Thursday, November 21, 2013


English has borrowed the German oxymoron "Schadenfreude" with a bit of schadenfreude of its own: "It takes the Germans to come up with a word like that!"

Here's another German oxymoron that English needs to steal: "Verschlimmbesserung," literally, "worse-bettering." This is when you try to improve something but just make it worse. So next time you come across this phenomenon, use this German word to refer to it: "That's typical verschlimmbesserung!" Or "he verschlimmbessered my article with his prescriptivist editing!"

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Grammatical norms and social discipline

My nephew Alex wrote me a note on Facebook:

I found this sentence in the French philosopher Georges Canguilhem that I thought you might appreciate (context: a short history of social normalization and standardization): "On commence par les normes grammaticales, pour finir par les normes morphologiques des hommes et des chevaux aux fins de défense nationale, en passant par les normes industrielles et hygiéniques."

To which I responded:

And the grammatical norms that are established in contemporary English as the beginning of this disciplinary process necessarily have nothing to do with how people actually speak the language. Necessarily, because it's not about helping people to speak correctly but about establishing arbitrary authority that people must obey without thinking through the grounds of that authority for themselves. The grammatical rules that are part of public discourse can thus become shibboleths people use to celebrate their own conformity with arbitrary power and to discipline those who do not conform to such power.

Hey, I can still talk the talk!

(Why post this here? Because if I leave it on Facebook, it will disappear down my timeline. If I post it here, it will disappear down my blog, but I will always be able to find it again.)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Quotation or statement

I may be a descriptivist when it comes to language use, but that does not mean there aren't features of how people use language that I find annoying—that is, I have my peeves, too. The difference between me and a prescriptivist is that I'll give up my peeves if I notice that people are actually using words in a way that seems odd to me (as in my pondering the contemporary use of "geek", where I don't say that people are using the word incorrectly, but just that I don't quite get how they are using it).

So one pet peeve of mine is how people use the word "quotation." For example, a student writing about Hitchcock's "Rear Window" just began a sentence by referring to "Jeff's quotation about how 'sometimes it's worse to stay than it is to run' ..." My peeve is that the student is quoting not "Jeff's quotation" but "Jeff's statement". That is, Jeff is not quoting anything when he says that; he's saying something in his own words.

Similarly, I see things like this, in a discussion of Einstein's comment about God not playing dice: "Einstein's quotation was meant to convey his belief that the universe was not randomly designed." Again, Einstein was not quoting anyone, so it seems odd to me to refer to his remark as his quotation.

So that's my pet peeve, but when I'm grading a student's paper that uses "quotation" where I would prefer "statement," "comment," or "remark," I don't correct it, because it's my impression that that is how the word "quotation" is being used these days.

Perhaps I'll get a comment or two now telling me I should mark it as a mistake, but I'm really just wondering if others have the same peeve about this use of "quotation" or not. The usage is surely common enough that it is completely innocuous to many people.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition, "Album Album"

Listening to a jazz playlist of mine on shuffle on my pocket computer, I had the pleasure of hearing "Third World Anthem," from "Album Album", a 1984 release by Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition. I first began to listen to jazz extensively when I was a DJ at KZSU, the student radio station at Stanford University. I first did a jazz show in the summer of 1983. When I started, I knew next to nothing. But I knew Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue," and John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," so I started "So What" from the former and cued up the title track from the latter, and wondered what to play after that.

Jazz albums have good lists of personnel, so I went and got albums by all the sidemen on those two albums. One of the albums was by McCoy Tyner (pianist on the Coltrane album), and one of the sidemen on that album was Jack DeJohnette. I don't remember what Tyner album it was, but I vaguely remember it being a piano trio, which means it was almost certainly "Supertrios" from 1977.

In any case, this use of sidemen to find more records to play had quickly led me to Jack DeJohnette, and when I began to exclusively play jazz in my DJ'ing the following January, his work was a staple of my shows, and when "Album Album" came out that year, I played it to death, especially "Festival," "New Orleans Strut," and "Third World Anthem."

I spent just over a week in New York just after Thanksgiving in 1984, and I went to see Special Edition several times during their week-long gig at the Blue Note. David Murray had already become one of my favorite saxophone players by then, but I was just as impressed by John Purcell and Howard Johnson. Rufus Reid is the bassist on the album, but he was busy elsewhere, so Cecil McBee was replacing him, and I remember him as being especially great. And DeJohnette was, as always, simply a wonder on the drums.

"Album Album": one of the greatest records of the 1980s, to my ears. (Up there with "Seeds of Time," by the magnificent Dave Holland Quintet.)

Monday, September 30, 2013

The bianca Story on "wemakeit"

This past spring and early summer, I had several fantastic writing sessions with Elia Rediger and Anna Weibel of the Basel band The bianca Story. We collaborated on most of the lyrics for their forthcoming album. We came up with some really good stuff!

Now, the band has started a crowdfunding campaign to cover the expenses for recording the album. Their goal is to be able to give away the album for free online and at their concerts. 

You can check out their fascinating project on the wemake it website here. (Click on EN for English, or FR for French, if you can't read the German.)

And of course, it would be great if you could contribute to the project; the music is worth it! As I've said before about my work with Leonti: I'm proud to be part of such an excellent project!

"Be a digger!"

Friday, September 13, 2013

Four-Letter-Word Game

Here are ten four-letter words generated by a simple rule:


If you think you've figured out the rule, suggest one or more new additions to the list. I'll tell you if you're right. Don't try to post the rule as a comment, though!

By the way, the ten words above are a list, not a sequence. The order doesn't matter.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sing, Words

Here is the first poem in Mark Granier's Fade Street (Salt, 2010):


That you may survive
those star-grazed years after I've 
gone back to where I'm going: air

of a song, dead air, my dark star 
set in the glimmerless hush, 
cool enough to touch.

Sing, that something remain
of these epic, mundane
conversations hoofing it down my back

clicketty clack—
that you may hit or miss
with a flourish, a backdraught, a hiss

like intaken breath. Life itches to get out 
of its mildewed coats,
glint with the motes turning

in a slanted beam—O sing
the slow schoolboy's daydream
counting them in.


The Swiss critic Peter von Matt has argued that poems want two things: to be beautiful and to be immortal. There's a long history of poems that stake their immortality precisely on their beauty. Here, the poem's speaker directly appeals to the poem's words to "sing"—to be beautiful—as a way to make it possible for them to "survive"—to be immortal. 
If the poem's own immortality is not an issue, this poem's opening rhyme juxtaposes the words' immortality with the speaker's own death in such a way that the speaker can live on in the rhyme itself: "I've" may be followed "gone" in the phrase "when I've / gone," but it is also contained in "survive". By admitting his future death into the poem in this way, the speaker allows his own self, his "dark star," to continue to shine even in the "glimmerless hush" of a cooling universe. This is a world of grand drama on a cosmic scale.
But a few lines later, the poem's second strong rhyme approaches the issue of survival from a different direction: "Sing, that something remain / Of these epic, mundane / conversations …" "Remain" picks up on the desire marked by "survive" in the poem's first line, but now it is not the speaker's self that may survive through the poem's singing. Instead, it is the speaker's down-to-earth, everyday experience of "mundane / conversations". This is an everyday world on the scale of human dialogue.
Yet before they are called "mundane" (and even before they are named as "conversations"), these everyday experiences are also called "epic". And of course the opening appeal to "sing" in a poem comes from the great epics about "great" issues like war and the founding of nations (or the grand cosmic drama of this poem's first appeal that its words "sing"). The contrast between "epic" and "mundane" both contests the idea of "greatness" as a necessary feature of the "epic" and elevates the "mundane"—in this case, everyday conversation—into something worthy of the immortality represented by great epic poetry.
The epic poem bases its appeal to immortality on the beauty of its presentation of "great" themes. This small poem also appeals to immortality through beauty, but after appealing to the grand drama of the universe through its opening images of stars, it calls for the mundane to be seen as beautiful as well.
The poem does not close with that image, though; it moves on to acknowledge the desire to escape the mundane: "Life itches to get out / of its mildewed coats". Yet this escape does not aim for the stars; this "itch" can be realized in "the slow schoolboy's dream" as he tries to "count the motes turning / in a slanted beam." This schoolboy, slow as he is, does not aspire to the greatness of the epic hero; his escape from the mundane world of "mildewed coats" is much simpler than the grand journey of an Odysseus—and this schoolboy's private dream can also be sung. And insofar as it is sung, it, too, aims for the epic, for survival, for immortality, and for beauty.
In the end, "Sing, Words" does not privilege one of these ways to escape the limitations of life over the others. They are all modes in which the words of a poem may "sing" beyond the life of the poet and beyond the lives represented in a poem. Grand cosmic drama, everyday discussions, childhood dreams—these are the matters that poems address, "hit or miss". And all of them can miss, but all of them can, sometimes, hit, when the words listen to the poet's exhortation and begin to sing.


I could leave it at that, but I can't help but mention how I love this line in particular:

of a song, dead air, my dark star 

Any fan of the Grateful Dead will love that play of "dead air" and "dark star."

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney's "The Rain Stick": Poetry and Paraphrase

The death of Seamus Heaney took me back to this essay I wrote in the late 90s, but never published.

Seamus Heaney's "The Rain Stick"
I Upend the Rain Stick

The Rain Stick

Upend the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

— Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level

"Upend the rain stick," "upend the stick again," "listen now again": the imperatives in Seamus Heaney's "The Rain Stick" tell you what to do. If you have a rain stick, you can upend it every time the poem tells you to, comparing rain stick and poem, the first in Heaney's 1996 collection The Spirit Level. The sound it produces is unforeseeable (lines 1-3), but there are names for it (line 4). Figures of speech can characterize your experience (lines 5-6) and the sound which produces that experience (lines 7-8). As what's inside it settles, the last sounds it produces requires a second set of names (lines 9-11). The surprise does not dissipate when you "upend the stick again" (lines 12-14): even when you know what produces the sound (lines 15-16), the miraculousness of the experience remains (lines 17-18) — and you want to "listen now again."

In a 1998 review of a book of critical essays on Heaney's poetry, Roger Caldwell has suggested that such a paraphrase is all that you'll get from a Heaney poem:
... there is too often the feel with [Heaney's] poetry that the paraphrase is the end of the matter: there is little of the multifaceted richness of suggestion that invites one to probe further. (PN Review 121, May/June 1998, p. 64)
An even shorter, one-sentence paraphrase of the basic claim of "The Rain Stick" is easy to produce: no matter how often you hear it, the rain stick remains wondrous, even — or especially — when you know how it works or have exhaustively described its effect. Such a description of the effect is itself a paraphrase, so a second paraphrase of the poem could be: a poem cannot be exhausted by its paraphrase. "The Rain Stick" thus contradicts Caldwell's claim about paraphrase — but this paraphrase would be "the end of the matter" if its claim were simply taken at face value. It is not enough for the poem to say that a poem cannot be exhausted by its paraphrase — it also has to be such a poem, otherwise Caldwell's prosaic claim will stand against Heaney's poetic one.

To test the poem against Caldwell's challenge, you need, in one sense, only do what the poem tells you to do: "Listen now again." You can repeat with the poem what the poem does with the rain stick: you can name and characterize and explain the sounds the poem makes, the patterns it produces, and the meanings it generates. In another sense, though, the poem tells you, in the rhetorical question in lines fifteen and sixteen, that such a reading is unnecessary: the description of how the rain stick works is superfluous to the experience of its effect. A description of how a poem works ought, then, to be superfluous as well. The contradiction between my paraphrase of "The Rain Stick" and Caldwell's general claim about much of Heaney's poetry is thus to some degree present in "The Rain Stick" as a contradiction between exhaustive description and the claim that such description is unnecessary. The rhetorical question denies the value of describing the poem, but the poem still asks you — even commands you — to produce such a description. You have to read against the rhetorical question and with the poem's imperatives.

"Upend the rain stick," then: the three imperatives frame the poem with a repeated call to action, dividing the poem into two parts, which describe two stages in the experience of hearing the rain stick. The first part, a linear sequence of events, goes from line one to line twelve, the second, a linear argument, from line twelve to line eighteen. In terms of lineation, the two parts are asymmetrical, and the second imperative is two-thirds of the way through the poem, in the twelfth line of eighteen. But in another sense, the second imperative is in the middle of the poem: it is the fifth of the poem's nine sentences. The visible asymmetry of the placement of the poem's imperatives, then, hides a less obvious symmetry. (Of course, the stanzas provide a further symmetry which, along with the lineation, works both with and against the syntactic structures of the sentences.)

A shorthand version of the poem's first five sentences (lines one to twelve) would be: imperative, names, experience, names, imperative — another symmetry. Each of these sentences plays with or against the poem's lineation to develop the poem's claims about the rain stick. To start with, not only does the second sentence provide a set of names for the sound of the rain stick, its form also acts out the surprise described in sentence one. First, the line break between "cactus stalk" and the proliferation of names ("Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash") contrasts the "dry" appearance of the rain stick and what it produces: surprisingly "wet" — and surprisingly diverse — sounds. That this is a stanza break only adds to the contrast: in the absence of water words as well as in its more analytical language, the first stanza is "dry", while the second is very "wet" (a "wetness" in terms of both the presence of water words and the imagistic, less analytical quality of the language). This movement from the dry to the wet characterizes both the surprising effect of the rain stick (something "dry" which sounds "wet") and the linguistic movement of the poem — a pattern repeated in the second part.

The second line break in sentence two, between the watery names and the verb phrase "come flowing through" (from line four to line five), also formally realizes the claims made in the first stanza. This line break does not separate "dry" and "wet" language; rather, it duplicates the position in the stanza and the syntax (subject/verb) of the break at the end of the poem's first line. This creates a parallelism between the elements of each sentence, between "what happens next" and the names in line four on the one hand and the "music you never would have known / To listen for" and the "flowing" of the water sounds on the other. The identity of the position and syntactic structure of the two enjambments emphasizes the contrast in the types of language used in each sentence — as does the assonance of "known" and "flowing," another shift from the "dry" to the "wet." In short, the second sentence of "The Rain Stick" uses two enjambments to support the claim made in the first sentence, enjambments which act out the surprise of the rain stick. They provide "wet," poetic support for the "dry" assertion with which the poem begins.

The third sentence further develops this poetic argument by introducing another tool — explicitly figurative language of a kind which has not yet appeared in the poem. This sentence contains two of the poem's three similes (the third appears in line seventeen). The first of them shifts away from the naming of the water sounds to what it is like to hear those sounds: "You stand there like a pipe." A "pipe" has the same shape as a "rain stick" or a "cactus stalk"; even before the line break to "being played by water," it is as if the listener were becoming the rain stick itself, as if hearing the rain stick turned the listener into a rain stick. After the line break, then, with "Being played by water," the listener is compared not to what is actually happening in the rain stick ("you" are not like "a cactus stalk being played by the fall of grit or dry seeds") but only to the sounds it produces. That is, the poem and its claims remain focused on the illusion created by the rain stick. Anticipating the structure of the later rhetorical question, the simile privileges the "wetness" of the rain stick's effect over the "dryness" of its production of that effect.

In the second sentence, the names for the rain stick's illusion are all "watery"; the connection between watery sounds and "music" is indirect, the result of the formal patterning of the first four-and-a-half lines of the poem. The second part of the third sentence uses, in line seven, the poem's only explicitly musical terms to describe the rain stick's "watery" sounds: "diminuendo runs through all its scales." This metaphor is easy to paraphrase: the stick makes a wide variety of increasingly quiet sounds. But the line with the poem's only musical metaphor is not as simple as this paraphrase would suggest: it plays a central role in the poem's music, even if only the assonance of the "o" in "diminuendo" with "known" and "flowing" is audible now. The volume of the rain stick's sounds is decreasing, but the poem's music continues. At the same time, this is the last "o" in the whole poem, as if one phoneme has already "run through all its scales," leaving others to run through theirs. The simile which follows the line break, "like a gutter stopping trickling," introduces sounds which will provide the music of the fourth sentence. As a whole, then, sentence three continues to use enjambment to act out the poem's argument, but adds assonance and figurative language to the poem's tool set.

Here, in the middle of line eight, the sounds the rain stick produces seem to be at an end — but "now here comes / A sprinkle of drops," the first of a whole new set of sounds described not with musical imagery but a different kind of images and even a different kind of language. The break between lines eight and nine prepares the burst of verbal energy which "runs through all its scales" in this sentence, the longest in the poem. The use of "here" inverts standard syntax and creates a chiasmus that the lineation draws attention to: in the second sentence, the break is between a subject and its verb (water sounds "come flowing through"); in the fourth, between a verb and its subject ("here comes" a water sound). The lineation, the chiasmus, and the repetition of "come" all serve to anticipate this second set of surprises.

The parallel images which follow each take up a full, end-stopped line (the first end-stopped lines in the poem). In contrast to most of the earlier water images, the water sounds are no longer part of a human world of "pipes" and "gutters" but rather part of a natural world of "freshened leaves" and "grass and daisies." "Sprinkle," "drops," "subtle," "little," "glitter," "drizzle": phonetically, these words emerge from the phrase "a gutter stopping trickling"; they "run through all the scales" of the simile at the beginning of line eight. Lexically, though, the language here is increasingly nonstandard — in general terms, but even just in the context of the poem: "a sprinkle of drops" is everyday usage, but "wets" makes an adjective into a noun (the only such shift in the poem), and the nonce compounds "glitter-drizzle" and "almost-breaths" are the most nonstandard words in the whole poem. The surprise in the opening lines is named as a surprise, and the wet sounds which follow are surprising, given the dryness of the "cactus stalk" — but by line eleven, the surprise is not just in the sounds but in the names themselves, words "you never would have known to listen for." Here, the poem's language is at its most "poetic," its "wettest."

Lexically, then, lines ten and eleven are the most irregular in the poem, but rhythmically, they are part of the poem's most regular stanza. The poem's opening line is close enough to iambic pentameter to produce a blank-verse feel — though its rhythm is not unambiguous. "Upend the rain stick and what happens next": the third foot, "stick and," is a trochee — a standard inversion nicely reinforcing the "upending" of the rain stick itself. After this almost regular start, the first three stanzas are full of metrical variations and substitutions which take the rhythm quite far from blank verse, even if most of them are easy to read as having five beats. Only line five ("Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe") can be unequivocally read as iambic pentameter — the clear meter of every line in the fourth stanza. After the fourth stanza, only line fifteen ("Who cares if all the music that transpires") is again a regular iambic pentameter line. In a poem consisting mostly of metrical deviation, the fourth stanza's sudden regularity is an essential part of the burst of energy created by the suddenly surprising names.

Still, the lexical and metrical energy of these lines is only part of what's happening here. Those "almost-breaths of air" lift the poem into a new realm. Until now, even though rain comes from the sky, everything in the poem has been of the earth, and the water has always been falling. Seamus Deane has described the relationship between earth and air in Heaney's poetry: "He wants the powers of earth to give him sufficient liftoff to carry him into the regions of air" (30). (Deane made this remark in 1990, even before the 1991 publication of Seeing Things, where Heaney described himself, in the poem "Fosterling," as "waiting until I was nearly fifty / To credit marvels" — ST, 50. He was born in 1939.) At the end of its first part, "The Rain Stick" generates Deane's "liftoff" with a series of poetic "upendings": the syntactic inversion of sentence four, which "upends" sentence two and generates new energy right at the moment of "diminuendo"; the musical development of that energy out of the "stopping" sounds of "gutter stopping trickling"; the lexical enrichment of the poem's language in lines ten and eleven; metrical regularity where there was none before; the spatial inversion of the sudden shift into "air," after the use of so many down-to-earth words; and, of course, the imperative "upend the stick again" which immediately follows this moment of "liftoff," in which it is as if the rain is no longer falling, but rising into the remarkable "air".

II. Upend the Stick Again
It is easy to paraphrase the poem's basic assertion up to this point — the rain stick's effect is wonderful and unforeseeable. It is easy to extend this paraphrase to include poetry itself — the poem's workings make that clear, as does Heaney's repeated emphasis, in his essays, on the "unforeseeable" quality of great poetry, its ability to maintain its surprise. His 1992 lecture on Hugh MacDiarmid, for example, describes "what typically happens in lyric poetry of the purest sort": "Suddenly the thing chanced upon comes forth as the thing predestined: the unforeseen appears as the inevitable" (Redress, 108). Heaney's poems also return over and over again to the unforeseeable, what can "catch the heart off guard and blow it open," as he put it in "Postscript," the last poem in The Spirit Level. But the paraphrase of the argument of "The Rain Stick" does not and cannot do justice to the poetic form of that argument. The first part of the poem supports its initial claim with an argument whose tools are almost exclusively those of poetry: lineation (both enjambment and end-stopping), stanza structure, assonance, meter, and heightened language. (Two of the poem's other tools, chiasmus and simile, are rhetorical figures, and not as exclusively poetic as the rest are.) While continuing to use such poetic tools, the second part of the poem also introduces a different kind of argument — a more linear, logical movement. Further, it thematizes the relationship between this mode of argument and the "poetic" mode used so convincingly in the first part. The poetic use of "dry" language makes the reintroduction of "wet" language all the more effective in the poem's conclusion. The final image acts out and thereby poetically justifies the poem's claims about the insufficiency of "dry" language, its inability to describe something like the rain stick — or a poem.

The contrast between the two parts already appears in how line twelve repeats line one, but with a difference. The second "upending" of the rain stick is different from the first precisely because "you" now know what to listen for, a knowledge marked by the line's metrical implication in the energy of lines eleven and twelve, that ultimate sense of "liftoff" which listening to the rain stick generates. The replacement of the metrically ambiguous phrase "rain stick and" by the clearly regular "stick again" eliminates the opening line's metrical ambiguity and fits line twelve into stanza four's rhythmic pattern. At the same time, the caesura introduced by this revision stops the momentum generated by sentence four and separates cause and effect, the second "upending" from the experience of it, perhaps marking the anticipation which the listener will have at the moment of a second experience of the stick. Finally, the line break after "what happens next" which opened the poem reappears here as a stanza break, setting the "music you never would have known / To listen for" parallel to "undiminished for having happened once, / Twice, ten, a thousand times before." This changes the original claim the poem made about the sound of the rain stick: if repetition does not attenuate the rain stick's effect on the listener, its surprising quality is not dependent on whether you "know to listen for" it or not. "Undiminished" does not mean unchanged. The repetition may be "undiminished", but that does not mean it is not heard differently.

The primary marker of this change in the second part of the poem is the comparative "dryness" of most of its language; it returns to the tone of the first stanza. From line four on, the first part of the poem is full of "wet" words and language which is more and more explicitly "poetic" (culminating in line eleven's nonce words); after the second "upending," the "wet" words and the explicitly "poetic" language disappear until the last two lines. To some degree, the language is "dry" in the usual sense of the word — it is more analytical, even rhetorical — but it is the contrast between the presence of water words in lines four through eleven and their absence in lines one to three and twelve to seventeen that drew my attention to this "dryness." Only after I had noticed that did it strike me that the "dry" parts of the poem tend to be more analytical than the "wet" parts.

The poem's language is at its driest, in the usual sense of the word, in lines thirteen and fourteen, in the counting of the "upendings". These two lines explicitly call counting into question. At the same time, though, they develop the poem's earlier patterns — they make use of repetition even as they dismiss its importance. The poem continues to "run through all its scales." "Undiminished," the central word here, recalls the "diminuendo" in line seven even as it negates it, as lines nine through eleven did to the phrase "gutter stopping trickling." Further, "before" at the end of line fourteen not only is a full rhyme with "listen for" but also repeats its sentence-final position. The very sound of these "dry" sentences, then, supports the claim that the surprising effect of the rain stick does not diminish when it is heard again, a claim the sentence's lineation also supports, with the stanza break, and with the end-stopped break at the end of line thirteen. This second break is in a paratactic parallel construction ("once, / Twice, ten, a thousand times before") — the same kind of construction as in the end-stopping of lines nine and ten. The poem's driest claim thus has the same form as its wettest, most poetic language. This form, and not any evidence, is what provides support for the poem's argument. The "dry" language is "watered," so to speak, by its connections to what came earlier, and the poem incorporates and energizes that language even as it argues against it.

Still, the following lines move out of these in what can only be described as a logical argument, which can be paraphrased as follows: the experience is "undiminished" even by knowledge of how it works, because that experience is as astonishing as a miracle. The poem makes this argument — and continues to dismiss argument and analysis even more vehemently than before. In sentence seven, the rhetorical question provides an explanation of how the rain stick works even as it dismisses the need for such an explanation. The claim is simple: explanation diminishes the quality of the sound no more than repetition does. Line fifteen, the first of the sentence, names the sound again (though without water words), in a clean iambic pentameter line which reinforces the priority of the name over the explanation which follows. The enjambment in the following stanza break again separates subject and verb, but now the music comes before the break, rather than after it. This structure also inverts the opening stanza break, where "cactus" preceded the proliferation of water words in line four: here, the "music" comes first, before the "dryness" of the cactus. Thus, the poem explicitly privileges "music" over "dry" language in at least three ways: in the sentence's semantics, meter, and enjambment. This is the same privileging as in the poem's first simile, "like a pipe / Being played by water": the analytical point was first made poetically. Nevertheless, despite the devaluation of the "dry" in favor of the musical, the "dry" language of the explanation in line sixteen becomes part of the poem's music: "grit" and "dry seeds" are new to the poem, but the repetition of "cactus" recalls the surprise created by the shift from "cactus stalk" to "downpour" at the end of the third line. Further, "cactus" and "through" framed the second sentence, where the rain stick's surprising wetness was first introduced (enclosing those sounds, in a sense, just as the rain stick itself encloses the "grit or dry seeds" it contains). The poem may dismiss the importance of the rain stick's dryness as a source of the rain stick's music, but that dryness is very much part of "all the music that transpires" in the poem.

But the most important word in line sixteen is surely "fall." Phonetically, it echoes "all" in the previous line and in line seven (where "all" also appeared with "through": "runs through all its scales"). But "fall" does more than echo "all" — it contains it. "All the music that transpires" (and even "all the scales" of diminuendo) are thus subsumed in "the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus" — even as the poem apparently claims the opposite. The rhetorical question privileges the music over the explanation, but the music of the poem makes "all the music" into part of the explanation. As the sound is inside the rain stick, the music of the poem is inside its words, even those words which are not about the music of the rain stick.

All this takes place inside a rhetorical question. Such a question always has a certain ambiguity: what if it is not a "rhetorical" question but a real one? What if we really are supposed to think about who might care? Heaney's reading on the tape which came with the original American hardcover issue of The Spirit Level makes clear that, for him, "who cares" is rhetorical, but the intonation which makes that clear is not audible on the page. Indeed, it is quite hard to hear "who cares" as anything but rhetorical, but when I listen to a rain stick, I care. Part of what makes the rain stick's effect survive repetition is precisely the knowledge that "all the music that transpires" is nothing more than "the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus." All that wetness comes from dyrness; all that music comes from so little — and that "littleness" does not "diminish" the music, but rather amplifies the power of its effect.

But perhaps the issue is less that the rhetoricity of the question is unstable than that the negating irony of the rhetorical question has to introduce what it negates — and then what it negates is subject to the poem's music, its formal, phonetic, rhythmic, and semantic patterns, so that what it negates becomes part of those patterns, is supported by those patterns, becomes part of the assertion involved in those patterns. This is how poetry can work differently than argumentative rhetoric: claims which the logical argument of a poem might dismiss can — and must — become part of the poem's poetic argument, not dismissed but incorporated by the poem. Because of the incorporating quality of poetic form, a poetic argument is always inclusive.

The relationship of "all" and "fall" acts out this incorporation — the "fall" of what's inside the rain stick contains "all the music that transpires" as well "all the scales of diminuendo." This "fall" takes on another meaning, however, in the light of line seventeen: "You are like a rich man entering heaven." "Entering heaven" inverts the "fall" in the previous line; further, the phrase makes clear that the shift into the "air" in line eleven is a "marvel" (one that Heaney marvelously credits here). This shift from descent to ascent is reinforced by the simile. The poem's previous similes each had an element of descent: water flowing through "pipes" and "gutters." The third simile thus "upends" the previous ones, and the experience of hearing the rain stick defies gravity for a second time.

Of course, line seventeen does include a miracle: the proverb says that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. If you are like a rich man entering heaven, you are like someone unexpectedly given grace. The explicit grace is that of the rain stick, whose surprising quality generates this sense of the miraculous. The implicit grace is that of the poem itself, and of poetry in general, "at one moment unforeseeable and at the next indispensable" (Redress, 192-193), to use another of Heaney's own turns of phrase (this one from his 1993 essay "Frontiers of Writing"). What makes you a rich man here is not your financial assets but the wealth of music the rain stick gives you — by which I mean the object and the poem by Seamus Heaney.

As if the miracle of line seventeen weren't enough, the sentence continues with the first "watery" language of the second part of the poem: "through the ear of a raindrop." This is the poem's ultimate water image — and the first since "glitter-drizzle" in line eleven. It is as if the second part of the poem compresses all of the first part's water imagery, and the power of the language used to express that imagery, into this single image. Here, the word "rain" appears for only the second time in the poem — and the first was in the poem's opening line. "Rain" frames the poem as much as the imperatives do. Further, "ear" is a sound which appears only twice in the poem — the first time in line eight, in the word "here," as the crescendo begins after the false ending of "diminuendo." "Drop" is also part of that crescendo, which culminated in the "almost-breaths of air," and "drop" reappears here. Those nonce words in line eleven thus play the same role as this image in line eighteen: each passage ties together the sounds and images which have come before into a unifying image with which the poem "lifts off" or, in its own terms, "enters heaven." Just as the last sounds the rain stick makes when you first upend it are increasingly fantastic, necessitating the invention of new words to name them, the last sounds of the poem "The Rain Stick" lift off into an image which, though expressed in words, and thus part of the poem's music, lifts the poem out of itself, "into the regions of air."

But the word in line eighteen which most does that work is the preposition "through," which appears here for the fourth time in the poem. It connects water, music, dryness, and miracle: "come flowing through," "diminuendo runs through," "grit or dry seeds [fall] through," "enter heaven through." The "flowing," "running," and "falling" express the rain stick's illusion, a metaphor for that illusion, and the reality behind that illusion — and "entering heaven / Through the ear of a raindrop" captures the miraculous sensation triggered by a combination of illusion, metaphor, and reality.

Heaney's poetry provides context for this phrase and the miraculous sensation it produces. The poem "The Railway Children," from Heaney's 1984 collection Station Island, depicts children playing along "the cutting" of the railway line, where "we were small and thought we knew nothing / Worth knowing" (SI, 45). That line break is reminiscent of the "music you never would have known / To listen for," and the poem's conclusion recalls that of "The Rain Stick" as well:
We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle. (SI, 45)
A similar interplay of childhood memory and miracle appears in The Spirit Level in the poem "The Butter-Print," with its vivid conclusion to a memory of "swallowing an awn of rye":
 ... when I coughed and coughed and coughed it up,

My breathing came dawn-cold, so clear and sudden
I might have been inhaling airs from heaven
Where healed and martyred Agatha stares down
At the relic knife as I stared at the awn. (SL, 53)
Deane has summarized the role of this kind of imagery in Heaney's work, "recurrent images of eye, needle, notch, the infinitesimally small opening through which the actual flows, as through an isthmus, into the visionary" (32).

"Through the ear of a raindrop": even after analyzing the entire poem, I am still stunned by this phrase. The image seems even further beyond interpretation than "diminuendo runs through all its scales" or those splendid nonce words in line eleven. I can describe its effect, I can talk about how it fits in the poem, I can analyze its role in the poem's music, I can even connect it to a tendency in Heaney's poetry — I can do all the things the poem itself does with the experience of the rain stick, and more, but no matter what I do with this line, it is as if it were looking back at me, as simply amazing as Dickinson's "As all the Heavens were a Bell / And Being, but an Ear" or Baudelaire's "noir compagnons sans oreilles et sans yeux" or Rilke's "O hoher Baum im Ohr!" — "Through the ear of a raindrop": the interpreter stops cold, and does what the poem tells him to do: "Listen now again."

III. Listen Now Again
A poem cannot be exhausted by its paraphrase: this paraphrase makes "The Rain Stick" into a version of some old classic paradox, as when a Cretan says that all Cretans are liars. But "The Rain Stick" produces this point not by presenting a logical argument, like Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which can be dispensed with when the argument has been made. Rather, it develops a poetic argument, one developed through images, not through ideas; through the tools of meter, lineation, stanza structure, and assonance — the tools of poetry, not logical development. The poem does not merely assert the poem's paraphrasable content but rather acts out how the "wet" language of poetry overwhelms both the analysis of how it works and the "dry" arguments which describe its workings, whether "the fall of grit or dry steeds through a cactus," the vibrations of vocal cords, or the play of phonemes, line breaks, and repetitions on a page. The paradox of "The Rain Stick" is finally that it tells you how to read and understand it, how to describe what happens in a poem, but it also tells you that it doesn't matter, that what matters is that you "listen now again."

The paraphrase of "The Rain Stick" is not, then, "the end of the matter." The poem does not merely privilege one kind of language over another; rather, it addresses and depicts the relationship between two different kinds of language. A quarter century earlier, in 1972, Heaney addressed that relationship in a different context, in an autobiographical essay called "Belfast," written in the years immediately following the beginning of "The Troubles" in Ireland:
Poetry is out of the quarrel with ourselves and the quarrel with others is rhetoric. It would wrench the rhythms of my writing procedures to start squaring up to contemporary events with more will than ways to deal with them. I have always listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies out of a bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down long ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery. They certainly involve craft and determination, but chance and instinct have a role in the thing too. (Preoccupations, 34)
This passage begins with a nice piece of aphoristic rhetoric which uses a chiasmus to support its claim: "Poetry is out of the quarrel with ourselves and the quarrel with others is rhetoric." Unlike the claims made in "The Rain Stick," this sentence does not appear in a poem, and hence its claim does not get swept up into a poem's music in such a way that it is incorporated into an argument that actually contradicts it. As part of an essay, this sentence is part of a movement from idea to idea — the movement, in Roland Barthes's reading of Aristotle, of techné rhétorique. In contrast, techné poétique moves from image to image. While it is easy to connect the movement from idea to idea to "the quarrel with others," the connection of techné poétique to "the quarrel with ourselves" is less clear.

In Barthes's words, the subject of the Poetics is the "art of imaginative evocation." Images, then, do not argue, but rather evoke. They do not seek to convince someone else that something is true by proving that it is true. As Heaney claims, then, poetry is not a matter of arguing with others — but how is "an art of evocative imagination" the appropriate tool for arguing with ourselves?

Heaney's assertion has its own rhetorical shape — that chiasmus which is part of its effectiveness. Chiasmus is a rhetorical figure, something used in rhetoric as part of an argumentative process. Rhetorical figures also appear in poetry, of course — "The Rain Stick" uses a chiasmus as well as similes and a rhetorical question. And logical arguments can appear in poems — as the second part of "The Rain Stick" shows. But the rhetorical figures and logical arguments in poems are not means to an end, as they are in other contexts, such as expository essays; rather, poems turn figures and arguments and ideas into ends in themselves, into moments charged with verbal energy — into images.

In his claim about poetry and rhetoric, however, the rhetorical figure Heaney uses also creates an image: the image of a Chi, an X, a chiasmus. For that one moment, in which the expository essay relies on this "imagination" of the idea, its argument is displaced by evocation. By taking two ideas and turning them into an image, chiasmus introduces a moment of poetry into the rhetorical context, just as the rhetorical question in "The Rain Stick" introduces rhetoric into the poetic context.

But the two ideas in Heaney's chiasmus are not the same. A "quarrel with others" might be a mere idea, but a "quarrel with oneself" is also an evocative image by itself, because quarreling and argument usually involve two people (or more) — it takes two to tangle. In short, Heaney's aphoristic claim works by evocation and not by argument, through the drama of the claim and not through its truth value. It is the generic context of the expository essay, and not the structure of the sentence itself, which makes the claim part of a logical argument.

As such, it is part of a "quarrel with others" — as the sentence which follows makes clear: "It would wrench the rhythms of my writing procedures to start squaring up to contemporary events with more will than ways to deal with them." As is often the case when poets write prose about their work, Heaney's essay is a defense of poetry, one which again emphasizes the necessary unforeseeability of poetic production. But it is not a defense of why he writes poetry at all; rather, he is defending himself against those who would tell him what to write.

In terms of its paraphrase, "The Rain Stick" can also be read as a defense of poetry — but it is always more than its paraphrase. By incorporating the terms of its own logical argument into a poetic context, into its own music, "The Rain Stick" functions not in terms of the truth of ideas but in terms of the drama of imagery, the acting out and not the arguing of claims. It is addressed to a second person, but it is not quarreling with that person; or if it is, it is quarreling with a second person who is part of the speaker's own self, which poetry divides, or whose divide poetry depicts — as Heaney does later in The Spirit Level, in part four of the poem "The Flight Path":
Enter this one I'd last met in a dream,
More grimfaced now than in the dream itself ...
So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head on.
'When, for fuck's sake, are you going to write
Something for us?' 'If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I'll be writing for myself.'
And that was that. Or words to that effect. (SL, 29)
Here, Heaney depicts the divisions in Ireland, but he represents them, as the best poetry always will, in terms of internal ambiguities. The claims others make upon the self become, as in a dream, claims the self makes upon the self; the "argument with others" is transformed into an "argument with the self," into poetry, where the paraphrase is never "the end of the matter."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Spinning like a cassette tape

Marc Krebs wrote a nice piece for the Tageswoche here in Basel today in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first cassette tapes. My link to it on Facebook led to a discussion of favorite brands of tape (Marc was a Maxell guy; I used TDKs). 

The first two tapes Marc got when he was 10 were "Thriller" and a collection of hits from 1983. Just under a decade earlier, I, too, started my life as a music listener by listening to Top 40 radio and the weekly countdowns of the hits. But the big hit LP then was "Rumours" (even if the first LPs I bought were by Elton John and Queen, and the first one I was given was the Beatles blue album of late-period singles).

I'm not a great fan of "Thriller," and I haven't listened to "Rumours" in ages, but what I wonder is this: how much was my taste influenced by the dominance of Fleetwood Mac in the mid-70s, and how much was Marc's influenced by the similar dominance of Michael Jackson in the early 80s?

More generally, if a band or artist dominates the charts when you first start listening to lots of music, how much does that determine the main directions of your taste? Even if you dislike the band or artist in question! (I can see in my own son's listening habits that many kids discover music through the top 40; it's a way to share things with your peers.)

To be more personal again: Fleetwood Mac ain't actually that much different than The Grateful Dead (the latter just jammed more and didn't have a great female singer), so my taste for the Dead might in part derive from all the Fleetwood Mac I heard on mid-70s pop radio.

True, by the time I got into the Dead, I had turned away from pop radio (and thus, as it was the early 80s, from Michael Jackson), but it would be the pop of my first years of listening that would have had this influence, not the pop of my first years of college.

Or maybe I just became a Deadhead because they played at Stanford a couple weeks after my freshman year began. :-)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

For geeks?

Lately, I've been seeing a lot of references to Tolkien and "Star Wars" that are prefaced with remarks like "you have to be a geek to understand this." I don't see where this claim is coming from: neither Tolkien nor Star Wars fandom is at all "geeky." After all, "The Lord of the Rings" is one of the best-selling books ever, and the three movies are near the top of the list of highest-grossing films. And the "Star Wars" franchise is also a huge success. I guess "geeky"  sounds to me like something more exclusive, less broadly popular, something more like a limited "cult" popularity. 

At some level, though, those who assert their geekiness in this way must get something from it. Downgrading something that appeals to mass taste by claiming it is actually something only for insiders? So much of popular culture does try to individualize massive success: "I see something in it that you don't." It's a version of the beginner's cliche in criticism: "If you look at it more closely, you will see that ..." Perhaps the claim that "geeks" will get it but others won't is a version of that, and the purveyors of such claims are saying that they've looked at it closely, so they know better.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

"Discuss about"

Lekshmy Rajeev, a Facebook friend who lives in India (she is an editor at Niyogi Books there), posted the following:

Although we often hear people say, ‘I would like to discuss about the problem’, it is not grammatically acceptable. You usually ‘discuss something’, you do not ‘discuss about’ something. The word ‘discuss’ is not followed by ‘about’.

Example, "we will not discuss what happened at the meeting."

The word ‘discussion’, on the other hand, can be followed by ‘about’. Example: There will be no discussion about what happened at the meeting.

Source: ‘Know Your English’ ( The Hindu) - November 13, 2007

Since I see/hear the same thing in English spoken by native speakers of German here in Switzerland, I decided to do some research.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has over 21000 uses of discuss, only 11 of which are followed by about. 0.05%

The British National Corpus has over 5000 uses of discuss, only 4 of which are followed by about. 0.08%

In the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, 110,000 uses of discuss, with 1223 followed by about. 1.1%

But in the India section: 279 uses followed by about, out of 5799 uses. 4.8%

And in Bangladesh: 198/2580 = 7.7%

Similar results for Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Just a quick doublecheck: in the Web-Based corpus, US hits for each: 68/21653 = 0.3%

So the US has a higher rate on the web than in the more carefully selected COCA, but the rate is still much higher in South Asia, where "discuss" is followed by "about" much more often than in other parts of the world where English is spoken. 

Monday, July 01, 2013

Talk like a poetry book

“Oh,” said Phyllis, “my heart's thumping like a steam-engine—right under my sash, too.”

“Nonsense,” said Peter, “people's hearts aren't under their sashes.”

“I don't care—mine is,” said Phyllis.

“If you're going to talk like a poetry-book,” said Peter, “my heart's in my mouth.”

“My heart's in my boots—if you come to that,” said Roberta; “but do come on—he'll think we're idiots.”

“He won't be far wrong,” said Peter, gloomily. And they went forward to meet the old gentleman.

(E. Nesbit, The Railway Children)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Same to you

Swiss speakers of English tend to say "same to you" where I would say "you too": that is, after someone says something nice like "have a good time" or "have a nice day." I would only say "same to you" after something mean, as a response to an insult, say. I assume this is just a feature of my personal usage; other native speakers of English must use "same to you" the same way the Swiss do, or they wouldn't put it that way, presumably. But perhaps it's a Helvetism from Swiss German or from French? In any case, this morning when my daughter Sara wished me a nice morning when she left for kindergarten, I said, "You too!" (Sometimes, I think I should say REM instead of U2.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Human Shields, Bloomsday 2013

My band Human Shields played a set at the Bloomsday party at the English Department of the University of Basel last night, organized by the wondrous Michelle Witen, Ph. D.

Our setlist:

The Morning after the Night Before
Better Never Than Late
Alisa's Bridge
The Bloom is on the Rye (lyrics Edward Fitzball, music Sir Henry Bishop)
Bright Cap and Streamers (lyrics James Joyce, music Andrew Shields)
Long Enough
1952 Vincent Black Lightning (Richard Thompson)
Land without Nightingales

We framed the songs with passages from Ulysses:

“Doublebasses helpless, gashes in their sides, musical duets, mandoline and guitar”
The Morning after the Night Before

“Sea, wind, leaves, thunder, waters, cows lowing, the cattlemarket, cocks, hens don't crow, snakes hissss. There's music everywhere”
Better Never Than Late

“they all write about some woman in their poetry well I suppose he wont find many like me where softly sighs of love the light guitar where poetry is in the air the blue sea and the moon shining so beautifully coming back on the nightboat from Tarifa the lighthouse at Europa point the guitar that fellow played was so expressive will I ever go back there again”
Alisa's Bridge

“—Leopoldo or the Bloom is on the Rye, Lenehan said.”
The Bloom is on the Rye
Bright Cap and Streamers

“It was like the paintings that man used to do on the pavement with all the coloured chalks and such a pity too leaving them there to be all blotted out, the evening and the clouds coming out and the Bailey light on Howth and to hear the music like that and the perfume of those incense they burned in the church like a kind of waft.”
Long Enough
1952 Vincent Black Lightning

“The human voice, two tiny silky chords, wonderful, more than all others.”
Land without nightingales

“Captain Moonlight, Captain Boycott, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, Andrew (Pisser) Burke"
“The void awaits surely all them that weave the wind: a menace, a disarming and a worsting from those embattled angels of the church, Michael's host, who defend her ever in the hour of conflict with their lances and their HUMAN shields.”

"Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake's wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What's left us then?" 

Thursday, May 09, 2013

The One I Love

There's a playlist on my iPhone that I call "AA playlist": first, I tried to write an "A playlist" of all my favorite artists (hey, why is my computer "correcting" the spelling of "favorite" by putting that British U into it?; time to check my settings, I guess). But that playlist was way too long to fit on my phone, so I split the A list into a AA list (my very best stuff) and an A list (the stuff it would be nice to have but that I wouldn't miss if it's not on the main list). 

An hour or so ago, I was listening to the AA playlist on shuffle (as I am wont to do), and up came "The One I Love," by REM. I've got REM on the AA list because I like so many of their songs, but if pressed, I would have said I actually only truly love one of their songs: "You Are The Everything," which is quite close to being perfect; if it didn't say "eviscerate your memory," which is a bit too weird, then it would be perfect.

But when "The One I Love" came on, I had one of those moments where a song could be said to do just that: "eviscerate your memory." The rush of hearing that song everywhere back in 1987 came back to me: what a joy it was that a band that had been putting out such excellent music right from their first album had finally struck it big. What a joy that the song that was everywhere was so good. What a joy to hear them live, and what a surprise to discover that they were a hard-rocking band, not just the jangly light sound of their albums.

What a joy to feel those feelings again. A Robert Creeley poem:


I'll not write again
things a young man
thinks, not the words
of that feeling.

There is no world
except felt, no
one there but 
must be here also.

If that time was
echoing, a vindication
apparent, if flesh
and bone coincided—

let the body be.
See faces float
over the horizon let
the day end.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Which terrorist group bombed Hiroshima?

This cartoon was published in 2005, on the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, but I only just saw it today. A boy, who must have been born in the 90s, given the publication date of the cartoon, sits on the lap of his grandfather (or father, but I'll just call him a grandfather) and sees a huge explosion on television. The biography of such a boy would make such a question completely natural: it's quite likely that he would associate films of explosions with terrorism, so of course he might well ask his grandfather, "which terrorist group did that?" A boy at that time would have little reason to have the Second World War as a frame of reference, and even less reason to really be able to give much meaning to such expressions as "Pearl Harbor," "Holocaust," or "Hiroshima." His question is an attempt to understand what he sees in terms of what he knows.
The grandfather would certainly understand the question quite differently than that, though, especially if we assume that the man depicted here is an American. After all, he would then most likely see the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in the conventional fashion: it was a necessary step to force the Japanese to surrender; the alternative would have been a horrible war of attrition, with deaths at least an order of magnitude more than those caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Without addressing the debates about the historical accuracy of these tactical and strategic considerations (debates among historians who have looked at the primary sources), this grandfather would perhaps try to explain to the boy that this explosion was not an act of terrorism because it was part of a war. Explosions in wars are not terrorism, he might explain.
A 2005 reader of the cartoon might see the humor in it in such terms: a boy interprets what he sees in terms of what he knows, and his grandfather explains the not entirely straightforward distinctions to him. But such a reader might also respond to the boy's question without taking the rest of the picture into consideration. Such a reader might well get very upset about how the picture opens up the possibility of equating Hiroshima (a legitimate action as part of a formally declared war) and 9/11 (a violent act of what is legitimately called terrorism). Alternatively, a reader vehemently against the Iraq War might appreciate how the raising of this possibility calls the legitimacy of war in general and particular wars into question, even though such a reader would likely still consider the Second World War a just war (and even fully agree with the interpretation of Hiroshima that the grandfather might use to explain the situation to the boy).
Seeing the cartoon in 2013, I can see all these possible layers in it, but I also see it from the perspective of the current military actions of the United States. Whatever completely legitimate distinctions might be made between them, Hiroshima and 9/11 share at least one feature: they were attacks directed against civilians. The current American government justifies its ongoing missile attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere as part of a "War on Terror" and hence as militarily legitimate. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has a web page that summarizes known attacks using drone-based missiles in such countries; their reporting makes clear that the attacks are not solely directed at "military" targets that are part of the "war on terror." They also provide extensive evidence of the apparent American policy of attacking rescuers and funerals, a tactic which the American government justifiably condemns when it is used by those it calls "terrorists."
Given this context, the cartoon has an additional layer of meaning today: the current military actions undertaken by the United States are much harder to distinguish from "terrorism" than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are. In fact, many of them are indistinguishable from terrorism, and their straightforward effect is not to defeat "terror" through a supposed "war on terror," but actually to generate more potential terrorists. Today, a well-informed grandfather asked such a question by a clever grandson might find it much harder to clarify to the boy how it is that military actions taken by the United States are not "terrorism." 
There's an easy way for the United States to get out of the trap it has put itself and its grandfathers in. It could do what every other country that has been faced with terrorist attacks this century has done: it could use the criminal justice system to pursue and prosecute terrorists. It could demilitarize its response to "terrorism" and use the rule of law — again, as every other country has done — to bring the criminal perpetrators of terrorism to justice — justice, and not vengeance.