Thomas Hardy on Zoloft



The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing

Alive enough to have the strength to die.


Windows, willows, gray clouds, a lake,

A landscape sketched by Thomas Hardy,

Heartache’s bald-headed ambassador,

Who wondered what life’s fuss was for.


Yet why so glum? The willows wave,

As if to welcome the scudding clouds.

This vacay cottage sports a tin roof.

Pounding percussion is in store.


Pull down the shades, shut down Pandora.

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain,

Telling you just what a fool you’ve been

Groaning and bemoaning tick tocks away . . .

Poetry Versus Verse


Whenever I begin a unit on poetry, I remark on the virtual impossibility of defining it.  For example, compare this sentence:

Just be tender, just be true,

Just be glad the whole day through,

Just be merciful, just be mild,

Just to be trustful as a child,

Just to be gentle and kind and sweet,

Just to be helpful with willing feet,

Just to be cheery when things go wrong,

Just to drive sadness away with a song,

Whether the hour is dark or bright,

Just to be loyal to God and right,

Just to believe that God knows best,

Just in his promises ever to rest –

Just to let love be our daily key,

That is God’s will for you and me.

With this sentence:

The aged sisters draw us into life: we wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die; over us dead they bend.

Even though the first sentence is written in rhymed couplets that fall into repetitive metrical patterns, it should not be mistaken for poetry.

After all,

A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit,



As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—


A poem should be wordless

As the flight of birds.

In other words, a poem shouldn’t be a series of non-compressed sing-songy platitudes, nor, I would argue, can it be.  Imagine, answering that Nigerian email’s promise of riches “trustful as a child” or approaching a bereaved spouse after a funeral with the advice “just be cheery when things go wrong.”  Although jauntily rendered and upbeat in message, the first sentence is life-cheapening because it is false and hollow. What we have is verse, not poetry.

The second example is, literally speaking, prose, a sentence from Joyce’s novel Ulysses when Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom visit a maternity ward where Mina Purefoy has been in labor for three days struggling to give birth to her son. The “aged sisters” are midwives, sisters of mercy, ushering us onto the stage for our hour of joy and sorrow.

Joyce reduces Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” to eight verbs: wail, batten, sport, clip, cleave, sunder, dwindle, die.  And there they are again, a different set of aged sisters, nurses, ushering us out.[1]

Pure poetry, truth compressed, ringing like a bell.

I quoted Joyce’s sentence to two of my colleagues sitting next to each other this morning, one who had lost her aunt last weekend and the other who is about to give birth in a month or so.

“Sorry about your loss,” I said to Megan. “Happy about your gain” I said to Jen.  Then I quoted Joyce’s sentence.  They both smiled.

I didn’t add, “Just be tender, just be true,/ Just be happy the whole day through.”

[1] In Ireland, perhaps nuns.


Goodbye for Good

On the train you get smaller, as you get farther away.
The roar covers everything you wanted to say.
Was that a raindrop or a tear in the corner of your eye?
Were you drying your nails or waving goodbye?

 Tom Waits, “2:19”

In “Madame George,” the second song of Side Two of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, I love it when Madame George says to the narrator, “Hey love, you forgot your gloves.”

And then the narrator, (rather than Madame George, I think) says

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

To say goodbye to Madame George

Dry your eye for Madame George

Wonder why for Madame George.”



Wonder why about what?

In the last stanza, it’s as if the narrator has to self-hypnotize himself leave, as if he has to verbally will his very locomotion:

Get on the train
Get on the train, the train, the train
This is the train, this is the train
Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Get on the train, get on the train.


Glove equals love, liltingly. Gloves sometimes wave goodbye.

Goodbye for good?

I don’t pretend to know what’s happening here, but it’s something very, very sad; we’re in a world of woe, outré, impressionistic, hypnotic.

You can feel the inarticulate hurt, and it’s bad to feel so good to know you’re not the only one hurting.

We’ve all felt this. This is the train. Get on the train. Dry your eyes. This is the bed. Get out of the bed. Put Visine in your eyes.

Your eyes, your eyes, your eyes.

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, So What?

Miles Davis at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986

Miles Davis at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986

If it weren’t for his furtive, occasionally darting eyes, Mile’s Davis’s 1959 performance of “So What?” (see below) might serve as an ideal video embodiment of the word nonchalance.[1]

I.e., the projecting an aura of a relaxed, confident detachment.[2]

It seems as if no one’s all that into it, maybe not all that interested.

For example, at 2:41, notice Coltrane looking impassive in the background during Miles’s solo, eventually, however, nodding his head in half-assed admiration.

When Coltrane begins his solo, Miles splits for backstage. At 4:28, check out the two white fellows behind Coltrane actually conversing, seemingly deaf to gorgeous notes streaming from the tenor saxophone five feet in front of them.

At 4:40-ish there’s Miles himself in the background smoking a cigarette, detached.

At 5:03, though still offstage, he’s back into the flow of the music, swaying.

Throughout the entire performance, you see people who should be behind the scenes casually milling around, talking.

The obliviousness to momentousness of the music reminds me of that Auden poem describing an “untidy spot” on the canvas of an Old Master’s painting depicting an unnamed martyrdom where “dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

Anyway, when the camera’s on Miles in profile, his body appropriately takes the shape of a question mark.

It’s like Miles is cool cubed, which being too too too cool, threatens to heat up into violence.

There’s tension, calculation in those eyes looking backwards into their skull. They’re not looking at what’s ever opposite of them in that studio.

But it’s the music that really matters. Check it out for yourself. The trumpet saying so what, so what, so what.

Do it, Miles.

[1] I’m imagining an on-line dictionary that provides multiple multimedia examples so that you really get a feel for the word

[2] My definition.


The Briefest of Tributes to John Hiatt

I just read Wikipedia’s account of John Hiatt’s career, a disjointed narrative that comes off more like a collection of bullet points than it does an essay. However, I did learn something that surprised me. Because my first Hiatt record was Slug Line, I always assumed that he started as a new wave musician, but as it turns out, Hiatt moved from the rock/country rock of his first two albums, Hangin’ Around the Observatory and Overcoats (1974), to the punkish, ska-ish Slug Line (1979) and, finally, then back to rock/country rock. When he ran away to Nashville after dropping out of school, Hiatt worked for Tree Publishing earning $25 a week as a songwriter. Although Hangin’ Round the Observatory wasn’t a commercial success, a Three Dog Night cover of “Sure As I’m Sitting Here” hit #16 on Billboard.

In fact, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t covered a Hiatt song. Dylan has, the Neville Brothers have, Springsteen has, even one of his boyhood heroes, Mitch Ryder has. Of course, Bonnie Raitt scored a big hit with “A Thing Called Love.”

Whatever the genre, Hiatt delivers solid melodies and clever lyrics, often in the form of narratives. Here’s a snippet from Slug Line’s “The Night That Kenny Died,” a tale of teen hypocrisy as high schoolers go all hooey when a classmate they disliked dies suddenly.


It was so touching all the girls that would not touch him
He drew their pictures in his books I used to watch him
And then he’d pick his nose
And wipe it on his clothes
But everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Died on a motorcycle
We never understood
That he was holdin’ on tight
Through the middle of the night
Starin’ at a [?] one Mercury hood
It seemed so spooky that the nerd we all detested
Would die so gloriously and so unexpected
A wonderful guy God knows
They kept the casket closed
And everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
And everybody cried
The night that Kenny died
Everybody cried
The night that Kenny died

Perhaps his two best records are Bring the Family (1987) and Slow Turning (1988), recorded with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner.

Hiatt’s wit, I think, rivals Warren Zevon’s. In “Your Dad Did,” Note the sitar during the daughter’s prayer,  which she immediately undercuts with her coda.


Well, the day was long now, supper’s on
The thrill is gone
But something’s taking place
Yeah, the food is cold and your wife feels old
But all hands fold
As the two year old says grace
She says, “Help the starving children to get well
But let my brother’s hamster burn in hell.”
You love your wife and kids
Just like your dad did.

Check out this from “Perfectly Good Guitar.”


Well he threw one down form the top of the stairs
Beautiful women were standing everywhere
They all got wet when he smashed that thing
But off in the dark you could hear somebody sing
Oh it breaks my heart to see those stars
Smashing a perfectly good guitar
I don’t know who they think they are
Smashing a perfectly good guitar
It started back in 1963
His momma wouldn’t buy him
That new red harmony
He settled for a sunburt with a crack
But he’s still trying to break his momma’s back.


I finally got to see Mr. Hiatt live on his 2014 Terms of My Surrender Tour,[1] a great show but a melancholy one for me personally. My wife Judy had just been diagnosed with lymphoma, and it would be her last concert.

Although he didn’t play it at the show, this was Judy’s favorite (and you ought to check out the Johnny Adams cover).  Dig the lyrics.


[1] I had seen him with Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and the late Guy Clark but not by himself.

Where Have You Gone, Mary Shelly, a Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You?

Boris Karloff in the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale.

Frankenstein: Universal Studios; Trump: Matt Rourke/AP

I have divorced myself from politics, not out of despair, but with the clear-eyed recognition that the number of my days has dwindled into a quantity imminently recognizable as finite.  Of course, my days have always been numbered, but with 80% or more of those rotations having disappeared in the rearview mirror, why squander precious unlabored respiration lamenting what you can’t control when you could be watching a Marx Brothers movie or listening to Rashaan Roland Kirk or holding hands while exchanging anecdotes?


“Boogie boogie boogie!”

That said, I do glance at headlines in the Times, often proclamations from a pathologically insecure man incapable of self-deprecation, a man who extolls self-proclaimed virtues like his “genius” or “sanity.” He boasts of his “top tier education” or his takes credit for the fact that under his watch no one has died in a commercial air crash.  Recently, he has become aweary, aweary of the First Amendment of the Constitution of a republic he would rather rule than govern.  To say that he is an egregious ass is to understate his odium.

Yet a third of the country approves of him and more than that voted for him despite his garish, cartoonish appearance, despite the bankruptcies, despite his impoverished vocabulary, despite his taking pride in grabbing the genitalia of women he has just met.  Evangelical Christians are particularly devoted to him for reasons that defy rational explanation.

Of course, there is no easy explanation how a promoter of professional wrestling has come into the possession of the nuclear codes.  Pundits posit emotions like “resentment” or suggest nativist xenophobia as possible factors.  Then there’s that whipping girl Hillary Clinton whom many people simply abhor.  Recently I’ve read (in passing) that no one, including Trump, thought he could win (which, along with sloth, would explain why there was no transition plan).  So why not throw away your vote on Jill Stein or write in “Oprah Winfrey” since there is no way that Donald Trump could win?

Anyway, I’m contradicting myself by going on like this when I need to be rereading Frankenstein, which is due next Tuesday, the day after we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ll let Mary Shelley have the last word.

 [I]f no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.

Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.


Dreadful, Selfish Misdemeanors


Where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free

Johnny Cash, “Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie”


Lots of cheating going on in country songs,

Lots of sinning,


Drinking — worse than drinking — honky-tonking.

Wrack, domestic rubble, crying babies, hysteria.


Lots of people breaking Jesus promises

In “them” songs — adultery galore, lonely rooms,


Like the one I’m sitting in now,

My own little lone prairie,


After cheating on the Times crossword puzzle

And laying hoodoo curses on a president.






Ode to Lucinda, Southern Apologist Edition

Although I’ve had no correspondence with her except for a couple of emails, I feel like I know Lucinda Williams (who once a very long time ago shared the stage with my back-up spiritual advisor/next door neighbor, James T Crow).

James T Crow

I feel like I know Lucinda because her mama talks like my mama used to talk.

You better do what you’re told.
When I get back this room better be picked-up.

I feel like I know Lucinda because we both grew up in an undiscovered Tennessee Williams play.

These lines from “Greenville” bring to mind my ol’ man:

You drink hard liquor; you come on strong.

You lose your temper when someone looks at you wrong.

And these the premarital I-and-I:

I see you sleeping in the car
Curled up on the back seat
Parked outside of a bar.

And these, the people of my region:

Born and raised in Pineola,
His mama believed in the Pentecost.
She got the preacher to say some words
So his soul wouldn’t be lost

My financial advisor/life coach Jacob T Williams turned me on to Lucinda. One day in ’92 0r ’93, he came down to visit and handed me a gift, a cd, Sweet Old World, Lucinda’s fourth studio album. Sharing music he ardently digs is typical of Mr. Williams (no kin to Lucinda). [1] Jake the Snake is what my personal Life Affirmer/Joke Curator Jim Klein calls “a cat.”

from left to right, I-and-I, Sue Kovacs, Jim Klein, Judy Birdsong

But back to that album: her voice, the arrangements, the tunes, the lyrics – the South.

The last time I saw her perform, she said it was nice to hear some Southern accents. Oh, to be a Southerner now is to be looked down upon,[2] and certainly the blood soaked Bible Belt with its heritage of hatred and poverty and ignorance must seem desitively toxic from afar, but for better or worse, “the land of cotton” is the plantation of American culture. No South would mean no yodeling hillbillies, no moaning blues singers, no Lester Young or Miles Davis.

No South means American cultural impoverishment.  Spills over into meaning no Rolling Stones.

But back to Lucinda. Find me one compilation album she’s on that she doesn’t dominate, whether it be her rendition of “Here in California” on that Kate Wolf tribute record or her duet cover with David Crosby on “Return of the Grievous Angel” on the Graham Parsons tribute album or her heartbreaking interpretation of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” on (guess what) Timeless, a Tribute to Hank Williams.

So when I’m down, like today, I can put on Lucinda and feel somewhat better because misery loves company, because she sings songs that cry commiseration.

But let’s give her the last word(s).

[1] In fact, it was Jake who turned Lo’Quacia and I-and-I onto NOLA Sunday Second Line., which you can join clicking here. If in a hurry, scroll down to the second video.

[2] For example, we’re very unfamiliar with dealing with six inches of snow (unlike Wallace Stevens’ “thin men of Haddam.”)

Say What?

I saw this today on Twitter and have to say I more or less agree:

Obviously, we live in an age of hyperbole, and the obvious question is how come we overstate?

American optimism?

Media saturation?


A compulsion to spraypaint the mundane?

Of course, I have no idea, and certainly eyewitness Judy occasionally informed me the anecdote recently shared had been embellished. Though I hadn’t meant to — it had not been a conscious augmentation — No, I remember distinctly it was a Rottweiler, not miniature schnauzer. I can see the drool dripping from the corner of his all-too-audible snarl.

Could probably pass a polygraph.

Maybe could pass.

No doubt would fail.

Anyway, I’m sort of a pessimist, so the first three words on the above list I rarely use, except in class when I explain that “awesome” has no meaning because it can refer to anything ranging from a neat pair of sneakers to a twin-star double supernova. (I also inform students that “thing” can refer to anything from bellybutton lent to the resurrection of Jesus Christ).

So my hyperfication (good luck looking it up) of language most frequently falls into the realm of describing the unpleasant.

When I say . . .


It means . . .

Unpleasant, like  encountering a family of five all dressed in identical orange Clemson sweatshirts and sweatshirts)

When I say . . .

I’ve lost the will to live! 

It means . . .

I need a nap.

When I say . . .  


It means . . .

Rather aloof          

Of course, the kingmaster of overstatement is our President. As far as negatives go, Trump’s go-to pejorative is “disaster.” Here’s a sampling via Quartz from the first presidential debate:

  • “Our energy policies are disaster.”
  • “Your regulations are disaster, and you’re going to increase regulations all over the place.”
  • “[Libya] was another one of [Clinton’s] disasters.”
  • “We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster.”

C’mon, Donald. You can do better:

Your energy policies are the equivalent of the Yellow River Flood of 1887 that killed 900,000 Chinese citizens!

Your regulations bring to mind that 68-year-old woman fractured both legs and an arm while exiting the ride vehicle of Peter Pan’s Flight.

Anyway, I’m sure someone in the social sciences or philosophy (probably Steven Pinker) is studying just why we construct such mountainous molehills in our speech.

Get to it, ladies and gentlemen/Steven.  Enquiring minds and all that jazz.