Monday, December 14, 2020

Notes on Delmore Schwartz (Part 1)

The young Delmore Schwartz, probably sometime in the late 1930s. 

A couple years ago I became interested in the American poet Delmore Schwartz (December 8, 1913 - July 11, 1966) when I learned that two of his greatest passions in life were Finnegans Wake and major league baseball which struck me since those are probably my two favorite things in the universe. At the time I was working on my big compendium of notable figures who loved Finnegans Wake. The Brooklyn-born poet Delmore Schwartz was a Wake-head as devoted as anyone on that list---he was known to always keep a battered, heavily annotated copy of Finnegans Wake with him and he'd often pull it out and recite pages. His copies of the book would fall apart from overuse, he went through several. Peter Chrisp wrote a wonderful blog post going into detail about Delmore Schwartz's surviving copy of Finnegans Wake which is archived online by the Beinecke Library at Yale. There I discovered this historical nugget which blew my mind---biographer James Atlas notes that Delmore Schwartz would annotate his copy of Finnegans Wake while sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds watching his beloved New York Giants play baseball.

    That one anecdote really captivates me. Envisioning Delmore Schwartz, the self-proclaimed poet laureate of the Atlantic, sitting in the Polo Grounds, that legendary old ballpark in upper Manhattan, watching the Giants of the 1940s and 50s while jotting notes in his tattered copy of Finnegans Wake, conjuring that image brings me immense joy. It's a potent conjunction of really interesting and important things in my universe. Part of why I am writing this series of posts about Delmore Schwartz is as a way to process why this is so meaningful to me. 

    Delmore Schwartz is most well-known for his short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" which was published in 1937 when he was 24 years old. Vladimir Nabokov considered it among his half dozen favorite stories. The story first appeared in the Partisan Review and then was published as part of a collection of Delmore's work (entitled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities) that included poems, short stories, and a verse drama. That first book made him famous at a young age and while he never quite matched those heights again, he had a productive career as a poet, short story writer, literary critic, film critic, poetry editor, and literature professor. In 1959 he became the youngest person ever to be awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry for his collection of poems Summer Knowledge (which included poems from his entire career, thus the award was a sort of lifetime achievement recognition). 

    While I had some fascination with Delmore and his work, it wasn't until I read his biography Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet by James Atlas that I got really drawn in. I found his story to be very inspiring, fascinating, and sad. I was really moved by that book. He had a shitty childhood, at a young age he was often dragged into the middle of ugly quarrels between his parents. His father was having affairs and then ditched the family and died young. Delmore (and you'll notice it's the habit of anyone who writes about him to refer to him by his first name) was brought up by his mother who had her own set of issues. Once you learn these stories from his life then his writing takes on new significance because so much of what he wrote was autobiographical. The story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" is all about a dream where the main character watches a film of his parents' courtship in Coney Island and hollers at the screen trying to stop it. "New Year's Eve" was another story I enjoyed and it helps to know that the partygoers described were all real people in the Partisan Review crowd of NY intellectuals in the 1940s.  Another example, the verse drama "Shenandoah" is about a bris where a child was to be given the bizarre name Shenandoah and the child's uncle tries to intervene to protect the kid from a lifetime of abuse for his ridiculous name. Delmore wrote with a great sense of humor and this story plays out a little bit like the bris in Seinfeld---but it's based on his own life and the shock of family members when his mother bestowed on him the unusual name Delmore, which his uncle really did try to prevent. 

    Reading in the Atlas biography about how the older Delmore eventually descended into paranoid psychosis, lashed out at his friends, ended up in a straitjacket in Bellevue, and eventually suffered an untimely death in 1966 at age 52 alone in a seedy Times Square hotel, it was depressing and sad not least because it brought to mind a writer friend of mine who just recently died at a young age after lashing out at friends and spiraling downward. One thing that really struck me was how, even during the worst periods of his manic psychosis and alcoholism, Delmore still managed to hold down a job as a professor, was still surrounded by adoring young women competing for his affections, and he still made an enormous impact on those who met him. His friend Saul Bellow went on to write Humboldt's Gift in 1975 (which won him the Nobel Prize for literature) which was all about how much his beloved buddy Delmore had inspired him. Lou Reed, who studied under Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, knew the man during his crazy years yet was so deeply inspired by him that he wrote a poem "O Delmore how I miss you" and wrote a song about Delmore's ghost visiting him on his 1981 album Blue Mask.

    Since finishing the James Atlas biography I have been reading all of Delmore's published writings, plus his letters, journals, and the aforementioned fictionalized account by Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift. Again, this research has all taken place in the aftermath of me losing a friend who died in late October. That friend of mine actually published several novels, and as I've been reading about and contemplating Delmore Schwartz I've been dwelling on the fact that, even though we can read things written by the dead and hear recollections from their friends, there's no way to really experience what that person was truly like to be around. So while I'm grateful that there's so much extant material I can dig through to learn more about Delmore Schwartz, what will always be lacking is the ability to hear the man in conversation, his specialty, the forum in which he was always such a huge inspiration to everyone who encountered him. 

To illustrate my point, here is how Saul Bellow described his old friend in Humboldt's Gift:

Orpheus, the son of Greenhorn, turned up in Greenwich Village with his ballads. He loved literature and intellectual conversation and argument, loved the history of thought. A big gentle handsome boy he put together his own combination of symbolism and street language. Into this mixture went Yeats, Apollinaire, Lenin, Freud, Morris R. Cohen, Gertrude Stein, baseball statistics, and Hollywood gossip. He brought Coney Island into the Aegean and united Buffalo Bill with Rasputin. He was going to join together the Art Sacrament and the Industrial USA as equal powers. Born (as he insisted) on a subway platform at Columbus Circle, his mother going into labor on the IRT, he intended to be a divine artist, a man of visionary states and enchantments, Platonic possession. He got a Rationalistic, Naturalistic education at CCNY. This was not easily reconciled with the Orphic. But all his desires were contradictory. He wanted to be magically and cosmically expressive and articulate, able to say anything; he wanted also to be wise, philosophical, to find the common ground of poetry and science, to prove that the imagination was just as potent as machinery, to free and bless humankind. (p. 120)

*   *   *

Reading about Delmore Schwartz and reading his journals, it quickly becomes apparent that no matter what was going on in his life, no matter how manically depressed he may have been at times, he would reliably return to two distinct lifelong passions to provide relief: major league baseball and Finnegans Wake. These two things are what I want to focus on in this series of posts because they serve the same role in my own life. 

    This passage from Delmore Schwartz: The Life of An American Poet by James Atlas perfectly encapsulates Delmore Schwartz the baseball nut:

Delmore's eager accumulation of knowledge was by no means confined to literature. He had a mania for baseball, that "drama in which the national life performed itself," and acquired over the years a compendious store of statistics on the New York Giants, who rewarded his attentions by winning the pennant every year from 1921 ("My first year as a fan," he once noted) through 1924. The memory of that triumphant era never faded from his mind, and toward the end of his life he was still capable of dazzling an audience by recalling the Giants' lineup and batting averages of some forty years before. In a late notebook, he remembered the excitement that had overwhelmed him in 1927, when "suddenly, in the depths of melancholy, electrifying news transformed my entire attitude toward existence. The Giants had acquired Rogers Hornsby, the greatest hitter by far in the National League, from the St. Louis Cardinals." As a child, he would race to the newsstand on 181st Street for a glance at the standings, and he used to spend hours loitering in a radio store on Broadway to listen to some crucial game. Twenty years later, when Delmore was living at Yaddo, the writers' colony in Saratoga Springs, he stood in a field admiring "the immense winter sky, crowded with the stars in constellations, but desiring all the while to get to the World-Telegram and read of the winter baseball news."  (p. 17)

That last line is especially relatable right now because I've spent many nights lately looking at the stars in the winter sky while also pining for some Hot Stove baseball news. 

    While reading through the book Portrait of Delmore: Journals and Notes of Delmore Schwartz: 1939-1959 (edited by Elizabeth Pollet) there was a passage that stood out to me for its beautiful and vivid description of him attending a baseball game in the spring of 1942. It's short and compact but there's so much to take from it so I want to try to unpack it here.

April 19, 1942:

The calculated disarray of the garage region, the railroad yards, and the used-car lots. The painted lines of the bridge, the murals of the fences. 

    "Our country is now at war..." said the announcer over the public-address system. Directions for going away, and hiding under the grandstand or bleachers.

    Much feeling against Stengel and Paul Waner. The Giants scored three in the first. Mize hit the wall twice with doubles, thinking the first time that he had hit a homer. Melton argued with the umpire in the first, Witek looked pathetic, Tobin disgusted. Werber had a rooting section loudly against him.

    A purple-black curtain of cloud, like a quilt or like a great Assyrian army with chariots, was over the sky. The crowd was pleased that the Red Sox had defeated the Yankees.

    A strong wind blowing, much smoke, much soot from the railroad yards, the fragrancy of Pittsburgh. I admired the strength of the locomotive, the instruments (what are the names?), pistons, which drew up and down, and moved the wheels. So, too, a child might be given a toy railroad train, Industrialismus. (p. 56)

Now, when I first read this I thought it must be a description of him attending a game at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan to see his beloved Giants. Delmore was born in Brooklyn but he grew up in Washington Heights very close to Coogan's Bluff and the Polo Grounds. He attended many games at the Polo Grounds and he used to invite his fellow writers to come watch games with him. He once told his publisher James Laughlin, "It has been observed that anyone who has not seen me at the Polo Grounds has not seen me." (from Letters of Delmore Schwartz, p. 272)

    But when I looked up this game on Baseball-reference it turns out this actually took place in Boston (at a different defunct historical ballpark, the home of the old Boston Braves), which makes sense because Delmore was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and teaching at Harvard during this time. Here's the game he attended, the NY Giants visiting the Boston Braves:

 has the full play-by-play where you can see that Delmore indeed had the details correct. Let's go through it line by line:

The calculated disarray of the garage region, the railroad yards, and the used-car lots. The painted lines of the bridge, the murals of the fences. You can easily envision from this description what the surrounding area of the ballpark looked like. The murals on the fences were the big advertisements all over the outfield walls at Boston Braves Field as seen here

"Our country is now at war..." said the announcer over the public-address system. Directions for going away, and hiding under the grandstand or bleachers. This game took place just four months after the United States officially entered into World War II in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Pretty crazy to imagine they were already warning fans about being prepared for possible attacks and hiding under the grandstand. Big league baseball would soon be impacted when several players across the sport were drafted into military service, including the Giants' #4 and 5 hitters from this game, Johnny Mize and Willard Marshall.

Much feeling against Stengel and Paul Waner. I love this note. The kind of thing you don't see in a box score---the home crowd was really getting on Braves manager Casey Stengel and Paul Waner. Looking at the context it's easy to see why. Mind you, this was the early phase of Casey Stengel's career before he became an icon as manager of the championship dynasty Yankees in the 1950s. When Delmore was at Braves Field for this game, Stengel's stewardship of the Braves had led to three consecutive seasons of 7th-place finishes and they were on their way to a fourth consecutive 7th place finish. The hometown fans were also probably angry that the Braves had blown the previous day's game against the Giants when they gave up 3 runs in the 9th to lose 8-5. The other guy who the fans were apparently giving a hard time was future Hall of Fame outfielder Paul Waner, the team's best player who had taken an 0-for-4 in that previous day's loss and came into this game batting .188 (he fared no better in this game, going 0-for-4). 

The Giants scored three in the first. Mize hit the wall twice with doubles, thinking the first time that he had hit a homer.  Johnny Mize, another future Hall of Famer, had been traded to the Giants the previous December so this was one of his first games in a Giants uniform and he made a good impression. Mize mashed for the Giants in that 1942 season, finished fifth in MVP voting, and then got pulled into military service and went off to fight in World War II, missing the next three full seasons. 

Melton argued with the umpire in the first, Witek looked pathetic, Tobin disgusted. Werber had a rooting section loudly against him. Interesting that he notes Cliff Melton, the starting pitcher for the Giants that day, was arguing with the umpire in the first inning---maybe because he walked the first batter?---he didn't get into trouble in the 1st and ended up pitching a complete game for the win. The comment about Mickey Witek, the Giants second baseman, seems pretty harsh! Then you notice Witek went 0-for-4 and grounded into two double plays. The keen-eyed baseball evaluator Delmore was clearly picking up on something because Witek would go on to lead the major leagues in grounding into double plays that season. "Tobin disgusted"---that would be the Braves starting pitcher Jim Tobin who failed to make it out of the 1st inning. "Werber had a rooting section loudly against him"---this one is interesting to try to figure out. Werber was playing third base and leading off for the Giants, but he wasn't an impactful player and while he had a couple hits in the game he didn't do much else. My guess is these well-informed and cranky Boston fans remembered Werber when he played for the Boston Red Sox for four seasons during the 1930s.

A purple-black curtain of cloud, like a quilt or like a great Assyrian army with chariots, was over the sky. The crowd was pleased that the Red Sox had defeated the Yankees. This is the type of magnificent description you get when a gifted poet journals his experience at a baseball game. Also funny that he notes the crowd cheering when the out-of-town scoreboard showed the Boston Red Sox had defeated the Yankees in New York that day, 5-2. 

A strong wind blowing, much smoke, much soot from the railroad yards, the fragrancy of Pittsburgh. I admired the strength of the locomotive, the instruments (what are the names?), pistons, which drew up and down, and moved the wheels. So, too, a child might be given a toy railroad train, Industrialismus. Another set of fascinating first-person details. The Society of American Baseball Research website has a very informative article about the old Boston Braves Field (the Braves moved to Milwaukee before the 1953 season then bounced over to Atlanta in 1966) where they note the ballpark's close proximity to the Boston & Albany Railroad which eventually led to deterioration of the ballpark structure. You can see in the below picture (click to expand, see bottom right) how the rail yards were just beyond the left field fence. Delmore describes the experience of being there with such exactitude that you can smell the steel. Not bad for a brief entry in his journal.  

Boston Braves Field (from here)

Couple more notes about this game:

- This game featured no fewer than five future Hall of Famers: Mel Ott, Johnny Mize, Paul Waner, Ernie Lombardi, and Warren Spahn.

- Incredibly, this game actually featured the major league debut of the great lefty Warren Spahn. The 21-year-old entered the game in the 5th inning, retired both batters he faced, then was removed and only appeared in three more games the whole rest of the season (Casey Stengel got mad at him because he refused to throw at batters on purpose). Like Johnny Mize, Spahn enlisted in the military and spent the next three full seasons in military service. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Purple Heart. Upon his return in 1946 he went on to pitch for 20 full seasons in the major leagues, finishing his career as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. And the poet Delmore Schwartz just so happened to witness his big league debut at Boston Braves field on a random Sunday afternoon in April 1942. 

Read Part 2 here.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

RIP Dick Allen (1942-2020)

Dick Allen batting for the Chicago White Sox.
Playing for Chicago in 1972, he won the AL MVP Award.

One of the most dominant hitters in major league baseball history, Dick Allen, died earlier this week a day after he should have been elected into the Hall of Fame. It's sad and shameful that baseball's Hall of Fame committees didn't manage to vote him in before he died. Although he didn't have that long of a career, Dick Allen was a fearsome offensive force and put up huge numbers during the lowest-scoring years of modern baseball. He also did this while having to withstand the bitter racism and bigotry of 1960s Phillies fans who would pelt him with garbage so often that Allen wore his batting helmet in the field for protection and was even moved off third base into left field to keep him safe from the wrath of his team's home-field fans. 

I became interested in Dick Allen when I was a teenager devouring books about baseball history. He stood out as a fascinating figure, a name I'd never heard of before whose performance ranked him among the best baseball players ever. I wondered why he wasn't a household name like some of his contemporaries. The dude did nothing but mash. He won the Rookie of the Year award in 1964 with one of the best rookie seasons ever, when he led all of baseball in runs scored (125) and triples (13), while topping the National League in Total Bases (352). He kept putting up big numbers for the next decade, eventually winning the AL MVP with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 after he had demanded to be traded out of Philly and bounced around St. Louis and Los Angeles. His career Adjusted OPS+ of 156 ranks him right up there with guys like Willie Mays, Frank Thomas, Hank Aaron, and Joe DiMaggio as the best right-handed hitters ever. From 1964 to 1974 he essentially put up Mike Trout numbers, perennially hitting 30 homers with a .300 batting average and tons of walks---all of this during the worst era for hitters in modern baseball history. In what became known as the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, when the entire league saw scoring sink to Deadball Era levels, Dick Allen crushed 33 homers and put up an .872 OPS (the average OPS in the NL that year was .641---for comparison, the average OPS in the 2020 MLB season was .740). 

As a sensitive black man playing in the 1960s and 70s, nothing was ever made easy for him and sometimes in the midst of conflicts with management he didn't make things easy for himself. Sportswriters almost uniformly turned against him and crafted an image of him as a bad teammate. It would take decades to set the record straight. Former teammates Goose Gossage and Mike Schmidt have been especially vocal in speaking the truth about him. Despite being a popular player with fans, an MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and seven-time All-Star, he was portrayed as a pariah and even Bill James mischaracterized him as a selfish player. All of this contributed to him being left out of the Hall of Fame. Thankfully, the Phillies franchise finally commemorated him this past summer, retiring his number 15.  

To go back and read about why Dick Allen was considered such a controversial player---Bill James once wrote that he did more to keep his teams from winning than any player ever---you would think there must be a distinction in opinion between those who followed his career when he played and those who didn't. The stories of Dick Allen as a malcontent seem no worse than the stories about Manny Ramirez during his career as a controversial player. You would think if the negative affect of their bad behavior was that meaningful it would show up in the stats. How much better could Dick Allen have hit though? He wasn't a good defensive player (like Manny), but just looking at the production at the plate it's hard to see where he could've improved. Manny had more success in the postseason than Dick Allen but the latter would probably have appeared in the playoffs more with the expanded postseason format we've had the last 30 years. And both Manny and Dick Allen did nothing but rake year after year. If not for his steroid suspensions, Manny Ramirez would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. His career was shorter than Manny's, but Dick Allen should be a lock for the Hall of Fame, too.

Allen broke into the league with one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history in 1964 and had his best season in 1972 when he won the AL MVP with a monster season (37 homers, 113 RBI, with his .420 OBP and 1.023 OPS both leading the major leagues). He consistently mashed during a low-scoring era while playing in pitcher-friendly home ballparks, competing against some of the greatest players in the history of the game. From 1964 to 1974 he was the most dominant hitter in major league baseball and look at some of the guys he outranked by Adjusted OPS+ (via

Dick Allen   165 OPS+

Willie McCovey 161 OPS+

Hank Aaron 159 OPS+

Frank Robinson 159 OPS+

Mickey Mantle 156 OPS+

By the way, Manny Ramirez has a similar career OPS+ (154) as Dick Allen (156) but while Ramirez had a longer career he never had a 10-year stretch as dominant as Dick Allen was from 1964 to 1974. 

Sadly, the Hall of Fame has screwed him over just like they did with Cubs legend Ron Santo. The third baseman Santo for years had a strong case to be elected to the Hall but they never actually voted him in until shortly after he died. There's a good chance they will do the same now with Dick Allen (he fell one vote short in 2014). Several famous and beloved retired baseball players have passed away in this horrible year of 2020 (among them Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, and Jimmy Wynn) but losing Dick Allen when he was on the verge of finally getting elected into the Hall of Fame really stings. Baseball's Hall of Fame has gradually sacrificed any legitimacy or respectability it once had, with the stars of the 90s-00s era locked out because of performance enhancing drugs and guys like Dick Allen and Ron Santo seeing their lives end before they could get elected in. Meanwhile, inarguably far inferior players have been voted in recently, watering down the criteria for election to the Hall and just making the whole thing seem pointless and ridiculous.

If you'd like to read more about the life and career of Dick Allen, I direct you to some pieces written by authors with a much better understanding of this complicated saga: Steven Goldman at Baseball Prospectus and Jay Jaffe at Fangraphs wrote especially insightful pieces about the passing of Dick Allen this week. And this piece at Fangraphs by Shakeia Taylor from 2018 "Is Baseball Ready to Love Dick Allen?" was also helpful in learning more about the man Dick Allen was and what he dealt with. Also see Tyler Kepner's piece in the NY Times

During his MVP season with the White Sox in 1972 he appeared on this phenomenal Sports Illustrated cover:

Earlier this year, Brian Kenny on MLB Network broke down the statistical case for why Dick Allen deserved to be in the Hall of Fame:

Friday, November 27, 2020

New article in the James Joyce Quarterly on Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Front cover of JJQ volume 57.3-4. Cover art by David Nowlan.

I am excited to have a new piece that was published in the latest edition of the James Joyce Quarterly. This piece is a book review of the newest book from the legendary American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a fascinating and entertaining text called Little Boy: A Novel. The full article is behind a subscription wall, but you can read the first half of it here

Here's the opening paragraph: 

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned one hundred years old in 2019. To mark the occasion, he published Little Boy: A Novel, a compulsively readable feast for the mind stuffed into a breezy 192-page text. Though calling itself a novel, it is hardly fiction. The book reads more like a memoir written as an epic poem in a lyrical thought-stream prose style devoid of plot, bereft of punctuation, laced with literary criticism, and seared with socio-political commentary. It is a novel in the truest sense of the word: Ferlinghetti made something new.

If you're wondering why this review of Ferlinghetti's latest book was in the James Joyce Quarterly, it's because Little Boy is a sort of homage to Joyce. You can find Ferlinghetti quoting from Finnegans Wake and Ulysses from his earliest published works like A Coney Island of the Mind (1958). He continued to bring Joyce into his poetry for decades and Little Boy is a sort of culmination or capstone of Ferlinghetti's career, an epic poem in the form of a stream-of-consciousness in which he quotes and imitates Joyce frequently (among countless other literary allusions). Over at my "Finnegans, Wake!" blog I shared a post with a bunch of examples of Ferlinghetti alluding to Joyce throughout Little Boy: A Novel.

Besides the prominent Joycean element, the reason I wrote the review is because I absolutely loved Little Boy: A Novel. It has to be one of the best books I've ever read. Little Boy is both moving and laugh-out-loud funny, the language is incredibly rich and engrossing with sentences that go on for pages and build up momentum, mixing lyricism and mysticism with memoir, literary criticism with social commentary, the author's earliest memories and experiences with his observations on modern society while sitting inside a cafe in San Francisco. There are reflections on several famous literary figures Ferlinghetti was friends with like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, etc. Ferlinghetti has had a very rich century of existence---he commanded a sub chaser in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, he went to Nagasaki in 1945 after the atomic bomb dropped and was so horrified he became a staunch pacifist and activist for the rest of his life. In 1953 he founded City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and went on to publish Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems which led to him going to jail for obscenity charges. He's published dozens of books of poetry, novels, and plays and is also a talented painter.

In January I randomly picked up A Coney Island of the Mind from my bookshelf and started reading it. I had discovered the book back in 2018 on a trip to the Bay Area where the title had caught my eye as I perused the bookshelf of a friend I was visiting. Didn't know anything about it at the time, but having grown up in NYC and played hockey at Abe Stark Arena in Coney Island for many years, the title of that dog-eared slim volume intrigued me. So when I later visited City Lights bookstore on the same trip, I picked up a brand new copy of A Coney Island of the Mind. At the time I didn't know was Ferlinghetti's most famous book and that I was standing in Ferlinghetti's own bookstore purchasing it. Once I finally started reading it earlier this year, I got hooked immediately. 

For the next few months I read and re-read several books by Ferlinghetti, my favorite being the second volume of his epic poem on the history of America called Time of Useful Consciousness (published in 2012, the title is derived from an aeronautical term denoting the time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the brief time in which some life-saving action is possible). Then I picked up his newest book, Little Boy: A Novel (2019), and it just blew me away. While I haven't read every single one of Ferlinghetti's books yet, I have read most of them now and I can say with some certainty that Little Boy is his greatest work. A perfect distillation of all the knowledge and experience he's acquired over a century of existence neatly packed into a relatively short book. The structure is economical because there are no chapter breaks and after the first 15 pages or so there are even very few sentence breaks. The text becomes a rushing river of poetic prose. The language is full of informal dialects, street talk, puns, and idioms. Ferlinghetti is a (now) 101-year-old poet who has owned a bookstore for more than six decades so his knowledge of literature is virtually unsurpassed among those walking the earth. He's also an old New Yorker with a great sense of humor. This creates an irresistibly rich and entertaining gestalt that never seems to leave anything out. 

I enjoyed it so much that when I finished reading Little Boy: A Novel, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Then I finished it a second time and immediately read it again a third time. Reading books has been my main hobby for a while now and I can't recall having that kind of experience where I read one book cover-to-cover three times in a row. 

Trying to summarize why I love this book so much, I come up this: as a NY native, I relate to Ferlinghetti with all his memories of Yonkers where he was born (and where I played many hockey games at an outdoor rink where I once scored a hat trick); I relate to Ferlinghetti's obsession with Joyce, especially Finnegans Wake; the informal, playful language he uses makes him a joy to read; there's so much to learn from his literary allusions and stories; he also loves baseball and refers to it frequently in this book; Ferlinghetti views the world thru the eye of a mystic; with all of his experience, knowledge, and wisdom, he is exactly the person whose perspective I am hoping to learn from as he comments, in longwinded jeremiads, on our current political and environmental predicaments. 

The review I wrote for JJQ was restricted by a word count so I had to keep it short and here I am going on about this book and I've barely touched on its most moving element as a memoir. Besides all the cultural-political-social commentary and piles of literary allusions, the core of Little Boy is about the little boy Lawrence Ferlinghetti who had a difficult upbringing which impacted him the rest of his life. His father died shortly before he was born. His mother couldn't handle another child and ended up in a mental hospital so she gave the baby to her sister. Ferlinghetti was raised by his Aunt Emilie and learned to speak French. For a while they lived with a wealthy family who his aunt was working for until suddenly she just left with no explanation, never to be seen again, and young Lawrence grew up without any real family around. As the book carries on we get more insight into the imprint of his childhood in which he never received real love or affection.

There are so many passages in this book that I've starred, underlined, and annotated and I'm tempted to quote from it at length. As I describe in the JJQ review, the style of this book is totally unconventional. Sentences span several pages with no punctuation and he jumps from one thing to the next and back again. I will share a long section here from pgs 93-96 where you can get an idea of how this book works. Note: A big block of unbroken text ensues. Not always easy to follow, but always richly rewarding to read.  This selection begins immediately after Ferlinghetti quotes from an unusually profound Levi's advertisement he saw in San Francisco one recent summer: 

And who was that speaking if not Whitman or every common man on earth or elsewhere who else if not an American certainly not a European with all his baggage of centuries like Pasolini said when he came to New York in the 1960s and met the New Left rads and wrote that he envied these Americans who could act without first having to wade through thirty centuries of intellectual baggage like what would Heidegger do or what would Descartes do or what would Plato say or Plutarch or Herodotus or Gramsci or some other great looming intellect haunting their old Euro heads yeah you can imagine what with the European Communist parties tied up in knots and eventually destroying the student revolution or revelation of 1968 And what Tarquin said in his garden with the poppy blooms was understood by the son but not by the messenger and so today the messenger embodied now as the media spreads confusion and doubt as to any eternal verity as indeed so do the philosophers or other heavy-headed thinkers who spread doubt in every direction even as Socrates did So that so that today there is a veritable clearance sale of ideas strained through the semiliterate media which ends up giving us a kind of Gazpacho Expressionism or cut-up consciousness as in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch or in John Cage's cut-up of any classic text as he did Finnegans Wake annihilating the beautiful hushed talk of Irish washerwomen gossiping in the gloaming while doing their washing on a riverbank where field mice squawk and dusk falling and night descending into doubt and despair and fear and trembling O lord save us Blind in our courses we know not what we do or where we go O the semiconscious existential despair of not knowing who we are and the boy all his life looking for himself and where he came from Father lost Mother in a madhouse and he the little kid wandering around knowing nothing having been told nothing of where he came from and who was to tell him the little kid plunked down on earth somewhere alone like a stray cat or pup without a collar or name tag and how was he to find himself in this twirling world spinning to the music of the spheres which is the sound of Om in which all sound is absorbed in which all thought all feelings all senses are absorbed yes and Om the sound of living itself the great Om of all our breathing the voice of life the voice of our buried life the voice of the voice of the blood then coursing through us through even the penis that strange appendage a peninsula of sorts a third arm or leg that so imperiously asserts its authority and inopportunely rises up and inserts itself into affairs personal or worldly and then so arrogantly lets us down at critical moments at the very gates of paradise or Nirvana or hell and refuses all our incitements "of mind and hand" as some Frenchie philosophe said even as he let down his pants in the queen's chamber indeed indeed and we are left with the perpetual astonishment of man on earth when confronted with himself or his penis indeed what a piece of work is man and this his daybook his nightbook and I am not writing some kind of Notes from the Underground as if I had any idea where any underground is these days if I ever knew since I've always been off in my own burb in some suburb of consciousness dreaming away or otherwise goofing off or picking my nose in hopeless cellars with fellow travelers or their ilk imagining I'm going to change the world or something and so I'm just some kind of literary freak and my mind the constipated thought of the race all too shallow to be called nihilism while all the while all I want to do is walk around the earth cooking the Joy soup What else is there to do with the rest of eternity and would you tell me what it is we're all supposed to do on earth anyway I mean truly just sit right down and think of an answer to all that while there's still time just give me a concrete answer as to what humans are supposed to do with all our time what on earth that is are we just to sit around like blobs of perspiring protoplasm or like chimps in trees scratching our fleas or whatever I mean maybe in fact it's just dreaming that we're supposed to do after everyone is fed after all is said and done oh no that's just a big evasion of the basic burning question What I want to know is what in hell are we here on earth for anyway baby baby Am I your bedroom philosopher or Doctor of Alienation Am I a willing well-fed participant and protagonist in our consumer society a consumer-gatherer or a rebel antagonist revolutionary an enemy of the state or something in between neither fish nor fouling-piece Tell me tell me the night is young and you're so beautiful pardon me if I am overdutiful Babeee and that's what he was asking himself as he grew up into something new and strange at least in the eyes of some totally objective journalist sent down here to earth by some managing editor with a low tolerance for malarkey who wants the truth and nothing but the truth so let 'em have it tell us what is what and who we are and what we are doing down here anyway The top-dog editor wants to know the straight story and are you man enough to tell it or are you brain enough to tell it and are you man enough to say I love you man   (Little Boy: A Novel, pgs 93-96)

Monday, September 14, 2020

New article: "The Interstellar Corridors of Killah Priest's Rocket to Nebula"

My new album review was just published at Hip Hop Golden Age, the piece is called "The Interstellar Corridors of Killah Priest's Rocket to Nebula." Check it out HERE.

The Interstellar Corridors of Killah Priest's Rocket to Nebula

"Welcome to the Nebula, where the impossible is regular"

Killah Priest has been among my favorite artists for over 20 years now and, as I talk about at length in the review, he deserves accolades for continuing to grow and improve as an artist. Priest is most well known for his classic features on Wu-Tang Clan tracks, his affiliated Killa Beez group Sunz of Man, and his solo debut album from 1998, Heavy Mental. But, as I've written about on this blog before, Priest advanced his visual rhyming style and deepened his already encyclopedic content on albums like The Psychic World of Walter Reed (2013) and Planet of the Gods (2015) and has been dropping tons of new material the past several years. His second new album that dropped in 2020 is Rocket to Nebula, an hour-long spoken-word poetry cosmic trip, unlike any other rap album you'll hear. It's a cosmic journey to the farthest reaches of inner space, from the mind of a brilliant emcee who dwells often on metaphysics and mysticism. 

While Rocket to Nebula is loaded with esoteric subjects, celestial imagery, and occult magic and mysticism, it also continually returns to everyday reality of human life on earth. The poetic descriptions of some of the simple pleasures in life hit the listener differently during a time of pandemic and quarantine. And the cosmic journeys to imaginative utopias described in visual lyricism are stimulating for the mind. As I mention in the article, "Priest has occupied the role of shaman of the Wu tribe for many years now, but it’s good and well-timed to hear him fully embrace it for a full album." 

Here is the track "Digital Ghost" from Rocket to Nebula:

And here is a new track from Priest from an upcoming album, I'm really digging this one, it's called "Manuka Honey":

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Mixtape in Memoriam of Kobe

From its humble inception 11 years ago this blog began with me showing love for the beauty of Kobe Bryant's jump shot, so now since today would have been Kobe's 42nd birthday I'd like to share some thoughts on the late Lakers legend, plus post a mixtape of choice clips of the Black Mamba. 

While I was never a Lakers fan and was usually rooting against Kobe as a Knicks fan (or as a fan of Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter as they went up against Kobe), he was such an amazingly talented, flashy, dynamic, high-flying and insanely competitive player it was impossible not to be entertained by his game even as he was kicking your team's ass. Dude was an absolute legend. During the latter half of his career I spent some time living in Southern California and got to watch a lot of Lakers games on local cable. In those days I also had a friend who was a huge Lakers fan and we'd argue about Kobe's place among the all-time greats. 

Prior to his tragic death early this year, the most recent memories I had of Kobe, the events that stuck in my head as I-remember-where-I-was-when-that-happened kinda moments, were how bad I felt for him the night he tore his Achilles and how happy I was for him watching his unforgettable final NBA game when he dropped 60 in a win against Utah. And I remember seeing that video of Kobe and Gianna, the father teaching his attentive daughter as they sat courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game, a month before the accident that took their lives. 

Looking back on it, the horrible death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash on January 26th stands out as a harbinger of the unthinkably dark and depressing months to come. Strangely, that period of grieving and binge-watching Kobe videos, watching the memorial they held at Staples Center, that was actually the final period of normalcy we had before the world we knew suddenly collapsed. I remember I was at work, on a lunch break when I caught Michael Jordan's eulogy for Kobe at his memorial. (My office would soon be closed indefinitely.) The Staples Center that day was filled with the gods of basketball lore all gathered together in the arena Kobe called home, all mourning a fallen star. Everybody packed together in Los Angeles and just one month later all public gatherings would be banned, NBA's season indefinitely shut down, America's confrontation with the coronavirus escalating. 

I remember that Sunday afternoon hearing the news about Kobe and Gianna and it was a gut punch. That shit hurt for a while. I was shocked how hard it hit me. Just seeing headlines with the words The Death of Kobe Bryant just looked surreal, bizarre, fake or unthinkable like The Death of Superman. I kept talking to friends about it, trying to process it with anyone who understood the impact of the death of Kobe, and at night I'd get lost in watching every YouTube video of Kobe I could find, reliving his greatest highlights and reliving my history as a basketball fan, commiserating with every commentator on the loss of Kobe from late night talk show hosts and retired NBA greats to Randy Moss and Jason Alexander and anybody who felt or understood the impact of the death of Kobe. The shock was well captured by Jon Batiste talking to Stephen Colbert, describing that viscerally painful realization that "even the mighty among us, those who seem like they'll live forever, the immortal ones could be gone (snap) just like that."

After the death of Kobe I felt like something inside me broke. To heal it I had to binge watch Kobe videos. I was trying to keep my memories of Kobe alive, everything I had ever loved and been inspired by about Kobe, I was trying to bring it all back to life. Having had a while to think about it now, what made me love Kobe so much, besides the entertainment value of his game was his drive, his inspiration, his internal push to achieve greatness. He was born with gifts, the son of pro basketball player Joe "Jellybean" Bryant whose hoop genes he surely inherited, but Kobe was never complacent, he famously had an ethic to work as hard as he possibly could to get the most out of his gifts. He was notoriously an asshole in his competitive excesses but he was driven to be the absolute best to ever play the game of basketball, determined to outdo his idol Michael Jordan. There was a great scene in the ESPN Jordan documentary where you hear Jordan in the locker room before an All-Star game talking about the "little Laker boy" whose cockiness would get the best of him. Kobe/Jordan battles evolved sharply over the years until the torch was officially passed to the Black Mamba who reached his scoring peaks around when Jordan finished his twilight years with the Wizards. Seeing Jordan pour his heart out in mourning his little brother at the Kobe memorial, it felt extra heart-wrenching that young Kobe was being laid to rest while the older Jordan was delivering his eulogy. The whole thing brought to the forefront for me the unyielding passage of time, the inescapableness of death, and the cold reality of our loneliness as human beings who are, despite all of our impacts and connections, born alone and who die alone.  

At the same time, in the aftermath of the death of Kobe I felt the reality of the idea espoused in the works of James Joyce which essentially amounts to: in death, absence can become the greatest form of presence. I thought about Kobe more in the wake of his passing that I had in many years. Kobe was on my mind constantly for weeks. I know that was the case for a lot of people. Jordan captured that in his eulogy, describing how we all feel like some part of us died when Kobe died. I'm still thinking about and feeling some feelings about Kobe Bryant today on his 42nd birthday. 

And so in honoring his memory, here is a mixtape of some of my favorite videos that capture what made Kobe Bryant such an iconic and inspiring figure.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

"Created Equal" (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat

"Created Equal" (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat 

Article at "Hip Hop Golden Age"

Last month I had an article posted at the Hip Hop Golden Age website "Who Got the Camera? by Kevlaar 7 & Bronze Nazareth: A Lyrical Breakdown" which takes a close look at two verses from the title track of the late Kevlaar 7's album Who Got the Camera? from 2011. As I have written about a few times before, that album was loaded with messages exposing social injustices and it came forth as an outcry against police brutality and racial violence. As Ari Melber talked about in a recent segment that aligns in some ways with my piece, this is a topic that rappers have made music about for years and since they were exposing what is now a widely accepted truth some of them deserve Pulitzers. Kevlaar 7 passed away on December 23, 2014. The reality of present day racism and its historical roots was always a major theme in his music. He explicitly came to warn us all but he knew he was also ahead of his time, as he put it on the opening track to the Wisemen album Children of a Lesser God, "It's too early, truth is dirty."

Kevlaar 7 (RIP)

Just like his brother Bronze Nazareth, Kevlaar was a brilliant lyricist (and a great producer too) and these two came together on this song to deliver a poetic exposé documenting the ongoing atrocities of racial violence in America. Now that these issues are front and center in American life in 2020, so many of us have been compelled to try to learn more about these issues, seek out knowledge and read more history. American history is so often presented in a way that tries to conceal the bad stuff, but we need to face it if we will ever be able to overcome its painfulness. Bronze and Kevlaar wrote about this history and its present manifestations in their verses often, although rarely as concentrated and focused as on this track. This article I shared is actually an excerpt from a book I've been working on for several years where I try to unpack, interpret, and expand on many verses from Bronze. That book also includes another song he did with Kevlaar devoted to bringing this same topic to light. We are living through a sudden awakening now and it is helpful as ever to glean historical facts and information from the poetics of tuned-in rappers writing about Black America for those of us who want to see what's been going on and try to envision a better future. 

Saturday, June 6, 2020

(Video) Anti-Racism: Listen to Jane Elliott and Share This

Jane Elliott is an educator and anti-racism activist who has been working for more than 50 years to educate the public about the reality of racism in the United States of America and how to overcome indoctrinated racist beliefs. As her videos have been circulating around the internet a lot recently, I've been watching and learning a great deal from her. She is a captivating speaker, a passionate and fierce human being, a provocative and extremely knowledgable teacher who will crack your head open, show you what was implanted there by indoctrination, and help you to see things clearly for what they are rather than how they appear to be.

Of all the videos I have watched so far, the one I am sharing below struck me as the best because the interviewer gives her the space to speak her lessons longwindedly and she absolutely goes off. She goes off on the inherited bullshit American society indoctrinates its children with, she goes off on Trump, she describes what she witnessed as a small child seeing Hitler rise to power and World War II explode while comparing that to today, and she provides a litany of lessons for the viewer to learn from. She recommends a bunch of insightful books and even, towards the end, admonishes us about the power of television and what it does to our minds, recommending we all seek out the work of Marshall McLuhan to learn about how the medium of television can damage your perspective and sensory perception.

PLEASE WATCH THIS AND SHARE WIDELY. If you have friends or family members who express racist views or who don't understand the gravity of our moment in history, make them watch this. This woman Jane Elliott has that type of energy that will sit you down, make you shut the fuck up and LISTEN to the authority of her knowledge. She loves to bring up the etymology of the word Educator which literally means one who leads others out of ignorance. Listen and let her guide you.

Monday, June 1, 2020

"Pity the Nation" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
   And whose shepherds mislead them
 Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
            Whose sages are silenced
  And whose bigots haunt the airwaves
 Pity the nation that raises not its voice
          Except to praise conquerers
       And acclaim the bully as hero
          And aims to rule the world
              With force and by torture
          Pity the nation that knows
        No other language but its own
      And no other culture but its own
 Pity the nation whose breath is money
 And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed
      Pity the nation oh pity the people
        who allow their rights to erode
   and their freedoms to be washed away
My country, tears of thee
                   Sweet land of liberty

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Putting the Killing of George Floyd in Context

Photo of George Floyd from USA Today.

It seems as though we can hardly process the horror of one tragic murder of a black person by the police before there’s another one and another one, each more egregious than the last. The killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis is the main focus right now because it was all captured on video in broad daylight and inevitably strikes the viewer as an act that is heartbreakingly malicious and inhumane. A handcuffed man, face down on the ground, not posing any threat, suffering from an officer callously forcing a knee into his neck for nearly ten minutes. The officer kept that knee planted there even two minutes after they’d realized Floyd no longer had a pulse. All while other officers watched on. 

Friday, January 31, 2020

Looking Back on 2019 (Part 3)

Street art seen in Mexico City, June 2019.

A little delayed in sharing this final look back at some of the things I liked about 2019, but that gave me time to properly soak in the music that dropped later in the year. As always with this blog, my favorite new albums came out of the realm of hip hop in its purest and grimiest form.

We are now nearly a quarter century past the golden era of hip hop and the art form remains alive with a slew of newer artists arising to bring fresh blood and new approaches to a musical tradition whose forefathers they seem to not only respect but spiritually summon and pay homage to. Some established rap gods have also helped bring along the new artists. These phenomena were reflected in some of the albums and artists I dug in 2019. Here are, in no particular order, my favorite albums from last year with a few words about each.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Looking Back on 2019 (Part 2)

Books Read in 2019:

1. Harpooning Donald Trump by Tom LeClair
A short book of essays by a literary scholar arguing for the importance of literature during times of political turmoil. LeClair goes into what he calls "systems novels" here, that is, enormous novels that seek to contain everything. These can be useful guides to crazy times. He especially highlights Robert Coover's The Public Burning, a satirical novel that features a caricatured Richard Nixon as the protagonist and narrator. The book's best chapter analyzes Trump from the perspective of Moby-Dick---what LeClair calls "the only book you'll ever need"---and concludes:
And we will need literate readers---like Ishmael---to counter Trump's unscrupulous monomania. Not just literate readers but literary, which is literate on Human Growth Hormone. Literary readers do not think any more carefully than literate people, but literature trains one to care about and care for language as a sensitive instrument, not just a blunt tool for propaganda and power. I'll quote Wittgenstein again: 'The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.' The world of literature is large with possibilities of imagination and thought and feeling. The world of pre-literate Donald Trump is small, impoverished by ignorance and fear and anger. Literary responses to Trump may not bring down a president or even affect his policies, but literary artists still must continue to provide models of rigorous thought and rich expression---just as medieval monks preserved manuscripts in an earlier dark time---for great and great-minded literature is in and of itself a harpoon, a weapon against the fake 'great' and small-minded demagoguery. (p. 95)