Thursday, December 18, 2014

About Town - The New Yorker and the World it Made for Me

My Fall-Winter reading list this year has included Ben Yagoda's About Town, The New Yorker and The World It Made [Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000].   

Ben Yagoda

I should preface my remarks about the book by relating some of my personal history. I first saw The New Yorker magazine at about age 13, in a drug-store on a magazine-rack, that would have been about 1960. I don't recall any of the articles it contained, but what struck me immediately was the understated modesty of the layout, and the density of its content. The first part of the text consisted of a very detailed series of announcements and reviews of events and places and opportunities, in very small typeface. It was clearly designed to be of use to residents of, or visitors to New York, though the magazine was distributed nation-wide (even around the world). 

My mom, who had been a reader of The New Yorker since her youth, before World War II, gave me a subscription as a Christmas present in 1961, and I remained a regular subscriber through my early adult life, until the year in which Tina Brown took over as Editor in Chief in 1992. 

By 1960, of course, The New Yorker was already a much different periodical than it had been in its early years--beginning in 1925. Initially a "humorous" magazine, it underwent a transition after the War, becoming a more serious, socially and politically responsible organ. Despite its ostensible "light" content mandate, its editor, the redoubtable Harold Ross, held very strong opinions about editorial policies regarding accuracy, grammar, decency, and factual verification. In consequence, when the magazine began to publish more serious content, its integrity commanded more respect than is typical of popular journals, because they checked their facts carefully before going to press. On the other hand, The New Yorker's early reputation was built on the work of its humorists (Thurber, Perelman, Benchley, et al) and its talented cartoonists. It was a magazine of sophisticated comedy and manners, in an era when people read for recreation, instead of watching television (or interacting with "personal" devices). 

Yagoda's book is a carefully researched history, touching on the major changes, the editorial department's policies, the columnists and feature writers and cartoonists, and some of the larger issues and events in the magazine's progress, over time. In particular, Yagoda was given access to the magazine's internal memoranda and correspondence, from the archive at the New York Public Library, allowing him an insider's view of the relationship between the editors and its staff, and between its editors and their  contributors. The official story is thus enhanced by internal gossip and some of the private friction we usually aren't privy to in accounts of this type. 

The big names of the early years--James Thurber, E.B. White, Alexander Woollcott, Peter Arno, Otto Soglow--gave the magazine a feeling and an atmosphere that was lighthearted, but sharp-eyed. Though not initially designed as a "news" magazine, it prided itself on being as responsible about the facts ("news") it did print, as it was careful about not making spelling or grammar mistakes, which developed into an obsession, with a whole department (the "fact-checkers") devoted to questioning and  verifying every assertion--claim, quotation, assumption, etc.--its contributors might make. This bred confidence among its readers, while establishing a plateau of plausibility upon which writers of accounts could depend. Beginning in the 1930's, a handful of writers, which included notably A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, started composing accounts and reports which contained versions of events and second-hand bits of narrative which would have been impossible to verify. The inclusion of such unverified material tended to be swept along in the tide of editorial presumption at the magazine, to the degree that the whole concept of fiction versus non-fiction journalism became a little blurred. When New Yorker contributors later published collections of the "Talk of the Town" section or longer pieces, in books, they were often described as "stories." 

In the news business, a "story" is a factual account of something that purportedly did happen, whereas an editorial is an "opinion" piece in which open-ended, not wholly factual, assertions may be made. The New Yorker's style of presenting articles and contributions without any lead-in or queueing (just the byline at the end, the author), tended to make the distinction between fact and fiction vague. This may not have been deliberate, and the editorial determination to be accurate probably encouraged the assumption that this distinction was clear enough, given context, not to cause confusion. The magazine tended to shy away from highly controversial subject-matter, and shunned promotional, or publicity-driven material--at least in its earlier period (up through the beginning of the 1950's). By the 1960's, however, the concept of "story" had become perhaps a bit too equivocal. 

In September 1965, Truman Capote published a four part serial account in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood, A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. As Capote would eventually say, the book was a "new" kind of writing, what he called the "non-fiction novel" comprised of actual material, but handled in a way that emphasized its dramatic potentials, bringing the fiction writer's skill at presenting and arranging events and accounts, in such a way as to raise it to the level of art, instead of mere journalism. Recently, there have been published reports about the inaccuracies in the book, which have shed some new light on the relationship between The New Yorker's reputation for inviolable commitment to truth, and its willingness to capitulate whenever the urge was strongest. Capote had published this kind of material before in the magazine, The Muses Are Heard, an account of an American opera-company's trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1955 (staging a production of Porgy and Bess), and so had an understanding about what accuracy meant, in the context of its appearance there. His continued insistence--his bragging, really--in the years following In Cold Blood's very successful and profitable appearance, about his having "invented" a new literary form, was an ironic twist with respect to The New Yorker's long-standing reputation, and its own claims to fidelity and integrity. 

Later, Alastair Reid, a Scottish poet, translator and essayist, admitted in an interview, that much of the material he had written in an autobiographical account of his living in Spain, published in The New Yorker, was in fact "manipulated" and even "made-up." And in the pieces authored by Liebling and Mitchell, among others, it has been acknowledged that, over the years, much of the material which had passed, tacitly, as journalistic fact, had been concocted or slightly altered to suit artistic aims. Hence the peculiar ambiguity of the term "story." 

As an aside, here, we might ask what the distinctions are between fact and fiction in feature news writing. And even, to raise the level of discourse even further, what is truth?--or, at least, in the context of accounts of past events--how do establish the truth of history? How is a fact a fact, and how can it be verified? And even assuming that we can agree on what constitutes an actual fact, what allegiance do we owe to this kernel of truth, and how shall it be interpreted, or understood?  

In ancient times, the Greek historians Herodotus, and Thucydides, wrote accounts of wars and political intrigue, which are now regarded as the first examples of formal history. Over the last five hundred years, scholars have debated about the degree of verisimilitude and verifiable fact in their works, and how it should be interpreted. Herodotus was known to think that the purpose of history was to derive ethical lessons, and that it was permissible both to make up stories to illustrate a point, and to knowingly alter facts to suit this greater "truth." Thucydides developed evidence by investigating and comparing different accounts, though in the end his methods of sourcing and gauging were probably no more reliable than Herodotus's were. Disagreements about what actually happened in history are the very stuff of historical research, and opinions about the meaning of what happened, many times more so. Capote's very poetic narrative certainly conveys a sense of the tragedy, the search for justice, and the souls of the participants, in ways that quotidian journalistic approaches could never have done. And that seems, now, 50 years later, the greater point and value of what he wrote, even if it wasn't the truth, the whole truth, so help [us] God, that really happened.  

Truth is a much more elusive quantity than we like to think it is. When we read something, a report or an account, we can weigh degrees of probability against our own knowledge, our powers of deduction, or our sense of the trustworthiness of the speaker. We tend to think that a photograph, or an aural recording, or a chemical test, can impart a degree of irrefutability impossible to achieve through mere testimony, or memory. Science has offered us new tools in the process of determining actual fact. But dry facts, without the human narrative to turn them into a meaningful action, may not be enough in themselves. 

Science and aesthetics provide different kinds of priorities. The struggle, in the case of The New Yorker, to present interesting and convincing accounts, as entertainment, without damaging its credibility, can be easily appreciated. Running a long work, such as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, for instance, which appeared in the NY'er in 1962, obviously required a foundation of accountability which could support the seriousness of the important claims and charges Carson would make.  

As an institution, The New Yorker magazine, which began as a high-brow, light-hearted social society sheet for upper-class New Yorkers, eventually found itself committed to socially and politically responsible journalism. As a magazine, during an era in which the traditional newspaper business, as well as the weekly or monthly magazine field, underwent drastic downsizings, it was able to stay afloat by maintaining its sophistication and reserved imperturbability. As Yagoda recounts, the magazine lost a good deal of money for its new owners the syndicate Advance Publications, after it was acquired in 1984. 

Tina Brown

In the years since Tina Brown [1992-1998] left, Editor David Remnick has accepted the challenge of keeping the magazine relevant, by taking clear stands on important national and international issues, while maintaining many of its traditionally "old-fashioned" content, such as the witty cartoons, the gags ("news-breaks"), light verse, and its hip or occasionally flippant, supercilious temperament. 

David Remnick

Though I stopped reading (or subscribing regularly) to The New Yorker years ago, I continue to read the books of its contributors, such as John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, John Cheever, and many, many others. Yagoda's book was in many senses a trip down memory lane for me, recalling my own fascination with it in early adolescence, and later disillusionment (in the Tina Brown era*). Unlike many readers, it wasn't the cartoons that lured me in; it was the sense of the world as an endlessly intriguing place, ripe for investigation and inquiry, where one might, modestly and with a minimum of fuss, follow one's perspicacious curiosity to the ends of the earth, without ever having left the comfort of your armchair.


*As Yagoda makes clear, Brown's tenure, though it soured many of the subscribers on the magazine, infused it with a spirit that had as much, or more, in common with its original roots (n the 1920's), than with the glitzy spirit of the New York fashion scene, from which Brown had come. Subscriptions jumped under her regime, but advertising revenue didn't. Though it was plain that the magazine would never look as traditional and "quietly" reserved as it had before she arrived, it reclaimed some of its authority under Remnick in the years since.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Simic's The World Doesn't End

In T.S. Eliot's famous minor poem The Hollow Men, there is a repeated refrain, 

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

This quatrain has entered the culture as a kind of proto-Modernist formula, defining a certain weary cynicism characteristic of its time (the complete version was first published in 1925). As an emblematic heresy, antithetical to the reigning pieties of its time, it stands as an echoing watershed moment in the progress of Western Culture--dry, exhausted, camp, rejecting the aspiring "suit" of respectable armor of the knights of industry and finance (hollow men). European civilization may have seemed decadent, going through the motions, in the years following the disillusion and devastation of the First World War. 

Meanwhile, 13 years later, a young Serbian boy is born in Belgrade. Sixteen years later, 1954, he emigrated to America. His first two books, published by George Hitchcock's Kayak Press, were described as among the "ugliest" books ever, illustrated in Hitchcock's signature amateur surreal-collage style, printed on cheap colored paper, crudely stapled or glued together. But in a way, Simic's work rather belonged in that format, given its formal manner. Hitchcock liked surrealists, and Simic's work was then, and has always tended to be, surrealist in its approach to subject-matter. 

Given his background, it's no surprise that Simic was heavily influenced by the literary traditions of his original native language, as well as by the events and experiences he had lived through in Yugoslavia before coming to America. His translations of Yugoslav poets have appeared with regularity right beside his own poetry collections. 

His poetic style has been consistent throughout the 50 years since he began publishing, and it has brought him successive honors and awards, including a stint as America's Poet Laureate, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for his collection The World Doesn't End [1989], a collection of short prose-poems. Though the prose poem hasn't been Simic's primary form--most of his work consists of relatively short poems, narrow lines--his work has always been expressed through short, grammatically simple declarative statements. Formally, he isn't an innovator, isn't interested in playing with or altering syntax, or in rhetorical flourishes. His vocabulary is elemental.

Simic could be, and has been, called primitive. This primitive quality derives I think not just from his subject-matter, but from the deliberately unadorned and "naive" way he presents it. There is no showing off in Simic's work; he's not trying to impress you with his facility or his ability to construct complex structures. He usually presents himself as a simpleton, who's tapped in to a deep stream of imagery or event, crudely humorous, or violent, or mysterious. I think of Simic in the same context as Jerzy Kosinski, both men as witnesses to a kind of primordial, semi- or pre-civilized European folk memory--in Simic's case, his experience of the distress and dislocation brought about by World War II in Yugoslavia, during his impressionable years as a child and young teenager.    

The cover of The World Doesn't End shows a photo of an untitled collage by Joseph Cornell, a very appropriate image for the kind of poems Simic writes, which tend to be collections of small objects or events whose only connection to each other is their metaphorical relationships he is able to set up.     



     It's a store that specializes in antique porcelain. She goes around it with a finger on her lips. Tsss! We must be quiet when we come near the teacups. Not a breath allowed near the sugar bowls. A teeny grain of dust has fallen on a wafer-thin saucer. She makes an "oh" with her owlet-mouth. On her feet she wears soft, thickly padded slippers around which mice scurry.

A piece like this reads as a kind of surreal child's story, abbreviated and altered to suit an adult mind.


     I am the last Napoleonic soldier. It's almost two hundred years later and I am still retreating from Moscow. The road is lined with white birch trees and the mud comes up to my knees. The one-eyed woman wants to sell me a chicken, and I don't even have any clothes on. 
     The Germans are going one way; I am going the other. The Russians are going still another way and waving good-by. I have a ceremonial saber. I use it to cut my hair, which is four feet long.  

All the pieces in the book are untitled, except for five (which are set out in lines, as poems). Simic's imagination runs to the macabre, the odd, the absurd. People and things simply appear, without explanation or context, and magical, improbable events and visions occur without warning or continuity. They might seem like Magritte compositions, with a tuba on fire, or a bird of stone floating above a cubic ocean. Simic's poetic world is one of continual surprises, constant upheaval and squirrelly intrusions. His is a language of images, constructed in the way dreams are, like journeys through slightly familiar--though often suddenly unfamiliar--surroundings. 

One feels that these little stories--or whatever they are--are like half-remembered (or imperfectly recovered) mythic fairy-tales, conjured up during the dark ages of European pre-history by slavic ancestors living in tribes among dense forested regions. Religions tell us that the world is born and the world ends, but what if the world was never born, and what if the world doesn't end, but just goes on and on forever, the living begetting and getting and dying forever, without any reckoning? That has the ring of desperation or hopelessness about it. 


     The dead man steps down from the scaffold. He holds his bloody head under his arm. 
     The apple trees are in flower. He's making his way to the village tavern with everybody watching. There, he takes a seat at one of the tables and orders two beers, one for him and one for his head. My mother wipes her hands on her apron and serves him. 
     It's so quiet in the world. One can hear the old river, which in its confusion sometimes forgets and flows backwards. 

If the violence and humor here seems crude, that may be the underlying message. Nature, and the primitive communal life of pre-civilized humanity, were indeed harsh, and unforgiving. We know that in pre-historic times, human life expectancy was less than 35 years, and without medicine or dentistry, pain and suffering and disability were nearly universal. Sex and reproduction began in the early 'teens, and conflict among groups was rife. Superstition and fear reigned supreme. Technology may have taken mankind "out of the woods" but perhaps may not have taken the "woods" out of mankind.       

As we mature, do we outgrow the stories of our childhood? Are children's tales really innocent diversions, or do they serve as  passage-ways out of innocence into the terrible nightmare of real life--its strangeness and mystery, its suffering and hopelessness and death? If the surrealists wanted to tap into the deeper levels of consciousness, where reality and unreality jostle uncertainly together, would they find there the evidence of our madness, or the keys to a brilliant paradise of possibility and ecstatic enlightenment?  

Simic speaks in the same common language of post-surrealist surrealists, a poorly defined group which might include James Tate, Mark Strand, Philip Lamantia, Robert Bly, Richard Brautigan, Stephen Dobyns, Russell Edson, James Wright. A poetry straightforward in its syntax and rhetoric and locutions, but very free with narrative continuity, using fantastic or absurd imagery and event as ciphers in a language of intuitive apperception. Most effective when most convincingly profound in its probings of "secret" connections among objects, symbols, or impressions. Comic or serious elements co-existing in the same head, even in the same poem, with unpredictable results.  

Simic's gift seems to have been to combine the primitivist's raw earthiness with the surrealist's dexterity in the use of improbable imagery--its drollery and bizarre humor. It often feels almost like a translation from another language, and like translation may sometimes seem alien or foreign in expression. And with Simic, it's always important to remember that he's essentially an emigrĂ©--a mind poised between different cultures--Serbo-Croatian and American--and different languages. His work doesn't feel American, and its alien quality seems deliberately cultivated, to charm and mystify his American audience. His is an American success story, the foreign immigrant who rose to the front rank of literary prominence, to attain the post of Poet Laureate of his adopted country.             

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Cemetery at Night - Mark Strand dead at 80

It was reported yesterday that Mark Strand had died, at 80, in Brooklyn. 80 isn't a young age, so it was not a surprise, and not tragic. Strand lived a long life, filled with literary accomplishments and honors, including a McArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, and Poet Laureate of the United States. 

I've written about him before, here, and have vaguely followed his career over the years since I first encountered his poems, in the mid-1960's, in The New Yorker. Later, when I went to Iowa, at the Poetry Workshop, I read his first collection in the Rare Book Room of the university, Sleeping With One Eye Open, after having picked up a copy of his first trade collection, Reasons for Moving [Atheneum, 1968], while I was still at Berkeley.    

In retrospect, Strand was in every respect an establishment poet. He wasn't an experimenter with language, his poems were spare, and straightforward, and he didn't have a political or personal agenda in his work. He'd been influenced by Hispanic writers, Borges and Alberti; and as he later told us, by Wallace Stevens, though this aspect wouldn't have seemed as obvious, since his work was quite unlike Stevens's lush, elaborate and elegant surfaces. Strand's work was plain, and unpretentious.

Despite its spare simplicity, his work wasn't like Oppen, or Williams, or Frost. Oddly, he seemed to have more in common with a poet like John Ashbery, or Charles Simic--with eccentric, surrealistic settings, and improbable narratives. 

I heard him read three times over the years, once in Berkeley, once at Iowa a little later, and much later in the 1990's, in Chicago. Strand was an imposing figure, tall, gaunt, ruggedly handsome, and a natty dresser. He was sophisticated, if a bit amused with himself, but seldom really cheerful. 

The mood of his poems varied between gravity and absurdity in ways that felt European. And in that way, and because of his physical presence, he seemed continental. His work is post-Modern in ways that set it apart from the post-War generation which preceded him (Lowell, Bishop, Shapiro, Jarrell, Wilbur, Nemerov, Stafford, Simpson, Logan), though formally his career fits neatly into the tradition they created. His tone is usually understated, he's never given to rhetorical flights, and he never challenges accepted standards of subject matter or styles. In manner, he's close to the later work of Donald Justice, W.S. Merwin, or even Galway Kinnell. 

I often read a kind of fatalistic quality in his poems, not unlike James Wright or Kinnell. It seemed to me that taking that position early in one's career was likely to become a straight-jacket later on, but Strand never wavered. He always took himself, and his work, seriously. 

I'm not sure why his death seems somehow unexpected, or peculiar. He often wrote about his own death, and what it might mean to know about it, as it were, after the fact. But it does.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Good-bye Panda

In J.D. Salinger's classic The Catcher in the Rye, the hero Holden Caulfield says at one point, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." 

I was only 9 years old when I first read that line from Catcher, but I understood then implicitly what it meant. Nostalgia can be a drug if taken too often, or in too large doses, but the remorse we feel about the irredeemable past is a familiar sensation, at least to me. Losing people along the way, through death or departure, is an inexorable fact of growing up, aging, moving on. Those with whom we shared time, or event, or space, may come eventually to haunt our consciousness, as Evelyn Waugh puts it, in Brideshead Revisited, "as ghosts are said to do."*

Yesterday, it was reported that Pablo Sandoval, the San Francisco Giants' redoubtable, eccentric, and oddly charming third baseman since coming to the majors in 2003 at age 22, had signed a five-year contract (worth a reported 95 million dollars) with the Boston Red Sox. 

The free-agent signing wasn't unexpected. The Giants had failed to offer "The Panda" (as he had come to be affectionately known) a contract extension before the start of the 2014 season, and there was palpable suspicion on both sides--Pablo, and the Giants management--that the team's sense of his worth was less than might be deserved. 

Statistically, Sandoval has always been an interesting case. As his career stats (below) show:  

year       age           games         at-bats  R    H     2b   3n   HR RBI  SB       BB SO  BA           SLG
2011 ★24SFGNL117466426551342632370243263.315.357.552.9091552351201795/3DAS,MVP-17
2012 ★25SFGNL108442396591122521263113859.283.342.447.7891231771310745/3DAS
7 Yrs86935333215398946192191064621112259464.294.346.465.81112314941021714150

--he was consistently a very good but not consistently great hitter, with some power. In fact, inconsistency was a given with Pablo. Emotionally, he presented the case of an immature, impulsive, undisciplined athlete, given to swinging at bad balls, especially in clutch situations. His physical mannerisms, and presence, suggested boyish enthusiasm. 

Also, as became routine each season, Pablo had a weight problem, which threatened to impede his balance, speed and efficiency, both at the plate, and in the field. For a man of his physical build, he seemed incredibly agile and quick, "like a cat," announcers would often remark. He could dive for screaming line drives on either side of him, leap to his feet, and make lightning throws to first base. 

Opposing pitchers often despaired of facing him, since he was as likely to strike a ball well out of the strike-zone, for a hit, as he was to swing through a straight fast-ball down the middle. You could outsmart him, pitch around him, but he might still beat you, swatting a pitch a foot outside into left field for a double. 

Though nominally a switch-hitter, his performance has increasingly been from the left side of the plate, this comparative advantage being as much as 100 points average difference. Given his height and weight, he was a slow runner. Playing at China Basin park, his home run totals, given the long right field dimensions, would never be impressive. Pablo was a "contact hitter," a "spray hitter"--unpredictable, frustrating, and perplexing. 

His coach, Bruce Bochty, understood Pablo's character, and usually left him alone, realizing that his fragile emotional immaturity would be unlikely to respond to direct criticism or scolding. Pablo rewarded this patience with great performances in big games. Christened the "Kung Fu Panda" by x-Giants hurler Barry Zito, the nickname stuck, and before long, the stadium was full of "panda hats" and head-masks. Sandoval was a fan favorite, as much for his roly-polly onfield presence as for his unlikely heroics. As a regular fan of the team, I probably heard or saw him play at least 500 times, and he became an accustomed persona in my world. 

Pablo didn't speak good English, and tended to seem a little exotic in person. You wondered what he thought about things, and how he might seem off the field. A native Venezuelan, he must certainly have felt strange in 21st Century America. 

Playing for the Boston Red Sox, given is big free-agent contract, Pablo will have big expectations to fulfill. Bosox fans will undoubtedly become impatient with him, and one suspects that, unless he exceeds the usual demands of a big-time free-agent star, he isn't likely to command the same respect and appreciation he did in San Francisco. 

Just before the beginning of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, in Kansas City, the television cameras panned into the Giants dug-out, where Pablo could be seen going down the bench, whispering into the ear of each Giants player. It seemed clear that he was probably making his heart-felt good-byes to each of his team-mates, the implication being that he already had decided, perhaps unconsciously, that this would be the last chance he would have to do that. Or so it seemed to me at the time. 

As it turned out, the Giants apparently had ended up offering Pablo an equivalent amount of money for an equal number of years, as Boston had. But Pablo must have felt, in some sense, betrayed, and wished to go somewhere he was appreciated. 

Professional baseball is a business, and the players are employees. Baseball is a game, with rules, but a great part of the appeal for the fans, perhaps the most important part, is the sentiment of joy and caring that go into their appreciation. Identifying with players, spending one's hopes and fears on the performance of a group of grown men striving to succeed at a "boy's game" is a kind of legitimate folly that is as much a part of the American experience as democratic politics, or outrageously avant garde art, or fighting in foreign wars. 

It may be that we crave unlikely heroes, people who (like us) dream of being on the world's stage, striving to exceed our native abilities, and occasionally overcoming impossible odds to achieve feats of daring or skill. This certainly accounts for some of Sandoval's appeal. He was one of us, imperfect, unusual, and not always in complete control of his emotions. 

The hole he leaves in the Giants' heart can't be filled. The Giants may sign a slugging outfielder, or a new young rookie third baseman may arrive on the scene. But the Panda is irreplaceable, a key component of three championship teams, and a quirky, funny boy-man who alternatively broke our hearts, and heartened us. 

He will be missed.

*The full quotation is "I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world."