Wednesday, March 14, 2018

because there's no money in poetry.

Roy Lichtenstein, Masterpiece (1962)

From Jack Collom's Second Nature (2012): excerpt from an interview between Mr. Collom (JC) and Reed Bye (RB):
JC: [B]eing in NYC the last five years where the critical intelligence is so voracious, it's very hard to maintain faith and there's a lot of cynicism in the air about everything being done, people categorize——well, in New York with its excessive input, that categorization problem, I mean so much is coming in at you from all sides that people develop this habit of rejecting and classifying and uh—it is very hard to be open when you have that voice around you that's like a school of piranha ready to gobble up your words. You just feel it even if people don't say things like that. 
RB: And the pressure to have your own critical reference and express it with great confidence is much more pronounced there too. You get some overconfident——uh——well it's the sort of trend phenomenon that sweeps over New York or anywhere, any cultural center where trying to constantly keep on top of what has set the trend, or be aware of the new trend, that never stops. 
JC: Yeah——the novelty thing gets a little heavy there. Whatever has not been cloaked with aesthetic feeling before is searched out and eventually after you've gone through a whole bunch of sensibilities, there's a certain aesthetic delight popped out of them because nobody's ever looked at them that way before. There's certainly a lot to that, you know, finding aesthetic delight in anything in the world, but the chase for untried fields in that way just runs around and around, ah, it becomes too conceptual for one thing, people don't have time to develop a competency in a style, they're just after the weird idea that nobody ever thought of, rather than practicing and deepening themselves in some sensibility, filling out a world of nuances... 
RB: In the poetry world, that doesn't seem quite as true. 
JC: No, partly because there's no money in poetry. 
[end of interview]

Monday, March 12, 2018

Mardi & the ecstasy of Herman Melville

An image search for "Mardi" yielded this tattooed quote.

I recently came about 650 pages nearer to my goal of consuming Herman Melville in the entirety of his oeuvre by reading Mardi, and a Voyage Thither (1849).

To Melville's third book—following Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847)—is owed the distinction of being his first true novel, which it earns through its complete desertion of factual truth. Typee and Omoo, despite their embellishments, still fall under the category of travel writing rather than fiction. But apparently some portion of Melville's audience regarded his story of being held the captive guest of an indigenous tribe in the Marquesas Islands, escaping in a leaking, shambolic whaling ship, and then bumming around French Polynesia after being brought ashore and imprisoned for his part in a mutiny, as far too outlandish to warrant credibility. Melville cites this skepticism in the preface to Mardi as the impetus which led him to try his hand at a fully fictional narrative. If his provincial readers were going to accuse him of just making shit up, then why shouldn't he fabricate a narrative and see how they like it?

As it happened, "they" didn't like it very much at all. Mr. Murr of The Lectern suggests "the Book that Cost a Career" should be substituted for "and a Voyage Thither" as Mardi's subtitle. Melville had made a name for himself with Typee, and followed it with the apt and well-received sequel Omoo. Mardi, however, received a critical mauling. Here are some excerpts of contemporaneous reviews from The Life and Works of Herman Melville:
... [I]t is almost needless to say that we were disappointed with Mardi. It is not only inferior to Typee and Omoo, but it is a really poor production. It ought not to make any reputation for its author, or to sell sufficiently well to encourage him to attempt any thing else. --Charles Gordon Greene, in Boston Post, April 18 1849 
We have seldom found our reading faculty so near exhaustion, or our good nature as critics so severely exercised, as in an attempt to get through this new work by the author of the fascinating Typee and Omoo--George Ripley, in New York Tribune, May 10 1849 
This pretension to excessive novelty has in this case resulted only in an awkward and singular melange of grotesque comedy and fantastic grandeur, which one may look for in vain in any other book. Nothing is so fatiguing as this mingling of the pompous and the vulgar, of the common-place and the unintelligible, of violent rapidity in the accumulation of catastrophes, and emphatic deliberation in the description of landscapes. These discursions, these graces, this flowery style, festooned, twisted into quaint shapes, call to mind the arabesques of certain writing masters, which render the text unintelligible. --Translation of an article by Philarète Chasles, in Paris Revue des deux mondes, May 15 1849 
We proceed to notice this extraordinary production with feelings anything but gentle towards its gifted but excentric author. The truth is, that we have been deceived, inveigled, entrapped into reading a work where we had been led to expect only a book. We were flattered with the promise of an account of travel, amusing, though fictitious; and we have been compelled to pore over an undigested mass of rambling metaphysics. --Henry Cood Watson, in New York Saroni's Musical Times, September 29 1849
I can easily scorn the early critics of Moby-Dick (1851) for being too myopic, too cavillous, and too blinded by fashionable prejudices to realize they had the American masterpiece of the century on their hands. But I can't really knock Mardi's detractors. To put it kindly, Mardi adds up to far less than the sum of its parts. More bluntly, Melville's first foray into fiction is a real dumpster fire.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Status update + buzz hype aura & presence

Last fall I had a really stupid idea.

"I'll do a little something for National Novel Writing Month," I told myself in October. "Just for fun. It'll be fast! Breezy! Easy!"

So now it's February and the thing's at 65–70% completion and I'm at about 96% worn out and crazy. Having been so busy turning the soil over and over elsewhere afield, I've neglected my hay-making over on this side.

Well then, some stray thoughts.

The latest special exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where I earn my wage) came to an end recently. Old Masters Now showcased the collection of one John G. Johnson, a corporate lawyer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who earned his fortune representing such scrupulous and benign entities as Standard Oil, J.P. Morgan & Co., the American Tobacco Company, and so on. When Johnson died in 1917 his mansion full of paintings was bequeathed to the city of Philadelphia, and the museum has hosted them since the early 1930s.

In terms of bringing in the crowds, Old Masters Now rated no better (nor really any worse) than a minor disappointment. "Paintings which belonged to one filthy rich packrat with unobjectionable taste and avaricious clients" doesn't exactly make for a compelling curatorial linchpin. Despite the exhibition's title, only one or two pieces from the individual eponymous old masters were featured—one painting by Titian, one painting by Rembrandt, one painting by Bosch, etc. Moreover, many of the highlighted pieces—such as Sargent's In the Luxembourg Gardens, Manet's U.S.S. Kearsarge and the C.S.S. Alabama, van Eyck's Saint Francis of Assisi—were already familiar mainstays of the galleries.

To be fair, the curators were hamstrung: the museum is currently operating in the midst of large-scale renovations, which means it cannot exhibit objects on loan from other museums or private collectors (for insurance reasons). For now the special exhibitions are restricted to objects already in the museum's stores, constraining their curators to literally work with what they've got. I don't think the tepid turnout came as much of a surprise to anyone.

I've joked to colleagues and to the occasional guest (whose humor I've ascertained and found suitable) that the show would have been more of a hit if the museum had underscored its fugacity, changing the title from Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection to Old Masters Now: AND SOON NEVER AGAIN. That would be step one. Step two would have the publications and outreach people sending out all the usual press releases through all the usual channels announcing two things.

(1) The creme de la creme of John G. Johnson's famed art collection will be on view until February 19.

(2) At 12:01 AM on February 20, the objects on display will be liquidated. Not auctioned off for fluid capital, but thrown in a heap, bathed in turpentine, and set on fire.

"If you don't come to Philadelphia to stroke your chin and nod thoughtfully before the treasures of the Johnson collection, then you've missed your last chance because vanity vanity all is vanity, Johnson is dead, achievement is ephemeral, and all our lives are as ash. Schedule your visit today!"

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"This storm is what we call progress."

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920)

At the start of the month Vanity Fair ran a piece about orgy culture among the Silicon Valley elite. There's a lot to be appalled by, but I might be in the minority in that the details of exclusive MDMA-fueled tech bro parties wasn't what grossed me out the most.

Emily Chang (author of the forthcoming book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley, from which the Vanity Fair article is an adapted excerpt) speaks to one "Founder X," an "ambitious, world-traveling entrepreneur" who gives us an insight into the chauvinistic behavior of the young tech mogul who regards female colleagues as "sex pawns and founder hounders" (emphases are mine):
“It’s awesome,” says Founder X. At work, he explains, “you’re well funded. You have relative traction.” Outside work, “why do I have to compromise? Why do I have to get married? Why do I have to be exclusive? If you’ve got a couple girls interested in you, you can set the terms and say, ‘This is what I want.’ You can say, ‘I’m happy to date you, but I’m not exclusive.’ These are becoming table stakes for guys who couldn’t get a girl in high school.”

...They don’t necessarily see themselves as predatory. When they look in the mirror, they see individuals setting a new paradigm of behavior by pushing the boundaries of social mores and values. “What’s making this possible is the same progressiveness and open-mindedness that allows us to be creative and disruptive about ideas,” Founder X told me.


Furthermore, these elite founders, C.E.O.’s, and V.C.’s see themselves as more influential than most hot-shit bankers, actors, and athletes will ever be. “We have more cachet than a random rich dude because we make products that touch a lot of people,” says Founder X. “You make a movie, and people watch it for a weekend. You make a product, and it touches people’s lives for years.

At least on the financial level, Founder X has a point. The payouts of A-list actors and the wolves of Wall Street just aren’t that impressive among the Silicon Valley elite. Managing directors at top-tier investment banks may pocket a million a year and be worth tens of millions after a long career. Early employees at tech firms like Uber, Airbnb, and Snapchat can make many times that amount of money in a matter of years. Celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Jared Leto, and Leonardo DiCaprio have jumped on that power train and now make personal investments in tech companies. The basketball great Kobe Bryant started his own venture-capital firm. LeBron James has rebranded himself as not just an athlete but also an investor and entrepreneur.

With famous actors and athletes wanting to get into the tech game, it’s no surprise that some in the Valley have a high opinion of their attractiveness and what they should expect or deserve in terms of their sex lives. In the Valley, this expectation is often passed off as enlightened—a contribution to the evolution of human behavior.
Here we have the lapidary encapsulation of Silicon Valley's arrogance.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas night post

Seven days before Christmas Eve I joined my old friend Bridget to sing Christmas carols.

Backing up some: Bridget was a colleague during during my employ at the Quaker retreat center circa 2012. She is a practicing (and exceptionally devoted) Quaker, and earlier this month she invited me to sing Christmas carols with her monthly meeting in the Philadelphia exurbs. In going willingly I probably forfeited the rest of whatever goth cred I had left, but what the hell. I like spending time with Bridget and besides, I was promised cookies and hot cider.

The evening was the antidote to a month of recorded & compulsory Christmas music at the workplace. Singing the seasonal standards ("We Three Kings," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," etc.) in a meeting house with a group of the Christian faithful (even if I am myself an atheist and apostate Episcopalian) who WANT to sing is the polar opposite of having recordings of the same songs pumped into your workplace eight hours a day. Fellowship makes the difference. So does contributing to and experiencing the music as a living shared event rather than as a digital artifact. For about 45 minutes I actually enjoyed these songs again.

Afterwards I chatted with Bridget and with a gentleman named Chip, who I believe was one of the meeting's elders. I asked him how old the meeting house was, and in the course of his answer he related a story about the pair of farmers who were responsible for its construction. As luck would have it, a version of the story is on the meeting's website (and was probably composed by Chip himself), but it was more striking to hear it told. Some people are better orators than authors.

But in the spirit of the season, I'd like to share an excerpt of Chip's story here:
Today, the Pocopson creek flows unrestricted through Chester County farmland until it reaches the Brandywine. This was not always the case. Towards the end of the 18th century a water-rights dispute arose between two Quaker farmers. Isaac Baily’s farm was upstream from that of Richard Barnard and Baily had built a dam for his own irrigation purposes. Unfortunately, this dam significantly restricted the flow and had a serious impact on the availability of Richard Barnard’s water.
Water use rights clearly identify Barnard as the injured party. However, all of his attempts to explain this to his neighbor were met with contentious replies. Quakers (Friends) were loath to take anyone to court, let alone another Quaker. Thus, no legal action was taken and other Friends became involved, but Isaac Baily remained intransigent.

This state of affairs caused much frustration to Richard Barnard. One day Barnard described the issue to a traveling Quaker Minister. The response was brief but pointed. The minister said “Richard, more is required of some than others.” This answer precipitated some deep reflection. After some consideration and prayer, the next step became clear.

Early one morning Richard Barnard collected a bottle of water and cloths before beginning the hike upstream to his neighbor’s farm. He arrived and knocked on the door, only to find out that Isaac Baily was still in bed. Undeterred, Barnard pushed forward, entered his neighbor’s bedchamber and expressed a deep desire for friendship. To consummate this friendship, Barnard announced his intention to wash Baily’s feet. At first, the response to this overture was the same contentiousness that Baily had become known for. Barnard had to be quite insistent to accomplish his purpose. However, as Baily’s feet were washed and then dried, a calm fell over the scene. Afterwards, Baily rose, dressed and accompanied Barnard to the door.

The day did not pass before Richard Barnard overheard the work of the dam being breached so that the water could flow unrestricted. The story does not end here. Richard Barnard and Isaac Baily soon became fast friends. Several years later, Barnard broke his leg in an accident. This kind of event can be devastating for any farmer whose livelihood depends on physical activity. Fortunately, Isaac Baily was there to invest much of his own time and effort to sustain the Barnard farm through the crisis.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

In memoriam: Jack Collom (1931–2017)

the ogre said to his daughter:
sixteen miles from this place
is a tree
round the tree are tigers
and bears, and scorpions
and snakes
on the top of three
is a very great fat snake
on his head
is a little cage
in the cage is a bird
and my soul is in that bird
——Jack Collom, from Exchanges of Earth and Sky (2006)
Solstice. This taxing, time-dilated Common Era Year 2017 is finally ticking down to its end, and I doubt many of us will be looking back fondly on it.

This year I lost two people who were important to me. The first was Hannah, who I've already talked about. Three months later, she's still completely unaccounted for. I'm not ready to say anything else about her yet.

The second was Jack Collom—teacher, poet, naturalist—who passed on this last July the second. I've mentioned him before. Until this month I had no idea he died. It didn't come as a shock: he was already an old man wearing a nasal cannula and wheeling a tank of oxygen around with him when I met him in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 2008. Occasionally while leafing through his work in the years since, I'd think to google him and make sure he was still among the living. This time the answer was finally 'no.'

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Fernand Léger: some words and pictures

August 19 [1955]—This journal records too many deaths. Now it is Léger's. He was the greatest artist of our time. He will not only live, he will father an art.

—John Berger, A Painter of Our Time (1958)

For several months now I've been in the employ of an art museum, though my job is really only enviable for its setting (if anything). Not long ago the gift shop was cleaning out its storage space and came across a trove of Fernand Léger postcards left over from a 2013 special exhibition. Many of the cards feature artworks that were on loan from other museums and private collectors, and even if there were willing buyers for 1000+ of these things, the expiration of the temporary reproduction rights makes selling them somewhat dicey from a legal standpoint. So the only thing to do was toss them out. I intervened to rescue a batch from the dumpster, so I'm pretty much set for my epistolary life. Some of them I'm going to tape to my walls. When you're wealthy, you acquire original artworks to display in your home and impress your guests. When you're poor, you grab postcards of artworks to stick up in your bedroom to suit yourself.

Léger has become one of my favorite painters. I was introduced to him pretty much accidentally three years ago, when I was reproducing William Carlos Williams' The Descent of Winter and searching for visual art I understood as 'modernist' to align with Williams' diary entries/poems/miniature essays. That was how I first came to know Léger and his 1919 opus La Ville (The City). A lake of curatorial ink could be spilled (and has been spilled) in the exegesis of this painting, but the work needs nobody to speak for it. The composition, its title, and its date tell the whole story, and all the rest is critical salary work. La Ville is a dream or hallucination of the modern metropolis, looming and labyrinthine, blazing with electric lights, thrumming with motor traffic, and checkered with vivid pictoral adverts. The city as a dense human settlement has existed since at least 4500 BC, but it was only in the first decades of the twentieth century that the city as we recognize it emerged onto the world. This new composite organism of humanity and machinery so captivated Léger that he made it the singular focus of his oeuvre during the years between World War I and the Great Depression, the moment of his artistic prime.