Saturday, November 29, 2008

Weinberger -> Laughlin

"Their principal concerns will be to resurrect Reagan's science-fiction Star Wars defense system (against whom is unclear) and, equally terrifying, a return to Iraq. In their circles, the Gulf War is seen as a failure because it did not end with the assassination of Saddam Hussein. Bush must vindicate his father, and Cheney and Powell must vindicate themselves. On Day One of the Bush presidency, the front pages of the newspapers were already carrying stories about the buildup of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. The only spontaneous news, of course, is earthquakes and plane crashes; the rest is always created by someone. If the economy sinks, as it probably will, a return to Iraq will certainly be the most expedient distraction."

- Eliot Weinberger, Jan 27, 2001. from 9/12 (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003)


I've been growing more and more obsessed with Eliot Weinberger over the last month, even though reading the man regularly makes me feel woefully uneducated. In his 2000 collection Karmic Traces (which includes the magnificent essay 'The Falls') Weinberger includes a profile of James Laughlin, founder of New Directions and a man who, in Weinberger's words, "changed Gertrude Stein’s flat tire, identified Dylan Thomas’ body in the morgue, shipped ballet shoes to CĂ©line’s wife after the war, was saved from falling off a cliff by Nabokov’s butterfly net, paid for Delmore Schwartz’s shrink and Pound’s legal defense, and smuggled Merton out of the monastery to go drinking." With friends like these, who needs a library?

Anyway, it turns out Laughlin actually has a poem about identifying Thomas' body, that I can't resist quoting in full:


One of us had to make the official identification of Dylan's body at the Medical Examiner's Morgue
Brinnin and I tossed a coin and I lost
It was a crummy building in the hospital complex on First Avenue and the basement, smelling of formaldehyde, was a confusion of trolleys with rubber sheets covering bodies
A little old man in a rubber apron was in charge
He put on his glasses to read the name I had written on a slip of paper and looked around, trying to remember
He lifted one sheet. "Is this him?" It wasn't
Two or three more who weren't "Old Messy" of the pubs of Soho and Chelsea
Finally, we found him and he looked awful, all bloated
"Insult to the brain" was what it said on the autopsy report, too much booze for too many years
The old man sent me to a window to confirm the identification where there was a little girl about five feet high, struggling with the forms, using a pencil stub
She got me to write "Dylan" for her on the
form because she had never heard of
such a name and couldn't spell it
"What was his profession?" she asked
I told her he was a poet; she looked perplexed
"What's a poet?" she asked
I told her a poet was a person who wrote poems
She put that down, and that's what it says on the form:
Dylan Thomas - a poet (he wrote poems).

- James Laughlin

Andante con moto

Death recalibrates us.

For three days now I have watched people around me celebrate Thanksgiving and been indignant, thinking, "Don't they know that people are dying? How insensitive can they get?"

It occurs to me now that there is so much to be thankful for. This morning even the usual cliches - family, friends, poetry, health - are blessings to be treasured, blessings deeply felt. Because I am aware of how easily they could be taken away from me. Because they are so much more than I deserve.

Nothing has changed, of course, but this morning, for no reason and every reason, I am thankful to be alive.


So much to be thankful for.

At the concert yesterday, Andrey Boreyko conducts the Orchestra in a transcription of a Brahms Piano Quartet. Schoenberg's gorgeous orchestration leaves me laughing (silently) in my seat.

It is the first time since the attacks began I have been happy.


Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. 2nd Movement.

The strings open with menace. Fear marches, growling, onto stage.

Faced with such opposition the piano hesitates, then, gently, finds its voice. There is no anger in its response, no haste, just the tenderness of true sympathy, of sadness in the face of evil.

Again and again the orchestra interrupts the piano, overwhelms it. The chords brandished like weapons, demanding attention.

The piano does not surrender, is not stampeded. Instead those tentative first notes grow into a sustained meditation, calm but not helpless, balanced but not unmoved.

Eventually it is the orchestra that gives way, its force fading, a storm dying out.

In the privacy of the silence that follows, the piano erupts briefly into outrage, then, the anger shaken from its heart, returns to quietness.

The movement begins in fury, ends in grace.

Beauty endures.


Hysteria n. Morbidly excited condition; unhealthy emotion or excitement.

I need to snap out of this.


We are all parents to our own grief.

We have to let it go, eventually. Even though it always feels too soon.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Attacks

First, I hope you're okay, as is everyone you know.

Watching the coverage online for hours now, it strikes me that what we need more than anything else is the ability to respond to crises like this in an intelligent and organized way. With all these news reports of people having conversations with guests trapped inside the hotels coming in, I can't help wondering why no one seems to have thought of blocking communication in and out of the attack sites. If guests hiding in their rooms can call people on the outside, then presumably so can the attackers, which means they have both ready access to all information being publicly broadcast and the ability to coordinate with their fellow criminals in and around the city. It also means they have an unparalleled ability to spread disinformation (how do we know, for instance, that some of the reports coming in are not from the terrorists themselves?). I have to think this is a bad idea.

It's a particularly bad idea because it seems to me that most media channels are too busy trying to sensationalize the news to bother thinking through the consequences of what they're saying. It's not just that much of the coverage seems to be designed to amplify the general hysteria and panic, it's also that watching journalists describe what the police are doing or report on who is still trapped inside the hotels, I find myself wondering whether anyone's considered that at least some of that information might be helping the attackers.

Look, criminal acts like today's attacks are not going to go away. No matter what party is in power (and today's events probably made it more likely that will be the BJP - a pity), no matter how many civil liberties we suspend or how close to a police state we move, no matter how many arbitrary security procedures we put in place, this will happen again. What we can, and should, do is be better prepared for the next time it happens, so we can respond to it intelligently, instead of adopting what, from my admittedly distant perspective, looks suspiciously like the headless chicken approach.


Given all the comments and incoming links to this post, I wanted to clarify that the primary point of this post was NOT to heap blame on the media. The key takeaway from the events of the last 24 hours for me is the desperate need to have better, more comprehensive plans, procedures and protocols to invoke in emergencies like this.

It would be nice, of course, if the media were to behave more responsibly. And it would be wonderful if some dynamic, hyper-competent leader were to take charge of the law enforcement response, thinking through all the angles in real-time. But expecting that either will automatically happen is unreasonable. Which is why we need to be better prepared for such eventualities in the future.

Look, television reporters have their own pressures and incentives. With the multiplicity of channels covering these events, responsibility is necessarily diffuse, and voluntary restraint would require a level of disinterested collaboration that is always going to be fragile. Even if n-1 channels self-censored, there would always be the 1 channel that would broadcast sensitive information just to get its ratings up. This doesn't excuse the media's behavior, doesn't make them less responsible for any and all negative consequences of their reporting; but it does mean that the media response we're seeing is predictable and unsurprising, and should have been planned for in advance.

By the same token, it's not surprising that spontaneous leadership in a crisis like this one is poor and spotty. You can't seriously expect someone caught up in the rush of events, overwhelmed by both information and emotion, to think of everything (or even of most things). Nor is it easy to actually implement a communication shut down unless there's a previously defined protocol to do so. To take just one example, assuming whoever's in charge of the government response realized that they need to black out all cellphone communication in the affected area. How would he go about doing that?

And it's not simply a question of whether live feeds have finally been disabled, or television input to the hotel eventually been cut. It's not even really a question of how much the information given out by the media helped the attackers this time around. The real question - to me, at least - is: if the government needed to clamp down on the media and cut communication channels in an emergency, could it do so quickly, efficiently and comprehensively? The answer, based on what we're currently seeing, is a frightening no. That's a vulnerability that future terrorist groups - groups far more sophisticated in their manipulation of information than the ones currently attacking Mumbai - could exploit to devastating advantage.

The point is - it would be a pity if our response to today's events was limited to a lot of hand-wringing about how the media are a bunch of sensation-addicted scavengers, or a lot of poorly informed speculation about the motives and backgrounds of the attackers (it doesn't really matter, does it? Today it's one cause, tomorrow it'll be another; terrorism is not a novel phenomenon, it's a standard manifestation of socio-political unrest). The questions we really need to be asking are: what can we do to be better prepared to respond to terrorist attacks like this one? How have other countries (Israel springs to mind) prepared for such situations? What can we learn from them? For that to happen, though, we're going to need to look carefully and objectively at today's response and study what we could have done differently, and do so without pointing fingers or getting angry or trying to ascribe blame. Because you can be certain that somewhere out there there's a group of criminals who are doing exactly that in preparation for their next assault.


Of all the idiotic nonsense to come out of the last 24 hours, all this talk about this attack being 'India's 9/11' has to come pretty much on top of the list. What does that mean anyway? If we absolutely have to compare these attacks to something else, surely a more appropriate comparison would be the FLN attacks in Algeria (combination shootings / bombings targeted at popular sites in affluent neighborhoods with a high proportion of foreigners) or the Munich attack (armed assailants attack a high visibility complex, take foreigners hostage) rather than 9/11?

Which is not to suggest that today's attack has anything to do with Black September or that the Deccan Mujahideen have anything in common with the Algerian Freedom movement, but rather that drawing random and inexplicable parallels between one act of terrorism and another is a futile and ridiculous exercise, especially when it's done purely for the sake of a sound-bite. Every major terrorist strike is an act by itself and must be understood on its own terms. Comparisons are not merely silly, they may also be misleading, because they create the illusion of understanding without helping us achieve any.

That said, if we are going to be saddled with this stupid India's 9/11 nonsense, we may as well draw what lessons we can from the analogy. In particular, we should draw the lesson that we must be suspicious of any and all claims that ascribe these attacks to foreign influence, that we must demand strong evidence for every alleged link to an outside terrorist group, that we must not allow ourselves to be fobbed off with poorly specified conspiracy theories, or be blinded to government incompetence by the bluster of their subsequent response. But most of all, that we must not allow ourselves to be taken over by the lethal combination of outrage and ignorance, must not allow our terror over today's events (and we should be afraid, very afraid) to translate into self-righteousness, prejudice, violence and the surrender of our principles and freedoms. Even if today's attack really is India's 9/11 (whatever that means) we must make sure that India's next seven years are not the US from 2001-2008.

And finally, can someone please explain to me where all this talk about these attacks being so sophisticated and well-coordinated is coming from? Arms sourcing aside, what's so hard about today's attack? You recruit a bunch of raw youths, give them, say, a week of basic training, hand them their weapons, tell them what building to hit and at roughly what time. What's the big deal? Every small-time dabbawalla in Bombay (what? you think Suketu Mehta is the only one who can come up with irrelevant local color?) handles greater coordination challenges on a daily basis.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A beautiful tree

"Give me half the gold in your treasury", the Sorcerer said, "and I will turn your death into a tree, so you may cut it down and burn it and so live forever."

At first it seemed the Emperor had not heard him. He sat unmoved on his throne, apparently undisturbed by the hush that had fallen over the court. Then, just as the Sorcerer was about to repeat the offer, he nodded. Yes.

Whispers swirled through the palace. What? Had the Emperor lost his mind, to believe this charlatan? Was he really going to give him half his gold? But the Emperor sat unmoving, serene, and because he was the Emperor, the coffers were opened, the gold counted, and before nightfall the Sorcerer was on his way, a long line of mules, weighed down with pack saddles, trailing behind him.

The next day a tree appeared in the Emperor's garden. A bare skeleton of a tree, gnarled and sprawling, its limbs twisted with age. This being winter, there were no leaves upon it, just a confusion of twigs, knitting the sky between them. Every morning the Emperor would stand before this tree, the Royal Gardener three steps behind him, waiting for the order to cut it down. But the order never came. The Emperor would simply stare at the tree, as though trying to read some meaning in the cuneiform of its branches, then turn away and go back inside.

Speculation about the fate of the tree spread through the kingdom. Did the Emperor not intend to have it cut down after all? Why had he paid so much gold for it then? In the first month after the tree appeared the Sorcerer returned twice to the palace, each time warning the Emperor that if the tree were not cut down it would take root, grow stronger, eventually prove fatal. The Emperor heard these warnings out, a bemused smile on his face, but said nothing.

When March came and the snow in the garden started to thaw, the Sorcerer returned a third time, telling the Emperor that he must destroy the tree at once, otherwise it would be too late. "Why won't you believe me?", he asked the Emperor, "I'm telling you the truth." "But I do believe you", the Emperor said, speaking to the Sorcerer for the first and only time.

The Sorcerer left with tears in his eyes.

The day the first leaves appeared on the tree, the Emperor fell desperately ill. Physicians and wise men were summoned from every corner of the kingdom, but none could do anything to help. The Sorcerer was sent for also, but he refused to come, saying it was out of his hands. Three weeks after the arrival of Spring, with the tree covered in flowers, and a pair of nightingales starting to build their nest in its branches, the Emperor died. On the day of his death, the Sorcerer received a note, written in the Imperial hand. It said: "Thank you. It was a beautiful tree."

The official mourning for the dead Emperor lasted 33 days. On the 34th day the Sorcerer was brought to the public square, accused of devising the Emperor's death, found guilty and executed. They say he made no attempt to save himself. His body was hacked to pieces, then burnt.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A course in true love

"The course of true love never did run smooth" Shakespeare tells us.

Is this an empirical observation or a theoretical one? Is it possible to conceive of a love that would both be true and run a smooth course? Or could it be that 'true'-ness of love depends upon the course being unsmooth? And not only in the sense of observability - so that it is impossible to distinguish between love true and untrue till it is put to the test - nor even in a superpositional sense with love, like Schrodinger's cat, being both true and untrue until its path roughens. No, could it be that it is only through being thwarted that love becomes true? That the translation of desire into love requires interference, the emotion not diffused but filtered, winnowed, the more exacting process generating an output more exact? Could it be that the lust, far from being perjured till action, is in fact made more truthful by being more abstract, that being never enjoyed it is never despised? Could it be, in short, that love is only true until it is achieved?

Not that true love is imaginary, you understand, but that only imagined love is true.

[Have been reading Anne Carson's brilliant Eros the Bittersweet, in case you're wondering. Oh, and see also Browning]

Table for one

The old man sits at the table across from me, his newspaper folded to a neat quarter page and laid flat on the table, so he can read while he eats. I can't make out from here what section he's reading, but he seems absorbed in it, never looking up to observe his surroundings, barely glancing at his food as he lifts it mechanically to his mouth, pausing only to turn the paper over, the fork placed back on the plate for an instant, then picked up again.

If he did look up for a moment, if he happened to look this way, would I acknowledge his gaze, perhaps smile at him? No. I wouldn't want to meet his eyes, wouldn't want him to think I had been staring. I would look down to my book, pretend to read, wondering all the time whether he'd gone back to his paper, whether it was safe to look up.

Yet I am grateful for his presence here, grateful that he too has come out on this cold Sunday afternoon to this shabby chinese restaurant to have lunch by himself. Grateful because his being here means I am less alone in being alone.

[see also]

Saturday, November 22, 2008


No one came.

He rang the bell for almost an hour, his body swaying back and forth against the rope, a conversation with gravity, weight and counterweight. Yet no one stopped by to ask what had happened or who it was for.

Had it come to this, then? Exhausted, he climbed up to the bell-tower, stood looking down on the town, one hand resting against the surface of the great bell. Watched the streets emerge from the morning mist, the roofs of the houses like dull islands in a sea of swirling gray.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The great seduction

Has there ever been a seduction to match Mozart's Don Giovanni?

Mozart does everything in his power to make his protagonist look bad - the man is a murderer, a rapist, a sadist and a sociopath; there is nothing to excuse his villainy - and then, against what should be our implacable judgment, he wins us over to the man's side by force of music alone. How can we fault Elvira for being seduced by him when we ourselves sit chuckling at his exploits - exploits whose resultant misery we have heard expressed, in the most soulful terms the human voice is capable of, a mere half hour ago?

And who but Mozart could make us admire a man condemned to an eternity in the torments of hell? For this is Don Giovanni's (and Mozart's) greatest seduction, his final revenge: that as the curtain comes down on the pious voices of Anna, Ottavio, Elvira, Zerlina, Masetto and Leporello condemning the villain to perdition, it is that very villain's voice we miss. For who would not rather be the tormented yet defiant Don, than these insufferable goody two-shoes with their proper, anemic lives?

Bad writing

"At last, she could no longer control the world around her, her five senses seemed to break free and she wasn't strong enough to hold on to them. As if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning, she unleashed them, and the world, the seagulls, the taste of salt, the hard earth, the smell of the sea, the clouds, all disappeared, and in their place appeared a vast gold light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy."

That's Paulo Coelho, in an extract that's nominated for the Literary Review's Bad Sex award. Personally, I think it's patently unfair to let Coelho be in contention for any bad writing award - these awards should be restricted to people who are amateurs at bad writing.

Oh, and speaking of 'literary' awards, the results of the Caferati-Live Journal Contest are out. With the single exception of the amruta patil story (which is merely overwrought) the rest of the winners are uniformly awful, the shoddy writing being matched only be the cluelessness of the judges. You're probably better off reading the bad sex nominees.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Triangle with two points

He envies me for being with you when you died.

I envy him for not knowing how that felt.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Kick of Joy in the Universe

"So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Let's not confuse this with realism. The power does not lie directly with the choice of subject or its social relevance - if it did, then everything not about our own contemporary situation would be academic to us, and all the art of the past would be a mental museum. Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality, and that is not a private hieroglyph; it is a connection across time to all those others who have suffered and failed, found happiness, lost it, faced death, ruin, struggled, survived, known the night-hours of inconsolable pain."

- Jeanette Winterson on T.S. Eliot

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A sad tale's best for winter

Just got back from a performance of Winter's Tale. Such a strange play: half Euripidean tragedy, half pastoral farce - the whole thing capped by that terrible, terrible ending, the entire final act making me squirm in my seat.

It's always seemed to me that if you took the first half of Winter's Tale and the second half of Pericles you'd have one genuinely good play. And it wouldn't be hard to do, either - the characters are more or less the same - just a few name changes, a slight tweaking of the plot (maybe the shepherd who finds Perdita - no, Mariana, so much sweeter a name - could sell her to a brothel when she came of age - this is Bohemia after all - where Florizel could find her) and Polixenes your uncle!

Still, even a play as relatively mediocre as the Winter's Tale has its moments. My personal favorite is the two lines in Act III Scene 2 where Leontes, faced with the oracle, proclaims it false and calls for the trial to proceed. It's a genuinely shocking moment, if only because you've been expecting that this is where the scales shall fall from Leontes' eyes, and his sudden outburst offers the possibility that perhaps that won't happen, that perhaps Leontes really shall go on, defying both the gods and dramatic necessity. I may be alone in thinking this, but I've always wished that Shakespeare had carried through on this, had subverted all the laws of Tragedy (which he's going to do anyway, with that sheepish fourth Act) and let the play turn darker and darker, Leontes growing more and more evil, eventually dying (or more likely being killed) without ever seeing the folly of his beliefs. Now that would have been a truly great play.

The other marvellous thing about Winter's Tale is the role of Paulina, easily the most interesting character in the play, and one of Shakespeare's most criminally overlooked heroines. I can't think of another female character in all of Shakespeare's plays who is as independent, as intelligent, or as resolutely asexual. It's fascinating that Shakespeare chooses to make the one person with the strength of character to stand up to Leontes a woman - a woman, moreover, who is her own person, holds her own ground without help from or need of a man, and emerges, by the end, as both the noblest and most sensible person in the play. All of which makes her, as women in Shakespeare go, unique.

There's also, of course, poor Antigonus - he of the 'exit pursued by bear' fame - who I've always felt gets treated most unfairly. All the poor guy is doing is following orders, both from his master and from the spirit of Hermoine, and yet he alone, of all the people in the play, meets a cruel and ignoble death. And what a death! Torn to pieces by a savage bear: "how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone, how he cried to me for the poor gentleman roared and the bear mocked him". And all so Shakespeare can pair up Paulina and Camillo in the final scene (a plot twist I confess I'd completely forgotten). Talk about a raw deal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pied Beauty

Nothing persuades us of God's death more eloquently than the world's splendor. No being, however supernatural, could create such beauty and live.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

His indifference... entirely sincere. No one else brings such conviction to the shrug of a shoulder.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Balloons

"If it were done when 'tis done then 'twere well it were done quickly."

- William Shakespeare

She takes them out to the balcony, dragging them along by the strings tied to their necks. Away from the noise and warmth of the party they seem paler, emptier, their skins vulnerable to the city's indifference. What seemed like light-hearted optimism is revealed as a desperate eagerness to please.

For a moment, charmed by their helplessness, she considers letting them go, letting them float away above the rooftops, lose themselves in the evening sky. Then she remembers what happened last year. How one of them ended up perching in the tree opposite, how it stayed there for two days, becoming the constant focus of her daughter's three year old attention. How much her daughter cried the morning it was gone.

This time she will make sure. She takes the scissors from her pocket, checks that her daughter is not around, that she is still in the other room opening her presents; then proceeds to puncture them, her scissors pecking hurriedly at their tiny flock. They burst easily enough: their death a soundless explosion, a small, grateful gasp. Yet she cannot help feel guilty as she pockets the scissors, gathers up the string. A necklace of rubber foreskins, of withered flowers. She bunches them all together, closes her fist around them. She will place them at the very bottom of the garbage, where they will not be seen.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Top Brass

I've probably said this before, but the Philadelphia Orchestra really does have the most exquisite brass and woodwind sections - the sheer glory of which was on full display tonight as the Orchestra gave a truly stirring rendition of Mahler's 5th under the inspired baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. That duet between horn and cello in the third movement brought tears to my eyes, and it was all I could to keep from laughing out loud at the opening of the fifth movement - the instruments bantering amongst each other, then soaring triumphantly into song.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

November 5th 2008

What is untrue may still be beautiful:
hope, for instance, or a sense of choice.

Beautiful to walk the streets this morning
with the leaves changing color, to hear them

murmur with one voice and know
the light will never be the same again;

beautiful to share in this sudden lightness,
to wander weightless as a dream

through the new woken air; beautiful
to feel the muscle of belief

at work in the world, for though our hope
be foolish it is not foolish to hope,

but human, necessary, and to feel capable
of that is already to be changed.

Disappointment is inevitable.
Time must be dealt with, winter faced.

But something of this day may remain
to sustain us, some ember of warmth

from a season of glory, the joy
of knowing that our voices,

however small, however shaken,
have finally been heard.

And now for the bad news

While Day Falstaff is all busy celebrating the Obama victory, Night Falstaff feels honor-bound to point out that it's turning out to be a bad night for gay rights. Both Arizona Proposition 102 (which limits marriage to heterosexual couples) and Arkansas Initiative 1 (which effectively prohibits gay couples from adopting children) were passed tonight, and Florida Amendment 2 (ban on gay marriage) seems all set to go through as well, with 62% support (it requires 60%) and 99% reporting.

As of this writing California Proposition 8 still hangs in the balance - with the vote being 52% in favor of banning gay marriage with 47% reporting. Let's hope that, at least, doesn't go through. It would be a sad thing indeed if such a glorious moment for racial equality were to be accompanied by an increase in discrimination based on sexual preference.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

At Last

More proof that the gods have a sick sense of humor

I'm sitting in front of my computer screen, five different websites open, obsessively updating the election results to see what the latest projections are. I decide I'm overdoing it. I need to calm down. Music - that's the thing. Some nice, relaxing jazz. I pop a CD into my stereo system. Press play.

Lester Young plays 'Indiana'

It's going to be a long night.

Monday, November 03, 2008

BAP 2008

Have been reading the Best American Poetry 2008 (which should really be called Some Nice-ish American Poetry 2008). My favorites:

Ciaran Berry, Electrocuting an Elephant

Robert Hass, I am your waiter tonight and my name is Dmitri (a fairly uninspired reading of which can be heard here, at 47:45)

Bob Hicok, O my pa-pa

Susan Mitchell, Ritual

Ron Padgett, Method, or Kenneth Koch (which I can't find online, alas, but see Padgett's other poems in The Sienese Shredder - a journal I'll confess I'd never heard of before)

Alberto Rios, The Rain that Falls Here

John Rybicki, Three Lanterns

Alan Sullivan, Divide and Conquer


The thing that always strikes me about the BAP is how much American Poetry as defined by it as an old person's game. Here's the age distribution of the 75 poets appearing in the 2008 volume:

Under 30: 2
30 - 35: 5
35 - 40: 8
40 - 45: 3
45 - 50: 6
50 - 55: 6
55 - 60: 18
60 - 65: 9
65 - 70: 7
70 - 75: 5
Over 75: 6

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Some of the people in that 55-60 bracket are among my favorite poets writing today. But I can't help feeling that this would be a more exciting franchise if it published more work by younger poets, even at the cost of leaving some of the old reliables out. If nothing else, it would make the book more useful.

A Tale of Two Ads / At Stake - 2

Overheard in Philly this weekend:

Ad 1: A woman discusses which candidate is the right choice for women. Compares and contrasts McCain and Obama's policies - pointing out that Obama offers tax relief for working women and is pro-choice while McCain opposes equal pay for women and wants to take away their right to choose. Therefore arrives at conclusion that Obama is the better choice.

Ad 2: A man says that ever since he heard Obama talk about bitter people clinging to guns and religion he's known that he (Obama) just doesn't get 'us'. Because "We love our God. And we love our guns that have been handed down to us by our grandfathers." And since Obama doesn't understand this, you should vote for McCain. [Note that nothing is actually said about McCain - you should vote for him purely because he's not Obama]

And there you have it.

With the election less than 24 hours away (for which, thank FSM! I don't think I can take another week of this) it seems to me that what is at stake in this election is not just the future of US government policy, but also the nature of campaigning in US elections to come. What is horrifying to me about the prospect of a McCain-Palin win (unlikely as it may seem) is that a victory for them now would be a victory for a campaign run on lies, misdirection, character assassination and appeals to bigotry; a victory that would make the Rove-ian playbook the standard for decades to come. If Obama loses this one, who in his right mind is ever going to try fighting an election on issues or substantive arguments again?

Remember the old Lincoln saw about not being able to fool all of the people all of the time? The catch with that assertion has always been that you don't need to fool all of the people all of the time - you just need to fool enough of the people enough of the time. And if McCain does manage to win tomorrow then that is exactly what the GOP will have done [1].

Here's hoping that doesn't happen.


Meanwhile, the award for the WTF statement of the day goes to Doug Mackinnon, and his preemptive griping about media bias:

"This person reasoned that the pressure within the news business to diversify and be politically correct means more minorities, women and young people are being hired. And young and ethnically diverse reporters and editors go easier on candidates who look more like them, are closer to their age or represent their ideal of a presidential candidate."

This is ridiculous at so many levels I don't know where to start. First, can we assume that before the news business was under pressure "to diversify and be politically correct", they only hired old people? Second, can we take it that going easy on people they like is a characteristic only of young and ethnically diverse reporters - middle-aged white men, by contrast, are never biased? Third, if young people, women and minorities (in other words everyone but old white men) are all predisposed to like Obama, mightn't that have something to do with his popularity, rather than 'media bias'? Fourth, are we to assume that the way to correct the liberal media bias is for newspapers to stop hiring young and ethnically diverse reporters and editors? Fifth, can we assume that the only reason the news business would hire women, minorities or young people is to be politically correct, since these groups couldn't possibly have anything worthwhile to contribute otherwise. And finally, notice Mr. Mackinnon's extreme weasliness of putting this idea out there by ascribing it to someone else and not bothering to comment on whether he agrees / disagrees.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

My Life: The Movie

Do you ever get the feeling that living your life is like making a movie?

And I don't mean just in the oh-my-god-my-life-is-straight-out-of-a-Woody-Allen-script kind of way. I mean that so much of what we call living feels like mere set-up, doesn't it? All this hectic activity, all this busy preparation - props, casting, costumes, dialog, endless planning, repeated rehearsals - all leading up to that one breathless moment when the lights go up and the noise shuts down and you finally feel like you're really, truly alive.

A moment that, if you're lucky, will be good enough to keep.

I saw the best minds...

...of my generation destroyed by sanity. Unable to survive, being serious and sober, what the world was really like.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

State of the Union

In his Op-Ed column today, Frank Rich talks about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, using it to discuss just what an Obama presidency would mean. Reading his column reminded me, however, of another Tracy-Hepburn film, one that seems even more relevant to this election - Frank Capra's State of the Union (1948). It's a movie about a tough-minded, independent, principled flying ace-cum-industrialist who is persuaded (in a glorious performance by Angela Lansbury - one of the few times in memory that an actress has come close to upstaging Hepburn in a film) to enter the primaries as a candidate for Republican nominee for President. He is picked because he is an outsider, even a maverick, someone who stands apart from the dirty politics of the time, and may therefore be the moribund GOP's best shot at winning the White House.

For a while Grant Matthews (the character Tracy plays) is all driven and idealistic (see clip here) - even suggesting the formation of a United States of the World (league of democracies anyone?). But pretty soon he comes under the control of the party political hacks: he starts to toe the party line, he begins to worry about vote banks and delegate counts, and forgets all the reasons he agreed to run for President in the first place. And those who had once thought well of him, who had thought him both genuine and honest, shake their heads in dismay and dismiss him as yet another politician.

Sound familiar?

The scary thing about State of the Union is not just the parallels between the Matthews campaign and the McCain one, but the fact that the issues Matthews talks about in the movie - healthcare, employment, taxes, the possibility of depression, Russia, world peace, rich vs. poor - are issues that could have come straight out this year's presidential debates. The more things change...

P.S. I should say, for the record, that I don't think State of the Union is a particularly great film. As a Tracy-Hepburn collaboration the most that can be said for it is that it's marginally better than, say, Pat and Mike; and while it has some nice Capra-esque touches (the Spike McManus character, for one), it's a little too weighed down by Capra's political views. The biggest problem with the film, I think, is that Hepburn is badly miscast. There are many things Hepburn is extraordinarily good at, but playing a loving but helpless wife is not one of them (someone like Joan Fontaine - that milksop to end all milksops - would have been so much better).