Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson’

Old Books

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O'Day Ballet) ©2013 David Jouris : Motion Pictures

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O’Day Ballet) © 2013 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

I recently came upon an old book I inherited from my grandmother Goody, The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature published in 1939, a seventy-five-year-old book that has provided me with several days of enjoyable reading. Part of my enjoyment comes from frequently encountering words I have to look up in my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. But the larger part of my pleasure comes from the fascinating details to be found in the hundreds of miniature biographies of once-famous writers who are largely forgotten today.

In terms of my vocabulary, I have learned that a cottar is the equivalent of a sharecropper, a prebend is a stipend derived from a percentage of a church’s profits, a squib is a satirical jab, a suppostitious child is one fraudulently substituted to displace the real heir, and a pindaric is an ode in the manner of Pindar.

Of Pindar, this little old book says, “(c.522-442 B.C.) the great Greek lyric poet, acquired fame at an early age and was employed by many winners at the Games (Olympics) to celebrate their victories.”

I first came upon the word pindaric while reading the two-column biography of Jonathan Swift who was a cousin of Dryden, who also garners a two-column biography. Only Shakespeare warrants three columns, which means Swift and Dryden are thought to be among the most famous writers of all time, according to the editors of this edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature.

Also according to this dictionary, Dryden, upon reading one of Swift’s pindarics, remarked, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”

And the last line of Swift’s little biography states, “Nearly all his works were published anonymously, and for only one, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, did he receive any payment (£200).”

Famous writers making little money from their writing is a recurring theme in this dictionary, as is the fact that many noted writers from the 1600’s through the early 1900’s died insane. Syphilis, the cause of madness in most of those cases, is never mentioned in the dictionary, but the editors doubtless assume their readers know about the link between syphilis and insanity in the days before the advent of antibiotics.

Indeed, the editors make a number of assumptions about their readers, which assumptions in 1939 were probably sound. For instance, they assume anyone reading this volume will probably be fairly fluent in Latin and know most of the famous writers of the past three hundreds years by their last names. Scott is Sir Walter Scott, Arbuthnot is John Arbuthnot, Pope is Alexander Pope, and so on. Fortunately for the likes of me, if an author is referred to solely by his last name, he will have a biography in the good book and I can discover why he was so famous.

As one might expect of a book published in 1939 summarizing the history of English Literature, there are few women authors mentioned therein, though Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Anne Bronte, and Emily Bronte all garner tiny paragraphs, with George Eliot and Jane Austen winning half-columns, and Charlotte Bronte nearly a whole one.

Another delightful feature of the book is that for super famous authors—Dickens, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Melville, Thackeray etc.—in addition to their biographies, there are separate entries synopsizing of each of their most famous books, plays, and poems, as well as separate entries for important characters in those works.

What a different culture we had before the advent of television. In that sense, the 1939 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature is a fascinating time capsule from the end of an epoch in our cultural history when literature was of paramount importance and influence, and hundreds of great novels and plays and poems lived for hundreds of years as part of the contemporary cultural fabric.

Have you perchance heard of the book The Old Wives’ Tale? “…a novel by E. A. Bennett (1908) one of the greatest novels of modern times. It is the long chronicle of the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, daughters of a draper of Bursley, from their ardent girlhood, through disillusionment, to death. The drab life of the draper’s shop, its trivial incidents, are made interesting and important. Constance, a staid and sensible young woman, marries the insignificant Samuel Povey, the chief assistant in the shop, and spends all her life in Bursley. The more passionate and imaginative Sophia elopes with the fascinating Gerald Scales, an unprincipled blackguard, who carries her to Paris, where she is exposed to indignities, and finally deserts her. She struggles to success as a lodging-house keeper in Paris, where she lives though the siege of 1870. The sisters are reunited and spend their last years in Bursley.”

Never heard of E.A. Bennett, the author of this greatest of novels? “Bennett, (Enoch) Arnold (1867-1931), became a solicitor’s clerk in London and in 1893 assistant editor and subsequently editor of the periodical ‘Woman’. After 1900 he devoted himself exclusively to writing, theatre journalism being among his special interests. His fame as a novelist rests chiefly on ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ and the ‘Clayhanger’ series. ‘Clayhanger’ (1910) ‘Hilda Lessways’ (1911) ‘These Twain’ (1916). The ‘Five Towns’ which figure prominently in these works are Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Longton, centers of the pottery industry; and the features, often ugly and sordid of this background are skillfully woven into stories of lives which he presents dispassionately, with an infinite delight in significant detail. Among Bennett’s other best-known works are: ‘Riceyman Steps’, ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’, ‘Milestones’, and ‘The Matador of the Five Towns’ (short stories, 1912)”

Then there is John Knox (1505-72) who “…addressed epistles to his brethren in England suffering under the rule of Mary Tudor, and in Scotland under the regency of Mary of Lorraine. It was this situation which led to the publication of his ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ (1558), of which the title, Saintsbury remarks, was the best part.”

Saintsbury? “George Edward Bateman Saintsbury (1845-1933), a distinguished literary critic and historian…”

Brandon Crawford

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit

By the Imagination.” Emily Dickinson

While following a seemingly insignificant line of thought I will suddenly find myself on a broad avenue of inquiry that becomes the on-ramp to a sixteen-lane super highway of conjecture leading to an imposing citadel wherein is housed the solution to all the problems of humankind. Wow. Talk about grandiose. But isn’t that how our minds sometimes work, leaping from the insignificant to a grand unified theory of everything?

For instance, my recent musings about Brandon Crawford merged onto the super highway of an idea that all the problems of human society can be traced to a lack of imagination, to the inability of people to imagine new ways of proceeding rather than repeating the same old nonsense that dooms us all to slide down the steep and slippery slopes to a most unpleasant bottom of the dysfunctional pyramidal paradigm.

Who is Brandon Crawford? A descendant of English royalty? An up-and-coming politico? A movie star? Nay. Brandon Crawford is a baseball player, an easy-going California guy, a wide-ranging and quietly brilliant shortstop for the San Francisco Giants recently sent back to the minor leagues where, because of the aforementioned lack of imagination by people in positions of power, he definitely does not, in the way I imagine things, belong.

When Brandon was called up from the minor leagues a month or so ago, the Giants were reeling from injuries to star players and mired in a debilitating ennui that threatened to send our team spiraling out of contention for a return to the World Series. Desperation, not imagination, inspired General Manager Brian Sabean and Manager Bruce Bochy to call up the young Brandon, and the results were miraculous. The moribund team came to life, moved into first place, and steadily won more games than they lost. Brandon Crawford, as far as my imagination is concerned, was the catalyst for this revival, and his removal from the starting lineup and eventual demotion to the minor leagues was the cause of the team’s recent collapse. Crawford’s individual statistics may not support my view, but baseball is a team sport, synergy ineffable, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

“The status quo sucks.” George Carlin

Few of the people in power in the Giants organization, and terribly few people in power in our local, state, and national governments, and almost no one in power in the movie business and publishing industry, in energy production and transportation and environmental protection, in education and agriculture and healthcare and foreign policy seems capable of understanding what is blatantly obvious to you and me and millions of moderately intelligent people. Why is this? Could it be that the people in power have little or no imagination?

Assuming that’s true, how did such unimaginative people get into positions of power over so many people with more imagination than they? And the answer is: unimaginative people select other unimaginative people to work for them and succeed them, while actively discriminating against people with original ideas and less conventional ways of doing things. Thus the status quo is forever protecting itself unto decrepitude and terminal ossification. Yes, you agree, but how did those unimaginative poop heads get into power in the first place, from which positioning they continue to perpetrate such stultifying stupidity? Good question.

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Mark Twain

Assuming not every election is rigged (and maybe that’s an unwise assumption), we, the people, elected the amoral dingbats now actively destroying our world, and we’ve been electing them and re-electing them for hundreds of years. Why do we vote for these unimaginative people? Why do we continue to buy unimaginative books and go to unimaginative movies and watch unimaginative television? I think we do these things because we fear our imaginations, which we were taught to fear. I would even say we are a culture that punishes children whenever their imaginations get the best of them and lead them into uncharted territories where their timid elders fear to follow. But why are the elders so afraid?

Because imagination is unpredictable and potentially disruptive of what we are used to; and what we are used to, for most adults, is apparently preferable to the unknown, probably because we’ve also been taught to fear the unknown. I, for instance, spent a large part of my previous life staying in disastrous relationships long after I should have jumped ship, so to speak, because though I could imagine myriad preferable alternatives to my rotten imbroglios, I was frozen by the fear that the fruits of my imagination would never ripen and I would fall into a bottomless pit of loneliness or even lousier relationships.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo

Hold everything. My imagination just did a loop-dee-loop and deposited me at the foot of a monument whereupon is engraved the command: Teach them to fear the unknown. Is this the imperative underpinning what I first imagined to be an imagination deficiency? Would it be more accurate to say that our fear of what we might imagine, rather than a lack of imagination, has brought humanity to the brink, and in some parts of the world, over the brink of disaster?

Buckminster Fuller, who imagined and then created the geodesic dome, convinced me through his highly imaginative writing that the largest impediment to humans making the world an environmentally zaftig and robust utopia is our misguided collective imagination. And just who has been misguiding our collective right brain? Clever, greedy, left-brain-dominated people who won’t allow themselves to imagine that spaceship earth was designed by an impeccably imaginative universe to provide plenty of food and comfort and fun for everyone onboard.

According to Bucky, humanity is choking to death on the ancient fish bone of the idea (the imagining) that life on earth is all about scarcity, when, in fact, with a modicum of creative re-imagining, we can open the non-existent doors to our illusory cages, step out onto the lush playing field, play shortstop, bat second, and be paid handsomely to do so.

“Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.” Bob Lemon

Which brings us back to Brandon Crawford. Four days ago, having failed to win a game in five tries since Brandon’s exile to the lesser leagues, our Giants exploded for eight runs (the most this year at home) and our pitcher Brian Vogelsang continued his inexplicable, unpredicted, and hard-to-imagine (except for those of us with sufficient imagination) dominance and allowed but one run. Put another way: we finally won a game without Brandon Crawford. However, since that solitary win, we have played our archenemy the Philadelphia Phillies twice and had our butts handed to us on paper plates. That is to say: they beat us with ease.

So now our challenge is to imagine that despite the shortsightedness and lack of imagination by those in managerial positions, the collective imagination of millions of Giants fans will synergize to produce a shift in team consciousness and we will start winning again, defeat the mighty Phillies in the National League playoffs, and return to the World Series against who else but the New York Yankees.

My current dilemma is that I keep imagining dire scenarios involving multiple injuries to perfectly nice players necessitating Brandon Crawford being called back up to the mother team, and his return sparking a renaissance. But that’s old paradigm stuff. Hollywood hogwash. Violence-based winner-loser crap. Why not imagine multiple emotional and spiritual epiphanies overtaking our stars and journeymen alike, epiphanies leading to a harmony of energies that makes of the entire team one gigantic Brandon Crawford, only with a good batting average?

If I can imagine such a transformation of a silly old baseball team, surely we can put our psyches together and imagine millions of obscenely rich people sharing their wealth with everyone else in heretofore unimagined and totally groovy ways, so that war and weaponry and mountaintop removal quickly become things of the past and we are set free to imagine the infinite potential of what Bucky dubbed livingry.

Dead Airplane Kerouac Caen

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2011)

“The past is never dead, it is not even past.” William Faulkner

When my wife and I joined forces four years ago, she came equipped with the nicely aged Toyota pickup I’d always wanted and I came with a Toyota station wagon ideal for toting cellos, so we swapped. The station wagon was subsequently crushed by a falling pine and replaced by a more commodious sedan, but the pickup lives on and I love the old thing.

Marcia bought the truck from the person who bought the truck new, Jim Young, our superlative chiropractor and friend and coach of the Mendocino High School (boys) basketball team. Now and then when I am under Jim’s thumbs, as it were, he will inquire about his former truck and I am happy to report the old thing is humming right along and still getting admirable mileage in this age of fast-rising fuel costs.

The pickup is faded white, eighteen years old, with the requisite rust spots and windows that must be manually cranked up and down. Otherwise non-descript, the truck sports a subtle ornament that Jim affixed to the rear window, an insignia identifying the vehicle as a chariot of the Dead, the Grateful Dead, the band, not my ancestors. I had no idea these five nearly identical dancing bears—blue green yellow orange pink—had anything to do with the Grateful Dead until shortly after I took the helm and picked up a hitchhiker on my way to Fort Bragg, his first words to me, “Love those bears, man. Long live Jerry Garcia.”

Over these ensuing four years, I have been treated to salutes, knowing smiles, waves, words of comradery, and a Pass The Joint victory signal on the order of once a month as a result of Jim affixing those dancing bears to the truck’s window. There seems to be some debate among Deadheads as to whether the bears are dancing in the manner of a famed fan named Owsley tripping on LSD or whether the bears are marching. One Grateful Dead web site claims that a flipbook rendition of the bears proves conclusively that they are marching. In any case, a Gypsy woman winked at me yesterday as a consequence of those bears, and her wink sent me hurtling back to the bygone years of my youth when I and a few of my friends had the Grateful Dead, live, all to ourselves for hours on end.

I feel compelled to admit that I am not a Grateful Dead fan. Indeed, the only Dead tune I ever liked was Barefootin’ from their very first album, and the only words I think I remember from that song are See that girl, barefootin’ along, whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on. When I lived in Santa Cruz in the early 1970’s, I had a friend who was a drummer in a Grateful Dead cover band, if you can imagine such a thing, and after attending their third concert of astonishingly accurate, and, to me, horrifying imitations of their heroes, I have avoided listening to the Grateful Dead for lo these forty years. Yet I do love the Grateful Dead, for they were of the utmost importance to me in my teenage years and provided the soundtrack for a great awakening.

“Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask.” Sean O’Faolain

Ladera is a housing development a few miles from Stanford University that sprang up in the 1950’s and was home to professors and doctors and stock brokers and dentists and school teachers, mostly white people with a sprinkle of Chinese and Japanese families, and a few serious artists who liked living close to San Francisco in a rural setting not far from beaches with such beautiful names as San Gregorio, Pomponio, and Pescadero.

Ladera had an elementary school that sent its graduates to junior high at La Entrada in Menlo Park, and from there to Woodside High, famous for being the first public high school in America to have a major pot bust in the early 1960’s, many of those busted being children of the first families of Ladera. And it was there in Ladera that the Grateful Dead, yes, Jerry’s band when the keyboard player was a gravel-voiced guy called Pig Pen, used to rehearse on weekends in the multi-purpose room at the elementary school; and I and a handful of my friends were admitted to that sanctum to dance to the music on a vast expanse of highly polished linoleum.

What I remember most vividly about those amazing afternoons are two superb conga players, each with multiple drums, and several men with long hair and mustaches playing guitars in front of stacks of amplifiers, Pig Pen hunched over his keyboard, the music all of a piece—a vast electric raga made of pulsing chords and hypnotic rhythms over which fantabulous guitar solos cried like phantasmagoric muezzins to which I danced and twirled and danced, my too too solid flesh melting and resolving into sweat and ecstasy, my body free of pain at last, and those persistent inner voices of doubt and shame drowned in the sonic deluge, my entire being steeped in glorious visions of life beyond the choking confines of suburbia and parental neuroses.

And I remember my anguish when I arrived at the multi-purpose room one sunny Saturday afternoon and found the entrance barred by a huge man who said the rehearsals were now closed to the likes of me, only invited guests allowed, my magical mystery tour at end. I waited around for my friends to show up, and watched indignantly as the bouncer admitted my most beautiful friends Mona and Cassie, and rebuffed all the boys and the less beautiful girls. But that big goon couldn’t take away the visions I’d had while dancing to those awesome ragas of the Dead; and I vowed to start my own band one day and blow the roof off the jail, so to speak, and set everybody free.

“Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” Denis Diderot

My father had a 1963 Karmann Ghia, red bottom, white top. Cute little long-nosed Italian body, a two-seater with a Volkswagen engine. Remember those? In 1966, gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon, the Karmann Ghia got about thirty miles to the gallon, and it was twenty-seven miles from Redwood City to San Francisco. Four teenagers could squeeze into that little car, one in the cramped back compartment, one sitting on the lap of the one sitting in the passenger seat, and one (me) driving. And that’s how we got to the Fillmore, that vast windowless rotting warehouse in a dangerous part of San Francisco on many a Saturday night to hear Quicksilver Messenger Service (with or without Dino Valenti) open for the Grateful Dead who then set the stage for the Jefferson Airplane, pre-Grace Slick.

I have had several musical heroes in my life, most of them jazz people, but I have only adored one band and that was the original Jefferson Airplane. I saw the Airplane perform with their first female vocalist Signe Anderson four times, and each time I saw them they were brilliant and fabulously musical. Then Signe split and I was devastated, the devastation of a jilted teen. And then Grace Slick came aboard and my misery deepened, for to my ears the magical synergy of my favorite band was gone, so I kissed the folk rock scene goodbye.

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted;

One need not be a house;

The brain has corridors surpassing

Material place.
”

Emily Dickinson

So here we are forty-five years later living in the wilds of Mendocino where through the auspices of unseen patrons the San Francisco Chronicle arrives on our driveway every Sunday morning. The Chronicle of today is largely unreadable junk and wire service propaganda, but I dutifully solve the Sunday Jumble words, skim the Sports section for news of the Giants, and thank those unseen ones for providing us with a week’s worth of fire starter.

And this morning, while I was getting the fire going, a headline in last week’s pink section caught my eye: Jefferson Airplane Mansion for sale. Upon closer examination, I found this headline to be the lead item of a section entitled Wayback Machine, the headline referring to something that happened twenty-five years ago.

“February 4, 1986. The ‘Airplane House,’ a piece of San Francisco rock n’ roll history, is up for sale. The mansion overlooking Golden Gate Park that was once the home of the Jefferson Airplane, one of the pioneer psychedelic bands of the ‘60s, is on the market for $795,000. The three-story, Colonial Revival-style mansion on Fulton Street, with its distinctive Doric columns in front, has 17 rooms, stained-glass windows, silk wallpaper, rich mahogany woodwork, fireplaces on every level and lots of memories. ‘If the walls could talk,’ said Nadine Condon, publicist for Starship, the band that evolved from the original group. ‘We’ve had some great parties here,’ she said, climbing to the uppermost floor. ‘The joke used to be that the higher you got, the higher you got.’ In 1968, still flush from the Summer of Love a year earlier, band mates Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady and their manager Bill Thompson, bought the mansion for $70,000. When the mansion was built in 1904 by R.A. Vance, a lumber baron, the Golden Gate Park did not exist and sand dunes rolled uninterrupted to the ocean. The mansion survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. According to legend, the great tenor Enrico Caruso, a friend of Vance, fled from the Palace Hotel on the day of the quake and found refuge in the house. Most of the house is as it always was, but the second-floor kitchen is trimmed in orange and purple Day-Glo paint. ‘The last vestiges of hippiedom,’ Condon said.”

EARLY SPRING

The dog writes on the window

With his nose

Philip Whalen

So what should I find on the flip side of that pink page with the story of the Jefferson Airplane mansion but a Chronicle Classic reprint of Herb Caen’s column from October 22, 1969, entitled One thing after another, which includes the following:

“Poor, embittered Jack Kerouac, dead at 47, almost forgotten in the North Beach byways he frequented—and helped make famous—more than a decade ago. In his last years, he turned on the young people, sometimes viciously, and they in turn turned their backs on him. Yet a small literary niche will forever be his. ‘On the Road’ remains the finest chronicle of the Beatnik era.”

And in the same Caen column: “Steve Frye, a hippie-hating L.A. policeman, now has mixed emotions. Last Wed. night, driving through the rain in Big Sur, he had a flat tire, and the only people who stopped to help him were—two hippies. This so unraveled him that after he drove on he was suddenly seized with an uncontrollable urge to pick up a hippie hitchhiker. Which he did. There is hope for us all.”

See that girl, barefootin’ along,

Whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on.

There’s laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,

She’s a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street