Saturday, December 06, 2014

Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling

A Facebook discussion that mentioned Tolkien, Pullman, and Rowling led me to write the following comment, which I thought I'd save here for posterity.

I read Tolkien passionately at 14 or so. When I reread LOTR when I was about 22, I had just read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" for the second time. The juxtaposition of Garcia Marquez and Tolkien did not make T look good; if anything, it made him look terrible. — And when my son and I read LOTR out loud a few years ago, we eventually stopped, because it was ... boring. For a while, we entertained ourselves by making fun of it (everybody getting stoned in Lothlorien, for example), but that got boring after a while. — The world T imagines (or "bank-robs", to pick up your phrase) is incredibly impressive, though, as is Pullman's.

I first read Pullman because I read an article that called him "Rowling for adults", so I thought I'd check him out. He has much more ambition than Rowling, and for the most part, he pulls off a lot more. Further, his Mrs. Coulter exposes Rowling's characterization of ridiculous characters (Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousins) as well as of evil characters (above all, Voldemort) as two-dimensional at best.

In "The Amber Spyglass," though, Pullman exposes a flaw in his plotting. In the middle of a battle, one character has to explain something to another for a page or so — and it's clear that the explanation is less for the character than for the reader. This flaw made me notice something about Rowling's plotting: she *never* has to explain anything during exciting passages, because she *always* sets things up earlier. As a result, the exciting passages never get interrupted by explanations, but can just be exciting. — Beyond that, though, when she sets things up earlier, it never reads as "foreshadowing": whatever it is that is being explained is clearly part of the plot at the moment when it is explained, and it never comes across as explaining *for the reader*.

In short, for the creation of a fantasy world, Tolkien. For characterization, Pullman. But for effective plotting, Rowling.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Imaginary Icebergs

(To get the mouseover text, go to the original post here.)

The above comic reminded me of the following poem:


Elizabeth Bishop

We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.
We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship;
we'd rather own this breathing plain of snow
though the ship's sails were laid upon the sea
as the snow lies undissolved upon the water.
O solemn, floating field,
are you aware an iceberg takes repose
with you, and when it wakes may pasture on your snows?

This is a scene a sailor'd give his eyes for.
The ship's ignored. The iceberg rises
and sinks again; its glassy pinnacles
correct elliptics in the sky.
This is a scene where he who treads the boards
is artlessly rhetorical. The curtain
is light enough to rise on finest ropes
that airy twists of snow provide.
The wits of these white peaks
spar with the sun. Its weight the iceberg dares
upon a shifting stage and stands and stares.

The iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea.
Good-bye, we say, good-bye, the ship steers off
where waves give in to one another's waves
and clouds run in a warmer sky.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Federer, Davis Cup

My first sighting of Roger Federer was live at the Davis Cup in Basel in February 2001. He won two singles matches and the doubles against the US. Such a joy to watch him now, almost 14 years later, winning the only tennis title missing from his laurels.

Monday, November 17, 2014

In language, no.

A claim made in a Facebook comment stream (a discussion of a complaint about the indicative being used where the mandative subjunctive is supposed to be the only correct choice, if you must know):

The number of people, who are doing something incorrectly, is not a determinant of the correctness of the act.

My response: in math, yes. In language, no.

(Is it rude to point out that the above claim contains commas that would best be omitted? Yes, it probably is ...) 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Such as and/or such X as?

In a review of the 2011 film of Jane Eyre, a student wrote the following:
... they were joined by an equally great supporting cast, featuring actors such as Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.
I'm curious about that use of "such as". To me, it implies that Judi Dench and Jamie Bell are not only in the film but also the type of actors who are in the film. That is, from the name "Judi Dench", I should be able to make some pretty good guesses about who the other members of the supporting cast might be. That is, I read it as similar to this example (stolen from the COCA corpus):
It could be damage that happened as the result of an acute injury, such as spinal cord damage.
Here, "spinal cord damage" is an example of "an acute injury," and I can make some pretty guesses as to other members of that category. And I can't really do that with "actors such as Judi Dench and Jamie Bell."

However, I could do it with "featuring great actors, such as JD and JB." So it seems that the problem derives from two things: "actors" by itself seems odd with "such as" (as "an injury" by itself would in the above sentence?), and the absence of a comma before "such as" (though I'm not sure why that absence should be important here).

I actually prefer a different solution: "featuring such actors as JD and JB." To my ear, this implies that the named actors share some characteristic (probably "greatness"?) that is then also shared by the other members of the supporting cast. Even here, though, it would be a bit better to have that characteristic named, wouldn't it? "... featuring such great actors as JD and JB."

Why write all this up? First of all, to ask others what they think about the uses of "such as". And secondly, because I'm worried that I might be just peeving about something that is not as precise in other people's usage as I somehow expect it to be. If I'm just peeving about my own personal taste, then I know that I should just keep quiet about it. Along the lines recently suggested by Geoffrey Pullum: "The idea is that I will concentrate on my own usage rather than other people's."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Poetry in sports

Rob Hughes on Sergio Agüero:
There is poetry in sports when a man moves the way that Agüero can: plucking the ball out of the air with his right foot, feigning to shoot and then, as opponents cluster around him, flicking the ball to his other foot and shooting deftly.
If there's poetry here, what poem is it? As an Argentine, perhaps Agüero was reciting Borges:
Now he is invulnerable like the gods.
Or perhaps he prefers Ernesto Cardenal:
 Or Gabriela Mistral:

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

PBS lists getting boring

Here's the Poetry Book Society list for Spring 2015 (as Neil Astley posted it on Facebook):

Sean O’Brien – The Beautiful Librarians (Picador)
Sujata Bhatt – Poppies in Translation (Carcanet)
Sean Borodale – Human Work (Jonathan Cape)
Paul Muldoon – Knowing (Faber)
Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty (Bloodaxe)

I am grateful to the PBS for having been my way in to the contemporary UK poetry scene (I knew next to nothing about it when I first signed up for PBS in 1996). And I have frequently defended the value of the PBS in conversation with critics of its picks.

But it's gone on long enough that it is getting pretty discouraging (and simply boring, really) to see these five publishers (Picador, Carcanet, Cape, Faber, Bloodaxe) repeatedly dominating the Choice and Recommendation lists.

If there were an American version of PBS, the five books chosen every quarter would surely not be as dominated by FSG, Norton, Knopf, Houghton Mifflin, and Copper Canyon.

And why does O'Brien get so many Choices? This is his third. I know it's just my taste that I think he's a rather dull poet—but he's no Don Paterson (two Choices), no Edwin Morgan (one Choice), no Les Murray (two choices), no Anne Carson (one Choice).

List of PBS Choices through Spring 2014 is here.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Money for something

I usually read Facebook with the "Most Recent" setting, but on my pocket computer, the app opens to "Top Stories". Just now, I found the following two posts right next to each other (the first by a poet friend; the second by a novelist friend):
Are there any reading series in the U.S. not associated with a university or an organization like The Poetry Foundation that actually pay readers on a regular basis? I’m not immediately aware of any. Note: this is not fishing for myself. People often ask about money for readers when they ask about coming to San Diego, and I always wonder why they think there might be some. Not that it hurts to ask, of course.

Taylor Swift speaks for me. Maybe. I think. (As I try to figure out precisely what I'm going to do with this new novel.)
"Music is art, and art is important and rare," Swift wrote in the Journal. "Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is. I hope they don't underestimate themselves or undervalue their art."

I found the juxtaposition of the posts (and the vigorous discussion each generated) to be a symptom of how writers, artists, and musicians are thinking a lot about the relationship between money and their creative work.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Piano trio

I'm a great fan of jazz piano trios, such as the Brad Mehldau Trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy or Jeff Ballard, and the classic Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. But until today, I never realized that the first piano trio I ever got into was not a jazz trio but a rock trio: Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Consider the piano/bass/drums passages of "Take a Pebble," from their first album:

This was definitely the first such music I ever heard, several years before I got into jazz.

[I was listening to ELP this morning because of this post about ELP by Don Brown.]

Saturday, November 01, 2014

A pragmatic consideration of the intentional fallacy

The assignment: a four-to-six paragraph essay on The Fall of the House of Usher. A student asks if she can refer to Poe's life to help her discuss the representation of women in the story. At first, I thought I would just say "intentional fallacy" and give her some background on the issue, but then I started thinking about things in more pragmatic terms. So here's what I wrote to her:

One way to think about this is in terms of how you would present such an argument. In this case, you have about five paragraphs, with about three of them being body paragraphs. Suppose one of your body paragraphs is about the biographical point. Then you have two paragraphs to discuss the story. If the discussion of the story is convincing without the biographical paragraph, then you can toss out the biographical paragraph and have another paragraph about the story. If the discussion of the story is NOT convincing without the biographical paragraph, then you have a weak, two-paragraph discussion of the story ... (There are also less pragmatic, more theoretical reasons to be careful about the author's biography when doing a scholarly study of a work of literature. These theoretical issues are usually summed up in the expression "intentional fallacy.")

Shields's Law

I have just formulated a law of language discussion: talk about a language peeve long enough, and eventually someone will complain about teenagers.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear

Preparing Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" for class next week with a digital version of the poem, I was underlining words and making marginal comments about all kinds of things in the poem. So in a sense, I wasn't really reading the poem.

And yet when I got to the beginning of the third stanza, I gasped anyway:

Cold  dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,

Perhaps that's a test of just how great a poem is: if it blows you away even when you're not reading it in search of being blown away.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Gilgamesh Must Die! (Part One): a video by The bianca Story

Here's a video by The bianca Story: "Gilgamesh Must Die! (Part One)". I cowrote the lyrics. Enjoy!

You can get the album "Digger" for free by clicking on the band's name above. If you get it and like it, pass it on to your friends! (If you get and don't like it, pass it on to your enemies!)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

160th birthday

A Happy Birthday to Oscar Wilde, who was born 160 years ago today.  Here's Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray:

Play me a nocturne, Dorian, and, as you play, tell me, in a low voice, how you have kept your youth. You must have some secret. I am only ten years older than you are, and I am wrinkled, and worn, and yellow. You are really wonderful, Dorian. You have never looked more charming than you do to-night. You remind me of the day I saw you first. You were rather cheeky, very shy, and absolutely extraordinary. You have changed, of course, but not in appearance. I wish you would tell me your secret. To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable. Youth! There is nothing like it. It's absurd to talk of the ignorance of youth. The only people to whose opinions I listen now with any respect are people much younger than myself. They seem in front of me. Life has revealed to them her latest wonder. As for the aged, I always contradict the aged. I do it on principle. If you ask them their opinion on something that happened yesterday, they solemnly give you the opinions current in 1820, when people wore high stocks, believed in everything, and knew absolutely nothing.

A Cold Spring

On this autumn morning, I'll be discussing Elizabeth Bishop's "A Cold Spring" with the students in my course on Bishop's poetry. The epigraph to the poem is from Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Spring," but the poem also recalls T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," and that recollection allows the "General Prologue" to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales to shimmer through. I hope all this doesn't distract us too much from looking carefully at Bishop's poem.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Majority Approval

To me, the most striking feature of this xkcd comic is this: majority approval of interracial marriage in the United States was only reached in 1995!

But as the mouseover points out, it's also striking that the relationship between legality and approval is not the same in the two cases. (I read something somewhere that said that SCOTUS may be trying to avoid what happened with Roe v. Wade, where such "full legal access" preceded "popular approval." If so, why not use Loving v. Virginia as your model instead, where legality preceded popularity by almost 30 years?)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

A Better Rule for "Less" and "Fewer"

Over at the Visual Thesaurus, Jonathan Owen turns his attention to the supposed rule that "fewer is for things you can count while less is for things you can't." After analyzing various exceptions and paying attention to the history of the question and of actual usage, he comes up with a more accurate description of how the two terms are used: "Less is the default, but we also have the option of using fewer when it comes immediately before a plural count noun." His discussion is exemplary: this is how one should think about the rules of language use.

The history of the count/non-count version of the rule is itself exemplary: as Owen points out, "it wasn't until 1770 that Robert Baker suggested that maybe people should use fewer instead of less with count nouns, and the rule has expanded and become more rigid since then." In other words, the "rule" comes not from considering how people actually speak but from someone suggesting that it would be better if people spoke differently.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Leonard Cohen, "Popular Problems"

    In "Slow," the opener of "Popular Problems," 80-year-old Leonard Cohen warns us how not to interpret the album: "It's not because I'm old / It's not what dying does / I always liked it slow." And these mostly slow tunes do belie reading the album as "a work of old age." Here, Cohen looks at love from many angles, climaxing in the speechlessness of a wondering lover: "My Oh My." But the songs also depict a perplexed individual trying to make sense of the contemporary world; with his lover gone to fight a war, he finds himself among the ruins, "standing on this corner / Where there used to be a street".


[I'm teaching a course on Writing Reviews. The first assignment was to write a 100-word review. I thought I'd take a stab at it. This is 111 words long. Two-word version of the review: "Get it!"]

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Boyhood withdrawal

I've been telling people that I'm looking forward to mid-December, when the DVD of Richard Linklater's film "Boyhood" is due to be released. And I'd pre-ordered it, but today I got an email saying that it's been delayed until mid-January. 

It's hard to have to wait a month longer to see it again, but I guess I'll just have to bear it. Until then, I can get a bit of a fix by listening to songs featured in the movie, especially "Hero," by Family of the Year, and "Hate It Here," by Wilco. And by watching other Linklater movies!

Was bleibt

Was bleibt aber
die Übersetzer.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Join the Army

I used to have a T-shirt with this slogan on it, though it didn't have a hand grenade. Instead, it had a picture of Uncle Sam.
Which makes it seem like as good a time as any to jam out to "U. S. Blues":

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Make it ancient

Listening to "The Band," by The Band, for the first time in a long time today, I was struck yet again by the brilliance of all the songs, but especially by "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." It's a song I grew up with, one I don't remember hearing for the first time. But I do know how surprised I was when I discovered that the song is even younger than I am. How could it not be ancient? How could it not have been written in the era it is set in? It shows that one way to fulfill Ezra Pound's call to "make it new" is to "make it ancient", as Pound himself, that lover of the troubadours, was well aware.

Friday, July 11, 2014

"His judgment could not be faltered"

In his INYT article on the Argentine footballer Javier Mascherano, Rob Hughes spends a lot of time talking about a key moment in the Holland-Argentina match the other day: Mascherano's tackle of Arjen Robben in the 90th minute, just before Robben was about to get a good shot on goal (his only one of the day?). He sums it up with a nice bit of understatement, but note also what he says at the beginning of this passage:
His judgment could not be faltered. His defenders had lost sight of Robben, his goalkeeper was frozen to his line, and everything depended on Mascherano’s timing that interception to perfection. A fraction either way, and he risked making contact with the Dutchman, who is known for his, shall we say, unsure footing in the penalty box.
Describing Robben's tendency to fall as dramatically as possible as "nnsure footing" made me laugh, but before I got to that, I had stopped at the first sentence here: "could not be faltered" sounds quite odd. 

First, I thought of this use of "falter" in terms of transitivity. "Falter" is usually an intransitive verb: "he faltered," but not "his opponent faltered him." As an intransitive verb, it cannot be used in the passive voice, as it is in Hughes's phrase: "be faltered." So I wondered if "falter" might be developing a transitive use: "they were unable to falter his judgment."

But then I did a search for the phrase "could not be faltered," and I found examples like this, mostly from travel websites where travel services of various kinds get evaluated: "The service, seats and leg room could not be faltered." This made me realize that I was dealing with an eggcorn, but it turns out to be one that is not listed in the Eggcorn Database. The standard expression that the eggcorn is based on is, of course, "could not be faulted."

I do wonder about the motivation for this one, though. One feature of many eggcorns is that the standard expression involves some oddity of usage, or an archaic word or image—something that a contemporary speaker may not be aware of. For example, "in cohorts with" instead of "in cahoots with": "A natural substitution for a word that only survives in frozen idiomatic usage, since one is typically in cahoots with one’s cohorts." But "faltered" for "faulted" does not seem like "a natural substitution" to me.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"The use of X to mean Y is not an error but it is poor usage"

Jonathan Owen quotes a passage from The Chicago Manual of Style on the word "nauseous":

The use of nauseous to mean nauseated may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage.

The first time I came across the idea that "nauseous" means "nauseating" and not "nauseated", I was extremely puzzled, as I was sure that I had never heard "nauseous" used to mean anything but "nauseated." I was born in 1964, so I bet that the "nauseated" meaning had become dominant by the 1970s. (Anyone want to do the corpus work to test that?)

But that's not what interests me here, nor is what interested Owen. As he puts it, "the truly strange assumption is that words have meaning that is somehow independent of their usage." To see this, consider the implications of the sentence if you generalize it:

The use of X to mean Y may be too common to be called error anymore, but strictly speaking it is poor usage.

This is clearly utterly absurd: if this pattern were generally true, then every new meaning Y that develops for any given word X would be "poor usage" even when it had become completely common—and even, perhaps, when an older meaning for X had long since disappeared.

Such an understanding of language completely ignores how language actually works as it develops over time: some old words disappear; some old words develop new meanings; new words are coined; some of those coinages survive; other coinages disappear. And how do we tell what a word means? By looking at how people use the word: when they use X to mean Y, then X means Y, even if it once meant Z. And it is even possible for X to mean Y and Z at the same time.

But not with "nauseous," at least not for me. The people who insist that "nauseous" should only mean "nauseating" totally contradict my linguistic experience—and I doubt that it is just a matter of my idiolect.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The ordinary

I'm translating some material for the catalogue for a Beijing exhibition of photographs by the German poet Dieter M. Gräf. Here's the end of the foreword:

That is the essence of the arts: they speak their own language, a language that always escapes us. The ordinary: here it is; it doesn't really exist.

The arts—and poetry as one of the arts—always resist "the ordinary." The language of the arts cannot be translated into an "ordinary" language. That is the scandal of art: even when it looks ordinary, it says something extraordinary.

Or perhaps this is the way to put it: art can look ordinary, but art that only looks ordinary without saying anything extraordinary is not very good art.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

3 for 21

I just got the June 19/July 9 issue of the New York Review of Books. 3 of the 21 contributors are women. 15 authored books are reviewed; none of the authors are women. Seven exhibition catalogues are reviewed; three of them are edited or co-edited by women.

It's an art issue. The cover mentions five artists by name. No women.

I don't know whether these are typical NYRB numbers, but if this issue were a baseball player, and the numbers were his batting average, he'd be sent down to the minor leagues.

Figures for memory

This Wondermark cartoon ponders the figures people use to describe how memory works.

Photography as a figure for memory; cave painting as a figure for memory. One way that photography has long been a figure for how the mind works is the development process: the gradual emergence of the image in the darkroom. An ongoing question of mine (here, for example): what figures will we make out of digital photography?

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Hidden messages

If the universe contains hidden messages for us, what are those messages?

Perhaps they are messages about aesthetics:

But since we see the world as it currently is as a figure for how everything works, it's more likely that the messages are about branding.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Shaming and the Pop Culture Canon

A Facebook status update from a colleague here at the English Department of the University of Basel:
genuine shock and dismay that only 50% of my class has seen Star Wars!!!!
My comment (among the others that had already commented):

For years now (decades even), I have joked with students that it's okay to have never read "Hamlet" but it's not okay to have never seen "The Wizard of Oz." And until just now, I've always meant it as a joke.

But your status here made me realize that there's something more serious going on: in contemporary culture, there's no particular reason to have not "done" any particular traditionally canonical work, be it "Hamlet" or "The Odyssey" or "Pride and Prejudice." If you haven't, oh well, you haven't.

But if no excuse is necessary for not being up on the "high culture" canon ("high culture": for lack of a better term), there is still no excuse for not being up on the "pop culture" canon. Failure to have kept up with that canon is now the acceptable location of cultural shaming.

In short, the proper response to those 50% is not to joke with them about not seeing "Hamlet" or the like—the proper response is to shame them as an earlier generation of professors would have shamed those who exposed their ignorance about the classic canon of literature and art.

(I'll leave it to you to decide whether this is yet another joke. Who can tell, after all, when Shields starts talking like this, just how serious he is actually being?)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Susan Mitchell, Robert Duncan, J. M. Coetzee

The seventh chapter of Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello is called "Eros"; in it, Elizabeth reflects on two texts, one she just read and one she remembers having read long ago: Susan Mitchell's "Erotikon (A Commentary on 'Amor and Psyche')" and Robert Duncan's "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar." As part of my course on "Elizabeth Costello" and its sources, the students and I each chose a passage from Mitchell, Duncan, and Coetzee this morning and wrote a sentence about it. Here are the passages I chose, and the sentences I wrote.

To see the darkness lifting its skirts. To see the darkness
undressing to deeper and deeper shades, the hiddenness
pleated, folded over on itself, clavichorded and enrinded
into recesses retiring inward —

Here, darkness can both be exposed to the light (when it "lifts its skirts") and still be a source of "hiddenness" in the "pleats" and "folds" of those "skirts."


In Goya's canvas Cupid and Psyche
have a hurt voluptuous grace
bruised by redemption. The copper light
falling upon the brown boy's slight body
is carnal fate that sends the soul wailing
up from blind innocence, ensnared
    by dimness
into the deprivations of desiring sight.

Here, light, as the end of "blind innocence", reveals "the brown boy's slight body," but it also creates the "snare" of "dimness", making light into a trap for those who would see by it.


Are there other modes of being besides what we call the human into which we can enter; and if there are not, what does that say about us and our limitations?

In her discussion of Thomas Nagel, Elizabeth insists that we can "enter into other modes of being" — bats, literary characters, corpses — but here, she seems to have forgotten her insistence on (or lost her belief in) the power of literature to go where philosophy cannot go.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Fragments of Notes on JM Coetzee

Fragments from my notes to "The Humanities in Africa," chapter five of Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee

When the work keeps anticipating possible interpretive trains of thought


One can see why the Church would want to oppose evolution, beyond the specific details of its stories: evolution/genealogy make it not only impossible but unnecessary to return to an origin that is seen as the truth.


The return to the origin is an intellectual effort to overcome the traces of earlier intellectual efforts.


    Hostility in an essayistic text generates unease. Since it is inappropriate to express hostility in such a context (especially hostility by the honoree toward those doing the honoring), it demands an explanation. And since hostility is an emotion, and emotion in general is inappropriate (only reason should speak in this space), as is getting emotional about the kind of material that she is talking about—given all that, one turns to the personal for an explanation.
    When the personal intrudes into the space of ideas, it must be contained. And the way to contain it? An ad hominem attack. Those who speak personally will be condemned on personal grounds.


The way a story can ruin an idea. One tells a story to exemplify an idea, but then one has to tell the story in such a way that it serves the idea. The excess or surplus in the story can ruin the idea, the point that the storyteller is trying to make.


The novel as a type of storytelling that drops the idea of making a point in favor of ... obscenity. — Look at the great novels: what are they condemned for? Obscenity. Flaubert, Joyce. — Look at Plato's condemnation of Homer: what does Plato condemn Homer for? For taking liberties with the story, liberties that are just part of making it a great story, rather than of using the story as a tool of teaching, of philosophy.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"To be sure" in "Emma"

And here are many of the appearances of "to be sure" in Austen's Emma. I really wonder about how to interpret this expression. It's quite slippery. Suggestions?

To be sure

            "That may be, and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it."
            "To be sure. Oh yes! It is not likely you should ever have observed him; but he knows you very well indeed—I mean by sight."


            "You could not have visited me!" she cried, looking aghast. "No, to be sure you could not; but I never thought of that before. That would have been too dreadful!—What an escape!—Dear Miss Woodhouse, I would not give up the pleasure and honour of being intimate with you for any thing in the world."


            "Then she is a greater simpleton than I ever believed her. What is the foolish girl about?"
            "Oh! to be sure," cried Emma, "it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for any body who asks her."


            "Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have, is almost enough to make me think so too. Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do."
            "To be sure!" cried she playfully. "I know that is the feeling of you all. I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in—what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment. Oh! Harriet may pick and chuse. Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you. And is she, at seventeen, just entering into life, just beginning to be known, to be wondered at because she does not accept the first offer she receives? No—pray let her have time to look about her."


            The picture!—How eager he had been about the picture!—and the charade!—and an hundred other circumstances;—how clearly they had seemed to point at Harriet. To be sure, the charade, with its "ready wit"—but then the "soft eyes"—in fact it suited neither; it was a jumble without taste or truth. Who could have seen through such thick-headed nonsense?


            Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush shewed that it could pain her.
            "Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend."


            "Harriet!" cried Emma, collecting herself resolutely—"Let us understand each other now, without the possibility of farther mistake. Are you speaking of—Mr. Knightley?"
            "To be sure I am. I never could have an idea of any body else—and so I thought you knew. When we talked about him, it was as clear as possible."

Compliments in "Emma"


            Mr. Frank Churchill was one of the boasts of Highbury, and a lively curiosity to see him prevailed, though the compliment was so little returned that he had never been there in his life. His coming to visit his father had been often talked of but never achieved.


            "I am glad you think so; and the good hands, I hope, may not be wanting."
            "Come," said he, "you are anxious for a compliment, so I will tell you that you have improved her. You have cured her of her school-girl's giggle; she really does you credit."


            "There is so pointed, and so particular a meaning in this compliment," said she, "that I cannot have a doubt as to Mr. Elton's intentions. You are his object—and you will soon receive the completest proof of it."


            Emma perceived that the nature of his gallantry was a little self-willed, and that he would rather oppose than lose the pleasure of dancing with her; but she took the compliment, and forgave the rest.


            "Insufferable woman!" was her immediate exclamation. "Worse than I had supposed. Absolutely insufferable! Knightley!—I could not have believed it. Knightley!—never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley!—and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and underbred finery. Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady.


            "So I remember to have heard. He will find an addition to the society of Highbury when he comes again; that is, if I may presume to call myself an addition. But perhaps he may never have heard of there being such a creature in the world."
            This was too loud a call for a compliment to be passed by, and Mr. Weston, with a very good grace, immediately exclaimed,
            "My dear madam! Nobody but yourself could imagine such a thing possible. Not heard of you!—I believe Mrs. Weston's letters lately have been full of very little else than Mrs. Elton."


            "A very fine young man indeed, Mr. Weston. You know I candidly told you I should form my own opinion; and I am happy to say that I am extremely pleased with him.—You may believe me. I never compliment."


After a good many compliments to Jane on her dress and look, compliments very quietly and properly taken, Mrs. Elton was evidently wanting to be complimented herself—and it was, "How do you like my gown?—How do you like my trimming?—How has Wright done my hair?"—with many other relative questions, all answered with patient politeness.


            "Miss Fairfax's compliments and thanks, but is quite unequal to any exercise."


            "John enters like a brother into my happiness," continued Mr. Knightley, "but he is no complimenter; and though I well know him to have, likewise, a most brotherly affection for you, he is so far from making flourishes, that any other young woman might think him rather cool in her praise. But I am not afraid of your seeing what he writes."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ronald Bush on Pound's "Canto LXXXI"

This afternoon at 1 pm, Ronald Bush of Oxford University will be speaking on Ezra Pound's "Canto LXXXI" at the English Department of the University of Basel. Here's an abstract of his talk.

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
         Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Wildly, insanely overstated"

I moved to Germany in 1991 (for a year that turned into a lifetime, but that's another story, my life story, as it were) and to Switzerland in 1995. After four years in Germany, and with a German girlfriend (now wife) whose family speaks little or no English, I could speak High German pretty well.

But the Swiss don't speak the same language; they speak Swiss German (in numerous dialects).  There is a Swiss High German, and German speakers in Switzerland do speak it, but it is not their everyday language. They code switch rather easily between their varieties of German (not to mention French, Italian, and English). Many Swiss German speakers switch to High German or English when speaking to me, and even after 18+ years here, I don't speak Swiss German (or Basel German), which I would need to sit down and actually study if I were ever going to do so.

In contrast, when my wife is in Basel, after 13+ years here, she now speaks a mix of High German and Basel German, and she understands the local dialect much better than I do. In this sense, you can see that the two varieties of German, while quite different in many ways, are close enough for a native speaker of High German to pick up enough Basel German to get by, while a non-native speaker like myself can understand it, but picks up very little without extra effort. (That's an anecdote, of course, and not an experiment, so consider that a hypothesis to be tested, rather than a claim being made.)

All this came to mind on reading Geoffrey Pullum's "Undivided by a Common Language." Pullum vigorously argues that the differences between British English and American English, in their standard varieties, "is wildly, insanely overstated." I agree—and especially on the basis of the contrast with the differences between High German and Swiss German. There are many differences in grammar and comprehensibility between the two Germans (and this doesn't even bring up dialects in Germany and Austrian German); there are, as Pullum argues, hardly any grammatical differences between British English and American English, and the ones that do exist are insignificant in terms of comprehensiblity. The differences in vocabulary are considered significant enough for the American publisher of Harry Potter to translate some terms into American English, but even those differences are minor (and almost everyone I mention that to says, "That's ridiculous. People know how to use dictionaries."). But it's a matter of a few words here and there, while a novel written in Swiss German has to be translated into High German for anyone north of Lake Constance to be able to read it.

The differences between British English and American English are indeed "wildly, insanely overstated," especially when contrasted with the differences between High German and Swiss German. One response to this claim might be that I am contrasting two standard varieties in one case and standard and non-standard varieties in the other. But my hypothesis is that a speaker of Southern American English and a speaker of the English spoken in Scotland would be able to communicate much more while sticking to their two varieties than someone from Hamburg and someone from Basel if they also stuck to their two varieties. Now if only someone would test it.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A song for every occasion

My son Miles recently mentioned to me that I have a song lyric to quote for just about every occasion. We spent several days in the Black Forest together, and apparently, I would quote lines whenever I heard a phrase that reminded me of a line. For example, "take it easy" leads me to quote The Eagles. If I hear the phrase "the last day," I'll quote Al Stewart's "The Last Day of June 1934."

Once he pointed it out to me, I began to notice just how often I think of phrases from songs. And I began to wonder whether I think of phrases from poems very often. I certainly quote Eliot's "Let us go then, you and I" all the time—in fact, it crosses my mind whenever someone says "Let's go!" And there are other poems that have tag lines in them that bring them to mind when I hear echoes of those lines.

But mostly it's songs that I quote in such contexts, not poems. For years now, I have argued that poetry and song lyrics should be treated as members of a larger category that I call "verse"; attempts to strictly distinguish poems and lyrics have never been convincing to me. Verse that is not written to be sung tends to have more enjambment than verse that is written to be sung—a side effect of the effect of melody on lineation. But that doesn't seem to me to be enough to say that poetry and lyrics are different in essence.

Miles's observation about my quotation habit suggests a way to articulate another difference between poems and songs. The phrases that lead me to quote songs tend to be unremarkable, even cliched: "take it easy" is an empty little formula, not exceptional at all. There are many more such phrases in lyrics than in poems; in contemporary poetry, formulas and cliches tend to be avoided, while songs are extremely forgiving when it comes to the use of such well-worn language. It's fun to hear a catch phrase and sing along with the singer; it's boring to read a catch phrase in a poem (unless the poem brings it back to life in some way).

That still doesn't seem to me to be enough to strictly distinguish the two kinds of verse from each other. But it helps me understand my quotation habits.


For a discussion of my understanding of "verse," see the fourth paragraph of this post.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

From Canto IV of Dante's "Inferno," tr. Ciaran Carson

I just had occasion to type this in for George Szirtes, who was asking on Facebook for an English version of Dante's Inferno in terza rima. This is Ciaran Carson's translation, published by Granta Books in 2002.


Shattering the deep sleep in my head,
a peal of thunder rang, so I awoke
confused, like someone shaken out of bed;

and coming to, and getting up, I looked
about with rested eyes to ascertain
where I might be. O such an awful nook!

this was, in truth, the dread Abyss of Pain
whose brink I stood upon, from which there rolled
collective groanings, endlessly sustained.

Dark as a thundercloud was that enormous hole;
so deep, the eye could get no fix on where
it ended; nor could I see any foothold.

'Down into the blind world we must fare,'
began the poet, whiter than a sheet;
'I first, then you, we'll make a goodly pair.'

And I, who'd marked the pallor of his cheek,
said: 'Go? When you, who, when I was in doubt,
was wont to be my strength, appear as weak?'

And he: 'It's when I hear the awful shouts
of those below, that pity drains my face
of color; not cold feet, as you make out.

Onward! a long road lies ahead of us.'

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Paco de Lucia

A few minutes ago, I was looking at my 2009 list of jazz artists I have heard live (a list which needs updating), and one of the names I stopped at was Paco de Lucia. I paused for a moment and remembered the concert: the John McLaughlin-Paco de Lucia-Al Di Meola trio, with Steve Morse opening on solo 12-string guitar. I tell two stories about this show: first, the trio's arrangements of the compositions were all very similar. After they played the head, McLaughlin would usually start, and his solo always felt like it was asking a question. De Lucia would then explore the ramifications of that question in his solo. All this was at incredibly high speeds, but then Di Meola would play his solo, and it always seemed like it was even faster—and like he was completely ignoring McLaughlin and de Lucia's previous discussion. From the back, voices could be heard: "Go, Al!" I assumed these were the voices of all the young guitarists who liked to play fast.

The second story: for the encore, Steve Morse came out with his 12-string guitar and sat in with the trio. It was a Chick Corea tune, though I don't remember which one. And Morse took the first solo. For what seemed like the entire first chorus of his solo, he played one note over and over again, bending it to various degrees. It was like a revelation, as not one of the players in the trio had played a single bent note in their two long sets! It was like Morse was saying, "Hey, guys, what about the blues?"

All that went through my head fairly quickly when I was looking at the list, but just now I read that de Lucia died today. I'll always remember his beautiful elaborations on McLaughlin's questions, even if Di Meola seemed to be ignoring John and Paco's conversations.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Poetry Book Society Choices, 1953-2014

As I could not find a complete list of Poetry Book Society Choices anywhere online, I cobbled together this list from three lists on the PBS website (of Choices and Recommendations from 1953-1960, 1961-1970, and 1971-1980) and a Pinterest page of photos of covers of PBS Choices (apparently put together by PBS as well). There are a few gaps in it, so if anyone knows what to put in those gaps, I'd be happy to fill them in. If anyone wants a tabular version of it, feel free to contact me.

Spring 1953 Vernon Watkins The Death Bell Faber
Summer 1953 George Barker A Vision of Beasts and Gods Faber
Autumn 1953 Frances Cornford Collected Poems Cresset
Winter 1953 Sheila Wingfield A Kite's Dinner Cresset
Spring 1954 Laurie Lee My Many Coated Man Andre Deutsch
Summer 1954
Autumn 1954
Winter 1954
Spring 1954
Summer 1955 Lawrence Durrell The Tree of Idleness Faber
Autumn 1955 Robin Skelton Patmos and other Poems Routledge
Winter 1955 Herbert Read Moon's Farm Faber
Spring 1956 Edwin Muir One Foot in Eden Faber
Summer 1956 Spender, Jennings and Muir New Poems 1956 Joseph
Autumn 1956 W S Merwin Green with Beasts Hart Davies
Winter 1956 John Holloway The Minute Marvell
Spring 1957 C A Trypanis The Stones of Troy Faber
Summer 1957 Louis MacNeice Visitations Faber
Autumn 1957 Ted Hughes The Hawk in the Rain Faber
Winter 1957 Theodore Roethke Words for the Wind Secker & Warburg
Spring 1958 Thomas Kinsella Another September Dolmen
Summer 1958 John Smith Excurcus in Autumn Hutchinson
Autumn 1958 A S J Tessimond Selection Putnam
Winter 1958 Macniece, Dobree, Larkin New Poems 1958 Joseph
Spring 1959 Patricia Beer Loss of the Magyar Longmans
Summer 1959 20th Century Women's Verse Faber
Autumn 1959
Winter 1959 Donald Davie The Forests of Lithuania Marvell
Spring 1960 Peter Levi The Gravel Ponds Andre Deustch
Summer 1960 Patrick Kavanagh Come Dance with Kitty Stobling Longman
Autumn 1960 Dom Moraes Poems Eyre & Spottiswoode
Winter 1960 John Betjeman Summoned by Bells John Murray
Spring 1961 David Holbrook Imaginings Putnam
Summer 1961 Elizabeth Jennings Song for a Birth or a Death Andre Deutsch
Autumn 1961 R S Thomas Tares Hart Davis
Winter 1961 Peter Redgrove The Nature of Cold Weather Routledge
Spring 1962 Patrick Creagh A Row of Pharoahs Heinemann
Summer 1962 Dannie Abse Poems Golders Green Hutchinson
Autumn 1962 Thomas Kinsella Downstream Dolmen/OUP
Winter 1962 Michael Baldwin Death On A Live Wire Longmans
Spring 1963 Richard Murphy Sailing to an Island Faber
Summer 1963 Alexander Baird Poems Chatto
Autumn 1963 Louis MacNeice The Burning Perch Faber
Winter 1963 Patricia Beer The Survivors Longmans
Spring 1964 Philip Larkin The Whitsun Weddings Faber
Summer 1964 Donald Davie Events and Wisdoms Routledge
Autumn 1964 C A Trypanis Pompeian Dog Faber
Winter 1964 Patric Dickinson The Cold Universe Chatto
Spring 1965 Sylvia Plath Ariel Faber
Summer 1965 Roy Fuller Buff Andre Deutsch
Autumn 1965 John Holloway Wood and Windfall Routledge
Winter 1965 Kathleen Raine The Hollow Hill Hamilton
Spring 1966 Charles Tomlinson American Scenes and Other Poems OUP
Summer 1966 Anne Halley Between Wars and Other Poems OUP
Autumn 1966 Norman MacCaig Surroundings Chatto
Winter 1966 Peter Redgrove The Force and Other Poems Routledge
Spring 1967 Austin Clarke Old Fashioned Pilgrimage OUP
Summer 1967 John Fuller The Tree that Walked Chatto
Autumn 1967 Thom Gunn Touch Faber
Winter 1967 Thomas Kinsella Nightwalker and Other Poems Dolmen
Spring 1968 Charles Causley Underneath the Water Macmillan
Summer 1968 Roy Fuller New Poems Andre Deutsch
Autumn 1968 Derek Mahon Night Crossing OUP
Winter 1968 R S Thomas Not That He Brought Flowers Hart Davis
Spring 1969 Peter Wiggum The Blue Winged Bee Anvil
Summer 1969 Geoffrey Grigson Ingestion of Ice-Cream
Autumn 1969 Douglas Dunn Terry Street Faber
Winter 1969 David Holbrook Old World New World Rapp & Whiting
Spring 1970 W S Graham Malcolm Mooney’s Land Faber
Summer 1970 Ian Hamilton The Visit Faber
Autumn 1970 Peter Porter The Last of England OUP
Winter 1970 Elizabeth Jennings Lucidities Macmillan
Spring 1971 Thom Gunn Moly Faber
Summer 1971 Geoffrey Hill Mercian Hymns Andre Deutsch
Autumn 1971 Sylvia Plath Winter Trees Faber
Winter 1971 Gavin Ewart The Gavin Ewart Show Trigram
Spring 1972 William Plomer Celebrations Cape
Summer 1972 D J Enright Daughters of Earth Chatto
Autumn 1972 Norman Nicholson A Local Habitation Faber
Winter 1972 Stewart Conn An Ear to the Ground Hutchinson
Spring 1973 John Smith Entering Rooms Chatto
Summer 1973 Edwin Morgan From Glasgow to Saturn Carcanet
Autumn 1973 Michael Burn Out on a Limb Chatto
Winter 1973 Alasdair Maclean From the Wilderness Gollancz
Spring 1974 Geoffrey Holloway Rhine Jump London Mag Ed.
Summer 1974
Autumn 1974 Charles Tomlinson The Way In OUP
Winter 1974 Andrew Waterman Living Room Marvell
Spring 1975 John Cotton Kilroy Was Here Chatto
Summer 1975 Seamus Heaney North Faber
Autumn 1975 Peter Porter Living in a Calm Country OUP
Winter 1975 Vernon Scannell The Loving Game Robson
Spring 1976 George Barker Dialogues etc Faber
Summer 1976 Hugh Maxton The Noise of the Fields Dolmen
Autumn 1976 Thom Gunn Jack Straw's Castle Faber
Winter 1976 Kevin Crossley-Holland The Dream House Andre Deutsch
Spring 1977 Tom Paulin A State of Justice Faber
Summer 1977 Michael Hamburger Real Estate Carcanet
Autumn 1977 W S Graham Implements in Their Places Faber
Winter 1977 Frank Ormsby A Store of Candles OUP
Spring 1978 Peter Porter The Cost of Seriousness OUP
Summer 1978 D J Enright Paradise Illustrated Chatto
Autumn 1978 Geoffrey Hill Tenebrae Andre Deutsch
Winter 1978 Roy Fisher The Thing About Joe Sullivan Carcanet
Spring 1979 Terence Tiller The Singing Mesh Chatto
Summer 1979 Peter Redgrove The Weddings at Nether Powers Routledge
Autumn 1979 Seamus Heaney Fieldwork Faber
Winter 1979 Michael Longley The Echo Gate Secker
Spring 1980 Peter Scupham Summer Places OUP
Summer 1980 Alan Ross Death Valley London Mag Ed.
Autumn 1980 Paul Muldoon Why Brownlee Left Faber
Winter 1980 Alan Brownjohn A Night in the Gazebo Secker
Spring 1981 David Sweetman Looking into the Deep End Faber
Summer 1981 Norman Nicholson Sea to the West Faber 
Autumn 1981 Douglas Dunn St Kilda’s Parliament Faber 
Winter 1981 Peter Redgrove The Apple Broadcast and Other Poems Routledge 
Spring 1982 George Macbeth Poems From O Secker 
Summer 1982 Thom Gunn The Passages of Joy Faber 
Autumn 1982
Winter 1982 Derek Mahon The Hunt by Night OUP 
Spring 1983 John Fuller The Beautiful Inventions Secker 
Summer 1983 Carol Rumens Star Whisper Secker 
Autumn 1983 Paul Muldoon Quoof Faber 
Winter 1983 George Szirtes Short Wave Secker 
Spring 1984 Tom Disch Here I am There You Are Where Were We Hutchinson 
Summer 1984 Iain Crichton Smith The Exiles Carcanet 
Autumn 1984 John Ash The Goodbyes Carcanet 
Winter 1984 Blake Morrison Dark Glasses Chatto 
Spring 1985 Douglas Dunn Elegies Faber 
Summer 1985 Anne Stevenson The Fiction Makers OUP 
Autumn 1985
Winter 1985 Paul Durcan The Berlin Wall Cafe Harvill 
Spring 1986 Frank Orms A Northern Spring Secker
Summer 1986 Dannie Abse Ask the Bloody Horse Hutchinson 
Autumn 1986 Alan Moore Opia Anvil Press 
Winter 1986 Michael Hofmann Acrimony Faber 
Spring 1987 Eavan Boland The Journey and Other Poems Carcanet 
Summer 1987 Seamus Heaney The Haw Lantern Faber 
Autumn 1987 John Ash Disbelief Carcanet 
Winter 1987 Jean Earle Visiting Light Poetry Wales 
Spring 1988 Les Murray The Daylight Moon Carcanet 
Summer 1988 Phillip Gross Air Mines of Mistilla Bloodaxe 
Autumn 1988 Douglas Dunn Northlight Faber 
Winter 1988 Helen Dunmore The Raw Garden Bloodaxe 
Spring 1989
Summer 1989 Peter Reading Perduta Gente Secker 
Autumn 1989 Ted Hughes Wolfwatching Faber 
Winter 1989 Simon Armitage Zoom! Bloodaxe 
Spring 1990 Andrew Greig The Order of the Day Bloodaxe 
Summer 1990 Glyn Maxwell Tale of the Mayor's Son Bloodaxe 
Autumn 1990 Vikram Seth All You who Sleep Tonight Faber 
Winter 1990 Eavan Boland Outside History Carcanet 
Spring 1991 Les Murray Dog Fox Field Carcanet 
Summer 1991 Gerard Woodward Householder Chatto 
Autumn 1991 Dana Gioia The Gods of Winter Peterloo 
Winter 1991 Julie O'Callaghan What's What Bloodaxe 
Spring 1992 David Wright Poems & Versions Carcanet 
Summer 1992 Chase Twichell Perdido Faber 
Autumn 1992 Jo Shapcott Phrase Book OUP 
Winter 1992 Stephen Romer Plato's Ladder OUP 
Spring 1993 Patricia Beer Friend of Heraclitus Carcanet 
Summer 1993 Don Paterson Nil Nil Faber 
Autumn 1993 Stephen Knight Flowering Limbs Bloodaxe 
Winter 1993 James Fenton Out of Danger Penguin 
Spring 1994 Eavan Boland In A Time of Violence Carcanet 
Summer 1994 Hugo Williams Dock Leaves Faber 
Autumn 1994 Paul Muldoon The Annals of Chile Faber 
Winter 1994 Gerard Woodward After the Deafening Chatto 
Spring 1995 Maurice Riordan A Word from the Loki Faber 
Summer 1995 Michael Longley The Ghost Orchid Cape 
Autumn 1995 Bernard O'Donoghue Gunpowder Chatto 
Winter 1995 Glyn Wright Could Have Been Funny Spike 
Spring 1996 Alice Oswald The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile OUP
Summer 1996 Adrian Mitchell Blue Coffee Bloodaxe 
Autumn 1996 Ciaran Carson Opera Et Cetera Bloodaxe/Gallery 
Winter 1996 Susan Wicks The Clever Daughter Faber 
Spring 1997 Jamie McKendrick The Marble Fly OUP 
Summer 1997 Selima Hill Violet Bloodaxe 
Autumn 1997 Peter Reading Work in Regress Bloodaxe 
Winter 1997 John Hartley Williams Canada Bloodaxe 
Spring 1998 David Harsent A Bird's Idea of Flight Faber 
Summer 1998 Ruth Padel Rembrandt Would Have Loved You Chatto 
Autumn 1998 Ken Smith Wild Root Bloodaxe 
Winter 1998 Jo Shapcott My Life Asleep OUP 
Spring 1999 Bernard O'Donoghue Here Nor There Chatto 
Summer 1999 Michael Hofmann Approximately Nowhere Faber 
Autumn 1999 Carol Ann Duffy The World's Wife Picador 
Winter 1999 Tom Paulin The Wind Dog Faber 
Spring 2000 Alan Jenkins The Drift Chatto 
Summer 2000 Roddy Lumsden The Book of Love Bloodaxe 
Autumn 2000 Michael Donaghy Conjure Picador 
Winter 2000 Douglas Dunn The Year's Afternoon Faber 
Spring 2001 Gillian Alnutt Lintel Bloodaxe 
Summer 2001 Seamus Heaney Electric Light Faber 
Autumn 2001 Selima Hill Bunny Bloodaxe 
Winter 2001 Geoffrey Hill Speech! Speech! Penguin 
Spring 2002 David Harsent Marriage Faber 
Summer 2002 Paul Farley The Ice Age Picador 
Autumn 2002 Geoffrey Hill The Orchards of Syon Penguin 
Winter 2002 Paul Muldoon Moy Sand and Gravel Faber 
Spring 2003 Billy Collins Nine Horses Picador 
Summer 2003 Ian Duhig The Lammas Hireling Picador 
Autumn 2003 Don Paterson Landing Light Faber 
Winter 2003 Jacob Polley The Brink Picador 
Spring 2004 Michael Longley Snow Water Cape 
Summer 2004 Ruth Padel The Soho Leopard Chatto 
Autumn 2004 Kathleen Jamie The Tree House Picador 
Winter 2004 George Szirtes Reel Bloodaxe 
Spring 2005 John Stammers Stolen Love Behaviour Picador 
Summer 2005 Alice Oswald Woods etc Faber 
Autumn 2005 Carol Ann Duffy Rapture Picador 
Winter 2005 Polly Clark Take Me With You Bloodaxe 
Spring 2006 Robin Robertson Swithering Picador 
Summer 2006 Seamus Heaney District and Circle Faber 
Autumn 2006 Paul Muldoon Horse Latitudes Faber 
Winter 2006 Jane Hirshfield After Bloodaxe 
Spring 2007 Ian Duhig The Speed of Dark Picador
Summer 2007 Sarah Maguire The Pomegranates of Kandahar Chatto 
Autumn 2007 Sean O'Brien The Drowned Book Picador 
Winter 2007 Sophie Hannah Pessimism for Beginners Carcanet 
Spring 2008 Ciaran Carson For All We Know Gallery Press 
Summer 2008 Moniza Alvi Europa Bloodaxe 
Autumn 2008 Peter Bennet The Glass Swarm Flambard 
Winter 2008 Mark Doty Theories and Apparitions Cape 
Spring 2009 Alice Oswald Weeds and Wild Flowers Faber 
Summer 2009 Fred D'Aguiar Continental Shelf Carcanet 
Autumn 2009 Hugo Wiliams West End Final Faber 
Winter 2009 Sinead Morrissey Through The Square Window Carcanet 
Spring 2010 Derek Walcott White Egrets Faber 
Summer 2010 Simon Armitage Seeing Stars Faber .
Autumn 2010 Seamus Heaney Human Chain Faber 
Winter 2010 Annie Freud The Mirabelles Picador 
Spring 2011   David Harsent Night Faber 
Summer 2011         Sean O'Brien November Picador 
Autumn 2011   Leontia Flynn Profit and Loss Cape 
Winter 2011  John Kinsella Armour Picador
Spring 2012 Simon Armitage The Death of King Arthur Faber 
Summer 2012 Paul Farley The Dark Film Picador 
Autumn 2012 Jorie Graham P L A C E Carcanet
Winter 2012 Sharon Olds Stag's Leap Cape 
Spring 2013 George Szirtes Bad Machine Bloodaxe 
Summer 2013 Michael Symmons Roberts Drysalter Cape
Autumn 2013 Anne Carson Red Doc > Cape
Winter 2013 Moniza Alvi At the Time of Partition Bloodaxe
Spring 2014 John Burnside All One Breath Cape