The penguin, being black on white
(or white on black, as you prefer)
elicits our naive delight
in feathered formal dress (as fur
on skunks: New England white-on-black,
contrariwise on Erie’s shore)
while quaintly bobbing front to back
and side to side, at two foot four.

By contrast, Jeeves at six foot plus
(as smoothly played by Stephen Fry)
seems scarcely risible to us
save as he saves, by ruses sly,
young Wooster, who’s supremely dim
(burlesquing England’s upper class)
from floundering: Penguins deftly swim;
not so Wodehouse’s urban ass.

Had I a valet, I might wish
for Jeeves, urbane in suave attire
(unlike those birds, who smell of fish,
and live on ice), to stoke my fire,
see to my garments, brew my tea,
bring me my mail, and make my bed –
for want of whom, I’m off to sea
to seek the penguins out instead.


My friend says she can’t understand why Midwesterners hate trees,
cutting down the twenty-year spruce, the century oak
or, failing that, to unlimb them, like the Melos Aphrodite.

My wife is likewise vehement on the subject.
Our municipal electric company hacks away branches
anywhere close to their wires, with all the abandon
of reckless hormone-inflamed teenagers at drive-ins.
Bugs infest open scars, hastening the process:
First leaves wither, then woodpeckers riddle, then deadfalls.

Is it our trans-Alleghenian cultural memory,
our forebears fearful of Red Men resentfully watching
hidden by pampas grass and that forest primeval?
Or is our haunted sleep tormented by nightmares
peopled by fur-bearing predators—feral dusk-stalkers,
bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, sharp-toothed, merciless of claw?

Here in our tracts suburban, our lawns blare daytime
fanfares to civilized sightlines. But over the back fence,
trickster Coyote still howls by night in the dark woods.

My Little Unicorn Poem

There seems to be a site for unicorn poetry (about, not by), the vast majority being quite dreadful. Since the best defense is a good offense, here is my contribution to the literature:

Come here, little unicorn.
Lay your head upon my lap.
Let me praise your ivory horn,
Even though my poem be crap.

Granted, my poor verses scan
(Literacy keeps a hard
School), and Medieval Man
must have rhyme to be a bard,

That the glurge of mythic beast,
Fairy castles, shining knights,
Damsels fair and mead-hall feast
Flow from pens of silly wights,

Glorifying spurious lands
Where the unicorn roamed wide,
Till some virgin laid her hands
On its neck, and skinned its hide.

Virgins are, alas, so few
In our sullied world today.
Yet white paint, a carrot, glue,
And a bit of pony play

Fools the eye at twenty feet;
And for maidenhood, who knows?
Piggies squeal and lambkins bleat,
Shepherdesses wear white hose,

Notwithstanding dirty clods.
So let poetasters rhyme
Songs of hornéd equine frauds,
Snagged by wantons, out of time,

Caught in tapestries (of gold
Thread throughout, and Belgian-laced),
Locked in girlish strangle hold.
Nothing’s wanting here but taste.

Unfinished Symphonies

A correspondent asks, “Have you ever attempted endings for any of numerous ‘unfinished symphonies’?”

‘Fraid not. Symphonic writing gives me great bother, as I do not think well texturally like that, though not for want of trying (see next ‘graf). Very hard, even for someone who does, to do a good pastiche of a really good orchestrator (Mahler, Elgar, &c.).

As an undergraduate, I wrote a symphony and a half. The first basically sucked — it was pretentious blather, for the most part — and the second, while it showed a little more promise, didn’t seem to be going much of anywhere, so I dropped it. My biggest mistake was in attempting to through-compose both AS symphonies, rather than as, say, scored-up from piano-and-strings quintet (something Schoenberg did very successfully with Brahms’s Op. 26 piano quintet, though the orchestration sounded very unlike Brahms himself, who adopted a lot of his modus operandi in that area from his buddy Schumann).

As it is, I’ll be lucky to squeeze out a sixth string quartet (or seventh, if I ever get around to adding a fourth part to that trio I have had sitting on my desk waiting to be copied out fair since finishing it in the spring of 2004). The occasional bit of choral music or a song with piano accompaniment is the best I’m able to find time for these days, though I hope that my slither towards retirement will free up more.

But I was terribly flattered to be thought capable of such a feat, all the same. What I’d REALLY like to do in an orchestral vein is to compose a plausible Sullivan pastiche to replace the missing all-but-two numbers from the first G&S operetta: Thespis; or, The Gods Grown Old. I got as far as writing one of the songs (the one about the “North-South-West-West Diddlesex Junction” in piano-voice score a while back, but then got distracted from writing any more of them. Still, completing this project would again render accessible a libretto that is by no means Gilbert’s worst play — and Sullivan is relatively easy to fake, both stylistically and in scoring, because he himself was so much of a synthesist and so heavily indebted in flavor to the operatic composers of his day (e.g. Donizetti — compare the famous sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor with Sullivan’s delicious “A Nice Dilemma” quartet in Trial by Jury).

Ah, if only the MacArthur van would stop at my house. (All together now: “Someone Left My Grant Out In the Rain….”)

Poem Challenge II

Some jolly nonsense on a fine fall afternoon.


I left my gazebo
for downtown Toledo;
the sun having set,
the moon pale as a moth
Old King Nectanebo
once saw its albedo
through birdcatchers’ net
raised by signals from Thoth
(about which the reader
may read, if he’s eager
in Schwaller de Lubitsch,
The Temple of Man).
Carl Larsson was Sweder
but Edvard was Grieger,
while Rubik was cubish.
(One does what one can.)

If zebras were ponies
and beggars wore posies
then moonlight would shimmer
o’er seagirt Nahant.
while literate phonies
(Illusion des Sosies!)
by Doppeln gang immer
(in English I can’t
make good on the stanza
with rhymes that are valid)
on strands that are sandy
(I think that will square)
as in a romanza
in earthshine that’s pallid.
Gazebos are handy
at such times.   So there.

Poem Challenges I

My old cyberpal David Graham at Ripon U. recently threw down a gantlet as follows: Write a poem that (a) is entirely in one-syllable words and at least 14 lines long, (b) is in classic ballad form, (c) has something in it about a tattoo, and/or (d) is connected with the exercise of sitting and just looking at a body of water.

Here is a shot at it:

Coal Ridge Reed Ducks
(The Gate Sit Song)

It was an old and grey haired tar
Who stopped in front of me.
I asked him, “Tell me who you are.”
He said, “I am the sea.”

I asked, “The part stands for the whole?”
He smiled. “You might say so.
I sail the sea, and this my goal:
Where it goes, I shall go.”

“So what,” I pressed him, “in your spare
Time do you find to do?”
“I sit and braid my long grey hair;
I knit, and I tat, too.”

I did not learn his name, and he
In time went on his way;
But I still sit, and watch the sea
From dawn to dusk each day.

O you who read, now learn from me:
Vain is such verse, by gosh;
Gone is that tar, for as you see
All comes out in the wash.

Fall Cleaning

Expect, when I’m seventy, a frenzy of throwing things out,
for then I’ll presumably know (as best one can know
from a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom, or at least what
passes), that no poor graduate student will go
rootling through my files to squeeze out a dissertation
for a doctorate, a tenure-track job at a small state college,
getting cited (assuming his thesis garners publication
by a comparatively respectable scholarly press)
in other people’s footnotes, thus advancing all knowledge
three butterfly steps.           And here’s the lyric turn:
“What’s all this piffle, in the dance of eternity? Less
is notoriously more!” (Sing it out, every minimalist!)
“There ain’t no storage units in Jerusalem the Blest!”

The shredder beckons. The stove replies, “I burn.”

The Silence of the Clams

Silence is ambiguous. When I write to someone who simply doesn’t answer, it can mean that the intended recipient of the message ( 1) never received it in the first place (or got it but hit the delete key by mistake),  (2) was so baffled by my inquiry as to be incapable of answering it, (3) is sick, injured, cognitively impaired, or otherwise incapacitated from replying, or (4) is just being a boor who considers me and my inquiry to be beneath notice.

It was not always so, at least not among equals. Our burgeoning wealth of short communication media and its associated forms (the subject of Short Cuts; see our blog viabrevis.wordpress.com) lets us share information with ease and with sometimes breathtaking speed, but has not evolved an epistemically sound framework allowing us to manage those technologies, which have thus exploded into something of a vacuum. To be sure, a century ago you could ignore a letter that arrived in the mail, but it was generally understood that failing to answer it was likely to have real-life consequences, if only to your reputation for reliability, and even an illiterate recipient was apt to be at pains to find someone who could read it and fashion some sort of reply. This understanding is not so self-evident today with our gamut of e-mail, texting devices, phone messages machines, and other communication technologies; like Hotspur, we can call spirits from the deep, but will they answer?

In short, no reply is not itself a minimalist reply, a communication by default; on the contrary, it is not really communication at all.

A word about On the Dot

My co-authors and I will be making a lot of hoopla these days surrounding the publication of our newest book (Short Cuts, by Alexander and Nicholas Humez and Rob Flynn, the first bound copies of which arrived on our doorsteps this week from its publisher, Oxford University Press). And rightly so; it’s a good read. But we would be remiss not to mention that this is our second Oxford book, the Humez bros.’ On the Dot having been published by that same press in October of 2008 — and that one’s a good read too.

The dot is the absolute minimum sign that can be used to impart some sort of meaning, and has been used in one form or another for as long as there has been any writing at all, as a delimiter or separator, as a multiplication sign, in bullet lists, in Morse code,  incorporated into other signs (colon, semicolon…) and so on. A “social history of a punctuation mark” (as one reviewer put it), On the Dot continues our lifelong exploration of the ways in which language and their components travel with their jam-packed cultural baggage, which we pry open and invite the reader to join us as we peek inside.

Making collaborations work

An old friend from Portland days, Craig Freshley, published a book this spring for which I had the pleasure of writing the index, and IMHO it is the best I have ever seen on its subject. It’s called The Wisdom of Group Decisions: 100 Principles and Practical Tips for Collaboration, and it delivers exactly what its title promises. Having worked in collaborative situations for much of my life (all of my books but one, and each of my recordings), I found Craig’s collection echoes and adds significantly to my own experiences (positive and negative) in projects with other people.

Readers of this benevolent and highly useful book will learn how to avoid many of the pitfalls that inevitably lurk along any path trodden by teams with diverse talents and desires, and plenty of real nuts-and-bolts advice that will help collaborators achieve a common goal that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. It’s available for $19.95 for single copies (discounts on five copies or more) from Craig’s consulting company, Good Group Decisions,  in Brunswick, Maine; to learn more and order copies, visit his website at http://www.GoodGroupDecisions.com.