Thursday, March 31, 2011

Giants Begin 2011 Season - World Series Defenders !

This evening, the Giants kick off the 2011 season against the Dodgers in their park. In the past two years, this has resulted in a disastrous beginning, with the Giants either taking an 0'fer, or maybe winning once.

The Giants starting line-up this year is as follows:

Andres Torres
Freddy Sanchez
Aubrey Huff
Buster Posey
Pat Burrell
Miguel Tejada
Brandon Belt
Pablo Sandoval
Tim Lincecum

Torres, Sanchez, Huff, Burrell, Sandoval and Posey are all familiar faces. Belt and Tejada are new to the team this year, Tejada coming in as a free agent, and Belt arriving as the fresh-faced young phenom slugger, after a single year in the minors. Over the off-season, we lost Uribe to the Dodgers, and Ishikawa (just yesterday) to waivers. Guillen is gone, and a handful of other temps were let go as well. The team's pitching squad looks identical to last year, except that Bumgarner replaces Wellemeyer, pushing Zito down into the fifth position. On paper, with Wilson and our set-ups, we have the strongest staff in the majors. And they're all young, with Zito the senior at age 33. Wilson and Ross begin the season on the DL, but neither is expected to be gone for long. The only consideration would be whether Wilson would lose a couple of opportunities, jeopardizing his saves total for the year.

I have a couple of questions. How come Ishikawa goes and DeRosa stays? DeRose at 35 is basically washed up; last season it was predicted that his wrist condition would be chronic, and end his career, but here he is again, right back in business. Rowand's contract is still a problem (like Zito's), and there's always the possibility that he'll rediscover his swing and become once again the power hitter he was born to be (if he could just stand up straight at the plate instead of leaning over backwards in the batter's box!). Sandoval dropped thirty pounds, and appears ready for a resurgence after last season's fall-off. It's doubtful that Tejada will be able to replace Uribe's hitting at shortstop, but if he could hit 16 homers and drive in 70, that might well be enough to supply the missing piece. If Ross comes through, too, that might furnish just the right amount of power.

But, as with last year, this is a team based on pitching, not power. Philadelphia understood this, and signed Cliff Lee, after losing Jayson Werth to free agency (Washington Nationals)--which makes them just as competitive (or more so) than they were last year, when they were the only legitimate challengers to the Giants in the post-season.

I don't expect the Giants to go all the way this year, but I'd be surprised if they don't win 90 games, which would almost certainly be enough to take their division. As for the playoffs, there's still the Phillies in the way. A repeat, as always, is very very difficult to bring off.

But it'll be exciting!


Somewhat characteristically, this evening, the Giants performed as expected, with excellent pitching, and weak hitting. Kershaw, the Dodgers young talented starter, outpitched Lincecum, but not by much. Lincecum was victimized by a few bloop hits, and two key errors (by Tejada, and--believe it or not--Posey). Players trying to do too much. What is the difference between "pressing" and playing hard? It's a thin line. Anyway, the Giants seemed to be pressing this evening, and it cost them. Pablo is still swinging at balls out of the strike-zone. Que sera.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hall's Contemporary American Poetry - the Model Post-War Anthology

The poet, editor and teacher Donald Hall has had a long career. At 82, he's one of the grand old men of American literature, having completed (and retired from) a career as a professor at University of Michigan, and spent the last 35 years living in his family home (Eagle Pond Farm) in Wilmot, New Hampshire. A cancer survivor, he also lost his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia in 1995. A precocious poet, and student, Hall began to publish while still an undergraduate (1952), and by the mid-1960's was associated with the "deep image" school--Bly, Wright, Simpson, Kinnell, Dickey, Merwin--and like them, he had begun primarily as a traditional poet, employing strict forms, and straightforward subject matter, undergoing an emotional self-examination, or mid-career aesthetic crisis, which was to make his work more deeply felt, and direct in manner.

I must first have encountered Hall in about 1970, discovering his The Alligator Bride [1969], and The Yellow Room: Love Poems [1971]. (I can recall a colleague in the Iowa Workshop, at the time, complaining the "alligator bride" was a trivial and naive title for what was, in fact, a selected poems book.) The Yellow Room was a documentation of what I took to be an extra-marital affair, which presumably was the relationship with Kenyon. It seemed a needlessly obvious and shameless confessional exercise, but it clearly was a necessary book for its author, whatever its (or his) faults. It almost seemed a "guilty" book.

All this lead-up might suggest that I'm interested in Hall's work as a poet. And it is true, that I've admired many of his (mostly early) poems from the 1950's and 1960's, but I rather lost interest in his work after Kicking the Leaves [1978], and have never really returned to it. Mr. Hall even mentioned my name in an essay once, ironically, by way of explaining, half-apologetically, that he didn't understand post-modern poetry (though perhaps he should have made the effort!). But, again, my primary interest in Hall is that he was the editor of what I think was perhaps the best eclectic poetry anthology of the entire post-war period.

Contemporary American Poetry was a paperback original, published simultaneously in England and America by Penguin Books--at that time, a very British concern. The book was small--4 1/2" x 7"--and yet, at only 200 pages total, managed to be as comprehensive and judicious in its choices as any other book of its kind during this period. Appearing in 1962, it looked both backwards and forwards in time, and managed to represent the emerging rift in the American poetry scene, without in any way mishandling any of its participants, or the curious readers who would have stumbled, innocently enough, into its carefully organized pathways. The layout is a model of order and logical presentation, with a discrete biographical sketch placed in the table of contents before each contributor's selections. In a gratifyingly short introduction, he sketches in his editorial bias, assigning to the publication date of Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle [1946] the putative start date for consideration.

Historically, we tend to think of the split as represented by the separation between Donald Allen's The New American Poetry [1960], and the Hall-Pack/Hall-Pack-Simpson New Poets of England and America [1957-1962]. It would be three more years before Kelly-Leary's A Controversy of Poets [1965] would appear, an experiment in peaceful disagreement. (Given the lack of "progress" in the arts, a similar kind of "anthology" would be just as partisan today, as it was five years after Allen's bombshell of 1960.) But Hall, in Contemporary American Poetry, had the temerity to suggest an integration based on quality and intensity, instead of formal priorities--an act that might have seemed, in the context of irreconcilable difference implied by the other collections, almost a betrayal to the respective camps. Bringing people into the battlefield tent, if only on paper, might have constituted a futile gesture, designed to end hostilities--but as we know, once the geographical lines had been drawn, neither side would be willing, in the coming decades, to concede one line of territory to the other, or even to admit that renegades or border-jumpers might represent the harbingers of a new consolidation of means.

The Hall Penguin book includes 25 poets. None of color, and all, except for Levertov and Rich, white males. The order is by earliest date of birth:

William Stafford [1914]
Robert Lowell [1917]
Robert Duncan [1919]
Reed Whittemore [1919]
Howard Nemerov [1920]
Richard Wilbur [1921]
Anthony Hecht [1922]
James Dickey [1923]
Denise Levertov [1923]
John Logan [1923]
Louis Simpson [1923]
Edgar Bowers [1924]
Donald Justice [1925]
Robert Bly [1926]
Robert Creeley [1926]
James Merrill [1926]
W.D. Snodgrass [1926]
John Ashbery [1927]
Galway Kinnell [1927]
W.S. Merwin [1927]
James Wright [1927]
X.J. Kennedy [1929]
Adrienne Cecile Rich [1929]
Gary Snyder [1930]
Robert Mezey [1935]

What Hall proposed in CAP, was an accommodation, based not on any clear choices of principled adherence to an orthodoxy, but on an energetic co-existence, a lively interplay of voices. Rejecting the ruling 30 year tyranny based on Eliot's prescriptions and example, he imagines a liberation of potential oppositions, though, characteristic of his time, he sees these almost exclusively among a white male class. Hall acknowledges, for instance, that between 1925 and "quite recently" (circa 1962) American Poetry [had] functioned as a part of the English tradition" [italics mine]. Henry James went to England; Melville went to the Pacific South Seas. He sees Lord Weary's Castle [1946] and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet [Berryman, 1956] as a "dead end" and a "failure" respectively, the result of a "constricted subject matter and a tense line," and observes that Lowell, and Wilbur (the very "peak of skillful elegance") are the "culmination" of American poetry in the post-war period. He marks a tendency to identify with Williams--the Williams of "native" American speech, and a poetry of "experience" over "ideas," of "real toads" instead of mythical goddesses. But as Hall notes even Robert Lowell had, by the mid 1950's, begun to morph into something more nearly "colloquial" "direct" and "personal" [with Life Studies, in 1959]. "The challenge of free verse is to make shapes which derive their identity by improvisation, without reference to past poems." One could build useful generalizations about the work of Marianne Moore, or Ezra Pound, out of just that one sentence. Finally, "synthesis of the literary and the colloquial occurs, surely, in some of the poets of the vanguard already. An approach of the two contraries may guard against the perversions of each." I would argue that the best of the "perverted" are what we almost always need in art, referring to various concepts of an "outsider" aesthetics (a la Duncan's H.D. Book).

In any case, what Hall was proposing was a literary community in which all might participate, traditionalists and experimenters, "livers" and thinkers, sky-divers and spelunkers. Exhibiting the true outsider's naiveté, Hall includes the poets of the New York School with the Beats, and inadvertently includes Ashbery with them (the Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Whalen, Snyder, Kerouac, Burroughs and McClure nexus)! Such misapplications may be understandable when the participants forget to wear their name-tags, and Hall is aware of the ironies of categorical vagaries as the next man. He concludes his introduction by arguing on behalf of the new "deep image" movement (thought he fails to name it as such--perhaps that occurred somewhat later--my memory fails me*), as exhibited particularly in the work of Bly, Simpson and Wright, as a "new kind of imagination," the "vocabulary...mostly inwardness...a profound subjectivity...reveals through images...which corresponds to an old objective life of shared experience and knowledge."

By beginning with Stafford's date of birth, Hall escapes having to consider Olson [b. 1910], or to address the resurgence of the Objectivists [Zukofsky b. 1904, Oppen b. 1908, Reznikoff b. 1894, Rakosi b. 1903, and Niedecker b. 1903], whose careers, though beginning in the 1920's, would become more important in the post-War period than they had ever been before. None of the NAP's "wild men"--Blackburn, Corso, Dorn, Eigner, Ginsberg, Jones, Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Sorrentino, Spicer, Welch or Whalen--almost certainly would have had even a prayer of being included in such an anthology as this. Spicer, or Eigner, or O'Hara--figures who have become so crucial to the generations of innovators in the decades since--seem completely alien to this company.

But Hall's anthology is an act of mediation, of a bridging of differences, rather than of an emphatic partisanship, which the other books are. The conservative contingent--


is counter-balanced by


but between these two oppositions, one finds Hall's "interdisciplinary" exceptions--


--all poets who though they may have begun as de facto formalists in the old Eliot/Brooks-Warren tradition, would each move some distance beyond, and would end up, as we have seen, standing for much different things than their earliest efforts might have suggested. These appellations become quite meaningless if carried to logical extremes. Was Pound ever really an innovator? Didn't Eliot, in The Waste Land, write the most Modernist of poems? Didn't Williams begin his career self-publishing trite sonnets sprinkled with must thou's and should thine's? Didn't Auden, the brash British wild young Turk of the terrible Thirties, end up reading Ogden-Nash-lite verse doggerel on The Tonight Show?

Seriously, many of my memorable first readings of contemporary poetry occurred in this book: Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark," Lowell's "Skunk Hour," Duncan's "A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar," Nemerov's "Storm Windows," Levertov's "Six Variations," Simpson's "There Is", Justice's "Here in Katmandu," Creeley's "After Lorca," Ashbery's "A Vase of Flowers," Kennedy's "Nude Descending a Staircase," Snyder's "Hay for the Horses." Though I would not count many of these among my favorites today, the cross-fertilization inherent in their contradictory approaches to form and subject-matter strike me as a healthy regimen for anyone thinking about writing as an activity with potential for curious interest or serious application. Hall's acknowledgment of pluralities and complexities was probably the most refined and intelligent response in the literary community of his day. Regarding the selection today, one grants its prejudices and opacities as givens; but the attempt to show how apparent separate extreme camps could produce hybrid "third streams" or sports--from off the beaten track--or be persuaded and seduced by divergent specimens, to make poems unlike the "orthodox" samples of either kind of excess, should have been an inspiration. At least it was to me. Without Snyder's wet horse's ass, or Creeley's crazy poor, or Lowell's my head's not right, or Levertov's shlup-shlupping dog--I might never perhaps have become interested in poetry!

Much has been made in recent years about the possibility of a so-called "third stream"--either as a clear alternative to the poles of opposing historical approaches, or as some kind of consolidation of the two. Ronald Johnson, for instance, might be my nomination for the kind of writer I have in mind--one whose knowledge of the history of literature (and thought and art and so forth) is extensive, and deep--whose awareness of the different ways of thinking about form allows for a wholly original style, but still apprehensible to a variety of readers. Imitation is a kind of flattery that is unavoidable, but there's no reason why we should not expect, and encourage, originality of every kind. I remember thinking, when first reading Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath, that its author clearly had a profound knowledge of, and love for, traditional poetry, all the way back to Chaucer and Spenser and Donne and the Metaphysicals, but that his expression of this feeling had found a new manner of presentation, different from (yet integral to) Eliot's or Moore's or Pound's (Cantos). Today I regard Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath as a monument in the tradition, despite JA's measured repudiation of it, and the fact of its being a somewhat isolated exception in his oeuvre, and the fact that it has become overshadowed by the bulk and direction of his later work. That such exceptional works can occur, amongst milieus bristling with controversy, is an encouraging sign, at least to me. Without the dialectic which is implied by such vast gulfs in aesthetic preference--as evidenced by Hall's dilemma in forming a selection from among so very different streams--it is less likely, it seems to me, that we can expect to see significant departures from the norm. In my own work, for instance, I know that my inability to come to terms with the breadth of my appreciations, has led me to wander, over time, between or amongst seemingly incompatible kinds of poetic expression: minimalism, syllabics, dense wit and gracious music, abstract non-syntactic experiment, acerbic satire, wilderness dreams, nature and love poetry, and so on. The wider the perspective, the more we can encompass in our vision. But the windows are "never wide enuf," as Paul Blackburn once said, so we keep changing and trying out new ways, restlessly. Nothing wrong with that, I say.


*I am, of course, aware that the term was originally the invention of Rothenberg and Kelly as derived from Lorca and other surrealists; it was its adaptation, perhaps to some degree unconsciously, by the Bly-Wright-Kinnell-Simpson-Merwin-Hall grouping, with which I believe Hall is concerned to describe in CAP.

The Limited Hors Commerce Edition of The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner

Fine printing and binding has always been a sort of side-interest of mine. When I was attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early 1970's, I took the opportunity to attend Harry Duncan's Typography course at the print lab there. Iowa at that time enjoyed the luxury of having two of America's finest letterpress printers--Duncan, and Kim ["K.K."] Merker--at the same time. Their presence during this period fostered not just the production of a series of fine letterpress editions [through Duncan's Cummington Press, and Merker's Windhover and Stone Wall Presses], but a setting for the appreciation and practice of hand-printing as an art form. I spent many nights laboring over my own book project at the lab, once inciting Harry's ire for not clearing the press "bed" before leaving late one night. A close friend of mine at that time was Al Buck, a local denizen of the fine printing scene, who later would print the first issue of my little poetry magazine L. The values of fine printing were instilled in me then, and that interest has in part driven my preoccupations in the antiquarian rare book trade, which I've been pursuing for the last 15 years, more or less full-time since 2001 when I retired from my government job of 27 years.

When Stanford finally published The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, edited by me and Robert Grenier, the idea of having a limited fine bound set seemed a natural opportunity. Over the years, I've funded a number of projects for boxes, rebindings and so forth, either with Klaus Roetscher at the Pettingell Bindery in Berkeley, or with John Demerritt in Oakland. Through the generous support provided by Richard Eigner, Larry's surviving brother and Executor of the Eigner Literary Estate, we were able to create a limited set of 10 copies of the Stanford edition, hors commerce, for the Editors and Eigner family members. The limited has green leather spines, tan buckram cloth boards, and a sturdy cloth slipcase.

The critical reception for the Eigner Collected is in its earliest stages, but interest is building in the academic community, among graduate students and scholars who are now able to see, really, for the first time, the range and depth of Eigner's great mass of work--its quality and innovations. The Eigner Collected was a dream of mine born 35 years ago, now finally come to full fruition. I feel privileged to have had some small part in bringing it into being.


Check out my update/addendum on the announced probable takeover of Peet's Coffee Company by Starbuck's, on my previous post of March 17, 2011.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tropical Jungle Juice - Another Winter Dream

The natives are restless. Take cover behind an oversized banana-leaf and be sure to watch out for the leeches lurking under the viney overhangs. If it rains any more this year in the Bay Area, we won't need greenhouses or awnings, we'll make do with inflatable rafts. In the meantime--

If you're dry enough to read this, wet your whistle on this concoction.

Nothing like this would ever be available in any jungle, but drinking it you can summon up any fantasy you prefer--Green Mansions, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you decide--and sit back and enjoy the comforts of home. Don't ask your local bartender to make this. They tend to get cranky with precise recipes. We only deal with professionals, here. By proportion, as usual--

3 Parts Golden Caribbean rum
1 part Cabo tequila
1.5 fresh thick cream
1 Part creme de cacao
1/2 part creme de bananae
Sprinkling of nutmeg to taste

Shaken lightly and served up. Drinks of this kind may often be offered in cordial glasses, or clear tall glass cups, but that's a pretense. Just use your regular classic cocktail glass, put your lips together, and taste.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Grand Piano X - the Ultimate Dilemma

The concluding volume of Barrett Watten's Grand Piano project, volume X, has a feeling of completion, not so much as a result of any accretive fullness of accomplishment, as much as a simple exhaustion of purpose. What began as an experiment in "collective autobiography," ends, as one would expect, with a partial account of the editor's formative years as a writer, surveying the possible uses he might have made, by way of ambitious strivings, of the chaotic milieu of the San Francisco avant garde writing scene of the 1970's.

A retrospective haze of glamour infuses the tone of much of what is discussed, as if the fruits of the intervening years' labor--the little pamphlets, magazines, university study, recordings and correspondence--constituted a kind of testimonial before the fact--of the reader's curiosity and concern for the outcome. We are here, the text seems to declare, because of a coordinated accident of interlocking fates, the ultimate ulterior purpose of which was the self-evident necessity of their finding a common purpose in the need to succeed. But success is not meaning.

The heroes--Olson, Creeley, Ashbery, Coolidge, Grenier, and even Laura Riding--are remarked and recorded in the context of an ascending social structure of aspiration and authority, but rather than the "turn to" an exploration of language itself (instead of personality and psychology)--which has been the expressed mission of the Language writers from the beginning--we are treated to personal recollected accounts of interaction and encounter. Coolidge is interviewed, Grenier--first met in Berkeley in the late 1960's where BW is finishing a degree in biochemistry [!!]--becomes the paternal "mentor" with whom he co-edits the canonical little magazine this, and embarks on his quest for acceptance and professional esteem. How and why a pre-med major who grew up largely overseas, and began his academic life at MIT, should have chosen, instead, to become a poet and bohemian, is the underlying subtext of this narrative, which is neither referred to, nor even mentioned.

(This aspect of concealment, to which I've referred in earlier posts, is relevant: The biggest secrets, those issues and events about which we tend to be most evasive, are usually those which yield the clearest insight into the subconscious, and which can explain at the deepest levels, our behavior and choices. And it is often the case that we are not even aware of our own duplicity in this regard. One's whole life program may entail a grand evasion of a dominating anxiety, which we will go to any lengths to hide, even from ourselves.) And yet life, for this Editor, begins not at birth, or in childhood or in adolescence, but at the moment he discovers his calling, as if all that had existed or taken place before was of no significance at all. Though we know this is invalid, we accept the resolution on its face. All we're really interested in, at the end, is who knew who; what model, what exemplary predecessor, seemed most available, most compelling, most useful. If Grenier and Coolidge hadn't made themselves available, if Creeley and Olson didn't, somehow, seem more amenable to approach and adaptation, might the Language Poets have ended up following different paths, different inspirations? Perhaps it's an unfair question. We can't undo the past, and social and literary politics unfold in predictable ways. A teacher holds forth, and his students follow. How do we separate careerist ambition from friendship, and the individual voice from its chosen milieu?

The answer to those questions, I would argue, is the underlying subtext of the whole Grand Piano experiment, despite its expedient expressed purpose. Though this group of ten shares a certain common age, the real narrative of their interaction and proximal accounts is accidental and indeterminate. The Beat phenomenon, the Black Mountain phenomenon, the New York School phenomenon--these are mostly illusions constructed out of convenience and partial accounts, in order to give form and meaning to wayward tendencies among widely scattered and distracted individual voices. The works of Olson and Creeley, O'Hara and Ashbery, Whalen and Corso really have very little in common with their popularly identified counterparts. Even in cases where their lives may have intersected regularly and significantly, as individual writers, we recognize that their uniqueness, their strong personal styles and interests--which drive their work--are vastly more important than anything we might wish to make out of their common associations or professional connections. It is, after all, their uniqueness that we most admire: How silly it would be to think that what most counts is the likeness and/or similarity of styles or approach amongst writers thus conjoined?

Is it important for us to think that Silliman is most a Language Poet when he's most like or un-like Watten or Armantrout or Pearson? Do we look for common threads, and is the Grand Piano an attempt to make a case for such comparisons? For my part, I find the pretext for the composition of the group to be relatively flimsy. If Language Poetry is about a certain approach to composition, and criticism, then why rope off a certain segment of its adherents based on a reading series which occurred in San Francisco during a short span of time in the mid- to late 1970's? How does the selection, thus defined, exclude other "Language" writers whose work and concerns were parallel in time? There's the geographic fact of proximity, which makes the selection appear opportunistic and accidental. Then there's the problem of writers simply excluded due to their age, their publication dates, or their resistance to being included in movements which they feel no obligation to, or real connection with. Clearly, figures such as Jackson Mac Low, Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Aram Saroyan, Robert Grenier, etc., have as large a claim to be thought of within a tradition of experimental poetry of the kind that Language Poetry claims as its special precinct, as any of the Grand Piano participants.

Merrill Moore

If common literary purpose, then, wasn't the defining rationale for inclusion in the Grand Piano project, then it must be social and personal. But social and personal criteria as pretexts for inclusion would seem to be at odds with ultimate literary values. Though we may grudgingly accept Merrill Moore, for instance, as a member of the Fugitives, there are few if any readers or critics, today, who would pay more than lip-service to his work. Proximity and social association alone place him historically among the important writers of the period. If there had been an "experiment in group autobiography" for the Fugitives, Moore would undoubtedly have been invited to participate, if he had been living (he died of cancer at age 54 in 1957). The point of my mentioning Moore is two-fold: 1) His works may not have risen to the level of merit which would justify our remembering him for any reason other than his association with other, better writers; and 2) The meaning of his life and work may exist outside the context of his official claim to notoriety. Why do we choose to lionize one writer simply on the basis of his connections, while we repudiate the work of another on purely textual grounds? These are highly relevant questions in considering the use and purpose of the Grand Piano project.

So I question that purpose. If Watten wanted to indulge in a little nostalgic back-tracking, to consolidate his historical position (and that of his friends), he might have chosen a somewhat less socially and geographically connected pretext. Friendship and proximity don't make art. Individual members will succeed or not on their own. And what we learn from these 100 essays does little to enlighten us about how any single one of them managed to write what they did, or how their lives and work intertwined in ways we might credit or acknowledge as pertinent. There could be ten "Grand Piano" projects, each with its own reading series, each with its own social matrix, each with its own heroes and groupies and hangers-on. The more the merrier. Bring it on. Everybody must get stoned!

Libya - Can We Afford Another War ?

Recent events in Libya have once more raised the question of U.S. led international intervention, as a loose coalition of forces (and now NATO) has conducted a broad campaign of bombing strikes against Qaddafi's forces.

The Libyan unrest followed closely on the heels of instances anti-government protests in other countries in the region (Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), though this was the first instance of outright armed conflict. Rebels were reported to be fighting in major Libyan cities, but were being beaten back by Quaddafi's loyal forces.

The decision to intervene with American military power, without consulting with, or obtaining authorization from, the Congress, follows a familiar pattern of abuse of this kind by the executive branch. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. These were wars of choice, begun surreptitiously, and then expanded progressively over time with shaky "resolutions," and defended as growing obligations and commitments of "honor" and purpose. Though the cases differ in significant ways, the arguments used to support them are always the same:

"We must DO something!'

--mutates into--

"Honor demands that we not abandon our duty!"

--mutates into--

"We must finish the job!"

But in every case, once a conflict has begun, we always find ourselves in a quagmire in which military, political and ethical choices become ambiguous. "Victory" becomes a mirage, continually receding, until, after long last, exhaustion (and bankruptcy) causes an abandonment of our original decision to deploy. Right now, "victory" in Afghanistan, "stability" in Iraq, have become illusions. The American people know it, and no amount of careful backtracking by toady generals or diplomatic apologists can make it sound right. Months--perhaps even weeks--after we leave those nations, they'll fall into chaos, and the outcomes will almost certainly not be to our liking.

And now the generals and diplomats are telling us we have a "moral obligation" to intervene in Libya. Quaddafi is a bad man, he's killing his opponents, and something must be done. But what? And what are our real aims?

In each instance of these "interventions" we seem to need to feel useful and justified to influence events and make a good outcome. But exactly what the limits of our intentions are, and how we propose bringing them about, remain vague and indeterminate. It's just this vagueness and lack of specificity which are the key to our failures.

Are we willing to "abide" by an outcome limited by our ability merely to prevent Qaddafi from bombing his people from the air? Is a "no-fly zone" all we want to set up? Or do we really want to see Qaddafi deposed? If that's the real aim, then "boots on the ground" will almost certainly be required eventually. Are we really willing to start a "third front" limited war in Libya? And if so, what does that willingness tell us about the progress of our foreign policy in the years to come? Are we obliged to intervene in every case in which a civil unrest (or "civil war") begins? We know how successful such ventures have been in the past. What is the evidence that were we to unseat Qaddafi, we would be able to "manage" the creation of a new government, and rehabilitate another entire country, as we have been doing for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan? How much, indeed, can we "afford" to do to help nations which fall into chaos? We've seen dictatorships come and dictatorships go, but the pattern which emerges from these conflicts is never certain, and seldom favorable to our interests. As with many things in life, it's often just as effective to do nothing, as it is to jump into a fight amongst strangers, whose loyalties and interests we don't share.

It is painful to watch a people rise up and be put down with vicious force--especially by someone as lawless as Qaddafi. But the alternative may no longer be a luxury we can afford.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Paris When it Drizzles - Another Cheerer-Upper for a Dreary Afternoon

The places we love may be most memorably evoked by the experiences we've had there. Then, there is the possibility that something very moving may have happened just when the weather, or some other natural or man-made calamity, may have intervened in our lives in a very inopportune way. Being pelted by rain on the way to an appointment, or trapped indoors by inclement weather, may leave impressions that seem superficially to be as indelible as the sunniest, happiest moments of all. Being in love, in the rain, for instance, is very romantic. There's the scene at the end of the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany's, or at the conclusion of Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which the ecstatic lovers are drenched in baptismal glory. Or there's Gene Wilder exclaiming (in The Producers), after being "cooled down" by a flung glass of cold water, "Now I'm hysterical...and I'm wet!!"

Not that there necessarily need be any real excuse for a cocktail at the end of a day of work, or especially when one is in love; but drinks, like events in one's life, can be the accompanying detail, as with a song, which captures the spirit of something we'd like to preserve.

As always, the recipe by proportion --

4 parts white rum
1.5 parts Aperol
1 part limoncello
1 part sweet lime

Shaken lightly and served up.

The Aperol (an aperitif) causes the lemon and lime to taste subtly like orange; and, of course, lime always improves rum.

There's a new move afoot to abandon the classic cocktail glass in favor of the new squat variety. It's a plot to offer smaller portions, and to prevent breakage, since these new ones are over-weighted on their bottoms. This trend must be resisted. A good cocktail, like a splendid wine glass, holds the portion up for inspection, and possesses a kind of glamor and vertical dignity which squat glasses don't have. And if you're so drunk or unsteady that you can't accurately convey the glass to your lips without risking spillage or (worse yet) dropping the glass completely, then you probably shouldn't be imbibing at all.

To love, then, love in the rain. Love in the sun. Love on the beach. Love in the apartment. Love in the mountains. Love in the streets. Love on street-cars. Love in the office. Love in the classroom. Love in the trees. Love in a car. Love in the park. Love sky-diving. Love at 30,000 feet. To love!

The Last of the Great Divas - Elizabeth Taylor dead at 79

Elizabeth Taylor died yesterday.

For those who didn't grow up during the immediate post-War period, it may seem difficult to understand the degree of her celebrity. She seemed to belong to another time, and indeed, that began to be true as early as the late 1960's, when she was still only in her late 30's. Beginning as a classic "child star" in the early 1940's, pushed into the business by an ambitious mother, she quickly gained fame with roles in mawkish animal warhorses Lassie Come Home [1943] and National Velvet [1944].

Improbably, she made the transition from kid star to attractive ingenue in Father of the Bride [1950] and A Place in the Sun [1951], which some critics believe to have been her best role. By the age of 19, she had already had a solid movie career lasting a decade. So much early success may often lead to a dead end, but Taylor went on to a series of triumphs which would in themselves have been impressive, even if she hadn't been a child star. Elephant Walk [1954], Giant [1956], Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958], Butterfield 8 [1960], Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [1966], Cleopatra [1963] and Taming of the Shrew [1967]. To be sure, there are things to like and dislike about all these roles, but as the Studio System wound down, and Hollywood clung stubbornly to the big, overproduced versions of block-buster first-run clichés, the demands and risks to traditional star figures ended the careers of many actors and actresses of greater range and talent.

It was certainly the tabloid-worthy twists and turns of her private life that magnified and distorted her screen-acting impression during the 1950's and 1960's. Her well-known and -documented marital history, her many brushes with ill-health and even near fatal disease and accident, kept her name and image before a vicarious public, even while her working days were steadily declining. It's popularly believed, I think, that her long, tumultuous relationship with Richard Burton, wrecked her acting over time, and robbed her of the probable fulfillment of a mature movie talent. But if we strip away the superficial values of her best parts--a sort of second-rate Vivian Leigh-style drawling coyness (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), a bitchy vamping harpy (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), or a voluptuous tramp lolling about on a metaphorical casting-couch (Cleopatra)--what's left? Those legendary "violet" eyes? The stacked figure (36-21-36) packed into a tiny (5'2") frame? As a phenomenon of entertainment, she led a whole, though fragmented, existence, building families and charity campaigns with equal passion, and remaining a loyal friend over the years to those with whom she shared a common concern and interest.

As she aged, her career fell away, the public persona occupying the place her acting self had once held, and increasingly she seemed to be clinging to past glories and notoriety. This too is part of the "legendary" cliché, the sad old diva propped up with plastic surgeries and noble callings, until at last she's seen being pushed around in a wheel-chair, a decrepit old crone draped with oversized jewelry and an ill-fitting wig. But as a part of the mythology of our era, hardly anyone else looms as large or as notorious. Didn't men of my generation fantasize about what it might have been like to bed down this bombshell seducer, the "Liz" of a million fan-magazine exposés, the deadly black widow breaking up marriages and dictating terms to production heads?

In the media now, she's being referred to as the "last of the stars"--but stardom doesn't depend upon longevity. Still, it takes guts and determination to keep in front of the public eye, without losing your sanity or your self-respect (or both). From a psychological point of view, it's a snap judgment about the way people respond to early fame and an abbreviated childhood. I remember, with certainty, seeing on live television--it must have been in 1962 or early 1963-- Taylor being interviewed with her then husband, Eddie Fisher, in Rome, while she was making Cleopatra. I recall it's being with Edward R. Murrow, though his Person to Person show archive seems to end in 1961. Liz and Eddie are sitting on a couch in their "villa" and someone mentions the Via Appia, the "old Roman road" and everything is so terribly cheerful and upbeat and chummy. . .which, if one had only known, as everyone would in a few short months, how disturbingly wrong this scene was, given Taylor's determined pursuit of her Welch co-star in Cleopatra. . . .

At her end, Taylor seemed to have become as sweetly naive as she had been at age 12. She had seduced countless men, had died a couple of times, and made a handful of successful films (three of which, A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, are classics). If Marilyn Monroe was the blonde bombshell, Elizabeth Taylor was the dark beauty, and she too has now, 49 years later, passed into history. But the world of which they were a part, and what their lives signified, have long since disappeared.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Charles Wright's Hard Freight

I heard Charles Wright read in 1970, when he passed through Iowa for a visit at the Workshop. He left the impression of a very self-contained, careful, measured young Southern fellow, interested in Italy and Italian culture, but with a clear inheritance from the Appalachian country he hailed from. He had a controlled line with flickering images of mystery, regret and jeopardy. In Marvin Bell's Form of Poetry class I offered that I found Mr. Wright's prose poems useful to my own investigations into the form; and one poem of mine, "Far Inland," undoubtedly owes something of its character to Wright's Italian prose poem evocations of Italy--which date I believe from his earliest attempts at writing, while he was still posted in Italy with the US Army.

Wright had just published his first regularly issued book, The Grave of the Right Hand [Wesleyan University Press, 1970]. The works which Wright would publish three years later, in the collection Hard Freight [Wesleyan, 1973], however, are different. Written in what I would term is his first period style--lyrical and declamatory, much devoted to an explication of his roots, rural Tennessee; but again, the aspects of jeopardy, decay, subtly menacing qualities rising to the surface, seem to dominate.

Going over Wright's work recently in Country Music: Selected Early Poems [Wesleyan University Press, 1982], I was struck by the hypnotic, incantatory quality of the some of best poems, selected from Hard Freight, particularly the piece from which the title is taken (in the third section)--

Dog Creek Mainline

Dog creek: cat track and bird splay,
Spindrift and windfall; woodrot;
Odor of muscadine, the blue creep
Of kingsnake and copperhead;
Nightweed; from spit and floating heart,
Backwash and snag pool: Dog Creek

Starts in the leaf reach and shoal run of the blood;
Starts in the falling light just back
Of the fingertips; starts
Forever in the black throat
You ask redemption of, in wants
You waken to, the odd door:

Its sky, old empty valise,
Stands open, departure in mind; its three streets,
Y-shaped and brown,
Go up the hills like a fever;
Its houses link and depl0y
--This ointment, false flesh in another color.


Five cutouts, five silhouettes
Against the American twilight; the year
Is 1941; remembered names
--Rosendale, Perry and Smith--
Rise like dust in the deaf air;
The tops spin, the poison swells in the arm:

The trees in their jade death-suits,
the birds with their opal feet,
Shimmer and weave on the shoreline;
The moths, like forget-me-nots, blow
Up from the earth, their wet teeth
Breaking the dark, the raw grain;

The lake in its cradle hums
The old songs: out of its ooze, their heads
Like tomahawks, the turtles ascend
And settle back, leaving their chill breath
In blisters along the bank;
Locked in their wide drawer, the pike lie still as knives.


Hard freight. It's hard freight
From Ducktown to Copper Hill, from Six
To Piled High: Dog Creek is on this line,
Indigent spur; cross-tie by cross-tie it takes
You back, the red wind
Caught at your neck like a prize:

(The heart is a hieroglyph;
The fingers, like praying mantises, poise
Over what they have once loved;
The ear, cold cave, is an absence,
Tapping its own thin wires;
The eye turns in on itself.

The tongue is a white water.
In its slick ceremonies the light
Gathers, and is refracted, and moves
Outward, over the lips,
Over the dry skin of the world.
The tongue is a white water.)

The things I quibble with in this poem--to which I am much attracted--are primarily how some of the details seem slightly wrong or misconceived: "Go up the hills like a fever" makes little sense to me; "The moths...their wet teeth/Breaking the dark...raw grain" is an inaccurate description of the mouth parts of a moth. But these are minor distractions. Overall the poem moves with considerable propulsion or inertia to its ultimate section, which I find eloquent and fine, especially the last stanza--its image the metaphor for the speaking voice of the poem, in love with its own descant, descriptive music. I'm also fond of "indigent spur" for a railroad track--which sounds to me as good as a line out of Welty or Capote. The poem's rhythm "starts" in the second stanza, remembers more details and memories, and moves--"cross-tie by cross-tie"--back towards its source, and ends, somewhat fitfully, in an ambiguous gesture, to the concluding image of water/spit, tongue/light. It's a standard rural evocation, for sure, but there's a serious blue cast about it, like a John Fahey blues. Wright the man is steeped in Southern mythology, something he carries around inside him, no matter where he is. As he described it once in an interview, America is his fatherland, while Italy is his motherland--the two worlds within which his poetry and mind move.

Later, Wright's work changed. His lines became longer, and they often dropped down a line, at the caesura. The mood was quieter, like muted impressionist canvases. He's stuck to that, and has won many readers and prizes along the way. But I still like "Dog Creek Mainline". It was his own Look Homeward, Angel introduction to his own inspiration, still flowing down out of the Appalachian mountains 40 years later.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Contractility as a Virtue - Modesty in Three Short Poems of Marianne Moore

  Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

Among Modernist poets, Marianne Moore shares certain qualities common to her time, with certain figures of equal or greater fame. Like Eliot and Stevens and Williams, she had a certain modesty and tact which expressed itself in the care and precision of her verse, which she thought of as an aspect of her politesse. Like them, too, she seems to have had, or felt she had, a life "outside" of literature, a position that might be regarded with curiosity or consternation today. Manners required that one's person, one's personal presence, not intrude upon the experience of art (or literature). Art wasn't about personality, she thought, but about the quiet and sensible debate that people of taste and intelligence shared with one another. Art was a pleasure designed to be experienced in the privacy of one's space. It wasn't advertising, it wasn't talking on street corners or in boardrooms. It wasn't the fussy categorical ratiocination of the academy. It derived from the human apprehension of the world at large, it was responsible for as much of tradition as it might well absorb--and the more of that the better.
But art--as Moore undeniably understood--is also about surprise, testing limits, and responding to the changes that history presents. Though she was a master of rhetorical flourishes, complex conceptual arguments and deliberations, it was by way of (her) highly charged, original, and exacting syllabic edifices that she was most "modern." What would Tennyson, or Browning, have made of her intricate constructions ("The Frigate Pelican," "The Fish"), or her obdurate, resistant, even petulant assertions ("Poetry," "Marriage")?
The taxonomic inclusiveness of her grammarian's delight in oddity, obscure facts and coinages, is matched by her great, patient skill in drawing parallels and comparisons between things so seemingly separated by "continents of misapprehension," that it defies belief! But all this is nothing without a sharp rein to control it, and it is in this aptitude that Moore's genius most serves her purpose.       
My father used to say,
'Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat--
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth--
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.'
Nor was he insincere in saying, 'Make my house your inn'.
Inns are not residences.
If the deepest feeling shows itself in silence, then the best poetry may inspire deference, admiration, or quiet delight. And that qualification--the grudging acknowledgment of a too quick definition--adjusts that feeling to "restraint." Intense feeling is by its nature unrestrained, but it is through exactly such controlled restraint that the most powerful and persuasive lessons may be realized, and expressed. There is a hierarchy of taste here which is initially assumed, and then castigated. But the deeper realization--that privacy and graciousness have limits which guide our behavior--is like a razor-sharp irony undercutting that presumption. This is an ethics of sensibility, in which character and training and practice and standards all serve an efficient purpose, gratuitous and measured. The one metaphorical image in the poem, the cat carrying a mouse in its mouth--its tail "hanging like a shoelace"--vividly captures both the wildness and care of domestic accommodation. Strength and necessity express themselves--hand in glove--beneath every locution of thought and social maneuver. 
To a Snail
If 'compression is the first grace of style',
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, 'a method of conclusions';
'a knowledge of principles',
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
If contractility is a virtue, then subtraction is one of its cognates. Compression--or concision--like the removal of unnecessary connections--may be expressed as apostrophized definition. Intensity of feeling is never the occasion of extremity in any Moore poem. We admire grace in compression, the "hidden" principle which is itself the very condition of modesty, though modesty is only a way of talking about nature. Every wild thing is a synthesis of function, and what we make of it may begin in decorative innocence, but will usually end in fascination, revulsion, or confusion.
In Moore's work, art and science, faced with the seeming wildness and occasional malevolence of nature, share the same disinterested passivity with respect to its ultimate meanings. As for manmade things, their purpose lies only in their use, not in an inner spring of vitality. 
To a Steam Roller
The illustration
is nothing to you without the application.
    You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down
        into close conformity, and then walk back and forth
            on them.
Sparkling chips of rock
are crushed down to the level of the parent block.
    Were not 'impersonal judgment in aesthetic
        matters, a metaphysical impossibility', you
might fairly achieve
it. As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive
    of one's attending upon you, but to question
        the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.
The concision and lacunae generally associated with Modern verse, its insistence on image and act to serve as the carriers or transmitters of meaning, is nowhere more evident than in Moore's poems. Yet you would hardly know it, given the tortuous and labored passages in many of her best poems. The organic metaphor for such conundra or tortured passages is that, as "additions to nature," difficult poems reflect or mirror the convoluted formulae of all material things. The mechanical oppression implied in the crushing logic of enforced uniformity is one consequence of the conformity of duty, an unimaginative existence, the grimness of an unexamined life. The poem is an argument for the improbability of unlikely simile, of comparisons which stretch our sense of meaning to the absolute limit. If a steamroller were to roll over a butterfly, we might have the same feeling of pointless compression. 
Modesty, patience, care, restraint, decency. Pride, courage, daring, intelligence, sympathy. If--given Moore's dictum--you possess these virtues, and on the other hand, you demand the raw material in all its rawness, you are interested in poetry.