Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ashes of American Flags

"I wonder why / we listen to poets," sings Jeff Tweedy in Wilco's "Ashes of American Flags." It's a somewhat odd way of putting it, since mostly poets get read, rather than listened to. But the range of possible meanings is still quite limited: it might refer to poetry readings (where we listen to poets, rather than read them), it might mean "listen to" in the sense of "do as someone tells you to do" (with poets as sources of moral guidance), or it might mean that lyricists who sing their poems are also poets (opening up the "are lyrics poetry?" can of worms). The rest of the lyric might help one decide among these three readings, if that's what one is inclined to do.

When I said that "Art of Almost" seemed primarily "suggestive" and not much more, I meant that the lyrics were so open to interpretation that even such an enumeration of the straightforward readings would not be possible. "Ashes of American Flags" is more than "suggestive," in this sense, because its text is more limiting in its possible interpretations.

Ashes of American Flags

the cash machine
is blue and green
for a hundred in twenties
and a small service fee
I could spend three dollars
and sixty-three cents
on diet coca-cola
and unlit cigarettes

I wonder why
we listen to poets
when nobody gives a fuck
how hot and sorrowful
this machine begs for luck
all my lies are always wishes

I know I would die
if I could come back new

I want a good life
with a nose for things
a fresh wind and bright sky
to enjoy my suffering
a hole without a key
if I break my tongue
speaking of tomorrow
how will it ever come
all my lies are always wishes

I know I would die
if I could come back new

I'm down on my hands and knees
every time the doorbell rings
I shake like a toothache
when I hear myself sing
all my lies are only wishes

I know I would die
if I could come back new

I would like to salute
the ashes of American flags
and all the falling leaves
filling up shopping bags

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Art of Almost

It's great to hear bands push the envelope of what is expected of them, and that's what Wilco does with "The Art of Almost," the first song on their latest CD, The Whole Love. It sounds to me, in fact, like this song is the best Radiohead song released this year (better than anything on King of Limbs, at least).

If the music of the song is fantastic, the lyrics settle for being suggestive. But most lyrics do (not every songwriter is Conor Oberst, not even Jeff Tweedy).

While searching for the lyrics, I discovered that the Wilco website has all their lyrics, and that you can request songs for concerts. So I requested "Hummingbird" and "Impossible Germany" for Basel. You can even dedicate your requests!

Here's a live video of "The Art of Almost," followed by the lyrics:

The Art of Almost

I froze
I can’t be so
Far away from my wasteland
I never know when I might
Hoist the horns with my own hands

I heard a faint olé
True love but
I had other ways to hurt myself
Like calling
I could open up my heart
And fall in and
I could blame it all on dust
The Art of Almost

I’ll hold it up
I’ll shake the grail
Disobey across the waves
I’ll have all the love I could ever ache
And I’ll leave almost with you
All of almost

Sunday, October 23, 2011


The first issue of Antiphon, a new online poetry journal based in the UK, includes my poem "The View From Here."

On reading through the rest of the journal, a few of the poems struck me in particular:

"Why do you live on your own, without any children?", by Michaela Ridgway
Nil by m0uth, week 3, by Cora Greenhill
Triptych, by Claire Dyer

But most of all I liked Archie's Paris, by David Harmer, which reminded me of the first sentence of Reginald Shepherd's essay "Why I Write" (which I quoted in my brief eulogy for him when he died, over three years ago now).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wilco, "A.M."

In anticipation of Wilco's concert in Basel on November 7, I picked up almost all the Wilco albums I did not already have, and now I am listening to them in chronological order. Their first album was A.M., from 1995, released right after I moved to Basel (which is neither here or there, of course). This one I did not have before, and on a first listening, I'm impressed by how they seemed to be channeling the Rolling Stones of Exile on Main Street at times, especially when they get more rocking, as on "Casino Queen":

(This version doesn't quite do the Stones comparison as much justice as the studio version, actually.)

Some might think an "altcountry" band should not be compared to "the world's greatest rock and roll band," but as my friend Geoff once pointed out to me, on Exile, the Stones also proved that they are the world's greatest country band, and reminded us all that country and rock-and-roll come from the same sources, and that the original distinctions between them were all about marketing and radio formats ...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fish on a Stick

This Wondermark comic from mid-September struck me as a little lesson in linguistics, although as is often the case, I am not enough of an expert in linguistics to really figure out how to talk about it. I'm only good enough to see that there is some linguistics to be talked about here.

The lesson is that language involves not just what is said but a whole bunch of assumptions that we have that help us interpret what is said. I thought this might have something to do with the Gricean maxims, but I can't figure out how the two speakers' assumptions violate those maxims of quality, quantity, relevance, or manner.

The second man assumes that if something is carrying something and shouting out a description of it, that it must be for sale. The man with the fish, though, interprets the question not as "how much do you want for it?" but as "how much of the fish is on the stick?"

Any linguists out there want to help me with this one? Perhaps I should send it to Mark Liberman of Language Log.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rob A. Mackenzie and Katy Evans-Bush, reading in Basel, Thursday, October 20, 2011

ESP (English Seminar Poetry) presents:

Salt poets Rob A. Mackenzie and Katy Evans-Bush will read from their poetry on Thursday, October 20, 2011, in Room 11 of the English Seminar of the University of Basel, at Nadelberg 6 in downtown Basel.

For more information, click on the image of the flyer below.

The next ESP reading will feature Michael Hulse and Quinn Latimer on November 21, 2011.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Cleanse Song

See the new pyramids down in old Manhattan
From the roof of a friend's I watched an empire ending

Bright Eyes, "Cleanse Song"

A few months ago, I was listening to Bright Eyes, as I was obsessively doing at the time, and up came "Cleanse Song," a beautiful ballad from their album Cassadaga. While I love the song, I had to differ with Conor Oberst about the above lines: it was not the end of an empire. Nor was it the beginning, of course. It was an opportunity for the leaders of the empire to reassert and even vastly expand their empire's reach, both abroad and, especially, at home.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

No Need for Due Process

In this column on October 3, 2011, Glenn Greenwald included a link to a White House Press Conference with Press Secretary Jay Carney, which I recommend that you watch:

Kudos to Jake Tapper of ABC News for asking the important questions. I would say "non-kudos to Carney," but he's just doing his job. The real "non-kudos" have to go to the President.

As Tapper asks, what would "Constitutional Law Professor Barack Obama" say about how President Barack Obama is handling the Constitution? And all American citizens and residents should be asking themselves, "Do we want to live in a country where the President can order people to be executed without trial?" If even a large minority, let alone a majority, answers that question with "Yes," that is a very sad state of affairs.

One thing that I think should be made as clear as possible about this sad state of affairs: in the end, it's not about ordering the assassination of an American citizen. That's just an extra turn of the screw. The real problem is the President reserving the right to order the assassination of anybody anywhere.

UPDATE: Here's a more recent Greenwald column about how people get put on the list for assassination. As Greenwald puts it:

Seriously: if you’re willing to endorse having White House functionaries meet in secret — with no known guidelines, no oversight, no transparency — and compile lists of American citizens to be killed by the CIA without due process, what aren’t you willing to support?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Michael Donhauser reading in Basel, October 25, 2011

The wonderful poet Michael Donhauser will be reading from his work (in German) on Tuesday, October 25, 2011, in Basel. The reading will be at 10:15 a.m. at Nadelberg 6, "Schönes Haus," home of the English Department; the reading is sponsored by the Philosophy Department and Professor Angelika Krebs. Click on the flyer for a larger version and more details.

Sunday, October 02, 2011


The main period of my life when I used a lot of footnotes was, unsurprisingly, in graduate school from 1988-1995. I wrote my dissertation on a Mac Classic (or perhaps it was a Classic II), using the version of Microsoft Word that existed way back then, and footnotes were added by typing apple-E. But since I veered away from scholarship into translation after finishing my doctorate, I have rarely written anything since then that called for footnotes.

This weekend, I'm translating an academic text with footnotes, and whenever I want to type a footnote, the old apple-E reflex takes over, and I end up with the text centered instead of with a footnote. It's not that I want to know what keystroke produces a footnote (I'm perfectly happy to go the Insert menu and select Footnotes). What strikes me is that this ancient reflex is still there, as it has never been over-ridden by a different reflex for generating footnotes or by a different use for apple-E.

There's probably a bit of deep psychology to be done here, but it's all just an anecdote really.