Yet another book I’ll have to read. Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber has a delightful review of what sounds like a delightful book, Hazel K. Bell’s Indexers and Indexes in Fact and Fiction (University of Toronto Press, 2001). Henry says:

An index, if it’s done properly, is an art form in itself. Index entries may range from terse one-liners, which tell a story in a few words, to great wobbling extravagances of quasi-related incongruities and oddities, piled untidily on one another like Pelion upon Ossa. And Bell’s book has them all. Brief nuggets of information (from the index to Sir Thomas Browne’s work comes the irrestistible ‘cabbage, Cato’s chief diet’). Indexes composed by the author to savage his enemies. Indexes composed by enemies of the author in order to denigrate and belittle the author and his work. Index as forms of intellectual slash and burn. As forms of art. Index items which are miniature novels in themselves. Und so weiter.

I can’t resist quoting one of his examples; there are more, and don’t miss the comment thread!

From the index of de Quincey’s Collected Writings
Coffee, atrocious in England.
Cookery, English, the rudest of barbarous devices.
Dogs in Greece, a nuisance.
Leibnitz, died partly from fear of not being murdered.
Muffins, eating, a cause of suicide.
Music, English obtuseness to good.
Rhinoceros, first sale of a
Servants, England the paradise of household
Spitting, the art of
Toothache, that terrific curse.

(Via Mildly Malevolent.)


  1. A book about indexes, improperly done, would be shorter and filled with curse words. A good index can save hours of time.
    I think editing is getting worse, notably at Oxford and Cambridge, and indexes are but one of the victims. [Note to self: number agreement?]

  2. From Guy L. Steele Jr.’s Common LISP, The Language, Second Edition:

    • BOA Constructor, 483
    • crab, catching a, 191,
    • disco dancers, 327,
    • kung pao chi ding, 175,

      and the favorite:

    • kludges, 1–971,
  3. “Browne is God”
    eer is somethings completely else: James Atlas On Translation from the amazing (via the complete review)
    Also I thought you might appreciate this poem by the Wiener poet Ernst Jandl
    Beg pardon.

  4. Thank you—both poem and essay are wonderful! (I note in passing that thirty years ago it was possible to write a long essay about literature that, while thoughtful and complex, remains entirely comprehensible throughout. We live in degenerate days.)

  5. Do you know Paul Violi’s poem “Index”? It takes the form of, well, an index, listing events in the life of a fictional artist (“disavows all his work” comes up several times). It was inspired by Violi’s reading of a book by “an egregiously self-indulgent man.” I couldn’t find it anywhere online, but Violi has a brief statement about the process of writing it that’s available throught the Modern American Poetry site.

  6. No I don’t, but I like the Plath poem you posted today.

  7. Also I thought you might appreciate this poem by the Wiener poet Ernst Jandl

    Bah, the site no longer has any Jandl, the Wayback Machine hasn’t preserved the link, and it’s now impossible to know what poem it was I liked so much.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    The website is still there with many links to authors, but no copy of a Jandl poem, if that was what the link had pointed to. Perhaps the Austrian copyright cops busted the site owner. But he does link to a Jandl website, where I found a recording of this:

    ottos mops

    ottos mops trotzt
    otto: fort mops fort
    ottos mops hopst fort
    otto: soso

    otto holt koks
    otto holt obst
    otto horcht
    otto: mops mops
    otto hofft

    ottos mops klopft
    otto: komm mops komm
    ottos mops kommt
    ottos mops kotzt
    otto: ogottogott

    Listen here for stress and intonation.

  9. Impossible? Not quite. While the page itself is not archived, the index linking to it is, from which we can see that was “Calypso” (and that it was eingesandt von Dorothea Luke). This poem appears to be posted here.

  10. Stu Clayton says


  11. Many thanks, Tim! I bow to your superior archive-fu, and to avoid future mystery, here’s the poem:

    Ernst Jandl – calypso

    ich was not yet
    in brasilien
    nach brasilien
    wulld ich laik du go

    wer de wimen
    arr so ander
    so quait ander
    denn anderwo

    ich was not yet
    in brasilien
    nach brasilien
    wulld ich laik du go

    als ich anderschdehn
    mange lanquidsch
    will ich anderschdehn
    auch lanquidsch in rioo

    ich was not yet
    in brasilien
    nach brasilien
    wulld ich laik du go

    wenn de senden
    mi acroos de meer
    wai mi not senden wer
    ich wulld laik du go

    yes yes de senden
    mi across de meer
    wer ich was not yet
    ich laik du go sehr

    ich was not yet
    in brasilien
    yes nach brasilien
    wulld ich laik du go

  12. And thanks to Stu as well — I like “ottos mops”!

  13. Stu’s “Listen here” link also has Ernst Jandl reading several other poems. They’re all really great, though Ottos mops is my favourite.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Check out the Turkish version – it turns out vowol harmono doesn’t make it easier:

    hilminin iti

    hilminin iti işer
    hilmi: it siktir git
    hilminin iti ikiler
    hilmi: hihihi

    hilminin içkisi
    hilminin iç çekişi
    hilmi işkilli
    hilmi: it it
    hilmi içerli

    hilminin iti titrer
    hilmi: gir it gir
    hilminin iti girer
    hilminin iti işer
    hilmi: itoğluit

  15. Sure looks better than the English version. An English non-German speaker would be advised to check out what a few of the words mean and then just listen to the Austrian although I wouldn’t mind hearing that Turkish, the repetition looks promising.

  16. Here’s the Russian version:


    мопс отто зол
    отто: вон мопс вон
    мопс отошол
    отто: тото

    отто топ топ
    хлопот полон рот
    отто: стоп
    отто: мопс мопс
    отто оглох

    но вот мопс вновь
    отто: хорош мопс
    но мопс отто плох
    мопс отто сдох
    отто: мойбогмойбог

    I liked it until I got to the end, where the dog dies. Too Russian!

  17. They should have translated it as мопс муму.

  18. Can’t — all the vowels have to be о.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Why is the dog сдох at the end ? Isn’t there a Russian word for “puke” with an “o” ? Or “sick as a dog” ?

  20. Not with just о, as far as I kno.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    Bolno ? Or abbreviated somehow like хорош мопс.

    It’s not “puke” specifically that counts, but the idea that the dog ate something he shouldn’t have. He could do that because his owner chased him away instead of keeping an eye on him.

    The end should show the owner regretting his action.

  22. The problem is that the mops is masculine, so the short form would be болен. And there’s an impersonal form больно with all o’s, but then you’d have to add ему ‘to him.’

  23. Puke can be тошно, but what fun is in that?

  24. Stu Clayton says

    The problem is that the mops is masculine

    I figured as much. So would this work (I hope the -ой does a dative, it’s been a long time…) ?

    мопсой отто больно

    Puke can be тошно, but what fun is in that?

    Because that’s what the German says. It’s a poem with a realistic plot and a moral point, as I explained above – and with all “o”s. It’s not just a stupid poème concrète, anybody can do all “o”s.

  25. Because that’s what the German says.

    Such literalism — I’m surprised at you! Besides, the Russian tradition of translation is looser than (say) the German. Also, while puking is Russian, death is even more so.

  26. Stu Clayton says

    How come “literal” ? It’s merely part of the actual plot, which I have generalized slightly to provide more wriggle room for creative translation. Dogs often puke from eating something they shouldn’t, they die much less often from doing so.

    If “die” is the best that can be done in Russian, so be it. As I said, one of the nice things about the story in the Jandl poem is that it’s familiar to anyone who has some experience with dogs. It’s not a dorky sequence of words with only “o” vowels. And it’s not “typically German” for dogs to puke. Puking may be Russian, but only some dogs are.

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