Saturday, October 31, 2009

Louis Simpson - of the War Generation - A Survivor [Part I]

Louis Simpson [1923- ], one of the last survivors of the generation which went to war in 1941, began as a formalist poet [The Arrivistes, 1949], but developed into a free verse "deep image" poet during the 1960's, and continued in this vein throughout the next 40 years; insofar as I'm aware, he's still writing and publishing. I have no idea what Simpson is like in person: He taught at Berkeley in the 1960's, but was gone before I arrived there as an undergraduate in the late Sixties. I can only guess from his work, what his personality is like. Simpson served in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army during the Second World War; those interested in what this might have meant, are directed to the 12 part miniseries Band of Brothers [Dreamworks SKG, 2001], which documents in some detail the difficult engagements this division participated in in the European Theater (i.e., Normandy, The Battle of the Bulge, etc.).    

I believe I must first have read his work in the Donald Hall anthology Contemporary American Poetry [Penguin, 1962], though I did acquire his Selected Poems [Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965] later and read it through. His most famous collection, At the End of the Open Road [Wesleyan, 1963] won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I'd like to discuss two of his poems which were quite influential on my poetics and thinking about poetry in the 1960's and 1970's.

This poem appeared in his Pulitzer collection, and has been frequently anthologized. It captures the mood of the Sixties, Americans' uncertainty about their preeminent destiny as the "most important people" in the world.
              The Inner Part

When they had won the war
And for the first time in history
Americans were the most important people --
And their wives did not scratch in public,
Just when they'd stopped saying "gosh" --
When their daughters seemed as sensitive
As the tip of a fly rod,
And their sons were as smooth as a V-8 engine --
Priests, examining the entrails of birds,
Found the heart misplaced, and seeds
As black as death, emitting a strange odor.
Following WWII, America's position in the world--its military and diplomatic dominance in world affairs--seemed unchallenged. American foreign policy, during the 20 year period following the surrender of the Japanese after the two atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was based on the assumption that America had "saved" the world, and, backed up by its overwhelming military power, had the moral authority to dictate to the family of nations (at The United Nations). The rise of the Soviet Union, the beginning of the Cold War, and the spread of nuclear technology, moderated this arrogance somewhat, but in another sense it made us more rigidly defensive and bellicose than we might otherwise have been. Nevertheless, Americans tended to think their "license" was a blank check.

This overconfidence was also moderated by other "sinister" undercurrents. Our confidence in scientific research was shaken by the newly identified problems with radiation, pesticides, food additives, industrial pollution and environmental poisons of all kinds. The environmental movement was just getting started in the late 1950's.       

It is in this context that Simpson's poem is launched. Configured not so much as self-doubt, as an accusatory finger, a symbolic warning about the dangers of hubris, of a cocky presumption about the rectitude of power, the poem is a morality play, in which scientists (the new "priests" of our technological culture) discover mutations and deformities in the bodies of birds--reminiscent of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring [Houghton Mifflin, 1962], the original shot across the bow, warning America of the dangers of chemical contamination in agriculture and the environment generally. 

The connection Simpson makes between the military victory (in WWII) and society's misplaced over-confidence in the technological manipulation of the environment is commonly unremarked, though it was certainly not a logical connection at all at the time. The drift of the poem is largely satiric, chastising Americans for their bumptious provinciality (whose wives no longer "scratched in public"), "when their daughters seemed as sensitive as the tip of a fly rod, and their sons were as smooth as a V-8 engine...." This indictment of the middle-class, unsophisticated and crass, proud of its sport and purring Detroit engines, is held up as the personification of complacency, against a backdrop of danger, as evidenced by the unwitting destruction of nature. Yet Simpson doesn't actually identify these "birds" as being American--perhaps that's not an important distinction, given the harshness of his accusation. 

The poem seems to be saying "don't get too comfortable with your security and prosperity, there are things, largely unremarked 'invisible' things, happening in your world that spell doom to your quaint assumption of superiority and efficiency and confident inertia." In the context of a traditional, religious framework, such spooky signs might signify evil. Simpson proposes the existence of an insidious force, of "seeds as black as death"--rather like cancerous cells propagating defective births, unwanted mutations. 

During the Nazi period in Germany, German scientists were encouraged to explore all kinds of horrific theories about human behavior and physiology, using prison- and death-camp inmates as helpless guinea-pigs. Too, in America, many conscientious objectors were forced to undergo similar (though less brutal or fatal) "experiments" including radiation exposure. The American public was routinely encouraged to believe that they should have confidence in synthetic products, in scientific experiments--that's a practice that continues today, as the chemical-medical industries push the sale of hormones, genetically engineered agriculture, and all manner of medical chemistry. Everything is safe, it's all been tested, etc.

There is also a dichotomy in the poem between the realities of armed conflict (war), and the comfortable insulation that Americans have traditionally felt, from the disruptions that have occurred in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. Except for the Civil War, Americans have had the leisure to view war as a "necessary evil" which "happens" to others, but not here, not in America. WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan--these are things that happen to others, but not to us. One major consequence of 9/11 has been the realization by Americans, that terror, as a tool of conflict, will no longer be confined to foreign countries, but will be brought right to our doorstep, right inside our own house. 

It may be that what Simpson is saying is that the complacency which Americans have enjoyed for 75 years (as of the writing of the poem in question [1962]) is an illusion, that the dangers inherent in a world of conflict, greed, ignorance, license and gullibility, are as present, at any time, in any circumstance, as they are when expressed as open warfare. 

The war may be over, but the seeds of conflict continue to affect us. Not only that; but the faith we may put in newfangled manipulations of our food, of our homes, of our yards, of our clothes, may be just as naive and dangerous as our assumptions about any sense of righteousness we may hold about other countries, other peoples, other ways of life.         

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Frost's Poem "Mowing"

Too often these days, we tend to think of the American poet Robert Frost [1874-1963] as a grand old man, white-haired and crotchety, conjuring gnomes and twinkling amusedly under the glare of his public's admiration (and four Pulitzers), durably living far beyond his time, a throwback to an earlier age of crusty stubborn Yankee practicality and tested country wisdom. 

But I like to think of Frost the younger man, prideful, often frustrated and angry, pondering alternatives, ambitious and secretly egotistical. Like any good poet, he was preoccupied by mysteries, conundrums, contradictions, as much as by love, death, and the state of the world. No one who wrote poems as deceptively casual in their phrasing, yet as tightly controlled in their arguments and conceptual integration, as he did, could not have deeply desired to pour everything of himself into the effort. Like Pound, and Stevens, and Moore, Frost's work was the man. You can struggle so fiercely against the limits of language that the contention becomes your own daemon. Writing poems can't have been "easy" for Frost, but he resisted the impulse to let the poems bear the full weight of this complexity, insisting instead that they resonate through straightforward, accessible vocabulary and style.     

Frost's poems--at their best--seduce you into thinking about life, through the most familiar of subjects, the most everyday things. On one level, they are like charming post-cards of New England, picturesque and ruminative, wagering friendly bets against the possibility of mutual understanding. That is Frost's superficial charm, what makes his work both honest, yet strategically disarming at the same time. As he grew older, he made more use of cute, logical similes, often slipping into light verse (as Auden did). But it's in the early work that his clearest, sharpest efforts lie.  

An early poem that has always seemed to me exquisitely simple, yet quite profound, is--


There was never a sound beside the wood but one, 
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground. 
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself; 
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun, 
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound 
And that was why it whispered and did not speak. 
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours, 
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf: 
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak 
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows, 
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers 
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake. 
The fact is the sweetest dream that labour knows. 
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.  


To anyone who has done physical labor, in a rural setting, this has a familiar ring. Physical labor outdoors, in late Summer or early Fall, is exhausting. Felling hay with an old-fashioned scythe (the symbol of death for hundreds of years) is a back-breaking task. On hot afternoons, the sun beats down on your back, you sweat profusely--you may even become slightly faint, even see spots before your eyes. Almost everything Frost describes in his poems-especially tasks associated with farming, or rural life--becomes a test case, a charming souvenir example, acquires a symbolic significance on another level. But he's speaking here about a state of mind with a clear physical reality--the train of thought in the poem follows a logical sequence in keeping with the sensual (and sensory) activity itself. 

The oppressive heat is associated with a lack of sound, the context within which the scythe's "whisper" is heard. Heavy breathing, the pounding of one's heart, and the swinging motion of the long handle of the scythe as it swishes through the stands of high grass, like a mortal pendulum keeping the time of one's life. The speaker meditates upon what this "sound" might signify. It signifies heat, the lack of sound, of the "labor" which "laid the swale in rows." Oddly, in the 12th line, a dangling predicate--"and scared a bright green snake." Are we to assume that this snake is scared by the scythe, or simply its being disturbed from its natural hiding place in the grass? 

I prefer to think of the snake and the scythe as conveniently trite examples of Biblical analogy that really have little to do with the distillate of the poem's true subject, which is expressed in the miraculous line that follows: "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." If fact is a dream, then labor is the mere mechanical performance of all matter, animate or in-. In the end, all labor is a kind of futility against the backdrop of universal emptiness. The universe is a grand machine, fascinating in its parts. The secret of its being, of its purpose, or the ultimate equation of its function, lies beyond our understanding. We may "dream" but the most fundamental achievement of our cognition may be an acknowledgment of "fact"--of what is, without purpose, without ultimate motive. 

Labor inspires this sense of futility. We may enjoy being nature's instrument, or the useful servants of a higher power, or simply the vehicle (the expression) of our own drives. "Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak/to the earnest love" that drives the scythe. Ultimately, is "earnest love" the highest inspiration of our drives, our labor? Frost seems to be implying that this "earnest love"--which scares the snake (evil) from the garden--is the highest good of which mortal men are capable. If the scythe is death, whispering of silent heat and idleness--then simple work may contain the riddle of beauty and ingenuity, because work--the mechanical riddle in a nutshell--that is, animate existence--must contain the riddle to our purpose. A quaintly New Englandish notion, perhaps, that work is its own best recommendation, the whole ball of wax.

This is a sonnet, with the rhyme scheme A/B/C/A/B/D/E/C/D/F/E/G/F/G, iambic pentameter--about as old-fashioned as you can get. In Frost's hands, it has that familiar, casual approachability (ugly word, but useful here) which is the hallmark of many of his best poems. Superficially friendly, "neighborly" but intensely serious in its particulars. Economical of means, precise, a little dreamy, but grave in its underlying meditation. Vintage early Frost.  

Edward Abbey on Immigration

Edward Abbey [1927-1989], the late novelist, essayist, and environmental activist, was a confirmed political "liberal" (perhaps even an extremist), who believed that the degradation of the land and culture of the American Southwest was a crime against nature, and that the least any one of us could do was to try to defend it from the resource exploiters and population pressures which endangered it.  

In an essay written for (solicited, actually, by) the august New York Times, Abbey took the contrarian position regarding Mexican immigration. The Times refused to publish it, or give Abbey his "kill fee"--perfect proof that he'd stepped over the line. Rather than publish the "embarrassing" article, they pretended that it hadn't ever been written. It didn't matter whether Abbey was right or wrong--a figure of his authority disagreeing about immigration was just too potent a threat to the liberal biases the Times felt bound to observe. In the long run, however, as always, trying to resist the truth is always a bad strategy, as Abbey's essay has continued to be a cautionary document for those who get too caught up in the apologetics of unfettered (and illegal) immigration. I'm reprinting the essay in toto here, since it appears several other places online, copyright fears be damned (at least until someone threatens me with a lawsuit). 

                "Immigration and Liberal Taboos" [Reprinted in 1988]

In the American Southwest, where I happen to live, only sixty miles north of the Mexican border, the subject of illegal aliens is a touchy one. Even the terminology is dangerous: the old word wetback is now considered a racist insult by all good liberals; and the perfectly correct terms illegal alien and illegal immigrant can set off charges of xenophobia, elitism, fascism, and the ever-popular genocide against anyone careless enough to use them. The only acceptable euphemism, it now appears, is something called undocumented worker. Thus the pregnant Mexican woman who appears, in the final stages of labor, at the doors of the emergency ward of an El Paso or San Diego hospital, demanding care for herself and the child she's about to deliver, becomes an "undocumented worker." The child becomes an automatic American citizen by virtue of its place of birth, eligible at once for all of the usual public welfare benefits. And with the child comes not only the mother but the child's family. And the mother's family. And the father's family. Can't break up families can we? They come to stay and they stay to multiply.

What of it? say the documented liberals; ours is a rich and generous nation, we have room for all, let them come. And let them stay, say the conservatives; a large, cheap, frightened, docile, surplus labor force is exactly what the economy needs. Put some fear into the unions: tighten discipline, spur productivity, whip up the competition for jobs. The conservatives love their cheap labor; the liberals love their cheap cause. (Neither group, you will notice, ever invites the immigrants to move into their homes. Not into their homes!) Both factions are supported by the cornucopia economists of the ever-expanding economy, who actually continue to believe that our basic resource is not land, air, water, but human bodies, more and more of them, the more the better in hive upon hive, world without end - ignoring the clear fact that those nations which most avidly practice this belief, such as Haiti, Puerto Rico, Mexico, to name only three, don't seem to be doing well. They look more like explosive slow-motion disasters, in fact, volcanic anthills, than functioning human societies. But that which our academic economists will not see and will not acknowledge is painfully obvious to los latinos: they stream north in ever-growing numbers.

Meanwhile, here at home in the land of endless plenty, we seem still unable to solve our traditional and nagging difficulties. After forty years of the most fantastic economic growth in the history of mankind, the United States remains burdened with mass unemployment, permanent poverty, an overloaded welfare system, violent crime, clogged courts, jam-packed prisons, commercial ("white-collar") crime, rotting cities and a poisoned environment, eroding farmlands and the disappearing family farm all of the usual forms of racial ethnic and sexual conflict (which immigration further intensifies), plus the ongoing destruction of what remains of our forests, fields, mountains, lakes, rivers, and seashores, accompanied by the extermination of whole specie's of plants and animals. To name but a few of our little nagging difficulties.

This being so, it occurs to some of us that perhaps evercontinuing industrial and population growth is not the true road to human happiness, that simple gross quantitative increase of this kind creates only more pain, dislocation, confusion, and misery. In which case it might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people. At least until we have brought our own affairs into order. Especially when these uninvited millions bring with them an alien mode of life which - let us be honest about this - is not appealing to the majority of Americans. Why not? Because we prefer democratic government, for one thing; because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful--yes, beautiful!--society, for another. The alternative, in the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see.

Yes, I know, if the American Indians had enforced such a policy none of us pale-faced honkies would be here. But the Indians were foolish, and divided, and failed to keep our WASP ancestors out. They've regretted it ever since.

To everything there is a season, to every wave a limit, to every range an optimum capacity. The United States has been fully settled, and more than full, for at least a century. We have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by allowing the old boat to be swamped. How many of us, truthfully, would prefer to be submerged in the Caribbean-Latin version of civilization? (Howls of "Racism! Elitism! Xenophobia!" from the Marx brothers and the documented liberals.) Harsh words: but somebody has to say them. We cannot play "let's pretend" much longer, not in the present world.

Therefore-let us close our national borders to any further mass immigration, legal or illegal, from any source, as does every other nation on earth. The means are available, it's a simple technical-military problem. Even our Pentagon should be able to handle it. We've got an army somewhere on this planet, let's bring our soldiers home and station them where they can be of some actual and immediate benefit to the taxpayers who support them. That done, we can begin to concentrate attention on badly neglected internal affairs. Our internal affairs. Everyone would benefit, including the neighbors. Especially the neighbors. Ah yes. But what about those hungry hundreds of millions, those anxious billions, yearning toward the United States from every dark and desperate corner of the world? Shall we simply ignore them? Reject them? Is such a course possible?

"Poverty," said Samuel Johnson, "is the great enemy of human happiness. It certainly destroys liberty, makes some virtues impracticable, and all virtues extremely difficult."

You can say that again, Sam.

Poverty, injustice, over breeding, overpopulation, suffering, oppression, military rule, squalor, torture, terror, massacre: these ancient evils feed and breed on one another in synergistic symbiosis. To break the cycles of pain at least two new forces are required: social equity - and birth control. Population control. Our Hispanic neighbors are groping toward this discovery. If we truly wish to help them we must stop meddling in their domestic troubles and permit them to carry out the social, political, and moral revolution which is both necessary and inevitable.

Or if we must meddle, as we have always done, let us meddle for a change in a constructive way. Stop every campesino at our southern border, give him a handgun, a good rifle, and a case of ammunition, and send him home. He will know what to do with our gifts and good wishes. The people know who their enemies are. 

--Edward Abbey

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poem Remembering Paul Blackburn [1926-1971]

The poet Paul Blackburn liked to use simple codes and schedules in his poetry, to mark the quotidian signs and transfer points of daily life. He may have helped create the "itinerary" poem, which later poets have used (viz, Ted Berrigan in his Train Ride). 

I commuted to the city (San Francisco) for 27 years, using up (in sequence) the local AC Transit bus system, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, and driving via my car(s)  over the highway across the Bay Bridge. By the end, I was so sick of any form of transportation (to work) that I still can't comfortably visit San Francisco without feeling the weight of all those years of drudgery on my shoulders. Often, in the wee hours of the early morning, in total darkness, I had existential reservations about how I'd ended up on this ride to nowhere. Ultimately, we all ride that train one last time, all the way to the end. Thankfully, I was able to get off before the end, retiring at age 54.

Paul Blackburn was a terrific poet who died way too young (at age 44). Though prolific, his entire output has an unfinished quality, because he never had the chance to write the great poems of his old(er) age. It was a tragedy. He took Pound's advice, and delved deep into Romance language poetry, translating, absorbing the Troubadour tradition. He was a modern day troubadour himself. 

God bless his bones.
Poem Remembering Paul Blackburn        
I took
A train
I don't
Know why
the old
I took
A job
I don't
Know why
They woke
Me up
At the end
Of the line
Oh my  

Monday, October 26, 2009

49er Quarterback Controversy - Why Smith Isn't the Answer

Last Sunday, the 49ers, after a thoroughly lackluster first half against the Houston Texans, in which they fell behind 21-0, made a comeback in the second half, resorting to Alex Smith, the spurned casualty of the Nolan coaching years, over Sean Hill, who is the designated first string starting quarterback. since Mike Singletary took over the team last year when Nolan was fired.   

Smith's career in the NFL seemed on the rocks, after three lackluster seasons as the 49ers first round pick in the draft. When Nolan was fired, most of the team he had assembled has been dismantled, and Singletary let it be known that his football philosophy would be very different from Nolan's, with an emphasis on the ground game, ball control, clock management, with a minimum of mistakes, and an aggressive, take-no-prisoners defense. Sean Hill, a talented second-stringer (or "manager") as he has come to be called, was the kind of quarterback Singletary evidently preferred:  Low profile, prudent, careful, conservative, even-tempered, and well-prepared (though never capable of rising above the low 80's in quarterback rating). But Hill's skills are acknowledged to be less than stellar. Hill will never throw four touchdowns in a game, or pull off unlikely come-from-behind wins. That's not his style.       

No NFL team can be successful, especially year over year, without a very talented quarterback. There will occasionally be a very well-balanced team, in which a great ground game, a stellar defensive unit, great special teams, and some luck, will make it to the Super Bowl with a mediocre quarterback at the helm. But without the ability to pass accurately and under pressure, no NFL quarterback is likely to last more than a couple of years, except as a back-up. In the Modern Era of professional football (since 1960) virtually every team that wins more than 8 games in a season, has superior talent at that position. 

During Nolan's tenure, Smith repeatedly failed to live up to his high billing. He was consistently inaccurate, and he had trouble in clutch situations, frequently throwing crucial interceptions at key points in games, usually towards the end of games. He seemed to lack focus. When he suffered a throwing arm injury, Nolan attempted to blame part of the team's ineffectiveness on his young quarterback when he returned prematurely from rehab. At the time, it appeared as if Nolan was looking for a scapegoat, or that maybe Smith might be a primadonna, unable to play "through" his pain. But after the injury was supposedly healed, he continued to be ineffective, and was replaced mid-season in 2008, by Hill, who proceeded to put up a string of victories, without flash or numbers, just "getting the job done" week after week.      

During Smith's earlier tenure, games were painful to watch, as--it now seems clear--he lacked the essential qualities of a fully formed pro-QB. No matter how competitive the team may have seemed on any given Sunday, Smith's unpredictable performance nearly always put the team into jeopardy. He would occasionally get on a roll, throw a couple of impressive touchdown passes, then fall back and lose a game with a key interception late in the fourth quarter. This was his pattern, over and over, which is born out by his stats. With his tall, thin build, he's not a scrambler, or a runner (as Steve Young was), and he doesn't have "great eyes" to see openings through the zigzagging maze of players moving downfield. 

Perhaps most distressingly, Smith lacks mental focus under pressure, which is the hallmark of all great, competitive quarterbacks: the ability to put distractions aside, and concentrate on a narrow series of options, and to improvise effectively at crucial moments. Joe Montana had this ability: In tight situations, he went into a kind of trance state--his face would go "blank"--in which nothing--crowd noise, yelling players and coaches, oncoming rushers--could distract him. He "got better" under stress. 

Montana was a great quarterback, but we shouldn't even imagine that Hill or Smith possesses his level of skill-sets. Neither one of these men is remotely capable of taking the 49ers to a Super Bowl. 

Under Singletary, the team's design for play will not emphasize the passing game. Singletary's whole philosophy is built around grunt football: Tough line-play, heavy pursuit, quick instinctual decisions learned by rote. For him, winning teams succeed by keeping the other team's offense off the field. Clock management. Grinding out 3-6 yard gains, beating the other side even when they know what's coming. Punishing football.  

Smith's balletic whirl in the second half at Houston took the Texans completely by surprise. Having prepared all week for Hill's unimaginative, tight formation plays, they were off-guard against Smith's medium-range bombs to Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. It may have seemed as if the 49ers had forgotten what NFL offenses were capable of, in the right hands. 

Nevertheless, there were disturbing, and familiar aspects to Smith's performance which were reminiscent of 2006 and 2007. He seemed confused on the field. During the last 8 minutes of the game, he seemed to be moving underwater, twice walking back from under center, failing to call time-out, and getting flagged for delay of game. During the last drive, he moved with excruciating slowness, as if he didn't understand how little time there was left in the game. Finally, with about a minute to go, he threw a mindless pass down the middle of the field, which was easily intercepted by the Texans. Some of this "confusion" may be attributable to rustiness, or insufficient mental preparation, though back-up quarterbacks are expected to be fully ready to play when called upon in a game. But not the dithering, not the slow-motion suspended animation, not the rash, imprudent pass under pressure.

There will certainly be calls for Smith to replace Hill at quarterback, based on this one short burst of effective performance. But it's important to remember that Texas was unprepared for him. Would he have done what he did, if he'd been the starting quarterback? Unlikely. Are we to expect that Smith has suddenly matured into the star he was once expected to be? Even more unlikely. 

In the short term, Singletary must stick with Hill. The team, and its strategy, have been built around him, and his style of play: Ball control, minimal mistakes. Keep-away. To change horses now would be a mistake. Neither Smith nor Hill can be the long term solution to the 49ers quarterback problem. Until they can draft one, or purchase the services of one on the free agent market, they're unlikely to be better than an 8-8 team. 

Stick with Hill, and wait for better times.    

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tribute to a Lost Writer & Friend - Patrick Schnoor (III)

My late friend the poet Patrick Schnoor and I were profoundly influenced by the example of Robert Grenier in our undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, where Grenier had come to teach writing in the late 1960's. We--both of us--were classicists at heart, but Grenier easily swept aside our notions of the fixity of traditional formal patterns, in favor of a practical, down-to-earth and close-to-the-skin poetics based on a keen sensitivity to words, and an honesty about the facts of our lives. These were aspects of living-as-writing that you weren't taught by traditional teachers.  

Patrick was a better writer than I was, or ever would be. Here is a sequence of "minimalist" works he did towards the end of our second term in Grenier's poetry writing class at Berkeley. I published them in my little magazine during the early 1970's, and I believe they're the last of Patrick's publications. (He may have been submitting work to other periodicals, but I'm not aware of any, then, or now.) 


when she comes


she comes 
through, and

she comes
she comes

over, the


she comes through
she comes

and when
she comes through
she comes

over the rainbow


she, her over
comes through

she, her over
the comes through
and she

her over
the rainbow

Preludes: Tulare Lake

Basin, California

air wavers
like a skillet


back water
soothes back
the range


creased hills
to comfort


hot reflexive crows
eye you

in the corn
dry yellow



delta bugs
and the dust tinted dusk
of sunset

dry up

the fetid bottom
where the lake'd




in air


a canal
slick with fish

and the mauve

of frogs


the distressed

of a trapped


the dispersed pierce
of sun noise


in the cloud
toured sky




of that





those grainy


Preludes: Afternoon













the pages


I cross

a cross


the street


walk the lines

of the squares

played upon

the plaza


there is no lack




I praise

the hymns

of glory
Preludes After A Thing (Painting)


than blue



stop it


the sky
in the/river

in the/tree


make triangles

and the river


hide and seek

show and tell

the 'tree'
is worry




the north

Preludes: The Poem and the Sun

let us attend then
to the unintended meaning
of the sunset

for instance

as to what
the poem could refer
If not itself


it elicits

like a ghost


why must
the sun

set west


the rays of that
same light

swallow me


that sun

in my mind


that sun

is enough


that sun
going down

in the dust

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tribute to a Lost Writer & Friend - Patrick Schnoor (II)

My late friend and poet Patrick Schnoor [1947-1997] was writing poetry in high school, that was better than most serious writers ever write in their whole lives. I thought, when I first read it, realizing that he'd written these poems when just a junior high school student in Los Banos, California in the early 1960's, he might go on to be a major American poet, but that was short-circuited by Patrick's drug problem(s). 
Here are three selections from 24 Sonnets, which I published as a small pamphlet in 1975 [Kensington: L Publications].
                              The Fly

Blue-bottle fly bake black beneath the sun.
Sear your jerky way across the concrete,
callous spot.  Your stop-go movements, discrete
quantum hops crack, seriate, the region
into stop-time, intense, and sequential.
I watch you close in a lyncean trance,
perhaps interpolate your random dance,
vibrant in the shattered air still full
of your buzz.  I'm dead.  And flat.   And supreme.
What an eerie sight you are--catch
some other god and teach him how to watch
the time, as rich and dense as thick, white cream.
soulless speck, setting scenes with dead finesse,
go, magnify another's emptiness.  


                      The Friendly Cat People 

Cats are esthetes:  They don't like your crumbling newspaper.
Their air wisp tails remove, and they like to think
they're licentious, though concerning their rumored sex they are mystic.
their non-aligned, unbenign stare
blinks resolvedly slow, and their gruesomely pink
mouths, whence dangle occasional small dusty mouse feet,
widen yawningly, with that functionally quiet flair
peculiarly leonine, epiglottilly domestic.
Watch a cat pour itself through a fence hole.
Observe the cats hunt before their lunch appointment,
how their play turns, surely, to cruel, if nothing's served,
claws splayed, their planetary eye-lights cooled.
And cats discriminate:  Often, at noon, they rest,
purring, nice, how people make the best pets.


                           Frog Catechist

Dry, abrasive tules smoulder, smokeless,
fester near the inadequate water,
as stagnant as the air aging in this
arid reservoir.  The curly mud sure
is fragile, cracked and peeling adobe
blanched by the exigeant sun.  Over there
the twin headgates are wound down uselessly.
I walk over to them, kneel, and stare
down through the grating at whatever may
be trapped behind it, in that concrete hole:
There's a bull-frog, with gold flecked constella-
tions in his eyes, and ex nihilo
nihil fit is demonstrated, as he
croaks, celebrates his office just for me.


Though distressingly juvenile in several ways, these precocious works demonstrate the inculcation of a number of pre-modern and post-modern techniques. The effects are crudely achieved, but the power of the vision--especially by one so young--speaks to a penetrating vision. 

I will post several more of Patrick's poems in the days ahead.  

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tribute to a Lost Writer & Friend - Patrick Schnoor

In the late 1960's, as an undergraduate at Berkeley, I ended up in Robert Grenier's poetry workshop class. That would have been in my junior year. In the second trimester (Berkeley was on the "quarter system" in those days (four terms in a year), a new face joined the class, a guy my own age named Patrick Schnoor. Patrick had grown up in Los Banos, California, down in the hot Central Valley. This was dry, flat, agricultural and farming country, very hot most of the year, and fairly isolated from any urban centers. Patrick's people had lived there for a few generations--there are still streets with the name Schnoor in Merced, for instance.  

I wish I had a photo of Patrick. He was big, like I was, though a bit stouter, a "flamin'" redhead, with big orange freckles, round Dutch-German face, a jovial manner, and a daring, devil-may-care attitude towards life. A philosophy major, if I remember correctly. For Patrick, Berkeley was like Disneyland. He was contemptuous of snobs and fools, but was without pretension, and was a glutton for experience. When I first knew him, he'd begun to experiment with drugs of all kinds, which were readily available in those days. 

As soon as Grenier saw Patrick's work, he knew he was dealing with a superior talent. Patrick had begun to write poetry in high school, and had already produced a body of work that would merit publication by the age of 16. He was a classicist, in those days, and wrote only rhymed sonnets. The subject matter was close to his life--the bleak, quotidian landscape, an existential sense of life--and vividly portrayed. Like me, too, Patrick played the piano. Both of us had grown up in semi-rural circumstances, so we were natural companions. But there were places Patrick would go where I couldn't follow. We both lived in the undergraduate dormitories south of campus, but had little to do with these places, except to eat and sleep there.  

In short order, Patrick was experimenting with marijuana, methedrine, LSD, mescaline, peyote, and (for all I know) the hard stuff, though Patrick liked to be high, not low. Having grown up in a household with two two-pack-a-day Camel smokers, I had no interest in addictive substances. This drug preoccupation of Patrick's--so typical of kids in our generation--would eventually lead to his downfall.

In the meantime, Patrick and I were beginning to be heavily influenced by Grenier's brand of writing. Grenier's great hero was Robert Creeley, but he was hip to the full range of avant garde styles of poetry, and made us aware of all of them. Schnoor was a very apt pupil, and picked up all these lessons rapidly. In no time, he was doing minimal poems, as well as complex prose texts a la maniere d'Ashbery. 

The next year, it became evident that one or both of us, at Grenier's instigation, was going to apply for acceptance to the Workshop at Iowa. There were others, too, talented enough to apply--among them, Barrett Watten, whom I'd met at Bob's house on Arch Street one evening at an informal crit session. (Barry liked W.S. Merwin at that moment, I was taken with Gary Snyder.) In fairly short order, Schnoor received his acceptance notice from Iowa, with a promise of a teaching job in the English Department, if he wanted it. My letter was a stall, informing me that I might be accepted if they "had enough slots" to fill. 

By this time, I had met and married my college sweetheart, Merry Rubin (from Texas), and moved into an apartment right off of Telegraph Avenue. We had a view of Cody's Book Store, across the street, at the intersection of Telegraph and Haste Streets. That Spring, as I was looking out the window towards the intersection, I saw Patrick walk down Haste towards Telegraph, stop quickly in front of the corner establishment, where he was momentarily met by a shady character in a hat. They made furtive exchanges from the contents of their pockets, and just as quickly departed in opposite directions. There was no mystery about what was happening: Patrick was selling drugs on the street. I never told Patrick about having seen this, but I didn't have to.  

In due course, I was accepted at Iowa, and moved there in the Fall of 1969, narrowly avoiding being drafted (a story for another blog--this was at the height of the Vietnam War). Patrick, I knew, had been "held up" for some reason, but I briefly lost track of him. It would be three years before I saw Patrick again, after I'd quit graduate school in Iowa City and moved back to Berkeley. We ran into each other there--Patrick was living in a hotel at the very intersection where I'd seen him three years before--and he brought us up to date on what had happened to him in the interim.

Patrick had indeed gotten heavily into the drug trade, and had made a pile of loot. Inside of 8 months, he'd cleared three quarters of a million dollars, had a big car, a new apartment, and was living high. Then, suddenly, predictably, it all came crashing down, as he was picked up and charged in a sting operation set up by the Feds. There was a good chance he'd end up in prison for a decade or more, so the stakes were high. He'd hired the best "drug" lawyer in the country, who, in exchange for most of the money he'd stashed away from the illicit drug deals, brokered a plea-bargain which enabled Patrick to go free. Interestingly, the adjudication of his case was conducted in Illinois. On his way there, by plane, he had a stopover (in Des Moines?) where he chanced to meet one of my fellow Workshop students at the time, named Wendy Salinger. "She knew you, too," he exclaimed, when he told me about it, "but I couldn't tell her why I was there, only that I'd been going to go to Iowa, like you, but had been prevented from attending due to some personal problems!"

At loose ends, Patrick had written a short novel, which he'd entered in the Joseph Henry Jackson award competition. Patrick was "convinced" he was going to win it, and gave me a copy to read. As good a poet as Patrick was, I could see that this Great American Novel needed work. To no great surprise, he didn't win, and eventually found a job in the computer industry. 

In the meantime, I had started a small magazine, called simply, L Magazine, in which I published poetry, and, with the help of some publisher's grants, a few books. I offered to publish Patrick's high school sonnets, which he agreed to. I think Patrick may have imagined that it would be done rather like a Peter Pauper Press book, hardcover, letterpress, but my budget would never have allowed that. The modest little pamphlet I did have printed probably embarrassed him, but he always graciously thanked me for doing it. 

Nevertheless, in the mid-1970's, I mostly lost track of Patrick. Every six months or so I'd see him, and once he visited the house where we were living on Milvia Street in Berkeley. He was accompanied by a beautiful dark, sexy Mediterranean woman, dressed in elaborate shawls, who seemed very solicitous of Patrick, who seemed quite nervous, even unstable, visibly shaking. I suspected that he must have been on psycho-active meds. He was sheepish; he had worked for some kind of environmental testing firm, but he gave no details. As always, he had great plans, but there were just a few little complications at the moment. He'd stopped writing, apparently, but gave no explanation.                                       

As his literary inferior, from our earlier days as undergraduates, I mourned the loss of a considerable talent, even as I envied his potential. But nothing had come of it: The best contemporary of my undergraduate days had fallen into a sand-trap and seemed unable to find his way out. I didn't know what to suggest, and Patrick seemed uninterested in cultivating our friendship further.  

I lost track of him about 1979, as our lives diverged, in my case to a 9 to 5 job and the duties of fatherhood and paying a mortgage. Over the years I wondered what might have become of him. Had he resumed writing, or found his way into some kind of stable life? 

In the late 1990's, I thought I'd located him on the internet, with an e.mail address at a Silicon Valley computer corporation, but the message I sent bounced back. Then, about three years ago, browsing his name on Google, I discovered, via the Tulare County Obituary Index that he'd died on December 6th, 1997. Someone had posted a brief missive online, indicating that Patrick had been a part of some kind of extended treatment program for substance abuse. I was so saddened by this, I was beyond words. Previously, I'd lost another very good friend from my early college years, named Michael Lamm, a student underground radical, whose car had been found on the Golden Gate Bridge with a suicide note.        

The Sixties were hard on some people. They may have been the years of positive change and flower power and love, but there were casualties as well. Patrick was a very smart, very sweet man with a big weakness, which eventually did him in. I miss him still.  

In the coming weeks, I hope to post some of Patrick's poetry on this website--both the sonnets and some minimal works which I published in L Magazine.