Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


The Mechanics of Reading Poetry

Posted in Books by bourdaghs on the March 11th, 2010

Siobhan Phillips has an interesting blog post on the mechanics of reading poetry.

When I wrote The Poetics of the Everyday, I wanted to learn how quotidian experience could foster rather than frustrate poetry: how twentieth-century poets turn everyday life, so often a chore or requirement, into a creative activity. More specifically, I wanted to learn how poets ground creativity in everyday time, that over-and-over in which each morning seems both the same as and different from the one before. My investigations focused, then, on repetition and verse writing. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking also about verse reading. How do I and others read poetry, ordinarily? I don’t mean how we comprehend or analyze it—rather and more basically, how do we take it in? How does this reading fit among other everyday activities? How should it?

Phillips proposes including a little poetry in your everyday routine, an idea that at least sounds attractive. It might also seem a wee bit unrealistic, akin to the eternal repetition of resolving to get more exercise (and Phillips warns against treating poetry as if it were a form of therapy).

This may sound entirely too obsessive, but I usually keep a book of poems on my desk and I read one or two when I’m waiting for my computer to boot up or to download something: the slower my computer gets, the more verse I read. It takes me a month or two to work my way through an entire volume. I normally read each poem twice, and I try to voice them aloud.

There are a handful of poets whose work I read exhaustively, purchasing every new volume they publish. One of those is Bill Holm: at this moment, the poetry collection on my desk is his posthumous book, The Chain Letter of the Soul: New and Selected Poems. From his poem, “Ars Poetica“:

Shakespeare, Tao Chien, Homer, Pushkin,
Basho, Gilgamesh, Walt Whitman,
Anonymous–all wastes of time.
Your practical uncles were always right.
Still, if we move this word over here–
take out a line there–make it sing better–
there may be a surprise in it–though maybe not.
But we’ll do it anyway, to pass,
as Buddha says, the time–
to thicken the plot. What else
have we got to do until the end?

Then there are the oddball books I pick up because something about them attracts my hand. After finishing Holm, I will move on to a faded 1935 collection I stumbled into at a used bookstore last year, The Works of Li Po, The Chinese Poet, translated into English by Shigeyoshi Obata. After that, maybe it will be time to reread one of the big modernists, Eliot or Yeats.

How (where, when, why) do you read poetry? And, after all, what else have you got to do until the end?

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Songs in High Rotation Just Now

Posted in Books,Music,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the March 10th, 2010

“Little Bird” by Eels (from their new CD, End Times) is one of the better break-up songs I’ve encountered lately.

I have tickets to see the one and only Ray Davies here in Chicago on Saturday night. Here’s one of the back-catalog songs he’s resuscitated for the current tour:

And here’s Delroy Wilson’s 1968 cover of the obscure Motown song, “Put Yourself in My Place” (apologies for the abrupt cut off at the end):

Ah, the sadness of pop songs. As Nick Hornby sums it up so admirably in High Fidelity, “Which came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?” Hell if I know, but Mr. Bartender can I please have change for this fiver so I can plug another handful of quarters into the jukebox?

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All I Know is What I Read in the Papers

Posted in Change is Bad,Current Events,Film,Japanese film by bourdaghs on the March 9th, 2010

There was an amusing editorial cartoon in the Chicago Tribune this past weekend by Scott Stantis. A mother sits at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper, and announces to her two children that the Post Office might stop delivering letters on Saturday. Her son, busy at his laptop, asks, “What’s a letter?” Her daughter, texting on her cellphone, tops this by asking, “What’s a newspaper?”

The state of the newspaper industry in Japan isn’t quite so grim as in America, but the numbers are still tumbling. The hard-right Sankei newspaper is taking the biggest hit, report Peter Alford and David McNeill in a very interesting article up this week at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Daily circulation figures for Japan’s major newspapers still dwarf those in other countries.

Slowly, however, the gravity-defying circulations appear to be heading for earth. ABC statistics on the main morning-edition circulation for 2006 to 2009 show that every Japanese newspaper recorded a loss of sales, except the business-oriented Nikkei. In relative terms, the declines are tiny: the world’s best-selling newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri is down from 10,042,075 to 10,018,117; the liberal-left Asahi from 8,093,885 to 8,031,579; the liberal Mainichi has taken a more substantial hit, from just under 4 million to 3.8 million. The Nikkei is up slightly from 3,034,481 to 3,052,929. Perhaps more indicative, and worrying, for the industry is the sharp drop in advertising revenues: from one trillion yen in 2007 to an estimated 600 billion in 2009, a year in which online advertisements continued to grow.

Those same newspapers are reporting just now (so far Japanese-language only, but I’m sure the English papers will be carrying this in a few hours) that film director Kitano Takeshi has just been awarded France’s highest cultural honor. This all coincides with a film festival and art show in Paris featuring his works.

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Summer Memories….

Posted in Change is Bad,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the March 7th, 2010

I graduated from high school in the summer of 1979. It was a private prep academy that I attended on a full scholarship: we were on various forms of public assistance during my teens, and my mother could never have afforded tuition. Primarily because of my sense of humor, my classmates elected me as the class speaker for our graduation ceremony. They expected a funny talk, but I was feeling rebellious. After four years of frustration over the elitism, status hierarchies, and general smugness of the local ruling class, I decided to let the school have it in my speech.

In my own narcissistic mind, this made me quite the heroic figure. Apparently, not everyone agreed. For starters, the speech didn’t make me very popular with school administrators or teachers (they launched a new policy requiring prior review of graduation speech texts the following year), and it angered a number of my classmates as well. But there were at least a few people who believed I’d gotten it right.

I met one of those at a party a few nights later. I’d arrived that evening with a couple of buddies, and we all immediately noticed an incredibly beautiful woman there, someone none of us had ever seen before. She was so attractive that we all sat around trying to figure out who she was: there seemed no point in talking about anything else. Someone said she was a friend of one of our classmates.

I was astonished a few minutes later when this angelic figure walked up to me and told me she had heard my speech and admired the way I had spoken truth to power. She introduced herself as Darcy Pohland, and to my great joy (and to my friends’ envy) we spent the rest of that evening talking. She gave me her phone number and we arranged to meet up again the following evening.

I was smitten. We quickly tumbled into a summertime romance. From the start, Darcy and I were utterly mismatched: she grew up in a well-to-do suburb and I in a working-class city neighborhood, she drove her own shiny red sportscar, whereas my family shared an old clunker–and in fact for stretches of my teen years we had no car at all. I was into underground punk rock, while her favorite band was the Doobie Brothers. I mean, come on: the Doobie Brothers?

But she was also overflowing with vivacity, intellectual curiosity, and a hunger for life. She had a role in a community theater production of “South Pacific” that summer, and I used to pick her up after rehearsals for a late night snack. I also remember taking her to a Minnesota Kicks soccer game out at Metropolitan Stadium and feeling more than a little jealous when every jock partying in the parking lot seemed to know Darcy.

It lasted maybe five or six weeks. I wanted a more serious relationship and she wasn’t ready for that. I left town on a road trip with friends through the western U.S. and when I returned to Minnesota in late July Darcy and I were finished as an item.

I never saw her again in person after that. I heard a few years later from a friend of a friend that she’d had a terrible accident: she’d mistakenly dived into the shallow end of a swimming pool and broken her neck. She would remain a paraplegic for life. How sad, I thought.

But then, a dozen or so years after that, I was up in Minnesota watching the channel 4 news when who should appear but Darcy Pohland. Despite the challenge of life in a wheelchair, she’d made it as a television reporter. Over the decade that followed, I’d see her news reports from time to time when I was back home, and from the way her on-air colleagues and interview subjects treated her, it was obvious that she’d earned tremendous respect. Through sheer determination, she’d managed to build a happy ending out of what could have been a tragic story.

I learned Friday morning that Darcy had passed away unexpectedly in Minnesota. The comments sections from the on-line newspaper reports are overflowing with affectionate tributes and show the love she’d earned from people across Minnesota.

My memories of that summer of 1979, those first months after high school graduation, come tinged with a shimmering glow, and Darcy is a part of that. Summertime, and the living’s easy…. The warm nostalgic feeling that now surrounds those memories helps ease the fact that in them I am also confronting my own mortality. I have one more thing to thank Darcy for: she became one of the models for the main female character in “Sister Carrie,” a short story I published many years ago.

Rest in peace.

[Postscript: WCCO-TV has now posted a nice story about Darcy Pohland’s high school days. Video here.]

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A Novelist Re-Reads Kaitokudo

Posted in Books,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the March 5th, 2010

I had the honor and pleasure yesterday of introducing and serving as interpreter for Oe Kenzaburo, 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, in this year’s installment of the Tetsuo Najita Distinguished Lecture series here at the University of Chicago. Professor Najita was in attendance, too, and it turned into a very moving tribute from one old friend to another.

Oe took up Najita’s landmark study, Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan: The Kaitokudo Merchant Academy of Osaka, and traced its impact on his own life and writing. It turns out that Oe’s own Great Grandfather studied at a merchant academy much like the Kaitokudo in nineteenth century Osaka, where the Confucian concepts of “kogi” (ancient meanings) and “gi” (righteousness) were crucial. An old school building his Great Grandfather erected that still stands on the grounds of Oe’s family home in Shikoku has hanging on its wall calligraphy samples of those two phrases, and Oe himself ended up using those words frequently as the names for characters in his novels.

Oe revealed that Najita’s book was in many ways responsible for his most recent novel, Suishi (Death by water, 2009).  Najita’s study of the intellectual tradition of Osaka merchant culture opened Oe’s eyes to ways that his own father’s life could be understood as something other than a failure: it allowed him to make sense of his own father’s life and death, which in turn made it possible to realize his long-held desire to write a novel about his father’s death in a flood in 1945, just before the end of the war.

Oe praised Najita’s writing style for its warmth, rhetorical skill, and intellectual rigor. He then cited a talk Najita gave at a 2004 symposium in honor of Masao Miyoshi, in which Najita proposed a radical rethinking of the Japan’s “peace constitution” as being instead a “peace and ecology constitution,” a reinterpretation that would vastly expand the concepts of sovereignty. Oe said that he has frequently quoted this passage to great effect in talks he gives across Japan to groups organized to defend Article 9, the “no war” clause of the Japanese constitution, and he traced how Najita’s contemporary ethical claim was rooted in his historical scholarship on the eighteenth century thinker Ando Shoeki.

Oe concluded by celebrating what he called his “three American tutors”: Najita, Miyoshi, and Edward Said. He quoted a phrase Said used just before his death to describe the stance he sought to maintain despite the difficulties of today’s world situation: “optimism as an act of will.” It was a phrase, Oe declared, that applied to all three men.

We’ve videotaped the lecture and will post it on the Center for East Asian Studies webpage in the near future. In the meanwhile, I remain delighted and more than a little astonished to have been able to be a small part of such a meaningful and historic event.

I’m back!

Posted in Music,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the March 5th, 2010

Apologies for the radio silence around here lately. It’s been a wee bit busy on the South Side the past week or two. I’ll resume real blogging in short order, but in the meanwhile, here’s a clip I posted here a zillion years ago that’s well worth revisiting. It’s Kate Rusby’s cover of one of the very greatest of Kinks’ songs, “Village Green Preservation Society.” Nice slide show to go with it, too.

We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity
God save little shops, china cups and virginity
We are the Skyscraper condemnation Affiliate
God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do?
God save the Village Green

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