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There Is No Sanity Clause

December 23, 2011

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So, another year of good conversation and good verse comes to an end. Three years; who imagined it would last this long? Not me.

Thanks to all of you. Have an enjoyable Festivus and we’ll meet again in the new year…same time, same place; you’ll know me because I’ll be wearing a red rose in my button-hole and carrying a copy of The Collected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke; the password is sic semper tyrannis. Until then…

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I Listen To Money Singing

December 17, 2011

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I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

from Money by Phillip Larkin

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Thinking about the insanity of Capitalism as it stands today is enough to drive you, gibbering and tearing out your hair, into an early grave. The whole set-up verges on the surreal. Verges? What am I saying? ‘Verges’ be damned: the whole shebang has gone, Gadarene swine-like, over the fucking cliff.

In the 1930s, someone (memory fails me but I’m guessing Larry Durrell) asked Henry Miller to write an essay on economics (‘the dismal science’ appellation is half right: it is dismal) for one of those literary magazines that used to spring-up overnight like mushrooms…and vanish just as quickly.

Initially, Miller took the job seriously; but after hacking his way through a few thickets of economic ‘analysis’, ‘history’ and ‘philosophy’, Miller baulked–the stuff was dross on an epic scale.

What he wrote instead was a very funny, tongue-firmly-in-cheek essay called Money and How It Gets That Way. I wish I had a copy to hand or even remembered where in his works it appears, but I don’t and can only recall laughing uproariously and being impressed at the astuteness of some of Miller’s insights.

Faced with the same task today, I suspect that even Miller, a happy-go-lucky sort if ever there was one, would have turned to the rope, the razor or the revolver.

Consider, for example, the ‘markets’, whose volatility, petulance and capriciousness have governments shitting themselves in terror; the ‘markets’ to whom governments must turn to ‘borrow’ money to carry-on the business of government.

How is this ‘borrowing’ accomplished? Through the sale of government ‘bonds’, which are essentially I.O.U.s. The markets purchase these bonds and demand a sum of interest be paid on the bonds that the markets (via the medium of the credit-rating agencies) decide is commensurate with the degree of ‘risk’ involved in buying bonds from (i.e. lending money to) this or that sovereign government.

And here’s where things become so warped, so bizarre, so flat-out fucking insane that it makes my brain hurt to think about it.

How do the ‘markets’ (i.e the various banks and bond-dealers) pay for these bonds? As things stand (and have stood for the last 4 years), they use money, issued by governments, that they have ‘borrowed’ (in a process called, for some reason known only to God and Mammon, as ‘Quantitative Easing’) virtually interest-free…from governments.

Think about this.

The Government, who profess themselves to be in dire need of money, print money.

They then lend that money to banks and financial institutions at almost zero-interest.

The Government then announces that it will be holding a sale of government bonds.

The markets, guided by the ratings agencies, declare that the government’s finances are in a parlous state and the markets demand a higher return of interest on the bonds.

The government acquiesces and offers the markets a higher return on the bonds.

The markets then buy the government bonds, while at the same time announcing that the higher rate of interest being paid on the bonds is evidence that the government’s finances are in a precarious state; that lending to the government is increasingly risky and that the markets will require a higher return of interest if they are to buy the next tranche of bonds.

In a swift, swivel-eyed, howling-at-the-moon nutshell, I repeat: the government prints money; the government then lends that money to the markets at zero-interest; the markets then lend that money back to the government at increasingly high rates of interest.

Meanwhile, the markets are demanding that the government institute more ‘austerity measures’ because the government–you know…the government that printed the money and lent it to the markets so that the markets could lend it back to the government: that government–is a bad loan-risk.

Every time I try to process this lunatic scenario a little bit of my brain turns to tapioca and I have to begin again.

It’s official: the whole fucking world has fallen down a rabbit hole and has started having conversations with hookah-smoking giant caterpillars and talking playing-cards.

Time for poems about money or the lack thereof…again; and here’s an old one of mine…again:

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A La Carte

Money is tight and it’s going to get tighter;
cinch-up your belt and get set for the storm.
Your pockets are light and they’re going to get lighter;
our passions are cold and our soup is luke-warm.

Bodies are stacked in the street like cut fire-wood;
burn them for fuel when they’ve dried out enough.
The parks are all deserts where trees had once stood:
denuded entire of all burnable stuff.

Eat all the rich and the fat and your pets:
we’d eat humble pie but the pies are long gone;
stone-soup and dream bread are as good as it gets;
we ate all the frogs: now there’s none left to spawn.

I’ve eaten the kids and the wife was a treat;
the postman was quick, but not near quick as me;
I’d eat my own leg if it had any meat:
Oh, for a fat politician or three.

Seasonal Procrastination Post

December 11, 2011

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Dream Song 122: He published his girl’s bottom in staid pages

He published his girl’s bottom in staid pages
of an old weekly. Where will next his rages
ridiculous Henry land?
Tranquil & chaste, de-hammocked, he descended—
upon which note the fable should have ended—
towards the ground, and

while fable wound itself upon him thick
and coats upon his tongue formed, white, terrific:
he stretched out still.
Assembled bands to do obsequious music
at hopeless noon. He bayed before he obeyed,
doing at last their will.

This seemed perhaps one of the best of dogs
during his barking. Many thronged & lapped
at his delicious stone.
Cats to a distance kept—one of their own—
having in mind that down he lay & napped
in the realm of whiskers & fogs.

John Berryman (1914 – 1972)

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I suppose we could have some seasonal poems, if you’ve any inclination to versifying…here are a couple of my oldies:

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There Is A Sanity Clause

I like having a tree;
its significance (for me)
is far from the rites
of bear-skin berserkers
and cold forest nights;
but the bedouin dream:
growing things; green.

I enjoy the children’s hints
and oh-so-casual asides:
isn’t the new Powerbook nice?
I pretend I’m distracted
and become absorbed
in something at the end of my leg;
Is that a foot? Good Lord:
How interesting.
They see through my fraud.

I like the smells, the sounds, the tastes;
pine needles, brandy and burning log;
excited children, a sense of place;
purring cat and fat warm dog;
and I like lying in bed later on
as my wife, that fine and rare jewel,
gently strokes my face and looks fond
and says ‘You’re not so bad for a fool.’

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…and now, for a more typical School of Pepper effort:

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The Night Before Christmas In Bethlehem Hospital

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T’was the night before Christmas when all through the wards,
not an inmate was sleeping, not Mowbray, not Swords,
and Henry Lloyd Moon hung himself from the tree,
while one far-gone loon wailed that Poland was free.

In the doctor’s lounge shivered Rumens and Mills,
gargling vodka and inhaling pills:
It’s freezing and frankly this whole thing’s a bummer;
couldn’t the bugger have been born in the summer
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Come Fly With Me

November 19, 2011

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I watched the first 5 or 6 episodes of the new US TV drama Pan Am but gave up on it because, frankly: it’s absolute crap. Glossy soap-opera for easy-to-please nostalgics and the credulous young.

This sort of infantile, trolly-dolly romance was being written in the 40s, 50s and 60s —Shirley Flight: Air Hostess was the British version; Vicki Barr: Flight Stewardess, the American– and the genre hasn’t improved with age.

The premise of the series is that the 60s were the ‘golden age’ of air travel but this is arrant nonsense. If anything, the 60s were the end of a golden age of air travel–at least, to anyone who values the civilised pleasures of comfort, good food, legroom and headroom. Although, to be fair, the 60s trolly-dollys did look rather good, in that primped and coiffed, girdle-strangled, sheer-stockinged way that they had.

The truth is, the 1960s weren’t even the ‘golden age’ of Pan Am; that was the 1930s and 40s, when Pan Am had its ‘Clipper’ service of flying boats:

While Pan Am’s flying boats generally came to be known as Clippers, the planes, themselves, were actually comprised of three different models: the Sikorsky S-42, the Martin M-130, and the Boeing 314. Luxury was the common theme to all three planes. In the 1930s, Pan Am founder Juan Trippe believed in providing his customers an extravagant travelling experience, one which rivalled the comforts of a grand luxury ocean liner. Passengers enjoyed the finest food, drink and amenities while traversing the seas.

The largest of Pan Am’s flying boats was the Boeing 314, which entered service in 1939. Not until 30 years later with the arrival of the 747 would a commercial plane surpass the 314 in size. It could carry up to 74 passengers during day flights while offering sleeping accommodations for up to 36 passengers. Unlike today’s commercial planes, the 314 – as well as the other Clippers – were divided into several luxurious cabin compartments including a stateroom, dressing rooms, and men’s and women’s restrooms. The 314 featured a separate dining room where passengers were served full-course meals. — pbs.org

But to see really luxurious air-travel –room, comfort and service to match an ocean liner– you have to go back a little further, to the age of the airship. Have a look at these photos of the interior of the Hindenburg: now, call to mind your last flight. Depressing, isn’t it?

I took my first flight in 1958, on a BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Vickers Viscount: it had propellers. I remember being excited as a 7 or 8 year-old, to fly on a BOAC Comet, the first jet-powered commercial airliner. I became blasé about flying at a very young age and only expressed mild interest when I first flew on BOAC’s latest jet marvel, the VC-10 with its rear-mounted quartet of engines. Jaded at the age of 12: mine has been a sad life.

Flying from Boston, Mass. to Beirut, on my way back to school, I had the Pan Am stewardesses in stitches at my urbane 15 year-old ways. Asked if I wanted a drink, I’d place an unfiltered Lucky Strike between my lips, raise a quizzical eyebrow the way I’d seen Cary Grant do it in the movies, and ask for a highball: then I’d set fire to my nose. After they’d stopped laughing, they’d ask me if I was serious: I was.

“Rye whisky and ginger-ale”, I’d explain; a friend of mine, the son of a prominent Boston restaurateur, had introduced them to me over the summer and I thought they were the height of sophistication. Previously, what we’d drank had been the most gag-inducing combination of spirits that we’d stolen from our parents’ drinks-cabinets and mixed together: vile stuff but it got you drunk. In a way, the highball was a step into young adulthood.

The stewardesses would all come over to gaze at this modern marvel–the boy who smokes and drinks–and they spent more time with me than was entirely proper. In truth, they weren’t much older than me and compared to fat, drunken businessmen grabbing their bottoms, I must have been quite refreshing: I wasn’t a ‘grabber’, I had nice manners and I listened to the same music that they did.

But it wasn’t a ‘golden age’. I missed that. I fly as little as I can now: I much prefer trains–more civilised. There’s been talk for the last few years of bringing back the airship. I hope they do. In the meantime, let’s have poems on air travel. Up, up and away…

Little Big Man

November 9, 2011

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Thinking about Billy’s poem on Poem of The Week and trying to analyze just what it was about it that so signally failed to move me, I started thinking about childhood.

It make not seem like a natural progression but I was wondering what part or parts of me responded so strongly, so unequivocally to poems like Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo or Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman; to Lear’s The Akond of Swat and Eliot’s Macavity The Mystery Cat.

If you’d asked the 8 or 9 year-old me why I loved Noyes’ The Highwayman, I suppose I might have said: ‘because it’s a good story’; but I imagine that’s all I could have told you. Because the truth was, I didn’t know. My response to the poem was visceral and had nothing to do with reason or analysis. I loved it because I loved it.

I think that my responses, to this day, are more visceral than I care to admit. After all, I’m a grown-up and my responses should be those of a grown-up, at least that appears to be the consensus. So I’ve learned to rationalise with the best of them, as though there’s something shameful about instinct or gut-feeling.

Having reached a man’s estate, I can explain at great and tedious length why I love (or detest) a poem or a song. I can even be fairly plausible. But I suspect that behind the glib verbiage is the old visceral response. I love it (or hate it) because I love it (or hate it). The covert child’s response still underlies the overt response.

And maybe, just maybe the child’s response is more trustworthy, more truthful, more genuine than the ‘considered’ response. After the child’s response comes only artifice. However, one cannot, without appearing a fool or a philistine, simply say ‘I don’t like this poem because I don’t like it’.

But that is the reason that Billy’s poem does nothing for me. I can try, and did try, to explain my reaction in mature, adult terms but any such explanation is doomed to failure because it is post hoc rationalisation of a response that I can’t baldly state without appearing, well…childish.

Anyway…

It’s time we got back to writing verse. I’m getting slack. Partly, it’s been the absence of our old friend and frequent inspiration, Mowbray. Partly it’s because I’m a lazy bastard. Well, no more.

Let’s have childhood poems, please. About your own childhood; someone else’s; an imagined childhood or one you read about. Possibly even your (or should that be ‘my’) never-ending childhood. No matter. Hurry…you’re already late for classes and you’ll get no sick-note from me.

Here’s an old one of mine:

The Boy In The Bunker

I enjoy kicking my way through drifts
of dry and dead leaves, memory shifts:
I’m a small boy again, leaving a wake
that rustles noisily, brown and dry,
under a damp leaden November sky.

I still look at trees and think:
Is that a good climbing tree?
The qualities I see are a link
with the boy; with the animal joy
of feeling my gibbon ancestors.

I still look at hill-tops and woods
and weigh their merits as robber dens;
I kept thinking, on a visit to the Fens,
a fellow could hide out here for good:
It makes absolutely perfect sense
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I still look at tunnels and wonder:
where does that lead? If I need
an escape route, will that do?

I can’t see a derelict house without
imagining long-lost treasure hoards:
gold coins beneath the floor-boards.

The boy never really grew up nor
went away; he’s still there today,
regarding me with a mocking eye,
scorning pretension, guarding the door
that opens on dismal, on false, on grey;
quick to say: hate this, hate that; dunno why.
All I can tell you: I know it’s a lie
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Joseph William Frazier: Bloodied But Unbowed

November 8, 2011

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It’s a pointless speculation, but it might be interesting to wonder just where Joe Frazier would be today without those little run-ins with Muhammad Ali. Well, he’d probably be alive, for one thing. That’s a good theory for starters.

Word came Monday that Frazier died of liver cancer at 67. Maybe that would have overtaken him in any event. But anybody who saw any of those three fights, particularly the two horrifying bookends of their heroic trilogy, would not be insulting medical opinion if he guessed Ali somehow had a hand in Frazier’s ultimate mortality.

Those two fights, especially their first meeting in the Garden 40 years ago, and even more especially 1975’s Thrilla in Manila, the fight that essentially ended their careers, were such violent affairs, such protracted examples of desperation, that any seasons lived beyond them have to be considered a kind of boxing gravy.

They were not heavyweight title fights so much as near-death experiences, a brutally choreographed and lightly regulated self-destruction, their pride and ambition so inflamed that survival was no longer part of either fighter’s plan.

It was bad, bad. Frazier won the first fight and spent three weeks in the hospital. Ali won the last and spent most of the rest of his life locked behind the mask of Parkinson’s, shut up for good. Collateral damage is an insufficient descriptor.

Forever after, those run-ins became a catchphrase for an exaggerated style of competition, for when athletic urgency just went a little too far, got out of hand, produced something both awful and wonderful, created injury disproportionate to any possible rewards. We hear it to this day: It was good, but it was no Ali-Frazier.

Whether or not he’d still be alive without Ali, it’s probably more of a certainty that he’d have been happy. The two had begun as friends, Frazier something more than a place-holder while Ali endured a political exile smack dab in the middle of his prime.

Frazier, the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, had easily captured the heavyweight title in Ali’s absence, his relentless style a slightly reconsidered version of a threshing machine. It was not at all obvious that Ali, even if he were reinstated, could cope with this new and improved whirly-gig. Frazier was not called Smokin’ Joe for nothing.

That the fight did happen was more a result of Frazier’s respect for Ali, the champion willing to forgo a bigger split to help a guy out. Frazier had befriended Ali on several occasions, throwing timely lifelines, notably petitioning President Nixon to reinstate the former champ, but this one was the most important. And Ali was not unappreciative, the two of them more like brothers than rivals during Ali’s suspension from boxing.

Yet when it came time for the fight, Ali went off the promotional rails and began marketing the bout — in 1971 after all — as a cultural and political referendum. Ali would be the revolutionary, the man of the times; Frazier would be the Uncle Tom, a sociological and perhaps athletic throwback. Frazier was stunned, aggrieved, hurt.

Perhaps the fury of that fight was heightened by the back story, though most likely it was simply what happened whenever you put these two guys in the same ring. But it opened a wound in Frazier that never healed.

When they met again in 1975, the intervening years not kind to either man (Frazier lost his title to George Foreman, Ali gaining no purchase on history either, and their second meeting so insufficient to memories of the first that it is rarely remembered), it was Ali who again resorted to a campaign of ugliness, his famous teasing gone unforgivably bad, his foe now devolved from Uncle Tom into the Gorilla in Manila.

The pain of those taunts outlasted even Frazier’s disappointment in the result, 14 rounds of sheer recklessness, first Ali’s fight, then Frazier’s, then miraculously Ali’s again. Ali later said it was the “closest thing to dying I know of.” It was a question of who would quit first, and the answer was neither; Frazier’s corner had to cut his gloves off before the final round, surely a lifesaving event. Yet it was probably Ali’s mockery that kept Frazier awake so many nights later.

That fight was pretty much the end of their careers (Frazier lost once more to Foreman then gave it up; Ali stuck it out several more years, though never again as brilliant or determined), and Frazier was left to a life of resentment.

He never got over the losses, the insults, the legacy that was left him. Ali became a world hero, lighting Olympic flames, an example of political courage the rest of his mute life. Frazier, a bitter, old warrior, instead had to consider the inadequacies of grit in a time that was more inclined to reward glamour.

What would we think of Frazier, without those run-ins? As it is, he ranks among the top 10 heavyweights of all time, his remorseless attack usually punctuated by one of history’s greatest left hooks, properly celebrated in boxing’s Hall of Fame. His record of 32-4 would have been improved by Ali’s nonexistence for sure, and without those losses might have been able to coast a bit further on the championship franchise.

He made money and was famous, but more is always better. And maybe, had Ali not been allowed to dictate the ridiculous terms of their debate, he could have represented his race and his generation (which, after all, were exactly Ali’s) to greater appreciation. Why couldn’t Joe Frazier be the young black hero the counterculture wanted?

Pointless speculation. This is how it turned out, Frazier both ruined and elevated by Ali, marinating in his bitterness all those years later. He dabbled in music, dabbled in training (most disastrously with the failed career of his son Marvis), dabbled in character reconstruction. To no great effect.

It’s too bad. Frazier forever confused defeat with disgrace, as if he wasn’t as ennobled in Manila as in Madison Square Garden. Well, that is how we usually keep score. But not many who saw those fights, such demonstrations of human determination that even today we wince at their extremes, would make the same mistake. — Richard Hoffer, Sports Illustrated, today

Early Winter Procrastination

November 3, 2011

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Aspects Of Robinson

Robinson at cards at the Algonquin; a thin
Blue light comes down once more outside the blinds.
Gray men in overcoats are ghosts blown past the door.
The taxis streak the avenues with yellow, orange, and red.
This is Grand Central, Mr. Robinson.

Robinson on a roof above the Heights; the boats
Mourn like the lost. Water is slate, far down.
Through sounds of ice cubes dropped in glass, an osteopath,
Dressed for the links, describes an old Intourist tour.
—Here’s where old Gibbons jumped from, Robinson.

Robinson walking in the Park, admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times. Robinson
Saying, “Hello. Yes, this is Robinson. Sunday
At five? I’d love to. Pretty well. And you?”
Robinson alone at Longchamps, staring at the wall.

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs. Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminal? Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch-grain shoes,
Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down,
The jeweled and silent watch that winds itself, the brief-
Case, covert topcoat, clothes for spring, all covering
His sad and usual heart, dry as a winter leaf.

Weldon Kees (1914 – 1955)