Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Daily Poem Project, Week 11

The vote for week 11 of the Daily Poem Project took place in class on Tuesday, June 20. The poems were those on Poetry Daily from Tuesday, June 13, to Monday, June 19.

There was a clear winner: "Groucho and Tom," by William Wenthe, received seven votes (including mine), with Christopher Buckley's "Travel" in second place with four. Buckley's sly poem has a nice, self-mocking tone, but Wenthe's imagined version of an apparently real encounter between Groucho Marx and Tom (T. S.) Eliot lives up to the humor of its conceit.

My comment is brief this time because I had no trouble choosing Wenthe's poem over the others, about which I wrote notes like "too long, no form," "too vague," and "funny but not deep." In fact, only Buckley's poem came close to Wenthe's for me this week.

Weeks 9 and 10
Weeks 7 and 8
Week 6
Week 5
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1 (with explanation of project)


Some poems of mine have just been published by the online journal Softblow.

Gilbert Sorrentino

I only just heard about the death of Gilbert Sorrentino (on May 18). I had limited contact with him during my Stanford days, but the contact was very important to me: he was the second reader of my honors thesis on Milan Kundera. I only talked with him a few times about Kundera and my thesis, and I do not remember any details of the conversations, but I do remember his warmth and his appreciation of my first truly serious efforts in literary criticism. And of course I appreciated his comments on the thesis when it was finished: the memorable element was that he wrote that he had never taken Kundera seriously before, but that I had made him do so.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Daily Poem Project, Weeks 9 and 10

The vote for week 9 of the Daily Poem Project (Tuesday, May 30, to Monday, June 5) was quite complicated. The first part of the voting took place on Tuesday, June 6, as planned. However, the vote resulted in a three-way tie for first place, with each of the first-place poems receiving only three votes each. As eight students were absent that day and had not emailed me their votes before class, I decided to allow them to cast late absentee ballots (without, of course, telling them what the result of the first vote was, only that it was a three-way tie between poems I did not identify).

Then, after the absentee ballots came in (four arrived by my deadline of Wednesday evening, June 7), two poems were still tied with four votes each: "On Tenterhooks," by Dick Allen, and "Feast of the Ascension. Planting Hibiscus," by Jay Hopler. So we had to break the tie with a run-off vote between these two poems, which took place on Tuesday, June 13, before the week 10 vote (see below).

At least the run-off vote was decisive, as Dick Allen's poem received thirteen out of twenty votes.

I had originally voted for Seamus Heaney's "The Nod," from his new book District and Circle. While some might consider the poem as an example of how Heaney's poem can be "reduced to a paraphrase," I found the poem quite powerful. It did not generate a "wow" at the end, but it generated another effect worth taking note of: I kept thinking of it out of the blue. (It was also an interesting coincidence that the poem was on PD on the very day that we discussed two Heaney poems in class—to be precise, two of Felix Christen's translations of Heaney.)

In the run-off, I found it easy to decide: Allen's short, brisk play with the expression "on tenterhooks" easily beat Hopler's overly abstract and unnecessarily fragmented "Feast of the Ascension."

The week 10 vote (poems from June 6 to June 12) was much more straightforward: John Balaban's "If Only" won easily, receiving seven votes while no other poem received more than three. One of the seven votes for it was mine; it was the only poem I considered during the week. And even Balaban's poem seemed a bit flat to me on a first reading—until I got to the final line. It did not generate a "wow," but it did turn the whole poem on its head. Check it out!

Weeks 7 and 8
Week 6
Week 5
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1 (with explanation of project)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Three things Luisa said yesterday


She was napping in the afternoon. It was getting late, so I went to open her door, so that she could begin waking up. Apparently, she was already awake; she stood up in her crib and smiled at me. "Did you have a nice nap, Luisa?" I said.

"Grrreat," she said with a huge grin. (There were at least three Rs in the word. Americans would have thought she was doing a baby imitation of Tony the Tiger—someone she has never seen!)


Then I offered her a snack. She wanted some of the delicious grapes we have been eating for the past few days.

I had been folding laundry while watching England and Paraguay in the World Cup. It was halftime when I went to check on her, and it was still halftime when she began eating her grapes. During halftime, I was watching the French Open women's final. At four o'clock, things were getting exciting near the end of the first set, but I still zapped back to the football to see if it had started yet, then zapped back to set point.

Having seen that bit of soccer, Luisa turned to me and asked, "Is Basel?"

(She must associate soccer with Miles's question when there is a bit of "footie" on TV: "Is that Basel?")


A little while water, I was holding baby Sara, and Luisa clambered up on the couch and wanted to hold Sara herself. After a minute or so of holding the baby and stroking her head, Luisa gently pushed Sara toward me and said, "All done Sara."

(Which is what she says when she is done eating anything.)

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Marc Ribot, "The Dying Cowboy"

When the guitarist Marc Ribot played a solo concert in Basel a couple years ago, the most surprising part of the show (given that he is mostly associated with jazz, despite his affiliations with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, among others) was the folk music that he played. With his unique singing and his equally unique way of accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he seemed to me to be ready to play folk songs at folk-music festivals, where he might well overwhelm audiences with the power of his performance.

He still has not released an album of folk songs, but you can check out "The Dying Cowboy" from an in-studio performance at KEXP (the University of Washington) to get an idea of what makes his folk music so special.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Two grammar poems

I saw a link to this poem by Clive James, "Windows is Shutting Down."

It reminded me of "Rummy's Player," my little ditty about GWB, another "grammar poem."

Sunday, June 04, 2006

"Rules" of Poetry

My friend Angie (the philosopher with the "special conversational backwardness" I mentioned earlier) wrote the following:

"I think I've told you my brother has been working on poetry in his creative writing class, although he doesn't like the idea of conforming to rules to make a poem, which I learned about a very long time ago but can't for the life of me remember. So he tells me very brief half-descriptions about the kinds of poetry his professor 'ran through,' on the day of class, but because he is uninterested and because they don't spend a lot of time learning about the specific rules and meter for kinds of poems, he can't tell me much about it."

This provoked the "special conversational backwardness" of the poet, or perhaps especially of the formal poet:

"You had not told me about your brother's class. I would encourage him to consider the 'rules' of poems not as rules but as patterns that people have found effective in the past. That is, the sonnet is the way it is not because of some arbitrarily established 'rules' but because poets and readers have found that shape to be particularly powerful. The sonnet is not a set of rules but a powerful tool for the production of the aesthetic effects that one wants to achive with lyric poetry."

And here I would add that the same, of course, can be said for other forms, and for rhyme and meter: these "rules" existed for so long not because they were rules but because they were effective tools for generating the kinds of effects people wanted to generate in or experience with poetry.

Miles and "they"

Miles's observation about "they" lead to a link being made to my post by one Mr. Jumbo (who was inspired to start blogging by my blog, and who posts lots of very cool pictures on his blog).

I also posted a comment in response to Mr. Jumbo's reference to Miles.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Daily Poem Project, Weeks 7 and 8

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.

The vote for week 7 had a clear winner: Ingeborg Bachmann's poem "I Step Outside Myself," as translated by Peter Filkins, received six votes. Three poems received three votes each: Robert Creeley's "Talking," Luciano Erba's "Without a Compass (as translated by Ann Snodgrass), and Davis McCombs's "The Elgin Marbles." As for me, I voted (along with only one other person) for Henry Taylor's "A Crosstown Breeze," the only poem which made me go "wow" when I finished reading it. I enjoyed Taylor's smooth transitions between present experience and past memory (and, as usual this term, the poem's rhyming).

Creeley's poem was very memorable, too, so I did consider it carefully before deciding to vote for the Taylor. I even exchanged some email with my friend Angie Harris about it: Creeley's sharp observations about how conversation sometimes works came back to me when Angie made a comment about her own "special conversational backwardness," that of the philosophy student who often sees everyday discussions as examples of philosophical debates (something that I love to experience).

The vote for week 8 was closer: 6-5 for the first two poems. The winner was "The Nosebleed," by Rachel Hadas, with Robert Pinsky's "Pliers" in second place. Hadas's beautiful description and interpretation of an everyday scene is impressive and memorable: the speaker observes a woman and her daughter on the street, having thought (correctly) that the daughter was having a nosebleed. She concludes:

love as rocking cradle that two can rest in,
bodies nested, cupped in one curve of shelter;
question, answer; need met as it arises.
Trouble breeds comfort.

I wonder if it was the well-earned power of that final line that caught people's attention.

For the first time ever, the poem I voted for received no other votes: J. Allyn Rosser's "Gym Dance with the Doors Wide Open." Again, I surely fell for the poem's lovely rhyming, but I was probably also inclined to vote for Rosser because she is an acquaintance of mine from days in Philadelphia, one whose work I have been enjoying for several years now. Hadas's poem came close for me, but I decided to vote for Rosser instead.

Of special mention here is Yves Bonnefoy's spectacular "Let This World Endure," as translated by Hoyt Rogers. This long poem reads like a beautiful prayer, and Rogers's translation is wholly convincing.

Week 6
Week 5
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1 (with explanation of project)