2009 12 22
Recently read: Academic Graffiti

Posted by in: Books, Poetry

W.H. Auden, with drawings by Filippo Sanjust. Academic Graffiti

This book only takes 15 or 20 minutes to skim through, even at a leisurely pace, but if you’re a pointy-head, it’s probably still worth a trip to the library for it. A clerihew is, so I’m told, “a whimsical four-line biographical poem . . . The lines are comically irregular in length, and the rhymes, often contrived, are structured AABB.” This book contains sixty-one clerihews of Auden’s. E.g.,

Disiderius Erasmus
Always avoided chiasmus,
But grew addicted as time wore on
To oxymoron.

Auden takes aim at some familiar names—Aquinas, Beethoven, Blake, Robert Browning—and some unfamiliar ones. I admit that some of the poems went right over my head, even when I recognized the name:

Robert Browning
Immediately stopped frowning
And started to blush,
When fawned on by Flush.

Did you know that Elizabeth Barrett had a dog named “Flush”? I didn’t, and this dog was even the subject of a fictional autobiography by Virginia Woolf (!).

Anyway, good for a laugh or two.

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2009 05 12
On carrying it around in your head

Posted by in: Poetry

Inspired by this piece in the NYT, a bit more than two weeks ago Yoon and I started memorizing a line of poetry a day. I set up an email alert in my calendar to remind me each morning to add a new line, which I do by typing out the entire poem so far plus the day’s line in an email to Yoon. We decided to start with Frost’s “Birches.”

It’s been a lot of fun so far. Although the poem has been familiar to me for years, Yoon’s never seen it, and has insisted on not reading ahead. So every day she gets one more line of it; she’s really enjoyed watching it unfurl a bit at a time, day after day.

The last time I memorized poetry I was twenty. I stuck Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in my head and then walked around all summer savouring it to myself while I was waiting for subways or walking down the street. It was wonderful, and I’m not sure why I fell out of the habit. Anyway, I’ve fallen back into it now, and highly recommend it.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 01 29
History comix

From Spencer, by way of Wondermark, artist Kate Beaton has made short comics about 20 historical figures. They’re great and you should go look at them.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 01 26
Fragments discovered at Herculaneum…

…reveal a tiny window onto the oddity of the ancient world. Or maybe, the perpetual oddity of the human world. (I found this linked from Metafilter, more tidbits there on the recovered stuff.)

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2007 10 26
You’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself

Posted by in: Poetry, Political issues

I’m going through one of those phases in which I’m so angry and bewildered by politics that I find it difficult to write much about it. Anyway, I’ve come across a poem by Bertolt Brecht twice in the last few months, and thought it worth sharing. I believe it was the last poem Brecht ever wrote.

And I Always Thought

And I always thought: the very simplest words
must be enough. When I say what things are like
everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself.
Surely you see that.

Und ich dachte immer

Und ich dachte immer, die allereinfachsten Worte
Müssen genügen. Wenn ich sage, was ist
Muß jedem das Herz zerfleischt sein.
Daß du untergehst, wenn du dich nicht wehrst.
Das wirst du doch einsehn.

I don’t know much about Brecht at all, and I’m not one for interpreting poetry. But for what it’s worth, I notice that most of the poem is in the past tense. [UPDATE: Or rather, the first verb (thought/dachte) is in the past tense. The following three lines are in the present, but I originally described them as in the past since they describe what he thought. Thanks, DC.] I imagine that matters. Perhaps Brecht means to suggest that he once thought this, but now isn’t sure. Because, of course, not everyone’s heart has been torn to shreds when he’s said what things are like. In that case, perhaps the final line of the poem suggests a certain impatience with people, a sense of incredulity at their failure to respond properly to a clear statement of the ways things are, and perhaps a hope that they will respond at some point. ((I notice that in the German the last line of the poem is in the future tense, whereas the English translation renders the line in the present tense. My German really sucks, so it’s entirely possible that the future tense is idiomatic here for a thought that an English speaker would put into the present tense. But I’m not sure.)) And I don’t think that Brecht immodestly implies in the second and third line that everyone’s hearts must be torn to shreds as a result of some magnificent eloquence on his part. After all, the way things are can be stated in the simplest language: just that you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself.

And you will, you know. You will.

Howls of outrage (8)

2004 04 09
Advice to Young Ladies

One initiative making the rounds in the blogosphere is an effort to publish decent Arabic language translations of famous English language texts.

My own modest contribution to this initiative is the proposal that we translate A.D. Hope’s poem “Advice to Young Ladies” into as many languages as possible, and organize public readings from Canada to Afghanistan, everywhere sexist thugs dare to congregate.

Special attention should be drawn to the final stanza, which is so powerful that it elicited an involuntary “omph” from me the first twenty times I read it. I’m now past audible “omphs”, but the poem continues to move me no matter how many times I read it.

To continue reading, click “Continue reading Advice to Young Ladies” immediately below.
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2003 11 05
[Bush poetry]

Bush channels William Carlos Williams:

This is Just to Say

I have taken
the funds
that were in
the lockbox

and which
you were probably
for retirement

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

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