Thursday, July 29, 2010

Clichés from the Immigration Debate

One of the more interesting aspects of the current debate regarding illegal immigration is the way in which language is transformed through misuse--both deliberate and accidental--by those for whom the framing of the issue is the first priority.
I have spoken before about how this issue is conceptualized in the media. For most Americans--especially those whose lives are not directly touched by the influx of Central and South American illegal immigrants--who get their opinions directly from the media, how they think about it will be largely determined by how the debate is framed. 
Proponents of lax enforcement, for instance, have attempted to portray all immigration enforcement as a form of racism. Mexicans are "racially" different, so any attempt to curtail illegal Mexican immigration constitutes a racist motivated policy. Yet most Americans don't regard Mexicans as racially separate. But racism as a defining characteristic of "anti-immigration" policy is a red herring. The need to control immigration is built into our laws; we have official immigration policy, comprised of regulations, procedures, and enforcements. Our laws, for instance, stipulate national quotas, among other things. These regulations are not racially based.
Lately, however, there's been a new trend in the public discussion about immigration in the media. Leading up to the Federal judge's ruling regarding Arizona's new immigration law, we've begun to hear, with some regularity, the use of the phrase "broken immigration system." 
Just what does "broken immigration system" mean? Was it previously unbroken? And, if so, how did it get "broken"? What broke it? And, assuming it is broken, what might its compromised condition tell us about a possible remedy? 
First of all, there is a general consensus among Americans that our immigration policy needs to be based on pragmatic necessities. Unless, for instance, we chose to have "open borders" without any regard for who might pass into our country, and under any conditions--a situation which no sensible person, it's safe to say, would be likely to advocate, especially in our so-called "post-9/11" world. In other words, we need an official immigration policy, administered for the good of America, and Americans. It should take into account international law and practice regarding the integrity of foreign nationals, and it should allow us to enforce that policy, without hindrance from other nations or interests. 
What people mean when they use the term "broken immigration system" is that our immigration system can no longer cope with the problems confronting it. That is not to say that our immigration policies and practices are wrong in the first place, or that any failure to enforce them is evidence that they were wrongly conceived. A failure to enforce a law, does not prove that the law itself is wrong. It may only need to be more carefully, or more diligently, enforced. 
Historically, what has occurred, is that the pressure of illegal immigration has dramatically increased, while our immigration laws--and the instruments of their enforcement--have not been sufficiently expanded, to address this increase. As our efforts to meet this growing problem have become more bold, and direct, critics of increased enforcement have begun to refer to the crisis as evidence that the system of regulation (and enforcement) itself has become "broken." 

What these critics mean, of course, is that the laws themselves, as well as their enforcement, are "broken." In principle, supporters of illegal immigration (and lax enforcement) want our immigration laws (and the systems of enforcement) brought down. 
What these critics mean by "fixing" our immigration policy, is a general amnesty for all those living illegally in America, an exponential increase in our national quotas from Central and South America, and a general slackening of all immigration controls. 
In fact, our immigration system isn't "broken"--it wasn't broken in the first place. You could say that the vast numbers of illegals have "broken" it, overwhelmed our efforts to control it, but that's like saying the criminals are winning. 
Imagine a situation in which the local police departments were controlled by the criminals, in which justice was compromised in favor of the priorities of organized crime. Well, in Mexico, this is just what they have. 
Mexico is an outlaw nation, sliding, inexorably, further into chaos. Who would want to live there? Who, indeed? Mexico is a classic third world nation, corrupt, poverty-stricken, riddled with crime and bribery and black market commerce. Is it any wonder that its people want out, will do anything to escape from it?
If anything is "broken" it is the government and social fabric of Mexico. Our immigration system, designed to control and administer our immigration policy, is just fine, thank you very much. It doesn't need fixing. What it needs is the will to enforce it. 
As I see it, we have two choices: We can capitulate to those who wish to tear down the barriers to unfettered refugee migration northwards, or we can draw a line in the sand, and stop talking about racism and "broken systems" and "unworkable policies." We can enforce our laws. 
If the Federal Government refuses to keep illegals out, and to round them up and deport them, as it is required to do, the problem falls to the lesser jurisdictions. 
Those who want to seize the opportunity afforded by Arizona's attempt to put its own house in order, to broker a "fix" of our "broken immigration system" at the national level, are attempting to frame the debate as a structural crisis. But the problem was never structural.
Unlike the argument about the legalization of drugs, "legalization" of illegal immigration won't remove the motivation to break our laws. 
The next time you hear someone refer to our "broken immigration system" ask yourself what this is a code-phrase for. Most likely, they're concealing an agenda to dismantle our immigration policy. They're advocating on behalf of the welfare of another nation, another national constituency. They're not on your side.          

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Shooting Straight - from the Book of Drinks

The Classic Manhattan--dark goods mixed with sweet vermouth and bitters, and a garnish of cherry--is traditionally made with straight Rye. Rye was popular during Prohibition, but has not been much used since, except to make the still-popular Manhattan. 
I find Rye to be a good basis for other kinds of drinks, since its dryness--it lacks the smokey, sweetly musty edge of bourbon, while not being too lyrical and delicate like Canadian whiskey--lends it well to a variety of ingredients.
Here's a new drink based on Rye, which I think is quite nice. Since it uses Rye, let's call it Shooting Straight--after Straight Rye Whiskey. 
Recipe (by proportion)
3 Parts Straight Rye Whiskey
2 Parts Drambuie
1/4 Part Herbsaint
1 Part Fresh Lemon Juice
3/4 Part Fresh Lime Juice
--stirred vigorously and served in chilled cocktail glasses (no garnish).
Gentlemen are asked to leave their mohaskers outside. This is a respectable joint.  


Monday, July 26, 2010

Lee Friedlander's America By Car

I cannot say enough about Lee Friedlander's new book, America by Car [San Francisco: Fraenkel Gallery, Published by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., New York, 2010]. I don't think it would be inaccurate to say Friedlander's work was originally viewed as part of the 1950's and 1960's social documentarian style, with strong elements of humor, verité, naturalism, sensationalism, candid, and photo-journalism. Along the way, he began to value print quality over mere reportage, and by the time of his big American Monument [Eakins Press] book in 1976, he'd moved into position as one of the supreme image perfectionists, working closely with technicians and printers to realize fully his expanding, symphonic vision of contemporary America in all its heroic, surreal and madcap splendour.      

There is no way to simplify Friedlander's work. He's produced interesting imagery across a wide range of subject matter. Urban, rural, human, mechanical, majestic, subtle, reductive, complex, etc. Increasingly, he has been able to emphasize the tonal sensuality of the straight-line gradations, despite working with traditionally small format equipment. 
Friedlander has never been a visual purist. His pictures inevitably incorporate the extraneous detail, the confusing angle, the obtrusive pole or fence-line or broken curb, and he used this detritus and interposing clutter compositions fraught with tension, to create spacial statements of total, spanning integrity. Where most photographers work hard to keep impositions and unwanted fuss out of the frame, Friedlander has shown how inclusiveness and acceptance of this "stuff" can tell a better story, truer and fuller and more interesting than the "empty" canvas of studied "compositions." 
Understand that I have never been a fan of photo-journalism per se, I've never been inspired by fat ladies waddling down main street, babies eating melting ice-cream, jumping dogs, or smears of graffiti on the sides of abandoned warehouses. But Friedlander sees all this human chaos, as well as our built environment with all its jagged, industrial, commoditized, air-conditioned alienation, in addition to the gaunt, shrugging thrusts of earth, the tenuous sinewy, grip of nature which inspires so much landscape photography.    

Foremost, for good or ill, we are a car culture. The automobile informs nearly every aspect of our existence, from our connection to work, sustenance (food), the materials of living, to our human contacts, recreation, travel, and psychological sense of locus--the proprioception--of our place on earth, in space. This has now been so for over a century. How we apprehend our environment is largely dictated by how we see the world from inside automobiles or trucks or busses. We "see" the world from the driver's or passenger seat(s) of vehicles. And the world presents itself to us as a continuous unfolding sequence of signs, barriers, views--of warnings, directions, seductions, cautionary scenes. Inside a vehicle, we are transported, we are passive observers partially insulated from the "reality" of the external world. Like astronauts, we pass through space in high-tech cock-pits, breathing controlled air, listening to music or news, as the purring motor--responsive to our commands--carries us over smooth asphalt or black-top surfaces along pre-arranged routes.          

Our experience of life is framed inside the windowed interior of vehicles. In America, since the automobile became the dominant mode of transport, our style of life has always been organized and shaped around the access and needs of cars. We eat in cars, we make love in cars, we can even be born, and die in cars. Cars are a pastime, a sport, a hobby, a necessity, a luxury, a nuisance, and a window on the world. 
It is in this last aspect that Friedlander has made this body of work, using the interior of the contemporary sedan, to frame and explore the external world as seen behind the laminated and curved glass of the windshield and sliding side-windows, with the swooping posts and dashboard, steering-wheel, the curving hood and sleek side-panels intruding and shaping and distorting the visual space.   

The world we see outside the containment of the vehicle both is, and is not, connected to the internal space we occupy. These views and partial compositions are fragments of landscape, architecture, signage, people, animals, situations, which exist in a fleeting panorama of action and distraction, the totality of which makes up the accreting experience of a journey--memorable and filled with meanings. By foregrounding the interior of the vehicle, the car becomes a metaphor for the camera itself--and, by extension, the eye. As we look "out" of the car windows we're making a mental movie of the world passing by--composed of thousands, tens of thousands, of little views and pictures, each unconsciously framed inside the steel roof, supports, glass, insulation and plastic.      

The visionary American landscape is nowhere more characteristically indigenous than when seen from inside an automobile. Who would have thought to use the literal interior of an automobile to record the breadth and range of our American scene? Perhaps only Lee Friedlander. In nearly 200 sensuous, astonishingly clear, and fascinating black and white images, we experience the world which can be seen on the road. Jack Kerouac had a thing about crossing and re-crossing the breadth of America, recording it and sampling it in all its variousness and regional flavors, and others have had a similar vision. Whitman, Olson, Walker Evans. Paul Theroux seems to want to walk to every remote corner of the globe, and write about it.      

In Friedlander's version, the picturesqueness and ugliness appear to merge seamlessly into a continuous canvas--but ethically neutral--as if seeing itself were its own justification, sans any preconceptions or moralizing about consequences or causes. Updike once said of Martin Amis that he thought Amis wanted to "cover the earth in fiction." Friedlander wants to cover the earth with/in photographs.  

Saturday, July 24, 2010

July 24, 2010 (63 minus 6)


                I Digress
                             for Bill Berkson
The canonical canvas and bamboo chair
That Alvar Aalto didn't design
For the Hemingway safari in Kenya in 1953
Stands unused and undiscovered in a dusty
Closet behind the Universal Lot
Right beside Buddy Ebsen's artificial knee joints.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tony Robbins & The Willing Suspenders of Belief Come to Network TV

Last night, lying in bed before going to sleep, I was watching television, when I heard what I thought must be a joke: NBC was announcing the premier of a new show called Breakthrough with Tony Robbins [Tuesday at 8 PM]. I suppose technically it's possible that not all the network affiliates will air this program--I don't know what kinds of contracts these old "local" franchises have these days in the tough market of commercial television--but if it can be adopted by a Bay Area station, you know it's a signal of a big change in the culture of television programming.
Anyone who's watched any television in the last 20 years must have seen Tony Robbins, whose info-mercial spots and plugs have been turning up with regularity on commercial stations. 
The popular inspirational guru is not a new phenomenon is America. Amateur popular teachers, preachers and educators have been plying their shady trade for at least a couple of centuries on this continent, though with perhaps more success than elsewhere. In India, where the guru business seems endemic to Hindi life, gurus are accepted as a natural expression of the native culture, though the success of mystical Asian gurus in America has been limited somewhat by their exotic looks and approach. 
If you want to sell something, the best way to do it is to advertise. In religious and "inspirational" contexts, you're basically selling yourself. Disseminating literature and advocating product use are enhanced by putting a face, a personality, behind a promotional campaign. The salesman prototype has never been much favored in America, but Americans' credulity and essential good nature can often be seduced. Our trademark puritanical suspicion and belief in the possibility of good works may be manipulated by someone or organization which wants us to suspend our skepticism and embrace an inspirational program, either as a participant in a group, or through some self-help package.        
Tony Robbins has been in the inspirational self-help business all his adult life. He worked with/for other inspirational "teachers" before starting out on his own to build a following, and expand his business empire. Adopting the techniques pioneered, for instance, by Billy Graham (a Baptist inspirational preacher, 1918-, who was a familiar figure among certain people in the neighborhood where I grew up during he 1950's), he naturally turned to regional and national media outlets to get his message out. 
The breakdown of national media channels which took place when Cable began to expand, opened the door to a rapid growth of commercial exploitation of the television media. This has affected not just Cable stations, but commercial stations as well, which have come under increasing pricing pressure, causing them to turn--probably against their mission and professed preference--to infomercials and questionable advertising revenue sources to fill their programming schedules. An infomercial can be especially attractive to an affiliate, since the production costs are negligible (most infomercials are produced by the source) and the ad revenue is efficiently furnished in a single lump sum. 
Not only have local network affiliates (the Big 4, NBC/CBS/ABC/FOX) begun to schedule informercial content, even the local Public Stations have been relying on them in the last decade as well. But these programming concessions have mostly been restricted to non-prime time, and were usually somewhat limited in scope. Though some Sunday morning evangelism was evident, for the most part the infomercials on the regional/local affiliates were product oriented (i.e., selling something people could buy or order offline). 
But it now appears that the Big 4 affiliates have capitulated, with the arrival of Tony Robbins to prime-time on one of the major networks. 
Robbins is an old-fashioned con man in the new clothing of New Age marketing. The first time I noticed him--on a Cable station while staying in a motel some years ago--he strode onto a stage to screaming minions, dressed in what appeared to be a high-powered lawyer's outfit, with a snowy white billowing dress-shirt, dark tie, loosely-fitting dark blue slacks, and big striped suspenders. The suspenders, it appeared, were signature accouterments. Tony Robbins is a really big fellow; six feet seven inches tall. He smiles a lot, and bounces around like a holy roller preacher, waving his arms and yelling encouragement to his followers. 
I'm unfamiliar with the finer points of Robbins's program of self-empowerment and liberation, but it has a familiar ring: A combination of psycho-babble, fake religious inspiration, and pragmatic advice, it appeals to people of little imagination who may, at one point or another in their lives, feel they're adrift and need a handy formula for personal salvation, or simply need to feel a part of something larger than themselves. 
These needs traditionally have been the breeding ground for religious proselytization, but the inspirational personal empowerment movement has seized upon the conversion techniques once restricted to religious conversion, and have figured out how to fashion them for secular use.
I must say, I find Robbins's appearance on prime-time to be a disturbing development. If this is the best that NBC can offer its national affiliates on Tuesday evenings, the general level of quality entertainment on television has reached a new low. 
But heck, what do I know? Sally Field--who has won two Oscars for her movie acting--got her big break start in The Flying Nun [1967-1970]. I can still remember how dreadful we felt whenever the Awake and Watchtower solicitors came around, as they canvassed the neighborhood, going door to door. They would stand on your porch and ask you through the screen-door, questions like "What do you think happens when people die? Where do they go?"
We can laugh about that now. That was in the old days, before infomercials and slick media promotional gurus. We used to be able to keep them out of the house, restricted to the front porch. Now they've gotten into our living-rooms. But all you have to do, to get rid of them, is press the clicker, and they disappear (poof!).              

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Coming E-Book Revolution has Arrived

A couple of years ago, when the so-called "e-books" were only a rumor, people joked about how they would never take hold. Who would read books on a portable display screen? It seemed a serious miscalculation on the part of the media marketing industry--a dead-end idea that would disappear into thin air. Books were still convenient--who would trade them for a gadget that had to be powered and re-loaded all the time?   

Well, guess what, folks, the skeptics were wrong. Amazon, which markets the Kindle e-reader shown above, announced recently that it was selling e-books (software text files) at the rate of 143 to 100 hardcover books. "I think the thing that's compelling to most people is it sounds like the beginning of the end," says Joseph Janes, an associate professor at the Information School at the University of Washington.
What Professor Janes means, of course, is the beginning of the end of traditional book publishing as we know it

The computer revolution, which has had such a devastating effect on current media like television, radio, periodicals, the telephone technologies, now stands poised to perform the coup de grace to the material text publishing industry.
The internet has shown that it is more powerful than the stand-alone new or used bookstore at satisfying the broad market for books. The retail new and used bookstore business has been in steep decline for the last decade and a half, and shows no signs of rejuvenation. 
In the academic sphere, classes are now conducted via closed circuit transmission, and lecture notes and class materials are routinely transmitted between instructors and students; even tests and theses are exchanged in this way.
In the field of technical reference and manuals, in compendiums and atlases and data-files, digital storage and retrieval materials have been shown to be particularly well-suited to efficient application, eliminating the need for hardcopy versions. 
A number of questions remain to be answered, but given the technology of dissemination, it is certain that matters of copyright ownership, control of distribution, and access will all be addressed and solved before long. In the music industry, attempts were made to halt the progress of the elaboration of access among the general population, but it's been obvious, almost from the beginning, that trying to control the exchange of data is a losing battle. 
In the used and rare book market--which thrives on the notion of a premium to scarcity and desirability of the physical artifact (as with the art market)--the dissolution of the book as an ongoing receptacle of text (content) as a market commodity platform, promises to have a dampening effect on the attraction of books as things, whether disposable, or collectible. The value we place on things which are considered obsolete, or are passing into obsolescence, declines in proportion to how useless we think they are to us in the present--books might come to be regarded as charming curiosities, like typewriters or phonographs. Physical books have been around for hundreds of years, because nothing, until now, had appeared which could seriously challenge their convenience, permanence and portability.   
One aspect of concern is the ephemeral nature of electronic storage and retrieval systems. As the technology of the chip industry moves forward, in successive iterations (versions or "languages"), the data stored in obsolescing languages or hardware may be at risk. Material books offer certain advantages in this regard, since they aren't susceptible to being scrambled or rendered inaccessible due to aging display mechanisms.
A book is a thing. It exists in time and space, and has substantial durability, given modest precautions for its care and handling. No such protections exist for electronic data contained in plastic and mediated through light projection systems. 
As material books begin to decline, thought must be given to how we expect to preserve what we now possess of material texts. Our culture is largely contained, transmitted and perpetuated via the universe of print. If we cede the material media to the electronic, we need to consider the fragility and jeopardy of our cultural artifacts. Allowing media marketing people to dictate these policies is a recipe for disaster.  
When Robert Grenier and I signed our contract with Stanford University Press, to edit the Collected Poems of Larry Eigner for publication, we were obliged to include a clause allowing the Press to arrange for eventual digital publication. Though we understood the value, even the necessity, of anticipating this alternative media option of publication, we also felt the need to establish a material text of the work, to insure its continued existence, as a benchmark and accurate record. Going forward, 7 years after that contract was finalized, now that the edition exists, our feeling about the need for that material edition seems even more crucial than it did then.                

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Another Valentine to Monsieur Détaché

che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita 1
I walked out, before
"Break of day"
And saw
Four cabins in the hay. 
Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves--four--
In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay. 
The waters
At the ramp
Running away. 
I have touched briefly before on Zukofsky's principle of the objectification of experience, of how our attempts to represent a feeling or a picture of event inevitably get bound up with the confusion(s) inherent in the senses of words (language) we all carry in our heads--the common consensus among contributors (participants) about what language may be expected to convey notwithstanding, what words may mean (suggest), and how they may function in the discrete context of poetic composition. All the kinds of mediations between the impulse, the act, the artifact and the effect, are active in any Zukofsky poem: i.e., LZ is always striving to anticipate confusion and consolidate it within the echoing ricochets of its possible interpretations. Post-Modern criticism recognizes such problems inherent in the poetic act, including the implication of its own involvement in the process of apprehension. The possible range of responses to any poem is at least as complicated, and separately integrated, as its original inception. 
Subjects and objects in poems are no more and no less reliably specific than they are in dreams or film or sound. Cabins and mason-jars and sluices are conveniences in the sense that they stand as inert presences (or in the inertia of time and space)--apart from what we may feel or think about them. Signifiers' reality is thus neither more, nor less transitory than our linguistic understanding of them. Their three-dimensionality--if I may speak of it this way--is an expression of the intersection between two projections--the writer's version, and the reader's version. Both share in the experience through the controlled play of the unfolding of the words (sentences) in time and space--a kind of holographic ghost of our mutual presumptions. Thus the poem's existence points to a third thing: Our experience of the reading of the poem as a mental event, different for each person, has integrity as such.  
In the poem--the first in the sequence entitled Anew [1935-1944]--the speaker awakens before dawn ("Break of day") and "sees" "four cabins in the hay." Not in hay, but in the hay. The definite article places the cabins within a context of unreality within which objects may exist without complete fidelity to their characteristics or fundamental nature(s). Cabins may sit in hay; may be sited among hay fields. In what sense are these cabins really cabins? Are they four units in a seaside motel, or toy-houses in a weedy back yard? Their essences as actual things--which the poet may actually have seen, or just imagined, or assigned an arbitrary descriptive to--but their actual existence is secondary to their function within the argument the poem sets up. They, like the words which describe them, and the small, correct (and arbitrary) stanza which contains them, are conveniences whose purpose is subordinate to their function as images (or linguistic place-holders) of things. This is the level of address that one often finds in a LZ poem: Things as they are are not givens, but presences redefined, beyond the general presumption of our familiar recognition of them.  
And yet the objects themselves stubbornly resist specific misapprehension. Cabins are still cabins (brown wood, rustic structures of modest size), and hay is still hay (yellow or dull tan, dried, brittle, lightweight, slanting this way and that in Summer). They could be cabins in a Monet painting, wreathed in the dull, grey light of pre-dawn, shadowless, numinous, still. 
If it's a bay, it's a bay by water, seen through sealed glasses resting on a window-sill, a bit more domestic than you'd expect in a motel room, but perhaps not. Not seen through the glasses (or jars), which are filled with preserves, but definitely through the gauzy sash to the yard on the bay. Is the yard "on the bay" or does it merely front it? We're looking at the bay. 
Beyond the interior of the room in which the window is placed, there is water, running away. But water doesn't "run away," it flows. It goes down, through rivulets in terrain or along courses laid for it. 
If poems are objects--and not merely the formal setting of human utterance--their significance acquires a sort of sculptural presence (immanence), as things in themselves. In philosophical terms, transformative or transcendent qualities in all matter (the universe), may be interpreted as a mystical acceptance of the world as a completed phenomena, which is all-consuming and all-inclusive. In other words, all our acts and efforts to place the material world on a different, or subservient level to so-called higher purposes are illusions, or systems of limited applicability (vanity). Art is one way of applying the objectifying brain, through symbolic representation (language), to make new things out of the known. But these new things have integrity of their own, in the same way that objects in nature do. Indeed, words themselves, which precede and largely predate our use and understanding of their qualities, also possess this immanence in and of themselves--and this use and understanding is, at least to some small, measurable degree, different for every person in the world. This uniqueness may seem invisible, until we begin to explore the sense of words beyond their popular definition as derived from our so-called common usage of them. But the use of words in poems (art) carries another dimension of meaning, beyond the accepted, social context within which ordinary communication occurs. 
Language in poems stretches meaning and presumption beyond the accepted parameters of defined speech and grammar. The oscillations and distortions of our separate and joint senses of words and phrases, are to a significant degree what make poetry poetry, and not mere speech, or mere raised utterance. Zukofsky's degree of abstraction is located precariously at the margins of the social contract of meaning.              
For Zukofsky, objects in a poem function(ed) on two levels: As familiar place-holders for the shared experience of common understanding (and delight), and as collections of talismans in a personal code. Objects sufficient in themselves had been implied by/in Imagism, but an expanded conception of them in poetic composition occurs throughout the work of the Objectivists.
This leads into a discussion of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza, and how his thought influences Zukofsky. Spinoza's heretical ideas about the pantheistic, indivisible nature of the material universe as the particular immanence of God--the duality of the One and the All--is adopted by LZ in the division he emphasizes through the titling of his poetic works: A: A Poem of a Life, and All: The Collected Short Poems. The key distinction signaled here, between theOne (the singularity and control associated with a unique life's experience, associations and expression of that life), and the All (the divisible particularities of a common, shared experience of things in the world). These ideas are crucially significant to a consideration of the use of dialectical materialism in Marxian economics and political theory. For Zukofsky, the value and meaning of private experience lay in its unique aesthetic character, but for a canonical socialist, the part the individual plays in society should be considered as subservient to a greater good. The indefinite article A defines the limit of the one, while the definite article nominates the noun sub specie aeternitatis. The irony of the human position, as being both in nature, and capable of imagining a discrete example of external nature (extension) is a riddle one often finds expressed directly or indirectly in Zukofsky's verse.
The quotation which precedes the poem proper is from Dante's Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto IV--
E quelli a me: «L’onrata nominanza
che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita,
grazïa acquista in ciel che sì li avanza».

translated as-- 
And he to me: "The honourable name,
That sounds of them above there in thy life,
Wins grace in Heaven, that so advances them."

I'm not a Dante scholar, but the gloss on this passage would refer, I think, to the sacred word in the heavens which guides and blesses those "who honourest every art and science".   
Natural phenomena--the quotidian experience of the daily life--may be construed as evidence of the immanence of the sacred in material things. Our apprehension of the magic of ordinary things, relationships and qualities may, or may not, persuade us of the infinite, indivisible or unified nature of the universe. Is our fate therefore ironic, despairing, arbitrary, or inspiring, heroic and transcendent? 
As an enumeration of the signs (or symbols) of a material experience, the poem is a riddle about the relationship of language to our conception of the world. If the experience is/was real, to the poet, its significance to the reader will be a proof of the existence and value of that "third thing"--our shared mental experience of reading the poem, and the objects and events it describes will survive the ruthless effacements of time and change. Language--poetry--provides an ideal medium within which to negotiate the differences in our individual experience, and in our experience of language, in all its particularities.             
1 Trans.:  That sounds of them above there in thy life.

Monday, July 19, 2010

We Wuz Robbed !!

The technology of officiating is moving steadily, though reluctantly, towards increasing efficiency and accuracy of calls in professional sports.  
The National Football League now routinely uses challenges to permit the use of instant reply to fine tune calls made under the pressure of the moment. Each head coach has a limited number of challenges. No one seems to question the wisdom of permitting some remedy, especially on plays where literally inches can determine the outcome of a game. No one--and football officials are no less human than the rest of us--can be expected to get every detail right, in the heat of the moment, when 22 player are swirling around them.
Professional baseball offers some difficult problems for replay challenges. The calling of balls and strikes has traditionally been thought beyond challenge, because there are so many close calls in every game, that to try to set limits on which calls to challenge would be very difficult, and would take away from umpires an authority which might unsettle the delicate balance between the players' natural sentiments, and the umpires' ability to manage the game. 
Calls regarding tags on the bases seem particularly well-suited to challenge, since a slowed down sequence on replay can reveal subtle details about an action which cannot be seen in real time, especially if the viewer (the umpire) is at the wrong angle to see them. I don't think there is any doubt that a significant proportion--perhaps 30% of all base path calls--are wrong. There is even general acknowledgment in the media that umpires routinely "give" calls to shortstops and second-basemen on "pass-by" plays at second base because they want to discourage injuries to these fielders in cases where standing on the base would put them at risk from runners coming in high and hard to intimidate them. 
Traditionally, the strike zone has been subject to a wide latitude of interpretation throughout the history of the game. It was once thought that American League umpires routinely had a "higher strike" zone than National League umpires, who would call lower strikes than their counterparts. This may well have been true. But the greater difficulty involves the vast difference in the application of the defined zone, from umpire to umpire. The strike zone is officially defined horizontally as the width of home plate, and vertically between the player's knees and the middle of the trunk (or chest). In practice, few umpires call strikes above the player's belt, a clear violation of the rules. In addition, based on the television replays now in general use, umpires clearly are inconsistent about other aspects of the zone. 
Yesterday, the Giants beat the New York Mets in the bottom half of the ninth inning, with Travis Ishikawa sliding safely under the tag of Mets' catcher Henry Blanco, as reported by camera shots like the one shown above. Even Blanco admitted that Ishikawa was safe. But home plate umpire Cuzzi, who had been having problems throughout the game, missed the call, and the Giants ended up officially losing the game, simply because the umpire got the call wrong. Games decided this way leave a sour taste in everyone's mouth, even the team benefitting from the gaff. 
Instant reply is coming to baseball, and not a moment too soon. It also seems plausible to imagine that a sensitized holographic strike zone may someday be instituted, eliminating, in effect, the need for an umpire to call balls and strikes, except for swing judgments and dropped third strikes.     

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Tom Jones - Prelude to the Swinging Sixties

Tom Jones was probably the most commercially successful of the so-called British New Wave movies. It may be difficult now to understand how unusual it seemed when it first was released [in 1963], because many of its signature innovations were adopted and incorporated into film making practice in the following decades. 
The idea of turning a picaresque 18th Century comedic narrative [1749] into an earthy, effervescent cinematic romp was a relatively new idea, at the time. But the film's success--it won Oscars for Best Director (Tony Richardson), Best FilmBest Musical Score, and Best Writing (John Osborne)--with six more nominations to boot--was not only a revelation about the talent of the participants, but a commentary about the changing values of the times. Coming at the beginning of the Sixties, the picture signaled a transformation of sentiment, away from the traditional investment in security, class and duty, to an emerging resurgence of interest in sincerity, freedom and sensual indulgence. It was a movie for its time. 
Unlike the gritty, contemporary, socially conscious British flicks of the 1950's and early '60's--Look Back in AngerRoom at the TopThe Loneliness of the Long Distance RunnerThe EntertainerSaturday Night and Sunday MorningA Taste of Honey,The Servant--Tom Jones was a free-for-all in which nearly all the characters seemed to be caricatures of themselves, except, perhaps, for Tom Jones himself, whose good humor, optimistic flair, common kindness and sporting randiness were immediately appealing.
Contrasted against Jones/Finney, and brilliantly played, is David Warner's Blifil, the presumed legitimate son of Squire Allworthy. Warner, a seasoned character actor I've appreciated in dozens of roles, including those in The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Titanic, as well as in bit parts of dozens of lesser productions, is the pimply, conniving, sinister architect of Jones's near hanging, who makes your skin crawl with his sneering condescension. I find Susannah York's bland version of Sophie to be rather a disappointment, though she handles the comic scenes well enough. The really juicy secondary parts belong to Hugh Griffith, Allworthy's braying bumpkin neighbor ("more than Gothic ignorance!") who rolls with equal relish among his hogs or his milk-maids; and Dame Edith Evans, nearly translucent with frail age, lunging about uttering pompous pronouncements about nearly everything.            

Henry Fielding's narrative was an early example of the novel genre, structured as a series of episodes or installments (18 "books" in all), and the omniscient narrative overview tended to objectify the action and distance the reader from the story. In the movie, this narrative position is recreated in the movie as a formal, pontifical voice-over which comments with amused irony and feigned moral disdain on the unfolding plot.   
                                                                Albert Finney in an informal moment
As Jones, newcomer Albert Finney was the perfect choice--his beaming, cherubic good looks the ideal expression of Jones's virtuous nature, though susceptible to enticements, always ready for an uninhibited bit of brawl, or a quick roll in the hay. His performance was crucial to the success of the film, and he carries it; almost anyone else would have come off as foppish or just vicariously crass. 
Hollywood (and Britain's) treatment of period "costume dramas" had been staid and ponderous, for the most part, but swashbuckling adventure films, like Errol Flynn's Robin Hood [1938], or Burt Lancaster's The Crimson Pirate [1952], turned the picaresque genre into matinee cartoons, and treated the historical content as a playground for juvenile tomfoolery. Such fare took complete liberties with verisimilitude and historical accuracy. But sex had never been allowed to rear its ugly head. In Tom Jones, the playboy prototype finally arrived on the screen. Diane Cilento's Molly Seagrim (and Joan Greenwood's Lady Bellaston, and Rosalind Knight's Mrs. Fitzpatrick) are all deliciously aggressive in their pursuit of Jones, and the sheer lack of inhibition belies the "proper" air against which the modern puritanical movie code is played. Jones is a sensualist by nature, and his almost divine incorruptibility which he wears like a halo, is bound to see him through the nastiest scrapes. We rout for him, because we come to feel his joy and excitement at living life with an almost unbridled relish. 
The film's use of slapstick--speeded up sequences, the actors addressing amusing asides directly into the camera, the raw bawdiness of country life, lovers caught in compromising positions, mishaps and pratfalls, the masked ball at Vauxhall Gardens ("to see and to be seen, in heaps they come, to do and to be undone")--is broadly indulged. Plotting and intrigue, skullduggery and happy accident, each play a part. And all this is put before us in the spirit of fun, without malice or gloating.
Tom Jones paved the way for other historical dramas--Barry Lyndon [1975], for instance, or Rob Roy [1995], or The Legend of Zorro [2005], the BBC miniseries I, Claudius [1976], and Gladiator [2000]--by showing how a central character of mixed morals or conflicting allegiances, with an indulgent nature, could appeal across the spectrum of movie audiences.    
Note: My previous post of December 16, 2009.             

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Life is Messy - Art is Cruel

Life is messy. Despite our attempts to bring order, in this tiny corner, or in that one, we are overcome by disorder, buried under the casual afflatus, wasted by inconsequential distraction, paralyzed by guilt and embarrassment and the many nagging indignities of the physical reality of existence. We have choices, though, in how to respond to this chaos. We can throw up our hands in despair, or regard life with relaxed amusement. Life may be seen as a dialogue between the competing responses to the meaninglessness of merely being in the world.
I was, until recently, unfamiliar with the work of Frederick Seidel. As one who shuns the public literary spotlight, who lives for himself and through himself, without shame or hesitation, he's a man after my own heart. Among the many charges brought against Mr. Seidel, as I read them, are 1 That he was born rich, and has never had to struggle to get along, or even to hold any kind of job, 2 That he likes to live well, and is unembarrassed about his pleasures and fascinations, be they ever so privileged, 3 That his view of life is cynical, often sardonic, and that his expression of this dim view is usually direct, and frank, and frequently gauche, 4 That he enjoys riding motorcycles, and 5 That his poetic style is gruesomely blunt, indelicate, and even at times ostentatiously egoistical.
That anyone who displayed all these supposed faults should be regarded as a superior and entertaining poetic talent is perhaps a sin against good taste, or at least what passes for acceptable behavior in our officiously priggish society. 
Literary critics have often mentioned the name of Lowell in connection with Seidel's influences, though the example whose echo I detect--especially in his earlier works--is that of Sylvia Plath, especially the Plath of Ariel. In particular, the air of self-flagellation, the ante-upping daring and double-daring, stripping the emotional gears, pushing the envelope of the permissible, the improbable, the sheer tastelessness of naked outrage--to confront one's deepest obsessions, one's most private conceits, least marketable secret loves and hates and daydreams. 
Browsing through his new Poems 1959-2009 [Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2009], I'm struck by a lack of prosodic progress, of a style of address that's hardly changed over 50 years--perhaps regarded as a fault, by some. Many of the more recent poems do have longer stanzas, and longer lines. Many of them seem more prosaic in their sentiment, as well, welcoming in the explanatory amplification, instead of insisting upon the aphoristic chime of false certitude. One caught my attention, which, after a dozen readings and re-readings, I find to be a fascinating and wickedly well-made poem, just as it is:
                            WHITE BUTTERFLIES
Clematis paniculata sweetens one side of Howard Street.
White butterflies in pairs flutter over the white flowers.
In white kimonos, giggling and whispering,
The butterflies titter and flutter their silk fans,
End-of-summer cabbage butterflies, in white pairs,
Sweet autumn clematis feeds these delicate souls perfume.
I remember how we met, how shyly.
Four months of drought on the East End ends.
Ten thousand windshield wipers wiping the tears away.
The back roads are black.
The ocean runs around barking under the delicious rain, so happy.
Traditional household cleaners polish the imperial palace floors
Of heaven spotless.  THUNDER.  Cleanliness and order
Bring universal freshness and good sense to the Empire. LIGHTNING.

I have never had a serious thought in my life on Gibson Lane.
A man turning into cremains is standing on the beach.
I used to walk my dog along the beach.
This afternoon I had to put him down.
Jimmy my boy, my sweetyboy, my Jimmy.
It is night, and outside the house, at eleven o'clock,
The lawn sprinklers come on in the rain. 

A poem like this plays lightly with dramatic concealment, and then releases it with well-timed disclosures. This is an elegy, for a loved pet euthanized; though given the anti-climactic nature of the first stanza, we might think it referred instead to an old flame (as it may well also do). But we don't know about the dog, until after it is so miraculously metaphorized in line 4 of the second stanza ("The ocean runs around barking under the delicious rain, so happy."). And we don't quite know what the tears being cleared by windshield wipers are being shed for, until it is revealed to us. And the self-pity that does eventually overcome the sense of loss, matters less than the clarifying bluster of elemental forces under which the poem, and our time on earth, is made clarified, with the LIGHTNING and the THUNDER, after four months of drought. And the sprinklers, as symbol of our pathetic vanity, throw a fine mist of superfluity under the dark night of eternity (made poignant by the speaker's own mortality "cremains").  
The first stanza could almost stand all by itself, a kind of Poundian adaptation from the Chinese. Though this kind of writing isn't by any means unself-conscious, it manages to seem relaxed while at the same time being quite affecting. As one, too, who shares a kindred affection for certain domestic pets, I fully accept the distillate of occasional grief which the poem conveys.