Dr Seuss on the Juice (as performed by Dr. John)

 

 

When I read Kafka

I get wasted on Vodka,

 

Though Mr. William Faulkner

Go better with Johnnie Walker.

 

Can’t do Proust

With no gin in my juice.

 

Obviously, Guinness be the choice

When I open up my Joyce.

 

(Finnegan’s Wake sober

Mean a walloping hangover).

 

Never do Virginia Woolf

Unless the bottle say 100 proof.

 

Nobel Laureate TS Eliot

Requires an even stronger inebriant.

 

And remember,

if you want to stay alive,

Don’t read and drive.

 

 

 

Late and Soon: Falling out of Lockstep from the Ranks of the Conventional, Sighing, TGIF Zombie Corps

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . .

                                                                    Wm. Wordsworth

In his long life, Richard Wilbur has never lost his Wordsworthian sense of childlike wonder. Wilbur’s heart leaps up, not only when he behold[s] a rainbow in the sky, but also at such overlooked mundane wonders like the turbine-vent [that] natural law/ Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof.

Many of his poems grapple with the relationship between metaphor and perception, suggesting that poetry works its magic in casting the commonplace (by the way, that diner is located on a planet swirling around a star hurtling in concert within a galaxy spinning into the vast abyss of space/time) – [ahem] casting the commonplace in strange ways that paradoxically help us to shake off the staleness of familiarity so that we suddenly can perceive the spectacular it-ness of the whatever.

Here Wilbur in an English sonnet called “In Praise of Summer” wonders why we need the distortions of jazzy description to jar into seeing:

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur, as it were, offers poetic language as a sort of perceptual slap in the face, awakening us to the unseen wonder right there before us while at the same time lamenting our inability to see freshly in the first place..

Closer to making than the deftest fraud
Is seeing how the catbird’s tail was made
To counterpoise, on the mock-orange spray . . .
Richard Wilbur, “Lying”

Seeing is half-creating, as Wordsworth himself puts it in “Tintern Abbey.”

Nevertheless, in Wilbur, our consciousness is both a wonder and a curse – sometimes in the same poem.  For example, in “A Question from Milton,” the poetic speaker dismisses prelapsarian consciousness as boringly 2-D:

In Eden palm and open-handed pine
Displayed to God and man their flat perfection.
Carefully coiled, the regulation vine
Submitted to our general sire’s inspection.

Yet in the very last stanza of the same poem he suggests that Adam should

Envy the gorgeous gallops of the sea,
Whose horses never know their lunar reins.

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise, As sometimes summer calls us all, I said The hills are heavens full of branching ways Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead; I said the trees are mines in air, I said See how the sparrow burrows in the sky! And then I wondered why this mad instead Perverts our praise to uncreation, why Such savour's in this wrenching things awry. Does sense so stale that it must needs derange The world to know it? To a praiseful eye Should it not be enough of fresh and strange That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay, And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

Wilbur as a young man studied under the mighty Robert Frost, who echoes this post’s epigraph in the first line of his poem “Directive:”

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather . . .

The past, a simpler time, childhood.

All three poets – Wordsworth, Frost, and Wilbur wish we could chill, notice the glint of sunlight on that discarded aluminum soda can up ahead (rather than focusing our life force somewhere deep down in the mine shaft of self-absorbed work-based anxiety), that is, to have our childlike vision and sense of wonder restored.

However, if the office below is your workspace, good luck with those mind-forged manacles.

Chances are after 40-hour week cooped in your cubicle, you’re probably looking for something a little stronger than a shot of chiasmus and splash of synecdoche to get away from it all.  It’s going to take something stronger than Wilbur or Wordsworth to appreciate the it-ness of the StickyNote slapped on the particle board next to your computer.  But you gotta eat, right; the kids need braces; it’s the price we pay.

As one highly successful minstrel put it: They dope you with religion and sex and TV.   To evoke a cliche that the cubicles pictured in the above office suggest, contemporary corporate life is a competitive and repetitive rat maze where functionaries (what Marx called workers) glance repeatedly at digital clocks’ counting down the hours and minutes until 5 o-clock liberation and the slow creep of gridlock home.

Day after day, each missed sunset and rising moon are subtracted from the finite number of future possibilities.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

And, of course, the soulless dissatisfaction with getting and spending isn’t limited to the corporate world.  Stroll down the halls of any Monday-thru-Friday workplace on the fifth day PM, and you’ll hear folks murmuring psalms of praise, not to Jesus, Yahweh, or Allah, but to Odin’s wife Freya/Frigg.

Day by day our world becomes more complex, and it sometimes seems that somehow there must be some diabolical conspiracy among the top 1% – the they in Lennon’s song – who have hypnotized us and led us onto this dizzying not-so-merry-go-round of consumption.  Even in rather seemingly slow paced professions like teaching, the proliferation of voicemails, emails, committee meetings, etc. means longer school days and school years.

Yet, truth be told.  We have only ourselves to blame for falling lockstep into the ranks of the conventional, sighing TGIF zombie corps.  A brave few souls, sons and daughters of Blake, refuse to conform.

Take my former student and now friend, David Connor Jones, who for the last few years has been living out of his car roaming the North American west “like Caine in Kung Fu. meet[ing] people, get[ting] in adventures” and encountering gorgeous vistas that would raise the hair of Richard Wilbur “[l]ike quills upon the fretful porcupine.”

photo by David Connor Jones

It, of course, takes great courage to be free.  When I was in the USSR in ’89, the citizenry wasn’t digging perestroika, preferring the safe status quo.

At any rate, we should at least try to take Wilbur’s advice, to remember always the miracle of our being, to savor this very second, no matter in a cubicle, a jail cell, or worse.  We should strive to attain Buddha-consciousness in this here very life now, so as Wilbur puts it a bit more eloquently, we can find ourselves

In the same clearing where, in the old story,
A holy man discovered Vishnu sleeping,
Wrapped in his maya, dreaming by a pool
On whose calm face all images whatever
Lay clear, unfathomed, taken as they came.
Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep”

David Conor Jones

Wordly Wise Succumbs to Political Correctness

Note James Dickey’s phone number on the cover; he’d let students call him and interview him for research papers on Deliverance.

Years ago, in a less sensitive century, I taught a course in Remedial English Developmental English at a community college. Of all the various workbooks we tried during my stint there, my favorite was Practically Painless English by Sally Foster Wallace, who happens to be the mother of David Foster Wallace. David would have been a late teen when I was teaching from his mom’s workbook, and I was only in my late twenties myself.

Alas, a couple of years ago, I gave my only copy to DFW aficionado and kickass essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan. As of this morning, surviving copies are going for $138 a pop on Amazon.

However, thanks of an internet recovery site, I was able to cop these exemplary snippets from Sally Wallace’s book:

Orlanda McGurk and Chively Sneed drink kerosene.
I went to the grocery store. I bought some soap. I bought some dynamite.
His eyes sparkled as he sprinkled poison on the cupcakes.
The bright pink sports car crashed on the icy winding road.
Until the killer confesses, we are all under suspicion.
The murderer himself was in the funeral procession.

Delightful but dangerous in this trigger-unhappy era. It’s possible one of your students’ mothers died when her pink Porsche skidded off an icy, winding road and smacked into an aspen. Although unlikely, Mrs. Wallace’s macabre example could cause legitimate heartache. Believe me, it happens. I’ve hurt people alluding to a much more unlikely death scenario.

So it’s not surprising that editors of long running series like Wordly Wise occasionally revise sentences to better reflect contemporary sensibilities. In fact, several new editions have come out in the 32 years I’ve been teaching Wordly Wise; however, because I’m lazy, I still use the very same workbooks issued to me in 1985. (see illustration above) Just because the word buxom[1] has been removed from Book 7, doesn’t make it worth the trouble of re-doing the exercises of the latest iteration to accommodate such a minor change.[2]

These changes usually take place in Section B, where students have to select sentences in which italicized words have been used incorrectly (see footnote 1 below).

Many of the emendations reflect skittishness about religious references.

Exercise A

a heathen tribe

(a) living in the jungle (b) living on islands (c) converted to Christianity (d) without Biblical religious belief

Exercise B

16 (a) Any person not a Christian, a Jew, or a Moslem was considered a heathen. (b) Missionaries went abroad in great numbers to convert the heathen to Christianity. (c) The people in the jungle are best left alone to worship their heathen gods. (d) The natives continued to heathen their own gods despite the efforts of the missionaries.

So when students hear Bob Marley sing “Heathen back against the wall,” they won’t have a clue.

Examples of violence are also targets for replacement.

From the same world list, one example of recoil has been softened. The 1983 edition includes the sentence, “He recoiled in horror when his gaze fell on the murdered man,” which in the 1998 version reads, “He recoiled in disgust when he saw the slugs in his driveway.”

My favorite changes occur in Book 6, Word List 6 where the sentence “Following their defeat in battle, the tribesmen were ruthlessly massacred” has been changed to “Some people see meat-eating as the massacre of animals.” Also, the strange “The animals were driven into the ravine and massacred by men with high-powered rifles” has given way to the metaphoric “The visitors massacred the home team; the score was 57 – 0.[3]

Apparently, George Custer remains fair game. The 1983 sentence “The massacre of General Custer’s men at Little Big Horn occurred in 1876″ survives in the 1998 edition.

Sex is not so much a problem because the editors ignore any sexual connotations a word may have. For example, orgy is defined as “wild, abandoned merrymaking.”

Hi, Emerson how was school today?

It was a blast, mom. The pep rally turned into an orgy!”

I’ll leave you with one last example, another sentence that has withstood the [tautology alert] censorious eye of the Wordly Wise censor:

“He led a chaste and ordered life with his uncles.”

WTF?


[1] It’s defined as “plump.” See if you can guess which usage is incorrect: A. She was a healthy, buxom woman in the prime of life or B. She offered to buxom the pillow to make it more comfortable.

[2] Our department eschews teacher manuals.

[3] What offends me more than religious references or allusions to violence is the examples’ unnecessary use of passive voice and their lack of specificity. How about “A band of hunchbacked Lithuanian dwarves drove the bison into the ravine where their Russian overlords massacred them with AK 47s” or “The visitors massacred the home team 57-0?

The Clothes Oft Proclaim: A Brief But Polemical History of Fashion

Grayson Perry, Agony in the Car Park

“The clothes oft proclaim the man,” Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet

One of the hallmarks of the Late Empire is its tendency towards hyper-hedonism, that compulsion to pleasure our palates with exquisite cuisine, pamper our bodies with Swedish massages, dance the diminishing succession of nights away.[1]

Obviously, this behavior runs counter to the work ethic of that Original American Entrepreneur of Self-Help – Mr. Ben Franklin – and also contradicts to the self-abnegation of that Oratorical Furnace of Fire and Brimstone  – Rev. Jonathan Edwards.

His sermon  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” provoked staid Colonial New Englanders to moan aloud, not unlike a congregation of AME funeral-goers.   “What can I do to be saved,” the New Englanders hollered after hearing Edwards’ dispassionately delivered descriptions of what lay in store.

For example:

To help your conception, [Edwards says] imagine yourself to be cast into a fiery oven, or a great furnace, where your pain would be as much greater than that occasioned by accidentally touching a coal of fire, as the heat is greater. Imagine also that your body were to lie there for a quarter of an hour, full of fire, and all the while full of quick sense; what horror would you feel at the entrance of such a furnace! and how long would that quarter of an hour seem to you! And after you had endured it for one minute, how overbearing would it be to you to think that you had to endure the other fourteen! But what would be the effect on your soul, if you knew you must lie there enduring that torment to the full for twenty-four hours…for a whole year…for a thousand years!

The centuries-long backsliding of our nation from the Salem of the Puritans to the Sodom of Hollywood has been attributed by what’s left of Edwards’ followers to the Warren Court’s removal of a not-so-omnipresent God from school, leftwing college professors, etc.

However, the contemporary French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky fingers consumerism (aided and abetted by fashion) as whatdunit in the secularization and eventual narcissism of Occidentals [2] as he traces Westerners’ relationship with their clothing (and sense of self) from the 14th Century until now.

Mr-Porter-Suits-Fit1

Here’s a crystal clear methylamphetic synopsis of Part 1 of Lipovetsky’s The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy (Trans. Catherine Porter):

Before the Late Middle Ages, in what should be be called the Golden Age of Transvestism, both men and women wore traditional dresses whose cuts remained the same for thousands of years. Folk placed a “positive value on [. . .] social continuity of models inherited from the past.”

timeline1

In the mid-14th, men started wearing exposed hose and short doublets instead of robes while women continued to drape their bodies much as they had before.  Before then, royalty had sported more luxurious duds as a distinguishing characteristic between them and their subjects.  However, as the styles differentiated between the sexes and commerce and banking arose, a bourgeoise developed, and uppity royal wannabes started copying the dress of their betters.  Royals had to jack up the sartorial splendor, the bourgeoise countered, and the millennial old stasis in fashion was over.  This phenomenon “democratized fashion,”  “equaliz[ed] appearance,” “undermined traditional behavior,” and “created a thirst for novelty.”

canterbury-tales-480

People started to be more aware of their individuality; courtly love established an overvaluation of women.[3]

God migrated from the center of Medieval consciousness to the periphery of post-Enlightenment consciousness before being gunned down by Nietzsche in the 19th Century.

nietzsche31

Haute Couture ruled for a century and established live modeling and the fashion seasons, spring and fall, changing styles even more often than editors of  MLA manuals; however, ready to wear via manufacturing overthrew the Haute Couture hierarchy of made-to-order fashion.

1835-01 Lady's Magazine & Museum Vol. VI pdf 76

In the 50’s and 60’s the thrust of fashion shifted from concentrating on appearing wealthy to appearing young as mass-media-manipulated youths rejected their parents’ mores.  Clothes became more unisexual with girls wearing pants and boys long hair.

ap691208033.jpg

Now in 2017, essentially [cue Cole Porter] anything goes.  The designers can no longer dictate styles to consumers – micro minis or midis or maxis are all okay.  Both men and women would rather appear young than wealthy –  older mothers want to look like their young daughters rather than vice versa.   This cultivation of youth now extends to men who in increasing numbers dye their hair, purchase facial creams, and sport earrings.

untitled

Lipovetsky’s good news:  individualism triumphs – we’re our own masters.  Bad news: we’re narcissists (who almost by definition are incapable of happiness).

2010_01_PatrickMcDonaldInterview

What are the odds that Mr. Patrick McDonald is easily upset?

Lipovetsky argues in Part 2 that this narcissistic self-autonomy is on the whole positive, and he makes many excellent points.  I’ve in a previous post linked Lipovetsky’s debate with a skeptical Mario Vargas Llosa.

I’m not up to determining whether the almost unlimited freedom of self-indulgence/self-determination that post-industrial capitalism has bestowed [4] is worth the concomitant loss of our not knowing history’s deep lessons and literature’s grandest moments.

Instead, I’m going to address the rightful (or wrongful) cause of the prevalent narcissism that characterizes Late Empire America.

It’s not so much that the godless left has deconstructed the religious underpinnings of American society but that amoral capitalism has usurped the glamor of certain seductive countercultural lifestyles and incorporated images of that decadence into its advertising campaigns.

Take James Dean as an early example.  His in-your-face alienation in Rebel Without a Cause preceded the prayer-in-school ban of 1962, and I doubt that the film’s director Nicholas Ray underwent a successful leftist indoctrination in his one semester at the University of Chicago. However, with young fans flocking to that movie, advertisers noting Dean’s appeal incorporated Dean’s persona into campaigns.

article-2596209-1CCE8D8000000578-4_306x423

Why did young fans flock to the film?  Because a character “no one understands” appeals to adolescents.  In a recent post I cited Jackson Lears who has pointed out that capitalism successfully co-opts bohemianism  by installing rip machines into assembly lines at jean factories to accommodate Kurt Cobain wannabes.  When ripped jeans aren’t cool anymore because everyone is wearing them, something new takes their place and on and on till the last syllable of recorded time.  Cha-ching goes the cash register.  Zip goes the barcode scanner.

We can characterize “consumer society” empirically by listing some of its features:  a higher standard of living, an abundance of goods and services, a cult of objects and leisure, a hedonistic and materialistic morality.

Giles Lipovetsky The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy

So Don’t blame us lefty teachers, Rick Santorum, et al; it ain’t our fault.


[1] Faulkner advised writers that they needed to “kill all their darlings” in the editing process.  Imagine the tears I shed when I axed “like Maenads all hepped up on the blood of speed freaks torn asunder” from the end of the first sentence.

[2] I continue my quixotic campaign to restore Oriental and Occidental into respectability.

[3]  By the way, sisters, like Chuck Prophet, I bow down before every woman I see.

[4] E.g., my ability to share my thin understanding of fashion’s progression with anyone on the planet who has internet access.

On Star Wars, Samurais, and a Future So Bleak Everyone Will Wear Mining Helmets

by WLM 3 based on Zdzistaw Beksiński

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies — not the blockbuster first installment of 1977 nor any of the vast array of sequels and prequels that in subsequent decades have rolled off the Lucas assembly line like so many gold-plated Model-Ts.

As a subscriber to the NY Times crossword puzzle, I have been punished for being ignorant of such worthies as Jabba the Hutt and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the same way I have punished for not having read any of the Harry Potter books.[1]

What’s the 5 letter word for first name of the astromech droid that appears in every Star War movie?

Search me.

I did try to read the first Potter novel but got about as far as I did when I attempted The Hobbit as an eighth grader. Blame my lack of interest on a leaden suspension of disbelief. I prefer Robin Hood to the Arthurian legends, the Lone Ranger to Flash Gordon, Sopwith Camels to starships. In other words, I don’t dig fantasy and most science fiction, which is not to say they’re not worthy genres. I don’t dig opera either, but I realize my lack of appreciation stems from ignorance and that I’m ultimately missing out on something truly wonderful.

But as far as Jabba the Hutt and Harry Potter go, personal predilections are no excuse for my ignorance. As a self-anointed anthropologist/social critic/prophet-of-doom, it should be my duty to study these cultural phenomena, these projections of our collective psyches, these myth-equivalents that shed light on “deep down things.” [now removing tongue from cheek]

Nevertheless, it ain’t gonna happen. I still haven’t read Proust or become closely acquainted with the films of the supposedly great Soviet director Tarkovsky so the idea of spending the ever decreasing number of my allotted Sunday afternoons matriculating into Hogwarts is way too much of a cross to bear.

What has brought these considerations to mind is that last week a candidate for a position in our English Department taught a demo class to my 9th graders as a sort of audition. Surprisingly, rather than reprising some proven boffo performance of poetic analysis from his past, something tried and true — as most aspirants do — he decided to go with what I am teaching, Orwell’s 1984.

He started the lesson by discussing Newspeak and the implications of the ruling party’s attempt to strip language of all nuance, a topic we’d already covered at length. Why complicate your life by having hundreds of words like grackle, wren, and bunting when the simple word bird would suffice? Does language play a role in helping us distinguish nuances?

Is the Jesuit Pope a communist from Argentina?

Do heavy, furry, hibernating, clawed mammals defecate in areas thickly covered with trees?

Are rhetorical questions possible in Newspeak?

Things got cracking when he shifted from language to genre. He said that he first read the novel as an undergraduate in a science fiction course. He asked the students to define science fiction and coaxed them into coming up with the idea that science fiction is a realistic depiction of the human condition featuring technology that doesn’t yet exist but is central to the plot.

He then asked if Star Wars were science fiction. One student said that no, it was fantasy, and the teacher agreed pointing out that each planet has a singular topography – desert or swamp or city or forest – so what we’re essentially dealing with is the planet earth. He added that the weapons are essentially swords, and spaceships lie well within the reality of current technology. He argued that we’re talking magic, not science here, and basically Star Wars is a Samurai movie set in outer space. As his name suggests, Obi-Wan Kenobi is in a sense a by-product of Japanese cinema, particularly Kurosawa’s 1958 samurai epic The Hidden Fortress.

The teacher then shifted back to Orwell, and the students identified telescreens[2] as the technology that qualifies 1984 to be considered as science fiction. In 1948, the year it was written, television was in its infancy, and telescreens did not exist (nor did they in the teacher’s undergraduate days).

They do now, however. After all, when I was with my wife in Houston at MD Anderson at the beginning of the school year, I taught this very class via Skype, which is essentially a telescreen but one that allows for two-way communication. So according to this line of thinking, 1984 can no longer be considered “science fiction.”

The teacher pulled his cell phone from his pocket and said, “Unlike the citizens of Oceania, we subscribe to our telescreens, actually pay Big Brother to collect the goods on us. (Of course, these aren’t the exact words he used).

Anyway, he went off on a rift on technology and dystopia and an era in the near future (about the time they’d be graduating from college) when automation might be eliminating quaint old human orchestrated procedures like cancer surgery. He mentioned nanobots replacing surgeons, and I imagined hordes of ravenous Pac-Men seeking out and devouring malignant cells.

A rather sobering and a subtle suggestion that future competition might be, shall we say, cut-throat, and that studying might be a good strategy, especially when it’s not only coal miners and sales clerks who will be out of work but also CPAs and surgeons.

At any rate, class ended, and the actors marched off leaving me alone in my room (101, by the way) contemplating a smog-smothered future where it’s always twilight or pitch black night, a future where hordes of the unemployed have devolved into urban tribal communities, in other words, the world of Blade Runner.

But, hey, fa-la-la-la live for today, in this case Sunday, 9 a.m EST. With Kim-Jong un, Putin, and the Donald rattling their lightsabers, we might not have to worry about the future at all.

So I think I’ll have a bloody mary and look out over the real life Darwin-themed drama my back deck provides.

Or maybe scrounge up a copy of À la recherche du temps perdu.

photo from our back deck of a wood stork


[1] As far as Star Wars goes, I do know that Darth Vader is evil, Princess Leia wears white, and that Luke Skywalker is the coming of age hero.

[2] Telescreens are ubiquitous two-way-mirror-like devices that allow the party to spy on citizens and to broadcast propaganda.

 

I Have Measured My Life Out with Barrooms

Juarez Muchado
“A Bar in Copacabana

The mornings, evenings, afternoons . . . 

TS Eliot, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

I started hanging out at bars at a very young age because whenever my mother left me alone with my old man, he’d throw me in the car and head off to some hole-in-the-wall near the Navy Base. There were no such things as kiddy car seats in those days. Come to think of it, there were no seatbelts either, at least in the cars we owned. Nor were we stowed in the backseat for safety’s sake.

Whenever Daddy hit the brakes, he’d reflexively extend his right arm as a barrier to prevent us from hurtling into the dashboard with its array of dangerous knobs, seemingly designed with poking out eyes in mind. I was only thrown into the dashboard once when my grandmother let me stand up in the front seat. I lost my front baby teeth, and one of my permanent front teeth grew in discolored and had to be capped. The cap kept falling off, and what was left of the tooth had to be drilled down to fit on another cap. Eventually, when there was hardly anything left, it had to be pulled, which made me look like Alfred E Newman until we acquired a retainer like false tooth.[1]

At any rate, sometimes, if you’re lucky, natural selection doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to.

That grandmother, a Baptist, despised demon alcohol and considered bars dens of iniquity, though she and her sisters (Pearl and Ruby) traded pharmaceuticals like jelly beans.[2] My mother, though less severe, didn’t like to come home and discover us missing. The story is that she could mysteriously intuit what bar we were at by flipping through the Charleston phone book, which was much thinner in those days in before the Old South turned into the Sunbelt. According to the dubious story, she’d call the bar, offer a description, get the old man on the phone, and he would come dutifully home with little me in tow.

My vague memories of hanging in bars with my father in the mid-Fifties may be manufactured. They may be based more on movies I’ve seen featuring dark, small, smoky spaces. I do clearly remember him playing pinball machines, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. These were in the days before aluminum cans were equipped with pop-tops, a great invention. Back then, bartenders opened cans of beers with small metal openers [see illustrations below] and had to make two openings to create airflow to help gravity along.

That reminds me. When I was around ten, my father had this foolish idea that I needed to drink one beer a week to gain weight – as if the weight gain would be equally distributed along my skeletal frame instead of creating a stick-legged, stick-armed tween with a beer belly. I absolutely detested the taste of beer. Now that I think of it, it may have been a ruse to allow us to have beer in the house.

The next bar I visited in my youth was a roadhouse called Morris Knight’s, a one-story honky-tonk-like establishment about a half-mile from my house. It consisted of two rooms, one with a bar and stools (where they sold candy and fireworks to kids in the day time) and a back room with a vending pool table and a jukebox. One night when we were camping out, we made an excursion there to score some Squirrel Nut Zippers and encountered staggeringly drunk men and women. The fat woman bartender kicked us out, informing us it was no place for children. It seemed at once both sinful and fascinating, Felliniesque in a po-dunk sort of way.

The S & S poolroom, where I hung out in high school, wasn’t, strictly speaking, a bar, though they did sell both draughts and canned beers. They served the most delicious hot dogs ever thanks to their secret chili recipe. Sometimes my mother would have a craving for one, and Daddy would go fetch her “a poolroom hotdog” because “ladies” didn’t dare step inside.

It was tacitly understood that I was not to go into the poolroom, but I did for the first time when I was a 7th grader, the victim of peer pressure. You couldn’t get away with sneaking in there, though, because you would come home with the telltale poolroom smell, a sort of sour smoky odor laced with fried food.

The poolroom was sort of a grander Morris Knight’s and employed young black boys to rack the tables and collect the dime it cost to play a game of nine ball. When the game was over, you’d holler “Rack!” Gambling was allowed. I saw a friend of mine, Glenn Farrar, win a hundred dollars in about forty minutes one time. It was a Friday, payday.  Tensions ran high.

Anyway, my parents eventually didn’t mind my hanging out there, and in the early 70’s a couple of girls actually started frequenting, which sullied their reputations. By then, the hissing sound of the double metal can opener had been replaced by the plunk of tabs you tore off.

You had to be somewhat circumspect in the poolroom, though. Using a word like “whom” might end up getting your “ass cut,” as we locals put it. You weren’t allowed to cuss, though. A “No Profanity” sign was displayed prominently behind the bar beside prints of monkeys shooting pool and playing poker.

You could drink legally at eighteen in those days, so college was where I learned the art of making eye contact with the bartender, the advantages of busing your own tables by returning your bottles, and how leaving a tip could help you get served faster when the joint was busy.

My freshmen year I hung at a place called the Opus that served only Bush Bavarian beer, or at least that’s my memory, but they tore the Opus down to build the new Law School. There was also the Campus Club, a cool space with a wraparound scaffolding-like structure that created a sort of second story but was open to the space below, like the saloons you sometimes see in old Westerns. I liked sitting there in the afternoons after class when dust-moted sunbeams bore down on the tables like spotlights.

Here it is in its new iteration as “The Hunter Gatherer”

I never really liked the Golden Spur, the bar located in USC’s student union building, a sort of cafeteria-like soulless place where unadventurous students hung. Ironically, I ended up tending bar there along with my future wife, who had white-lied to her parents and told them that she worked at “the student center.” The bar did boast some really cool musical acts, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. That may have been my best job ever. If we went out after work, it was to Oliver’s Pub on Devine Street, a private club where you could drink on Sundays.

Like a chip off the ol’ block, I started taking my two sons to bars early in their lives.  When then they were pre-adolescents, on nights their mother attended classes to get yet another graduate degree, we’d eat out at bars. Our favorites were the Acme Cantina on the Isle of Palms and Station 22 on Sullivan’s Island. The boys were on a first name basis with the bartender, Fronz, at the Acme, and with Cathy Coleman at Station 22. The big difference between my childhood experience and theirs is that their mother didn’t mind at all, especially on 25-cent wing night.

Now, our sons are in their 30’s, and, of course, we still enjoy venturing out to a bar when they’re home, and Folly Beach where their mother and I now live may have more bars per capita than anywhere in this side of Vegas.  Our favorites are Chico Feo and the Jack of Cups, but the Surf Bar is top-notch as well.

By the way, the worst bar I ever visited was outside of Leningrad on the Bay of Finland.  Black walls, red lights, bad vodka, the reek of Turkish cigarettes, drunken Finns looking for love. It made Morris Knight’s look like a Dairy Queen.


[1] You can read a sad, alcoholic-themed story about that very tooth here.

[2] My grandfather hid half-pints of rum in his dress shoes in his closet.

Victorian Poets Doing Trump

image by WLM3

Every spring I teach Victorian poetry, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, and Hopkins.

Like a turreted mansion, ornamental to the max, Victorian verse can seem to us more than a little too too much.

Take Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.“

 

On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro’ the field the road runs by

To many-tower’d Camelot;

The yellow-leaved waterlily

The green-sheathed daffodilly

Tremble in the water chilly

Round about Shalott.

If you recite that out loud, you want to sing it, wonder if there  might  be an accompanying melody. Not only do we have the singsong meter, but the rhymes are also laid on as thick as marmalade.

I suspect that our president, though not old-fashioned, would like Tennyson — that is, if someone were to read Lord Alfred out loud to him. President Trump has a soft spot for rococo, admires elaborate wainscoting gilded with gold. I read recently that he wants to ride in a gold carriage when he travels to the UK to meet the Queen.

Tennyson just might be Trump’s cup of tea.

 

At Mar-a-Lago, West Palm Beach

The nuclear code within his reach

His hair the color of a peach,

the mighty Donald Trump.

With his golf clubs by his side

In a cart he takes a ride

With a guest he can’t abide,

The mighty Donald Trump.

Robert Browning, on the other hand, is easier on our ears. Although the mad men in his gallery of monologists employ rhyme, the pauses in the middle of the lines – caesura is the technical term – and the fact that a line often tumbles without pause onto the next line – enjambment – mean that the reader swallows the rhymes, softening them.

Here is one of Browning’s characters making sure his lover will be spending the night.

 

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,

Perfectly pure and good: I found

A thing to do, and all her hair

In one long yellow string I wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her.

As Lord Byron might put it, “So soft, so calm, yet eloquent.”

Let’s give Robert Browning a shot at the Donald:

 

I’ll make things so great, so great,

You’ll grow way tired of winning.

I promise, I can’t overstate

The good that I will do. Spinning

Jobs back from China. Building

A wall. We’ll have reason to celebrate!

Matthew Arnold, though a far lesser poet, is like Tennyson, depressive. If Arnold were alive today, he’d be a frequent contributor to Pantsuits Nation.

 

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

Published post-Darwin in 1867, “Dover Beach” describes a world where, like the pebbles flung to and fro, we are subject to elemental forces beyond our puny control.

If he were alive, Arnold might lament

 

Oh, progressives, let us not stay home

Or vote Green next election, for time

Is running out as the planet warms

And oceans and tensions rise.

Alas, we are here as on a hijacked plane,

Piloted by a churl devoid of shame,

Loving only his riches and his fame.

Hopkins doesn’t sound Victorian, though he is. He sounds like he’s tripping on two-way windowpane while getting sucked through a wormhole to another dimension.

 

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief

Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —

Then lull, then leave off.

 

Warning: Hopkins is hard to imitate.

 

His tweets, tangerine-tinted, trumpet, tattle, boast, brood,

product of that last-saw-show, skit or pundit.

The idle swamp pump defunct, stagnant-

water, gator-crawling, serpent-rich, shit-flood flowing.

My great aunts on my father’s side were Victorians, majestic, bejeweled, sherry-sippers who considered procreation a necessary evil. So I dedicate this silly post to them – Tallulah and Lila – and to those porches upon which we sat so long ago.[1]

Down their carved names the raindrop plows.


[1] Both were grammar mavens and big on table manners.