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.