Sunday, September 23, 2007

Miles plays the Beatles

Miles and I had a session yesterday with his drum teacher, Lorenz Hunziker (of Mañana), as part of the Drum School Basel's Open House (Tag der offenen Tür). Lorenz is on keyboards here, since Miles is on drums.

This was Miles's first truly public performance (the previous one was only semi-public, at a wedding), and this time it was on his real instrument (drum set), rather than on bongos. I think he looks right at home. :-)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Schönste Lieder

Wie waren dies Nächte und innig die Augen, sie glänzten, es streiften und zärtlich die Hände, sie atmeten leise, und zitternd und nah war es ein Flüstern, als lägen bald offen, bald lächelnd verschleiert wie Lippen die Blätter, die Arme, der Fluss.

Michael Donhauser, Schönste Lieder

This is from Michael Donhauser's latest book, a collection of intensely rhythmic prose pieces featuring three striking characteristics that make them stand out in their feel from much other poetry in German these days (and also in English):

1. An open acknowledgment of Hölderlin's syntactical inventiveness ("es streiften und zärtlich die Hände).

2. Use of the dummy "es" to great effect (the same phrase again), along with more referential uses ("nah war es ein Flüstern").

3. Extremely strict meter in prose (here, I think it has to called "amphibrachic": a stressed syllable between two unstressed ones).

I love Donhauser's Sarganserland, and his Venedig: Oktober (with its "half-sonnets"). There's some Donhauser in English from Shearsman here.

Gold Mine Gutted

A friend of mine (guitarist in the Swiss band Mañana) gave me some stuff by Bright Eyes. Several tunes have caught my attention while I work and listen to the music in the background, the most recent one being "Gold Mine Gutted," with its wonderful opening lines:

It was Don Delillo, whiskey neat,
And a blinking midnight clock

For me, right now, it's Bright Eyes, Ardbeg neat, and a computer screen.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Imaginary Prosody

"It's like arguing about the prosody of poem that may or may not exist ..." is the beginning of a striking post by Jonathan Mayhew. It may sound like literary theory, but it turns out to be an allegory of ... theology.

Check it out, and feel free to tell me (and him) what you think.


Here's something for people in the Basel area: Gebirtig, a "fairy tale with music," by Joshua Sobol, based on the poetry of Mordechai Gebirtig. This production premieres in Weil am Rhein on September 20, with music by the wondrous Baith Jaffe Klezmer Orchestra (featuring Andreas Wäldele, my excellent but unfortunately erstwhile mandolin teacher—I simply don't have time to practice enough!).

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dylan as poetry 2

In their comments on my post on Dylan as poetry, Don Brown emphasized the element of performance as essential to the poetic quality of Dylan's lyrics, while Brian Campbell pointed out the absurdity of the apparent literary-critical assumption that evaluation of lyrics as poetry means that one should ignore the music when considering the "poetic quality" of a lyric. In his second comment, Brian quoted the comments on his blog by R. W. Watkins, who did not dispute that songs can be evaluated as poetry, but argued that Dylan is not the best example (Nick Cave and Tom Waits, among others, being better).

Several responses:

— Anyone listing people who are at least as good as Dylan should go and listen to a whole bunch of Greg Brown. (Do I proselytize? Yes, I proselytize. I am large, I contain multitudes.)

— Don and Brian's comments mesh nicely: the performance of the music is essential to a great lyric. This has some implications about how the songwriter's goals are different than the poet's. When writing a song, I am extremely focused on how the words feel in my mouth when sung, as it were. Further, listeners to songs want to sing along, and that has an immense influence on what constitutes a good lyric. When I read poetry, which I do so quite passionately, I am looking for many things, but I don't think that "singing along" is what I am looking for, either literally or figuratively.

— The pragmatist in me says that I should stop discussing Dylan as poetry hypothetically and look at a lyric and a poem. So here's "All Along the Watchtower" (words copied from

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

To have something to compare this to, I used some random-number generation (and a bit of hedging) to pull a book out of my poetry collection and find a poem with a similar structure. I ended up with Philip Larkin:

Who called love conquering,
When its sweet flower
So easily dries among the sour
Lanes of the living?

Flowerless demonstrative weeds
Selfishly spread,
The white bride drowns in her bed
And tiny curled greeds

Grapple the sun down
By three o’clock
When the dire cloak of dark
Stiffens the town.

— I won't go into an analysis of the differences between the two, and of their relative quality. But one thing is quite clear here that I have long noticed as a significant difference between songs and poems: enjambment is rare in songs, or even completely absent (due to the conventions, I guess, of melodic phrasing), while it is an essential tool of the poet, whether in formal verse or in free verse.

If anyone would like to comment on these two texts, I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Stella Blue

I have never doubted that Jerry Garcia wrote some absolutely gorgeous ballads (with Robert Hunter's words, of course), but if you have ever doubted Garcia's songwriting, then check out Willie Nelson's version of Garcia-Hunter's "Stella Blue" on Willie's CD "Songbird" (the title cut of which is a version of the Fleetwood Mac song). The extra twist of the CD is that Willie uses Ryan Adams and the Cardinals as a backing band.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hicok afterwards

Thanks to C. Dale Young for the link to "So I Know," by Bob Hicok, who, as you can gather from the poem, was one of the Virginia Tech killer's creative writing teachers.

I am trying to mean more than I did
when I started writing this poem, too soon
people will say, so what. This is what I do.



(im Andenken an meine Schwiegermutter Anna Delpho, 25 Nov. 1929-12 Sept. 2007)

Ein Mädchen saß in der Küche ihres Elternhauses
und schnitt Gemüse mit ihrem Vater,
der wegen seiner Kriegsverletzung
auf dem Feld nicht arbeitete.

Was sagten sie sich, das jüngste Kind
und der auf Krücken Gehende?
Ich weiß es nicht, aber eins ist sicher:
sie schnitten alles in der Hand.

Ich stand in der Küche meiner Schwiegereltern
und schnitt Gemüse auf einem großen Brett,
und meine Schwiegermutter stellte sich
neben mich, Kräuter schneidend, in der Hand.

Ich machte Platz auf meinem Brett,
dass sie die Kräuter hinlegen konnte.
"Nein, Andrew", sagte sie, "danke, aber
ich bin kein Brettschneider."

Aus der Schublade hole ich das große Brett,
lege daneben eine Zwiebel, eine Karotte,
einen Paprika, zwei Kartoffeln, eine Zucchini.
In die Pfanne gieß ich etwas Olivenöl.
Den Herd stelle ich an. Ich schneide die Zwiebel,
schiebe die Stücke von dem Brett
in die Pfanne, schneide weiter, die Zucchini
in Scheiben, dass mein Sohn sie herauspicken kann.
Salz und Pfeffer gebe ich dazu.

Handschneider, hast du Kräuter? Ich bin Brettschneider,
schneidest du sie für mich, in der Hand?

Zawinul, Shorter

The other Zawinul composition (besides "Birdland") that I turned to this morning was "In a Silent Way," from the Miles Davis album of the same name. And here's a video of Zawinul and Shorter doing "In a Silent Way" in 1991. It's called "Miles Davis and Friends," but Miles just stands there!

When listening to "Birdland" last night, I found a note about Zawinul's death that said he died of cancer. As my mother-in-law (two years older than JZ) is also dying of cancer right now, I found myself sobbing in front of the computer, while scatting along with the tune.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Joe Zawinul

Joe Zawinul died today at 75. Here's Weather Report doing "Birdland", the song that immediately started singing through my mind, live in Germany in 1978.

Funny Les

Here's a funny little poem by Les Murray, from the latest New Yorker.

The issue also contains a poem by Joni Mitchell. It shows that, while song lyrics are poems, they are not automatically good poems ...


I recently got copies of "Bridges to Babylon" (1997) and "Voodoo Lounge" (1994), by the Rolling Stones. My sense of the public reception of the Stones is that people think that no album they have released since "Tattoo You" (1981) has been worth bothering with.

Having listened to these two CDs now, I think that's unfair. Many bands would kill to make CDs this good.

Interestingly, though, I do have the sense that the individual songs are not that striking. It's just the overall feel of the CDs that is good.

Temporary Single Parent

My wife has been out of town since last Thursday, so I have been a single parent with three children (7, 3, and 1).

Such experiences give me only the greatest respect for anyone who is actually raising children alone ...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Review of Diary of a Bad Year

Here's the first review I have seen of J. M. Coetzee's new book, Diary of a Bad Year. Warning: spoiler! But of course Coetzee is not really about the plot.

The reviewer, Christopher Tayler, is right on target about two things: the book is more openly funny than anything JMC has written before, and it ends up being moving in a surprisingly new way for JMC. By which I mean that it is not moving because it is harrowing (as Disgrace so brilliantly is), but because it is touching.

Dylan as poetry

I posted this comment on Matt Merrill's post about Dylan. Matt was responding to this piece (which I have not read yet).


First of all, it's a little hard to test Dylan's lyrics as poetry, since his best texts are ones that one is mostly already familiar with. Perhaps Andrew Motion (and you and I) should have read the lyrics to all the songs on "Modern Times" before listening to the CD. An experiment for his next album?

Secondly, I'm a little unsure about the idea of "depending for effects on the music"? It's hard to separate the music and the text, of course, but just because the music provides effects does not mean the text could not stand alone. To use your example of RT: "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is a wondrous text. I can't imagine without the music, because I know RT's version too well, as well as Greg Brown's superb cover of it on his "The Live One," but the text is still flawless.

Finally, I have a collection of Greg Brown's live covers of Dylan that is fantastic. I can send you a copy if you like.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Diary of a Bad Year

I started my project of reading and re-reading books by J. M. Coetzee (see all the recent posts with "J. M. Coetzee" as a label) in anticipation of the publication of his new book, Diary of a Bad Year. Now I have the book, and I have read it. But I intentionally read it without taking any notes—I wanted to just read it for the sheer pleasure of it. Well, since I am one of only two people I know who liked his previous novel, Slow Man (which I cannot reread because my copy is somewhere in a still unpacked box of books, almost one year after we moved), you should take this with a grain of salt: Diary of a Bad Year is a fascinating book. I'll be re-reading it soon, and will post comments on it when I do so. (Before then, I'll be posting a comment on Age of Iron that I have not had time to type up.)

Sunday, September 02, 2007


Well, Miles and I played at the wedding of our friends Mark and Tanja this evening, Miles on bongos, me on guitar and vocals. Two great songs for weddings by Sir Paul himself:

1. Things We Said Today
2. With a Little Help from My Friends


Two comments on the match between Roger Federer and John Isner at the U.S. Open today (6-7, 6-2, 6-4 for Federer):

Long-term: Watch out for John Isner. I'm not sure whether he'll be in the top 10, but top 30 by next summer.

Short-term: If Federer keeps playing this well (0 unforced errors in the second and third sets), then the only player left in the draw who has any chance of beating him now is Djokovic.