Amusements and Diversions

My old friend Chuck Oliveros called to chat. The conversation commenced with baseball, specifically the pursuit of free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado by the Philadelphia Phillies, with whose fortunes I have lived and died, mostly died, since 1961. Soon our talk turned to political correctness, a subject where we typically find ourselves at odds with the cognoscenti of liberal and progressive fashion. Chuck wrapped it up with the spot-on observation that for now we are on the wrong side of history. This captures how I often feel these days.


Those who come to this space regularly know that I have thought of myself as a man of the left for as long as I have thought of such things, dating to my teens in the late 1960s, and I still do when push comes to shove even though I am frequently out of tune with many of the comrades on my wing of the political bird, so much so that I sometimes think myself a party of one. I am sympathetic with elements of traditional conservatism such as recognition of the role played by custom and habit in an organic process whereby culture and society develop over generations, wariness of resort to legislative fiat and executive decree, much less revolution, in the name of radical transformation of social and political institutions and norms, wariness of utopian pursuits, &c. Too much of contemporary conservatism is marked not by these tenets but by libertarianism and fundamentalist theology, odd bedfellows that offer no path forward for addressing the perils and dilemmas that beset the nation.


These thoughts suggest a theme for an essay or poem: writing on the wrong side of history. An essay might take up political correctness among other topics from the vantage of one who finds himself betwixt and between traditional delineations of left-right, liberal-conservative, neoliberal-neoconservative, and the rest, yet steadfastly resistant to appeals to some illusory center every bit as ephemeral as a Samuel Taylor Coleridge opium dream. It would be an ambitious project.


These reflections set me off on a tangent as I recall the Little 5 Points scene in Atlanta when Chuck and I met there in the late 1970s, 1978 if I put the pieces together rightly. It was not one of those memorable literary first encounters. I have no recollection of it and no reason to think he does. Nor might we have guessed that it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that just kind of developed through the years, organically you might say, rooted in shared commitment to the literary life, passion for the intellectual adventure, political affinities and disagreements, sports, and a mutual respect because we both kept at it with the writing.


There is a fair chance we first got to know one another at the Little 5 Points Pub, a bohemian redoubt of that era where many of us passed considerable time rambling on about poetry, art, and sports while drinking more than was strictly speaking advisable. Among the ragtag crew of self-styled writers, painters, musicians, and actors were some who possessed genuine talent, discipline, and the stubbornness to keep at it for the duration and even make a mark. I think today of artists Jim Darlington, who still went by Jim Brown in those days, Jerry Pagane, and Steve Stoller. Elaine Falone is a painter, actress, and poet whose Leo in the Universe is part of the Georgia State Art Collection. Debra Hiers is still at it as a freelance writer, poet, and musician in Atlanta. Violin bowmaker Don Cohen is a maker and restorer of fine and rare bows whose clients include Anne-Sophie Mutter, Slava Rostropovitch, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, members of the Julliard String Quartet, the Guarneri String Quartet and others. The list is not exhaustive.


Chuck Oliveros now lives in St. Augustine, Florida, where he hammers out novels characterized by Grand Canyons of cynicism and dark humor. Once, if memory serves, Chuck related that an agent he approached told him he liked the novel but didn't know where he could sell it. Too dark. Chuck is the author of Buster Bungle's Big Top (2017), available as an eBook from Amazon, and The Pterodactyl in the Wilderness (1983), a collection of poems. His poems have published in a number of magazines, including California Quarterly, New York Quarterly, and Southern Poetry Review. Chuck recently emailed me two poems, one in October, the other in December, the first he has written in years. Striking and stark, they hit the existential nail squarely on the head.


These memories of the Little 5 Points period are bittersweet. Speaking solely for myself, too much time was wasted with poor choices, foolish moves, and pointless endeavors, many of them the consequence of sheer blockheadedness on my part. Some poems came of it. And some treasured friendships. That is the sweet part.


Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor and publisher of the socialist magazine Jacobin, was profiled in the Columbia Journalism Review (Robert P. Baird, The ABCs of Jacobin, January 2, 2019). I got a kick out of Sunkara's description of how he found his way to socialism. His parents were immigrants from Trinidad who each worked sixty hours a week, earning just enough to rent a house in upscale Pleasantville, New York, so their five children would have access to high-quality public schools.


Sunkara says that the Pleasantville library, where he spent afternoons waiting for his parents to get off their shifts, proved especially important. It was there, in seventh or eighth grade, right around the time the Iraq War was getting underway, that he first read George Orwell. From Homage to Catalonia he became interested in the Spanish Civil War, which led him to Leon Trotsky and other Marxists. "I think it was just completely random," Sunkara says now. He counts himself fortunate he didn’t stumble on Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman first.

I have long been struck by the role chance, fortune, fate, call it what you will, has played in my own intellectual life, a topic on which I have blathered in the past and may again.


Sunkara seems to be all over the place. Ezra Klein at Vox paired him with Steve Pearlstein, author of Can American Capitalism Survive?, for a discussion to highlight the differences between liberal reformers of capitalism, like Elizabeth Warren and Pearlstein, and democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders (Is America's Future Capitalist or Socialist?, Vox, January 7, 2019). It's well worth a read if you are interested in this sort of thing.


Yesterday morning I came across a nice observation in Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets: "There is no theft in poetry except straightforward plagiarism. Every poet has a hand in another poet's pocket, lifting out small change and sometimes a folded bill. It's borrowing, a borrowing that is paid back by the poem."


That sounds about right. I can sometimes look at poems I wrote twenty or more years ago and have a pretty good idea who I was reading at the time.


Nota bene: Schmidt is founder and general editor of PN Review, editorial director of Carcanet Press, professor of poetry at Glasgow University, a poet, and author of several books about poetry. He is not to be confused with Mike Schmidt, Hall of Fame third baseman for the Phillies.


The furor over L'affaire Rashida Tlaib wafted away into the aether in short order. For this we can be grateful. Now is not the time for impeachment talk. As for use of the mundane, playground expletive akin to the one that got Ralphie's mouth washed out with soap in A Christmas Story, it was tedious. A higher standard for political rhetoric is almost certainly a vain hope. I harbor it nonetheless. This is not about mere civility. If we are going to spew insults and slurs, let us do so with some rhetorical flourish. An incorrigible elitist might turn to the Bard for guidance:


Oswald: What dost thou know me for?

Kent: A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue, one-trunk-inheriting slave, one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch... (King Lear, Act 2, Sc. 2)



Resist Trump Tuesday January 8, 2019

Meeting with staff of Sen. Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer to communicate our support for House bill HR1, which seeks to address dangers to our democracy that have gone too long unchecked and includes campaign finance reform, ethics reform, and voting rights reform.



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