Backyard Brief: What’s New?

This spring I’ve added a new bird feeder to the party, and there are some new arrivals not before seen, plus others not seen in a while. Some migratory, some residential. Most of the birds that visit seem to prefer the finch seed mix to the black oil sunflower seed, but they are two different brands, so I suppose quality could be a factor. I’ll have to mix the two in both feeders to spread the sights and delights. Happy Earth Day.

New this year
  • song sparrow – Smaller than the house sparrow, with a narrower beak, buff and brown streaking with a black chest spot and eye line stripes, he makes beautiful music all day. The song sparrow perches in our weeping cherry tree beneath the bedroom window, in the tops of the trees (hazelnut?) lining the street sidewalk, in the evergreen of the neighbor’s yard behind us, and hops in the grass below our large backyard feeder. I think there may be more than one. He just seems to be everywhere these days, and it’s a welcome addition.
  • brown-headed cowbird – brief glimpses in the vicinity, seen and heard (loud, bright, high-pitched chip) 4/21/17 on our gazebo structure. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the camera in time. Shy fella.
New this season
  • chipping sparrow – Two males! Also petite like the song sparrow, with a ruddy skull cap and grayish cheeks with an eye stripe, he can easily hide even in the freshly mowed grass. I might have seen females without realizing they weren’t female house finches or house sparrows. Those all tend to blur together. Although I did see a male chipping sparrow last June, the one I thought I saw in May 2016 turned out to be a female red-winged blackbird. These guys appeared 4/21/17.
  • red-winged blackbird – Usually a transient visitor, this time with female in tow; several males spotted, three at once on one occasion this week.
Other less regular visitors seen lately
  • downy woodpecker – Sometimes upside down as necessary, feeding on the suet. Female downy confirmed and pictured below. The other possibility was female hairy (longer beak, larger bird, no black bars on outer tail feathers). 3/31/17
  • common grackle – He keeps trying to alight on the squirrel-buster feeder without success. I haven’t captured his image yet, though. 4/21/17
  • European starling – Usually in flocks, they tend to prefer the suet as well.
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starling triptych

American goldfinches are in the process of molting for their brighter seasonal black and yellow. The rosy house finches and house sparrows are as ruthless competitors as ever, northern cardinals have come around now and then in mated pairs, and the docile mourning doves have made themselves at home in the bed below our pagoda dogwood. The American robins continue to dominate, as expected.

Backyard Brief: The Yellow Eye

Backyard Brief from shots taken March 14, 2017

As much as I pulled the trigger, this lone winter goldfinch graced only my closest third look with true color–which I then enhanced.

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
by Emily Dickinson

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - 
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified - 
And carried Me away - 

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods - 
And now We hunt the Doe - 
And every time I speak for Him 
The Mountains straight reply - 

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And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

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And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head - 
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

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To foe of His - I'm deadly foe - 
None stir the second time - 
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye - 
Or an emphatic Thumb -

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Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I - 
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

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The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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Book Review: Let Me Off at the Top!

Let Me Off at the Top!
My Classy Life & Other Musings
by Ron Burgundy

let-me-off-ron-burgundy-coverI finished it! After 11 months of dipping in and out and putting it on my top 5 list of books to slog through this year (this makes 3 of those 5 but 15 total, my highest number since 2012), I’ve read every last precious word. Now I really MUST see the film sequel Anchorman 2, which I have been meaning to do for over a year.

I would like to give this book the top star, 1 out of 5, but I fear being misunderstood. So, “When in Rome!” The out-loud laughter factor, perfect egotistical nonsense, mish-mashed name dropping, swinish pearls of wisdom, nestled gems of hilarity, and echoes of Will Farrell’s rich, melodious Burgundy-velvet voice require my donning this comfortably weighted pile of pressed wood-pulp leaves with no fewer than 4 out of 5 stars. (I also gave Middlemarch 4 but for completely different reasons.)

As farcical faux-autobiography, this classy tome ejaculates thick layers of ingenious offensiveness with delicious impunity. It’s dumb and it’s supposed to be, because that’s Ron Burgundy, but there is also brilliance in this dullard of an all-American, pop-culture sandwich. Brilliance like the “Seven-cheese samurai,” one of Ron’s seven recipes for “effective, sensual breath.”

Vinegar-y vignettes season this extended persona whittling into blood-soaked splinters, and by using surprisingly few French words. The jackalopes tale is killer. Non-sequitur running heads in each chapter, tales of brutality and family loyalty in Haggleworth, Iowa, and at Our Lady Queen of Chewbacca High School, and all the variations on the theme of drunken sexual escapades with the famous and infamous of all genders bespeak a compression of coarse coal into even coarser foggy diamond.

Some dull moments lovingly caress pre-emptive punch lines and weave holey sweaters’ worth of delightful absurdities, punctuating a reading with outbursts of appreciative hysteria. “It’s science.” Guffaws galore indeed, Mr. B, guffaws, chuckles, snorting chortles, suffocated hisses, hyena cackles, and non-stop grinning the rest of the time.

The opening disclaimer and author’s note set a mighty tone of baseless hauteur. However, adding a misdirecting table of contents would have been a great way to further christen the chaos, and a journalistic absurdity of a bibliography in the end matter could have made for a well-popped cherry on top.

Ridiculous histories of Mexico, two sets of monotony-mitigating photo spreads, and anecdotes of age-old journalistic and celebrity rivalries, along with many more slivers of heavenly manna, dribble glintingly off the sexy, whiskered lips of our fearless (because unconscious) San Diegoan news anchor-legend. I can’t wait to listen to the condensed audio book!

Overall, you’re right, it’s “one hell of a book.” Kudos to you and your intrepid news team, your noble friend and dog Baxter, and your “lover, sexual partner, woman I do it with, wife, and female fellow anchorman” Veronica. Bravo, book maker, for your soft, shiny hair and towering height, brute strength and persistent belligerence. You have proven yourself a choice, tender morsel of late 20th-century American journalism and classless white manhood.

Of this equal target and slingshot shooter of satire on the reeking, Scotch-backwash aftermath of personal and American triumphs and failures, I say, Pour me another glass, maestro!

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Exploring British profanity | Notes from the U.K.

A pressed post

Not long ago, someone in an online conversation said that as she gets older she has less “inclination to tolerate the presence of cockwombles.” The presence of what? The cockwomble in question was …

Source: Exploring British profanity | Notes from the U.K.

Five-Phrase Friday (40): Subversive Farewell

Caveat/Warning/Disclaimer/Note: This post is not for the faint of heart, i.e., the wimps. Explicit language included. Proceed with caution and discretion. Or don’t proceed, of course. It’s your choice. Choose wisely. Wise choices are good. I commend those who choose them. This might be you. Bravo, discerning consumer. Pat yourself on the back, but maybe wait until after you read. Rewards are best postponed until after a goal is reached or task completed. That way, you actually get stuff done.

For the foreseeable future (not sure what that is), this is my final set of five phrases for Friday as I transition into other projects. If you missed some or all of the other 39, just search my blog by “Friday,” and they should all come up. They are also collected in their own menu section on the home page.

This post is dedicated to my husband since the topic was his suggestion last year. Disclaimer: We both like cats just fine, he probably more so than me, so this is all in jest. See also the additional disclaimer below the list.

For those of us with a preference for dogs over cats, and who enjoy jokes about how cats are the Devil’s minions, here are five ways to skin a cat, including method and evaluation:

  1. After anaesthetic — most humane
  2. Using a serrated blade — most efficient
  3. Shark Week, anyone? — most entertaining
  4. With its own claws — most creative
  5. Tail first — most challenging

Further disclaimer: Neither my husband nor I endorses the act of literally skinning animals of any species unless done respectfully, after the animal is confirmed dead, and for food, fuel, or other means of survival and sustaining life. We begrudge no farmer, distributor, or butcher his or her profits, and we won’t be joining PETA, but we also love animals in a peaceful, affectionate way without violence or intent to harm or inflict pain or death. We find them cute and funny and sweet, we like to laugh at them, and make fun of them, sometimes tease them (though not excessively), and also tickle them. We encourage this sort of relationship with animals. In other words, if we catch you neglecting, overtly abusing, or otherwise being cavalier with the health, well-being, or life of a domestic or wild animal, you will be shot on sight (with a camera) and reported to the proper authorities, you sick bastard. Cat skinning is for figurative expression only, as a reminder of the wonderful innovations and problem-solving skills of humanity–and its animal companions.

A note for the weekend: If you’ll be enjoying barbecue over the 4th of July holiday (whether in patriotism or mere coincidence as a non-American), make sure it’s not cat, horse, or especially dog meat. Wild, farmed, or displaced–but non-threatened or endangered–pigs, cows, sheep, goats, lambs, calves, birds, shellfish, fish, nematodes, turtles, snakes, frogs, insects, bugs, vegetables, legumes, grains, eggs, cheese, and fruit will serve. (Good luck figuring out how to barbecue all that.) Also, don’t eat people. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or fruitarian and any of these statements offend you, I don’t care. Lighten up.

Also, please spay and neuter your cats (even if you don’t like to see them as being yours; understandable, but no wily disownership now). And protect your dogs (all dogs) from dehydration, vehicle traffic, long toenails, pest infestations, toads, holiday costumes, gratuitous bathing, and those scary fireworks, and kids, and cats.

Happy Independence Day. Freiheit!

Five-Phrase Friday (35): Satirist Koch

After perusing my tattered because well-loved go-to resource for poetry, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th Edition, and considering many candidates for a final National Poetry Month set of phrases, I decided on a sample from Ohio-born poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002).

His work is often funny, satirical, off beat, and tongue in cheek. The sample I’ve chosen shares these qualities through Koch’s use and discussion of the nature of language.

As a famed member of the informal collective known as The New York School of poets (1960s), Koch published numerous anthologies and other works. The article “A Brief Guide to the New York School” at Poets.org summarizes their style:

Heavily influenced by surrealism and modernism, the poetry of the New York School was serious but also ironic, and incorporated an urban sensibility into much of the work.

Kenneth Koch’s grammatical poem “Permanently” sounds a bit like a Mad Libs story, with some blanks filled in, others waiting to be. At the same time, there’s a deliberate mismatch between parts of speech and their labels–for instance, “Adjective” and “Sentence” each represent a noun in grammatical context.

In this sense, Koch’s piece could be seen as a parody of the formulaic, color-by-numbers travesty of linguistic creativity that is the Mad Libs word game, as if it’s a cheap thrill at the expense of the English language. My words, not his. Not that I actually hold that opinion (I refrain from deciding today), but Koch may have viewed things in similar terms.

Here are five lines from the middle of the poem “Permanently” by Kenneth Koch:

Each Sentence says one thing--for example, "Although it was a dark
     rainy day when the Adjective walked by, I shall remember the pure
     and sweet expression on her face until the day I perish from the
     green effective earth."
Or, "Will you please close the window, Andrew?"

Satire, whether in art or writing, uses the tools of parody, irony, randomness, nonsense, odd juxtapositions, and other devices to create absurdities that mock and criticize, as a way of dethroning the powerful, rooting out hypocrites, and exposing the flaws of its targets.

Note the irony of the statement before the excerpt’s first example, given the complexity of that example. Also ironically, the poem has no obvious adverbs, though its title is one.

What other satirical tools do you see at work in the sample?

The poem has a more serious ending, turning to love, and the whole is well worth the read.

Among those collections that house the full poem “Permanently,” Permanently, Tiber Press, 1960, must surely be one. However, Amazon.com lists the book as currently out of print with limited availability.

Fear not! Kenneth Koch’s books are also available from Amazon.com and other booksellers. To find a free print copy of the book Permanently, borrow one from a library near you, perhaps using WorldCat. According to their About page, it’s “the world’s largest network of library content and services.”

To learn more about Kenneth Koch and other New York School poets, visit these dedicated poetry resources.

Poets.org / The Academy of American Poets’ Kenneth Koch profile page

The slightly longer bio at The Poetry Foundation page on Kenneth Koch

Note: Koch’s Wikipedia page is annotated as flawed, and I often find sites like Poemhunter, Poetrysoup, and other unofficial databases to be half baked and unreliable. I never direct my students to these less reputable resources, though I’ll use them in a pinch to get a gist.


Final thought: Check out the pictures from his later years; Kenneth Koch looks remarkably similar to Bernie Sanders, don’t you think? Very different New York “schools” . . . . Koch would have had a field day with today’s presidential candidates.