Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chirac was right

An interesting observation by Julian Barnes in his NYRB review of That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present, by Robert and Isabelle Tombs:

Although public opposition to the Iraq war in Britain is high, it would take a lot more fair-mindedness than most British (or Americans) are capable of for them to utter, instead of "Blair [or Bush] was wrong," the simple words "Chirac was right."

Yong Shu Hoong

Along with the book by Cyril Wong that I mentioned recently, I have also read another book by a poet from Singapore: Frottage, by Yong Shu Hoong. I first read Hoong's work in Wong's on-line poetry magazine Softblow. (Disclaimer again: I've had work in that magazine.) I was interested in reading more, so I traded books with him (the best way to get poetry published in Singapore!).

With my mind on Wong's tsunami poem "That Day," what struck me most in Hoong's book was a poem called "Ground Zero"—not, as an American might expect, a poem about the destruction of the World Trade Center or the site thus created, but a prose poem about visiting the site of the discotheque bombing in Bali. These poems provide perspective on "September 11" poems by Americans: here are poets from another country, vividly and memorably addressing the tragedies of their own region. To read these poems and then turn back to poems about September 11 is to widen one's perspective, even if the September 11 poem in question has as broad a perspective already as, say, Martin Espada's "Alabanza."

Pop and Classical

Kyle Gann has written a pair of fascinating posts in the past few days about the relation between pop music and contemporary classical music. Many poets navigating the boundaries between the "accessible" and the "difficult" might be interested in his remarks about the similar boundaries between types of music. The two posts are "The Unapproachable Sacredness of Pop" and the followup post "The Myth of Pop Hatred."

From the former:

"I don't believe, as some of my contemporaries have claimed to, that pop music is kind of a neutral vernacular with the same status as folk music: i.e., that borrowing pop influences is analogous to Haydn inserting rustic folk songs in his symphonies. Far from being anonymous, pop music is drenched in the personality of its performers; every byte of it is owned by someone, and often valued exactly for its personal associations."

Friday, March 30, 2007


The big question about this wonderful series of photos of Pileated Woodpeckers is:

If this is a Pileated Woodpecker lunch date, as Birdchick speculates, and if the male is going to be on third base soon, then what constitutes "third base" among woodpeckers?

Oh, I just began to imagine it. Ouch.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Bob on guitar

After several years of playing only keyboards (for reasons which were never explained, as far as I heard), Bob Dylan opened his European tour last night on electric guitar, in Stockholm, with "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)." He switched back to keyboard halfway through the show. Oh, those walls of electric guitars!

You say my kisses are not like his,
But this time I'm not gonna tell you why that is.
I'm just gonna let you pass,
Yes, and I'll go last.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Spring afternoon

What's an old Deadhead to listen to on a beautiful spring afternoon? "Scarlet Begonias"?

I had to learn the hard way to let her pass by.

"Eyes of the World"?

Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.

"Let It Grow"?

What shall we say, shall we call it by a name?
As well to count the angels dancing on a pin.

Well, it's March 26, so how about CD 2 of "Dozin' at the Knick," shows recorded March 24-26, 1990: "Playing in the Band" / "Uncle John's Band" / "Terrapin Station" / "Mud Love Buddy Jam."

Some folks up in treetops, just looking for their kites.

Yeah, that's the ticket.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Cyril Wong

Back in January, I read the Singaporean poet Cyril Wong's like a seed with its singular purpose. (Full disclosure: Wong is the editor of Softblow and has published my poems.) It's quite a memorable book, with several highlights that I keep coming back to. There's a lovely poem, "that day," about the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. (It's available on-line here.) As every good collection should, this one has some great lines:

"Happy the atheist that buys the poor man a meal, no thought
of your kingdom in her head."
(from "walls, loss of light")

[about an argument with a lover]
"Sorry is, once again, insufficient."
(from "before the afterlife")

"If squatted on the table and peed into our food, while we
ate as a family without once looking at each other, tasting
something sharp in our mouths."

"If my self is a shadow, at least I made a dent in the light."
(both from "if ... else")

"Before the afterlife" is the really memorable sequence in the book, about two gay men living together in Singapore, where a certain circumspection is still necessary, at least with the families of the two men. Several of the poems in the sequence are quite striking, including the one I quoted from above, but this is my favorite longer passage, from section 7:

................................ Two men dancing

naked in their own home, bodies pressed
against each other and swaying unhurriedly

to that unspectacular rhythm, in the light
of an ordinary Saturday afternoon.

Hunch and Hope

Here's one poet-translator's guess about what translation is—George Szirtes again:

"Half of translating is simply trying to understand what a poet is up to from the inside. The rest is hunch and hope."

I love that: "hunch and hope." And then somebody tells you the translation was good, and you're not quite sure anyway, but glad that somebody liked it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Six? Ten!

George Szirtes mentions that Frigyes Karinthy was the first proponent of the concept of six degrees of separation (as confirmed by Wikipedia).

I thought about this once. Let's imagine two farmers, each of whom lives far out in the country in two different very large countries that are on opposite sides of the world from each other. Now, we can't be sure that each of these farmers knows the mayor of a town near where the farmer lives, but it's safe to assume that each farmer knows somebody who knows such a mayor. So we've got farmer-somebody-mayor on each end.

Now, we can't be sure that the mayor of a small town in the country in a large country knows the president of that country, but we can be pretty sure that said mayor knows some politician who knows the president. So now we've got farmer-somebody-mayor-politician-president on each end.

And the two presidents may not know each other, but each president knows his or her ambassador to the other country. So even with these two completely rural farmers (who may never go further than a few miles from their farms, say), the longest chain from one to the other is farmer-somebody-mayor-politician-president-ambassador, and then back down: president-politician-mayor-somebody-farmer.

So, six degrees of separation, perhaps. But you don't need more than ten degrees of separation to get from yourself to anybody else on earth.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Americans abroad

A comment I wrote on a post by Sarahjane, an American in Frankfurt, about vulgar young Americans abroad:

Right after I first moved to Berlin in 1991, I became extremely aware of the American junior-year-abroad students traveling on their rail passes. Even when they were not vulgar (and they weren't vulgar that often, at least back then), I noticed how they always seemed to believe that they were where they belonged, no matter where they were. Or to put it another way, that they had a right to be wherever they were, and to behave in the same way that they would have behaved if they had been in New York City or Minneapolis or Oberlin or wherever. The young Americans traveling together did not seem to have much respect for the countries they were traveling through; it was almost as if those places did not exist as separate cultures, but just as place for Americans to travel through.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

"A day may come when you will be very glad you saved Pettigrew's life," says Dumbledore to Harry at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (That was the line that stuck with me when I finished book three earlier this month, as part of my project of re-reading all of HP before volume 7 is published in July.)

In the light of that line, it doesn't surprise me that the Wikipedia page about Peter Pettigrew says that "J.K. Rowling has hinted that Pettigrew will make additional appearances in the final novel, and it is speculated that Pettigrew will repay his life debt to Harry."

But what this really reminds me of is Gandalf's response to Frodo when Frodo asks why Gandalf did not kill Gollum (here quoted from reading Lord of the Rings twenty-five or more years ago, so don't make fun of me if my paraphrase is off): "Many that die deserve life. Many that live deserve death. Who are you to deal out death in judgment?"

The first time I read The Fellowship of the Ring, I asked my Dad about that one, and he gave me a smile that, in retrospect, I found out was knowingly ironic, and he said something like, "Gollum may still have a role to play." (My Dad read Tolkien in the late fifties, long before the books become popular; in fact, he checked the books out of the Yale University library when he was there as a graduate student in mathematics!)

The other thing I rediscovered on reading volume 3 of HP is something I noticed about Rowling's skill with plot when I first read that volume. When I was about halfway through the book, something came to mind about the first two books: the exciting passages at the end of each book had depended on explanations of how particular bits of magic worked—and the explanations were always introduced earlier in the books, but without the slightest hint that any foreshadowing was involved. Hence, the exciting passages never had to be slowed down with explanations.

Right after I thought that, though, I came to the passage in Prisoner of Azkaban where the action stops and characters begin explaining things (the scene in the Shrieking Shack). It seemed to me that Rowling had just slipped up—but of course I read further and discovered that that scene was not the climactic scene at all, but a false ending, which made the barrage of explanation part of Rowling's own conscious toying with suspense. It was at that point, at the latest, that I ceased to feel any "high-culture" qualms about considering Rowling an excellent writer.

King Dork

A friend of mine from college sent me a novel by a friend of hers from high school: King Dork, by Frank Portman. It turns out I had at least heard of Portman indirectly in college: he is a member of the band The Mr. T. Experience, which got a bit of airplay back in my student radio days at KZSU. And the band still exists.

King Dork is billed as an anti-Catcher in the Rye book. At the beginning, I found several nice bits to underline or mark, but decided not to, as it seemed like the kind of book that would keep coming up with good quotable bits. And it is. I did ended up marking a few things, though. Here's one of them.

The narrator, Tom Henderson, has a few books that belonged to his father when his father was a teenager; the books are of great interest to Tom because, when Tom was eight, his father died. One of the books is Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead:

"I had originally shied away from this book because I was worried it had to do with the Grateful Dead and nudity, and, well, let me put it this way: if you can imagine a more alarming combination, your imagination is quite a bit better than mine. Then I realized it was about war, and it was more like naked people and dead people, two of my favorite subjects, so I thought I'd give it a try.

"Now, this book was by a guy named Norman Mailer, and he was a piece of work. You know how Holden Caulfield said 'giving her the time?' Well it was the same with Norman Mailer. He said 'fug.' I kid you not. Like 'this is a fugging nightmare!' or 'go fug yourself.' You know, it's no wonder everyone was all crazy and weird in the sixties, if everything was being run by prissy grandma types like Holden Caulfield and Norman Mailer."

I was once at a Dead show at Boreal Ridge, in the Sierras, and during the second set a naked woman climbed up on the barrier in front of the stage and dove back into the crowd. It was pretty alarming. (It was also the worst Dead show I ever attended, out of 82 or 83.)

Tom Henderson is sort of in a band with his friend Sam Hellerman; their main activity as members of a band is to think up new names for the band, for themselves, and for their first album (so much fun!). The book also contains a glossary, with two entries that I thought worth noting here:

"The Velvet Underground: you can tell how badly someone wants to come off as a hipster by how fervently he or she pretends to have been into this group since early childhood. They were my favorite band as a zygote."

"Franz Zappa: it all hippie music had been this weird and good, maybe that subculture wouldn't have been such a total waste of brain cells."

Later Coda: This is supposed to be "teen fiction" (the hero is a sophomore in high school). It's good that the book did not win any awards; there are worse things to explain here than the word "scrotum" on the first page!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Forest Whitaker

I saw The Last King of Scotland on Saturday, and as I expected to be, I was overwhelmed by Forest Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin. (As I just noticed in a New Yorker commentary on another film with James McAvoy in it, McAvoy was not bad either!)

But my love of Whitaker's acting comes from Ghost Dog, by Jim Jarmusch, a movie that provides the pleasure of watching Whitaker develop a character without any music-video-style editing. The editing in The Last King of Scotland reminded me of the editing of the key scene in Philadelphia. In that scene, Tom Hanks, wearing a bathrobe and hooked up to a walking IV, explains opera to a flabbergasted Denzel Washington. But instead of letting Hanks dance with his IV and blow the audience away with his acting, Jonathan Demme pretended it was a video and did all kinds of swooping and cutting and general messing around with the images.

At least in Philadelphia it was only the one scene that was almost ruined by such editing. In The Last King of Scotland, almost every scene with the brilliant Whitaker was cut to pieces, as if Whitaker's acting were not more than enough to communicate Amin's frightening blend of charisma and brutality.

I'll take Jarmusch (or Jacques Rivette, another director who lets his actors act) over Kevin Macdonald any day!

And something happened at the cinema that I have never experienced before: the movie was interrupted, during the climactic scene, by the house lights, because someone was having a medical emergency. We had to wait 10 or 15 minutes until an ambulance came and took the stricken person out. Then the movie started again!

Monday, March 19, 2007

March 21 reading

Wednesday, March 21, from 6:30 to 9:00 pm

Thin Raft 10th Anniversary Reading

Rümelinplatz 19, Basel, Switzerland

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.

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. For more information, contact Andrew Shields at or check the TR website at


The old story of the origin of the Grateful Dead's name is given a new twist in Mark Greif's "The Right Kind of Pain," a review of Richard Witts's book The Velvet Underground. Greif's most striking conceit is a long comparison between the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead (striking because the members of VU hated the Dead; I don't know what the GD's members thought of VU). He begins by arguing that "the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead started out, in an odd way, as basically the same band. In fact, both bands started with the same name in 1965: the Warlocks." As Greif later points out, "they both had to choose a different name because it turned out that a third band had already put out a record as the Warlocks."

But I wonder: what if there was no third band? What if each band changed its name because of the other?

In any case, Greif's article is a wonderful essay. I got to it through Jerome Weeks's referral to it at Bookdaddy.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Five new translations

My translations of one poem each by Mara Genschel, Nadja Küchenmeister, Norbert Lange, Bertram Reineke, and Johanna Schwedes are on-line here.

German Poetry anthology

A few weeks ago, I finally received my contributor's copies of Michael Hofmann's Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology (FSG, 2006; Faber & Faber, 2005). I contributed two translations of poems by Lutz Seiler.

The anthology is superb. J. B. Leishman's translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes" is worth the price of the book alone, and then there's his co-translation (with Stephen Spender) of the Ninth Duino Elegy.

But I also like this little tidbit by Paul Klee, translated by Harriet Watts:


topped by waves,
topped by a boat,
topped by a woman,
topped by a man.

Christopher Middleton's translation of Gottfried Benn's "The Evenings of Certain Lives" (the lives in question being Rembrandt's and Shakespeare's) makes a fine introduction to Benn for those not familiar with a poet ranked by many in the German-speaking world as the equal of Rilke and Paul Celan. Michael Roloff's version of Nelly Sachs's "Chorus of the Rescued" will probably open a few eyes as well, not to mention her "Two hands, born to give" (translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead and Michael Hamburger).

There's a generous selection of Bertolt Brecht; it's always nice to be reminded how wonderful a poet he was. Middleton's version of "Thoughts on the Duration of Exile" was my favorite here, but John Willet's "To Those Born Later" also deserves mention.

One of the great post-war German poems is Günter Eich's "Inventory," here translated by Charlotte Melin. This is surely new to most English speakers who have no German, and it, too, makes the book worth getting.

For me, the highlight of the selections from Celan is John Felstiner's version of "Deathfugue," which means that translations of mine have now appeared in an anthology with some by my mentor. His version of "Tübingen, January" also struck me here, with its resonant conclusion:

if he spoke of this
time, he
only babble and babble,
ever- ever-

("Pallaksch. Pallaksch.")

The last Celan poem is the positively accessible "Don't write yourself," again in Felstiner's translation:

Don't write yourself
in between worlds,

rise up against
multiple meanings,

trust the trail of tears
and learn to live.

The Ingeborg Bachmann selections are also on target, the highlight being Peter Filkins's version of "Departure from England," with its surprising conclusion: "I have never set foot on its land."

Michael Hamburger's version of Günter Grass's "The Egg" is the highlight of the Grass section. But he gets short shrift compared to Hans Magnus Enzensberger; although I love Enzensberger, the poems in the lengthy selection here did not strike me. Perhaps it was just the wrong day for them as I read them; perhaps he is a poet whose hard-earned lightness in German does not translate well?

My two Seiler translations include one of the poems in the sidebar: "my birth year, sixty-three, that."

My only very small complaint is that the poem chosen to represent Oskar Pastior's work is likely to turn off quite a few people who might otherwise like his work. But that is my only quibble with this excellent anthology.

Hung Jury

If Hamlet were put on trial for Polonius's murder, and you were on the jury, what would your verdict be?

Personally, I'd go with guilty. He was only pretending to be insane!

Thrill Me

Reginald Shepherd was kind enough to send me his essay on "Some Issues in the Teaching of Creative Writing," which he has been quoting from on his blog recently. One passage that he did not put on his blog struck me (I hope he does not mind my quoting it here): "When I read a poem, by a student, in a literary journal, in a collection of poems by a single author, or in an anthology, I want to enjoy the poem, to immerse myself in the poem’s world."

This reminded me of my time at the Spoleto Writers' Workshop (summer 1998). On our last full day in Spoleto, the writers went to the master class of the Spoleto workshop on bel canto singing, which we had been invited to observe.

In the singing workshop, each singer would sing an aria or a song which he or she had prepared, then the teachers (Judith Coen for the women, Bob Shewan for the men) would comment on the singing and work with the singer for a while. They would grab the singer's face in mid-song; they would have them sing while flapping their arms like birds; once, Bob even made faces at a singer in the middle of his aria! (We couldn't actually see Bob's face because his back was to us and his face was literally in the singer's face.) What was most striking to me was the metaphorical meaning of all this for writers who had just been workshopping for ten days: the workshop leaders had been doing the same to us the whole time — but the writers (including myself) tended to respond differently to our teachers' proddings than the singers did. If they seemed to take it all in a fairly professional way, we would often take it all in a very emotional way, as if the teachers' criticisms were personal. As Judith Coen said to one of the singers: "I'm pushing you so hard because I want you to thrill me."

I have told that story to students over and over again in the past nine years: if I criticize their writing (whether creative or scholarly), it is because I want them to thrill me.

Reginald's essay also reminded me of another anecdote. Reginald wrote: "One student rather disarmingly admitted during a class discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnets that 'I can understand this when I work at it, but I don’t like having to work.'" I had a similar disarming remark once: while I was discussing essay writing with students (quite advanced ones), one of them said, "So what you are saying is that you want us to think about we write." Bingo.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

For trials, not tribunals

From the Boston Globe, an editorial that voices something I have been thinking and saying since September, 2001:


March 16, 2007

IN HIS Guantanamo hearing, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed embraced the "enemy combatant" label that President Bush invented for Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects. That ought to make Americans wary of the novel judicial process there.

Mohammed, the self-identified military operations chief of Al Qaeda, admitted during a recent hearing before the Combatant Status Review Tribunal that he organized the Sept. 11 attacks and many other terrorist actions. In the transcript, he describes himself as a man at war, for religious reasons, with an enemy who has invaded Muslim lands. In his fractured English, he compares Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks to World War I, World War II, and the American war for independence against the British.

Killing, he argues, is the language of all wars. His implication is that his murdering of children and innocent civilians in the World Trade Center and the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing is no different from the conventional wars waged by nation-states.

Mohammed's attempt to normalize his despicable acts should be laughable, but it is furthered by the Guantanamo hearings -- a process outside both the American civil legal system and the Geneva Conventions . The special tribunals that Bush has conjured up are harmful not only because they deprive the accused of the fair trials guaranteed in American courtrooms and of the rights that a court-martial grants to US soldiers and foreign prisoners of war alike. The Bush tribunals also are misconceived because they elevate deluded fanatics like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed into the imposing military foes they would like to be -- instead of the vicious political criminals they really are.

This is how Mohammed justified his terrorism: "We consider we and George Washington doing same thing. As consider George Washington as hero. Muslims many of them are considering Osama bin Laden. He is doing same thing. He is just fighting. . . . So when we say we are enemy combatant, that right. We are."

The guilt of the terrorist known as KSM could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in any civil courtroom or military tribunal sanctioned by the Geneva Conventions. By not giving him and other detainees a fair trial, Bush makes their case for the hypocrisy of the secular democracies. Many detainees picked up in Afghanistan had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and it is particularly embarrassing for Americans that Mohammed has to be the one to plead for them. Americans should not have to be told about injustice by a creature like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Good Shepherd

Reginald Shepherd's "One State of the Art" is yet another fine piece of prose from the pen or keyboard of RS:

"Reversing Pound's dictum that technique is the test of a poet's sincerity, many contemporary American poets seem to believe that technique is instead a sign of insincerity, that something too apparently shapely cannot be deeply felt, or that the urgencies of feeling are necessarily at odds with the imperatives of form."

"... what Allen Grossman has called the four tasks that the significant poet must be expected to perform: to point out what is significant in the world of common experience; to defeat given expectations with respect to how things are assembled (and poems themselves are very much in the category of 'things'); to make clear how difficult it is to make meaning; and to make clear how interesting the world is."

I also liked this tidbit from D. W. Fenza's "Who Keeps Killing Poetry?", a link I found thanks to John Gallaher:

"Poets often allude to other poets, not because they like to show off or generate footnotes, but because they love to enter that mysterious communal place where the dead, the living, and future generations exchange their gifts with one another. Poetry is the loveliest of all conversations, for it seeks to belong to no one person but to overlapping and concentric circles of self, friends, family, tribes, communities, and humanity."


Miles and I are reading Missee Lee (our eighth "Swallows and Amazons" book by Arthur Ransome). Chapter Five is called "Hic Liber est Meus." Miles asked me what it meant.

I told him it was Latin and that I did not know what it meant, but that we might find out in the chapter.

"It must be about God," he said. "Latin is always about gods."


Mark Merritt's post about birding and a kingfisher sighting led me to dig up a haiku I wrote about one of my kingfisher sightings:

sitting still beside
the pond waiting for the king
fisher to return

The pond in question is on a small plot of land owned by my wife's cousin Manfred Delpho, a German wildlife photographer and one of my birding mentors. You can check out his extraordinary photos on his website.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Auden as an intellectual reference point

It almost does not count when Christopher Hitchens uses poems as reference points for his discussions of issues—he does it ALL the time. I know of no other journalist who so frequently refers to poetry and clearly has vast swathes of it memorized.

But he does it again in an article on Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Slate: this time with not Yeats, but Auden. And yes, it is "September 1, 1939." The line that he uses as a motif in his article is "the enlightenment driven away."

The article is one of many responding to Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Buruma, who independently wrote about Ali (see links provided by Pierre Joris).

The part that really struck me about Hitchens's argument is a passage from Ali herself:

"I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage for the world of reason and sexual emancipation. After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values."

Those who criticize Ali for the vehemence of her critique of Islam should keep this in mind.

(See also "Auslandsreise oder Flucht?" in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: Nawal as-Saadawi has been forced to leave Egypt because of serious threats to her life. She, too, grew up in the "world of faith [and] genital cutting.")

Coterie Writing

David Damrosch's article "Trading up with Gilgamesh" (in the Chronicle of Higher Education) refers to how academic writing can be considered similar to "coterie writing" in the Renaissance:

"In 16th-century England, for instance, small groups of aristocrats such as Sir Philip Sydney, his sister Mary Herbert, and their circle would compose poems for their mutual entertainment, circulating them privately from one country estate to another. Scholars today may reach a somewhat larger circle, but most academic writing is part of a continuing conversation among a coterie of fellow specialists with common interests and a shared history of debate."

The concept of "coterie writing" is useful for thinking about contemporary poetry (in North America, in Great Britain, in the German-speaking world): poets today write for the coterie of their fellow poets. Is this something to be lamented? Many do lament it, but one should keep in mind that Sir Philip Sydney still wrote some pretty great poetry, and that the Earl of Rochester also did so in a similar milieu a century later.

Damrosch's conclusion is also interesting in this context:

"The lesson I would draw from my Goldilocks experience is that it is neither necessary nor desirable to dumb our projects down when writing for a general audience. At the same time, we need to write quite differently when we want to reach beyond the comforting confines of our disciplinary coteries. It is good to have a clear and vivid style, but equally, we have to retrain ourselves to write for readers who don't already know what we're talking about, and who need to be shown why they should care about the things we know and love so well. The trade market can bear an impressive degree of scholarly substance if we can teach ourselves to reach out to a substantial nonscholarly clientele."

Replace "our disciplinary coteries" by "our poetic coteries"! Those who want to be read by people who are not part of their own poetic coterie need:

a) to be clear and vivid
b) to retrain themselves about their own assumptions
c) to convince others to care about the things that the poet cares about
d) to maintain the high standards of their own coteries

As Damrosch argues, this is not a matter of "dumbing down" at all (he refers to scholarly authors who called what they did to their "popular" books "dumbing down"—and those books did not do well!).

Those who want to talk to the members of their own coterie need not worry about all this, of course.

Mora or less

For German speakers, an interesting article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung by Terezia Mora, "Die Dichterin in ihrer Zeit."

Mora begins by saying that when she worked on a novel for four years, almost none of what she wrote during the first three years actually ended up in the final book!

She also mentions reading Ulysses when she needs perspective on her work, because a) it is hilariously funny and b) she enjoys the freedom and courage and poetic power of the book. Joyce as an antidote to one's own limitations?

Finally, she also says that before she wrote her first story (which ended up in her first book), she was not sure whether she would ever write a successful sentence. But before she wrote her second book, she already had a definite and rather rigorous image of a) what literature should be like, b) what, within literature, her own literature should and could be like, and c) what, correspondingly, her second book should be, both as a whole and in the details.

That says a lot about how writers have "systems" even if they do not want to define them, but also about how such systems derive from one's own experience of writing. Writers best define their own worlds through the work they produce, not through their theoretical statements about that work.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Cabinet d'Amateur

My chapbook cum art book Cabinet d'Amateur is very hard to get a hold of, given that the publisher does not do any distribution. As I recently ran out of copies (but for my own), I ordered 20 more from the publisher, which I now have. Anyone interested in buying a copy should contact me: the book costs 23 CHF or 15 EUR or $15. Most of the copies I had from the 50 copies I originally got from the publisher, however, I traded for other books! So if you have a collection of your poems to offer in trade ...

More details: Cabinet d'Amateur, poems by Andrew Shields with German translations by Ulrike Draesner and photographs by Claudio Moser, Cologne: Darling Publications, 2005 (from the Kunst zu Texten series edited by Dieter M. Gräf).

Guantanamo snowclone

On Heute Journal, the late-evening news show on the German television channel ZDF, there was a segment on the Guantanamo camps this evening. One billboard at the camp has a snowclone:

"I came, I served, I protected freedom."

I X-ed, I Y-ed, I Z-ed: greetings from Julius:

© Who Is She? Music, Inc (BMI)

I've been told to expect it
I begin my descent
Down the cold granite steps

And who could have turned among those I confide in?
I think that I know what I haven't known yet
'Cause a week is a month
and an hour a day
When your reaching just pushes it further away
With your past and your future precisely divided
Am I at that moment? I haven't decided

And stretching out into the sea... Aquitana
Is that what the prophet told me he saw?
You gave it to me but I really don't want it
I came out on top by the luck of the draw
'Cause a week is a month and an hour a day
When your reaching just pushes it further away
And what's the return on the faith I've provided?
I think that I know now but I haven't decided

Poetry Idol

For those who write poetry, can't sing, and love American Idol and the like, there's always the option (discussed here) of learning Arabic, moving to the United Arab Emirates, and participating in Millions Poet. The only other condition is that your poems should praise the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. The prize is one million dirhams (about £140,000, according to the article).

The other twist in the article is that poetry is apparently considered "manly" in the UAE (although women also participate in the Millions Poet competition). Being more a wimp than a he-man, more a nerd than a jock (and probably an involuntary member of the School of Quietude to boot), I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Change Your Lifestyle

"No, the admonition of Rilke's archaic torso would not be quite same if it were merely: You must change your lifestyle!" (George Szirtes, "Brain Noise")

"... for here there is no place / that does not see you."

Rilke's German here.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Dushko Petrovich's article about "a practical avant-garde" contains this nice passage about what an avant-garde is:

"Fairfield Porter, the great midcentury painter and critic, ... said the avant-garde was always just the people with the most energy."

He also has a nice summary of how the art world works (at least how it worked a couple years ago):

"The scene seemed wild, but there were simple rules all along. You were given a white room in a Big Art City for a month. You had to do something in that room to generate attention beyond that month. You had to be written about, bought, or at least widely discussed. Then you would get to have the white room again for another month, and so on. If you did this enough, you had what was called a career."

Not a What, But a How

Jazz fans should take a look at Terry Teachout's essay "All That Jazz," a review of Alyn Shipton's A New History of Jazz. Teachout emphasizes that the history of jazz should not be seen in terms of brilliant individuals alone but in terms of groups of people developing the music together.

He closes with a great quotation from Bill Evans: "Jazz is not a what, it is a how." Which reminds me of this great quotation from Thelonious Monk: "It's not the mistakes that count, it's what you do after them that counts."

(Poetry fans should note that the Ted Gioia referred to in Teachout's article is Dana Gioia's brother, who is a jazz pianist and historian. I heard him play a long time ago in Palo Alto.)


A nice example from an article about what pediatricians say about toys for kids:

"It's better for a child to tell the toy what to do than for the toy to tell the child."

The same pediatrician (one Deborah James) is quoted at the end of the article, too:

"In her office last week, James says, 'A 9-month-old had the time of her life playing with the exam table paper.' She learned about cause and effect (crinkling caused a noise); trial and error (gentle crinkles made a less satisfying sound); constancy (crinkling produces some noise every time); and limits: Mom said 'No,' every time it went in her mouth.

"'Now that's an educational toy,' James says."


"Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

It must have been September 1986. At some point that month, I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude (whose author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, turns 80 today), read the first sentence, and stopped when I got to the word "ice": I wanted to savor that sentence. So I memorized it, and for a few days, I walked around quoting it to people.

This led to two distinct responses. Some people said, "Oh, you're reading One Hundred Years of Solitude." I always said that no, I was not reading it; I had only read the first sentence and stopped. To which they always said, "You're weird, Andrew."

Others said, "Wow, what's that?" When I told them it was the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude, they said, "Are you reading that? Is it as good as people say it is?" I always said that I did not know, as I had only read the first sentence and stopped. To which they always said, "You're weird, Andrew."

I did go on to read the whole book (and again a few years later). That opening sentence is still my favorite opening sentence of a novel, but the first sentence of Love in the Time of Cholera (which I have read three times) is almost as good:

"It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love."

It does not end with a little bomb like the word "ice," but otherwise it's great. And that novel has a final sentence that I could only agree with when I read it:

"'Forever,' he said."

That's how long I wanted the book to go on when I finished it.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Gregory Djanikian

In our household, a line from a poem by Gregory Djanikian occasionally gets quoted: "My shin, my shin!" I was surprised to discover just now that I don't own the book the poem is in (Falling Deeply into America) and that it is not from the title poem of the book (but from a poem called "How I Learned English"). We use the phrase to refer to moments when one uses the wrong word by accident (especially if that word is in one's non-native language: my German, Andrea's English). In Djanikian's poem, he describes being hit in the head by a baseball shortly after his arrival in America, upon which he clutched his forehead and shouted, "My shin! My shin!" His playmates were so amused by this that he began to feel included in their group.

All this came to mind with G.D.'s poem on Poetry Daily a few days ago, "My Name Brings to Me a Notion of Splendor," in which it is the name "Djanikian" that generates the narrative of exclusion as an immigrant and then inclusion at the end. Here's the poem's conclusion:

I would have to unravel the tangle
of circumstances that put me in a small
landlocked lumber town in Pennsylvania
face to face now with Joe Schunk and having
to explain the D was silent easy enough
to say once you got the hang of it but Joe didn't
and it was five or six fast blocks of losing him
down Hawthorne and across to Pine my heart
thumping and beads of sweat glistening
on my arms before I heard Louisa Richards
suddenly call out DeeJay to me from her porch
in a way that stopped me in my tracks
because nothing had ever sounded so good
and nothing came easier than to walk
up the stairs and sit down by her
and begin telling her who I was.

Sport and Art

George Szirtes wrote, in a comment about Ryan Giggs:

"It is hard to explain to those who have no taste for football that it can be exciting in exactly the same way as art can."

For me, it is the narratives in sport that make it so fascinating. I remember sporting events the way that I remember plays, novels, or movies that are successful because of their well-made plots. And within that, then, the moments of grace: Jerry Rice swerving around the sideline marker to score a touchdown in a Super Bowl back in the late eighties, for example (26-21 for the 49ers, if I remember correctly). That memory is not quite as vivid as the lip twitch that Kevin Spacey produces in The Usual Suspects (where the first time you see the movie, it means nervousness; and the second time, it means amusement) or the similar twitch Jennifer Ehle produces near the end of the BBC Pride and Prejudice (which to her family would mean she hates Mr. Darcy, while to the audience it means she loves him)—but I've seen each of those lip twitches several times, and I only saw Rice's touchdown once.

Thomas Hardy

Two interesting reviews of Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy have appeared recently: by Adam Kirsch in the New Yorker and by Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books (not available on-line). Kirsch's appeared in the January 15 issue, and I noted the following to comment on at the time:

"His novels, and especially his poems, describe a world from which God has already absconded, and for good. Because this is still the world we inhabit today, he remains one of the most vital and relevant of English writers—more modern, in some ways, than the modernists who succeeded and disdained him."

This was not my experience reading Jude the Obscure a few years ago. I came to it after having read all the Harry Potter novels that were then available. One effect of this was that I wanted to read some nineteenth-century novels—for the plots and subplots and all the social details (the kind of narrative J. K. Rowling writes). First, I read A Tale of Two Cities, and then I read Jude. I loved both, but I was also struck by how much Hardy's novel seemed trapped in a particular time period: it could not have been written much earlier, and its concerns were no longer important within a few decades after its publication. Jude's exclusion from higher education on class grounds is, happily, no longer an issue in England or the United States, and the impossibility of divorcing Arabella is also a dated problem. I feel closer to Stephen Moss's comment: "Hardy's mindset and the moral vision of his characters are alien to us."

Kirsch's review also contains a lovely quotation from Hardy: "If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone."

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A snowclone about poetry

Dave Smith's otherwise rambling essay "St. Cyril's Dragon: The Threat of Poetry" contains a wonderful snowclone in its opening paragraph (in fact, it is the essay's thesis, in a sense):

No threat, no poem.

Here, the snowclone is "No X, no Y," based on "No harm, no foul."


The one book of Dave Smith's poems I have is Fate's Kite, which I love. The thirteen-line form of all the poems gives them a brevity and tightness that are admirable, along with a slightly truncated sensation, caused perhaps by the ingrown desire for a fourteenth line.


How long had it lain there, coverless, red-back
spine spurning the Midwestern dusk like dignity
in faces that stand so before the plate-glass,
then shuffle wordless to the end of the street?
The librarian's hand in flared sun. Your friend?
Red Warren's selected. I hadn't read to the end
but did by dusk, rocking in shade. It was to me
the revelation, the gaze of Mary's that gasps
when the stone's touched. All since I can track
like the night spilling over asphalt, and dawn's
dew-glitter in yards I ran, and earlier mowed
for cash, needing my way in the world. But why
did that book rise just then? Like a face at dusk.