Wednesday, September 28, 2022

El Lissitzky Loren Eiseley and S. Howard Bartley

Above I find this amazing. A composite multiple-exposure photograph by El Lissitzky, The Studio.


S. Howard Bartley [his autobiography], A Bit of Human Transparency. Bryn Mawr PA: Dorrance, 1988—

…This is about a little boy who had no brother or sisters and only occasional playmates. He lived in a world of imagination. Imagination filled his life and he didn't learn much about people. It was his Aunt Clara and his grandmother who mainly made up the human circle for him. His mother had died when he was three weeks old. Although his father was part of the family, he didn't count. Later his [father's] stern discipline left its mark. So this story is also about the boy reaching manhood and a career as scientist and teacher, and about his impressions and outlook on life.

This boy was me, and from here on I'll tell my own story.

Another person who has enriched my life is Loren Eiseley, the noted anthropologist. First of all he reached me because he, like me, was a loner as a little boy. His description of his childhood [in All the Strange Hours] is one of the most fascinating and touching modern tales I ever read. It, with his career, is an example of what can develop when a child is left alone enough to think and wonder—as in constrast to what happens when a child jostles elbows all day long wth other children. From this comes politicians and the opposite of scholars.

Friday, September 23, 2022

film trilogy on artist / scientist Adelbert Ames II

Colleagues Gary Gnade and John Volker in an Ames Room
Nearing completion is a film trilogy (a three-part series of online voice-over video talks) about the life and work of Adelbert (Del) Ames II (1880-1955), an American artist, lawyer, optical physiologist, and psychologist. He is best-known for having invented the Ames Demonstrations in Perception, a group of about twenty-five laboratory set-ups, of which perhaps the three most famous are the Distorted Room, the Chair Demonstration, and the Rotating Trapezoid Window.

I began to research and to write about Ames in the late 1960s, and, in the many years since, I’ve continued to collect a fairly substantial amount of material related to him, including unpublished correspondence. I have always hoped to write a book about his life and ideas, but it was delayed by various circumstances, and now, as I age—and books become less useful as ways to share ideas—that project is on the back burner. So I have turned instead to making a series of video talks. Not the same thing, obviously, but it will do for the moment.

The first video in the series, titled Ames and Anamorphosis: THE MAN WHO DISTORTED ROOMS / Part One, was completed earlier this month, and is accessible online. It provides an overview of Ames’ life and his accomplishments, as well as information about his interesting family (he was related to writer / editor George Plimpton).

Ames and Anamorphosis / Part One

Part Two is all but finished, and should be available on the same channel in a matter of days. It documents the use of anamorphic distortion (forced perspective) in the history of art and in the research of vision. Although the Ames Demonstrations were highly unusual when they gained popularity in the 1940s, the optical principles on which they were based had been anticipated by Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Holbein, various Dutch artists, and, in science, by Hermann von Helmholtz.

Part Three will consist of an overview of the connections between the Ames Demonstrations, and various artistic and scientific achievements that took place during and after his lifetime, such as avant garde filmmaking, perspective distortion in ship camouflage, Hoyt Sherman's vision laboratory at Ohio State University, comedian Ernie Kovacs, theatrical special effects, the reverspective artworks of British artist Patrick Hughes, and so on.

In the early 1970s, I reconstructed several of the Ames Demonstrations, and, collaborating with a friend and colleague, John Volker, I designed a multi-faceted hands-on exhibition, in which children could experience a full-sized distorted room, a straight-forward forced perspective room, an upsidedown room, and so on. Over the years, I went on to publish articles about various aspects of his work in research journals, the online links to some of which are listed below. 


Behrens, R. R. (1987). The Life and Unusual Ideas of Adelbert Ames Jr. Leonardo: Journal of the International Society of Arts, Sciences and Technology, 20, 273–279.

Behrens, R. R. (1994). Adelbert Ames and the Cockeyed Room. Print magazine, 48:2, 92–97.

Behrens, R. R. (1997). Eyed Awry: The Ingenuity of Del Ames. North American Review, 282:2, 26–33.

Behrens, R. R. (1998). The Artistic and Scientific Collaboration of Blanche Ames Ames and Adelbert Ames II. Leonardo, 31, 47–54.

Behrens, R. R. (1999). Adelbert Ames, Fritz Heider, and the Chair Demonstration. Gestalt Theory, 21, 184–190.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

a remote radio drawing course taught in 1932

There is a legend, true or not, that Hungarian-born Bauhaus designer and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy once created an artwork over the phone. Henceforth, as Rainer K. Wick said in Teaching at the Bauhaus (Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2000), it might be the conclusion of some that “art in the industrial age could consist of an anonymous machine process of high precision and exist independently of the personal intervention of the artist’s hand; thus the act of artistic creation should be seen in the intellectual aspect and not in the manual one.”

Moholy’s experiment comes to mind whenever I see this vintage magazine article on so-called “Radio Comics” [shown above], as published in an issue of Popular Mechanics in 1932. The instructor is a radio broadcaster, who makes a drawing on a grid-based page, consisting of 144 numbered squares. His pupils, who are listening remotely to the broadcast, have been given an indentical page of numbered squares—but without a drawing.

“As the instructor draws a figure, he calls out the squares touched by his pencil or crayon. Pupils sitting at the radio with duplicate charts trace lines from one number of another as they are announced in efforts to ‘copy’ the work of the instructor.”

Actually, the only thing innovative about this (at the time) was the use of the radio. The practice of “squaring off” a drawing (called mise au careau) in order to copy, enlarge or reduce the image onto a second squared-off surface, was practiced as early as the Ancient Egyptians. Here is an example of that by the artist Sassoferrato.

Later artists (among them Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, and Vincent Van Gogh) not only relied on that same approach, but also used “drawing frames” (of which Dürer's and Van Gogh's are shown below) by which they looked at the model through a network of suspended threads, arranged to match a pattern of squares on their drawing paper. Leonardo highly recommended this—

“If you wish to learn correct and good positions for your figures [he wrote], make a frame that is divided into squares by threads and put it between your eyes and the nude you are drawing, and you will trace the same squares lightly onto your paper on which you intend to draw your nude.”

After the invention of photography, artists began to square off photographs of their models, as a gridwork guide for drawing. Still other artists (among them Blanche Ames Ames and Adelbert Ames II) make efficient use of large-scale grid-based frames which the model stood behind as the photograph was made. Below is a photograph of that in her Borderland studio. 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

beak of the pelican holds more than his belican

Dixon Lanier Merritt, Nashville Banner (Nashville TN), April 22, 1913—

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!

His beak holds more than his belican.

He takes in his beak

Food enough for a week.

But I'll be darned if I know how the helican.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

facial innovations with clock face variation



a retrospective reverie on 46 years of teaching

I was recently a presenter at a nationwide exhibition and symposium (conducted remotely as well as in-person at the University of Wisconsin at Madison), titled Evolving Graphic Design. The majority of the attendees were design professors, graduate students, and professional designers. The subjects discussed were wide-ranging.

Each presentation was limited to fourteen minutes. Having retired at the end of 2018, after having taught graphic design illustration and design history at various art schools and universities for more than 45 years, my presentation consisted of an 8-minute retrospective reverie on my memories of working with students, titled Solving Problems in Design. This was presented as a video, and can now be viewed online.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

improvisation on stage / unrehearsed adjustment

Mary Garden
Maurice Browne, Too Late to Lament: An autobiography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1956, p. 155—

We were thrilled [having been given tickets to attend a performance of Le Jongleur, an opera starring the famous soprano Mary Garden]…we had never seen it, longed to do so, had not been able to afford seats. The performance outstripped even our expectation; Mary Garden was an exceptionally skilled actress as well as an exceptionally fine singer. She was also a first-rate “trooper.” The market scene came to an end; the stage was being cleared for her entrance, the crowd dispersing; suddenly in the very center of the stage a donkey refused to budge, straddled his legs and performed an act which had been rehearsed. The audience grasped, then rocked with laughter; the donkey, satisfied, made an effective exit. Mary Garden entered upstage center, seemed not even to glance at the spot where she would otherwise have stood, crossed down a little to the left of it and began to sing. In one second there was not a sound from that crowded house.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

a report of naiveté in assessing works of art

Cavern [detail] © Roy R. Behrens 2021
Abel Warshawsky, The memories of an American Impressionist. Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 1980, p. 62—

[In Paris] The "cult of the naive" at all costs became a rage…

A group of painters in Montmartre decided to exploit this hysteria and have some fun with the critics. Procuring a donkey, they tied a large paintbrush to his tail, first dipping the brush into an assortment of colors. Then a canvas was set up within striking distance of the donkey's tail, which in its gyrations soon covered the canvas with a weird conglomeration of colors—quite a stunning study in the new style, as the spectators all agreed. Witnesses and a notary, who had been invited to attend, attested to the manner in which the work had been done. This canvas was framed and sent to the Salon des Independants. It bore as title, if I remember rightly, Sunset on the Red Sea. After several well-known critics had remarked it and written about it as a work of extraordinary interest, the story with the signatures of the witnesses was published, and the laugh was on the "new art" critics.

Also see Art by Animals video, Desmond Morris, and pandemic montages.

Friday, June 24, 2022

adrift in milan / never too late for the last supper

Wind Instrument [detail] © Roy R. Behrens
Abel Warshawsky, The memories of an American Impressionist. Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 1980, pp. 86-87—

In connection with the Last Supper, a friend of mine, Samuel Cahan, a well-known newspaper artist who had been with the New York World for thirty years, told me of an amusing incident which occured when he and his wife visited Milan a few years ago. Speaking no Italian, they had asked their hotel porter to procure an English-speaking cabby to take them about. To the latter my friend very carefully explained that they wished to see the Last Supper. "Last supper?" replied the cabby, "yes , yes. Me understand!" Whereupon he started driving them round the town and finally into the country.

After the drive had extended for several miles, my friend, fearing that there must be some mistake, repeated his instructions to the driver. "Last supper?" he yelled back, "Sure! Me understand!" and continued to drive. Late that evening the two Americans were finally brought back to the city in a state approaching nervous exhaustion. Drawing up his carriage in front of a brilliantly lit edifice, the vetturino opened the cab and ushered his fares into a fashionable restaurant, proudly giving them to understand that he had brought them back in good time for the desired "late supper."

Thursday, June 23, 2022

democratic privilege and the queen's bladder

Above © Roy R. Behrens, Revisiting Thomas Eakins [detail], 2021.


Muriel Spark, Momento Mori. New York: Penguin Books, 1961—

The real rise of democracy in the British Isles occurred in Scotland by means of Queen Victoria’s bladder…When she went to stay at Balmoral in her latter years a number of privies were caused to be built at the backs of little cottages, which had not previously possessed privies. This was to enable the Queen to go on her morning drive round the countryside in comfort, and to descend from her carriage from time to time, ostensibly to visit the humble cottagers in their dwellings. Eventually, word went round that Queen Victoria was exceedingly democratic. Of course it was due to her little weakness. But everyone copied the Queen and the idea spread, and now you see we have a great democracy.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

online course on the history of design / 2022

Course Introduction Video
Above This is a brief film overview of a four-week course I will be teaching (online), beginning in the first week in October, titled A History of Design: Graphic, Industrial, and Architectural Design in Europe and the US Since 1850. This is Part Two of a series of four. It is one of the fall semester offerings through OLLI at Drake (Oster Lifelong Learning Institute at Drake University). Registration will open during August at <>.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Coming Soon / Graphic Design Symposium

Reproduced above is a sampling of on-site photographs (courtesy Taekyeom Lee) from an on-going exhibition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, titled EVOLVING GRAPHIC DESIGN. The exhibition (which includes the work of twenty-three graphic design professionals and design educators from across the nation) continues for the next twelve days, ending on June 24. 

The concluding highlight of the exhibition will be a two-day symposium, to be held on June 23 and 24, in the Art Loft Conference Room, Art Lofts Building, in the Department of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison at 111 North Frances Street, in Madison. Some participants are attending in-person, while others (worldwide) are registering online for free tickets, and, since it is a hybrid event, they will participate online as speakers, panelists and observers. 

Please note, although participation is free, you must register at this link in advance

Iowa Insect Series (stages animated)

Included in the exhibition is a series of ten large-scale digital montages, called the Iowa Insect Series, that were made in 2012-2013 in collaboration with design colleague and friend David M. Versluis. At the time, he was a Professor of Art and Design at Dordt College in Iowa, while I was then on the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. 

Also on exhibit are thirteen design-related images that are part of my long-term, continuing research (as a design historian) of World War I Allied naval camouflage. The theme uniting these artifacts is high difference or disruptive ship camouflage, which was referred to at the time as dazzle painting or dazzle camouflage. Among the items exhibited are restored government photographs from the time period, full-color reproductions of diagrams of the camouflage patterns, and my own recent hypothetical camouflage schemes, derived from historical works of art.

Iowa Insect Series

Friday, June 10, 2022

exhibition viewing tour at Jester Nature Center

Thanks to Lisa Cooper, above is a photograph of participants in a Drake University OLLI class, which this week traveled to the Jester Nature Center, near Granger IA, to view my exhibition of National Park and Monuments posters, including Mesa Verde (below). The exhibition, which is open to the public, will continue to be on view through August 28. 

The OLLI course exhibit tour was supplemented by in-person presentations about national parks and comparable locations by Jester Center staff members Lewis Major and Patrice Petersen-Keys. All posters in the exhibition can also be viewed online in this short video.

Mesa Verde Poster © Roy R. Behrens


Monday, June 6, 2022

pachydermatitis: there's an elephant on the hill

There is an elephant in the room. It is said he resides on Capitol Hill. He is as old as an elephant’s ears, with a voice that stumbles through his trunk as if he were constantly drinking. He is said to have enormous sway. But in truth he has no power, because he built that illusion by cowering at the most critical times. He snivels as the poisons drift, as nitrates flood the rivers, as storms foretell the climate shift. With a sinister sense of achievement, he buries his constituents in ditches of denial, in return for once again voting for him. He is the darling of cancerous sprays, of implicit gun support, of threatened insurrections, of crafty wasteful substitute fuels, of reluctance to address a plague, of refusing to act when it matters. His disservice is equivalent to addiction, scorn, and shameless stealth. Faced with faceless children’s remains (their tiny futures slaughtered by enabled weapons of war in our homes) he is once again bereft of words. His thick tongue is a stumbling block. His persuasive powers are drained by drought. He is a fossil who’s run out of fuel. Not born yesterday, this elephant seems not to realize that his perfect attendance Sunday School pin will melt in Hell when he arrives.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Going with the Grains / Andrew Clemens' Art

Just out, in the June issue of The Iowa Source (Fairfield IA), is this illustrated article on Iowa-born artist Andrew Clemens, and his extraordinary, highly-detailed paintings made of grains of sand. Near McGregor (where Clemens lived), there is a region of sandstone, called Pictured Rocks, where the sand has been naturally colored by the slow, moist seepage of iron and other minerals. That was the source of the colored sand which Clemens used to build his intricate pictures—on the insides of chemists’ bottles. more>>>

Friday, May 27, 2022

Artist Dean Schwarz and Family and Friends

In the fall of 1963, I began my senior year at a high school in a small town in northeast Iowa. A new teacher had been hired to teach art, and I soon began to work with him. As an artist, he was a painter at the time, but he would soon become an important American potter. That teacher’s name was Dean Schwarz. He was a primary mentor for me—we launched an art gallery, hitchhiked to New Orleans in the middle of winter, and, in 1964, spent the summer in Northern California, studying at Pond Farm Pottery with Bauhaus artist and author Marguerite Wildenhain.

Dean is 84 this year, and I am 76, and our friendship (along with my great fondness for his wife, author Gerry Schwarz) has continued, uninterrupted, all these many years. Most recently, it was a pleasure to be asked to design the card invitation and a photographic film tribute for a new exhibition of pots and his other creations at the Hearst Center for the Arts, in Cedar Falls IA. Titled DEAN SCHWARZ AND FAMILY AND FRIENDS, the exhibition begins on June 4 and continues through July 17, 2022.

There is a public reception on June 18, from 10:30 am to Noon. It is described as follows: Visit The Hearst to experience the world of Dean Schwarz through his work and the work of some of his family and friends. Collaborative ceramics by sons Gunnar and Lane Schwarz and grandchildren Marguerite, William and Sophie are featured alongside Jeff Bromley’s boxelder and soft maple furniture.

Dean Schwarz (© Emily Drennan)

Ceramic Art by Dean and Gunnar Schwarz


Saturday, May 21, 2022

Coming Soon / Evolving Graphic Design Exhibit

Reproduced above is the poster for a major gallery exhibition that begins on May 24, 2022 (in the coming week) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and continues through June 24. Titled EVOLVING GRAPHIC DESIGN, it showcases the work of twenty-three graphic design professionals and design educators from throughout the nation. Represented is the widest variety of graphic media, including themes, research and techniques that extend beyond traditional prints on paper.

The exhibit’s originator, organizer and curator is Yeohyun Ahn, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Interactive Media, in the Graphic Design Program, UW-Madison Department of Art. Detailed information about the exhibition is online here. And you learn more about Professor Ahn at this link.

I am pleased that my work is included in two components of the exhibition. In one will be exhibited a series of ten large-scale digital montages, called the Iowa Insect Series, that I made in 2012-2013 in collaboration with design colleague and friend David M. Versluis. Having retired from teaching recently, he now resides in Michigan. But at the time, he was a Professor of Art and Design at Dordt College in Iowa, while I was then on the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa.

These works began with David’s high definition digital scans of various insect specimens from his collection. We worked together by what might be referred to as “blind collaboration.” To begin, he would email me one of the insect image scans. I then did something to alter or augment that image (somewhat like a move in chess), and returned the result by email to him. He then made additional alterations, and sent that second result to me. We continued blindly, back and forth, exchanging subsequent alterations, until we both began to sense that the work was nearing completion. We did this on ten occasions. All ten will be exhibited in the UW-Madison exhibition. No doubt the effect will be stunning.

In another area of the exhibition, I will also be exhibiting thirteen design-related images that are part of my long-term, continuing research (as a design historian) of World War I Allied naval camouflage. The theme uniting these artifacts is high difference or disruptive ship camouflage, which was referred to at the time as dazzle painting or dazzle camouflage. Among the items exhibited are restored government photographs from the time period, full-color reproductions of diagrams of the camouflage patterns, and my own recent hypothetical camouflage schemes, derived from historical works of art.

A highlight of the exhibition will be a symposium, titled Evolving Graphic Design, to be held on June 23 and 24, in the Art Loft Conference Room, Art Lofts Building, in the Department of Art,
University of Wisconsin-Madison at 111 North Frances Street, in Madison. I will participate in that symposium, by online presentation.

Sunday, May 8, 2022


cover of issue 02 of BALLAST (1985)

actual frame from a silent film
So how did BALLAST begin?  

Answer: In the late 1960s, when I (of all people) was drafted into the US Marine Corps, I found that some of the officers, while cruel and unusual, could also be terribly funny. One of my favorites was a height-impaired captain, a George Gobel look-alike, who was the company adjutant when I was in Hawaii. He was hilarious—always. One day a top-ranking officer came to our company (a Marine general), and this adjutant sent word that I should report to his office immediately. As I stood frozen at attention (awed by the mere presence of such a distinguished warrior), the captain turned to him and said, “General, the sergeant here is a very curious specimen. He is college-educated, and, as a result, is completely unable to answer any question with a simple yes-or-no answer.” And then, turning to me, he asked, “Isn’t that true, Sergeant?” After a measured pause, I slowly and thoughtfully answered, “Well, not entirely, Sir. You see, there’s this and that and that and that…” and of course, to his delight, I droned on for a couple of minutes. more>>>

cover of issue 01 of BALLAST (1985)

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

National Parks at Jester Park Nature Center

National Park Poster © Roy R. Behrens 2019
Above I am absolutely pleased (ecstatic even) by the opportunity to exhibit at Jester Park Nature Center (in Polk County, near Granger IA) a series of 23 digital montage posters, the theme of which is US National Parks and Monuments. I actually designed these in 2019, with the thought that I would frame them and make the exhibit available to nature centers to exhibit without charge. It was a great pleasure to design them, and an even greater pleasure results when other people can enjoy them also.

The poster exhibit at Jester Park was installed earlier this week, and will remain on view at the Nature Center Galleries there through August 28. It will officially open with an in-person reception (free and open to the public), including wine and refreshments, on Thursday, May 12, from 6 to 8 pm. Sounds wonderful. 

Exhibition at Jester Nature Center

And of course it’s also an opportunity to see other on-going exhibits in the same building, including the work of glass artist Tilda Brown Swanson, as well as permanent features as well. There is additional information at this online link.

For those who live too far away, or who can’t attend in person for other reasons, the posters can easily be accessed online. For example, all the posters are the internet (click on each to enlarge it to view) at this link. But they can also be experienced in video form online at YouTube here.  

There also another online component that quite a few people have found of interest in understanding the significance of how color, shapes, and other pattern attributes contribute to animal camouflage. It’s a succinct 30-minute video talk on Nature, Art and Camouflage, also free on YouTube. A screen grab from the video is reproduced below, as is one of the National Park posters.

For the opportunity to share the posters at the Jester Park Nature Center, I am especially grateful to Missy Smith, Nature Center Coordinator, and Lewis Major, Naturalist.

video on Nature, Art and Camouflage


Thursday, April 21, 2022

Independence, Iowa and William Edwards Cook

John Klotzbach, Behrens Releases Cook Film, in Independence Bulletin-Journal (Independence IA), April 20, 2022, p. 1—

Roy R. Behrens, Emeritus Professor of Art at the University of Northern Iowa and Independence native, has released a new 60-minute online documentary film about Iowa expatriate artist William Edwards Cook, and his close long-term friendship with American writer Gertrude Stein…The film is available free online at <>.  Other films by Behrens are also online at his YouTube channel at <>.

Monday, April 11, 2022

blind prejudice / the thing to fear is fear itself

Gypsy family, public domain
Jay Partridge, A Wonderful Experience: A Memoir. Independence IA: Privately published, no date, p. 29—

[Growing up in southern Iowa] I remember only one fear I had when I was a child. It was a fear of Gypsies. Someone said Gypsies steal little boys to work for them. Every year Gypsies would camp over-night, sometimes stay a day or two, at the Mount Vernon school grounds on the corner west of the house.

Their dark skin, black hair and long dark dresses with capes or shawls all scared me. Mom thought their dress was better to hide things they stole. She always tried to keep them out of the house. They were always coming over to get something to eat and feed for their horses.

They traveled in little buildings on wagons pulled by horses. Sometimes there might be five or six loads of them. Seemed like next morning our cows never gave as much milk. The folks always though the Gypsies had come during the night and milked the cows. The folks also thought some chickens, eggs, feed, and maybe a pig were missing after the Gypsies were gone.

Anyway, I breathed easier when they left, because then I knew three little boys they hadn’t stolen.


William L. Shirer, 20th Century Journey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976, p. 83—

[While growing up in Cedar Rapids IA] The fear of Indians by the acquisitive white settlers persisted for some time…Sometimes a stray and hungry Indian from the nearby Tama Reservation would come to the back door of our house to beg food and my worried mother would lock the doors and windows and, if the man persisted in knocking, call the police. We were brought up to believe that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian” and nothing was said to us in those days of the cruel and savage slaughter and the robbery of the Indians by the white Americans, one of the darkest sides of our history.

Monday, April 4, 2022

and a handkerchief used for dusting my shoes

Henry L. Mencken, quoted by Huntington Cairns in John Dorsey, ed., On Mencken. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980, pp. 53-54—

[As a youngster in Baltimore, one day, Mencken was "held up by two tough boys and relieved of"] all: five keys, a horse chestnut, the snapper of a buggy whip, a dried cockroach in a pill box, a small shell, six agate marbles, a top, and a handkerchief used mainly for dusting my shoes. I also had two cents, but the bandits, after a long debate, decided not to take them, it would be stealing.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

ham and bacon / let's say eggs for both of them

Vintage print advertisement
Richmal Crompton, William’s Treasure Trove. UK: George Newnes Ltd, 1962.

“I incline to the theory that the plays of Shakespeare were written by Bacon.”

“How could they be?” said William …“How could that man Ham—“

“I said Bacon.”

“Well, it’s nearly the same … Well, if this man Bacon wrote them, they wouldn’t put this man Shakespeare’s name on the books ...”

“Now, boys, I want you all please to listen to me … There was a man called Hamlet—“

“You just said he was called Bacon,” said William.

“I did not say he was called Bacon.”

“Yes, ‘scuse me, you did … When I called him Ham, you said it was Bacon, and now you’re calling him Ham yourself.”

“This was a different man…Listen! This man was called Hamlet and his uncle had killed his father because he wanted to marry his mother.”

“What did he want to marry his mother for?” said William …

“It was Hamlet's mother he wanted to marry.”

“Oh, that man what you think wrote the plays.”

“No, that was Bacon.”

“You said it was Ham a minute ago … I tell you what,” said William confidingly, “let's say Eggs for both of them.”

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Mencken's stolen bible for Louis Untermeyer

H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Sun
Louis Untermeyer, From Another World: The Autobiography of Louis Untermeyer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939, p. 193—

I was recovering from a touch of grippe when a letter arrived from Henry [Louis Mencken]. It was one of his more medical documents—Henry used to be in and out of Johns Hopkins [medical center] and was continually giving advice to the doctors. He counciled me to get rid of my physician, drink three stiff glasses of Gluhwein, and sleep on a stolen Bible…This, I thought, is another of Henry’s Menckenisms; I laughed and forgot the matter. Two days later, a worn Bible arrived by parcel post. The cover was blazoned in gold: “Property of the Hotel Astor,” and the flyleaf bore this inscription: “To Louis Untermeyer, with the compliments of the Author.”

Friday, April 1, 2022

how be thine graminivorous tramcollicken now?

Nature-Themed Poster © Roy R. Behrens 2019
Edwin Muir, An Autobiography. New York: William Sloane, 1954—

My cousin Sutherland was the most original character in the [his parents’] house. I remember him as a little man in a blue jersey and trousers with a dashing fall. His body swung forward from his hips, as if he were always on the point of offering something with his hands. His head was like a battering-ram, and dusty brown hair like an animal’s fell stood stiffly up from it. His sparkling grey eyes were nautical, his bulbous nose ecclesiastical, his bushy brown moustache military. Before he made a joke he would pass the back of his hand under his moustache with a casual succulent sweep which left his arm negligently hanging in the air, as if he had forgotten it for the moment but would presently remember it again. All his movements melted into each other with the continuity of a tree. His skin was reptilian; his head sloped, like a tortoise’s, into his neck, his shoulders into his trunk. He was very strong and crafty, and in wrestling could bring down men much younger and heavier than himself His ordinary stance then was a lazy crouch; he would roll waggishly on his feet, as if he were keeping his balance in a slight swell; he was very light-footed. His appearance never changed while I knew him; he looked thirty-five all the time.…

Whenever Sutherland got drunk he began to invent language. I can’t remember now many of his feats in this way, but he liked words with a dashing Spanish sound, like ‘yickahooka’ and ‘navahonta.’ He was so pleased with the word ‘tramcollicken,’ which he invented himself, that he gave it a specific meaning which I had better not mention; but the word became so popular that it spread all over Wyre. From somewhere or other he had picked up ‘graminivorous,’ which struck him by its comic sound, and for a long time his usual greeting was, “Weel, boy, how’s thee graminivorous tramcollicken?” Macedonia, Arabia, Valparaiso, and Balaclava became parts of his ordinary vocabulary, giving him a sense of style and grandeur.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Robert Frost / let what burrs will stick to them

Nature-Themed Poster © Roy R. Behrens 2019
Louis Untermeyer, FROM ANOTHER WORLD: The Autobiography of Louis Untermeyer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939—

…[the poet Robert Frost] was the friend of [British poet and critic Lascelles] Abercrombie whom [American poet Ezra] Pound had challenged to a duel, the weapons to be unsold copies of their books at thirty paces. (p. 208)

[Frost] wrote to me: “There are two types of realist—the one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show that it is a real one, and the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean. I’m inclined to be the second kind. To me the thing that art does for life is to clean it, to strip it to form.” (p. 209)

[Quoting from Frost’s preface to his own Collected Poems:] “Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ more importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” (p. 210)

Monday, March 21, 2022

too late / sick, dried up, and have no strength

Vachel Lindsay album cover
Eleanor Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay. New York: W.W. Norton, 1959—

From Cambridge, Massachusetts, the psychologist and philosopher William James acknowledged receipt of The Tramp’s Excuse and War Bulletin Number Three [which the poet Vachel Lindsay had sent him without asking]. Lindsay had read James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, pondering it in the light of his [own] visions, and James was touched that this unknown youth should turn for “comradeship” to an academic personage like himself.

Only it was, he said, “too late, too late!”

He [James] was writing in October 1909, ten months before his death. “I am sick, dried up, have no strength to read aught but the barely needful for my own tasks, have grown, moreover, positively to hate poetry in these last years. I can only stand old poems learned by heart in my childhood and adolescence. How then should I shoot the rapids and ride the whirlwind and tramp the wilderness with you?”

James was not at all sure that he understood the “Map of the Universe.” “I do think Bulletin No. 3 anarchistic; I do think it incoherent; but I do think it may represent an excellent personal religion. Don’t enter the Catholic priesthood, whatever you do! Your semi-automatic inspirations are very interesting, in conjunction with your free attitude toward them…

“Go in peace and God be with you, brilliant being that you are, and leave me to my decrepitude.” [pp. 160-161].


[Sixteen years later] In Washington [DC], in the dining room of the Wardman Park Hotel, a brown-skinned bus boy in a white jacket ignored senators and oil magnates, sidled shyly up to the wall table at which the only poet in the crowded room sat opposite his wife and laid a slim manuscript by [Vachel] Lindsay’s plate, That evening Lindsay opened his recital in the little theater of the hotel by reading the poems the boy had given him. It was the beginning of fame for the young Negro poet Langston Hughes” [p. 353].

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Vachel Lindsay | the fate of an unbroken colt

Index of American Design (Public Domain)
Eleanor Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay. New York: W.W. Norton, 1959, pp. 185-186—

Though by day the sky was a bright Kansas blue and the sun descended on the prairie like the stroke of a golden hammer, there was darkness and death at the Weaver place. Both Frank and his brother Forrest, who worked with him, had a certain hard attractiveness—“but their cruelty,” pronounced Lindsay in his diary, “was bottomless.”

On Sunday, July 7, he was in the sitting room writing letters when he heard a fearful row out beyond the barn. Frank and Forrest were exciting themselves by disciplining Dick, a frisky broncho colt, whom they had tied up and were beating over the head—one with a doubletree [a harnessing cross bar], the other with a pitchfork handle—while Forrest plied himself with swigs of whisky so that he could be as mean as Frank.

Lindsay heard the roars, oaths, thuds of the bar and stick, whinnies of pain and tattoo of hoofs all the long afternoon till at six o’clock Frank's fat and patient wife May ran over to the barn and protested, reminding the men it was Sunday and warning them they wouldn’t be blest and would lose a day’s harvest.

On Monday morning the little broncho Dick was hitched to the reaper along with three large mules. He went dancing out to the field, looking devilish, defiantly objecting to keeping his head on a line with the others and hauling the great load almost by himself. That night he came dancing home. On Tuesday he went out again dancing for battle, but returned at night dragging and panting.

On Wednesday, just past the hottest hour, Lindsay was working in the field with Forrest. About three o’clock the pony, who till then had been feebly dancing, went mad. He strained against his halter. His eyes were distended. Blood oozed from his mouth. His hide—a mass of wounds from Sunday’s torture—was clustered thick as fly paper with thirstily sucking flies.

Lindsay, who had never quite overcome his childhood terror of horses, put fear behind him and between them he and Forrest managed to pull the lunging animal away from the mules and restrain him by two halter ropes while Frank, the more savage brother, was sent for. Frank, cursing, tried to lead Dick back to the barn, but when they reached the pasture of long uncut prairie grass the pony sank down into it and kicked the air convulsively with all four feet. Then his heart broke and he died.

“If God gives me grace,” Lindsay pledged, alone with his diary, “some day I shall write his memorial—THE BRONCHO THAT WOULD NOT BE BROKEN.”


NOTE In the decades following World War I, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) was among the best-known poets in the US. His most popular poems include “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” and “The Congo.” He traveled across the country, by walking, surviving in part by “singing” his poems and working as a short-term farm worker. Overcome by financial difficulties and depression, he took his own life on December 5, 1931, by drinking a bottle of lye. 

The aesthetic value of rhymes, alliteration, and other language patterns, not unlike those that Lindsay used, are discussed in a 30-minute video here (free, with online access).

Saturday, March 12, 2022

as if jack were struck dumb in the pulpit of golf

a bouquet of golf clubs
Burges Johnson, As Much as I Dare: A Personal Recollection. New York: Ives Washburn, 1944, p. 105—

After I had married and moved to Long Island, my cousin Tristam Burges Johnson died most dramatically in Washington DC.…While he was playing golf with Edgar Poe [a descendant of the writer] a storm threatened; there was no rain but some muttering of thunder. Poe went back to the club house, but Tristam walked across the links with an iron club over his shoulder to follow up one more shot, was struck by lightning and instantly killed. There was no other lightning flash and no rain storm followed. Naturally it made a dramatic story for the papers. Dr. [Henry L.] Stimson, who had not seen me for a long time, saw the headlines and [confusing Burges Johnson for his cousin] announced from his pulpit the death of a young man from his congregation. Then he wrote a letter to my young wife which I have always wanted to have framed because it seems to me that it is the only truly appreciative statement of my many virtues that I have ever read. Dr. Stimson was naturally embarrassed when he received my wife’s reply and I think always felt that the lightning had hit the wrong man.

* Edgar Allan Poe (1871-1961), who was Attorney General of the State of Maryland in 1911-1915, was a second cousin of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), the celebrated writer. As a student at Princeton, he was the quarterback and captain of the football team in his junior and senior years, and was named All-American in 1889. After a football game in which Princeton beat Harvard, 41–15, someone from Harvard asked a Princeton alumnus whether Poe was related to “the great Edgar Allan Poe,” in response to which the alumnus said, “He is the great Edgar Allan Poe.”

Friday, March 11, 2022

recalling the death of Iowa poet Michael Andorf

Michael Andorf (1947-2022) was an Iowa-born poet, who, at earlier times in his life, served in the US Navy, worked on farms for numerous years, and operated a snow plow, as a road maintenance worker. He and I grew up at around the same time, only a few miles apart. And while I was long familiar with his name and his poetry, the two of us didn't actually meet until about ten years ago. 

When we did connect in person, it was largely because of our memories of a wonderful teacher of Literature and Theatre (at Independence High School), named Florence Helt. She was something, we agreed, and two of us were forever convinced that she had been a key factor in our shared thirst for writing. 

In 2013, while I was teaching graphic design at the University of Northern Iowa, Michael agreed to come to my class as a visiting speaker. He read a number of his poems, which the students then responded to by designing digital images that "belonged with" each of those poems. When printed, multiples of the book were produced, assembled and bound in the form of a book. We gave signed copies to Michael, and a single copy was given to each student designer, as well as to regional archives. 

In recent years, I've remained in touch with Michael, primarily through emails. I have always enjoyed his humor, and a chance to read his latest poems. I was saddened to learn that he died less than a week ago, on Saturday, on March 5, 2022. Here is an online connection to a pdf version of the book of poems that he, my students, and I produced just nine years ago. Please do share with others.