Saturday, December 27, 2008

List Poems

I was introduced to my first list poem, “Silent Poem” by Robert Francis, as a junior in high school, and I fell in love immediately. Here was a poem without verbs, a twelve-line poem, each line comprised only of four compound nouns. It was a poem whose form seemed to match its content perfectly; 48 rustic nouns without a verb or punctuation created a sense of stillness, but the fact that they were all compound words gave it a physicality, a thickness that almost made the images palpable.

While in college, I discovered the poems of Campbell McGrath, another listmaker who was not afraid to leave the verbs out from time to time. His debut collection, Capitalism, included two poems, “What They Ate” and “What They Drank,” about the dietary practices of the American colonists, that were comprised entirely of lists and also rhymed. His second book, American Noise, contained a prose poem, “Sunset, Route 90, Brewster County, Texas,” which in a single 14-line sentence attempted to catalog the light of a particular time and place and ended up as nothing less than a prayer.

I started collecting such poems, photocopying them out of literary magazines and library books, and keeping them in a manilla folder where I could return to them whenever I wanted, and disappear into those small nouny worlds. As a teacher, I showed my students the different ways a list could be a poem (while always making sure they understood that not every list was a poem—far from it, in fact, which is part of the beauty of these things). It seemed a way to make poetry less intimidating, to emphasize the music of language and de-emphasize that adolescent search for the deep hidden meaning of a poem that seems to drive so many teenagers away from poetry.

I haven’t taught that poetry unit for a few years now, and had given my pursuit of such poems a break, hadn’t even thought about them for a while, and then today, in middle age, while waiting for my kids to arrive to open their Christmas presents, I stumbled on this wonderful, brief poem by Lola Haskins, four spare and beautiful lines on beauty and aging.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

From a Dream Early in my Teaching Career

A student raises his hand, then asks me, "Are you a real teacher or just a bum who knows a lot about English?"

Line of the Week (#8)

"I want to play the one that got me started on this dark, depressing road. It's given me so much joy."
—Emmylou Harris

For a Good Time, Call . . . (pt. 6)

Tom at Omnivoracious. It was his recent write-up on the death of Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat) and his confession of his own fascination with Watergate that took me to this site, but it is the book lists, especially his Books of the States lists, replete with ersatz author state quarters, that has me coming back, though I am not sure how Michael Martone (author of Alive and Dead in Indiana, Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List, Blue Guide to Indiana (speaking of ersatz), and The Flatness and Other Landscapes) was left off the short scroll of Hoosier honorees.

Observation / Pet Peeve

Language is a constantly evolving thing, so I tend not to get too caught up by changes in it. In fact, often I revel in them, and think that people who get their noses bent out of shape by minute changes are rigidly old school (a term itself that has risen in prominence lately). As a result, I know I run the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy in bringing this up, but I have noticed my students using cliché as an adjective with increasing frequency, both in speech and in their papers, and it grates on me. Until this morning, I thought it was a trend that was perhaps confined to adolescence, but in the recent profile of Philip Seymour Hoffman (a peer of mine, at least chronologically) in the New York Times Magazine, the amazing character actor, commented, “It’s a cliché thing to say . . .” and I cringed.

When and how did this happen? When did the d get dropped from the adjective form of clichéd? Why is the noun form now used adjectivally? Is there any going back? Should I just mourn the soon-to-be archaic form that I grew up with and move on?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dave Barry Makes Lemonade

Mr. Hubcap of JPU Unlimited has been pretty quiet recently, but when I checked out his blog today, he had posted this Dave Barry doozy from Regret the Error:

In yesterday’s column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted.

Thanks to all of those involved for bringing this wonderful and brief piece of writing to my attention.

Line of the Week (#7)

This week's sentence was submitted by a friend, adding a whole other pleasant layer of irony to the situation. The speaker is the Mickey Rourke character, Henry Chinaski, who is really the Charles Bukowski character, from Barfly, a movie I haven't even seen:

"I like people. I just like 'em better when they're not around."

Speaking of Mr. Rourke, I don't know how you feel about him—I don't even know how I feel about him—but his new movie, The Wrestler, sounds pretty interesting. I think it will be on my short list of movies to see over the holidays.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Line of the Week (#6)

"There's nothing so pure as the kindness of an atheist."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Modest Book Publishing Proposal

What this country needs is a good annual anthology of criticism. One often hears about the dearth of good criticism, and what a way to remedy the situation this would be. If someone culls the best writing on literature, dance, music, theatre, art, architecture, and anything else cultural from scholarly journals, general interest magazines, and daily papers, there would be plenty of good commentary that would find a larger audience, and perhaps spur on a greater appreciation and more practitioners of the craft.

Houghton Mifflin offers almost an entire catalog of thematic anthologies (The Best American Comics, The Best American Essays, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best American Sports Writing, and The Best American Travel Writing), and other publishers have their versions as well (The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Best Creative Nonfiction, Best Food Writing, Best Music Writing, The Best Buddhist Writing, Best American Political Writing, The Best American Magazine Writing, The Best American Crime Reporting, and The Best of Technology Writing are all titles I turned up in just a few minutes on Amazon). The number of different titles and publishers involved appears to be expanding every year. Clearly this is a growth industry, which is a rare thing these days.

Even if Houghton Mifflin and the other publishers who already have such series underway pass on it, an enterprising university press could have a real success with this. So, intrepid editors, have at it. And when you do, please keep me in mind for a lifetime subscription.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Coldest Run in a Long Time

When I layered up (four layers of technical wicking fabric up top, tights and wind pants for the legs, two layers of knit gloves, and a stocking cap) and headed out in to the 5:20 darkness, the thermometer read 13 degrees, but there was a pretty brisk wind, and I feel confident putting the wind chill in the single digits. The first mile was fairly bitter, and I wasn’t sure how long I would stay out in it, but after that I acclimated, and felt comfortable the rest of the way. Also, my course went into the wind the first half of the run (a trick I learned from Merle Harris back in the day in Boone, Iowa, when winter running meant heavy cotton sweats and thermal underwear). It’s a good strategy; you don’t want to work up a sweat and then run into a winter wind. The cold and dark can be intimidating at first, but once you’re underway it really doesn’t feel much different from running any other time of the year. Plus, one of my favorite sensations in the world is coming inside after playing out in the cold.

Line of the Week (#5, belated and with commentary)

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin."

(Things might have proved more bearable for Mr. Samsa if he had access to iTunes and Bose speakers. They have done wonders for others of us who have woken up to find ourselves insects.)