Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Superfluities, by Major Jackson

I read this poem in Major Jackson's Holding Company this morning, and I went to find it online to share with friends. I found it, but I also noticed that the version that is online has one more phrase than the version in the book, and as the phrase that is only in the book is one that I had stopped to ponder ("ecstasy of fumbling", which comes from Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est"), I wanted to get the book version online. So here it is:


by Major Jackson

This downpour of bad reasoning, this age-old swarm,
this buzzing about town, this kick and stomp
through gardens, this snag on the way to the mall,
this heap and toss of fabric and strewn shoes, this tangled
beauty, this I came here not knowing, here
to be torched, this fumbling ecstasy, this ecstasy of fumbling,
this spray of lips and fingers, this scrape of bone, this raid
of private grounds, this heaving and rocking, this scream
and push, this sightless hunger, this tattered perishing,
this rhythmic teeth knocking, this unbearable
music, this motionless grip, grimace, and groan.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Tag der Poesie, Basel, 12 September 2015

The Tag der Poesie in Basel was revived in 2012 by Alisha Stöcklin and has taken place in September every year since then. The 2015 "day of poetry" with the theme of "Stillstand und Bewegung" ("stillness and motion") takes place on 12 September at Münsterplatz in Basel, featuring over 20 performances of poetry and music, in German as well as in English and Italian. The two readings in English will be at 1 pm (Cecilia Woloch reading from her latest collection, "Earth") and 1:30 pm (Andrew Shields launching his collection "Thomas Hardy Listens To Louis Armstrong").

For complete information (in German) on all the readings and events, check the Tag der Poesie home page.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Negation or not in a subordinate clause

My wife (a native speaker of German) tells my daughter: "I'm not going to let you go before you haven't practiced [piano]." I noticed the negation in German in such a subordinate clause a few years ago, but today I decided to not just notice the negation in the English but to think about it for a moment.

Consider the following sentences in which I have put the preposition in bold and underlined the verb in the subordinate clause:
  1. *I'm not going to let you go before you haven't practiced.
  2.  I'm not going to let you go before you have practiced.
  3. *I'm not going to let you go until you haven't practiced.
  4. I'm not going to let you go until you have practiced.
  5. I'm not going to let you go if you haven't practiced.
  6. *I'm not going to let you go if you have practiced.
With "before" and "until", the verb in the subordinate clause should not be negated, but with "if", the verb in the subordinate clause should be negated.

For a moment, I thought it might have something to do with the "let" construction, but the main clause could be the much simpler "you can't go" instead, so it's not that.

The first time I encountered the corresponding German construction was in an English class with native speakers of German, to whom constructions 2 and 4 above don't make sense, so it's not just a matter of the "logic" of the sentences either, since English and German realize the referential logic of the situation differently.

At this point, I should probably get out my Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and look up "scope of negation" (that's my best bet about where to start), but instead, I'll just post this and see what anybody says.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Somebody's Hometown

In addition to my poetry book, I have also just published an album with my band Human Shields, "Somebody's Hometown." The title of the album comes from the first line of one of the songs, "Alisa's Bridge": "On the streets of somebody's hometown."

The album is available here on Bandcamp, where you can stream it for free or buy it as a download. Whoever wants a CD should contact me personally.

Here are Don Brown's liner notes about the album:

What are songs for?  Are they simply hummable ditties to alleviate or enhance a mood, or are they little tales that captivate us with their implications?
On "Somebody’s Hometown", Human Shields invest songwriting with the poetic, philosophical, and storytelling content found in the work of the best songwriters.  Like the oldest forms—those found in the folksongs of almost any culture—the songs on this collection take lyrics seriously.   From songs that play off familiar poetic figures—the birds in “Land Without Nightingales,” to the burning tiger (or tyger) in “Rumpus”—to songs that evoke folkloric content—the pale rider, the pirate, the face cards—to songs relevant to our times—“Abottabad”—to songs that engage with a philosophical outlook—“Better Never Than Late,” “You Know I Know”—the songs of Somebody’s Hometown repay attention to lyrics that far too few songwriters can command.
That’s not to say you can get all the value from this disc by reading the lyric sheet.  Not by a long shot.  The songs themselves partake of many aspects of folk music, but crossed with jazz and rock and other forms that best suit the song.  When “Abottabad” begins, we could be listening to someone singing about life in any year of the modern period.  As the sound begins to blend into what might be a cry-in-your-beer confession, we come to something closer to home, passing through a hint of Country  to attest to an American moment.  Or consider the Violent Femmes-like strum of “Rumpus,” or the complex solo in “Sundowning,” or the vocals late in “You Know I Know” where a Tim Buckley-like impassioned abandon comes into play.  Everywhere there are echoes, hints, suggestions of the musical background that gives the work of Human Shields its rich context.
The songs on this disc are stately, thoughtful, varied, surprising.  The simple instrumentation of Andrew Shields, Dany Demuth, and Christoph Meneghetti articulates the songs’ structures with fascinating clarity, and Demuth’s vocals are always graceful, able to punch us with punkish blues belting in “Better Never Than Late,” or lull us with the lovely lyricism of “Long Enough”—a song that starts by evoking one of my favorite paintings, by Vermeer.
The best records invite much replaying—songs the listener wants to learn or memorize, performances that offer a definitive treatment.  "Somebody’s Hometown" is a place to settle down in.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thomas Hardy Listens To Louis Armstrong

My first full-length poetry book, Thomas Hardy Listens To Louis Armstrong, was published on 1 July 2015 by Eyewear Publishing in London. You can order it any local bookstore near where you live (it has an ISBN and all that). It's also available directly from Eyewear, from Amazon, and soon from Small Press Distribution.

The book has three blurbs:
You’ll find sundry sorts of life that touch Andrew and you as well, in all sorts of verse: brief or long, quick or deep, free or meter, filled with experience. What’s more, you may well want to speak them to family and friends. His last poem’s last line tells us “verses did what verses mean to do”—a truth that’s worth to check back on!

John Felstiner

Andrew Shields is maestro of the sympathetic and the savvy.  He writes with unapologetic lyricism and with a narrative self-awareness that is anymore too rare in contemporary poetry.  The poems in the volume are entirely composed—and I intend that word in all the ways one might employ it: composed in the manner of a piece of music, composed in the way one might describe someone as being emotionally pulled together.  The simple stoicism of “Sundowning” will break your heart; “Blackbird” is a masterwork.  Everything about this collection sings.

Jill Alexander Essbaum

Andrew Shields is a musician himself. If you have not heard him play, read his poems. The scene in which Thomas Hardy listens to Louis Armstrong could only have been arranged by someone like him.

Durs Grünbein

Plus, it was summarized in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin as follows:
 Music swells from Andrew Shields' debut collection, from anonymous buskers "whose words have long been drowned out by the year" to Osip Mandelstam's 'Tambourine', from soaking in 'Monk's Dream' to hearing "unfinished poems in radio static". Rhythm and melody consume this poet, "spoken words [his] only instrument" yet conjuring verse "for the dancers / and the dance, unnoting, unwitting, unwrit" in a sweeping collection of symphonic depth and detail.
  "Symphonic depth and detail"! That makes me smile. :-)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Jerry Garcia at a Los Lobos concert, 1987

When I saw Los Lobos in the summer of 1987 at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, Jerry Garcia was in the audience. After the opening act, I had a little chat with him about the lyrics of “Lady With A Fan”: I wanted to know if it was “his job is to shed light and not to master” or “share light.” He said, in his inimitable voice, “Some people hear shed; some hear share. Hunter wrote shed, but whatever you hear is okay by me; I’m just the singer, you know.”

During the Los Lobos set, a roadie came out and gave David Hidalgo a cherry-red Telecaster, and David strapped it on to play “Come On Let’s Go,” which he dedicated to Jerry.

A week or so later, I met a guy who had been backstage at the show, and he told me about that guitar: Jerry had come backstage with a guitar case before the show, looking for Hidalgo. When he found him, he gave him the guitar: a mint-condition vintage Telecaster. Hence the dedication!

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Luther and Apocryphal Attribution

In April 2005, A. E. Stallings published "Triolet Apocryphally Attributed To Martin Luther" in Poetry:

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,   
The booze and the neon and Saturday night,   
The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?   
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?   
Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons   
And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?   
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,   
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?

When I read the poem in the magazine, I immediately grabbed my guitar and began strumming around, and in a few minutes, I had set the poem to music. 

In the meantime, the song has become a staple of my band Human Shields. It's a very short and punky song, and you can watch a video of it on Facebook here.

The other day, I linked to that video, and a Facebook friend wondered about the attribution to Martin Luther. It was not that she disputed the quotation's apocryphal nature, but that she had never heard the line attributed to Luther. She also said that it did not sound like Luther to her.

Now, I can never resist pursuing the attribution of a quotation, and I am very sympathetic to my friend's sense that it didn't sound like Luther – many false attributions can be detected by how the quotations do not sound at all like anything Mark Twain or whoever would actually say. But first I just wanted to find a few cases of people attributing the line to Luther.

I found quite a few, with the interesting caveat that every single case of attribution to Luther mentioned that the quotation is surely apocryphal. But one case found something in Luther's Table Talk that sounded a bit like the line; more precisely, the passage that follows is from Richard Friedenthal's 1967 biography of Luther:
Luther's intentions were strict; he wanted to eliminate the profane songs entirely. How had it happened, he asked, that in the secular field there 'are so many fine poems and so many beautiful songs, while in the religious field we have such rotten, lifeless stuff?' What is undeniable is that he injected his own fire into the genre, wherever the tunes and words may have come from. 'The devil has no need of all the good tunes for himself,' he remarked, and took them away from him.
The reference is to "WA TR 5, no. 5603" (Werkausgabe Tischreden), so I found the original in a 1919 edition:

Wie geht es zu, das wir in carnalibus so manch fein poem und so manch schön carmen haben, und in spiritualibus haben wir so faul, kalt ding?
(Translation here.)

As is so often the case with apocryphal attribution, there might be something that has led people to make the attribution (though of course attributions are also often just made up out of whole cloth). So in the case, Luther did say something that contrasted "carnal" art and "spiritual" art, and he did so in the context of music. But he didn't put it the way that the apocryphal attribution puts it, and the devil was not involved.