Commentaries - August 2008
Kafka's friend, the brilliant editor/critic Max Brod, saved his strange pal's papers despite his pleas that they be destroyed. Brod's lover-secretary got them after his death and now her daughter has them somewhere in or near Tel Aviv. Finally, because the daughter needs some cash, it seems that these papers will be made available, once some archive buys them (for many millions). This is all a big deal, although the Times, in covering the story this morning, hasn't much to go on: their writer in Tel Aviv quotes various Kafka scholars relevantly and irrelevantly. Is the question of Kafka's possible interest in the Hebrew language, in his Jewish identity, in Zionism, relevant to the news of the extant papers? Not necessarily. And via the headline we learn that the pressure of the daughter of the former lover-secretary to release the papers is "Kafkaesque." It doesn't seem Kafkaesque to me at all - in fact, the opposite. The motive (originating in her, not put on her) is purely to turn the writer's extraodinarily uncommercial writing into lots of cash. Such straightforward normative valuation seems unlike anything I've ever read in Kafka. Here is your link the Times article.
I'm not a huge fan of Lawrence Felinghetti's poems but I've always admired and enjoyed the early figure he cut. The poetry, especially later, is schticky. Well, if you're going to do irreverent liberationist schtick, why not turn the glance at baseball and modernism at once.
In "Baseball Canto" Ferlinghetti runs through a crude analogy between the racial and class undersides of baseball and the kind of poetry and poetics that might stand against the exclusivist epic-oriented modernism inherited from Ezra Pound. The analogy only works in a superficial political sense: Tito Fuentes and Willie Mays, beloved by the grungy populace in San Francisco's bleachers, surely hate usury. Poundian modernism becomes an imperialism. It's fast and, as I say, very rough. But funny and fun.
I've made a RealAudio recording of Ferlinghetti reading this poem. If you don't have a RealPlayer on your computer, I apologize. (You can donwload one from Real.com.)
Click here to listen. And here's the poem's text:
Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.
When the San Francisco Giants take the field
and everybody stands up for the National Anthem,
with some Irish tenor's voice piped over the loudspeakers,
with all the players struck dead in their places
and the white umpires like Irish cops in their black suits and little
black caps pressed over their hearts,
Standing straight and still like at some funeral of a blarney bartender,
and all facing east,
as if expecting some Great White Hope or the Founding Fathers to
appear on the horizon like 1066 or 1776.
But Willie Mays appears instead,
in the bottom of the first,
and a roar goes up as he clouts the first one into the sun and takes
off, like a footrunner from Thebes.
The ball is lost in the sun and maidens wail after him
as he keeps running through the Anglo-Saxon epic.
And Tito Fuentes comes up looking like a bullfighter
in his tight pants and small pointy shoes.
And the right field bleechers go mad with Chicanos and blacks
and Brooklyn beer-drinkers,
"Tito! Sock it to him, sweet Tito!"
And sweet Tito puts his foot in the bucket
and smacks one that don't come back at all,
and flees around the bases
like he's escaping from the United Fruit Company.
As the gringo dollar beats out the pound.
And sweet Tito beats it out like he's beating out usury,
not to mention fascism and anti-semitism.
And Juan Marichal comes up,
and the Chicano bleechers go loco again,
as Juan belts the first ball out of sight,
and rounds first and keeps going
and rounds second and rounds third,
and keeps going and hits paydirt
to the roars of the grungy populace.
As some nut presses the backstage panic button
for the tape-recorded National Anthem again,
to save the situation.
But it don't stop nobody this time,
in their revolution round the loaded white bases,
in this last of the great Anglo-Saxon epics,
in the territorio libre of Baseball.
Not many days after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the New York Times ran an article discussing the structure of the building and the possibilities of its being brought down by a larger and more thoughtfully placed explosion. It turns out not to be easy: apparently, each tower is built to withstand the impact of a fully loaded jet liner taking off. In addition to the strength of the structure, attackers would have to confront its complexity: there are twenty-one load- bearing pillars and they could not be reached simultaneously by the force of an explosion. In being destroyed, a particular section would in fact shield other areas by absorbing the impact. The timing and placement of the article is interesting in itself: it was a rapid-response anodyne to the spiral of geopolitical urban trauma while at the same time, under the cover of a discussion of engineering, it invited its readers to participate in transgressive calculations of how the Trade Center towers might actually be brought down.
Just a bit more of this article can be read here. The link to Bob Perelman's own home page seems to have broken in the years since I first excerpted the article for my students. Not sure why. I'll ask Bob.
The newest PoemTalk show is officially out now: a 25-minute discussion of John Ashbery's late poem "Crossroads in the Past" published in Your Name Here (2000). Above you see the PoemTalkers who joined me for this 9th episode: Jessica Lowenthal, Greg Djanikian and Tom Devaney.
Our PoemTalkers - this time Gregory Djanikian, Tom Devaney and Jessica Lowenthal - gathered to talk about a late poem by John Ashbery, "Crossroads in the Past," from his book Your Name Here (2000). Amid the usual Ashberyean ontological bounty here's a poem that disentangles the crossed lines of narrative middles and ends (and beginnings). Straightens things out, or at least imagines the goodness of such straightness. And indulges in a nostalgia for the way things were at the start.
Is it age - or the loss of a loved one - that draws an anti-narrative poet to beginnings at the end? That, in short, is the question we posed of this poem. And does such a thing undermine a career-long devotion to middles with implied pre-stories? The wind blows in the direction it blows, and can't be "wrong." What about a "relationship"? Can - or should - a relationship be talked back to its beginnings, a narrative housecleaning?
Jessica and Greg decided finally that the apparently definitive ending dead-ends in an obvious imagery and sentiment. Tom and Al disagreed, seeing the poem as thus a meta-poem: a poem about the poet who has reached a point where he must re-imagine "the beginnings concept" and who realizes its failure.
John Ashbery read this poem as a Kelly Writers House Fellow in the spring of 2002. We have video recordings of the reading and an interview/conversation moderated by Al Filreis.
Here is a link to the Poetry Foundation's PoemTalk page.
Here is PennSound's John Ashbery page. This page has grown enormously in recent weeks, as PennSound becomes the prime available-for-download repositories of audio recordings of this great contemporary poet. Here is a link to Ashbery's reading of our poem, "Crossroads in the Past."
At top: standing from left, Tom Devaney and Jessica Lowenthal; seated from left, Gregory Djanikian and Al Filreis.