Friday, January 30, 2009

John Updike (1932-2009)

For those of my generation, who grew up in the 1950's and 1960's, John Updike was an up-and-coming novelist and critic.  I first encountered his work as the author of two light verse collections, yoked together in a Fawcett paperback entitled, simply, Verse [1965].  Verse reprinted The Carpentered Hen [1958], and Telephone Poles [1963].

Updike had begun, somewhat unexpectedly, as an aspiring cartoonist; he went to England to study drawing, and seems to have begun writing almost as an adjunct to his interest in humor. The poems he began to publish in The New Yorker were right in the tradition started by F.P. Adams in the 1920's, a forum which attracted other early practitioners such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker, etc.; but it was actually James Thurber's work which most clearly served as the model for Updike's early efforts.  But, unlike Thurber, and more like White, Updike had a more serious side, and as his career progressed, he turned away from the cuteness and whimsy of light verse, to serious fiction--first in short stories, and later in novels.  

The first novel of Updike's I read was Rabbit, Run.  From the first words of that novel, Updike announced himself as the singer of sensation, the poet of physicality, of close observation, the slippery qualities of tactility, of primary feeling.  The writing was also frank, about sex, about relations between the sexes, and about the vicissitudes of lower-middle-class American life, a world which I knew well.  Rabbit Angstrom was a lot like the high school basketball players I knew, and I could see just how their futures could come to resemble the character in that book.

My first efforts at writing poetry were imitations of the poems in Verse.  Alongside the poems we read in high school English class, which included the likes of Shakespeare, Browning, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, for instance, Updike's flip, glib, hip, witty pirouettes were a refreshing breath of oxygen.  They talked about everything; nothing was too trivial, too mundane as subject.  They took nothing too seriously, and seemed to glide on a roller-ball of excelsior.  

It wasn't until later that I picked up The Poorhouse Fair [1959], Updike's first novel. Poorhouse Fair read like a very pretentious piece of unpretentious emulation of William Maxwell, or the sort of novel that someone who liked Henry Green or William Sansom might have dreamed up. It wouldn't take Updike long, though, to throw off the yoke of that polite literary society and throw his ribbon into the ring as a major novelist, with The Centaur [1963], and Couples [1968]. The last, an unrepentant and unforgiving explication of the hedonistic sexual relationships in a small New England town in the free-wheeling 'Sixties, brought Updike into the bestseller circle, as well as the fame which his earlier books could not command.  

As the years went by, and Updike continued to pile up novels, short stories, reviews, autobiography, and more poetry in a burgeoning surfeit of prolificity, I began to lose interest in his work.  I enjoyed the Bech books, which seemed to be both a celebration of his contemporary Jewish competitors, and a sly (thought not very subtle, really) dig at their peccadillos as well. But by and large, I found his later novels dull, as if he had gone on writing them out of habit, rather than necessity.  

We went to hear him read from The Terrorist when he toured on the West Coast in 2006.  I'd never seen him in the flesh before.  He was cheerful, polite, patient, and witty, to a fault.  He clearly wanted very much to be liked.  Yet, underneath the good cheer, there was an undercurrent of cynicism, a little stream of despair which I always caught just beneath the surface of his prose, unmistakable.  

In the end, I find I admire his poetry, and his essays the most.  He was a polymath.  He could talk about any kind of writing, and had a good familiarity with most of the world's literatures. He taught himself such a lapidary mastery over the materials of his craft that it may almost have become a hindrance to conviction and curiosity.  And yet curiosity was the essence of his intelligence.  Seemingly, he had read about everything, and could tell you about it.  And if he hadn't, he could imagine it for himself, and for you the reader.  

His kind of literary dexterity is rare at any time.  There's no one else presently who seems capable of filling his shoes.  I will miss him.     

Thursday, January 29, 2009

On Donald Justice's American Sketches

American Sketches
by Donald Justice

Crossing Kansas by Train

The telephone poles
Have been holding their
Arms out
A long time now
To birds
That will not
Settle there
But pass with
Strange cawings
Westward to
Where dark trees
Gather about a
Water hole this
Is Kansas the
Mountains start here
Just behind 
The closed eyes
Of a farmer's
Sons asleep
In their work clothes

This is the first of two poems under this title.  Somewhat uncharacteristically, these are free verse forms, clearly under the conscious (one might even say self-conscious) influence of William Carlos Williams--his characteristic American Gothic theme, the spare, angular, economic use of blank description.  Cleanness.  Simplicity.  Homespun modesty.  Rather like a folksy mood piece by Aaron Copland.  

Justice had gone to school with strict forms and the conservative approach of the 1950's, attending the Iowa Workshop when it was dominated by traditional dogmas, when Lowell, Berryman, Penn Warren, major figures of the post-War period, worked as instructors, and the prevailing influences of the New Critics, the Fugitives, etc., held sway.  Justice had thrived inside this crucible, carving out a niche for himself as a latter-day Southern descendent of Crowe Ransom and Tate.  Growing up in Florida, he had shown talent both as a composer of serious music, as well as a poet.  

It is in this in this dual role of Justice's as poet and musician (in the French sense of that word) that I like to think of with respect to these poems.  Here is the second part:

Poem to be Read at 3 A.M.

Excepting the diner
On the outskirts 
The town of Ladora       
At 3 a.m.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Where someone
Was sick or
Perhaps reading
As I drove past
At seventy
Not thinking
This poem
Is for whoever
Had the light on

Both poems reflect aspects of a middle American landscape:  Flat, empty, whose only verticals are buildings, trees, telephone poles, signs, farm animals.  This lonely, forlorn prairie country is the purified embodiment of open space, that primordial characteristic of the American psyche which Charles Olson named as primary for our poetry.  Justice's versions of the perfect Spring & All poem is a summation of Williams's methodology of stripped-down construction, not one plank, not one nail too many.  No decorated cornices, no curlicues, unpretentious.  A kind of Shaker plainness, useful, pragmatic.  

The first poem (of 20 lines) is comprised of two sentences, enjambed at line 13 ("hole/this is"), seamlessly transitioning from bland but satisfying description--telephone poles, birds, trees, water holes--to a more mysterious country "behind/The closed eyes/Of a farmer's sons" where "the Mountains start".  In only 56 words, Justice has managed, with the most meager of means, to evoke the imagined landscape of the American Dream.  A master of the crafted, classical formality (sonnets, villanelles, etc.), Justice here brings to bear on a form that--superficially--one might have expected him to disdain--gifts of economy and elemental reduction which would belie the nature of his gift.  Not a single word is wasted.  In addition, rather than falling for the easy pretense of naked description, he brings a human dimension in, in each poem--in the first, the farmer's sons, in the second, the anonymous inhabitant of a hotel room in Ladora, Iowa (just West of Iowa City) at 3 a.m.--trumping the very "emptiness" which this distilled tradition usually signifies.  

Both poems remind me of famous photographs, but most particularly of the one at the head of this entry, by Minor White [1908-1976], entitled simply Vicinity of Danville, New York, ca. 1955.  Something of the starkness and gloom of this landscape is what's being evoked in Justice's poems, a summary, of a kind, of the sort of quality which Justice, a child of the Depression (WPA, the Dustbowl, the migrations Westward described in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Walker Evans, etc. ), felt deeply.  Especially, as he grew older, Justice reflected increasingly on memory, nostalgia, of his childhood, of the barrenness of the 'Thirties, the decayed gentility of the South where he'd grown up.  

These poems, written in mid-career, were also influenced by French models, in particular those of the poet Eugene Guillevic; and were collected in his second book, Night Light (1967).  

We will have more to say about Justice's work in future.  I had the privilege of studying briefly with him at Iowa in the early 1970's.  A charming, courtly, amusing gentleman, who "understood," as one whose opinion I highly valued once said "the insides of poems."       

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Taser Controversy

In the late 1990's, following some years of research, a Scottsdale, Arizona firm called TASER (named after a fictional weapon, "Thomas A. Swifts Electric Rifle"), began marketing a pistol-sized "gun" designed to incapacitate humans through Electro-Muscular Disruption (EMD) technology, by causing severe muscle contractions through involuntary stimulation of both the sensory nerves and the motor nerves.  Originally intended for police use, Taser International is also marketing a civilian model. 
TASERS were introduced, or marketed as "less-lethal weapons" to be used to subdue fleeing, belligerent, or potentially dangerous subjects where the use of traditional instruments, such as batons, pepper spray or tear gas, or guns with live ammunition would have been otherwise used.
TASERS work by firing small penetrating darts into a subject, connected by wires to the electronic charge.  Some augmented models also function as "stun guns" intended to cause intense, debilitating pain.  
Anyone who has suffered an accidental electrical shock through ordinary household current, or even a strong snap from a static electric source, knows how terrifying this can be.  Any electric shock strong enough to cause an individual to go into involuntary convulsions belongs high on the list of dangerous instruments.
Once introduced into the criminal law enforcement community, TASERS have rapidly gained support and popularity among front line police officers and their advocates.  What greater thrill could there be than to "zap" a disorderly or uncooperative "perp" on the street?  How much less strenuous and problematic--than physically subduing someone, using a baton, or threatening deadly force with a pistol?  So clean and neat.  Zap!  
But tasers aren't safe.  Several studies have shown that the charge used in TASERS is sufficient to cause cardiac or respiratory arrest in some people, and to cause others to go into physical shock.  There are documented cases of people actually dying after being TASERed.  It is impossible for a policeman--or anyone else, for that matter--to know what kinds of medical conditions or susceptibilities a stranger may have.  Who can we trust with the authority to use TASERS when their potential danger is so great, especially for those who may be at risk for serious injury?     
Because the technology is so new, there are no laws governing when and under what conditions these new weapons can be used.  In addition, there hasn't been sufficient testing done to determine what the actual affects and risks are of routine police use on the street.
One can imagine that TASERS might be of use, for instance, in prisons, where large groups of hardened types might not otherwise be manageable.  Historically, tools like high-pressure water, tear-gas, rubber bullets, etc., have been used to control crowds.  
But these new toys constitute a completely new development in the use of technology to terrorize and bully individuals, and the communities where they live. 
TASERS have most often been used to intimidate and "punish" individuals who aren't sufficiently compliant and obedient.  With TASERS at their disposal, police officers are tempted to provoke and engage irresponsibly, believing that possession of these new space age short-cuts will shield them from the risk of charges of "police brutality" or provocative behavior.  
It's only a matter of time--despite assurances from the manufacturers--that these devices will fall into the hands of criminals and others in the general population.  Once the technology has been developed, it's difficult to keep the lid on their proliferation and abuse. 
Hybrid forms of the new technology are now being marketed directly to the general public:  "Stunning Pink" (pictured above), a new "personal safety device" works this way: "When deployed, 950,000 volts of electricity flow through the prongs on the end of the Stunning Pink into the body of the attacker.  The initial shock interrupts the signal between the attacker's neurotransmitters in the brain and their muscular system.  The interruption of this signal causes the attacker to immediately drop to the ground.  The delivery of this level of electricity to the muscular system causes the insulin to vacate the muscles leaving only lactic acid behind.  The lack of insulin in the muscles will cause the attacker to be temporarily immobilized, with no long term lasting effects."  
It isn't hard to see how the use of such powerful devices could, and would be used inappropriately, or with malice, by anyone--normal or deranged--wanting to flex their gadget muscles. 
As a matter of public good, these devices should be outlawed by all jurisdictions.  Their use cannot be properly monitored, and the risk of serious injury is too great to leave to casual chance.  

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Tribute to Ronald Johnson (1935-1998): Part One

Plant Forms - Arthur Dove, 1912.

Ronald Johnson has long been considered by The Compass Rose as being one of a handful of poets writing in English since the Second World War, whose work deserves to be included in anyone's list of gifted and innovative writers.  His earliest work, collected in A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees [Jonathan Williams, Highlands, North Carolina, 1964], was a refreshing departure from the majority of academic versifying on the one hand, and the self-conscious rhetorical gestures of the "avant garde" on the other, which characterized the competing camps of poetry-writing during the 1940's and 1950's.  Working directly from quotations, and relying on a specificity of source, place and time, Johnson's work was a wholly original approach to pastoral, one informed by a deep and reverent reading, and by a circumspect response to his ambient mental landscapes (Kansas, the English countryside, as well as to the graphic prophetic visions of Blake, Palmer, Dove, etc.).  It was modern, and brisk, and confident, but measured and unpretentious.

Our favorite Johnson poem is Three Paintings By Arthur Dove.  Here is the beginning of Part 1:

I. Plant Forms

Dove once pulled up a cyclamen
& tore it up
to show how the color went
down in the stem

& on into the root.

Color is a condition of the plant--
color of the flower
& pod,

embedded in the bud.

Notice how deftly he handles the repetitions of "pulled up" and "tore it up" which is then balanced against the "down" and "& on" which fall neatly from the pulling quality of the first two lines.  Those first two brief stanzas are filled with a controlled fury:  Deliberate, active, even violent, but held in perfect balance.  Moving beyond color, the poem expands outward--

At the perimeters of growth
the plant
has lines of force--

as the 'wind

has weight.'

With only 16 words, Johnson manages to summon up a symphonic landscape; you can feel (see) the currents of wind as they move in response to natural forces at work.

If we could look at an orange flower long enough

it would become blue.

What a miraculous transformation!  Color may be a condition of the structure of a given organism, but perception is a kind of magic, before which we stand in awe, as before nature itself.  Our experience can be transformed in time, and may indeed deceive us.  

spathe, sheath, 
petiole, blade,
stalk, and root--

'these moving circles in which we walk'.

We are caught up in universal motions, intersecting orbits of bodies and flows implied earlier in the flux of weighted wind.  Typically, with Johnson, the two active quotations in the poem imply a (quasi-scientific) antecedent observation, as if the voice of the speaker were verifying historical memory.  Science and alchemy come together.  Wonder is the super-awareness of kinetic interaction, mind sensing the distribution of matter and force as weighted measures, which the poem is set to evoke.  Even more typical, in Johnson, is the specific reference to event, as if all experience constituted a proof of the Imagination.  Feelings, sensations, intuitions are clues to universal form(s).  Science and imagination, inqury and play, are equal partners in the apprehension of life's meaning.  Words (names) echo (meanings) back through time to origins (coinages) out of sound (whorls), (felt) shape, and notation (writing).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Testing adding a new blog