Crash Test Dummies Blog

Written by Brad Roberts

10 May

New Yorkers from Cradle to (Nearly) the Grave

image image image

1 Response Filed under: PHOTOS
09 May

just outside my door, nye


Ah the WORLD TRADE CENTER. I won’t call it the Freedom Tower because I think America has used that term to mean so many things that it ceases to signify anything real. But what a gorgeous hunk of steel and glass!

09 May


200px-Ashbery-2010-09-12THE DIFFICULiT PLEASURES

Today’s Difficult Pleasure is courtesy of the rather floridly complexioned (at least in the photo above) American poet, John Ashbery, whose “sestina” below was one of the most spectacularly Difficult Pleasures that I had the good luck to encounter in my early years of reading.

Ashbury managed—at least for me, and at least in this poem—to do what so few of the “post-modern” poets tried to manage: his sheer force of invention is compelling enough to make me want to keep reading.

A qualifying remark is in order here: Postmodernism in the arts has been a long and, at times, a rather tiresome affair in which meaning is evaded at almost all costs. God forbid that there be a clear linear thread, or indeed any of the norms of continuity that we find in more “reader-friendly” writing, for both of these are an anathema, even gauche, in that rarified world. Is this to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as perhaps Arnold Schoenberg did when he first eschewed any semblance of traditional harmony and started “from scratch” with his twelve-tone theory? Perhaps, but you won’t catch me maintaining anything like that in The Difficult Pleasures!

To resume: In the by-now famous selection below, Ashbury tackles and revamps one of the moldiest old poetic forms, the sestina, ploughing right through any preconceptions I had had about what poetry is, or what it could be. I quote it here in its glorious entirety:



The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits in thunder,   
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How pleasant   
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye,” she scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.   
“M’love,” he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder   
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.”

Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.   
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach   
When the door opened and Swee’pea crept in. “How pleasant!”
But Swee’pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. “Thunder   
And tears are unavailing,” it read. “Henceforth shall Popeye’s apartment   
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched.”

Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. “I have news!” she gasped. “Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched   
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder.”   
She grabbed Swee’pea. “I’m taking the brat to the country.”
“But you can’t do that—he hasn’t even finished his spinach,”   
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. “Actually it’s quite pleasant
Here,” thought the Sea Hag. “If this is all we need fear from spinach
Then I don’t mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over”—she scratched
One dug pensively—“but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that.” Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,   
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.


Tour de force is by now perhaps a merely hackneyed critical phrase—literally it means “feat of strength”—but to my mind this poem has muscular power, a firmness of hand and a bravado that all suggest tour de force.

On my first look at it 30 years ago, I had actually not noticed that the end-word in each line is part of a strictly-maintained pattern; now it shouts at me. At the time I was too taken in by the seemingly improvisatory, rapid-fire shifts in tone, to even notice.

Nor did I know what a “sestina” was in those early days. Now I have wikipedia—I confess—and I learn there that the sestina was originally called a “cledisat,” meaning “interlock”, which beautifully describes how the sestina works: we find not so much a rhyme scheme in the usual sense as we do an algorithm.

Yes algorithm! See the chart at:

If you’ve just looked at the chart (and I hope you will–Wiki-freakin’-Pedia won’t let me insert in into my blog),  I have to tell you that I don’t know quite what the chart does for our larger understanding of the sestina, except perrhaps to tincture it with the quasi-divine fragrance of Scientism; clearly, though, I couldn’t very well just leave it out of a blog called the Difficult Pleasures, now could I? In any case, one needn’t know the arcane rules of the sestina form to appreciate that the collection of end-words thunder, apartment, country, pleasant, scratched, and spinach bring a charming rigor to this odd meditation on Popeye et al.

The sestina, unlike, say, the sonnet, has not enjoyed great popularity in the English language, though interest in it picked up towards the end of the 19th century. Indeed, in the handful of sestina’s I’ve come across in English, the repetition of end-words has had a rather unfortunately corny effect, whereas Ashberry’s oddball selection has just the opposite feeling: there is, thankfully, a total lack of corn-pone sentimentality in this extravagant outburst, and one is more mesmerized than moved by Ashbery’s dazzling control of the compressed repetition inherent in the sestina.

Of course Ashbery—and indeed anyone else living and hoping for credibility since Ezra Pound and early Modernism—has had to remake (read “ironically re-appropriate”) this fussy and fustian form, and in my view he’s done a fabulous job. My view, however, may not be that of the majority. Many critics have excoriated Ashbery for being purposefully “obscurantist”, even going so far as to charge him with hiding his (gay) sexuality behind a cloak of impenetrable obfuscation (penetration joke, anyone?). For my part I couldn’t disagree more, and I welcome him here with open arms, (if not an altogether stiff penis) to the Canon of what are, for me… The Difficult Pleasures.

John Ashbery, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape” from The Double Dream of Spring. Copyright © 1966, 1970 by John Ashbery. Reprinted here from Poem Hunter:

For more information on the sestina, see

All spelling and grammatical errors are owing to the malignant forces of a vast conspiracy, and not the fault of said diarist.

07 May

NYC downtown graveyard


No Response Filed under: PHOTOS
05 May



Ezra Pound photographed in 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn


The “difficult pleasures” is a phrase not of my own making. It belongs to Harold Bloom, but I have chosen it anyhow, because it so nicely encapsulates my own experience with much of the literature that most people seem to find—as far as I can tell—arcane, remote, and even tedious.

Bloom’s formulation is both paradoxical and a little snobby. Paradoxical for the obvious reason that we don’t ordinarily think of pleasures as difficult; we expect them to be, well, pleasurable. Snobby in the positive sense, because it is rooted in Bloom’s faith—a faith I happen to share—in the value of studying the recently much-maligned “Western Canon”, that (in)famous parade of so-called Dead White Males, from Plato to NATO, which has been castigated for at least several decades by the very same Learned Academies that had hitherto striven so long to preserve it.

In my first year at the University of Winnipeg, I read the early 20th century poet Ezra Pound—most of whose work is most definitely a difficult pleasure.

Though his auspicious beginnings were later marred when he became bitterly and publicly anti-Semitic, Pound’s place in the Western Canon is by now assured. Ironically it was a canon he continually railed against, and which he also managed to bolster and transform. His importance cannot be underestimated: his aesthetic, even more than his poetry, helped to define what we now call Modernism.

Pound wrote an early essay which I never forgot, and which I dug up on the internet just today. It reads:

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion…
(from Gaudier-Brzeska, 1916)

Pound goes on to say that he tried all day to work out a way of saying what he had felt, but without result. Eventually—he does not say when—he wrote a poem of 30 lines; but, unhappy with the results, he made a second attempt, some 6 months later, and cut it down to 15 lines. A year later still, he had boiled it down to a single couplet:

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.”

The title Pound provides for this couplet—“In A Station of the Metro”—gives the reader a place to put the image, and completes the work.

Pound wrote many volumes of verse that were vastly more “difficult” pleasures than this terse but extraordinary poem. However, “In A Station of the Metro” was by no means dashed off in a moment of inspiration, and it powerfully indicates his devotion to reworking this material over and over until it had become as compressed as his initial “sudden emotion.” This is the kind of persistency that marks the mind of one who wishes to encounter the complex simplicity of the difficult pleasures.

May we relish them together in Difficult Pleasures to come.



Brad Roberts,



Pound’s words are quoted on 05 May 2016 at,


All spelling and grammatical errors are owing to the malignant forces of a vast conspiracy, and not the fault of said diarist.

1 Response Filed under: Uncategorized
04 May

Best Guest Spot

imagesMy best guest spot on any record had to be Joe Jackson’s 7 Deadly Sins record, where I sang the part of Sloth on “Bud and a Slice”. Joe is one of the few great acts out there who can combine pop music with the symphonic tradition. He was delighted to hear that I like Shostakovich–no other pop musician ever shared my taste in that department! Check out his (relatively) new record. A must hear.

1 Response Filed under: Uncategorized
03 May

Back in Canada

Five years after my herniated disc, and many hours of yoga later, I have returned to the road:  and, well, bless my soul! it’s already treating me very well–nay, better–like an old friend! And I have another old friend with me, Mr. Stewart Cameron, who is in my view the greatest acoustic guitar player in Canada–and among a handful of gifted players internationally. He can interpret a fully orchestrated track and boil it down to its essentials. And he does all of this with only a minimal knowledge of theory–indeed, I certainly know more theory than he does–but I’ll never be able to play guitar that in his league. I hope some of you readers will join us in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, as well as in Southern Ontario, come the end of May and first two weeks of June. The dates are posted everywhere so I won’t repeat them ad nauseous. But please do come! I give you my personal guarantee that you’ll be most happy. I long for the fresh sea air of Halifax, but for now I must breath the rancid stench of NYC. Best, Bard

Who doesn't love a high rise?

Who doesn’t love a high rise?