Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ringing Redstarts

Lovers of birds and poetry should check out Matt Merritt's wonderful "Ringing Redstarts," on Poetry Daily today.

My own poem with redstarts is called "Static." Now, why would two poems about these birds contain the word "static"? Listen to their call here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Football and the Philosophers

There's an amusing column in the Basler Zeitung today in which Siegfried Schibli takes passages from famous philosophers and replaces one central word in each passage by the word "football." ("Soccer" to you American readers of this blog.)

The funniest one is from Schopenhauer: "Bisher subsumierte man den Begriff Fussball unter den Begriff Kraft: dagegen mache ich es gerade umgekehrt und will jede Kraft in der Natur als Fussball gedacht wissen. Man glaube ja nicht, dass dies Wortstreit, oder gleichgültig sei: vielmehr ist es von der allerhöchsten Bedeutsamkeit und Wichtigkeit. Denn dem Begriffe Kraft liegt, wie allen andern, zuletzt die anschauliche Erkenntnis der objektiven Welt, d. h. die Erscheinung, die Vorstellung, zum Grunde, und daraus ist er geschöpft." Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweites Buch, 1818. Das Wort "Wille" wurde durch "Fussball" ersetzt.

One could try to the same thing with poems:

"You gave me footballs first a year ago;
"They called me the football girl."
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Football garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.


Let be be finale of seem.
The only football is the football of ice-cream.


O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the footballer from the football?


SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a football,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,


Shall I compare thee to a football match?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.


Whither is fled the football's gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?


For football, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ, I'll have these Players
Play something like the football of my father
Before mine uncle.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Football lines

A friend of mine just reminded me of this line from Gary Lineker:

"Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end the Germans always win."

And that reminded me of the movie Lola rennt (Run Lola Run in English), in which one of the characters quotes the German trainer Sepp Herberger: "Der Ball ist rund, das Spiel dauert neunzig Minuten." In English, "the ball is round; the game lasts 90 minutes."

When Run Lola Run appeared in English, Stuart Klawans reviewed it in The Nation and concluded his review by citing the character's citation of Herberger: "Confronted with questions about meaning, a figure at the beginning of Run Lola Run shrugs and says, 'The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes.' That's a good answer, if your head's filled with the same stuff as the ball."

What struck me when I read that back in 1999 (when I still subscribed to The Nation) was that no German reviewer would ever make anything of that line. In the German, it will never be anything more than a throwaway line, a funny citation of Herberger that would at most lead to the ironic remark that the movie itself is 90 minutes long.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Fans of Kristin Hersh (or Throwing Muses) will be interested in knowing that Kristin Hersh is releasing one song a month from her forthcoming CD Speedbath for free download with an organization called Cash Music. Go here to check out the wonderful tunes!

You can also subscribe to the download series for as little as $10 for three months. It's great to see musicians experimenting with alternative distribution methods like this. What would an analogous approach for poets be?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

To Make Me Who I Am

I have mentioned this line from Borges before (several times actually), but it is one that always comes back to me: "I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar."

It came back to me again in Reginald Shepherd's "To Make Me Who I Am," the long autobiographical essay which opens his Orpheus in the Bronx, when I recognized myself in this:

My gifts were also my curse, and I wished that my differences (I knew that I was smart and that being smart was better) also came with the power to defend myself against those who rejected me.

Monday, June 16, 2008

By Way of Introduction

Last month, I read Reginald Shepherd's essay collection Orpheus in the Bronx, a little while after having read his Fata Morgana (which I have been commenting on off and on for the past few weeks). In his brief introduction to the collection, Shepherd wonderfully captures something that people should keep in mind when they talk about the politics of literature: "I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature, which enacts possibility rather than closure."

I have been oppressed by many fewer things in my life than Reginald (I was not raised by a single mother in the Bronx, for example), but I could not agree with him more: one thing that has never oppressed me is literature. It has always freed me from whatever wanted to hem me in.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Light Years

In my post on previous post, on Reginald Shepherd's "With the Wind Blowing Through It," I said that it's not depth but difference that poets find interesting, while the popular conception of poetry is that depth is the point.

"Light Years," the next poem in Shepherd's Fata Morgana (you can find it here if you page down a bit) attributes the search for depth to the you that the poem is addressed to:

You walk ahead as if you know
the way, full of purpose and intent
on seeing what's to be seen
if you look hard enough, look deep
enough, so certain the world is as you find it.

Look at what the search for depth is associated with: a sense of purposeful, intentional direction; a belief that there are depths where meaning can be found; a confident belief in one's perception of the world. The poem's speaker has a different relationship to the world in the poem's final lines:

... You call me back
to the world of things, sometimes
I don't know why I should go there.

The poet, we poets like to think, is someone who "looks hard enough" and, in many strains of contemporary poetry, finds "no ideas / but in things." But this first-person voice seeks to escape from things, not into deeper meanings, not into what is hidden inside the things, but ... where?

I reread the poem now to look for clues as to how to answer that question, and while doing so I thought, "But now I am looking hard enough ..." But my answer is not between the lines; it's on the surface, in the lines themselves, and it's in the lines about surface right before the ones I first quoted above:

... Late afternoon flatters my skin
with pattern, and then the setting sun undoes
the picture. Dark, light, bright
slip through my fingers, color distinctions
fade with the day.

The poet does not look harder or deeper; the poet looks at surface patterns and traces their changes over time. — I'm not sure I really agree with that statement, but I am always tempted by the idea that poetry is not about depth, and I'm enjoying tracing the lines of that idea by thinking about Shepherd's poems.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

With the Wind Blowing Through It

Poets have a tendency to present simple things as being deeply meaningful—or so says the popular understanding of poetry. One response to this understanding is to deny it—but if your poems don't aim at some meaning beyond the simple statement of the words themselves, then what are you writing them for? Another response is to accept that understanding but argue that it's not as simple as that—which accepts that understanding at a different level! A third response is to embrace it: yes, we poets are finding deep meaning in simple things. But then you risk sounding exactly like a poet is assumed to sound by those who never read poetry—the "wow, man, deep" school, if you will. A fourth response is to historicize it—poets are like soothsayers, who take their auguries from the patterns the birds fly in the sky. All this as an introduction to the last three lines of Reginald Shepherd's "With the Wind Blowing Through It" (from Fata Morgana):

The same sky keeps happening
but differently each time
(today with finches in it)

Perhaps it is the poet's willingness to see what is different in the same that makes the poet a poet, while also leading to the popular conception (misconception?) of poetry as something deep put in a simple way. But it's not the depth that is the point for the poet (or is it?), but the difference—the defamiliarization of the sky, in this case (sorry, Shklovsky sometimes rears his charming head). Or to be less theoretical and more poetic about it, in the words of Paul Celan, "something intervenes."

"Oh, wow, man, that's deep."

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Summer Plans

My nephew Alex asked me what I am doing this summer, so I began to write a list. It kept getting longer:

I have lots of things to do this summer: translate essays by Durs Grünbein for a selected essays book to be published next year by Farrar Straus; translate poems by Dieter M. Gräf for (check out the site; it's very cool); translate poems by Jacques Réda because that's an ongoing project; edit the project report for a University of Basel research project on "iconic criticism" called "eikones"; spend two weeks at the North Sea coast in Germany in July (where I plan to read the Aeneid); write poems as always; play guitar and mandolin; finish the demo recording with my trio Human Shields and put together a package of recording and photos to try to get gigs; prepare my classes for September; send Luisa to Kindergarten in August (a momentous occasion, as my Mom would put it); play with the kids lots in July after we get back from the North Sea because Andrea will have to work.

As I wrote to Alex: "Does that sound like enough?" And I'm sure a few things are slipping my mind!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Writer and Author

I'm correcting a German-English translation for an exam, and the German word Schriftsteller appears in it. My sense is that this corresponds to "writer," and that there is a difference between "writer" and "author," even though the two terms can refer to the same person.

I would articulate this difference as follows: a writer is someone who writes books (as a profession?), but an author is someone who has written one particular book, or a set of books. So one would say "Jane Smith is a writer," but one would say "Jane Smith is the author of Title of Her Book," or "Jane Smith is the author of four books."

Comments welcome on this distinction, of course!


This cartoon from the May 26, 2008, issue of The New Yorker made me laugh out loud a few minutes ago. It still makes me chuckle now!

(Are you the person it made me think of? Not quite sure why it made me think of you, but it did!)


(And I just browsed the Cartoon Bank for a moment and found another one that made me laugh out loud!)

Steamboat Switzerland

The wonderful Swiss jazz drummer Lucas Niggli will be touring North America with his band Steamboat Switzerland later this month:

19.6.08 US - Los Angeles STEAMBOAT SWITZERLAND ( Dominik Blum, Marino Pliakas, LN)


23.6.08 CAN- Victoria, Jazzfestival STEAMBOAT SWITZERLAND

25.6.08 CAN - Vancouver, Jazzfestival STEAMBOAT SWITZERLAND

27.6.08 CAN - Calgary, Jazzfestival STEAMBOAT SWITZERLAND

28.6.08 CAN - Montreal, Jazzfestival STEAMBOAT SWITZERLAND

If you live in or near any of these cities, be sure to check out Niggli's band. He is an extraordinary drummer and composer!

Poetry Festival in Britain or Ireland next May

I'm toying with the idea of teaching a poetry seminar in the spring of 2009. The seminar would be based on a poetry festival taking place in Britain or Ireland in May—if I can find one.

So does anyone know of a poetry festival taking place in Britain or Ireland from May 1-3, 2009, or from May 21-24?

Those are the dates I am looking for because May 1 is a holiday in Basel, and it happens to be on a Friday in 2009, while May 21 is also a holiday (Ascension), and the Friday after Ascension is a day off from classes at the University.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Handful of Sand

I'm always putting things into poems
where I think they'll keep ...

These are the first two lines of Reginald Shepherd's poem "A Handful of Sand" (like all the ones I've quoted over the past few weeks, it's from his collection Fata Morgana). Again, my response to the poem (at least the one I am developing here) is more of an association from than a reading of the poem. In this case, it was nice to hear a poet articulate something that I have sometimes felt: one purpose of poems for the poet is to act as mnemonics to help one remember things that one does not want to forget.

If this becomes the poet's only reason to write poems, then it's probably time to stop trying to get published, since what one finds memorable may or may not be something one can turn into a successful poem. More than just this desire is necessary—but it's an interesting desire nonetheless.

(Sometimes I get the feeling that some published poets don't distinguish between anecdotes and poems ...)

I hope that RS is continuing to recover well from his serious illness last month. In the light of that illness, the last line of "A Handful of Sand" could have been painful to re-read now:

I will not entirely die.


Before Houdini diced with death and lost
the final bet which burst his perineum
he stretched a wire from end to end of Pest
above the childhood ghetto in his mind,

These are the opening lines of "Wire," one of five poems by my friend Padraig Rooney that are in the current issue (June 2008) of the Concelebratory Shoehorn Review. Check them out! (And the rest of the issue as well.)

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Fourth Daily Poem Project, Final Round Results


The winner of the final round of my fourth Daily Poem Project (see the call for votes here) is Martha Rhodes's Come to Me, His Blood, which received 7 votes out of 50 cast. As those numbers suggest, the voting was incredibly close, with Bill Zavatsky's Ode to the Maker of Odes in second place with 6 votes, and three poems tied for third with five votes: Mary Jo Salter's Point of View, John Rybicki's Her Body Like a Lantern Next to Me, and Elaine Sexton's Night. Fire. All thirteen finalists received at least one vote, and quite a few people commented on how many of the poems they really enjoyed. (Of course, each of the finalists had already been chosen in the week that it won.)

I would like to thank everyone who participated, especially those of you who took the time to vote almost every week! Some serious emailing brought in a bunch more voters for the final round, several of whom commented on how much they liked the idea. That encouragement may well lead me to start a fifth DPP in August or September ...