Monday, August 22, 2016

Wright's Hanna - The "Honeycomb House"

Frank Lloyd Wright's career was a long one, and it divides chronologically into distinct periods. 

Born in the middle of the Victorian 19th Century, he lived to be 91, and even at the end, he was still actively producing works which would be among his most noteworthy. The impressive early works can still be seen on Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He developed a design principle which he called his "Prairie Style"--which emphasized strong horizontal lines, inspired by the flat, gently undulating Midwest countryside. All of his work demonstrates, as well, a strong geometric feeling, often credited to his childhood play with Froebel blocks, a kind of toy used in kindergartens of the day. 

During the 1930's, Wright designed a series of residential structures which came to be known as the Usonian Houses. Unlike the earlier Prairie structures, these designs had no basements or attics, were primarily single-story buildings; they continued his focus on long, horizontal sight lines, with banks of horizontal windows, and also exploited open plan layouts; and were always well-integrated (fitted) into the landscape where they stood. Among the most successful and satisfying of his Usonian houses, was the Hanna House in Stanford, California, begun in 1937, which employs the application of the 30-60 degree angle--roughly, the angular dimensional arc of the honeycomb. 

Once, during my class-work for the Landscape Architecture degree studies, I had an encounter with a TA about a project we had been assigned. Remembering how much I liked Wright's Hanna House, I remarked that one very good way to make an interesting design, was to select a strong visual or structural principle, and apply it to a specific site. The TA looked at me quizzically, and replied that "that isn't what design is about at all!" and proceeded to tell me that only through inductive, incremental consideration of each feature and limitation of the site, along with the functional requirements of the structure, could one arrive at a successful design. I said, in reply, that such an approach would produce something that had no character, since it would be nothing more than a hodgepodge of adaptations to a host of unintegrated aspects. In other words, I felt that taking her approach would yield results that had no inherent beauty, only functional parts somehow pieced together like a puzzle. 

If we follow this dialectic too far, we end up in a theoretical quagmire. No two individual designs are ever completely equivalent--though if they are, they're row houses or "tract" houses, cookie-cutter structures with no variety, and without a specific response to site. Of course, architecture is not a "pure art" branch of aesthetics. Every building is a combination of form and function, and involves the compromised intersection of the two principles. Nevertheless, remembering the Hanna House, it's possible to appreciate how "forcing" oneself to appropriate a strict geometric figure onto an "organic" locus is one way to generate creative solutions. One limitation may be the shape of the land, another may be the "artificial" structural principle brought to bear upon the given context. Here is a schematic of the project--

The "germ" of the design is visible in the hexagonal terrace tiles, which fit perfectly into the perimeter wall angles. This visual queue is probably not initially obvious to a visitor to the site, but it becomes more and more confirming as you move around, and inside the structure. The idea of imposing a design principle onto a site, while maintaining the functional organization of space, is like the golden section. It makes the existence of such a house almost a natural expression of the land itself, almost "inevitable" in its realization of possible form(s). 

There are, of course, many other aspects to the structure. By contemporary standards, the house possesses a luxurious consumption of area, and would be beyond the means of most clients. It's a demonstration of the possibilities of an ideal single family dwelling, exploited without regard for a more limited budget, or the surrounding real estate. When the house was originally commissioned, it literally stood alone in the landscape, but was eventually surrounded by the Stanford University campus, and it eventually became the property of the institution, now open to the public as an historic landmark, and used occasionally for official functions. 


Is there anything "logical" about 30-60 degree angles? In other words, are corners and edges and intersections at that angle less "efficient" in terms of spatial use? 

These interiors seem filled with light, largely as a result of making most of the exterior walls glazed with clear glass. There are disadvantages to having this much transparency, not least of which is you need sufficient insulation (or distance) from your neighbors. But it also brings the outside inside, an interpenetration that is inviting, or disquieting, depending on your temperament. 

Another aspect of the odd angles is tight corners. Philip Johnson believed in what he called the "processional" quality of architectural design, by which he meant the incremental unfolding of views and proprioceptive awareness of space, as in a procession. As we move through a space, our sense of how we feel, is a process, i.e., not a static, fixed point of reference, but a constantly shifting perspective. Transitions from one point to another allow a structure to be perceived kinetically. In the Hanna house, our movement through the house presents a constantly changing view of the outside, such that there's a continuing conversation between external and internal areas. There's an insistence upon this exposed quality, which some might find intrusive. The whole house itself is an escape, but once within its limits, there seems almost no privacy.     

In most Wright houses, landscape plays a crucial part. The contrast between the hard-edged man-made materials and the softer, twisted, gnarled, fluffy, gaunt shapes of trees, leaves, shrubbery and ground-cover makes a very pleasing effect. In any Wright house, you're likely to feel alternately as if you're in a kind of cave, or up among tree limbs, or floating in a water-way. This interpenetration of wild and built, nature and made precinct is now one of the hallmarks of modern design, though as recently as the 19th Century, inner and outer worlds were considered discrete, and nature was something to be pushed away from the ordered, safe interior of artificial space. 

In scenes from this property, it's clear that the natural and human spaces have been integrated into a symbiotic whole, where both are meant to belong. 

It's an architecture of conviction, but Wright's projects were not without their problems. Builders and owners nearly always had issues with his structures. They were almost always considered "beautiful" but not always completely thought through. Roofs leaked, walls cracked, rooms might seem too narrow or cramped, sometimes the heating didn't work, and too much sunlight might fade furniture and furnishings. Like most prima-donna designers, Wright sometimes seemed more interested in how his structures would be perceived in magazine layouts, than in how well they worked as homes. And some of them have not held up well over the decades. 

But how much do we care about the comfort of the inhabitants? Mies van der Rohe said that women didn't wear high heels because they were comfortable, but because they thought they looked beautiful. Which sounds like a smart retort to pretentious design critiques, unless you acknowledge that women are unlikely to wear high heels at home to wash the dishes or read a book. Home isn't for show, it's for daily living. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Arsenic / Absinthe in the Limelight - Green in the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [1864-1901] seems almost like a figure from mythology. You couldn't make up a person like that, except perhaps as a figure in a French fairy tale. Physically deformed from an early age--legs stunted so that he never exceeded 4' 8" in height--he managed to create an unique body of stunning work in just a few short years, before succumbing to the effects of alcoholism and syphilis.     

As a painter, Lautrec occupies a crucial position in the history of art, just after the ascendancy of Impressionism, but before the great iconoclastic convulsions of Modernism (pointillism, cubism, futurism, Dada, constructivism, etc.). His work is frankly representational, but infused with special qualities and innovative effects. His subject was Paris night-life, the garish watering holes of the well-to-do, as well as the brothels and circuses and bohemian quarter. 

Though high-born, with means, his physical deformity meant that the social circles of respectable class were closed to him, so he fell in with the lower elements with which he came to identify. 

Nearly everyone is familiar with his raffish poster designs, the nudes and dancers and candid vignettes. They recreate a fin-de-siecle Paris world, decadent, dilettantish, gestural, piquant, forsaken,  sad, vicarious, naughty.   

There are many ways to approach Lautrec's art. In it are aspects of exhibitionism, degeneracy, burlesque, casual malignity--all of which Lautrec portrays with a directness which belies his shrewd sympathetic regard. The figures in his art, though often seemingly lost to virtue, are interesting, intriguing, enmeshed in a closed world of sexual longing, frustration, and occasional bacchanalian abandon. Indulgence seems its underlying motive-force, with the predictable aftermath of boredom, fatigue and shame. 

One of the chief aspects of this transgressive atmosphere in Lautrec's use of color to shade meaning and spin aura is the subtle application of the color green. The more I've looked at Lautrec's work lately, the more noticeable this aspect seems. 

Lautrec was known to favor absinthe, the spirit liqueur which was once thought to generate hallucinations and visions, but which recent science has proven to be a myth. Nevertheless, artists and bohemians in late 19th Century Europe popularized the notion that the "green fairy" could seduce imbibers into a deadly addiction. Absinthe became a late romantic indulgence, hence its appearance in Lautrec's paintings of Paris cabaret and bistro culture. 

Absinthe appears frequently in the paintings, and its potent green color acquires a symbolic reference, a code for the dissolution and decadence of the epoch. The more you look at Lautrec's work, the more you notice this green tint, not just in representations of clothing, or decor, but around the edges of things, in the shadows, or in the outlines of figures or objects. 

The more you look, the more you see that many of Lautrec's paintings are virtually immersed in a shimmering, evanescent pale, lurid green numinosity, which signals the influence of mortality and cultivated decay. Sometimes it's obvious, other times more subtle.

One of the revolutionary elements of Modern Art is its counter-intuitive use of color, an aspect that became like a signature of the new style at the turn of the last century. We would expect that Lautrec, like Cezanne or Matisse or Monet, would use combinations and contrasts that challenge our assumptions about the actual appearance of hue; but in many of Lautrec's paintings, green doesn't just appear, innocently, as a delight and titillation to the eye. It has an explicit, subconscious presence. 

Ask yourself, looking at the painting above, what the purpose of all that green on the sheets and faces and pillows is? It almost seems a kind of ethereal plasm which covers everything in the scene. 

Ordinarily, we would say that the use of convergent, even clashing colors in a modernist composition is evidence of the panchromatic argument about the complexity of our apprehension of light, and how painters will play with that notion to achieve various effects. But in these works, it seems more an intention--conscious or not--

If a color can acquire a metaphorical connection beyond its initial associations, then anyone's version of the significance of an association is no better or worse than another's. Lautrec seems to have become habituated to using green the same way Morandi uses grey, or Ingres uses carmine, or de Kooning uses yellow. 

Does green have a moral quality for Lautrec? Does it symbolize elegance, richness, serenity? Or is it a code for corruption, depravity or obscenity? 

Historically, the color green itself seems to have had a kind of furtive, baleful association, since its chemical combination once included arsenic, a notorious poison. In the 19th Century, arsenic was used in wallpaper, women's clothing, and soaps, as well as artists' paint-boxes. Its dangers, though not well understood, were known to be harmful. 

In my mind, these qualities of green are conflated, in ways I suspect might well have occurred to Lautrec.     



Limelight, the type of theatre-lighting once used in the 19th Century, to illuminate performance, might seem like another planet in this constellation of associations, though it's not really green--employing an oxide of calcium (lime) to produce an intense flame light when subjected to an oxyhydrogen flame. 

This detail, from the first image shown at the top, is like a mask, a dream image conjured out of the fantasy of the unconscious. It shows an upturned woman's face, with unreal cream and lurid green features, corn-yellow hair, and orange-y red lips. It's both hypnotically strange, but also unexpressive and doll-like. A face that's been transformed by the glare of artificial light into an icon of modernity--not unlike those courtesans in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon

That green cast overshadows much of the "scenic" background in Lautrec's work, and for me it's the underlying meaning and affectation of his aesthetic, suggesting both the attraction of the sensual, and the jeopardy of mortality. 

Lautrec stands somewhat apart from these things. As a participant, he drank his absinthe cocktail (the combination of equal parts absinthe (or pernod) and cognac) to excess, and slept with prostitutes, whom he used as models. He lived hard, and produced great art, documenting a segment of society which today strikes us as supremely decadent and over-indulgent. And he only lived 36 years. To paraphrase, are we as full of life as life was full in him? 


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Growth - Who Needs It?

In yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, the lead Editorial was devoted to California Governor Jerrys Brown's proposal to "streamline the approval process for certain kinds of new housing development." His plan "would make it easier and faster to build new housing in California . . . [and] would ease [my emphasis] the state housing crisis." (Predictably, the editorial praised Brown for his practicality and good sense.) 

The so-called "housing crisis" is a well-identified phenomenon. It occurs whenever there are more people looking for a place to live, than there are places to live, in a given region. One of the consequences of rapid growth, is housing shortages. Its manifestations are various: Rising prices for homes, rentals, and also homelessness. It affects society at all levels. 

In California, we've been dealing with growth for over a century and a half. Indeed, "growth" has become the sacred cow, the holy grail, the third rail, the untouchable concept. Like "diversity," it's become politically dangerous to address, even to mention. Questioning the wisdom of uncontrolled, chaotic "growth" has become as politically incorrect as questioning the value of "multi-cultural diversity." 

California Bay Area satellite image, showing urbanization as grey color

Who benefits from growth, and what are the relative advantages or disadvantages of buying in to the campaigns for future growth?

On the Eastern Seaboard, or in the Midwest, "mature" settlement has largely moderated, except in Florida. But in the Greater West, we're still experiencing the "open range" mentality, with constant calls for expansion and encroachment, upgrades and enhancements. We're admonished for not building and adding-on and accommodating further additional growth. 

After a century and a half of this, we've become inured to the message. Most people don't even question the need for growth, the ever-demanding and insistent cry for "more!" Always more: More people, more roads and freeways, more schools, more police, more sewage treatment, more water, more parks, more jobs--it almost seems at times that it doesn't matter what it is, if it's "more" then we should need it. 

But more growth has consequences. More growth means more government, more crowding, more noise, more pollution, more ecological devastation, and--over time--higher prices for everything, as well as shortages of some things that are finite, limited, or irreplaceable. Politicians, contractors, developers, entrepreneurs, and minority advocates all love growth, because it expands their territory, and lines their pockets. 

I once had a friend who said, "everyone wants to live in California," and it's true. There's an overwhelming urge to migrate to the Golden State. We have space, good weather, and relative prosperity. 

The debate over uncontrolled growth in California will continue, and we can expect to hear the same tired arguments trotted out with predictable passion and persistence, in favor of more housing, more transportation infrastructure, more jobs, more, more, more, more.  

But the plain and obvious fact is that California has become--is, in fact, already--a mature region, occupied, filled-up, full. The high price of housing, and the scarce rental market, are symptoms of a disease, the disease of excess growth, and excess population. Ironically, the very things which people think they'll enjoy once they migrate here, are destroyed by this process. 

We've all heard about the "flight to the suburbs" which occurred after World War II. There's also the flight to new developing regions, such as the Southwest, where suburban sprawl has been spreading like wildfire.

Scottsdale, Arizona

Henderson, Nevada

The plain and obvious fact about our regional population abstract is that quality of life is compromised whenever "growth" is pursued and designed without regard for the real consequences. 

We know that the earth isn't--never was, really--just a playground for human exploitation. There may be no inherent ethical quality about ecological balance, of moderate habitation; but we know what the consequences are when a species explodes. Our instincts tell us that birth is good, that the pursuit of happiness is a human "right" and that democracy is about letting people chase their dreams. But our dreams cannot dictate how we approach common sense problems in the real world. 

How crowded do we want our cities to be? How much suburban growth is "enough"? How much blacktop and concrete do we want to spread over the earth? How much natural resource can we justify exploiting for our own convenience? How many species must be sacrificed to extinction to feed our bottomless rapacity? 

Jerry Brown says he wants to "ease" the housing crisis by making it more easy to build new houses and apartments. He wants to "include" "affordable" housing in the equation. How noble. 

And how corrupt! 

The bottom line is that as housing prices and scarcity rise, the desirability of migration declines. That arithmetic is easy to understand. We can "encourage" means by which the continuing influx of newcomers can be "accommodated," or we can celebrate the arrival of limits and barriers which moderate growth. 

Growth can be a very bad thing, and trying to facilitate additional growth by "helping" the housing market isn't a smart response to the problem. The intelligent response is to acknowledge the underlying causes of "shortages" and address the causes, not the symptoms. The cause of high prices and scarcity is growth itself, not some logistical problem with permits or environmental obstructionists. Because those too are symptoms--symptoms of the outer limits of our tolerance, and the region's natural holding capacity. Our recent "drought"--which may have been brought on by global warming--is another symptom of the finite limits of the region. There's no reason to think that short-term, short-sighted "fixes" will ultimately solve the problems of excess growth.

Jerry Brown, who once stood for reasonable intelligent public policy, now advocates unlimited growth. Speed trains along our coast, more "canals" to divert water, and now, streamlined housing construction. He no longer questions the growth paradigm. He says he wants to address global warming, but his solutions actually will exacerbate the problem, by directly stimulating the underlying causes of climate change. 

He's been body-snatched, and now marches to the old music. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Permission of The Meadow: Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow"

Robert Duncan [1919-1988] was an important figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, who also had important literary connections to Black Mountain, the Beats, gay literary issues, etc. By any measure, Duncan was a large figure, encompassing many interests and passions, which are reflected in his work. Nevertheless, his popularity and official position in the post-War pantheon of American poets, remains relatively obscure. His work isn't exactly hermetic, or syntactically abstract, but his style is predominantly romantic, and it speaks to rather special interests and may occasionally seem obscure in its references--at least to the contemporary reader. His collected works are presently being published by the University of California Press. 

Though I have never been a great fan of Duncan's work, there are a handful of his poems which I feel belong among the best poems of the 20th Century. "My Mother Would Be Falconress" would be one, and another, the first poem in his collection The Opening of the Field [Grove Press, 1960] below--are two such. As you will note, the evident title is grammatically the first line of the poem, an affectation that I find interesting, as if the music of the title were subsumed into the lyrics of the whole poem, rather than being a separate announcement of its subject-matter or content. The title thus acquires a refrain-like familiarity which it would not otherwise have. 

Duncan's childhood was in several ways unusual. You can read the bare facts on his Wiki article. Duncan was a precocious child, who grew up in an atmosphere of seances, meetings of the Hermetic Brotherhood. Books in the home included the Occult. The household was permeated with Theosophical notions and practice. His deep memory of the mysteries of religion and philosophy, encountered at an early age, were intimately bound up in the organic birth and growth of his consciousness, and, later, his sexual awakening and sense of identity. Duncan tended to see the development of his sense of his place in the world as pre-ordained or destined; and his work serves as a kind of exploration of the structure of that ordination, as an unfolding drama of his own connection to the larger forces at work in the universe. Formally, his work seems to flow out of the Romantics--Shelley, Blake, for instance--though he thought of his work as emerging from the Modernist tradition of Eliot, Pound, H.D., Zukofsky. To the ordinary reader, his work will always seem superficially to harken back to an earlier epoch, pre-scientific and mystical, even primitive. Duncan himself was well aware of these apparent contradictions, and sought to reconcile them in his work. 

This poem struck an immediate chord in me when I first read it, not because it spoke to any philosophical issue or ontological preoccupation, but because it addressed what I regard as a universal fact of human consciousness, the sense of conceptual uniformity of existence, a sense which many people have from an early age, often associated with their earliest experiences of reading, though there are other kinds of experience which may offer similar kinds of apprehension of wholeness, or oneness, or unity of being.  

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,   
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,   
an eternal pasture folded in all thought   
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light   
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved   
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words   
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing   
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down

whose secret we see in a children’s game   
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow   
as if it were a given property of the mind   
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,   
everlasting omen of what is.

The first eight lines (including the title) have a nearly perfect rhythmic pacing. The repetition of the phrase "made place"--which both is ("mine"), and is not ("is not mine"), the speaker's, has a lyric purity which captures the sense of the magic of early childhood reading. Our first experiences of reading, of entering into a story through the spell of language, is a common ritual shared by all children who are read to, or learn to read, from an early age. This sense of enchantment encompasses much of our early imaginative context, and continues to dominate our deepest emotions and memories throughout our lives, giving them an almost sacred quality in the kingdom of our mind. ( Which is one reason children's literature exerts such a strong influence over us, and why juvenile hybrids, like those of Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis, or JK Rowling, are so popular.)  

The meadow, for me, as a symbol or scene of "the made place" is a safe, contained enclosure, within which inquiry, play, discovery and attention can occur. One is "permitted" to return to it, at any time, to the delight and mystery of the world which reading (the portal) reveals. The meadow is then "an eternal pasture folded in all thought." This suggests that the mind itself is the meadow, where this folding takes place--in the same way that earth is turned and cultivated. The folding and enfolding suggests the wrapping and re-wrapping, the turning and mixing and churning of thought itself. The meadow is a sacred place, sacrosanct and inviolable, yet complex and convoluted.  Inside the pasture (or meadow) is a hall, inside an "architecture"--perhaps the architecture of the memory and experience of the speaker. Nested inside this architectural space, appear the First Beloved, beholden to "the Lady" who is "Queen Under The Hill" "whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words/that is a field folded." This female figure stands over the shadowy scene, "a disturbance of words within words/that is a field folded." The "words within words" (an etymological hall of mirrors?) is a metaphor for the mystery of appearances, and the deceptive, endlessly intriguing maze that is language, weaving spells and conjuring ghosts and expanding boundaries of understanding and awareness. This female figure stands as a kind of guardian over the meadow (or field), though what her design may be, or what she stands for, is unspecified.   

And yet, "it is only a dream" made by the imagination, "grass blowing east against the source of the sun in an hour before the sun's going down." Sunset, "whose secret we see in a children's game of ring a round of roses told." The nursery rhyme--an echo perhaps of T.S. Eliot's garden paradox in "Burnt Norton" [Four Quartets, 1935]--evokes the musical trance of innocence locked in the past, forever stuck in the circularity of familiar repetition, of history repeated, enacted, re-enacted. 

"Often I am permitted to return to a meadow/as if it were a given property of the mind." And indeed, it seems that the return to the meadow, through the portal or medium of language, is permitted as often as we wish, to recapture its reassuring sanctuary against "chaos" "that is a place of first permission"--our original innocence, or our earliest memories of the magic spell wound inside our minds through the alchemy of the incantation (the grammar of consciousness). 

The symbolic significance of the First Beloved, the Lady, the Queen Under the Hill, is kept intentionally vague, I suspect, since Duncan wasn't willing to be more specific about the ultimate meaning of these symbolic references. They could be religious references, from Christianity, or more obscure deistic sources. But it seems less important to the poem's meaning and power--than that they remain as expedient figures in the speaker's own hierarchy of personification. Each reader may have a different version of the specific archetypes from the "meadow" of childhood reading and experience. We all bring our own baggage to the poem. Each of us may have our own particular First Beloved, our own Lady, our own secular deity. But our earliest experiences of language comprise a nearly universal participation--a shared recognition that is more, or less, powerful depending upon how keenly it was felt. 

Every time I begin a poem, or a novel, or a short story--and the same holds true of musical or video works--I have this familiar settling in, a participation in a process whose magic is as dependable and satisfying as going to sleep, or eating a good meal, or having an interesting conversation, or a walk in the woods, or making love to another. Reading itself is one of the arts, as surely as drawing a picture, or hand-writing a letter. We participate in a process which we are permitted to join. And that permission is our birthright as humans, our capacity to use language, an invitation and a timeless welcome.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

When To Cut Your Losses

In the Bay Area, we have the luxury of two major league baseball franchises--the San Francisco Giants, and the Oakland Athletics. 

Over the last several years, these respective teams have pursued very different management strategies, with respect to how they construct their rosters from year to year. 

The A's have become notorious for a constantly shifting roster re-build, dumping half or more of each year's players through trades or voluntary releases, to such a degree that fans feel as if they must be "introduced" to an entirely new squad each spring training. This approach de-emphasizes "loyalty" and team cohesion in favor of hard pragmatic measures; it's run like a corporation, hiring and firing willfully, without regarding for the feelings of individual players, or of fan sentiment. Players who do very well or very poorly, are likely to be treated the same, either to rid the team of their salary commitment, or because of poor performance. Players aren't people in this system. They're just ciphers or parts of a machine. The system places great emphasis on the skill and intuition of the general manager, which is why the team general manager, Billy Beane, has been lionized by the media (and even a major Hollywood film based on a book about him and his management style) for his "moneyball" success in crafting competitive teams. 

The Giants, on the other hand, have built a successful franchise on a different principle. Brian Sabean, the Giants General Manager from 1996 to 2015, took a different approach, building teams through the minor league system, sticking with them through the early times as they matured, and through shrewd judgment of existing free agent talent. The team has attempted to treat its players as the emotional, sensitive people they are, valuing individual player loyalty, and nurturing team cohesion. This approach has brought the team three world championships in the last five years, and the team is comfortably, at this writing, in first place in the NL West Division, also leading the majors in winning during much of the last month or so. 

But there are problems to both approaches. The Athletics are ruthless in dealing with talent. Professional major league teams are businesses. If a team isn't performing, it must be regarded dispassionately, the bad (or weakly performing) parts cut out, and replaced with better options. There's a certain amount of fluidity to that, of course, since all players, and all groups of players, undergo fluctuations from day to day, week to week, and month to month. The Giants, on the other hand, seem to over-emphasize player loyalty, often holding onto a player well after that player has demonstrated a decline in quality--an inevitable factor in almost all players' careers. 

Tim Lincecum displayed Cy Young numbers for five years (2007-2011, during which his combined record was 69-41), but then his career began to tank. This was obvious for anyone to see. His herky-jerky motion, relatively small frame wasn't constructed for a long career. He lost velocity on his fast-ball, and began to lose his control. The handwriting was on the wall. Lincecum's career was destined to be a short one, as I had predicted way back in 2010 here on The Compass Rose. Yet the Giants held on to him, despite this decline, partly out of a sense of sentiment (or nostalgia). 

Matt Cain came up through the Giants farm system, and became what is commonly called a "good journeyman" position on the staff, going 85-78 between 2005 and 2012. Then, almost overnight, his arm went bad, and his participation was cut in half. It was clear, by 2014, that Cain was no longer the strong, young journeyman he'd once been, as his ERA ramped up, and hitters began teeing off on his diminished stuff. He underwent arm surgery, and his return has been a disaster. Cain's career is over, but the team seems determined not to accept that verdict. 

The team has had similar experiences with free agent hurlers. Tim Hudson was clearly over the hill, whose best years had been with Oakland, and then, for several years, the Atlanta Braves. Yet the Giants hired him for two seasons, during which his combined record was 17-22.  In retrospect, that decision looks to have been a mistake, unless you accept the pragmatic notion that every staff must have a few "innings-eaters" even if their starts result in losses.

In 2014, the Giants signed Jake Peavy to a three-year contract, despite his going 1-9 for the Red Sox the first half of that year. Peavy's best days had been with San Diego, where he went 86-62, and earned a Cy Young with 19 wins in 2007. Judging from how he's pitched since then, there's no evidence that he has the body or the skill to put up numbers resembling those ever again. 

The Giants have been through this routine before with Barry Zito, their worst free agent signing ever. 63-69 in the seven seasons of his long contract. Though it was clear that Zito's career was essentially in disarray by 2008, the team kept using him--and losing with him--through another four agonizing years of frustration. 

Contracts and obligations often weigh teams down. Players given huge long-term contracts may prove to have been very bad investments. Giving up on a player in mid-career may sometimes be a mistake, though a simple change of scene may be the only way of reviving a player's performance. Astute students of the game can usually tell who to offer the big contracts to. But letting emotion and sentiment dictate your moves can be a mistake. 

Right now, the Giants have three very good starters in Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija. But Peavy and Cain are dragging the team down. Any game that either of these two guys start is likely to be a blow-out loss. Neither seems capable of sustaining more than an inning or two of acceptable dominance, frequently giving up runs in bunches, often to mediocre teams. As long as the Giants keep running these guys out there, we're going to have to keep crossing our fingers. It's like expecting that 40% of your games will be forfeits!

It would be nice if a faith in players earned dividends in the real world. But in professional sports, the bottom line is made from ability and success. Players whose abilities have withered, can't be kept around just "for old times' sake." These two has-beens need to be shown the door, and replacements found. I'm all for loyalty and humanity and common decency, but Peavy and Cain are no longer major league pitchers. It's over. Better to cut the cord now, before they drag the team down in the standings. 

I'm not suggesting that the Giants should be run like the A's. Quite the opposite. Building strong teams is nearly impossible by turning over your whole roster every year--and the effects on your fan base are disastrous. But I do think the Giants need to be more realistic about these tired old arms than they have been. The team is in contention for another title this year.  The Cubs, who are trying to win it all this time, after a century of frustration, would be unlikely to settle for second-rate performance like that we've been getting from Peavy and Cain. We should be just as impatient. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Creeley's Oppen

I've written previously about George Oppen's Discrete Series, in a blogpost here under Minimalism Part IV, on July 30, 2009. As an example of an approach to verse that employed a reductive, spare concision to convey unusual effects, it has always struck me as an ideal example of the form. I loved that book, long before I knew the back-story of its composition and publication, and appreciated its value without realizing the context of its initial emphasis, or why it would eventually become symbolic in its temporal isolation in the middle of the 1930's.

I recently came upon a copy of Oppen's Selected Poems [New Directions, 2003], edited by Robert Creeley, with a Chronology of Oppen's life by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, a book which for reasons I can't explain I'd never seen before. Published well after Oppen [1908-1984] had died, it's a telling, though perhaps unintentional, piece of evidence about how Creeley saw the elder poet, a figure who had explored some of the same literary territory that the younger man would, thirty years later. 

As the Chronology makes clear, Oppen's earlier life was unusual in a number of ways. Born into a comparatively well-off Jewish family, his Mother committed suicide when George was only a toddler. Early difficulties in school lead to a restless youth, and much travel. While still in his 'teens, he meets and marries Mary, his life-companion, and together they commit to political principles that align them with the Communist Party, which they join in 1935, becoming active in union organizing and relief efforts. 

A young Oppen with the wife Mary

Creeley, born in 1926, is only 9 when Discrete Series is published in 1935. Oppen is a full generation older than Creeley. According to the Chronology, Oppen had virtually completed the book by 1930, when he was just 22. Discrete Series, then, is in fact a very young man's book, written at the end of the 1920's, just before the Wall Street Crash, at the beginning of the Depression, by a man whose political sympathies are, from an early age, Left. The young author decides at this key juncture, that the artistic life must be set aside, in favor of social awareness and action, sets aside writing altogether, and by the beginning of the War, he is working in an automobile factory in Detroit. Drafted into the Army, he serves in Europe where he is severely wounded in the field, and leaves the service a highly decorated veteran. During the early 'Fifties, he comes under pressure from the FBI for his political activity, and decides in 1950 to live in Mexico. The Oppens don't return to the U.S. until 1960, when he begins once again to take up his pen. In close succession, he publishes three books of poems [The Materials, 1962; This in Which, 1965; and Of Being Numerous, 1968]. This outpouring of work (he wins the Pulitzer for the third book) leads to a general recognition by a new generation of readers, who for the most part are unaware of the author's earlier incarnation as a 'Thirties activist. Though the first book is reprinted in 1966, the context of its original appearance, and the meaning of the long hiatus of publication, remain largely unknown. 

It would take a whole book-length study even to outline the literary developments which occur between 1935 and 1960, but suffice it to say that how Oppen's work was initially viewed during the 1960's, and later, must be understood as a part of a larger struggle taking place in American art and literature during this period, between the Depression and the beginning of the 1960's. Oppen's "underground" self-exile and prohibition effectively removes him from the time-line for 20 years, a period during which socialism is rejected, the country fights and wins a world war, then undergoes a tortuous period of anxiety and paranoia (The McCarthy Era), while experiencing its period of greatest broad economic prosperity. 

In the meantime, Creeley, who comes of age as a writer during the notoriously quiet and tradition-bound 1950's, begins to achieve recognition and success at precisely the same time as the "later" Oppen. Their respective careers run parallel through the 1960's and 1970's, each participating in what we now understand as the period of the New American Poetry, initiated by the publication of the anthology of that name [Grove Press, 1960] edited by Donald Allen. Ironically, Oppen cannot be included in that selection, because he hasn't yet written the poems that will place him among its company! 

Greeley older

Looking back once again, one notes that Oppen had been a key member of the Objectivists group, which included Reznikoff, Rakosi, Zukofsky, Pound, Niedecker and Carlos Williams. (Discrete Series is, in effect, a self-published book, since Oppen is the key funder to the Objectivist Press.) The associations thus formed, in the turmoil of the world-wide Depression (a period of radical political and aesthetic engagement) will be repudiated or abandoned by these writers, after World War II, effacing the memory and effect of their earlier commitments, only to be rediscovered, as if for the first time, by the younger generation of the 1960's.

Creeley younger

For Creeley, Objectivism was an historical artifact, whose causes and concerns had faded from memory. Like Oppen's first readers in the 1960's, he understood the older writer as a survivor from an earlier period, recollecting those life-experiences in a calm, meditative style. The marked differences between the method of the poems in Discrete Series and those written after 1958, suggest not just the transformations wrought by time, but an aesthetic about-face which undercuts the meaning and value of the earlier work. The divide between the earlier and later Oppen isn't linear, following the clear descent from a sharp eye to a thoughtful reappraisal, but a reemergence from nearly total obscurity. 

Oppen older

Turning to Creeley's selections, it is astonishing to see that he chooses only two poems from Discrete Series--"The knowledge not of sorrow, you were" and "The edge of the ocean"--as if that earlier volume were an afterthought, only to be remarked with a couple of small snapshots for the family album. Why, one might ask, would Creeley's appreciation of Oppen be so narrowly focused on the later writer, instead of upon the youthful (30 years earlier) revolutionary of 1928? 

The 1st Edition of Discrete Series

It's intriguing to wonder why Creeley would choose to de-emphasize the younger Oppen in favor of the later. Perhaps it's because he felt that the issues and concerns of the earlier writer were no longer pertinent to a later audience. Perhaps those early, "objectivist" priorities (sincerity and objectification) were no longer valid measures. Oppen had said (in retrospect) "a discrete series is a series of terms each of which is empirically derived, each one of which is empirically true. And this is the reason for the fragmentary character of those poems [in Discrete Series]." It's instructive to place the poems in Discrete Series beside those of Creeley during his own "minimalist" phase--Pieces [Scribner's, 1969]. There can be no doubt that Creeley's indulgence in the minimalist form is parallel to Oppen's, yet there are clear differences in style and approach. While Oppen's poems are "fragmentary" and use parataxis freely, Creeley's are invariably grammatical and even narrative in progression, frequently reducing poems down to singular grammatical units, but never breaking them apart. Oppen's poems in Discrete Series are rather molecular, while Creeley's are constructive, using what lies to hand. 

Did Creeley's de-emphasis of the earlier Oppen also signal a political dismissal? It's a question that I leave open for the time being. I can only say that it's strange that he would choose fully 44 pages of work from the end of Oppen's career (the poems from Seascape: Needle's Eye [1972]; Myth of the Blaze [1975]; and Primitive [1978]), reprinting only two poems (two pages) from Discrete Series. In my view, the poems in Discrete Series are not merely stronger than nearly everything he published later; they are so much more original than anything that had come before, and driven by a vision which is so much clearer and and better defined than the poems after 1958, there is hardly any comparison. 

If we wanted to write the alternative literary history of America, we would certainly have to mark the publication of Discrete Series in 1935 as among a handful of signal events, many times more vital and predictive of later developments, than anything else that was being done at the time. Perhaps the point is that Oppen's earlier book had been so thoroughly effaced from literary consciousness that its discoveries and explorations would have to be completely reinvented by writers such as Eigner, Creeley, and others of the post-War generation; as if--as if!--Discrete Series had never happened! It is almost as if Creeley's deliberate suppression of that work were a new kind of repudiation of an earlier exploration and accomplishment--not on political grounds, but on aesthetic ones. 

The self-abnegation implied by Oppen's abandonment of verse as a kind of irresponsible activity in face of widespread social distress, is matched by the chastening after-effects of political suppression following the McCarthy Era. It is possible, perhaps, to deliberately "forget" the unfortunate events of a generation or two back--and the part played in them by active participants--but the written artifacts can't be so easily set aside. Creeley sees Discrete Series through the wrong end of his telescope, and judges it to have been unformed and relatively minor. 

Why is it that each generation tends to see the efforts of preceding ranks as the work of "old men"--and not the vigorous, hopeful, brave experiments of young men, just starting out, fresh and untamed, unswayed by caution, or fear of rejection? 

Discrete Series is the writing of a very young man. That tells us a great deal about the work, and about those who do or don't care to acknowledge the fact. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

On the Seventh Day of Summer

On the seventh day of Summer, my true love gave to me . . . 

a new cocktail recipe!

Summer is here, and everyone is floating along in oblivious continuity. Going about their business as if nothing had happened, working, sleeping, recreating, marrying, having babies, buying groceries, taking out the garbage, petting dogs, and generally staying out of mischief.

As I near old age, I keep having the rather unpleasant sense that some of the things I've done in the past, and may do again in the future, might be the "last time" I do them. This sense of unrepeatability is disquieting. I like reliable things as much or more than new things, and the thought that my next trip fly-fishing, or my next trip photographing the landscape, might be my last, is one of the liabilities of self-knowledge, or self-consciousness--something we possess that most animals don't. 

They say elephants mourn the loss of one of their tribe, and will even return to a place where one had died, to pay their respects, and share a feeling of grief. Elephants are also said to have long memories--another human trait. As I get older, some of the things I had not thought about for half a century, come back to me, unannounced, evoking feelings of regret or minor joy. More and more, I realize that I am the only surviving keeper of these memories, and that when I go, there will no longer be a surviving witness. 

I remember one day, perhaps 60+ years ago, when my parents and I went picnicking up on the Russian River--to a little place called Cazadero, on Austin Creek. In those days, people simply parked along the road and walked down to the water. On this day, I remember my Step-dad (whom I didn't know was not my "real" father yet) had persuaded my Mom to wear her bathing suit. Mom wasn't the outdoor type, and not the swimming type, and not the exhibitionist type either. I can still recall her tiptoeing across the rock shore, complaining about being cold, the sharp stones hurting her feet, refusing all appeals to come into the water, and generally just shivering and complaining. I can recall the green and white flower material of her suit, and how pale she was. The moment seems emblematic of my parents' relationship--how split their characters were, and how little they shared: Mom the indoors type, quiet, sedentary, Dad the outdoorsman, active, forthright. The thing is, I'm the only one who remembers this, and, like all the other memories locked in my head, it will fade into nothingness when I go. If my Mom were still alive today (she'd be 91 if she were) I'm sure she'd remember that day, just as I have, and it would be something we could share. But she's gone, and there's no one else in the universe who can confirm and tally what I've just described. I don't know why that should trouble me, except that such memories do matter to me. They comprise the pictures I have of my own past, which is not only rapidly receding from me, but from the history of my time. 

But this is the seventh day of Summer, and what better time to evoke memories, or to create new ones, than by toasting them with a novel new libation?!          

2 parts dry vermouth
2 parts white rum
1 part st. germaine 
2/3 part yellow chartreuse
1 part fresh lime juice

Shaken vigorously and poured into well-chilled cocktail glasses (makes 2). 

It's guaranteed to appeal to drinkers and non-drinkers alike, so have no fear of inebriation. One cocktail never killed anyone, though two might be inadvisable without a chauffeur.