Showing posts with label Gore Vidal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gore Vidal. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Frank Herbert, Gore Vidal, and Richard Brautigan Walk Into a Bar . . .

In Tacoma, at the apocryphal corner
of Brautigan and Herbert Streets,
you may hear worms singing plaintive blues.

Turn on, tune in, drop out:
what bullshit. Nothing's that
sequential in T-Town, and Dr. Leary
was Ownership, not Labor or

It's a long way from San Francisco,
especially by dune buggy on back roads,
through the mind-fields.

Call yourself a duchess, call yourself
a duke. Nobody really gives a shit
unless you buy a round of beers
and feed the pool table. Seven-ball
in the Montana pocket off
the Portrero Hill rail. You
have to call it first.

Gore Vidal was stationed near Tacoma,
but wrote over the episode
while serving his celebrity in Italy.

Shit can get complicated real fast
is the theme of every novel,
every life.

hans ostrom 2015

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

The nation and, to some degree, the world seems to be losing members of a novel-writing "generation" that first found a big readership in the 1950s and 1960s: Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, William Styron, Norman Mailer, and now John Updike (to name a few).

Updike was an important figure in my own reading-life because I picked up Rabbit, Run when I was a sophomore in high school, read it, liked it, and understood most of it. I liked the character and, young as I was, I understood the character. I was in high school, with classmates who were local athletic stars who were, in some cases, being set up for disappointment. Perhaps what I responded well to in that novel and other writing by Updike more than anything was its imagery. In terms of plotting, characterization, and moving things along, Updike was traditional. He knew how to construct and pace a novel. But in another way, he was a "poetic" novelist who had a great eye for imagery for conveying that imagery powerfully.

Later I read Couples, the other Rabbit books, story collections (like Pigeon Feathers), and even Midpoint, a book of poems that was more light verse than not. Later still I lost interest in Updike's writing not so much because I lost interest in his particular characters so much as I lost interest in the type of characters and situations he was writing about. I didn't find their stories especially urgent. I found what James Baldwin was writing about (to cite just one example) more pressing.

When Updike ventured beyond the world he knew well--semi-rural and suburban middle-America; Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York--his powers waned. The Coup is, in my opinion, not a good novel. It's the kind of material Gore Vidal and John Le Carre and Martin Amis can handle better. But so what? It was interesting to see what Updike would do with such material.

Even later, I came to regard Updike as a kind of insider who had been taken under the wing of The New Yorker early on and who was well connected, as it were. That's probably not entirely fair because he was an extremely hard-working writer. Maybe he had an inside track, but he also ran hard. He just kept at it. By contrast, Heller and Styron seem unproductive, or less productive, at least.

But I'll always remember reading that relatively thin paperback, Rabbit, Run, in the sun or in my room, getting myself through the novel on my own, and loving it. I knew it was good writing. It made me want to keep reading. And reading. And writing.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Masters and Mistresses of Our Fates?

Arguably one of the best known poems in English is William Ernest Henley's "Invictus," the speaker of which asserts that he is "the master of [his] fate"--in total control. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the poem is indirectly well known; that is, lines from it continue to adhere to the culture: "master of my fate," "captain of my soul," and "bloody, but unbowed."

Apparently, Henley himself was combative, but one might argue that he had to be. From an early age, he suffered from tuberculosis of the bone, lost one foot to amputation, and almost lost another one for the same reason. Educated at Oxford, he moved to Scotland and became a feisty editor of periodicals. With his most famous poem in mind, we might consider it ironic that he spoke very highly of one grammar-school teacher, who, according to Henley, showed him great kindness and generosity at a crucial time. Henley need help and got it. So, as always, we might be careful about applying biographical assumptions to a poet's poem.

A few years back, the poem became notorious because Timothy McVeigh quoted it just before his execution. Gore Vidal writes about this in one of his recent books of essays. While in prison, McVeigh started a correspondence with Vidal, who did not (of course) approve of the bombing but was interested in the kind of rage against the federal government that McVeigh represented. That is, Vidal wanted to try to understand McVeigh. Vidal also doubts very much that McVeigh and his one convicted partner in crime acted alone, but that's another story. Gore chides a variety of media outlets for apparently not knowing who wrote "Invictus." Checking an archive of CNN on line, however, I did discover that CNN had asked an English professor to comment on the poem, and she knew when the poem was written and by whom. Here is the poem:


by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

"Invictus" is allegedly one Latin term for "unconquerable."

In a notebook, I just discovered a draft of a poem written in response to "Invictus." Temperamentally, I have always been inclined to react with some surprise at bold statements of fierce independence. (I acknowledge, however, that even the speaker of Henley's poem claims to have been bludgeoned by chance.)

When I hear such statements, I certainly believe the person voicing the statement believes what he or she is saying, and I hear the statement with no small amount of admiration because my experience has shown me that I am not the master of my fate and not the captain of my soul. As an employed American citizen, I probably have, on balance, more control (or the illusion thereof) over my life than some other citizens of the world, but nonetheless, proclaiming that one is the master or mistress of one's fate seems like an extraordinary thing to do. It seems to run counter to the facts of life, and, if one is in a superstitious mood, it seems to send an open invitation to life to prove one wrong, sooner rather than later. Hence this poem:

Memo to William Ernest Henley

I'm not the master of my fate,
not even an apprentice. However,
I do have season tickets to watch
the effects of my fate on me;
that's about it. At this very moment,
I have no very big idea of where
my fate is, what it looks like, or what
its plans might be. Invictus, inschmictus,
in other words. I'm not the captain of
my fate. At best, I'm below-decks,
with no access to helm, map, sextent, sky.
The sea, so to speak, seems in charge
of my fate, and something else
seems in charge of the sea. We'll see.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Genitive Wednesday

Today I'm giving a poetry reading in a colleague's class and then fielding questions. Often students ask about where I or poets in general (like these students) "get ideas" for poems. Another way of asking this questions is "What is it that drives poets" (when it's not a taxi-cab driver, har har)?

My friend Kevin Clark tells great stories about having taken a workshop from the famous Southern bad-boy poet and novelist (Deliverance) James Dickey, known for archery, boozing, and fighting--a schtick associated with Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and countless others, of course, even if the particulars differ. Apparently Dickey roared into the classroom wearing a hat that Burt Reynolds had given him during the filming of Deliverance. The roar of the poet, the smell of machismo!

To open up the workshop, Dickey asked the graduate students what, fundamentally, poets like to do in their art. Of course, trying to get on the good side of the Great Poet, the students were tempted to say that poets like to depict real gritty life, or to be the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world, or to "express the inexpressible," or to get carried away by inspiration, or to devote their lives to art. (As Seinfeld might say: Yadda, yadda.)

Kevin smelled a rat, however, and remembered that W.H. Auden's famous anticlimactic answer to the question was simply this: "Poets like to play with words." Of course, Auden was being a bit coy, and Auden did much more than play with words. But that was, in fact, the answer Dickey was looking for, and Kevin gave it to him, and we'll simply slide past the several ironies of Dickey's and Auden's having agreed with one another.

What Auden meant, I think, is that words constitute the medium of poetry, not ideas, inspiration, life, or love. Words are to poetry what paint is to--well, painting. By saying "Poets like to play with words," Auden was implying, perhaps, that poets shouldn't lose sight of the medium itself even when they're trying to write "about" something. Often the so-called "idea" for a poem comes simply from playing around with (or working with, if that phrase seems more respectable) language, even if the poem, when finished, seems to be "about" something else, such as a red wheel barrow or having your heart broken.

It's true that readers usually want more from a poem than simply the poet's having played around with language, and who can blame them?! To some degree, I ignored that consideration in the following poem, which plays around with a) words I enjoy, as words, b) rhythms of phrases and c) the grammatical/linguistic notion of "the genitive case," which in Latin refers to words whose endings change so as to signal that they are being used to suggest ownership (the bird's beak, or the beak "of" the bird), description (the field-lilies or the lilies "of" the field), or location (the farm tools, or tools associated with or tools "of" the farm). I think you get the idea that the genitive case in English is often signaled not by a changed word-ending (English is mostly different from Latin in that respect) but by bringing in the word "of" for assistance. I think Gore Vidal said one of the thorns in a novelist's side (he probably didn't use this analogy) was trying to avoid the double genitive: "Speaking of the King of Sweden, the Norwegian laughed." The repetition of "of" can seem awkward/awkward.

In any event, playing with words, rhythms, and the genitive case, and unafraid to repeat "of," I decided--many years ago--to write a poem that played with words, more or less for the fun of playing with words. Whether readers consider it fun is highly debatable, one reason I kept the poem relatively short. I won't read this poem today to the students, but I will encourage them not to forget to play with words, seriously--to work with words, that is. The poem:

Genitive Case

Of eucalyptus, of acacia,
of rhododendron, tubers,
and pubescence, essence and
viola. Of pulse, of frond,
of pool and cool, of breeze,
arrest, and musculature. Of
hush and curvature. Of rush.
of whisper, moan, variety,
shoulders, piety, also variegation.
Of ripe, of lip, of full. Gladiola,
of. Form, firm, fern, tongue, smell:
of these of course. Of you. Of to doze and of
to languish. Of liquids, tubas, lobes,
and drums. Of cheek, chin, choice.
Of moist. Of measure for measure,
for olives of all, of grape and fig,
laze and sprawl, days and quirks.
Of sycamore and buttocks, of
cedar, water, smoke. Of willing
and of waiting, salt and wit.
Of grin. Of sum.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Poem By Abe Lincoln

Here's a poem by President Abraham Lincoln:

To Rosa—

You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.

Teach your beau to heed the lay—
That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
That now's as good as any day—
To take thee, Rose, ere she fade.

Apparently Lincoln wrote this poem in 1858, for the daughter of a hotel proprietor.

As a writer, Lincoln tended to cut to the chase. The Gettysburg Address is a model of concision. The thesis of this one is pretty clear: "Rosa, induce your boyfriend to marry you--soon." "Pluck the roses ere they rot" delivers a punch. We're accustomed to seeing roses fade in poetry, but "rot" is less familiarly poetic in a poems comparing roses to women. Lincoln's legendary gloominess is apparent, too: "You are hopeful, I am not--." --And this was before the death of children and the disastrous early years of his first term as president, when the Civil War looked hopeless for the North, the abolitionists believed him to be too soft on slavery, and his Cabinet was a pit of snakes. (Gore Vidal's Lincoln is one of my favorite historical novels.)

The poem appears in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy Brasly. It also appears online on U.S. government sites.

I wonder how soon (or even whether) Rosa got married after reading this poem. I wonder what kind of poetry George W. Bush writes--or reads.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Phrase Books

The concept of a phrasebook is amusing, I believe. The idea is that you buy a book of phrases commonly used in a language and you use that book to make your way in a country whose language is not your own. Things quickly get complicated, however, even with the simplest of phrases. Your "Goodbye" might be someone else's "Go with God." You will probably mispronounce whatever phrase you're trying to use, thereby turning it into a) strange sounds or b) a joke or c) an insult.

Then there's this problem: You want to ask someone in the country something, so you look at your phrasebook, pick out the question, and say it. The person answers. You don't understand the answer, so what was the use of saying your phrase? Or you do understand the answer but don't know what to say next. You look at your phrasebook, but of course it offers no help. In conversation, it's the second, third, fourth (and so one) things that matter, not the serve. You serve your phrase, and a response comes screaming back over the net, and there's no way you can handle it.

Nonetheless, I'm a sucker for phrase books. I bought one before we went to Berlin this summer. I think I used it once out of a possible--oh, let's say 50--interactions, and even then I used it only as a kind of prep. I had studied German long ago, and I had lived in Germany for a year in 80-81, so I had that to fall back on, but "falling back on" was about all it was good for. Rather like an old worn-out bed. Pieces of a second language do float to the surface, however. And hearing the language makes you remember things; you get into the swing of language; you get by. And we mustn't overlook the fact that because of the British and American Empires, English has insinuated itself all over the place, so even ins spite of our best intentions, our desires to blend in, we are, by default, linguistic bullies. Meanwhile, the phrasebook stays up in the hotel room, on vacation. Think of all the free vacations phrase books have taken!

This poem is based on the premise that two travelers communicate using only their phrase books. I'd prefer that every other line of the dialogue were indented, but I can't get the blog-program to let me do that. Clearly, I need to buy a phrasebook in Blogese so I can talk to my blog.

The poem:

Two Travelers Meet By Chance Inside a Phrase-Book

“My name is Carmen,” she said.
“The Post Office is over there,” he replied.
“Thank you! It is one o’clock.”
“Goodbye! How are you?”
“Do you speak English?”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“My factory is on fire.”
“Excuse me.”
“That dog is frothing at the mouth.”
“You’re welcome!”
“My passport lies under your thigh.”
“Where is the café?”
“Keep walking to the left.”
“Please put this on your head, my painful cousin.”

Ambrose Bierce wrote The Devil's Dictionary, with all sorts of funny definitions of words. I think he may have defined "coward," for example, as "One who, in a perilous emergency, thinks with his legs.” (I just finished re-reading Gore Vidal's novel, Lincoln, in which Vidal has Lincoln signing [or not]execution orders for hundreds of soldiers who ran away from battles or who committed other potentially capital offenses. Lincoln has sympathy for those he calls "the leg men," the ones who run away, because he thinks that's how he might react in battle.) I think someone should write a phrasebook-counterpart to Bierce's Dictionary--something like the Franz Kafka Phrasebook for Foreign Travelers, a phrasebook that revels in the absurdity of phrase books.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom