Monday, January 29, 2007

Too Hard

Many people have been linking Jim Harrison's New York Times essay on Karl Shapiro. My favorite line in it is about being a poet-professor: "I tried it myself but found the work too hard."

Harrison continues: "There’s a subdued but relentless hurly-burly in academia that swallows up discretionary time. It’s like living with a slight backache, not fatal but enervating."

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Defining Difficulty

Reginald Shepherd has been very helpful in his post "Defining Difficulty in Poetry." He distinguishes six forms of difficulty, from least to most difficult:

1. lexical: What does this word mean? Or what does it mean here?
2. allusive: What is being alluded to here?
3. syntactical: Can the syntax be parsed here?
4. semantic (including figurative): "I don't understand this poem." (Or "I don't understand this metaphor.)
5. formal: What kind of poem is this?
6. modal: What makes this a poem?

Shepherd concludes: "When people call a poem difficult, they are generally experiencing either semantic difficulty ('I don’t know what this poem is saying') or modal difficulty ('I don’t recognize this as a poem').

This summary is intended to get you to read the original post! (And also to outline the terms for myself, so that I can refer back to them later.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Federer vs. Roddick

Mats Wilander said on Eurosport that the second set of the Australian Open semifinal between Federer and Roddick was the best set of tennis he had ever seen by a single player, and at the end, he said it was the best match he had ever seen anyone play: 6-4, 6-0, 6-2, with Federer winning 15 of the last 17 games after being down (on serve) at 3-4 in the first set.

Well, I once saw a set at least the equal of Federer's second-set dismantling of Roddick (24 points to 6!): the fourth and final set of the French Open final between Gustavo Kuerten and Alex Corretja in 2001. Kuerten won the first 23 points of the set to go up 5-0, 40-0. Then a funny thing happened on match point: Corretja won three straight points to get back to deuce before Kuerten then won the last two to win the match. Point total for the set: 25-3. For the sake of completeness: the score of the match in the end was 6-7(0) 7-5 6-2 6-0. (I had forgotten that Kuerten lost the first-set tiebreak at love!)

And for the sake of rubbing it in for Roddick fans: Federer 13, Roddick 1. :-)


Charles Jensen has some interesting thoughts about "engagement" in poetry. My comment:

Even "difficult" poetry has to engage the reader somehow—has to provide some sort of opening to let the reader in. For that matter, even clear, straightforward, "accessible" poetry has to provide some sort of resistance to be fully engaging. The difficult must provide a bit of access; the accessible must provide a bit of difficulty. Without both elements—no engagement!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Blogs in Europe, the UK

If you read this, and you are blogging from Europe or the UK with at least part of what you blog about being poetry (or if you know anyone who is), please tell me (or tell me about the people you know). You can post a comment or send me an email.

Nicholas Manning and renew: you don't count; I already know you. :-)

Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins

[Jonathan Mayhew's post about under-rated jazzmen led me back to this review I wrote in 1996 of a concert by Charlie Haden.]


Komoedie, Theater Basel, March 6, 1996
Charlie Haden -- bass
Ernie Watts -- tenor saxophone
Alan Broadbent -- piano
Lawrence Marable -- drums

I had already seen Charlie Haden's Quartet West twice before, once in San Francisco in the late 1980s and once in Berlin at the Berlin Jazz Festival a few years later. Of these two concerts, only one memory remained in my mind: in San Francisco, Billy Higgins (then the drummer in the quartet) was late to the concert because the airline had lost his drum set. When he arrived before the replacement drum set the Great American Music Hall management had ordered for him, Higgins took out his brushes and played accompaniment and a solo on one of the leather-topped chairs at the GAMH. This delicious event sped up the relaxation process which is so important in listening to jazz: the audience's laughter and Higgin's visible pleasure in his skills brought everyone into the proper frame of mind right at the beginning of the show, one usually only found somewhere in the middle of the second set, if at all.

Since then, Lawrence Marable has replaced Higgins in Haden's band, but Ernie Watts still plays the tenor sax, and Alan Broadbent is still on piano. By now I no longer associate Watts exclusively with his studio recording career: he proves again and again with Quartet West that he is a superb "jazz" saxophonist. While not a completely magnificent superstar like Higgins, Marable is a lively and humorous drummer with great rhythmic feel, which becomes especially clear in his swinging solos. However, until last night, Broadbent always seemed out of place in this band to me. His soloing and comping was always merely lush and sentimental, even schlocky; the nostalgic quality his playing shared with Haden and Watts, especially in tone, did not have Haden's folkiness or Watts' occasional dissonance to spice it up. Well, either he has improved considerably since Berlin, or I began to pay more attention to him, or both: in Basel, Broadbent stole the show from the other players.

As usual for him, Haden listed the songs in the sets before each set began. The compositions were all by Charlie Parker, Haden, or Broadbent; each set opened with a Parker tune, the first with a version of "Passport." This mid-to-up tempo performance was nothing spectacular, but it was a nice opening of the show, and it did contain the first hints of an Allen Broadbent night, as his solo closed with a beautiful chordal development of a simple phrase through several repetitions. This made me sit up; just as a spontaneous "ah" came out of me, the solo came to an end. It was then that I began to pay more attention to Broadbent's playing.

In the course of the rest of the set, my attention was more than satisfied. The band played three Haden tunes, "Hello, My Lovely," "Child's Play," and "First Song," and in each of them Broadbent's playing became denser and more fascinating. In "Hello, My Lovely," his lush introduction slowly introduced fragments of Haden's melody (very reminiscent of some Christmas song whose name escapes me), surrounding the mid-range melodies with flurries of high and low notes. In his solo, Broadbent began to detach his hands from each other, the left hand occasionally taking over the melody while the right played chords in the form of rapid arpeggios. In "Child's Play," which most will remember because of a magnificent solo by Marable, I was most struck by Broadbent's brief solo, in which the independence of left and right hand became even clearer, with the roles of melody and harmony less and less defined. This anticipated his solo in "First Song," where his two hands really played something more like a duet than a solo, passing around the lead, and often interweaving two interdependent melodic lines out of widely separated octaves. Here again, Broadbent stole the show for me from a show-stopping solo by one of his comrades: Ernie Watts closed the piece with a superb soliloquy, featuring a wonderful "spontaneous composition" of a bluesy/beboppy song structure (quite in contrast to the feel of Haden's sweet ballad), culminating in sustained overtone effects -- but Broadbent's solo still was the highlight of the piece.

It was the independence of Broadbent's two hands which struck me in the first set, and he continued to take full advantage of all ten fingers in the second set. However, he did not steal the show in each song as he had in the first set. In the opener, Parker's "Visa" (one I had not heard of before), Haden played a long solo, working, as is his wont, on a small melodic figure, worrying it until it gave out all of its secrets and became one with the voice of his bass. (If this sounds melodramatic -- well, there is often a melodramatic feeling to Haden's playing.) Haden's "Always Say Goodbye" followed; here, Broadbent played a fine solo striking in its simplicity: right-hand melody with quiet chordal accompaniment. Then, Haden played a magnificent solo, very short, introducing a melodic phrase reminiscent of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and varying it ever so slightly over a brief period. This solo had that folky, back-porch feel which makes Haden's playing so special, something which came out so beautifully in his records with Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti.

If the first two songs of the second set belonged to Haden, the third, "The Long Goodbye," was all Broadbent, which is fitting, as he wrote it. Broadbent began unaccompanied, playing an endless and endlessly interesting four-part soliloquy. To me, given how I had been listening to him throughout the concert, it seemed like "variations on handedness": first, the melody was in the right hand and the arpeggios in the left; then the two hands reversed roles. In the third part, the longest passage of the introduction, Broadbent ran arpeggios up and down the keyboard, a swirling thunder which combined the lushness which his playing always features with an edginess I had not heard in his work before. Finally, he slipped through a rapid diminuendo into a slow two-chord figure with pretty right-hand melodies; this evolved into the head when Watts and the band entered after a time. But first, Broadbent seemed to confirm my interest in his "handedness": while playing the two-chord figure in the mid-range with his left hand, he ever so briefly ran the melody with his right hand down lower than the continuing left-hand figure. This otherwise minor technical gesture took on new meaning at the end of a solo in which Broadbent's two hands had each played all the roles a pianist's hands can play, to the point of completely throwing any division of labor between the hands out the window. After the head, Broadbent proceeded to play another, accompanied solo over the head, extending and developing the right-hand melodies which had closed the introduction. As if that were not enough, the piece also featured an unaccompanied coda in which Broadbent returned to the thundering arpeggios of the third part of the introduction. I suspect there is a nice studio recording of this piece somewhere; I hope that Haden puts out a live version soon.

The set closed with Parker's "Segment," with a slightly boogie-woogie feel to it. The highlight here was a superb Haden solo in which he walked through the whole solo, with Marable dropping *very* occasional cymbal effects in. Watts was also striking with a solo full of "sheets of sound." There was then a nice, unannounced ballad for the encore.

If the second set did feature some superb Haden solos, the highlight of the night for me was my discovery of Broadbent, whose playing had never impressed me before. While I was always aware of his technical skill, I had never heard any musical tension in what he played. I am happy to say that I stand corrected: Broadbent has developed into a powerful and varied piano player, still as lush as ever, but now with a bite that was not there before.

Date: Tue, 12 Mar 1996 10:13:07 -0800
From: Lee Brenkman
Subject: Re: Charlie Haden in Basel


Thanks for reviving one of my fondest memories. I was the sound man/stage manager and, at the time of the Quartet West show, the talent booker at the Great American Music Hall.

Actually the airline hadn't lost Billy's drums they had already loaded them on the plane he was to have taken from Burbank when they found something wrong with the plane and bumped all the passengers to the next flight. Billy got on that plane not knowing that his drums were still in the cargo hold of the original plane.

He called me from the airport at about 7:15pm when he found out that he had the cymbals he had carried on the flight, but no drums. I told him to jump in a cab and I would get him some drums.

As it was a weekend evening all of the equipment rental places and drum shops were already closed . All of the jazz drummers I knew with extra sets were already at or on the way to gigs. One of them gave me the number of a student of theirs who agreed to bring his set over for Billy to play.

As you recall in your post, Billy started out playing "chair" with brushes and we added two of his cymbals on a couple of stands I had at the club. When the young man arrived with the loaner set we started setting them up alongside the stage. I began with the basics, the snare and hi hat while the young man took drums out of the cases.

Beggars can't be choosers but it turns out that this was a real rock 'n roll set. Billy was amused when I took a 22" bass drum with a hole in the front head and a pillow inside on stage, but he really cracked up when the young drummer walked out with a rack with THREE big rack toms on it. Billy smiled sweetly and pointed at the largest two drums and said "thanks but I don't need those". Al of this taking place while the Quartet was playing.

Our young friend was amazed at what Billy could do with just a few drums. Billy was a real gent about the whole thing, and Charlie, one of the most "nervous" leaders I know finally calmed down enough to play a couple of beautiful sets.

Quartet West remains my favorite setting for Charlie Haden and easily the best encouragement of Ernie Watts' jazz instincts.

Lee Brenkman

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Sky Over Basel

[This is another one of my old columns from the Basler Zeitung on-line English Corner. It was published in August 2002, hence the summer theme.]


Summer began for me this year on the last Thursday in April in Ettingen, when two swifts curved down out of the sky from behind an evergreen and then disappeared into the dusk, leaving behind the scree of their cries resonating in my ears and the rush of their flight as a trail in my eyes. The astronomers say summer is from June 20 to September 20, the meteorologists make their recordkeeping easier by moving summer forward to June 1 and ending it on August 31, but my summer runs from late April until early August, when Apus apus leaves for Africa — the "apusologist's summer," perhaps, or just a swift one.

The amount of time I spend looking at the sky for those three-plus months makes me a dangerous bicyclist. But I've been granted some extraordinary visions as a result. The route I most often ride — down Riehenstrasse to the Rhine — seems to be a good one for heavenly observations. One early morning a few days after my apusologist's summer began, I looked up from a red light at Schwarzwaldallee and saw four swans flying briskly across the crisp background of a cool, clear sky. They had formed half a V rather than a full one, but what made the sight so memorable was the little flock's leader: a Black Swan. The Black Swans at the Zoo and at the Erlenpark make them a relatively common sight for any parent of a small child crazy about animals, but this was still a striking vision.

The swans were gone before the light changed, so no one had to honk at me. I had similar good fortune, traffic-wise, when another vision ascended into the sky before my eyes in mid-July. This time I was so distracted while riding that I could have been a danger to other people on the road — luckily there weren't any — and I would not even have been able to blame it on a bird. As I again headed toward the Rhine on Riehenstrasse, a chest of drawers rose into the sky over Grossbasel and crossed the river toward me; it was hanging from a long cable attached to a helicopter. Perhaps this is a new service offered by Basel movers. "I hope they don't lose any of the clothes," I thought as the helicopter vanished toward Germany.

So it's not just birds that make me a dangerous bicyclist — though it's mostly birds. But don't worry, usually I get off my bicycle if I see something worth watching. A Gray Heron stopped me once last summer beside the Erlen canal; it was perched on the roof over one of the locks, offering a good chance to see a heron close up. I earned quite a few puzzled gazes from passing bicyclists by standing there for so long looking at what they might have thought was nothing, but a few of those who followed my gaze rewarded me with a smile of understanding as soon as they spotted the object of my attention. And when the Gray Heron itself flew away, it rewarded me for my patience, too: seconds after it rose above the trees and disappeared from sight, a Dipper (the German Wasseramsel, or "water blackbird") darted along the canal, a species I had never seen before.

Of course, there are enough birds in Basel (though not enough flying chests of drawers) to make me a dangerous bicyclist in other seasons besides summer. The huge hammering man sculpture at Aeschenplatz always earns an affectionate glance from me when I ride past, but one sunny but bitter-cold afternoon a few winters ago, it was a veritable horde of birds at the very top of the alley of trees between Aeschenplatz and the SBB station that made me stop. Passersby may again have wondered why I was staring and staring up at the trees, but the birds were far enough away that it was difficult to identify distinguishing features. Later consultation with a bird guide (and a more experienced birdwatching friend) revealed the birds to have been Fieldfares, a rare sighting for Basel: the cold had brought them down from higher altitudes, it seems.

The cold will not be back for quite a while still, but the apusologist's summer will soon be over: sometime shortly after this column goes on-line, the swifts will head south, and winter will be on its way, no matter how warm the rest of the meteorologist's or astronomer's summer is. The sky over Basel will seem empty, but the streets of Basel will be safer, as one bicyclist will no longer be distracted — or will at least be less distracted — by what's happening in the sky. Barring the appearance of a flying four-poster, of course.

William Carlos Williams recordings

I have not had a chance to listen to these yet, but PENNsound has put the complete recordings of William Carlos Williams on-line.

Monday, January 22, 2007


This is National Delurking Week, or at least somebody declared it that.

La bande des quatre

Andrea and I bought ourselves a six-film set of Jacques Rivette on DVD for Christmas, and we just now finished watching the first of them, La bande des quatre.

My French has deteriorated over the past few years (it was, naturally, much better when Andrea lived in France and I was spending a lot of time there), so I enjoyed the feel of the movie as much as anything else (although I was able to follow the story well enough, a lot of the nuances surely were lost on me). The one thing I thought I would comment on here is the presence in this movie of a subtle variation on the old play-within-the-play motif.

Sometimes, movies contain scenes where actors are performing on stage. This creates subtle nuances, of course: the actor is playing an actor playing a role. A variation on this is the actor rehearsing—a scene with a somewhat different ontology, if you will: now the actor is playing an actor who is not losing himself in the role but, in fact, quite the opposite, as the actor rehearsing is often as self-conscious as the actor performing is not.

But La bande des quatre puts a new spin on this. Many of the scenes in the movie involve not the rehearsal of a play but preparation for a production of a play (by Marivaux) in an acting class. The actresses, then, are not playing actresses rehearsing but something even more self-conscious than that: student actresses learning, under the critical eye of their teacher, played by Bulle Ogier.

If this were a play-in-a-movie, the actresses would lose themselves in the roles of actresses losing themselves in their roles. If this were a rehearsal-in-a-movie, the actresses would lose themselves in the roles of actresses self-consciously working out their roles. But it is an acting-class-in-a-movie, so the actresses are losing themselves in the roles of actresses both self-consciously working out their roles and self-consciously pondering what the acting teacher thinks.


It was interesting to see "myself" quoted in Russell Jacoby's "Hannah Arendt's Fame Rests on the Wrong Foundation" (in the Dec. 8, 2006, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education). I was not quoted myself, of course, but Jacoby did quote my translation of Arendt's correspondence with Martin Heidegger:

"She was the student, indeed, the lover of Martin Heidegger ... While her liaison with Heidegger has given rise to much high-level gossip — in today's university, Herr Doktor Heidegger's affair with a stunning 18-year-old student would be even more outrageous than his Nazi sympathies — her intellectual loyalties are more the issue. She never conceptually broke with Heidegger and even intended to dedicate The Human Condition to him. She did not, she explained in a letter to him, because things had not 'worked out properly between us.' She wanted him to know, however, that the book 'owes practically everything to you in every respect.'"

Jacoby is very critical of most of Arendt's work, reducing the long-term interest of her writing to just a few works: "Arendt's achievement ultimately rests on Eichmann in Jerusalem, as well as some tough-minded essays and thoughtful profiles."

I would add, though, that Arendt's correspondence with Karl Jaspers is an utterly fascinating book, as two philosophers who trust each other completely write to each other frequently between the late forties and Jaspers's death in 1969. Often, their commentaries on historical events of the period shed light on what those events felt like to those who could not see how they were going to turn out. For example, their discussion of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 makes clear (at least to this late-comer, born in 1964) just how frightening those days must have been to live through.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Gillian Beer on rhyme

I enjoyed Gillian Beer's article "The End of the Line" from The Guardian.

Beer uses the awful word "suggest" to make her claim; I would say that she "points out" that rhyme has two effects beyond helping us memorize: "rhyme makes experience from within the body and so can produce unreasoned intimacy; rhyme destabilises the hierarchies of sense and so lends itself to radicalism."

She goes on to argue that rhyme is "retrospective": "It is not until the second term appears, and it draws us back to what has gone before with a new thrill of connection. Thereafter it is janus-faced, leading the eye and particularly the ear forward to seek the chime, but with a ballast of sonorities generated in the poem's past. Rhyme makes memory within the poem. It practises recollection. It may also bring things back, uncannily changed."

Rhyme also serves to establish one of the basic facts of poetry: it functions "not as argument, but as experience - whether as fulfilment or entrapment - vouched for by the human ear."

But perhaps her finest point has to do with the "essentially destabilising" quality of rhyme, which she discusses near the end of her article: rhyme's arbitrariness, of course, but also its disregard for the niceties of language that are captured in the linguistic concept of "register."

Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty

Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, makes me sneeze.
Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, doesn't like breeze.
Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, turn your shoe.
Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, good for you.

— Miles David Delpho, 20.1.2007

Friday, January 19, 2007

Blake's Notebooks

Facsimiles of Blake's notebooks are on-line, thanks to the British Library. Even the large files are hard to decipher, but it is fascinating to look over Blake's shoulder anyway.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Third Nature

[This is a column I wrote for the Basler Zeitung "English Corner" a few years back. As it is no longer on-line, and a friend just asked me something that reminded me of it, I thought I'd republish it.]


I went into Manor to buy vacuum-cleaner bags, but at first I wasn't sure where to look for them. Beside the escalator, I found the directory of the store's departments; after having determined what category might be appropriate — Haushaltsgeräte ("appliances") — I headed for the third floor.

As I went up the escalator, I recalled a moment of confusion I had had on a recent visit to the United States: it had been difficult to say what floor I was on. And what floor was I now heading to? The third in Switzerland, but in the U.S. it would be called the fourth. I used to use the latter numbering system, but after over a decade in Europe, it now seems strange to me. Even as I first wrote these lines upstairs at the Non Fumare cafe, I would not have wanted to say that I was sitting on the cafe's "second floor." These days it does not seem to me to have a second floor; how could it? It is only two stories high, so it has a ground floor and a first floor, doesn't it? What once seemed natural now seems wrong. A "second" nature has been replaced by a third.

In a sense, the issue of what floor you are on is just a matter of naming. After all, many hotels have no floor called "thirteenth floor," for fear of frightening any superstitious guests who may end up there. Such counting is merely a convention, a means of identification (where in this building do I want to go?) rather than precision (how many stories does this building have?). But at the same time, the numbering seems like more than a convention: the number I use to identify the floor I am on has an influence on my sense of space, of where I am.

This is not the only counting system that an American in Europe needs to develop a "third nature" for. Dates cause problems to: at the bottom of the first sketches of this column, I jotted down the date: 6.11.02. But that doesn't mean I started writing my December column in June. (Back then, I was still trying to pin down the topic of my August column.) After so many years in Europe, I find myself unable to write a date using the American convention. In this case, though, I have to admit that the date / month / year system has always seemed more logical to me than month / date / year (whereas the floor numbering in the U.S. did make sense to me until I moved across the ocean). One effect of the difference is that the American expression "9/11" does not make sense in Europe. Someone from the former East Germany might think it refers to the date when the Berlin wall was opened in 1989.

My first such shift from second to third nature was a big surprise, and it still seems uncanny. What do you say when you stub your toe or pinch your finger? After almost three decades of saying "ouch" or "ow" as all Americans do, I was startled to find myself saying "owah," even when speaking English. This shift took place within a year after I first moved from Philadelphia to Berlin in 1991. It seems like the language of pain ought to remain in one's native tongue, even when one lives abroad for a long time, but it, too, turns out to be mutable.

All this means, of course, that when I go visit the United States, my second and third natures begin to struggle for control. The reflexes I have developed in Germany and Switzerland no longer make sense: for the first few days, I have to think for a moment to remember to say "excuse me" instead of "Entschuldigung," for example, and during that time I'm always taken aback for a split second when people address me in English: "May I take your order, please?" Some of this disorientation might just be jet lag, but some of it is a matter of the conventions I live with every day in Basel, a matter of how my "third nature" has replaced my second one, of how, the longer I am abroad, the more European I become — European, not Swiss or German, in a way the Swiss and the Germans are not.

When I got to the third floor of Manor, it turned out I had been right about the Haushaltsgeräte — but wrong about which store to go to. My wife had bought the Migros house brand, not Manor's. So I had to head across the street to Migros and look for the right floor again. At least I no longer had to think about what category to look for in the directory.

The Presumed Politics of Poets

Some people argue that a preference for particular aesthetic forms implies a preference for a particular politics. For a complete dismantling of one such argument, see this post by Robert Archambeu. He defends Geoffrey Hill, Anne Carson, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg against the accusation that their poetry is — not "elitist" but "fascist."

I am on record as a fan of Hill's work; a line from his "Improvisations for Hart Crane" (quoted in the post I just provided a link to) nicely captures how what I like works for me: "Thou canst grasp nothing except through appetite." Appetite (or pleasure), that is, is the first step in grasping (or understanding) poems—not just "difficult" poems, but any poems (Reginald Shepherd made some insightful remarks along these lines, and on pleasure and judgment, too).

As for Anne Carson, I am also on record as a fan of her Autobiography of Red, one of the best of the verse novels I have read (the most recent of my posts on this subject is on Rosellen Brown, but I will have more to say about it at some point, maybe when the semester is over). When Carson goes into storytelling mode, as in AoR or the extraordinary "Glass Essay" from Glass, Irony, and God, all her supposed "difficulty" disappears, because I find myself drawn into the work "before" the question of difficulty ever arises, as it were.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Tim Parks on Thomas Bernhard

Tim Parks has written another fine essay in The New York Review of Books, this time on Thomas Bernhard: "The Genius of Bad News," in the January 11, 2007 issue. The article is not on-line.

Parks's wonderful summary of Bernhard's style could also apply to Parks's own work since Europa (1997), especially Destiny (1999): Parks describes "Bernhard's own tendency to introduce us in medias res to a mind in turmoil where events past and present, real or apocryphal, flash by in rapid succession without apparent order or hierarchy, where the voice speaking is so much aware of its own performance as to raise doubts about its candor."

I recommend both these writers highly, but with the caveat that, since Destiny (especially in Rapids, published in 2005), Parks has taken Bernhard's style further by incorporating the mental turmoil described above into narratives that have a clearer, crisper storyline than Bernhard's narratives usually do.

Robert Hughes on the Isenheim Altar

This is Robert Hughes on the Isenheim Altar in Colmar, as quoted by Clive James in his article "Golden Boy," a review, in the New York Review of Books of January 11, 2007, of Hughes's Things I Didn't Know:

I had never seen such a frightening picture before. Of course, as in Bosch, its repulsive powers were wound into the very fabric of the skill with which it was executed. But could one imagine the Isenheim Altarpiece hanging in a church or an infirmary back in Australia, where art never spoke of real pain, let alone grotesque sickness or deformity? Would there be any public place for it in America, or anywhere else in the modern world? It was only then, gazing on Grünewald's enormous and deliberately wrought masterpiece, that I realized how deep the roots of euphemism and evasion were sunk in modern life; how alien, as a result, the entire "Expressionist" tradition in modern art had been to me having grown up in Australia—and would also have been had I grown up in North America.... Almost all I knew of past art, and that imperfectly, was its Apollonian tradition, which spoke of order, idealism, satisfied Eros. Somewhere beyond and below that stretched another continent of esthetic experience which had somehow to be discovered, and it was probably true that my life had been too happy and healthy for me to really grasp it. This, too, was part of the reason I had had to leave Australia and come to Europe.


Grünewald's altarpiece is, indeed, one of the greatest works of art I have ever seen. For another take on it, see the first part of W. G. Sebald's Nach der Natur, translated by Michael Hamburger as After Nature.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

In anticipation of the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on July 7, I decided to re-read the first six volumes, one per month. As the publication date gets nearer, I will stop paying attention to the world, so as to not have the plot of the last book ruined for me by reviewers or other inadvertent betrayers of surprise information. And I finished my January reading a few days ago, The Philosopher's Stone. As a result of reading it, I have resolved not to read the HP series again, as I realized that I do not want to have to read about Draco Malfoy ever again. That's too much like being bullied in junior high.

My favorite line in the first book is still: "Before we begin our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Thank you."

(It's cool that there is a detailed Wikipedia page about this unpublished book.)

(And now that I have written this, I have been unable to find on-line confirmation for the July 7 publication date!)

German-English Anthology

Today, I received copies of a bilingual anthology of English translations of contemporary German poetry. It features my translations of poems by Dieter M. Gräf, Durs Grünbein, and Lutz Seiler, as well as translations of work by six other poets: At Villa Aurora: Nine Contemporary Poets Writing in German (Green Integer, ed. Douglas Messerli). And that is not the whole title, as it is volume 7 of Green Integer's PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Puzzles and Mysteries

The January 8, 2007, issue of The New Yorker, contains an article by Malcolm Gladwell
called "Open Secrets." As is so often the case, Gladwell is happy to have discovered a counterintuitive concept that allows him to discuss everyday issues in a surprising way (the focus of the article being Enron; Gladwell has also been adding new thoughts on the subject to his blog).

Now an article about Enron may not seem like a good place to steal ideas for thinking about literature, but here's the bit I find suggestive: "The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. ... The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much."

This might be a useful way to think about "difficult" poems: some of them are puzzles, providing incomplete information, leaving the reader wondering about the unstated details. Others are mysteries, and the problem is not lack of information, or information that has not been given, but an excess of information, an overdetermination that leaves the reader wondering not what has not been said, but how to sort out what has been said.

I don't have any examples yet, but perhaps I will return to the issue someday soon, if I come across some poems for which the concepts seem to be useful tools (that, of course, is the test of any such concept: is it a useful tool?)

(I should add that I have not read the review that I provided as a link with Treverton's name, but I hope to have a chance to do so.)

Not a Museum

Miles got a huge Lego Star Wars set for his birthday, a Y-Wing Attack Starfighter. Since he finished building it, he has had it on the top of a bookshelf in his room. Today, he wanted to get it down, and I said it was not a good idea.

Andrew: It's not for playing with, it's decorative and just for looking at.

Miles: My room is not a museum!

A couple of minutes later, Luisa opened up Miles's closet full of games, and Andrea said: "Luisa, Miles's room is also not a supermarket!"

Michael Brecker

I saw Michael Brecker with the McCoy Tyner Trio a few years ago in Basel. Since Tyner was the pianist in John Coltrane's Quartet for years, the comparison was easy, but Brecker lived up to the challenge, riding Tyner's accompaniment into his own variations on Coltrane's incredible sound. (And Avery Sharpe on bass was brilliant, too. I don't remember who the drummer was.)

In the summer of 2005, I went to the Willisau Festival to hear the Saxophone Summit of Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, and Michael Brecker. It became a two-peak summit, because Brecker was in the hospital with leukemia. Liebman and Lovano were stunning; I can only imagine what it must have been like to hear those two with Brecker alongside them. Now I really can only imagine it, as Brecker died on Saturday.

It's ironic to me that Alice Coltrane, who replaced Tyner in Coltrane's band, also died last week, on Friday.

Orders of Infinity

Jacqueline Osherow's "Orders of Infinity" was on Poetry Daily yesterday. For a discussion of the particular concept of infinity she writes about, see the articles about infinity and aleph numbers on Wikipedia.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Fixing "The Lottery"

Warning: Before you read this post, read Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery."

So I had students write about Jackson's story, and one wrote a startling piece about how the lottery in the story is fixed. I was not sure I was utterly convinced, but then I suddenly was. Here's what I wrote to the student:

There's a fascinating point to be made here about the rules of fiction. After all, someone does pick out the victim: Jackson herself determines who the victim of the lottery is—or perhaps I should say of "The Lottery." The rules of fiction require her to have the victim of the lottery be a character she has already introduced to the reader. Further, in a context in which it is important that most of the figures be as nondescript (and hence "normal") as possible, the characters she does introduce to the readers are going to be the ones who "stand out" by stretching the rules of the game in various ways, as you have described.

In a sense, one level of the story's allegory is literary: this is a story about how stories work. They work by assuming a background of "normalcy" against which the outstanding qualities of the main characters can be established. By "outstanding" here, I do not mean "excellent" but something more neutral: the characters might be heroes, or villains, or even hypernormal people, but in one way or another, they have to stand out against that standardized background.

In most fiction, then, the author's job is to give the reader such "outstanding" characters to identify with. In "The Lottery," Tessie stands out in this way: not because of her excellence, but simply because her difference from the crowd makes her worth mentioning, whereas the crowd's standardized behavior, once established, recedes into the background. This makes the horror of "The Lottery," then, as powerful as it can possibly be: the reader identifies with the "outstanding" character, and the object of the reader's identification gets murdered. And all this is done in the most everyday way possible, which only increases the horror.

But all this also proves your point: Tessie Hutchinson's slight difference from the crowd around her selects her to be the victim. But it is not the lottery that selects her as the victim, it is "The Lottery" and its genre that do so. How? The same way that the characters in the story do so: by following the rules of the game.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Dulce et Decorum Est

Reginald Shepherd has published a brief but powerful reading of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" on his blog.

I read the poem in high school, and when I think back on it now, it was one of the first poems that showed me what a poem could do and be. Such memorable phrases and lines, too:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—an ecstasy of fumbling


His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin

Thursday, January 11, 2007

On Divination by Birds

Another interesting poem on Verse Daily today, "On Divination by Birds," by Kimberly Johnson. If I were to do an interpretation of it, I would pursue the idea that interpretation of poetry has some similarity to divination by birds.

I am always struck when a poem appears both on Verse Daily and on Poetry Daily, as Maura Staunton's "God's Ode to Creation" (which I mentioned here) has now done. Some may say that the two sites are so similar that there need not be two of them, but I like having two daily poems. I usually like at least one of the two!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Facing Reality—Climate Change

Birder Laura Erickson has some powerful things to say about what science is and what is wrong with the current administration's willful mishandling of science in her post "Facing Reality—Climate Change."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Thin Raft Anniversary on March 21

Thin Raft 10th Anniversary Reading
Wednesday, March 21, 6:30-9:00
Bergli Bookshop
Rümelinsplatz 19, Basel

This is your chance to hear local English-language writers read from their works: fiction, poetry, memoirs, etc. Come out and hear the kind of work produced by Thin Raft writers for the writing group, as well as for local and international publications. You can also find out how a writing group works and what it is for; all you need to do is start talking to the writers after the reading.

The Thin Raft group for English-language writers was founded in Basel in early 1997 and has been meeting regularly at various locations ever since. To celebrate the group's tenth anniversary, current members of the group will present recent work, and Padraig Rooney (TR member who teaches English at the International School Basel) will read from his recently published poetry collection The Escape Artist (Smith/Doorstop Books, 2006).

Thin Raft meets on the first and third Tuesdays of every month at Centrepoint in the Lohnhof. New members are always welcome.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Don't blame it on René

Here's a passage I meant to quote quite a while ago, from the Nov. 20 issue of The New Yorker: "Think Again," by Anthony Gottlieb, a review of recent books on Descartes:

'Descartes’s dualism is certainly not quite what it is often taken to be. In the 1994 best-seller “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain,” the neurologist Antonio Damasio reports that Descartes believed in an “abyssal separation between body and mind . . . the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism.” This is actually the opposite of what Descartes believed. He held that we “experience within ourselves certain . . . things which must not be referred either to the mind alone or to the body alone,” and that these arise “from the close and intimate union of our mind with the body.” In his best-known writings, Descartes stressed the differences between matter (which occupies space) and thought (which does not). But he also maintained that, in human beings, mind and body are mysteriously and inextricably combined, as he tried to spell out in letters to Princess Elizabeth. (She kept pressing him on the point.) He could not explain how it is that mind and body are united, but he was sure that they were.'

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Lake Superior

[This is another one of my "set pieces." I wrote it down back in 2002 and revised it a bit last week.]

In the summer of 2001, while we were planning our trip to Upper Michigan to visit my grandmother, everyone kept saying that Lake Superior is too cold to swim in. So we didn't plan our trip to include a stop there, especially as my grandmother lived close to the Michigan-Wisconsin border, a long drive both from Lake Superior and from Lake Michigan. But as we flew into the Marquette airport, we did get close enough to the lake to pay it a quick visit on the afternoon of my 37th birthday.

We had left Basel the day before, by train to Zurich, where we caught a flight to Newark and then to Boston, where we spent the night in a hotel near Logan Airport. Miles was then twenty months old and new to jet lag, so when he woke up at 2 a.m. (eight a.m. Basel time), he was ready to start the day. We managed to keep him in bed with us until 3:30, by which time we, too, were wide awake. We passed the time until the hotel's breakfast room opened at 6 a.m. by opening a couple of small presents Andrea had brought along for me and by reading books and playing games. Breakfast took long enough, then, that it was time for us to go to the airport to catch our next flight, to Detroit, where my mother met us at the airport and joined us for the next leg of the trip, the flight to Marquette. (As her children and grandchildren never ceased to point out to her, my grandmother was then living in the middle of nowhere, and it took a long time to get to her place for a visit!)

At the Marquette airport, we were met by my Aunt Marge, my mother's younger sister, who had come to pick us up for the trip's last leg, by car to Iron River. It was a beautiful August afternoon, and after we had realized that we would probably not get another chance to see the lake, we decided to go into Marquette to look for a beach — not with the intention of going swimming but only to look.

We found ourselves on Lakeshore Drive (echoes of high-rent Chicago penthouses) and parked by a beach separated from the road by a small brushy dune. The beach was nearly empty, but there were a few people around, including two guys in baggy swim trunks throwing a Frisbee back and forth while standing in the low waves. The water looked cold, but it didn't seem to bother the Frisbee players, so I slipped off my sandals and waded in a little bit. At least at this beach in the bay in Marquette, the lake belied both its reputation and its appearance: while the water was not really warm, it was not freezing cold either, and on such a warm, clear day, it was positively inviting.

But there was a slight problem: our swimsuits were packed away in the trunk of the car, and it had been hard work to get all the luggage stowed there. So, despite the lure of the low waves, Andrea did not want to get her swimsuit out, and I didn't really want to get mine out, either. Skinny dipping was the obvious solution, but there were just a few too many people around.

But it was my birthday, and I wanted to celebrate, and I wanted to be able to say that I had swum in Lake Superior on my 37th birthday. (The day was already becoming a story.) So I took off my jeans and my T-shirt and charged into the water in my underpants —which had a plaid pattern that, from afar, made them look like a Speedo bikini swimsuit.

Oh, the water! So much for the story that Lake Superior is too cold for swimming! I was so exuberant that my shouting and splashing almost upset Miles, but Andrea managed to keep him calm. Our camera was also stowed away somewhere, so I have no photographic evidence of my birthday swim, but wife, mother, and aunt were witnesses. (Miles was, too, of course, but I can't count on him to remember it later, except as a story his father likes to tell.)

When we walked back to the car, I solved the next problem by putting my T-shirt (which had also just served as a towel) on the car seat and sitting there in my "swimsuit" to dry off while we began the drive to my grandmother's house. About halfway there, Marge stopped at a little tiny crossroads gas station, so I took the opportunity to change out of my wet "trunks." I put on my T-shirt and sandals, grabbed my jeans, and headed for the toilets, which were inside the station's little shop. And then came the story's unexpected punch line: there, on the door, was a sign that had not anticipated a case like mine: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service.


Julian Barnes's "The Past Conditional," a brief memoir published in the Dec. 25/Jan. 1 issue of The New Yorker, is a good read, but the best part of it is the first paragraph:

I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put. I once asked my brother, who has taught philosophy at Oxford, Geneva, and the Sorbonne, what he thought of such a statement, without revealing that it was my own. He replied with a single word: “Soppy.”

James Brown on New Year's Eve

I was not that moved by the death of James Brown, as I have never listened to his music in more than bits and pieces. Obviously, that also means that I was never that moved by his music, or I would have explored it further.

But the drawing in the "Goings on about Town" section of the Dec. 25/Jan. 1 issue of The New Yorker did move me: a red-black-brown-and-green image of James Brown singing, one arm raised in the air to celebrate or preach, with the caption "James Brown plays B.B. King's on New Year's Eve." Since he died on Christmas Day and I read the issue only during the first week of January, this picture became very moving suddenly (reminding me of the photos William Hurt looks at in Smoke, thinking they are all the same, but suddenly his dead wife is in two of them).

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

I love the way people talk about Wallace Stevens's poem "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm." Adrienne Rich discusses it beautifully in her book "What Is Found There." Alex Ross just discussed it here (he also quotes the whole poem).

Most important finger

Miles got a paper cut on the tip of his left middle finger yesterday. In the evening, he noticed how it bothered him while we were playing cards, especially since he is a lefty.

This morning, he said, "It's a good thing I did not cut my left index finger. My left index finger is my most important finger, I think."

Friday, January 05, 2007

Not unfair

Miles: The world is not unfair. It's just what it is.

Andrew: "The world is not unfair. It's just what it is." That's good; can I quote you on that?

Miles: Yes. I am right.

(January 5, 2007)

Beauty and immortality

This is my comment on Don Brown's thoughtful piece "Getting Serious/Having Fun" (which is in part a response to my essay on Frost):

I keep coming back lately (for various reasons, both positive and negative) to Peter von Matt's "Die verdächtige Pracht." Von Matt describes two important characteristics of poems: they want to be beautiful, and they want to be immortal.

Neither of these desires necessarily has anything to do with meaning or with interpretation. Frost's "The Mountain" marks how the desire for meaning is, in a sense, derivative—always preceded by a desire for pleasure.

But as you suggest, Don, that does not apply to literary criticism. I have often considered "quality" to be the cat that criticism does not want to let out of the bag, but there are two cats in there: quality and pleasure. If they get out, then the project of criticism is ironized, as you suggest, and the critic becomes insecure and rejects the work that has let those cats out.

Von Matt's book is interesting in this respect, too: whenever he begins to do hard-core close reading, he apologizes to his audience, asking them to bear with him while he does a necessary bit of "philology." This allows him, as a friend of mine suggested, to maintain his status as "the one in the know," his professional status. He lets the cats out, but he still wants to hold the bag.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

God's Ode to Creation

I'm kind of curious what my resident curmudgeons (DMB? Mr. J?) might make of this poem, "God's Ode to Creation," by Maura Stanton.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Frost's "Mountain"


Visiting an unfamiliar region, the narrator of Robert Frost's poem "The Mountain" engages in a dialogue with a farmer. Their discussion of the mountain dominating the landscape establishes the usual contrast between nature and culture (between the mountain and the farms and towns around it). The similes that come up confirm, unsurprisingly, that attempts to domesticate nature are necessarily doomed to failure. But this is not the poem's last word: as figurative language itself becomes a theme of the poem, language in general and poetry in particular can be seen as creating the very contrast between nature and culture the poem would otherwise overcome.

In fact, the poem begins with a simile: "The mountain held the town as in a shadow." The implications of this shadow depend on a second simile a few lines later:

Near it seemed: I felt it like a wall
Behind which I was sheltered from a wind.

The mountain's apparent proximity makes its shadow a source of shelter from the elements. In the comparison to a wall, the natural shelter of the mountain appears as an artificial shelter protecting the town from threatening outside forces (here, the wind). However, this sense of protection later proves misleading:

Then I was wrong: the town of my sojourn,
Beyond the bridge, was not that of the mountain,
But only felt at night its shadowy presence.

The mountain may have felt like a shelter, but all one really has its "shadowy presence," with its much less protective implications.

At night, the comparison with a wall domesticates this "shadowy presence." During the day, in his dialogue with the farmer, the narrator identifies another way to domesticate the mountain:

"That looks like a path.
Is that the way to reach the top from here?— "

The route the narrator identifies could provide a means of ascent, but appearance is again belied by reality: "There is no proper path," the farmer explains. With the chance of an easy ascent blocked, the mountain remains wild in the midst of the farms surrounding it. There may be a way up "five miles back" that was "logged ... last winter"—but it is not here.

The mountain's relationship to the surrounding landscape is later even more unstable. The farmer describes the township's geography to the narrator, concluding with a description of the houses closest to the mountain:

... a few homes sprinkled around the foot,
Like boulders broken off the upper cliff,
Rolled out a little farther from the rest.

The houses are compared to boulders that fall from the mountain—that is, to the very thing that threatens them. The earlier attempts to "domesticate" the mountain failed, perhaps inevitably, but here, the mountain's "shadowy presence" makes even shelters that might otherwise seem safe into images of the failure to create reliable shelter, of the instability of the domestication of nature.

Earlier, the farmer makes an apparently paradoxical statement about the stream that flows down the mountain: "It's always cold in summer, warm in winter." At the poem's end, he clarifies the point:

"I don't suppose the water's changed at all.
You and I know enough to know it's warm
Compared with cold, and cold compared with warm.
But all the fun's in how you say a thing."

That is, when opposites are compared, when a paradox is presented, how one says it is more important than what one is actually saying. The poem itself does this when it expresses a desire for shelter or refuge through similes—the fun way to say something. But the poem goes on to undermine these similes of shelter, ultimately in the final simile itself (comparing the houses to the falling rocks that could destroy them). All this makes the poem's implications for poetry itself clear. As Timothy Steele's use of the phrase as the title of his book about prosody suggests, "all the fun's in how you say a thing" is a statement about poetry itself. Poetry is the fun way to say a thing that might not be as mysterious as the poem suggests. But "The Mountain" as a whole goes even farther: insofar as the similes in the poem are themselves examples of the "fun" way to say something, the mysteries and puzzles they generate are implicitly as easily explained as the paradox of the mountain stream. The mystery is not in the objects described; instead, it is generated by the language describing them, that is, by the linguistic pleasure of saying things in fun ways.

In this light, "The Mountain" acts out how poetry creates the contrast between nature and culture it purports to dissect. That contrast is the product of a desire not for shelter but for pleasure. "All the fun's in how you say a thing"—and only through that fun, "The Mountain" implies, through the excess created by poetry and by language itself, is the problem of nature and culture created.

[I used Frost's poem as a text for a composition class earlier this semester, and I was inspired to try to do something on the poem in the same amount of space I had assigned the students: 400-600 words. I failed the assignment: this is 825 words! :-) ]

[God I hate it that HTML won't let you indent first lines of paragraphs!]

Monday, January 01, 2007

Macmillan New Writing

Another interesting article from the Jan/Feb Poets and Writers is about the Macmillan New Writing imprint in England: "The imprint was controversial because, according to the press, Macmillan would not pay its authors an advance and would accept only complete, word-perfect novels—if the text needed editing, it would point the writer in the direction of a good freelance editor, but it would not pay for editorial work. ... The manuscript has to be finished (contrary to those press reports, however, Macmillan will assign an editor), must be a first novel, and is usually submitted by e-mail. Nothing in the contract is negotiable, so there is no need for an agent."

A Novel in Three Days

In "A Novel in Three Days," in the January/February issue of Poets and Writers (an article that is unfortunately not on-line), Patricia Chao writes about how she did indeed write a novel in three days, as part of the 3-Day Novel contest. One good line that has nothing to do with the contest: "To begin a novel takes inspiration, to continue takes endurance, and to end takes character." None of that matters in the three-day-novel contest!

Réda and Grünbein in Poetry, January 2007

The January 2007 issue of Poetry includes two of my translations: "Return from the Ball," a poem by Jacques Réda, and "The Poem and its Secret," an essay by Durs Grünbein. I recommend them both, of course, but I am especially fascinated by Grünbein's essay and recommend it highly.