January 23, 2009, 11:45 pm
Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has drawn generally negative reviews (though the Facebook fan club has attracted 500-some members). My feelings about it are mixed — but reading the discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place here and here I felt torn, defensive, even protective. So many readers seem to be beating up on Alexander almost personally, rather than trying to read the poems well. (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs my defense (being not only a grownup but a lit professor), but I still want to try to draw out the virtues of the poem, to show it’s worth not scorning.
To begin with, I’ll acknowledge that the poem was written for the eye. The verse is syllabic, composed in lines of about 10 syllables each…
November 30, 2008, 3:04 pm
On November 30th, 1899, at Sixteenth and Folsom Streets in San Francisco, Berkeley defeated Stanford 30-0 in the Big Game. The most famous trophy of the game was the Axe, which had been introduced in the baseball Big Game that spring. But with this victory, the second in a row for Cal football, Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco also awarded Berkeley a finer and more substantial trophy, a lifesize bronze statue called “The Football Players”, which stands today in a grove toward the west side of campus, on the way up into the university from downtown Berkeley.
Douglas Tilden was born in 1860, and attended the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley. He went to New York and then to Paris for further studies. He finished “The Football Players” at the end of seven years in Paris — note that, apart from being French, the players are dressed for rugby rather than American football. He …
November 9, 2008, 1:10 am
On November 9, 1965, a crew from Bekins Moving Company arrived at 2322 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. In an apartment on the second floor, they cautiously unmounted an enormous painting — eight feet by eleven and weighing literally a ton — lowered it to the floor and packed it into a wooden crate. A carpenter cut out a window and part of the façade; the movers gently slid the painting out this slot onto the platform of a crane, then lowered it to the sidewalk and into the truck. The artist hovered, nervously smoking, clowning for a friend’s camera as her life’s work, unmanageable and well-nigh uncontainable, was shipped away.
Jay DeFeo was born in 1929, in Hanover, New Hampshire. She grew up in the Bay Area, and studied art at Berkeley, earning her MFA in 1951. After a year in Europe, she returned to Berkeley; in 1954, she married the painter Wally Hedrick, and they moved to San…
October 20, 2008, 10:12 pm
Would it surprise you to learn that in rural Wisconsin, at the end of the 19th century, there was poverty, failure, vandalism, arson, domestic violence, disease, depression, alcoholism, insanity, suicide, and murder? Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973, reissued 2000) is built on the assumption that it will. The book consists largely of clippings from the Badger State Banner, of Black River Falls, Jackson County, WI, and images by Charles Van Schaick, a local commercial photographer. After some 200 pages of grim citation, Lesy steps in to comment directly:
Pause now. Draw back from it. There will be time again to experience and remember. For a minute, wait, and then set your mind to consider a different set of circumstances….
The book certainly made a strong impression on me when I saw it as a boy. Reading it now, I have to wonder what the fuss was. The people in the pictures…
October 7, 2008, 10:25 pm
On Oct. 7, 1955, the Six Gallery in San Francisco presented a reading by five well-known poets of the local scene (including poems by a sixth). Allen Ginsberg went on second to last, reading his new, unpublished poem Howl. The response was so strong — chants of “Go, go, go”, led by Jack Kerouac from the audience — that Kenneth Rexroth, the “M. C.”, called a break before the last reading, Gary Snyder doing “Berry Feast”. Afterward, elated, the crowd moved out for Chinese food.
It’s the signal event of the Beat moment in poetry — and yet it’s doubly exceptional. The poem is unique in Ginsberg’s oeuvre, to begin with. He wrote other good things (mostly during the same year or so), but nothing, not even Kaddish, is at the same level. Within a few years, he had moved on to the “King of the May” phase of his career, best captured, I think, in Jane Kramer’s book — a benignly inclusive…
October 6, 2008, 12:10 am
You’re probably already reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog: but if you aren’t, you should be. And if you haven’t read his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, you must.
Most of the reviews I’ve seen have outlined Coates’s remarkable story. But what strikes me most is his voice. I have about as little exposure to the language of black America as is possible for an American. At points in the book, the unfamiliar slang knots up beyond my guessing. And obviously I have no way to know how close it is to the world he’s remembering, West Baltimore in the 1980s and onward. Yet throughout I hear Coates’s ownership of this voice — his fusion of diverse vocabularies, registers, traditions into a personal creole, faithful to all its origins in pandering to none. A passage of direct narration (116-7):
Plus I was not alone. We would start off only five or six deep, trooping down Tioga, down Gwynne Falls,…
September 26, 2008, 12:26 am
America’s first composer died on this day in 1800. William Billings was born in 1746 in Boston, and lived there all his life. He was described as “somewhat deformed in person, blind in one eye, one leg shorter than the other, one arm somewhat withered.” He was a tanner by trade, and self-taught in music. In 1770, he published The New England Psalm-Singer, a collection of his own compositions. (Above is the frontispiece, by Paul Revere.) He would go on to publish five more such books; his music was widely reprinted; and he taught singing frequently. Yet this was not a living, and he spent the last decade of his life in penury. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Billings’ music is almost all four-part vocal harmony, the prevailing form of religious music in his day. It’s essentially diatonic, with little modulation or use of secondary dominants. The technique is crude in a…
September 21, 2008, 9:43 pm
The Modesto Kid has drawn my attention to a new blog, It Is Time For History. With his characteristic, er, modesty, he neglected to emphasize that he himself is a contributor (see here). The prevailing tone is sarcastic, unreliable, amusing. Plus: history!
September 15, 2008, 11:24 pm
The poet Jack Spicer is more blogged about than read, as you’ll read in practically every post about him. This will be no exception. I haven’t read him enough either: I’ve known him so far mainly as a focus of gossip. (A San Francisco poet I know once told me, as we marveled at the inanity of Billy Collins, that back in the day, Collins had been one of Spicer’s disciples in North Beach.) This week I’ve been reading Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian’s biography, Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan, 1998), which is a feast of anecdote. But there’s news, and I expect soon we’ll be hearing more about him again.
Spicer was born in Los Angeles in 1925. At UC Berkeley, he met Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, who would remain the poets closest to him. He studied for a few years in Minnesota, and then briefly worked in Boston, but he soon returned to the Bay Area to stay. He worked at Berkeley as a …
September 9, 2008, 10:51 pm
September 7, 2008, 10:36 pm
Of her tumultuous, nomadic life, Tina Modotti spent only eight years in the United States. She was born in Friuli, northern Italy, in 1896, and spent her earliest years in Austria. Her father emigrated to San Francisco, and in 1913 she followed him. She worked as a seamstress, but soon began acting, rising to stardom in the local Italian theater. In 1918, she married a bohemian aspiring artist named Roubaix de l’Abrie (“Robo”) Richey, and they moved to Los Angeles. They had some success in crafts (e.g. batik), and Modotti made some first steps in a film career, appearing most notably in The Tiger’s Coat (1920). But in the same period, she met Edward Weston, and they began an intense relationship, both a love affair and an apprenticeship, which turned her toward the work for which she is now remembered.
September 1, 2008, 7:05 pm
In the San Francisco Chronicle today, John King writes about New Deal public projects in the Bay Area. Gray Brechin has channeled his longtime interest in this history into the California’s Living New Deal Project, an index of public works by the WPA and other agencies across the state. Naturally there’s an interactive map, so you can drill down to your neighborhood. Out here on the foggy margins of San Francisco, for instance, there’s a golf course, two shooting ranges, and many features of our storied zoo. But other projects are more picturesque. I’ve mentioned one of our branch libraries here before, a beautiful example of the synthetic “Spanish” style. My favorite, though, for sentimental reasons and more, is the Rose Garden in Berkeley. On the bay side of Euclid Avenue in the hills, an amphitheater drops through ring on ring of rose-beds, focused at once on the…