Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Happy Birthday, Gary Snyder


Gary Snyder, American poet, essayist and teacher, is 89 today. In celebration of his birthday, I'm posting the poem that comes last in his 1991 collection, No Nature: New and Selected Poems. It's become one of my favorites.

 RIPPLES ON THE SURFACE

 "Ripples on the surface of the water--
were silver salmon passing under--different
from the ripples caused by breezes"

 A scudding plume on the wave--
a humpback whale is
 breaking out in air up
 gulping herring
                  ---Nature not a book, but a performance, a
 high old culture

 Ever-fresh events
 scraped out, rubbed out, and used, used, again--
 the braided channels of the rivers
hidden under fields of grass---

 The vast wild
             the house, alone.
The little house in the wild,
           the wild in the house.
 Both forgotten.

                                  No nature

            Both together, one big empty house.


I first heard Gary Snyder read when I was a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois in the spring of 1967. In his late 30s then, Snyder had been a presence in American poetry for over a decade.  He was among the poets who read at the famous Six Gallery evening in 1955 that premiered Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and launched the so-called Beat movement.  A student of American Indian cultures and both Chinese and Japanese languages, Snyder interspersed months and years at a Zen monastery in Japan with jobs on an oil tanker, on logging crews and as a fire lookout.

He was recently back from Japan when, just a couple of weeks before his Knox visit, Snyder accompanied Allen Ginsberg in leading the legendary Human Be-In in San Francisco that established the counterculture alliance between hippies and political activists, and prefigured the upcoming Summer of Love.

 The Knox Student lists Snyder's events as a lecture on Tuesday (subject: "What's Going On?") and a reading on Wednesday, both in the Alumni Room of Old Main beginning at 7:30 in the evening.  While Snyder did speak about political, cultural and environmental subjects at one or both of his appearances, I recall him reading a great deal of poetry at both--hours of it.

I'm pretty sure he read from Rip Rap and the completed sections of his long sequence Mountains and Rivers Without End.  He probably read work not yet published in book form; I seem to recall he read a version of "The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais."  ("Circumambulation" is a ritual walk around a sacred object in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, and Mt. Tam near San Francisco is considered a sacred mountain. A year or two later, I participated in such a circumambulation of Mt. Tam.)

 Snyder's readings were mesmerizing: poems of direct descriptions in brief bursts of mostly nouns and verbs, and short, often one syllable words (a conscious choice in Rip Rap due to his observation of classical Chinese) that produced a cumulative, incantatory magic.  After awhile the words became mostly sound and you got tired, but then they took you to another level.  I doubt that many audiences anywhere had the opportunity to hear Gary Snyder read for such sustained periods.
 
His "talk" was probably similar to observations in his essays "Buddhism and the Coming Revolution" and "Passage to More Than India" published in his 1969 book Earth House Hold (the title is one literal definition for "ecology"), and also reprinted in Allen and Tallman's 1973 The Poetics of The New American Poetry.   I'm certain, for example that he quoted (as he did in "Buddhism and...") the old International Workers of the World slogan, "Forming the new society within the shell of the old."

His emphasis on the ignored value of the non-human and Indigenous cultures struck a chord with me: as he wrote, "In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past."

 Snyder also was an impressive presence on campus.  One attendee remembers that he wore an earring, some decades before this became a male fashion.  I recall the bells in his boots: little jingle bells that rang as he walked.  I loved that, and tried it myself for awhile.  But even in the upcoming counterculture it didn't catch on, alas.  Still, I remember sitting in the audience for the second event, alive with anticipation, and hearing those jingling boots tromping down the Old Man hall.

 The party for him was at a student apartment.  I asked him one question.  Though I don't remember what I asked about, it was in the nature of "how do you know?"  He answered that I'd have to "experience it."  I immediately jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he'd advised me to take LSD.  Such were the nerve endings as the wildness of the counterculture approached.  It was in fact a practical as well as a perfectly Buddhist answer to almost anything.


I heard Snyder read again a few years later at a benefit reading for an ecology organization in Berkeley. He was among his old San Francisco colleagues, including Lew Welch, who read his famous California poem with the refrain "This is the last place/there is nowhere else to go."  Months later Welch disappeared, a presumed suicide.  I spoke with poet Michael McClure in 2003, who read there that day as well as at the historic 1955 event that launched Howl, and he remembered that reading in Berkeley as something special.

 For the next five years Snyder published poems in periodicals, from Look magazine and the New York Times to Poetry and the Hudson Review to Kayak, Caterpillar and Unmuzzled Ox.  His collection Turtle Island (a traditional name now applied to North America) sold something like 100,000 copies and won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.  It included the prose statement "Four Changes" that set the agenda for a number of environmental groups.

Pretty soon after Snyder's Knox reading I bought the Four Season Foundation printings of RIPRAP and Cold Mountain Poems, and Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers Without End at the Knox bookstore, soon adding the earlier Totem Press edition of Myths and Texts.

  For awhile after, I acquired his books haphazardly, mostly as I came across them used, but eventually I had the poetry collections The Back Country (1968), Regarding Wave (1970) Axe Handles (1983), Left Out in the Rain (1986) and the hybrid Turtle Island (1975) as well as the prose collections Earth House Hold (1969), The Old Ways (1977) and The Real Work (1980).

Probably his prose masterpiece is The Practice of the Wild, published in 1990.  It was one of my first acquisitions as a resident of California in 1996.  I saw it in the window of Arcata Books, used.  The bookstore owner sold it to me and said, "I knew it wouldn't last long.  I just put it out this morning."
I had already found Gary Snyder: Dimensions of A Life (probably on a sale table at the U. of Pittsburgh bookstore), a large collection of tributes on the occasion of his 60th birthday. The Haida artist Robert Davidson provided the cover illustration. When I mentioned the book to Davidson in 1994, he was surprised to hear Snyder was still alive.  He thought it was a memorial volume. But when I met the novelist and poet Jim Dodge here in Arcata a few years later, I could recall having read his contribution to this collection.

 For me, living in California brought new dimensions to Snyder's work, both in terms of places he wrote about and the relevance of his writing to our ecology. (He lives most of a day's drive south of me, in the foothills of the Sierras.)  So I began to acquire his more recent books: the completed Mountains and Rivers Without End (1997), Danger on Peaks (poems, 2004), A Place in Space (new and selected prose, 1995), Passage Through India (1992 edition) and Back on the Fire (essays, 2007.)  I even got his doctoral thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth (1979.)  Even at that, there are books I missed.

More recently I added The Etiquette of Freedom (2010), a companion book to a film featuring Snyder in conversation with poet and fictionist Jim Harrison, which also includes the film on DVD.  Now I have another experience of Snyder reading his work (which he said "is mostly done") in his late 70s.  In honor of his 89th birthday, I just purchased a recycled copy of No Nature: New and Selected Poems.  

Gary Snyder's writings led me beyond his own books to a wide network of others, too numerous and involved in their connections to describe here. They helped define my attitudes and activities in relationship to forests and non-human life in general, and they were checkpoints along the way.  To some degree, they led me to far northern California, where I've lived for more than 20 years now.

So I celebrate his work, and the fact that he is among us now to celebrate his own 89th birthday.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Overstory of Our Time


Congratulations to Richard Powers and The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  It's a significant achievement, not only for the author (who in my opinion should have won years ago for The Time of Our Singing in 2004) but for fiction that takes the world seriously--that is, the world beyond urban relationships, beyond only human relationships to other humans.  It may be too late to make the crucial difference, but if there is time to avert the end of life as we know it, the importance of human relationship to other life must be acknowledged.

Here's a link to my review posted here in October 2018.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

R.I.P. W.S. Merwin


Once Later

It is not until later
that you have to be young

it is one of those things
you meant to do later

but by then there is
someone else living there

with the shades rolled down
how could you have been young there

at that time
with all that was expected

then what happened to
the expectations

there is no sign of them there
a shadow passes across the window shade

what do they know in there
whoever they are

W.S. Merwin
published in New York Review of Books
May 7,2015



Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

W.S. Merwin
 the New Yorker
March 2008

W.S. Merwin, a hero among poets, who not only defended forests in his work, he planted a forest.   The world he spoke for has lost a voice.  And tomorrow we wake without question, even though the whole world is burning.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

R.I.P. 2018

“ One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time, plenty of time...” Ursula Le Guin 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness

"Whatever may happen in the bad times, the verbal arts, at least, tend to become very important. It’s really important what you say in the bad times.” Ursula Le Guin 2017 Conversations on Writing with David Naimon

The first month of 2018 was not yet over before Ursula Le Guin died.  No Time To Spare, her wonderful selection of online writing, especially for her blog, had been a Christmas hit in December.  I bought it Christmas Eve at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park, California.

This Christmastime I returned to Kepler's and saw a special LeGuin endcap, with that book still featured, as well as collections of short stories, her last volume of poetry, and the collected Earthsea novels, plus a new book, Conversations on Writing, which consists of interviews she gave in 2017.  This book suggests some of the reasons that Le Guin was and will remain a strong influence on other writers, and all kinds of writing.

In terms of her fictions, her particular gift of anthropological science fiction is likely to influence even more visions of the future, as that future is more and more shaped by climate and ecological crisis.  Margaret Atwood notes that all the oppressive aspects of the future she imagines in her novel, The Handmaid's Tale, do happen in parts of the world or did happen in history.  Many of the striking imaginings in Le Guin's novels are derived from Indigenous cultures of the past and present.  Her insistence on cultural attributes that serve the Earth as well as humanity, and preserve a realistic relationship between them, will only grow in importance.

Three very different writers who died in 2018, Philip Roth, Neil Simon and Tom Wolfe, did much to illuminate American life in the 20th century, and in so doing, helped define our view of our own culture.

Roth in his meticulous fictions, in both his grim and hilarious modes, and Simon in his comic plays and screenplays, explored Jewish-American experience, and revealed much about both sides of the hyphen.  They also transcended nationality, imagining their way into other sorts of lives.  Because Neil Simon was so popular, his achievement is perhaps undervalued, particularly his screenplays, including a lesser known gem like Max Dugan Returns. Tom Wolfe on the other hand came from the WASP world, and was equally comfortable writing about the rich and famous, and the oddball outcasts.  He attempted more consciously to define the culture he observed.

Other prominent authors died in 2018, including physicist Stephen Hawking and screenwriter William Goldman, and most recently, Israeli novelist Amos Oz.  But I also recall connections to work by some lesser-known figures: the British philosopher Mary Midgely, who did such crystalline work on evolution, and American philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose books on film I read in the early 70s.

I have a weakness for books on arts and entertainment history, and Gerald Nachman's Raised On Radio was a fairly recent and serendipitous delight.  That's the thing about books--they are the most accessible legacy in the arts, small physical objects that circulate and are otherwise more easily available than films or TV shows, let alone the evanescence of performances.

Other authors who died in 2018 include: Harlan Ellison V.S. Naipaul, Peter Masterson, Paul Henderson, Chin Yang Lee, Michael Freedland, Donald Reed, Dave Anderson, Robert Bausch, Sue Hubbell, Arlo Paasilinna, Raymond Fraser, John Hosttleter, John Taylor Gatto, Angela Bianchini, Louise De Dalvo, Lise Payette, Adam Clymer.

Anne Olivier Bell
Robley Wilson, Roy Wagner, Herbert Meier, Robert Venturi, Alan Abel, Evelyn Anthony, Anita Miller, Andrew Coburn, Ann Moss, Eduard Uspensky, Matthew Aid, John Christgau, Stanley Morgan, Anne Olivier Bell (at age 102), Leo Litvak, Julius Lester, Donald D. Evans, Samuel Schreiner, Jack Ketchum, William Whitehead, Michael Harner, Barbara Wersba, Cynthia Heimel, Kate Wilhelm, Philip Kerr, Anita Shreve, Gena Turgel.

Peter Mayer was an accomplished publisher, the founder of Overlook Press.  Fred Bass ran the Strand Bookstore, the New York Mecca for used books.

Fornes
Neil Simon, Maria Irene Fornes and Ntozake Shange were perhaps the most prominent playwrights lost in 2018, at least from a US perspective.  Others included Alla Sokolova, John Ford Noonan,  Jean-Loup Rivere, Ira Gasman, Steven Jeffreys, Wakako Yamauchi, Hugh Whitemore, Tom Griffin, Tom Murphy and Tony Hogland.





Donald Hall


Donald Hall and Tom Clark are probably the best known poets in the US who died in 2018, at least among those who regularly read poetry, other poets being prominent among them. Though poets arguably still have a high profile in some parts of the world, many would seem to work in relative obscurity.  But they write on anyway, and even if their readers are few, they still can touch individual lives at particular moments, in the unpredictable serendipity of the written word.

What follows is not an exhaustive list of poets who died in 2018.  But it is a long one, and testifies to the endurance of this form in every part of the world. Even if many are not mentioned elsewhere, they are due the honor of being named this once:

Tom Leonard, Julia Vinograd, Janet Paisley, Jerry Gant, Fernando del Paso, E.D. Blodgett, Meena Alexander, Claude Peloquin, David Helwig, Francois Montmaneix, Gyorgy Karoly, Peter Everwine, Priscilla Uppal, Lady Judith Kazantis, Vishnu Khare, Robin Metz.

Jalal Mansur Nurridin
Jalal Mansur Nurridin, Pavel Reznicek, Olav Angelli, Tamaz Chiladze, Matthew Sweeney, Anya Krugovoy Silver, William Corbett, Chemmanan Chacko, Ciril Ziobec, Muntarzir Baba, Jenny Joseph, Darmonto Jatman, Haim Gouri, Val Mulkeens, Luo Fut, Kedarnath Singh, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, David McFadden, Mateja Matevski, Madara Woods.  My apologies for any errors in spelling.

May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Tripper's Dilemma

How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence

By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press

Best known as the author of the best-selling Omnivore's Dilemma and other food-related books in a food-conscious culture (at least among those with the income to buy books on the subject), Michael Pollan caught another wave with this comprehensive volume on a subject whose time has come back.  With the widespread legalization of cannabis, it was a good bet--but a risk nevertheless--that the total reign of silence on psychedelics was due to be broken.

Pollan did that with a revealing and objective account of the history of psychedelics in the 20th century and the revival of research and other uses in the present.  In between he narrates some of his own recent experiences with organic and chemically created psychedelics.   He makes deft use of figures like fungi scientist Paul Stamets who span the first wave of interest in the 60s and today's revival.  The result is a 450 page book that the New York Times has named one of the ten best published in 2018.

By the time Pollan was a college student in the late 1970s, the psychedelic period was largely over.   At the start Pollan seems perhaps too preemptively embarrassed  by that era's subsequent reputation, seemingly fearful of scaring readers away.  But he is judicious and forthright in the historical narrative: how the explosion of LSD, magic mushrooms and mescaline out of the research laboratory and into youth culture, as well as the messianic excesses of Timothy Leary and others,  led to a total ban of psychedelics, including scientific research, that's lasted for decades.  Where would soldiers from Vietnam come from, or willing cogs in the profit-making machine?  It couldn't be allowed.  This despite the unsurprising fact that most of the scare stories about LSD were untrue (nobody went blind staring into the sun on an acid trip) and that the research was promising, especially in treating addiction and mental illnesses.

However when I was in my senior year of college in 1967-68, that period was in full bloom, though on my perhaps backward Midwestern campus we were still mostly catching up with cannabis culture.  Nevertheless, we were listening to psychedelic music, seeing psychedelic art, wearing psychedelic clothes, and noting the mind-expansion enthusiasm of the Beatles and so many others.  In my off-campus house I carefully read The Psychedelic Experience by Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Albert (later, Ram Das)--all clearly labeled as Ph.D'--with its tribute to Jung and its programmatic LSD trip advice, particularly in selecting the right "set and setting" for the experience.  It was serious, if not sober, stuff.

The first opportunity I had to actually do LSD didn't come until the following winter of '68, and though I considered the decision carefully, in the end I unaccountably jumped in without any regard to set and setting or a programmed trip.  I was one of a group of younger and paradoxically more experienced students, who simply dropped acid and went about a normal Saturday night, that included going together to a movie.  I don't recall what movie it was, but it definitely contained violence that upset me, especially given the Vietnam and assassinations times. Going to this film seemed a terrible decision, and I realized I couldn't really trust the people I was with. So I deliberately brought myself down. That I was able to do so with relative ease made me suspect the substance I'd taken wasn't LSD, either wholly or at all.

I had three more subsequent experiences with substances I was told were LSD or mescaline, and they were largely the same.  I had a few experiential insights in a Colorado wilds on the supposed mescaline, and a fine time tripping to Abbey Road in Berkeley while trying to ignore the intense head trip discussion in the next room,  but in general the same two factors pertained: I doubted the substance was pure LSD or mescaline, and I couldn't trust my environment (or in one case I had to cope with somebody else's crisis.)  In terms of a psychedelic experience, I went farther in my senior year with too much Humboldt cannabis of a strength I wasn't used to, or it too could have been adulterated.  (Ironically perhaps, I've lived more than 20 years in Humboldt County now without so much as a toke.)

So it is especially interesting to me that today's trips tend to be controlled, with experienced "guides" in safe--if sometimes seemingly soporific--environments.  (Compare Pollan's descriptions of his trips with Sting's account of taking ayahuasca in Brazil in his autobiography Broken Music.) Purity of product can still be a question, although as with today's cannabis, there's more sophisticated control possible.

Pollan reviews the substantive research into what can generally be called the medical potentials of psychedelics in the 1950s and 60s.  Though such research was described in such readily available books as the 1967 paperback LSD: The Problem-Solving Psychedelic, the cultural myth of that time tended to emphasize CIA-backed mind control research and the clueless psychologists that questioned volunteer Ken Kesey, tripping his brains out at Stanford (as referenced in LSD's first and only literary classic of the period, Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)

Pollan draws a government-broken line between that research and the now ongoing and growing research into the psychedelic potential for a range of psychological and even physical conditions. (Aging baby boomers may be particularly interested in the results being obtained with terminal patients who lose their fear of death.)

He reveals lesser known influences that outlived the 60s to extend their effects to today, such as the role these substances paid in the creative breakthroughs by Steve Jobs and others that led in part to the computer and tech explosion, and the inspiration they provided the legendary Bill K. to start his Alcoholics Anonymous program, the basis for many such programs since.

Pollan can't avoid the philosophical and (broadly speaking) spiritual effects of these experiences, though at times it seems he'd like to.  But eventually he comes clean, suggesting that even as psychedelics are useful in a wide range of medical conditions--even perhaps a miracle cure for some, or at least a radical redefinition of them--their utility transcends and perhaps redefines science.  That power to rearrange how the world is understood, more than anything, permeated the psychedelic 60s and early 70s, so that they changed the culture, which in turn suggested these insights and their effects to many of us whether or not we dropped that pure acid in the proper set and setting.

  Pollan is annoyingly, though understandably defensive at the beginning of the book, but it took some courage and discernment to tell this story as fairly and fully as he does. The evidence he provides more than suggests that psychedelics can be of great and perhaps transformative benefit, in medical settings and beyond.

 Because the fearful establishment of the 60s was right in one respect: psychedelics can foster big changes: in perception, attitude, consciousness, and relationships to the self, others, the world and all of reality. They can help change minds, and thereby, eventually, change the world.  Had they not been so thoroughly suppressed but allowed to mature, how different the past fifty years might have been.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Overstory: The Word for the World Is Forest

The Overstory: A Novel
 Richard Powers 
W.W. Norton

 “It’s a book about taking the non-human seriously,” author Richard Powers said in an interview, concerning his latest novel, The Overstory. It is an assertion that for much of human history, and even today in many parts of the world, would seem ridiculously unnecessary. What could be more serious than the “non-human”—everything from the weather and plants that provided food and medicine, to the animals that people hunted, or fell prey to?

 It’s true that our literature missed much of this unwritten but not unstoried history, but even in the 19th century there were still wolves at the gate in Europe (and in Tolstoy), and into the 20th century in North America the struggles of pioneers were central to the novels of Cather and others.

 But the deep sense of interrelationship with the specific environment of a place, its embedded animals and plants, escaped much literary treatment. (It can be found however in contemporary accounts of some surviving indigenous cultures, such as Richard Nelson’s books on the Koyukon.)

Literature missed it, while science and the economic system governing culture ignored and denied it. Nature became a controlled resource, and science joined in a simplistic analysis that conformed to ideologically-driven theories of nature as uniformly rapacious, violent and individualistic, mirroring the structure of dominant capitalism that mandated that other life had no value except as it served humans, and especially certain humans’ profits. Meanwhile the urbanized segment of humanity with pest control, running water, flush toilets and printing presses turned inward, and human culture became increasingly arrogant, ego-driven and delusional.

Like Naomi Klein to the climate crisis and Michael Pollan to expanded consciousness, Richard Powers is something of a Johnny-come-lately to forest issues and what forests represent in the non-human web of life that, among other things, supports humanity. But like them he brings fresh passion and perspective, as well as a contemporary voice with some power and moment, so that people—including those in the lit biz—may actually pay some attention.

The 502 pages of The Overstory are structured in four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. (Technically the crown or canopy is the “overstory,” though the title metaphorically suggests a meta-story, the story that makes all other stories possible.) This structure is a visually accessible metaphor, as the various strands of roots nourish a common trunk before branching out again in separate (if often interrelated) fates.

 "Roots" presents the backstory of the nine major characters, in some cases including several previous generations. In the next section, several characters participate in the protests here in Humboldt County in the 1990s, when a rapacious Texas company was clear-cutting as many of the last old growth groves as they could. The fates of these characters become especially intertwined. The actual history is somewhat fictionalized but given a depth and specificity that brings the experience alive. Especially the experience of being up a tree.

 Their transformations, at least as radical as those experienced by characters in other Powers’ books, move toward new relationships with the reality of the world, rather than only within a temporary human enclave.

Along with the stories of people over time and over generations, there are stories and histories of trees: of the American Chestnut, the eastern pine forests, and Johnny Appleseed. The scientist character commits temporary career suicide by showing that trees communicate with each other through the air, warning of predators and diseases, and that through their roots they nourish and protect each other.

 But what constitutes the figure and what constitutes the ground of the narrative is a very close thing. So the book is about people, some of whom are passionately involved with trees and forest, and others who stumble to their own recognitions.  “Our brains evolved to solve the forest,” says the one character who is a tree expert. “We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been homo sapiens.”

But it is also about trees, and how people relate to them. “This is not our world with trees in it,” says that same expert. “It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” The figure and ground shift back and forth, when they aren’t essentially simultaneous.

 Powers provides some hope for the relationship. But humanity can no longer just affirm life—it must commit “unsuicide,” by radically changing the terms, before its own slow murderous suicide is accomplished.

The novel depicts the context of our American society and world civilization in which obsessive and dogmatic human self-centeredness destroys forests and the natural context that supports all life, enslaved by a suicidal geopolitical and geoeconomic system which mandates continuous growth on a planet of finite resources. That vision of the world has previously been expressed mostly by ecologists, poets and science fiction writers like Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Powers becomes one of the few so-categorized mainstream literary novelists (Barbara Kingsolver and Jim Harrison come to mind) to marshal considerable literary skills to explore it.

“Life has a way of talking to the future,”a couple of characters observe. “It’s called memory.” The extreme self-centeredness of contemporary civilization is likely to become a bitter joke in the near future. Today’s news that is most likely to be ignored or unabsorbed--like the melting polar ice, or the depletion of wildlife in the world (by 60% in the past couple of human generations, according to the World Wildlife Fund today, mostly due to climate and the obliteration of tropical forests, practically the last on the planet)—will have consequences that are destined to dominate the news not more than a few decades hence.

But that self-centeredness, that absorption in social media passions within the nuclear grip of global capitalism, also extends to readers. Powers obviously anticipated this, and puckishly embedded an anticipatory review: “She remembers now why she never had the patience for nature. No drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. And she could never keep the characters straight.”

 There are colliding hopes and fears in this novel, though it is hard at times to keep the characters straight. Still, the theme is a challenge to readers in much the same way that climate news gets ignored in favor of the outrage of the moment. The familiar emotions and presence of the strictly human world obliterates perception of the rest of reality.

But as one character will say to another (while both are swaying on the branches of a redwood) “The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” (I’m not sure that’s universally true, but maybe true enough.) Apart from the usual suspects of likely readers, I suspect Powers’ time at Stanford, his understanding of the tech world and a direct pitch to its conscience and potential to make a difference will pay dividends.

Beyond that it remains to be seen. The first big literary prize since publication was the Man Booker in the UK, for which The Overstory was shortlisted, and was said to be the odds-on favorite to win.

Yet an article in the Guardian quotes booksellers complaining that the Man Booker is not much help to sales these days. They opine on the marketable book they hope will win. “ But the book I think will win is The Overstory by Richard Powers.” one unnamed bookseller is quoted as saying. It’s not clear whose voice it is but the paragraph continues: “In case you don’t know – I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s read it – The Overstory is an idiosyncratic and, in the words of one plucky critic, “valiant” 500-page epic that is supposed to do for trees what Moby-Dick did for whales. Perhaps this is why my contact is laughing.”

The Man Booker was also beset with criticism because it’s traditionally been a UK prize but American authors have won the last two. Also there was anticipatory nervousness that with a majority of women writers on the shortlist, giving the prize to another male writer would be unseemly. That Powers is an American male author may have contributed to why The Overstory did not win, though the subject that had a Guardian reporter rolling her eyes may also have played a conscious or unconscious part.

 The prize went to Northern Irish author Anna Burns for her “Troubles-era” novel “Milkman.” The jury seemed to stress that the selection was unanimous. Burns has a compelling personal story, and the novel is widely praised (and now, a best-seller.) But worthy but often repeated topics such as the Troubles, the slave trade, child abuse and various human relationship have such a visceral hold on readers and writers that reviving that crucial, vital deep connection with non-human life and its peril remains a hard sell.

Still, there are the National Book Award and the Pulitzers to come. Regardless of its upcoming prizes fates, the literary reach of The Overstory suggests it can have that longer, more persistent life of study: formal study in the groves of academe, informal study everywhere. It may not live as long as a redwood but the lifespan of a paper birch could still imbue a generation with its ideas and emotions. For that process, the impressive body of interviews given by its formerly reclusive author should help.  In the meantime, it repays reading and re-reading.

Friday, October 12, 2018

History of My Reading: Primary Group

Anderson House. Photo courtesy of Chip Evans, who also lived there.
Apart from my English 103 course, essentially an independent studies to write a paper, I had four actual courses(plus phys ed)  the first semester of my freshman year at Knox College, in the fall of 1964.

 That included an eight o'clock class, the only one I took in those four years. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a morning person.  But I was arising early enough to hear the only program my radio could muster on the local Galesburg station: the Farm Report.  It was not, as I remember, a report on farm techniques and news affecting local crops.  What I recall, washing my face and brushing my teeth at the iron-stained wash basin in my third floor Anderson House room, was a daily drone of stock market prices.  Hog futures featured prominently.

 That and the sound of chainsaws in the distance, felling the last of the diseased elms on and around campus, form my memories of those early mornings.

Prof. John L. Stipp
 I don't recall which course that 8 o'clock was, although judging from my mid-term grades I'd bet on Western Civ with Prof. John Stipp.  Ramrod straight and entering the classroom in something like a cape, professor Stipp reminded me a bit of Bishop Sheen and his inexplicable hit TV show in the 1950s.  Also oddly the model of what I'd imagined a university professor would be. He was formal and well-spoken, dryly humorous, exacting and a bit dramatic.  I didn't know until recently of his work on Nazi Germany.  But in a couple of years from that fall he would be among the faculty leaders in speaking out against the Vietnam war.

I have no memory of what this book looked like in 1964.  Maybe this.
In this course he was rigorous, teaching from a widely used textbook he'd co-authored (and if memory serves, he donated royalties back to the college.)  For some of our classmates who majored in history he was an inspiration.  For the rest of us I suspect he was most famous--or infamous-- for his exams, and his unique multiple choice questions on which event in history happened third.

 I don't remember anything about that textbook, or the form and content of the course. My only actual memory of this course involves another exam question.

It involved choosing the right sequence of parts.  I'd finished the exam and was taking it to the front of the room when another student somehow saw my paper and whispered that the answer was supposed to have three parts, not the five I'd written down (or something like that.)  I took it back to my seat and re-did the answer, then turned it in. As he returned the corrected exams at a subsequent class, Prof. Stipp in his most magisterial tone pronounced the (to me) immortal words: "I am sure I will endear Mr. Kowinski to the rest of you by announcing that he was the only one in the class to answer [that question] correctly."

 Nevertheless, my final grade for the semester was B-. Though an improvement over the C- at midterms, I got a better final grade in PE.

  That first semester I was also taking Spanish 101 (the low-level horror of that experience I described in this earlier post), and Math 121, about which I recall very little.  The young professor Ron Hourston taught it.  I remember he seemed nervous but likable, and clearly very smart.  I did surprisingly well the first half of the semester (I got a B on the only test, and nobody got an A) but in the end I barely passed the course.

Something like these pinstripes in the 1940 film "The Philadelphia Story"
The course I remember best--and the one I enjoyed most at the time--was Sociology 201.  It was taught by a tall young professor, Michael La Sorte.

  I recall him striding in a kind of controlled lope across the front of the room, back and forth in front of the blackboard as he talked, and I especially remember his suits.

  The typical men's suit of the mid-60s can be seen in any photo of President Kennedy: form-fitting, soft shoulder, two-button, short jacket with fairly narrow lapels and uncuffed trousers.  I was fascinated with La Sorte's suits because I hadn't seen anything like them outside of 1940s Hollywood movies:  loose fitting pants with cuffs, oversized long jackets with padded shoulders and wide lapels, often double-breasted.

Once when he was talking about the characteristic dress of certain immigrant subcultures (Latino and Italian) in big cities,  he mentioned the "zoot suit."   As he described it he glanced at himself and added, "I guess that's what this is."  His weren't quite that elaborate but I always had the feeling that his suits were inherited, perhaps from his father, and this was his first teaching job.  (It was in fact his first year at Knox.)
Anyway, the course was interesting, and I learned a lot from its textbook: Society by Ely Chinoy.  It remained so clear in my memory that I immediately recognized a copy when I came upon one more recently: it's the second, 1967 edition (ours was from 1961) but it has the same cover and seems basically familiar.

 It was my academic introduction to such concepts as social stratification, cultures and subcultures.  It pertained to my previous interest in books about the relationships of the individual and society, and political power.  But it also brought me further along in recognizing the role of ethnic and status distinctions, of which I was only vaguely aware, and mostly ignorant.

 That was partly due to my previous education. I was educated in Catholic schools to fix my identity on two things: being Catholic (first and foremost) and being an American.  I'm sure my classmates were smarter about other distinctions, but I literally could not recognize so much as an Irish name (unless it started with Mc), let alone a Jewish one. I didn't even consciously know Polish names (all I knew was that, like my own, they were long and made people uncomfortable) or even Italian names, beyond the Italian American culture I partly grew up in. I guess I had some awareness but in my time and place, Italian American culture was shared by everybody.  Big figures in the culture included Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Graziano, Frank Sinatra.  There were Italian language hit records.  Even Rosemary Clooney sang Italian songs.

 I gradually learned more from Knox classmates.  One of the first I remember meeting outside Anderson House was Neil Gaston.  He told funny stories that also elucidated status assumptions.  I knew nothing about prep schools, or the relative social standing of various Chicago high schools and suburbs.  Or how snobbish pretension could be undermined by a jacket with a Penney's label.

 Early in my freshman year I also met Holly Sue Thompson of Morton Grove and her friend Edie Haptonstahl, who lived with her large family not far from the Knox campus.  Perhaps they were both in my Sociology class, but I'm pretty sure Edie was, because I recall her referring to the three of us as our "primary group," a concept from the Chinoy text, defined as "characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation."  We went around together for those first months.  I got some home-cooked meals at Edie's, to supplement the food service fare.

As for that sociology class, my final paper was about a book, Alienation and Freedom: The Factory Worker and His Industry by Robert Blauner, new from University of Chicago Press that year.  Alienation was a hot topic then, though not everyone defined it the same way.  Scholars worried that industrial workers, subject to the tedium of repetitive jobs in noisy and sometimes unhealthy and dangerous workplaces, felt powerless, bored and angry.  That's when industrial jobs were plentiful and seemed like they'd last forever.  Now that many of those jobs are gone, together with their relatively high pay and security, there's nostalgia about them, and their alienating effects forgotten.

Chaplin in "Modern Times" expressed industrial alienation in now iconic images
The book studies workers in 16 industrial job settings.  The most attention is paid to an automated chemical plant, and this is what I remember about the book: that these workers, who had little to do but trouble-shoot the automated machinery, were the least alienated, because they were the most involved in what they were doing, and in the process as a whole. (Automation was another hot topic, leading to much discussion later in the 1960s about the Guaranteed Annual Income as a way to safeguard against the effects of widespread unemployment due to machines taking over human jobs. That discussion, moribund for 40 years or so, is alive again.)

 In my paper I was supposed to summarize and illustrate the data and findings, and offer my judgment. I was skeptical that automation was going to lessen or end worker alienation, or would prove to be more fulfilling.  I felt that the "freedom" it promised was illusory, and fragile at best.

 Since I enjoyed this eye-opening class, I've since wondered why I didn't take another sociology course.  Maybe doing the actual science seemed dull--designing and evaluating questionnaires, etc.  Or more likely, I wanted to keep exploring different fields, and never got back to it.

As for Michael La Sorte, he became part of the Knox "brain drain" of younger professors that was so controversial in later semesters. He wound up at the State University of New York at Brockport, and authored a book I wish I'd known about at the time: La Merica: Images Of Italian Greenhorn Experience, published in 1985, just a month after my The Malling of America (some reviews of which identified me as a "sociologist," which I had never claimed to be.)

 I certainly have responded in recent years to the ethnic stereotyping of Italian Americans as Mafia goons (as in the collection of Italian love songs--which dominated American cultures in the 40s and 50s--as Mob Hits.)  Since retiring, "Mike La Sorte" continues to write about such subjects.

  Outside of course work, I recall a few books I read that first semester, introduced to me by classmates.  Ted Szostkowski, who lived in the room next to mine at Anderson House, recommended A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., a novel spanning centuries concerning the slow rise and abrupt fall again of civilization after a 20th century nuclear holocaust. Perhaps we'd been talking about science fiction, for Miller was an accomplished author of science fiction stories published in the pulp magazines, including the linked stories that he turned into this novel.

An underground cult novel as well as supposed genre fiction at the time I read it, A Canticle For Leibowitz (first published in 1959) has since become one of the most highly praised American science fiction novels and post-atomic novels.

 There weren't courses in science fiction then, at Knox or almost anywhere else, and certainly not doctoral dissertations, but this novel has since been taught and written about extensively. Re-reading it now, I can see why.

 For many readers the world in which the novel takes places is unfamiliar: largely the Roman Catholic Church structure revived out of the ashes of an incinerated civilization and a long Dark Age.  Much of the book takes place in a monastery in the desert Southwest of the "Albertian Order of Leibowitz" which is dedicated to preserving the last fragments of knowledge that survived the destructive frenzy of "the Simplification."  (The desert landscape would become familiar in subsequent apocalyptic novels and movies.)

 However, I was familiar with the traditional structure and vocabulary of the Church that dominates this novel, though even by the mid-1960s this was itself changing rapidly.  Miller's future Church for example used Latin, as was traditional until the early 1960s, when the vernacular languages were becoming the official ones.  Most of my education had been in the traditional Church.  For at that time Catholic school students studied the structure, history and government of the Church and Church doctrine at least as intensely as studying the U.S. government and its founding documents and arguments.

 Miller's use of this language and institutional structure, right down to the logic of degrees of sin, was elaborate and intricate, even if his purpose was ironic: to show that the response to the post-nuclear Dark Age of the Simplification was identical to the response to the first Dark Ages and barbarian invasions, in which ancient knowledge and literacy itself were preserved by monks in European monasteries.

 That humanity managed to start from almost nothing (in the book's first section, the last scraps of technical manuals were completely misunderstood, and turned into holy books) to reinvent science and eventually the nuclear weapons with which it destroys civilization again, did not make me feel my investment in reading the book was immediately rewarded.  Of course this is the essential battle, in science fiction as elsewhere, between the fate of being captive in cycles of self-destruction, and the possibility of learning enough and applying courage to change enough to escape those fatal repetitions.

 The book recognizes this, and the religious imagery adds richness to the insight and the ambiguity.  Especially in the middle section, it bears on the role of science, a discussion opened for us in the "two cultures" debate.  Miller places the proto-scientist in the role of Pontius Pilate, who washes his hands of responsibility, while taking his livelihood and power from the rulers he knows are hell-bent towards societal self-destruction.  (There's also a mischievous suggestion that Lazurus, having been raised from the dead by Christ, stays alive forever.)

Ted recommended another book I read that semester. I must have mentioned John Updike's short stories, or perhaps he saw the two volumes I had, The Same Door and Pigeon Feathers. Plus I was eagerly reading Updike's new stories as they came out in the New Yorker.  I hadn't yet read any of his novels (although there were only three by 1964.  Eventually there would be 22.)

 Ted recommended Updike's latest novel, The Centaur, which by then was in paperback.  It is the story of a central Pennsylvania small town schoolteacher, told through a particular version of the Chiron myth in Greek mythology.  The teacher, Updike said in his Paris Review interview, is based on his father.

 There is a certain magic in the opening scene, in which myth and reality interpenetrate.  There is plenty of the surprising and vivid imagery of everyday life that became associated with Updike.  For instance: "Doc Appleton removed the stethoscope from around his neck and laid it on his desk, where it writhed and then subsided like a slain rubber serpent."  The choice of words and the rhythm of the sentence are part of what made Updike's writing special, and made him a model for me.

 I was not yet ready for this book as a whole--as the length and density of A Canticle for Lebowitz also challenged my reading energies and ability to fend off the hormonal impatience of youth long enough to stay in the pages.  But each attempt and each experience helped make the next easier and more natural, and soon I would be shown tools to help me.

I did move on to Updike's second novel and the one that first made him famous, Rabbit, Run.  It was something new, not only to me but to at least popular literature.

 For the time it was fast-paced, and used pop culture more readily and effectively than other writers.  Though the present tense became a trademark of the 1980s minimalist fictionists, Updike wrote Rabbit, Run that way in 1960.  By the late 60s, Updike would get a never wholly deserved reputation as a conservative stylist.  But he burst on the scene as something of an experimental writer, and in some ways remained one.

 Re-reading Rabbit, Run I was surprised as how tawdry its world and its characters now seemed.  But I do recall that its lovemaking scenes were among the first--if not the very first--that I'd read: somewhat educational and eventually, in part, useful.  As a writer, Updike would continue to be a guidepost for me, especially in the next few years.

I'd also written verse in high school and had been exposed to a range of poets in our literature anthologies.  On my own I had gravitated towards certain poems by Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy I found in my uncle's college anthology.

 I'm not entirely sure this happened in that first semester, but I'm pretty sure it was Holly Thompson who introduced me to the Selected Poems of  D.H. Lawrence.  I'd read some Lawrence short stories, and would read several of his novels, but I knew nothing of his verse.  Some of it was rhymed but other poems--such as "At A Loose End"--are short, astringent and tersely expressed, more like his prose.  I'd never read poems like that.

 Towards the end of that first semester I began seeing Susan Lee Barry. I have fond memories of Sue, as I have of Holly--who were friends with each other and remained so for our allotted four years.  At some point, Sue was the first to explain to me the outline of human evolution--from tiny ground mammals, chased into the trees, and down from the trees again to the savannas.  I remember feeling sad that we ever left the trees.  I feel that even more now.

  Fall had for me an unexpected series of events called Rush.  It was the period in which individual fraternities and sororities harvested first year students as new members.  I knew very little about fraternities, beyond the one Ricky Nelson had belonged to on Ozzie and Harriet.  I saw no reason to join one.

 But in 1964 the Greek system was particularly controversial.  Stories and letters to the editor in the Knox Student leveled serious criticism, and revealed unappealing hostility from the Greek side.  Though nearly every classmate at Anderson House I knew of was eager to join a fraternity (and I recall being questioned as I showered in the second floor bathroom by a  classmate who couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't join), I soon learned that there were students in classes ahead of ours who were against the Greek system generally, and its influence on the campus.  They were known as Independents, or Indies.

Cecil Steed, Gary McCool from Knox 1964-65 yearbook
I absorbed their arguments, and began to meet some of them.  Their arguments made sense to me, but the emotional clincher was learning that the the year before, the climactic weekend of Rush had been held as scheduled, even though it was the weekend that President Kennedy was assassinated, mourned and buried.  All of it together made me consciously an Indie.

It was probably then that I met some of the older students who would remain important to me for the rest of the year, and as long as they were there.  I definitely remember Mary Jacobson and Gary McCool (the intellectual Buddy Holly), George Bookless, Jay Matson and Cecil Steed from my first year.  I would get to know others in subsequent semesters.

 But I'd already met some other older students, particularly women.  This was the aspect of Knox that was like a sudden Wonderland, an unexpected paradise: all of these lovely and intelligent young women, so varied and so new to my experience, all in one place, and with the relative freedom to see them, speak with them, and walk with them.  Without dreary games or too much self-consciousness.

 Even the relative part of that freedom worked to my advantage that year.  This was the era of curfews for women living in dorms, as they were all required to do.  At Knox it was called Women's Hours.  I was among the students who campaigned over the next several years against women's hours, but that year, that semester, they worked to my advantage.

Curfews were staggered, so that on weeknights freshmen women had to be back in Whiting Hall by 11 p.m., sophomores and perhaps juniors had to be in their dorms by 11:30, and seniors by 12.  Or something like that.  So it was possible for me to see three women from different years in a single evening, and walk them each back to their dorm.

 And there were evenings when I did just that. Partly because I was socially and sexually naive and inexperienced,  but mostly because I was fascinated by the opportunity to know these young women without a lot of artificiality,  these exploratory evenings amounted to little more than coffee and conversation in the Gizmo (for instance with classmates Jill Crawford or Kathy Lydigsen, who remained friends in subsequent years), and/or a long walk.

  I especially loved the walks.  The freedom and opportunity to walk with a young woman in the night air, along as yet unfamiliar streets and ways, was itself dazzling, especially combined with the charm and beauty of my companions.

 I remember a moment, walking with Martha Hoagland--she was from some exotic place like Iowa or Nebraska--and the light on her long hair (unusual that year).   I was fascinated by the hazel eyes of Alix Metcalfe that fall, who left Knox the next year I believe, and who may still be a reader of this blog.

 Maybe it was a Knox tradition anyway, since there wasn't a lot to do in Galesburg, but the evening walk became a staple of my social life in later years as well.  I remember walks with Judy Dugan (the wind in the trees in the cemetery), and with Mary Jacobson through Standish Park, and with Sue Werheim on a particularly chilly night, when Mary and Sue were roommates at Williston Hall.

 These walks usually happened during the week, and were mostly not "dating."  But if the dorm we walked back to was Whiting Hall, there was the scene at curfew (especially on weekends) that I suspect would be impossible to believably describe to a student today.  The "passion parlor" exhibition of couples necking and writhing on couches (with at least one foot on the floor, that was the rule) while attendants at the front desk impassively ignored it all until closing time, was a shock to me when I first witnessed it, returning Holly or Sue to Whiting.  It was so ridiculous I vowed I would never participate.  But of course, before the year was out, I did.

 I'm not sure what my fledgling social life has to do with books, except that it influenced me as a person and therefore as a reader. Books after all were among the topics we talked about. My acquaintances and friendships particularly with these older students did propel me into new experiences (and new reading.)  Books and ideas were at least as important as anything else in all these conversations.  "The college world is unbelievably unlike the real world," I wrote in a letter home.  "No one really has time for anything but honesty."

There are a few more notable memories from that first semester.  Early in the term, I was approached near the Gizmo counter by a skinny stranger, Dave Altman, who ambushed me with the demand, "Say WVKC!"  Somehow I understood the test--it was the proper pronunciation of "W."  I passed the test, and wound up with a radio show, then two, then got into the rotation to read the news for one of the two 15 minute news broadcasts.

This involved ripping news stories off the wire service teletype machine, rudely puncturing them on pegs by category, selecting and assembling them in some sort of priority, and either writing a script--though there usually wasn't time--or just reading them on the air, or improvising a combination.

 Eventually I became aware that nobody I knew was actually listening to these broadcasts, and I compensated by doing David Brinkley imitations to amuse myself and the sound engineer.

 In November, I participated in the WVKC election coverage, which went on deep into the night. Unfortunately our wire service reports were considerably behind in reporting returns, so much of our news came via Dave Altman, who stood outside in the rain listening to network news on his transistor radio, and ran back in with their new figures.  By midnight we were improvising wildly, and I remember describing western Pennsylvania politics while Mike Bourgo (silently) simulated playing a trombone in a marching band.

 At Thanksgiving I was scheduled to help take food and clothing to a couple of former Knox students who were part of the (state of) Mississippi Project to register African American voters--this was just after Freedom Summer.  In the end my place was taken by one of these ex-students who'd returned for a brief visit, and was going back.  I think also they all had second thoughts about a freshman going along in what could potentially be a dangerous situation.  All the other students were seniors.  But they returned without incident. There was also a tragedy on campus that fall, but I'll try to put it in a different context in a future post.

Meanwhile I was going to concerts and talks, and seeing foreign films and stage plays for pretty much the first time.  The CFA's new Harbach Theatre finally opened in December with Hamlet, starring Jim Eichelburger, directed by Kim Chase.  Who could forget that cast? Among them were history professor Gabe Jackson as a pedantic Polonius,  Russ Irish and Ric Newman as the supercilious Rosencranz and Gildenstern, and David Axlerod as the chatty gravedigger.

 I was also learning the skills of being on my own for the first time, such as how to use a laundromat, and iron my own shirts (though I blush to recall I took advantage of Holly's good nature and asked her to iron a few for me.  She did a much better job than I did, though, and I pretty much gave it up. Permanent Press to the rescue!)
 
In all of this, I also experienced a fair amount of culture shock. The flat midwestern landscape had me yearning for the hills of home.  The continual buzz of campus life was exciting but also exhausting, and at a certain point it got to me that I never had a reliable hour alone.  I needed some quiet.

A lot that happened was confusing, and despite the constant presence of others and the easy social moments, there were stretches of loneliness.  My feelings towards some back home became more sentimental, and letters were flying back to Pennsylvania, with the replies layering my mail slot outside the bookstore, or dropped on the black table across from the wide first floor stairs at Anderson House.

But I could count on one friendly voice at virtually every meal: a young man in an apron who was sometimes behind the counter serving the food, or who otherwise came around to the tables, and with a hand on my shoulder asked, "How's it going, scholar?"

 His name was Ray Gadke.  His gentle, indiscriminate friendliness was odd but often a comfort. This first semester was in many respects a kind of prologue.  The virtual revolution that constituted my college education began the next semester. For it was that spring that my education took a quantum leap into new worlds--populated with a lot of new books, of course.