Saturday, January 28, 2006

Clam Clip Dispenser

Stationery-wise (as they might say in Billy Wilder's The Apartment), this gadget is just amazing: slide the dispenser over the pages you want to clip, push the blue piece forward, and a clip clips them. The clips are stainless-steel, reusable, and they load at the back of the dispenser. According to online office supply sites, "The Clam Clip System is a product created with pride by Americans who are blind."

Thanks, Stephen, for such a great gift!

Clam Clip Dispenser, from Office Depot

Friday, January 27, 2006

Ellington for beginners

When I'm buying CDs, I sometimes think how lucky I am to have begun listening to Duke Ellington when I did -- about thirty years ago (though alas I caught on only after his death). Back in the day, a typical Sam Goody's held LPs from all eras of Ellington's career -- from the earliest 1924 recordings to 1940s radio broadcasts (releases overseen by Mel Tormé!) to all manner of concert and studio performances. Best of all was the Integrale series from France, a chronological trek through Ellington's RCA work, with alternate takes no less. The Integrale releases of Ellington's 1940-41 recordings are still my favorite versions -- no CD version I've heard comes close to their sound quality. I can still remember the huge (at the time) dent those LPs made in my teenaged finances.

I'd hate to be approaching Ellington's music as a beginner in 2006. The average "books and music" store offers a real mish-mash, as my dad would call it -- one-off concerts of familiar retreads, unreleased studio recordings (great for me, but not a place to start), and compilations cobbled together to make a cynical buck. A further problem: the major-label reissues of Ellington's older recordings often feature horrific sound quality.

So where does one begin? The Ellington disc in the Ken Burns' Jazz series is a decent sampler, though at least four of its twenty selections are somewhat dubious. And its effort to span most of Ellington's career -- with a little bit of this and a little bit of that -- fails to satisfy. For me, there is one best place to start listening to Duke Ellington: The Great Paris Concert, a double-album released on Atlantic in 1973 and recently re-released on the Collectables label as a 2-CD set with additional material, all of it recorded in concert, in Paris (and elsewhere?), in 1963. The original LPs are among my most-played Ellington recordings.

The 1963 band is one of the best Ellington led. The saxophone section has the classic line-up from Ellington's later years: Harry Carney (on baritone, clarinet, and bass clarinet, and who started with Ellington in 1927), Johnny Hodges (alto, who first came on board in 1928), Russell Procope (another mainstay, on alto and clarinet), Jimmy Hamilton (ditto, on tenor and clarinet), and Paul Gonsalves (then and now a sadly undervalued tenor).The trumpet section features Cootie Williams (who first signed on in 1929), Ray Nance (on cornet and violin, and who took Williams' chair in 1940, when Williams left to join Benny Goodman), Cat Anderson (Ellington's high-note specialist), and Roy Burrowes. Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper, and Chuck Connors are the trombones, with Brown (who first joined in 1932) another recently re-enlisted veteran. Ernie Shepard is probably the strongest bassist from the Ellington band's later years, and Sam Woodyard is second only to Sonny Greer among Ellington's drummers. The band is inspired, and very well recorded, even down to Ellington's claps and grunted cues and the occasional bits of dialogue between musicians on the bandstand.

The performances collected on these CDs are an excellent sampler of Ellingtonia. There's Ellington's cubist version of stride piano on "Kinda Dukish," which leads into "Rockin' in Rhythm," with Harry Carney reprising his original (1931) clarinet solo. But there's nothing antique about this performance, which swings like mad. Three features for Johnny Hodges follow: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "The Star-Crossed Lovers" (from the Ellington-Strayhorn Shakespearean suite, Such Sweet Thunder), and "All of Me." Hodges' alto was never more extraordinary than on "The Star-Crossed Lovers," a performance of serene beauty and discipline. "Theme from The Asphalt Jungle," with virtuoso passages for the sax section, closes out what used to be called Side One.

Side Two begins with two features for Cootie Williams, "Concerto for Cootie" (a 1940 classic) and "Tutti for Cootie," Williams making up in ferocity what he's lost in speed. The remainder of the side is an extended composition in four parts, Suite Thursday, inspired by John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday. This live version is a far more exciting performance than the one studio version I've heard. Suite Thursday is held together by an interval of a descending minor sixth (thank you, Elaine), which figures prominently in three of its four parts. Highlights here are "Zweet Zurzday," Ellington-Strayhorn at their most elegant, and "Lay-By," a blues for Ray Nance's violin (Duke exhorts him to "Come on down" as his solo builds in intensity).

Side Three begins with a showpiece version of "Perdido," starting out with a boppish line for the two tenors, followed by "The Eighth Veil," "Rose of the Rio Grande," and "Cop Out" (features for Cat Anderson, Lawrence Brown, and Paul Gonsalves), and "Bula," a latter-day piece of "jungle music," which Ellington describes as a "gutbucket bolero" -- which indeed it is.

And Side Four: "Jam with Sam" gives us Duke calling the roll of his soloists (Paul Gonsalves is said to be from "Newport, Rhode Island," in homage to his tenor solo at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival). It's always fascinating to hear Ellington addressing an audience, full of charm and irony and wit, and never exactly straightforward. "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" follows, a train piece that, appropriated, became the hit "Night Train." And finally, "A Tone Parallel to Harlem," my favorite among Ellington's extended compositions, a series of vivid musical impressions -- Sunday morning churchgoing, a chorus line, a "chic chick" stopping traffic, a funeral, a civil rights protest. This recording of "Harlem" is the best one I know.

The previous CD release of The Great Paris Concert included additional contemporaneous live performances (previously available on a Columbia Special Products Greatest Hits LP), and I'm happy to see that they're still here. Some of the material is fairly pedestrian -- "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me," "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," "Pyramid," and "Satin Doll." "Do Nothing" and "The Blues" (from Black, Brown, and Beige), both featuring Milt Grayson, hint at Ellington's idiosyncratic taste in male vocalists. But two of the extra tracks are, simply, great. A long medley of "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Creole Love Call," and "The Mooche" has moments of almost frightening power, and an ending that puts me in mind of The Rite of Spring. It adds the one element that's missing from the rest of The Great Paris Concert -- the late-20s "jungle music" that gave Ellington's early band its signature sound. The other crucial track is "Echoes of Harlem," a Cootie Williams feature from 1936. "Old man now, man -- can't play all them fast numbers -- out of air," Williams says as he steps up to the microphone. With piano, bass, and drums for a backdrop, he delivers a trumpet solo of astonishing intensity and beauty.

That's all of it: many of the greatest Ellington soloists, two extended pieces, and a repertoire that ranges from the late 1920s to 1963. And the excitement of a live recording without "the medley" -- the parade of a dozen or more hits that is the low point of many live Ellington recordings (though a handy device to please audiences and get the requisite hits out of the way). The Great Paris Concert is where I'd start: there's no better way to enter the world of Duke Ellington.

[Update, August 29, 2006: A reader has asked whether I can confirm that the additional performances on the earlier CD release appear on the Collectables reissue. I can't — having discovered, as this reader did, that online track listings don't include them. It's puzzling, because I did check when I wrote this post in January. My best guess is that what I found back then was the track listing from the previous CDs, simply cut-and-pasted into a page for the new ones.

Amazon does though list the previous CD reissue of The Great Paris Concert as still available from various sellers, most with reasonable prices.]

[Update, April 19, 2008: The earlier Great Paris Concert with additional material (on Atlantic UK) is again available from Amazon from the link just above, as a 2-CD set or (save for "A Tone Parallel to Harlem") MP3s. Thanks to Peter Hines for sharing this news in a comment.]

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Fayard Nicholas

October 20, 1914 – January 24, 2006

"We were tap-dancers, but we put more style into it, more bodywork, instead of just footwork," Harold Nicholas recalled in a 1987 interview.

Harold, who died in 2000, once likened his older brother's dancing to poetry, saying that he was "talking to you with his hands and feet."
From the New York Times obituary, "Fayard Nicholas, Groundbreaking Hoofer, Dies at 91"

To see the young Nicholas Brothers in motion, click on the link below. And then get hold of the 1943 movie Stormy Weather.

The Maxwell DeMille Productions Screening Room Presents the Nicholas Brothers

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Google and censorship

In today's news:

Google Inc. launched a search engine in China on Wednesday that censors material about human rights, Tibet and other topics sensitive to Beijing -- defending the move as a trade-off granting Chinese greater access to other information.

Within minutes of the launch of the new site bearing China's Web suffix ".cn," searches for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement showed scores of sites omitted and users directed to articles condemning the group posted on Chinese government Web sites.

Searches for other sensitive subjects such as exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, Taiwan independence, and terms such as "democracy" and "human rights" yielded similar results.

In most such cases, only official Chinese government sites or those with a ".cn" suffix were included.

Google, which has as its motto "Don't Be Evil," says the new site aims to make its search engine more accessible in China, thereby expanding access to information.

Yet the move has already been criticized by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which also has chided Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s for submitting to China's censorship regime.

"When a search engine collaborates with the government like this, it makes it much easier for the Chinese government to control what is being said on the Internet," said Julien Pain, head of the group's Internet desk.
Curious, I typed in "dalai lama" this morning. With, there are three news results -- links to articles from the Hindustan Times, Jerusalem Post, and Washington Post. The first site listed is the official site of the Government of Tibet in Exile. Google returns 5,070,000 results for "dalai lama."

With, there are no news results. The first site listed is a page from the China Internet Information Center. A sample of the propaganda to be found therein:
Donning the cloak of "religious leader'', he travelled around to spread rumors to mislead international opinion. Out of their own need, some in the West hailed him as the deity and lauded him as "the peace envoy'' and "human rights fighter''. However, it is this ex-leader of Tibetan Buddhism who, discarding the tradition of his predecessors of loving the motherland to trample on religious doctrines, hoodwink the religious sentiments of Tibetan Buddhists, organize an illegal government-in-exile, trumpet "Tibetan independence'' to split the motherland, and undermine internal unity and rules of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, he has gone far to betray the motherland and the Tibetan people.
Clear enough? Unless I'm missing something crucial in Chinese characters, returns a mere 17,100 results for "dalai lama."

Interestingly, if one types "" into, a working link to the Government of Tibet in Exile results. And typing "" returns a working link to Tibet Online. Whether someone in China would find these links working, I don't know. Perhaps Google still needs to get the kinks out of its censorship algorithms to really keep these sites from Chinese computer users.

Shame on you, Google.

Link: Google agrees to censor results in China (from the Associated Press)

A related post: "Human rights" and other four-letter words

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A correction

From the Corrections page in today's New York Times:

A film review in Weekend on Friday about "Le Pont des Arts" misspelled a word in the title of a Monteverdi madrigal that a character sings on a recording. It is "Lamento della ninfa," not "ninja."

Monday, January 23, 2006

Pope's shield

For my 2601 students:

From the British Library, an extract from Alexander Pope's draft translation of the Iliad, with Pope's sketch of Achilles' shield. The Library's Online Gallery is a great site to get lost in.

Pope's draft

The British Library's Online Gallery

Modernism and the "Orient"

For my 3703 students:

"Petals on a wet black bough": American Modernist Writers and the Orient, from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University

If you click on the page for Harriet Monroe and the "Imagists", you'll see "In a Station of the Metro" as it appeared in Poetry in 1913.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cheating redefined

Appearing in the wake of recent news reports about the declining literacy and numeracy of college graduates, an article from Saturday's Wall Street Journal makes interesting reading. Here's an excerpt:

Twas a situation every middle-schooler dreads. Bonnie Pitzer was cruising through a vocabulary test until she hit the word "desolated" -- and drew a blank. But instead of panicking, she quietly searched the Internet for the definition.

At most schools, looking up test answers online would be considered cheating. But at Mill Creek Middle School in Kent, Wash., some teachers now encourage such tactics. "We can do basically anything on our computers," says the 13-year-old, who took home an A on the test.

In a wireless age where kids can access the Internet's vast store of information from their cellphones and PDAs, schools have been wrestling with how to stem the tide of high-tech cheating. Now, some educators say they have the answer: Change the rules and make it legal. In doing so, they're permitting all kinds of behavior that had been considered off-limits just a few years ago.

The move, which includes some of the country's top institutions, reflects a broader debate about what skills are necessary in today's world -- and how schools should teach them. The real-world strengths of intelligent surfing and analysis, some educators argue, are now just as important as rote memorization.

The old rules still reign in most places, but an increasing number of schools are adjusting them. This includes not only letting kids use the Internet during tests, but in the most extreme cases, allowing them to text message notes or beam each other definitions on vocabulary drills. Schools say they in no way consider this cheating because they're explicitly changing the rules to allow it.

In Ohio, students at Cincinnati Country Day can take their laptops into some tests and search online Cliffs Notes. At Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach, Calif., seventh-graders are looking at each other's hand-held computers to get answers on their science drills. And in San Diego, high-schoolers can roam free on the Internet during English exams.

The same logic is being applied even when laptops aren't in the classroom. In Philadelphia, school officials are considering letting kids retake tests, even if it gives them an opportunity to go home and Google topics they saw on the first test. "What we've got to teach kids are the tools to access that information," says Gregory Thornton, the school district's chief academic officer. " 'Cheating' is not the word anymore."
I would suggest that "cheating" is indeed the word, and that "educators" like Mr. Thornton are cheating students in several ways: by cheapening the dignity and value of study (why bother when you can look it up during the test?) and by giving the false impression that learning is not a matter of knowledge and understanding but a matter of "accessing" "information."

This article follows up on Bonnie Pitzer's vocabulary test:
In Bonnie Pitzer's case, teacher Becky Keene says using the Internet helped the seventh-grader, but in the end, she aced the test because she demonstrated she could also use the word in a sentence. "I want the kids to be able to apply the meaning, not to be able to memorize it," says Ms. Keene.
I have several questions for Ms. Keene:

-- Aren't we better capable of understanding and applying meanings of words when we know them?

-- Won't your students encounter many situations in life in which they'll need to know what words mean without looking them up? Imagine one of your students interviewing for a job, no computer available: what happens then?

-- Doesn't someone who knows the words in a sentence have an advantage over someone who has to look them up? (E.D. Hirsch makes that point very clearly in Cultural Literacy -- that constantly having to look things up leads to a breakdown in comprehension.)

-- What makes you so sure that your student didn't find her sample sentence itself online? And if she did, what would be wrong with that? Why is making up an original sentence necessary? Wouldn't finding an appropriate sentence also be evidence of being able to apply the meaning of the word?

In the pre-Internet world, education theorists dismissed the value of memorization because one could look up everything in books. Now, it's the Internet: "It has everything," as someone says in the film Broken Flowers. But if education theorists and Ms. Keene were correct, I'd be a master of Greek and Latin and several other languages that I don't know.

"Legalized 'cheating'" (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)

"Study: College students lack literacy for complex tasks" (from CNN)


There's nothing funner than being a nervous wreck trying to figure out how to modify a template to make things look the way I'd like them to look. I chose Douglas Bowman's Rounders template to get away from the "blanker whiteness" (to quote Robert Frost) that not so long ago I found appealing. The new style is less "orangey" but easier on "the" eyes, or at least my eyes. Reader, I hope you like it too.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Whose Homer?

(for Stefan Hagemann)

I'm teaching the Iliad again, in Stanley Lombardo's 1997 translation, and we just hit a line that always sticks in students' minds, Hector's rebuke of his brother Paris in Book 3. As the opposing forces mass for battle, Paris steps out and offers to fight the Greeks' best man to the death. Menelaus steps up -- he's not the best Greek, but he is Helen's husband after all. Paris, suddenly pale, runs back to the Trojan lines. Hector then speaks with impatience and contempt:

"Paris, you desperate, womanizing pretty boy!"
I just recommended Lombardo's Iliad to my friend Stefan Hagemann, so I'll make a case for my choice by looking at how the other members of the Big Four -- Richmond Lattimore (1951), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), and Robert Fagles (1990) -- handle this one line. Here's Lattimore:
"Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy, cajoling."
Yes, Lattimore is close to the Greek (Lombardo too, as you can see here). The problem with Lattimore's line, to my mind, is that it's nearly impossible to imagine someone saying it in English. It's very difficult to hear cajoling, for instance, as a term of rebuke. And what's urgently missing is the word you, the inevitable pronoun of rebuke in English ("Why you little . . . .").

I love Robert Fitzgerald's Odyssey, but like many readers, I find him less at home in the Iliad. Here's Fitzgerald's Hector:
                                               "You bad-luck charm!
Paris, the great lover, a gallant sight!"
Fitzgerald leaves out any overt reference to Paris' beauty (in the Greek, he is "best in form," or "best in figure"), a curious omission, as Homer has just noted Paris' glamorous leopard-skin (he is the only warrior in the poem to wear one). As for "You bad-luck charm!" -- that phrase introduces a tone of high camp that I find bewildering in this context.

Robert Fagles has picked up all the establishment honors, but his translations of Homer (and Aeschylus) seem to me to strain too hard for a faux-lofty, Yeatsian rhetoric. Rarely do they, for me, ring true. Here's Fagles' Hector:
"Paris, appalling Paris! Our prince of beauty --
mad for women, you lure them all to ruin!"
What I first notice here is the sheer verbiage: what Homer does in five words, Lattimore and Lombardo in six, Fitzgerald in eleven, Fagles does in sixteen. Fagles' Hector speaks with stagey repetition (he seems to have a British accent, methinks) and (like Fitzgerald's Hector) with two! -- two! -- exclamation points. Another problem: Fagles' translation seems a little misleading for new readers of the poem, for Paris has lured neither Helen nor any other woman. (There is no "them all.") The Iliad presents Helen as the victim of a sexual kidnapping of sorts, a woman filled with contempt for her keeper. It's not at all clear that she's been "ruined": though she's filled with shame and self-hatred, the poem never passes judgment on her, treating her rather with compassion and generosity.

Facing multiple translations in a bookstore, it can be difficult to know what choice to make. Picking some scattered lines for comparison can sometimes illuminate the differences among translations to a remarkable degree. Looking at this line in four translations reminds me of why I choose Lombardo's Iliad when I teach.

Related posts

Paris, pretty-boy
Translators at work and play
Aeschylus in three translations

Interview with Stanley Lombardo

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Same as it ever was

From Dennis Dutton, "Hardwired to seek beauty":

Throughout history and across cultures, the arts of homo sapiens have demonstrated universal features. These aesthetic inclinations and patterns have evolved as part of our hardwired psychological nature, ingrained in the human species over the 80,000 generations lived out by our ancestors in the 1.6 million years of the Pleistocene.

The existence of a universal aesthetic psychology has been suggested, not only experimentally, but by the fact that the arts travel outside their local contexts so easily: Beethoven is loved in Japan, Aboriginal art in Paris, Korean ceramics in Brazil, and Hollywood movies all over the globe.

Our aesthetic psychology has remained unchanged since the building of cities and the advent of writing some 10,000 years ago, which explains why The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, remain good reading today.
Read the rest by clicking here. Link via Arts & Letters Daily.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Glenn Gould story

My AM 740 experience (see here) has left me wondering about Glenn Gould and Toronto radio. Did he listen perhaps to "Pet" Clark on CHWO? I've found nothing to suggest that he did, but I did find an interesting Gould story while looking:

One woman that knew him believes the mystery is impenetrable even 15 years after his death. Marilyn Kecskes has been the superintendent of 110 St. Clair Ave. West since 1973. She first met Gould on the elevator when he was wearing gloves and covering his face with a handkerchief for fear of catching her germs. Kecskes said she had never met anyone like him: a maverick and eccentric who was also a raging hypochondriac. She knew he was special, too, because his mailbox was the only one that had been tampered with. Someone had once tried to force it open in hope of getting a bit of his mail.

Kecskes took the elevator to the top floor of this still stylish Art Deco building. Gould, she said, was messy ("orange juice and milk cartons everywhere"), and intensely private (he fired his cleaning lady of about five years "because she liked to gossip about him"). Kecskes added that he covered his bedroom window with a bookcase, that he was a terrible driver who frequently drove his big Lincoln Continental into one of the concrete pillars in the downstairs parking lot and that he disliked intrusions. "Once he called me on the telephone," she said with a smile, "'There's someone knocking on my door. Could you see what they want?' Imagine!"

When the elevator stopped, Kecskes opened the heavy doors next to what was once Gould's apartment and mounted the stairs to the roof. She pointed to what used to be his window. "I used to sit up here, after I had done my cleaning, and I would listen to him play all night long," confessed Kecskes, blushing at the memory. "He never knew I was up here, or else he would have been angry with me, I suppose, but I had the moon and the stars and his music and there was nothing more beautiful."

From Deirdre Kelly, "The Gould Rush" (The Globe and Mail, September 20, 1997).
I found this article quoted in "A Glenn Gould Tour of Toronto and Area," compiled by Michael Davidson. The Globe and Mail online archives go back only to 2002, so it's especially fortunate that Michael Davidson has given this story (which I've seen nowhere else) a life online.

» "A Glenn Gould Tour of Toronto and Area"

The dowdy world on radio

Driving across the great prairie last night, my wife Elaine and I were searching for something suitable on the radio. The usual classical FM station was playing something by musicians from the "Cold-hearted Club," as Elaine put it, and the usual oldies station did not quite fit the moment. So we tried the radio's scan function. We started with AM, where we picked up station after station filled with talk of a sort that held no interest for us. Often one word was enough to send us scanning again - diadems, eternity, blood. We listened for a short time to a talk show about Kentucky auctioneers, but as much as I like the odd and arcane, that was too much even for me.

Then we found it - AM 740, playing "big band" music, lively, harmonically sophisticated, and free of references to damnation. We had found "the dowdy world" on our radio. The music was a treat, but the commercials were even better. First, a spot for "Bruno's Fine Foods," featuring Scottish smoked salmon and 5-lb. lasagna trays. Then a spot for a cd called A Little Breath of Scotland. Where was this station coming from?

Finally, we heard the ID: AM 740, CHWO, Toronto. Three hours south of Chicago, we'd picked up George Jonescu's Sunday night big-band program.

I talked to George briefly by cellphone: he was playing two versions of "Stealin' Apples," by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, and was polling the audience on which it preferred. Elaine and I thought Goodman was better, no contest. George's listeners agreed: in a (small) landslide, Goodman won, 45 to 14. The toll-free number - "good anywhere in North America" - should have been my first clue that picking up this station wasn't quite as extraordinary as I'd thought. The second should have been George's lack of surprise that we'd picked up his show. As I learned this morning, CHWO is a 50,000-watt clear-channel station.

The AM 740 website is a wonderful thing:

With access to the largest active music library in Toronto radio, AM 740 features a wide range of specialty programming, from big bands and 50s crooners, to the early rock’n’rollers, folk singers, country cross-over artists, and many of today’s top artists specializing in 'retro-sounds'.

AM 740 is much more than a well-stocked juke-box though. With newscasts every half-hour weekday mornings, and hourly through the day, information flows consistently with news, sports, traffic, weather and plenty of time-checks too. Hourly 'Prime Time Moments' focus on travel, gardening, finances and car-care. AM 740 on-air personalities are friendly, cheerful companions who help you through your day.

Tune us in anytime, just about anywhere, for the All Time Favourites – AM 740!
AM 740 certainly helped brighten our drive through the darkness last night.

» AM 740

» AM 740 schedule   A sample: "Bob Sprott features a spotlight on Les Brown, covering the lengthy period between 1936 and 2001."

» AM 740 photo gallery   I especially enjoyed the photos from the re-opening of Woolcott's Shoes, "Comfort Shoe Specialists Since 1937."

» Bruno's Fine Foods   "Yes . . . there really is a Bruno."

» Denis Snowdon's page   Snowdon is the AM 740 on-air personality who compiled A Little Breath of Scotland.

Friday, January 13, 2006


15 January 1929 - 4 April 1968

» The Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project
» Frequently requested documents and audioclips Texts and audio clips (Acrobat, Quicktime, and Realmedia) of "Letter from Birmingham Jail," "I Have a Dream," King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "Beyond Vietnam," and "I've Been to the Mountaintop."

A good place to study, in two languages

[Advice for students.]

Here's a suggestion for the start of the semester: Find a good place to study and make it your own. The more time you spend in that place, the more it will become associated with the work of learning.

A good place to study isn't necessarily one that's comfortable. In his book Creative Reading, the poet Ron Padgett offers a funny account of his teenaged attempt to create a "nirvana" for reading — pillows, background music, a Do Not Disturb sign, cold drinks, and cookies. The only problem was that he ended up falling asleep.

Good places to work are as various as individual students. If you like quiet, find a lesser-used area of the library. The bound periodicals or the A and Z stacks (if your library uses Library of Congress Classification) might be likely places to start. If silence is deafening, look for a livelier setting. If your dorm room would be a perfect place except for the noise in the hallway, try an ambient sound from iSerenity to mask the distractions.

When I'm not working at home, my favorite spot to work is a table on the third floor of my university library. I've been working at this table for so long that I've come to think of it as my own. There's room to spread out books and papers (much more room than in a professorial carrel), and the public computers are far enough away that checking my e-mail isn't a great temptation. The nearby books, mostly on urban renewal, are not a browser's paradise. There is little to do at this table but drink bottled water and work.

When I'm walking to this table, I sometimes think about all the work I've already done there. That history itself makes this table a place where I'm likely to get stuff done. While the semester is young and full of new possibilities, find a place that helps you get stuff done too.

[Renzai, a Japanese student, asked to translate this piece. You can now read "A good place to study" in Japanese via the link below. Renzai has also provided a link to an image file of the translated text (for browsers that cannot display Japanese characters). Thanks, Renzai!]

勉強しやすい場所 [A good place to study]

Thursday, January 12, 2006


Politics can get ugly, even at the college level:


The word of the day

The made-up word of the day is humormeter:

hu · morm · e · ter (hyoo MORM ih ter) n. The little-understood brain mechanism governing the human response to humor.
Sample sentence:
My daughter is laughing at every one of my jokes. Her humormeter must be broken.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


[In his book Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, Kenneth Koch describes the development of what he calls his "poetry base" -- simply, his "knowledge of the language of poetry." I just asked my students to write about the development of their poetry "bases." Here's my homework.]

I was attuned to songs from very early on, thanks to my father's dedication in exposing me to jazz. When I was three or four I was listening to Joe Turner and Anita O'Day, but it was their voices, not their words, that made an impression on me (the same with Erroll Garner's voice at the end of Concert by the Sea). My first remembered awareness of poetry involves rhymes from the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten eras. My mother used to sing to me:

Michael's a good boy
He is the best boy
He can run and jump and play
He can ride a bike.
In kindergarten, I learned a little rhyme about an imaginary family:
There's mother and father
And baby that makes three
And sister and brother
There are five in our family.
I don’t remember reading any poetry in elementary school, but I remember writing a poem in fourth grade about winter. Where did that come from? It was published in the school paper and now sits in my house in a frame that my grandmother bought for it. I bought a book of Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems when I was ten or eleven, and I remember how much I liked the title of the poem "To E----": mysterious! "Eldorado" was another poem that struck me: it seemed to belong to no time or place. These poems did not move me though to any further investigations of poetry. And high school was a waste land when it came to poetry; I can't remember reading a single poem (and I remember many specifics of my high-school reading). I know that I had a glib contempt for Deep Meaning, as my friends and I called it, though that didn't seem to stop me from scrutinizing Beatles lyrics for clues about Paul's death.

A freshman poetry course in college helped to make up for what never happened in high school; it at least made me realize that poetry was more than the precious, flowery thing I assumed it was. That recognition was largely a matter of discovering what was in the back of the anthology -- some contemporary poetry, including Gregory Corso's "Marriage," the first poem I can remember reading that really spoke in terms familiar from ordinary life. It was interesting to me that Corso was reported to have behaved very badly when he was on campus a year or two before for a reading. People were still talking about it. There was also a poem by Raymond Patterson about the death of Malcolm X, "At That Moment," which helped me understand -- and even get excited about -- the idea of metaphor. In this freshman course we could memorize poems, or passages, for extra credit, and I had (like everyone else) a blue book with my efforts -- five lines here, eight lines there (for some reason we had to write rather than recite).

It wasn’t until my junior year of college that things took off, in courses devoted to 17th-century literature and modern poetry (I thought it would be interesting to take them together). It was really a matter of the professors teaching these courses -- one an old eccentric (Paul Memmo), and the other a highly animated assistant prof (Jim Doyle). Each projected a reverence for the possibilities of language and imagination, and I, like a number of my comrades in English, wanted in a way to be Jim Doyle -- to read poetry with the same intensity of attention. These professors were inspiring models then and now.

So far virtually all my reading was British, in a deeply Anglophile English department. It wasn’t until I started work on a doctorate that I began to read modern American poetry -- Williams, Stevens, and others, but I didn’t really get it. Around the same time, I began reading Charles Bukowski, who for me (and so many other readers) was a gateway poet -- the one that got me interested in other much stronger and more addictive poets, those identified with the New American Poetry of Donald Allen's anthology. I bought Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and never got beyond "The Day Lady Died." Around this time I began a subscription to the American Poetry Review and found myself loathing the contents and concluding that there wasn’t much of interest in contemporary American poetry.

It was only after finishing my doctorate that I realized that what I loathed was not contemporary American poetry but the version of it that had been made available to me. My eyes were opened via an anthology edited by Andrei Codrescu, Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970. I bought it on a whim and found myself completely taken with poetry that was beautiful, funny, odd, opaque, and without the prettiness and pretension of what I was reading in APR. Up Late was followed by two anthologies of language-poetry and then by countless books of recent and contemporary American poetry. I began to go backwards too -- finding my way to French poets who were crucial for some Americans (Apollinaire, Cendrars, Jacob, Reverdy) and becoming more and more caught up in reading Homer and Sappho (in multiple translations). So my poetry base at this point has many strata, the result of some good luck and some self-reliance, all haphazardly overlapping here and there.

And that's my story.

Monday, January 9, 2006

Things my children no longer say

- aminal
- bofay, pronounced bo-FAY (buffet)
- co-Coke, i.e., cold Coke
- the girl hamburger, i.e., Wendy's
- have for has
- he for his: as in "He have to take he nap."
- "I absolutely adore math."
- kid-Coke, i.e., caffeine-free Coca-Cola
- man-Coke, i.e., Coca-Cola
- she for her: as in "She have to take she nap."
- swimming pudd, i.e., pool
- 'What's a politic?": in reply to "What do you think about politics?"


August 2, 2019: There’s at least one that got away.

~ cold cream, i.e., ice cream.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

Words and bottled water

When I teach a poetry class, I sometimes like to bring in poems in multiple translations. I find that reading across translations helps students to sharpen their awareness of how any word in a poem can make a significant difference to the whole. But it always happens that someone who's less of a nominalist than me will insist that the translations are all saying the same thing, just with different words.

I just thought about this matter when writing the words "bottled water" in a short piece for -- some advice for students about finding a good place to study. Here are two sentences, almost identical, yet they still don't say the same thing. These are sample sentences; neither is from what I've written for lifehack:

When I got home, I drank bottled water and graded essays.

When I got home, I drank a bottle of water and graded essays.
In the first sentence, drinking bottled water is an ongoing activity, something that accompanies work. That may be the case with the second sentence too, but the second sentence is more easily read as a matter of discrete, consecutive activities. The difference in meaning lies in the difference between an undefined amount ("water") and a unit ("a bottle"). I can hear the same difference in similar pairs -- "coffee," "a cup of coffee"; "cigarettes," "a cigarette." (Granted, "cigarettes" involves a number, not an amount.) Such distinctions -- clear to someone who knows the language, elusive and tenuous to someone who's learning it from scratch -- are good reminders that if the words are different, they're not saying the same thing.

Friday, January 6, 2006

"Pencil Parade"

If you like pencils and want some interesting background noise, try "Pencil Parade," an ambient sound from iSerenity. To my ears though, "Pencil Parade" sounds more like a ravenous animal on the other side of the door. And I'm not sure that the door is locked.

There's a remarkable variety of ambient sounds at this site, some more congenial than others. I like "Waterfall Whisper," which I've used in my office to drown out the music from a women's rugby field. Sorry for the pun.
"Pencil Parade"

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Alvin Fernald forever

The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald is a website devoted to the work of Clifford Hicks, writer of the Alvin Fernald series of children's books.

Alvin's Secret Code was the crucial book of my childhood (see here), so I'm happy to see Alvin's web-presence growing. The Magnificent Brain rules!

3 strikes against Sony

An idiosyncratic list, but mine own.

Strike 1
Sony's execrable handling of its 2000 boxed-set cd reissue of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. The sound -- dismal, dull, lifeless. The packaging -- a disgrace, with the cds in flimsy cardboard holders that leave glue on the playing surfaces. A small collage of just three reviews:

The reprocessing on this compilation is among the worst in years: thin, harsh, and (on the first two CDs) with nearly overwhelming surface noise. . . . Incidentally, all four CDs had glue on the playing surfaces . . . . the glue adheres to the CD edges, even making their way onto the surface . . . . This collection is an inconsistent sonic mess.
You can read more at Amazon. And if you care about this music, buy the JSP set of the same material, less than half the price and infinitely better sound. That Sony would treat Armstrong's music -- a national treasure; no, a world treasure -- as it did already says everything about its understanding of art and commerce.

Strike 2
The rootkit scandal. Need I say more? Boing Boing provides a detailed history, starting here.

Strike 3
The witty, throwaway line in Nellie McKay's song "Clonie" -- "Should've signed with Verve instead of Sony" -- now seems sadly prophetic. Sony-Columbia has dropped McKay and refused to release her album Pretty Little Head (which was supposed to be out yesterday). A New York Times article has the details. McKay, to my ears, is one of the brightest, smartest people in music right now. You can read about her in Orange Crate Art, here and here, and you can read much more at this fan site.

What does this idiosyncratic list add up to? A company with contempt for past performers, present performers, and customers. Sony, you're out.


Half-listening to a Vytorin ad on TV Land, explaining the causes of high cholesterol:

"It's not only from that buttered crap . . . "
Oops. Buttered crab. But I misheard what I misheard.

Related post: Misheard

Homer in Art

News of an art exhibition:

The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art from the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris

Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ, October 8, 2005 – January 15, 2006

Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY, October 11, 2005 – January 22, 2006
Link: The Legacy of Homer, with links to download thumbnail images

Link: The Legacy of Homer, exhibition catalogue, from Yale University Press


My wife Elaine mentioned yesterday an observation of Leonard Bernstein's in his lecture-series The Unanswered Question -- that audiences inevitably hear tonal patterns in atonal music. We are indeed pattern-seeking and pattern-finding creatures.

Our loyal Toyota today displayed the sequence 123456 on its odometer. Elaine and I took a photo, with a disposable camera whose film won't be developed for some time. You'll have to take my word for it.

This milestone in driving made me recall an anecdote from the great literary critic Hugh Kenner, who once recounted his car's odometer displaying a magically appropriate sequence on June 16 -- Bloomsday, the day on which the action of James Joyce's Ulysses takes place in 1904. What were the numbers on Kenner's odometer? 61604? 16604? I can't recall. But I remember that there was a pattern.

While we're waiting for the film to be developed, I'll share some magically appropriate numbers that rival even those of Kenner's odometer. My copy of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire is a library discard. The card in its pocket bears a single date-stamp: "OCT 18 1979." The poet John Shade, one of the novel's two principal characters, has a heart attack on October 17, 1958. Charles Kinbote dates his Foreword to Shade's poem Pale Fire October 19, 1959. The card-pocket itself bears seven stamped due dates, one of them in red -- "JUL 5 '78." John Shade was born on July 5, 1898. What's it all mean? Nothing. But I wouldn't trade my Pale Fire for another.

Related post