Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Raul Fixing A Cosmopolitan

A poem from Glyn Maxwell's The Sugar Mile (2005).


See old Joey's sat back in his window.
I'm telling you in all of New York City
how many joints is that? Just yesterday,
Clint, you walk in here. You got the world
to choose from, and you didn't want nobody
taking all your time! Now it's tomorrow

and you look like shit. Stay at home tomorrow,
see your family, sit in your own window.
I'm kidding, hey. Don't like nobody
can't take my kidding. It's the New York City
style, you know it is, you seen the world
you like it here. It's another awesome day.

It's another peach it's just like yesterday.
I was kidding with you. Come back tomorrow,
Clint, the old guy will. Where else in the world
is he expected? Ain't no other window
waiting for the guy, no other city
left to move to. I never heard nobody

want to move from this. I mean nobody
left alone. Man I can't take Sunday.
It's slow, it crawls, Sunday in this city.
Hello? Yeah this is him. Not tomorrow?
Lemme write that down. Sun in the freakin' window
blinding me. I got it. Stop the world

 for breaking news ... What? Yeah 'on the world'
I know, I got it. Ciao. Okay. Nobody
gets to know. Hey, Joe, what's in the window?
See some babes? Can't be your lucky day
it's mine. Clint says he's stopping by tomorrow.
He wants to hear you bombed that Nazi city

back to the stone age. I said 'Nazi city'
Joey, I was kidding. What in the world
do I care, kill a Nazi guy tomorrow,
lighten up. – I haven't told nobody,
Clint, remember I told you this – that day
was it yesterday when Joey was in his window?

That there ain't nobody else in New York City
paid so high? Windows on the World.
Tuesday I start. Tomorrow's my last day.

Sunday, November 20, 2016



They force fed protein-rich liquids through tubes inserted in their noses.
He forced his tongue down her throat.
They forced him down into the seat and buckled straps around him.
He forced her to the ground and made her perform oral sex.
They were forced from a bus and shot dead.
They forced a black man into the giant's gaping mouth.
They forced civil rights down the throats of people.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

"Our wives and daughters": objecting but still objectifying

Mitt Romney’s response on Twitter to that Donald Trump video is welcome, but it’s also limited – and telling – in a way that many responses are (so it’s far from being just Romney here):

Even as he criticizes Trump for misogynistic sexual objectification of women, Romney still presents women as “wives and daughters”. That is, women are still objects of others (husbands and parents) rather than individual human beings in their own right. Even as Romney and others who put it this way object to one kind of objectification, they still objectify women.

(Thanks to Kei Miller whose post on Facebook helped me formulate this.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Without a doubt

A student (a native speaker of German) used the expression "without doubts" to start a sentence. That sounds wrong to me; I would prefer "without a doubt". But instead of just marking it as wrong, I did a quick bit of research.

I searched the NOW Corpus at the Brigham Young University site with linguistic corpora. The NOW Corpus contains 3.3. billion words of data from web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present. And by the present, they mean the present: it's updated with 4-5 million new words every day.

There were 27 hits for "without doubts" and 7752 hits for "without a doubt." So I can correct the student's usage in good conscience.

And that is how a usage point can be resolved: check actual usage using a linguistic corpus like the NOW Corpus (or any of the other corpora at the BYU site).

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Riddle", by Ian Duhig


Who I am’s child’s play,
a cry in a kindergarten;
though I pun on Latin,
my Yorkshire kin’s laik,

a whole lexical rainbow
unweaving in no code,
no masonic Mahabone

but I’m caltrops at night
to the bare feet of adults
inspiring their language
to such colours as I am,

Kulla, Mondrian plastic
pixellating Mies blocks;
in each cubist bust;

the Song of Amergin
name me or you’ll be
thicker than any brick.


"Riddle" begins and ends with the figure mentioned in its third line: the pun. In the first line, "child's play" is an idiom for "very easy", but the literal "play of a child" is also present. The final line varies the idiom "thick as a brick", meaning "very stupid", but also puns on "brick", as the answer to the riddle involves "bricks."
            As a student pointed out yesterday, "Riddle" ends by insulting readers who have not figured out its answer: if you can't "name me", you're stupid. This is a common understanding of poems: they are all riddles waiting to be answered. From this perspective, the poem ends with the idea of poems as puzzles rewarding those clever enough to "solve" them and punishing those who are not.
            Yet the poem's opening pun offers an alternative way of thinking about poems. If the poem is "child's play", it is easy, and the way to make reading a poem easy is precisely to play with it. A riddle is itself a kind of game, and this poem makes poetry in general a game as well, a game played with words, a game that plays on words, a game of word play, of "cries" and "puns", of "lexical rainbows", of "colourful language", of "songs" (and not, as the second stanza makes clear, a "code" to be deciphered). Ultimately, "Riddle" encourages readers of poetry to let go of the idea of poetry as a set of "riddles" to be solved.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Contract On America

An erasure of the 1994 "Contract with America".

Contract On America
We propose to restore the bonds of the people.
Evasion and posturing offer no fine print.
This year offers the chance of control,
the end of government with the public,
of values and faith. We act with God
to restore scandal and disgrace. The first day
will immediately aim at trust in laws;
conduct comprehensive fraud;
cut the number; limit chairs; ban votes
to the public; require an honest zero.
The first days bring out-of-control constraints,
anti-truth, effective death in neighborhoods,
and personal illegitimacy by prohibiting
mothers and denying responsibility.
Incentives for strengthening pornography
reinforce the central role of the dream of relief.
The act parts credibility around fairness;
the limit forces hikes for years.
Strengthening the mandate to create
the common loser, reasonable punitive laws
stem the endless tide of citizen savings
without the judgment of our fellow citizens.

Friday, July 22, 2016

I Can Be Your White Champion

An erasure of a speech given last night in Cleveland by a real-estate developer with authoritarian delusions of grandeur.

I Can Be Your White Champion

I have believed that this journey received the most.
Our party white, our country a crisis, the attacks to lead our country.
A message afflicts our nation. January will fail.
It is finally straightforward facts. We cannot afford to be correct anymore.

So if you want to hear, go there. Honor nothing else.
Decades reversed by criminal police compared to illegal citizens.
The number exceeds our regard for Nebraska, a fugitive from the law.
I've met one more American altar of open facts that have been living in poverty.

The oath of incomes reached – think of this – our fix no better.
President has more to show for affairs lived through one after another.
We all remember the knees signing absolutely nothing. History knew nothing.
The symbol of American flames is truly disasters unfolding the map.

Stable, peaceful violence choked control. After what spread across ruins,
our savage is on the path that threatens the legacy of violence and destruction
relying on change in the most important credo.
Other nations will come first with safe terrorism.

New jobs can be opposed by me, for their benefit.
My rigged system is their puppet, and the strings will never change.
To deliver people I have visited and forgotten and forgotten.
I am your national injustice. Incompetence has sold out.

I am not able to look in every country. I also did save crimes
in such an egregious way it rakes in millions of dollars
trading favors to the powerful people that cannot defend themselves.
I alone can strip our country of jobs.

Wealth works fairly and justly for each and every Vice President,
a great guy, the same amazing man to liberate our citizens from our communities.
When our police officers so brutally executed every last person on our streets.
I take the oath of this race for the white.

I am the irresponsible rhetoric of the pulpit in this room
or America's inner crime. When I am treated and protected better
in every way to live out dreams, to make barbarians
of men, women and children, radicals party in many locations.

My violence and oppression of a hateful Republican cheering for what I just said
need to focus on the failed policy of all of our allies.
Our goal of terrorism includes obsolete new terrorism
in any nation that has compromised proven mechanisms we want in our country.

My radical refugees admit individuals into our country
who will support violence, hatred, oppression,
lower wages and higher unemployment
for African-American and Latino workers.

We are going to have people killed by brave representatives of this country.
Nothing has affected me more than the time I have spent with violence
to solve demonstrators and never share in their pain.
My sanctuary was for all who have so brutally murdered families.

This candidate and this whole corner pledge
that countless more suffer the same awful fate.
We are going to build violence into our communities.
I have been honored to protect the cycle of human smuggling.

Illegal border crossings will be restored by the millions who receive the respect
they denied uncontrolled communities, proposing mass lawlessness.
Schools and hospitals make it harder to escape the middle class.
I have a vision for a policy that stands up to cheat, a signature message of my oath.

Remember, I am firing without consequences.
My other hand has been destroying our middle class and the world.
Another colossal deal will destroy foreign governments.
I pledge to hurt our workers, I will make individual deals no one understands.

We are going to cheat. This includes theft of intellectual property,
illegal product dumping, and currency manipulation.
The greatest manipulators ever will walk away, massive, and I mean massive.
I will experience profound relief, and I mean roaring will happen fast.

With the greatest killers of our country, very quickly,
we are going to lift more than $20 trillion over the next four decades.
My other hand wants new wealth all Americans will build tomorrow.
This, in turn, will create millions of failing schools.

My education is disastrous. Choose your own disaster. Thank you.
Our students are drowning to take their lives. Tremendous.
We will completely rebuild our fair like never before,
without waiting five days in a line and dying. My scandal is my first 100 days.

I'm going to appoint our beloved Justice to abolish the other hand of all families.
I would like to prevent you from speaking your mind, your own voice taken away.
Language and these great things need to start believing
in that bigger and better and stronger journey.

I'm so lucky to be the smartest and hardest working man I wonder sometimes
if I learned to respect the dignity of work and the dignity of working people.
Bricklayers, carpenters, and electricians love my character.
But now, my sole and exclusive mission is victory for petty politics led by cynics.

Remember: you can't have the country you want, not a chance.
Defeating love, we rely on a rigged system. Choose to believe in history.
We don't have to rise to the occasion; I can be your White champion.
My loyalty reads; I choose to pledge my voice for every future,
and I will fight you, and I will win, strong, proud, and great.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

A particular species of ruthless cunning: Baldwin's Proudhammer resisting the draft

These lines from James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone reminded me of the quotations from Muhammad Ali about his draft resistance that went around after his death. The speaker is Baldwin's narrator, Leo Proudhammer:
I did not refuse to join the Army, but outwitted it by a particular species of ruthless cunning. I was — I say now — prepared to go to jail. The Japanese had already been interned. I was not going to fight for the people who had interned them, who had also destroyed the Indians, who were in the process of destroying everyone I loved: I was not going to defend my murderers. Yet, when my moment came, I did not say any of that. I arrived at the Harlem draft-board with several books under my arm. I deliberately arrived a little late. I pretended that I had just come from the library. I said that I as the only support of my aging parents, and, in fact, I had had the foresight to be working in a shipyard, foresight or luck, it's hard to say now, I've held so many jobs for so many reasons. Anyway, I think I gave a great performance before my draft-board. It was composed, as I knew it would be, of round, brown, respectable old men who had long ago given up any hope of being surprised. Round, brown, respectable old men, whose only real desire, insofar as they still dared desire, was to be white. I knew that, and with my books under my arm, with one brother already in the Army, with two aging people at home, with my impeccable shipyard job, with my flaming youth, and what I could not then have named as a deadly single-mindedness — and using precisely the fact that I was physically improbable — persuaded these round, brown, respectable old men that my potential value to my race — to them; my very improbability contained their hope of power, and I knew that — was infinitely more important than my, after all, trivial value to my country. And they deferred me. I had known that they would: that if I pressed the right buttons, they would have no choice but to defer me.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Reading" and "Reading into"

The idea of “reading something into” a poem came up in a discussion just now. I was supposedly “reading something into” a poem; hence my reading of the poem was implied to be wrong.

Whether or not I was doing so, I’m curious if anyone knows of any essays/research that address the issue of “reading into”.

It seems like several issues are involved:
  1. “Reading” the poem is distinguished from “reading into” the poem.
  2. “Reading” the poem is *distinguishable* from “reading into” the poem.
  3. The claim that someone is “reading something into” the poem, that something is being “read into” it, is used to call the validity of that reading into question.
  4. The person making that claim is rhetorically staking out a position of being a better “reader” of the poem: “I am not ‘reading into’ the poem; you are. And my reading is thus better.”
  5. In what contexts does the claim about “reading into” come up? Who speaks? Who is spoken to? — It’s the kind of thing a professor might say to a student, but it’s something a student would surely rarely say to a professor.
So there's a theoretical issue (how to distinguish "reading X" from "reading into X") and a sociological issue (who uses the criticism, and of whom, and in what context).

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Moon and the Yew Tree

I went looking for an online version of this poem, and there are several floating around, but all of them are full of punctuation mistakes. So here's Plath's "The Moon and the Yew Tree" with all the commas and periods at the ends of lines fixed to correspond to the version of the poem in the original book.
The Moon and the Yew Tree
Sylvia Plath, Ariel

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky —
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will all be blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Coming back to Paris

Re-reading James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room this morning to prepare for two sessions on it next month for my Baldwin seminar this term, I came across this passage that seemed to speak movingly across decades:
“Coming back to Paris,” she said, after a moment, “is always so lovely, no matter where you’ve been. […] I should think that even if you returned here in some awful sorrow, you might–well, you might find it possible here to begin to be reconciled.”
    “Let’s hope,” I said, “that we never have to put Paris to that test.”
(James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, in Early Novels and Stories, Library of America, 319)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Austen, Baldwin, Commas

            In the introduction of Elinor Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, her "coolness of judgment" is said to "counteract" her mother's "eagerness of mind" in a sentence whose forward motion is itself counteracted by punctuation: "Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence." The ten commas here punctuate the first 43 words and make them a representation of the careful thinking Elinor always engages in, while after the last of those commas, the final 14 words describe Mrs. Dashwood's "eagerness of mind" in a comparative rush of unpunctuated words. Elinor's mode of thinking is thus also a mode of writing and even of reading: a slow reading of the novel (and of novels) is needed to "counteract" the haste of an "imprudent" reading. "Eager" immersion in the novel may be pleasurable, but "effectual" interpretation demands the careful parsing of the novel's language.
            The same effect of punctuation can be found in a sentence in the first part of James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain. At the end of the visit to the cinema with which John Grimes celebrates his fourteenth birthday in 1935, he confronts the absolute opposition between salvation and eternal damnation: "Either he arose from this theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment." The five commas here punctuate the first 22 words and make them a representation of the "narrow way" of salvation that John has been raised to believe in, while after the last of those commas, the final 13 words describe the "broad way" of damnation in another comparative rush of unpunctuated words (and John had walked down Broadway before going to the movies). However, while one of the opposed terms in Austen's sentence "counteracts" the other and is thus privileged, Baldwin's sentence presents its opposition as an either-or alternative, a "cruel choice," as it is called a few lines later, between salvation and damnation. Salvation may require effort, as Elinor's "coolness of judgment" does, but it remains open whether it can successfully "counteract" its opposite.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Urchins keeping a secret; black boys in league against the world: a figure in James Baldwin

The other day I read this in James Baldwin's essay on Ingmar Bergman, "The Northern Protestant":
He had made it sound as though we were two urchins playing a deadly and delightful game which must be kept a secret from our elders.
I noted this in itself but also because it reminds me of Tomas Transtrømer's wonderful idea of poetry as "inspired notes" passed back and forth as secrets from "official life". I was also intrigued by the coincidence that two great artists from Scandinivia had made the same point (or, to be precise, in Bergman's case, had made that impression on Baldwin).

Today, reading further in Baldwin's essays, I came across Baldwin's description of his first meeting with Richard Wright in "Alas, Poor Richard", his three-part memoir-essay after Wright's death:
He had a trick, when he greeted me, of saying, "Hey, boy!" with a kind of pleased, surprised expression on his face. It was very friendly, and it was also, faintly, mockingly conspiratorial – as though we were two black boys, in league against the world, and had just managed to spirit away several loads of watermelon.
Now I'm struck by this as a figure in Baldwin's work: the way he sees – even wants to see – the mentor (Wright) and the filmmaker (Bergman) as his co-conspirators in the secret world of art.