Thursday, April 29, 2021

Baseball in the Works of the Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away in March 2021 just a few weeks shy of reaching his 102nd birthday. Last year I wrote about Ferlinghetti in a few places: the James Joyce Quarterly published my review of Ferlinghetti's final book, I also wrote about Ferlinghetti and Joyce at my other blog, then I wrote more about Ferlinghetti and his incredible final book on this blog.

April is both National Poetry Month and the opening month of the baseball season, so as April comes to a close I'm going to pay tribute to the late poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti by looking at how he wrote about baseball in his works. Ferlinghetti grew up in Yonkers, New York (located right above Manhattan Island) and after spanning the globe on manifold adventures he settled in San Francisco right around the time the Giants baseball team moved their home base from the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan out to the Bay Area of San Francisco. Reading through Ferlinghetti's books, one gets the impression that baseball was a ubiquitous aspect of his life. His writings on baseball also tend to intersect with his political diatribes, proving once again that you cannot separate baseball from politics in America.

Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" (1972) is the most well-known of his writings on baseball. You can listen to him reciting the poem in the video below. American history and its manifestations in present day contexts often figures into the works of Ferlinghetti. His perspective was that of a fiercely dissident poet yet he was also a WW2 vet who commanded a ship at D-Day in 1944 and later turned into a staunch pacifist following his visit to Nagasaki in late 1945. His "Baseball Canto" foregrounds what truly makes America great, its diversity and inclusiveness, but for Ferlinghetti the gameplay on the field finds metaphorical resonance with the struggles of marginalized people for empowerment and freedom within what he calls "the Anglo-Saxon tradition." Themes of racism, colonialism, and exploitative capitalism are observable in the poem. The umpires become Irish cops overseeing the action. He envisions Willie Mays as "a footrunner from Thebes." Tito Fuentes becomes a bullfighter being cheered by the Latinos in the stands. Sort of ironically, the poet is reading Ezra Pound's Cantos while sitting in the stands. Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" opens this way:

Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.

Ferlinghetti once published a bizarre little book called Tyrannus Nix? (New Directions, 1969) where the text is presented in the poet's own handwriting with minimal punctuation. A satirical work, Tyrannus Nix? deploys baseball metaphors to mock and satirize then-president Richard M. Nixon. "Nixon Nixon I'm singing you this baseball Diamond Sutra from way out here in New Left Field in the International League." Nixon was from Whittier, California and Ferlinghetti writes:

This is one national sport we hope is on the way out The Whittier White Sox we hope are all washed up It's time for a new umpire and a new Hall of Fame Throw out a new ball and a new uniform and a new flag too while you're at it and make the flag green this time instead of bloody red and black-and-blue (p. 7-8)

Later in Tyrannus Nix? Ferlinghetti observes, "things are really tightening up out here And there's no relief in sight for you or us although it occurs to me that we are your relief if you'd only admit it." (p. 12) He determines Nixon to be a pitcher wearing a mask and throwing with a deceptive delivery: "But I never saw a pitcher with a mask before What've you got under it That's what I've been trying to fathom ever since they brought you up from the minors Did you learn that windup with the Whittier Quakers It's the most deceptive ever seen in a World Series a windup that gives away nothing and telegraphs nothing so that nobody still knows what's coming We hope not a fast change-up One wild pitch and you've blown it Your windup is so weird." (p. 13-14)

I would not consider Tyrannus Nix? among Ferlinghetti's best books, it feels dated and many of the jokes fall flat, but as a time capsule and example of the prominence of baseball in Ferlinghetti's work it's kinda cool. It's also an especially polemical display of Ferlinghetti's attitude about the poet's role in society, from the same guy who went on to publish the handbook Poetry as Insurgent Art (2007). Ferlinghetti also wrote a two-part epic poem on the history of America, the second part of which is surely one of his best books. In that book, called Time of Useful Consciousness (Americus, Book II) (New Directions, 2012), he quotes this line from the poet Philip Lamantia: "Baseballs lost among the Pleiades (quoth Lamantia)." (p. 7) Ferlinghetti made no bones about taking lines from other poets, many of his writings are loaded with literary allusions and borrowed phrases, he liked to celebrate that TS Eliot or Pound tradition of poetry, "summarizing the past by theft and allusion" he called it. Some of his books have helpful notes in the back with sources for these allusions. His last book, Little Boy: A Novel (2019), is filled with literary references but does not have any footnotes. I'm hoping there will eventually be an annotated edition of the book, but some lines are identifiable via Google, especially when he provided them in quotes. One that sticks out to me is this sequence from the poem "Truth" by John Masefield which he immediately follows with a baseball reference:

"Man with his burning soul has but an hour of breath to build a ship of Truth in which his soul may sail---sail on the sea of death for death takes toll of beauty, courage, youth, of all but Truth" and it's three strikes and you're out at the Old Ball Game 

(Little Boy, p. 122)

Little Boy: A Novel contains numerous baseball references, everything seems to return back to baseball. It was his final book and seemingly all the major themes of his previous works are gathered in Little Boy, a densely-packed word-hoard that goes into American history, his own life story, with lyrical escapes into mystical contemplation of the cosmos and the precariousness of life in our present existence on Earth. The latter half of the book often reads like Ferlinghetti's mind swings on a pendulum between despair over the dark state of affairs and ecstasies of blissful poetry about life. Somehow these oscillations often seem to involve baseball. For example, on p. 150 he wonders: 

And so why am I watching baseball to escape the pain or ecstasy of existence and the Reds are beating the Yankees and should I be happy It's all relative and life depends on the simplest things to yield a crop of happiness as if it were something you could harvest (p. 150)

Despair and happiness waver back and forth. One beautiful sequence on pgs 154-155 revels in "the jet streams of light in the upper air of the spirit of man in the outer space inside us Endless rubaiyats and endless beatitudes endless shangri-las endless nirvanas sutras and mantras satoris and sensaras Bodhiramas and Boddhisatvas karmas and karmapas! Endless singing Shivas dancing on the smoking wombs of ecstasy!" and so on and on until just a few lines later his perspective again shifts. It seems like he remembers who the president was at that moment (the same president who was booed at the World Series) and suddenly he's back to thinking about baseball:

and the Man without Shoulders who can't lift his weight in butterflies is now in charge of the world And is there any reason to watch the World Series on TV while this is going on as if the fate of the world were on the Men with Shoulders out there on the Field of Dreams as if a bases-loaded home run could change the fate of the spinning world spinning with a curveball or one-hundred-mile-an-hour fastball to wipe out our enemies and save the world from whatever Yeah play the 'Star-Spangled Banner" and sing about "bombs bursting in air" to show "our flag was still there" 
(p. 155-156)

Later towards the end of Little Boy, there's a dream sequence presented in italics where the poet drifts off into the depths of memory in search of his earliest moments of consciousness, seeking the roots of his existence, the exact place where he was born. The book is partly about Ferlinghetti's difficult childhood, he basically grew up as an orphan who bounced around different homes and never truly had a family. In this dream sequence he's simultaneously dreaming of going to and recalling when he physically went back to find the house where he was born, the address on his birth certificate, a house located just north of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The tiny details recalled of life in that house at that time then summon up more vivid memories:

All at once, an incredible overflowing feeling of happiness surges up from nowhere. Born here!. . . some three hundred yards north of the northwest corner of Van Cortlandt Park. It must have been all country back then. The kids must have played ball in this green park with its worn diamond and its ancient rusted screen behind the batter's box. I can hear the bat hit the ball (perhaps pitched by Pop). And my brother running for first base ended up in Baltimore forty years later . . . Shouts and laughter tears and whispers fill the air. (p. 174)

Little Boy: A Novel is so many things at once, a perfect culmination for Ferlinghetti's prolific career as a poet. It's really more of an epic poem in prose than a novel, plus it's sort of an autobiography. In a flourish of wordplay on page 119, Ferlinghetti describes his project this way: "I unlock my word-hoard of ruminations meditations exhortations celebrations condemnations excitations lamentations liberations and ecstasies plotless as a life." The one precursor to the style of Little Boy (2019) was the novel Ferlinghetti published almost sixty years prior called Her (1960), a plotless word-stream of prose wherein the reader swims from one dream vision to the next, following Ferlinghetti in search of his soul or his muse or his anima. Just as in Little Boy, the visions of the poet veer into baseball themes:

Perhaps I was merely a dumb member of the audience strayed onto the stage by mistake, looking for some printed program he had dropped under a seat. I had somewhere dropped the key that explained the action, and one could not tell the players without a program, for the faces interchanged, fused together. There they moved on their dark illuminated field, playing their curious night-game, bounding after stray balls, winding their pitches on grassless mounds, or squatting behind a batter in their tools of ignorance. I was a world's catcher, I crouched there, wearing my tools, a fat receiver. I received signals, sent out signals to others, squatting with a signal fingers hanging down between my legs, crooking a penis finger now and then, calling someone in. They all moved too far out, other figures ran, white celluloid shadows, as in a strip of film held up to a light, and the film running away with them. I could not catch them, and they ran off through the streets of the world, until only one figure was left, a white clay figure I had started with, who might have been myself. It was not. It was a her. (Her, p. 10-11)

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Hypnotic Mountainscapes of Nicholas Roerich

He Who Hastens (1924) Nicholas Roerich


Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a Russian symbolist painter, and a writer, archeologist, philosopher, spiritualist who was born in Saint Petersburg. He developed a deep interest in hypnosis and other spiritual practices and his paintings are known to sometimes induce a hypnotic effect. This past year, when needing to center my focus and un-distract myself, I've spent a lot of time staring at some of Roerich's landscape paintings. He definitely had a knack for capturing the essence of being up in the ethereal realms of high altitude mountains. Last September, we took a road-trip from Austin, TX up to Breckenridge, Colorado and stayed in a cabin situated way high up in the peaks. I'd been to Colorado before but never spent so much time at such high altitude (nearly 10,000 ft). There's a distinct vibe up there and every moment of the daytime it seems there's a unique shade and texture of light reflecting off the mountains that surround you. Staring at Roerich's paintings takes me back there to that quiet sense of tranquility and the mindfulness summoned by staring at the light hitting the mountainside.

At one point in his life, Nicholas Roerich was convinced he was receiving psychic messages from beings living in the Himalayas. So he gathered a crew and set out on multiple harrowing excursions into the Himalayan mountains, where he presumably did a lot of painting while also seeking out the Tibetan Buddhist monks. Read more about Roerich at his Wikipedia page. He's got a really interesting backstory, but besides that I've been enjoying spending time staring at his incredible mountainscapes. There's definitely a meditative effect about them. See more of Roerich's paintings here.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Hunt (1937)

Way to Tibet (1925)

Sword of the Gesar (1932)

Rocks of Ladakh (1933)

Lake of the Nagas (1932)

Message from Shambhala (1931)

She Who Leads (1943)