Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hard to Get - the Seductive New Mix

Elusive conversationalists may give the impression of being distracted, or of not being fully comfortable with the situation. Not every interaction is an overture, but there's always the undercurrent of suspicion. Sometimes there's just the subtlest hint of insinuation in the tone, sometimes it's just the natural beauty of the voice. Who can say?

I always liked the description someone once made of Katherine Anne Porter's prose: "She has the look of the runaway in her eye." Clever way of putting it.

An elusive flavor which is difficult to put your finger on, may be like a feeling which is not quite come to consciousness. This drink is a little like that. The ingredients are straightforward enough, but the sense of something lurking behind the obvious flavors is unmistakeable.

That's part of what can make a cocktail interesting, and satisfying. Not obvious. Not easy. Just a little hard to get. Just a little half-promise of delight and mystery under the inertia of the moment.

Ingredients by proportion:

3 Parts No. 10 Tanqueray Gin
2 Parts Aperol
1 Part Créme de Bananae
1 Part Fresh Sweet Lime Juice
1 Part Fresh Lemon Juice

Shaken in the usual way and served up, with a little fragment of lemon or lime wedge (you decide).

It's meltingly seductive, but just a little ambiguous.

Happy hunting.

Season Wrap-Up - Giants Drop out of Contention

Radio announcers Jon Miller, Dave Flemming and Mike Krukow have been hinting all season that the new "face of the franchise" in the coming decade is likely to be . . . (pause for effect) . . . not Tim Lincecum . . . but Madison Bumgarner. In a tacit acknowledgement of the young phenom's credentials--he is still only 21, and only in his first full season of work, compared to Lincecum (at 27 he's right in the middle of his career)--they're predicting, in effect, that Bumgarner's importance to this team in the coming years will eclipse the two-time Cy Young Award winner to become the ace of the staff. Why do they say this?

Well, for one thing, it's been obvious to students of the game that Tim Lincecum's mechanics constitute a recipe for physical problems. The windmill motion, and the stress on his slight frame. Traditionally, smaller pitchers who rely on a fastball to conquer opposing batters, usually have short careers. The most famous example is Sandy Koufax, whose Hall of Fame career ended at age 30. Generally speaking, successful long careers aren't built on flame-throwing. Exceptions, of course, are well-known--Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson--but they're as often as not taller men, with efficient, economical wind-ups. Long careers usually are characterized by great control combined with an easy motion (which puts minimal stress on the arm)--Warren Spahn comes to mind (5243.2 career innings pitched!). Up through age 42, Spahn averaged over 25 complete games a year; Lincecum has only thrown 8 in his whole career. So the tendency is to see Lincecum as a short-career star, whose best years may well be already behind him.

In terms of wins, there is no question that on almost any other team in the league, Lincecum would have had at least 2, maybe 3 twenty-win seasons by now. His run support has been historically low, and he's routinely opposed by the other squad's ace starter. But there have been disturbing signs. His velocity has decreased steadily. He rarely throws a fastball over 92 mph these days, and hitters are beginning to figure him out in early innings. In 2008 and 2009, Lincecum seemed capable of a no-hitter on any given day, and frequently would go for 5 or more innings before anyone broke through. His strike-out to walk ratio is declining, and despite having added what has been referred to as a "deadly" change-up, he has a great deal more trouble finishing batters off after two strikes. What does the future hold for Timmy?

Bumgarner, on the other hand, displays the kind of stuff, and mental concentration, normally seen only in veterans. He has an easy sweeping delivery, using all of his 6'5" height (the way Randy Johnson could). He seems not to tire in late innings, and his potential, assuming no unforeseen occurrence, looks to be unlimited. If Lincecum could be washed up at 34, Bumgarner might pitch for 20 more years.

With respect to the 2011 season just ended, there's hardly any reason to despair, much less complain. The team finished just six games under its 2011 record, with a line-up that would have driven most managers nuts.

When Uribe went south to join the Dodgers, he took his big bat with him (24 homers and 85 RBI's in 2010). But his replacement, Miguel Tejada, was a disaster--his career is clearly over. Aubrey Huff's solid 26 homers and 86 RBI's (in 2010) dropped to 12 and 59 in 2011. Andres Torres's great 2010 year (16 homers, 84 runs scored, 63 RBI's, 26 steals) dropped almost out of sight, and spent much of the season on the disabled list as well. Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, two erstwhile free agents, fell back into their relative mediocrity this year (and both had injury-plagued years as well). Rowand pooped out, and young Brandon Belt looked a little over-matched at times, despite being the designated "rookie of the year" at first base on opening day. Zito hit bottom, and probably is nearing his unconditional release, despite that ridiculous contract.

It's amazing to think how well this team might have performed, even given all the above problems, if Posey and Sanchez hadn't gone down with season-ending injuries. Ryan Vogelsong came in to give the team 13 wins (and a 2.71 ERA), picking up the slack left by Zito, and Jonathan Sanchez (a head case, apparently, whose future is beginning to look bleak).

Next year's chances will undoubtedly revolve around the second tier of players the team can field. Right now, the line-up would probably look like this:

Keppinger SS?
Sanchez 2nd
Sandoval 3rd
Beltran 1st
Posey C
Belt LF
Schierholtz CF?
Ross or Huff RF

--with Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Vogelsong as the starting rotation, with Sanchez or someone else (Zito???) the fifth. There's the problem at first base and short, since Brandon Crawford can't hit, and Keppinger can't supplant Sanchez at 2nd base. Could Keppinger play SS? Probably not. This also depends on what the team is willing to spend. Beltran could be very expensive, and Keppinger wouldn't exactly be cheap. Lincecum's contract is up too, as is Bumgarner's and Jonathan Sanchez's.

There's been a lot of talk about trading Sanchez for a top-flight shortstop such as the Mets' Jose Reyes--the quintessential lead-off man with speed and power. But Reyes would be expensive. On the other hand, with Reyes present, Keppinger and Torres would be expendable. And you never know, from year to year, who might blossom suddenly into a star. Belt and Crawford and Pill are each capable of surprising improvements--even Chris Stewart, a brilliant fielding catcher, could turn into a decent all-around catcher, with a little improvement in his hitting--certainly has has more potential than Whiteside. Fontenot may be kept on for utility duties. Cabrera, DeRosa, Burrell are all history. With Huff signed through 2012, Ross (now a free agent again) could be odd man out, assuming Huff can cover the breezy spaces of China Basin's right field (but again, if Beltran could take right field, Huff could stay at first, if he could get back his 2010 swing). Picking players for their hitting puts the outfield in difficulty. Losing Rowand and Torres really hurts us defensively, but we had/have no choice. You can't have an outfield that hits a collective .220, with a combined 20 total homers.

It will be interesting.

My personal pick is the Phillies. They've put it all together this year. I don't see how with their combination of power and power pitching, anyone can beat them. But I might have made--and did--last year, the same prediction. The Yankees look strong. My guess is it will come down to the big pitchers: Sabathia, Kennedy, Verlander, Cliff Lee, Halladay. I don't think Arizona has a prayer in the play-offs. But this year I don't have a dog in the show.

Let the games begin.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Montsalvatge's Sonatine Pour Yvette & More

I have a weakness for musical pieces inspired by the childhood imagination. I don't mean of course pieces written by the precocious mind, but written under their influence by mature composers.

Here are two pieces purportedly inspired by the singing of children.

Sonatine pour Yvette, by the late composer Xavier Montsalvatge, is a three part sonata-form which the composer has said was based on a tune he heard his daughter Yvette humming one day on her way home from school. It has a poly-t0nal freedom which makes it seem a little "minor" in tone, but it's a lovely excursion into moody meditation. The third section--which embodies the daughter's tune--is a stirring virtuoso piece--rising to a dionysian splendor.

Xavier Montsalvatge [1912-2002]

I have written before of Federico Mompou, the Spanish keyboard miniaturist, beloved of Spanish pianists, and fans the world over. Mompou wrote a series of pieces called Cancion y Danza--each of which is a slow, mournful elegy, followed by a happier dance. Cancion y Danza No. 3, here is typical. The second piece (the danza) is obviously a children's game song--perhaps it's traditional, though I don't recognize it. I'm not altogether fond of this rendition, which is a bit hurried in places, but the player's touch is sensitive.

Federico Mompou [1893-1987]

For dessert, here's a link to a very cool interpretive ballet sequence set to Oscar Espla's (1886-1976) little piece Levantina. I'm not much for dance performances, but this one's a small gem.

On the Left, Montsalvatge, on the Right, Espla

Monday, September 26, 2011

Philip Johnson - Professional Enigma of Architectural Practice

I've been reading The Philip Johnson Tapes, conducted by Robert A.M. Stern in 1995, when Johnson was at the height of his fame [New York: Monacelli Press, 2008]. These interviews, or discussions, comprise a brilliant picture of Johnson's personal history, as well as a partial account of architectural movements during the 20th Century. In early middle age, I became interested in design, and read widely in architectural criticism; Johnson's presence, in the middle of many of the era's debates and disagreements, drew me to his work.

I've written about Philip Johnson before--specifically in reference to his Glass House [of 1949, in New Canaan, Connecticut]. The significance of Johnson's professional career has always been somewhat truncated by the importance of this early project--early, that is, in his professional career. Johnson was already 43 when the house was completed, and had only recently managed to complete his architectural degree at Harvard, in his late 30's. He didn't even yet have a professional architect's license. Historically, the Glass House occurs about in the late middle of the romantic phase of Modernism's International Style period. Modernism in architecture began dramatically in the 1920's, with sharp departures in form and feeling, engineered by a handful of European innovators, filled with radical notions of social and political change. The names are well-known, and don't require a recitation here. Johnson was one of their early champions, strategically from his position as curator of the Architecture and Design Department of New York MOMA.

For years it was fashionable among critics to remark Mr. Johnson's betrayal of his early International Style preferences, since by the mid-1960's, he had walked away from those first loves to more abstract and ambiguous designs, less obviously functional and translucently pragmatic. Of
course, Johnson had never been a functionalist; he had, from the beginning, been a l'art pour l'art guy, willing to throw any expedient principle under the bus for the sake of an iconic facade, or a startling turn.

What Johnson's biography, writings and commissions demonstrate is the power of an individual vision to prevail against the historical forces and resistances of changing aesthetic milieus and prejudices. Never content to let himself be pigeon-holed into a single, fixed artistic position, he transformed himself over and over, in a Protean process of renewal (which could be fairly called opportunistic), in order express his evolving vision of urban and rural purity. A self-proclaimed "elitist" such as Johnson has an unashamed excuse for every sin against taste, and history has proven--at least in his case--that elitism could not have been better scripted or designed: Each of his new incarnations has been accompanied by a public relations campaign as sophisticated as any from Madison Avenue.

Precisely because Johnson understood the relationship between money, power and taste, was he able to rationalize his own wavering loyalties and abandoned commitments, and manipulate his intentions into important commissions and projects. Architecture, after all, is a rich man's game. Whether the funding is private, or public, there is always an entity to be maneuvered, a client to be seduced, a builder to be prodded, a commission to be influenced. Every structure has a foundation, and every project has a budget, which rests, securely or gingerly, on a balance of forces.

My Father, John Calef, who was an architect by training and profession, decided in his early 60's that he no longer wanted to practice. An idealist by persuasion, I was surprised to hear this. "Why," I wondered, "if you were so entranced by it from your earliest youth?" "Because the whole thing is a rat-race, from beginning to end," he replied. "You have to con the client, you have to con the contractor, you have to con the planning and permits divisions," and "in the end, you feel like a con man." Philip Johnson once notoriously referred to himself as a "whore," capturing in a single word that combination of cunning and shame which have been the hallmarks of the patronage system since ancient times. The greatest names in painting, sculpture, architecture, even in theater, have functioned under it. Though the names have changed, and the arguments are a little different, it still exists, particularly in the architectural profession. The bigger the project, the bigger the stakes. For buildings funded through public money, the guardians of taste and suitability are ranked like militia.

Everyone is restless to some degree. In a fast changing world, the less baggage we carry the more portable we may be. That portability may be the ultimate expediency. Johnson's clear-cut fascistic tendencies during the 1930's; Man Ray's or Balthus's sexual peccadilloes. Johnson's mercurial, sparkling intelligence, wittily side-stepping charges designed to emasculate his ego and creative impulse, became a specific kind of charm which he wielded with aplomb. Artists have always known that whatever the changing winds of circumstance, their first duty is to their skill and talent, and whatever compromises they have to make to get the work done, and out into the world, are probably worth whatever indignities this may entail. Posterity does not often forgive obscurity. In our epoch, the willingness of artists to make bargains with necessity has come under severe scrutiny. Can we forgive the impulse to submit to unreasonable demands as pretext for the appreciation of any artifact? Prevailing trends may be regarded simply as the cost of doing business--in no other field are such factors as these so demanding as in architecture. Virtually every aspect of the business may be dictated by external circumstances. The lack of the availability of wood, to take one very potent aspect, may completely deny a designer the freedom to design structures of certain kinds.

As Johnson makes clear in the early biographical filling-in, he was Gay from an early age, and his sense of frustration at not being able to express his feelings led to his symptomatic difficulties in school, and later in life. Growing up in a well-to-do family in Cleveland, Ohio, he attended Harvard, intending to major in classics, but dropped out. As he reveals here, he suffered what we would now call a "nervous breakdown"--largely as a result of his suppressed homosexuality. As a consequence of his inheritance (shares of appreciating Alcoa stock worth millions), he didn't need to work to support himself, and spent the next ten years promoting his interest in architecture and various fascist causes in America (Huey Long, Father Coughlin). Largely through his efforts, a department of Architecture and Design was established at the Museum of Modern Art (which he would head), the beginning of a long history of his involvement there, as well as expansions of his interest in modern art, both as a collector and advocate. Johnson's early efforts, with Henry Russell Hitchcock, to bring awareness of the International Style to American audiences, coincided with his embrace of architectural modernism, with which he and his work would be associated for the next two decades.

As an idle patrician, Johnson was free to dabble in the arts, and his scuttled early college education was both a symptom of his sense of exclusion, and a blessing in disguise. The hiatus between the breakdown, and his resumption of studies in the 1940's (in the architecture department of Harvard), is a period of exploration and self-definition. Ultimately rejecting the politics of supreme order and domination, he realized that his intense desire to create structures of beauty and permanence would involve a détente with is own wayward nature.

Most acolytes in professions begin with nothing, and are forced to compromise their creative drives through submission to a master, a limiting program, or a period of gradual acceptance through incremental advance. Johnson, however, had the means to leap over these early hurdles and proceed directly to building projects, self-funded. This prerogative, however, was limited to the residential scale. Johnson realized that in order to be involved in the mounting of monumental buildings and spaces, he would have to find an entree into the larger arenas of value and application, where the money and permission to do such projects existed. It's all very well to plop down pristine, discrete crystalline boxes in suburban New York or Connecticut; it's quite another thing to propose a witty skyscraper in Manhattan.

Johnson's route to official permission was through Mies. Mies van der Rohe had emigrated to America in 1937, concentrating his practice in the Midwest (Chicago). Johnson had done little large-scale work by the mid-Fifties. He saw, however, in the commission for the Seagram Building, a chance to insinuate himself into the big scale, by associating himself with Mies, the architect whom the client, with Johnson's influence, chose as lead architect on the project. Though Johnson's contribution to the project was minimal--he did the Four Seasons, and some other interior designs--he was credited as a collaborator. As a champion of Mies and the curtain-wall paradigm--International Style adapted to the high rise format--his contribution enabled him to realize ideas and sentiments he'd been pushing and dreaming about for 25 years. The Seagram was Johnson's pathway to serious, public commissions--that would enable him to launch his program of ambitious, large-scale artifacts. Though this process began slowly, by the 1970's, Johnson, and his various partners over the years, had begun to consummate a series of impressive structures, for instance:

Pennzoil Place

The Crystal Cathedral

Lipstick Building

AT&T Building

PPG Place - Pittsburgh PA

Such departures from the purity of the International Style signified Johnson's rejection of the ideals of his youth and early middle age. His vision of architecture as an art--rather than primarily as a functional tool--evolved over his lifetime, but the constant was always the freedom of the designer to realize a personal vision. Architectural practice, especially for anyone committed to the ideal of personal creative freedom, as Johnson was, frequently descends into the con-game I mentioned earlier. Johnson understood how money, power, influence, publicity, image, and wit converge into material fact: A building. How a building looks is an expression of all these things. Functionalism was never a part of Johnson's aesthetic--what he liked about Modernism was its formal attractions, not its utility. Johnson, seen in retrospect, was never a Modernist, but a Post-Modernist, willing to break any rule, seduce or offend any client, in the interest of husbanding his program into being.

The impression a building leaves--particularly to the general public--is much more important to the relative success and reputation of an artist or designer, than its presumed use or value. That was true of Wright and Corbusier, and it's true of Johnson. What Johnson saw in the world of the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies was a culture of shock, impudence, daring, and ephemeral charm. He understood that challenging the prevailing modes of the International Style--the very movement he had channeled into prominence beginning in 1932, and continuing right up through the late Fifties--would enable him to entice the canons of taste to further indulge his historical fantasies. Monumentality, once associated with nobility and dominance, had by the 1960's become the symbolic signpost for corporate power. Fascism had sought to control capital, just as Communism had sought to deconstruct it. In retrospect, neither system was able to succeed.

Johnson's abandonment of fascism was a practical move, an acknowledgement of the realities of history. As an early outsider--though one with complete freedom--the privileged dilletante--he perceived his destiny from the outside in. He understood that the changing tides of fashion are themselves the instigators of further modes of understanding; that the artifacts they leave in their wake perpetuate expedient formalities. He could actually influence how his buildings would be understood and appreciated, by advocating for their acceptance--laying the groundwork for his own success.

I've always liked the etymology of the word professor: as one who professes a special or unique knowledge of something. In matters of aesthetic taste, there are no rights and wrongs--and for Johnson, architecture was primarily a matter of taste, and not utility. In response to a woman's complaint about the Mies-designed chairs he put into his glass house livingroom, he replied that comfort had nothing to do with style; if women wanted to be comfortable, they would never wear high heels. And so it is. Heels flatter a woman's carriage, making her more attractive. But of course attraction itself is in the eye of the beholder. Johnson himself, being Gay, didn't find women attractive in that sense at all.

As Johnson's painting and sculpture galleries on his own property attest, he thought of art and architecture as two aspects of the same process--as beautiful objects on the land. The two were interchangeable media: You could like a thing because it was fascinating and inspiring, whether or not it made your life more comfortable. Indeed, comfort seems not to have been the point of Johnson's art--for such a mercurial gadfly, standing still was never the point of living. Five hundred years from now, when most or all of Johnson's buildings have come down and been forgotten, the irrelevance of his ephemeral conceptions will seem but a whim in the wind. But as an avatar of his time, the evidence of Johnson's genius is ubiquitous. He was a man who gave up the passivity of privilege to engage the world on its own terms, playing the great game of cultural chess, to leave monuments to himself. It's a vanity, but very much a vanity we understand, and can appreciate. Each age defines itself through its monuments, whether they're churches, or forums, or tombs, or office buildings. Johnson, the invisible man living in a glass house, understood that truth.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ad Hoc addendum - a Footnote

In the cosmopolitan world of celebrity chefs and hyper-elegant venues, Thomas Keller is an enduring figure. A rock star of menu-planning, he's been the prince of the old-line chef-cum-entrepeneurs now for over 15 years.

Up in the Napa Valley--where I grew up, for those unfamiliar with my bio--the posh restaurateurs have been moving in, summoning the rich and famous to dine in country splendor. You can count the high-ticket European sedans as they toodle up highway 29 or the Silverado Trail on any weekend, until you're blue in the face. So much money sliding by on grease.

Picnics are a European invention, but America has always taken to them with relish. The idea of eating outdoors on a pleasant sunny day, either at a picnic table, or on a blanket on the ground, has always seemed a romantic notion. Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (the luncheon on the grass) has been an inspiration for painters for hundreds of years.

Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe by Edouard Manet [1863]

Though few people would consider dining nude in public, at any time, there are apparently some stubborn nudists in San Francisco who insist on cavorting naked in daylight around the Castro District. The City is considering ordinances designed to require some kind of protection on public seats to prevent unhygienic possibilities. Only in San Francisco!

But to get back to Mr. Keller and his menus. Keller's first venture in Napa Valley was his restaurant The French Laundry in Yountville, a tiny berg on the west side of the valley, previously known only for its old Veterans' Home facility. Not satisfied with winning 3 Stars on the Michelin Guide for The French Laundry, he opened another place, Bouchon, down the street from the other, and yet again, opened a third, Ad Hoc, in the same town. Now, as an asterisk or footnote to the whole affair, he's opened a little picnic stand behind Ad Hoc, known as addendum (addendum, that is, to Ad Hoc). addendum sounds suspiciously like another restaurant, Bibendum, which wife and I enjoy eating at in London; but I doubt they're related.

Ad Hoc Restaurant - Yountville

addendum's specialty, as you would guess, is picnic food, since there is no indoors, and except for a few picnic tables, no place to eat, in the formal sense. You order your meal from a little double-windowed cottage, and the tray of treats packed in disposable containers is brought to you from the restaurant building (in the front).

On the day we were there, the menu had BBQ Pulled Pork & Baby Back Ribs, or Buttermilk Fried Chicken, both with honey cornbread, and sweet corn succotash with classic potato salad, and carrot cake cupcakes--the whole tab running us $26.50. In today's market, a lunch like this one at that price is a bargain. Or it certainly is, considering the quality of the food. I've never tasted fried chicken or ribs to rival that which we were fed that day, or had better corn succotash. Wow. Perhaps the best part is that you don't have to sit down and be waited upon, pay a big tip, and make reservations beforehand. Certainly, it's no social triumph to order a picnic lunch, in a town with so many chic dining joints. We didn't have any wine.

If the place stays open, we'll visit again sometime.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Ginger Pig - Drink or Forever Hold Your Piece

Life is stranger than our dreams.
--Frederick Sommer

It often happens that truth is stranger than fiction, and in the case of my first reference here, which comes from a John Le Carré novel, there is indeed a real place called Ginger Pig, which is in fact a real butcher in London, specializing in North York Moors cuts. My people--many generations back on my father's side (the Calefs)--originated, according to genealogical references, in the West Yorkshire region of England. There is in addition a Ginger Pig catering company/bistro/cafe (also in the UK) and a lady who markets jewelry under the same name (not sure where she is).

Casting about for a name to attach to this new concoction, The Ginger Pig just popped into my mind, certainly because one of the ingredients had a ginger flavor.

Ginger Pig Tails

The first girl who ever had a crush on me was a red-head--in the first grade. She was Nadine. She would offer me the apple from her lunch bag. That was as far as things went. Or at least that I can remember. The first girl I had a crush on--which lasted for about a day--was also a red-head. But I can't remember her name. I saw her in a bus hut. A strange, wondrous feeling came over me, as if I were glowing. It was very disturbing. I don't think I ever saw her again. She was some guy's sister. I think I was age 8 at the time. The bus hut is long gone, but the memory lingers on. If these ladies are still alive, they're in their sixties, an age when most women look like your grandmother. I saw my grandmother once, when she came with her groom to get married. They stayed with us for about two weeks. Grandma Mae was rather square-looking, conservative, and mannered. She didn't seem to understand what it meant to be young, or ever to have been young herself. Maybe she'd had her childhood bred out of her.

In any case, here are the ingredients for a very satisfying cocktail, with measurements by proportion, as usual:

4 Parts Bourbon
1 Part Biscotti Liqueur
1/2 Part Ginger Liqueur
1/2 Part Blackberry Brandy
1 Part fresh lemon squeeze

Shaken and served up, with a lemon peel dropped in.

Red-heads tend to have quite pale skin, and are prone, of course, to freckling. And, in my limited experience, they often tend to be buxom, though of course, one can't generalize. They also tend to have green eyes, or brown eyes which have a reddish tint. Coloring is weird. I was born blond, which eventually turned to brown. In my fifties, my mustache went white. I put lightening bleach in my hair now, which makes me look blond again. I prefer it to the dull brown-going-to-grey which it is. If I live long enough, I suspect my hair will be all white. I once knew a Japanese woman who thought that Japanese men became distinguished (and sexy) when they got old and their hair turned white. I though that was probably a true statement.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Art & Commerce - Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind

Lawrence Ferlinghetti [1919- ] has been a dominating presence in the American literary scene for a half century. That a writer of his limited gifts should have achieved this, is a testament to the power of reputation, publicity, and ambitious promotion. At age 92 [in 2011], he has outlived most of his contemporaries, and many of those younger writers whose early avant-garde work he championed, through his publishing ventures, through publicity generated by his retail City Lights bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach district, and by his public defense of literary works against censorship.

Ferlinghetti's inauspicious beginnings belie his later accomplishments. Orphaned shortly after birth, he was handed around several times, attending various schools, eventually taking a degree in journalism in 1941. After a stint in the Navy during the War, he attended Columbia on the GI Bill, where he studied English literature, and became interested in Modernism. He next spent three years studying at the Sorbonne in Paris (he had had French as a first language as a child, living for five years in Strasbourg with his aunt Emily), receiving a French doctorate.

What seems clear, given what we know of his production, that he was drifting during this period, trying out writing, painting, journalism, but not finding a suitable expression for his energies. Arriving in San Francisco in 1951, he was caught up in the new scene cohering around Kenneth Rexroth (another transplant, from Chicago). In short order, he co-founded a magazine, City Lights, and a retail bookstore (City Lights Bookstore), and in 1955 launched a publishing venture, City Lights Books. The City Lights The Pocket Poets series of pamphlets was initiated with Ferlinghetti's own first collection of poems, Pictures of a Gone World [1955].

In the popular imagination, Ferlinghetti's long been lumped together with the Beats, or the San Francisco Renaissance literary movements (which are to some degree synonymous). As I attempted to say in a previous post--"What We Mean by Beat Writers - A Finite Definition" [Jan 9th 2010], Ferlinghetti's associations were spot-on with respect to certain key figures of the Beat Movement (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, McClure, Lamantia, Snyder)--though he himself was really pretty old to be considered a key participant.

It would be obvious to anyone reading Ferlinghetti's poetry (in Pictures, or the larger collection A Coney Island of the Mind [New York: New Directions, 1958]), particularly at the time they were first published, during the 1950's, that Ferlinghetti could not have been considered a serious aspirant to official literary genius status. His poems were self-consciously light-hearted, irreverent, and satirical, intended to appeal to a broad reading public. They weren't serious poetry, either in the traditional sense (as in Lowell or Bishop or Wilbur or Nemerov) or in the Modernist experimental sense (as in Olson, say). Their obvious antecedents were Cummings, Patchen, Sandburg, Lindsay, Prévert, Mallarmé, Mayakovsky, Williams, and the Joyce of Finnegans Wake.

You could say, with justice, that Ferlinghetti's poetry seemed most well-suited as a comic antidote to the over-arching seriousness of some of the authors whose work he published and promoted (Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, McClure, Lamantia). With Whalen, he shares a certain occasional levity, but his highest voice is seldom more than toss-away ironic declamation. It's fair to say, as well, that Ferlinghetti, always the shrewd businessman, usually had his eye on the commercial potentials of a perceived "underground"--first, the Beatnik phenomenon of the 1950's, later the Hippie Revolution of the 1960's, and the Flower Generation of the 1970's--not only in the literary sense, but in the political sense. The bookstore, due largely to the publicity he's been able to generate over the years through the publishing venture, and the very public persona he's projected through his connections, has been a veritable goldmine.

The contexts--the literary frameworks--through which Ferlinghetti tended to see his own poetic contribution--was an amalgam of diverse cliché'd stereotypes, drawn from his reading experience in the 1940's and before. There was a strong strain of social protest, coming out of the 1930's Depression Era, an identification with labor and the working-class. Formally, he tended to think of experimental writing as ending with the work of Cummings (in verse), and with Joyce (in prose). In the way it was expressed, he tended to over-simplify writers and works almost in a Pop Art sense, as crude caricatures of their significance in the popular imagination. His use of imagery almost always suggests hackneyed prototypical banalities, instead of three-dimensional presences within a specific context.

These early poems are almost like obvious literary commodities--their "symbols" and "themes" and "stances" designed to evoke the lowest common denominator of feeling and thought in any given circumstance. Ferlinghetti was undoubtedly a sensitive and thoughtful man, but his conception of the purpose of his poetry involved a compromise with the potentials of serious art, acknowledging his limitations through a self-indulgent glibness and sarcasm, or a sophomoric, easy romanticism, neither of which was true to his subjects, nor respectful of his readers. Whereas this kind of condescension is commonly regarded as a deliberate exploitation, in Ferlinghetti's case, it was as much a confession of the meagerness of his art.

Ferlinghetti's true gifts were in the arena of promotion and salesmanship, and he quickly learned to exploit the cultural vanguard which was unfolding around him in the 1950's and 1960's. Though he was of an older generation--he had, after all, graduated from college before World War II--he easily imagined himself as a confederate in the sweeping changes which were coming over the horizon in those decades. Indeed, he would be one of their facilitators.

Reading the poems in these first two books today, it is immediately apparent that Ferlinghetti was speaking as an older "outsider"--the wearied, hollowed-out, cynical veteran of the lit'ry wars, conducted in Paris streetside cafés--and that his sojourns during the immediate post-War period had led him not to Dionysus but to Mammon. In the world of cultural politics, if you can't join'em, it's usually best to set up as a cottage revolutionary, which is pretty much what Ferlinghetti did. But the bottom line wasn't literary--it was mercantile. Ferlinghetti, unlike those with whom he was purportedly in spiritual collaboration (Ginsberg, Kerouac, et al), his primary function was as a businessman, not a writer. Despite essaying several different forms--poem, novella, play, political diatribe (essay)--his output, taken as a whole, is surprisingly slight, the expedient pretext for most of his work being timely current events. He tended to see his work in terms of a dialectic with the prevailing vogues of the day, which is why so many of his later poems feel dated and passé.

Capitalizing on the "paperback revolution" of the 1950's and 1960's, a cheapening of the material artifact if there ever was one, he exploited the tourist mecca along Columbus Avenue--famous chiefly in those years for being the carnival row for topless dancing and tawdry soft porn joints, selling cheap copies of Howl and Gasoline and Poems of Love and Protest and Red Cats side by side with the usual popular fare available from any quotidian bookmart. Emphasizing the counterculture of difference, the forbidden and reviled, along with old-fashioned leftist protest, and sexual liberation, he was able to foster a public image of righteous indignation and artistic integrity, though the actual matter, the product, was really just a papered-over run-of-the-mill retail bookstore.

The terms of Ferlinghetti's "poetics" are clearly laid out on the back panel blurb which he himself wrote--"I have been working toward a kind of street poetry . . . to get poetry out of the inner esthetic sanctum and out of the classroom into the street. The poet has been contemplating his navel too long, while the world walks by. And the printing press has made poetry so silent that we've forgotten the power of poetry as 'oral messages.' The sound of the streetsinger and the Salvation Army speaker is not to be scorned . . . I've used 'open-form' typography to indicate the breaks and hesitancies of speech as I heard it in the poem . . . ." The blurb goes on--"His material, his tone and phrasing, are taken from everyday life, from the 'Coney Island' of ideas and feelings in all our minds, and he transmutes them into poetry of satiric bite and lyric beauty." One might ask, just in passing, what the result would have been, had Ferlinghetti simply strode out onto Columbus Avenue in the afternoon and begun reciting his poems, an act which his espoused goal would seem to imply--instead of turning out millions of copies of printed books. As far as poets contemplating their navels, he'd likely have had to reconsider those words if asked to pass judgment, for instance, on the meaning of navel-gazing in the work of Allen Ginsberg or Gary Snyder or Philip Whalen (or even Kerouac!), each of whom was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. The focus on a tradition of "street poetry"--or oral literature--undoubtedly comes from Lindsay, chanting to the congregation in the missionary tent, or Mayakovsky, whose declamatory style of hollering across roof-tops, and inciting the working-class to action, probably constitute the purest forms of "street poetry" there are.

The typography of the New Directions edition has always amused me. Employing an "outlaw" or "wild west" font for the titling and numeration probably was intended to suggest that the book had untamed contents, a "wide open" quality associated in readers' minds with the clichés of the Western Movies or the Western Genre fictional world--references which were still vital to audiences in the 1950's--the heyday of the television Western. Was it intended to suggest a rough-and-tumble unruliness?

Or did it connote saloons, whorehouses and gunslingers? Probably all of the above. Ferlinghetti's particular combination of free love (physical liberation), lower-class urban romanticism, and pop-artsy graffiti and ersatz rabble-roust was probably considered pretty exciting to the East Coast Establishment.

Thinking about the title, which is taken from Henry Miller's piece "Into the Night Life," one is reminded that the grand amusement park, from which the name comes, was once a major attraction in the New York area, but by the time that Ferlinghetti appropriated it from Miller's riff, it was well into its senescence. It had already become a symbol of urban decay, so that Ferlinghetti's evocation of it was purely nostalgic.

He himself undoubtedly visited it, as Miller would have, many years before, but the carnival atmosphere which it implied, had long since peeled away in the weather of time. Miller, of course, had arrived in Paris too late to participate in the Modernist movement, and his manic free associations, his "Rabelaisian" humor and boisterous scatologies, were a mere footnote to the more committed and sophisticated exile phenomenon which had been played out during the previous two decades, before 1930. "Into the Night Life" is a section or chapter of Black Spring, the second part of Miller's "Tropic" trilogy [Tropic of Cancer--1934, Black Spring--1936, and Tropic of Capricorn--1939]. These aren't novels in the usual sense, but rambling semi-autobiographical accounts. "Into the Night Life"--(subtitled) "A Coney Island of the Mind"-- is a surreal riff, a nostalgic evocation of the Brooklyn of Miller's childhood and earlier life there, a world and a culture which he considered stultifying and dead.

"Everything is sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard. A Coney Island of the mind. The amusement shacks are running full blast, the shelves full of chinaware and dolls stuffed with straw and alarm clocks and spittoons . . . and over it all in a muffled roar comes the steady hiss and boom of the breakers, a long uninterrupted adenoidal wheeze that spreads a clammy catarrh over the dirty shebang. Behind the pasteboard streetfront the breakers are ploughing up the night with luminous argent teeth; the clams are lying on their backs squirting ozone from their anal orifices. In the oceanic night Steeplechase looks like a wintry beard. Everything is sliding and crumbling, everything glitters, totters, teeters, titters."

The writing in "Into the Night Life" is some of Miller's best work--a vision worthy of Blake or Beaudelaire, though you have to grant him a certain license--he doesn't observe the niceties, and he often uses slang and scat as shortcuts when he's impatient with the language. But my point here is to suggest that Miller's piece, as a source for Ferlinghetti's hackneyed adaptation of the older writer's inspiration, is really a purer expression, neither nostalgic nor borrowed, but original and fearless. In Ferlinghetti's hands, it becomes imitative, sentimental and bland, as I shall show.

A Coney Island of the Mind is really comprised of three books or parts of books. The title section is only 35 pages of text: Oral Messages, comprising 25 pages, was intended to be accompaniments to jazz; and the last is a selection, of 15 pages, from the earlier Pictures of a Gone World. This, then, is the sum total of Ferlinghetti's poetic output between 1946, say, and 1955, much less than 100 pages. The overall formal effect of these poems is astonishingly level and consistent, their style fulfilled. The first poem (1) "In Goya's greatest scenes" is typical of nearly all of them.

The lines are spread across the page as sentence fragments, the separate phrases set as a crude dialectic of descending rhythmic increments. From a linguistic point of view, the language is conversational. Formally, they owe something to Pound's Cantos, and to Williams's Paterson and the later lyrics of Journey to Love, Desert Music and Pictures From Breughel, the stepped, shifting progressions intended to mimic the diagrammatic segments of spoken sentences.

The other obvious thing about them is their burden of cliché'd phrases and tired signifiers--"in a veritable rage/of adversity"--"all the final hollering monsters"--"imbecile illusions of happiness"--the crude alliterations--"cadavers and carnivorous cocks"--and a nonspecific generality--"the people of the world" "heaped up" "in an abstract landscape" "engines/that devour America."

The poems' underlying sentiment is critical, "anti-establishment" in the words of that time, the Beatnik mantra against bourgeois decadence and blandness. Yet the imagination behind the poems feels empty and opportunistic, taking aim and shooting fish in a barrel. "Bland billboards"--"imbecile illusions of happiness."

I've always felt you have to grant a writer the privilege to pursue the kind of writing he/she wants. You can criticize an artist for not having a high enough standard, and I have done that at times. Easy targets. Poets who aspire to popular acceptance may claim, with some justice, that their audience proves their value. For a writer such as Ferlinghetti, who seems to have considered his writing career an adjunct to his role as businessman and erstwhile cultural ambassador and entrepreneur, popularity may serve as adequate pretext for aesthetic satisfaction. Ferlinghetti never pretended to be a critical talent, and was content to let his poetry and other writings serve as his official "statement" about the world.

Another way of thinking about this relationship would be to surmise that Ferlinghetti accurately gauged the value and purpose of his talent, and settled into a comfortable mediocrity which made no high-pressured demands upon him. The success of A Coney Island of the Mind--the material text has sold over a million copies!--undoubtedly exceeded his wildest expectations, but again, it was the commercial synergy between the the fame this engendered, and the magnetic attraction of the Columbus Avenue mecca, which characterize his approach his specific style.

As I have described it previously here, and elsewhere on other blog comment boxes, American literature historically was regional in nature. The Eastern Literary Establishment may have dominated our national consciousness--its hegemony of publishing houses, academic elites--its attention inevitably focused on Europe--but America was always too large to be a fully integrated cultural system of values (as it has traditionally been in England, France or Germany). America has always had its regional cadres and isolated figures. Steinberg's map of America as seen from New York is the perfect expression of this myopic obliviousness.

Ferlinghetti's position, like Rexroth's or Bukowski 's or William Stafford's or Richard Hugo's, or Horgan's or Stegner's or Herb Gold's--you could even go back to Jack London and Mark Twain--existed stubbornly outside the Eastern hegemony, did not subscribe to its standards, and could afford to ignore the superficial canons of taste and decency which it represented. Beat literature may have become a national phenomenon, but it's impossible to imagine it apart from San Francisco, the Pacific Basin, or the City Lights store and publishing venue. Aspiring young writers have made the pilgrimage to the place for at least three generations now, though the store itself hasn't been a real literary presence for decades. Ferlinghetti hardly ever shows up, preferring to pursue his other interests and commitments.

Geography seems less and less significant, in the information age, as a defining measure of the proximal connection among demographic contexts. When Kerouac hitch-hiked out to California in the 1950's, the journey had symbolic as well as actual implications. The Continental Divide signified an emancipation from tradition. That same possibility, which had drawn people westward--the Mormons, the 49ers, et al--attracted writers and artists, those who craved separation and independence. Those who, like Ferlinghetti, were refugees from the predominant, closed network of discrimination and correctness, saw the West as the land of opportunity in both the artistic and commercial sense(s). Trying to start a bookstore, or a publishing house, based on an avant-garde model (like City Lights) would have made little sense in New York or Philadelphia or Boston of the 1950's.

The air of cynical nostalgic longing comprises most of the subtext of Ferlinghetti's book--"the back streets of all my memories" "where I first/fell in love/with unreality"--probably of a sainted urban childhood which he didn't actually experience, but borrowed from Miller--

"The rest of the United States doesn't exist for me, except as idea, or history, or literature . . . But I was born in the street and raised in the street . . . To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are . . . What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature. It doesn't matter whether you fly to the Pole, whether you sit on the floor of the ocean with a pad in your hand, whether you pull up nine cities one after the other, or whether, like Kurtz, you said up the river and go mad. No matter how exciting, how intolerable the situation, there are always exits, always ameliorations, comforts, compensations, newspapers, religions. But once there was none of this. Once you were free, wild, murderous . . . ."
--Henry Miller, the beginning sentences of "The Fourteenth Ward," from Black Spring (Grove Press, 1963).

Whereas Miller went to Europe, following the worn-out paradigm of seeking the source in old world settings--and finding it, to his chagrin, in many respects, already passé--Ferlinghetti, already having done the Europe exile trip in Paris during the 1940's, realized that the vanguard, at least for him, lay elsewhere.

Crucially, too, as with Miller's embrace of "the street"--as the vivid, tumultuous, raucous intercourse of humanity he recalled as the impression of his childhood--Ferlinghetti's "Beatness" was based on an imaginary, idyllic urban childhood--of "screendoor summers" "beyond the El"--

The great art of the Europeans--like Chagall--becomes the occasion for a tired pun--"there were no strings attached"--or the opportunity to have a "naked nude"--the girl in the rain with breathless breasts." The aura of sexual liberation seems to hang heavily on these poems, either as seduction of the adolescent mind, or as challenge to the reigning proprieties. The mixture of an idealized mythic childhood, mixed with an adult straining after release from inhibition, and a Depression Era working-class sympathy--characterizes most of Ferlinghetti's program, comprising a sort of second-tier pop radical avant stance, well-suited to the limited regional potentials of a frontier consciousness. Real outlaws had never had it so good.


Please note, I attempted to display enlarged images of selected text pages of the book where the little blue question-mark boxes appear, but Blogger wouldn't reproduce them on the blog page. Similarly, clicking on the small images which do appear, no longer enables a linking to a larger image display, as it once did on Blogger. There may be an Html code which enables these functions to work, but I don't know how to program it.