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."

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Daily Poem Project, final vote(s)

The final vote for the Daily Poem Project took place this morning, Tuesday, July 4. The twelve finalists had been narrowed down a little bit for purposes of discussion: all the students and I had written shortlists of two to six or seven poems (with each student making his or her own choices about how to pick which poems were on his or her shortlist). My tally of the shortlists led to an initial list of four poems for discussion: A. E. Stallings, "Fragment," Abraham Sutzkever, from Epitaphs, John Balaban, "If Only," and Bill Zavatsky, "Monologue" (with Stallings having been named on 16 shortlists of the 22 submitted to me, including my own).

Before discussing the poems, though, I asked two questions: first, how many of the students had already made up their minds about what to vote for? If only one or two had not decided yet (along with me), then I would have had the vote then and there, and the discussion would have occurred after the vote. However, as seven or eight people were still undecided, I put off the vote until after the discussions. (Still, it is worth noting that that means the clear majority had already decided before the discussion.)

I then asked if there were any poems that any student wanted to ask to have added to the discussion. This led to two further poems being added to the list for discussion: Terrance Hayes, "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)" and C. K. Williams, "Thighs."

This left us with about ten minutes to discuss each poem, which is, of course, not much, but it was also enough to sketch out what the issues raised by each poem were. The selection from Sutzkever's Epitaphs, for example, raised the issue of how we would read the poem if we did not know it was about the Holocaust. The poem does contain some information that points toward the Holocaust for contemporary readers (a young woman is being taken against her will from Paris to Poland by train, and she throws her most precious possession, a pearl necklace on a red silk thread, out the "grate" of the train—not the window). But many readers, even today (and definitely in the future), might well read the poem without its historical context; we agreed, though, that they would still have a sense of the poem's power. That power might be more mysterious then, even eerie, but it would remain.

The issue of information is raised by C. K. Williams's "Thighs." The poem contains a great deal more information and contextualiztion than Sutzkever's does, and to someone aware of the what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is nothing mysterious about the poem. (Its strengths lie elsewhere.) However, it struck us that quite a bit of what we can infer from the poem depends, as with Sutzkever's, on our knowledge of things that the poem does not mention explicitly (for example, it never mentions the United States!). In rereading the poem before class, I had also noticed that its depiction of the powerlessness of the newspaper reader when confronted by information that he cannot do anything about is repeated not only for the speaker of the poem but also for its reader: we read the poem and remain as powerless and frustrated as the speaker does. In this light, the poem also ends up highlighting how the sheer quantity of information in newspapers does not empower the newspaper reader; on the contrary, "Thighs" suggests, all the reader can do is make his ironic comparisons (perhaps by writing a poem about them).

The discussions of both Balaban's "If Only" and Zavatsky's "Monologue" focused on how the poems' conclusions change the rest of the poem. Balaban's final line ("This is how it should have been"), some suggested, provides a twist that strengthens a poem that otherwise takes the risk of being too "sentimental" (as one student put it, one who did not think the twist was effective). For me, the most interesting point was about typography: the italicization of the line, it was argued, made the conclusion too heavy-handed, precluding a neutral, even resigned reading of the line.

Zavatsky's poem also ends with a striking image, when the speaker of the monologue compares the old friend he has been breaking off with to a "pesky insect that flies around, / buzzing in one's ear its tiny / message about mortality." My sense of this startling image was that it overwhelmed the rest of the poem with its vividness. This led one student (who had had the poem on his shortlist) to agree with me in these terms: the change in tone in the final lines does not work (whether you prefer the tone of what comes before, as he did, or the concluding image, as I do).

Before the final vote, I asked whether anybody had changed their minds because of the discussion. Nobody had! :-)

The results were quite clear:

1. A. E. Stallings, "Fragment": 10 votes
2. Abraham Sutzkever, from Epitaphs: 4 votes
3. Ingeborg Bachmann, "I Step Outside Myself": 3 votes
3. Rachel Hadas, "The Nosebleed": 3 votes
3. Dick Allen, "On Tenterhooks": 3 votes
6. Terrance Hayes, "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)": 2 votes
7. John Balaban, "If Only": 1 vote
7. Bill Zavatsky, "Monologue": 1 vote

I had also polled "outside" voters, just to spice things up a bit. I received (only) 10 votes (after emailing over 100 people, but it was at short notice, so I understand why many people might not have wanted to participate). Here, the results were much more spread out: A. E. Stallings, "Fragment," and William Wenthe, "Groucho and Tom," each received 2 votes, while six poems received one vote each:

Hayden Carruth, "Springtime, 1998"
Abraham Sutzkever, from Epitaphs
Ingeborg Bachmann, "I Step Outside Myself"
Rachel Hadas, "The Nosebleed"
Dick Allen, "On Tenterhooks"
John Balaban, "If Only"

After we determined the final winner, I wondered whether the class all felt comfortable with the result (as was the case with last year's winner, "The Shout," by Simon Armitage). That group was smaller, so it was not hard to achieve consensus acceptance of the winner; in this, larger group, several students mentioned that they had not liked the poem at all. One of them made an interesting characterization of the group: most of them were students of philosophy. One could ponder why that might be so, but it is true that the poem begins with a reference to philosophy: "The glass does not break because it is glass, / Said the philosopher."

If you have read this far, thanks. Feel free to comment!

Finalist list
Week 12
Week 11
Weeks 9 and 10
Weeks 7 and 8
Week 6
Week 5
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1 (with explanation of project)

For Bill Frisell fans: Vic Chesnutt, "Ghetto Bells"

I just picked up Vic Chesnutt's 2005 CD "Ghetto Bells" the other day, for two reasons: I really like the album I already have by him ("About to Choke"), and Bill Frisell plays guitar on it. Probably all Vic C. fans already have the album, but maybe there are some Frisell fans reading this note who need to be told: get this album. If only for the astonishingly beautiful ballad "Forthright," in which BF's floating guitar sound achieves perfection.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Daily Poem Project finalists

These are the 12 finalists in the Daily Poem Project:

1. A. E. Stallings, "Fragment"
2. Hayden Carruth, "Springtime, 1998"
3. Abraham Sutzkever, from Epitaphs
4. Terrance Hayes, "Woofer (When I Consider the African-American)"
5. C. K. Williams, "Thighs"
6. Ioanna Carlsen, "Forgiveness"
7. Ingeborg Bachmann, "I Step Outside Myself"
8. Rachel Hadas, "The Nosebleed"
9. Dick Allen, "On Tenterhooks"
10. John Balaban, "If Only"
11. William Wenthe, "Groucho and Tom"
12. Bill Zavatsky, "Monologue"

The in-class vote will take place on Tuesday, July 4, 2006. If you are not in the class but want to vote on which of these 12 poems is your favorite, I am also running a vote for people who are not in the class. Email me or send me your vote as a comment by Monday, July 3, 2006, and we will see if the members of the class agree with those who are not in the class!

Week 12
Week 11
Weeks 9 and 10
Weeks 7 and 8
Week 6
Week 5
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1 (with explanation of project)

Daily Poem Project, Week 12

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.

The clear winner was Bill Zavatsky's "Monologue" with seven votes. In second place was the selection from Brian Henry's book "Quarantine" with four votes. The rest of the votes were scattered among the other poems from the week.

I was disappointed that Bob Hicok's "The Evolving Landscape," which I voted for, did not receive more votes (it received only two). Hicok is one of my favorite contemporary poets, and his poem "Solstice: voyeur" came in second to Simon Armitage's "The Shout" in last year's project. But it is interesting to note that René, the only student who was also in last year's course, was the other person to vote for Hicok. Perhaps Hicok's work takes some getting used to (I know it did for me, though I have now long since been hooked), or perhaps the students were just put off by the length of the poem, as is often the case when one is reading poems on computer screens.

Week 11
Weeks 9 and 10
Weeks 7 and 8
Week 6
Week 5
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1 (with explanation of project)