Apr 30, 2011

Langston Hughes’ “Daybreak in Alabama," Two New Birds

Where's the birdie?

April 29: Langston Hughes’s “Daybreak in Alabama” « Knopf Doubleday - Poem-a-Day

Except for “Dream Deferred,” I’ve never had much luck in connecting to Langston Hughes. But thanks to Knopf’s tribute to Poetry Month, today I read and liked Hughes’ “Daybreak in Alabama.” Maybe it’s worthwhile to remember good things and think good thoughts about Alabama and the rest of the Southeast as they struggle to recover from the most violent tornadoes in forty years.

Perhaps in that vein, I feel lucky to have discovered two more life birds today (though I don’t keep count): the blue-gray gnat catcher and the ruby-crowned kinglet.

I confess to the sin of pride in having found them in their tangles of brush. The gnat catcher betrayed himself with his repetitive, one-note, gurgling peep. We had a nice conversation; he agreed to pose, then changed his mind—repeatedly. Pose and flit, pose and flit. So I'm very lucky to have caught him.

The ruby-crowned kinglet below was a visible busy-body in a thicket among some swamp water. In the corner of my eye, I first thought he was a butterfly, but I kept looking. Is there a life lesson there? That ridiculous little red patch on his head probably has some evolutionary advantage in wooing. Maybe it's like men's plaid pants in the 1970s. 

I’ve recently heard a couple of poets say that witnessing—that highfalutin, almost mystical form of observation—amounts simply to paying attention, honestly close attention. We must shut up and observe. I’m only so-so at it, but when I succeed, the payoff feels tremendously good.

For one thing, it seems as if things are coming together, like the various colors of hands and earth in Hughes’ “Daybreak in Alabama.” For another thing, I like the colors, patterns and shadings of the tangles of brush before complete greening obscures them. Buds are nice, but those browns, grays, and lines should be enough to please anyone. If I then find a bird who is, intentionally or not, making himself the interesting center of attention in that tangle, I’ve seen something that matters, and it's been a good day.

April 29: Langston Hughes’s “Daybreak in Alabama” « Knopf Doubleday - Poem-a-Day


Apr 27, 2011

Is Spring Really Trying? Baseball Tidbits.

Here's baseball the way it ought to be played and a video that's quick, sheer fun (thanks, NB):

Videos Posted by Jack Watts: Unbelievable! [HQ] (1)

And here was a nice email surprise. Baseball fans in general and especially Babe Ruth fans might want to look at the link:

We at Collegecrunch.org recently came across your blog and were excited to share with you an article “10 Babe Ruth Facts Every Baseball Fan Should Knowwas recently published on our blog at (http://www.collegecrunch.org/feature/10-babe-ruth-facts-every-baseball-fan-should-know/), and we hoped that you would be interested in featuring or mentioning it in one of your posts.


Back to Matthews and Casey

Cheap Seats - 94.12

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

YouTube - Penn & Teller - "Casey At The Bat"

(The Penn & Teller piece is six minutes; they know they are an acquired taste, so they won't be offended if you don't watch it all. The poem starts at about Minute 3:00).

Apparently I lied about being finished with "Cheap Seats" and "Casey at the Bat" and attendant issues.

If Easter isn’t about heroism and dramatic moments, among other things, then what is it about? So I decided not to add these thoughts on William Matthews until Passover and Easter were in the rear view mirror. Why create Mudville out of a season of hope?

For context, let’s return briefly to the April 25 visitor comments. Barbaro and AH, I’m also wild about the poem’s “we had no result/three nights out of three: so we had heroes.” Heroes are heroes because the rest of are not.

Heroes are aware of the clock running down; they act precipitously and skillfully. That’s the drama of them—in the midst of time’s vanishing, they jump at the chance for decision, change, beauty, rightness, and therefore greatness.

In that context, what I hear Matthews offering is that we fans, audiences of all kinds, don’t want to face the fact (“at home” where there are “mirrors”) that most of our moments, including months-long or even years-long moments, have “had no result.” No win, no loss, just sleepwalking through another day if we’re lucky, finding our way to the hazy cheap seats if we're lucky.

That’s not a cheerful proposition, but maybe it bears more truth than notions I’ve heard about the heroism or greatness in all of us.

In turn, maybe that’s why we love war.

Footnote: for classroom discussions of various forms of heroism, I still like the question, “If a character sets out to be heroic, can he be heroic? Can heroism arise from intentional self-aggrandizement?"


Apr 25, 2011

"Casey At The Bat," James Earl Jones, Winding Down on Baseball

Isn't this what cities are supposed to look like?

Two visitor comments plus my neighbor mentioned "Casey at the Bat," so I'm posting the link to it as well as a six-minute James Earl Jones reading of it. It's innocent fun, but I'm not ready to call it great or important poetry.

YouTube - Casey At The Bat - James Earl Jones

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

This scrappy teen got down on the concrete to wrestle a foul ball away from other, larger contenders. I was impressed. She's wearing a Curtis Granderson jersey; he was a fan favorite, so we traded him to the Yankees last year.

Keep your eye on the ball!

Apr 22, 2011

William Matthews, Baseball, Detroit, Cities, continued

It’s been awhile since I used visitor comments as the basis for a post, so here we go.
From my responses yesterday:

AH, great! I hadn't been back to [the Matthews poem] in years--maybe I have some memory and judgment left after all.

Barbaro, you're probably on thin ice AND out on a limb [favoring Detroit over some others], but you know cities much better than I do. I certainly agree that Detroit gets a bum rap, but it's the only major city I've ever lived in, unless you count Memphis. I'm snowed by the presence of four major sports teams, the symphony, which I'm told is world class (just got back from a daytime Schumann, Haydn, R. Strauss, and it was fantastic), a fine art museum, a dandy river front, the Eastern market, and on and on.

I suspect the problem is that what's bad is now very bad indeed, from schools to infrastructure (esp. roads) to vacated buildings to corrupt politicians to economic jeopardy. It's a damn shame because what's good is very good indeed.

I think Mayor Dave Bing has some good ideas with urban gardens and forestry, but where's the money for tearing down the old, much less putting up the new?

And here again is William Matthews on fans and audiences, onlookers, those not heroes:

Cheap Seats - 94.12

Apr 21, 2011

William Matthews, Baseball, Detroit, Cities: Some Notes

Here are some looks at Detroit's Comerica Park. I hate to admit it, but Comerica beats the hell out of the sentimental favorite, Tiger Stadium, which the team abandoned in 1999.

I've put the pics up small for fast, easy opening. Did it work? Remember, you can click on a photo to enlarge it. Maybe a few today and a few later?

In case you haven't been to a baseball game for a while, let me recommend it. No, it's not cost-effective, but neither is that watch you're wearing, or those shoes, which no one considers a great thing about America. Baseball is. Just ask Ken Burns, who gave us American History via the ball field a few years ago.

I only get to a couple of games a year, but each time I'm aware of the great American mix at the stadium, along with the vastness of the rustbelt city where I now live--suburbs to the north, west and south (which we call Downriver), and Canada just a healthy bird flight eastward across the Detroit river. From any point in Detroit, it is at least 30 miles to open country, farm country, rural America. A full house at the ball park is about 40,000; that's twenty of the town and four of the entire county where I grew up.

During my first 22 years in Opey-ville, I used to look around and realize there was not one spot in town where you could not see beyond the city limits into the hills and farms. The town was so small you could always see past it. Surely I would die of hickdom.

Now, after more than 30 years in Detroit's burbs, the vastness of the urban sprawl and the melting pot still create astonishment for me. At the stadium, the guy in front of me might work in the factories downriver while the lady to my left is a home maker from one of the Bloomfields or Grosse Pointes. I also see some folks from the little bergs north and west, in for the day from West Branch, Romeo, Fowlerville, and college kids from Ann Arbor, and maybe even some sensible folks from the former KKK haven of Howell, Michigan.

Last I heard, greater Detroit still had the world's largest Arabic population outside the Middle East. Detroit has a Mexican Town, a Greektown, Polish Hamtramck, Corktown and probably every other ethnicity in our nation. A sports stadium is a huge bowl of socioeconomic and ethnic snap, crackle, and pop. And except for an occasional drunken dumbass, everyone behaves; there's a genuine sense of community among strangers from very different walks of life.

But what about Detroiters themselves, people within the actual city that supports all that growth and sprawl, while shrinking from over two million in the 1950s to about 750,00 at present? Honest answer: I have no idea. Shall I assume that every African American fan at the stadium lives in the city proper, which is about three-quarters black? That would be quite an assumption, and, if true, it would still account for maybe 1% of the crowd on a typical day.

So whose Tigers are these? What exactly defines an American city in the year 2011, anyway? And what defines the decay or death of an American city in 2011? Where is the tipping point, and how do we prevent complete collapse? What would complete collapse even look like? The rest of the country jokes that it looks like today, outside the stadium . . . .

I get so distracted by all those questions that I retreat into innocence and feel I'm nine again. It's Little League Day in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, where Ted Williams and some other Red Sox had come to visit my Indians, like Al Rosen, Luke Easter, Larry Doby, George Strickland, Early Wynn, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Ray Narleski. (I didn't have to look up any of those guys, yet I was not at all the most rabid fan among my buddies, my peeps).

I got lost looking for a hot dog in the dark caverns. Oh, there's my mom waving at me. Maybe I'm not lost anymore. (I have no idea how I found my way back to my team and mom; it was a miracle, more proof of a deity than I ever found in church).

But this is a poetry blog! Sort of. I looked for a poem about baseball, but could not be satisfied. Then I remembered the late William Matthews' impressive poem about hoops, "Cheap Seats, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959." I offer it as one of the very finest sports poems:

Cheap Seats - 94.12



Apr 16, 2011

Stephen Crane, "In the Desert": Halloween in April

In the Desert by Stephen Crane : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

I'm not much of a memorizer, but Stephen Crane's "In the Desert" is so packed with dynamite (and so short) that I got it down, somewhere back there in youth. Sometimes I used it on first dates. I thought it made me sound deep. Over time, a pattern emerged: no one who heard it on a first date wanted to go out again. Women. Go figure.

Apr 12, 2011

Gottfried Benn, "Last Spring"

The Fencing Master, 1900, Gary Melcher (American, , D.I.A.)

Michigan's finches aren't this yellow yet, but . . .

here's a young guy working on it, trying for adulthood, testosterone, and brilliance.

And here's a spring poem by a (German) poet I’m not very familiar with, but Gottfried Benn might be worth further reading, for a number of reasons:

Last Spring by Gottfried Benn : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]

Kudos once again to Poetry Foundation and Poetry Magazine for introducing us to such a variety of poetry and commentary on the art, craft, and history of verse.

In Wikipedia, the biographical info on Gottfried Benn is interesting, perhaps disturbing:


It’s somewhat chilling to remember that a number of folks we still consider significant thinkers or artists were at least loosely, tentatively associated with Nazi-think: Benn, Nietzsche, Wagner, Heidegger, Otto Dix. How many more are there? What should we learn from it?

Left: Otto Dix, Self Portrait, 1912 (D.I.A.)

Apart from the sensationalism surrounding Nazi topics, consider this comment from Benn’s translator, Michael Hoffman: “the opposite of art, Benn always argued, is not nature, but pleasingness.”

Last Spring by Gottfried Benn : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]

Apr 7, 2011

when serpents bargain by Edward Estlin Cummings

when serpents bargain by Edward Estlin Cummings

Natural Order and Harmony

Natural Chaos

Because I posted about the cummings poem last election eve, I foolishly thought I shouldn’t offer commentary about it again. Also, I was hurrying, and was very fixed on getting the Palin video clip up.

So let me add that I think cummings’ “when serpents bargain” is a satire, a work that holds up to ridicule some vice or folly (if that’s a direct quotation, I don’t recall the source—sorry). The target of cummings’ satire is our human, artificial, "unanimal" species, which has built myriad constructs (like unions and contracts) to deal with our competitive greed, envy, paranoia, and other base desires.

The poem's politics sound almost libertarian to me, which is odd coming a bohemian icon. Today’s Libertarians would probably call him a pink Communist fish and throw him back. But in fact, cummings’ Nature doesn't need human, artificial constructs like unions and negotiations. Thrushes (think robins) and owls just sing along together happily. It’s a choir out there, not a cacophony.

I like a lot of cummings, but this is a fool’s paradise, a poem that offers a childish, facile argument. Nature doesn't have unions because, in nature, the strong simply kill the weak; usually predators eat prey raw (because the prey did not unionize).

Yeah, that nature. Wake up, you romanticizing, idealizing songster.

However, and speaking of song, I am pleased and impressed that cummings, the wild, woolly, gentle old hippie, has set forth a well-constructed (yes, he constructed it, a very human thing to do, kind of the way birds build nests, fastidiously, purposefully) . . . a well-constructed good old-fashioned Shakespearean sonnet.

Moreover, his rhyming is quite pleasing—it’s not forced, and there are surprises, some genuine cleverness in “squirm . . . alarm,” “birch . . . march,” as well as both “their” and “saboteur.” All this is topped off with the odd, ingenious concluding stroke of half-rhyme in “incredible . . . until.”

One thing rhyme simply, inarguably does by its very nature, is to pull together the two rhyming words, at least briefly. It's a sensory, perhaps irrational phenomenon that invites us to consider some connection beyond the two words’ similar sounds.

This may or may not lead to some intriguing, additional ideas, but in skillful rhyming, we at least have a chance at more complicated thoughts than most love songs or nursery rhymes offer. For example, in “when serpents bargain,” we might “squirm” because we are “alarmed,” and one might fit that into the larger themes of the poem. Or maybe we’ll envision birch trees in March rather than June. Yes, this might be a stretch, but if we don't stretch some, we're rigid, immobile uninteresting. Yes, true, we must not force these associations, but if they turn out to be present, they create one more delight in a poem.

Well, here’s hoping I’ve just provoked more thought and discussion, rather than killing it with academic fog. Many a student has told me I'm crazy to look into such stuff so much (and here, I've only just begun). To me, analysis is neither an academic nor a psychotic obfuscation; it’s sunlight, a disinfectant. That probably means laying open still more viruses for others to examine. Is that a problem? Why?

I wonder if Christopher Smart would approve.

when serpents bargain by Edward Estlin Cummings


Apr 1, 2011

Robert Frost, "Desert Places," Mental Health, Politics, Baseball

Desert Places by Robert Frost

To follow up just a bit on the subject of mental health in Hirsch’s tribute to Christopher Smart and my challenge concerning John Boehner, here is Robert Frost’s “Desert Places, ” a fairly well-known poem that I like all right but do not love. Desert places of the mind—probably indicating depression or at least gloomy perceptions—seem a fertile subject (ironically?); we’ve all been there, I suspect, at least briefly . However, Frost’s attempt to convey that emptiness feels somewhat blank as a poem.

The imagery is clear enough, and a couple of phrasings are moderately interesting. For example, there’s the odd but effective notion of possession in “The woods around it have it”; the trees OWN the whitening field, and that’s a new, interesting take on a snowy winter field at night. Also, I feel as well as understand the expanse of a night’s white field when it’s compared to “empty spaces / Between stars.” The size and silence of the vacuum increase if we imagine space; both the white field and black sky are vast, quiet, and unwelcoming, if not forbidding.

But the rest of the poem fails to reach out and grab me by the throat; nothing puts me in that haunting field. Because I’ve seen such spaces a hundred times, a poem about them needs to offer something new, while at the same time confirming that the poet and I have shared this experience. Frost offers little or nothing fresh on his subject. Even the title’s “Desert” seems obvious and maybe trite, maybe forced—not to mention its working against the central landscape, which is snowy, not sandy. It’s as if I hear the writer as he thinks, “Let’s see, how many blank things can I think of, besides a snowy field. I know! A desert!”

The poem’s music is noticeable, but not hypnotic or otherwise engaging—the way it is in “Stopping by Woods” or “Acquainted with the Night” or "Nothing Gold Can Stay," to mention only three musical wonders by Frost. And, still concerning music, some of the rhymes feel forced—how about “last” in line 4? Or “unawares” in line 8? Or their overall simplicity and loudness?

Moreover, the rhymes simply aren’t particularly interesting; we readers don’t feel nudged into unexpected word and thought combinations because the poet hasn’t offered them, hasn’t put us in the midst of surprising but apt pairings—he hasn’t demanded that, from time to time, we hear, see, experience things anew.

As a final complaint about language, I notice a variation on “Lonely” is used four times in three lines, while “no” and “nothing” along with “express” and “expression” occur within two lines. All this strikes me as mere repetitiveness, rather than a scary echo in the night field.

Robert Frost has written so much great poetry that he doesn't have to worry about opinions at Banjo52. But more to the point, I’ve said aloud at times that no poet has more than 20 poems we all might label “great.” So I offer “Desert Places” as an occasion to step back and remember that even the icons are human. Quite possibly none of them batted .300, and baseball is considered a game of failure, in which a 30% success rate is noteworthy. I guess the same could be said of politicians; but their personal and public "desert places," their bad days, mistakes and deceptions, can cost way too much for way too many people.

Desert Places by Robert Frost


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