points. You get your copy a few months later and turn to a poem called 'Smash Up.' You read the poem. You ponder it for a few seconds. You think 'Accident, Chaos, Fate.' The point is this. The poet and the philosopher are both traveling to the same city. The poet is simply taking the scenic route. The poet is trying to make the world material on the page, so that the reader can abstract, so that the reader can take what clues the world offers and decipher meaning from them. The poet wants the reader to participate, to experience the event in a vivid way."